LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — Kentucky hasn’t lost its swagger and is moving full speed ahead following a 71-52 loss to Tennessee last weekend in Knoxville.
"We're still confident,” Kentucky freshman guard Keldon Johnson said. “It's one game — one loss. We will learn from it and we move on to the next game.
That next game is at Mississippi Tuesday night, followed by a home finale against Florida set for Saturday at Rupp Arena. The Wildcats (24-5, 13-3 Southeastern Conference) ) slipped from fourth to No. 6 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 poll released Monday, while the Volunteers (26-3, 14-2) moved up two spots from seventh to fifth going into the final week of the regular season.
Kentucky remains in contention for a regular-season title but the window of opportunity is quickly dwindling. The Wildcats would need to win the final two games and get some outside help from other conference teams to have a chance of claiming the top seed for the upcoming SEC Tournament set for next week in Nashville.
The task won’t be easy, considering the Rebels (19-10, 9-7) are still in contention for the fourth-place finish and a double-bye for the conference tournament. Ole Miss has lost its past two games by a combined margin of three points, including a 74-73 loss at Arkansas last weekend in Fayetteville. Ole Miss took Tennessee to the wire before dropping a 73-71 setback to the Volunteers in Oxford.
"We have some tough games — I mean, Mississippi on the road is a hard game to play (then) Florida coming in here (Saturday),” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Both (are) desperate teams trying to get that double bye. It's going to be two wars."
Calipari said the Rebels are capable of pulling the upset despite the struggles against the Razorbacks and Volunteers last week.
“They're an NCAA Tournament team,” Calipari said. “They're a team that's played well, been aggressive and played well all season. I'd imagine – are there still tickets for sale down there? I would say there's not. It's going to be a war and they know it and their team will be ready. We don't face anybody that's not ready to play. Some games we play better than others, but the other teams that we play we understand what we're getting. I fully expect those guys to really get after it. It should be a high-flying kind of game."
It took 24 hours for the Wildcats to get over the 19-point setback to the Volunteers, the team’s most lopsided loss since a 118-84 thrashing at the hands of Duke in the season-opener more than four months ago. Just as the surprising loss to the Blue Devils proved to be a learning lesson, the loss to Tennessee is serving the same purpose for Kentucky, which is 4-0 in bounce-back games this season.
"We learned we've got to fight every game,” guard Immanuel Quickley said. “Each game is tough, especially against a veteran team and a good team like Tennessee. We've got to know that we've got to come out with a little bit more sense of urgency and we've got to fight a little bit more."
As for his own team, Calipari wants the Wildcats to become more engaged and “connected with each other.”
“The minute that they start worrying more about their own performance we don't trust each other, which means you're not aggressive. Which means you don't take chances. Which means you're not pushing up. So, we've just got to get back to where we were,” Calipari said.
Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee agreed and added the Wildcats need to return to their defensive roots.
"It's a concern that we haven't been doing that, but we have to get back to what we were doing to cause those turnovers,” Barbee said. “That was we were really getting after the ball. We were pressuring, we were making passes difficult, we were getting in passing lanes, we were being very disruptive in our opponents' offense, and that hasn't been the case. Definitely not the last game. Tennessee was able to do what they wanted, to run what they wanted, get the ball where they wanted. Give them credit for being able to do that, but we weren't how we've been defensively, so we've got to get back to that defensively because that's a key in our success is being very disruptive and getting points off of turnovers."
Barbee doesn’t expect the Wildcats to be intimidated by the Rebels.
"Well, we shouldn't be (rattled) and we shouldn't have been affected at Tennessee. I mean, that's every atmosphere we face on the road. It's sold out, typically, it's a hostile environment, and everybody wants to beat Kentucky. So, it was very out of character for us to get rattled in that environment, and I expect our guys to bounce back in this next road trip."
Gametracker: Kentucky at Mississippi, 9 p.m., Tuesday. TV/Radio: ESPN, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.