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February 26, 2013There's new life in Kentucky's basketball season. But John Calipari would remind you that not so long ago, his Wildcats were flatlining.
So while the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) are coming off perhaps their best performance of the season in last Saturday's win against Missouri - and though they're playing the SEC's worst team in Mississippi State (7-19, 2-12) on Wednesday - Calipari wants his players to remember how fast fortunes can change.
"One week ago we were in coffins, people were trying to nail them shut," Calipari said Tuesday. "Now all the sudden, we're like 'OK, wow.' Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don't have maturity or toughness."
Talent alone should be enough for Kentucky against the Bulldogs, who have lost 12 straight games by an average of 21.7 points per game. Mississippi State started 2-0 in SEC play but hasn't won since Jan. 26.
"They've had some teams almost beat, I think Cal said," guard Jarrod Polson said. "We had a really focused practice yesterday. Cal was really on us, making sure we're not going to look past this team at all."
It would be easy to do.
Mississippi State has six available scholarship players and are playing walk-on Tyson Cunningham significant minutes.
The Bulldogs have lost freshmen Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis to anterior cruciate ligament injuries. Senior Wendell Lewis is out indefinitely with a fractured right patella. Sophomore forward Roquez Johnson is suspended.
"I would wonder if anybody in history of college basketball has gone through what we've went through as far as the off-the-court issues and the injuries," first-year Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. "It's been a trying season, and to our guys' credit they've really hung in there and tried to be good citizens and do some of the things we want them to do on the court and continue to try to compete."
Competitiveness has been hard to come by.
But while the Bulldogs are heavy underdogs, Kentucky - as is Calipari's custom - is more focused on itself than its opponent. Last Saturday's 90-83 overtime win against Missouri was a high-water mark for the Cats, a come-from-behind win against a quality opponent after which Tigers coach Frank Haith praised UK's toughness.
It was a critical step for the Cats in finding a post-Nerlens Noel identity. UK now is 2-1 without the freshman forward - lost for the season with a torn ACL in his left knee - and has won two straight since an 88-58 blowout loss at Tennessee.
Asked what the Wildcats have shown the NCAA Tournament selection committee about their post-Noel profile, forward Kyle Wiltjer said, " That we're scrappy and we pulled out an overtime win and even through adversity we're learning how to play without him. I think we're a tough team, even without him."
Calipari said the win against Missouri helped eliminate "every cop out and excuse" his team can use. He knows his players can play hard and tough and together. Now he expects them to do it regularly.
And that starts with moving on to Mississippi State.
"I don't care what we did in that (Missouri) game," Calipari said. "What's the next game? Now are we going to establish how we play or are we going to be immature and revert back to where we were because that's how you want to play, because you think it's easier? We're just - every day is a lesson."