Following a week that saw Kentucky lose two straight games and fall out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time in nearly five years, the Wildcats are optimistic on the road to recovery.
The Wildcats avoided a third straight loss for the first time in the John Calipari era with a 78-65 win over Mississippi State Tuesday night, ending a week of misery and possibly a climb back that leads back to a spot in the national polls.
It also was the first step in the team building more trust in each other, a consistent issue with a team comprised mostly of freshmen, including the starting five.
“I think that's how the season is going to go,” Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “Each and every game we're going to get better and we're going to trust each other more and our chemistry will get better and we'll be special by the end."
Although it remains to be seen whether the Wildcats can make a late push, the win over Mississippi State gave UK the boost it needed going into the final week of January.
“Our mentality coming into this game was, forget about the last two losses, feel like we won the last two games and we're going to come into this one confident and get it done,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “ I think we did a good job of that (Tuesday night).”
Following the setbacks against the Gamecocks and Gators, Calipari re-evaluated his team and inserted a seven- to eight-man rotation, allowing the Kentucky coach more flexibility, especially from a coaching perspective.
“Guys are going to play three, four minutes, and if you're really playing well, maybe you play an extra minute and if you're not playing so well, maybe you come out a minute early,” Calipari said. “But there's going to be a rotation, and instead of -- they have got to take off — instead of being subbed now, well, every time — no, no, you're in a rotation. So that's done.”
Although most of the rotation is in place, Calipari is still trying to figure out Jarred Vanderbilt’s role. Vanderbilt has played in the past three games and is still in learning mode when it comes to the team’s offensive and defensive schemes.
“We just, we haven't figured him out yet but I'm going to meet with him and spend some time with him and try to get better at what I'm doing to get him involved offensively so he can stay on the court,” Calipari said.
In addition to the formation of a rotation, Calipari also began charting unlimited assists.
“He's giving us like 30 different ways to get an assist,” Kentucky freshman Kevin Knox said. “He just wants us to get assists, hockey assists, he calls all this stuff. So, it's good for us. It's making us pass the ball.
“I think Shai had seven assists, so we just want other people to get around five or six. Just get us passing the ball and get other people getting great shots. He just challenged us and he's given us a whole bunch of ways to get an assist because he wants us to get a lot of assists."
Calipari hopes the changes will produce better results for his team.
“We had some guys pouting,” the Kentucky coach said. “We're just not there yet.”
The Wildcats have plenty of time to figure it all out.
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @keithtaylor21.