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January 6, 2014

Calipari hopes Cats apply lessons learned in break

John Calipari knows young teams.

He's coached them every season at Kentucky, has had lineups stocked with freshmen, reloaded each season as one-and-done stars have made their way to the NBA.

And even by his standard, this season's Wildcats (10-3) are wet behind the ears. Calipari's team starts four freshmen and a sophomore. Seven of the top nine players in the rotation are freshmen. Two are sophomores.

"This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other teams that I've had," Calipari said Monday on the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference. "They're great kids, now. They just have bad basketball habits. And trying to understand and get them to define how we have to play together, and how individuals have to be responsible for each other and to each other, has been the challenge."

That's made Kentucky's current 10-day gap between games -- which ends Wednesday, when UK hosts Mississippi State at Rupp Arena -- particularly valuable.

In theory.

In truth, Calipari doesn't know what will happen when the Cats take the court for the first time since a 73-66 win against rival Louisville.

But he likes what he's seen in the interim.

UK "really needed this," Calipari said of a 10-day stretch of mostly two-a-day practices. The Cats scrimmaged frequently, sometimes for as long as 90 minutes in a day, and focused in on four key elements each on offense and defense, Calipari said.

"It wasn't just the basketball -- stretching them out mentally," Calipari said. "Getting them to be together at breakfast, dinners, practices, meetings, films and just bringing them closer. This was a big time. Now, we'll see how it carries over on to the court."

The learning began before the break did.

The Cats closed out then-No. 6 Louisville -- their first win against a ranked team -- with star freshman Julius Randle cramping on the bench for most of the second half.

Calipari noted that UK has played well in stretches without Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and James Young and Randle, and his hope is that doing so gets across a critical point.

"Now what's important about that is those guys know: If you don't come to play and compete and battle, you're not quite ready, you're out and we'll win without you," Calipari said. "That is very important for a team to know. And I've made it a point to let them know that."

Meanwhile, Calipari is trying to teach his team to thrive with its best players on the court together.

"One of the things we talked to them about: when you have the ball, you're a passer; when you don't have the ball, think score," Calipari said. "In other words, don't pass it the minute you know 'I absolutely can't get a shot, so I'll pass.' No. When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."

Kentucky didn't play that way early in the season. Calipari's hope is that a team effort against Louisville -- and the consistent reinforcement of the message during this break -- will make a difference.

Calipari said the break was the result of SEC scheduling that was "perfect for us," but admitted his players are tired of practice and ready to play a game.

He hopes they look that way when they take the court.

"Maybe it helps us, maybe it didn't," Calipari said. "Maybe I wore them out. But we're going to see if this break helped us to see what we'll do a year from now."


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