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Coach Cal making most of time off

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Kentucky will play for the first time in 11 days on Wednesday against Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Kentucky will play for the first time in 11 days on Wednesday against Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's talent has never been in question, but John Calipari didn't know exactly how much work the Wildcats had ahead of them until they took the floor.

Through UK's nonconference schedule, the talent was on display. There were moments of brilliance, but also those that reminded Coach Cal of a simple fact.

"This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams," Calipari said. "This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other teams that I've had. They're great kids now; they just have bad basketball habits."

The Cats, for all their athleticism and skill, had understandably grown accustomed to dominating without the kind of consistency that was being demanded of them at the college level. Their individual gifts had always allowed them to succeed, carrying their teams in the process.

In defeats against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, that didn't work. Though UK was in position to win each time, the Cats couldn't come together and execute well enough in the final minutes. Those bad habits doomed them.

That's where Camp Cal came in.

With classes out of session for the holiday break, it's been all basketball all the time for Kentucky. The Cats have practiced twice most days, spending the remaining time together at meals or team outings.

With a week-and-a-half window between games, the Cats haven't even had an opponent to worry about. Coach Cal has used that time to zero in on the things he believes will lift his team to its potential.

"There were four areas on defense, there were four areas on offense and we scrimmaged about every day for about an hour and a half and it was nonstop, up and down the court trying to get them to stretch them out, mental toughness and get them to execute both on offense, to create good shots for each other, and on defense, to make it tough on the other team for the entire shot clock," Calipari said.

For example, Calipari has emphasized a somewhat counterintuitive offensive concept with his team.

Instead of thinking about scoring when players have the ball in their hands, Coach Cal wants them thinking pass first. The time for thinking about scoring is when a teammate has the ball.

"In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No," Calipari said. "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."

UK took a step in the right direction on that front its last outing.

Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle for most of the second half, the Cats did what they couldn't in previous matchups with ranked opponents and finished off rival Louisville for a much-needed resume-building victory.

"Well, the thing that happened in that game, again, we played as a team better," Calipari said.

Since then, UK has gone to work building on that momentum and correcting some of the issues (free-throw shooting and careless turnovers, to name a couple) that led to the Cardinals still having an opportunity to win.

As much as fans might like to see the Cats take the floor again to see if that improvement will stick, this schedule lull was not an accident.

"We like to have a little more time and when the league moved the schedule back it was perfect for us," Calipari said. "We're going to see how this plays out. Maybe it helps us. Maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out."

Only time will tell, and the first returns come on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET vs Mississippi State.

"I will tell you that the players are ready to play," Calipari said. "Oh my gosh. They see me coming and their head goes down. They want to start playing games."

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