Kentucky coach John Calipari may be the most popular figure in the state right now.
The Wildcats are undefeated and on the brink of becoming No. 1 in the country.
But Calipari isn’t focusing on opinion polls, saying Friday that he is not interested in the upcoming rankings that could place his Wildcats as the top team in the nation.
“It’s not what we’re playing for,” Calipari said. “We’re playing for a No. 1 seed (in the NCAA tournament). If this game Saturday helps us get a No. 1 seed, than that’s fine. Otherwise, it’s not life or death.”
With a win over Arkansas, Kentucky (18-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will become the only undefeated team in the nation and move past Texas — which lost to Kansas St. on Monday — to become the top-ranked team in the nation.
But Calipari said that he isn’t concerned with the accolade, an honor he said is fleeting.
“If we lose, we lose,” Calipari said. “What’s going to happen the next day, we go to the electric chair? No.”
The Wildcats agree with their coach, saying that they are more focused on the big picture. Still, a loss to Arkansas (8-10, 1-2) isn’t a blemish star point guard John Wall wants.
“That’s a loss we don’t want on our resume,” said Wall, who ranks in the SEC’s top 10 in five statistical categories including points, free throw percentage and assists.
“We’re not being humble and we’re staying hungry,” said forward Ramon Harris. “Just because we won 18 games so far, we still have more to play. We haven’t reached where we wanted to go yet.”
Reaching that goal will require Kentucky to take the best shot of every team they will play against for the remainder of the season, Wall said. In order to do so, the Wildcats will have to overcome what he described as “a little boredom” when his team shoots out to big leads.
“It seems like we just let up and don’t keep the intensity we had before we get the lead,” Wall said. “Once we get the lead, we don’t play hard, we don’t defend to the basket and that’s when teams make their runs on us. We just have to break that habit.”
Kentucky has blown double-digit leads in each of their last three conference games, forcing them to go down to the wire for a win.
Helping break that habit, Calipari has tried to instill a mindset in his team during practice that they have just come off two straight losses.
“If we don’t start stepping up and practicing that way, then we will lose two in a row,” Calipari said. “If we’re not competing, we’re going to start losing.”
One secret to halting Kentucky’s juggernaut offense may be through perimeter shooting. The Wildcats rank 248 nationally in 3-point field goal defense. Arkansas has the nation’s top 3-point shooter in guard Rotnei Clarke, who is shooting close to 50 percent from the arc.
“He doesn’t need a whole lot of time to get shots off,” Calipari said of the sophomore guard he recruited heavily while at Memphis. “If he takes 15 3-pointers and hits 11, then it’s been a heck of a start to our season. You’re not going to stop him from shooting, and he’ll shoot them.”
It will be Wall’s job to defend against Clarke on Saturday, one he is preparing for.
“He’s the type of person you don’t want to get hot, because he can change the game in a minute,” Wall said.
With their perfect record on the line, the Wildcats stand ready for a fight.
“We want to go undefeated, but it’s not going to be easy, every team is going to give us their best shot,” Wall said.
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