John Calipari

John Calipari is trying to shore up his team's confidence amid a 1-6 start.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The latest weapon being brought to bear for the struggling University of Kentucky men’s basketball program is the power of the mind.

Assistant coach Joel Justus, sitting in for head coach John Calipari in advance of Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. game at Mississippi State, used the phrase “mental picture,” or some variant of it, at least a dozen times in a 15-minute or so Q&A with reporters.

Calipari regularly uses a sports psychologist with his players, and positive visualization is a part of that. But when your team is off to a 1-6 start, the fan base is boiling on social media and elsewhere, and many of your highly touted young players have never experienced anything like this — or at this level — before, hanging on to that positive outlook and self-image can be difficult.

“We’re talking about having a very clear mental picture of who they are individually, a very clear mental picture of who we can be as a team, and that is not unlike last year or the previous five years that I’ve worked for Coach Cal,” Justus said.

What’s different is that Kentucky has played fewer games. About half, if you figure that two exhibitions and five games more that the team would have played by this point — presumably easy wins against inferior competition — that would have helped a young team get a feel for winning games and would have helped it build the kind of confidence it needs.

In other words, the diet was missing some cupcakes this season. Those early blowouts might not be fun to watch, but they do serve a purpose beyond just padding the win-loss record. That’s why Kentucky scrimmaged NCAA Division II Transylvania in the middle of this week. There’s something to be said just for having the experience of good things happen during a game, even a “secret” scrimmage.

“The schedule is what it is at this point,” Justus said. “You look at the big picture: At this point, we’ve lost 1,400 minutes (400 exhibition minutes, plus 200 minutes in five lost regular season games) ... Most of the time, you can go out and make mistakes and not be totally penalized for them. The way our schedule has been laid out this year, you make a mistake, you’re going to feel it on the scoreboard and the win-loss column. To focus on that is not something we can do anything about.”

At this point, the focus has been on simple offensive execution, on giving maximum effort on the defensive end and on beginning SEC play with a clean slate and — you guessed it — a positive mental picture.

January is a tough time for players and teams to still be figuring out who they are or who they could be. With UK’s talent, it might still put together some Instagrammable moments.

But it needs to start soon, beginning with the start of league play at MSU on Saturday.

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