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Calipari looking to restore the fire and the fun

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UK will open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 6:50 p.m. on TBS vs. either Mississippi Valley State or Western Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 6:50 p.m. on TBS vs. either Mississippi Valley State or Western Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari chalked it up to three games in three nights.

For the first time this season, Kentucky didn't stomp on a team's throat at the end of the game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament finals. The Cats didn't hit big shots when the time called for them. And throughout the tournament, they just didn't seem to have the gear to be able to pull away from teams that, throughout the regular season, looked like a step below UK.

"I was looking for more fire from guys," Calipari said Monday.

Were the Cats taking it easy in the Big Easy?

Terrence Jones pointed to arrogance. Anthony Davis said they needed to refocus. And Coach Cal says it was just a matter of playing in a format the Cats haven't experienced in all year and won't face in the NCAA Tournament.

Eventually, tired legs and mental fatigue appeared to catch up, and the Cats just didn't get shots to fall when they needed them the most.

"We hadn't done it all year," Calipari said. "We hadn't played in a tournament like that and we didn't have any gas in the tank."

One way or another, something was clearly amiss in New Orleans. Coach Cal's team looked good but not great, at least not like the team that stormed through the regular season 30-1.

"I was dragging these guys across the finish line, and they've got to drag me across the finish line," Calipari said.

The players dragging Kentucky across the finish line has been Calipari's motto since he took at the job at Kentucky three years ago. The way he explains it, if the coaching staff and fans do everything in their power to make it about the players, the players will help drag the program to a national title.

In a week's time, can Calipari turn this group around from being dragged to dragging everyone else? Calipari thinks so, saying that his players weren't that far off this weekend from doing what they've done all year.

"I'm a little bit of a perfectionist," Calipari said. "I want them to dominate people. And that may not be fair when you're talking Vandy and Florida and even LSU. It may not be fair, but that's how I view these guys and so (we're) trying to get them to that next level, trying to make sure that they understand you're going to have to outwork the other teams.

"We're capable of doing it because of our athleticism and length. (We're) not getting enough in transition. Maybe we're not running hard enough, not getting it in quick enough. We're not rebounding the ball and everyone flying wide right now. We're not getting enough transition baskets. We've got to get some freebies. So there are a lot of things that I'm looking at, but I'll address it with these guys."

To erase the sting of a loss from last weekend and get the Cats back to the level they were in the regular season, Calipari has done two things this week. One, he gave his players the day off Monday to recharge and refocus, and two, he's repeated to his team that it's about having fun.

Practice Tuesday was more laid back, and at the end, Coach Cal had some fun with the guys by betting sprints on his attempts at the foul line. Smiles were noticeably present.

"Let's just stay in the moment, stay this weekend," Coach Cal said. "Let's try to do well, let's try to play well and just worry about that. The thing you don't want your team doing - you want them to have fun. I want my team, when people watch us play, they watch us and say, 'That team's having more fun than anyone in the field. No one's having more fun than them.' If we can get to that point then I'm doing my job and you have a great chance."

 While Calipari wasn't welcoming a loss in the SEC Tournament, now that's it's happened, he thinks it could be a good thing.

After the loss Sunday, the players talked about refocusing and using the feeling of a defeat as motivation. Freshman point guard Marquis Teague said the odds were stacked against them to win 30 games in a row, noting that a team is going to lose at some point, and it's better to get it out of the way now than in the NCAA Tournament.

"I would have rather won the game, but in another sense I'm saying we don't want anything hanging on us," Calipari said. "I think everything that needs to be said has been said and me personally, so now we can play ball. Let's go play. There's nothing there for us except let's play well. Let's worry about playing well and just getting better. We got three weeks to say, 'Let's make some incremental increases in different areas.' We do that, we'll be fine."

But to restore the fun, the Cats will need to restore the fire. Both go hand in hand, and both lead to winning.

"(We are) just going to have to fight though and understand that nothing in this tournament is given to anyone," Calipari said. "Every game you must play and every game is a competitive game. If you think the other team's going to be intimidated, you're crazy and you get knocked out quickly. We've used the season to prepare our team for this, not just this week. Everything we've done has been gearing toward this run of games, but we've got to keep them in the moments. We've got to keep them weekend to weekend."

UK will find out opponent Tuesday night

As the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, Kentucky is one of four teams that will play the winner of a play-in game.

The advantage of that is UK gets to play one of the lowest seeds in the tournament, but it also means less preparation time for an extra team. Until the two teams play each other - Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky, in the Cats' case - the coaching staff can't focus on just one team.

Some people might view the play-in situation as a disadvantage, but Coach Cal actually prefers it. Instead of gearing his practices toward the other team, Calipari will focus solely on his players.

"Tuesday we will really just be practicing on our stuff," Coach Cal said. "We won't be going over anything we have to do vs. them."

That all ends in just a few hours, however, as Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky play Tuesday at 6:40 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. Sometime around 9 p.m., perhaps sooner, the Cats will finally know who their second-round date is.

The play-in game will be televised on truTV and officially tip off the NCAA Tournament. President Barack Obama is supposed to be in attendance.

Mississippi Valley State is coached by Kentucky "Unforgettable" Sean Woods, whose Delta Devils won 20 of its final 21 games after starting the season 1-11. Western Kentucky turned around a disappointing season by winning the Sun Belt Tournament.

UK is 3-2 all-time vs. Western Kentucky and 3-0 vs. Mississippi Valley State.

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