The Kentucky Wildcats have climbed to No. 5 in the newest AP college basketball poll on the heels of a dominating win over Kansas at historic Allen Fieldhouse.
But while some were ready to hit the panic button after an early December road loss at Notre Dame, UK John Calipari never blinked, gaining more confidence each day after watching his team go through its practice routine at the Joe Craft Center.
Calipari, who recently won his 800th game as a college coach, told Tom Leach on Monday night’s radio show that this year’s team is as good as any he’s had on the practice court.
“We’ve had some of the most ridiculously good practices since I’ve been here,” said Calipari, who has led Kentucky to four Final Fours and a National Title in 2012. “We have not had a bad practice.”
That work ethic in practice certainly paid off for Keion Brooks, who finished with a career-high 27 points in the win over the Jayhawks to become the fourth Kentucky player to hit the 25-point mark this season, joining Oscar Tshiebwe, Sahvir Wheeler and TyTy Washington. The fifth starter, Kellan Grady has scored 23 points on two different occasions this year.
Brooks was named the SEC Player of the Week on Monday, the fourth player to earn the honor this season. Two other Wildcats were also named finalists for major awards this week with Tshiebwe making the Wooden Awards Late Season Top 20 for National Player of the Year, while Wheeler has been named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award Top 10.
“These kids can all score, they’re pretty good basketball players,” said Calipari. “The reason you want that is you go into the NCAA Tournament, you want your top six or seven guys knowing they can go for 25 because that may be what it takes to go the next round.”
The Wildcats have used a balanced offensive attack this season to take advantage of a guard grouping that’s been deadly from three-point range, while the Kentucky bigs have more than held their own in the paint.
Kentucky’s bench has also showed the ability to score with Davion Mintz (19), Jacob Toppin (14), Daimion Collins (14) and Dontaie Allen (14) all scoring in double figures this year.
Prior to the Kansas game, there was some speculation that Kentucky might be at its best with a four-guard lineup to go with Tshiebwe. However, the recent play of Brooks and Toppin has put those conversations to rest as the Wildcats try to get back into the SEC race over the final ten games of the regular season.
“We want to be a rebounding, shot blocking, defensive kind of team,” said Calipari. “(We) can’t play with four guards. Depends on the league, maybe a different league (you can). I know not this league.”
The Wildcats, 6-2 in SEC play, is trailing No. 1-ranked Auburn who holds a perfect 8-0 conference record. Kentucky returns to action on Wednesday night against Vanderbilt at Rupp Arena.