By GARY GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky hopes its must-win approach results in a lengthy run through the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The Wildcats will likely need one to lock up an NCAA tournament berth.
Seeing how that “one-and-done” urgency worked their upset of No. 11 Florida last Saturday, the defending national champions (21-10, 12-6) aim to carry it over and win at least twice more this weekend in Nashville, Tenn. Second-seeded Kentucky opens play in Friday’s quarterfinal against Thursday night’s winner between Arkansas and Vanderbilt.
The Wildcats believe that reaching Sunday’s championship will bolster their case for an at-large berth, a shaky scenario before they beat the Gators. Still, with nothing assured, Kentucky players enter the weekend with the mindset of playing each game like it will be their last.
“We’re just going into the tournament with the mindset like we’re not trying to get beat,” Wildcats 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We want to win it, obviously, and keep it rolling.”
Kentucky players are confident after finishing second to Florida in the conference. A year after losing in the championship to Vanderbilt as the top seed, the Wildcats return as the No. 2 seed thanks to Saturday’s victory over the Gators that earned a bye and left them possibly playing three straight days instead of four.
That’s no small matter for Wildcats coach John Calipari, who welcomes the shorter path to the final.
At the same time, winning three games in three days is asking a lot from a young Kentucky team that has struggled all season with inconsistency.
Such was the case before the Wildcats lost star center Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12, and their 4-3 record without him symbolizes their difficulty in finding rhythm and cohesion.
The Wildcats rebounded from a 30-point drubbing at Tennessee in their first game without Noel to win three in row before losing consecutive road games at Arkansas and Georgia. That quick slide created a must-win situation against Florida, where Kentucky responded with a gutsy 61-57 victory by outscoring the Gators 11-0 over the final 7:36.
While the victory showed the Wildcats’ resolve under “do or die” circumstances, they must prove they won’t relapse into bad habits. Calipari has been reminding his team through intense practices that they can’t let up now.
“It’s great that he’s not taking back the reins,” forward Kyle Wiltjer said. “We’re just working hard and had a great practice on Monday. … We’re just bringing it every day in practice, not letting up and holding guys accountable. That’s the main thing, and hopefully translating it to the game.”
The Florida victory brought something out of Kentucky freshmen Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, two players Calipari has called out this season for decision-making and enthusiasm respectively. Goodwin’s 16 points led the Wildcats, including five straight to rally them back from a 35-31 halftime deficit and ignite a 19-5 run.
Blaming his own play after the Georgia loss, Poythress was fully engaged against Florida, grabbing a team-high 12 rebounds and scoring nine points. Calipari and teammates praised the intensity they’ve waited for all season and hope he can sustain the effort in the postseason.
“Coach says you mature at different rates and he’s just taking longer to mature,” Cauley-Stein said of Poythress. “With Alex, it’s spurts. He’ll play like a beast in spurts and then I don’t know what happens and he’s not a beast no more. Then there are some games where he’s playing 25 minutes, playing like a beast and those are the games we’re beating people by 20.”
Barring an upset, Kentucky will likely face Arkansas Friday in a rematch of their March 2 game in which the Razorbacks throttled the Wildcats at home.
It’s important to Kentucky’s tournament hopes for the Wildcats to win as many games as they can in the SEC tournament.
“We got a lot to prove, what do you want to be, how you want to do it,” Calipari said. “We’re going up into an environment that’s going to be a great testing ground for us. Here we go, let’s see what we’ve done.”