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UK having too much fun to let it end now

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Thousands of fans attended UK's open practice on Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center in preparation for an NCAA Tournament game against Western Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Thousands of fans attended UK's open practice on Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center in preparation for an NCAA Tournament game against Western Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In an effort to bring you the most comprehensive coverage of the Kentucky basketball team's postseason run, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be teaming up throughout UK's journey in the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. You can find stories on the team at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog.

LOUISVILLE - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is somewhat of a sore loser, but it's hard to blame him.

Over the past three season at St. Patrick's High School and now Kentucky, he has experienced the feeling just six times, most recently in the finals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament this past Sunday.

In the locker room after UK's first defeat in over three months, the freshman forward was disconsolate. His customary big smile was replaced with a vacant expression that left some wondering whether something worse than a loss in a basketball game had befallen him.

"I hate to lose," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I hate the lose factor. It sticks with me a lot. I don't know how to explain the feeling."

Three days later, as No. 1 overall seed Kentucky (32-2) prepares for its March Madness debut against 16th-seeded Western Kentucky (16-18) on Thursday at 6:50 p.m., Kidd-Gilchrist still hasn't completely shaken off that indefinable feeling.

"I'm still mad about it," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I don't know about everybody else, but I am."

As if Kidd-Gilchrist needed another reason to hate losing, the NCAA Tournament has given it to him. One defeat means Kentucky's season is done. One defeat means this group of Wildcats will never get to play together again as assembled.

"The season is almost over and that's hard for all of us I think," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I'm going to miss these guys, period. I want to end it on a bang, so that's what I'm trying to do."

With Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas playing out the final games of their senior year and numerous other players having the talent to be taken in the first round of the NBA Draft, roster turnover heading into 2012-13 is inevitable. The Cats don't have next year to fall back on if they fall victim to an upset. For that reason, UK is not going to let its tournament run end without a fight.

These Wildcats have enjoyed themselves way too much to let that happen.

"I'm happy to play with the guys I'm playing with," freshman guard Marquis Teague said. "We're with a great group of guys who love each other. We just have fun together and I think that's why we play so well together."

Now, the task for Kentucky is to bring that same spirit of fun to what will be the first NCAA Tournament for over half its seven-man rotation.

"We have fun every game playing with each other," Teague said. "We all enjoy playing with each other. It's been a fun experience all year and we (are) ready for this tournament to start. Our main thing we talked about was having fun throughout this whole tournament."

In the tournament that just wrapped up, that element was missing, at least to some extent.

"We kind of lost that towards the end of the year," Teague said. "At the beginning of the year we were having a lot of fun, excited, smiling on the floor. We kind of got more serious and things like that towards the end of the year."

That's a concerning development, because taking pleasure in everything that came with being a part of Kentucky basketball is what Calipari has demanded all year and a big reason why the Wildcats ascended the top of the polls and stayed there for the final eight weeks of the regular season.

When analyzing why his team began to approach the game as work more than a diversion, Teague can't help but look to the winning streak that ballooned to 24 games before the Commodores finally ended it.

"Everybody was expecting us to win every game and we didn't want to let anybody down," Teague said. "We were putting too much pressure on ourselves."

Kidd-Gilchrist wasn't the only of his teammates to take that loss to heart, but Calipari has demanded his team turn the page in the days since it happened. He called a meeting of his troops and his message was clear.

"We had a team meeting and he told us we're going to start getting back to our old self and start (having) fun," sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. "(Thursday), we'll show everybody that we're back."

With classes out of session due to Spring Break, the Cats have spent nearly every waking hour with one another. If you want proof that they have returned to their fun-loving selves beyond the testimony of the players, you need only watch a video Kyle Wiltjer posted on YouTube.

If dancing is the mark of the Wildcats having a good time off the floor, sprinting down the floor and scoring on fast breaks may be that same sign on it.

"I think that's true," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "That's our game. That's our game right there, the fast-paced game that we play all the time."

Expect to see more of that come Thursday too.

Over the second half of the season, Teague has excelled in running the point in the half-court, but it has at times come at the expense of some open-floor opportunities. In practice since the conference tournament loss, fast breaks have been an emphasis.

"We've been working on a lot of transition basketball because that's our specialty," Teague said. "We're better getting out on the court. We got a lot of athletes and a lot of guys that can finish in the open floor so we've been working on that a lot."

To a man, every Wildcat was confident in saying the running, smiling, clapping team that has thrilled fans all season would be back on Thursday against in-state rival Western Kentucky. Kidd-Gilchrist took it a step further.

"I expect to see that team all month," Kidd-Gilchrist said.

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