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Improvement, not revenge, on Cats' minds entering Robert Morris rematch

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Alex Poythress had seven points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in UK's loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress had seven points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in UK's loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As soon as Kentucky unveiled its 2013-14 schedule, fans circled Nov. 15 on their calendars.

Sure, they looked forward to marquee matchups with Michigan State, Louisville and North Carolina, but Sunday's game against Robert Morris was attractive for another reason: revenge.

UK's NIT loss to the Colonials in March came to define a disappointing season, drawing national coverage even with the NCAA Tournament going on. Eager to erase the sting of the defeat and all it came to represent, fans saw a chance to truly turn the page and move on to a much-anticipated season.

Understandable as those feelings may be, the Wildcats don't share them.

"It's just a basketball game," said Jon Hood, who played 15 minutes in RMU's court-storming win. "It's not a revenge thing. It's about us getting better."

When UK (2-1) and Robert Morris (2-1) square off in the Keightley Classic at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, the Rupp Arena setting will be completely different than RMU's Sewall Center. So will Kentucky's personnel.

Robert Morris, however, will post many of the same challenges as last year though the Colonials lost key contributors Velton Jones and Russell Johnson.

"They're still playing just as hard, just as physical as they did," John Calipari said.

This time, however, Calipari believes he has a team better suited to cope with that physicality. He doesn't need to look any further than the box score from Tuesday's loss to Michigan State to figure that out.

"Well, the one thing is when you outrebound a team like Michigan State, you're way tougher than we were a year ago," Calipari said.

Much of that is on the strength of freshman sensation Julius Randle and his classmates, but Alex Poythress's role should not be discounted.

Less than eight months ago, the sophomore forward was telling reporters he needed to return for another year of school. Reflecting on his freshman year after a six-point, two-rebound effort at RMU, Poythress spoke bluntly about how he needed to improve as a player.

Now three games into his sophomore season, he has arguably become UK's steadiest player outside of Randle. In a reserve role, Poythress is averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds and his stock, in the words of Coach Cal, is "skyrocketing."

"Alex is playing out of his mind," Calipari said.

His coach isn't the only who notices the change.

"He does look like a different guy," Hood said. "He understands what he has to do now. He understands how hard he has to play and how he has to play. Coach has done a great job helping him and we're in practice trying to push him to do that and hold him accountable."

Poythress will now face off against the team that played a role in precipitating his transformation.

Similarly, Willie Cauley-Stein will be playing the team that prompted him to declare the following about his immediate NBA future and that of his teammates.

"Nobody's ready for it," Cauley-Stein said in March. "I don't think anybody's ready for it mentality-wise, body-wise, athletic-wise."

Cauley-Stein surely remembers how he felt when he issued that quote, but neither he nor Poythress have spent much time recalling the sentiment to their younger teammates.

"They haven't talked much about it," Randle said. "We just all want to win, whether we're playing Robert Morris or we're playing Michigan State."

You can be sure Randle means it when he says revenge isn't on his mind because he didn't even watch UK's loss to Robert Morris, which happened just a day before he committed to Kentucky.

"I was out to dinner with my family," Randle said.

Randle is much more concerned about the first loss of his own college career, suffered against Michigan State. In spite of his 27 points and 13 rebounds, the Cats' comeback effort fell short, 78-74, triggering memories of UK's Champions Classic loss from a season ago.

After that defeat against Duke, the Cats expressed optimism that they had fared so well against an experienced opponent. This year's UK team wanted no part of any silver linings.

"Well, this team cried," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way. This team cried."

But as painful as the loss may have been, Calipari believes it will end up being good for his team.

"The only thing that brings about change is a crisis," Calipari said. "In this sport that I coach, it's a loss. You lose, there's a crisis. There's a crisis in the staff, there's a crisis on the team, there's a crisis in the program. We got to change this. And to survive, everybody's got to accept a different role and do things a little differently and go after it, and that's where we are right now."

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