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How Kentucky basketball responded to worst losses in John Calipari era

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UK basketball coach John Calipari talks about 34-point loss to Duke in 2018-19 season opener at Champions Classic Matt Stone, Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari finds himself in an unusual situation entering Friday's Kentucky basketball home opener against Southern Illinois.

For the first time in his 10-year tenure as Kentucky’s coach, the Wildcats dropped their season opener Tuesday against Duke. And “dropped” is quite the understatement to describe the 34-point drubbing at the hands of the Blue Devils.

“I’ve done this so long thank goodness I haven’t had many of these kind of games, but I’ve had a few,” Calipari said after the loss.

The Champions Classic loss was Kentucky’s largest margin of defeat in the Calipari era, the largest since a 41-point loss at Vanderbilt in 2008 and the 12th-biggest defeat in program history.

But it was not the first time a Calipari-coached Kentucky team has been easily handled by an opponent. Eight times in the Calipari era the Wildcats have lost a game by at least 15 points.

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The way Kentucky responded to many of those defeats offers some hope for the Wildcats’ progress this season. Here is a look at how Calipari’s previous teams bounced back from the their five biggest losses.

MORE: Duke's talent exposes Kentucky's veterans in Champions Classic blowout

Tennessee 88, Kentucky 58 (Feb. 16, 2013)

The worst loss in the Calipari era before Tuesday marked the low point of Kentucky’s 2012-13 regular season. One game after losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury (a 17-point loss at Florida that tied for the fifth-largest defeat before Tuesday), UK looked lost in a 30-point blowout in Knoxville. The team briefly steadied the ship after the loss, winning its next three games, but lost two of three to end the regular season and dropped its SEC Tournament opener to miss the NCAA Tournament. An embarrassing loss at Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT ended the season.

Florida 88, Kentucky 66 (Feb. 4, 2017)

Kentucky’s crisis point in 2016-17 came at the end of a stretch of three losses in four games with a 22-point drubbing at Florida. A 13-0 second-half run snapped Florida’s five-game losing streak in the series. The loss was a catalyst for the Wildcats, though, as De’Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo and company rattled off 15 consecutive wins before losing on a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

Florida 85, Kentucky 65 (March 8, 2014)

The legend of the 2014 NCAA Tournament run to the title game started with Aaron Harrison predicting Kentucky would still write a “great story” after a shocking loss at South Carolina on the first day of March, but that was not actually the low point of the season. Two games later, Kentucky was embarrassed at Florida by 19 points. The famous “tweak” followed in practices before the SEC Tournament, and Kentucky responded with wins over LSU and Georgia before a one-point loss to the Gators in the SEC Tournament finals. Harrison’s heroics then led Kentucky to five straight NCAA Tournament wins before a loss to Connecticut in the final.

MORE: Blue wave? Duke's freshmen were more like a blue tsunami vs. Kentucky

LSU 85, Kentucky 67 (Jan. 5, 2016)

The No. 9-ranked Wildcats' second SEC game in 2015-16 was an eye-opener. LSU star Ben Simmons posted a double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds), but it was his less-heralded teammates that led the way to an 18-point win over Kentucky. The Wildcats bounced back with consecutive wins over Alabama and Mississippi State, but the LSU loss represented a resetting of expectations as it became apparent this wasn’t really a top-10 squad. Kentucky eventually lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Indiana.

Connecticut 84, Kentucky 67 (Nov. 24, 2010)

After winning four straight to open the 2010-11 season, Kentucky was blown out by UConn by 17 points in the Maui Invitational. UK would lose again two games later at North Carolina. Kentucky’s current team could do worse than following that squad’s lead despite its 10 regular-season losses since it eventually made a run to the Final Four though. Calipari and company will hope the similarities end there, as the 2010-11 season was eliminated by that same Connecticut squad in the Final Four. After Tuesday's game, there is little reason to think a rematch with Duke would lead to a different outcome this year either.

Jon Hale: jahale@courier-journal.com; Twitter: @JonHale_CJ. Support strong local journalism by subscribing today: www.courier-journal.com/jonh.

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