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Cats glad to have chance to keep playing

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UK will open NIT play at Robert Morris on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Josh McCoy, UK Athletics) UK will open NIT play at Robert Morris on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. (Josh McCoy, UK Athletics)
The disappointment over missing out on the NCAA Tournament still lingers for the Kentucky Wildcats. Talking to Julius Mays and Jon Hood on a rainy Lexington Monday that seemed to match the mood of UK fans, that much is clear.

The good news is they don't just have to sit around and sulk. Named the top overall seed in the NIT, the Cats will be taking the floor barely 48 hours removed from not hearing their names called on the Selection Show.

"I think just to have the opportunity to keep playing with each other will be a lot of fun," guard Julius Mays said. "I know I'm looking forward to it. Obviously it's not the tournament I want to be in, but just to get the chance to keep playing is the most important thing."

As UK prepares for Tuesday's game at Robert Morris (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), Jon Hood is echoing Mays' sentiments. The Cats might not be playing for the trophy they really want and defending last year's national championship, but it's called "playing" basketball for a reason, isn't it?

"Playing basketball's fun. Writing columns is fun for you," Hood said in response to a writer for a local newspaper. "Playing basketball is fun for me. So that's what I'm looking forward to."

John Calipari won't be playing, but he's taking a similar approach.

During a season in which he's tried everything he could come up with to inspire his team to reach its potential, the NIT gives the Cats a little extra time to click.

"We've got issues, let's deal with them," Calipari said. "Let's use them to get better. We've got more time to practice with our team. We've got a bunch of young players. We're going to use the time to get better."

Given how young the Cats (21-11) are, any improvement they make right now figures to pay dividends next season, but it's not as if they are eschewing any thoughts of winning right now. Robert Morris (23-10) is a deep, experienced team that is 12-3 on its home court this season and won the Northeastern Conference regular-season title. Six of the Colonials' top seven scorers and their bench accounts for 37.6 of the team's minutes played on the season - 40th in the nation.

"Robert Morris is really good, (won 23) games, really efficient and they turn you over a lot," Hood said. "They're tough, Pittsburgh guys that are just gonna fight you. We just have to get over that. We have to understand that that's coming and accept it play through it."

Coach Cal likened Robert Morris to Arkansas because of the physical pressure the Colonials apply to the ball. UK lost by 13 points at Arkansas less than three weeks ago while Robert Morris fell by just five in a hard-fought game on the Razorbacks' home floor back in December.

On the season, Robert Morris steals the ball on 13.5 percent its opponents' possessions, the ninth-highest rate in the nation. That starts with point guard Velton Jones, who averages 1.8 steals a game to go with 5.2 assists and 10.9 points.

"Their point guard, he'll grab guys," Calipari said, who will be returning to his hometown of Moon Township, PA., for the game. "I've seen him on tape just go grab a guy. But it's because he has the ability to physically dominate a game that he can do that and no one messes with him."

The Colonials have the added - and unique - advantage of playing on their home floor, the Sewall Center, which seats just 3,056. ("That's smaller than my high school gym," said Hood.)

Some fans were disappointed to learn the higher-seeded Cats wouldn't be hosting in the NIT until the second round due to staffing issues with the NCAA Tournament being played in Rupp Arena this week. Coach Cal, however, was not.

Still just days removed when UK delivered a disappointing performance in a game against Vanderbilt in which it could have locked up a berth in the Big Dance, Calipari believes the Cats must prove they want to keep playing. His players agree.

"We don't want fans to go buy tickets and might have a few guys that don't really want to be there and we show it and lay another egg on the first game, so I do think we do have to prove ourselves that we want to play and I do think we have something to prove, so I hope guys are ready to play," Mays said.

The only reasonable course of action for the Cats is to focus on the task at hand, regardless of the fact that they'd rather be playing in another tournament. Very few teams get to end their seasons with a win and UK wants to be one of them for the second season in a row.

"It means that you went out on the right note, you went out on a good note and you always want to do that," Hood said of potentially winning the NIT. "You always want to end your season with a win and there's two teams that do that. And we want to be the second team. It stinks were not in the NCAA and can't do it there, but life goes on."

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