Kentucky began this college basketball season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll.
Now the Wildcats find themselves clinging to relevancy with a No. 25 ranking following consecutive losses to Arkansas and South Carolina. The latter entered Saturday night's game tied for last in the Southeastern Conference.
"I don't know if it was my arrogance or the team's arrogance," Kentucky coach John Calipari said Monday, "but at the end of the day, whatever is going on with this team comes back to me. A month ago, I said it looks like I have to coach this team like I'm 35 again to get them to play harder and focus more and execute more. I will be whoever I have to be, because this isn't about me. It's about this team.
"I've got to get them more confident and find out what they need me to be. A cheerleader? What do they need me to be at this point?"
Calipari's comments on the SEC's weekly teleconference were his first to the media since getting ejected Saturday night. The Wildcats and their slew of touted freshmen are 21-8 overall and 11-5 in league play entering tonight's final home game against Alabama (9 on ESPN).
The Wildcats end their regular season Saturday at top-ranked Florida, which could result in the nation's top preseason team finishing six or seven games behind the conference champion. Kentucky's biggest SEC deficit ever was seven games back of Tennessee in 1967, and the Wildcats were six back of Alabama in 1974 and 1987.
This season's sudden struggles are occurring a year after the Wildcats closed out a 21-12 season by losing four of five games, inlcuding a first-round NIT setback against Robert Morris.
"These kids are 18 and 19, and they're not machines," Calipari said. "I've been through this. You've seen a little bit of everything with every team I've coached, and it's a process. I can remember in 2011 when we couldn't win a road game, and then all of a sudden we figured it out late, and that's what we're hoping with this team."
Kentucky's 2011 team went 10-6 in league play before catching fire to win the SEC tournament and reach the NCAA tournament's Final Four, where the Wildcats lost by a point in the semifinals to Connecticut.
The Wildcats have shot just 38.2 percent from the field in their last six games. Guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison each missed 10 shots in last Thursday's overtime loss to Arkansas, and usually reliable forward Julius Randle was just 1-of-7 from the floor at South Carolina.
"We never allowed the ball to get deep enough on the floor, so Randle had to step farther away from the rim for his touches," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. "Then we went zone, and any time you go zone, you're going to negate inside play. Shot attempts are going to end up with the guards, and that's kind of we did in the second half due to foul trouble, so we stayed in it."
Calipari joked that he wished he could have watched the last 10 minutes against the Gamecocks, when Kentucky rallied from 16 down to pull briefly within one, but he realizes humor is hard to come by these days in Lexington. Especially when he began this season by throwing out the possibility of going 40-0.
"It was only two weeks ago when we played Florida and then played at Mississippi, and played as well as we had played all year," Calipari said. "We're looking like we've got this thing figured out, but they're 18 and 19 and you don't know what shoves them in another direction.
"We're talented enough to do what we want. We can beat anyone in the country, but we've also proven we can lose to anybody in the country."
Contact David Paschall at email@example.com or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...