LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s quest for another Southeastern Conference Tournament title will begin in an unfamiliar role.
The Wildcats are underdogs.
After eight seasons being seeded no lower than second under coach John Calipari — including two of the past three as the top seed — Kentucky (21-10, 10-8 SEC) opens play Friday in St. Louis as the No. 4 seed and unranked. The Wildcats dropped out of the Top 25 following last weekend’s loss at No. 23 Florida in the regular season finale.
Now, the Wildcats did get one of four double byes and hope the extra day of preparation gives them time to correct bad habits they reverted to in the 80-67 loss in Gainesville that ended a four-game winning streak.
“I think the good team will show up in St. Louis,” said freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, adding that the team isn’t worried about its seeding. “We’ve watched a lot (of film) the last couple of days. We realized we messed up and where we went wrong.
“I think we’re all in the right mindset, we just have to try and fix” the mistakes.
Noting his team’s lack of aggression and cohesion against the Gators, Calipari has resumed scrimmaging this week in hopes of reclaiming both before heading west. Scrimmages helped key the Wildcats’ stretch-run surge in which they averaged nearly 88 points over four games. They shared the ball and played improved defense and rebounded better.
Calipari decided to scrap scrimmaging because of last week’s schedule, and that led to the loss against Florida. The setback reminded him why he needs to stick with the routine that seemed to be getting the most from his young squad.
“It took an edge off some guys we needed to compete and have more of a competitive spirit,” Calipari said.
Freshman forward Kevin Knox disagrees that the Florida loss was a result of the Wildcats not scrimmaging, but acknowledged the scrimmages helped them learn about each other in different combinations. More importantly, he looks forward to seeing how returning to more intense workouts might pay off with possibly three games in as many days.
“I’m pretty sure the team that won four games in a row will show up for the rest of the year,” said Knox, Kentucky’s top scorer at 15.7 points per game. “We’ve just got to be able to come out, play together, play hard and play like we did when we won four in a row. If we play like that, we’ll go pretty far in the tournament.”
Kentucky has previously been able to correct regular-season issues with a little postseason urgency.
The Wildcats lost three of four down the stretch in 2014 before regrouping to reach the SEC title game, where they lost by a point to No. 1 Florida. An impressive NCAA Tournament run followed as the No. 8 seed with consecutive upsets of Wichita State, archrival Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin before Kentucky lost the final to Connecticut.
Though growing pains are common for a Kentucky program that annually turns over its roster, Calipari’s youngest group in nine seasons has encountered quite a roller-coaster ride in league play.
Besides losing all five meetings against the schools seeded above them in the standings — Auburn, Tennessee and Florida — Kentucky has alternated modest winning streaks with head-scratching slumps.
Now is the time to play consistent basketball.
And the Wildcats believe they’re ready, if even they are not the team to beat.
“We’re in a good spot just because I think we can improve as a team,” Knox added. “At Florida, we didn’t really give our all. Players weren’t really playing their best, but if we get everyone to play their best, this team is really hard to beat.
“From now on, we have to play like that because it’s win or go home.”
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