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As Camp Cal enters final week, Cats still focused on improving

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Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats will face Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday in Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats will face Arkansas-Little Rock on Tuesday in Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For two solid weeks, it's been all basketball, all the time for John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, as they've capitalized on a break from classes and lifted restrictions on practice time. Unquestionably, UK has benefited from the time, but with a week left before the start of the spring semester, the work is far from complete.

With the calendar now flipped to 2012, the point the season when team identities become unchangeable is fast approaching. For Calipari, that time roughly corresponds with the end of the holiday break and the beginning of conference play.

"At that point, you're about where you need to be and then you'll make those incremental jumps from there," Calipari said. "Hopefully we'll be where we need to be by then."

With UK's final nonconference game against Arkansas-Little Rock (5-10) looming on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Louisville, Ky., Calipari is taking advantage of every second he has. The No. 2 Wildcats (13-1) are coming off a 69-62 win against archrival Louisville over the weekend, but Calipari delivered a blunt message to the team as a whole in practice.

"We had a nice heart-to-heart (on Sunday)," Calipari said. "Like I told them when we were done, 'You all like that Cal keeps it real, until I'm keeping it real with you then you don't like it so much.' I kept it real with just about everybody in the room. I didn't even have to raise a voice."

More than anything else, Calipari's words came as a reminder of the great potential this group possesses. UK has achieved some special things through 14 games this year, but those accomplishments have come in spite of the fact that the Wildcats are "not as good as we need to be," to borrow a phrase from Calipari. To reach the point Calipari is demanding of them, he's asking them bond with one another and take a level of responsibility for one another he simply hasn't seen yet.

"If you're a true friend to the other players on the team, you won't stop during a possession," Calipari said. "You care too much about your friend. I'm not going to fall asleep at the post so the enemy comes in and kills my buddies. I'm not falling asleep, I've got to protect my boys. I'm not stopping on a possession."

As of right now, Calipari says his team is firing on just "two cylinders" when they need to reach "five or six." Whether his phrasing was deliberate is a matter of speculation, but UK's win over Louisville was somewhat of a two-cylinder performance. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Anthony Davis provided most of UK's horsepower against the Cardinals, combined for 42 points and 29 rebounds, while the other main cogs in the Wildcat attack had just 27 points and 20 rebounds along with 19 turnovers.

Point guard Marquis Teague had four of those giveaways, marking the fourth straight game he's had at least four turnovers. The stretch comes on the heels of five games in which he had just nine total turnovers.

"He's got to truly run the team and really be running them team for everyone and then pick spots when to go," Calipari said. "Right now, he goes sometimes when he doesn't need to, he misses people when he really needs to find them, doesn't move people around before we run plays."

Calipari isn't sounding any alarms though. His previous two point guards, Brandon Knight and John Wall, went through similar growing pains.

"Marquis is still learning," Calipari said. "He's not there yet. He's not totally bought in, but that's fine. Neither did Brandon at this point and John Wall, I think I remember, 'I'm not having fun.' I think that was his statement halfway through. It's a process for these guys."

Calipari also isn't spending too much time fretting over Terrence Jones, who has had a trying three weeks beginning with a poor performance against Indiana on Dec. 10. Calipari doesn't believe Jones' injured pinky is to blame, at least not physically, for the fact that his scoring average has dipped to 11.3 from 15.0, where it was just over three weeks ago. Jones, according to his coach, needs to reprise the aggressive approach on the offensive and defensive end.

"He's got to dunk balls," Calipari said. "He tried to lay balls up instead of dunking them. He's a little tentative but he'll be fine. I've had many guys go into a slumber and then have to crack out of it. It's not easy. You do it with defense, tough rebounding and physical play."

Jones may have scored just two points against Louisville, but he did hit the glass to the tune of 11 rebounds, the first time he has hit double figures all season. The effort was a positive development, but his return to form is still a work in progress.

"He tried defensively," Calipari said. "He wasn't bad but he wasn't great. He's still not what he needs to be but he did go get balls. We still have to get him flying up and down that court."

Anyone who has watched his effort and interactions with his teammates would guess that Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't included as Calipari challenged the team, but that's not the case. The defending Southeastern Conference Player of the Week may be fresh off a 24-point, 19-rebound outing that left fans and pundits both local and national buzzing, but he wasn't excluded from that aforementioned "heart-to-heart."

"He keeps fouling to start games," Calipari said. "You can't start games with fouls. You've got to be in there and I know you get hyped up, but you can't. As we watched the tape (on Sunday) of what we did, a lot of it was lack of execution, Michael included."

It has been Calipari's habit this season to follow any public criticism of his team with the familiar refrain of "I like my team," but, somewhat surprisingly, he didn't use it today. However, the same sentiment was there as he expressed optimism that the message he delivered was well-received.

"We've got a bunch of good guys, and I've had good guys," Calipari said. "It doesn't mean they don't do stupid things and say stupid things, but they're good people at heart. When people watch us they say we play pretty hard and we defend pretty well. For a young team of all freshman, that's pretty good."

Future of Louisville games uncertain


Tuesday's game against Arkansas-Little Rock will mark the third consecutive year UK has played a game in Louisville. No plans to continue doing so are set in stone, but Calipari did suggest he would like to continue playing there.

"We want to continue to do it," Calipari said. "We want to reach out to our fans and get everybody an opportunity. This is an opportunity for people who aren't season ticket holders and can't get to a game."

Since home games played in Rupp Arena are near-guarantee to have at least 22,000 fans in attendance, playing games outside of Lexington is not a decision that should be taken lightly. The best way for fans to ensure UK plays more games in the state's largest city is to fill Freedom Hall.

"We're excited about going into Louisville and having our fans there," Calipari said. "I'm hearing there are tickets left but they're in the upper deck, so I would tell our fans it's you chance to see us in person. Get out there and get to the game."

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