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Cats ready for different kind of grind as SEC play begins

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Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow look to lead UK into SEC play beginning on Thursday at Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Mays and Ryan Harrow look to lead UK into SEC play beginning on Thursday at Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Over the last month, the Kentucky Wildcats have become quite familiar with every square inch of the Joe Craft Center.

In 33 days, the Cats have played just five games. With class out of session and nothing else to focus on besides basketball, they've spent hour after hour in the practice gym with only their teammates to oppose them.

It's driven them to a feeling that few snow-day-eager students are likely to understand.

"It's good for school to be back in and for us to start being able to play on a more regular basis," graduate student Julius Mays said. "Instead of us having to practice against each other and beat up on each other, we get to do it to another team."

In the coming weeks, there will be many such opportunities. Beginning on Thursday, the Cats will play three games in six days to open Southeastern Conference play, an intense introduction to the two-game-a-week grind they'll be faced with for the next two months.

"We're happy to play a lot more games, but the Camp Cal stuff really did help us a lot," freshman Archie Goodwin said. "That's something that hopefully we can continue to carry over."

As Goodwin suggests, the truth is that the players don't feel like "Camp Cal" has been all that bad. The early-morning wake-up calls weren't always easy and the conditioning not always fun, but the results of the hard work will make it all worthwhile.

"I think we're a lot better because the first thing that we learned to do was to compete and that's what we've been doing a lot lately," Goodwin said. "After that it's just a matter of people working on individual skill sets and us all coming together, and we've been doing a lot for the past three weeks, so it's paying off for us."

John Calipari sees the results in practice every day and fans have seen them in the last two games against Louisville and Eastern Michigan - arguably UK's two best performances of the season - but it's up to the team to keep it up.

"It has to carry over to the basketball court," Calipari said. "Their confidence is going to come from demonstrated performance, going on the basketball court and doing it."

The Cats will be looking to get the job done on a basketball court the likes of which few of them have ever seen to begin SEC play. On Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN, UK (9-4, 0-0 SEC) will take on Vanderbilt (6-6, 0-0 SEC), a team that lost the six top contributors off the team that beat the Cats in the SEC Tournament title game last season. The Commodores, however, still have a unique home-court advantage in Memorial Coliseum with a crowd that figures to boisterous and benches located on the baselines.

"It just makes it more difficult to communicate to your team," Calipari said. "They've got to communicate with each other. Pretty much, the point guard's gotta be in tune with you, because if he's turning around looking at you, he's gonna lose the ball."

Calipari's point guard hasn't been doing much of that lately. Harrow has just five turnovers in his last seven games and his continuing emergence has turned the position once thought to be this team's greatest weakness into an unquestioned strength. Not only has Harrow gained back the weight he lost during an extended absence from the team, he has also evolved into a leader, due in large part to the fact that he's willing to do things like cheer his teammates on during individual work.

"That's what leaders do," Calipari said. "Instead of going back going, 'Well, I'm not worried about anybody,' he's sitting there and encouraging them. 'You got this! Go!' "

Harrow's growth has been the most notable change in this UK team recently, but the biggest one - literally speaking - has been in the lineup. After seeing his minutes fluctuate early in the season, Willie Cauley-Stein has played his way into a more consistent role and now a spot in the starting lineup alongside Nerlens Noel and Alex Poythress in the front court.

Coach Cal hasn't hesitated to say how much he likes "the big lineup," and the statistics agree.

Through six games, opponents were grabbing as many rebounds per game (34.0) as the Cats. Since then, UK has a +10.8 rebounding margin (44.9-34.1) in its last seven games. Often playing together, Cauley-Stein and Noel have combined to average 17.8 rebounds per game.

Against Vandy, that could be a particular advantage. One of the nation's most inexperienced teams, the Commodores have been inconsistent in multiple areas, but the backboards have been especially problematic. Vanderbilt has been outrebounded on the season to the tune 33.9-31.6 per game.

However, the lesson from Camp Cal that Calipari wants to stick more than any other is that such things mean nothing, not on paper anyway. It's not past rebounding statistics or stars given by some recruiting service that determine the outcome of any given game.

"You've got to make an effort," Calipari said. "The whole thing, it's not talent, it's an effort level. If you have talent and they give you a great effort, more of an effort than the other team like we did last year, you win most of the games. If you have a talented team that doesn't give you effort you're going to get beat."

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