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Fair or unfair, Calipari asking Cats to come together vs. Florida

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UK will host No. 3/4 Florida at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will host No. 3/4 Florida at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A group of 18- and 19-year-olds, the Kentucky Wildcats are still in their formative years. Most of them still developing physically, trying establish themselves with an eye on their bright futures.

At the same time, they are faced with more immediate priorities. With almost certainly just one year together as presently assembled, the Cats know they have no choice but to come together and come together fast.

There's no overstating the magnitude of that challenge.

"They're trying to grow as an individual player yet come together," John Calipari said. "Think how hard that is. Trying to establish who they are and how they have to play, yet do it for each other. This stuff is impossible."

But at Kentucky, "impossible" is not part of the vocabulary.

"I told them yesterday, 'It's not fair what I'm asking you to do,' " Calipari said. " 'Now do it. Now do it.' It's not fair. You can't ask kids to do what we ask them to do. It's not fair. But, now do it. And they're trying."

The challenge facing UK's team almost exclusively comprised of freshmen and sophomores is what they signed up for. By coming to Kentucky, the Cats decided they wanted to take center stage, to bypass the chance to develop in the shadows behind upperclassmen. They chose these bright lights.

The lights don't get any brighter than the ones under which No. 14/13 UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) will play on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. No. 3/4 Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC) comes to Lexington two games ahead in the conference race and in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. To add to the hype, ESPN will be in town to host its weekly College GameDay show the morning of the game.

"It's a great opportunity," Calipari said. "It's why you come here, to play these kind of games against highly ranked teams that come into your building favored to win with veterans, and here we are."

A familiar storyline will be trotted out again for the rivalry game: Will UK's youngsters be able to overcome the Gators with talent? Or will Florida's experience rule the day?

"This game is going to be our 19-year-olds against their 23-year-olds," Calipari said. "Now, how does that play out? I know when they're 35 and 36, and you're 30, that's a difference. The old guys have got a little problem there. But at the younger ages, they've got an advantage. And it is an advantage. Most of it is the discipline they play with."

Though it's a fact that four of Florida's regulars are seniors and all five of UK's starters over the last four games freshmen, the Cats aren't all that interested.

"We just don't want use it as an excuse," Alex Poythress said. "It's not that he tells us to drop (youth as an excuse); it's just like we don't want to make excuses for ourselves. We just want to come out and play the game.

But to call Florida a team facing a major talent deficit is doing a disservice to the Gators. Florida has inserted itself into the upper echelon of national-title contenders on the strength of a deep, skilled rotation. All-America candidate Casey Prather leads four Gators scoring in double figures at 15.3 points per game and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin closely follows at 13.0.

When Coach Cal talks about the Gators, he uses phrases familiar to UK fans. He references their ability to focus for 40 minutes and their ability to close games. The thing, however, that most catches his attention is defense.

"Their emotion is all tied into their defense," Calipari said. "That's what they do well."

Florida ranks seventh nationally and first in the SEC in defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.908 points per possession. The Gators excel in all areas, holding opponents to 39.3-percent shooting, forcing turnovers on 21.8 percent of possessions (24th nationally) and ranking 30th in the country in defensive free-throw rate.

"Florida plays real good on defense," Poythress said. "You know, they got some veteran players. They know how to play, have been there a long time, know how to help each other."

The defense starts on the ball with the tireless Wilbekin, while fellow senior and lead shot blocker Patric Young protects the rim. UK freshman Dakari Johnson -- who was recruited by Billy Donovan -- knows Young well.

"When I went up there to visit I shadowed him," Johnson said. "So he's a real good player. He competes hard for 40 minutes, so we've just got to compete with them."

In preparation, it's Coach Cal's custom to show only limited tape of opponents to his team. However, he spotlighted one play Young made in Florida's 67-58 win over Tennessee. The physical 6-foot-9, 240 pounder forgot all concerns about his own personal safety to dive for a loose ball.

"What are you willing to do to win a game?" Calipari said, explaining his reasoning for showing the play. "I know what he's willing to do to win a game. I saw it. Now you look at it."

Now, the Cats have a chance to show they can match that kind of effort.

"This game will tell us where we are, and I would imagine they're coming in not to just win," Calipari said. "They want to smash. We're going to find out."

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