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January 23, 2012Maybe this 11-game winning streak isn't such a good thing. Maybe climbing into the No. 1 spot in the college basketball polls isn't a positive for the Kentucky basketball team.
Maybe all this smooth sailing isn't the best way for the Wildcats to reach their postseason destination.
That was John Calipari's suggestion on Monday as No. 1 Kentucky (19-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) prepared to hit the road for Tuesday's game at Georgia.
"We're going on a tough road trip, but I did tell them the way this is going, we probably need a loss so that we'll come together and say, 'We're not losing like this,'" Calipari said. " In other words, getting manhandled. That's enough. We're getting manhandled and winning close games, so they think it's OK. So my thing is, let's take it on the chin, now what you gonna do? You going to say it's OK? I don't think they're going to say it's OK."
If Calipari's generally looking for a loss, he might be in luck.
In two-plus seasons, Calipari has won 86 percent of his games at UK. But his teams are 3-2 when playing with the No. 1 ranking. This week is the Cats' third stint at No. 1 under Calipari. They reached the top spot in the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN coaches polls on Monday for the second time this season, and held the No. 1 ranking for a week in Calipari's first season.
The No. 1 spot has brought out the best in opponents' arenas - the Cats faced added crowd hostility in losses at Indiana earlier this season and at South Carolina two years ago - but Calipari's players don't expect the ranking to matter much on the court.
The way they see it, they're already getting opponents' best shots. Four of Kentucky's five SEC games have been close down the stretch, including last Saturday's 77-71 win against Alabama.
"I think it's going to be the same as it's been the last couple of games," forward Terrence Jones said. "I feel the teams have been playing their best. We've still been pulling (wins) out. Hopefully we can keep executing down the stretch and get the same results."
So the No. 1 ranking doesn't mean much. The Cats are accustomed to a target on their backs, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist said that while he was watching Notre Dame upset then-No. 1 Syracuse last Saturday, he wasn't rooting for the Irish to pave UK's way to No. 1.
"I didn't really care," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "It's just a number at the end of the day."
Calipari went a step further, joking that he was actively rooting for the Orange.
"I was trying to get ahold of (Syracuse coach) Jim Boeheim," Calipari said. "I was so mad at him."
Calipari called the No. 1 ranking "an added thing" for UK to have to deal with as it hits the road twice this week, for Tuesday's game at Georgia (10-9, 1-4) and Saturday's at LSU (12-7, 2-3).
But the Cats have grown accustomed to handling what's thrown their way, and to hear Calipari tell it, that comes by design. His recruiting pitch, he said, includes a discussion of the challenges of playing at Kentucky.
"This is a crazy environment," Jones said. "Every place we go is usually sold out. Everywhere you go, people know you. It's just a different life."
Georgia will try to make it a difficult one on Tuesday. The Bulldogs' lone SEC win in a 57-53 overtime win against Tennessee last week in Athens, Ga., and three of their four conference losses have come by double digits.
But Calipari called freshman guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope " one of the best young players in our country," and the Cats are expecting a rowdy atmosphere at Stegeman Coliseum.
They've been down that rocky road before and have their lone loss of the season to show for it.
"We've come a long way since we were No. 1 the first time," forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "I definitely think it'll be a little bit easier. We just want to play every game like it's our last."