Loss at Notre Dame helped Wildcats find their swagger


By Keith Taylor, Keith Taylor

LEXINGTON (KT) — It took a loss at Notre Dame for Kentucky to get its swagger back.

Since dropping a 66-62 setback to the Irish on Dec. 11 in South Bend, the No. 18 Wildcats have won two straight games and are averaging 96.5 points per game following wins over North Carolina (98-69) and Western Kentucky (95-60) respectively in their past two games.

Following the loss to Notre Dame, Kentucky coach John Calipari wanted the Wildcats to regain their swagger and emphasized the importance of remaining confident after the Irish ended Kentucky’s seven-game winning streak.

“I feel like since (the loss to Notre Dame) everyone has tried to compose a swagger and it’s helping a lot,” Kentucky forward Jacob Toppin said Monday. “Everyone’s confidence is building from that in practice. We’re making shots and we’ve found a way to translate that into the games.”

Prior to the South Bend letdown, freshman guard TyTy Washington said the Wildcats were still in the midst of “still figuring each other out.”

“We were figuring out how to play with each other, score and play offense and defense,” he said. “We’re just finding out who we are as a team and what we are about.”

In addition to a new bounce in its step, Kentucky also has been sharing the ball and making shots. In the past two contests, the Wildcats have dished out 36 assists and made 17 shots from long range. Kellen Grady has been the biggest contributor behind the arc and has made 16 of his last 30 shots from long range in the past four games.

“Everyone has the confidence now to knock down shots now because of that swagger,” Toppin said.

The Wildcats (9-2) hope to continue the trend on Wednesday when they open Southeastern Conference play against Missouri. The Tigers (6-6) will be without coach Cuonzo Martin, who will miss the trip to Lexington because of COVID-19 protocols. In an effort to avoid disruptions because of a recent surge in coronavirus cases across the country, the Wildcats have received their booster shots. Toppin said the Wildcats are doing what it takes to protect themselves and others amid the future uncertainty.

“We’re definitely the best team in the country when it comes to COVID protocols,” he said. “Everyone is healthy, we’re all doing necessary precautions that we need to do, so we can play games. … We’re definitely prepared for anything that’s coming our way. At the end of the day, we’re going to be the last team standing, because we’re taking the necessary protocols with this COVID stuff and you’ve got to be prepared for anything.”

Calipari agreed and is already thinking ahead of adjustments in terms of future scheduling this season and trying to get ahead of possible cancelations and postponements. He added conference games canceled within a timeframe need to be replaced by non-conference opponents. Calipari said his program needs to be “flexible and nimble.”

“These kids need to play games,” he said. “If both teams are healthy and the officials are healthy, play the ballgame. It may mean us adding a home-and-home for next year, it may mean having a game here or we travel, a game game with Gonzaga in Chicago or Dallas or somewhere … friends of mine in the profession, we’re just talking it through so we can play games.”

Gametracker: Missouri at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Wednesday. TV/Radio: SEC Network, UK Radio Network.