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Cats looking to continue forward progress against Mississippi State

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John Calipari and Kentucky will look to win their third straight game when they face Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) John Calipari and Kentucky will look to win their third straight game when they face Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It's incredible how much fortunes can change in a week.

Seven days ago, John Calipari and his players were fielding questions about their mental state. The Wildcats had just experienced back-to-back blowout losses on the road and a season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel. The future seemed, at best, murky.

But on Tuesday - in the exact same pregame interview setting - the tone was completely different. Rejuvenated by a pair of home wins and a game of dodgeball, the Cats were talking about how things had clicked into place.

That one week may feel like a long time, but Coach Cal isn't going to allow his Kentucky team to forget the not-so-distant past.

"One week ago we were in coffins; people were trying to nail them shut," Calipari said. "Now all of a sudden, we're like 'OK, wow.' Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don't have maturity or toughness."

UK's next outing - hosting Mississippi State at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday - is a different sort of test of the Cats' maturity and toughness.

The Vanderbilt game was all about injecting a sense of fun back into the season and rebounding from setbacks. Missouri on Saturday was about overcoming a quality team in a primetime environment. Mississippi State will reveal the Cats' ability to maintain their focus in a game without the hype, but with the stakes just as high.

With just over 24 hours before tipoff, the Cats are talking a good game.

"We approach every game the same way, treat every opponent the same, so we're not too worried about that," Kyle Wiltjer said. "We're just worried about ourselves really and just getting better."

The Bulldogs (7-19, 2-13 Southeastern Conference) will arrive in Lexington to face UK (19-8, 10-4 SEC) having lost 12 straight. In head coach Rick Ray's first season, Mississippi State has had to cope with roster turnover that resembles UK under Coach Cal in addition to season-ending injuries to freshmen Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis and another injury that has senior Wendell Lewis out indefinitely. Mississippi State is currently playing with six scholarship players.

"It's been a trying season and, to our guys' credit, they really hung in there and tried to be good citizens and do some of the things that we want them to do on the court and continue to try to compete," Ray said.

The Bulldogs have suffered more than their share of blowout losses, but they played well in road games against LSU and Alabama before losing 72-31 at home against Vanderbilt. Calipari is trying to get his team to expect Mississippi State's best effort.

"I just watched them play Alabama at Alabama six days ago," Calipari said. "It was a four-point game with five minutes to go, at Alabama. I just watched their game with LSU. It was a two or three bucket game at the end of the half. LSU made some threes, turned them over and spread it out, but it ended up being a 12-point game. This team is capable."

The Cats have seen opponents set foot in Rupp Arena and play out of their minds too many times to think otherwise.

"We know if a team starts hitting shots then it's a totally different ballgame," Jarrod Polson said. "They probably had their worst game against Vandy, so who knows what they could do."

Players talked a lot on Tuesday about not overlooking Mississippi State but, in truth, Calipari wants UK focused on itself more than anyone else. He remembers his team from two years ago and how the Cats began to find their feet about this time in 2011. That season, Kentucky won its final three games of the regular season before sweeping through the SEC Tournament and all the way to the Final Four.

The Cats' record through 27 games: 19-8, identical to their 2012-13 successors.

"We had the maturity to say let's take advantage of this now," Calipari said. "Let's see if we have that maturity to take advantage of the position we're now versus the position we were in seven days ago."

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