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Cal knows Cats in for fight against Vandy

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Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 13.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in two regular-season wins over Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 13.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in two regular-season wins over Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It's nearing the part of the season when every game could be Kentucky's last. This is when coaches typically ease off the throttle to make sure their teams are fresh for quick turnarounds, but not John Calipari.

Coach Cal knows the last thing the Wildcats need is for him to take his foot off the gas. For that reason, he's pushing them as hard as he ever has.

"We've had three really good days of practice and I was really - I was probably as hard the last three days as I was at any point this season," Calipari said on Thursday night.

You see, Coach Cal is worried about Friday when UK will open postseason play against Vanderbilt (15-16) in Bridgestone Arena (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). With a double bye to the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals, he knew the Cats would be facing a team riding the momentum of a victory the night before. He believes that makes this the most difficult game UK will play all weekend.

"After that it starts going downhill a little bit," Calipari said. "It's a little easier. This first one will be a bear, and so I've tried to be tough and rough, and they've responded, so we'll see."

Not until just before 9 p.m. local time did the Cats find out who they had been preparing for.

Vanderbilt advanced with a 75-72 victory over Arkansas on Thursday night. The Commodores built a lead as large as 16 points with less than 11 minutes left before surviving a furious Razorback rally.

It will be the third matchup between the Cats and Commodores on the season. In fact, it will be the second year in a row the Cats and Commodores have met for the third time in the SEC Tournament. Last year, Vandy took down UK in the SEC Tournament finals, 71-64, the Cats' lone postseason blemish en route to a national championship. You can throw that game out the window though because these two teams hardly resemble last year's versions due to graduation and losses to the NBA Draft.

In 2013, UK has twice taken down Vandy in close games: 74-70 in Lexington on Feb. 20 and 60-58 in Nashville on Jan. 10. Each time Kentucky ceded double-digit leads only to survive in the final minutes.

"They're pretty familiar with us; we're pretty familiar with them," Vandy head coach Kevin Stallings said. "We've had two competitive games, just like last year, and now you sort of anticipate a slugfest for the third one. They're a really good team and hopefully we can play well."

The Commodores, however, are a different group than the last time they faced UK. Vandy has won five of its last six since the second game against the Cats. The only loss came on the road at conference champion Florida.

"We're playing our best basketball of the season," Stallings said.

During that stretch, the Commodores have done what they have all season: rely on the 3-point shot. Coming into the win over Arkansas, Vandy had attempted 43.6 percent of its field goals from beyond the arc, the ninth-highest highest rate of any team in the country. Against the Razorbacks, the 'Dores took exactly half - 28 of 56 - of their shots from deep, hitting 12.

In five wins since losing at UK, Vandy has averaged 9.6 made 3s. In their lone loss, the Commodores shot just 4 of 24.

"We're going to guard them but it doesn't matter, they're going to shoot them," Calipari said. "Whether you really guard them, then they'll step back deeper. (Rod) Odom's going to step back; he's going to shoot them. (Kedren) Johnson will shoot them."

That was certainly the case against Arkansas. Johnson, Vandy's leading scorer, made just 1 of 3, but Odom drilled five of his six field goals on the night from 3-point range in nine attempts, scoring a game-high 20 in the process.

Though he knows a hot shooting night by Vandy could easily deal his team's NCAA Tournament resume a serious blow, regardless of how the Cats play, Coach Cal isn't obsessing over what may or may not happen or even exactly how his team will look after a six-day layoff. He's worried about something much simpler.

"I have no idea, so hopefully we come out of the gate, we play well," Calipari said. "But even if we don't, I just want to see us play for 40 minutes: play, compete, battle, don't hang your heads, don't droop your shoulders, don't jog back because you're embarrassed on how you're playing. Play, battle, fight. That's all we're talking about."

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