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November 17, 2013
Robert Morris visits Rupp Arena on Sunday
John Calipari sat in a makeshift media room at Robert Morris' Sewall Center and vowed that things would be different next season.
His Kentucky team would be tougher-minded, he said, than the one the Colonials had just bounced from the first round of the NIT. He wouldn't go through a season like that one again.
Next season is this season now, and Calipari's No. 1-for-now Wildcats (2-1) host Robert Morris Sunday at an intriguing time.
Coming off its first taste of adversity in this week's 78-74 loss to No. 2 Michigan State, Kentucky has the chance to give its coach a sign that things are different than a year ago.
"With good teams -- and you see it around the country each year in the pros or different sports -- any time a good team, a great team loses a game, the next team typically gets whomped on," guard Jon Hood said. "Typically, they get smacked in the face, throttled, whatever you want to say. We'll see. Robert Morris coming here, they're a good team, they're experienced."
Four times last season Kentucky suffered back-to-back losses. It had done so only once in the previous three seasons under Calipari.
But already Calipari can see a change in this season's team.
Last season, after the Wildcats lost to Duke in the Champions Classic, Calipari privately and publicly told his players not to get too excited over a late rally that made a blowout competitive. He didn't feel the need to similarly caution this team after this season's Champions Classic, where it battled back from 15 points down to tie Michigan State before coming up short.
"Well, this team cried (after the Michigan State loss)," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way. This team cried. I mean, last year's team in that (Duke) game fought like crazy and did some good things, but we were who we were. The good news is, guys are a year older, other guys have their opportunities and this team is a totally different team."
That's true not just of its mental approach.
Eight UK players saw action against Robert Morris last season. Only two of them -- sophomores Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- played Tuesday against Michigan State. The others, seniors Hood and Jarrod Polson logged a combined 46 minutes against the Colonials but are playing smaller roles now.
"I think about what happened last year, yeah," Hood said. "Last year was in my mind up until the start of practice this year, and every now and then still in my mind."
But it's not a major topic of discussion among the Wildcats, and Calipari stressed on social media this week that he didn't schedule the game for a shot at revenge.
Kentucky's best player, Julius Randle, said on Friday that he didn't even watch the NIT game against Robert Morris, though he committed to the Wildcats the day after the loss.
"I just knew I was coming here with a group of guys who could help me get better, that I could help get better," Randle said. "I feel like I came here because I knew that I could win."
Kentucky's veterans "haven't talked much about" last season's game, Randle said. They're focused on winning in the here and now. And it has strides to make to be a winner in 2013-14.
For all Kentucky's talent, it remains one of the nation's youngest teams, and its youth showed against the more experienced Spartans.
Calipari has cautioned the Harrison twins to stop beating themselves up for bad plays. But that figures to be a process.
"When you've had a habit you've had for 17 years, (it's hard) to say, 'OK, within two months you're going to change,'" Calipari said. "You look at Alex (Poythress), it took him a year. Took him a full year to realize, 'If I don't change this, I'm not making it.' He's changed."
Poythress' freshman teammates have hard lessons to learn about change. Those will take time.
Calipari said he stressed to his players to worry not about their pro prospects, but about being good college players, "because we're not right now."
There's plenty of time for the Cats to prove that they are, and Calipari wants that to be their focus.
"Worry about being a good college team," Calipari said. "When the season's over, we'll worry about all that other stuff… . Unpack the bags, boys. Unpack the bags. Let's start playing some basketball. Let's get better."