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Cats taking simple approach to Georgia trip

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Willie Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in five games since Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein is averaging 10.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 3.8 blocks and 1.2 steals in five games since Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Seemingly every game either puts Kentucky definitively in or out of the NCAA Tournament, depending on the outcome and the expert to whom you're listening. Every game has an impact on the Southeastern Tournament. Every game changes what the next one means.

For a team with a lot on its plate to begin with, that's a lot to think about. That's why the Wildcats aren't.

"We don't care about Florida on Saturday," junior guard Jon Hood said. "We don't care about the SEC Tournament right now. We don't care about the NCAA, any of that. All we care about is playing our best."

As UK (20-9, 11-5 SEC) prepares for its final road game of the season at Georgia (14-15, 8-8 SEC) on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on ESPN), the Cats have narrowed the innumerable implications of the game down to a much more manageable two.

"The only thing that's on the line tomorrow night is a win and a loss," Hood said. "That's the only thing that we're worried about."

As for the factors will cause the Cats to win or lose, John Calipari has those narrowed down too. It's not about how UK has practiced since a loss on Saturday (Coach Cal said his team has been "fine"). It's not even about execution or spacing or schemes.

"Go in the games, the game's going to get rough," Calipari said. "Battle back. If you're supposed to be handling the ball, handle the ball. Go get it. If you're supposed to rebound the ball, guess what? Go rebound. 'Well, that guy's working really hard.' Well then work harder than him. Go get balls. Beat them to balls. Beat them to 50/50 balls."

After watching his team at Arkansas, it wasn't all that hard for Coach Cal to diagnose those things.

"What I'm worried about is just us being the best version of ourselves; we weren't at Arkansas," Calipari said. "We weren't. They wanted it more. They played more physical. They came at us and we kind of backed away."

Against the Razorbacks' physical defense, UK committed a season-high 19 turnovers. In front of a hostile road crowd, the Cats were outrebounded 44-37 and gave up 20 offensive rebounds. The players saw the statistics, but they didn't fully understood what caused them until well after the fact.

"During the game you don't feel like you was playing like the way that everybody was saying we played," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "And then when you go back on film, you can definitely see that they was playing more intensity, they was playing tougher, they was punking us. You see that in film and you don't want that to ever happen again. You just kind of have to approach it like that."

Georgia, however, is a team has shown itself to be capable of delivering a "punking" in recent weeks.

A little more than five weeks ago, the Bulldogs were 7-11 overall and 1-4 in SEC. They quickly followed that with a five-game winning streak during which they knocked off Tennessee once and Texas A&M twice. Georgia is 2-4 since, but three of the four losses came by seven points or fewer. The only other defeat was by 10 points in overtime against Ole Miss. In the Bulldogs' last outing, they beat Tennessee again, 78-68, in a game the Volunteers needed to win.

"(Georgia head coach Mark Fox has) done a great job," Calipari said. "I called him earlier in the year, and I just thought the job he's doing with his team to get them to be in a position to win games, which is what he's done, phenomenal job. We got our work cut out for us."

That work starts with sophomore guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the SEC's second-leading scorer (18.0 per game) and eighth-leading rebounder (6.9 per game). Caldwell-Pope has scored in double figures in every game this season and scored 25 in the win over Tennessee.

"I don't know (who will guard Caldwell-Pope)," Calipari said. "Don't know yet. He's good, though. He's a good player."

In spite of all that, what Calipari wants the Cats to understand is they need not do anything more than take Cauley-Stein's "enough is enough" approach to reach their goals. Even the pundits most critical of UK's resume agree the Cats control their future. Any bubble conversation will be rendered moot if Kentucky can string together wins over the season's final stretch.

"I think our team, whatever they want to be: Where do you want to go with this?" Calipari said. "How do you want to do this? Whatever you want it to be, it's gonna be. I think we've got a bunch of good guys that are still learning, and when stuff gets a little ragged they're not at their best, and that's where we got to learn."

Just two seasons ago, Hood was on a Kentucky team that put things together late. The 2010-11 Cats closed the regular season strong, won the SEC Tournament and eventually reached the Final Four. Hood can't remember exactly what came together to make that happen, but he's sees no reason why his current team couldn't do something similar.

"I believe that any team can do that if they come together," Hood said. "You see all these Cinderella teams in the tournament that are playing their best at the end of the year. Any team can do it. Why can't we? We just need to come together, play as a team and play tough and we'll be fine."

If the Cats can pull it off, they'll remember it forever.

"I still have the same vision," Calipari said. "I told them: I believe in the team and I'm going out with the idea that we're going to write a heckuva story. This is going to be a heckuva story before it's all said and done - if you want it to."

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