Coach John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats found themselves in unfamiliar territory last week – plummeting 11 spots in the second Top 25 rankings of the young season.
Kentucky will look to notch another early-season nonconference victory Tuesday night when it hosts Bellarmine at Lexington, Ky.
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That dramatic plunge in the poll was a result of the No. 19 Wildcats (4-2) losing twice in their past four games. There was a double-overtime thriller in the Champions Classic on Nov. 15 in Indianapolis, where Kentucky fell 86-77 to Michigan State in an atmosphere akin to an Elite Eight NCAA Tournament game in late March.
Calipari offered no excuses and put the onus on himself.
“When you talk about late-game situations, that’s on me as a coach,” said Calipari, who is in his 14th season as coach of the WIldcats. “They executed better than us, and that’s on me.”
Losing 88-72 at No. 2 Gonzaga five days later didn’t make matters any better.
The Wildcats trailed the Zags 41-25 at the half and didn’t shoot the ball well at all: 39.1 percent from the field, 24 percent from deep. They were also outrebounded 39-29.
“We can’t miss every open shot,” said Calipari of his team shooting 25 percent in the opening 20 minutes. “In the first half, it was so embarrassing we couldn’t run a play.”
Wildcats forward Jacob Toppin set career highs in each of his past two games. The Brooklyn native scored 16 in the loss at Gonzaga then followed that up with a 20-point effort in just 21 minutes in Wednesday’s 96-56 domination of North Florida.
“As the season goes on, I’m going to get more confident, but that’s because of my teammates,” said the 6-foot-9 Toppin. “I’m not worried about scoring right now. I’m worried about defense and rebounding, and the offense will come.”
Bellarmine (2-5) lost 81-60 on the road to then-No. 19 UCLA on Sunday night in legendary Pauley Pavilion, falling behind by 16 at halftime and never threatening in the second half as they lost their fourth straight game.
Ben Johnson scored 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, while Curt Hopf set career-highs with 16 points and four of Bellarmine’s season-high 11 3-pointers.
The Knights defense had a tough time as the Bruins shot 60.8 percent from the field and held a massive 54-20 edge on points in the paint and a 17-0 advantage on fastbreak scoring.
On Friday afternoon in Los Angeles, Bellarmine fell 80-59 to Loyola Marymount, which held just a three-point halftime lead. The Knights left Los Angeles on the red eye late Sunday night empty handed.
“I saw fight tonight (and) there were a lot of positives, “Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said. “That (UCLA) pressure was extraordinary. We couldn’t simulate that with seven guys, but we adjusted, and we never quit.”
Adding to the extraordinary challenge was that the Knights played without starting guard Juston Betz, who was injured.
“I thought top to bottom, everybody learned (Sunday),” Davenport said. “There’s not going to be one ‘What if?’ How are we going to learn to learn from Duke? From Clemson? From Louisville? From UCLA? They’re smart young men. I had 17 heads bobbing, ‘yes, yes, yes.’ And that’s how we left the locker room.”
–Field Level Media
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