Kentucky aims for outright SEC championship vs. Texas A&M

LEXINGTON, Ky. — No. 9 Kentucky (25-5, 15-2) goes for the outright SEC championship on Saturday when they close the regular season at Texas A&M (16-13, 8-9). The Wildcats already secured the No. 1 seed for the league tournament next week in Nashville.

“I think we’re in a good place. I think Cal thinks we’re in a good place for March 2,” said assistant coach Joel Justus, sitting in Thursday for head coach John Calipari. “I think we want to be in a better place tomorrow. I think we want to be in a good place, and then we test ourselves on March 4. See what we’re about and whatever situations present themselves how we handle those. Then we get ready for Nashville and go from there.”

Kentucky comes into the game riding a seven-game win streak, but fighting concerns over slow starts. UK trailed Vanderbilt 25-6 on Tuesday before rallying to win 73-67. The previous game, they trailed Florida 18-6 before winning 76-66.

“We weren’t desperate enough to start the game,” Calipari said of the Vanderbilt win. “But two things happened. They stuck together, no one broke off. That’s how you’ve got to play basketball in March. You’ve got to fight and stick together. You can’t fight and then everybody go do their own thing. You can’t win a basketball game.”

Justus said the coaching staff asked the players about the issue.

“They’re the ones that are doing it so you say, ‘Why? What is it? Do we need to do something better? Is it something we need to practice? Is it something that we need to fundamentally change at the games? Is it a warm up?'” Justus said. “I think that’s the thing we’re trying to figure out and address verses play ostrich and put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.

“I think it’s still an open-ended discussion,” Justus said. “But everybody sees that. The players and coaches are aware that we need to focus in a little bit on that.”

Texas A&M, meanwhile, has won three of its last four games. All three victories — Auburn, Alabama, Missouri — came at home in College Station.

“We’re playing better. We’re a different team than we were the first time we met,” A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “I think we’ll be ready, it’s whether we can handle their pressure because they’re really good. That’s going to be the key for us.”

The Aggies, unlike most teams, are led by post players. 6-10, 270-pound sophomore Tyler Davis is the leading scorer at 14.1 points per game and grabs 6.9 rebounds. 6-9, 237-pound freshman Robert Williams averages 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds. 6-9 sophomore DJ Hogg averages 12.0 points.

“Both of their bigs are extremely gifted,” Justus said. “They both can score. They both can pass. They require a lot of attention on the defensive end and it’s a big game for our big guys to come and be ready to compete, to be ready to battle.”

The two teams met Jan. 3 in Lexington with Kentucky scoring a 100-58 victory. In that game, Davis had 13 points, but only two rebounds and seven turnovers. Williams had eight points, but only two rebounds.

“From how they’ve changed from January to now, I think there is a seismic shift in their development individually, but also collectively,” Justus said. “They’re playing hard. They’re playing together, and they present major problems for us on the defensive end and it’s gonna be something that we will have to focus in on to get our game plan set for those guys Saturday morning.”

Kentucky, in contrast to Texas A&M, is guard heavy. Freshman Malik Monk leads UK and the SEC in scoring at 21.7 points per game. He scored 26 in UK’s first meeting with Texas A&M, connecting on 8-of-11 field goals. Next comes freshman De’Aaron Fox at 15.4 and sophomore Isaiah Briscoe at 13.1.

“Kentucky always brings a special flare to it,” Kennedy said. “This is going to be a tough game for us. Their perimeter guys are the best in our league, probably the best in the country.”