The League: Slow-starting Kentucky improving
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:10 p.m.
Don't look now, but Kentucky is gaining momentum.
The Wildcats struggled through new players finding new roles after losing their top six players from their national title team a season ago. But after a 12-6 start, Kentucky takes a four-game winning streak into its matchup with Auburn today at Rupp Arena.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the key to his team's recent success has been embracing more physical play on both ends of the floor.
“We're working on it every day,” Calipari said. “If you don't relish playing in that kind of game, you are going to look like you're passive, soft, whatever you want to say.”
Kentucky, which visits the O'Connell Center on Tuesday to face No. 2 Florida, replaced its national title team with another consensus top recruiting class that featured freshman center Nerlens Noel, freshman forward Alex Poythress and freshman guard Archie Goodwin. But the pieces didn't mesh right away.
The Wildcats suffered back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Baylor in non-conference play. The Baylor loss snapped Kentucky's 54-game winning streak at Rupp Arena.
To start SEC play, Kentucky suffered another loss at Rupp to Texas A&M and a loss at Alabama in which the Wildcats blew a nine-point halftime lead.
Calipari demoted sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer to the bench due to his defensive deficiencies. But the key to Kentucky's recent resurgence has been Noel, who has emerged as one of the top inside players in the SEC. The 6-foot-10 freshman leads the SEC in blocked shots (4.6 per game) and is second in rebounding (9.5 rpg).
With Noel altering shots inside, Kentucky ranks second in the SEC in defensive field goal percentage (37.6 percent), behind just Florida.
Calipari knows the value of having a strong presence at the rim. Last season, Kentucky one-and-done center Anthony Davis led the SEC in blocked shots with 4.6 per game.
“What happens, it's hard to just say we're going to drive the ball and get to the lane, we're going to just post the ball,” Calipari said. “It makes it difficult. You've got to take more perimeter shots and you've got to take more pull-ups which is why our field goal percentage defense the last two years has been what it has been.”