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Despite Downplaying the Pressure of a Bad Start, Kentucky Knows It Needs a Win

A poor 1-4 start is looking like John Calipari's biggest challenge yet at Kentucky.

Sometimes reality is grim enough it doesn’t need historical perspective or a catchy storyline, which makes Kentucky coach John Calipari’s position not to want to over dramatize the situation understandable: The Wildcats need a win.

Bad.

Not because at 1–4 the Wildcats are off to their worst start since 1984–85 and not because last week’s famed “Camp Cal” practices yielded a 24-point first-half lead for Notre Dame last Saturday at Rupp Arena. At this point the Wildcats need a win for their psyche, making Saturday’s meeting with No. 22 North Carolina in the CBS Sports Classic in Ohio a must-win scenario.

Kentucky was originally scheduled to play UCLA, but CBS Sports announced the revised schedule to more closely align COVID-19 testing protocols between the schools and their respective conferences.

“We’ve gotten better,” Calipari said. “The issue becomes feeling the success that comes along with your getting better. That’s what’s been hard. We’ve gotta have a breakthrough at some point.”

In order to achieve that tangible success against the Tar Heels, Calipari said the Wildcats’ focus must be twofold: box out and take care of the ball.

That makes sense considering North Carolina outrebounds its opponents by 15.5 a game and Kentucky turns the ball over 16.8 times a game.

“You’re gonna have to fight. You’re gonna have to go body-to-body,” Calipari said. “You can’t have 25 turnovers and win a college basketball game. Our guards are gonna have to get 15 rebounds to give yourselves a chance.”

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Calipari also stressed to his team the importance of growing mentally and shifting their perspectives to focus on the bigger goal.

“I told them, don’t think any less of yourself,” he said. “Just think of yourself less, think of the team more.”

Calipari said his team’s much-needed mental shift is likely a byproduct of the pandemic's limiting team-building opportunities like dinners and regular dorm room downtime bonding but was quick to admit it’s a widespread issue.

“We have 10 new players who don’t know each other,” Calipari said. “We’re all in the same boat, but it’s hard when they’re only together for two and a half hours on the court. We’ve got to get to know one another, trust one another, as much off the court as on.”

To that end, Calipari said Terrence Clarke will start at point guard and Devin Askew will play the backup role going forward—though Calipari pointed out he likes the three-point guard lineup of Clarke, Askew and Davion Mintz. Askew started the first four games of the season and Mintz got his first start at point guard against Notre Dame.

“I like having the ball in Terrence’s hands,” Calipari said. “The biggest thing is what unit did we put on there and how did that unit play together and were we efficient offensively and did we fight on defense. Five guys better gang rebound because they do.”

The Wildcats will look to build on a strong second-half surge against the Fighting Irish. They were in position to win after erasing the 24-point first-half deficit but Olivier Sarr's shot at the buzzer fell short as time expired.

Askew’s eagerness to turn the page was evident on Wednesday when he repeated “We’re ready” more than three times within the first two minutes of the media session.

He downplayed the matchup with North Carolina, referring to it multiple times as “just another game,” and exuded confidence and a yearning to show but not so much to prove.

“That game gave us a lot of confidence and showed us how we can play,” Askew said of the loss to Notre Dame. “With a lot of energy and fight. A lot of people say that we don’t fight, but the second half proves to us that we can fight, and we can be that team that Kentucky usually is. We don’t have to prove anything to anyone else.”