GARY B. GRAVES
AP Sports Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s group of heralded freshmen are no longer among the nation’s elite.
The young Wildcats, who began the year the top-ranked team in the nation amid a buzz of possibly even going unbeaten, have fallen out of the Top 25.
They have lost three of their last four games, including Saturday’s 84-65 loss at No. 1 Florida. Kentucky (22-9, 12-6 Southeastern Conference) struggled offensively and the Gators shot 60 percent from the field, a reflection of the Wildcats’ struggles down the stretch.
Kentucky’s freefall has a familiar feel to it.
Last spring the Wildcats lost four of their final five games, including a first-round NIT upset at Robert Morris. That collapse followed Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury; coach John Calipari blames this downward spiral on his team’s inability to execute.
“What I’m trying to get our kids to understand, let’s get back to where we were two weeks ago,” Calipari said during Monday’s SEC teleconference. “Let’s get back to the kind of competitiveness and how we were playing. Some different things we’re going to do in practice, to get our mindsets back to where we were. …
“These kids understand that they’re going to have to do this together, they’re going to have to come together as a group. It’s time to do it.”
Kentucky is the No. 2 seed for the SEC tournament and begins play Friday in Atlanta against the winner between 7th-seeded LSU and No. 10 Alabama. The Wildcats’ most recent wins have come against both but have required a lot of work and some luck.
Despite six high school All-Americans among an eight-man freshmen group that some have called the best recruiting class ever, Kentucky has had season-long defensive issues that have become magnified in recent weeks. Opponents have been able to shoot jumpers and penetrate inside against a frontcourt featuring 6-foot-9 rookie forward Julius Randle and 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, a sophomore.
While the Wildcats are outshooting opponents overall (45 percent to 40 percent), they’ve outshot foes just once in the past five games. They shot 42-percent against LSU, a 77-76 overtime victory that was sealed with Randle’s tip-in in the final seconds.
Teams have double- or triple-teamed Randle, whose teammates haven’t always helped him out. When Randle isn’t an option, the Wildcats often have either looked tentative with their shot selection or simply forced shots, especially against zones.
Asked what specifically needs fixing, Calipari said, “there’s a lot of different things but the two things in the bigger picture is you’ve got to sustain your defensive effort. You’ve got to be scrappier. …
“On offense, we’ve just got to share the ball more. Very simple stuff that we talk about, but we’ve got four days to really ingrain (getting back) to these things that we have done at different points of the year.”
The Wildcats have insisted that they don’t pay attention to the rankings and have been focused on improving by the postseason, when ‘one-and-done’ truly applies. But growth has been absent in a stunning stumble that has left them outside the Top 25.
Kentucky’s urgency in trying to get it right to salvage any hope of contending for its ninth national championship wasn’t what its ardent fan base had expected.