Ken­tucky find­ing a groove for SEC play

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - SPORTS - By AARON BEARD AP Bas­ket­ball Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. >> It looks like Ken­tucky has fig­ured a few things out, just in time for South­east­ern Con­fer­ence play.

The 16th-ranked Wild­cats won at ri­val Louisville on Satur­day in their first road game of the sea­son. That fol­lowed a win against a ranked North Carolina team a week ear­lier and marked their third straight vic­tory against a power-con­fer­ence op­po­nent — promis­ing signs in a sea­son that started with a blowout loss to Duke.

“This is the process you go through,” Wild­cats coach John Cali­pari said after the 71-58 win against the Car­di­nals. “But I never lost any con­fi­dence in the kids. I told them that. But you’re go­ing to have to play dif­fer­ent.”

Ken­tucky started the year ranked No. 2, but per­cep­tions changed dur­ing that 118-84 loss to now-No. 1 Duke to open the sea­son, a game in which the Blue Devils shot 54 per­cent, col­lected 22 as­sists and only turned the ball over four times.

The Wild­cats have lost just once since then, fall­ing to Se­ton Hall on a 3-pointer in the fi­nal sec­onds of over­time. They’re poised to climb in Mon­day’s new AP Top 25 poll.

Along the way, Cali­pari has talked to his team about shar­ing the bas­ket­ball. And they’ve be­come one of the na­tion’s best on the of­fen­sive glass, rank­ing third na­tion­ally in Ken­Pom’s of­fen­sive re­bound­ing per­cent­age (40.8).

There has been de­fen­sive im­prove­ment, too. In the past two games, Ken­tucky has held the Tar Heels and the Car­di­nals to a com­bined 39.8 per­cent shoot­ing. Some of the credit goes to fresh­man guard Ash­ton Ha­gans, who is de­vel­op­ing into an on-the-ball de­fen­sive pres­ence and has 11 steals in the past two games, in­clud­ing eight against UNC.

It was after the UNC win that Cali­pari noted: “We’re not the same team we were two weeks ago. It’s not even close.”

Good tim­ing, too. The Wild­cats open SEC play at Alabama next week­end.

“Last game was a good step­ping stone, and to­day we made an­other big step in the right di­rec­tion,” fresh­man guard Tyler Herro said after the Louisville win. “Ev­ery game’s go­ing to be one where they want to beat us real bad, but (we’re) just com­ing in and get­ting bet­ter.”

Herro added: “We’ve been over that Duke game for a while.”

QUIET WEEK

Christ­mas week meant a light sched­ule for AP Top 25 teams, with Ken­tucky’s trip to Louisville stand­ing out on a slate that lacked any matchups be­tween ranked pro­grams.

HOME SUR­PRISE

No. 17 Ari­zona State had earned a cou­ple of im­pres­sive wins, no­tably by beat­ing cur­rent No. 19 Mis­sis­sippi State in Novem­ber and then-No. 1 Kansas in the days be­fore Christ­mas. Yet the Sun Devils re­turned from the hol­i­day with a sur­pris­ing home loss to Prince­ton .

It was Prince­ton’s first win against a ranked op­po­nent since 2012. The Sun Devils shot 32 per­cent in a per­for­mance that coach Bobby Hur­ley called “a step back.”

That loss was part of a rough De­cem­ber for the Pac12, which has only Ari­zona State in­side the AP Top 25.

ROUGH TRIP

No. 15 Wis­con­sin suf­fered its own upset, this one on the road at Western Ken­tucky in the Bad­gers’ first visit to a mid-ma­jor school since the 2014-15 sea­son.

Wis­con­sin en­tered the game ranked in the top 20 of Ken­Pom’s ad­justed de­fen­sive ef­fi­ciency rank­ings, but the Hill­top­pers shot nearly 68 per­cent after half­time and fin­ished the game with a 38-31 re­bound­ing ad­van­tage.

THE AD­DI­TIONS

North Carolina State (No. 20) and Ok­la­homa (No. 25) were last week’s new ad­di­tions to the poll, though only the Wolf­pack played a game with that newly earned rank­ing.

N.C. State had no trou­ble beat­ing Loy­ola-Mary­land on Fri­day in its first game as a ranked team since Jan­uary 2013. It pushed the Wolf­pack (12-1) to the pro­gram’s best start since 2005-06, with At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence play start­ing in the com­ing week.

“We have got­ten bet­ter,” Wolf­pack coach Kevin Keatts said. “We have been able to de­velop our depth with some guys ... who got some play­ing time lately who will re­ally help us once we get in the ACC.”

JAMES CRISP - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vanderbilt’s Simisola Shittu (11) shoots un­der pres­sure from Ken­tucky’s Nick Richards (4) dur­ing the first half of an NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball game in Lexington, Ky., Satur­day.

TONY AVELAR - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ari­zona State coach Bobby Hur­ley re­acts to a foul call dur­ing the sec­ond half of the team’s NCAA col­lege bas­ket­ball game against Stan­ford in Stan­ford, Calif., Satur­day, Jan. 12, 2019. Stan­ford won 85-71.

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