NCAA Tournament seeding. First-round bye in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Ratings Percentage Index. Strength of schedule.
Reporters tried to freight a lot of implications on Kentucky's game against South Carolina on Saturday. UK Coach John Calipari would have none of it.
"We're worried about the last five minutes (of games), now," Calipari said on Friday. "We're not worried about anything else. If we get that straight, the other stuff will take care of itself."
As recently as Tuesday's closer-than-it-could-have-been victory over Mississippi State, Kentucky showed the need for better play at the end of close games. So no wonder Calipari took the biblical advice to not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Saturday's potential trouble is enough to occupy the minds of the Kiddie Cats.
"We'll worry about South Carolina," Calipari said. "Let's just try to win a game. Let's try to get better. Let's try to finish a game off."
The first time the teams played saw UK hiccup a few times in the final minutes. A 16-point second-half cushion dwindled to a five-point lead with more than a minute left before UK righted itself and won 67-58.
Calipari said he reviewed the end of the Mississippi State game with the players on Thursday. Time-and-score considerations were a common thread in the first South Carolina game and the victory over Mississippi State. In Columbia, Brandon Knight most memorably missed a floater from the baseline when UK had a lead and could wait for the desperate Gamecocks to foul. Against Mississippi State, there was a Terrence Jones air ball early in the shot clock to second-guess.
"It's more a mind-set than anything else," Calipari said.
Josh Harrellson agreed, saying the close-game situations had become a psychological problem.
"We're trying to get that out of our heads," he said. "When we lost the first couple, I guess it kind of got to us and we got nervous down the stretch. When it's a close game, what's the outcome going to be? We think about it instead of just playing basketball."
Although UK made only two of a potential eight free throws in the final 65 seconds against Mississippi State, Calipari spoke confidently of the team's ability to make clutch free throws. Knight, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Jones, DeAndre Liggins had all proven the ability to make free throws at the end of games.
A concern was getting the ball to the hot hand in any particular close game, Calipari said, or driving into a congested lane and losing the ball.
South Carolina is not without its own concerns. Noting his three freshman starters, Coach Darrin Horn said the Gamecocks had to deal with a dramatic change in expectation.
"Early on, we had no expectations," Horn said. "We only focused on playing hard and competing, and, 'Hey, no matter what goes on, let's make sure we play. Leave it all out there.'"
South Carolina beat in-state rival Clemson, then got off to a 3-1 start in the Southeastern Conference.
"It was like we looked up and thought, 'Wow, look at all this,'" Horn said. "We got away from just playing."
The freshmen, all used to high school success, had to deal with adversity.
" 'OK, I'll just turn it up,'" Horn said of the typical freshman's thinking. "That's not easy to do at this level. You see that with a lot of young teams."
Beginning with the first Kentucky game, South Carolina has lost six of seven. Maybe worse, the Gamecocks are hobbled with freshman point guard Bruce Ellington nursing a bruised calf and starting forward Lakeem Jackson sidelined because of a sore foot.
Calipari, who regularly notes how competitive the SEC race will be this season, likened South Carolina to the Mississippi team Kentucky faced in Oxford on Feb. 1. The Rebels took a 1-5 SEC record into the game against Kentucky and won 71-69.
"Have they lost a game since they played us?" Calipari asked.
Ole Miss has won four of its last five, counting the Kentucky game.
"Yes, they've lost games," Calipari said of the Gamecocks. "But when you look at them, they're not getting buried."
So chances are there will be another chance to work on late-game execution.