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Championship game offers chance to validate improvement

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UK will take on top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament title game on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament title game on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar,

ATLANTA -- After two consecutive solid performances from Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Wildcats say they want one more crack at Florida.

Their head coach? Not so much

"I've had enough of Florida," Calipari jokingly said Saturday said after hearing players say they were excited to play the No. 1 team in the country again. "For four years I've seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years."

Florida is, of course, stocked with veterans across the board. And though Coach Cal was just joking -- sort of -- about facing the Gators yet again, second-seeded UK (24-9) will no doubt take a step up in competition on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN.

The top-seeded Gators (31-2) navigated through regular-season SEC play without a single loss, including two double-digit wins over Kentucky, the most recent coming just a week ago in Gainesville, Fla., when the Cats were dispatched by 19 points.

But perhaps that was a different UK team.

The Cats cruised their way through to the final round of the tournament with wins over a physical LSU squad and a defensively strong Georgia Bulldog team. The Wildcats are sharing the ball, receiving contributions from all areas of the court, playing as one and most importantly to them, they are having fun.

Spectators and analysts agree that the team is looking like a new squad and more like the one it was coined to be in the fall.

"We're doing better," Calipari said. "We're not the same team. You've seen us now. We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago."

But Coach Cal also agreed that Sunday's matchup with Florida in the SEC Tournament championship will be a bit of a measuring stick for the Cats' improvement. The third crack at the No. 1 team in the country is an opportunity to test and validate their progress.

"What a great team, what a great story, what a great coaching job," Calipari said of the Gators. "You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don't fight like heck, they're taking it from you. That's who they are and that's who they have been all year. I don't see it changing."

"Now, that means when we go against them, you're going to have to take it," Coach Cal said. "They will not give it to you. As you're trying to take it, they're trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren't even in the game. Then we make a 15-0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again. My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here. I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to go play this game and see what happens."

Even if Calipari isn't thrilled to see the same team for the third time in one season, his players sure are.

"Florida is such a good team that it's that kind of rivalry thing that we want to go at them because they beat us twice," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They beat us at home and waxed us at their place. Now it's like a pride factor. We're in the championship game, playing Florida. That's who we thought we was going to end up playing anyways, so it's just time to lay it all on the table and go play."

Julius Randle didn't have the SEC championship game circled as another crack at Florida, but he was happy the Gators won Saturday. He's looking forward to competing with Florida for the third time and believes the game will come down to one thing.

"Consistency," Randle said. "We can't have lapses during the game. Like Coach always says, when the first rain drop hits how do you fight through adversity? They going to make their runs but we're going to make runs too, and at the end of the day it's going to come down to who wants them more."

Although Florida was favored to slide into the SEC championship game, the Gators route to the finals wasn't handed to them on a silver platter. The No. 1 ranked team in the country rallied back from a 10-point first-half deficit to avoid an upset on Saturday in Atlanta.

The Gators, who are one of the top ranked defensive teams in the country, held the Volunteers to just 14 points in the second half.

"One, they're veterans," Cauley-Stein said on Florida's defense. "They know how to play a college game and they do a great job of helping the helper. If one guy gets beat, there's another guy there and they rotate really well. It's hard to get wide-open shots."

Cauley-Stein described Sunday's matchup as a stepping stone for Kentucky's future.

"Cal said it after the game, the game tomorrow is cool," Cauley-Stein said. "We're in the championship game against Florida but it doesn't really mean anything. Our big goal is to try and make this run and get to the final four. Tomorrow is just a stepping stone for real. We're going to obviously play to win but it's not like a life-or-death situation."

A stepping stone and nothing more is right. Due to the timing of the SEC championship game, the outcome of the showdown will likely have no bearing on Kentucky's seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The game will end just before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show at 6 p.m., giving the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee little time to factor in how the Cats play.

Calipari pointed out that in 2011 -- when the game was even earlier in the day -- UK beat Florida in the championship game and still got a No. 4 seed in arguably the toughest bracket in the NCAA Tournament.  Florida, meanwhile, received a No. 2 seed.

"We're fine," Calipari said. "We're in. But where you put us may hit somebody above us, like, 'Why are you putting them with us?' But that's what makes the committee what they are and makes it hard. They can't watch the game tomorrow. They can watch it, but it's not going to have any bearing on what happens."

No bearing on seeding for the tournament means the Wildcats are playing for one thing: validity. Has the "tweak" worked magic? Can the Cats fight for a full 40 minutes? Is the improvement permanent or will Kentucky revert to old habits against a team like Florida?

A win against the No. 1 team in the country for the SEC championship would prove this team really isn't the same as the one two weeks ago.

To bring you more expansive coverage, 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 and, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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