TOP 25 REWIND: No. 16 Kentucky finding a groove for SEC play
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — It looks like Kentucky has figured a few things out, just in time for Southeastern Conference play.
The 16th-ranked Wildcats won at rival Louisville on Saturday in their first road game of the season. That followed a win against a ranked North Carolina team a week earlier and marked their third straight victory against a power-conference opponent — promising signs in a season that started with a blowout loss to Duke.
“This is the process you go through,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said after the 71-58 win against the Cardinals. “But I never lost any confidence in the kids. I told them that. But you’re going to have to play different.”
Kentucky started the year ranked No. 2, but perceptions changed during that 118-84 loss to now-No. 1 Duke to open the season, a game in which the Blue Devils shot 54 percent, collected 22 assists and only turned the ball over four times.
The Wildcats have lost just once since then, falling to Seton Hall on a 3-pointer in the final seconds of overtime. They’re poised to climb in Monday’s new AP Top 25 poll.
Along the way, Calipari has talked to his team about sharing the basketball. And they’ve become one of the nation’s best on the offensive glass, ranking third nationally in KenPom’s offensive rebounding percentage (40.8).
There has been defensive improvement, too. In the past two games, Kentucky has held the Tar Heels and the Cardinals to a combined 39.8 percent shooting. Some of the credit goes to freshman guard Ashton Hagans, who is developing into an on-the-ball defensive presence and has 11 steals in the past two games, including eight against UNC.
It was after the UNC win that Calipari noted: “We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago. It’s not even close.”
Good timing, too. The Wildcats open SEC play at Alabama next weekend.
“Last game was a good stepping stone, and today we made another big step in the right direction,” freshman guard Tyler Herro said after the Louisville win. “Every game’s going to be one where they want to beat us real bad, but (we’re) just coming in and getting better.”
Herro added: “We’ve been over that Duke game for a while.”
Christmas week meant a light schedule for AP Top 25 teams, with Kentucky’s trip to Louisville standing out on a slate that lacked any matchups between ranked programs.
No. 17 Arizona State had earned a couple of impressive wins, notably by beating current No. 19 Mississippi State in November and then-No. 1 Kansas in the days before Christmas. Yet the Sun Devils returned from the holiday with a surprising home loss to Princeton .
It was Princeton’s first win against a ranked opponent since 2012. The Sun Devils shot 32 percent in a performance that coach Bobby Hurley called “a step back.”
That loss was part of a rough December for the Pac-12, which has only Arizona State inside the AP Top 25.
No. 15 Wisconsin suffered its own upset, this one on the road at Western Kentucky in the Badgers’ first visit to a mid-major school since the 2014-15 season.
Wisconsin entered the game ranked in the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings, but the Hilltoppers shot nearly 68 percent after halftime and finished the game with a 38-31 rebounding advantage.
North Carolina State (No. 20) and Oklahoma (No. 25) were last week’s new additions to the poll, though only the Wolfpack played a game with that newly earned ranking.
N.C. State had no trouble beating Loyola-Maryland on Friday in its first game as a ranked team since January 2013. It pushed the Wolfpack (12-1) to the program’s best start since 2005-06, with Atlantic Coast Conference play starting in the coming week.
“We have gotten better,” Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts said. “We have been able to develop our depth with some guys … who got some playing time lately who will really help us once we get in the ACC.”