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February 6, 2012

Calipari wants red-hot Cats to keep improving

John Calipari will tell you that a team can peak too early, that it can hit its stride before its time and spoil a season.

And you can disagree with the Kentucky basketball coach, but recent facts are in his favor.

As his top-ranked Wildcats (23-1, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) prepare for their most challenging week thus far in conference play, Calipari is keenly aware that wins now are nice, but they're not the ultimate goal.

"If (these players) really, truly want to do something unique and special, every one of these experiences is building toward March," Calipari said. "Everything. Our whole season is about that. It's not about league tournaments, it's not about league championships, it's about building to March."

And in March, fortune favors the hot team.

It's a postseason trend in sports, with string of recent champions. Reigning NCAA basketball champion Connecticut had an up-and-down regular season before catching fire in postseason play.

The same holds true for the Dallas Mavericks and St. Louis Cardinals, the current title-holders in the NBA and Major League Baseball, respectively. The New York Giants' Super Bowl win on Sunday was the latest argument for the "Hot Team" theory.

"How did they do it?" Calipari said. "They win the game because they were the best team at this time of the year. They were the best football team."

Calipari wants to have the best basketball team in the country in March and April. He's not concerned with which team is the best before that.

"I've seen teams in November, December play so well, I'm thinking 'I'm glad he's coaching that team and not me,'" Calipari said. "And sometimes, I'll pull the reigns back. I won't give them that much offensively.

"I just want them to get in shape and play hard. I've seen teams come out of the gate like whoa, and I'm like 'There's no way they can sustain this. There's too much road between now and the end of the season.'"

Kentucky is playing its best basketball of the season. But Calipari wants his Cats to be better.

That won't be easy. UK has won 15 straight. The Wildcats are winning SEC games by an average of 17.5 points per game and have won their last five games by an average margin of 20.4 points.

Still, there's room to improve. In reviewing last Saturday's 86-52 win at South Carolina, Calipari found breakdowns, plays where his players "stopped playing," he said, out of fatigue. There were players who should have asked to sub out and didn't. There still are chinks in the armor.

And Kentucky's nine SEC wins have come against seven opponents with a combined record of 19-38. The competition steps up this week.

UK hosts No. 8 Florida (19-4, 7-1) on Tuesday, then travels to Vanderbilt (16-7, 5-3) on Saturday.

"We feel that every team we play is real good, which makes us step it up," forward Terrence Jones said. "That's what we have to depend on. It makes it easier knowing we're playing really good teams and not underestimating anybody and knowing how good Florida is."

That's the attitude Calipari wants his team to keep as it tries not to peak too soon. He's quick to note that with three freshmen and two sophomores in the starting lineup, UK remains a young team.

"And so there's an easy transition from a swagger to arrogance, and that's where you get beat," Calipari said. "Look, we're a good team. We're not a great team, but we're a good team. What we'd like to be by the end of the year is as good as our team was last year as a team."

That group - which struggled to a 2-6 road record in the SEC - made it to the NCAA Final Four before losing to Connecticut. This team has had no such struggles. But Calipari knows the toughest road lies ahead.

"So, what I'm trying to tell you is it's February 6," Calipari said. "We got three, four more weeks where we got to keep peaking now. This can't be it, because if this is it you start going down the wrong way."


Game Information

Florida at Kentucky
Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.

TV: ESPN
Radio: UK IMG Network
Series: UK leads 90-33
Last Meeting: Kentucky won 70-54 on March 13, 2011, in the SEC Tournament championship game in Atlanta.

No. 1 Kentucky (23-1, 9-0 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (490-151; 87-13 at UK)
No. 8 Florida (19-4, 7-1 SEC)
Coach: Billy Donovan (414-171; 379-151 at Florida)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Marquis Teague Fr. 6-2/189 9.6 2.5
G Doron Lamb So. 6-4/210 13.5 3.3
F Terrence Jones So. 6-9/252 12.5 6.4
F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Fr. 6-7/232 12.6 7.5
F Anthony Davis Fr. 6-10/220 13.9 10.1
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Erving Walker Sr. 5-8/177 12.6 2.9
G Kenny Boynton Jr. 6-2/189 17.6 2.4
G Bradley Beal Fr. 6-3/207 14.3 6.1
F Erik Murphy Jr. 6-10/230 10.2 4.2
C Patric Young So. 6-9/247 10.7 6.5

Key Storylines

See the Three
Florida is the SEC's best three-point shooting team, hitting 40.2 percent from long range. The Gators have made an SEC-leading 241 threes this season, 35 more than second-place Vanderbilt. Kentucky is third in the league in three-point defense, and the Wildcats will need to be sharp against the three if they hope to continue their recent conference dominance.

Beal Streak
Florida's Bradley Beal has scored in double digits in six of his last seven games, and he's averaging 14 points per game in conference play. Beal is a rarity for Kentucky, a player who's likely a better pro prospect than the guy he'll be matched up against. His combination of size and shooting stroke makes Beal a likely high NBA Draft pick whenever he opts to leave Gainesville.



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