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Calipari a molder of minds with stretch run on deck

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John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats face Mississippi State at 9 p.m. on Tuesday on ESPN. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats face Mississippi State at 9 p.m. on Tuesday on ESPN. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Ask any coach of a team ranked in the top 25 and you'll get the same answer: the goal at this point in the season is to prepare his team for an extended run in the NCAA Tournament.

Watch each one of those teams practice and it's a different story. The objective may be the same, but the path to get there couldn't look more different from practice gym to practice gym.

"There are guys that go three and a half hours right now and that's what they do and they're doing it now and they win and they do fine," John Calipari said. "There are coaches that go live right now and they go at each other the whole practice, not worried about anything. And then there are guys that back off."

Calipari falls in the latter group.  

"I've always done it this way and I think my teams have historically played well in March and April but we backed up this time of year," Calipari said.

With two Final Four trips and three Elite Eights over the past six seasons, it's difficult to argue with his results, but in Calipari's words, "There's a thousand ways to do this." It just so happens that Calipari has always become more of a psychologist than a drill sergeant by the time the final two weeks of the regular season rolls around.

"I'm coaching their minds right now," Calipari said. "I've coached their bodies two, three weeks ago like conditioning and toughness and now we're coaching minds, trying get them in a great frame of mind as an individual and a team."

What Calipari wants is an unencumbered team, one that plays free and doesn't worry about schemes or being in the right place or being berated by their coach.

Take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an example. The swingman is his own harshest critic, which has surely helped him become one of the nation's top freshmen, but Calipari wants him to let go.

"I told Michael, 'You're too hard on yourself kid,'" Calipari said. "When guys look at me when they miss a shot, I say, 'What are you looking at? Why are you looking at me? Just play.'"

Taking a cue from his mentor Larry Brown, the professional and collegiate coaching legend, Calipari's belief is that he must accept his players for what they are and ride their coattails to the end.

"His thing is you've got to be their cheerleader at the end," Calipari said. "You got to back up. That's his thing to me at the end of the year. 'No, you're not changing them now. They are what they are. Cheer them on.'"

Considering his team is ranked first in the nation, is riding an 18-game winning streak and sits one victory shy of clinching a share of the Southeastern Conference title, acceptance is likely a bit easier for Calipari than most coaches. Beyond their 26-1 record and perfect 12-0 mark in conference play, these Wildcats are, by all accounts, a close-knit group that enjoys each other's company both on and off the floor.

"We do a lot of talking right now and I keep telling them, 'You want to feel joy every morning? Wake up every morning and feel grateful, grateful that you have an opportunity to be with this team, these guys,'" Calipari said. "There's a lot of teams right now that have turmoil. There's a lot of teams that have all kinds of issues. You guys are enjoying each other."

Walking into UK's gym at the Joe Craft Center a half-hour before practice, it's impossible not to take note of the fact that the majority of the team is going through voluntary drills. That kind of collective work ethic is exactly what Calipari is looking for.

"I'm talking about swagger right now and I said there's only one place to develop swagger right now and it's in that (practice gym)," Calipari said. "You walk out knowing you're going to play well. It doesn't matter how you play the beginning of the game. You know over the course of the game I'm going to play well because I've worked at it and I deserve it and I'm prepared to play well."

However, it's not a big leap to cross from confidence into a sense of entitlement.

"Ego is, 'We just beat this team by a ton. They're not ranked and I'm just hungry. What time's the meal?' Then you get beat," Calipari said,

Considering the Cats will travel to play one of the most talented teams they'll face all year in Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6 SEC), they can't afford to let arrogance creep in. With talented senior guard Dee Bost running the show and SEC Player of the Year candidate Arnett Moultrie roaming the paint, Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs will be hungry to topple the Cats after losing three in a row to UK by just 13 combined points.

Mississippi State's weapons don't end with Bost and Moultrie. Freshman Rodney Hood is a 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare for smaller guards trying to defend his shooting and driving ability. Junior forward Renardo Sidney is a game-time decision due to back spasms, but he is as talented an offensive player as there is in the conference.

"The talent on the team, no one's questioning it and I'm not," Calipari said. "I watched them. I think they've got a bunch of really good players and any of them can go off at any point. They run a lot of pick and rolls, they run a lot of diagonal screens, screen the screener, they're not afraid to shoot 3s, they're not afraid to let loose, that's how they play."

An expected capacity crowd in Humphrey Coliseum only figures to help the Bulldogs. Junior Twany Beckham was on the other sideline the last time UK paid a visit to Starkville, Miss., in an 81-75 overtime thriller and he knows his current team is in for a major challenge.

"The fans get really crazy and it gets really loud," Beckham said. "I know two years ago when Kentucky came, it was the loudest place I've ever been in so it's going to be hard going in there and trying to get a win but I'm looking forward to it."

On Tuesday night and beyond, all Calipari wants from his team is for them to be in the best possible position to succeed.

"I'm just trying to continue to coach to get them to think right," Calipari said. "It doesn't guarantee anything. It just gives you your best chance. Your team plays its best. If that's not good enough, you go on (to the) next game, sometimes (to) the next season."

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