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Calipari, Cats not changing their stripes through dominant run

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Marquis Teague is the defending SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins over Florida and Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marquis Teague is the defending SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins over Florida and Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Praise is being heaped on Kentucky from all directions.

National pundits are predicting the Wildcats will not only win the national title, but also run the table in doing so. Fans are struggling to come up with a nickname for the team in the vein of the "Comeback Cats" or "Rupp's Runts." Opposing coaches are raving about Anthony Davis as the biggest defensive difference maker in years and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a player they all would love to coach.

The talk is impossible to avoid, but so far, the Cats remain unaffected.

"You've got a lot of people watching, a lot of pro players watching and these guys aren't worried about anyone," John Calipari said. "They're just zeroed in on me saying, 'Tell us how to get better. What do we have to do?' It's a neat thing."

Winners of 17 straight and 49 in a row at home, No. 1 Kentucky (25-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) has put together a three-week stretch that has prompted questions about the Wildcats' place among the SEC's recent elite.

"They're certainly very good and I would put them right up there with some of the best that I've seen, yes," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. "Particularly on the defensive end, I think they're outstanding so, yes, I think this Kentucky team is as good as a lot of the really, really good teams, great teams that I have seen in our league in years that I've been in it."

Before a gutty 69-63 win over Stallings's Vanderbilt team in one of the league's toughest venues, the Cats had won five games by an average of 23.2 points. In all conference games, UK is outscoring its opponents by a jaw-dropping 0.27 points per possession, best among "Big Six" conference teams by a significant margin.

"This is a unique team," Calipari said. "To have this many guys and have them get along like they do and have the skill set that we have. We're winning all the games and it just means it's fun to come to work every day. It's fun to try to teach because they want to learn. There's not a whole lot of back and forth."

The second half of Calipari's comment above is the most telling. Yes, the Cats are worthy of the compliments being showered on them, but Calipari isn't going to quit coaching. Fortunately, his players keep on listening.

"I told them, 'I'm not changing, I'm not backing off,'" Calipari said. "'We're stepping forward and hopefully you'll do it with me cheering. If you have to do it with me dragging, I'll drag.' Right now, I've been cheering, so it's been fun.'"

UK is in position to go unbeaten through an entire SEC season, which would be the first time a team has done so since the Cats' forebears did it in 2002-03. Of the possibility, point guard Marquis Teague said, "We don't really talk about it," but that doesn't mean he plans on losing any games.

"Hopefully we can go undefeated but it's not something we're really focused on," Teague said.

What Teague and his teammates are thinking about is continual improvement. Calipari's statement from January that he's more concerned about his team getting better than wins or losses still rings true.

"We've still got to mature a little bit more," Doron Lamb said. "We (are not) perfect. We're just playing good so far and we got to keep doing what we're doing and keep working hard in practice."

Somewhat counterintuitively, less time on the practice floor as a team is actually helping pave the way fpr the Cats' development.

"A lot of it this time of year is we don't practice long," Calipari said. "So now each individual is getting in the gym by himself. What do you need to work on to get better, you personally? Well then let's work on that. What happens is as individual players get better...when a bunch of them do that, the ceiling rises."

The ceiling of a team Florida head coach Billy Donovan said last week has six future first round draft picks getting any higher is slightly frightening.

The next coach to have to deal with all that talent is Andy Kennedy of Ole Miss (15-10, 5-6 SEC). The Rebels have the unenviable task of trying to put an end to UK's home winning streak that dates back to March 4, 2009 and they'll take it on less than 48 hours after a 26-point home loss to Vanderbilt.

"We know that doesn't matter because when everybody plays us we always get their best game," Teague said. "We know when they come in here tomorrow, they're going to play great and they're going to be ready."

Ole Miss has the kind of size inside that has bothered the Cats on occasion this year with Terrence Henry (6-foot-10, 210 pounds), Murphy Holloway (6-foot-7, 240 pounds), Reginald Buckner (6-foot-9, 225 pounds) and Demarco Cox (6-foot-8, 280 pounds). For UK to be successful, Davis, Terrence Jones and company will need to keep one of the nation's better offensive rebounding teams off the glass.

"As I watched the tape, if they have their way on the backboard they'll beat us," Calipari said. "If we can control that, the game swings a little bit in our direction. If they do what they have been doing it is going to be a really hard game for us."

Even if UK runs up another big margin on Saturday, the sentiment Calipari expressed before Friday's practice doesn't figure to change, and it won't until the season reaches its conclusion.

"I'm happy but I'm not satisfied," Calipari said. "The question when you're coaching is, where can this thing go? Can you dream the invisible and chase that?'"

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