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Calipari guarding against early peak with Super Bowl example

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John Calipari's Wildcats will put a 15-game winning streak on the line against Florida on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari's Wildcats will put a 15-game winning streak on the line against Florida on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even when John Calipari attends a game as a fan, his coaching gears are still turning.

Calipari was in attendance as the New York Giants won the Super Bowl against the New England Patriots. He took in the action on the field, the hoopla surrounding the event and the eye-popping halftime show, but it was a lesson for his Kentucky team that he took home with him.

The Giants are barely a month removed from being a 7-7 team that was being talked about more for woefully underachieving than anything else. Now, no one is calling them anything other than "world champions."

"Mid-season, what were they talking about for the Giants?" Calipari said. "Fire the coach; fire the coordinators; fire everybody. They just won the (Super Bowl). How did they do it? They win the game because they were the best team at this time of the year."

The example of the Giants could prove to be particularly instructive for a Wildcat team entering its third week as the No. 1 team in the nation. Basketball's version of the Big Blue (the Giants also lay claim to the moniker) has won 15 games in a row, the last three of which have been in dominant fashion. According to some experts, UK (23-1, 9-0 Southeastern Conference) is putting to bed the notion that there are no great teams in the college game this season.

Calipari, though, intends to hammer home the message delivered by the Giants: greatness is measured at the end of the season.

"What I'm trying to tell you is, it's February, what's the date, the sixth," Calipari said. "We got three, four more weeks where we have to keep peaking now. This can't be it because if this is it, you start going down the wrong way."

To further reinforce his point, Calipari will cite the example of last year's Kentucky team. That unit, of which Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were a part, had lost back-to-back games at this point last year en route to six losses in conference play. By the end of the year, all was forgotten as the Wildcats morphed into a Final Four team.

This year's team has won nine consecutive conference games by an average margin of 17.6 points, including the last three by a combined 83 points, which has inevitably led to questions of whether the Cats are reaching their peak too early in the season. Calipari says he has seen teams do just that and regress as the season goes on, but he doesn't see that happening with this group.

With three freshmen and two sophomores occupying five spots in his short rotation, Calipari believes his players can incrementally improve as the season wears on. Even Anthony Davis, who is fresh off two stellar games that won him SEC Player of the Week honors, agrees that he can get better.

"I think I can play better than I've been playing and I'm still improving every day," Davis said.

To improve in that way, Davis and his teammates must guard against crossing the fine line between confidence and overconfidence.

"There's an easy transition from a swagger to arrogance, and that's where you get beat," Calipari said. "Look, we're a good team. We're not a great team, but we're a good team. What we'd like to be by the end of the year is as good as our team was last year as a team."

Just as the Giants' seven regular season losses are now lost in the wake of four playoff wins, Calipari knows a top ranking entering March Madness will be quickly forgotten with one off-night come tournament time.

"If they really, truly want to do something unique and special, every one of these experiences is building toward March," Calipari said. "Everything. Our whole season is about that. It's not about league tournaments, it's not about league championships, it's about building to March. I don't worry about anyone in the league."

In the big picture, Calipari and his team may not worry about any other SEC team, but that won't be entirely true when No. 8/7 Florida (19-4, 7-1, SEC) comes calling at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Rupp Arena. The Gators have reeled off seven wins in conference play after losing their opener at Tennessee and are the most dangerous 3-point shooting team in the nation.

Florida has hit 241 3-pointers on the season, the most in the nation and 108 more than UK. Five of Billy Donovan's players have hit at least 30 shots from beyond the arc this season, including Kenny Boynton, who has canned 77 on 43.8-percent shooting.

"That's a big part of their game," Jones said. "If they make a lot of them, (Coach) said it would be a tough game for us. We're going to have to play with high hands like we have been the last couple of games."

The Gators have attempted at least 21 3s in every one of their games this season, so the Cats know they are going to shoot from deep no matter what, so the best they can do is force them to make contested shots.

"You can stop them from shooting layups and can do different things if they're trying to post you every time," Calipari said. "But to say, 'Alright, we're stopping the 3-point shot,' you're not. They're going to get them. You just want to make sure they're guarded."

Calipari estimated Florida would attempt at least 30 3s, so the best-case scenario is the the Gators miss a bunch. That, however, presents a different set of challenges. Davis, Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are each averaging at least 6.4 rebounds per game, but long rebounds off missed long-range shots will likely land over their heads.

"One of our issues has been our guard rebounding," Calipari said. "Whether it's Marquis Teague or Doron Lamb, we haven't rebounded the ball well from that position."

Teague, Lamb and UK's other backcourt players will need to help clean up the mess if the Wildcats are lucky enough to have the Gators miss 3-pointers. Should the Gators get hot, that will go out the window, along with UK's perfect conference record.

"You just know that they're going to take 30, however you guard it, so my guess would be: let's make sure they're guarded," Calipari said. "And if they still make 20, we've had a heckuva start; who do we play next? I mean, they're going to take 30. What if they make 20? They may take 35. What if they make 25?"

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