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Cal looking for Cats to take the reins

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UK has held early-morning conditioning sessions on Thursday and Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) UK has held early-morning conditioning sessions on Thursday and Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
John Calipari began building his coaching reputation at UMass, taking the Minutemen from conference also-rans to the 1996 Final Four.

Those teams were overachievers, making up for a perceived lack of talent with hard-nosed defense and hard work, taking on the personality of the coach leading them. That personality transference began in notoriously tough practices.

Apparently, Coach Cal is making a return to days of yore this season at Kentucky.

"He said this is him going back to his old-school ways, his UMass ways," point guard Ryan Harrow said. "I guess this is the hardest he's been coaching for a long time."

After UK's last game - a blowout when in which the Wildcats outscored Samford by just one point after halftime - Calipari announced the Cats would be getting down to some serious work. During the holiday stretch he affectionately calls "Camp Cal," UK would be holding 7 a.m. conditioning sessions in addition to regular afternoon practices. In those afternoon practices, Calipari is making the Cats run lines for every mistake.

According to Calipari, the return to his "old-school ways" is out of necessity.

"(Of) the team's that I've had here, anyway, this team has the farthest to go," Calipari said. "It's not schemes, it's not offenses, it's not defense. It's a competitiveness, a will to win and then holding each guy accountable for that."

The immediate aim of the increased practice demands is for the Cats to deliver a 40-minute effort when they take on Portland at noon ET in Rupp Arena on Saturday. Calipari's long-term aim is for his team to take ownership of its own destiny.

"All that we've been working on, we're going to see now if you're only doing it because I'm making you do it or you're doing it because you want to change," Calipari said. "Now it will be for everybody to see. Because if they're only doing it because I'm making them do it, at some point in the game they'll let go of the rope. If they're doing it because they know they have to change, they'll play a full game."

Last year's national championship had its share of early-season kinks to work out, but delivering a complete game wasn't one of them. One of the few times it was came in the first half of the buzzer-beating loss at Indiana. The way the Cats responded then was to introduce Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-led early-morning workouts.

The pre-sunrise time players are spending with strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver are similar, only Coach Cal is playing the Kidd-Gilchrist role.

"Part of what we're doing right now is kind of a forced Breakfast Club," Calipari said. "Now you don't have to do the Breakfast Club. In this case, you are. You hope at some point we stop (forcing them) and a couple of these guys will continue, even if it's two or three days a week, that they'll continue to do it."

Harrow is beginning to see some preliminary signs of just that.

"I think we're starting to fall in love with it more," Harrow said. "I can say that. A lot of us are in here again in workouts before practice and some of us are getting in late at night. I'm starting to see what the team had from last year."

Harrow himself in an example.

In addition to running with the team in the morning and practicing in the afternoon, Harrow reported that he worked out three times on his own. He's taking full advantage of the chance to focus solely on basketball with classes dismissed before finals.

"I knew once I had took that two weeks off that I would have to get myself back into the rotation," Harrow said. "I'm actually playing more than what I thought I would be playing, so I've just got to be prepared for whenever he calls on me."

Harrow is going out of his way to work his way back into shape and into the fabric of his team and Calipari says it's beginning to pay off.

"He's getting better," Calipari said. "He needs to be in the gym with a coach that's pushing him, but he's getting better. He's gotten better in practice. The team is starting to respond to him, which is what they need to do."

The team, however, isn't quite to the point where it's driving itself as Calipari eventually wants it to. Should that never happen, Coach Cal will compensate.

"At the end of the day, that lack of that will fall back to me, and I hope that they will do it, but if they don't, then I'll do it," Calipari said. "I keep saying, when this team is empowered, I can sit back a little bit. Right now I'm being really hard, I'm being really tough, and that's what they need."

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