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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."
The skinny: At some point, you figured the shots would start falling for Kentucky. They never did, but UK survived anyway. The Wildcats pulled away late at Auburn, outscoring the home-standing Tigers 29-18 over the final 11:29 to turn a three-point deficit into a 64-56 win. UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 30.9 percent for the game, but scored 21 second-chance points off 22 offensive rebounds in winning its fourth game in a row. Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points and Julius Randle added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The difference: Defense. As hard as it was for UK to score on Wednesday night, the Cats made it even harder on Auburn. The Tigers shot just 32.7 percent as a team, getting consistent scoring only from leading scorer Chris Denson (26 points on 8-of-18 shooting). Denson's backcourt mate, K.T. Harrell, struggled from start to finish with UK's length and scored only seven points -- more than 12 points below his season average -- on 2-of-15 shooting.
Player of the game: Harrison. UK's most consistent offensive threat, Harrison didn't shoot the ball particularly well (3-of-10). However, he pushed the ball in transition effectively and picked his spots on drives to go 8-fot-11 at the free-throw line. The freshman point guard also converted a big and-one with 6:23 remaining to double UK's lead from three points to six. Auburn would get no closer than five the rest of the way.
Turning point: With 11:25 left and UK trailing 38-35, Randle had just four points and five rebounds. At the under-12 media timeout, John Calipari called his star freshman's number. UK fed Randle in the post and he delivered a basket in a matter of seconds, getting himself and his team going. Starting with that basket, Randle had eight points and seven rebounds as UK finished off its fourth victory in a row.
Key stat: 3-point shooting. On the season, UK is shooting 52.6 percent from inside the arc. The Cats typically make their living inside, but they only 12-of-43 (27.9 percent) from 2-point range on this night. Thankfully, the shots were falling at a reasonable clip -- 5-of-12 or 41.7 percent -- from 3. UK, meanwhile, held Auburn to 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) shooting from 3.
Unsung hero: Johnson. The 7-foot freshman has settled nicely into a starting role. Johnson had eight points and eight rebounds in his 21 minutes, grabbing a team-high seven boards on the offensive glass in the process. He also added two steals and a block.
What this one means: For the second game in a row, UK wasn't at its best on the road. In SEC play, that often means back-to-back losses. The Cats, however, were able to gut both games out. Coach Cal will have plenty to talk about in Thursday's film session, but it will be much more pleasant coming off another win. UK has now won seven times in eight games to set up a highly anticipated showdown with SEC-leading Florida on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
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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."