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December 7, 2012Heart rates would be high, John Calipari promised. His Kentucky basketball team would be put through hell in morning conditioning, he vowed, after two losses and a flat second half in a win against Samford.
Calipari, it turns out, was not kidding.
"It feels like it's boot camp," freshman Nerlens Noel said of the Wildcats' new 7 a.m. workouts. "It's a lot of pushups, rollover, toe-touches. It's tough."
Tough mentally, too.
And Calipari will admit that the wake-up call he's sending isn't just the one that pulls his players out of bed for early-morning sprinting. He's trying to send a message about what it takes to complete at Kentucky.
"It's really more of a mindset," Calipari said. "It's not (just) going for an hour in the morning. A lot of it is the mental part of training in the morning - mentally tougher, mentally stronger, not letting go of the rope, stuff like that."
The Wildcats (5-3), who host Portland (3-5) Saturday at Rupp Arena, need that kind of stuff. That's the lesson Calipari has taken from his team's first eight games. UK needs to be held more accountable, needs to learn how to fight when times get tough.
The Cats have to learn to rise to the challenge of playing at Kentucky.
"They just don't know how hard you've got to work or what kind of investment you have to make in this sport," Calipari said. "I've always had a couple guys on the team that could drag others. We're still trying to find that mix."
Ultimately, Calipari wants the Wildcats to hold each other accountable. He wants them to be "empowered," as he says every season - so that he can step back and let the team run itself to a degree.
Last season, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did some of the heavy lifting. It was Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 pick in last summer's NBA Draft, who got the Wildcats in the gym on their own, creating what became known as the "Breakfast Club."
"That's something Gillie got everybody to do," said point guard Ryan Harrow, a redshirt on last season's NCAA title team. "It didn't just happen from the beginning, but he kind of like made it happen."
So far, nobody's making it happen for these Wildcats. So Calipari has taken the reins, instituting morning workouts that he called "kind of a forced Breakfast Club."
"Right now I'm being really hard, I'm being really tough, and that's what they need," Calipari said. "And if someone doesn't think he needs it, he's delusional. This is what we need. This is how we have to play."
The new approach extends beyond conditioning and into what Calipari calls "more roughhouse practices." Calipari's hope is that his team will be tougher for the experience, but he's told his team the results the results won't come overnight.
It took the Cats some time to develop bad habits, Calipari said. Breaking those will take time too.
"You've just got to keep grinding, keep grinding and you'll see," Calipari said.
And it's been a grind. Harrow said nobody's hit the breaking point yet - no throwing up, no tossing alarm clocks against the wall - but the Cats admit it's been tough.
Noel said his teammates understand that Calipari's trying to toughen them up, and that the Cats see the early wake-up calls as a necessary evil.
"Not too many people like getting up that early to run," Noel said, "but that's the kind of thing that sets you apart from other teams."