LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The vibe around Rupp Arena prior to Kentucky's game Tuesday night against Texas A&M didn't scream optimism.
Starting point guard Quade Green was ruled out less than an hour before tip-off, and three other scholarship players were out injured. Meanwhile, Texas A&M was getting two of its starters back from injury.
The Wildcats were down to seven scholarship players, with five freshman starters -- against a team that started three juniors, a senior and a freshman.
Oh, and coach John Calipari preached all week to anyone that would listen that his young Kentucky group wasn't tough, with a blown second-half lead from Saturday against Tennessee to prove it.
Two hours later, Kentucky eked out a 74-73 win over A&M, sending the Aggies to their fourth straight loss.
Calipari wasn't totally convinced by the Wildcats' improved toughness on Tuesday, but it was a step in the right direction.
"Toughness doesn't mean roughness," he said. "Toughness means that you're engaged, that you're playing people before they catch the ball, that you're meeting people before the ball hits the rim when you rebound, that you're sprinting the floor every time and bouncing, and you're talking. We got closer. But that's still going to be a work in progress. Until we get really good at that, we're going to be who we are."
What Kentucky is right now is not what it's going to be in two months, and the Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) are still taking baby steps toward what Calipari wants them to become by March. But If Saturday's loss showed a team that has trouble fighting back when it gets hit in the mouth, Tuesday's win showed a team that can throw some punches -- albeit inconsistent ones -- and survive with its back against the wall.
They can't do it for 40 minutes yet, especially defensively. Kentucky had several good stretches of zone defense, especially late in the game. A&M (11-5, 0-4 SEC) couldn't complete entry passes to Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, and the Wildcats collapsed with length on dribble-drives. But there were other times Kentucky switched off defensively for several possessions and A&M did whatever it wanted on the offensive end.
"We did some half-decent stuff," Calipari said. "But we went to man, they'd score five straight times."
The signs are there of a team beginning to come together, though. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander stepped in for Green and had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He carried the offense for much of the first half. Hamidou Diallo scored 10 straight Kentucky points during one stretch and finished with 18 points. Kevin Knox had a couple of 3-pointers and 15 points.
But the key factor on this team moving forward is going to be PJ Washington -- and everyone seems to know it.
"The past couple games, he's been a little bit more vocal than the rest of us, and he's been playing really well and we're all starting to follow him a little bit," Gilgeous-Alexander said. "He's a really intense guy, and he gets us going, energy-wise."
The inexperienced Wildcats have been screaming out for a leader all season, and it was never more evident than in the Tennessee loss. Washington cramped up in the second half with the game tied 47-47 and didn't return. The Volunteers outscored Kentucky by 11 in the final 12-plus minutes with Washington out of the game. After that game, Calipari said the Wildcats had no shot to win once Washington went out.
Despite some missed free throws late, Tuesday was another step toward Washington making this his team. He finished with 16 points and four rebounds, but more important, he took charge in the final minutes.
"He has to take leadership of this team," Calipari said. "He has to do it now. He's the toughest guy. If a guy is not doing what he has to, you have the ability and the right now to tell him."
Calipari clearly has higher aspirations for this team. He knows where his players are in their development, but if he thought at all the Wildcats were a borderline top-20 team and one of several contenders for an SEC title, he would have been happy in Tuesday night's postgame press conference.
He didn't exactly seem that way.
He continued to talk about toughness and Kentucky's lack of consistency in that department; the missed free throws that allowed Texas A&M multiple chances to tie or win the game in the final minute; the poor communication and rotation on defense; and the Wildcats losing the ball and hoping for fouls instead of finishing strong in traffic.
"If you want to be tough, you can't try to be cool, you can't try to be cute, you can't try to be Hollywood," Calipari said. "You can do those things, but you're not a tough, focused, engaged player."
Calipari is clearly trying to get a point across. He knows Kentucky has the talent and potential to be a factor in March but knows they're not there yet. And he knows any sign of lethargy or a loss of focus -- for even a minute -- at the wrong time can end a season.
"We need those guys to play with a sense of urgency, a desperation, a toughness," Calipari said.
Tuesday's short-handed response was a step in that direction.