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Past midway point of SEC play, UK far from a finished product

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UK will travel to Auburn for a game against the Tigers at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will travel to Auburn for a game against the Tigers at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This late in the season, there's a line of thinking that says teams are what they are. Some might say that with just a month before conference tournaments tip off, the only work that can be done is fine-tuning.

UK assistant coach Kenny Payne disagrees.

"I don't buy it," Payne said. "I think that every day we come in, our sole philosophy is to get better each day. And we're so young, and what we are can change tomorrow."

Payne can say that with confidence because he's seen it happen.

"One game we can be an excellent post team, one game we can be an excellent guard-oriented team," Payne said. "We have very good depth, but they have to play well together. For us, it's every day getting better."

A particular emphasis in that process of daily improvement since a win at Mississippi State on Saturday has been transition defense. The Bulldogs -- though the box score showed they only outscored UK 8-2 in fast-break points -- repeatedly made UK pay for not getting back in transition.

"Their game plan I think was just to outwork us and so that's what it was," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "The only way they could really score was if they were to do it in transition or straight-line drives. That's what we've really been working on."

The issue, at least for 40 minutes, seemed to be resolved in last Tuesday's victory over Ole Miss. Just days after Missouri torched the Cats in transition, UK held the visiting Rebels to just two fast-break points. But as you might expect of a team as young as Kentucky, learning a lesson takes more than one misstep.

"We've been working on it for quite a while, and I think the thing that we have to continue is continue to build on it, continue to remind them of how important it is, because every team seems to be using that as a disadvantage for us," Payne said. "That's a weakness of our team that we've got to correct."

If they don't, the Cats' next opponent figures to make them pay.

Set to host No. 14/13 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Auburn (11-10, 3-7 SEC) has won three of four. The only loss came over the weekend at LSU at a score (87-80) nearly identical to the one from 87-82 loss UK suffered in Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago.

"Their coach is probably one of the best coaches in the country at scheming it and stopping people's offense," Cauley-Stein said of John Calipari protege Tony Barbee. "So that's what we're really worried about because we're going down to Auburn, it's going to be a tough place to play at and with our up and down on our transition and stuff they got a couple guards that can really hurt us."

Those guards -- Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell -- have done plenty of that lately. The two are averaging 26 and 20.8 points over their last four games and 20.2 and 19.4 points on the season, respectively.

"If we walk in there and think that we're just going to beat them, it's not happening," Payne said. "We will have to play well to beat that team, and especially at their home."

UK has certainly played well in stretches this season -- Payne named UK's offensive effort against Missouri as an example -- but hasn't put it all together on one night. Coach Cal said it's no given the Cats reach that point this season, but Payne has a good idea what it will look like if they do.

"I would like to say that we're really close, but until we do it once, it's hard to say," Payne said. "If this team ever gets five or six of these guys playing great the same night, who knows how good we can be? And if we do it consistently, it's scary."

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