LEXINGTON — Following back-to-back losses at Kansas and Tennessee earlier this month, it would have been easy for the Wildcats to start feeling sorry for themselves.
Instead of dwelling on a 90-84 overtime loss to the Jayhawks and a disappointing 84-77 setback to the Volunteers, No. 14 Kentucky opted to look forward. It takes a three-game winning streak into Thursday’s rematch with Tennessee.
Although Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) has scored at least 80 points and has beaten its past three opponents by an average of 26.7 points per game, Wildcats coach John Calipari said the inspiration for the turnaround began on the defensive end of the court.
“We’re defending better,” Calipari said. “It starts with us on our defensive end, which leads us to play a little bit faster when we guard and rebound, which is what we’re trying to do, but we’re also efficient in the half court. We’re grinding it better, we’re creating shots we need to create, we’re offensive rebounding. I’ll tell you, this all comes back (to) — like all my teams — when we really guard, we have a chance.”
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes, whose team is 1-8 away from home this season, said Kentucky is playing its best basketball of the season.
“When you think about it, we were down and played really out of our minds and played the best we’ve played at any point in time this year, to get back and fortunately win that game,” Barnes said. “You go back and see — again, they’re just playing great. I mean, I think their defense has been outstanding. I think the fact that the roles have been totally defined.”
For the second and final time this season, the Wildcats will play a Thursday-Saturday league schedule this week. The last time Kentucky followed the same weekend format, the Wildcats rolled to wins over Arkansas (80-66) and Vanderbilt (76-57).
Despite the success against the Razorbacks and Commodores, Calipari said playing with such a short turnaround will be “hard” on his young Wildcats.
“We’ve struggled with turnarounds this year,” Calipari said. “So we have to look at what we do and how we do it, maybe try something a little different. But the turnaround, ours have been that Tuesday game that have given us some trouble. This will be even tougher of a Thursday-Saturday.”
Following Thursday’s game against the Volunteers, the Wildcats travel to College Station Saturday to take on Texas A&M. Kentucky is 2-0 against the Aggies on their home floor, but it took overtime to win both games. The Wildcats yanked out a 70-64 win over Billy Kennedy’s team in double overtime last year.
“It was a war, which, to be honest, we were lucky to get it to the first overtime,” Calipari recalled. “It’s a great arena. Billy is doing a great job with his team. Like I said, they’ve hit a little skid here. But they beat Iowa State, you know how good they are. They’ve lost some close games and I expect that they’ll be ready for us when we come through.”
Kentucky was expected to be one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the conference this season and has been on fire during the past three games.
In double-digit wins over Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the Wildcats have made 33 shots from long range, including 12 against the Gators.
“It’s something we do in practice every day,” Kentucky point guard Tyler Ulis said. “We do a drill that just gets us running up and down the court, shoot 3s and just get things going in transition. When Jamal (Murray) is hot running down the court, I’ll flip it back to him and he’s just knocking that down. So we look for him in transition. With Isaiah (Briscoe), when he gets the ball in the lane, I try to spot up and just try to help him out.”
Kentucky assistant coach Kenny Payne said the Wildcats are “getting comfortable” on the perimeter.
“I think coach (Calipari) is giving them more freedom to play offensively and they’re just getting in a rhythm,” he said. “Every guy is playing well. I was proud of Isaiah (Briscoe), the way he played. He doesn’t have to make shots. He just has to shoot them with confidence. Eventually good players will make the shots.”