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Cal has another tweak for another big week

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John Calipari has coached UK to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari has coached UK to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Between the time Fred VanVleet's shot bounced off the rim, the backboard and onto the floor to the time John Calipari did his postgame press conference and finally got on the bus, Coach Cal's phone didn't stop buzzing.

When Calipari checked his phone, he said he had 100-plus text messages, more than half of them from friends telling him they had just watched the best college game they had ever seen. (There's no telling how many more voicemails he got.)

After reading about 30 of them, Calipari stopped, stood up on the bus and asked his players if they were getting the same thing. Unanimously, they said yes.

"I said, 'Did you, like, realize that when we were playing?' " Calipari recounted on his weekly radio show on Tuesday. "And they're like, 'No.' And the rest of us didn't either. We were just trying to play the game."

Time will ultimately decide just how good Sunday's game really was -- though there's little disputing that it was a classic and the best of this year's NCAA Tournament thus far - but the Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats (26-10) will have little time to revel in their best and most thrilling victory of the year.

With archrival Louisville (31-5) next in line on the hopeful journey to the Final Four, UK, believe it or not, has an even bigger stage to tackle.

"Wichita was probably playing as well anyone in the field," Calipari told radio show host Tom Leach. "Now, with us, who's left, who do you think I would tell you I would tell you is playing as anyone in the field?"

Rhetorically, the answer is Louisville.

"That's just the truth," Coach Cal said. "When you watch them, they're being aggressive, their physical play, the bump and grind of it, they're pressing, they're up in you. It's all the stuff that makes them aggressive, and they're playing well."

Louisville actually struggled in its two NCAA Tournament victories, coming back from a late deficit against Manhattan to avoid an opening-round upset before grinding out an ugly win against a strong St. Louis group.

But great teams pull out good wins even when they don't play well, and Louisville certainly fits the criteria of a great, if not elite, team.

The defending national champions have won seven in a row and 14 of their last 15. During that streak, which dates all the way back to Feb. 1, the Cardinals have won by an average margin of 22.9 points per game, including victories over NCAA Tournament teams UConn (once by 33 points and the other by 14 in the American Athletic Conference championship game) and Cincinnati.

UK won the regular-season meeting vs. Louisville, 73-66, at Rupp Arena, but both teams are far different than the ones that met on Dec. 28.

U of L no longer has Chane Behanan down low, who was dismissed from the team just days after the loss to UK, but Montrezl Harrell has stepped up his absence, transforming into one of the premier big men in the country. Luke Hancock was still coming back from an offseason injury during the team's first meeting and has just recently returned to his Final Four Most Outstanding Player form of a year ago, while Russ Smith has continued to score at a high rate.

Throw in the fact that the Cardinals have rounded their defense into their typically stifling postseason form - they lead the country in turnover margin thanks to 10.1 steals per game - and UK, just as anyone would expect, has its hands full with fourth-seeded Louisville.

"Do you really think you're not going to play against somebody who's not good (at this point)?" Calipari said Tuesday. "Every team's good."

UK is also significantly better.

Though the Wildcats won the first meeting behind James Young's 18 points and 10 rebounds and Andrew Harrison's solid point-guard play, they played nearly the entire second half without leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle, who spent most of the final 20 minutes in the bowels of Rupp Arena receiving treatment for leg cramps.

Since then, UK has taken several lumps - seven more losses, to be exact - but the Cats have obviously turned things around in recent weeks, punctuated by Sunday's victory over the previous undefeated Wichita State Shockers.

"Why were we ready for all this adversity? Because we went through a gauntlet this year," Calipari said, noting UK's second-ranked strength of schedule. "As we struggled, oh, the onslaught of criticism, oh, the personal attacks, oh, the agendas came out. ... And these kids never broke up. They stayed together, they kept believing, they kept believing our staff. So which team in this tournament has been through that like us?"

Not many.

Calipari was able to turn things around in recent weeks by taking blame for his failure to coach his players in the way they needed to be guided. Once he realized he needed to change, he made the celebrated and unsolved "tweak" before the Southeastern Conference Tournament and then another tweak before NCAA Tournament play.

Now - you guessed it - there's one more tweak. Calipari's calling it the "three-tweak," and it's being made just in time for Louisville.

"All these have been based on us, but this one's also based a little bit about how that other team plays -- some things that they do that we're tweaking some of our stuff," Coach Cal said on the radio show. "Because you know what? You've got to keep people on their heels a little bit, and so we're going to go with the three-tweak and see what happens."

Calipari planned to institute the third tweak with his team on Tuesday night in the first practice since Sunday's game. The Cats will leave for Indianapolis on Wednesday and practice in the evening while they're there to get their bodies and minds acclimated to the approximate 9:45 p.m. start.

"What time do you think it will start?" Calipari said, hinting at the fact that the game will tip even later because of the preceding Michigan-Tennessee game. "I mean, we're going to be playing until 1 in the morning."

Practices will continue to be physical this week, Calipari said, because that's what's worked so well recently.

"We're going to stay with what we've been doing: physical practices," Calipari said. "Grab. Hold. Guy tries to get open, put two hands around his hip. The guy drives, put your hands up in the air and hip check him. That's what we've been doing. So we're doing it this week."

There's a notion that the pressure is now off UK and squarely on Louisville this week because of the disappointment the Cats endured in the regular season and the subsequent breakthrough against Wichita State. Coach Cal doesn't want his team to have that mindset of relief.

"Losing stinks," he said. "Like, really stinks."

So Calipari wants to win on Friday and keep the turnaround going, but he also doesn't want to lose sight of what this experience is all about, and that's to have fun. Calipari said that goes for both fan bases and told listeners on Tuesday to enjoy this week and not be nasty with rival fans.

"I'm proud of them," Calipari said of his team. "You got a lot of guys with smiles on their faces. And you guys that have listened to me every year, you know I say we have to have more fun than the other team. Bottom line, you've got to have more fun. The last game I kept saying, don't make the game bigger than it is. It's just a basketball game."

Try telling that to the people that will text Calipari if Kentucky wins again.

"This is a time to enjoy all this," he said. "Don't be anxious, don't be uptight, don't--just enjoy the ride and what's going on. A lot of you are going to Indianapolis. Well, have fun."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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