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With St. John's looming, it's time for Cats to grow up

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Marquis Teague is coming off the best game of a young UK career, scoring 14 points to go with eight assists and no turnovers against Portland (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marquis Teague is coming off the best game of a young UK career, scoring 14 points to go with eight assists and no turnovers against Portland (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With a spotless record and a shiny new No. 1 ranking, all is right in the world of Kentucky basketball.

The Wildcats are back atop the throne of college basketball for the first time in two years having dispatched six consecutive opponents by an average of 30 points per game. The Big Blue Nation is buzzing at the development, dreaming of a second straight Final Four trip.

So, how has John Calipari awarded his team in practice this week?

"What I did the last two days was beat them up pretty good," Calipari said. "We went longer than we usually go this time of the year and we went hard, long and we ran for two days."

Calipari isn't buying into the coronation. Of course, he's happy to see his team in the top spot (though he's quick to point out the Cats are far from a unanimous No. 1), but he knows the Wildcats have a long road ahead. And with a stretch of three tough games beginning on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Rupp Arena, that's all he's worried about.

"I've been hard on them, not in a mean way, but just raising the bar to get them to forget all that stuff," Calipari said. "We're worried about getting better. That's all we're worried about. Forget ranking. All that becomes is a bigger target on your back. It's a nice badge of honor, but that badge is a target for someone else."

The first team to take aim at that target will be St. John's (4-3). The Red Storm features a seven-man rotation, six of which are members of Steve Lavin's 2011 class that was rated No. 3 in the nation by most major recruiting outlets. Freshman guard Nurideen Lindsey leads a balanced scoring attack with 14.4 points per game and, though St. John's has lost a few early games Calipari called the game "scary."

"They're young but they're athletic and they're active," Calipari said. "You're going to see a team that's trying to steal every ball, dives on the floor, takes charges. These guys ball. They play and it's going to be a good challenge for us."

UK will be the third ranked opponent for the Johnnies already this season, who will be without their head coach. Lavin is recovering from successful surgery on a cancerous prostate and has opted to stay home in New York after coaching his team's last four games. Assistant coach Mike Dunlap will take his place against Kentucky.

With a high-profile opponent visiting Rupp as a part of the SEC/Big East Challenge, Calipari hopes to learn things from this matchup he wasn't able to learn from wins against mid-major foes.

"These are learning opportunities," Calipari said. "You can't learn against Popcorn State. You just can't. You can play those games and you have to fill out your schedule, but you need these kind of games."

Calipari has coached freshmen long enough to understand that it's impossible to find out what they don't yet know until the lights of national television come on for a game against a quality opponent. St. John's will afford him his first opportunity in a while to uncover some of those things.

"You'd think they know, but they don't," Calipari said. "There are just things they don't know and you can't cover it all until you see it in a game."

It won't be the last either. Just two days after the game against the Red Storm, the fifth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels come calling. A week later, UK travels to Bloomington, Ind., for an annual rivalry game against the Indiana Hoosiers, who are knocking on the door of the top 25 on the strength of a 6-0 start to the season.

"We're playing some of the best teams in the country, so we have to come out and be ready and show people what we're made of," Teague said. "It's going to be a big test for us to come out and prove we're one of the best teams."

With those two games on the horizon, a young team like the Wildcats would figure to be in danger of overlooking St. John's, but neither Calipari nor his Cats expect that to be a problem.

"We're not looking past it all," Teague said. "We know St. John's is a really good team and we're just worried about them. We'll worry about North Carolina Saturday."

St. John's will have plenty of motivation come Thursday. The Red Storm will be playing for their recovering coach in one of the nation's most famous venues against the top-ranked team in the land. They'll be fighting, scratching and clawing for every rebound and loose ball and it's up to the Cats to accept the challenge and respond to it.

"We have to say, 'are you going to let them beat you to every 50-50 ball, are you going to let them beat you on the floor when there's a ball, are you going to let them outrun you down the floor?' " Calipari said. "It's something we have to see and something we're going to be challenged by."

All three games will be played in front of a national television audience.

"We come ready to play every game," Teague said. "No matter who we play, we're going to come out and give our. That makes it a bigger thing I guess, having Dick Vitale and all them at the game. For us it's still like a normal game."

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Cats need this so they can be ready for NCAA Title

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