No surprise to Cal, Cats rising as players fall in love with grind

The basics

What: No. 11/11 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 SEC) vs. LSU (12-6, 3-3 SEC)
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Maravich Center (13,472) in Baton Rouge, La.
Game notes: UK | LSU
Video: Cal’s pre-LSU presser
Video: Randle, Cauley-Stein prep for battle of the bigs

The way John Calipari described it after Saturday’s win over Georgia, to become a team you have to break down a team.

“It is about players first,” Coach Cal said after one of his team’s better performances of the season, a 79-54 rout of Georgia. “You’ve got to get them right. You’ve got to get them in the frame of mind, and then you get your team right.”

For maybe the first time all year, after a half-season of breaking individual players down and redefining their games, Calipari has hinted in recent days about having a team, not a collective group of individuals.

“It took us time to get them to think different, think totally different than you’ve ever thought about this game, and then it’s taken time to define how they should play,” Calipari said on Monday. “You got to kind of define it, and we were all discombobulated for the first month trying to figure that out.”

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Recent play would suggest the Kentucky Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference), who moved up three spots to No. 11 in both major polls this week, are starting to jell. For one thing, UK has quietly won seven of its last eight games, but maybe more defining are the not-so-obvious signs.

Talk to the Wildcats long enough and you will hear them talk about having fun playing with each other. More and more often Coach Cal is raving about the Cats’ approach at practice, even on the tough-to-recharge day after games. Watch the head ball coach during a game and you won’t see as much individual teaching.

Maybe, just maybe, they’re starting to get it.

“We’re getting to where, like, every day you can try to get better because we’re not fighting it,” Calipari said. “DeWayne (Peevy, UK deputy director of athletics) says he doesn’t hear me yelling every 12 seconds, ‘Plaaay! Plaaay!’ I don’t yell that anymore because they’re now, you know, (getting it).”

LSU File

Record: 12-6, 3-3 in the SEC
Head coach: Johnny Jones (31-18 at LSU)
Ranking: N/A
Nickname: Tigers
Player to watch: Johnny O’Bryant (14.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
Series history: UK leads 83-24
Last meeting: UK won 75-70 on Jan. 26, 2013

Coach Cal said his players are getting better because they are learning to love the grind.

“Anything you do is going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing is we learn to enjoy and love the grind and love the process,” Julius Randle said. “It just makes things a lot easier. We’ve fallen in love with the whole process of getting better and changing habits, and because of that, it’s been smooth for us.”

After Saturday’s win over Georgia, James Young said individual players only cared about how they were playing two months ago, not how the team was faring. The more they’ve worked together and the closer they’ve become, that notion has been flipped on its head.

Now, as Calipari said at Monday’s pre-LSU media opportunity, each player is rooting for each other.

“They’re so happy that Alex (Poythress) is playing the way he is,” Coach Cal said. “They’re happy for what Willie (Cauley-Stein) has done. They’re happy for Dakari (Johnson). I mean, they’re happy for each other.”

Perhaps that’s why Cauley-Stein talked so glowingly of Johnson’s play during this three-game slump. Maybe that’s why the ball movement was as good as it has been all year on Saturday when the Cats passed up good shots for better ones.

Calipari talks about the youth of this team ad nauseam, but there is a point to all the talk about inexperience. After all, the Cats really are the youngest team in the country, ranked dead last in Ken Pomeroy’s experience rankings.

Julius Randle was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday. (photo by Chris Reynolds)

“It takes time,” Calipari said. “We got the youngest team in the country, and there’s all kind of things that we do that other teams don’t have to do. They got established teams. They’re just hoping they don’t get injured. They know who they are, they know how they play. That’s not us.”

Now that Kentucky has figured that part out, the next test is winning on the road where there Cats haven’t fared well this season. UK is just 1-2 in true road games this year heading into a stretch where the Cats will play four of their next five away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.

Though UK’s stock appears to be up, some are waiting to buy until they see how this team fares in a hostile environment.

“It’s a big-time test for us. … Wherever we go we have something to prove,” Randle said. “We know it’s everybody’s biggest game.”

Caliapri said the key to winning on the road the next couple of weeks will be mental discipline.

“You don’t have anything behind you,” Coach Cal said. “You’re not going to get a break. There’s nothing that’s going to go your way, so you can’t have the seven errors that we had at Arkansas. You can’t (do that) and win. ‘Well, it went to overtime.’ Yeah, and we lost because of those seven breakdowns. And they were mental breaks. ‘You  just stopped. Why did you do that.’ ‘I don’t know.’ And so, those are what we’re trying to eliminate.

The physical challenge for Kentucky on Tuesday when it meets LSU at 9 p.m. ET in Baton Rouge, La., will likely come down to how the Cats’ front court handles LSU’s big men.

All-SEC forward Johnny O’Bryant, a bruising 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward who is developing an outside game, is still the focal point of the LSU offense, but he’s got some help down low now in highly touted freshmen Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey. Martin was ranked the 13th-best freshman in the country by Rivals and Mickey wasn’t far behind him in the Rivals rankings at No. 41

Calling the Tigers’ front court one of the best in the league, Calipari compared to LSU’s post players to Tennessee’s, only longer with a better touch from the outside. Remember, Tennessee was one of the few teams this year that has physically overpowered the Cats.

“They’re bigger and longer,” Coach Cal said. “The advantage we had (over Tennessee) was, we were long. The advantage (Tennessee) had was strength. These guys are strong and they’re big. They’re not 6-7, 6-8. They’re big.”

Cauley-Stein admitted he hasn’t exactly done well against more physical teams.

“They probably outweigh me by like 40 pounds,” he said. “I don’t know anybody who wants to do that.”

Cauely-Stein just so happens to be in tied for the SEC blocked shots lead with Mickey. In addition to using his speed and quickness to counter LSU’s bulk, Cauley-Stein said pride will be on the line going up against a shot-blocking counterpart.

“Hearing about him is going to make you step up,” Cauley-Stein said. “Anybody in that position would step up and try to prove themselves.”

UK-LSU still a go … for now

Despite canceling classes on Tuesday and even a suggestion by LSU head coach Johnny Jones on the SEC teleconference that the game could be canceled because of wintry weather on the way, UK-LSU is still on for Tuesday night.

LSU sent out a release Monday afternoon that said the school was “moving forward for the game to be played as scheduled” but noted that LSU Athletics personnel, school officials and the SEC will continue to monitor the situation throughout the night.

The forecast for Baton Rouge on Tuesday calls for a wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice with temperatures nearing record lows.

UK’s flight left Lexington on time and arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday without any problems.

“We’re good,” Calipari said. “We’ll practice and we’ll get down there. Our fans are going to be there. They were in Dallas (during that ice storm), believe me, so they will be there.”

The issue, as Coach Cal told the media, will be getting back to Lexington. UK usually flies home after road games, but there is a contingency plan in place to stay overnight in case the weather is too bad Tuesday night.

LSU encouraged fans to stay tuned to and for official further updates. We will also have updates at