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November 14, 2011You've been told all preseason how good this Kentucky basketball team is.
This week, the Wildcats get their first real shot to show you.
When No. 2 Kentucky meets No. 13 Kansas Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, it's the Wildcats' first chance at a coming-out party, a national stage on which to show how serious they are in their pursuit of an NCAA championship.
"This game right here's like a statement game, to let everybody know how good we are," guard Doron Lamb said. "We just want to prove to everybody we're the best team in the country."
There are few finer platforms on which to do it.
Tuesday's State Farm Champions Classic pits Duke against Michigan State and Kentucky against Kansas in college basketball's best opening-week showcase. The NBA lockout means they're the first basketball games ever played at the newly renovated Madison Square Garden.
The Cats (1-0) are ready to use the Garden stage to send a message. But UK coach John Calipari isn't convinced they're ready to beat Kansas.
"It may be a statement game, but I'm hoping it's the one (the players) think it'll be," Calipari said. "It could be another statement. And I think Kansas on the same sense is going to make it a statement game."
The Jayhawks (1-0) are nationally ranked and - by most pundits, at least - favored to win the Big 12 title game. But this is considered a reloading year in Lawrence, Kan.
A year after falling a game short of the Final Four, Kansas is generating precious little national buzz.
"Kansas is kind of like our team a year ago, where everybody kind of thought, 'You know what, they're not that good,'" Calipari said. "And I kept telling you all, 'I like my team and there's no one out there (who's) that good that scares me. We've just got to get it together by the end of the year.' And I said it probably 500 times.
"And I imagine right now with (Thomas) Robinson and the big kid and the guard play they have, (KU coach Bill Self) is saying the same thing... . I would tell you he's got a veteran team of good players and they're trying to make a statement, too."
Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 regular-season titles and its projected starting five includes a senior guard Tyshawn Taylor, and four juniors.
The best among them is Robinson, a 6-foot-10 power forward who's being asked to step into a starring role with the departures of big men Marcus and Markieff Morris to the NBA.
"Very hard (to defend)," Calipari said. "He really does a great job of creating space for himself in transition. He'll throw himself in pick-and-rolls and create space for himself to get the ball back. Now he's playing out on the floor some, so he'll bring it up the court on rebounds, shoot the 15-footer. He's really good. It's going to be a hard matchup for us. With Terrence Jones, how much do you really want to put him on Robinson? And he's probably too physical for a bunch of our guys."
For whatever matchup problems Calipari sees, his team enters Tuesday's game as a considerable favorite. Kansas went off as a nine-point underdog.
Calipari insists, though, that things won't come easily for his team at the Garden. "This is going to be a hard game," Calipari said. "It'll be a hard game for us to win. All I told my team: 'Let's be the best we can for a Nov. 15 team with all young players, and if that's not good enough we're walking on, and we'll go on to the next game.'"
For now, though, Calipari's players are focused on the game - and the stage - in front of them.
"It means a lot for all of us on the team, just proving ourselves to everybody in the country that we're No. 2," forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said. "Or even No. 1 in the country. That's what we've got to prove."
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