UK Men's Basketball

Cats challenge: Toughen up on SEC road

Florida's Erving Walker, left, and the Gators will host Kentucky's Brandon Knight and the Wildcats Saturday night in Gainesville, Fla.
Florida's Erving Walker, left, and the Gators will host Kentucky's Brandon Knight and the Wildcats Saturday night in Gainesville, Fla.

Like a cowboy who's been tossed face-first into the dirt by a bucking bronco, Wildcat Cal (a.k.a. Kentucky Coach John Calipari) can't wait to straighten his 10-gallon hat, spit in his hands to get a better grip and climb back aboard.

That sounded like his thinking Friday as he looked forward to UK's game at Florida on Saturday night.

"It's a good game for us," he said Friday. "Great game.

"Because it's a bounce-back game. You better bounce back."

Kentucky, 16-5 overall and 4-3 in the Southeastern Conference, expects Florida to mimic what other opponents have done: try to push the Kiddie Cats around and generally try to take advantage of UK's fuzzy-cheeked innocence.

Calipari welcomed the challenge presented by a game in Florida's O'Connell Center with Dick Vitale and ESPN's College GameDay crew joining the Rowdy Reptiles in one of college basketball's most electric atmospheres.

What better setting for the Cats to show they've shed the uneven play of youth? Playing passively for stretches, even long stretches, simply wasn't good enough in losses at Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss. It won't be good enough at Florida, Calipari suggested.

"You'll have to play an entire 40 minutes," he said. "We've got to find out at some point this year: When will we do it? Because we haven't done it yet. We play for 30 minutes or 32 minutes. We haven't been close to a 40-minute game."

Calipari lamented how all hands — well, 12 hands in UK's six-man rotation — have to contribute. "We don't have enough room for error," he said. "If two guys really play poorly, like really play bad, we're trying to play with three and a half guys."

Calipari bemoaned how players can be content after scoring and neglect to get in a defensive stance.

Calipari noted how UK's big men must communicate on defense or be embarrassed by Florida's pick-and-roll offense.

Calipari also noted how he's challenged Josh Harrellson to take a charge for the first time all season. Ole Miss driving unimpeded to the basket led to a take-a-charge-or-else challenge.

"He has a goal he has to reach (for charges) in the game" or be punished by running sprints, the UK coach said of Harrellson. "He'll be flopping all over that court."

Mostly, Calipari anticipated Florida being physical. The UK coach did not sound as confident of the Cats flexing muscle all over the court in Gainesville.

He noted how Twany Beckham, an afterthought at Mississippi State before transferring to UK, was too much for Darius Miller to handle in Thursday's practice.

"I had to take Darius off the court," Calipari said. " 'OK, step off. You're not tough enough to play him. Just step off.'"

Miller and his teammates have to figure out how to stand up to physical play, Calipari said.

Calipari applauded how Jarrod Polson did his part to condition Brandon Knight for intense competition.

"Jarrod went right after Brandon," the UK coach said. "Same deal. Brandon got rattled a little bit. I'm like saying, 'That's what they're trying to do to you in the game.' — 'Let's get physical and get up in them and bump them and see if he loses his mind.' "

Knight acknowledged that opponents try to push Kentucky around.

"I wouldn't just say it was Ole Miss," he said. "Against Georgia, their guards bumped us. Every team in the SEC, they've tried to be physical."

Knight did not interpret the rough stuff as an insult.

"Not really," he said. "You have to find something you think is a team's weakness, and that's what teams think our weakness is."

Since the national championship seasons of 2006 and 2007, Florida has been the 90-pound weakling getting sand thrown in its face. On Thursday, Coach Billy Donovan noted how adding depth in the front court has led to more competitive practices and more physical play.

For instance, though a McDonald's All-American, freshman Patric Young has accepted the role of physical presence and helped the Gators adopt a tougher style of play.

Even without Kentucky as the opponent, Florida would expect to need to be physical, Donovan said.

"Once you get into February," he said, "the games become more physical."

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