Can Texas mess with UK?

“Don’t mess with Texas” is a popular slogan reflecting the swagger of the Lone Star State.

To hear John Calipari talk about Friday’s Big 12/SEC Challenge matchup with the No. 6 Longhorns, though, the Kentucky coach wouldn’t mind Texas messing with his top-ranked Wildcats a bit.

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“Nothing would be better for us than having a team like Texas come in and hit us right in the mouth,” he said during Thursday’s pregame press conference at the Craft Center. “We need to know when a team comes in and scores their first eight or 10 times down the floor, making tough shots and we’re missing open shots. How do we respond? Are we still tough? Are we still having fun? Are we still playing together? Those things are out in front of us.”

Kentucky (7-0) hasn’t had an opportunity to learn those things to date. The Cats have won by an average margin of 79-45 this season. The two best challenges – at least on paper – saw UK defeat then-No. 5 Kansas by 32 and Providence by 20.

Texas (7-0) comes to town with one of the only rosters in the country that can rival the Cats in terms of frontcourt size, length and athleticism. The Longhorns feature 6-foot-8 senior forward Jonathan Holmes (12.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg), 6-9 junior forward Connor Lammert (5.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and 6-9 junior center Cameron Ridley (8.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg) across the starting front line. They also have a familiar name coming off the bench in one-time UK recruiting target Myles Turner, a 6-11 freshman who is posting 12.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

“And they run,” Calipari said. “They fly up and down the court. They’ve got good scorers. They have great length. They run good stuff. It’s going to be a hard game for us.”

Added UK sophomore guard Aaron Harrison: "They’re a really big team, so I think it’ll be a challenge for us. But also I think we’re kind of used to it because we can play each other in practice."

The Longhorns have held each of their first seven opponents to below 60 points and 37 percent shooting from the field. They have also outrebounded opponents by a whopping 13.9 per game.

Likewise, Kentucky has held opponents to only 27.9 percent from the field this season and is averaging close to 10 blocked shots and 10 steals per game. The Cats are outrebounding opponents by 14.6 per game, but they have yet to hit their stride offensively, something that Calipari has stressed this week in practice.

The UK boss estimated that his team is operating at close to 80 percent of its ability at the defensive end of the floor, but only 50-60 percent on the offensive end. It's leading scorer, Harrison (10.4 ppg) is shooting just 37 pecent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc. The Cats are shooting a modest 48 percent overall as a team.

“Harder cuts, better screens, better execution and flying down the court so we can get some easy baskets,” Calipari said when asked how the Cats could improve their scoring. “If we’re stopping people 30 percent of the time, then that means 70 percent of the time we’re on a rebound, a break, steal or block going the other way. We should be scoring at least 25 percent of those, and we’re not. That’s one thing.

“The other area is simply how are we playing? Are we playing the right way? I’m taking every clip of different offenses that we’re running to see if it’s effective for this team. I told you, we’re learning. I’m learning. One group may run better playing this way, and another group might be better playing this way. We’ll do whatever the (platoons) need us to do.”

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