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Cats trying to turn new off-court closeness into on-court success

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UK will open SEC play against Mississippi State on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK will open SEC play against Mississippi State on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Since they live together, practice together and work out together, it would seem a natural thing that basketball teammates would bond quickly with one another.

Not so, says John Calipari.

You see, for all the Wildcats share, they each still lead their own lives during the school year.

"When you're (in classes), everybody has their own schedule," Calipari said. "They all do. And so it's hard to say - they get up for breakfast, they really don't want to look at each other and go to class at 8."

But in Coach Cal's experience, that changes during the break between fall and spring semesters.

With academic responsibilities eased, the Cats have been on the same clock for more than two weeks now. They wake up together, eat together, practice together and spend nearly every waking hour in one other's presence.

"Every team I've coached has come together," Calipari said of the time known as "Camp Cal."

Coach Cal's latest team has noticed that process at work, partially due to the fact that the Cats' classmates are almost all out of town for the holidays.

"We just started to talk more," Andrew Harrison said. "We really had no choice. We really had no one to talk to besides each other."

Though it's been out of necessity, the Cats have enjoyed that time. They are also seeing the results.

"It has definitely been really important," Aaron Harrison said. "We all got to know each other going out to eat every night and spending a lot more time together. It definitely helped us off the court."

With a nearly two-week hiatus between games finally almost at an end, it's nearly time to find out what that means between the lines.

"Now, I don't know what that means on the basketball court, but I do know they know each other better, they have a better feeling for each other," Calipari said. "And it starts there, in my mind."

There's no way to quantify exactly what chemistry off the court means on it, but Calipari does know two areas he'll be watching when the No. 14/16 Cats (10-3) host Mississippi State (10-3) on Wednesday in Rupp Arena (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network) in both team's Southeastern Conference opener.

"Hopefully defensively we just ratchet it up a little bit," Calipari said. "Hopefully we're gonna hold the ball less."

The latter of those two hopes has become somewhat of a theme for UK. His mind always churning, Coach Cal has come up with one of his signature messages to hammer the point home.

"When you have the ball, you're a passer," Calipari said. "When you don't have the ball, think score. In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No. When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."

Strange as that may sound, the Cats are getting the message.

"It's weird, but we definitely understand where he's coming from and what he means by it, just being ready and try to move to the open spot when you don't have the ball," Andrew Harrison said.

"Actually, that makes a lot of sense," Aaron Harrison said. "It helps everyone be prepared to shoot and be prepared to play and score."

For those that don't yet understand it, a stretch in a recent practice served to illustrate the point.

Andrew Harrison, accustomed to creating with the ball in his hands as a point guard, has struggled at times when his teammates have the ball, standing straight up and down rather than being in a ready position. But for a few possessions in one of a seemingly endless string of practices, it seemed to click.

"He went down, and we threw him the ball," Calipari said. "It was basket, dunk, assist, basket, four straight times, when he didn't have it, it came to him and he just blew by them. We're just like, we're looking around like 'Wow, maybe he got it.' "

Not quite yet. Moments later, he reverted to the way he had done things for the first 18 years of his basketball life.

"Their basketball habits are bad," Calipari said. "Their response to situations: bad. But they're great kids. I mean, these kids--we have not an issue of anything. I mean anything. But their basketball habits stink. They're just the worst. I'm telling you. But they're changing. I'm seeing it right before my eyes. If we can get them where we need to have it, it's on. Right now, it's still, 'Let's see it in games now.' "

The first chance will come on Wednesday, but it won't be the last.

"We're just saying, 'OK, let's see what steps we've taken,' " Calipari said. "And not playing, we may be rusty."

The Cats' game against Mississippi State will be their first in 11 days and second in 19 and the Bulldogs will be out to make UK look as rusty as possible.

Coach Cal compared Mississippi State's defensive approach to Boise State in that the Bulldogs will pack the interior and challenge UK to hit outside shots. In Rick Ray's second season, MSU has already matched its win total from a year ago, scoring 14.1 more points per possession in the process.

"They're gonna fly up and down, run high-low offense or run some back screens to down screens," Calipari said. "They do some really good stuff and they play good as a team. So it's a challenge for us."

As you would expect, Calipari will be watching the way his team responds to the challenge more closely than the scoreboard.

"It's what we need right now, to have a team come in here that's going to run their stuff and play a different kind of defense to see where we are," Calipari said.

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