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Coach Cal asking for next level of commitment, focus from Cats

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John Calipari will lead Kentucky into a Tuesday matchup at Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will lead Kentucky into a Tuesday matchup at Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After John Calipari was relatively positive following Kentucky's win at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats probably expected to hear more of the same sunny tune about the progress they had made when they reported to the Joe Craft Center on Sunday.

They were in for a surprise.

"Yesterday, I kind of hit them in the mouth," Calipari said. "I think they were all, like, stunned."

Yes, UK had won in Memorial Gymnasium, a venue that gives fits to the best of teams, but Coach Cal didn't see what he wanted in the final minutes. UK built a lead that grew to as many as 14 points, but Vandy battled back to make it interesting.

"You get a team down and you have a chance to put them away, you do," Calipari said. "And here's why you didn't. And we watched tape and talked about it."

In that film session, Calipari went around the room telling each player what they had done wrong ("And it was kind of like--slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap," Calipari said.) In the practice that followed, UK went 30 minutes longer than initially planned to address all those issues.

"You have to have a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose on each possession, and we don't always do it," Calipari said. "Guys will stop, and they're pointing to go guard their man who came off a screen, or stop playing and a guy back-cuts."

Calipari's go-to analogy for those lapses in focus is "letting go of the rope." That's inevitable with a team as young as UK and the way to counteract it is by committing fully to the cause.

"Someone comes in to take it, you worked too hard," Calipari said. " 'I invested too much. You're not taking this from me. You ain't takin' this from me. I don't care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn't matter. You're not taking it.' If you're invested."

The "Breakfast Club" that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist formed en route to UK's 2012 national title is the most famous example of that kind of off-the-floor work, but Brandon Knight showed similar dedication on his own. At Memphis, Coach Cal remembers Tyreke Evans establishing a second home at the gym.

"He slept in the practice facility," Calipari said. "We had a lounge that, he had a lounge chair that he put a pillow and a blanket, and two to three times a week, he slept in the practice facility."

He didn't take it to quite that extreme - largely because the players' dorm is mere steps away from the Joe Craft Center - but Derek Willis spent more than an hour alone after midnight on Monday morning shooting.

Willis got his first extended minutes in more than two months at Vandy, but the sharp-shooting freshman forward missed both of his 3-point attempts. He was otherwise solid, earning a high-five from his coach for feeding the post effectively, but wants to make sure he takes full advantage of his next opportunity.

"When you're in the gym a lot, it's like going to church for some people or like talking to a counselor maybe," Willis said. "It's just good to like think of stuff and see how you're doing. It's really good, peace of mind."

"Peace of mind" is not a phrase likely to be used often when talking about the Cats' next game.

No. 13/12 UK (12-3, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) will travel to Fayetteville, Ark., to face Arkansas (11-4, 0-2 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday (ESPNU). The Razorbacks rarely lose on their home floor in Bud Walton Arena and play a style similar to "40 Minutes of Hell" under Nolan Richardson disciple Mike Anderson.

"You have to have tough, strong-willed players," Calipari said. "Those guys will give themselves a chance to win. If you go in there with any kind of -- if you're timid in any way, they overrun you."

That's a good way to describe UK's visit to Arkansas last season, when the Cats committed 19 turnovers and fell victim to a second-half burst in a 73-60 defeat.

This season, Arkansas once again makes its living on defense with turnovers - forcing miscues on 24.9 percent of opponents' possessions, the sixth-best rate in the nation - but has taken a step forward on offense. The Razorbacks are 40th nationally in effective field-goal percentage at 53.5, an improvement of more than five percent from a season ago.

"They shoot the ball well," Calipari said. "They shoot it from the 3, they shoot the 2s well, and they shoot free throws at 70 percent. So it's not a game you can go down there and throw a bunch of clunkers up, because you're going to have a problem."

Arkansas is among the deepest teams in the country, as no Razorback is averaging more than 25.4 minutes and 12 average double-digit minutes. Sophomore Bobby Qualls leads four Razorbacks averaging double figures in scoring at 12.7 points per game.

"They just said it was a hostile environment," Dakari Johnson said when asked what his older teammates had told him of playing at Arkansas. "There's a lot of fans that's going to be hostile and the way they play, it's an up-and-down system so it's really going to be a good game."

No matter what, there's a good chance the game will come down to the wire. For that reason, Coach Cal wants the Cats judging themselves based on how they played, not the final score.

"You've got to get off this, 'Well, we won,' and get on this, 'Let's play at our best,' " Calipari said. "Now, what does that mean in the score? It may be a four-point win; it may be a 25-point win. But let's play at our best, and let's go out with that mentality."

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