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Notebook: Cats slowing pace, racing past SEC foes

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Marquis Teague had his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds against Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marquis Teague had his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds against Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Thinking about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's split-second drives to the rim and Anthony Davis' above-the-rim finishes in the open floor, Kentucky doesn't seem like a half-court-oriented team on the face of things.

The numbers, especially during the Wildcats' ongoing blitz through Southeastern Conference play over the past two-plus weeks, suggest otherwise.

Beginning with a road win over Georgia, UK has won five games in a row by an average margin of 23.2 points, cementing the Wildcats as a team on the shortlist among NCAA Tournament favorites.

Kentucky, with its balance and versatility, has won those games in a variety of different ways. Four different players have led UK in scoring over those five dominant performances and the Cats have gotten the job done with hot 3-point shooting, overwhelming rebounding or killing opponents slowly at the free-throw line, depending on the game.

The one constant over the five games, other than smothering defense, has been the pace of play.

The Wildcats began the season in the top half of the nation in possessions per game, averaging 69.4 through the first 20 games of 2011-12 (that number would place them in the 50s nationally as of Feb. 8). Since then, UK has averaged just 58.6 possessions per game, playing its best basketball of the season in the process. For a little perspective, Wisconsin is the nation's slowest paced team on the year, playing an average of 59.0 per game.

Why is this happening?

Well, I think it begins with the fact that UK, led by Marquis Teague, has a much better idea of what it wants to do in the half-court. Early in the season, the youthful Cats would often revert to high school/AAU tendencies and "break off plays," as John Calipari often says, resulting in quick shots and turnovers. Now, the Wildcats are much more confident in their sets and patient enough to wait for a good look at the basket, whether it comes with 25 seconds on the shot clock or five.

Another key factor is the simple fact that UK has had big leads late in games. By taking the air out of the ball over the final eight to 10 minutes, Calipari estimates the Cats take away "six or seven" precious possessions from their opponents, thereby shortening the game. A shorter game makes it that much more difficult to overcome a double-digit deficit.

Finally, and most simply, it's about the opponents the Cats are facing. Of the last five teams UK has faced, none is ranked higher than 180th nationally in adjusted tempo and two are in the 300s.

Not only that, but the scouting report is out on the Cats. Right or wrong, one of the first items on that list is likely to cut out transition opportunities. Thunderous dunks and back-breaking "and-ones" on fast breaks tend to stick in the mind of opposing coaches when watching tape and the sheer athleticism of this team makes the Cats look like the kind of team that would much prefer to fly up and down the floor.

UK hasn't turned its back on the open-floor game (they scored 16 fast-break points against Florida), but teams that think they can best the Cats by forcing them into the half-court do so at their own peril.

Donovan a UK believer

Billy Donovan knows what he's talking about when it comes to evaluating top teams.

Not only has he coached two national championship teams and another that advanced to the title game, but he's also now coached against the teams rated first, second and third nationally already this season.

Before visiting Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, Florida lost by four at No. 3 Ohio State and by seven at No. 2 Syracuse, so his evaluation of Kentucky against those other two carries some weight.

Donovan called Ohio State a "three-headed monster" with Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft, while pointing out that Syracuse matches Kentucky in length and surpasses the Cats in depth.

"I don't know necessarily who would be better because I think Syracuse will play them all zone and their zone is a little bit unique," Donovan said. "If you're looking at talent, I think Kentucky's got it. They have, clearly, six guys that are going to be first-round draft picks on their team."

The Wildcats talent makes them dangerous, but it's their makeup that could potentially make them special, particularly that of Kidd-Gilchrist, who went for 13 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes against the Gators.

"The one thing that I like about their team is I love their disposition on the floor," Donovan said. "I got a lot of respect and admiration for Gilchrist, just his disposition out there."

There's still another month until tournament time, but the mentality that Kidd-Gilchrist and UK bring to the floor reminds Donovan of the kinds of teams he's seen win at a high level in March and April

"In 2000 for us and '06 and '07 having a chance," Donovan said, "there's a certain disposition you have to have, and I'm not talking about an arrogance or a cockiness, but there's a focus level in terms of what really goes into winning at that level. There's a mentality there that's just different."

The NCAA Tournament bears the moniker of "March Madness" for a reason, so Donovan can't predict the future, but the idea of Calipari cutting down the nets at the Final Four is by no means far-fetched this season.

"When you get into the tournament, it's a one shot deal and anything can happen in one game," Donovan said. "But clearly, I think that if they went all the way, it wouldn't be surprising."

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