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January 6, 2012No more off days.
That's the deal for the Kentucky basketball team. No more half-hearted halves. No more relaxing with a big lead. Southeastern Conference play starts Saturday when South Carolina visits Rupp Arena, and senior Darius Miller says it's time for No. 2 UK to move past its sometimes-passive approach.
"It's just something we have to get figured out before it's too late," Miller said. "We're going to have to play every game hard from now on. It's going to be a lot of tough games and a lot of intense games, so we can't come out like that anymore."
You snooze, you loose. And despite their gaudy record, the Wildcats (14-1) have been caught napping now and then. It happened most recently in Tuesday's 73-51 win against Arkansas-Little Rock, a five-win team that had a 30-27 halftime lead on the Cats in Freedom Hall.
At some point, coach John Calipari wants to tweak tiny problems, wants to refine the finer points of his team's approach. But before he can fine-tune, his Wildcats have to get in the right gear.
"We're just not there yet to where we can say, 'OK, let's tie all this together,'" Calipari said. "We still have some guys that aren't playing with the intensity or the toughness that they need to."
And conference play is no place for the timid.
Last season, a UK team that marched through March had an unseasonably cold winter in the SEC, finishing 10-6 in regular-season league play, including 2-6 on the road.
And Calipari - having been down this young-team road before - said his current crop of freshmen "probably" will be surprised by the intensity of conference play, though his veterans know the drill.
"A lot of teams (in the conference) are better prepared and know our personnel as a team and (how) our offense is run?," forward Terrence Jones said. "We've really got to come to play and prove ourselves every night."
The proving grounds open Saturday, when South Carolina (8-6) rides a four-game winning streak into Rupp Arena. The Gamecocks started the season 3-5, but Darrin Horn's team has won six of its last seven and is 5-2 with point guard Bruce Ellington - who splits his time between the South Carolina basketball and football teams - on the team.
South Carolina has played top-flight competition this season, losing to then-No. 1 North Carolina 87-62 and then-No. 2 Ohio State 74-66.
"They play a very aggressive zone, they press," Calipari said. "Matter of fact, they play a lot like Louisville plays. They scramble in the zone. They scramble in the press. They come at you in different ways."
Calipari called South Carolina " a team that could come in here and beat us if we're not where we need to be," and though the Wildcats want to get off to a fast start in conference play, the UK coach said he's less obsessed with wins and losses now than with overall improvement.
That means showing more consistent effort and getting across-the-board improvement from individual players. If the Cats get be "at our best as a team and individual players, it's scary," Calipari said.
But UK isn't there yet.
"We still have two months of league play to figure it out," Calipari said. "One of my messages will be, 'We don't have to win every game. We just have to get better. Let's just worry about getting better.
"If the wins come along with that or some losses come along with that, lets just worry about getting better because you and I know if this team gets better, we'll be where we want to be win this all ends up. But if we don't get better, we can win all the games we want to win and it won't matter. Let's get better and just worry about that."
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