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Cats with a lot to prove in postseason, most of all to themselves

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UK opens postseason play in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Arkansas or Vanderbilt at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK opens postseason play in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals against Arkansas or Vanderbilt at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ask anyone involved and they'll tell you Kentucky had a really good practice on Monday.

"Yesterday's practice was really good," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was tough, but guys seemed to be in it mentally, more focused."

"We had a great practice yesterday," Kyle Wiltjer said. "Guys are working hard."

Even John Calipari had to agree: "Yesterday's practice was good, one of our better practices."

Combine those rave reviews with the fact that the Wildcats are just days removed from their best win - a comeback against Southeastern Conference champion Florida - and whether things are finally beginning to click into place for UK is a legitimate question. Fair as that question may be, the Cats don't have a response.
 
"We've been here before like this, so I'm not even going to try to answer right now," Cauley-Stein said.

The Cats aren't falling into that trap. Too many times this season they have been sure that they had finally turned a corner to believe it's for real this time. They are placing the burden of proving that this latest bit of progress is lasting on themselves.

"We have something to prove, believe me," Calipari said. "Individuals, as a team, we have a lot to prove."

And as a matter of fact, that's the reason UK even practiced on Monday in the first place.

Normally, Calipari gives his teams two days off immediately following the regular-season finale in anticipation of a lot of basketball and a lot of travel in the conference and NCAA tournaments. But this year, Coach Cal wasn't about to take his foot off the gas. After the Cats were given Sunday to relax, it was back to work on Monday.

"It was good that Coach didn't back off yesterday in practice and is going to continue to push us through because he said last year, or in years past, that they would have had two days off instead of one day off," Cauley-Stein said. "So it's good. It'll keep us in the right mind frame that we need to be in going into it."

It's been a rarity this season that Cauley-Stein - named to the SEC's All-Freshman team on Tuesday - hasn't been in the right frame of mind. He remains a work in progress, but his energy and effort have been beyond reproach. So, what prescription does he have for his team to match that?

"Just listen to what Coach has to say because he's been through it for so many years," Cauley-Stein said. "So that's something we don't get is the time that he's spent in this and preparing guys for it. We're fresh in the game; he's been there for a long time so we just gotta listen and I don't think that's what we've been doing."

The suggestion may be simple on its face, but following it is anything but. This year has clearly demonstrated that.

This season more than any of his first three in Lexington, Coach Cal hasn't had a friend in his bench. He simply hasn't had the option of sitting players when they fail to follow his instructions because there haven't been enough viable replacements. Calipari vowed things will be different in the future, but that doesn't matter in the present. For now, he has had to do everything in his power to put his best team on the floor.

"I'm going to do everything and try to get the team across the finish line," Calipari said. "What happens is it just, as a coach, you're doing everything in that in your heart of hearts, in your bones, you know you wouldn't do or accept or wouldn't even consider to try to get your team across the finish line, knowing at the end of the season (it's) time to regroup, going back to how we do things."

All things considered, it's hard for Coach Cal to be too displeased with the results.

UK finished the season 21-10 in spite of playing only brief stretches with a full complement of players. The Cats' 12-6 conference record was good enough to earn them a No. 2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament, even though SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year Nerlens Noel missed their final seven games.

"This team has gone and done a lot of good stuff," Calipari said. "At the end of the day, you look back, with all that's happened to this team, to be where we are, second place...We're just hanging around, and that's what we want to do."

By "hanging around," Calipari surely means doing enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. Saturday's win over Florida put the Cats on the right side of the bubble according to most experts - at least temporarily anyway. Most agree that UK needs to back up that performance with a win over Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Nashville, Tenn., to solidify its place in the Big Dance.

"We just need to go into the (conference) tournament with the mindset like we're not trying to get beat, like we want to win it, obviously, and keep it rolling," Cauley-Stein said.

Coach Cal still believes his team can roll deep into the NCAA Tournament. He invoked the example of Connecticut in 2011, a team that finished 9-9 in conference play before winning five games in five days at the Big East Tournament and six more - including a Final Four defeat of UK - to win the national title.

The Cats, however, don't have a player likely to average 24.6 points in postseason play to carry the load like Kemba Walker did for the Huskies. Coach Cal does see a player on his roster capable of having a similar impact though.

"Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they're supposed to do," Calipari said.

That's heady stuff for a player who wasn't even focused exclusively on basketball a year ago.

The reality is that Coach Cal doesn't want Cauley-Stein or any of his players thinking in those terms with the postseason just days away.

"I keep telling them, 'Let's worry about us. Let's just keep playing at our best and see what that means,' " Calipari said.
 

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