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Cats go to work on defense during six-day break

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Dominique Hawkins has played 31 minutes in UK's last two games as a defensive specialist. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dominique Hawkins has played 31 minutes in UK's last two games as a defensive specialist. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There will come a time -- the NCAA Tournament, namely -- when winning is John Calipari's sole priority.

It's not March yet.

Looking to drive that message home, Coach Cal asked his freshmen-laden team what having fun on the floor meant.

"They said winning," Calipari said. "I said, 'No, not necessarily.' "

He used that as an opportunity to educate the Wildcats.

"It's coming out and having an unbelievable effort by everyone that's on that floor and who comes in the game and forcing your will on the other team, doing it together and talking and having fun doing it," Calipari said. "That's fun."

With six days between games -- UK's longest such break of the season to this point -- Calipari has gone to work on making his Kentucky team understand that, and it begins on the defensive end.

The Cats are coming off a game in which Texas-Arlington scored better than a point per possession in Kentucky's 105-76 win. UK repeatedly allowed drives to the basket, but not because of a lack of quickness or ability to guard.

It's all about effort.

"We're trying to get them to play through a whole possession, stay in a stance," Calipari said. "Someone said 'Wow, you guys got beat on the dribble.' Yeah, if you're standing straight up and down, it's pretty easy to get beat on the dribble."

Ahead of UK's matchup with Cleveland State at 7 p.m. ET on Monday, Calipari has honed in on defense.

"He really got on us (Thursday), you know, after our off day just to compete and stuff like that and play better defense," Dakari Johnson said. "So we've been doing a lot of defensive drills lately and just competing throughout the whole shot clock and just getting more stops."

In the preseason, practices were all about offense and playing together. Of course, learning the Dribble Drive allows for plenty of opportunities to play defense, but the Cats are focusing on the other end of the floor like never before.

"If you're not doing your best, if you're standing around, if you stop playing - for most of these kids, they were always bigger and stronger and longer and faster, you didn't have to outwork the other guy," Calipari said. "If a team's effort level is far beyond yours, it will smash a talented group."

There's a lesson that front even within UK's team.

Dominique Hawkins came to Kentucky as the least-heralded signee in a class labeled by many as among the best in the history of the game. The Richmond, Ky., native always believed he would carve a role out for himself, but through sheer force of will and a tireless commitment to defense, he's found his way into the rotation even earlier than he expected.

"I knew when I was on this team that I would probably get in games because of my defense," Hawkins said. "I'm trying to learn to become a better defensive player, definitely putting pressure on the ball and trying to be a defensive force for our team."

Hawkins has played a combined 31 minutes in UK's last two games. He has taken just seven combined shots and scored seven points, but has embraced the assignment of hounding the opposing point guard.

"Dominique is probably closest to what we're looking for of anybody on the team (defensively), but it's not where we need to be right now," Calipari said.

Even Hawkins has a ways to go in the communication department.

"I'm kind of a shy person and I don't really talk that much, but he's making me have to talk and yell out stuff because when I'm talking I'm usually quiet, I'm not loud enough," Hawkins said. "So he's working on talking louder with me."

Already, the Cats are seeing progress.

"I think we've gotten better," Johnson said. "I think we're starting to get it now, that we have to just compete the whole time and not stop and we just have to just keep on playing with energy and keep on working hard every possession."

But with seven freshmen and two sophomores playing regular roles, it's going to take time for the message to fully sink in.

"This is all stuff that's new to them," Calipari said.

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