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Calipari doing much more than just coach in pushing Cats toward potential

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John Calipari will lead his team into a rematch with Auburn at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will lead his team into a rematch with Auburn at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's looming matchup with Auburn screams trap game.

The Wildcats have already handily beaten the Tigers, delivering arguably their best performance of the season in a 75-53 road win. Auburn is 9-13 on the season and in the bottom half of Southeastern Conference standings with a 3-6 league mark. Next up on the schedule for UK is a trip to second-ranked Florida, the team the Cats are chasing in the conference race.

Besides, Kentucky has already proven itself more than capable of overlooking an opponent.

"Personally, we have a problem with that," Willie Cauley-Stein said on Friday. "It started with the Notre Dame game, Baylor game. We have a problem with taking people lightly."

Of course, the Cats (16-6, 7-2 SEC) would go on to lose both of those. With Auburn coming to town for a 4 p.m. ET Saturday showdown, UK is trying to avoid another such letdown.

"Everybody's real hyped to play them again because they just came back against Alabama and Coach (John Calipari) said we can't take them lightly," Cauley-Stein said. "They came back and won a big game, so they're going to be extra hyped coming into our place and playing us. We just gotta take it like we never played them before and go out and play hard."

As worried as Coach Cal is about the way Tony Barbee's team switches defenses and a guard who "could score 40" in Frankie Sullivan, he's much more concerned about a different sort of trap entirely. Calipari is focused on avoiding the trap of individual thinking.

"A lot of it is they're trying to establish themselves, so the only thing they know is a four-foot circle around their own body," Calipari said. "That's what they live in. They know all that stuff in there, but outside of that, it becomes a little dicey."

It's been a constant theme this season, the inexperience of this Kentucky team. Calipari has coached youth-laden teams before, but never one with this little returning talent. More than that, the members of his latest top-ranked recruiting class, though supremely talented, arrived with identities that were very much works in progress.

The result was that players spent almost all of their time focused internally; they spent all of their time trying to figure themselves out. That process, though unique relative to the last three years at UK, is not without precedent. Calipari cited the examples of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Kobe Bryant, all players who first locked in their own games before pursuing team success.

How long that takes varies by player and by team, but it's what Calipari is zeroing in on with the Cats in the midst of a four-game winning streak. And he's trying everything he or anyone else can think of to get it done.

"I do it all," Calipari said. "I talk to (sports psychologist Bob) Rotella, I talk to (author and management expert) Ken Blanchard. I'm reading three books a day. I'm taking stuff from everything I'm reading. Praying in the morning. Hard. Just for strength to keep going for these kids, because they deserve to feel the joy of doing something unique."

Seeking that joy, Calipari has morphed into a sort of basketball coach/motivational speaker/life counselor, with a heavy emphasis on the final two-thirds of that hybrid.

"I'm not watching game tape with them," Calipari said. "None. The staff is doing that. I don't want them to see me in a basketball sense right now. I'm just teaching life skills. That's all. How to deal with this, how to deal with adversity."

Before every practice - really the only time he is directly coaching the game- Calipari imparts three "life lessons" to his team. His endgame, other than preparing players for the rest of their lives, is to build the Cats toward what his first three Kentucky teams were, but not in a strictly basketball sense.

"Those guys loved each other," Calipari said of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe and the rest of the 2009-10 UK team. "What about last year's team? They loved each other. What about the year (before)? They loved each other. See, if you love - and truly love - that means it's more about the other guy than you. Then you have discipline. The reason you have discipline is you're playing for him because you love him and you got his back."

They might not use the word "love" as much as their coach, but the Cats are starting to speak Calipari's language.

"We struggled in the beginning," Cauley-Stein said. "We was trying to establish ourselves (as individuals) and now we gotta start establishing the team. We're making strides establishing the team and not individual players."

Coach Cal says that a few of his players are still resisting the change and still haven't extended their focus beyond the dreaded "four-foot circle" around each one of them. Whether the Cats ever completely buy in remains to be seen, but if it doesn't happen, no one will be able to say it was for a lock of trying on Calipari's part.

"Like I told my staff, 'Write this stuff down, because if it works, let's make sure we remember what the heck we did,' " Calipari said. " 'Cause this is all new for me now."

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What are the three books that Coach Cal is currently reading? In the post-game interview Coach Cal mentioned a book called "God Winks" on Amazon.com I couldnt find one by that particular title, there were 2 or 3 with similar titles.

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