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Wildcats expect more of the same in first game as new No. 1

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Kyle Wiltjer and the Kentucky Wildcats travel to face Georgia at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kyle Wiltjer and the Kentucky Wildcats travel to face Georgia at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari's reaction to the news his team would almost certainly take over the top spot in both major polls wasn't exactly what you expect.

When top-ranked Syracuse lost on Saturday evening to pave Kentucky's path to No. 1, Calipari didn't break out a bottle of champagne to celebrate. Instead, he found himself resisting the urge to call Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim to express his anger at having to guide his young team through another set of pressures.

"I was trying to get a hold of Jim Boeheim, I was so mad at him," Calipari joked.

Maybe if he were coaching at a place where a top ranking is treated more as a birthright than a special occasion, he would feel differently, but Calipari met the development with little more than a shrug and a sense of humor. His main concern is preparing his team for the next game on the schedule.

"Because we are here, it wasn't a big deal," Calipari said. "When they lost I didn't feel anything, it's a different deal here. We'll address it for a second or two but we just have to play."

Kentucky's newly-minted top ranking will be tested immediately as the Wildcats (19-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) travel to face the Georgia Bulldogs (10-9, 1-4 SEC) in Stegeman Coliseum, a place where UK lost less than a year ago.

"It's going to be a tough game with the crowd into because of the new rankings and us just being Kentucky," sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. "We've got to execute whatever we learn (on Monday) in practice about what offense they run and just listen to Coach."

This is the third time in three seasons that Calipari has taken his team to a No. 1 ranking and the Cats sport a 3-2 record in such situations. Both losses have come on the road, first at South Carolina in 2009-10 and again earlier this season against Indiana. If UK can defeat Georgia on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN, it will be the Cats' first road win as the nation's top-ranked team in Calipari's tenure.

This Kentucky team that features four freshmen playing extended minutes has experience playing atop the polls. More than anything else though, the Cats learned they can't alter their approach just because Kentucky has a lower number next to its name on the ticker.

"We're still going to approach every game like we did before," freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "Every opponent we're going to prepare for equally regardless of what they're ranked because we're going to get every team's best shot. We just want to go out there every night and perform."

Georgia has already announced this week's game against UK as a sellout, its first of the season. As per usual, the Bulldog faithful figure to be raring to go for a late-night affair trying to inspire their team to their best victory of the season.

Mark Fox's team has played a very difficult schedule in conference, opening with losses to Alabama, Florida and Vanderbilt. Georgia then defeated Tennessee in overtime and lost a close one at home to Ole Miss.

The Bulldogs have relied on a relatively young roster in replacing their top two players from a year ago, as Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie each were selected in the NBA Draft. Leading the way has been freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is averaging 14.7 points and 5.1 rebounds. Caldwell-Pope was a one-time Calipari recruit, which should tell you all you need to know about his talent level.

"He's a terrific player," Calipari said. "He can create his own shots. He's a game changer for their program. Mark has done well in getting young people like that into Georgia. You're talking about one of the best young players in the country."

Georgia's roster isn't entirely devoid of experience though, as seniors Dustin Ware and Gerald Robinson each return from last year's NCAA Tournament team. Ware has been a part of a pair of wins over Kentucky, including UK's last home loss. Ware scored 18 points when the Bulldogs knocked of the Wildcats on March 4, 2009, so he won't shy away from big moments.

Calipari's players don't figure to be afraid either, as UK is 4-1 in games decided by single digits and has won four games already this season after facing second-half deficits.

A big reason why the Cats have handled themselves so well in those situations in spite of having just one upperclassman among their seven top contributors is Calipari's tireless vetting in the recruiting process. Rather than masking it, Calipari molds his sales pitch around the pressure cooker that is Kentucky basketball, creating a sort of self-selection process for players he pursues.

"In most cases, kids don't want to put themselves in positions of being exposed and they won't come here," Calipari said. "This place is not for everybody, it's the toughest place to play basketball."

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Marquis Teague have had more opportunities to prove their ability to play through the fire, but Calipari likes what he's seen out of Wiltjer just as much.

"Kyle Wiltjer (is) not afraid at all," Calipari said. "We pegged it right, he is not afraid at all. If he is open he is shooting it, defensively he is out there playing hard and he's not playing timid in any way."

Wiltjer has had somewhat of an uneven start to his first college campaign in terms of production, but he has built confidence through practicing against his talented teammates. As a result, he has become more willing to assert himself when the opportunity presents itself.

"Every day I'm practicing against the best players on my team so it's good to have the experience of going against that kind of talent," Wiltjer said.

Five games into conference play, Calipari has become more and more comfortable with the Portland, Ore., native on the floor and has even begun calling his number on offense. In two wins last week, Wiltjer and Teague teamed up to run two-man action designed to set Wiltjer up for a mid-range jumper or a 3-pointer.

"We've been working on a couple sets because it's a hard play to defend if I can pick and pop," Wiltjer said. "Little plays like that that end in a pick and roll are hard to defend."

The next time Wiltjer or his teammates set up to shoot, they'll have over 10,000 fans screaming at them to try to make them miss, but don't expect them to be fazed by the noise or the No. 1 ranking.

"I love the pressure," Kidd-Gilchrist said.

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