LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — John Calipari and his Kentucky Wildcats face a major challenge: Find a way to stop getting bullied before the heralded squad drops completely out of the Top 25.
The Wildcats have tumbled to No. 23 in the rankings after rising to No. 1 on Nov. 23.
They've trailed by large margins, blown double-digit leads and along the way lost some of the intimidation opponents once felt when playing big, bad Kentucky.
There's still time for Kentucky to correct things, but Calipari says the time is now.
"Whatever is holding you back from high-energy play, you gotta figure it out," Calipari said earlier this week. "We're facing teams that are playing like their lives depend on it. We've got to be a desperate team also."
The Wildcats (13-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) are looking up at several teams in the standings and their fervent fan base is wondering if these Wildcats are similar to the 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA Tournament or the squad that followed a year later.
Kentucky stumbled into the 2014 NCAA Tournament as a No. 8 seed but found its resolve and reached the championship game. The hope is this team will eventually jell as well — sooner than later.
"We just have to play games the way we play in practice," said freshman guard Jamal Murray, Kentucky's top scorer at 17.8 points per game. "It comes down to how much we want it as a team, and how well we jell together."
Developing a strong, consistent post presence one of the first steps they must take.
Freshman Skal Labissiere (7.7 points, 3.2 rebounds) was expected to fill that role but has been outmuscled on both ends and often looked unwilling to mix it up.
The 6-foot-11 Haitian played just eight minutes in Saturday's 75-70 loss at Auburn — Kentucky blew a 12-point, second-half lead against the Tigers— and forced 6-8 senior forward Alex Poythress and 6-9 junior Marcus Lee to handle the load inside. Though Poythress is the more physical of those two, he's undersized; and both players have been susceptible to fouls.
Labissiere said Wednesday that practicing against Lee, 7-foot Australian Isaac Humphries and 6-10 New Zealand newcomer Tai Wynyard has made them all better.
"My confidence is coming back up," Labissiere said.
Kentucky's bright spot has been a guard-oriented lineup led by sophomore floor leader Tyler Ulis (14.4 points, 6.1 assists), freshman Isaiah Briscoe (10.7) and Murray.
Good as that guard trio has been, former player Winston Bennett believes the Wildcats need a post option if they hope to go deep in postseason. And given their current inside struggles, he said it's time to play Humphries and Wynyard more.
"You've got to put those guys in the fire at some point and see what they can do," Bennett said. "At the very least, they give you five fouls (each). They're big bodies, so they can hold post position where Skal can't, Alex can't or Lee can't."
Whatever Calipari's strategy Calipari, Kentucky needs to quickly embrace it.
In league filled with opponents hungry to exploit Kentucky's vulnerabilities, the Wildcats must adapt better to hostile environments such as Arkansas' Bud Walton Arena, the site of Thursday night's SEC matchup against the Razorbacks (9-8, 3-2).
"They understand that teams are excited to play Kentucky, but we have to have more excitement and energy to play them," Wildcats assistant John Robic said Wednesday.
Kentucky's last visit to Fayetteville in 2014 ended with Arkansas winning 87-85 in overtime on a buzzer-beating dunk by Michael Qualls.
The Wildcats' tournament prospects might look shaky at the moment, but Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said they still remain a threat.
"You bring in another crew, but it's still Kentucky," Anderson said. "So, they're coming off a loss, we're coming off of a loss, so we're going to get their best shot. I know that, and hopefully we're going to give them our best shot as well."