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March 14, 2012LOUISVILLE - It's as much about high-fives as the dribble drive. It's as much attitude as aptitude.
When Kentucky coach John Calipari takes a team into the NCAA Tournament, he wants it having fun. He wants it pressure-free. It's about winning, sure, but grinning, too.
And as the Wildcats (32-2) open NCAA Tournament play Thursday against Western Kentucky (15-18) at the KFC Yum! Center, they're looking to the take the "k" off the funk they found themselves in at last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I really didn't see a lot of smiles (at the SEC Tournament)," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "We weren't really having fun. We thought it was all about business and we were all serious. (Calipari) said we started to get arrogant. We got to get back to having our swagger, just having fun, laughing on the court."
So even as Kentucky enters the tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and the prohibitive favorite to cut down the nets back in New Orleans in three weeks, Calipari is all about having a ball.
"All I'm trying to tell my team right now is let's be our best," Calipari said. "Let's play our best and see where it goes. You guys, let's stay in the moment. Let's have a ball playing. And let's just worry about us doing what we do best. If that's not good enough, it's not good enough."
It's Calipari's attempt to defuse the all-or-nothing label being attached to his team. If the Wildcats don't win it all - if they don't at least advance to the Final Four - they're likely to be labeled a failure.
That's a burden Calipari wants his team to play without.
"People are going to come at us thinking they have nothing to lose," point guard Marquis Teague said. "We're going to play the same way, like we have nothing to lose."
UK didn't play that way at the SEC Tournament. The Cats looked downright uptight, and in reviewing game tape of the tournament - including a 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt - UK players saw their flaws.
The Cats didn't come up with loose balls, guard Doron Lamb said, didn't rebound at key moments, didn't play tenaciously for entire defensive possessions.
There was little spark. There was less fun.
"We weren't the team we've been all year," Teague said. "We've been working all week to get back to where we were."
Practices this week have been "crazy," forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. The Cats have been intensely focused, but not too intense. For Kentucky, it's about getting loose to avoid losing.
"(Calipari) felt he wasn't having a lot of fun coaching us (because of) the way he was trying to motivate guys, and that when we were (playing) our best basketball, he was just being a cheerleader," forward Terrence Jones said. "That's what he said he wanted to get back to, and that's on us."
The Wildcats know they can be the bubbly bunch Calipari wants them to be. It's the team they were most of the season as they cruised to 24 straight wins, a school-record 30 regular-season victories and an undefeated regular-season record in the SEC.
"We didn't have a lot of fire throughout these couple games (in the SEC Tournament)," Lamb said. "We've been playing a little quietly.
"In the beginning of the season, we were hyper, just clapping, just talking, bouncing around on defense and winning games by a lot. Right now we're having a lot of close games and we're not bouncing, really. Coach Cal just wants to see us hyper and being happy on the court."
Asked if Kentucky will find its fun-loving identity in time for Thursday's game, Teague said emphatically, "Guarantee it."
Kidd-Gilchrist went one step further.
"All month," he said. "I expect to see that team all month."
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