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Cats forgetting past, shifting focus to future, end-game execution

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Andrew Harrison had 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds in UK's loss at North Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison had 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds in UK's loss at North Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even by the standards set during John Calipari's Kentucky tenure, the hype was extraordinary.

Coach Cal's first four teams -- all composed largely by freshmen -- began the season ranked in the top 10, but not No. 1 like this year. They were all tabbed as Final Four contenders, but they were never talked about as having a chance to go 40-0.

More than a month into the 2013-14 season, that talk continues to define the Wildcats. Measured against otherworldly expectations, UK's 8-3 start is a disappointment. And when you began at the top, a No. 19/21 ranking doesn't look so good.

From the very beginning, the Cats have been the hunted, taking on teams eager to knock them off their pedestal. But after their most recent defeat at North Carolina, they have turned that on its head.

"Coming into this season, people tried to put us up there with the greatest team ever or whatever, but now we have a chip on our shoulder," Andrew Harrison said. "Now we have a reason to play hard. We have stuff to prove, so that's what we're going to try to go do."

Willie Cauley-Stein senses it too. Even as the Cats have balanced finals week, practice and preparation for a Saturday matchup with Belmont (noon ET, ESPNU), things have felt different.

"The last couple days of practice there's been a sense of urgency that's changed the feel of the way this team is starting to act," Cauley-Stein said.

That practice trend is a reflection of what Coach Cal has been telling his team (and his Twitter followers).

"Look, at the end of the day -- and my message to them is simple today -- you can't change how we started," Calipari's said. "Not changing. You can change how you approach the end. And that's how you'll be remembered."

The message, considering the ways in which UK needs to improve as a team, has more than one meaning.

In each of Kentucky's three losses -- which came by a combined 14 points -- the Cats were in position to win in the final minutes, but were unable to finish the job.

"Right now we don't know how to close out the last five minutes of a game," Cauley-Stein said. "That happens with young guys. It was the same with us last year. Hopefully it just comes and it starts clicking for us."

The fact that UK been close against three ranked teams offers a chance for the Cats to tell themselves they aren't as far from realizing their potential as some might believe. Cauley-Stein, however, isn't biting.

"It's a big problem that has to be solved," Cauley-Stein said. "There's no sugar-coating it. We were ranked too, so you gotta be able to--When it comes down to it you gotta be able to finish out a game."

It's an issue Cauley-Stein remembers dealing with a season ago, and the same goes for Calipari dating all the way back to 2009-10. Coach Cal is attacking it by getting everyone on the same page about UK's strengths and weaknesses and the plan that grows out of those, for both individuals and the team as a whole.

"Really narrow in to what you do and what you absolutely don't do," Calipari said. "And we've got to be clear on it. I think, again, I mentioned this: more organized offensively, because their instincts are, right now, for them. Not us, their instincts."

UK's crunch-time execution could be put to the test immediately, as Belmont (8-4) will come into Rupp Arena with a three-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances and a win over North Carolina under its belt. Though the Bruins have been without senior guard Reece Chamberlain and will likely be again on Saturday, Calipari has all the respect in the world for Rick Byrd's team and program.

"What he's done at Belmont to take that program from where it is, it's never been done," Calipari said. "And then to have success everywhere he's taken the program, never been done before. And he's been through the wards. He's played all the great teams. He's not coming in here, and his team won't come in here thinking anything less than 'Let's try to beat these guys.' "

As dangerous as Belmont -- led in scoring by senior J.J. Mann at 17.7 points per game -- the Cats will continue to keep their focus more on themselves than anyone else.

"We just have to go in there and play as hard as we can," Harrison said. "We can't really worry about the opponent. We have to worry about us. All we can do is practice hard and play as hard we can to get better every day."

That's not an easy process. Calipari, as he has been all season, was quick to remind reporters he doesn't have selfish players, but he is fighting a lifetime of habits.

"What we ask them to do is really hard," Calipari said. "It's easier to play the way they play."

Calipari will occasionally fall victim to moments when forgets he's coaching a team of 18- and 19-year-olds and want to find the finish line faster than he knows is possible. But in the end, he always remembers patience.

"I want them to be better right now," Calipari said. "But it's gonna be a process, and we all got to live with it - and me especially - that it's not always on my timetable or our fans or the media when the light will go on. But I have all the confidence in the world it will at some point. I keep saying, our persistence vs. their resistance. And just understand, I'm not changing."

Cauley-Stein can attest to that.

"I feel like it's going to change real quick because we got no choice," he said. "Cal's going to get it out of us either way, so we can either fight it and we can miserable and it's still going to get done, just in a longer time, or accept the fact that we're wrong and learn and build off of it."

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