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Notebook: Cats itching for a little outside competition

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Derek Willis buried five 3-pointers en route to a 21-point performance at the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Derek Willis buried five 3-pointers en route to a 21-point performance at the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For more than a month, John Calipari has been running his Kentucky team through a complete practice schedule.

During that time, the Wildcats have become intimately familiar with one another. They've had more than their share of intense battles, culminating with Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage.

The process has been fun and beneficial, but the Cats are ready for the practice-only period to be over. They're ready to see some colors other than Blue and White.

"We've been playing together now for 22 practices, so I think they're just about ready to put it out there against somebody else," Calipari said.

It isn't just that the Cats are tired of beating up one another either. With 12 talented scholarship players on the roster, practices and scrimmages have been ultra-competitive and physical, but that's exactly what this group wants.

The reason why the idea of taking on Transylvania in UK's first exhibition at 7 p.m. ET on Friday is so enticing is that the Cats are eager to see what it looks like when all that talent is on one side.

Instead of doing battle with Willie Cauley-Stein in the post and chasing him up and down the floor, Dakari Johnson will be checking in for him or even playing alongside him. Instead of Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins dogging Andrew and Aaron Harrison every minute, they'll be giving them breathers.

"It's going to be scary," Dakari Johnson said. "We go up against each other and you're going up against guys as the same talent level as you and when you mix us all together, I'm just looking forward to seeing how it looks."

Not even Johnson's coach is sure what it will look like.

At the Blue-White Scrimmage, fans got a taste of all the lineup options Coach Cal has to choose from. Calipari has been gathering as much information and measuring players in competitive scenarios as possible and the exhibition is another opportunity to see how the Cats look with the lights on.

"We'll see," Calipari said. "We're still trying to evaluate who's in that top six, seven, eight, who is it? We get another look. The scrimmage kind of put out one thing, well let's see it against somebody else and see how our guys do."

Most of the big names impressed in the scrimmage, but it was a freshman without a five-star rating who was the revelation. Derek Willis poured in 21 points, including five made 3s, in spite of being matched up with preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Julius Randle for much of the evening.

"Practice, it definitely carried over into the game and I was just shooting well," Willis said. "It was a scrimmage, but I felt like I showed people what I could do and I had fun."

Willis includes Calipari in that group of people he may have surprised.

"I think Cal's expectations definitely changed for me," Willis said. "He didn't know how good I was."

Just as importantly, Calipari says Willis didn't have a complete grasp of his own talent.

"He didn't know how good he was," Calipari said. "He's playing in the best shape he's ever been in; he's more physical than he's ever been. He's driving balls through bumps, which I'd never seen him do."

Willis has come a long way from pickup games this summer when he was forced to ride the bench as former Wildcats now in the NBA paraded through Lexington.

"There wasn't a lot of space to play," Willis said. "So coming around practice time and stuff, I was getting to play more and I was getting to blend in and feel myself out. It ended up working well and I'm playing real well with the guys."

So well, in fact, that Willis is making a major push for playing time.

Just seven months removed from a season during which UK had no bench to speak of, Calipari is finding himself wondering how he can even work his way to down to his customary seven- or eight-man rotation. That's a challenge, but one that figures to only help the Cats.

"The great news is, everybody's challenged," Calipari said. "You have guys playing really well, where now all of a sudden I'm in my office at 10:30 (p.m.), and I hear, 'Thump, thump, thump.' The guy playing against that guy now, he's in the gym saying, 'I've got to get some extra work in, this guy's really playing well.' "

Cats sound off on No. 1 ranking

Johnson heard the news from reporters as he fielded questions about UK's exhibition vs. Transylvania: The Cats will open the season at the nation's No. 1 team in both major polls.

The Associated Press released its preseason top 25 on Thursday afternoon and UK came in just ahead of second-place Michigan State, receiving 27 of 65 possible first-place votes.

"I didn't know that," Johnson said. "It's a blessing to be ranked No. 1, but it just says we have a (target) on our back now. We really have to stay focused. That's not the main thing we're focused on is being No. 1. We're just trying to be the best team we can be."

Willis had gotten word before he stepped into the media horde, but his reaction was much the same.

"It's a great thing," Willis said. "Being No. 1 is a great achievement so far, but we have a lot of work to do."

Considering how heavily UK will rely on its highly regarded eight-man freshman class, shouldering the burden of a top ranking is a natural concern.  But this is Kentucky, after all. Pressure is just part of the deal.

"I feel like even before the season we had a lot of pressure," Willis said. "There was a lot of talk about 40-0 and all that stuff. We've ignored that. We're just continuing to work every day and work on ourselves. We're not worried about what the media is saying right now."

Andrew Harrison's knee creating opportunity for others

Asked about the knee injury that kept Andrew Harrison out of the second half of the Blue-White Scrimmage, Coach Cal said he was not sure yet whether the freshman point guard will play on Friday.

UPDATE: Calipari tweeted after practice on Thursday that Andrew Harrison will miss the Transylvania game, saying Alex Poythress -- who "had a great practice," according to Coach Cal -- will start in his place.

The injury is a bone bruise, which means the only remedy is time off. As a result, his twin brother Aaron has had to step in at point guard in practice, which Calipari believes will only help the long-term prospects of the team.

"And right now it's good because Aaron's playing point," Calipari said. "It's giving us a chance to look at James Young playing both the two and the three. Now it gives us a chance to maybe put other guys at the three, try Julius at the three."

This kind of situation is exactly why Coach Cal built this roster the way he did. A short-term injury last year would have - and often did -- cripple the Cats in practice to the point where there were times UK couldn't even go five-on-five.

Now, it's just next man up.

"We kind of got a good kind of mix," Calipari said. "But right now with him being out, one guy's misery is another guy's blessing, another guy's opportunity, and that's what's happened for us."

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