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From the Pressbox: Fun at the heart of UK's resurgence

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One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies - "The Rookie" - has Dennis Quaid's character preparing to give up on his dream of making it to the major leagues.  Then, he goes and watches a group of Little Leaguers and the next day, he walks into the locker room and tells his best friend, "You know what we get to do today. We get to play baseball."

If this Kentucky basketball team writes a story about bouncing back from adversity and finishing strong, it looks like the defining moment might well turn out to be a decision by John Calipari to help his team remember the fun of playing the game they love and not worrying about the pressure that comes with doing it at the University of Kentucky.

So instead of dodgeball being an "underdog story" like the movie title says, dodgeball might be a comeback story.

"It's a big factor. When you lose that bad (by 30 points at Tennessee), I felt depressed.  I didn't want to come out of my room. I was grumpy. Then, they put in dodgeball and you just forgot everything," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters after the Cats beat Vandy in the first game after the Tennessee debacle.

"You look at Minnesota or Cincinnati and neither team is having any fun playing the game and I think Kentucky was probably in that situation," college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy told "The Leach Report" show Monday. "I think it was really smart for John to do what he did. Let's get back to having some fun. This is supposed to be fun. Yeah, it's important business but it starts as a game where everybody wants to have fun."

Kentucky looked like a different team in the two games last week: more smiles, more passion for winning 50-50 battles, more shaking off the effects of setbacks.

Take the last play of the first half of the win over Missouri. Phil Pressey nailed a tough 3-point shot to put the Tigers up by six with just seconds to play. But instead of shuffling off to the locker room, the Cats counter-punched. Ryan Harrow raced up court and found Cauley-Stein for a buzzer-beating dunk, giving UK a shot of momentum going into the locker room.  

On the first play of the second half, Cauley-Stein outran a Missouri player to save a loose ball from going out of bounds. And the Cats whipped the ball around the perimeter to an open Archie Goodwin for a 3-point shot.  The week before, Goodwin probably would have passed up the 3 for a lack of confidence but he confidently drilled it and then followed with a steal and dunk to give UK the lead.  

Those plays were signs of a team with a new attitude. Missouri had lost twice in 44 games under Frank Haith when it led at halftime and yet the Cats rallied. And the biggest deficit UK had overcome in an SEC game was four points and yet this team they climbed out of a 13-point first-half hole.

Along with a dodgeball-inspired mindset change, the Wildcats benefitted from some coaching tweaks.  Most noteworthy was what Calipari did with the offense in the wake of losing Nerlens Noel. He decided the best approach would be to open up the court and in the Missouri game, we saw Harrow, Goodwin and Alex Poythress attacking the rim with authority. That enabled Kentucky to create some of the same kinds of mismatch issues that opponents were creating for UK's defense without Noel to protect the lane.

"I think the system of the play - spreading the court and running some ball screens - is important, but it still comes down to (Goodwin and Poythress) playing with greater passion and consistency. If Kentucky is going to make the tournament and do any damage there, those two guys have to play with great energy and confidence," DeCourcy observed. "He (Poythress) has to have another great game. He doesn't have to get 22 points every night but he has to be significant in every game he plays. The new style of play didn't get Archie going; Archie got Archie going. He played with great energy in the second half and that changed his game and the entire Wildcats team."

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