Over the month of December, analysts and hordes comprising the fervent mass of Big Blue Nation were left despondent about the state of the Kentucky Wildcats.
Enduring a 4-3 start and tumbling from No. 3 in preseason polls, coach John Calipari ushered in a monthlong span dubbed as Camp Cal to cultivate greater reserves of tenacity and effort.
The regimen included 7 a.m. running sessions, practicing three times a day, and went to such lengths as strapping heart-rate monitors around his players’ chests to monitor the exertion during workouts.
Maniacal? Not really.
But it spoke to Calipari’s desire to sweat out whatever aloofness remained in a team again defined by the precocious talents recruited to Lexington but short on experience. Results seemed promising at first.
The Wildcats (10-5, 1-1 SEC) won five of six games, thumping foes by 28.4 points per game, and only losing by three points to in-state rival and then-fourth-ranked Louisville.
But the first week of SEC play forced a reassessment.
Namely, Kentucky’s 83-71 loss Saturday to Texas A&M, which was already bested at home by Southern, in what was just the Wildcats’ second loss at Rupp Arena in Calipari’s fourth year at the helm. It came on the heels of a 60-58 squeaker at Vanderbilt earlier in the week.
Afterward, Calipari singled out freshman forward Alex Poythress, long the embodiment of his coach’s critiques for seeming apathy or muddling through, for getting outworked on the glass. The Kentucky coach also went after sophomore guard Kyle Wiltjer for struggles on the defensive end.
On Saturday, the Wildcats ceded a 16-1 run to the Aggies, a span in which Texas A&M hit 12 of 13 shots and took a 74-63 lead, and allowed guard Elston Turner to score 40 points.
Monday, Calipari pointedly said the Wildcats are still battling a lack of trust, a malady preventing Kentucky from executing with precision offensively and stanching runs that alter the complexion of games.
“That’s the challenge I have with this team,” Calipari said. “Getting us to that point where we all buy in, both feet in, ‘Now let’s trust each other so we can finish off these games.’”
Poythress, a 6-8, 240-pound forward from Clarksville, Tenn., exists as a de facto talking point for Calipari.
Calipari put Poythress through one-on-one workouts, trying to coax out the player who averaged 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds in his first five games. But against Louisville, he had only seven points in 15 minutes.
Camp Cal was supposed to reveal the store of will inside of Poythress. But against Vandy, he allowed Shelby Moats to beat him for five offensive rebounds. Poythress had none.
“I’ve got great kids here, and they want to please me,” Calipari said Monday. “They’re looking for affirmation, but it’s the point of totally buying in to how you have to play.”
Asked what could alter his team’s world view, Calipari said recent events might be the solution.
“The only thing that brings about a change is crisis,” he said. “I hope it was Texas A&M, but it might not be. We may need to get hit on the chin two, three or four times before they say it’s not working this way.”
With its first 2-0 start in the SEC since 2003, Tony Barbee’s Auburn program elicited surprise ahead of a matchup Wednesday against Arkansas.
The Tigers (8-7, 2-0) knocked off LSU at home, then went on the road for a victory at South Carolina on Saturday.
Barbee said the integration of newcomers such as freshman swingman Shaquille Johnson and Brian Greene Jr. with veterans such as Frankie Sullivan and Rob Chubb has proven the best catalyst.
“All the new guys are starting to understand what it takes to compete and win at this level,” Barbee said. “The chemistry between the older guys and the younger guys has started to converge and grow and get better, because those younger guys are getting up to speed.”
In seven seasons at Ole Miss, coach Andy Kennedy had never won a conference opener, while the Rebels frequently found themselves trying to fight back from a sub-.500 start in the SEC.
Yet the Rebels (13-2, 2-0) boldly stated their case last week for inclusion with Florida and Missouri among the favorites for the regular-season crown.
Ole Miss drilled Tennessee 92-74 on the road, ending a 22-year losing streak at Thompson-Boling Arena, behind a career-high 32 points from transfer guard Marshall Henderson.
And Saturday, the Rebels knocked off No. 10 Missouri 64-49 in Oxford for a signature win on an NCAA Tournament résumé. Granted, the Tigers were without leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who sat with an MCL sprain, but it offsets earlier losses to Middle Tennessee and Indiana State.
“I don’t know about that,” Kennedy said when asked if it was a statement win. “It was just an opportunity we needed to take advantage of, if we’re going to be taken seriously. I was proud that our guys came out and took the right approach.”
The Commodores offense hit a new low in a loss at Arkansas on Saturday.
Their scoring total in a 56-33 defeat set a school-record for the lowest output in the shot-clock era, and leaves Vanderbilt (6-8, 0-2) averaging only 45 points in two SEC games.
Coach Kevin Stallings said there’s little he can do in a game to up offensive production except encourage good shot selection and make adjustments in timeouts to try tp spur more points.
“You hope that your veteran players or your better players will stand up and sort of break the ice for everyone. That hasn’t seemed to happen in certain instances for us. I don’t know. Obviously it doesn’t feel as if what I’m saying is causing us to make more baskets.”
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