Internal focus key for UK against North Carolina

When the North Carolina Tar Heels lost 90-80 to the UNLV Rebels last Saturday, the commonwealth rejoiced for what would soon follow — a No. 1 ranking for its beloved Cats. It is the first time since the 2009-10 season that UK has held the top ranking in the nation, which it held for all of one week after losing to Devan Downey and the South Carolina Gamecocks.

But the No. 1 ranking really doesn’t mean much, at least not in college basketball. UK head coach John Calipari told his players to think of it as a badge of honor, and they should. But they should also keep in mind that 30 percent of voters felt someone besides UK was more deserving of the top ranking.

Last year, the Cats were never ranked No. 1 in the nation, lost their annual regular season meeting with UNC and didn’t earn a top seed in the NCAA tournament. Yet they still managed to win the SEC regular season crown, the SEC tournament and marched all the way to UK’s first Final Four in 13 years.

So, like I said, UK’s top ranking means nothing more than bragging rights. Instead, the team should work on buying into Calipari’s system and preparing for the long haul.

Point guard Marquis Teague should focus on his development in commanding the dribble-drive offense. Forward Kyle Wiltjer should be working on bulking up to compete better with the big boys UNC will have inside.

And veterans, such as sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, and senior Darius Miller should be sharing secrets to improve everyone’s game and prepare them for what they expect UNC will bring to Rupp.

That’s what’s most important in UK’s December portion of its schedule. Not the rankings. Not the highly touted recruiting class, nor the perfect record. UK should be focusing on building team chemistry, on improving as individuals and as a team, and on buying into what Calipari is selling.

When ranked No. 2 in the nation, the Cats defeated the then-No. 13 Kansas Jayhawks by double digits in New York’s Madison Square Garden, but still Calipari was not impressed. It’s because his team was focused more on rankings and records than on improving its play each game.

Last season, it wasn’t until the Cats began playing for their coach and for each other that they began their run through March to a conference title and a Final Four. This season, top-20 recruits and all, is no exception. So when No. 5 UNC comes to town looking for vengeance on the program that took its top ranking, UK is better off focusing less on the Tar Heels and the rankings, and more on itself.

See the full UK men’s basketball schedule.