Kentucky has been down this road before.
Coming off a big win against Auburn, the Cats thought they had turned a corner. The Big Blue Nation let out a collective sigh of relief.
Then, Alabama happened.
Now, UK (14-6, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) is set to face a team that’s already broken its stride once, providing John Calipari with his first SEC loss at home since he became head coach at Kentucky in 2009.
On Saturday, the Cats travel into Aggie country to face Texas A&M and the hot-handed Elston Turner, who poured in 40 points against UK in the first matchup, something that has only happened three times before in Rupp Arena.
The real question will be, can this young team hold onto its recent momentum and progress or will Turner stop them from turning the corner?
“We know that we can’t get ahead of ourselves because we’ve already had too many games that we should have had in the beginning that we lost, so I don’t think that’s going to be an issue at all,” freshman guard Archie Goodwin said. “It’s just a matter of us going out and competing like we did (the Ole Miss) game and trying to make statements.”
As important as Tuesday’s win was to UK’s NCAA Tournament profile, there are too many games left on the schedule for UK to feel overly comfortable about its postseason chances. A repeat of last week’s Alabama meltdown and the Cats could find themselves in the very same position they were in at the beginning of the week.
What: UK (14-6, 5-2 SEC) vs. (13-7, 3-4 SEC)
When: Saturday, 6 p.m. ET
Where: Reed Arena (12,989)
Game notes: UK | Texas A&M
Video: Noel discusses record-breaking night
Video: Cal, Goodwin and Hood preview A&M
Texas A&M File
Record: 13-7, 3-4 SEC
Head coach: Billy Kennedy (27-25 at Texas A&M)
Player to watch: Elston Turner (40 points vs. UK last matchup)
Series history: Series tied 2-2
Last meeting: Texas A&M won 83-71 on Jan. 12
Because of that, Calipari is using a wait-and-see approach with the Ole Miss win. He called it a good win Tuesday, but his focus on his team hasn’t changed. He still wants improvement.
“They’ve got to think different,” Coach Cal said. “We talked last night a little bit about Kyle Wiltjer again. (He was) embarrassed after Vanderbilt. He’s worked harder than even he thought he could work, which makes the games easier, so why wouldn’t you do what he’s doing?
“Let me tell you why: It’s hard. ‘I don’t want to. I want what I want but I’m not going to work like that.’ Well, you’re not going to get what you want then. I’m just hitting that home every day.”
The Cats understand they can’t rest on one win. Texas A&M still serves as important game and step for the growing players, especially after the big loss at home in January.
“It’s real big,” freshman forward Nerlens Noel said. “We definitely owe them something. We’re definitely a different team than when we played them last. Certain players have stepped it up, just really started doing what they need to do for this team and playing a big role.”
Said Goodwin: “We’re going into this game probably a little bit more emotionally than we have the other games just because we know that we shouldn’t have let them come in here and do what they did.”
Entering with more passion could be good for the team, but shutting down Turner will be necessary. The Cats didn’t execute the defensive game plan last time against Turner, but Calipari said he saw some issues he would correct from their last matchup.
“We could have done some different things,” Calipari said. “We could have done some things to trap him and make somebody else beat you. It’s not all that they did, but we had the wrong guy on him.”
Goodwin, who is likely to get the nod on Turner, said he is confident to face him again. He performed well Tuesday against Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson, a similar high-scoring guard, limiting him to 5 of 19 from the field, including 3 for 11 from behind the arc.
“I stayed low guarding him the whole time,” Goodwin said. “That’s something that helped me a lot because he’s a guy that likes to run off a lot of screens. If you be a little physical with him and just stay low on him, it just makes it a lot harder on him.”
In addition to improving his focus and slowing down his sometimes fast-paced game, Goodwin said he has an emotional investment in guarding Turner.
“A guy that scores 40 on a team, as good as we are, that’s just an embarrassment to us,” Goodwin said. “We shouldn’t let that happen.”
And Goodwin wasn’t the only Cat with some passion about shutting down Turner.
“That’s something we have to feel a certain way about, someone dropping 40,” said Noel, who blocked a school-record 12 shots on Tuesday. “We’ve got another chance to play them. Whoever guards him, whoever is on the court that’s going to guard him, one of us has to just feel some type of way and really just have a certain determination to really get in him and lock him down and not let him get shots off.”
Turner may be receiving a lot of attention from the Cats, but his performances since that game at Rupp haven’t been so memorable. The senior only pulled in four points against Florida, five against LSU and 11 in their overtime win against Mississippi State as he’s garnered more attention.
And shutting down one player may not guarantee a win for UK.
In the game against Ole Miss, Henderson may have been kept down, but it didn’t keep the Rebels from making a 16-0 run that left the Cats with a one-point lead. Noel responded with an astounding four blocks to help the Cats stretch their lead and hold on for a win.
“Everybody after the game thanked Nerlens so much because Nerlens saved us,” Goodwin said.
Had it not been for Noel, UK may have lost and been in a tailspin. That’s why Calipari remains in a wait-and-see approach.
“Believe me when I tell you, we’re not there yet,” Coach Cal said. “When a team makes a run, we don’t have good thoughts. I do because I’ve done this for so long and I’m thinking how are we going to win this game? ‘Oh, we may lose. Oh my God!’ I don’t think that way. It’s like, OK, how are we going to win? I’m trying to get those kids in my mindset the same way. You make the play, and If you miss a shot – you ready? – do something to get it back.”
If nothing else, UK has seen improvement from a couple players since the first matchup.
Kyle Wiltjer, who dropped a career-high 26 points Tuesday, had his worst game to date against Texas A&M when he was held scoreless. Alex Poythress is playing more consistent. Julius Mays is hitting shots. And Noel has stepped up his defensive game.
”We’ve changed a lot since then,” Noel said, “and it’s going to be big for us to get this win and keep this thing going the way we want it to so we can really, really completely turn that corner and just really make our own identity for who we want to be and how far we want to go.”
Cauley-Stein getting close to return
There’s a chance Willie Cauley-Stein could play Saturday for the first time since the Tennessee game on Jan. 15.
Calipari said Cauley-Stein practiced Thursday, although he was “in and out” for periods of the practice. He is officially a game-time decision for Texas A&M.
“We’ll see how much he does today,” Coach Cal said. “My expectation would be he may play a little bit, but if I don’t feel like it or if the game’s not going like I want, we may just have him sit out another game. We’ll see.”
Cauley-Stein has missed four straight games since undergoing a minor procedure on his left knee. The injury stemmed from his middle school and high school days, and Calipari wanted to get the injury taken care of now before it turned into something more serious.
The freshman forward made the trip to Oxford, Miss., on Tuesday, although he did not dress for the game.
(national rankings are in parentheses)
|Scoring offense||76.4 (30)||62.9 (272)|
|Scoring defense||62.6 (89)||58.8 (31)|
|FG percentage||48.6 (15)||44.8 (99)|
|FG percentage defense||38.0 (21)||40.7 (96)|
|3-point percentage||35.6 (103)||36.1 (223)|
|3-point percentage defense||30.7 (56)||32.4 (124)|
|FT percentage||64.3 (301)||69.2 (163)|
|Rebound margin||+5.0 (51)||+3.4 (95)|
|Steals per game||6.9 (189)||6.6 (210)|
|Blocks per game||7.9 (2)||3.0 (225)|
|Assists per game||15.0 (57)||11.9 (240)|
|Turnover margin||+0.4 (169)||-0.1 (195)|
|Points per game||Archie Goodwin (15.1)||Elston Turner (15.5)|
|Rebounds per game||Nerlens Noel (9.3)||Kourtney Roberson (6.7)|
|Field-goal percentage||Alex Poythress (62.7)||Kourtney Roberson (59.1)|
|3-point percentage||Kyle Wiltjer (40.7)||Fabyon Harris (43.5)|
|Free-throw percentage||Julius Mays (81.8)||Fabyon Harris (83.0)|
|Assists per game||Ryan Harrow (3.3)||Elston Turner (2.7)|
|Blocks per game||Nerlens Noel (4.8)||Kourtney Roberson (0.7)|
|Steals per game||Nerlens Noel (2.4)||Alex Caruso (2.1)|