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Cats stuck together to make season count when it matters most

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UK will take on Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament second round at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament second round at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Call Kentucky's season what you want -- disappointing, frustrating, a failure to meet expectations -- John Calipari likely has a different opinion from most people of how it's gone leading into the NCAA Tournament.

"When someone says, 'Are you disappointed,' no I'm not disappointed," Calipari said on his weekly radio show on Monday.

Coach Cal is actually proud of his team, which, despite starting the season atop the polls, is seeded eighth in the Midwest Region, opposite ninth-seeded Kansas State.

"A normal team -- I don't care (if they are) freshmen, sophomores, seniors, juniors -- going through what we did, the onslaught of stuff and crap, would have some point broken apart," Coach Cal said. "The built-up expectations to tear you down, that no one can play -- but they stuck together. And they trusted the coaches so that we could then continue to try to figure out ways to get them to play better, to get our team better."   

The Wildcats in blue are scheduled to take on the purple-clad Wildcats on Friday at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS. The winner of that game will likely play Wichita State, a No. 1 seed, which should make quick work of its play-in game opponent.

Some thought UK would be in a similar position as the Shockers, undefeated and atop a regional. Things haven't played out that way, but Calipari said Monday he never saw his 10-loss team as one that would be undefeated right now.

"I don't get that (disappointment) unless you honestly thought we were winning every game," Calipari told radio host Tom Leach. "A bunch of freshmen. Starting five freshmen."

Calipari conceded that he would have liked to have had a few more breaks and won a couple more games -- perhaps one more nonconference game and two league games -- but to navigate through the nation's second-toughest schedule and come on late in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, he feels good with where his team is heading into the most important time of the year.

"What I saw this weekend is what I've been waiting for (to see) for two months," Calipari said. "And you know what? We all were waiting, and so what (if) it happens now. Do you really care? Isn't that our job to be for these kids and just keep coaching them and keep trying to get them where they're supposed to go and be about them? 'Well, you didn't win for us!' It's not about us. It's about getting them right, and they're beginning to get where we're wanting to (go). They're growing up right before our eyes."

Growing, but not grown up quite yet.

"The reason I say there's room, we still have a couple guys not playing the way they're capable of playing," Calipari said.

One of them is leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle, who fell into a slump during the SEC Tournament.

The recently named SEC Freshman of the Year made just nine of his 29 field-goal attempts (31.0 percent) in Atlanta, the worst three-game stretch of his career. During the second-half comeback against Florida, Randle actually sat on the bench for much of the run.

Calipari said Randle was "devastated" with the way he played over the weekend, but Coach Cal added that he and his staff have to make the game simpler for Randle so he doesn't have to think as much and can get "Julius back to being Julius."

"Here's what you're doing," Coach Cal said. "Do these things. Surrender. Go do them. And again, he wants to do it."

Stepping up for Randle on Sunday was Willie Cauley-Stein. The sophomore forward scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots in the SEC finals. In the three games prior to the SEC Tournament, Cauley-Stein had averaged just 3.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

The difference, Calipari said, was a mindset.

"Tell me what happened," Coach Cal said he told him. "And he said, 'I had never won a championship and that's all I was thinking about is winning that championship.' And I said, 'Yeah, it got you out of your own self's way. So instead of thinking of you, you thought about that and what do I have to do.' I said, 'Now, keep that thought 'cause you can still win one. Stay in that mindset.' "

Cauley-Stein wasn't the only Wildcat who made a significant turnaround from the weeks prior.

Speaking glowingly on his radio show of his team's progress at last weekend's SEC Tournament, where the Cats came within a basket of winning the SEC championship, Coach Cal noted a number of areas where his team made strides this past week that it can build off of.

Chief among them was the ball movement by Andrew Harrison. The freshman point guard dished out 21 assists on the weekend, and though he was limited to four in the championship game on Sunday, Calipari said he had 21 attempted assists against Florida.

"That means he got you the ball for a shot," Coach Cal said. "Maybe you made it, maybe you didn't. Obviously if he had four assists that game, that meant four out of 21 were made. Now I don't' know if he can pass it to you and make it. I don't think he can. So if he gives it to you, you've got to make it. Now you don't have to make them all; you just can't miss them all. Part of this is you've got to make shots."

Up until Sunday, UK did.

The Cats made 47.3 percent of their shots against LSU and 51.0 percent vs. Georgia. They combined to make 16 of 33 3-pointers in those two games.

Take away the game at Florida and UK had been in a miserable shooting slump before that. During a three-game stretch against Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama, Kentucky connected on just 31.6 percent of its shots.

For all the changes UK made during the weekend - playing more physical and adapting to the "tweak" - the offense may have looked smoother just because the Cats finally hit some shots. Calipari said it's certainly why they won games in Atlanta.

"We're getting better looks," he said. "Instead of guarded 3s they're uncontested 3s or we're having gaps where guys are getting looks and we're knocking it down."

It doesn't take, to borrow a phrase from Calipari, a Basketball Benny to figure out that better ball movement spells better shots.

"Everybody said for a while our guard play was our weak spot," Calipari said. "Now it's our strength. You're talking in two weeks."

Perhaps that had something to do with the ballyhooed tweak Coach Cal made last week or maybe it didn't, but Coach Cal said he made another one on Monday.

"It's not a re-tweak, but I did some more tweaking today for this week," Calipari said.

Will it make the difference that last week's did and get this team primed for a tournament run or is it too late?

Like it or not, however you, Calipari or the pundits have judged this season, this group will largely be remembered by what they do in the coming week(s).

And the Wildcats know it.

"They understand this thing's on," Calipari said.

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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