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Cats learning that buy-in, fun go hand-in-hand

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UK will take on Alabama at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday after a 22-point win at Auburn on Saturday. (Photo by Victoria Graff) UK will take on Alabama at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday after a 22-point win at Auburn on Saturday. (Photo by Victoria Graff)
Nary a John Calipari press conference has passed in recent weeks without some mention of "buying in."

Do players understand their roles? Are they embracing them? How close are they to prioritizing the success of the team above all else?

At no point this season has Coach Cal been closer to being able to answer those questions with an across the board "yes" than after Kentucky's 75-53 win at Auburn on Saturday. The Wildcats delivered the "whomping" Calipari said he wasn't sure they were capable of, and something else happened along the way.

"They're starting to do it (buy in) and they had fun doing it," Calipari said on Monday. "Like they enjoyed playing and they bounced and jumped and they chest bumped each other. We've been waiting all year for it."

With their lead growing, their shots falling and the defensive stops mounting, smiles began to spread across the faces of almost every player. Simple high-fives turned into elaborate celebrations and the Cats seemed a more cohesive unit than ever before.

"When you're hitting shots, it's a lot easier to have fun than when you're missing shots or they're going on a run," junior guard Jarrod Polson said. "I think just the fact that we were kind of pounding them in the second half was what made it a lot of fun for us."

Calipari believes it to be much more complicated than that though. It's easy for a player to get excited after a big dunk of his own, but Coach Cal wants the Cats to be emotionally in-tune with the game no matter how they are playing as individuals.

"When you're concerned about how you're playing and you miss two shots, it's hard to chest bump somebody," Calipari said. "If you're more about the other guys on the team, none of that matters."

That thought process is a reflection of an overarching principle Calipari is trying to pass on to his players. It's human nature to define oneself by results and results alone, but that's not what Coach Cal believes the Cats should be doing.

"I'm trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go," Calipari said. "You're not going to be judged just by that. You're going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness."

In trying to shift his young team's mindset, Calipari is hoping to reach the point where he doesn't have to spend all his time coaching intensity. In the second half at Auburn, he wasn't too far away from that.

"When you're up 16 and 18 and you're finishing people off, what do you do? Just scream to scream?" Calipari said. "They're doing everything you want them to do, so you just coach the game. How about this? They're diving for loose balls, they're going for rebounds, they're talking to one another. Well Cal, you didn't have to do as much. Duh. Duh!"

Players came to find they enjoyed the (relatively) reserved Coach Cal.

"Obviously you yell less when you're up 20," Nerlens Noel said. "It's a good feeling not having him yelling at some players. That's definitely going to push us to have a 20-, 30-point lead more often."

The Cats (12-5, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) will be looking to build another such margin when they travel to Alabama (11-6, 3-1 SEC) for a game at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, but it won't be easy. Anthony Grant once again has a very solid defensive team, one that has won three conference games in a row.

"This is a really physically grind-it, bump you, grab you kind of team," Calipari said. "If you're not ready for 50-50 balls and that you're going to be in a war on the court for 40 minutes, you got to relish it. That's what you want, but if you don't want that then it's an issue."

UK's guards, in particular, are in for a test. Alabama often uses a four-guard lineup featuring Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey, meaning the tone for this one will be set on the perimeter.

"This is a guard's game," Calipari said. "This is going to be guards going at one another."

For the Cats to succeed in that kind of game, Ryan Harrow will need to be effective at the point. The redshirt sophomore struggled in the first half at Auburn, scoring two points on 1-of-5 shooting and committing three turnovers. In perhaps the best example of his evolution this season, he responded in the second half by scoring 10 points and dishing five assists.

"Ryan Harrow in the first half played casual, and it showed," Calipari said. "Everybody, including me, wanted to see, 'OK, what do you have in you kid? What are you going to do in the second half?' He came out and he played aggressive, he played tough, played through bumps."

In the end, that's all Calipari is really asking for. No matter how much the Cats buy in, there will likely be losses down the road, but that's not how Calipari believes anyone will judge them.

"They're not going to say, 'He won 97 games and he lost four ...' " Calipari said. "Believe me, 20 years from now, they're going to say, 'Are you a competitor or not? Were you a battler? Man did he play hard. This kid really made great decisions.' That's how you define yourself and trying to get them more on process and less on results because we're so young."

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