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Notebook: Cats ready for confident Florida

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Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)'s Metz Camfield contributed to this notebook.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats know their quarterfinal opponent in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and it's a very familiar foe at that.

Florida defeated Alabama 69-61 on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., setting up the second matchup in a matter of seven days against the Wildcats, and the third matchup in just five weeks.

"Sometimes (it's) a little bit more difficult when you play against a team that you haven't seen since let's say the middle of January," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "So, these guys will be a little bit familiar with it. The quick turnaround, we're excited we get the opportunity to play."

And in the eyes of Kentucky head coach John Calipari, they should be excited.

"They're good," Coach Cal said. "Everybody is excited about playing us. I'd imagine they were because they played us good both games. My team's - we had a great practice today. I think they're ready to play basketball, whoever it is. They're capable of beating us. No question."

Kentucky topped Florida 68-61 in an exciting game in Gainesville, Fla., but trailed by nine in the first half and didn't take the lead for good until Willie Cauley-Stein's legendary dunk with 12:09 left in the second half. The Cats benefitted greatly by going 21 of 22 at the free-throw line in that game.

Then on Saturday, Kentucky and Florida were separated by just three points with 10:28 remaining in the game before the Cats gained separation in the final 10 minutes.

"They're healthy," Coach Cal said. "They've got a full complement of guys. They should be confident. They played us twice really good."

UK assistant coach John Robic said Tuesday that he feels the concept of "it's difficult to beat a team three times" is a bit exaggerated, saying instead, "it's the next game," and agreed with Donovan in that sometimes it can be more difficult when you haven't played the opponent in a long time because of all that can change during that time in between.

For Kentucky, the SEC Tournament offers the Cats another opportunity to continue to strive to become the best version of themselves. Cauley-Stein said some players were right mentally, and others were still trying to get right, even critiquing himself by saying he has played tentatively of late.

"We feed off him," Coach Cal said. "He's that one guy that can do stuff a normal player can't do, and he hasn't been doing it. He's been getting scored on, he's missing a lot of shots just by--they're physical with him and he's not balanced coming back. But I think he'll be fine."

The question that continues to circle around Kentucky, is what if everyone does in fact click at once and becomes the best version of themselves. Thousands of members of Big Blue Nation who have flocked to Nashville will be hoping to see just that.

"We've had some games this year," Coach Cal said. "You know what it looks like."

Seeing is believing when it comes to Cats fans at SEC Tournament

All season long, UK has relied on its veterans to shepherd its four freshmen.

The experience has been invaluable as the Wildcats have made it four months and 31 games without a loss, but it won't matter much this weekend.

Kentucky, with its No. 1 overall seed all but assured and John Calipari indifferent toward conference tournaments, has decided it will play for the fans in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

It's the same approach the Cats took a year ago, but Coach Cal isn't even bothering to ask his returners to tell the newcomers about just how unbelievable the fan support will be. It's just not necessary.

"They'll see it if they don't know," Calipari said. "When we walk into the game they'll be like, 'What in the world is this?' "

If the Cats watched Wednesday's games at Bridgestone Arena, they'd already have figured it out.

As Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri played a pair of first-round games, most fans - even though their beloved Cats wouldn't play for two days - wore Kentucky blue.

"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "

They'll be a little more vocal about that Friday afternoon, which Calipari appreciates. That still doesn't change what has to happen on the floor.

"I guess it would be better that we had more fans than the other team, but this comes down to us being a good basketball team and playing well," Calipari said. "And I keep saying it: I'm concerned about my team. No one else. If someone else is playing out of their minds and we get beat, we get beat. My thing is, how do we continue to grow and be at our best? And if that's not good enough, it's not good enough."

Calipari expecting tough tournament road

Technically, the postseason begins for Kentucky on Friday.

Coach Cal doesn't have much time for technicalities.

"The real part starts when Sunday we hear how tough our bracket's going to be," Calipari said. "That's when the real stuff starts."

The Selection Show on Sunday will be when the Cats find out their path to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Calipari doesn't expect a primrose path to be laid in front of them.

"It'll be hard," Calipari said. "They called the Lakers and they can't pull out of the NBA right now so I don't think they'll be in there. But it'll be a hard bracket. There won't be a, you're the (top) one seed, you should have this kind of road. No. It will not be that. And that's fine."

And even if it's a professional team awaiting them as a No. 16 seed, the Cats will say, "Bring it on."

"I think if we had to see Oklahoma City or Cleveland, those would be tough," Calipari said. "I'm not sure. And they tell me that Portland's as big as we are. So those would be teams I wouldn't want to see. I hate to say that because they may try to get those people in there."

Preparation changing with tournament format

Some coaches are insistent in approaching tournament play just the same as the regular season.

Not Coach Cal.

"Oh, it changes," Calipari said.

With the prospect of playing three games in three days ahead of his team, Calipari is cutting back.

"We won't have a shoot-around tomorrow," Calipari said. "We will just go right to the gym. If we're lucky enough to win we won't have a shoot-around on Saturday. If you're lucky enough to win you won't have one Sunday. You'll come back and let the next game finish and do some film and walk through and just play basketball games. You're not really doing anything."

John Calipari leads UK into the SEC Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari leads UK into the SEC Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After capping off a perfect 31-0 regular season with an 18-game excursion through the Southeastern Conference, the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats head into the SEC Tournament with little reason for adjustment.

"I don't think there are going to be many changes, because what we're doing right now is working," said freshly crowned SEC Sixth Man of the Year Devin Booker. "I feel like if it's working, why change it?"

Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, 2015's SEC Defensive Player of the Year, echoed Booker's sentiment.

"(We're doing) the same stuff we've always been doing," Cauley-Stein said. "Now, it's do-or-die. It's win-or-go-home, and just have a lot of fun doing it. This is the (most fun) time of the year. From the first workout, now it's all about business. That's what you play for."

For 2015 SEC Coach of the Year John Calipari, the reason for which his team will be playing on Friday has never been in question. For the first (and last) time all season, Kentucky's next three potential games will not be about the players.

"We all talked about it," Calipari said. "We're going to play for our fans."

Despite four SEC Tournament championship-game appearances through his first five seasons in Lexington, Calipari has adamantly denied personal stake in the event since he came to Kentucky.

"I just want the kids to focus on why we're (competing) this week," said Calipari. "Next week will be about us. This week has no bearing on (NCAA Tournament seeding) and the most important thing for us, which is to be the best and the last team standing."

Instead of shining the spotlight on his perpetually celebrated student-athletes, Calipari hopes to shift focus in the direction of Kentucky's loyal fan base before making one last postseason push.

"Our fans, they make an effort to get here," Calipari said. "It's not easy, and they do it. That's why I'm saying, 'Let's play for them. Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person.' Because, again, it's going to be hard for that core group (of fans) to get to the NCAA Tournament."

Cauley-Stein -- one of two Kentucky players recently named First Team All-SEC -- has no problem sharing the limelight with his devoted supporters.

"This tournament is for the fans," said Cauley-Stein. "Our fans (are) going to come full force, and it's like a getaway weekend for them. That's kind of the way we approach it."

With just over three hours of driving time separating Rupp Arena from Nashville's Bridgestone Arena (and a detailed history of traveling in droves), Cats fans are expected to invade Music City by Friday afternoon.

"(There are) fans who can't get into (Rupp Arena)," Calipari said. "You're saying, 'What do you mean? There are 25,000!' There are probably another 100,000 (fans) who want to come, but can't get tickets. They come to the (SEC Tournament), they spend their rent money, mortgage money, their car money... They get money, take loans, and they go to the tournament because they can't get into (Rupp Arena)."

Like Calipari, Cauley-Stein emphasized that Nashville's close proximity to Lexington will allow even more UK fans than usual fill Bridgestone Arena's 20,000-seat capacity.

"We're not really worried about the SEC Tournament," said Cauley-Stein. "It's more like we're playing for the fans there. They're going to travel everywhere anyway, but especially (to Nashville). That's really what we're playing for when we go there, for the fans and everything."

Kentucky will face the winner of eighth-seeded Florida and No. 9 Alabama on Friday, March 13 at 1 p.m. The Cats defeated both teams twice this season. But with an undefeated record and a shot at history on the line, it's safe to assume that UK will be making more than just a friendly appearance when they play for the 28th SEC Tournament title in program history.

"The mindset is we want to win it," said big man Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky's other First-Team All-SEC selection and 2015's SEC Freshman of the Year. "Of course we're trying to win every game we're in. We're going out there, and we're trying to get prepared for this SEC Tournament. We're trying to make a great run. We're trying to use these games definitely to get better as a team before the NCAA Tournament, but we're also there to win."

Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On a team full of stars, Willie Cauley-Stein has emerged as Kentucky's top candidate for major awards.

He's been named to the shortlists for three major national player of the year awards, but on Tuesday he missed out on Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.

Arkansas star Bobby Portis took home the big trophy from league coaches.

"Honestly, you can give him Player of the Year," Cauley-Stein said. "I'll take 31-0 any day of the week. You know, he's a good player but that's what it is. I'd rather be undefeated than get Player of the Year."

Not that he needed any consolation, clearly, but Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 blocks. He also won First-Team All-SEC honors, but assistant coach John Robic knows that won't move Cauley-Stein much either.

"These awards, they're nice and everything, but that's not what these kids are playing for," Robic said.

Instead, the Wildcats have played for each other and their team. The result has been a perfect regular season - the first for a power-five conference team since 1975-76 - and a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking in both major polls, not to mention a few other SEC awards.

John Calipari was named Coach of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns Freshman of the Year and Devin Booker Sixth Man of the Year. Towns joined Cauley-Stein on the SEC First Team, while Booker and Aaron Harrison were Second-Team performers and Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis made the All-Freshmen Team.

"It just shows that we all have just taken each other under our wing and cared for each other and looked out for each other," Towns said. "These awards are very prestigious, and I'm blessed to have a chance, but I'm more blessed to have brothers like I have right now on this team."

Towns credits one of those brothers - Cauley-Stein - for much of his own development during his freshman season.

"He's the cornerstone of this team," Towns said. "He's the leader. This team has been taken to new heights with him here."

Towns and his teammates are fully aware of his impact on the team and his ability on both ends of the floor, but Cauley-Stein isn't so sure the same is true on a national level.

Praise for the 7-foot junior's defense is universal, but his offense is another story. In fact, Cauley-Stein has heard talk of him being a "one-sided" player.

"I don't believe that, my team doesn't believe that and that drives me nuts," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein knows how important defense is and that those outside opinions don't hold much water, but he still turns to them for a little added motivation.

"I'm not just a defensive player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."

Cauley-Stein has shown an improved offensive game this season with refined post moves and even a midrange jumper, but the fact remains that he's on a team full of offensive weapons. None of the Cats - not a sharpshooter like Booker or a post presence like Towns - has to carry a full offensive load.

"I scored in high school," Cauley-Stein said. "I had to. Here you don't have to score. And I think that's why I play the way I am, is because we got so many offensive weapons that one game I'm probably going to have to score. Eventually, they're probably going to have to start playing on Karl heavy so I'm going to have to step up and score some baskets."

But more than anything, Cauley-Stein just wants to be his best for the sake of his team. He knows everything else will take care of itself.

Cauley-Stein said his last five games he hasn't done that. Leading up to UK's SEC Tournament opener at 1 p.m. ET against either Florida or Alabama, he plans to do something about it.

"I've been playing real tentative, not at the best of my game, but I plan on getting right," Cauley-Stein said. "These next couple days are vital for me getting right and just to show the world, you know, about all these other awards."

Video: Pre-SEC Tournament press conference

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Performance of the Week

Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 88, Detroit Pistons: 85
In Davis' first game back since reinjuring a sprained right shoulder on Feb. 21, last year's NBA leader in blocked shots made an immediately monstrous impact on both ends of the floor. Davis posted 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks and three steals in the Pels' win over the Pistons on March 4.

Cats in the Spotlight

Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31)
Bledsoe averaged 14.8 points, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds in four Suns games last week. Highlighted by the former first round draft pick's 19-point, 10-rebound, six-assist performance on March 6, Phoenix ended the week with two wins and two losses.

DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings(21-40)
Cousins recorded three remarkable double-doubles in four games after returning from a sprained left ankle and bruised left hip last week. In a 124-86 win over the New York Knicks on March 3, the big man notched 22 points (and his second 3-pointer of the season) and 10 rebounds. However, his 29-point, 12-rebound showing on Friday and 27-point, 17-rebound performance on Saturday both came in five-point Kings losses.

Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (34-29)
In addition to his Performance of the Week effort on Wednesday, Davis continued his pattern of double-double outings in his second and third games back from injury. The Chicago native scored 29 points, grabbed 14 boards and blocked three shots in a 104-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. The next day, NOLA bounced back with a 95-89 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, thanks to 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks from "The Brow."

Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (43-20)
Jones began the week averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest through his first four games, but cooled off on Friday with seven points (on 3-of-12 field goal attempts) and 11 rebounds in Houston's 114-100 win on the road over the Denver Nuggets.

Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (34-28)
Kanter anchored the Thunder with 16 points, 15 rebounds,and five assists in a 108-101 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on March 1. The Turkey native followed with two lackluster performances on Wednesday and Thursday, but OKC turned in a 2-1 record on the week.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (27-33)
Charlotte's 21-year-old starting wingman averaged 10.8 rebounds and 10.3 points in four straight Hornet wins. Kidd-Gilchrist accentuated his week with 11 points and 13 rebounds on March 1 and 10 points and 13 rebounds on March 4. The Hornets beat the Lakers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, and Toronto Raptors over the four-game span.

Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31)
Knight dished out seven assists in all but one of Phoenix's games last week, complemented by double-digit scoring outings in all four contests. In the Suns' 105-100 victory over the Magic in Orlando, Knight recorded 28 points (on 10-of-12 free throw shooting), seven assists and three steals on March 4.

Jodie Meeks | #20 SG | Detroit Pistons (23-38)
Although Davis came out a winner on both the scoreboard and the stat sheet in Detroit's matchup with New Orleans, Meeks poured in 20 points of his own in the 88-85 Pistons loss. Two days later, in a 103-93 loss to the Houston Rockets, the sixth year veteran scored just seven points (4.5 below his season average), but recorded three assists, two rebounds and a steal in only 18 minutes.

Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (14-49)
In the midst of the most stellar rebounding performance of his young career, Noel made his presence known in every facet of the box score last week. The rookie big man posted three double-doubles, averaging 12.0 rebounds, 11.2 points, 3.6 steals and 2.0 blocks per game in the process.

Rajon Rondo | #9 PG | Dallas Mavericks (40-24)
Rondo's week was highlighted with 19 points and five rebounds in a 102-93 win over the Pelicans on March 2. The Louisville native finished the week averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game over one win and two Mavs losses.

John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (35-28)
Kick started by 21 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks on March 3, Wall averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks over three contests last week. Despite his efforts, two Washington losses sandwiched just one Wizard win on March 6, by way of a 99-97 defeat of the Miami Heat.

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