Eighty percent of the college basketball season is already in the books, but Kentucky head coach John Calipari is quick to note his latest group of elite freshmen are still trying to figure the game at this level.
The Wildcats (20-5, 10-2 SEC) are currently ranked No. 13 and are considered one of the top contenders when tournament time gets here, but they've also been the latest Calipari team to earn the "work in progress" label.
Kentucky's issues have been evolving as the season has transpired, but the latest has been among the most perplexing. The Cats have built large leads in each of their last two games -- wins over LSU and Alabama -- but had to hold on down the stretch in each game to claim narrow victories. Against LSU, a 25-point lead with eight minutes remaining shrank to a six-point lead with a minute to go. Against Alabama, an 18-point lead midway through the second half was trimmed to six with under three minutes left.
Earlier in the season, the Cats led UCLA by nine and Kansas by 12 only to lose both games.
The UK staff spent the last two days breaking down film in an attempt to find a pattern to the inability to hold significant leads. Calipari thinks he found some answers and is taking responsibility.
"You can’t blame them," he said. "Dudes are in high school six months ago. (Now they're) trying to play what we’re doing against veteran teams?”
Calipari says there are some similarities between his current team and the 2012 national championship team. Both could race up and down the court with the best of the best, but being able to grind out games when the tempo slows down often separates good from great.
"Just learning how to play in situational basketball," he said. "You know, you think about it, the fast team that we had in 2012, we were fast. This team could be faster. But, how did we play in the championship game (against Kansas)? What was the final score? Sixty-seven to 59. And it was only because we were shooting fouls at the end. That game was in the low 60s because we had to be in the low 60s to win the game."
In other words, the Cats need to know when to be on the gas and when to ease off the pedal.
"You gotta be able to do both," Calipari said. "But our speed is a weapon, and you gotta use your weapons. You gotta use open court, driving to get to the rim. You know, we’re a good 3-point shooting team. Use your weapons, yet you’re going to play somebody that makes you play half court. You gotta be able to do it. So a lot of our issues are situational."
Despite the issues, Kentucky still ranks No. 9 nationally in the Ken Pomeroy offensive efficiency rankings. The Cats are averaging 89.3 points per game, the highest figure in the Calipari era at UK.
Playing fast, however, has led to more miscues as the season has progressed. The Cats had one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios in the country prior to conference play, but are minus-7 in their last eight games.
Calipari says he expects that to change for the better. "I am getting a better mental picture of where this team needs to be, and unless we had gone through some of the stuff we went through, I probably would’ve been fooled. So, I think we are moving in the right direction."
Kentucky returns to action Tuesday at Rupp Arena against Tennessee (14-11, 6-6 SEC). It's a rematch of the Cats' 82-80 loss on Jan. 24 in Knoxville.