LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky has been knocked on its heels again after two straight road losses, a major blow to the defending national champion’s postseason hopes.
It’s time for another gut check — or for this team, a series of gut checks.
“It’s a one-game season, and it will be every game we play from here on out,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said Friday. “Are you going to fight like heck, play through the ups and downs of a game, or are you going to die? I can’t put it any more plainly or bluntly.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen until the game starts with this crew.”
The Bluegrass Nation won’t have to wait long to find out.
The Wildcats host No. 11 Florida Saturday in their Southeastern Conference finale. The showdown loomed large before the setbacks, including Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia. Now, while Kentucky (20-10, 11-6) desperately needs a win, beating the SEC regular season champion Gators (24-5, 14-3) will be tough unless the Wildcats turn things around in a hurry.
Florida drilled Kentucky 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12, the game in which Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel sustained a season-ending knee injury. The Wildcats are 3-3 without their dominating big man.
Sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble and time running out on the season, Calipari laid it all out for his players.
Kentucky has faced urgency since losing Noel and then getting pounded at Tennessee in its first game without him. The Wildcats recovered to win the next three including an 85-55 rout of Mississippi State nine days ago, an efficient, dominant performance that suggested they finally had adjusted to life without Noel.
But then, as they have done each time they have shown improvement, the Wildcats took a step back.
After committing 19 turnovers in a 73-60 loss at Arkansas last Saturday, the Wildcats shot 6 of 26 from 3-point range (23 percent) while allowing Georgia to hit 7 of 15 from beyond the arc.
Calipari and his players tripped over each other taking blame for losing to a sub-.500 Bulldogs team: The coach shouldered the weight for his players’ lack of cohesion this late in the season, while several Wildcats questioned their lack of toughness in a game they needed to win.
“I’m probably disappointed in myself because I realize I could give more effort out there,” said forward Alex Poythress, who had just four points and four rebounds against Georgia. “I feel this season I kind of let some things go by … not going all out sometimes. You know, it’s time to change.”
That’s true, Kentucky needs somebody to step up against the Gators to lead the Wildcats to the quality win they need to make a legitimate case for an at-large tournament bid — if they can’t win the SEC tournament. And if bruising some egos is what it takes to get teammates going, guard Julius Mays is OK with that.
“As the season goes on we’ve had more guys buying in, but we just haven’t had that full buy-in,” said the fifth-year senior, who will be honored on Senior Day along with injured guard Twany Beckham.
“But even when we think we do, we always take two steps back. Now, it’s come to the point where it’s do-or-die for us and the guys that haven’t fully bought in, they’re going to have to hate me after tomorrow. … I’m leaving it all out there.”
Florida meanwhile seeks to close out the regular season with another win and build momentum for next weekend’s SEC tournament in Nashville, Tenn. The Gators earned their fourth league championship and third under coach Billy Donovan with Wednesday’s 66-40 rout of Vanderbilt that also capped a 15-0 season at home.
However, the Gators are 5-3 in conference road games and have lost their last two at Missouri and Tennessee. It’s a statistic worth noting as the Gators return to Rupp, where they haven’t won since 2007.
“I think sometimes on the road you’ve got to give the opponent some credit,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, noting his team’s competitiveness in both games. “I’d be a lot more concerned or alarmed if we’re going in and not having a chance to compete or play in the game. But we’ve been able to do that up to this point in time. On the road, we’ve got a winning record on the road. I think our guys have done a really good job on the road this year.”
At the same time, the Gators are aware of the Wildcats’ desperation and how dangerous that makes them. Mays hopes that urgency leads to the performance Kentucky needs, especially on a court where they are 15-2 this season and 7-1 against the SEC.
“It helps a lot to come home,” he said of returning to Rupp. “I’m sure we’re going to have a live crowd. Everybody knows what’s on the line for us, so I think it’ll be a big boost for us.”