COLLEGE STATION, Texas — John Calipari isn’t panicking.
He was anything but melodramatic after Kentucky’s latest setback, an 85-74 road loss at Texas A&M on Saturday that certainly will send the No. 24 Wildcats tumbling out of the top 25 for the second time in as many months. He spoke with the calm of a seasoned veteran coach — which, of course, he is, currently in his 26th season and ninth in charge of the Wildcats.
“I’m not cracking,” Calipari said moments after the Wildcats lost a third straight game for the first time in his tenure. “This doesn’t faze me.”
His team, however, is a different story. And Kentucky (17-8, 6-6 SEC) is running out of time to figure things out.
While Calipari’s claims might make for good sound bites, the play on the floor doesn’t match. The Wildcats made mistakes and showed flaws that have reared their heads time and again this season.
“We play for March,” Calipari said.
But right now, the Wildcats look lost.
The youngest team in college basketball is showing it. The lack of a veteran presence is clear. When the Wildcats struggled to start the second half, watching Texas A&M (17-8, 6-6) turn a 30-26 Kentucky lead into a 43-32 Aggies advantage, there was nobody — except Calipari — to be vocal.
“Why is it happening?” Calipari lamented. “You’re so into how you’re playing, you can’t give that energy to the team. That’s what young guys do. I can’t seem to get ’em over that hump. They’re more concerned with how they’re playing, and then when they’re concerned, they look really bad individually.”
All that said, Texas A&M’s effort was impressive on Saturday. While Kentucky had some self-inflicted wounds, much of the credit goes to the Aggies for simply outworking the Wildcats. The Aggies got to the rim at will in the second half. They repeatedly beat the Wildcats down the floor in transition. (A&M had a 13-4 advantage in fast-break points in the second half.) The Aggies had seven dunks, five of which came from sophomore forward Robert Williams (12 points, 11 rebounds), who was brilliant.
Once the Aggies figured out that it was better to use their stout frontcourt of Williams, Tyler Davis and Tonny Trocha-Morelos to pound the Wildcats inside rather than live on the perimeter (the Aggies shot 2-for-14 from deep in the first half), Kentucky had no answer. Texas A&M’s big man trio combined for 33 points, 22 rebounds and six blocks.
“Coach [Billy Kennedy] was stressing, ‘Attack, attack,'” Williams said.
The Aggies did, and as a result scored a whopping 59 points in the game’s final 20 minutes.
The Aggies appear to be hitting their stride. Once ranked as high as fifth in the Associated Press poll, they stumbled out of the gate, losing their first five SEC games. With injuries and suspensions keeping them from consistently playing at full strength, January proved a trying month.
But the Aggies have now won four straight, including two victories over ranked squads this week — the other coming at No. 8 Auburn on Wednesday. With this team as close to full strength as it has been since conference play started (guards Admon Gilder and Duane Wilson are still battling knee injuries, but Gilder is getting closer to full strength), Texas A&M is playing like the team that we saw in nonconference play.
“Our team is so different today than it was back then,” Kennedy said. “We’re playing different guys, roles are a little bit different. It’s more that we’re playing well. Getting Admon back has been a big help.”
Texas A&M and Kentucky have identical records but are going in different directions. The Aggies are surging, solidifying their place in the tournament field. The Wildcats are sliding, making some wonder how deep into March they’ll play.
Kentucky, which trailed by as much as 23 points, showed some late fight to cut the deficit back to single digits, something it has shown many times before. But the Wildcats have proved they aren’t yet good enough to flip a switch and win consistently after digging themselves a hole. There is no real leadership and only one player consistently playing well at this moment: guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who led all scorers on Saturday with 19 points on 9 of 12 shooting and had eight assists.
Kennedy also said “you can tell” this is the youngest Kentucky team Calipari has had.
“They make mistakes that freshmen make, in the heat of the game and on the road,” Kennedy said. “John has done a terrific job with his team. … They played like a young team tonight.”
Calipari swears there’s still time to right the ship, but “it’s getting old.” Whether the Wildcats will get back on track — with no seasoned veteran to help guide them through it — remains to be seen. Things don’t get easier, as Kentucky heads to Auburn on Wednesday.
“When we get this, we’ll bust through,” Calipari said. “But it’s getting old right now, and each week that goes by it gets harder and harder to get this thing to where you want it to go. And so, at some point, somebody’s got to lead and step up and say, ‘Hey, enough is enough.’ Right now, I’m not sure we have that guy.”