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March 6, 2013
For Cats, a choose-or-lose decision at Georgia
A basketball coach once co-wrote a book called "Success is a Choice," and though it's doubtful that Rick Pitino's guide to business achievement is on rival John Calipari's bookshelf, the basic premise isn't so far from Calipari's philosophy.
"I think our team (can be) whatever they want to be," Calipari said Wednesday. "Where do you want to go with this? How do you want to do this? Whatever you want it to be, it's gonna be."
At present, Calipari's Kentucky team is a bubble club facing a critical week with games Thursday at Georgia and at home Saturday against Florida.
Win both and the Wildcats (20-9, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) likely are in good shape to make the NCAA Tournament. Split and there's work to be done at next week's SEC Tournament. Lose both, and Kentucky might need an SEC tourney title to win a bid.
The variable in Calipari's eyes is desire. Success, as he sees it, is a choice.
"It's like fate is in your hands," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You practice and you work out to obviously win, but none of that matters if you don't have the mentality to win, if you don't want to hustle around, get 50/50 balls, match the intensity of your man. It just goes out the window. That's what he means by you have the choice to win or lose."
But the Cats have little choice but to win - and win soon - if they'd like to be on an NCAA Tournament bracket come selection Sunday.
And their first chance to show they've chosen success comes Thursday at Georgia (14-15, 8-8 SEC), which is 11-6 at home and coming off a 78-68 win against Tennessee last Saturday, a game that snapped the Volunteers' six-game winning streak.
"The only thing that's on the line tomorrow night is a win and a loss," junior Jon Hood said. "That's the only thing we're worried about, that's the only thing that's on our minds. We don't care about Florida on Saturday. We don't care about the SEC Tournament right now. We don't care about the NCAA, any of that. All we care about is playing our best, come out playing tough, together and doing what it takes to get a win."
What it takes, Calipari said, is a commitment to winning ways.
It's not just about making shots or slowing Georgia scorer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It's about taking care of the ball when play gets physical, about players being mindful of fulfilling their roles.
"Go in the games, the game's going to get rough," Calipari said. "Battle back. If you're supposed to be handling the ball, handle the ball. Go get it. If you're supposed to rebound the ball, guess what? Go rebound."
Kentucky didn't do those things last Saturday. As a result the Hogs looked hungry. The Cats came away humbled.
"During the game you don't feel like you were playing the way everybody was saying we played, but then when you go back on film you can definitely see that (Arkansas) was playing with more intensity, playing tougher," Cauley-Stein said. "They was punking us. You see that in film and you're like you don't want that to ever happen again. You just kind of have to approach it like that."
The Cats are running out of time to change their approach, but Cauley-Stein said it's important they not look at the ticking of their postseason clock. Instead, he said, the Cats have to play a game at a time, focus on the immediate task at hand.
Kentucky managed that two years ago, when its reversed its regular-season fortunes late, got hot down the stretch and rode the momentum of an SEC Tournament win to the 2011 Final Four.
"I believe any team can do that if they come together," said Hood, one of two current Cats who played on that 2011 team. "You see all these Cinderella teams in the tournament that are playing their best at the end of the year. Any team can do it, so why can't we? We just need to come together, play as a team, play tough and we'll be fine."
Calipari still thinks so, too, still has a vision that his team can "write a heckuva story" before the book's closed on this season.
No sooner did the coach say so on Wednesday than he added a caveat: "If they choose to."
It's time to make that choice.
"Where do we want the season to go?" Calipari said. "Well, fight like heck. Fight. Battle. None of the other stuff's going to work. The only thing that's going to work is you go in and want this thing badly."
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