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Calipari measuring team by more than wins and losses heading into SEC play

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Anthony Davis is averaging 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks as UK enters SEC play against South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Anthony Davis is averaging 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks as UK enters SEC play against South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari makes no effort to hide his distaste for losing.

It's probably close to impossible for a coach to rise to the pinnacle of the college ranks as Calipari has without that kind of hatred of falling short on the scoreboard, but the third-year Kentucky head coach is finding himself battling his instincts.

As the Wildcats enter play in the Southeastern Conference, Calipari is working hard to keep things in perspective and focus on the progression of his team. It's obviously difficult to measure something as intangible as improvement, but if UK comes out ahead in that department each time out, it will make up for a couple ticks on the wrong side of the win-loss column.

"We don't have to win every game," Calipari said. "We just have to get better. Let's just worry about getting better. If the wins come along with that or if some losses come along with that, let's just worry about getting better because you and I know if this team gets better, we'll be where we want to be when this all ends up. If we don't get better, we can win all the games we want and it won't matter."

In many ways, Calipari is an enviable position as Kentucky (14-1) opens conference play with a matchup against South Carolina (8-6) at 4 p.m. on Saturday in Rupp Arena. He knows the talent of his team will allow for a relatively successful conference season whether or not the Cats shake off some the inconsistency that has plagued them in the non-conference. The victories will almost assuredly come throughout UK's 16-game conference slate, but it's the postseason he's worried about.

"My issue with all the guys: let's just get better," Calipari said. "What do you have to do to improve? As long as you're getting better, I'm good. We've got to stay focused on improvement, not on wins."

Calipari needs not defend his approach because of the success he's had with it in two years at UK. The wins came more frequently in his first year, as UK went 14-2 in conference and won the SEC Tournament. Last season, the Wildcats lost six times on the road and finished third in the regular season standings, but Calipari never backed down from his familiar refrain.

"Last year it took a while and I kept telling you, 'I like my team and there's no team out there I like any better than my team,' " Calipari said. " 'There's no team out there that's dominating and we're OK.' "

By the end of the year, Calipari wasn't the only one who liked his team. UK upset the tournament's No. 1 overall seed Ohio State en route to the school's first Final Four in over a decade. The Wildcats stayed focused on getting better even as the losses piled up in the SEC and it paid dividends.

"Last year, we got on the road and we just didn't come out with the fire and when it was close I don't think we believed," Calipari said. "By the end of the year, we believed we could beat anybody."

Calipari views this team as a more confident bunch largely based on its No. 2 ranking, but that bravado will be tested in the always-rugged SEC. Between the familiarity amongst the teams and the level of athleticism throughout the conference, nights off for the Wildcats will be few and far between.

"It's going to be really competitive teams and it's going to be a lot tougher than preseason games just because every team knows how we run our offense and their coach has coached against us before," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "We're just going to have to play hard every game."

At least on Saturday, that level of familiarity might not be as high. UK's eight-man rotation features four freshmen, while the Gamecocks are playing a vastly different style compared with head coach Darrin Horn's first three seasons. After ranking among the nation's fastest-paced teams from 2008-2011, the Gamecocks are playing a much more deliberate style to better position themselves to compete in the SEC. The result is that South Carolina is playing five fewer possessions per game than in 2010-11 and nearly 10 fewer than 2008-09.

On defense, Horn relies on a combination of a matchup zone defense and full-court pressure to limit and slow down opponents.  When watching tape, Calipari was reminded of one of UK's recent opponents.

"They play a very aggressive zone, they press," Calipari said. "As a matter of fact, they play a little bit like Louisville plays. They scramble in the zone, they scramble in the press, they come at you in different ways."

The similarities with the Cardinals are no accident. In implementing the new style, Horn studied tape of Rick Pitino's team. He came to learn that playing with intensity doesn't necessarily mean playing at a fast pace. South Carolina has always relied on turnovers as a key component of its defense and the Gamecocks have improved in that department.

"Our mentality still hasn't changed," Horn said. "We're still about deflections and active hands.  It's just the way we're getting them is different."

It took some time for the Gamecocks to get their feet under them in the new system as they stumbled to a 3-5 record. However, South Carolina has won six of seven games with the only loss coming against then-No. 1 Ohio State by a score of 74-66.

The stretch has also corresponded with the return of sophomore guard Bruce Ellington to the lineup, which is no coincidence. Ellington led the team in scoring in his first season but opted to play football in the fall semester. With an 11-win season under his belt there, he's back with the basketball team full time and has scored a combined 26 points in his last two games in spite of limited time on a basketball practice floor.

"There's not many guys that I know that could go out there and do what he does and in between days play a game," Calipari said. "It says a lot about their team to say, 'We know we need him so we're fine with it. You don't even need to practice.' "

There isn't a player on the roster Calipari would say doesn't need to practice. Some of his Wildcats are playing at a high level and some are slumping slightly, yet UK still is hovering near the top of the polls. If Kentucky can repeat what it did a season ago and improve throughout conference play, watch out.

"This team here, wow," Calipari said. "If we could be our best, if we could be playing our best as a team and individually, it's scary. We're just not there yet. We still have two months of league play to figure it out."

Kidd-Gilchrist 'fine' for Saturday

After sitting out the final minutes of Tuesday's victory over Arkansas-Little Rock with a chest injury, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist practiced on Thursday. Calipari called him 'fine' and he is expected to play Saturday.

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