Top-ranked Kentucky heads into 9-day layoff
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Top-ranked Kentucky players’ euphoria over beating No. 4 Louisville had barely set in before they faced the obvious question of how far they can go.
Expectations of the Wildcats (13-0) going unbeaten have risen through their nonconference domination highlighted by defeats of ranked schools such as Kansas, North Carolina and Texas.
Those hopes might be ratcheted even higher after Saturday’s 58-50 road win over the rival Cardinals that could be the last major challenge for Kentucky’s two platoons for a while.
The Wildcats are off until their Jan. 6 Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi. No other SEC school is ranked, and the league initially doesn’t appear to offer any obstacles.
Coach John Calipari figures to provide plenty of challenges for his players during the break before they resume their pursuit of perfection.
“All I’m looking at is, let’s keep trying to see where we can take this,” Calipari said Saturday, using golfer Tiger Woods’ excellence as an example of self-motivation.
“I told individual players (that) world-class athletes are never satisfied; world-class athletes are self-critical. ... I told these guys, ‘What are you trying to do to add to your game, just a little bit?’”
Concerns about the Wildcats’ focus in their first true road game at Louisville were quelled thanks to cool performances by their freshmen, who combined for 39 points. Leading the way was 5-foot-9 guard Tyler Ulis, who received three stitches for a cut over his right eye after he scored 12 of his career-high 14 points in the second half to help Kentucky stay safely ahead.
That kind of effort speaks volumes about the Wildcats’ poise and depth, qualities they hope to maintain during the break and carry over to SEC play.
“We’re just looking forward to getting better as a team and just trying to rest our bodies a bit,” Ulis said.
That a team holding opponents to 30 percent shooting and winning by an average margin of nearly 28 points needs improvement is a scary prospect, but Calipari says there’s plenty of work to be done. For example, Kentucky’s 6-of-14 3-point shooting against Louisville was something he’d like to see more often from a team averaging 32 percent.
And while nine players average 14 to 24 minutes in the platoon system, with eight averaging between 5.8 and 10.3 points, Calipari sees room to work sophomores such as Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis into the rotation to enhance Kentucky’s depth.
“They have to elevate their games to do that,” Calipari said, “because I am not taking minutes away from these nine guys when all deserve minutes. If those two raise their games, we’ll be back to 10 guys.”
The time off certainly doesn’t mean down time. If anything, the “Camp Cal” multiple daily workouts could be even harder.
Considering how Kentucky has thrived and what could be achieved, players seem to welcome the work if it means staying focused. The Wildcats will definitely need to be single-minded with noise about running the table likely to get even louder.
“We can’t focus on that,” freshman guard Devin Booker said. “Every time we go out on the court, we try to win. That’s every team’s objective, so we’re just going to take it game by game.”