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Cats believe latest breakthrough a more permanent one

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Archie Goodwin will return to his home state on Saturday for UK's game against Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Archie Goodwin will return to his home state on Saturday for UK's game against Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On more than one occasion, Kentucky has turned in a performance that has led proclamations that the Wildcats had turned the corner and were on the way to fulfilling their potential.

First it happened at Auburn when the Cats proved John Calipari wrong and "whomped" the Tigers. Ten days later, it happened again at Ole Miss in what - at the time - was billed as UK's signature win.

As it turned out, the development of Coach Cal's youngest team to date was a much more complicated process than that. Perhaps those moments were signs of progress, but they certainly weren't the turning point everyone has been awaiting.

Once again, the Cats are being asked about a potential breakthrough. UK is in the midst of a three-game winning streak - all at home and all without Nerlens Noel.

So what makes this time different? According to Ryan Harrow, it's the simple fact that the Cats can't afford to mess around anymore.

"It's kind of like the end of the road now so it really matters and everything counts right now," Harrow said. "We hold our destiny in our hands as Coach would say."

Indeed UK (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) does control its own fate. The Cats need only continue to win games and they'll be able to rest easy on Selection Sunday. And in spite of all the adversity they've faced, the Cats can clinch a share of the conference title with victories in their final three-regular season games.

Players say they aren't worried about those things though, at least not directly anyway. The goal is to keep improving, to keep coming together as a team and to let those things show on the court game by game. The next such chance for the Cats comes on the road against Arkansas (17-11, 8-7 SEC) on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on CBS), but it won't be easy.

The Razorbacks have a nearly spotless 16-1 record in home games (compared with just 1-10 away from Bud Walton Arena). Mike Anderson's team plays a fast-paced style that relies on consistent but unpredictable ball pressure. Arkansas is forcing turnovers on 24.6 percent of its defensive possessions, which means UK's backcourt is in for a test.

The Arkansas matchup isn't all bad news though. The Razorbacks rank first in the SEC and 13th nationally in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com at 71.0 possessions per game. The Cats are 11-2 in games in which each team has at least 70 possessions, while six of their eight losses this season have come in slower-paced games with 65 possessions or fewer.

Don't let the brisk pace fool you into thinking it will be a game without contact though.

"I know this game will be very physical, hand-to-hand combat, and it's something that we haven't played through well," Calipari said. "And this will be, OK, the next evolution of this team is, when stuff gets rough and it's body to body, can you play? We'll be able to see."

If Harrow continues to play the way he has during UK's winning streak, the Cats figure to have a good chance. During that stretch, Harrow has averaged 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He's been efficient too, hitting 56.3 percent from the field and committing just three total turnovers.

Fellow guard Julius Mays (44 points, 13 assists and three turnovers) has been equally steady over the last three games, while Jarrod Polson has made consistent contributions. Archie Goodwin has had some forgettable first halves, but he's shooting 50 percent from the field over the last three games himself.

"Everybody's playing with a lot of confidence," Mays said. "We're all doing what we can do. Ryan's been leading the team, playing like how a point guard should play. Archie's stepped it up. Those last few games he's had second halves. I've been shooting the ball well. Jarrod's been playing well. All of our perimeter guys have been playing well."

Considering he'll be returning to his home state to play against the school many of his friends wanted him to attend, Goodwin figures to be particularly keen on playing well, though the road crowd won't make it easy on him.

"It'll be tough," Calipari said. "We talked a little bit about it. It's going to be a hard deal for him, but I think he'll be fine."

Both Harrow and Mays reported giving some of their allotted tickets to Goodwin, so the freshman guard will have plenty of family and friends there supporting him. He will surely enjoy seeing them, but once he gets between the lines, he'll have to put it all aside.

"I just told him, 'You got to keep your head focused on our team,' but it's hard," Calipari said.

That's really the whole point. The only true way for Goodwin and the Cats to gauge their true progress is in difficult circumstances.

"We've won some games, so they're better," Calipari said of his team's mindset. "But again, you got to get hit in the mouth a little bit and see how guys respond. That's why you play these kind of games. It's a tough, tough challenge for us going in there."

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