John Calipari needed approximately two months to return the Kentucky basketball program back to prominence. Now, it’s a matter of keeping it there.
For the first time in almost seven years, the Wildcats play as the nation’s top-ranked team when they try to avoid a third consecutive loss to host South Carolina on Tuesday night in an SEC matchup.
After Kentucky went a combined 40-27 with one NCAA tournament appearance under Billy Gillespie the past two seasons, Calipari has the Wildcats (19-0, 4-0) off to their best start since winning the first 23 games of the 1965-66 season.
Thanks to a pair of losses by previous No. 1 Texas and their own 101-70 home rout of Arkansas on Saturday, the Wildcats moved to the top of the rankings for the first time since the final poll of 2002-03.
“No. 1 in the country is not a burden,” said Calipari, who also coached Massachusetts and Memphis to No. 1 rankings. “It’s an honor. For us, we’ll see how we respond now.”
Obviously, the goal for the Wildcats is to be standing atop the college basketball world come April.
“It’s not a big deal to be No. 1 if you don’t finish the season No. 1,” said sophomore Darius Miller, who had a career-high 18 points against Arkansas.
Both Calipari and his roster filled with talented underclassmen have already begun preparing themselves for the challenges that await - both on and off the court - a No. 1 team.
“We want the respect of others and we have that now,” junior All-American forward Patrick Patterson said. “When we became No. 1, (Calipari) started talking about it and he wants it to motivate us. He said teams that he’s had have kept the No. 1 and just ran with it, and that’s just what he wants us to do and that’s what we expect to do.”
Led by freshman phenom John Wall (17.0 points and 6.9 assists per game), 6-foot-11 freshman DeMarcus Cousins (15.4 ppg, 9.5 rebounds per game) and Patterson (15.9 ppg, 7.8 rpg), Kentucky has the talent and confidence to do that, but they likely won’t take anything for granted.
“To be No. 1 and undefeated is great, but we want to stay humble and hungry,” said Wall, who had 16 points and seven assists against Arkansas.
Cousins added 16 points and 14 rebounds Saturday as the Wildcats scored the game’s first 10 points and stretched the lead to 30 by halftime.
Averaging 84.5 percent and shooting 48.4 percent through four conference games, Kentucky faces an immediate challenge as the country’s new No. 1 team.
Though South Carolina (11-8, 2-3) is mired in a season-high three-game losing streak, the Gamecocks snapped a four-game skid in the series and won both meetings last season.
Devan Downey had 23 points in South Carolina’s 78-77 win at then-No. 24 Kentucky on Jan. 31, and he scored 21 in a 77-59 home rout of the Wildcats on Feb. 25.
“It’s a great program and it will be a hard game for us,” said Calipari, who’s won a record 65 straight games against conference opponents, breaking the previous NCAA record set by former Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp from 1945-50.
“You know it’s going to be crazy. You walk in with the young ones and you hope they bring it.”
Downey, who had 36 points in a 58-56 loss at Florida on Saturday, is averaging an SEC-leading 21.9 this season, including 31.6 in league play. The 5-foot-9 senior is averaging 19.3 points in four career games against Kentucky.
South Carolina, 0-2 against Top 25 teams this season, is 0-7 all-time when facing the nation’s No. 1 team.