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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."

KENTUCKY AT LSU | TUESDAY | 9 P.M. | ESPN
No. 11 KENTUCKY (15-4, 5-1 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (138-30 in fifth season at Kentucky; 541-168 in 22nd season overall)
Last game: Beat Georgia 79-54
Roster | Stats
LSU (12-6, 3-3 SEC)
Coach: Johnny Jones (31-18 in second season at LSU; 236-180 in 14th season overall)
Last game: Lost to Alabama 82-80
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Andrew Harrison Fr. 6-6/215 11.1 3.1
G Aaron Harrison Fr. 6-6/218 13.7 2.9
F Willie Cauley-Stein So. 7-0/244 8.0 6.8
F James Young Fr. 6-6/215 14.2 4.4
F Julius Randle Fr. 6-9/250 16.6 10.5
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Anthony Hickey Jr. 5-11/182 8.5 2.8
G Malik Morgan So. 6-4/199 4.9 3.4
F Johnny O'Bryant III Jr. 6-9/256 14.6 7.3
F Shavon Coleman Sr. 6-5/195 8.9 3.8
F Jordan Mickey Fr. 6-8/220 13.0 7.2
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Maravich Center (13,215), Baton Rouge, La.
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler play-by play, Dan Dakich analyst, Shannon Spake sideline)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst, Matt Jones sideline); XM 91/Sirius 91
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Kentucky by 2

Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 83-24
At Baton Rouge: Kentucky 29-16
Coaches' records: Calipari 5-0 vs. LSU; Jones 0-1 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting: Kentucky 75, LSU 70 (Jan. 26, 2013, Lexington, Ky.)
The Wildcats led by 11 at halftime but needed two free throws from Alex Poythress with 1 second remaining to finally secure a win against the Tigers. Poythress had 20 points and 12 rebounds as UK held on despite late drama that included a moment when the Cats almost had six players on the court. Archie Goodwin had 15 points for Kentucky, which led by as may as 15 points in the first half. Johnny O'Bryant III had 21 points and 12 rebounds for LSU.

Game Storylines
1. Big Challenge Kentucky has plenty of size, but the Wildcats still face a tough test in defending LSU's Johnny O'Bryant III, who not only is among the SEC's best big men, but its most experienced. The junior no longer plays exclusively on the block, but he can dominate there. And his experience could be a significant factor. "Very crafty," UK forward Julius Randle said. "Talented. Strong. He's gonna be a tough matchup for us, but we're working on it."

2. Sneaux Day?: Kentucky likely won't know until Tuesday afternoon if it's playing a game at LSU, or if the game will be played on time. Because of snow and ice in the forecast, the university is closed on Tuesday -- classes canceled, nonessential personnel urged to stay home -- but the initial closing announcement did not include athletic events. According to a report by ESPN Radio in Baton Rouge, the university plans an 11 a.m. ET Tuesday announcement regarding the status of the game. LSU officials were not immediately available to confirm that report.

3. Shot Swatters: Few shots figure to go uncontested in Tuesday's game. LSU freshman Jordan Mickey -- like Randle, one of nine players on the midseason watch list for the Wayman Tisdale Award, honoring college basketball's top freshman -- is the SEC's leading shot-blocker at 3.6 per game. Mickey has the same number of blocks (64) as Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein, and the two are the league's co-leaders in that category. UK (6.9) ranks second and LSU (6.5) third in the league in blocked shots per game.



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