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Keith Taylor: Calipari shoulders some of the blame for Wildcats’ recent uninspired play

Traditionally, John Calipari’s teams have fared well on the road. However, this year has been a rare exception.

Two of Kentucky three losses have been away from Lexington — at UCLA and LSU — while the other setback came on a neutral court against Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic. The losses to the Bruins and Tigers were by double figures while the setback to the Buckeyes was less than 10 points.

 Kentucky's Skal Labissiere battles for a rebound against Ole Miss earlier this month. The Wildcats are at Alabama Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky’s Skal Labissiere battles for possession of the ball against Ole Miss earlier this month. The Wildcats are at Alabama Saturday (Bill Thiry Photo)

“Historically, my teams have played better on the road,” Calipari said. “I’ve had one or two teams not do that. We play better (on the road) because there’s always such an expectation at home and on the road it kind of gets alleviated and you can just go and play basketball. We haven’t felt that yet.”

The Kentucky coach hopes the 9th-ranked Wildcats (11-3, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) have gotten past the 18-point loss to the Tigers earlier this week. Calipari said the team is in good spirits and has been focusing on free throws, rebounding and spacing on both ends of the court going into Saturday’s game at Alabama.

Kentucky junior Marcus Lee said the Wildcats have responded well from the loss and have been working on communication issues in practice.

“We came back fighting more than ever,” Lee said. “Our practice was extremely hard. There was a lot of talking and communication because that’s something we’re really struggling on in away games and in games in general, we don’t talk to each other as much. That’s something as us as a team tried to do better at and that’s what we’re going to continue to do better is talk more and communicate as a team.”

Calipari will be looking for more from post players Lee, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere against the Crimson Tide. The inside trio combined for just seven points and eight rebounds at LSU. Calipari said Poythress and Lee “gave us nothing” in Baton Rouge and added that Labissiere is “not ready to step in that vacuum right now.”

“He’s got to swim,” Calipari said of Labissiere. “We’re here for you, but you’ve got to swim. You’ve got to get lower and understand what’s happening. He’ll be fine.”

SEC Standings

Although clearly disappointed in his post players, Calipari liked the way junior guard Mychal Mulder performed in the team’s last outing. Mulder scored five points and grabbed eight rebounds at LSU, a showing good enough to possibly force Calipari to make a change in the backcourt.

“Right now, I would say that he’s in that three-guard rotation,” Calipari said. “He had great energy, rebounded the ball and mixed it up (against LSU). He did some good stuff.”

Despite the lack of progress to his liking, Calipari shoulders the blame for his team’s struggles in all phases of the game.

“Most of this is on me to figure stuff out,” he said. “More or less, you have to look at me and not these kids. We’ve done it with different teams. Some of it is trying to piece this thing together, other parts of this is trying to figure out individual players. It takes time.”

At the same time, Calipari said his team needs to develop more mental toughness, individually and collectively.

“I talk about mental toughness (all the time),” Calipari said. “Things don’t go well. You’ve got to be mentally tough enough to bounce through that (issues) and change. Mental toughness is all new to these guys.”

Scouting Alabama: The Crimson Tide (9-4, 0-1) are coming off a 74-66 loss to Ole Miss Thursday. Kentucky has dominated the series between the teams as of late, winning three straight, including a sweep last season. Overall, the Wildcats have won 10 of the last 12 games against Alabama.

“They’re playing hard,” Calipari said. “They were up nine at Mississippi at (the) half. The game was in doubt until with about two minutes to go. It was anybody’s ballgame. This will be interesting to find out where we are, especially after what happened (at LSU).

“I expect that we’ll play better, but you don’t know if you’re going to win or lose until you win or lose. We’ll get them ready and see what happens.”

Schedule update: Kentucky’s game against Vanderbilt on Jan. 23 at Rupp Arena has been set for 4 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.

Game tracker: Kentucky at Alabama, 6 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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