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November 30, 2011

Top-ranked Cats insist they won't look past St. John's

Twitter was abuzz, and Marquis Teague admits he got a little excited.

It was late Saturday night, and then-No. 1 North Carolina had just lost to UNLV, a game that had set up the possibility for Teague and his Kentucky teammates to jump to the top spot in the college basketball polls.

"We were excited, but it's still early, so it means nothing, really, right now," Teague said of the Wildcats' No. 1 ranking, which became official on Monday. "You've still got to come out and perform."

The Cats' first performance in the top spot comes Thursday night, when St. John's (4-3) visits Rupp Arena for the Big East/SEC Challenge.

The Red Storm likely will start three freshmen, and they'll be without head coach Steve Lavin, who is recovering from prostate cancer surgery. Lavin has coached in four of his team's first seven games.

Though it's an uphill climb for the Red Storm at Rupp, UK coach John Calipari called Thursday's a "scary game."

"They're young, but they're athletic and they're active," Calipari said. "You're going to see a team that's trying to steal every ball, dives on the floor, takes charges. These guys ball. They play."

And they'll have the added motivation of playing against the nation's No. 1 team.

Kentucky (6-0) has become a mark-your-calendar game under Calipari, who is 1-1 with the No. 1 ranking at UK. The top spot in the polls only magnifies that effect, Teague said.

"Everybody, like (Calipari) said, already thinks we're their Super Bowl," Teague said. "That's just going to make it even worse that we're No. 1. Everybody wants to storm our floor and knock off No. 1."

Two teams will get the chance this week.

But the Wildcats insist they're only focused on one. The St. John's game is - for fans, media, NBA scouts and the national TV audience - considered an appetizer; the feast comes Saturday when No. 5 North Carolina visits Rupp Arena.

The Cats, however, aren't looking to bite off more than they can chew.

"People always ask me about Carolina, the game on Saturday," forward Anthony Davis said. "But we still have a whole other game right now, tomorrow. We're not even focused on that (Carolina) game right now."

Kentucky is favored by as many as 23 points against St. John's in some Las Vegas lines. But Calipari has worked to keep his players acting like underdogs even as top-ranked heavy favorites.

That starts with keeping a chip on his players' shoulders despite a lofty ranking.

"First of all, I said, 'Obviously, not everybody thought we should be No. 1,'" Calipari said. "Thirty percent of the voters voted for someone else, which is really unusual. Normally, whoever ascends, you get a (large) majority of the votes. That didn't happen. And I said, 'We'll see if they're right.' How we practice, how we approach this, I said, 'Understand it is not a burden. It's a badge of honor. That's what this is.'"

It's a badge the Cats know doesn't mean much in early December.

Still, it's one they'd like to hold on to for a while.

The quest to keep that No. 1 ranking begins on Thursday.

"We know (St. John's is) a really good team, so we know they're going to come out aggressive and ready to beat us," Teague said. "We're preparing for them just like they're North Carolina."

Game Information

Kentucky vs. St. John's
Dec. 1, 2011, 7:30 p.m.
Rupp Arena
Lexington, Ky.

Radio: UK IMG Network
Series: Kentucky leads 10-5
Last Meeting: St. John's won 62-61 on Nov. 9, 2000, in New York.

No. 1 Kentucky (6-0)
Coach: John Calipari (473-150; 70-12 at UK)
St. John's (4-3)
Coach: Steve Lavin (170-93; 25-15 at St. John's)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Marquis Teague Fr. 6-2/189 11.7 2.2
G Doron Lamb So. 6-4/210 14.2 4.2
F Michael Kidd-Gilchrist Fr. 6-7/232 12.5 7.3
F Terrence Jones So. 6-9/252 13.3 7.3
F Anthony Davis Fr. 6-10/220 12.7 8.2
Pos. Name Yr. Ht./Wt. PPG RPG
G Nurideen Lindsey So. 6-3/182 14.4 3.5
G Phil Greene Fr. 6-2/180 5.4 2.1
G D'Angelo Harrison Fr. 6-3/202 14.3 3.9
F God'sgift Achiuwa Jr. 6-8/236 11.3 6.6
F Moe Harkless Fr. 6-8/208 14.1 6.7

Key Storylines

Carolina on Their Mind?
The Cats said all the right things Wednesday about focusing on one game at a time. But can John Calipari's young team fully focus on St. John's with North Carolina looming?

Gifts That Keep Giving
Each team has a physical presence inside. For Kentucky, it's Terrence Jones. For the Red Storm, it's God'sgift Achiuwa, whose greatest gift to St. John's is his 87-inch wingspan .

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