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March 12, 2013

Cats hope Florida win sparks postseason run

It was the sort of win that helps a team turn a corner, a gritty, gutty kind of win that helps keep an NCAA Tournament bubble from bursting and can put a trainwreck back on track heading into a conference tournament.

Or maybe Kentucky's 61-57 win against Florida last Saturday was nothing of the sort.

So was it just a win or a sign that the Wildcats (21-10, 12-6 Southeastern Conference) are ready to make some postseason noise when the SEC Tournament gets underway this week in Nashville, Tenn.

"We've been here before like this so I'm not even going to try and answer that (now)," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. "I mean we've been where it seemed like we turned a turning point and reverted right back so, you know, I just don't know."

Cauley-Stein's hesitance to pronounce his team poised for postseason didn't seem to surprise Kentucky coach John Calipari, who's often said this season that he doesn't know what to expect from his young team.

"I think there's some guys in there Willie doesn't trust," Calipari said. "When they don't feel like playing, they don't play. We have a little of that."

The Cats clearly haven't been trustworthy for parts of this season.

They blew out Auburn on the road Jan. 19 and folded three days later at Alabama. They followed that with five straight wins including one at Ole Miss that seemed significant at the time, then lost at Florida and Tennessee by a combined 47 points.

A 30-point loss to the Volunteers was Kentucky's first full game without freshman Nerlens Noel sidelined for the season by a knee injury at Florida. The Cats' hard-fought home win against Missouri seemed to be a step toward finding a post-Noel identity, but after a rout of Mississippi State, the Unreliables lost two straight on the road at Arkansas and Georgia.

Those ups and downs have left Kentucky uncertain of an NCAA Tournament invite for the first time in Calipari's four seasons in Lexington. That puts added emphasis on the SEC Tournament, which gets underway with first-round games Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

Kentucky, the No. 2 seed, won't play until Friday at 7:30 p.m., when it meets the winner of Thursday's game between No. 7 seed Arkansas and No. 7 seed Vanderbilt. When it does, it will start what Calipari still thinks can be a significant postseason run.

"Two years ago Connecticut won the national title," Calipari said. "They were 9-9 in their league. They were like an 11 seed in their tournament. Then they figured it out, guys started fighting and everybody started playing well. You can do this. This is one of those years."

That Connecticut team had Kemba Walker. Kentucky doesn't have a comparable star.

Not yet, at least.

"Maybe it's Willie," Calipari said. "Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they're supposed to do."

To have a chance at any sort of postseason run, Calipari said, his players' priority has to be "not how you're playing, how we're playing."

That hasn't always been the case with this team, Calipari said. And Cauley-Stein said some of his teammates have a tendency to tune out.

"Guys relax or guys aren't focused about it or something," he said. "I honestly don't know."

But there are signs of encouragement.

Both Calipari and Cauley-Stein noted that Monday's practice was a strong one, and Kyle Wiltjer said on Tuesday, "I think we're ready" to string together a postseason run.

The NCAA Tournament still isn't a sure thing. The win against Florida was a step in the right direction, but with so many SEC teams on the bubble - Tennessee, Alabama and Ole Miss will head to Nashville with hopes of securing an NCAA invite - Kentucky hardly is a lock.

"We just need to go into the tournament with the mindset that we're not trying to, you know, get beat," Cauley-Stein said. "We want to win it, obviously, and keep it rolling."

And if these Cats ever do stop the stop-and-go and really get moving, Calipari's confident they could keep it going for a while.

"I still believe in this team," Calipari said. "This team could do whatever they want, but you can't say 'Well, I want to do that but I don't want to do this to get to that.' You can't. It doesn't work that way."


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