LEXINGTON, Ky. — There is a sense of urgency looming over Kentucky.
The 24th-ranked Wildcats have struggled and now face a challenging stretch that could determine whether they compete for a fourth consecutive Southeastern Conference regular season championship.
Already three games behind No. 8 Auburn, the Kentucky (17-6, 6-4) host No. 15 Tennessee (17-5, 7-3) on Tuesday before hitting the road for games at Texas A&M on Saturday and against the streaking No. 8 Tigers on Feb. 14.
One of the areas Kentucky needs to focus on is its offense after posting season lows in last week’s 69-60 loss at Missouri . The Wildcats shot just 31 percent and 2 of 20 from long range, resulting in their lowest total.
“To make better shots we have to get better looks, the looks we think we can make,” sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones said Monday.
“It’s not a matter of us shooting 20 3’s every game, but obviously we have to make more than two. That’s just going to come with offensive continuity, learning to play with each other and more ball movement to get those better shots.”
Kentucky seemed to be developing an offensive flow with comeback wins against No. 19 West Virginia and Vanderbilt, where the Wildcats overcame double-digit deficits.
The Wildcats started off better at Mizzou before breakdowns on both ends resulted in a Tigers’ 10-0 run that seized the lead for good.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has used that loss to stress the importance of defense to players who arrived in Lexington with offense-first mindsets — hoping to change their thinking in hopes of creating more — and better— offensive opportunities.
“If you defend and we get out and run, you’re going to be fine,” Calipari said. “But if they’re scoring and they’re being the aggressor on defense, you really have issues so I’m as concerned defensively.”
Kentucky’s challenge is slowing a Tennessee squad that has won five in a row, including Saturday’s 94-61 home rout of Mississippi.
The Volunteers beat Kentucky 76-65 last month in Knoxville and seek their first season sweep since 1998-99. It won’t be easy, considering they’ve won just four times at Rupp Arena and have lost 10 consecutive visits dating back to 2006.
“The biggest thing for us is we can’t worry about them or the crowd or the scene,” Vols junior forward Admiral Schofield said. “We’ve got to worry about ourselves like we’ve been doing, guarding and competing at a high level and sticking together.”
The Wildcats’ hope to extend Tennessee’s misery but know that requires better execution — particularly with hostile environments looming after Tuesday.
“The biggest thing is just playing 40 minutes,” Kentucky freshman forward PJ Washington said. “We have to start off games a lot better. I felt like we didn’t really start off that really good and we should be able to get teams down really early, and we need to start working on that.”
Notes: Calipari said sophomore forward Tai Wynyard and freshman guard Jemarl Baker likely won’t play this season because of injuries. Wynyard has been bothered by a back issue while Baker is recovering from left knee surgery last fall.
AP Sports Writer Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.