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New and improved UK eyeing rematch with Turner, Texas A&M

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Nerlens Noel looks to continue his torrid blocking pace when UK travels to face Texas A&M. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Nerlens Noel looks to continue his torrid blocking pace when UK travels to face Texas A&M. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Though Texas A&M is just 1-4 over its last five games, Kentucky has no plans of taking them lightly this Saturday when UK travels to College Station, Texas.

The Wildcats can't forget what happened against the Aggies last month.

Back on Jan. 12, behind Elston Turner's 40 points at Rupp Arena, Texas A&M handed UK its second home loss of the season with a final tally of 83-71.

Since that game, Kentucky has regrouped and focused on becoming a better team. The fruits of that labor have been realized, at least in the short term, when the Wildcats picked up a much-needed road victory over No. 15 Ole Miss on Tuesday.

Now, Kentucky turns its attention from a guy who was getting all the hype in college basketball in Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson, to a player who generated 40 points worth of hype the last time UK and Texas A&M met.

Don't think UK hasn't had this game circled on their calendar since that loss. They have.

"Anyone drops 30, 40, 25, on us, we don't want to let that happen again," said junior guard Jon Hood. "We have a real sour taste in our mouth, so we're looking to shut (Turner) down a little bit."

The players claim that head coach John Calipari had prepared them correctly for Turner about his tendencies and it was their lack of execution that they attribute to his career day in mid-January. Calipari, however, is quick to shoulder plenty of the blame.

"We could have done some different things," said Calipari. "We could have done some things to trap him and make somebody else beat you. It's not all that they did, but we had the wrong guy (Alex Poythress) on him (to begin the game). So you have the wrong guy on him and the kid gets going."

Freshman guard Archie Goodwin thinks he's the answer to the Turner question.

Over the first three seasons of Calipari's tenure in Lexington, he's had a defensive stopper. He's had the likes of DeAndre Liggins and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist relish the role of shadowing the opponent's best offensive threat. This season, Kentucky continues to search for that perimeter defender.

Goodwin is talking the talk, but can he walk the walk?

He says that allowing a player to score 40 points against his team was an embarrassment. Now he's taking the personal challenge of making sure Turner continues to stay quiet like he has since he's cooled off from his Rupp Arena heroics.

"I just tried to stay connected to him and I knew that he was trying to go off of screens and get open for wide open shots, especially with him feeling it that game," said Goodwin of his time guarding Turner in their first matchup. "I'm probably going to guard him the whole game or most of it unless I'm not in."

Goodwin also drew the challenge of guarding Henderson last Tuesday, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer. Though Henderson got 19 points, he needed 19 shots and 12 free throw attempts to get it done. Goodwin, an offensive-minded weapon early in the season, has bridled himself a bit and tried to balance out his game while accepting his role as a defender.

"Being a guy that can defend and score, that's when you become golden because a lot of players ... do one good or one average, but if you do both good, that just makes you a better all-around player," said Goodwin.

Since Turner's otherworldly performance in Lexington, he's quickly returned to earth. In Texas A&M's last five contests since the win over the Wildcats, the Aggies are 1-4 and Turner is averaging just 10.4 points per contest.

Not only will Kentucky look to continue that trend with better defense, but they hope that their win over Ole Miss has helped them to begin to turn a new corner. The last time they came off a big road win, a 75-53 "whomping" of Auburn, they laid an egg at Alabama losing 59-55 after a poor second-half performance.

Regardless, Kentucky feels like a different and better team since the last home loss. Now, they have to prove it.

"We've improved, I think, tremendously," said Hood. "We're talking more, having more fun, and that's basically it. Having fun and playing harder."

Those words and the visual evidence on the court makes it seem more and more like Kentucky is answering Calipari's plea to buy in.  They have to continue to do so.

Nelens Noel is already there. That's mostly due in part to the fact that Noel has been sold since he arrived in Lexington.

While on his way to a UK single-game record with 12 blocks against Ole Miss, Noel picked up a fourth foul midway through the second half. Needing his presence on the court in order to win the game, Calipari opted to trust in his freshman shot swatter and reinsert him into the lineup.

"I was going to ride him out because I know he's the one guy on this team with a will to win that you've got to have on the floor late or you can't win," said Calipari. "Now, when we get to the point like we did a year ago, three of four guys with a will to win, that's when you win all the games."

In SEC play, Noel has been a black hole for attempted shots in the paint of the basket. He's averaged 7.0 blocks in UK's seven SEC games this year. His increased production is due to his relentless work ethic, but also the necessity for him to be a leader on this team.

"I know I've got to step up for this team to have the success that is expected," said Noel. "I've got to take a leadership role and really apply myself to this team and give my all. Just really do my best for this team so we can meet our expectations if not exceed them."

Noel had himself a pretty special game on his own against the Aggies on Jan. 12, but his 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, and six assists were overshadowed by Turner's performance.

Now, whether it's Goodwin, Alex Poythress, Julius Mays or whoever draws the defensive assignment against Turner this Saturday, Noel, a defensive mind, believes the Cats need to take this opportunity personally.

"That's something we have to feel a certain way about," said Noel. "Somebody dropped 40 and we have another chance to play him. Whoever guards him, whoever is on the court that is going to guard him they have to, one of us is going to have fill some type of lane and really have a certain type of determination to get in him and lock him down and not let him get shots off."

Noel has certainly elevated his game, and now others are starting to follow suit. Poythress seems to be reemerging over the last couple of games. Kyle Wiltjer is putting up gaudy scoring numbers and becoming a more competent defender. And Goodwin is realizing his potential as an all-around basketball player.

Kentucky needs all of that to continue if the Cats wish to truly turn the corner on the season and deliver the payback punch they've been looking to dole out since Jan. 12.

"It's real big," said Noel. "We definitely owe them something. We're definitely a different team from when we played them last.

"Certain players have stepped it up and started doing what they need to do for this team and playing a big role. We've changed a lot from then and it's going to be big for us to get this win and keep everything going the way we want it to so we can really completely turn that corner and make our own identity for who we want to be and how far we want to go."

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