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January 24, 2014
As Cats host Georgia, Calipari looks for leap
John Calipari has seen improvement in individual players and in his Kentucky basketball team as a whole. He's watched the Wildcats learn lessons, seen the light bulb flicker and even flip on from time to time.
"We're getting better," Calipari said. "But we're all looking for that big leap."
Kentucky (14-4, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) can make that jump, Calipari said. But only if the Cats -- who host suddenly surging Georgia (10-7, 4-1) on Saturday -- take the next step together.
As a collection of talent, UK has few equals in college basketball. But Calipari said his team still hasn't mastered the unselfish art of playing as a team.
"Other teams are well ahead of us right now, either because they've been veteran teams and they're way ahead of us as a team, or they just needed each other more than we thought we needed each other," Calipari said. "So we haven't made the strides as a team that we need."
Still, the Cats have made strides.
Though individual players have ebbed and flowed -- Julius Randle started the season on a high note, but has tailed off some; Andrew Harrison struggled early but has shown steady growth; once-reliable Willie Cauley-Stein is stuck in a three-game funk -- Kentucky has pieced together a solid if unspectacular season.
"Each of us has been through a slump, and that's just part of being a young player, and we all understand that," Harrison said. "We're all just trying to play for each other and not worry about everybody else."
That's the approach Calipari wants the Cats to take.
And though Kentucky looks less disjointed, less like a group of individuals than it did in November, there still are improvements to make in that area.
Calipari said UK won't turn a corner until "we really, truly start playing for each other."
That means an offense with "no ball-stoppers," he said, when players make a play quickly or pass to a teammate. It means a defense, Calipari said, with players who "play an entire possession and we show energy for our team, not just when we're guarding the ball." It means closing out defensive stops by boxing out and rebounding.
It means an all-out effort from every player, even when shots aren't falling.
"I mean, everybody's not going to have a great game every game," Harrison said. "People have to understand that, but at the same time, it's not always about scoring points and stuff like that. It's about playing hard. And if everyone plays hard, we're really tough to beat."
At times this season, Kentucky has seemed to solve its effort issues. But the Cats have lapses at key times.
They've come out flat in some games, as they did in last week's win against Tennessee. They've lost their concentration late in others, as they did in a loss at Arkansas where a missed box-out led to a game-winning dunk in overtime.
Too often, Calipari said, his up-and-down players focus their individual strides and setbacks.
"And if they get caught up in one game, you take your eye off the ball, which is the process of getting better as an individual and -- more importantly right now for us -- as a team," Calipari said.
Kentucky can't afford not to keep pressing forward.
The schedule gets tougher, perhaps starting with Georgia, which struggled early this season but has beaten Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina in its first five conference games, losing only at Florida. Next week, the Wildcats have road games at LSU and Mizzou.
For now, Calipari wants his team focused on small steps. Georgia, he said, is "the next challenge up," an opportunity to see where the Wildcats stand.
Ultimately, though, Kentucky needs to focus less on one small step and more on one giant leap to becoming the team Calipari wants, the one that eschews individual success for team cohesion.
"When we get there, you'll see this team take a quantum leap," Calipari said. "If we don't get there, we'll never take that quantum leap. It's all gonna be about us as a team."