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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."

No. 14 KENTUCKY (14-4, 4-1 SEC)
Coach: John Calipari (137-30 in fifth season at Kentucky; 540-168 in 22nd season overall)
Last game: Beat Texas A&M 68-51
Roster | Stats
GEORGIA (10-7, 4-1 SEC)
Coach: Mark Fox (75-70 in fifth season at Georgia; 198-113 in 10th season overall)
Last game: Beat South Carolina 97-76 (OT)
Roster | Stats
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Andrew Harrison Fr. 6-6/215 11.3 3.1
G Aaron Harrison Fr. 6-6/218 13.7 3.1
F Willie Cauley-Stein So. 7-0/244 8.0 7.0
F James Young Fr. 6-6/215 14.3 4.5
F Julius Randle Fr. 6-9/250 16.7 10.6
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Charles Mann So. 6-5/210 13.1 3.3
G Kenny Gaines So. 6-3/195 12.0 2.5
F Donte' Williams Jr. 6-9/225 7.5 2.5
F Marcus Thornton Jr. 6-8/235 7.5 5.6
F Brandon Morris So. 6-7/215 9.0 3.8
Game/Series Information
Game Information
Site: Rupp Arena (23,000), Lexington, Ky.
TV: SEC TV (Joe Davis play-by play, Joe Dean Jr. analyst)
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst, Matt Jones sideline); XM 199/Sirius 113
Internet: Audio | Video
Favorite: Kentucky by 15.5

Series Information
Series record: Kentucky leads 115-26
At Lexington: Kentucky leads 56-5
Coaches' records: Calipari 5-2 vs. Georgia; Mark Fox 3-5 vs. Kentucky

Last meeting: Georgia 72, Kentucky 62 (March 7, 2013, Athens, Ga.)
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds and the Bulldogs held the Wildcats to 37.1 percent shooting (including 23.1 percent from three-point range) in handing UK a second straight loss. Archie Goodwin had 20 points and six rebounds for Kentucky, which also got 10 points and 11 rebounds from Willie Cauley-Stein. Kyle Wiltjer had 12 points for UK, but was 5 for 16 from the floor, including 2 of 11 from three-point range.

Game Storylines
1. RPI-Roaring Georgia is in the midst of its toughest schedule stretch of the season. Since the start of SEC play, the Bulldogs have jumped from No. 266 in the RPI to 124. That's in large part due to a stretch eight games in which Georgia has played six RPI Top 100 opponents. The Bulldogs have beaten three RPI Top 100 teams during this run: No. 54 Missouri, No. 66 Arkansas and No. 97 Alabama. Earlier this season, though, Georgia lost to three teams with an RPI higher than 150: No. 138 Georgia Tech, No. 163 Davidson and No. 179 Temple.

2. Two for One: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, now a rookie with the NBA's Detroit Pistons, left a void in the Georgia lineup, and no single scorer has stepped up to fill it. But sophomore guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines are doing their part. The duo averages a combined 25.1 points per game, and Mann in particular is replacing some of Caldwell-Pope's versatility. Mann leads Georgia in points, assists and minutes, and he scores in a variety of ways. That includes at the free-throw line, where he has 119 attempts, but where he's shooting just 67.2 percent.

3. Astounding 'Bounding: In SEC play, Georgia is outrebounding opponents by 10.4 boards per game. That's slightly ahead of Kentucky (+10) and trails only Tennessee (+11) in rebounding margin in league play. Forward Marcus Thornton is averaging 8.2 rebounds per game in conference play, and three other Bulldogs average at least 4.2 boards in league games. And there are missed shots to go around. Georgia is holding SEC opponents to 39.5 percent shooting, but is shooting just 39.1 percent in conference.

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