Even after his first signature victory as Kentucky coach, John Calipari seems more concerned than ever about his young team as it awaits its next challenge.
The fourth-ranked Wildcats look to remain undefeated when they face No. 14 Connecticut on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden as part of the SEC/Big East Invitational.
This will be just the second meeting ever between these perennial powers. Connecticut beat Kentucky 87-83 in the second round of the 2006 NCAA tournament.
While UConn (6-1) has a chance for its first major victory of the season - it lost 68-59 to then-No. 7 Duke at MSG last month - Calipari’s Wildcats will try for their second straight win over a ranked opponent.
Kentucky (8-0) enjoyed a 28-2 first-half run Saturday against then-No. 10 North Carolina, but had to hold on for a 68-66 victory.
The Wildcats are off to their best start since the 1992-93 squad opened 11-0, but Calipari felt his team’s bad moments against the Tar Heels overshadowed the good. He knows they might not get away with a similar showing against UConn.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we went up (to New York) and got knocked in the mouth,” said Calipari, whose club will face yet another test this Saturday at Indiana. “(UConn is) going to come out playing like it’s the Super Bowl, and we better do the same.”
After shooting 57.1 percent and leading by 15 at halftime, Kentucky was outscored 38-25 in the final 20 minutes against the Tar Heels, committing 12 of its 21 turnovers in the second half.
“We are not ready to sustain effort,” said Calipari, who starts three freshmen and a sophomore. “We play casual at times. Other times we aren’t even casual. We just stop playing, stand straight and flat-footed.”
In the end, the Wildcats had enough to hold off the Tar Heels as star freshman John Wall overcame a bout with dehydration to sink the clinching free throws with 4.3 seconds left.
Averaging a team-leading 18.1 points and 7.7 assists per game, Wall finished with 16 and seven assists, while 6-foot-9 preseason All-American junior Patrick Patterson led the way with 19 points.
“The definition of this team is that we are tough down the stretch,” said Patterson, averaging 16.6 points and 10.1 boards. “I still feel we have a long way to go.”
The Kentucky players also understand nothing will come easy, no matter how talented they are.
“We are pretty confident, but we still have work to do,” Wall said. “(UConn) is going to be another tough game for us.”
UConn may not have the overall star power of Kentucky, but its backcourt of Jerome Dyson and Kemba Walker could pose problems for the Wildcats.
Dyson, averaging 20.1 points and 5.1 assists, had 24 points with 14 rebounds and nine assists in a 79-73 home win over Harvard on Sunday.
Walker, a sophomore from the Bronx, added 20 points, while 6-foot-9 Stanley Robinson had 18 with 12 boards as the Huskies overcame a 42.4-percent shooting effort to hold off the Crimson.
“If we play spurts against Kentucky, we can’t beat them,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun, whose team allowed a 10-0 second-half Harvard run.
While Dyson, Walker (15.4 ppg, 5.6 apg) and Robinson (15.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg) are enough to beat most teams, Calhoun is concerned his team’s lack of depth might take its toll on the three stars.
The Huskies scored 14 points of the bench against Harvard, 12 of them from 6-foot-9 senior Gavin Edwards.
“We’re faking the bench by bringing Gavin off,” Calhoun said. “We don’t have a bench right now and that’s causing problems.”
This is the first year Kentucky and UConn are taking part in the SEC/Big East Invitational, which is in its third season.