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Cats on schedule entering SEC's second-half slate

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Terrence Jones had 20 points in UK's SEC opener against South Carolina on Jan. 7. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Terrence Jones had 20 points in UK's SEC opener against South Carolina on Jan. 7. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari doesn't have a script of how his teams need to progress.

He bases his evaluations mostly on instinct developed over two decades as a head coach and his gut tells him his 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats are doing just fine, to use an adjective Calipari himself is very fond of.

"Probably about where they should be, so I'm not going to tell you we're behind but I'm certainly not telling you we're ahead," Calipari said. "We're not ahead. Some of the guys need to take everything up a notch. We're still trying to figure out where we're playing, how we finish plays off. We're not quite there yet but it's February and we're playing like a February team."

At least at this point, the Cats are playing a little bit better than the other February teams out there.

Top-ranked UK (22-1, 8-0 Southeastern Conference) comes into Saturday's road rematch against South Carolina (9-12, 1-6 SEC) having won 14 games in a row, the last three of which have come by an average of over 20 points.

The Wildcats are playing better than they have all season in becoming a nearly unanimous pick as the No. 1 team in the land. the fact that they have Calipari saying they're playing how they need to playing at this point in the season is amazing in and of itself. When it was pointed out to him that it was the first time in three years at UK he had said anything like that, Calipari backed down slightly, but with his typical sense of humor.

"What is today, the second (of February)?" Calipari said, to which the throng of media in attendance at his pre-game presser responded by telling him it was, in fact, the third.

"So they're playing like it's the second of February," Calipari retorted.

A few weeks ago, Calipari likely would have rattled a list of ways his team needed to prove under a similar line of questioning, though he could still likely do the same now.

Even so, UK's improvement is obvious, particularly on the defensive end. For the first time since 1950-51, the Cats have held three straight opponents to 50 points or less. However, that streak has a lot to do with the way UK has elected offensively down the stretch.

"One of the things that's happening is we've got a pretty good lead so we're grinding it out at the end, which gives that other team probably six less possessions, which is what we're trying to do," Calipari said. "That's helping us."

Point guard Marquis Teague has grown by leaps and bounds in running UK's half-court offense that is helping to shorten games, but attributing UK's scoring defense to pace alone does not tell the whole story. The Cats' last three opponents have failed to reach 40-percent shooting from the field and UK is allowing an NCAA-best 38.2-percent shooting from 2-point range on the season.

The defense got the job done the last time Wildcats and Gamecocks matched up on Jan. 7 in Rupp Arena. UK won 79-64 and South Carolina managed to hit just 39.1 percent from the field. Since that game Darrin Horn's team has lost five of six in SEC play, but Calipari sees a team that is getting better and is more than capable of upsets down the stretch.

"They've got a little bit of everything," Calipari said. "I'm a little bit surprised at their record, but I'm telling you, when you see they beat Alabama, had Mississippi beat, played Florida on the road and had their chances to win the game, I think you see them moving in the right direction and I think they're going to start knocking people off. I just hope it's not us."

A big part of that progression has been sophomore Bruce Ellington. The diminutive guard also suited up for the Gamecock football team this season and has been playing basketball exclusively for just a month. Ellington has struggled in his three career games against UK, scoring just 25 points on 7-for-35 (20 percent) shooting, but Calipari expects to see a confident player on Saturday in Columbia, S.C.

"When he missed a few (shots), it led him to miss another one, another one, another one," Calipari said. "He's not doing that now. He'll miss two shots and come back and make a shot or two. He's playing physical. He's better with the ball. His decision-making is better than it was then so he'll be an issue for us."

With five of their final seven games after Saturday against ranked teams, the Cats would seem to be in danger of overlooking Ellington and company, but this game isn't any different to Calipari, who remembers well what happened the last time UK took a No. 1 ranking into Colonial Life Arena.

"We approach every game the same and I'm going to go in there today like we played North Carolina or anybody else," Calipari said. "We're going on the road. It's going to be a hard game."

Hood not expected to return this season

With the first month of 2012 already in the books and his knee still healing from reconstructive surgery, it doesn't appear Jon Hood will suit up this season.

"I don't think he'll play this year, not at this late a date," Calipari said. "There's no reason to use up a year of eligibility because of that."

Calipari reported the junior guard from Madisonville, Ky., has only recently begun to run on a treadmill, saying he is still "a ways away" from returning. Since he has not played in a game this season, Hood has the option to apply for a medical redshirt and a fifth year of eligibility.

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