John Calipari knows if his Kentucky squad plays the same way in its SEC opener as it did in its final non-conference tuneup, the Wildcats might not be fortunate enough to come out ahead.
The veteran coach expects a focused effort when the second-ranked Wildcats open league play against South Carolina on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
A day after moving up one spot in the AP poll, Kentucky (14-1) beat Arkansas-Little Rock 73-51 on Tuesday for its sixth straight victory since losing on a last-second shot at Indiana on Dec. 10. Despite the final score and a 28-of-56 shooting performance, the Wildcats trailed at the break and by three in the early minutes of the second half.
Kentucky used a 23-1 run to pull away, but Calipari understands that sort of incomplete effort won't always fly against SEC competition.
"I said when we start playing teams in our league the level of talent goes up, the level of us knowing each other goes up and the level of intensity goes up," Calipari told Kentucky's official website. "This is the hard part right now."
While Kentucky is favored to win its 45th conference title and is one of the most talented teams in the nation, it's also among the youngest with three freshman starters.
"I heard (the SEC is) very physical,'' said freshman forward Anthony Davis, averaging 12.7 points, 10.6 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game. "The way we came out and played in the first half (Tuesday) is not going to be acceptable in SEC play."
Davis had 22 points and 16 boards while senior reserve Darius Miller added 15 points to surpass the 1,000 mark for his career. Davis also blocked three shots to give him 67 - already tied for 10th in a single season in Kentucky history.
Miller totaled 40 points while shooting 13 of 22 from the field - including 7 of 10 from 3-point range - during Kentucky's two wins over South Carolina last season. He scored 22 while forward Terrence Jones added 19 with 12 rebounds in the Wildcats' 90-59 home rout of the Gamecocks on Feb. 19.
Kentucky has won its last three meetings against South Carolina by an average margin of 20.4 points. The Wildcats also won 13 of their last 14 against the Gamecocks at Rupp Arena.
Though South Carolina (8-6) has traditionally struggled in Lexington, it does have some momentum entering this contest, having won four in a row and six of seven against mostly favorable non-conference competition.
"Everything we do is really geared toward preparing yourself for league play," coach Darrin Horn told South Carolina's official website. "The important thing for us, is can we continue to make progress?"
The Gamecocks are facing their third ranked opponent after losing 87-62 against then-No. 1 North Carolina on Nov. 25 and 74-66 to third-ranked Ohio State on Dec. 17. South Carolina has dropped 10 straight road games against top 5 schools since a 72-66 win over then-No. 3 Kentucky on March 2, 1997.
Senior forward Malik Cooke is the lone Gamecock averaging in double figures at 13.1 points per game. He totaled 16 points in last season's losses to Kentucky.
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