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Notebook: AT&T Stadium offers big stage for Cats

The Kentucky Wildcats will play on big stages throughout the season, but nothing quite like they will see Friday night when they take on the Baylor Bears in Dallas. Well, that is unless they make it back to the Final Four in April.

AT&T Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys’ home, will play host to both Friday night’s doubleheader between the Kentucky and Baylor men’s and women’s teams as well this year’s Final Four and national championship.

The basics

What: No. 3/4 Kentucky (7-1) vs. No. 20/20 Baylor (7-1)
When: Friday, 10 p.m. ET
Where: AT&T Stadium (80,000) in Dallas
Game notes: UK | Baylor
Preview: Randle hoping Baylor game won’t be his only trip home
Video: Randle, Hawkins preview Baylor
Video: Cal’s pre-Baylor presser

Quite frankly, there is nothing like it in all of sports.

“I haven’t been in the building, but everybody tells me it’s just ridiculous,” John Calipari said.

Opened in 2009 at the price tag of $1.2 billion, the stadium is considered the crème de la crème of American stadiums. Just four years old, the stadium has already played host to a Super Bowl, the Cotton Bowl and an NCAA Tournament regional, in addition to numerous marquee nonconference basketball and football games and musical concerts.

Among the many staples of the venue, AT&T stadium features the world’s fourth-largest high definition video screen. It hangs from 20-yard line to 20-yard line above the football field.

“It’s going to be a neat experience for me,” freshman guard and Kentucky native Dominique Hawkins said. “I’m just a small-town kid from here and going to Dallas Cowboys Stadium is insane. I never expected to be playing in a stadium that big and that’s that well known. It’s just going to be amazing to play there.”

TV/Radio coverage

TV: ESPN
Radio: UK IMG
Live stats: Gametracker
Live stream: WatchESPN
Live blog: CoachCal.com

Dallas native Julius Randle watched Michigan beat Kansas and Florida end Florida Gulf Coast’s Cinderella run in the stadium (which is actually just outside Dallas in Arlington, Texas) in last year’s NCAA Tournament. He remembered the “funny-looking dome” and how electric the environment was.

“I couldn’t imagine playing in front of all those people,” Randle said. “It had to be fun for them.”

The setup, albeit somewhat unique with the doubleheader, won’t be quite the same as last year’s NCAA Tournament. For one, a packed house isn’t expected, and two, the court will be moved to one side instead of the Final Four setup in the middle of the gigantic stadium.

“We’re not gonna have 80,000 there, but my hope is that because of the games that are being played – everybody’s ranked — it’s gonna be a terrific environment,” Calipari said.

The open space and deep sightlines can have an effect on shooting, so Coach Cal is a fan of playing a regular-season game in the same environment the Cats would play in should they make it that far in the postseason. He isn’t worried about it having an effect on his team Friday.

“We’ll practice in there Thursday and probably shoot around Friday, so we’ll have two looks,” Calipari said.

More foul calls?

Early-season statistics suggest that Kentucky has been the biggest beneficiary of the new emphasis on officiating physical play this season.

Baylor File

Record: 7-1
Head coach: Scott Drew (186-138 at Baylor)
Ranking: 20/20
Nickname: Bears
Player to watch: Cory Jefferson (averaging 13.5 points and 8.8 rebounds)
Series history: UK leads 7-1
Last meeting: Baylor won 64-55 on Dec. 1, 2012

The Cats lead the nation in free-throw attempts at 36.9 per game (making an improving 68.1 percent per game). Also, Coach Cal said he was told on a conference call with members of the National Association of Basketball Coaches earlier that, as of this point last year, scoring is up six points per game.

“I like the way the game is being played,” Calipari said. “Faster, more scoring, you can’t foul on every possession. You can’t foul four times on the same possession. You can’t anymore.”

Still, Coach Cal has one more suggestion for the new rules. He suggests amending the way fouls are called in the post.

“If you throw it in the post and the man moves the ball to shoot and you come down (with your hands), it’s an automatic foul,” Calipari suggested on the phone call. “Why not add that? If he’s holding it and you grab it out of his hand, it’s OK. He goes to score and you come down, automatic.”

Calipari said his suggestion was met with a chuckle on the other end of the line. After all, as Coach Cal admitted, it is a little “self-serving.”

His best big man, Julius Randle, has been the focal point of defenses this season. Along with that has come a lot of physical play, grabbing and holding. Randle entered Thursday tied for ninth in the nation in free-throw attempts, but Calipari sounds like he believes he should be shooting even more.

“I think it eliminates me or anybody else worrying about ‘Did you hit his arm? Did he grab him? Did he grab instead of hit?’ It eliminates it,” Calipari said. “Anything we can take out of the officials’ hands and make it — it’s an absolute; you just call it.”

Bring on the zone

If there’s been a consistent approach to trying to slow down Kentucky’s high-scoring offense this season, it’s been zone.

Whether it’s a 1-3-1, a 3-2 or a traditional 2-3 look, the Cats seem like they have faced some sort of zone in every game this season. Calipari doesn’t expect anything different from a long and athletic Baylor team.

The stage doesn’t get much bigger than what the Cats will play on Friday. (photo by Eric Lindsey)

“Their zone is really effective,” Coach Cal said. “My feel is they’ll play us 95 percent zone. They play different ways, but they’re like us. They’re so long that you’re not getting the looks you think you’ll get in that thing.”

The Cats struggled early on against zone looks, but they’ve found a way to attack it the last couple of games with a more assertive Willie Cauley-Stein.

Against Providence, which sunk back into a zone after UK broke its full-court pressure, UK shot a season-best 64.3 from the field. Most of the shot attempts were inside as the Cats took just eight 3-point attempts.

“There’s a cohesiveness to playing this game, and against man-to-man, we don’t seem to be as cohesive as we do against zone,” Calipari said “My answer to you would be, because you have to pass it against zone. You can’t just come down and make a play. You’ve got to pass the ball, pass the ball, move it inside, kick it out, drive it. And all of a sudden, we become a cohesive team. I really don’t care that people play us zone. That’s fine, it makes us come together.”

Hood stays home

Jon Hood will miss his fourth straight game on Friday because of a head injury he suffered in practice nearly two weeks ago. The senior forward did not make the trip to Dallas because of lingering headaches.

“I know our doctors and I trust our doctors, “Calipari said. “They are going to be really conservative in what we’re doing here with him. And so, I am concerned, but I’m also knowing he’s in great hands and no one’s going to ask him to do something that he should not do.”

Hood, who has seen 18 minutes of action in four games played this season, has been the victim of some bad luck over the past couple of years. He missed all of the 2011-12 season with a knee injury and then parts of last season with mononucleosis.