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Keith Taylor: UK focused on making ‘winning plays’ going into showdown at Arkansas

Kentucky coach John Calipari has pinpointed a reason behind his team’s inability to put teams away this season.

“Most of it is young guys not understanding winning basketball at that crunch time — that juncture of the game,” he said earlier this week. “But that’s what we gotta work on and that’s why it’s a process, and the only way you get through it is experience. But veterans will help you win games as you’re learning and growing that way.”

Mychal Mulder and the Wildcats take on Arkansas Thursday night in Fayetteville (Bill Thiry Photo)

Mychal Mulder and the Wildcats take on Arkansas Thursday night in Fayetteville (Bill Thiry Photo)

Kentucky assistant coach John Robic said the team’s main emphasis in practice since last week’s 75-70 loss to Auburn has been on making “winning plays” on both ends of the court.

“Coach (Calipari) has stressed it for the last three days,” Robic said. “It’s winning time. It’s either a winning play or not a winning play. We’ve been grading film that way as well, showing the players, ‘Was it a positive play? or was it a negative play?’ so that they see what you have to do. Now there are positive plays that we missed shots. That’s OK. It’s the ones that your negatives outweigh your positives. That’s when you’re going to lose a lead.”

Kentucky freshman guard Jamal Murray said the practices have been intense since the loss to the Tigers but they also have involved having a “sense of urgency” and “competing against each other.”

“(It’s) just knowing that every possession counts, knowing that the shot you’re going to take, the pass you’re going to give, rebounding, diving on the floor, hustling (all count as winning plays).”

Robic added not much has changed in practice, but added, “we’re just letting them play.”

“I think you see that a little bit as league play is starting to happen,” Robic said. “I know there’s a lot of things to call out on the floor, but we’re letting our guys play in practice right now.”

The Wildcats (13-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) hope the trend of struggling on the road comes to an end Thursday at Arkansas, but as past history suggests, it will likely be a struggle for Kentucky.

The Wildcats, ranked No. 23 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, swept the Razorbacks last year but haven’t won in Fayetteville since 2009. Two of the past three games at Bud Walton Arena have been decided in overtime and Kentucky has lost four of the past seven meetings between the two league foes.

Robic expects the same type of struggle this time around.

“They are not going to change,” he said. “They (trap) quite a bit. They do it more at home than they do on the road. We have played against teams that have pressed us and had success. Going on the road and doing it is a different story. We just have to be ready for the pressure and be willing to attack it, have great spacing and be strong with the ball.

Like Kentucky, the Razorbacks (9-8, 3-2) are nearly unbeatable at home but have struggled on the road. Arkansas, which has won three of its past four games, is coming off a 76-74 loss at LSU.

“Arkansas is going through what we’re going through,” Calipari said. “They got a lot of young guys and it’s just hard. I mean, winning time for us — We’re up 20 against Mississippi State, we’re up 12 against Auburn — we lose one and we should’ve lost the other. Think about that. Historically, my teams, if you get up 10 it’s death for the other team. That’s not the case right now.”

Scouting the Razorbacks

Arkansas leads the SEC in five statistical categories and is first in the conference and third in the nation in three-point field goal percentage.

The Razorbacks are one of three teams in the nation with three players or more averaging double figures. Anthlon Bell (17.1 points per game), Moses Kingsley (16.9 ppg) and Dusty Hannahs (16 ppg) average double figures.

“Arkansas has (been) shooting the ball really well,” Robic said. “It is probably one of their better shooting teams since Rotnei Clarke played there. Anthlon Bell and (Dusty) Hannahs can really shoot the ball. If you look at their stats, they take the majority of their 3s, those two young men, but shoot it at a really high percentage. I would call them both elite shooters, both off the dribble and off the catch. Their teammates do a good job of finding them open.”

Hawkins update

Kentucky junior Dominique Hawkins has returned to practice this week after missing the past four games because of an ankle injury.

Robic said Hawkins has been participating in non-contact drills.

Game tracker: Kentucky at Arkansas, 7 p.m., Thursday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL

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

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