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February 4, 2013In literature, our hero hits the road sometimes on a journey of self-discovery. The essential question is "Who am I?" and the quest is for true identity.
Kentucky basketball is kind of like that. Including the travel.
The Wildcats are back at home Tuesday for a game against South Carolina, the first of two games this week at Rupp Arena. Kentucky (15-6, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) is finding its footing, having won three straight, but still is in search of who it really is.
"We're getting better, but we've been in flux the whole season," coach John Calipari said Monday. "We have not been able to say, 'OK, here's who we are and let's just get better,' and it's put us in positions where we're not as confident in each other."
"Flux" was a word of the day on Monday for Calipari, who used it on the SEC coaches teleconference and again in meeting the media prior to practice.
The crux of that flux has been personnel uncertainty, Calipari said.
First, point guard Ryan Harrow missed four games with an illness and a family issue. He returned and worked his way back into the lineup, but Kentucky went four games without forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who returned in limited duty for Saturday's 72-68 win at Texas A&M.
Those absences - combined with the standard growing pains associated with freshman-heavy teams - have put Kentucky behind schedule.
"We've faced adversity having Willie go out, and the same with Ryan, so we've just tried to keep positive regardless of the situation," forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "It's taken us a lot to find our identities, but I think we're starting to come into our own. Hopefully we can just keep building upon it."
In recent weeks, there's been something to build upon.
Kentucky already has played five SEC road games - "I didn't know we played home games," Calipari quipped - and has won four of them. That's two more conference road wins than UK's 2010-11 NCAA Final Four team managed.
Since losing back-to-back games at Notre Dame and at home against Baylor, the Cats have won 11 of 14 games. Though it's premature to say Kentucky's off the NCAA Tournament bubble, its recent play and No. 46 ranking in the RPI make a postseason invitation look increasingly likely.
(We're) just focusing on becoming a better team," forward [db]Alex Poythress[/db] said. "Teammates are actually getting it, learning how to play together better and just figuring it out."
But Calipari still is trying to figure out exactly what he has.
Asked on Monday what he wants his team's identity to be or what he thinks it could become, he was brief.
"I don't know," he said. "It's still developing."
Kentucky was soft with the ball at Texas A&M last Saturday, a flurry of turnovers late in regulation giving life to a 10-2 Aggies run that forced overtime. The Cats too often shy away from contact, Calipari said.
His team doesn't finish strong. It doesn't close out games when it builds a lead. Players sometimes hang their heads and slump their shoulders when an opponent steals momentum with a significant run.
And there still are personnel matters to solve.
Calipari is working Cauley-Stein back into the lineup after a minor procedure on an old knee injury sidelined him for four games. He played sparingly against Texas A&M in his return, but expanding his minutes will mean cutting someone else's.
Wiltjer and Poythress deserve to play, Calipari said, based on strong showings in recent games. Poythress is averaging 13.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game over his past three games. Wiltjer has averaged 15.3 points and 5.2 rebounds over his past six.
"You can't say, 'I'm going to take 15 minutes from Nerlens (Noel),'" Calipari said. "Ain't happening. What that means is (if) you're not getting it done, you're not getting it done; you've got to step back. But Willie has also got to perform. He's got to play the way he's capable of and he's fine to go."
Even with so many questions, Kentucky has found enough answers to build some momentum, and Calipari's happy with that, at least.
"We're hanging on and we're not near our best," he said.
This week provides an opportunity to get better. The Cats are heavy favorites to beat South Carolina (12-9, 2-6) and Auburn (8-13, 2-6) at home before its next road trip, to Gainesville, Fla., for next Tuesday's tilt with No. 2 Florida.
Until then, the quest for identity continues.
"We just want to be an unselfish group who plays hard," Wiltjer said. "We know teams are going to battle, so we want to be physical back. We just want to be a tough team."