COLLEGE STATION, Texas — After more than two hours of stomping and screaming and waving his arms like a man going mad on his 59 th birthday, John Calipari repeated many of the talking points from Kentucky’s previous seven losses.
Only on Saturday night, after the Wildcats’ eighth defeat and unprecedented third in a row, after forcing a smile through gritted teeth at the Texas A&M student section serenading him as the clock ticked down on an 85-74 road humiliation, he made a weary admission.
Aggies coach Billy Kennedy “hit me after and says, ‘Do you know how young your team is?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m getting older by the day,’ ” Calipari said. “We’ve still got time. Been in this situation a couple different times at Kentucky and you know every team we play is giving us their best shot — so when we get this, we’ll bust through. But it’s getting old right now.
“Each week that goes by, it gets harder to get this thing to where you want it to go. At some point, you’re right, somebody has to step up and lead and say, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ ”
That came after a reporter asked him whether these Wildcats, who played seven freshmen and one sophomore on Saturday night — sophomore forward Sacha Killeya-Jones missed the game to attend his grandfather’s funeral — have the leadership they need in the locker room.
“Not right now,” he said plainly. “And they need it from me and can’t have it from me. You guys know how I am. This has got to be an empowered team and you’ve got one guy playing well.”
That would be freshman guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had 19 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 steals and hit 9 of 12 shots. The rest of the team shot 39 percent Saturday night. And in the second half, defense by Wildcats without hyphenated names was all but non-existent.
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The miracle, really, is that Kentucky actually led 30-26 at intermission. The reminder that this team is deeply flawed came in the first 3 minutes and 41 seconds of the second half.
The Aggies got a layup, tip-in, jump shot, dunk and three consecutive 3-pointers while the Wildcats turned it over three times and made only one shot, which added up to a 17-2 run faster than Calipari could dial his agent to see if any NBA teams are interested.
It didn’t stop there. Texas A&M kept bombing 3-pointers — including two banked-in shots to beat the shot clock — and outscored Kentucky by 26 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half to surge ahead by 22.
It was an evisceration by the Aggies, who’ve won 6 of 7 SEC games after starting 0-5 in league play, and a total meltdown by the Cats, who’ve lost three straight for the first time in nine seasons under Calipari.
“You can tell: This has got to be the youngest Kentucky team I’ve ever played against,” said Kennedy, whose team actually lost by a point at Rupp Arena on Jan. 9. “They made mistakes that freshmen make in the heat of the game on the road. They played like a young team tonight.”
They’ve played like a young team too often, so now they’re 17-8 overall and 6-6 in the conference and a road trip to No. 8 Auburn is up next. These Wildcats could be underdogs in all of their remaining road games — trips to Arkansas and Florida remain — and the Feb. 17 home game against an Alabama team that has toppled Auburn, Oklahoma, Florida and Tennessee in the last 24 days.
Calipari and his players keep saying (and did again after this loss) that the goal is to be playing well come March, in the NCAA Tournament. But given the mounting losses and daunting schedule ahead, these Cats might want to worry first about actually getting invited to the Big Dance.
“We’ve just got to be able to win games — figure out what’s going on and be able to win games — if we want to get there. We have a lot of guys that really want to make it, really want to get to March and play there. It’s a big experience for us [so] we’ve got to figure out how to pull away and win some of these games.”
That starts with addressing Knox’s defense, which he readily admitted Saturday is unsatisfactory and a work in progress, and his frequent disappearing acts on offense. He scored 13 points in his first 19 minutes against Texas A&M, then just 5 points in his final 17 minutes.
There is also the matter of what seems like a low basketball IQ for most of this roster, but especially Hamidou Diallo, who has a disturbing habit of making a head-scratching mistake and then searching for any other player or coach to blame.
On and on the problems go, and there are only six regular-season games and a sudden-death SEC Tournament left to fix them.
“I told them after, ‘I’m not cracking.’ I’ve been through this. I’ve been a coach 30 years,” said Calipari, who later admitted on his last birthday before the big six-oh that he’s exhausted by this season. “If I had been a [second]-year coach, I’d probably be panicking right now. But I’ve done this long enough and a big part of it is they have to want this to happen — and I believe they do. And I believe they’re embarrassed by their play. I believe that.
“[But] I told them, ‘If I want this worse than you want this, please tell me so I can start taking my wife to movies and dinners.’ They want this. They want it for each other.”
If that’s true, these Cats would be wise to start acting like it before the clock runs out.
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