LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach John Calipari’s latest group of talented freshmen may have gotten a needed wake-up call on Monday — the defending champs fell out of the Top 25.
The Wildcats opened the season ranked No. 3, dropped to No. 8 and after back-to-back losses to unranked Notre Dame and Baylor, their 61-poll run ended. The stretch included 11 weeks at No. 1 under Calipari.
The coach hasn’t seen the kind of commitment needed to get better but says there’s nothing wrong that more gym time can’t correct. Calipari has often said this freshmen class needs more time to develop than their predecessors.
Kentucky’s 4-3 and Calipari wants his team to put in the work to improve. But he says he’s not seeing many gym rats on his roster right now.
“I keep telling you, we have a long way to go,” Calipari said Monday. “Individual players have to fall in love with that gym. They haven’t yet. So, do they have to keep falling until they realize that because you have Kentucky across your chest that it makes them play harder. It doesn’t give you any kind of edge.”
Calipari said last year’s title squad was frequently in the gym, and not just when it was time for practice. He’s waiting for that same enthusiasm from the Wildcats’ current roster that he said hasn’t spent “one day” in there on their own.
The coach said the failure to put in extra effort has shown up in recent games. The Wildcats haven’t been able to impose their defensive will on opponents or make adjustments when things aren’t going well. And since they haven’t shot the ball well in their last two games (40 of 118, including just 8 of 36 from 3-point range), they have managed to score just 50 and 55 points in those contests.
It added up to a quick exit from college basketball’s penthouse.
According to STATS LLC, they are the highest-ranked team to fall out of the poll in one week since it expanded to 25 in 1989-90 season. And on top of that, the loss to Baylor on Saturday ended the Wildcats’ 54-game winning streak at Rupp Arena, which was the nation’s longest active run.
How they lost to the Bears was especially frustrating for Kentucky.
The Wildcats cut a 10-point second half deficit to three but never got closer in the final five minutes. They had their chances, but didn’t match the Bears’ physicality.
For Calipari, whose teams have a reputation being physical, that was unacceptable. He has made that clear to his players.
“We’ve just got to be more competitive and work harder than the other team,” Kentucky freshman forward Archie Goodwin. “That’s something historically his teams have done. Watching those teams growing up and watching how they play, I can see the difference in the way that they play and how tough they are. Compared to our team right now, that’s something we have to work on.”
The work began Sunday.
The Wildcats put in two hard practices preparing for Tuesday night’s game against Samford (2-7). There was a lot of running — which they’ve had to do a lot of with all the disappointment early on. But the players said one thing different about the workouts was making each other more accountable.
“If somebody made a mistake, we ran as a whole team,” freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We ended up running a lot of suicides.”
Before the workouts the Wildcats held a players-only meeting in which they discussed what needs to change in order for them to get on track. Goodwin said it was mainly to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
Cauley-Stein, sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer, freshman forward Alex Poythress and guard Julius Mays, a graduate student, deleted their Twitter accounts to help them get focused after an influx of negative comments following Saturday’s loss.
“You can’t say what you want to say on it anyway since it’s all monitored,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was a lot more fun having Twitter as a high school kid.”
Calipari, who said fans should criticize him instead, was surprised to hear about the players’ meeting. It could be a sign that his young players are willing to take some initiative.
Unlike last year’s squad where freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist took on a leadership role, the Wildcats are still seeking that Type-A personality. Calipari warned that that leader might not emerge until February.
“Eventually someone will step up,” he said. “I’m still learning about the team and what it needs from me and what I need to instill in it.”