Improvement Cal’s top priority as Cats open SEC play

Terrence Jones breaks up the basketball year into three separate seasons.

One is nonconference play, presumably for finding out about your team. The third season is the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, the goals of which are obviously to win. The second season is SEC play, a time of the year head coach John Calipari says the Wildcats should be focused on improvement.

“We’ve got to get better, that’s my only concern,” Calipari said. “It’s not where we are right now, it’s are we getting better? There comes a point where we are what we are and we shore it all up and we touch up the ends, which is kind of like we did a year ago. We’re just not there yet where we can tie it all together. We still have some guys that aren’t playing with the intensity or toughness that we need to.”

As Kentucky prepares to open its conference slate on Saturday at 4 p.m. against South Carolina at Rupp Arena, Calipari is telling his players not to worry about wins and losses. He wants to win every game, but Calipari said the season won’t be judged as a success if the Cats win every regular-season game, don’t improve and get bounced early in the postseason.

“We don’t have to win every game,” Calipari said. “We just have to get better. Let’s just worry about getting better. If the wins come along with that or if some losses come along with that, let’s just worry about getting better, because you know and I know if this team gets better, we’ll be where we want to be when this all ends up.”

The Basics

What: No. 2/2 UK (14-1) vs. South Carolina (8-6)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena (23,000)
Game notes: UK | South Carolina
Video interviews: Calipari, Miller and Jones
Feature: Kentucky looks to continue SEC dominance

South Carolina File

Record: 8-6
Head coach: Darrin Horn (58-48 at South Carolina)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Gamecocks
Conference: SEC
Player to watch: Malik Cooke (13.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.0 steals)
Series history: UK leads 44-10
Last meeting: UK won 90-59 on Feb. 19, 2011

TV/Radio Coverage

TV: SEC Network
Radio: UK IMG
Live stream: ESPN3
Live stats: Gametracker
Live blog:

Last season’s team took awhile to “get it.” In fact, it took Brandon Knight and Co. nearly the entire SEC schedule to fire on all cylinders.

UK lost six games on the road in the conference and failed to win close games. The panic meter was brimming in early February until the Cats turned it around just in time for the SEC Tournament.

Calipari said he’d prefer not to wait that long every year – he says his timetable is the end of November – but he doesn’t set the calendar of development. He only wishes he could.

“What brings anxiety and what wears you out is my timetable is different than theirs,” Calipari said. “What happens is we’re going by their timetable, not mine. That tires you out a little bit because you’re like, ‘Don’t’ you get it?’ ‘No.’ It’s going to be on their timetable.”

When and if they actually do get it together, what does Calipari think this team is capable of?

“If we could be playing at our best as a team and individual players, it’s scary,” Calipari said. “We’re just not there yet. We still have two months of league play to figure it out.”

The Gamecocks come rolling into Rupp Arena winners of six of their last seven games. The lone loss was to then-No. 2 Ohio State. South Carolina has also played then-No. 1 North Carolina.

The Gamecocks will have guard Bruce Ellington’s full attention. Up until this point, Ellington has split his time between football and basketball, limiting his minutes and time on the practice court. When Ellington, a sophomore, has been in the games, he’s shown flashes of brilliance. His freshman campaign last year reminded a lot of people of the high-scoring Devan Downey.

“There aren’t many guys that I know that could go out there and do what he does and in between games go play another game,” Calipari said.

With or without Ellington, the one thing the UK players say about the SEC is that the level of competition turns up another notch.

“It’s going to be real competitive teams,” Jones said. “It’s going to be a lot tougher than preseason games because every team knows how we run our offense and their coaches have coached against us before.”

South Carolina wasn’t picked very high in the SEC’s preseason standings, but Jones said you can throw that out the door for league opponents.

Sophomore forward Terrence Jones is averaging 11.2 points and 6.5 rebounds for the 14-1 Wildcats.

“Records don’t matter,” Jones said. “You’ve got to bring it because every team is going to play us their best.”

Senior Darius Miller said Coach Cal showed the team film of one of their conference games from last year to give the freshmen an idea of what to expect.

“Everybody has seen how intense it was, how hard everybody played, so I think they’ve got a pretty good understanding,” Miller said.

The Cats’ success in SEC play could hinge on the health and improvement of Jones, who continues to wear a band around two of his fingers on his left hand to protect the left pinky finger he dislocated a few weeks ago.

“It’s getting better,” Jones said. “It changes every game because of how it gets hit and stuff. I just ice it and I’ve still been getting treatment, but it feels a lot better.”

Since returning from the injury, Jones is averaging 7.0 points per game, well below his career average of 14.5. When Jones initially returned, Calipari said he wanted him to focus on getting rebounds and reasserting his aggression, but that doesn’t mean Calipari wants Jones to scale back what he does best, which is score the basketball.

Calipari said Jones can still score 15 to 20 points a game, but he can find better ways to do it in the flow of the offense, like grabbing offensive rebounds.

“I would like to see him get 11 rebounds a game, get 15 points a game and sometimes 20,” Calipari said. “The greatest thing about rebounding is I say be as selfish as you want to be. You grab a few of those offensive rebounds, you’re one foot from the basket. Stick those in, make your free throws, make a few other shots, you’re there.”

Miller said once Jones gets back to 100 percent, Kentucky is a different team.

“He’s a huge part of the team,” Miller said. “He’s one of the main players, one of the key parts, so when he’s 100 percent we’re really good.”