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February 17, 2014
Despite loss, UK heads to Ole Miss in good spirits
Following another missed opportunity, another loss in a season that wasn't supposed to see many of them, coach John Calipari's mood was evident.
"Really positive," assistant coach John Robic said. "The most positive I've seen Cal and our staff after a defeat in a long time."
That's because, for all the failed execution down the stretch in Saturday's 69-59 loss to Florida, the first 30 minutes held the promise of something bigger.
"That's as good as we've played all year," Calipari said. "It showed me that we can beat anybody in the country."
The Cats haven't quite proven that yet. Ranked No. 18 in the new Associated Press poll, they're 2-4 against teams in the top 50 of the official RPI rankings.
"We feel like we are one of the best teams in the country," senior guard Jarrod Polson said. "Maybe we haven't had a good record against ranked teams, but at the end of the day, we've been in those games and been close with them. We continue to get better and we feel our ceiling might be higher than those teams."
Calipari thinks the Cats can reach that lofty potential. He said UK has "to shore up how we finish games." It has to improve its shot selection down the stretch and maintain mental discipline on defense.
He showed his players the last 11 minutes and 12 seconds of Saturday's loss, when the Gators -- facing a seven-point deficit -- scored on every possession the rest of the way.
"We saw what we did, and we now know the adjustments that we have to make," Robic said. "And the players really, really understand that now."
"We were playing well for the most part," freshman guard Aaron Harrison said. "It's just (mistakes) down the stretch, when it's really most important. Nothing else really matters. Just down the stretch, when it's winning time."
They have the opportunity to show the lessons truly sank in on Tuesday at Ole Miss.
The Wildcats beat the Rebels 80-64 at home on Feb. 2. It was a comfortable win, and although Calipari noted UK was up only one at halftime, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said he was being "diplomatic" with that answer.
Still, another conference road game gives Kentucky the chance to show it's improving.
"We talked about it yesterday," Harrison said. "If we had won that game (against Florida), we probably wouldn't have learned as much as we should have from that game."
The learning must happen quickly.
Time is running out, with less than a month before Selection Sunday.
"(The window) can't be too small," Polson said. "That's what we're working with. … We can play with anybody. Keep continuing to grow, and hopefully by the end of the year we'll be right where we need to be."
Kentucky players know where that is.
"These guys understand that we only have six regular-season games left," Robic said. "Our goals are the same, regardless of Saturday's outcome."
Even with another loss that struck a blow to Kentucky's resume, coaches and players emerged from Saturday's disappointment confident a title run is within reach.
"At this point and time of the year, you have to remain upbeat," Robic said. "If you don't, then we shouldn't be doing this and those kids shouldn't be playing this game."