Cats understand it's now-or-never time

jtipton@herald-leader.comMarch 6, 2013 

Kentucky Wildcats forward Willie Cauley-Stein (15) drove the lane for a basket as Arkansas defeated Kentucky 73-60 on Saturday March 2, 2013 in Fayetteville, AR. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff

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  • When: 7 p.m. Thursday TV: ESPN Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1 Records: Kentucky 20-9 (11-5 SEC), Georgia 14-15 (8-8)

    Series: Kentucky leads 115-25 Last meeting: Kentucky won 79-49 on March 1, 2012, in Lexington.

  • SEC Standings

    Conf. All

    Florida 13-3 23-5

    Kentucky 11-5 20-9

    Missouri 11-6 22-8

    Mississippi 11-6 22-8

    Alabama 11-6 19-11

    Tennessee 9-7 17-11

    Arkansas 9-8 18-12

    Georgia 8-8 14-15

    LSU 8-8 17-10

    Vanderbilt 7-9 13-15

    Texas A&M 7-9 17-12

    Mississippi St. 3-13 8-20

    Auburn 3-13 9-20

    South Carolina 3-13 13-16

    Wednesday's games

    Miss. St. at South Carolina, 7 p.m.

    LSU at Texas A&M, 8 p.m.

    Vanderbilt at Florida, 8 p.m.

    Tennessee at Auburn, 9 p.m.

    Thursday's game

    Kentucky at Georgia, 7 p.m.

    Saturday's games

    Florida at Kentucky, Noon

    Mississippi at LSU, 1:30 p.m.

    South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 1:30 p.m.

    Texas A&M at Arkansas, 2 p.m.

    Georgia at Alabama, 4 p.m.

    Missouri at Tennessee, 4 p.m.

    Auburn at Miss. St., 5:30 p.m.

Compete. Play with zeal. Try hard. Don't back down. Match, if not exceed, the opponent's intensity. Fight (not literally, but figuratively).

Kentucky Coach John Calipari and two of his players continued this season's same old theme on Wednesday. But the blah-blah-blah contained an ear-catching element: Time. Nearly all the sand is in the bottom of the 2012-13 hourglass.

UK acknowledged this now-or-never aura hanging in the air. If the Cats don't begin to show and sustain a competitive passion at Georgia on Thursday, then ... when?

"At some point, the light's going to go on," Calipari said. "And when it does, you're going to see a team (that's successful). And you've seen it at times.

"Now we don't have a whole lot of time. You're pressed now for time."

Kentucky, 20-9 overall and 11-5 in the Southeastern Conference, enters the final week of the regular season in a precarious position. An NCAA Tournament bid, a bargain-basement achievement for the self-styled gold standard program, remains iffy. Though in second place in the SEC, the Cats can fall to fifth with losses at Georgia and home Saturday against regular-season champion Florida. That would mean the indignity of playing on Thursday in next week's SEC Tournament.

"Yeah, you think about that," Willie Cauley-Stein said of the gloomy what-ifs. "At the end of the day, you've kind of got to get past that point where we're running out of time."

Teammate Jon Hood spoke of how Kentucky must bring a single-mindedness to Georgia.

"The only thing on the line ... is win or lose," he said. "That's the only thing we're worried about. It's the only thing on our minds. We don't care about Florida on Saturday. We don't care about the SEC Tournament right now. We don't care about the NCAA, any of that.

"All we care about is to play our best, play tough, play together. Doing what it takes to get a win."

It won't be easy at Georgia, Calipari said. Not that anyone but the most hopeless optimist would expect Kentucky to romp. In the two road games without Nerlens Noel, the Cats have been drubbed: by a 30-point margin at Tennessee (the widest margin for the Vols in the history of the SEC's longest-running series) and by 13 at Arkansas. The latter might have matched the 30-point margin had the Razorbacks made more than 34.8 percent of their shots.

"Arkansas did not play that well," Calipari said pointedly. "And they beat us.

'C'mon, man. You've got to play better than we played."

Calipari conceded that Kentucky's road record without Noel breeds little confidence.

"I'd like to tell you we're still a pretty good road team," he said. "It's just that the last two road games we were abysmal. And it's all about physical play. Our guards have to play better. It just has to be."

Arkansas trapped and harassed Kentucky into submission. UK's 19 turnovers and Arkansas' 20 offensive rebounds spoke to the difference in intensity and will.

Georgia (14-15, 8-8) doesn't play like Arkansas. "No one presses like Arkansas," Georgia Coach Mark Fox said.

But Calipari expects Georgia to try to take the initiative.

"They'll be aggressive," he said. "They may not spread the court like Arkansas, but they're still going to be aggressive and physical. And they're going to pressure us when they have the opportunity to."

Echoing comments he's made several times earlier this season (and borrowing from a Rick Pitino book title), Calipari spoke of success as a choice. Players must choose to take on pressure defense, get rebounds and retrieve so-called 50/50 balls.

Speaking of the practices and games, Cauley-Stein said, "None of that matters if you don't have the mentality to win. If you don't want to hustle around. ... "

That didn't happen at Arkansas.

"They were punking us," he said. "You see that on film. You don't want that to ever happen again."

Calipari said he still retains the "same vision" of a storybook finish to this Kentucky season. The Cats rally together and prove the doubters wrong.

Midnight may be approaching, but Hood noted the possibility of a gilded carriage called Kentucky not turning into a pumpkin.

"You see all the Cinderella teams in the tournament that are playing their best at the end of the year," he said. "Any team can do it. So why can't we?"


NEXT GAME

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 20-9 (11-5 SEC), Georgia 14-15 (8-8)

Series: Kentucky leads 115-25

Last meeting: Kentucky won 79-49 on March 1, 2012, in Lexington.


SEC STANDINGS

Conf. All

Florida 13-3 23-5

Kentucky 11-5 20-9

Missouri 11-6 22-8

Mississippi 11-6 22-8

Alabama 11-6 19-11

Tennessee 9-7 17-11

Arkansas 9-8 18-12

Georgia 8-8 14-15

LSU 8-8 17-10

Vanderbilt 7-9 13-15

Texas A&M 7-9 17-12

Mississippi St. 3-13 8-20

Auburn 3-13 9-20

South Carolina 3-13 13-16


WEDNESDAY'S GAMES

Miss. St. at South Carolina, 7 p.m.

LSU at Texas A&M, 8 p.m.

Vanderbilt at Florida, 8 p.m.

Tennessee at Auburn, 9 p.m.


THURSDAY'S GAME

Kentucky at Georgia, 7 p.m.


SATURDAY'S GAMES

Florida at Kentucky, Noon

Mississippi at LSU, 1:30 p.m.

South Carolina at Vanderbilt, 1:30 p.m.

Texas A&M at Arkansas, 2 p.m.

Georgia at Alabama, 4 p.m.

Missouri at Tennessee, 4 p.m.

Auburn at Miss. St., 5:30 p.m.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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