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Cats hoping solid practice a sign of things to come

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Kyle Wiltjer has scored 48 points over his last three games. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kyle Wiltjer has scored 48 points over his last three games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Days removed from a loss at Alabama, Julius Mays reports that Kentucky had one of its best practices of the season.

"I think yesterday's practice a lot of urgency was shown," Mays said on Friday. "It was one of the first practices we've had since I've been here where it was as hard as we went and we showed a lot of enthusiasm."

Going against his habits from past years, John Calipari ran his team through "a little bit rougher" of a gym session with more scrimmaging. The fact that his Wildcats responded in both voice and action was of course a positive, but Coach Cal knows his team too well to make any pronouncements about what it means.

"The ability to go in the game and have a competitive spirit and battle, that's what this will all come back to," Calipari said. "Do you want it worse than the other guy? Do you want the ball worse than he does? Do you want to stop him from scoring worse than he wants to score on you? Then that's been lost in all this, and that's what I'm trying to get through to these guys."

In other words, the Cats need to make sure that effort translates when they host LSU at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.

"That was a good sign, but I hope guys are realizing that it has to be turned around and we don't have much time to keep saying the same things," Mays said.

Mays, a graduate student, came to Kentucky for his final year of collegiate eligibility because he wanted to compete at the highest level. More than any of his younger teammates, Mays understood the unpredictability of a college basketball season, but even he could not have foreseen a 12-6 start.

It's by no means strange be discussing UK's NCAA Tournament resume in late January, but with Calipari in town, that talk has typically been in reference to the Cats' chances for a No. 1 seed. Now, the conversation is about the dreaded bubble. Players aren't overly concerned about that at this point, but they can't help but catch wind of it.

"I haven't heard much, but it's a thought in the back of your head," Mays said. "I don't think we've really won a marquee game and every big game that we had we kind of choked it (away). As an older guy, it's in the back of my head."

Calipari, however, wants just one thing on his team's mind.

"All we have to worry about is getting better," Calipari said. "If we don't change, we don't have to worry about that. If we change, we don't have to worry about all that."

Even so, players hearing talk about their postseason lives being at stake could end up serving Coach Cal's purpose by getting their attention. Kyle Wiltjer is a perfect example of the power of a little outside motivation.

Less than two weeks ago, the sophomore was in the midst of a two-game stretch that saw him score just two points in 33 combined minutes against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. To make things worse, his coach spoke at length about Wiltjer's poor defense following the Vandy game.

Now, Wiltjer has led UK in scoring three straight games. He has become a focal point of the offense, averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, and improving defensively in the process. In practice this week, Calipari asked Wiltjer the reason for the improvement in front of his teammates.

" 'Cause I was mad at how I was playing and I was embarrassed,' " Calipari said, recalling Wiltjer's answer.

The results of that realization first showed in practice and in games not long after.

"I think I've been more vocal in practice," Wiltjer said. "(I've been) kind of just pushing myself harder than I thought I could push myself, if that makes sense. Kind of just pushing through it and trying to lead the guys in practice and then almost practicing harder than I would in a game just to make it easier."

It's still too soon to tell, but Thursday's practice could be an early sign that the Cats have come to view the results they've gotten on the floor as unacceptable and decided to do something about it.

"It was the most talk I've heard in practice since I've been here," Mays said. "Guys were getting after each other and I do think everyone's tired of the same thing. We're tired of Coach taking the blame and it's really not his fault. He doing what he's supposed to do; it's about us not doing what we're supposed to do."

Calipari hoping Big Blue Nation joins Coaches vs. Cancer fight

This weekend, more than 4,000 coaches throughout the country will turn in their loafers in favor of sneakers as part of the fight against cancer. Calipari is serving as a national spokesman for the annual Coaches vs. Cancer suits and sneakers weekend. The cause is an important one to Calipari, as he lost both his mother and his two grandmothers to cancer, and he hopes Kentucky fans will stand with him and his colleagues.

The Big Blue Nation (is) charitable, compassionate, spiritual," Calipari said. "They are so many good things. I think that's why they asked me to (be a spokesman), to engage the Big Blue Nation. And I think it's something that is good."

By donating $5 to Coaches vs. Cancer by texting the word "COACH" to 20222 or donating online any time between Jan. 25 and April 9, fans will make themselves eligible for various basketball-themed prizes. They include the chance to be there as Coach Cal talks to his team before the first official practice of the 2013-14 season at Big Blue Madness, a VIP trip to the 2013 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and signed gear by other top coaches.

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