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Cats unfazed by prospect of facing Baylor zone on big stage

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Julius Randle will return to his home state on Friday to face Baylor in AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle will return to his home state on Friday to face Baylor in AT&T Stadium. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a rare thing for a Kentucky basketball player to field questions about playing in a big venue. The Wildcats play in the second-largest arena in the NCAA (and all of basketball, for that matter), so they're accustomed to playing in front of 20,000-plus fans.

But even for UK, this is unique.

On Friday night, Kentucky will play a women's and men's doubleheader against Baylor in AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

"I never expected to be playing in a stadium that big and that's that well known," Dominique Hawkins said. "It's just going to be amazing to play there."

On the men's side, Kentucky and Baylor come in ranked third and 20th, respectively, in the AP poll. As for the women, UK is No. 5 and Baylor No. 9. The men will play a half-hour after the women's game, which will tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET.

"We aren't going to have 80,000 there but my hope is that because of the games that are being played there, everybody is ranked, it's going to be a terrific environment," John Calipari said. "I haven't been in the building but everybody tells me it's just ridiculous. They are moving the court to one side but the court will be raised, so it will be like that kind of environment."

What Coach Cal means is that he wants to simulate an NCAA Tournament atmosphere as closely as possible, which has been an M.O. of his in scheduling in recent years. AT&T Stadium will play host to the Final Four, so the Cats will be stashing away the memories of what it's like to shoot in a building so cavernous.

Julius Randle hasn't played there, but he has at least been inside.
 
"I went to a game last year in that arena and it was kind of funny, the dome and everything," Randle said. "It seemed like a really fun environment."

Making it more fun for Randle will all the family and friends in attendance to support him. For the first time since the start of the fall semester, the Dallas, Texas, native will be returning to his home state.

"I would say it's a dream of mine just to be able to come back to my home state and be able to play in front of family and friends and fans in the city too, so I'm looking forward to it," Randle said.

Eight players on the Bears' roster are from the Lone Star State, which means Randle will see some familiar faces wearing Baylor jerseys as well.

"I know some of those guys just because of AAU basketball and high school playing against them," Randle said. "I'm very familiar with their guys. They're a really good team. They can shoot the ball and have some long, athletic bigs."

That length is what stands out to Coach Cal, and the Bears (7-1) use it to mix disruptive zone and man defenses.

"Their zone is very effective, my feel is they will play us 95 percent zone and they play it different ways," Calipari said. "They are like us in that they are so long that you are not getting the looks that you think you will get."

Though the zone will pose problems, Coach Cal doesn't necessarily mind seeing it. Eight games in, Kentucky has already grown accustomed to seeing non-man looks.

"The good news is just about every team has played a zone and the one thing I want to tell you is there is a cohesiveness to playing this game," Calipari said. "Against man to man, we don't seem to be as cohesive as we do against zone."

The zone, according to Calipari, forces the Cats to play together. Against man, the temptation for his talented group of youngsters is to rely too heavily on their individual gifts.

"You can't just try to make a play, you have to pass the ball, pass the ball, move it inside, kick it out, drive it, and all of a sudden we become a cohesive team," Calipari said.

Assuming the Bears play zone, that means Randle is likely to have to cope with multiple defenders at all times, like he has ever since his 27-point, 14-rebound explosion against Michigan State. He says it would be "like Christmas" if opponents tried to play him one-on-one, but he isn't holding his breath.

In high school he received the same attention from opposing defenses, but Randle was able to use his size and strength to get the job done on his own anyway. Now, he's being forced to adjust to playing against bigger defenders.

"It's a different challenge," Randle said. "It's nothing I can't handle. Luckily for me I have teammates who can help plays and guys who are capable of doing a lot of different things. You have to kind of pick and choose what you want to do."

Randle, always one to put pressure on himself, is learning patience.

"The one thing I said was quit trying to be perfect," Calipari said. "He is acting like he should make every play, just stop and play harder than the other guy. Just worry about that, don't worry about anything else. He's doing fine, he's doing fine."

Given that he's averaging 18.1 points and 12.6 rebounds and has double-doubles in all but one outing, "fine" might be an understatement.
 

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