Cats’ maturity level no surprise to UK coaching staff

Published 12:07 pm Tuesday, January 9, 2024

Kentucky proved it could win a close game when the Wildcats rallied to defeat Florida in their Southeastern Conference opener Saturday in Gainesville.

The successful comeback wasn’t a surprise to the Kentucky coaching staff, including assistant coach John Welch, who sat in for coach John Calipari on Monday ahead of the team’s conference home opener against Missouri set for Tuesday night.

“We made plays when we had to,” Welch said. “I think we have guys that have been in that situation from a very young age. I don’t think this is new to them (and) they’re they’re used to a big stage.”

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Kentucky (11-2, 1-0) carries a five-game winning streak into the contest and Welch said the rally at Florida gives the Wildcats confidence, especially after losing a close call against Kansas earlier this year in the State Farm Champions Classic.

“(It just) helps them believe them in themselves because we are a younger team (and) it just lets them know they can do it,” Welch said.

Missouri (8-6, -01) dropped its conference opener, 75-68 against Georgia last Saturday and has lost four of its past five games. The Tigers have won only three games in 17 tries against Kentucky, but defeated the Wildcats handily (89-75) a year ago in Columbia.

Despite the Tigers’ recent struggles, Welch expects a close encounter.

“It will be an interesting game,” Welch said. “They play very fast. Defensively, they trap and rotate. It will be a good test for our guys to play against that type of defense.”

Unlike last year, however, Welch said Kentucky has better balance, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

“Our depth is definitely one of our strengths,” Welch said. “The quote that’s been thrown around, I think Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander) said it to Cal early in the season, is that every one of your guys can pass, dribble and shoot.

“We believe that and the players believe that. Just make the right play. Whoever you’re passing to has the skillset to complete the play. So it’s very easy to try to convince them to share the ball because of the players they are playing with.”

Honors

Kentucky freshman Aaron Bradshaw was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week after he scored 10 points and grabbed seven rebounds against the Gators.

Bradshaw is the third player to earn the league honor. Reed Sheppard and D.J. Wagner have each won the top freshman honor twice this season.

Calipari was impressed with Bradshaw’s performance in the final nine minutes of the contest.

“That they can get themselves changed within a game. That’s hard, now,” Calipari said Saturday. “You start playing bad and you flip it around within the game? That means you’re a 5-star player. It’s hard to flip it. You play bad, ‘I’m bad this game.’ And we had a bunch of guys out there that struggled and found a way to win.”