Scrimmages, tighter rotation getting Wildcats back in sync

Published 8:41 am Friday, January 6, 2023


Kentucky Today

Kentucky coach John Calipari is doing whatever it takes to find the right chemistry.

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Prior to an 86-63 win over Louisville and a 74-71 triumph over LSU Tuesday night, the Wildcats scrimmaged for more than an hour on the day before each contest and the plan has proven to be beneficial.

“You understand that’s dangerous,” he said. “I’ve never done it before. This team needs it. You know why? We look out of sync. We’re not smooth. … we’ve got to. And if somebody steps on something, we’ll have to deal with it.”

Actually Calipari did the same thing with his 2014 national runner-up team, which was scrimmaging three hours before game day deep into the postseason. A late-season “tweak” prior to the Southeastern Conference Tournament gave the Wildcats a boost that season.

Kentucky senior guard Sahvir Wheeler doesn’t mind the extra workouts and has noticed a difference in the past two encounters.

“(We’re) definitely starting to see some good things in how we’re flowing in starting the games,” Wheeler said.

In addition to the extra practice time, Calipari is starting to narrow down his rotation and inserted just seven players into the game in the win over the Tigers earlier this week.

“We’re flowing more in sync,” Calipari said. “You could just see it. So it’s all the stuff we’ve been talking and working, and they have responded. Let me tell you, they were knocked for a loop now, we all were.”

Jacob Toppin has played a role in the team’s two victories in the past seven days. He scored a career-high 24 points against the Cardinals and scored 21 in the win over the Tigers. Toppin said the Wildcats are starting to take control of their own destiny.

“He wants this to be like a player-driven team says that he wants the players to take control,” Toppin said. “He’s kind of given that opportunity to us as a group as we’re starting to play better to take over that role. So it’s good for us. It’s obviously helping us win games.”

In wake of Toppin’s struggles last month, Calipari also cautioned his team against becoming overconfident.

“The good stuff is poison — it’s poison (and) don’t read it,” the Kentucky coach said. “You’re never quite as good as it seems and it’s never quite as bad as it seems. The bad stuff creates anxiety, so why would you read it? Why would you look at it? It’s hard. These kids are on their phones all the time. And if they are reading it, then you’d better deal with it, and if it’s affecting you in a negative way, you’re not very smart.”

Riding a two-game winning streak, the Wildcats (10-4, 1-1 SEC) will take on No. 7 Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide (12-2, 2-0) rolled to an 84-62 win over Mississippi on Tuesday night. Kentucky is hoping for a better outcome than its previous conference road game when the Wildcats dropped a 89-75 setback at Missouri on Dec. 29.

“It’s super hard to win in conference,” Wheeler said. “It’s the best conference in college basketball. To win a game is always a good thing to feel about, especially going into a road against Alabama, which is a really good team. And we’re a really good team, so I can’t wait to get out there and play.”