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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."