LEXINGTON, Ky. — No. 6 Kentucky (8-1) has played its final game at Rupp Arena for the 2016 calendar year and now begins a four-game road swing on Sunday against Hofstra at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
The game is part of a doubleheader in the Brooklyn Hoops Winter Festival. St. John's, featuring second-year coach Chris Mullins, faces LIU-Brooklyn in the second contest.
“When you talk about the storied programs in college basketball, Kentucky's certainly one of the first to come out of your mouth,” Hofstra coach Joe Mihalich said. “Our kids, for the rest of their lives, can tell their children, their grandchildren that they played against Kentucky in the Barclays Center on national TV.”
Last year, Hofstra enjoyed a 24-10 season that included an NIT berth. This year, the Pride is 6-4 as they work to replace leading scorers Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley.
Several candidates are coming to the forefront. Freshman point guard Eli Pemberton leads Hofstra in scoring at 15.3 points per game and followed by senior guard Brian Bernardi at 14.1 and senior guard Deron Powers (12.5). But the biggest name to leap off the page is junior center Rokas Gustys, who leads the nation in rebounding at 13.8 per game.
“We have the pieces,” Mihalich said. “We just got to get them clicking at the right time, like we were able to do last year.”
Hofstra has won four of its last five games. The Pride defeated South Dakota, Medaille, Columbia and Florida Atlantic before falling to St. Bonaventure 81-75 on Tuesday.
Kentucky's only loss was 97-92 to UCLA last Saturday, snapping its 42-game win streak at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats have beaten the likes of Michigan State, Arizona State and Valparaiso 87-63 in its last outing Wednesday.
The Wildcats, who average 94.2 points per game, are led in scoring by three guards. Freshman Malik Monk averages 19.3 points, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe 16.3 and freshman De'Aaron Fox is at 15.1 Freshman forward Bam Adebayo comes in at 12.4 points and a team-best 8.1 rebounds per game.
For coach John Calipari, the Hofstra game is the start of building momentum toward conference play.
“All we talked about was energy,” Calipari said of this week's preparation. “I worked for two days just on our team.”
Calipari is trying to build the urgency needed at this level on a team dominated by freshmen, including four in the starting lineup.
“If someone didn't play, I subbed them. You're out,” Calipari said. “You're either playing like there's no tomorrow, and that doesn't mean foul and go nuts, it means you play with unbelievable energy or you're out. I'm playing somebody else.”
To that end, Calipari changed up practice. Instead of starters going against backups, he pitted top guards Briscoe and Fox against one another.
“I put Isaiah opposite De'Aaron so they could go head-to-head, had two different teams and they competed like crazy,” Calipari said. “If you practice that way, you'll play that way. If you're casual, you're casual in a shoot-around, you're going to play that way.
“That energy is how we have to come out every day, and it's hard,” Calipari added. “But you know what? It is what it is and you're here. We're taking everybody's best shot so we got to disrupt, we got to be the aggressor, we got to attack the basket.”
After Sunday's game in Brooklyn, Kentucky completes the road swing by facing North Carolina in Las Vegas on Dec. 17 and visiting Louisville on Dec. 21 before beginning Southeastern Conference play at Ole Miss on Dec. 29.
The Wildcats do not return to Rupp Arena until Jan. 3 against Texas A&M, marking 27 days away from home.