Since John Calipari's latest group of talented freshmen arrived on campus this summer, the 14 players on his 2011-12 roster have spent nearly every waking second with one another. All along, the Cats have liked each other, but developing a genuine team chemistry has been a work in progress.
Following the Cats' third consecutive double-digit victory in conference play, it's safe to say the Cats are making strides.
"We're playing together more," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "Nobody is jealous about each other's scoring. We know some guys are going to have it going some games, some games won't. We don't care. We just want to win a national championship. That's our main goal."
In front of 24,359 fans in Rupp Arena, No. 1 UK (22-1, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) sprinted past Tennessee (10-12, 2-5 SEC) 69-44, hitting its first 11 shots from the field and leading by double digits from the 13:53 mark forward.
Just as the Volunteers did in a hard-fought 65-62 loss to the Cats in early January, Tennessee looked to impose its will with physical play. The first time around, UK was able to survive thanks to Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's play, but it took a team effort to turn Tuesday night's game into a rout.
"We just played a lot tougher," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "I think we learned from the first game that we played them and we've just been learning from game to game since and just playing stronger and through bumps."
Even though it's only been two-and-a-half weeks, UK hardly looked like the same team as the one that played in Knoxville, Tenn. Over the last 17 days, the messages sent during intensive practices over Christmas break's "Camp Cal" have begun to sink in, precipitated in large part by the four SEC road games the team has played.
"I love going on the road because it's just us," Calipari said. "You know, you've got 11 players and our staff and that's it, and we're together for two, three days. So that kind of stuff helps this team because we are four freshmen, two sophomores and a senior playing most of the minutes."
The team's cohesion into a band of brothers was never more apparent than during a scuffle that broke out early in the first half. After Davis was fouled by Tennessee's Trae Golden, a few players bumped shoulders and things escalated into a few pushes and shoves. By the end of it, all five Cats were chest-to-chest with their opponents in support of each other.
"We protect one another," Jones said. "Anything that happens, we feel it's happening to all of us. Any situation when something happens, we always run to each other to pick a teammate up or to defend another teammate."
Of course, Calipari would have liked to avoid the double technicals whistled on Davis and Golden, but the mentality that created them is something he is excited to see.
"Coach Cal wants us to always have each other's back," Davis said. "So we're not going to have just one guy getting pushed around."
UK has run across 22 different opponents now this season, and the Wildcats believe the bond they share with one another is unique. They also know how important that will be to reaching their ultimate goals.
"For us to build chemistry and to become a real good team, you have to," Jones said. "The brotherhood we've got with us living together and being around each other so much brings a different love we have for each other that other teams don't have I think."
Calipari said following the win over Tennessee that his team is approaching the "scary" potential he has referred to multiple times this season, and that has a lot to do with the way the team has jelled. With that said, none of UK's improvement would even be possible if not for the development of Marquis Teague.
"The guy that has the ball, if he's playing well, you've got a chance," Calipari said. "If he's not playing well, you have no chance. Now, he can play well and you still lose because everybody else is playing bad, but they can all play well and if he's playing poorly and you can't win."
Following a four-assist, two-turnover outing against Tennessee, Teague has 25 assists against just nine turnovers over his last five games. He has settled into the point guard role as his freshman season has progressed, just like his predecessors did.
"He is really listening," Calipari said. "He's playing the way we need him to play."
Teague spent most of his high school career playing an up-tempo style that fit his athleticism and playmaking ability. His adjustment to a slower pace has been uneven at times, but Teague handled himself well in the final minutes on Tuesday as Calipari elected to grind it out to close out a victory.
Unquestionably, UK will run into opponents that don't allow the Cats to capitalize on their open-floor ability as the season goes on, but Teague is beginning to reach the point where he can handle himself in that kind of situation.
"I'm real comfortable with that," Teague said. "The last few games, we've been executing on offense well at the end on the road, so we can do it at home very easy."