ATLANTA — Kentucky players do not see Sunday's Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game against Florida as Act III of a youth-versus-experience cautionary tale.
"I don't really see us as freshmen anymore," UK wing James Young said. "We're probably sophomores now."
Young dismissed the youth-versus-experience angle as "media talk."
Fellow, er, freshman Aaron Harrison agreed.
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"I think we're a completely different team now," he said. "We're just having a lot of fun, sharing the ball and using our talent more."
UK Coach John Calipari, who had been touting his team's upside for weeks, also suggested that Kentucky will present a new challenge for Florida.
"We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago," he said of UK's evolutionary process. "... It took time. We're starting five freshmen, folks. Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special."
There was little special about Kentucky's 84-65 loss at Florida last weekend.
"We played as a bunch of individuals on (Florida's) Senior Day," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Now, we're sharing the ball. That's been our turnaround."
Not that Kentucky lacks respect for Florida, which became the first SEC team to achieve an 18-0 regular-season record in league play.
"They know how to play the college game," Cauley-Stein said. "And they do a great job of helping the helper. If one guy gets beat, there's another guy there. It's hard to get wide-open shots."
Do it again
UK players saw significance in following up an encouraging victory over LSU on Friday night with another on Saturday against Georgia.
"Vital," Cauley-Stein said. "If we're going to make this run, these are just steps to get us on that run. If we take two steps back, our confidence would be shaken a little bit."
Why do it again?
UK and Florida players downplayed the significance of a third game. Each team has bigger metaphorical fish to fry.
"It means absolutely nothing," Florida guard Michael Frazier II said of Sunday's game. "... We're trying to take this thing all the way out."
In other words, a national championship dwarfs beating Kentucky a third time.
"That's the plan," Frazier said. "But we have to do a better job of coming out ready to play."
Florida's 35-28 halftime deficit against Tennessee on Saturday extended a trend. The Gators also failed to lead Missouri at the half on Friday. In both cases, UF's defense took charge in the second half, stifling Mizzou (6-for-19) and the Vols (5-for-20).
"It's just a bad habit of ours," Frazier said of Florida's so-so starts. "The better teams we play, the harder it will be to climb out of those holes."
Cauley-Stein noted that Calipari downplayed Sunday's game.
"The game tomorrow is cool," he said. "... We want to win, but it doesn't really mean anything. Our big goal is to make the big run to get to the Final Four. Tomorrow is a steppingstone. For real.
"Obviously, we want to win, but it's not a life-and-death situation."
Cauley-Stein lauded the inspiration he takes from Dakari Johnson's play (six points, eight rebounds against Georgia).
"Dakari gets me extremely hyped when he plays," Cauley-Stein said. "He bangs in the post, gets and-ones and goes psycho. I love seeing his faces after he does something. It gets me juiced and just flows through everybody else."
James Young continued a return to good shooting form, literally and figuratively. He credited a correction to his shooting motion for his recent good shooting: 6-for-8 (2-for-4 from three-point range) against Georgia, which made him 12-for-25 at the SEC tourney and 15-for-31 overall (8-for-17 from beyond the arc) in the last three games.
"I kept kicking my leg out," he said. "That's why I kept missing shots."
While claiming not to pay much attention to those who've written off Kentucky (earlier in the week Dick Vitale called this season a "major disappointment"), the Cats acknowledged finding motivation in the doubts.
"It gives us a little chip on our shoulder," Young said, "Just to show we can play with everybody."
'Two of the best'
Julius Randle endorsed fellow Texans Andrew and Aaron Harrison as elite performers.
"I never lost faith in them," he said. "Those guys are two of the best guards in the country.
"I played against them my whole life. (The Harrisons' productive play) doesn't surprise me. That's who I know."