John Clay

As SEC schedule toughens, Kentucky needs to up its game

Tyler Herro: We need to focus better

Kentucky basketball freshman Tyler Herro talks about the team's focus after beating Texas A&M 85-74 on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 at Rupp Arena. Herro led the Wildcats with 21 points. Now 1-1 in the SEC, UK plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday.
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Kentucky basketball freshman Tyler Herro talks about the team's focus after beating Texas A&M 85-74 on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019 at Rupp Arena. Herro led the Wildcats with 21 points. Now 1-1 in the SEC, UK plays host to Vanderbilt on Saturday.

When you get right down to it, Kentucky basketball’s 85-74 win over Texas A&M on Tuesday night at Rupp Arena was, well, just OK.

And here’s the thing: When the Cats soon dig into the meatier part of their SEC schedule, just OK just won’t do.

To be sure, the Cats accomplished their main objective Tuesday. They picked up their first SEC victory of the season. After missing the starting gun and falling behind 10-0 early to the Aggies, UK rallied for a 46-34 halftime lead. When A&M chopped the home team’s lead down to two points, 66-64 with 7:55 remaining, John Calipari’s club forged enough separation for an 11-point win.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad rebound from last Saturday’s 77-75 loss at Alabama in the conference opener. To be 1-1 in league play certainly beats an 0-2 league start. And an 11-3 mark through 14 games is far from terrible.

“We’re breaking down execution right now,” said Calipari in Tuesday’s postgame press conference, “and it’s driving me crazy.”

After all, despite the one-game-at-a-time mantra in every coach-speak manual, coaches know what lies ahead. Even if the upcoming schedule is not on the tips of their tongues, they know what it takes to beat the league’s better teams. So often having the best team in his league, Calipari certainly knows.

Those teams are Kentucky’s horizon. The Cats should be heavy favorites their next two outings. Depleted Vanderbilt visits Rupp Arena on Saturday night. Next Tuesday, UK travels to Georgia to face Tom Crean’s Bulldogs, who lost by 46 points last week at Tennessee. After that, however, the Cats will find themselves in the deep end of the pool.

In a three-game stretch, UK travels to No. 11 Auburn on Jan. 19 before returning home to play No. 14 Mississippi State on Jan. 22 and No. 7 Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 26. After a Music City road trip at Vanderbilt, UK plays at a disappointing but dangerous Florida (Feb. 2), then returns home to face suddenly hot South Carolina (Feb. 5), before playing at Mississippi State (Feb. 9).

No wonder Calipari noted Monday his players need to know, “It’s on.”

Last two outings, the Cats have not been on their game. They met the moment to beat North Carolina. There was something to prove in Chicago that day. They methodically mastered Louisville at the Yum Center. That was a game against an archrival in enemy territory. SEC play, however, has returned UK to the bad habit of playing to the level of the competition. The Cats got burned at Bama and Tuesday they struggled with a team that brought a 6-6 record to Rupp.

“We had two games that we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t win either one of these,’” said Calipari of the mindset for North Carolina and Louisville. “Then we won two, and then all of a sudden we’re like, ‘All right.’”

Turns out, not all right.

“They’re not empowered yet, let’s just say that,” Calipari continued. “At some point, if this team is going to be what I believe they can be — they can be one of those teams — they have to be empowered. That means I shouldn’t even talk about effort and intensity and fight. Shouldn’t even come out of my mouth, not once.”

Tennessee is empowered — an empowered freight train. As previously mentioned, the veteran Volunteers rolled Georgia 96-50 last Saturday. Tuesday night, they manhandled Missouri 87-63 in Columbia. Two games, two wins by a combined 70 points. Right here, right now, Tennessee is playing at a much different level than its competition.

The Cats don’t see the Vols until Feb. 16 at Rupp Arena. The return game comes March 2 in Knoxville. There’s a lot of time between now and then, time Calipari’s young Cats cannot afford to waste.

“The whole season is about building,” Calipari said Tuesday, “the whole season.”

So far, Kentucky has been, well, OK. Down the line, however, OK won’t cut it.

Next game

Vanderbilt at No. 18 Kentucky

When: 8:30 p.m. Saturday

TV: SEC Network

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