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Wildcats directing full focus to Lamar

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John Calipari, Kyle Wiltjer and the Kentucky Wildcats face Lamar at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday on ESPNU. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari, Kyle Wiltjer and the Kentucky Wildcats face Lamar at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday on ESPNU. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With the release of the latest polls on Monday, it became official. For the first time in the history of the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, the annual matchup will feature two top-five teams, but even if UK and UofL weren't ranked in the top 105, the hype already would have started.

The two schools are separated by just an hour drive and the fan bases share classrooms, workplaces and even households. John Calipari and Rick Pitino themselves share a long history and a legendary reputation in the coaching world.

Come Saturday, Rupp Arena will play host to the No. 3 Wildcats and No. 4 Cardinals, but it's another set of Cardinals altogether UK is concerned about right now.

"We haven't talked about this weekend at all," Calipari said. "(The players) may have been looking at it or seen it but I don't think so. We're still trying to get better. We're going to play a well-coached team that's going to come in, play to beat us and are not going to be intimidated as seniors. If we don't play well, we lose."

That well-coached team of Cardinals Calipari is referring to is Lamar (8-4), who will face off against Kentucky (11-1) on Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. in Rupp Arena. Lamar is led by head coach Pat Knight, who is in his first year at the school after succeeding his father, Bob Knight, at Texas Tech.

Knight's team does not figure to be fazed by the 22,000-plus fans expected to pack Rupp. The Cardinals have played seven of their first 12 games on the road, including trips to Louisville on Nov. 13 and second-ranked Ohio State for their last game on Dec. 20. Lamar held its own in each game, as the 20-point final margin in each was the largest deficit of the game against both.

The Cardinals will also pose a different set of challenges than most of UK's recent opponents. Teams like Samford and Loyola (Md.) much preferred to stay in the half-court against the athletic Wildcats, but Lamar likely won't shy away from running with the Cats. Lamar has played an average of 71.5 possessions per game (the national average is 67.3) and ranks as the nation's 20th-ranked team in terms of tempo according to kenpom.com.

Also in contrast to some of UK's other opponents, the Cardinals are much more comfortable driving to the hoop and seeking out contact than sitting out at the 3-point line and shooting. Lamar attempts an average of just 13.2 3-pointers per game, but gets to the foul line 27.4 times per game. By contrast, UK attempts 23.3 foul shots per game. Lamar is also one of the better rebounding teams in the nation, grabbing nearly seven more boards per game than its opponents.

All those elements make this game a concerning one for Calipari, but it's the makeup of Lamar's roster that really catches his eye.

"The other challenge is they've got mostly seniors," Calipari said. "They're playing four seniors and a junior off the bench. The games that I've watched, they've been in every game, including Ohio State and Louisville."

Knight's top five players in points and minutes played per game are all seniors. Lamar has a pair of sophomores in its 11-man rotation, but the rest are juniors are seniors, making the Cardinals the nation's most experienced team. Leading the way is guard Anthony Miles, who is averaging 15.1 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game.

Lamar has struggled shooting the ball much of the season, but if the Cardinals get hot as teams so often do in Rupp, UK could find itself in a tough game.

"At Rice they made every shot," Calipari said. "I watched the game and thought, 'We can't win this game.' They are very good. Pat (Knight) does a great job. I've always had great respect for him, not only as a person, but also as a coach. He's got them playing. They are playing hard and they're a good team."

Kyle Wiltjer has played just 12 regular season games as a Wildcat, but he's learned already to expect the best out of any opponent UK faces. A few months in the Bluegrass have also an immersion course in the meaning of the UK-UofL rivalry, so he knows what's in store on Saturday, but he and his teammates are keeping their focus completely trained on the task at hand.

"I've been here a while now," Wiltjer said. "I know there's a big hatred between the fans so it's definitely a big game, but we have a game (Wednesday) we have to focus on first. We don't want to overlook Lamar. They're a good team. We want to focus on that (in practice on Tuesday)."

Jones' availability yet to be determined

Any of the thousands of fans who logged on and watched the live stream UK's first post-Christmas practice on Monday saw that Terrence Jones (dislocated pinky) participated. However, his teammates were instructed to minimize contact with him to protect him from further injury. Kentucky will practice twice more on Tuesday and Jones' status for Lamar will be determined based on those practices

Absent from practice on Monday was Wiltjer, who was suffering from an illness following his return from the West Coast for Christmas break. The freshman forward was expected to return to the floor on Tuesday and should play on Wednesday.

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