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January 31, 2012Something looks different. And it's not just those Platinum uniforms.
Kentucky had won 11 straight games when it climbed into the No. 1 spot in the college basketball polls earlier this month. On paper, that made the Wildcats the nation's best team.
But after a 69-44 rout of Tennessee Tuesday at Rupp Arena, these Cats look like more than paper tigers. Something's clicking for Kentucky.
"It's just about that time," said freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who had 16 points and eight rebounds against the Volunteers on Tuesday. "It's almost March time."
The Wildcats (22-1, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) might be beginning their march a little early.
It looked that way Tuesday night, as Kentucky - decked out in Nike's Hyper Elite Platinum uniforms - jumped all over Tennessee early. The Cats made their first 11 field goals in building a 26-8 lead, and the Vols (10-12, 2-5) never posed a threat.
Tennessee shot 28.1 percent in the game despite a 7-for-12 first half from three-point range. Uncharacteristic hot shooting from Renaldo Woolridge - he entered the game having made 1-of-7 three-pointers in SEC play but made all five of his first-half attempts from long range - was all that kept the Vols close.
"We were really good defensively," UK coach John Calipari said. "We were really good."
It's becoming a habit. The Cats held their third straight opponent to 50 points or fewer, the first time UK has accomplished that feat since the 1950-51 season. Kentucky has won its last five SEC games by an average of 16.2 points per game, its last three by an average of 20.7 and its last two by an average of 24.5.
"We're all playing together," said freshman Anthony Davis, who led all scorers with 18 points and added eight rebounds and seven blocked shots. "We're playing together more. No one's jealous about each other scoring. We know guys are going to have it going some games and some guys won't."
Kentucky appears to be blossoming in the past two weeks. But these seeds were sown long before.
It started over the winter break, Calipari said, during what the coach calls "Camp Cal," a stretch of two- and three-a-day practices. With most students gone for the holidays, the Cats by necessity spend almost all their time as a team.
The growth has continued on the conference road, with UK traveling as a group for two days at a time and playing as a unit to pull out close games late.
"That kind of stuff helps this team because we are four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior playing most of the minutes," Calipari said.
The Cats have tightened as a group. And they've toughened as one. Tennessee led for much of the teams' earlier meeting this season in Knoxville, Tenn., before UK rallied to win. The Volunteers built their lead largely with physical play. On Tuesday at Rupp, Kentucky sent a message early that it wouldn't be pushed around.
Instead, there was pushing and shoving after a play that led to technical fouls on Davis and Tennessee's Trae Golden. After the fouls were sorted out and play resumed, Kidd-Gilchrist smiled while jawing at Golden the rest of the way down the floor.
The new-look Cats had a new attitude.
"We had a few words, but that's just basketball," Kidd-Gilchrist said. But he added that the shoving match "helped us a lot."
Call it confidence or swagger. Call it maturity. Something's changing.
"We're all playing on the same page, being unselfish, talking more on the floor," said point guard Marquis Teague, who got considerable credit from Calipari for the Cats' growth spurt. "You can just tell that we're coming together."
Still, there's work to be done. Kidd-Gilchrist shied away from any suggestion that UK is peaking. There's remains room to grow.
"Man, it could be scary," Kidd-Gilchrist said.
The Cats figure they're on the right path. The trick is to keep moving forward on it.
"That's our main goal, to win a national championship," Davis said. "If we keep playing like we're playing, then we should accomplish that goal."