While his Kentucky team was losing one battle to Tennessee, coach John Calipari was losing another to a clipboard.
Calipari was still sporting a bandage on his right hand Tuesday, an injury he said happened when he punched the board during a timeout in the first half of the No. 3 Wildcats’ loss Saturday in Knoxville.
“The other one I used to just be able to tap and it would break,” Calipari said. “Somebody gave me a steel clipboard. Because of my strength, I really dented it, but it didn’t break.”
The dented but not broken Wildcats (27-2, 12-2 Southeastern Conference) are hoping to show the same kind of resilience as they try to bounce back from their second loss of the season and close in on Calipari’s goal of a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
Next up is a trip tonight (Wednesday) to Georgia (13-14, 5-9), a team Calipari insists has grown substantially since Kentucky beat the Bulldogs 76-68 on Jan. 9 at Rupp Arena.
The loss by Kentucky, ranked No. 2 last week, was just part of a wild weekend of upsets in college basketball, with then-No. 1 Kansas and then-No. 3 Purdue also falling, allowing Syracuse to claim the top spot this week.
“It kind of shows every team is in a rut or a struggle right now,” junior forward Josh Harrellson said. “Every team has problems. No team is perfect. Every team is beatable. I wish we had won so we could be No. 1 again, but No. 1 isn’t a good place to be, I think.”
Calipari has consistently said that the only thing that really matters is the NCAA tournament, and before that, all the regular-season games and even the SEC Tournament are simply about jockeying for seeds. However, on Tuesday he acknowledged these last few games are also about momentum — something Kentucky is struggling to seize.
“If we’re not going to be playing right, it doesn’t matter if we’re a No. 1 seed,” Calipari said. “We’ll be the first ones out.”
The most glaring deficiency in the loss to Tennessee was 3-point shooting, as the Wildcats connected on just two of 22 attempts from long range. Calipari said he still had plenty of faith that several players on his team can hit a clutch 3 when it matters.
Four games in a row the long shots haven’t been falling for Kentucky, but Calipari said he isn’t worried about a trend developing and refuses to call it a slump.
“You’re talking about guys who over the season have shot the ball as well as anybody in the country,” he said. “They’ve hit a spell where they don’t shoot it well. I’ve done this so long, it doesn’t faze me. Now, if they’re buying into what everybody’s saying, then it may faze them.”
Freshman guard Jon Hood, whose playing time has been scarce this season, approached Calipari on Monday when he was running on a treadmill and suggested he thought he could help with some outside shooting. Calipari told him he’d give him a chance.
Still, Hood agreed that whether he’s playing or not, the Wildcats’ shooting woes won’t continue.
“At some point, just like a baseball player, you’re going to have a little slump,” he said. “Whether it be one game or four games, it can change at any given time. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
And, if the 3s continue to clang off the rim, Calipari said there is another solution, too: Don’t take as many of them, and instead drive to the basket more often.
“This is what we are,” he said. “We never built this team in the short time we had to build it by saying we’re going to be a back-it-up, 3-point shooting team. We’re not. If we make them, we make them.”
Georgia has already won a game against all the other teams in the SEC East: Vanderbilt, which lost to Kentucky twice, and South Carolina and Tennessee — the only teams to beat the Wildcats.
Although Kentucky fans might want to see the outside shooting return, Calipari said his focus is on Georgia’s inside game. Trey Thompkins is averaging nearly 18 points and more than eight rebounds per game, while Travis Leslie has become a weapon on both off ense and defense.
It’s a big game for a team Calipari argues might be the least experienced in the country considering that most of the key players are freshmen and the few veterans only reached the NIT last season.
“The games are diff erent,” Calipari said. “The hype on the games are diff erent. The road experience is diff erent. This is all new to this entire team.”