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Cats still a work in progress on physical front

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Ryan Harrow and the Wildcats take a three-game winning streak into a Tuesday night matchup with South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Ryan Harrow and the Wildcats take a three-game winning streak into a Tuesday night matchup with South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no mistaking the fact that John Calipari's Kentucky team has made strides. The Wildcats have won five of six and are a bad second half against Alabama away from a 7-1 start to Southeastern Conference play.

Kyle Wiltjer is a completely different player on both ends of the floor. Alex Poythress is starting to tap into his nearly limitless potential on a much more regular basis. Nerlens Noel is protecting the rim better than anyone in the country.

Even so, the Cats have a ways to go, particularly in one area.

"We're getting better," Calipari said on Monday. "And individual players are now starting to feed off of each other. But we're still, when it really gets rough and tough, we got a couple guys that just can't be in the game, and that's what hurts you."

As UK (15-6, 6-2 SEC) prepares for a welcome home game against South Carolina (12-9, 2-6 SEC) after four of five on the road, not a practice goes by without Calipari trying to address that.

"We're working on it every day, and we've got guys that don't want that kind of game," Calipari said. "And until you relish playing in that type of game, you're going to look like you're passive, soft or whatever you want to say. You have to want that."

Though UK's development in other areas was much speedier last season, negating physical play is a challenge these Cats have in common with their championship-winning predecessors.

"We've got a young team," Calipari said. "Last year, it took us time. The year before, it took us time."

Wiltjer is UK's lone regular contributor who has been through that process. He was there for practices when Coach Cal broke out the pads and made players fight through the bumps. He says things have been the same this year.

"Coach Cal does a great job creating practice plans that'll kind of get us ready for the game," Wiltjer said. "That's similar to last year. That's how you get ready for the game."

The Gamecocks will surely provide a challenge on that front when they come to Rupp Arena at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

"They'll do what every other team's doing," Calipari said. " 'Get up in their body, be physical. You bump this guy, he'll turn his back. You try to deny him the ball, he won't work to get open.' We're working on it and talking about it, and I think our guys see it."

They better take notice of it after South Carolina misses shots.

In Frank Martin's first season, the Gamecocks rank fourth in the nation in offensive rebounding rate, grabbing an astounding 40.9 percent of their own misses according to UK is a middle-of-the-pack defensive rebounding team, allowing offensive rebounds on 30.9 percent of opponents' misses. The Cats have given up double-digit offensive rebounds in six of eight SEC games, including 26 in a win at Ole Miss.

Potentially helping in that respect could be Willie Cauley-Stein. At Alabama, the 7-footer saw the floor for the first time since undergoing a minor knee procedure, but played just four first-half minutes. Calipari said on Monday Cauley-Stein didn't play after halftime because the nature of the game dictated that Noel needed to stay on the floor. But another two days of practice could help Cauley-Stein round back to into form.

Cauley-Stein's absence came not long after Ryan Harrow had stabilized the point guard position following extended time of his own away from the team. Because of that, UK has spent little time this season with a full complement of players.

"We're getting better but we've been in flux the whole season," Calipari said. "We have not been able to say, okay, here's who we are and let's just get better and it's put us in positions where we're not as confident in each other. Guys don't believe in each other the way they should, we just haven't been together like that."

With Cauley-Stein's return, the Cats can begin working toward that. Calipari, however, admits that he's not sure what his team's identity will end up being.

"I have no idea, all I know is we're getting better and now hopefully we'll start growing from here, but I don't know," Calipari said.

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