UK Men's Basketball

Cats bonding in Cancun

After beating Rider, Patrick Patterson dreamed aloud about Kentucky heading to Mexico on Sunday for the Cancun Challenge.

"Can't wait," he said. "Nice sun. Nice beach. Watching (pause) people walk by."

If "people" are wearing bikinis, so much the better.

Perry Stevenson planned to pack his trepidation about water. When asked to confirm a teammate's prediction that he'd wear floaties, Stevenson said, "Floaties. Innertube. I'm putting on everything, and then still staying at the shallow end."

Freshman Daniel Orton saw the trip as a win-win no matter what happens against Cleveland State on Tuesday and either Stanford or Virginia on Wednesday.

"Just to get away from school right now is all we want," he said. "We'll try to get some (class) work done. If it doesn't get done, it doesn't get done. Don't worry about it."

Kentucky accomplished the goal of turning off the academic switch simply by taking off on the chartered flight. By contrast, basketball objectives remain turned on and humming with importance.

"I don't think we'll see much of the beach," Jon Hood said. "We're going down there for business. I think it'll be all business."

During interviews in Cancun on Monday, Josh Harrellson noted that the team has a midnight curfew.

"We're here for business," he said. "Fun and pleasure come later."

The Cats talked about how such trips can bring unity to a team. In the pre-season, UK Coach John Calipari sang from the same hymnal.

With the trip at hand, Calipari was in wary coach mode last week.

Team bonding can happen, he said, "unless you play poorly and it breaks you apart."

But once in Cancun, Calipari saw a hopeful sign.

"The best teams I have coached, they would move en masse," he said. "They go to a movie, and they'd all go to the mall. ... My best teams at Massachusetts and Memphis that's how they were. I looked out from my hotel room yesterday, and I saw them all walking around the complex, and I thought, 'Not bad, maybe it's the start of something.'

"If we can get a team that is truly concerned about each other, it's a step in the right direction."

Repeatedly in the pre-season and again in the early season, Calipari stressed the need to improve. He went so far as to say an early loss was acceptable if in the service of team improvement.

"I'm concerned about us getting better," the UK coach said. "It's not just winning. It's more than wining. It's 'are we getting better?'"

During a Web site question-and-answer session with fans Monday, Calipari cited strong, consistent defense as the key for Kentucky.

"If we become one of those teams where we really guard and rebound with two hands and play rough and tough, then we're going to have a nice season," he responded to a fan's question. "If we don't, our fortunes will rise and fall with our offense.

"Hopefully in Saturday's game, we bought in."

In the Rider game on Saturday, Calipari experimented with playing big men DeMarcus Cousins, Patterson and Orton at the same time.

With 5:01 left and Kentucky ahead by 29 points, Calipari played all five freshmen at once. This Fab Five lineup outscored Rider 9-2 in the next three minutes.

"There's a lot of teaching stuff out of this game that I liked," he said.

Eric Bledsoe's five turnovers were three too many, the UK coach said. Cousins needs to stay in his defensive stance to avoid the frustration of early foul trouble.

Although blessed with the gift of gab, Calipari needs to improve his communication skills. He told a story after the game of telling Cousins he was shooting his free throws too high.

"He thought I said shoot it higher," the UK coach said. "Higher!? You're going to hit a light if you shoot it higher."

Kentucky's opponent Tuesday has its own inexperience issues. Cleveland State, 3-1, does not have a senior on its roster after losing three starters from last season's 26-11 team.

"We're very young, very inexperienced and very naive," Coach Gary Waters said.

Most telling is the loss of point guard Cedric Jackson, who averaged 10.9 points and set a Horizon League record with 112 steals last season.

Waters noted that Tuesday's game will feature two point guards in their first season in Division I. "The only difference is yours is one of the better players in America," the Cleveland State coach said.

Though guard Norris Cole (21 ppg) knows his way around the court, the Vikings have a new front line to battle Kentucky inside.

A 3-1 start left Waters dissatisfied. The Vikings lost to St. Bonaventure 72-62 in their opener before beating Wilmington (Ohio) 99-74, Florida A&M 78-64 and Sam Houston State 80-65. In that latter game, Sam Houston State made 11 of 22 three-point shots.

"We really have a lot of breakdowns defensively," Waters said. "Offensively, we're still trying to find ourselves."

Cleveland State likes to play defense over the court's entire 94 feet. "Get up after you," Waters said.

In those first four games, opponents have committed 80 turnovers while Cleveland State has had 43 steals.

Here's a glance at the other two teams in the Riviera Division of the Cancun Challenge:

■ Virginia. First-year coach Tony Bennett brings the system he learned from his father, former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett.

The priority is on fundamentally sound basketball, patient offense producing good shots and zealous defense. Through four games, Virginia has committed only 45 turnovers and made 47.4 percent of its shots. Opponents are shooting with 41.3-percent accuracy.

The top six scorers return from last season's 10-18 team with Sylven Landesberg (15.3 ppg), big man Mike Scott (13.3 ppg, 9.3 rpg) and Mustapha Farrakhan (10.3 ppg, 12 assists, only seven turnovers). Farrakhan's grandfather is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Virginia, 3-1, has beaten Longwood 85-72, Rider 79-46 and Oral Roberts 76-55 while losing to South Florida 66-49.

■ Stanford. Second-year Coach Johnny Dawkins, the former Duke star, plays a lot of players. Nine players average 11.3 minutes or more. A 10th player averages 8.8 minutes.

Wing Landry Fields (22.5 ppg) is the lone returning senior starter from a team that finished ninth in the Pac-10 last season.

Stanford, 2-2, has been outshot (44.8 percent to opponents' 46.2) and out-rebounded (34.2-37.0) so far this season. But turnovers have helped the Cardinal. Opponents have committed 68 to Stanford's 43.

Stanford has beaten Cal Poly (70-53) and Florida A&M 99-69 while losing at San Diego 77-64 and to Oral Roberts 83-81. The latter makes Stanford the only team from the Cancun Challenge's Riviera Division to lose to a team from the lesser Mayan Division in last week's warm-up games.

Herald-Leader photographer Mark Cornelison contributed to this story.

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