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January 27, 2014
Cats 'in love' with improving as they travel to LSU
Julius Randle stopped short of using the f-word.
The Kentucky freshman was asked on Monday if this basketball season has been fun or more of a grind, and he didn't shy away from saying it's been tough.
But the 11th-ranked Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) -- who face LSU (12-6, 3-3) Tuesday in Baton Rouge, La., weather permitting -- are starting not to mind the grind.
"I think anything you do is gonna be a grind," Randle said. "But I think the biggest thing is, we've learned to enjoy and love the grind, love the process. That just makes things a lot easier. We've fallen in love with the whole process of getting better, changing habits. And because of that it's been smooth for us."
Maybe "smooth" is an overstatement.
But as Kentucky embarks on a key week -- road games at LSU and Saturday at Missouri -- the Wildcats have won seven of eight games. And though UK still isn't a well-oiled machine, it's running more efficiently than it has all season.
And though John Calipari would like his team to pick up the pace in finding itself, he's confident the Cats at least are closer to finding an identity than the often-rudderless team he coached in November and December.
"It took time to get them in shape, to get them to understand how to play hard, which they're still learning, to play with great energy," Calipari said. "It took us time to get them to think different, think totally different than you've ever thought about this game. And then, it's taken time to define how they should play. You got to kind of define it, and we were all discombobulated for the first month trying to figure that out."
Now, Calipari said, his players are getting "better and better and better right before our eyes."
Their growth has shown on game days, but has occurred mostly between them. Calipari cited Sunday's strong practice -- the day after a win against Georgia -- as a sign of his team's continued maturity, saying that it "tells me a lot about where they are mentally."
They'll need to be in top form mentally and physically on Tuesday.
Though LSU largely has disappointed this season, the Tigers boast one of the SEC's most formidable frontcourt duos in junior Johnny O'Bryant III and freshman Jordan Mickey, whom Calipari called "two of the better big guys in our league."
And the Wildcats could have some off-court adversity on Tuesday as well.
The forecast in Baton Rouge calls for snow and ice, and LSU has canceled Tuesday classes and closed the university. Athletic events were not impacted by that original closing announcement, but Tigers coach Johnny Jones spoke on the SEC teleconference as if postponing the game were at least a possibility.
"The game's going to be played inside if it's fortunate enough to be played," Jones said.
Its collective work ethic might make Kentucky better equipped than it was a month ago to deal with uncertainty about the start time -- and the challenges LSU presents once the ball is tipped.
Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein said Randle's assessment that the Cats are falling in love with the grind "very accurate."
"Last year, there wasn't this many people that would stay and come in at night and work out," sophomore Cauley-Stein said. "Now we've got three or four guys, five guys, doing it every night. That just shows that we really bought into this and we're trying to get better every day and trying to make a run at it."
Calipari said his team will get a good sense of how far it's come with games at LSU and Mizzou, and he said for all the strides Kentucky has made, there are more to come.
"The last one is 'Can you sustain mental discipline for 40 minutes? Can we have a team that does that?'" Calipari said. "It would be scary to see what that would look like."