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Coach Cal turning up heat in practice ahead of final exhibition

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John Calipari, Nerlens Noel and Kentucky will take on Transylvania at 8 p.m. on Monday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari, Nerlens Noel and Kentucky will take on Transylvania at 8 p.m. on Monday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has a very simple objective for his players each season.

The individual awards, the team success, being selected in the NBA Draft, those things are all nice, but they are nothing more than a byproduct of his central aim.

"My goal, as I coach, is to have people watch a player play from his hometown or his family and have them say this: I cannot believe that's the same guy," Calipari said.

Coach Cal's players arrive on campus with remarkable gifts. They have high-school All-America credentials, mock-draft hype and games that have made them fodder for countless YouTube videos. They've been showered with attention for eye-popping statistics and highlight reel plays, but by the time March rolls around, Calipari wants them to be known for a very different set of reasons.

"How hard you play, how hard you compete, how in control you are, how efficient you are as a player and all the garbage of your game is gone and the stuff that matters is left," Calipari said.

The process of getting there, however, is far from easy, and the latest Kentucky team is only in its initial throes. The Wildcats are days removed from their first exhibition game - a 93-61 win over Northwood - and getting ready to play the final one before a challenging start to the regular season.

UK will take on cross-town opponent Transylvania at 8 p.m. on Monday, but the preceding days have been busy ones. On Friday, Calipari led an intense practice of a little more than two hours. Saturday's two-hour, 40-minute session may have been the longest of Coach Cal's UK tenure and is being followed up by a practice doubleheader on Sunday.

That time in the Joe Craft Center has involved plenty of toughness and rebounding drills and a lot of defense. Everything UK does in practice ends with a clear winner and Calipari has ratcheted up the intensity by instituting running penalties for the losers.

"We have to set a tone of how we play and we have guys that you see start backing up," Calipari said. "Losers, this is what's happening to the loser and then, whether it's an offensive-defensive drill, one of you two are running. Either it's the offense or the defense."

It's not always fun for the players, but they can see the approach paying dividends.

"It makes it more competitive," freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Winning or losing matters so you got to play all the time."

Calipari is also more easily able to capture his team's attention having played a game. Players spent summer and fall practices going up against only one another and the simple process of taking on a team in a different color jersey - even if it was only a different shade of blue - in front of a Rupp Arena crowd was important.

"Our focus is getting better because after playing that game and after watching the film, you see what we have to work on and all the bad habits we have to break," Cauley-Stein said.

The fact that the players have now seen evidence of the issues that need to be addressed does not mean that Coach Cal has left his players to their own devices in addressing them.

"To really improve, you've got to make yourself uncomfortable," Calipari said. "You have to make yourself uncomfortable in practice. If you're not willing to do that, I will. And I'll do it however I have to make you uncomfortable."

In speaking with the media on Sunday, Calipari passed along a story from practice this weekend that hammers that point home. He asked players, by show of hands, to say who felt Coach Cal had been the toughest on. Five different players raised their hands, but he didn't feel bad about it.

When the regular season begins, opponents will be mercilessly going after the Cats. They must be prepared for it.

"You know I care about you," Calipari said, explaining his message to players. "You know there's no question that I care about you. If you can't take me, how in the world are you going to take the people we play?"

UK's final exhibition opponent, Transylvania, doesn't have the talent of a Maryland or a Duke, but Brian Lane's team was within one point of the Cats last year with 9:28 left in the first half before the eventual national champions were too overwhelming.

"If I'm Brian, I show them last year's tape, the first half, and I say, 'Let's just play that way for 40 minutes. We got the same guys back, they're a brand-new team, play like you did for 20 minutes and we're going to give them a game,' " Calipari said. "And they can and they will."

That's just what Coach Cal wants to happen.

"You'd rather it be that way," Calipari said. "You don't want to get beat obviously, but you want to make sure they give you a game. And they will."

Because of what Calipari knows Transy is capable of, he's not looking too far down the road. He has a team that has made progress and Monday's game is an opportunity to make more.

"I'm just trying to take this a step at a time and I'm staying in the moment," Calipari said. "Where are we right now? We've gotten better. Where do we need to go? That's where you start losing sleep."

UK to host telethon benefiting Superstorm Sandy victims

Even though Coach Cal is preoccupied with helping his team improve, that doesn't mean he has stopped thinking about the outside world.

He saw images of the devastation in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy and was already considering ways he could help. When WKYT general manager Wayne Martin called Calipari about doing something, he was convinced.

In an event that will be similar to "Hoops for Haiti" in 2010, the men's basketball team will host a telethon on Wednesday, Nov. 7 in conjunction with WKYT to benefit victims of the storm in the Northeast. The telethon will air on WKYT, as well as UK IMG Sports Network affiliates throughout the state, from 7:00-8:00 p.m. ET and members of the team will take phone calls and donations.

For Calipari, it's a reminder that the scope of Kentucky basketball still pales in comparison to the good that can be done by combining its high profile and the passion that surrounds it.

"Yeah, (the UK program is) big. I know it is," Calipari said. "But I think what we're doing here is bigger. And what we're doing and what we're letting our players understand, it's bigger."

UK sophomore Brian Long didn't need any such reminder. He is a native of Dumont, N.J., and his family has been affected by the storm. Everyone is healthy, but his parents are still without power. There were some tense moments for Long watching coverage of the storm, but his busy schedule helped him keep his mind off things. Now that the focus has turned to recovery, Long is thankful his coaches and teammates are willing to help.

"I was just real appreciative about it," Long said. "It shows that (Calipari) cares. The worldwide news shows that people all across the country care about what happened and want to support it any which way they can."

More details on the telethon will be announced in the coming days. If you want to donate to the relief effort outside of telethon hours, call the Red Cross at 859.253.1331 or 800.REDCROSS or go to www.redcross.org.

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