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Calipari staying in the moment following loss to Vols, expects more fight against Aggies

Kevin Knox goes up for a shot in a win over Louisville last month. The Wildcats host Texas A&M Tuesday night at Rupp Arena. (Elliott Hess/UK Athletics)

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

John Calipari isn’t worried about the future and is staying in the moment following his team’s loss to Tennessee last weekend in Knoxville.

“It’s my job to just continue day-to-day, stay in the moment,” Calipari said during the Southeastern Conference teleconference Monday. “I’m not worried about tomorrow, I’m worried about practice and getting these guys in the right frame of mind. If we’re not ready for the physical battle, we move on to the next game. Let’s hope we’re ready for the next one.”

That next one is against Texas A&M, considered one of the early contenders to challenge the Wildcats for the conference title. Because of illnesses, injuries and suspensions, the Aggies (11-4) are winless in their first three SEC games and coming off a dramatic 69-68 setback to LSU last weekend at College Station.

Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said the Aggies are struggling to regain their chemistry following the return of leading scorer D.J. Hogg who returned from a three-game suspension in the disappointing one-point setback to the Tigers.

“You could tell he hadn’t played in a game,” Kennedy said. “The first half he was trying to get comfortable. Our chemistry is just different because we haven’t had guys in games a whole lot. We’ve had different guys. It was really ugly the first half. I thought our offensive execution went very different the first half. We played guys in different spots and it didn’t have a good flow to it.”

Although Texas A&M has struggled to open conference play, Calipari isn’t taking the Aggies lightly. Traditionally, contests between the two foes aren’t easy, although the Wildcats have won three straight and own a 6-2 advantage since the Texas A&M joined the league nearly six years ago.

“They play a physical game,” the Kentucky coach said. “They play a lot of high-low. They’re going to try to jam it over the top, they’re going to try to seal you, similar to what happened after PJ (Washington) came out of the game (when) Tennessee just threw us around.”

Calipari said Washington left the game against the Volunteers midway in the second half because of cramps and is expected to return to full strength Tuesday night.

“That’s as hard as he’s played since he’s been here and his body may have revolted — like, what are you doing? The heck is going on here?” Calipari said. (I’m) Trying to get them to understand, that’s why you practice and you push yourself to the limits. You push your body, you make yourself uncomfortable, you beat workouts, they don’t beat you, you’re not looking for shortcuts. It’s all the stuff that we continue to talk about when you’re in the process. The problem is, we don’t have enough veterans that can go back to the lodge or in the hotel and talk about it because we’re all going through the same thing.”

Calipari’s biggest frustration following the loss at Tennessee was his team’s lack of determination down the stretch.

“It was like 57-57 (and) we had guys acting like the game was over,” he said. “Like, wait a minute, fight to win the game. Fight to keep it close. They’re going to make shots. You’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to come up with balls. That’s something that they’re learning.”

The Kentucky coach is hopeful the Wildcats learned a lesson following the second-half letdown at Rocky Top and build on a solid first-half performance against the Volunteers.

“At some point, to survive you fight or you keep dying,” Calipari said. “Here’s the great thing: I can’t fight for you. There’s a loose ball, ‘I tried.’ ‘Well, he’s trying harder. You either get it or he gets it.’ What, is there going to be an alibi? ‘Well, he takes out this guy when he misses a shot. He doesn’t take out that guy.’ Well, you can hear all that or you can say, ‘It was me and him and he got the ball.’”

Calipari added his players have to accept “what happened” against Tennessee and take personal responsibility.

“It’s a process, day-to-day, and you just keep working on it,” he said. “You get guys to accept I’ve got to change. I tried to tell them yesterday, ‘In most cases in this sport, for guys to advance in this sport you’ve got to fight. I’ve seen guys who have advanced with (fewer) skills and less this, less that, yet they fought and had 15-year careers. If you don’t fight, you’re not making it because it’s too competitive.”

Cats tumble in poll

For the second straight week, Kentucky took a tumble in the Associated Press Top 25 poll.

The Wildcats (12-3), coming off a 76-65 loss at Tennessee, dropped to No. 21 in this week’s poll released Monday. The Volunteers (10-4) remained in the poll at No. 24, while Auburn made its debut at No. 22.

Kentucky, which led the Volunteers 37-29 at halftime, was outscored 47-28 in the second half in Knoxville. Overall, the final 20 minutes proved to be a disaster for Kentucky as Hamidou Diallo and Wenyen Gabriel fouled out and PJ Washington left early in the second half because of cramps.

Kentucky forward Wenyen Gabriel said the loss at Tennessee will serve as a learning experience for the Wildcats.

“I think we can learn the importance of fighting,” Gabriel said. “I think that we kind of let up in the second half and might have got complacent from what we did in the first half. It was kind of tough without PJ in there in the second half to battle with No. 2 over there (Grant Williams), but that’s when we need other guys to step up and fight. I think when we watch the tape of this game, we’re going to learn the importance of that, especially road games in environments like this.”

Villanova, regained the top-ranking following losses by Duke and top-ranked Michigan State, which suffered an upset loss to Ohio State last weekend. Michigan State slipped to fourth, while the Blue Devils are now ranked No. 7.

West Virginia, off to a 14-1 start, climbed to No. 2. The Wildcats will take on the Mountaineers in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge on Jan. 27 in Morgantown. West Virginia’s ranking is its highest since 1959.

Gametracker: Texas A&M at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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