"One little thing at a time," UK head coach Calipari said Monday when asked how he goes about fixing the team's recent issues. "Just keep coaching them and keep meeting with them and keep talking with them and showing them tape. They're 18- and 19-year-olds. It was only two weeks ago we were like, ‘OK, we've got this figured out.' Two weeks later, we don't have it figured out."
Kentucky (21-8, 11-5 SEC) dropped to No. 25 in the AP poll after losing Saturday night at South Carolina, who entered the game last in the SEC standings. The Wildcats, astonishingly, trailed by 18 at one point in the game, which saw UK go almost 14 minutes without making a basket and its coach ejected after receiving a pair of technical fouls.
Calipari says he can't allow that to happen. His 2011 Final Four squad had also dropped eight games by this date, and he noted that UK isn't the only program dealing with issues late in the season. Five Top 10 teams lost games last week. One of them, No. 10 Saint Louis, dropped two. Thirteen Top 25 teams lost a total of 17 games.
"All the sudden we're like a bunch of other teams in the Top 25 who lost," Calipari said. "Some of us lost to unranked teams. You lose and you regroup and figure it out."
Figuring it out, however, is not as easy as it may sound. There's no question UK remains one of the most talented teams in the country, but putting all those pieces together and finding a way to maximize the potential is another matter.
Earlier this season, Calipari said he wanted the team to be more "player-driven" and less reliant on him micro-managing every aspect of the game. Now he's thinking maybe this particular group of players needs him to do just that.
"Obviously, they weren't ready," Calipari said. "… Now, if I have to coach every possession, I will. It's not what I want to do. What I want them to do is take on more responsibility, to where they're talking to one another and holding each other accountable. But it's hard for an 18- and 19-year-old group… But I'm going to be what they need me to be.
"How this plays out – at the end of the day, where we are – it's my job. They need me to keep leading them."
At least two players suggest their coach may be taking a bit too much heat right now. Senior guard Jarrod Polson says the players need to take more responsibility for the results.
"At the end of the day, it's on us," he said. "People are kind of hounding Cal right now, but at the end of the day it's really on the players. No matter how he's coaching, we have to respond to that in a good way. We've had a lot of talks with him personally and us as a team, so I think we're in a good spot. No matter what happens, we know that, at the end of the day, we have to go out and perform. It's not anyone else; it's us as players have to perform."
Senior swingman Jon Hood said the team is adopting an "us against the world" mindset.
"It's not on anybody else," he added.
Kentucky's biggest foe from here on out may be time. The Cats face Alabama on Senior Night on Tuesday at Rupp Arena, followed by a trip to Gainesville, Fla., to face the No. 1 Gators. From there, they're only guaranteed two more opportunities to play this season in the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
UK is currently the No. 2 seed in the SEC and is projected as a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Midwest region by ESPN "bracketologist" Joe Lunardi. The Cats maintain a No. 17 RPI despite the mounting losses.
"Where we are right now has no bearing on where we're going to be," Calipari said. "… We're good enough to do what we have to do."
The UK boss says his goals remain the the same.
"My mind hasn't changed about this team. It's just that we got to get them in a little different mindset," he said.
"Part of it is, when adversity hits, will you come together?"