Kentucky (6-1) should have little trouble running its win streak to five in a row when Fairleigh Dickinson (2-5) visits Lexington, Ky., on Saturday afternoon.
After all, the Knights are 0-5 on the road, including double-digit losses to DePaul (11 points), Army (16) and Notre Dame (25).
But the opponent is the least of the concerns for Wildcats coach John Calipari.
“All I’m trying to do now is, how good can we get?” Calipari told reporters Thursday. “I said publicly, if we don’t become an unbelievable defensive team, we will not be playing late in March. We will not. If we are that, and we rebound and have some toughness about us, fight, then we’ll have our chances to advance and do what we want to do.”
Calipari has been taking note of the wild results around college basketball this week. No. 1 Louisville crushed No. 4 Michigan, No. 6 Ohio State rolled No. 7 North Carolina by 25 points in Chapel Hill, and Purdue rocked defending national champion and fifth-ranked Virginia by 29.
“The teams that are winning right now are playing great defense. Most of them have veterans. I mean, that’s what it is,” Calipari said. “You’ve gotta guard, and you got to have some veteran leadership.
Calipari has boiled it down to two words — fight and finish.
“Fight for rebounds. You fight harder than he’s fighting,” he said.
“The second word is finish,” Calipari added. “The last four minutes of games, we have been atrocious, but we were last year, too. So now I’m working on how we finish the last four minutes of games, what we’re going to do, what’s your mentality.”
The Kentucky coach says practices are not place for the faint of heart.
“Last two days, whew. Really the last three practices were like, literally we might as well put helmets on,” Calipari said. “Literally, it’s like lacrosse. I might as well give them sticks. But it’s been good.”
Kentucky is attempting to grow while still fighting injuries. Graduate transfer Nate Sestina had surgery on a broken left (non-shooting) wrist, and freshmen Dontaie Allen, who had yet to play, is attempting a comeback from knee surgery.
“Nate’s still two weeks, maybe three away from us figuring out if he can play,” Calipari said. “Dontaie practiced, and then he’s out for two more days. So yesterday and today, knee soreness. He’s not nearly ready. He practiced one day, half of the practice maybe.”
Kentucky enters Saturday’s game shooting 46.9 percent, including 30.1 from 3-point range. The Wildcats’ average point differential is plus-15.8, and they average 9.3 more rebounds per game than opponents.
Freshman guard Tyrese Maxey leads the way at 14.7 points per game. Next comes junior forward Nick Richards at 14.3 and a team-best 8.3 rebounds. Sophomore guard Ashton Hagans averages 13 points and 6.4 assists, and sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley checks in at 12.5 points.
Fairleigh Dickinson shoots 45.9 percent, including 32.6 percent from 3-point range. The Knights are minus-1.4 points per game in the scoring differential and a minus-3 in rebounding.
Junior guard Xzavier Malone-Key is the leading scorer at 20.3 points per game. Junior guard Jahlil Jenkins averages 15.6, junior forward Elyjah Williams 13 and senior forward Kaleb Bishop 12.6.
“Now we are off to Lexington, and again we look forward to playing against one of the gold standard programs in the nation in Kentucky,” FDU coach Greg Herenda said. “Our players, our program and our university are excited, and so am I.”
The Knights blew an 18-point lead against Quinnipiac on Tuesday but hung on late, with Malone-Key winning it on a free throw in the final seconds.
–Field Level Media