Cats Coming Together

TAMPA, Fla. -- Another young roster on a John Calipari-coached team has started to grow up just in time. Kentucky's talented freshmen, complimented by a few veterans who were minor role players in previous seasons, have started to gel into a more cohesive unit and, not coincidentally, have played their best basketball in the last few weeks.

The Wildcats (26-8) have won their last seven games and nine of their last 10, dating back to Feb. 15. The only loss for Calipari and company in that stretch was a 77-76 setback in overtime at Arkansas on Feb. 23.

Meanwhile, the wins have piled up. UK added another Southeastern Conference Tournament championship to its trophy case -- its 27th SEC Tournament title, more than all of the other programs in that league combined.

It didn't look like things would win up going so well earlier in the season, as Kentucky won only two SEC road games. But signs of talent were there in convincing wins over Notre Dame (72-58) and Louisville (78-63).

Talent has rarely been Calipari's problem. Last season, his first Wildcat team had five players that were ultimately drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.

But cohesive play, at least early in seasons, is often the trade off for relying so heavily on freshmen. Finally, the former head coach at UMass and Memphis is getting that from this UK squad.

"We're an inexperienced team," Calipari said. "My veteran players weren't the significant guys a year ago. They've taken on new roles."

But those upperclassmen -- Josh Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller -- have helped steer a roster led by explosive talents like Brandon Knight, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones into a team capable of playing well together.

"A lot of experienced guys on our team have really stepped up late in the season, just getting more comfortable and everything, meshing together," said Jones, a forward whose 16.5 points per game is second only to Knight's 17.5 on the UK roster. "The chemistry is better. It's just giving us more weapons."

"This team has changed because DeAndre, Darius and Josh have challenged the rest of us and they've elevated themselves," Calipari added. "The freshmen have been on ... that steady climb."

That climb has peaked in March. Kentucky won its first game of the NCAA Tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday in dramatic fashion, overcoming a plucky Princeton team late.

In a sign of how much faith Calipari has in his young guns, it was Knight, a freshman, who had the ball in his hands and made the game-winning shot (a driving scoop with 2.0 seconds remaining) despite having missed all seven of his field goal attempts in the first 39:58 of the game.

A year ago, Jones, Knight and Lamb weren't worrying about late game NCAA Tournament heroics. In fact, they were sitting together during a break in the festivities at the McDonald's All-America weekend, watching an Elite Eight game between Kentucky, where they would all ultimately team up, and West Virginia, the team they will face in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday afternoon.

Well, at least Jones and Knight were watching intently. Lamb admitted he only the end "because I was playing video games and stuff."

"We had seen the whole game and how [UK] struggled to shoot the ball and get [WVU] out of the [1-3-1] zone [defense]," Jones said.

"We definitely saw how the team last year struggled to shoot the basketball and how West Virginia basically made every shot," Knight added. "It was kind of tough to watch that."

Now, a year later, they get a chance to impact the outcome. In a sign of just how much this Kentucky team relies on its younger players, Jones, Knight and Lamb were the only three UK players brought to the podium for the formal pre-game press conference Friday.

That's not atypical for a Calipari-led team, as the coach has consistently won with "one-and-done" players at both Memphis and now Kentucky. And neither is the gradual improvement of the squad, all aimed at ensuring the team is playing its best when it matters most: March.

"I've had other young teams, and really, we gear everything toward this time of the year," Calipari said. "We're just playing [earlier] to play our best [now]. If that's not good enough, if you hit a bad day [you're going to lose] ... but we just want to make sure we're doing everything so they're fresh mentally, fresh physically and that we're in the greatest frame of mind at this time of year.

"That's what we're trying to do. And historically, my teams have been fairly good in March."

His players, even his youngest ones, know that as well.

And given their recent run, they feel confident in this year's Wildcats' ability to add to Calipari's track record of postseason success.

"We definitely feel good," Knight said. "Our team is really starting to mesh right now, and guys are really starting to play better together. So we're really looking forward to the next couple of games, and we're really happy to see how our team is playing right now."

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