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In search of a breakthrough, Wildcats move forward hand-in-hand as they prepare for Arkansas

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

John Calipari has lost four straight games or more just twice in his tenure as coach of the Kentucky Wildcats. He hopes to avoid the rare slide for a second time this season on Tuesday night against Arkansas.

Coming off an 82-71 loss to No. 16 Tennessee, the Wildcats (5-12, 4-6 Southeastern Conference) have suffered three straight losses and have won just one game in their last seven. Although seemingly close to a turnaround, the Wildcats have come up short in setbacks to ranked conference foes Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee, respectively.

Dontaie Allen goes up for a shot in Kentucky’s loss to the Volunteers last Saturday night at Rupp Arena. (Photo by Tammie Brown, Kentucky Today)

In its last outing, Kentucky blew a 10-point lead in the second half and failed to seal the deal against the Volunteers. Kentucky assistant coach Joel Justus said the Wildcats are clearly frustrated.

“There is disappointment because they don’t like to lose,” Justus said Monday. “I think that would be from top to bottom is a group of guys that are working hard. They’re trying hard, they’re listening. We just need some success. I think that there are definitely some instances of success within the game. We just need more of them. We have to do some of them when a little bit of adversity hits.”

Simply getting on some form of a winning streak, Justus said, will help the Wildcats get back on track and build some momentum to make a run in the conference tournament. The margin of error keeps getting smaller for Kentucky, with seven more games remaining in the regular season.

“We need just need a little bit of that breakthrough,” he said. “We need a little bit of luck. We need a little bit of everything to kind of breakthrough at this point.”

Calipari has been consistently in touch with Justus and the rest of his coaching staff in an effort to figure out a way to turn around the team’s fortunes.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re hand-in-hand. We’re trying to, as I said, get these young people to achieve their dreams, to achieve success, and I think that will happen. Whether that happens today or tomorrow or Saturday or whenever I think this is a group of people determined to get better and to do it sooner rather than later.”

Arkansas has won its last four conference games and five of its last six games. The lone setback was an 81-77 loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12-SEC Challenge on Jan. 30. The Razorbacks (14-5, 6-4) are averaging 82.7 points per game and have held two of their past three opponents to 60 points or less.

“They’ve got an exciting style of play,” Justus said. “They’re mixing games a little bit with some of their defenses. They’re getting some of their younger guys, not even their younger guys, more guys who maybe weren’t even playing earlier in the year that have stepped up.”

Although this has been an unprecedented season for the Wildcats, Justus still enjoys coming to work to meet the daily challenges of the job.

“If you’re in this sport, you are aware that you can have great seasons, you can have mediocre seasons or you can have poor seasons,” he said. “I think that the reason that you get into coaching, the reason I get into coaching, is to provide a transformative experience for a young person or a group of young people that will change their life similar to the way mine was changed by basketball. We are all very lucky to even be playing this season, I think.

“I’m very lucky that I get to come to work today. Personally, I didn’t have to come or get to come to work for a period of time recently and it’s not fun.”

Gametracker: Arkansas at Kentucky, 7 p.m. (EST), Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.

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

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