LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — In two weeks, the postseason begins and John Calipari hopes the Wildcats learned a lesson in a 70-66 win over Arkansas Tuesday night.
An overwhelming favorite against the Razorbacks, fourth-ranked Kentucky (24-4, 13-2 Southeastern Conference) fell behind early and trailed by 15 early in the second half before mounting a successful comeback down the stretch.
The rally was the team’s biggest of the season and the largest comeback since recovering from a 17-point deficit in the second half in a win at West Virginia in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in Morgantown last season.
“If they play like that first half they will be down 20 in an NCAA Tournament game and you won't be able to come back because as you make a run the other team is a good enough team, that's why they're in the tournament, they will make another run at you and you'll still be down 18,” the Kentucky coach said. “You'll make a run and get it to 11, think you're in it, they will make two threes, you're down 17, it's the ball game, and your season ends. So how we started the game, again, it's just, we can't be that team, especially when the other teams are going to play like Arkansas played. They're going to come in and play well.”
Because of their recent success, the Wildcats, who have won 14 of their last 15 games, are in the running for one of four top seeds in the NCAA Tournament. Joe Lunardi’s latest bracket has Kentucky listed as the No 1 seed in the Midwest Region in Kansas City, Missouri.
Calipari admitted the Wildcats could have been looking ahead to Saturday’s contest at No. 7 Tennessee earlier this week, a game that will help determine the league’s regular-season champion.
“They will go where I'll take them,” Calipari said. “They're going to go, they're going to feed off of me and maybe it was me too. Maybe I looked at this and said, we got a breather here before -- yeah, we had a breather, down 11 at half, down 15, it was, yeah, it was a real breather. I really, like coaching these young kids, they're looking for me, tell us what to do, tell us where we're going, tell us how to do this. And they responded. Now we didn't play well in the first half, but we're good enough that we could do it in the second half.”
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, who was part of the intense rivalry games between the two league foes in the 1990s as an assistant coach under Nolan Richardson, was impressed with the Wildcats.
“It’s a good team,” he said. “They have a lot of versatile parts. I think John Calipari talks about having a lot of balance (and Tuesday night) some of that balance paid off. We only had two guys in double figures, but they smothered guys, so we got points here and there. (Nick) Richards had a big night rebounding the basketball and that’s just what good teams do.”
Kentucky has three games remaining in the regular season and remains in contention for a regular-season conference title, starting with Saturday’s contest in Knoxville.
"We know what’s coming up,” Kentucky sophomore Keldon Johnson said. “We have a big game coming up, but every game is a big game. We’re going to prepare and get locked in.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Tennesese, 2 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.