Alex Poythress called a team meeting following Kentucky's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Their flight home postponed by a day due to weather and stuck in Baton Rouge, La., the Kentucky Wildcats could do nothing but retire to their hotel rooms.
But instead of sulking alone after a disappointing loss to LSU, the Cats decided to put the time to good use.
"We had a team meeting actually, a players-only meeting after the game, which we shared a lot together," Dakari Johnson said.
It was Alex Poythress who called the meeting. The soft-spoken sophomore wasn't happy with how Kentucky played and summoned his teammates via text message to talk about it.
"Everybody shared their own opinion," Johnson said. "Lot of players apologized for not giving their hardest. I think it was a real important team meeting."
It wasn't one of those fire-and-brimstone meetings where one player aired all grievances. Instead, the Cats shared the floor.
"We just went one by one," Johnson said. "A lot of people apologized and just said this wouldn't happen again."
The Cats believe the meeting was a step in the right direction. Though players took responsibility for the lack of intensity and preparedness that cost them at LSU, the tone was positive because they don't believe UK all that far off track.
"You know, all the problems are fixable," Poythress said. "It's just little mental lapses. We correct those we should be in pretty good shape."
Naturally, the team meeting became the topic du jour at the media availability No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) held before its trip to face Missouri (16-4, 4-3 SEC) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. John Calipari, however, wasn't having any of it. In fact, he didn't even know the meeting happened until he was asked about it on Friday.
"Don't want to know," Calipari said. "Don't want to know, don't care. Let's play. This is all about what we do on the court preparing to go to war, understanding the other team is excited to play you. That's all that this comes down to."
It's hard to blame Coach Cal for taking a wait-and-see approach. After all, there was talk of UK having turned a corner before the setback in Baton Rouge.
"(I've) never had a team this young," Calipari said. "This is the youngest team I've ever had. I wish they would have changed right away, but it's more of how they think then just trying to change sole basketball habits."
What he means is that the Cats still tie their emotional state to their own play, not the team's. If a guard misses a shot but a big man grabs the rebound and dunks it home, the guard hangs his head. If a big man isn't getting touches but his teammates are filling it up from the perimeter, the big man still wants the ball.
That switch in mindset has been an emphasis all season, but it remains an issue.
"It's not that it's not being addressed; it's just a hard thing to crack," Calipari said. "You have to be more into your team than how you're playing. You have to bring us great energy and passion, and you have to play for your team more than yourself. That's a hard one when you've got a bunch of 18-, 19-year-olds."
For UK to win on Saturday, those 18- and 19-year olds won't have much choice but put team above self.
The Cats are facing one of the toughest road challenges in the SEC. The Tigers have lost just once all season at Mizzou Arena and that loss to Georgia on Jan. 8 ended the nation's longest home winning streak. In the last three seasons, Missouri owns a 40-2 record in Columbia, Mo.
"We just have to know that they're a tough team and everybody's going to give us their best game," Johnson said. "We just have to be prepared for that."
Of course, a lot of that home success has to do with the fact that the Tigers are simply a good team.
"Guard play is really good," Calipari said. "Their inside people are very role-oriented. They do what they're supposed to do. The big kid sets great screens, gets around the goal and makes baskets. But their guard play, the combined three of their guards are as good as we'll play in or outside of our league."
Those three guards -- Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross -- are the Tigers' three leading scorers. Together, they are averaging 52.8 points per game and accounting for more than 70 percent of Missouri's scoring production.
"I think they have some really nice guards," Poythress said. "I think we just have to come in, play some defense and be able to guard them."
But as always, it's not the matchups that Coach Cal is most concerned about. It's the way his team is playing.
"Lose yourself into the team," Calipari said. "When we do that, you'll start seeing change."
More than two months ago, Mitch Barnhart stepped to the podium at the unveiling of plans for a $110-million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.
He talked about the project would "change the personality" of UK football's long-time home, how the more intimate surroundings would positively affect fans and players alike. Barnhart was mindful that the day was a celebration of the hard work of many, but insistent at the same time how much work was ahead.
In no uncertain terms, he spelled out his goal to compete at the highest level in the Southeastern Conference under Mark Stoops.
"The transformation of Commonwealth Stadium is the first step in that process," Barnhart said of the stadium plans in November, "but it's not our last."
On Friday, the UK athletics director unveiled the next one.
Plans for a privately funded $45-million practice facility were approved by the Board of Trustees, setting into motion a process that will move UK's entire football operation.
"One-stop shop for all of our kids," Barnhart said. "So now they'll be able to academically do their work. They'll be able to train. They'll be able to get most of their food over there."
The two-story structure will be located at the east end of the Nutter Field House, with two practice fields and an adjoining drill area also a part of the project. When finished in 2016, administrative offices, locker spaces, team meeting areas, training areas, high performance and weight room spaces, equipment rooms, a hydrotherapy room, player locker rooms, lounge facilities, an academic lounge/study area, and an entrance lobby with enhanced visitor amenities will be housed there.
"All that gives us a better ability to take care and make sure we've got a really good understanding of what our kids are doing in all facets of their lives," Barnhart said.
The practice facility upgrades were in initial plans for Commonwealth renovations, but it was ultimately decided the projects would have to be separated. Now that the stadium renovation is in the beginning stages of construction, that fact is even cleared.
"There's no possible way you could've done both projects with one scope of money," Barnhart said. "You couldn't have done it."
Per university rules, no project of this size can brought to the board without at least half of the funding necessary to complete it secured. Barnhart didn't go into detail, but he did say UK is past that 50-percent threshold and "well on our way to getting the rest of it done."
There are still decisions to be made as the project moves forward, including exactly how the existing Nutter Field House will be affected and whether to change the playing surface in Commonwealth to turf.
"Our goal is to immediately get to design," Barnhart said. "We've got some pretty good thoughts about what we want to do. It's not without thought -- we've been doing this, thinking about what it would look like -- and we've seen other buildings, other places."
As football gets an upgrade, so too will other UK programs that will take advantage of open space in the Nutter Training Center.
"It's really important to keep that for our other sports," Barnhart said. "And then track and field and gymnastics will probably move into that facility in addition to some other things probably because that is closer to where they live."
Next on Barnhart's radar are facilities for the baseball and men's and women's tennis programs.
"The two things we have left to address -- really important -- is obviously our baseball stadium and our indoor tennis," Barnhart said. "Those are two that are hanging out that we have got to get fixed in order to have them be respectable in this league."
But at least for a little while, Barnhart wants to enjoy the accomplishment that is getting approval for the football practice facility. The news comes on the heels of the beginning of the Commonwealth project and just days before the best recruiting class in school history becomes official on Signing Day next week.
Combine all those things with the fact that alumni Jacob Tamme, Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard are all set to play for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday and it's a special week for UK football.
"I hope they have a championship ring," Barnhart said. "That's what they've worked their whole lives to get to is those kind of moments, and they're all deserving guys. They've been unbelievable representatives of this program. And so to have that, and with what's going on with Mark and his staff, and to have the facility up and running, it's a very exciting time for our program."
On Friday, the UK Board of Trustees approved UK Athletics' plans to build a $45 million practice facility adjoining to Nutter Field House. In the video below, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart talked about the importance of the project and the excitement surrounding UK football under Mark Stoops.
The Kentucky swimming and diving teams' regular-season finale on Saturday will take on added significance, and not just because it's the final competition before next week's Southeastern Conference Championships.
The meet at Lancaster Aquatic Center vs. Cincinnati will mark "Senior Day," giving head coach Lars Jorgensen a chance to honor the first class of Wildcats he will see graduate since taking over the reins of the program last summer.
And for Jorgensen the fact that the 2014 seniors have made it through four years of what he calls "the grind" together is something to be especially proud of.
While graduating college is an achievement any student should be proud of, doing so while balancing the responsibilities of being a Division I athlete takes on added weight. Add to that the taxing weight of swimming and diving practices -- including the year-round two-a-day practices often during early, cold and dark hours that go along with that training -- and making it through four-to-five years of eligibility becomes an even more impressive achievement.
"I think their experience at UK really is going to allow them to be successful in life, and I feel really confident about that," Jorgensen said. "I'm not going to argue necessarily that swimmers are the best athletes on this campus, that's not my point. But I think in terms of mental toughness, we are the best. For us there's really no offseason, it's like 50 weeks a year, twice-a-day for 50 weeks. For them to make it, makes them survivors, because a lot of their piers didn't make it."
Perhaps most noteworthy in looking back at the current senior class's ability to endure the hardships of competing at the collegiate level for four years was the fact that this group of Wildcats accomplished the feat together.
"They made it through together, and I think is a badge of honor with that. Many want to come out and try it out, but very few make it through. All sports are difficult in their own way, but with swimming and diving, the amount of hours and the grind is pretty difficult compared to most other sports. The seniors have endured, and overcome challenges, which most importantly will help them be successful in life."
Given how momentous the seniors' accomplishment of eventually earning a degree while competing at such a high level is, the program is implementing new ways of honoring its seniors.
"It's going to be a really emotional day," graduating junior Lindsay Hill said. "Three and a half years of hard work being with this team is summing up to an end. I'm kind of nervous to be honest ... it's going to be a really good meet, and I know everyone is going to be swimming for the seniors, and wanting to put on a good show."
Indeed, for the new UK coach there's a certain nostalgia that will last with him about his first graduating class of Wildcats.
"Their parents are going to be here, which is pretty cool, and they will get mint julep cups," Jorgensen said. "The ceremonial aspect of it is something new for us. This is the first year we've really wanted to involve the parents. We haven't done that before.
"Almost all the parents are going to be here. It's pretty cool because it's really difficult as an athlete at this level to do it for four years. A lot of the walk-ons aren't getting anything, perks per say, other than being on the team. That to me is pretty cool. A lot of walk-ons have been here for four years through a lot of ups and downs."
And the highs and lows that go along with competing at such a high level have contributed to the group feel of the Wildcats being honored.
For senior, three-year captain Maclin Simpson, just about everything that goes along with representing UK in the pool will be missed.
"It's really difficult to pinpoint one memory or experience that stands out," Simpson said. "It's more just the day-to-day, coming in and being with your teammates and your best friends. Being in the locker room before and after workouts and being on the bus. It's really the little moments that sort of add up to being part of a team incredible."
Jorgensen is also cognizant of the everyday occurrences that add up to a memorable college swimming and diving experience.
"There's something to be said for long bus trips to and from meets, whether the outcome was good or bad," the UK coach said. "Yes, it's often uncomfortable, but there are a certain bonding opportunities that stem from being together so many times. That's one thing this group will always have."
Leadership is certainly a quality required to help endure those challenges as well as build the camaraderie that now seems so invaluable. Said trait is in heavy supply amongst the class the Wildcats will honor on Saturday, especially amongst the captains.
Greg Ferrucci certainly jumps to the top of the list, but many more have made lasting impacts on the program..
"He is our All-American, the best athlete on our team," Jorgensen said of Ferrucci. "He's phenomenal, has done a lot of good things. He's a world-class diver, but he's also developed a great sense of competitiveness. He likes the pressure moments.
"With our senior captains, a cool thing Maclin Simpson did was go to Ethiopia this summer with the athletic department as a way to expand his horizons. I think it was a life-changing experience for him. He's been a three-year captain and a Kentucky boy which is really cool. Lindsay Hill is a perfect 4.0 student; she's never not had an A. She's a great leader, a team-oriented person who has made a big difference developing our team here in our first year. John Fox and Lucas Gerotto are also great leaders who care a lot about UK, which is really cool."
Jorgensen is certainly appreciative of the leadership qualities his seniors have displayed in this his first season as UK head coach.
In fact, while they may not be around to directly impact the program's upward growth in future years, he's adamant that the 2014 senior class's impact will be felt down the road, nonetheless.
"It's always difficult when you have change, but they've been awesome," Jorgensen said. "I'm really thankful that I was here last year as associate head coach because it allowed me to get to know some of them so it's not my first year with them. It's a little bit different role now, but they've embraced it.
"They've been great in terms of recruiting, which is great because sometimes seniors become disinterested. All of the seniors have been engaged and very involved, so I've been real pleased with them as a group, their evolution. I think we've made a lot of progress this year with little details of recruiting that you're not going to see the impact until three or four years from now. I think we laid a lot of the groundwork. We may be a little bit better this year than last year, but not significantly. But I think it's going in the right direction where some of the changes we made this year are going to lead to a better future. All of our seniors have had an impact on that."
As college basketball moves into February, games get grittier and the competition becomes fiercer. Every game counts as teams set their sights on the big dance and dig deep to triumph over rivals that stand between them and ultimate victory. It's a time for teams to draw on past successes for motivation.
Nike recognizes the tradition of college basketball and long-standing rivalries with seven special uniforms that fuse premium apparel innovation with school heritage.
The 2014 Nike Hyper Elite Dominance uniform celebrates the past and present of seven outstanding programs. The distinct jersey and short combination will be worn in select upcoming games.
The college basketball teams that will debut the Hyper Elite Dominance uniforms include Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Duke University, University of Kentucky, Syracuse University, University of Oregon and University of North Carolina.
Nike created the uniforms with performance innovation at the forefront -- considered design that benefits the athletes. The jersey is a lightweight, breathable and durable: sphere fabric with flocking at the interior neck for sweat management, while articulated armholes maximize range of motion. The back of the jersey features team-specific aerographic mesh graphics.
The four-way stretch woven short features laser perforations and ventilation throughout the short and waistband for breathability and maximum movement.
The Nike Hyper Elite basketball shorts are made of 100 percent recycled polyester while the jerseys are made of at least 96 percent recycled polyester -- saving an average of 22 recycled plastic bottles per uniform.
All seven uniforms honor each school's winning tradition with special logos, scripts and colors mined from each program's past.
The uniforms will make their debut on-court beginning in early February. Dates include Michigan State vs. Georgetown (2/1), Ohio State vs. Michigan (2/11), Duke vs. Maryland (2/15), Kentucky vs. Florida (2/15), Syracuse vs. Boston College (2/19), UNC vs. Wake Forest (2/22) and Oregon vs. Washington State (2/23).
The details will be revealed before each game with special stories on NikeInc.com and the uniforms will be available for fans in March at Nike.com.
Dakari Johnson had a career-high 15 points and six rebounds in UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU students had good reason to stay home.
With a rare winter storm coating Baton Rouge, La., in ice, they could have hunkered down and skipped the UK-LSU game on Tuesday night. Instead, they filled the student section and were loud from buzzer to buzzer.
The Tiger team they were there to cheer matched that passion with their play. Kentucky did not.
"We're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine,' " John Calipari said. "And when you watch it you say we're not fine."
No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) fell to LSU (13-6, 4-3 SEC), 87-82. The Wildcats made the score relatively close with a last-minute 3-point barrage, but the final five-point margin was the smallest of a second half during which UK never seriously threatened.
"When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like," Calipari said at a press conference cut short so his team could find a way back to its hotel with roads closing throughout the city. "And we made it -- it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16 (in the first half), it could have been 30."
UK battled back from that big first-half deficit, closing to within two points with 5:25 left before the break after LSU led 22-6 at the 13:26 mark. The Tigers -- who shot 50.8 percent from the field and drained seven 3s -- had an answer.
"They were just playing harder than us," Dakari Johnson said. "They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today."
Johnson was one of only a couple Cats who didn't deserve to be included in that group.
The freshman center checked in for Willie Cauley-Stein barely two minutes with UK trailing 7-2. His mentality was simple.
"We got down early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game," Johnson said.
Along with James Young -- who scored 12 of his 23 points in the first half -- Johnson helped keep Kentucky within striking distance. Before he fouled out in the final minute, Johnson scored a career-high 15 points and added six rebounds.
"If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today," Calipari said.
Johnson also had the unenviable task of banging with Johnny O'Bryant. He was more effective than any of his teammates, but LSU's star junior still finished with 29 points and nine rebounds.
"I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant," Johnson said. "But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me."
By the time Johnson got his shot at O'Bryant, it may have been too late.
"Johnny O'Bryant killed us," Calipari said. "We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game."
O'Bryant was not the only reason Kentucky lost for just the second time in more than a month.
UK struggled most of the way against LSU's 2-3 zone, managing just 43.8-percent shooting and committing 13 turnovers that led to 16 Tiger points. Julius Randle found little room to operate, scoring six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
"They played the zone; we were tentative," Calipari said.
LSU's zone came as somewhat of a surprise to Calipari since the Tigers have relied primarily on man-to-man defense this season. Neither team's game plan, however, was the deciding factor.
"Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game," Calipari said. "They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game."
Troubling as that may be, it's not reason to push the panic button on the 2013-14 season.
The loss to LSU may have been a setback, but UK has made undeniable strides nearly three months into the season. After the Cats spend an extra night in frozen Baton Rouge and head back to Lexington on Wednesday, it will be back to work.
"So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it," Calipari said. "It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us."
On whether he's at a point where he has to get Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress in the starting lineup ... "No. No. We're at a point right now that we've got guys that have to understand that they didn't come out with the energy of the other team and this is what happens. If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today. Alex did some good things but there were breakdowns that killed us. When you get the game to five and six and then you have breakdown, breakdown, breakdown - it's back to 13 - you can't win. And that's the stuff we're talking about: mental discipline, which this team does not have." On what he was seeing in practice the last few days that he liked or didn't like ... "We're fine. It's just again, they don't - we're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine.' And when you watch it you say we're not fine. So, you know, we'll go from here, we'll go back. Johnny O'Bryant killed us. We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game. They played the zone. We were tentative. They offensive rebounded; we didn't - the ones we really needed. Alex was the only guy going after offensive rebounds. They kind of negated anything Julius (Randle) had. They sent two guys at him. They played good. You got to give them credit. They played well. We don't have many teams shoot 50 percent against us like this team did. We're a good defensive team. Not only that, 10 offensive rebounds, and they create 13 turnovers on us and most of us were in the zone where they're just hands in the middle of the zone. But they did a great job. You got to give LSU credit." On whether LSU did anything they weren't prepared for ... "Well, they switched the starting lineup, and I said that they must be playing zone then. So they went to a bigger lineup. But we didn't know before. I thought they'd play mostly man because that's what they play, but the minute they went big I told the staff they're playing zone. Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game." On whether LSU's steals and blocks surprised him considering UK's length ... "No. When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like. And we made it--it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16, it could have been 30. We fought back in, we got back to where we were fine, come the second half, do the same thing. I have to call an immediate timeout, like, 'Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.' So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it. It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us. We--not doubling Johnny early probably got him going. The rest of it is, you can't let another team outwork you on every ball, every possession, every free ball and win a game. Teams are too balanced, especially in our league."
On what LSU was doing that made it tough for UK to come back ... "They were just playing harder than us. They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today." On his mentality when he checked in ... "Just to try to fight and get us back in this game. We got early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game." On whether playing physically was a focus ... "I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant. But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me. I could have moved my feet better, but he had a good game. He's a real good player."
Men's basketball - Kentucky enjoyed a 2-0 week in league play with home victories over Texas A&M and Georgia. - Sophomore forward Alex Poythress sparked the Cats to the win over the Aggies with a season-high 16 points, which included a run of seven straight points to ignite a 21-7 run in the second half. Freshman forward Julius Randle turned in his 11th double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. - Against the Bulldogs, UK received an incredible defensive performance from sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein. The 7-0 forward logged six blocks and six steals with the six swipes marking a new career-high. He's the only player in the John Calipari era to have six or more in either defensive category in the same game. UK forced the Bulldogs into 20 turnovers while matching season-bests in blocks (11) and steals (9). - Kentucky hits the road for a pair of matchups this week beginning at LSU on Tuesday.
Women's basketball - Kentucky split games this week in Lexington, falling in a heartbreaker to Alabama on Thursday, 57-55, and battling back from a 10-point second-half deficit to defeat Arkansas on Sunday, 68-58. - Against the Tide, junior point guard Jennifer O'Neill hit two free throws to tie the game with 12.5 seconds to play before Alabama's Diasha Simmons scored two of her game-high 21 points with three seconds on the clock, giving the Tide their first win in Lexington since 2002. Senior forward Samarie Walker scored a team-high 18 points despite playing just 21 minutes due to foul trouble. Junior guard Bria Goss tossed in 14 points. - Sunday was Alumni Day for the Wildcats as more than 45 alumni returned to the Bluegrass for the weekend's festivities. O'Neill, who earned her way into the starting lineup for the second time this season, netted a career-high tying five 3-pointers en route to a team-high 21 points. She also grabbed a season-high six rebounds. Sophomore point guard Janee Thompson, who came off the bench for the first time this season, added 13 points. Goss had 10 points and also grabbed six rebounds. It marked the seventh straight win over the Razorbacks in Lexington.
Gymnastics - In its first true road meet of the season, the University of Kentucky gymnastics team had season high scores on three events en route to a 195.150-193.775 win over Missouri Friday night at the Hearnes Center. - The Wildcats (4-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) won their first three events, vault, uneven bars and floor, all with season best scores. Individually, UK notched three event titles along with the senior Audrey Harrison's all-around win. Fifteen career or season highs were set or tied in UK's first dual meet of the year. - Harrison led UK with a 38.675 to win the all-around title for the second time in three weeks to open the year. Harrison also won floor and tied two others, including sophomore Tiara Phipps, for the win on uneven bars. Sophomore Amy Roemmele won balance beam. Harrison posted UK's first 9.900 of the season on floor and tied Phipps on uneven bars, who was making her collegiate debut on the event. - The Wildcats cap a three-week roadtrip at sixth-ranked Georgia on Feb. 1 at 4 p.m. ET. Last season, UK tied then-No. 6 UGA, 195.825-195.825 in Lexington. With a season-high team score, the Wildcats won beam and floor, the final two events. Harrison won the all-around title and notched the top score on floor while Alexis Gross tallied a win on bars.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team shot a 4683 Friday at the Withrow Invitational in Murray, Ky. - Senior Emily Holsopple led the Wildcats with an individual aggregate of 1182, shooting a 592 in smallbore and 590 in air rifle. - Freshman Sonya May delivered UK's best air rifle score, shooting a 593, while fellow freshman Heather Kirby posted a 590. - Sophomore Connor Davis spent the weekend in Munich, Germany, competing in the Bavarian Airgun Championships. Swimming and diving - University of Kentucky divers claimed the top two scores in all four events, including three events where the Wildcats swept the field, as UK suffered a defeat at No. 7/13 Louisville Saturday afternoon. - Wins in three of the first four events for the women gave UK a lead early over the 13th-ranked Cardinal, and helped set up a closely-scored meet halfway through the competition. The Wildcats were unable to hang on for the upset and lost 193-107. The men fell by a final score of 212.5-87.5 to the Cardinals, ranked seventh nationally. - Junior Christa Cabot won both the 1- and 3-meter dive, while fellow junior Lindsay Keahey placed second in both events to round out UK's scoring. On the men's side, seniors Greg Ferrucci and John Fox won the 1- and 3-meter, respectively. Fox placed second in the 1-meter, while senior Zack Peterson was second in the 3-meter. The Wildcats also claimed third and fourth place in the 1-meter to sweep the competition. - Along with four diving wins, freshman Kelly Berger won the 1,000 yard freestyle and senior Kristen Wilson claimed victory in the 200 yard freestyle. Berger added a second-place finish, while Wilson finished third in three additional races. - The Wildcats host their final home contest of the season, Feb. 1 at 12 p.m. ET against Cincinnati at the Lancaster Aquatics Center. The senior day meet marks the end of the regular season for Kentucky before the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Championship competitions.
Men's tennis - The No. 8 University of Kentucky men's tennis team went 2-1 this weekend, defeating No. 56 Indiana and No. 45 BYU in the early part of the week, before dropping the Lexington Regional final of the ITA Kick-Off Weekend to No. 29 Notre Dame in Lexington. - Kentucky continued its dominance over Indiana with a 6-1 midweek win, getting the doubles point, and five of the six singles matches to secure the win for the Wildcats. Indiana has not defeated Kentucky at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center since the series resumed annually in 1991-92. - This week, Kentucky squares off with Notre Dame again on Sunday afternoon at 1:00 p.m. ET in South Bend, Ind., for the teams' annual regular season dual match. Women's tennis - The University of Kentucky women's tennis team fell to No. 10 Duke, 4-0, in the regional championship match on Saturday, Jan. 25 at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Kick-Off Weekend. - Duke took the doubles point early and the Wildcats hoped to regain composure in the singles competition. They fell short getting swept, with Duke's Ester Goldfield clinching the match over Kelsey Dieters in the No. 3 position. - No. 42 Kentucky falls to 3-1 on the season. The Wildcats will travel to Penn State on Saturday, Feb. 1 before returning home for a doubleheader against Marshall University and Morehead State, Feb. 8.
Track and field - The UK track and field teams each made statements during last weekends USTFCCCA "Meet of the Week" the Rod McCravy Memorial. UK posted two world-leading times, three nation-leading times, broke four meet and two school-records. - Kendra Harrison had literally a world-class performance as she ran the fastest times on earth this season in both the 60-meter hurdles (7.96) and as anchor of the 4x400m relay 3.33.35. Both of Harrison's performances broke UK records. - Dezerea Bryant proved herself as a world-class competitor too, tying 2012 Olympic Gold Medalist and World-Record Holder (4x100m relay) Tianna Bartoletta as both crossed the finish line in 7.194 seconds. - Matt Hillenbrand dominated a 3k field featuring multiple All-Americans with a SEC-leading time of 7:59.55 breaking the 8-minute barrier for the first time. - Brad Szpka won his third shot put competition from as many starts this season, this time with a personal-best throw 19.43m/63'9" which ranks No. 8 nationally.
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a Tuesday trip to LSU. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way John Calipari described it after Saturday's win over Georgia, to become a team you have to break down a team.
is about players first," Coach Cal said after one of his team's better
performances of the season, a 79-54 rout of Georgia. "You've got to get
them right. You've got to get them in the frame of mind, and then you
get your team right."
For maybe the first time all year, after a
half-season of breaking individual players down and redefining their
games, Calipari has hinted in recent days about having a team, not a
collective group of individuals.
"It took us time to get them to
think different, think totally different than you've ever thought about
this game, and then it's taken time to define how they should play,"
Calipari said on Monday. "You got to kind of define it, and we were all
discombobulated for the first month trying to figure that out."
play would suggest the Kentucky Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern
Conference), who moved up three spots to No. 11 in both major polls this
week, are starting to jell. For one thing, UK has quietly won seven of
its last eight games, but maybe more defining are the not-so-obvious
Talk to the Wildcats long enough and you will hear them
talk about having fun playing with each other. More and more often Coach
Cal is raving about the Cats' approach at practice, even on the
tough-to-recharge day after games. Watch the head ball coach during a
game and you won't see as much individual teaching.
Maybe, just maybe, they're starting to get it.
getting to where, like, every day you can try to get better because
we're not fighting it," Calipari said. "DeWayne (Peevy, UK deputy
director of athletics) says he doesn't hear me yelling every 12 seconds,
'Plaaay! Plaaay!' I don't yell that anymore because they're now, you
know, (getting it)."
Coach Cal said his players are getting better because they are learning to love the grind.
you do is going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing is we
learn to enjoy and love the grind and love the process," Julius Randle
said. "It just makes things a lot easier. We've fallen in love with the
whole process of getting better and changing habits, and because of
that, it's been smooth for us."
After Saturday's win over
Georgia, James Young said individual players only cared about how they
were playing two months ago, not how the team was faring. The more
they've worked together and the closer they've become, that notion has
been flipped on its head.
Now, as Calipari said at Monday's pre-LSU media opportunity, each player is rooting for each other.
so happy that Alex (Poythress) is playing the way he is," Coach Cal
said. "They're happy for what Willie (Cauley-Stein) has done. They're
happy for Dakari (Johnson). I mean, they're happy for each other."
that's why Cauley-Stein talked so glowingly of Johnson's play during
this three-game slump. Maybe that's why the ball movement was as good as
it has been all year on Saturday when the Cats passed up good shots for
Calipari talks about the youth of this team ad
nauseam, but there is a point to all the talk about inexperience. After
all, the Cats really are the youngest team in the country, ranked dead
last in Ken Pomeroy's experience rankings. Julius Randle was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday. (photo by Chris Reynolds)
takes time," Calipari said. "We got the youngest team in the country,
and there's all kind of things that we do that other teams don't have to
do. They got established teams. They're just hoping they don't get
injured. They know who they are, they know how they play. That's not
Now that Kentucky has figured that part out, the next test
is winning on the road where there Cats haven't fared well this season.
UK is just 1-2 in true road games this year heading into a stretch where
the Cats will play four of their next five away from the friendly
confines of Rupp Arena.
Though UK's stock appears to be up, some are waiting to buy until they see how this team fares in a hostile environment.
a big-time test for us. ... Wherever we go we have something to prove,"
Randle said. "We know it's everybody's biggest game."
Caliapri said the key to winning on the road the next couple of weeks will be mental discipline.
don't have anything behind you," Coach Cal said. "You're not going to
get a break. There's nothing that's going to go your way, so you can't
have the seven errors that we had at Arkansas. You can't (do that) and
win. 'Well, it went to overtime.' Yeah, and we lost because of those
seven breakdowns. And they were mental breaks. 'You just stopped. Why
did you do that.' 'I don't know.' And so, those are what we're trying to
The physical challenge for Kentucky on Tuesday when
it meets LSU at 9 p.m. ET in Baton Rouge, La., will likely come down to
how the Cats' front court handles LSU's big men.
Johnny O'Bryant, a bruising 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward who is
developing an outside game, is still the focal point of the LSU offense,
but he's got some help down low now in highly touted freshmen Jarrell
Martin and Jordan Mickey. Martin was ranked the 13th-best freshman in
the country by Rivals and Mickey wasn't far behind him in the Rivals
rankings at No. 41
Calling the Tigers' front court one of the
best in the league, Calipari compared to LSU's post players to
Tennessee's, only longer with a better touch from the outside. Remember,
Tennessee was one of the few teams this year that has physically
overpowered the Cats.
"They're bigger and longer," Coach Cal
said. "The advantage we had (over Tennessee) was, we were long. The
advantage (Tennessee) had was strength. These guys are strong and
they're big. They're not 6-7, 6-8. They're big."
Cauley-Stein admitted he hasn't exactly done well against more physical teams.
"They probably outweigh me by like 40 pounds," he said. "I don't know anybody who wants to do that."
just so happens to be in tied for the SEC blocked shots lead with
Mickey. In addition to using his speed and quickness to counter LSU's
bulk, Cauley-Stein said pride will be on the line going up against a
"Hearing about him is going to make
you step up," Cauley-Stein said. "Anybody in that position would step up
and try to prove themselves."
UK-LSU still a go -- for now
Despite canceling classes on Tuesday and even a suggestion by LSU head coach Johnny Jones on the SEC teleconference that the game could be canceled because of wintry weather on the way, UK-LSU is still on for Tuesday night.
LSU sent out a release Monday afternoon that said the school was "moving forward for the game to be played as scheduled" but noted that LSU Athletics personnel, school officials and the SEC will continue to monitor the situation throughout the night.
The forecast for Baton Rouge on Tuesday calls for a wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice with temperatures nearing record lows.
UK's flight left Lexington on time and arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday without any problems.
"We're good," Calipari said. "We'll practice and we'll get down there. Our fans are going to be there. They were in Dallas (during that ice storm), believe me, so they will be there."
The issue, as Coach Cal told the media, will be getting back to Lexington. UK usually flies home after road games, but there is a contingency plan in place to stay overnight in case the weather is too bad Tuesday night.
GENERAL / STRUCTURAL 1. When will the SEC Network launch? The SEC Network will launch in August 2014.
2. What will the network be called? The network will be called the "SEC Network." Although it's formal name is the "SEC ESPN Network"
3. How is this different from SEC TV (formerly called the SEC Network)? SEC TV, referred to as the SEC Network prior to 2013, previously aired SEC football and basketball games on local channels. The SEC Network launching in August will be its own channel on your television which you will be able to access via cable or satellite television. Events selected to air on the SEC Network will only be available on the channel. Come August 2014, SEC TV will no longer exist.
4. How is this different than other conference or single-school networks? This collaboration between the SEC and ESPN will bring together unparalleled content from one of the most competitive conferences in the country with the highest quality, most innovative production partner in the sports industry.
This will be a national sports network. 5. How can I get the SEC Network in time for the August 2014 launch? Fans should visit www.GetSECNetwork.com to alert their cable or satellite distributor they are interested in receiving the network.
An agreement is already in place with AT&T U-verse, DISH and NRTC to distribute the SEC Network. ESPN is working hard to ensure that the network will be available via cable, satellite and telco distributors (such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, DISH Network, AT&T U-verse, and Verizon FiOS). ESPN will continue negotiating with the other distributors in the coming months.
6. Will the SEC Network look similar to ESPN channels? The SEC Network will have the highest quality production value that is a standard across all ESPN networks. At the same time, the SEC Network will have a distinctive look and feel from other ESPN networks. 7. Where will the SEC Network be located? The production home will be in Charlotte, N.C. This location will provide for efficient use of ESPN's existing production facility in Charlotte and it will have support from all of ESPN's resources in Bristol, Conn.
8. Why is Charlotte the SEC Network's home especially since there are no SEC teams in N.C.? ESPN already has a state-of-the-art facility in Charlotte that is easily accessible from across the SEC footprint. 9. Will each campus (or the SEC Offices) have upgraded television facilities? Each campus will ultimately have the capability to produce live events locally which will be available on the SEC Network's digital outlets and possibly on the television channel too.
10. How many people will work for the SEC Network? We anticipate more than 100 full-time staff for the SEC Network.
11. Where can I apply for a job at SEC Network? Interested applicants should visit ESPNcareers.com
PROGRAMMING & CONTENT 12. Will the SEC Network be 24 hours a day, seven days a week? The SEC Network will have 24/7 programming; it's a dedicated channel for all things SEC. 13. What kind of shows will I see on the SEC Network? At the outset, the network will offer SEC sports and sports-related studio programming 24 hours a day, seven days a week, such as SEC Nation, the network's traveling football pregame show that will air every Saturday during the fall, a television simulcast of The Paul Finebaum Show and a daily news and information show.
More than 1,000 live events will also be available in the first full year across the television network and its digital extensions. This will include approximately 45 football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games and events from across all 21 SEC-sponsored sports.
14. How will the SEC Network enhance the SEC fan experience? More than 1,000 live events will be available. The SEC Network will provide more than 450 live games on television each year. An additional 550 games will be distributed digitally. The network will bring football, basketball, baseball, and all SEC campus sports to SEC fans. These outlets will provide more in-depth content to fans across the country than ever before. Fans will be able to access content on a range of devices. Also, there will be SEC specific programming dedicated to news and analysis surrounding the events.
15. How many football games will be aired on the network? The SEC Network will televise approximately 45 football games per season. 16. How many basketball games? Baseball? Women's sports? Olympic? At least 450 events will be televised on the SEC Network each year. Of the 450 events, there will be more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games,75 baseball, 50 softball and 120 Olympic sports on the SEC Network. More than 550 additional sporting events will be available on our digital platforms. The digital platform will include an outlet, similar to ESPN3, for the other 550 games and a live linear stream of the television network. This content will be available to network subscribers across a range of devices.
17. Will each school have a block of time to program as they see fit? This is a conference-wide network. The goal is to provide equitable exposure for each of the SEC member institutions. The SEC Network will achieve this goal without each school having its own block of time to program.
18. Will the SEC Network show breaking news or investigative pieces about the conference similar to ESPN? The SEC Network will cover and report on sports news and information in an objective manner, but the basic premise is the network will represent the conference and its member institutions. While ESPN does investigative pieces, that's not something contemplated for the SEC Network.
The network has created a Content Board which has equal representation from the SEC and ESPN. The Board will work collaboratively on the programming and presentation. The SEC Network, along with its digital extensions, will serve SEC sports fans and sports fans more broadly. 19. Will I still see my weekly coaches' show on local TV? That's very likely although dependent on whether there's an arrangement with the local television outlet. Coaches' shows are not a focus of the SEC Network programming plan.
20. Will there be academic programming? There are no dedicated blocks of academic programming planned at the outset of the network, but there will be opportunities to promote the academic and research accomplishments and reputations of SEC institutions within the live programming of the network.
21. What access and programming is each school obligated to provide to the SEC Network? Outside of the rights in the existing CBS and ESPN agreements, each school provides the rights and access to all other live events for the SEC Network.
22. Can schools create academic programming or shows of their own for the digital network outside what they air within game telecasts? The digital network will primarily focus on event programming. While we don't rule out opportunities to include programming beyond sporting events, that's not a focus for the digital network at this time.
23. Will the SEC Network air high school football games? No.
24. Will the SEC Network be able to re-air games shown on other ESPN networks? CBS? Yes.
25. Will the SEC Network air bowl games? SEC Conference Championships? There are no current plans to air bowl games on the SEC Network. The network will televise content from across the various SEC Championships.
26. Will there be fewer games available to me now that there is a SEC Network? No. The SEC Network will provide more than 1,000 live events per year for SEC fans and sports fans across the country. These games will also be available online on a range of devices to allow for widespread access that is not currently available. 27. Will the SEC Network include new personalities or use existing ESPN personalities for the games and studio shows? A mix of both existing ESPN personnel and new on-air staff will be present on the SEC Network. For example, ESPN veteran Joe Tessitore was announced as the host of the pregame show SEC Nation and Tim Tebow was also hired as one of the show's college football analysts.
DISTRIBUTION / AVAILABILITY/ AD SALES 28. What cable operators will carry the SEC Network? An agreement is already in place with AT&T U-verse, DISH and NRTC to distribute the SEC Network. ESPN is working hard to ensure that the SEC Network will be available via cable, satellite and telco distributors (such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV, DISH Network, AT&T U-verse, and Verizon FiOS). ESPN will continue negotiating with the other distributors in the coming months.
Your cable, satellite, or telco provider makes programming decisions based on customer requests. As a fan of the Southeastern Conference, please support the SEC Network by visiting www.GetSECNetwork.com and calling your cable, satellite or telco provider and requesting the SEC Network.
29. Are there currently any carriage agreements? Yes. An agreement is already done with AT&T U-verse, the fastest growing multi-channel distributor in the country. 30. How do I get the digital part of the SEC Network? Provided you are a customer who receives the network from your cable, satellite or telco provider, you can contact that provider and get a username and password which will allow you to access the content on computers, tablets, mobile phones and other consumer devices like Xbox. 31. What is the best way for fans and alumni who want to make sure their cable company carries the SEC Network? Please visit www.GetSECNetwork.com to show your interest in the SEC Network and provide some general contact information.
32. What's the expected reach of the SEC Network outside the SEC footprint and on what level of service will distributors carry the network (Expanded basic? Tier?)? The network will have strong appeal and interest beyond the 11-state SEC footprint. While this is all subject to negotiation, carriage will be sought on broadly distributed packages.
33. Will I be able to watch the SEC Network on my mobile phone or similar device? Yes. Provided you are a subscriber of an affiliated provider (a cable, satellite or telco partner), the SEC Network will be available on computers, tablets, mobile phones and other consumer devices like Xbox. The aim is to make this content available to fans anytime, anywhere, similar to how the WatchESPN application works today.
34. How will you decide what games to televise early in the SEC Network's existence? The SEC has great depth in all major sports so the network will have top-tier matchups each week to serve viewers and those distributors that choose to carry the network. We have announced a double-header to kick-off the college football season on the network. On August 28th, we will feature two games exclusively on the SEC Network - Texas A&M at South Carolina and Temple at Vanderbilt.
35. Will local affiliates (over-the-air nets) broadcast my team's games if our region/cable provider does not carry the service (Ole Miss fans got this when they played on LHN)? No. SEC Network programming and events will only be made available on the SEC Network channel or digital platforms.
36. Can I pay to subscribe to the network online, Pay-Per-View or via ESPN3 if I can't get it on TV? No. The games will be exclusive to the network and its digital extensions. However, once a subscriber has access to the network via an affiliated provider, that subscriber will have access to the content on computers, tablets, mobile phones and other consumer devices like Xbox. The aim is to make this content available to fans anytime, anywhere.
37. How will this impact my cable bill? ESPN negotiates for license fee payments from its distributors and has no control over retail pricing. Retail prices are determined by each distributor. 38. Will all SEC campuses carry the network? Campuses served by an affiliated provider will have access to the SEC Network. 39. I live in [state outside SEC footprint]. Are you working to make sure we are able to see the SEC Network too? Yes. Our interest is in delivering this content in broadly distributed packages across the country. This will be a national television channel. 40. Right now, I see all my favorite team's games online at the [SEC school athletics] site. Will I still be able to see all those games? The network is for media rights to all sports across the 14 member institutions. Any games produced by the schools will have an outlet, either the SEC Network or its digital extensions, where fans can watch. You will see not only events originating from your favorite school's campus on the SEC Network or its digital extensions, but also road events involving your favorite school that you previously would have had to seek on opposing schools' websites. 41. Who will sell sponsorship for the SEC Network? ESPN will sell advertising and sponsorship on behalf of the network. ESPN will also represent the SEC's Corporate Sponsor Program.
42. Where can I apply for a job at SEC Network? You can apply online at ESPNcareers.com. Job openings for the SEC Network positions will be posted in late Spring 2014. 43. Will the SEC Network have an internship program? ESPN has a SEC internship program already in place. The SEC Network will source candidates from the existing process and pool. Information about where to apply is forthcoming. 44. How will money from the SEC Network be used on campuses? Each member institution has control and discretion on how they use any proceeds from their media rights.
It took some help from a former player for Matthew Mitchell to realize he needed to make a change.
Crystal Riley is in her second season on Mitchell's staff after playing three years at Kentucky. All that time spent with the UK head coach led her to make an observation this week.
"She just helped me out tremendously," Mitchell said. "She said, 'Coach I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked."
The advice came as Mitchell was searching for answers following a loss on Thursday to Alabama in which UK lacked fire and energy. He applied it immediately.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Mitchell said. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."
The practices that followed have been predictably intense. Every drill has a winner and the loser has to run, all in an effort to inject competitiveness back into the Wildcats.
"I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive," Janee Thompson said. "But his mentality now is better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today."
On Sunday, No. 9/8 UK (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) responded, taking down Arkansas (15-5, 2-5 SEC) in Memorial Coliseum, 68-58.
"Well, we are happy to win a really hard fought game and I thought Arkansas really played hard and competed and we were finally able to find a group that would get in and compete in the second half," Mitchell said.
For the first few minutes after halftime, it appeared that wouldn't happen.
UK trailed 32-31 at the break and Arkansas went on a 12-3 run over the first 2:40 of the second half behind 5-of-5 shooting. Mitchell quickly called a timeout, forgoing the Mr. Nice Guy routine and spelling out exactly what needed to happen.
There would be none of the wallowing in self-pity, none of the self-doubt that led to losses in three of UK's last five games. In that moment, the Cats simply had to step up and they did. A 22-6 run gave the Cats a six-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell said. "So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that."
Mitchell didn't mince words in talking about the importance of that stretch, calling it a "very critical juncture for this team." The Cats didn't realize at that exact moment that it may have been a crossroads for their season, but they did after the fact.
"It was extremely important because that's something we've been struggling with for the past games now," Jennifer O'Neill said. "But I think the biggest thing was, when we were down 10, we played with poise. We weren't panicking; we didn't look to rush things. We played with poise and a sense of urgency."
O'Neill scored only two points during the game-changing run, but Mitchell said she was "the best player on the floor" Sunday. She scored a team-high 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers and adding six rebounds and five assists, also team highs. The performance came just three days after O'Neill scored just four points and took just two shots in the Alabama loss.
"That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense," Mitchell said. "She just has to have her mind right."
Helping on that front was a pregame meeting between Mitchell and the junior point guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup for just the second time this season.
"I had just spoke with Matthew before the game and I was just telling him, 'Basically, I need you to tell me what you need me to do before games,' " O'Neill said. "And that's something he did before and he stopped doing and it was helping me so I went back and told him."
That was just another example of Mitchell going back to coaching tactics that have worked well for him in the past, the most prominent of course being his demeanor and intense practice plan.
"It kind of reminds me back to my freshman year," Bria Goss said. "What we've done the past couple days has been what we did my freshman year and we were very successful, winning the SEC regular-season championship. So it's good to see him have that fire back, I guess."
"Like Matthew said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to being more intense," O'Neill said. "That's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys are going to see that from games here on out."
That's the hope, but Mitchell isn't about to let his guard down.
"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine. We have always been really good with a situation like that."
UK is looking to rebound from a 57-55 loss to Alabama on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell never misses a chance to express his gratitude for the position he is in as Kentucky's head coach, but he found a new reason to be thankful on Thursday night.
UK had just suffered a disappointing 57-55 upset at the hands of Alabama. Following a nearly two-hour meeting with his coaching staff, Mitchell went home to get a few hours of sleep and forget about what had just happened.
It was in that moment he realized how fortunate he is to have won 125 games since 2009-10.
"For me, I am glad that we have won a lot around here because I don't sleep at all on a performance like last night's," Mitchell said.
It wasn't Daisha Simmons' layup with 2.3 seconds that had him tossing and turning, rather a troubling absence of the fire that has come to define UK Hoops during his tenure.
"I was surprised with just the complete lack of effort and competitiveness last night and it was just all across the board," Mitchell said. "It just can't happen. Clearly there's an atmosphere that exists now that people think that's acceptable and that's 100 percent on me."
With that in mind, Matthew Mitchell returned to the Joe Craft Center early on Friday morning and got back to work. He drew up plans for Friday's practice, but his priorities have little to do with Xs and Os.
"Everything will be competitive-based in practice and we'll figure out who we can take the floor with on Sunday afternoon," Calipari said. "Between now and Sunday afternoon it is all about who is going to compete and who is going to work hard and who is going to play really, really hard for Kentucky. Hopefully, it's everybody."
Against Alabama, Samarie Walker and Bria Goss were the only two Wildcats who consistently turned in the kind of work Mitchell is demanding. Walker had 18 points and seven rebounds in 21 foul-limited minutes and Goss 14 points and six rebounds.
Now, Mitchell will be looking for more Cats to join them.
"If we can find a few players that will really, really compete hard I think a lot of things will flow from that," Mitchell said. "Until we get that straightened out, you can have all the talent in the world, if you don't play hard and don't compete and it doesn't mean something to you to win then I don't know who you are going to beat."
UK's next opponent certainly won't make life easy.
Arkansas (15-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) will enter Memorial Coliseum for a matchup with UK (15-4, 3-3 SEC) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET having lost three of four, but don't let that fool you.
"Well, they have really, really great ball-screen offense and they put a lot of pressure and stress on your defense," Mitchell said. "They have some tough, aggressive players. They have a point guard in (Calli) Berna, who I think is one of the better ones in our league."
Berna is averaging a league-high 7.7 assists per game, most often finding freshman leading scorer Jessica Jackson (16.4 points per game), but game-planning for the Razorbacks isn't Mitchell's primary concern.
"Quite frankly, we can't worry about Arkansas this afternoon," Mitchell said on Friday. "We have to 100 percent try to see who is going to have a chance to play against Arkansas and that will be all about competing in practice this afternoon."
Willie Cauley-Stein had eight points, six blocks and six steals in UK's win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A few times a season, John Calipari comes up with a catchphrase you know you'll hear again soon.
This week, it rhymed.
Explaining why Willie Cauley-Stein had practiced well after struggling of late, Coach Cal said it had a lot to do with his willingness to accept coaching. Calipari noted a different look about Cauley-Stein, one that told him the sophomore had heeded his advice that "the smirkin' ain't workin' " and was fully tuned in to what his coach was saying.
Speaking on Saturday, Cauley-Stein was asked what Coach Cal's newest creation means.
"I don't know," Cauley-Stein said, drawing laughs. "I just look at Cal like I know what he's talking about."
Joking aside, Cauley-Stein returned to form as No. 14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) took down Georgia (10-8, 4-2 SEC), 79-54. After averaging one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks over his previous three games, Cauley-Stein was his usual disruptive self.
"I think my teammates knew I was going to come out of it, it was just a matter of time of when," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein had eight points -- six coming after halftime -- six blocks and six steals. His blocks and steals led directly to 10 UK possessions and nine points.
"Well, I told you, he was unbelievable in practice, and he was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed," Calipari said. "Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but he's just now coming back from that other stuff, so you still had the dregs in there. He had a little bit of it in there. But I thought he played well, blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws. That's who he is for us."
He was confident throughout the week a game like this one was forthcoming, but Cauley-Stein wasn't sure he was "back" until he woke up on Saturday morning. It was based entirely on the way on the way he had performed throughout the week.
"I've had a really good couple days of practice and I felt like my normal self," Cauley-Stein said. "Other times in practice I was just kind of out there going through the motions. And this time I was actually juiced and ready to get back to producing."
Since UK had played well even as he had struggled, Cauley-Stein didn't think of himself as being in a slump until he heard others talk about it. He caught wind of media wondering about what was going on and heard from fans as well.
The tone of those interactions: very positive.
"I was touched by it because last year, that was happening, you're getting murdered for one because you're losing," Cauley-Stein said. "So this year I was kind of like, I'll just stay off Twitter but then I was on there and it was real positive. It was good that our fans are here to pick us up."
After showing up on social media for Cauley-Stein, fans did the same in person on Saturday. In spite of a winter storm and freezing temperatures in Lexington, 23,367 packed Rupp Arena. They were treated to a performance that may have been UK's most complete of the season.
Aaron Harrison led four Wildcats in double figures with 15 points as UK shot 50 percent from the field on the strength of crisp ball movement.
"Coach just said no ball-stoppers," said Harrison, who had three of Kentucky's 16 assists. "We just all know that we all can play, definitely, and just want to share the ball with each other."
UK had a similar all-for-one attitude on defense, holding Georgia to 16-of-49 (32.7 percent) shooting and forcing 20 Bulldog turnovers. It's no coincidence it happened as Cauley-Stein shook off whatever had ailed him over the past two weeks.
"I just got back to the roots of the game and just flying around, contesting shots and running the floor," Cauley-Stein said.
Even when Cauley-Stein wasn't racking up steals and blocks, he was affecting the game.
Georgia played a bigger lineup with second-leading scorer Kenny Gaines and backup Juwan Parker out due to injury, but the Bulldogs were clearly bothered by Cauley-Stein's length and activity and the Cats buoyed by it.
"We get a lot more pressure because he always gets defensive stops," said James Young, who had 13 points. "I feel like that's when we all step up too."
UK won twice during Cauley-Stein's three-game slump and lost only on a last-second dunk at overtime, showing the Cats are capable of staying afloat without the 7-footer at the top of his game. But at the same time, UK needs Cauley-Stein to reach its potential.
"Like I said, we can win without Willie," Calipari said. "We're not winning big without Willie."
Andrew Harrison is averaging 11.8 points and 3.8 assists in SEC play. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Imagine if UK ever played a game in which each one of its talented players played to his vast potential.
What if the Julius Randle who dominated Michigan State in the second half and the Willie Cauley-Stein who blocked nine shots against Boise State manned the Wildcat frontcourt?
What if the Andrew Harrison who scored 26 against Tennessee and the Aaron Harrison who poured in 28 vs. Robert Morris were on the floor together?
What if John Calipari could sub the Alex Poythress who went on a one-man 7-0 on Tuesday against Texas A&M for the the James Young who had 26 points against Mississippi State?
The prospect is certainly a tantalizing one, but it's not realistic.
"Everybody's not going to have a good game every game and people have to understand that," Andrew Harrison said. "But at the same time, it's not always about scoring points and stuff like that. It's about playing hard. If everyone plays hard, we're really tough to beat."
In both games and practice, it's all about effort. The Cats can't let that effort be affected by anything. Not the last play, the last game and especially not the "clutter" and outside voices to which Coach Cal has so often referred of late.
"Whether it's my point guard, whether it's James, this stuff is all game-to-game with these guys," Calipari said. "And if they get caught up in one game, you take your eye off the ball, which is the process of getting better as an individual and -- more importantly right now for us -- as a team."
No. 14 Kentucky (14-4, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) began the season atop the polls. Billed as one of the most talent-rich teams in recent memory, dominance wasn't talked about as a possibility so much as a certainty.
Instead, the Cats have had their moments and even a signature win over Louisville, but are only now beginning to find a rhythm.
"Other teams are well ahead of us right now," Calipari said, "either because they've been veteran teams and they're way ahead of us as a team, or they just needed each other more than we thought we needed each other. So we haven't made the strides as a team that we need. But we have made strides."
To continue to make those strides, UK will need Cauley-Stein to round back into form.
The sophomore had a remarkable December, blocking shots on pace with Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. But over his last three games, his production and minutes have plummeted. He's averaging just one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 15.3 minutes during that stretch and backup Dakari Johnson has filled the void with his best stretch of play this season.
"Again, he's playing behind Willie, and Willie's really playing well," Calipari said. "You're not gonna get many minutes then. But Willie didn't play well, so now what are you gonna do with your minutes? Well, he went in and said, 'You should be playing me instead of Willie.' "
If Thursday's practice is any indication, Cauley-Stein won't be able to be kept off the floor. After working out individually late on Wednesday, Cauley-Stein looked like a different player the next day.
"It was good to see him back to instead of avoiding everything, creating and doing the stuff that we've all seen him do," Calipari said. "You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way -- this game is more mental than anything else. And for him, he got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart."
After playing with him on Thursday, Andrew Harrison stated in no uncertain terms his belief that Cauley-Stein will be back in a big way when UK takes on Georgia (10-7, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network). If he is, Harrison knows what that can mean.
"He's probably the best center in the country and we need him to be as good as we can be," Harrison said.
UK will certainly need all hands on deck against the visiting Bulldogs. Georgia has won four of five to open SEC play, taking down Missouri on the road, Arkansas at home and only losing at Florida.
"They're playing exactly how they have to play to win," Calipari said. "Their guards are scoring. They're shooting the 3 when they need it. They're plus-10 rebounds in our league right now."
Guards Charles Mann (13.1 points per game) and Kenny Gaines (12.0) lead a balanced scoring attack, but Georgia remains simply "the next challenge up" in Calipari's eyes, a measuring stick for UK's progress. He knows exactly the things he'll be looking for.
"When we really, truly start playing for each other," Calipari said. "Where we have no ball-stoppers on offense. That ball moves or you make a play. On defense, that we play an entire possession and we show energy for our team, not just when we're guarding the ball. When we're not guarding the ball. That we block out on an errant shot with 0.2 seconds to go, because we're gonna finish the possession."
It's unlikely all those things will happen together on Saturday, but the Cats are working to get there eventually.
"When we get there, you'll see this team take a quantum leap," Calipari said.
Polson to have high-school jersey retired Friday
UK will take a break from its Georgia preparations to celebrate with Jarrod Polson as he has his jersey retired at West Jessamine High School on Friday night.
"I told them yesterday we were all going to go and be there for him, and they went crazy for him," Calipari said. "And what a great gesture for their high school to do."
Polson averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds as a senior, leading his team to a Sweet Sixteen berth and finishing his career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,884 points.
Even so, it's an honor Polson didn't see coming.
"I was pretty shocked," Polson said. "I didn't really know they do it actually while you're in college or anything like that so when they told me I was pretty excited and my family was pretty happy about it so I think it'll be a good night."
UK will hold the McCravy Memorial in honor of former track athlete Rodriq McCravy. (UK Athletics)
This weekend's track and field meet is named in honor of Rodriq McCravy, a former UK track athlete. McCravy, who quickly established himself as a leader with great respect and care for others, died in 1987 at age 19.
McCravy was just a sophomore, but he had already made a lasting impact on his teammates, coaches and the UK administration.
"He was such a great guy and an extremely well-liked member of our team," former UK track and field head coach Don Weber said. "He contributed in so many ways other than what he did on the track. He was really a unique person in that regard.
"The thing that really stands out was how universally, everyone had such a high regard for Rod. I've had a lot of great kids over the years, but I don't know if we've had anybody that everybody thought of him that way. It was people on and off the track team. He was an exceptionally unique person."
This weekend's Rod McCravy Memorial Meet, which was first held the year after McCravy died, extends his legacy and continues to teach others about what made him so special.
"He was a fabulous person," Weber said. "This is an opportunity to recognize Rod and also an opportunity to, each year, talk about Rod with the team. We talked about his qualities, and his impact and contributions to the team."
A graduate of Louisville Trinity High School, McCravy was a two-time state champion. Upon his arrival at UK, he set the freshman record in the 400-meter hurdles, finished sixth in the TAC National Junior Championships and was a member of the school-record 1,600-meter relay team.
Along with his actions away from the track, Weber remembers McCravy's demeanor as being just as positive on the track.
"He didn't have a negative attitude, in that 'They're defeating me.' " Weber said. "It was, 'They're helping me run faster and I have to do my best to run with them.' That, in a strictly athletic sense, Rod's story helped us, but also stressing the importance of all the qualities that Rod had and how those are important."
McCravy made a great first impression on Weber, who immediately saw something special in the high-school student during his recruiting visit to campus. McCravy was planning on competing for the Blue and White as a walk-on.
Instead, McCravy earned a scholarship based off his work ethic, attitude and leadership qualities. Weber knew he would make an impact not only on the track, but away from it as well.
"He came and visited," Weber said of McCravy's recruiting trip. 'We did not have any intentions of giving him a scholarship. I met with him and his dad in my office. His dad didn't say anything, he and I just talked. Over the course of our conversation, Rod impressed me so much with his leadership skills, him as a person that we ended up offering him a scholarship, mainly because of him as a person. That was the first non-athletic, 'people' scholarship that we gave out."
Now, 26 years later, the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet -- this year designated as the weekend's "best meet in the nation" by the United States Track Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) featuring perennial powers Oregon and Florida -- lives on, and so does McCravy's legacy. Current student-athletes and the coaching staff didn't know McCravy, but he continues to have an impact on the team and the track and field program. His influence lives on, even as the people he directly impacted move on.
This weekend as some of the nation's best track and field athletes compete at the Nutter Field House, McCravy will be remembered.
Matthew Mitchell will lead his team into a rematch with Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It isn't among Matthew Mitchell's three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline, but man-to-man defense isn't far down the list of things that have come to define UK Hoops.
UK has ascended the ranks of women's basketball utilizing man-to-man pressure defense, so much so that it's earned the moniker "40 minutes of dread." That's what made the second half of Kentucky's 73-71 win at Auburn on Sunday so surprising.
Mitchell audibled to a zone defense, forgoing pride and his own long-standing philosophy.
"I think it's important as a coach to find a way for your players to be successful," Mitchell said. "I think man-to-man defense is the way to play. I think that's the best way to play, but I'm not out there playing and it's not about me; it's about the players."
Mitchell didn't base that decision solely on what he saw during the first 20 minutes at Auburn either. At least statistically speaking, the UK defense has gone from dominant in 2012-13 to merely very good as the Cats (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host Alabama (8-10, 1-4 SEC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are allowing 68.4 points per game this season, up more than 10 points from last season's average of 57.9. The increase is due in part to the faster tempo of UK's games, but also to the 4.1 additional trips to the free-throw line opponents are making as the Cats toe the line between intense defense and fouling.
Before the season, the new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play received plenty of attention on both the men's and women's side. Eighteen games in, Mitchell and his team are still adjusting.
"If I'm in my space in a legal guarding position and the offense runs into me and I didn't create the contact, I think that's really what is giving us so much trouble," Mitchell said. "Just trying to figure out what's legal and what's not. It says in the rulebook that they can't create the contact and the foul will be on you. It has been difficult."
Unsure when the whistles are going to come, Mitchell says the Cats aren't as sure of themselves on defense, creating a cycle of sorts.
"You see that being one factor, but I think another factor is we could play a lot better, a lot harder," Mitchell said. "We watched film on it yesterday and so that's not all of it. It's not all the new way the game is being called. A lot of it is on us too."
That psychological effect was on display against Auburn, as UK looked a different team defensively in the second half.
"I don't know if the way it's being called is in our head and it just keeps us from really turning loose and playing because we were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man," Mitchell said.
Mitchell was particularly impressed with the way UK looked in that zone given the team had scarcely worked on it leading up to the game. In fact, he estimated the Cats played more zone in the game at Auburn than they had during their entire bye week in practice.
Having seen the zone in action, Mitchell has made it more of a focus in practice this week.
"We're working on that more now, so it may become a big part of what we do," Mitchell said. "I just don't know. I'm trying to figure that out from a coaching standpoint right now."
That throws a wrench into Alabama's preparation.
The Cats and Crimson Tide faced off three weeks ago and UK came away with an 85-63 road victory, the only time in SEC play the Cats have avoided the slow starts and early deficits that have plagued them.
"Alabama we got off to a great start and we got down to Florida, we got down to South Carolina, we got down to Missouri, we got down to Auburn," Mitchell said. "And to me that is a mental focus issue and the coaches and the players, we all have to do a much better job preparing."
Looking at the Auburn game only, Mitchell is looking for his team to both learn from the slow start that put the Cats in a hole and gain confidence from the way they battled adversity to win a tough road game.
"I just told the players we are just so proud of the part of the effort that got us the victory and we have to correct what got us into the situation where it looked so dire there for a while, 13 down in the first half," Mitchell said. "So there are reasons that's happening and those are the things that we have to correct."
Which defense UK uses to do that remains to be seen.
"They have been very active in man and zone yesterday in practice, so we'll practice both today and we'll see what happens," Mitchell said on Thursday.
UK baseball head coach Gary Henderson (photo by Chet White, UK athletics)
UK baseball head coach Gary Henderson joined Neil Price on Big Blue Weekly from The Cellar on Lanesdowne Drive on Wednesday night. Below is a transcript of Henderson and Price's conversation during the 30-minute show.
On how early you start forming a lineup, rotation, etc. ... "The first thing you ever do is make sure that everybody is healthy and you start getting them prepared. The first 10 days to two weeks you kind of break down the body a little bit out of pure repetition, weight room, yoga, cardio, practice, and all those things. Then you start to build it back up. Nobody gets crossed off the list; you are just getting them ready. As a coach you always have ideas of what it might look like. And one of the things that I have found as I have gotten more experience, gotten older and done it more often is that everything is written in pencil. You just don't know. You think you know, but you don't know. Not in every area, but in certain areas. Going back for several years now, coach (John) Cohen and I used to have some discussions and disagreements in terms of what that bullpen would look like or the starting rotation. Sometimes John was right, sometimes I was right. What I learned through that whole process is you just wait. You get everybody prepared and you hope that those kids absolutely force you to play them. That is what you are hoping for."
On how a pitching background as a head coach differs from a hitting background ... "There are different things to look at. But certainly there is a different focus in practice. Where your times is spent and how much importance you spend on getting those 27 outs. Also in fairness to everybody, the game is different than it was eight or 10 years ago. Those bats are different. All you have to do is look at the power numbers, the average numbers, what those guys in the bottom half of the order are able to do, the slugging percentage and the on base percentage. Those things have changed over time. Guys have made adjustments to their offenses. You are seeing a lot more attempted steals then you did a few years ago. It is a more part of the game (now) and you are seeing a lot more short game."
On preseason All-America two-way standout A.J. Reed and his offseason progress ... "Well, the skill set is pretty good. A.J. is making the normal progress that you would hope guys make, probably a little bit more than normal. He has done a really, really good job of changing his body the last four months. He looks great. Fans are going to recognize him but they are also going to recognize that he is a little bit trimmer. He has dropped about 20 pounds. His bat speed is little bit better. He is moving better, left to right, at first base. He is repeating his delivery at a high level. It is pretty exciting."
On how changing his body physically can help 6-foot-4, 240-pound LHP/1B A.J. Reed ... "You are just carrying less weight. If you are hoping to do something 85 to 110 times and you are doing it with 20 less pounds on your body it is going to be easier to do and easier to repeat and easier to explode at release. The bat speed is going to be able to stay in place longer. The body is easier to control. The brain feels better because you are not fatigued. It is all of it. It is all related. It is important. He has done a really good job. I am proud of him."
On how A.J.'s work ethic in the offseason pleases a coach ... "Well, it does. The other thing it does is the influence it has on his peers. It sends a message that what he is doing is important. I am really proud of him. It is like anybody, you lose 15-20 pounds, that is work, that is effort. He has done it and he is going to benefit from it."
On Austin Cousino working hard in the offseason and playing with a chip on his shoulder in 2014 ... "The swing is good. He has worked hard. You are going to see a stronger body. A little bit more athletic look. The swing has always been nice. It has been a pretty swing, really. What you are going to see is a much more disciplined approach and a freer mind. We are really excited about what Austin has done."
On sophomore southpaw Sam Mahar bouncing back from missing 2013 due to injury ... "Sam has done great. The work ethic is outstanding. His feel for pitching, his ability to create and repeat are at a much different level then they were the first two years. It is really not even close at this point. We just have to get him back in the game and get him comfortable again. He had a really, really solid freshman year for us. He is a good competitor, his feel, his confidence, all of that stuff is at a higher level than it has ever been.
On having some returning guys fans know and some new faces to learn ... "As you mentioned that bullpen is going to be different. Fans are going to see some returning guys, six or seven guys that they have seen in the everyday lineup before and they have a feel for who they are. Then you are going to know who those starting pitchers are as well. And again, they have to stay healthy and they have to perform. But we have some guys that we run out there that all of our guys are going to know. Having said that, we are going to have a new second baseman. We are going to have a new guy in the outfield. And that bullpen is going to be new. Those guys that we knew and loved for two and three years are gone. Trevor (Gott) is gone. Walt (Wijas) is gone. Alex Phillips was here for a couple years and did a good job. You are going to see some new names. You are going to see Zach Strecker, you are going to see Sam Mahar back and doing it for us. There are going to be some new people back there. They are going to be a little up and down as there always is when you are putting a bullpen together. We have a good group. We have some strike throwers down there and I am excited to put it together."
On LHP transfer Matt Snyder joining the roster last week after Temple announced cutting the program ... "They did. And we are glad to have Matt. He is going to help us. He is also a kid that is in his third school in three semesters by no fault of his own. Anytime you make change in your life, especially at a young age, there is a period of transition. He has to get acclimated. He has to get to know his teammates. He has to find his way around campus. He has a new living situation. So he is making all those transitions. He is doing well. He threw again today. He did extremely well. At some point in time he is going to be able to help us."
On the season opener vs. No. 14 Virginia in Wilmington, N.C., before traveling to Norfolk, Va. ... "We are. Those are beautiful places in June, July and August and I am hoping they are beautiful in February. We are facing good people, good teams and we are looking forward to it."
On the importance of the opening to the season ... "What I think is that you want all the opportunities to play that you can because you have to get that thing figured out. You have four weekends (before SEC play) and who knows what the weather is going to do. And that is the same everywhere. But what you want to do is do the best job and putting those kids in positions they need to be in so when you take that that trip on March 13 to Tuscaloosa that you have the best foundation in place to be successful that you can. Sometimes it is easier said than done. I look around the league every year and you will see someone in the first couple of weekends have a completely different role on a pitching staff or a team, or positionally or in the batting order. But you do the best job you can in the first 18 or 20 games but then the conference games start and you hope you have the foundation. That is really the value of having the older club. Those first four weekends it is all about who can pitch in the sixth, who can pitch in the ninth and who needs to pitch the first five innings."
On how important leadership and team dynamic is the success of the team ... "You start talking about what the art of really what a baseball club is. All you have to do is look at MLB last year and what the preseason rankings were. And the Red Sox are picked 15th and all of a sudden they have a guy like David Ross and (Jonny) Gomes that are a part of their mix and all of a sudden it is a different clubhouse. It is different feel then it was the previous year. Long story short, they win the World Series. You look at your kids and you hope that they can create the same synergy and the same sense of belonging within themselves that you have to have to have good teams. That comes from, the bulk of it, comes from your older kids."
Alex Poythress had 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Texas A&M on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Caught in somewhat of a lull and on the verge allowing another opponent to hang around, UK needed a jolt.
The Wildcats led Texas A&M by just four points early in the second half after building a double-digit advantage before halftime. The Rupp Arena crowd was anxious, surely anticipating another nip-and-tuck finish.
It was then, however, that UK turned to a source of energy that has gone from unlikely to expected within the last two months: Alex Poythress.
"He made plays like, 'How did he make that play?' " John Calipari said. "And that's how we got a little gap."
He scored the game's next seven points, the last three coming on an open-floor and-one that drew a big reaction from his teammates and even a smile from the normally stoic Poythress. After an A&M 3 briefly cut the lead to eight, Poythress delivered a gravity-defying dunk to give the No. 14/14 Cats (14-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish en route to a 68-51 win over the Aggies (12-6, 3-2 SEC).
"We wanted to get the game and keep it going and stretch out the lead," said Poythress, who finished with a season-high 16 points. "We were playing great defense. We just needed a couple stops."
Not long ago, Poythress would have been among the last players expected to step up in that moment. Still battling the inconsistency that plagued him as a freshman, Poythress teased with his incredible potential but far too infrequently for him to be relied on regularly.
Over the last month, that's changed completely.
It began in preparation, which prompted Coach Cal to make occasional mention of Poythress's performance in practices. In December, the results began to trickle in on the floor. There was the solid six-point, eight-rebound effort and North Carolina, the seven points he scored in UK's best win of the season over Louisville. Though he wasn't blowing anyone away with his statistics, UK just seemed to be better when Poythress was in the game.
Meanwhile, Poythress was building his confidence brick by brick.
"I can't really speak for him, but just what I see when I'm guarding him he's more assertive, sure of himself and playing with a lot of confidence and just attacking and not thinking so much," Julius Randle said.
With newfound self-assurance, Poythress has become the sixth man UK can always count on to deliver, even if it doesn't always mean scoring 11 straight points for his team.
"I'm just trying to bring energy off the bench and just play my role and do what I can to help the team win," Poythress said.
Poythress has evolved into a 6-foot-8, 239-pound terror Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy called "dominant" after his team lost in Rupp Arena. Coach Cal had a more violent though no less complimentary description.
"Mentally, Alex thinks he's going to kill you, so he will," Calipari said. "Last year that's not how Alex was thinking."
In five games of SEC play, Poythress is averaging 10.6 points and at least one rim-rattling dunk per game. On defense, Poythress has gone from a nonfactor to a versatile weapon capable of guarding both post and perimeter players. During that same stretch to open conference play, he has 10 blocks after registering two against Texas A&M. He had just 14 his entire freshman year.
"Alex, I keep saying, Alex, what you're seeing is what I'm seeing in practice, which is like, holy cow," Calipari said. "I mean, he's just dominating, making his free throws, making jump shots."
Randle has had an up-close view of that dominance, as the two athletic forwards most often matchup with one another in practice. He's ecstatic to see the player he has to deal with in practice show up in games.
"We all see the work he puts in and just to finally see him break through and play great, I couldn't be more happy for him," said Randle, who had his 11th double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "It's just real exciting because if he does that we know our team just goes to another level."
That's perhaps no truer than when opponents deploy the zone defenses the Cats are likely to see throughout the season.
Normally, the term "zone buster" is reserved for a knockdown outside shooter, but Poythress proved to be just that on Tuesday night. Against A&M's 2-3, Poythress roamed the baseline. Waiting for either a pass and a chance to attack the rim or an offensive-rebounding opportunity, he was constantly ready to pounce.
"He's just so explosive," Randle said. "Our guards can penetrate and shoot or they can penetrate and kick to him and he'll score the ball and dunk the ball or whatever. So it's a huge help."
As much of a help as that may be, Coach Cal is much more concerned with attitude, mentality and hard work when it comes to any of his players. After all, those are the reasons for Poythress's transformation. Now, Calipari is looking to apply those lessons elsewhere.
"It's kind of like chipping away at a rock," Calipari said in reference to Derek Willis. "You keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and then all of a sudden it's been weeks and it's been months and there's one hit and it splits and you split the rock and you made it. You're over the hump."
Poythress may appear to be over that hump, but Calipari still knows there's only one way for anyone to stay on the right side of it.
"It's never good enough," Calipari said. "You're always hungry. You're always humble, but you're always hungry to get better. The minute you're satisfied, you start going the wrong way."
Not to worry, Poythress isn't.
"Just keep on working hard," he said. "We've got an off day tomorrow. Just come in Thursday prepared and ready to practice, have a good practice then and a good practice Friday and just translate to the game."
Men's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 on the week which included a 74-66 win over Tennessee and a last-second heartbreaker in overtime at Arkansas on Tuesday. - In UK's win over the Vols, freshman Andrew Harrison poured in a career-high 26 points while going 10-for-10 at the free throw line to lead UK to a .958 clip as a team. Harrison also played flawlessly without committing a single turnover. Classmate Julius Randle chipped in with 18 points after scoring 20 at Arkansas. - Freshman James Young had 23 tallies against the Razorbacks, while sophomore Alex Poythress contributed 12 points. Harrison sunk a 3-pointer with less than a second remaining to force the game into overtime. Young tied the score at 85 and it appeared a double-overtime would be played, before Arkansas capitalized on a last-second put-back for the win. - Kentucky remains at home for the next two contests. UK will face Texas A&M on Tuesday and Georgia on Saturday.
Women's basketball - Kentucky traveled to Auburn for its only game of the week and it took all 40 minutes to capture its third conference win of the season. Despite a tough stretch to the start the game, the Wildcats used an uncharacteristic 2-3 zone defense and solid rebounding to grind out the 73-71 win. Trailing by 13 points in the first half, UK battled back to within one at the half, 36-37. UK controlled most of the second half and led by as many as nine points but Auburn pulled within one, 70-69, with 3:01 to play. - The outside shooting of junior Jennifer O'Neill and crucial back-to-back offensive rebounds in the final minute by senior Samarie Walker and freshman Linnae Harper helped seal the win. UK shot 45 percent from the floor (27-of-60) and just 44.8 percent from the free-throw line (13-of-29). O'Neill finished with a team-high 16 points off the bench, hitting a season-high tying four 3-pointers. Walker grabbed her second straight double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds, while also dishing out a career-high four assists. Harper added 13 points and pulled down a career-high tying seven rebounds, including five offensive. - UK plays host to Alabama and Arkansas in its next two games in Memorial Coliseum. Gymnastics - In its first road competition of the season, the No. 17 University of Kentucky gymnastics team fell to No. 6 Nebraska and No. 3 Alabama at the Ozone Collegiate Gymnastic Classic Saturday night in Knoxville, Tenn. - The Wildcats (3-2, 0-1 SEC) scored a 194.650, behind the Cornhuskers' 196.250 and the Crimson Tide's 196.050. Alabama notched the top scores on vault and uneven bars, while Nebraska tallied meet highs on balance beam and floor. The Wildcats scored a 48.875 on floor, the second-highest total at the meet, along with a 48.750 on vault, a 48.625 on beam and a 48.400 on bars. - Senior Audrey Harrison, a Knoxville native, came in third in the all-around with a season-high 39.175. Her total came behind two Nebraska gymnasts and just 0.250 out of second place. Junior Shelby Hilton also competed on all four events and posted a 38.600 to place sixth. Sophomore Marissa Beucler registered a career-high-tying 9.725 on vault. - The Wildcats continue a three-week road trip at Missouri on Jan. 24 at 7:30 p.m., ET. Kentucky is 1-0 in Southeastern Conference action against Mizzou, with a 194.250-194.125 home win last season in the Tigers' first season in the SEC. The last time the Wildcats traveled to Columbia, Mo. was in 2004.
Rifle - The University of Kentucky rifle team knocked off two top-15 opponents this weekend, defeating No. 11 Murray State 4700-4661 Saturday and No. 7 Army 4697-4655. - Kentucky's 4700 Saturday against Murray State marked a season high for the Wildcats. - Emily Holsopple led the Wildcats with an individual aggregate of 1183 against the Racers, while Jonathan Pinkel posted an individual aggregate of 1180 as an individual. - Sunday against Army, Connor Davis posted a personal-best 589 in smallbore and Emily Holsopple shot a season-high 595.
Men's tennis - The men's tennis team started the season with three wins, collecting two 7-0 results over Dayton and Eastern Kentucky on Friday night and a 4-3 win at No. 7 Duke on Sunday. - Kentucky's win at No. 7 Duke was the program's first win in Durham since the 1974 season. The win for Cedric Kauffmann marked his fifth win over a top-10 team in his 34 matches as the Wildcats' head coach. - Tom Jomby played No. 1 singles in all three matches, and went 3-0 on the weekend including a 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 52 Jason Tahir of Duke. Jomby teamed with Kevin Lai in doubles to also go 3-0 to accumulate a 6-0 weekend overall for the Frenchman. - Senior Alejandro Gomez clinched the win at No. 7 Duke on Sunday with a 6-5 (6), 6-5 (4) win on court three over No. 95 Bruno Semenzato. After missing the second half of the 2013 season with injury, Gomez went 3-0 this weekend.
Women's tennis - The University of Kentucky women's tennis team started its 2014 season and home opener Saturday, Jan. 18 with a 7-0 win over Cincinnati in the morning and a 4-2 win over Ball State in the evening at the Boone Tennis Center in Lexington, Ky. - Freshman Aldila Sutjiadi is 2-0 in the No. 1 singles position after defeating Cincinnati's Kelly Poggensee-Wei, 7-5, 6-3 and Ball State's Coutney Wild, 7-6, 6-2. Sutjiadi's win over Poggensee-Wei clinched the overall match for the Wildcats and gave them their first win of the 2014 season. - No. 56 CeCe Witten and Kelsey Dieters completely dominated in the No. 1 doubles position taking down UC's Caitlin O' Gara and Kelly Poggensee-Wei, 6-1 and Ball State's Bethany Moore and Kristel Saunders, 6-3. - After dropping two singles matches, Ball State managed get within one of the Wildcats, but Senior Caitlin McGraw defeated Toni Ormond, 6-3, 6-2 to clinch the match point and beat Ball State. - Kentucky is now 2-0 in dual matches for the season. The Wildcats will return to action on Jan. 24 against Tulane at the Intercollegiate Tennis Association Kickoff Weekend in Durham, N.C.
Track and field - Kentucky won eight of 30 events, five for the sixth-ranked women's team and three on the men's side at the Kentucky Invitational Friday and Saturday. UK finished the meet having won three of the four relays as the Wildcat women's team claimed the 4x400m relay after UK won both the men's and women's distance medleys on Friday. - Dezerea Bryant shattered school-records during wins in both the 60 and 200 meters Saturday. Bryant's 60m time of 7.18 seconds leads the nation and her 200m time of 23.08 ranks No. 2 nationally. - Kendra Harrison also broke teammate Kayla Parker's 60m hurdles school record, with a nation-leading time of her own: 8.19. Harrison also won the 400m with a time of 54.49, which ranks No. 8 nationally. - Keffri Neal continued a hot start to the season, winning his second race from two starts with a mile personal-best time of 4:04.04. Bradley Szypka also sustained his strong early-season form by winning the shot put with a top mark of 18.78m/61' 7.5" for his second victory in as many meets this campaign. - UK will host the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet next weekend. Of the 15 teams scheduled to compete, seven are ranked inside the national top-25 (both men's and women's).
Tuesday, Jan. 21 Men's Tennis vs. Indiana - 4 p.m. Men's Basketball vs. Texas A&M - 9 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 23 Women's Basketball vs. Alabama - 7 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 24 Track & Field - Rod McCravy Memorial - 10 a.m. Men's Tennis vs. BYU - 1 p.m. Women's Tennis vs. Tulane - 1:30 p.m. (Durham, N.C.) Gymnastics at Missouri - 7:30 p.m. Rifle at Withrow Invitational, Murray, Ky. - All Day
Saturday, Jan. 25 Track & Field - Rod McCravy Memorial - 10 a.m. Swimming/Diving at Louisville - 1 p.m. Men's Basketball vs. Georgia - 1:30 p.m. Women's Tennis vs. Duke/Columbia - TBA (Durham, N.C.) Men's Tennis vs. Notre Dame/Minnesota - TBA
Sunday, Jan. 26 Women's Basketball vs. Arkansas - 1 p.m. Women's Tennis vs. Duke/Columbia - TBA (Durham, N.C.)
James Young is averaging 14.2 points 17 games into his freshman season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
James Young had never really thought much about his shooting stroke. Before he got to Kentucky he had always, well, just shot the basketball.
Now, Young is more aware of his mechanics. He can feel when he doesn't keep his shoulders forward. He knows when he jumps or lands or just one foot.
"I think about it a lot recently, how I'm shooting," Young said. "I've just gotta clear my mind a little bit and just let it go."
It's not that Young has been ineffective. The freshman guard is averaging 14.2 points and getting to the foul line nearly five times per game.
"I know he's not shooting at the percentage that he would like, but he's putting the ball in the basket," assistant coach John Robic said. "He's just creative in the way he (scores)."
Nonetheless, the Rochester Hills, Mich., native with a reputation as a knockdown shooter is shooting just 32.5 percent from 3-point range as No. 14/14 UK (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) prepares to host Texas A&M (12-5, 3-1 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The tougher competition he's facing at the college level has something to do with that.
"They play a lot more defense than they did back in high school, so it'll probably affect me a little bit," Young said. "I've just gotta stay confident in my shot."
So far, losing confidence has been no issue for Young. Though the shots haven't always fallen, Young has not stopped shooting. That's the way John Calipari wants it.
"He gave me the green light to shoot so whenever I'm open I'm just going to keep shooting it," Young said. "I've just gotta knock them down."
To do that, Young needs to strike a balance behind clear-headed confidence and awareness of his mechanics. There's only one way to get there.
"Get in the gym and practice," Robic said.
Young is working on that, but he's making plenty of plays in the meantime. He made 2-of-5 3s on Saturday as UK shot 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) from deep in a win over Tennessee. Young also made a game-tying 3 near the end of overtime at Arkansas after missing one earlier in the same possession.
"The shot that he made at Arkansas, the one that Andrew (Harrison) made at Arkansas, were big shots, and it showed us something," Robic said.
Young, however, doesn't need to hit 3s to score. More than 54 percent of his points this season have come on either shots from inside the arc or at the line, oftentimes in unconventional ways that remind Robic -- who filled in for Coach Cal at Monday's pregame press conference -- of a former player now playing for the Charlotte Bobcats.
"He reminds me of the kid we had at Memphis, Chris Douglas-Roberts," Robic said. "Just a little unorthodox. It doesn't look like it's going in, but somehow it finds a way to go in."
Young expects to continue making those shots, but he's also challenging himself to find a more consistent form from outside.
"It's just about getting better every day," Young said. "That's what I just came here to do."
John Robic filled in for John Calipari on the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference this morning. Read what the assistant coach had to say about an upcoming matchup with Texas A&M and Saturday's comeback win over Tennessee.
On UK's matchups this week ... "We got two home games coming up this week, Texas A&M on Tuesday and Georgia on Saturday. I'm impressed really with both teams and what their new players are doing for them. I like the physical nature of both teams. Right now, both teams are playing very, very well. We're going to have to play a heck of a game in both outings."
On the similarities between Texas A&M's Jamal Jones and Elston Turner ... "You know what, that's a great point. Really like Jamal Jones. It seems like he should be averaging more than 12 points a game because it seems like every time he shoots it it goes in. He's really a smooth player, really good with the ball. He can create his own shot. He's a very shooter off the catch. It gives them that No. 1 scoring option for their team. He's really more of a three than he is a four. Sometimes he has to play that four spot, but it can create matchup problems because he can draw you away from the basket."
On Texas A&M leading the league in defensive field-goal percentage ... "They mix things up defensively between their man-to-man and zone. I really like (Alex) Caruso as a defender. Really anticipates well. They play solidly defensively. Not a whole lot of risk factors in trying to steal balls. They wall up really well in the post and make you take tough shots in and around the basket. We're going to have to do a good job of penetrating, being ready to shoot and hopefully do a little bit of damage on the offensive glass." On rebounding issues against Tennessee ... "You had two 6-8 kids that weigh about 275 pounds and they had their way with us. They were space-eaters inside that were really, really physical. I believe it's the first time all year we've been out-rebounded and we got our butts kicked on the glass, especially offensively. We showed that tape to our players yesterday before practice because we were plus-13 going into the game rebounding-wise. We were fortunate to come away with the win. There were a lot of those plays though there were probably two or three, sometimes even four offensive rebounds per possession. But we have to do a better job keeping guys off the glass for sure." On why Willie Cauley-Stein struggled against Tennessee ... "If you watch the film, once they made contact he didn't fight back. He had a big height advantage over them. He just has to get down and be physical and make the first blow with contact and then use his size to rebound it above the rim."
On Dakari Johnson's improvement ... "Well, we were really happy for Dakari. That's probably the best he's played and he's realistic about it. There are some games where it's a tough matchup for him, when the post players are a little smaller and thinner or quicker and can take you out away from the basket. He's really gotten in the best shape he's ever been in. He's running the floor well. He used his size the other day. That was a great matchup game for him. Defensively, he was pretty solid. Set good screens offensively. But how did he develop it? He's been in the gym getting extra work in and making sure he's doing extra conditioning and just focusing on the things that he can do to help us win a few more games."
The Kentucky cheerleading team claimed its 20th national championship on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Only for the Kentucky cheerleading team can one season without a national championship feel like a drought.
Last year, the cheerleaders were named runners-up to Memphis. On Sunday, UK returned to its familiar perch atop the world of college cheerleading.
"When you finally hear second place called and then they call first place, it's a lot of emotion, a lot of joy," Jomo Thompson said via cell phone. "We just feel vindicated, especially after coming in second place last year. We wanted to make sure we got back to the top and we did that."
UK won an unprecedented 20th national title at the UCA/UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship in Orlando, Fla., finishing ahead of second-place UCF. UK has now won an incredible 15 championships since 1995, only being dethroned five times during that span.
"I'm just fortunate to have been a part of this program for so long and I love UK," said Thompson, the former UK cheerleader who has won eight national titles in his 12 years as head coach. "I love UK cheerleading. I'm just glad I'm here to experience it with the kids. We strive every day to be the best. It's just a great thing that we've won so many times. It just speaks to the history and the tradition of winning and be the best."
The UCA's official Twitter account described the winning routine as both starting and finishing strong. Thompson saw much of the same, saying UK's finals routine was even better than a solid one in Saturday's preliminary round.
"I think they just really seized the opportunity," Thompson said. "They didn't let down. They didn't take anything for granted. They just did a really good job of going out there and executing and bringing home number 20."
The championship is the culmination of a year of hard work. UK didn't drastically alter the formula that has led to so much past success, but a seven-member senior class was intent on going out the right way. Thompson said those veterans played an instrumental role in setting the tone for UK's training.
"We just told the kids, 'You want to make sure that you're giving a hundred percent every time, even in practice, because you get one shot, one opportunity,' " Thompson said. "So you want to experience as many as things that can go wrong, encounter all those things in practice so if something like that happens at nationals, you're ready for it. I thought they did a great job this year getting themselves prepared."
The UK dance team also competed this weekend, turning in an impressive performance in the Division IA Hip Hop finals. UK came in fifth, an improvement from last year's sixth-place finish. Head coach Dawn Walters reported the team posted a score of 93.2, its best ever.
"The girls had a lot of confidence today when we went out to perform," Walters said. "They really went out there and had energy and excitement and the whole arena really went crazy when they were up there. Our degree of difficulty was higher this year than last year and we had a lot of group tricks. I think their confidence was the biggest thing this year."
UK Athletics congratulates both the cheer and dance teams for their achievements this weekend!
This offseason, the weight room at the Nutter Training Center underwent a dramatic facelift with a new floor, new equipment and new surface on the upstairs track. In this video, High Performance Coach Erik Korem walks about what the upgrades mean for UK football.
Sometimes bye weeks come at inopportune moments, short-circuiting a win streak when a team is playing its best.
Other bye weeks are welcome, offering a chance for players rest their weary legs during a long season.
Count the week UK Hoops had off following a win over Missouri on Sunday among the latter.
"We were so blessed," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "The good Lord blessed us with this bye week and we really needed it on a couple of fronts."
No. 10/12 Kentucky (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) survived that game against Missouri and ended a two-game losing skid without leader Kastine Evans and with Bernisha Pinkett playing just two minutes. Bria Goss and Janee Thompson stepped up, as the two guards combined for 36 points in an 80-69 victory, but the Wildcats were always going to need Evans and Pinkett at full strength in their bid for the SEC title.
With a little downtime, the two senior guards are getting there.
"Kastine was full go (Friday) morning, reported no issues, no pain," Mitchell said. "So she was off all week from practice activities. Stayed with low non-impact cardio and tried to stay up with that. So the time off for her and Bernisha was very, very good and they looked good."
DeNesha Stallworth is another player recuperating from injury, but she took a very different approach to UK's week without a Thursday game.
The senior forward has played three games since her return following arthroscopic knee surgery, but has shown signs of some of the rust to be expected following a month-long layoff. This week, she's taken full advantage of the opportunity to knock off some of that rust.
"DeNesha needed a week where she could just turn loose and practice and you weren't worried about playing Thursday and you could really go at it," Mitchell said.
And for UK as a team, the time off was productive as well. With some effects still lingering from that short-lived losing streak, a week of "high-level, high-intensity practice" was much-needed.
"We got it on both ends, got what we needed out of the open date and so I think we're starting to round back into full strength and we'll need to be as sharp as we can be to win Sunday, I can tell you that," Mitchell said.
UK will face a road test at Auburn (11-6, 2-2 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (SEC TV) that has Mitchell's undivided attention. The Tigers are facing 20.7 turnovers per game and are likely to throw multiple defensive looks at the Cats.
"Long, athletic, aggressive defenders and make it really tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "They've done a great job defensively."
Senior guard/forward Tyrese Tanner is leading the way for Auburn, scoring 16.4 points per game, but it doesn't end there for the Tigers. Ten players are averaging more than 15.1 minutes per game, meaning Auburn won't be fazed by UK's depth.
"Just their overall team is a really tough, explosive team," Mitchell said. "So going on the road in this league is always tough. It will be tough Sunday afternoon and we'll have to prepare well to win."
Andrew Harrison scored a career-high 26 points in UK's win over Tennessee on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK has won more than its share of games this season on the strength of rebounding.
The Wildcats made up for what they lacked at times in perimeter and free-throw shooting with their ability to overwhelm opponents on the offensive glass with size and strength.
Against Jarnell Stokes and Tennessee, the Cats got a taste of their own medicine.
"They have great big men," Andrew Harrison said. "Jarnell, he's a great player, most physical player we're probably going to play against. We just have to find a way to beat them in different ways."
For just the second time this season, UK was outrebounded. The visiting Volunteers held a 39-24 edge on the glass, outscored the Cats 20-10 in second-chance points and had more offensive rebounds than UK had defensively.
On another day, that may have spelled doom for UK. But on Saturday, the No. 12/13 Cats (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) found a way to take down Tennessee (11-6, 2-2 SEC) in a 74-66 win.
"Tennessee is not going to lose many in our league," John Calipari said. "I'm just happy we don't have to see them again until tournament time possibly, and I hope we don't see them there. They're a physical team."
UK overcame the Vols by maximizing their offensive possessions.
With the offensive rebounds not going their way, the Cats hit 23 of 24 from the free-throw line, nearly 30 percent better than their average for the season.
"We have guys who have great form and great technique," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points. "I think it's just a matter of time. Everybody can make shots and make free throws. It's just a focus thing."
UK also shot 7 of 16 (43.8 percent) from 3-point range, outscoring the Vols by 15 points from beyond the arc. And while in past close games turnovers have been UK's downfall, the Cats committed just eight.
"We just made tough plays, thank God," Randle said. "We played hard, we played together as a team and we made our free throws."
At least in the beginning, that physicality seemed it would be too much for Kentucky regardless, as the Vols grabbed a 6-0 lead and eventually led by as many as nine points at the 12:16 mark of the first half.
UK went to a familiar source to rally from that early deficit.
With Tennessee opting to guard Randle one on one, Coach Cal went to his star freshman forward. Randle responded with 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting before halftime, adding three assists, the last of which led to a James Young 3-pointer that gave UK a 34-32 lead to close out the first.
"What happened was we played through Julius in the first half, and you notice we kind of put him on different spots out on the court and then told him to beat the guy on the dribble, and he created for his teammates," Calipari said.
Not wanting Randle to beat them, the Vols sent the double and triple teams he has grown accustomed to. That's when UK found a novel way to win.
Spreading the floor, Coach Cal went to Harrison again and again.
"Julius had a big first half, so I feel like in the pick-and-roll I can get to the middle and beat the big guy on the dribble and maybe get to the lane and get fouled," Harrison said.
Decisively using the screen and attacking the Tennessee big, Harrison got into the lane at will and had his best game as a Wildcat. He had a career-high 26 points -- 16 after half -- on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and 10 of 10 from the line, adding three assists and not committing a single turnover.
"He got in the lane; he made the right play; he had no turnovers; he made big shots, the runner, the pull-up jumper; and he ran our team," Calipari said. "He played like a point guard. So he got better today, he really did."
Screening for Harrison most often on Saturday was Dakari Johnson, who stepped up in 16 solid minutes as Willie Cauley-Stein struggled to cope with the physicality of Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Johnson had no such issues, setting crushing picks that took Harrison's matchup almost completely out of plays.
"I just tried to set a hard screen, come up fast and just be a big screen so he could have isolation with the big men that's guarding me," Johnson said.
Johnson had only four points and four rebounds, but they all came in an eight-minute second-half stretch during which UK turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
"Well, Willie didn't play as well as he'd been playing, and we went with Dakari and he was terrific," Calipari said.
The 7-foot freshman also embraced the assignment of guarding Stokes, who torched the Cats for 12 points and 11 rebounds in a dominant first half. Stokes still finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but his life was much harder with Johnson battling him in the second half.
"He's real strong and he's so low to the ground," Johnson said. "He's different from me because I'm so high up to the ground. I just tried to be physical with him early to try to box him out."
Whether Johnson continues to emerge or Cauley-Stein regains the form that made it almost impossible for Coach Cal to take him off the floor remains to be seen, but the lessons UK will take from beating Tennessee will remain no matter what.
"We're not always going to be bigger than everybody else and we have to find ways to win," Harrison said.
Alex Poythress has scored a season-high 12 points in two of his last three games entering Saturday's matchup with Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
At first look, the play was impressive and its significance clear.
As time ticked down on the five minutes of overtime at Arkansas, Alex Poythress hustled to track down a missed James Young 3-pointer. He grabbed the offensive rebound, leading to a game-tying 3 by Young that of course was rendered a footnote by Michael Qualls' put-back dunk with 0.2 seconds left.
But as good as the play was in real-time, only a slow-motion replay does it justice.
Poythress flies in from the left wing. In one motion, he rises to a seemingly impossible height, snares the rebound over a crowd, lands on one foot, dribbles as he falls to the ground and tosses underhand to Andrew Harrison.
"I honestly don't know (how he got to that rebound)," Poythress said. "I just (saw) the ball in the air, I just tried to go get it."
Immediately afterward, John Calipari praised Poythress's "effort play." Two days later -- with No. 12/13 UK (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) in the midst of preparations for a matchup with Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday -- he was even more glowing.
"I don't know of another player in the country that could make that play," Calipari said.
Three months ago, Coach Cal says not even Poythress would have been able to pull it off.
"He would have never gone after the ball," Calipari said. "He would have never attempted."
According to Calipari, it starts with conditioning for Poythress. A season ago, he never would have even seen there was a play to be made in that same situation because he would have been too fatigued.
"But now, he can be alert because he's in great shape," Calipari said. "He can be alert because he's busted through comfort levels. He's doing more than he's ever thought he could do. It just took him more time. I mean, these kids are on different timetables. They all are."
Poythress showed flashes of his sophomore-year improvement early this season, but seemingly regressed in back-to-back scoreless outings against Baylor and Boise State in early December.
Since then, he has looked like a different player.
In his last six games, Poythress is averaging 8.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, including 12 points and six rebounds against Arkansas. An outsider might point out he averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds as a freshman as evidence Poythress has regressed, but anyone who has watched knows better.
"I just look at it as I'm going harder in practice," Poythress said. "I'm just doing things I'm capable of doing."
That extends to defense, where Poythress has emerged as the versatile weapon his 6-foot-8, 239-pound frame suggests he can be. In just 16 games, Poythress has matched his freshman block total of 14, six of which have come in UK's last three games.
"I'm just taking defense more personal this year, just trying to stop people, trying to guard people, help my teammates on the weak-side rebounds, weak-side blocks, trying to be in position more," Poythress said.
Once again, Calipari cites Poythress's conditioning as a major factor in that, but also looks to something more intangible.
Poythress came to UK with a McDonald's All-American pedigree and even garnered some early-season buzz as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Calipari, however, said the talented forward had trouble dealing with the "clutter" and outside voices accompanying that.
"At some point, you've got to be a man and man up, and it isn't about another player on the team," Calipari said. "It's not about the coach. It's about me. And I'm going to change this. And you get rid of the clutter."
There's no clearer piece of evidence that Poythress has done that than the fact that he has embraced a role as UK's sixth man.
"It really just matters who's playing at the end of the game," Poythress said. "It doesn't matter who starts the game; it's who finishes."
Poythress has been finishing more than his share of games lately, and he will look to do the same against a physical Volunteer front line on Saturday.
Last year, Tennessee battered Kentucky in the Wildcats' first game after Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury, 88-58. Poythress was quiet in that game, tallying just four points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of the worst loss of the Calipari era at UK.
The Cats, especially Poythress and fellow returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson, are eager to wipe away those bad memories from last year in Knoxville, Tenn., and earlier this week against Arkansas.
"We owe them one," Poythress said. "They came and embarrassed us a little bit. It's a new game. Trying to rebound from that loss Tuesday, trying to get a W."
The UK cheerleading team is looking for its 20th national championship this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After months of practice and supporting Kentucky teams at games, UK's cheerleading and dance teams will take center stage at the
2014 UCA and UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National
Championship this weekend at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla.
Both teams will compete first on Saturday, with the cheerleaders beginning their quest for their 20th national championship at 7:50 p.m. ET in the Division IA Semifinals. The dance team will compete in both the Division IA Pom and Hip Hop Semfinals at 8:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. The finals for all three competitions will take place on Sunday with results expected to come in between 8-9:30.
Last year, the cheerleading team finished second. The dance team finished eighth in Pom and sixth in Hip Hop.
Kayla Parker's career at Kentucky changed on a team bus trip in Nebraska in February of last year.
The UK track and field team was just a few months into head coach Edrick Floreal's first year in charge of the program and much of the team had not yet adjusted to the concepts the new staff was trying to instill.
Parker -- who experienced mixed results on the track in her first two years in Lexington and struggled to find a signature event, even trying her hand in the grueling pentathlon and heptathlon -- for her part was one of the first Wildcats to buy into the novel "Floreal" ethos.
With the Wildcats riding back from Nebraska's indoor track after a meet performance below the team's expectations, certain team members were acting as though they weren't upset about the lackluster results.
Parker, knowing the coaching staff would not take kindly to seeing the team in such good spirits after competing so poorly, stood up in front of her teammates to voice her disapproval.
"It seemed like people didn't care, and it kind of frustrated me," Parker said. "People were nonchalant. We just lost, why are you still laughing and joking? That was when I stood up and said something. Usually I talk to people individually, but that day was different. I can't repeat what I said on the bus, but I think the team got the message."
Word of Parker's talk with the team certainly got around and her head coach took notice, seeing the intervention as an initial turning point in the UK track and field culture.
"If we're going to win anything as a team the athletes have to be the ones who take ownership," Floreal said. "Kayla was one of the first people to do that. She took ownership on that bus. I was riding separate from the team, but later I heard Kayla had said something to the team and some team members were worried at how much the meet had affected her.
"My reaction was the opposite; I thought, this is perfect. We're starting to get people who think of it as 'my team.' She was making sure there was accountability."
Parker's sense of accountability translated into results shortly after her speech, as she began running head-turning times in the 100-meter hurdles.
Whereas in 2012, she failed to even make the final at the Southeastern Conference Championships, she finished fourth overall in 2013. Then she qualified for the NCAA Championships and broke a decade-old school record.
She has continued to wow early this season as Parker ran the nation's second-fastest 60-meter hurdles time last month, 8.24, breaking another school record in the process.
Parker attributes her success to buying into her coach's philosophies and moreover, holding herself accountable to the same standards she asks of her teammates.
The team's new standards were difficult to adjust to at first, and could explain why it took until the 2013 outdoor season before the hard work really started to pay off.
And the team has bought in too. Led by Parker, the UK women's team is ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll, released Monday.
"It was just too easy not to do everything in your power to get better before," Parker said. "Now we know the coaches' expectations are higher, and in turn our teammates expect more of each other too. You notice the difference in training, but also off the track. Everyone is just committed to the cause."
Parker led the way in changing her attitude toward the sport and competition. Kentucky's recent influx of talent into the program has only hastened the rest of the team's shift in outlook.
UK's ascent to national contender status, due in large part to Parker's emergence and a 2013 recruiting class ranked No. 5 nationally by "Track and Field News," has brought a level of competition to practice sessions previously unseen.
Parker certainly was challenged in training by teammates like transfer Kendra Harrison -- a seven-time All-American and six-time Atlantic Coast Conference Champion -- which seems to have translated into results given her top-class start to the season.
"As coaches we try to explain to the kids the things they need to do to be successful, but you can never fully impart that wisdom just by talking," Floreal said. "When you have members of the team that have been to the highest level the rest of the team gets a glimpse and that work ethic rubs off. That is important as you try to build a winning culture.
Like her coach, Parker knows preseason rankings do not make a successful year a given. Plenty of work -- as well as speeches to the team, should they be necessary -- remains.
"It's just the beginning," said Floreal of the strides his team has made in the past year, largely because of the steps Parker and other have taken to improve. "We're not there yet. Things like preseason rankings are small steps, but we have to put in the work to perform when in counts."
An initial test of how the many dividends the the team's hard work will yield comes this weekend when UK hosts the Kentucky Invitational at the Nutter Field House.
Kentucky native Derek Willis is in his first season playing for John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Today, it's Derek Willis's turn.
We're three games into conference play and it's been really exciting. I grew up watching the SEC, but it's a lot different playing in the games. Instead of being at home and hanging out, you're actually there in it. It's been really fun. The road games have been really hostile when we go in there. I really like environments like that just because that's when teams come to play and that's when you get the best out of the team you're going against.
Coming into the game, you've got to have the mindset of you're already down 15 points. You've got to work your way from that. It's an uphill battle. The biggest thing is probably getting your mindset right knowing you're going into someone else's territory. They're not going to like you. You've just got to be ready for whatever and not base how you're going to play on what the fans are saying or the calls the officials make.
I feel like we played well at Arkansas. We played hard and we competed with them. That was just a really tough environment to play in. We just learned from it. The free throws we missed really stuck with us. I think we'll be OK if we spend more time in the gym and just focus more.
That Arkansas game showed us how hard it is to win on the road, so it was good to get that win against Vandy. It was also fun for me because I think that was probably the most I've played this year. It was an SEC game, so I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm just glad I got in. I was trying to do what I could. I was seeing on the bench that their big men, they couldn't guard Willie and Julius and any of our big men, so I was just trying to get them the ball. If they kicked it out, I was just trying to shoot it.
The game was even more fun because I had a couple family friends there to watch. When I was a kid, my mom, my dad and my sisters, they played in this rec softball league. They met these people named Randall and Debbie Rice. They just ended up coaching together and becoming really good friends. They were big UK fans so they decided to come down and make me a poster and just support me and Kentucky.
The Vandy game was fun, but nothing like beating Louisville. As most of you all know, I grew up just south of Louisville and know all about the rivalry. Playing in that game for the first time, it was nuts. The night before I was really excited. I really wanted to play this game. It was an awesome game. I'm glad we won. We made some people mad, especially some of the U of L fans I grew up with.
The moment I remember most was kind of early in the game. Julius made a nice move on, I think, Montrezl Harrell. He just went around him. I think two guys went up and he just dunked on both the guys. I was happy to see that because I was hoping he'd have a good game.
Camp Cal is over now, but I have to talk about it. It was something different. I've never had anything like that. It was basketball, I'm talking, the whole day. That's all you did. It was a good experience because we got to kind of feel each other out even more and know each other better. I think it was good. I think it made our team a lot better.
We also grew off the court. You ate breakfast together, practiced together, and then after that you went and saw a movie or ate, and then you go to sleep, wake up and do it again for 13 days in a row. Whenever we weren't practicing, we all hung out with each other and played a lot of video games. I think Dominique is probably the best, and that's for any video game. We room together and he's pretty good.
Now we're back in class and I'm actually glad. I really like to be organized so having a schedule and knowing when I can plan out stuff and know what I'm doing, it really helps me. I was so worried about class coming in because I didn't know what routine to get into. I definitely have that figured out now after the fall. This semester, you know how Blackboard works, how to turn in assignments and communicate with professors.
Last week, you probably heard about some of my late-night shooting sessions. Cal actually brought it up. He said, "You need to get in the gym more and start shooting," so I listened. The only real downtime I have is late at night when I'm in my room. I usually can't fall asleep anyway so I thought I might as well walk over and start shooting. I started doing that a couple nights a week. I had my friends in one night and they came in and shot with me. It was good for them to see the gym. I'm going to start doing that a lot more, probably every night now.
I just want to make sure I'm ready the next time I get to play. We've got Tennessee on Saturday. I know they're pretty good so that will be another good game. Texas A&M is after that. They beat Arkansas and Tennessee, so that will be good too.
I just hope that the fans keep supporting us like they have been. We're working every day on becoming a better team, so just be patient if you're frustrated about certain things. Just know we're doing everything we can to fix them. Come March, we hope to bring back another title.
Tom Jomby will occupy the top spot in UK's singles lineup when the 2014 season begins on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Cedric Kauffmann has depth on his side.
With six seniors on Kentucky's 2014 roster and two more regular contributors returning, there is competition aplenty for the 12 total spots in Kauffmann's singles and doubles rotation.
He plans to take full advantage of that fact.
"I think this year, as a coaching staff, we're willing to pull players out - if you will, kind of like basketball or football - if they're not performing," Kauffmann said. "I won't wait two, three matches for that."
The second-year head coach, however, knows managing the rotation of his ninth-ranked UK team will be a balancing act. He wants the Wildcats to know spots are always at stake, but not in a way that prevents them from playing their best tennis.
"It's motivation, but also sometimes it's pressure for them," Kauffmann said. "I tell them, 'Listen, if I put you in you're going to have a couple matches. I'm not going to throw you in and if you don't win, I'm pulling you out.' I think it's just too much pressure for those kids, especially 18 to 22 year olds."
The player who will occupy the top spot in UK's singles rotation is accustomed to dealing with that kind of pressure. Tom Jomby, now a senior, stepped into a regular role the moment he arrived in Lexington.
The Nantes, France, native played No. 6 singles and made the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team and has only grown since. As a sophomore, he moved into the national rankings. Last season, he was an ITA All-American after rolling up a 21-7 singles record.
But even then, Jomby played all but one of his matches on court two. Now, he's making the step up.
"It's always been my goal since I got here, trying to get to No. 1 on the first court here," Jomby said. "So I'm excited and I can't wait."
Jomby is following in the footsteps of Anthony Rossi, who had a similar wait for the top spot behind Eric Quigley's, the winningest player in school history.
"Like Anthony, I think he's waited his turn," Kauffmann said of Jomby. "And now it's his turn."
Jomby may have had to wait his turn, but he won't have to wait long to be tested now that it has come. After UK hosts a doubleheader on Friday against Dayton and Eastern Kentucky beginning at 1 p.m. ET, the Cats will travel to Cary, N.C., for a Sweet 16 rematch with No. 7 Duke.
"I kind of like it, having a top-10 opponent like Duke the first week right after we get back to school," Jomby said. "It will be a good opportunity to give us confidence."
Jomby - ranked No. 68 after an offseason injury - will likely face No. 29 Michael Redlicki. It will be the first of many highly ranked opponents for Jomby, so Kauffmann believes he will be best served taking a day-by-day approach.
"Our schedule is so tough, he's going to play somebody that's ranked almost every single match," Kauffman said. "If he looks at it as a whole five months, I think it's just too much."
As recently as a year ago, Jomby was not as well suited to handle the burden as he is now. Under the tutelage of fellow Frenchman Kauffmann, Jomby has evolved on and off the court while maintaining the personality that makes him who he is.
"I'm still the same person, but I'm kind of more of a leader," Jomby said. "I'm more mature. I'm maybe less crazy than I used to be."
As much credit as Kauffmann may deserve, he's sure to point out that it's taken a village - and buy-in on the part of Jomby himself - to make that growth happen.
"I think we have a good school," Kauffmann said. "I think our bosses are fair. I think they get on him when it's the right time to get on him. I think his teammates--it's not just me. Do I feel proud of him? Yeah, I feel proud of him. But I'm a perfectionist. I look for him to do even better."
If he does, Jomby and the Cats could have a season to remember.
"I don't know how many hard talks we had his freshman year," Kauffmann said. "Maybe 10. We had eight his sophomore year, we had five his junior year and I hope to only have zero or one (this season). If we can get to zero or just one, then he'll become one of the best players in the country."
On Wednesday, Matthew Mitchell joined the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Teleconference. With his Wildcats in the midst of a one-week layoff between games, Mitchell talked about the strength of the SEC, leadership and his work in mentally preparing his team. Here's a transcript.
Opening statement "Well, we came off an important win on Sunday against a really good Missouri team and we're happy to get that victory. We're just going to try to take advantage of our open date on Thursday, try to help us get better as a team and try to get prepared for what we know will be a tough game on the road at Auburn. Always a tough place to play. We're just trying to focus on practice every day and see what kind of team we can become."
On parity in the SEC ... "I just think it's very early, too early to tell what will happen. Most teams four games into it, it's hard to know what's going to happen. So a lot of big games ahead, but I thought going into the year the league was a very, very high-quality league. It always is and it's no different this year. So think we'll have some really tough, tested teams because of league play will advance to the NCAA Tournament and I think the SEC will really be a conference to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament."
On whether any players who have exceeded expectations this season ... "Well, we have gotten off to a really good start if you look at it over 17 games and we've won some big games. I think, for us, what's always important is to have some balance and I've been so pleased with the team's performance. We've had a really, really good balance of people contributing on the team to victory and you never know from one night to the next exactly who's going to be the top scorer. We really try to focus more on our defense and our team play maybe more than we do someone's scoring. I don't know if there's any real surprises. I was very optimistic about our team going into the season and they've performed well so I couldn't really single out just one person."
On who has done a good job from a leadership standpoint ... "Well, I think that Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have both really worked hard, are excited to lead, have the courage to do that, really work on it and think about it. I think our seniors--always people look toward your senior class and I think that they have done a really good job working hard and setting good examples for the player. And then, you know, we've really tried to get the players that have been playing the point-guard position - Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill - to improve in that area. Just yesterday, I thought that Janee Thompson was really, really trying to focus in on being a good leader. So we believe in leadership development. We believe that you can develop those qualities and I think our team's worked really hard in that area."
On whether it has gotten easier to mentally prepare his team ... "You know, that is such an interesting part of being a teacher and a coach. And it's such a journey to try to figure out each and every year what works for a team and what works for players and players change from year to year. And so what I've found is if you ever start making assumptions and think that you've got it figured it out, that's where I've always gotten in trouble with that. I think it's so interesting from year to year how different that process is and trying to make sure players stay focused on what they need to do and you make look great on a Thursday and then you come back on a Sunday and you don't look that great and you just try to figure that out as a coach, how to get that consistency. And so I really admire the coaches who, over the years, are able to get consistent performances from their team year in and year out. For us, it just always goes back to the core tenets of our program. We're just always trying to develop our kids' character. We want kids of really high character. We want players that'll sacrifice for each other and we want players that'll work really hard to prepare and then players that are interested in our core principles: honesty, hard work, discipline. So we're always trying to mentally get them to a spot where they can embrace those things and I think that'll not only help our team this year, but it'll also help our players after they move on from Kentucky. So it is a very interesting part of being a teacher, is trying to keep people focused and on task and not looking too far in the future and maybe not holding on to mistakes made in past games. So it's a daily process, I think, as a teacher to try to make sure you're working hard in that are to help your players and students the best you can."
Julius Randle had 20 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 87-85 loss at Arkansas on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If ever there were a time for a young team to fall victim to finger-pointing, this was it.
Kentucky had just fallen in a fashion that will land the Wildcats on the unhappy end of what could be the play of the college basketball season. When Michael Qualls' thunderous put-back dunk went through the net, it undid 44:59.8 of tough road work and sent the Cats to a heartbreaking 87-85 defeat.
Fielding questions from reporters when he surely would have preferred to be on the team bus with his headphones on, James Young tried to take the blame for missing the box-out assignment of Rashad Madden's missed 3-pointer.
"It was just my fault," Young said. "I stopped playing at the last second. I thought it was just going to bounce off, the time was going to run out. I just stopped playing at the last second."
Answering a follow-up, Young started to say he never saw the athletic Qualls coming to make a play few could have. Julius Randle could have sat quietly and let his teammate fall on his sword. Instead, he interjected. The only fingers the Cats would be pointing on this late night in Fayetteville, Ark., would be at themselves.
"It's my fault," Randle said. "It's a team effort. That play is not what won the game. I saw the whole thing and I could have rebounded out of position too. If one person messes up, we've got to have each other's back. That's what we got to get to."
For all the work UK has to reach its still-vast potential, that simple exchange is proof the Cats are moving in the right direction.
So too was most of what happened on Tuesday.
Facing a hungry Arkansas (12-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) team desperate for win after back-to-back losses in front of its raucous home fans, the No. 13/12 Cats (12-4, 2-1 SEC) never wilted when they had every chance to do just that.
"I'm proud of my team that they didn't quit, they kept playing," John Calipari said.
In the first half, Arkansas seemed poised to take control following a bizarre exchange during which the Razorbacks made 4-of-4 free throws and UK missed 3 of 4 without a second running off the clock. Mardracus Wade then drilled a 3-pointer and Arkansas suddenly had a 37-28 lead.
But there was Young, scoring eight points in less than three minutes of a 10-0 run to put UK back in the lead. All told, Young scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the first half while Willie Cauley-Stein, Randle and Aaron Harrison battled foul trouble.
Randle returned with a vengeance in the second half.
He carried his team for long stretches, showing no signs of the cramps that have bothered him on multiple occasions this season even though he was playing in a game that featured 60 fouls between the two teams.
"Julius, it's why he gets cramps because he gets whacked so much," Calipari said. "It's hard. He's sumo wrestling and running. It's hard. It's a new sport. He'd be a gold medalist in that sport."
He had 12 points and eight rebounds in the second half and overtime to finish with 20 points and 14 boards, Randle's 10th double-double of his freshman season.
His tireless effort positioned UK for a heart-stopping finish. Arkansas' Alandise Harris converted an and-one when Willie Cauley-Stein fouled out on a block at the basket, giving the Razorbacks a 74-71 lead with less than 10 seconds to play.
After Coach Cal elected not to use a timeout, Young passed out of a double team to Andrew Harrison. Even though the freshman point guard had missed all seven of his field-goal attempts to that point, he calmly drained a 3-pointer to force overtime.
Following a back-and-forth start to the extra period, Arkansas once again surged ahead. Qualls drained a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left, meaning UK would once again need a 3 to tie.
Young's first attempt went long, but Alex Poythress, continuing his emergence with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks, made a crucial play.
"He made the effort play that saved the ball that got us the 3 at the end and tied up the game," Calipari said. "That was Alex. That wasn't anybody else."
Once UK secured the ball, Young came free for a second try at the top of the arc. He delivered, but the 9.6 seconds left on the clock proved to be too many and the Cats were left licking their wounds.
"It shook 'em, but it should," Calipari said when he was asked of the mood in the postgame locker room.
Shaken, maybe, but certainly not broken.
"It hurts a lot," Young said. "As everybody can see we're getting better as a team and that's what matters. We're getting closer. We're communicating a lot more and that's what I think helped us get into the overtime. We just got better as the game went on."
Coach Cal agrees.
"I hate losing, but I'm fine," Calipari said. "You know what? Those kids did not quit."
The third of three UK Basketball Yearbook covers will make its debut on Saturday at Kentucky's game against Tennessee. The cover features John Calipari's latest class of freshman big men: Marcus Lee, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Derek Willis.
John Calipari will lead Kentucky into a Tuesday matchup at Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After John Calipari was relatively positive following Kentucky's win at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats probably expected to hear more of the same sunny tune about the progress they had made when they reported to the Joe Craft Center on Sunday.
They were in for a surprise.
"Yesterday, I kind of hit them in the mouth," Calipari said. "I think they were all, like, stunned."
Yes, UK had won in Memorial Gymnasium, a venue that gives fits to the best of teams, but Coach Cal didn't see what he wanted in the final minutes. UK built a lead that grew to as many as 14 points, but Vandy battled back to make it interesting.
"You get a team down and you have a chance to put them away, you do," Calipari said. "And here's why you didn't. And we watched tape and talked about it."
In that film session, Calipari went around the room telling each player what they had done wrong ("And it was kind of like--slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap," Calipari said.) In the practice that followed, UK went 30 minutes longer than initially planned to address all those issues.
"You have to have a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose on each possession, and we don't always do it," Calipari said. "Guys will stop, and they're pointing to go guard their man who came off a screen, or stop playing and a guy back-cuts."
Calipari's go-to analogy for those lapses in focus is "letting go of the rope." That's inevitable with a team as young as UK and the way to counteract it is by committing fully to the cause.
"Someone comes in to take it, you worked too hard," Calipari said. " 'I invested too much. You're not taking this from me. You ain't takin' this from me. I don't care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn't matter. You're not taking it.' If you're invested."
The "Breakfast Club" that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist formed en route to UK's 2012 national title is the most famous example of that kind of off-the-floor work, but Brandon Knight showed similar dedication on his own. At Memphis, Coach Cal remembers Tyreke Evans establishing a second home at the gym.
"He slept in the practice facility," Calipari said. "We had a lounge that, he had a lounge chair that he put a pillow and a blanket, and two to three times a week, he slept in the practice facility."
He didn't take it to quite that extreme - largely because the players' dorm is mere steps away from the Joe Craft Center - but Derek Willis spent more than an hour alone after midnight on Monday morning shooting.
Willis got his first extended minutes in more than two months at Vandy, but the sharp-shooting freshman forward missed both of his 3-point attempts. He was otherwise solid, earning a high-five from his coach for feeding the post effectively, but wants to make sure he takes full advantage of his next opportunity.
"When you're in the gym a lot, it's like going to church for some people or like talking to a counselor maybe," Willis said. "It's just good to like think of stuff and see how you're doing. It's really good, peace of mind."
"Peace of mind" is not a phrase likely to be used often when talking about the Cats' next game.
No. 13/12 UK (12-3, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) will travel to Fayetteville, Ark., to face Arkansas (11-4, 0-2 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday (ESPNU). The Razorbacks rarely lose on their home floor in Bud Walton Arena and play a style similar to "40 Minutes of Hell" under Nolan Richardson disciple Mike Anderson.
"You have to have tough, strong-willed players," Calipari said. "Those guys will give themselves a chance to win. If you go in there with any kind of -- if you're timid in any way, they overrun you."
That's a good way to describe UK's visit to Arkansas last season, when the Cats committed 19 turnovers and fell victim to a second-half burst in a 73-60 defeat.
This season, Arkansas once again makes its living on defense with turnovers - forcing miscues on 24.9 percent of opponents' possessions, the sixth-best rate in the nation - but has taken a step forward on offense. The Razorbacks are 40th nationally in effective field-goal percentage at 53.5, an improvement of more than five percent from a season ago.
"They shoot the ball well," Calipari said. "They shoot it from the 3, they shoot the 2s well, and they shoot free throws at 70 percent. So it's not a game you can go down there and throw a bunch of clunkers up, because you're going to have a problem."
Arkansas is among the deepest teams in the country, as no Razorback is averaging more than 25.4 minutes and 12 average double-digit minutes. Sophomore Bobby Qualls leads four Razorbacks averaging double figures in scoring at 12.7 points per game.
"They just said it was a hostile environment," Dakari Johnson said when asked what his older teammates had told him of playing at Arkansas. "There's a lot of fans that's going to be hostile and the way they play, it's an up-and-down system so it's really going to be a good game."
No matter what, there's a good chance the game will come down to the wire. For that reason, Coach Cal wants the Cats judging themselves based on how they played, not the final score.
"You've got to get off this, 'Well, we won,' and get on this, 'Let's play at our best,' " Calipari said. "Now, what does that mean in the score? It may be a four-point win; it may be a 25-point win. But let's play at our best, and let's go out with that mentality."
With his team facing a quick turnaround following a win at Vanderbilt on Saturday, John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference on Monday. Read everything he had to say about UK's games against Arkansas and Tennessee, Julius Randle's cramping issues and Alex Poythress's evolution below, as well as relevant quotes from other league coaches.
On this week's games ... "Two hard games. Two teams that are playing well. Arkansas had Florida and Florida came back and beat them at the end. Tennessee, I watched some of the LSU game just 'cause I watched it on TV. I haven't really scouted them yet. LSU is a terrific team and they beat them really good. So you're talking about two tough tests for our team and I'm anxious to see, in a hostile environment, how we do and then against a really physical team how do we do."
On Julius Randle's cramping issues ... "Well, first of all I really believe he's gotta get to cramping in practice. He's gotta go that hard in practice. He's not cramping in practice, so that leads me to believe he's gotta step on the gas there. Second thing is, we probably gotta get him a quicker rotation so that he's in and out instead of staying on the floor seven, eight, nine minutes, ten minutes. Let him go three or four minutes, come out, go back in and play a little bit of a different rotation. But those are some things. Diet. We blood-tested him and all those things, but I believe, again, when you go at the pace he goes - because he puts out and he goes really, extremely hard - that your body says, 'Hey, man, slow down.' "
On whether he has had a player with this kind of issue ... "Not that I can remember, no."
On Randle's play ... "Well, he's played well but he always has three guys guarding him. I don't know if you were covering Arkansas when LSU had Shaq (O'Neal), where you just--everybody played him. And he's not Shaq, but that's how they're playing him. So you watch tape, when he catches it he literally has three guys on him. The guy guarding him and the two nearest guys crowd him. If it's driving they collapse all five. If it's in the post they're collapsing two guys on him and it's what he's doing. We're trying to get him to, if he feels a quick trap, get rid of it. But it's hard because he's working hard and they're taking a lot of his stuff away that way, but he's still rebounding the ball, he's still running the floor well, double-digit rebounds. You sometimes have to play the game as it comes."
On the sense of urgency Arkansas will have after starting 0-2 ... "They always play well against us. I mean, they always do. The games that I've coached against Arkansas, they play well. They're a terrific shooting team from the 3, from the 2, from the free-throw line. They're scrambling their defense, they're playing some 2-3 zone, they're still pressing and trapping and scrambling, sometimes trap, switch pick-and-rolls, doesn't matter who it is. They're playing. I think the Texas A&M game was a little bit of an anomaly, but what I saw on the Florida tape, they're a terrific team."
On Alex Poythress's declining shooting percentages having to do with his improved effort level ... "Possibly. But if you understand me as a coach, that stuff will all come in line. The other is, until they do that the rest of the stuff really doesn't matter. If you're not going to compete at a high level, if you're not going to have your mind and your body in the physical and mental shape it needs to be in to compete, I don't care if you make shots or not or make free throws. It doesn't really matter. You're not going to win. You're not going to be a winning player. He's now put himself in a position to be a winning player. I mean, the dunks that he had there was contact from his knee to his elbow on all those and he still dunked them. And so now, OK, gotta make free throws. You were a 70-percent free-throw shooter last year. I'm glad he took the jumper. In the first half, he was tentative. No question about it. In the second half, he played."
On whether the Tennessee game will be decided by physical play ... "That, and their guards are really active and long. Again, I watched about five minutes on the TV version, so it wasn't any tape, of LSU and they were dominating. I mean, they were truly dominating. Their guards shot the ball and got to the lane and their bigs did what they needed to go against a--I mean, Johnny O'Bryant's a really good player now. They are good. It's funny how this league is playing out. Georgia has played well. Texas A&M, and I may say that that Arkansas game was an anomaly, they come back and beat Tennessee on the road so maybe it wasn't. I don't know. But I'll tell you, you got teams right now, we're all trying to find ourselves, I think. And that includes the two teams we're playing this week. That includes us, absolutely includes us. We're all trying to figure out what are we and exactly how we have to play to give our teams a chance to win."
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson
On this week's matchups ... "It's certainly higher every one. Kentucky is coming to Bud Walton Arena, should be a great great atmosphere. Kentucky's a team, they're very talented, one of the more talented teams in the country and they're playing at a high level. Cal has those guys 2-0 in conference play, winning at home and winning on the road. So it's going to be definitely a challenge for our basketball team but it should be a great opportunity. They present problems with their size. Julius Randle right now is probably playing as good as anyone in our league, possibly in the country so we've got to somehow contain he and Willie Cauley on the boards. You have Young, James Young, a guy who is really putting the ball in the hole. It's a balanced team and of course the Harrison twins. They're a talented team that are playing at a high level right now."
On what impresses him and concerns him the most about Willie Cauley-Stein ... "Well number one, he plays the game unselfishly. I think he presents a problem. As you look at him each year, from last year to this year, he's so much more established. He's athletic, he can come out on the floor, he can run the floor like a deer. And he's got a great feel for the game. He's a good passer. So he presents a problem from you can throw it in there, he can make passes, he can come from the blindside to block shots or straight up. So he's a very versatile, big guy for a 7-footer."
On transition ... "Transition can be both ways, transition defense to transition offense. Obviously we would like the game to be up and down the floor and I'm sure they would love to play up and down the floor as well. ... We've got to certainly limit them in the open floor and see if we can get out in the open floor."
On importance of good shooting ... "I think it's very important if you look at the first two games we've played in conference play. We shot the ball pretty good throughout the year. The key is, you have to put the ball in the hole, obviously when we do that it gives us an opportunity to get into our defense and of course make the game a 94 foot game as opposed to a half court game which that goes in their favor with their size and with a guy like Julius Randle. He draws so much attention that now you've got to, you got a guy like James Young all he does is spot up and knock shots down. You got the Harrison twins, they can score in a variety of ways. You got Willie Cauley roaming on the glass. So when you talk about transition, defensive or offensive, it's going to be a big key in this game."
On pressure to pull players away from what they do in practice ... "We can't let them do what they want to do. Our defense is geared towards not letting teams do what they want to do and obviously they work on it each and every day. They're going to be good at what they do. We'll see if our defense is good enough to make them speed it up or disrupt what they want to do."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings
On whether this Kentucky team is more physical than the past teams ... "Gosh, I don't know. I would say one of the most physical Kentucky teams we've played, yes. This is my 15th year, so you'd have to forgive me for having a little amnesia. I can't remember all the way back to the first years that we played, so I don't (know). They've had some physical teams over the years, but this is certainly a physical edition of their team. But whether or not it's the most physical, I wouldn't really be able to say."
On Kentucky being more physical on the perimeter ... "Well, they're bigger. They're bigger on the perimeter, and I think that makes some of their drives more physical and things like that. They may not be as fast, they might not shoot as well as some of the other teams that they've had, but their guards are big and their wings are big. and they're physical when they take it to the basket. Yeah, they're physical in almost every spot on the floor and physical with size."
Men's basketball - The 14th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats opened SEC play by securing two wins this week. UK opened with an 85-63 victory over Mississippi State at home. - Kentucky was led by the play of freshman James Young who had career-highs in points (26), rebounds (10) and assists (5) to lead the Cats. - The Blue and White then traveled to Vanderbilt and came away with a 71-62 road victory. Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein sparked the Cats with a team-high 15 points. Cauley-Stein also contributed six rebounds and a pair of steals. - UK will remain on the road for a matchup with Arkansas on Tuesday, before hosting Tennessee in the squads' lone meeting of 2014 on Saturday.
Women's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 last week with a 68-59 loss at No. 10/11 South Carolina and an 80-69 win over Missouri at home. - In the USC game, junior center Azia Bishop recorded her third career and second double-double of the season with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Sophomore point guard Janee Thompson also added 12 points, 10 coming in the second half. - The Cats rebounded with a hard-fought win over Missouri at home, giving UK its 700th program victory. Junior guard Bria Goss shined in the win as she charted a team-high 20 points, a season-high tying eight rebounds, and took two charges giving her 21 for the season. The league's leading free-throw shooter was a was a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line and is now hitting .912 percent (52-of-57) from the charity stripe. Thompson followed with 16 points and a game-high six assists, while junior point guard Jennifer O'Neill and senior forward DeNesha Stallworth scored 11 points apiece. Walker followed with her 17th career double-double and sixth of the season with 10 points and 13 rebounds. She also recorded two of UK's six blocks, just one shy of the season high. Gymnastics - The No. 17 Kentucky gymnastics team defeated three teams to win the annual Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic event to open the 2014 season Friday night in Memorial Coliseum in front of 5,839 fans. UK (3-0, 0-0 SEC) scored a 195.000, ahead of No. 15 Penn State's 193.975. West Virginia placed third with a 193.700, while Ball State scored a 190.875. - UK senior Audrey Harrison won the all-around title with a 39.075 along with a win on beam with a 9.850. She joined redshirt junior Kayla Hartley with a meet-best 9.825 on floor. The Wildcats claimed the top scores on vault with a 48.600, beam with a 48.675 and floor with a 48.950. UK's uneven bars score of 48.775 was second to West Virginia's. - The Wildcats hit the road for the second week of the season when they travel to Knoxville, Tenn., for the Ozone Invite Jan. 18. UK will compete against No. 2 Alabama and No. 10 Nebraska in the neutral-site event at 8 p.m. ET. Kentucky's next home contest is Feb. 7 against No. 1 and defending national champion Florida.
Rifle - The Kentucky rifle team opened the spring season with a 4688-4623 win at No. 8 Ohio State. - Senior Emily Holsopple led Kentucky with an aggregate score of 1179, shooting a team-best 587 in smallbore and a 592 in air rifle. - Sophomore Connor Davis shot a team high in air rifle with a 593, the seventh time he has led the team in air rifle.
Swimming and diving - After over six weeks off from competition, the University of Kentucky swimming and diving team returned to action Saturday against Alabama and Arkansas. - Against the two Southeastern Conference foes, the Wildcats registered eight wins and 10 second place finishes. Christina Bechtel and Abby Myers, both juniors, along with Kelly Berger, a freshman, each recorded a win and runner-up finishes. Bechtel also helped a relay team to a second-place showing. - The Wildcats travel to in-state rival Louisville on Jan. 25 at 1 p.m. ET. The meet comes a week before UK's final home contest of the season, Feb. 1 against Cincinnati at the Lancaster Aquatics Center.
Tuesday, Jan. 14 Men's Basketball at Arkansas - 9 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 17 Men's Tennis vs. Dayton - 1 p.m. Men's Tennis vs. Eastern Kentucky - 5 p.m. Track & Field - Kentucky Invitational - 5 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 18 Track & Field - Kentucky Invitational - 9 a.m. Women's Tennis vs. Cincinnati - 10 a.m. Men's Basketball vs. Tennessee - 12 p.m. Women's Tennis vs. Ball State - 6 p.m. Women's Gymnastics vs. Alabama, Nebraska - 7 p.m. (Knoxville, Tenn.) Rifle vs. Murray State - All Day (West Point, N.Y.)
Sunday, Jan. 19 Men's Tennis at Duke - 1 p.m. (Cary, N.C.) Women's Basketball at Auburn - 2 p.m. Rifle at Army - All Day (West Point, N.Y.)
Bria Goss had 20 points and eight rebounds as UK ended a two-game losing streak with a win over Missouri on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
He wasn't about to admit it to his team, but Matthew Mitchell was nervous on Sunday afternoon.
UK was in the midst of a two-game losing streak and preparing for a matchup with a Missouri team coming off an impressive upset of No. 25 Georgia, so he wasn't sure what to expect.
To add to the uncertainty, a nagging leg injury bothered third-leading scorer Kastine Evans in two days of practice following UK's latest loss at South Carolina. On game day, Evans reported to her coach she would not be able to go at full speed and would therefore have to sit out.
In light of all that, Mitchell sensed the shorthanded Wildcats would need Bria Goss in a big way.
"Just with where our psyche was after the two losses and we were just not full speed and I just thought today we were going to have to play extremely well and extremely tough and I was talking to the coaches before the game and I just said, 'Bria Goss has to play today. We really need Bria Goss to have a big game,' " Mitchell said.
In every way imaginable, the junior guard delivered as the No. 9/10 Cats (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with an 80-69 defeat of Missouri (13-4, 2-2 SEC).
"That is a kid on a day where we needed a big effort and needed all hands on deck she was able to get it done on both ends of the court and that is a big-time, big-time game from Bria Goss," Mitchell said.
Goss's 20 points and eight rebounds stand out on the stat sheet, but her role in the victory began well before the opening tip. With Evans -- with whom she shares primary vocal leadership responsibilities -- unable to play, Goss spoke up.
"Before the game, I brought the team together and said, 'We're down another player, which means everybody has to step up,' " Goss said. "So that's really what I was going for. Not just me, but I knew my teammates were going to step up to the challenge as well."
Validating Mitchell's concern that the Cats were facing a deficit in confidence against the visiting Tigers, Missouri jumped out to a 24-16 lead when Bri Kulas hit an and-one layup with 7:32 left in the first half. When UK came to the bench for the ensuing under-eight media timeout, Mitchell challenged Goss's backcourt mate, Janee Thompson.
"Somebody at some point was going to have to stop worrying about being scared about losing the game and step up," Mitchell said. "I just tried to wake them up the best that I could and I thought from that point on just telling them to stop dragging around and feeling sorry for themselves and start making some plays."
After Kulas missed a free throw, Thompson calmly drilled a jumper from near the free-throw line, sparking an 11-0 run to give the Cats a lead they would never relinquish.
"In that timeout, he told us to let everything go, let it loose and play and just be confident," Thompson said. "Once he said that, I think that really picked me up and it gave the confidence to go in there with no fear and knock that shot down. We were just rolling from there."
But if not for Goss, UK may not have rolled to victory.
Kulas, Missouri's leading scorer, torched the Cats for 20 points and nine rebounds in the first half. She shot 7 of 12 from the field and Mitchell knew he needed to do something to slow the versatile post player.
The 5-foot-10 Goss switched onto Kulas, gladly accepting the assignment of shadowing the 6-1 forward.
"I evaluated what she was doing at the beginning in the first half and she's a great player, can score in a lot of ways and I was just honored to be able to guard her," Goss said.
Hounded by Goss for much of the final 20 minutes, Kulas scored just seven points on 2-of-6 shooting. With 2:22 left and UK leading by 10, Goss drew the second of two charges on Kulas. The foul was Kulas's fifth and all but sealed the outcome.
"The biggest thing that Bria did for us now was that she went on Kulas in the second half and really, really affected her and did a masterful job," Mitchell said.
Goss's work is the most important single reason why UK was able to get back on the right track.
"I think this was a huge win," Goss said. "Like I said, Missouri's a really good team and for us to come out the way we did and battle back and just get that confidence back and ease our way back into was really good for us."
Time will tell whether the win ends up deciding the SEC title race, but Mitchell believes Sunday was important regardless.
"Not from the standings or our long-term future, but just for our immediate psyche right now we needed to win," Mitchell said.
Andrew Harrison had 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists in UK's win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With the break between the fall and spring semesters nearing its end and Southeastern Conference play just getting started, John Calipari has to be easing off the throttle at "Camp Cal," right?
Not just yet.
Ahead of a trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday, Kentucky scrapped its normal routine of taking a day off after a game.
"We practiced the day after the Mississippi State game," Calipari said. "They came in and couldn't believe we practiced. What do you have to do? We only went an hour. And then when they got going, we went."
No. 14/16 UK (12-3, 2-0 SEC) parlayed that intense practice schedule into a 71-62 win in Memorial Coliseum. It was far from a work of art -- victories at Vandy (8-6, 0-2 SEC) rarely are -- as the Wildcats shot just 26 of 61 (42.6 percent) from the field, but UK's 41-28 rebounding edge and Willie Cauley-Stein's 15 points and six rebounds were enough.
"I told them, 'You prepared to win this game,' " Calipari said.
Kentucky's preparation took a somewhat unexpected turn this week in the wake of another slow start against Mississippi State. The Cats, with all their length and athleticism, would seem to be best-suited for a fast-paced game, but Calipari opted to forgo a focus on transition.
"Coach was just saying we start off real sluggish in the beginning so we're just going to start off by grinding it out instead of trying to fly up and down and let the game come to us and then start running, and that's what we did," Cauley-Stein said.
As is to be expected with a team as young as this one there were hiccups in executing that game plan, but the Cats overcame their penchant for stumbling out of the gates, took an early lead and held it from the 14:50 mark onward.
"I think we played really good as a team, and that's been one of the biggest things this year is, the word is we're not a good team and we've got selfish guys," Cauley-Stein said. "The last couple days in practice we've been getting closer, basketball wise as a team, and in the game it just showed that we really do got each other's back and we really do got good guys."
Never before has Andrew Harrison's importance to that been clearer.
The freshman point guard has had better scoring days -- he had 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting -- but he heeded Calipari's most important piece of coaching.
"What he did was what I was asking him to do," Calipari said. "Get rid of the ball. Get us running. When you get it back, attack. Do not hold the ball. Don't be a ball-stopper. No one in the country wants to play with a ball-stopper. You have a play to make, make it. If you don't, get rid of it. He did that today, he really did."
He had four assists and just one turnover, leading a UK offense that had just 10 giveaways all afternoon. Harrison added a career-high-tying eight rebounds as the Cats had 18 offensive rebounds to Vandy's five and a 15-5 edge in second-chance points.
Harrison, as Calipari point guards often are, has been a lightning rod for criticism for much of the season and made his share of mistakes, to be sure, but he is beginning to find a rhythm. In fact, Coach Cal is reminded of one of his former pupils when he watches Harrison: Tyreke Evans.
"Both of them had habits that you had to crack," Calipari said. "Both of them had a mentality of how to play the game that was kind of opposite of the way it needed to be."
That mentality is beginning to change.
"And now when you begin to see him thinking differently and playing a little different, you're seeing a guy with that kind of size, can make shots, can make free throws, is a good passer and handler, has great speed," Calipari said.
Harrison has never had a reputation as a burner, and neither did Evans. But as he gets a handle on the line between pushing in transition and grinding it out, his speed is coming to the surface, just as it did for Evans.
"Tyreke Evans, because he wouldn't run, when he really started running his grandmother came to a game and said, 'Coach, I didn't know he was that fast,' " Calipari said. "His grandmother, who had seen him run his whole life, never saw him run that fast. Well he just never did it. And Andrew's the same way. I mean, he's really fast. He's fast. Just doesn't run it that way all the time."
So, will Calipari let Harrison slow it down in practice as the Cats prepare for another tough road trip to Arkansas on Tuesday?
Not so much.
"Now we're going home, we're practicing an hour tomorrow and then we're going to practice an hour and a half before we leave to go to Arkansas," Calipari said.
All-around champion Audrey Harrison led UK to an Excite Night win on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With nerves rattling and his Kentucky gymnastics team still very much still a work in progress, Tim Garrison knew Excite Night wouldn't go perfectly.
Hosting the season's first meet, that was actually the point.
"What we wanted to see was fight, grit," Garrison said. "If they struggled to not let it affect them. And that's exactly what we saw tonight."
It was on display within the first few routines.
UK opened on vault and the second and third Wildcats up -- Kayla Hartley and Shelby Hilton -- posted scores of 9.400 and 9.600, respectively. But rather than let the early disappointment affect them, the Cats responded with solid routines by Shannon Mitchell, Kenzie Hedges and Holly Cunningham.
"They very easily could have put their heads down and given up on them," Garrison said. "They didn't. They took a step forward, pulled their chest up and performed well for the rest of the way."
With vault behind them, the No. 21 Cats went on to take down No. 15 Penn State (193.975), West Virginia (193.700) and Ball State (190.875) in Memorial Coliseum. The 5,839 fans in attendance loved every moment, from pre-meet festivities to the final routine on floor.
"It was electric," Garrison said. "It was a fun night. When one of our athletes would hit a landing, the whole place would just go crazy. That's what we want to bring back three weeks from now when we come back and compete here."
UK's final score initially came in at 194.900, but an inquiry into two different starting scores yielded an extra tenth of a point and gave the Cats a 195.000, as well as a psychological boost.
"It makes a big difference hearing 194, even if it's a 194.9, to a 195 because we wanted to at least get a 195,"Audrey Harrison said. "It wasn't our best at all, but it's definitely good start."
Harrison won her 12th-career all-around title on Friday with a 39.075, turning in a performance representative of her team's. She was disappointed in her bar routine after she scored a 9.700, but was undeterred. She followed it up with a 9.850 on beam and a 9.825 on floor, her two best scores of the night.
"Tim was telling us at the end and all throughout that he liked the fight because we didn't give away anything," Harrison said. "Someone could have fallen but they didn't and they saved it. We saw that on each event where people were trying not to give away anything to get the highest score possible."
Though Harrison was in a familiar role as UK's top all-arounder, many of her teammates found themselves in new positions.
Hilton competed in all-around for the first time as a Wildcat, scoring a 38.700. She will surely post higher scores as the season goes on, but Garrison called her effort "special" nonetheless. Mitchell, meanwhile, had a 9.725 in her first vault routine and true freshman Montana Whittle a 9.775 on bars, her first college routine.
"It's just a good experience," Harrison said. "We had a lot of new people out there tonight, so having this meet under their belt's going to help. We're just to take that excitement, keep the fight and then just give away even less next time."
Throughout the offseason, Garrison has said he wants consistency to be the hallmark of his team. In terms of technique, the Cats aren't there yet. But as they prepare for arguably the nation's toughest schedule, their approach is looking good.
"We were consistent because we were consistently fighting," Garrison said. "We didn't hit everything. It was definitely not a flawless night, but it was a night where we were able to come back from subtle mistakes that were made and make a good show of it."
Dominique Hawkins has played at least 15 minutes in five straight games, including a career-high 23 in a win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein knew all about his soon-to-be teammates when he elected to return for his sophomore season.
He was aware of the hype surrounding Kentucky's top-ranked 2013 recruiting class and his hope was to compete for a national championship with the newest batch of Wildcats. There was, however, one incoming freshman completely unknown to Cauley-Stein.
Dominique Hawkins was the final member of John Calipari's signing class, parlaying a Sweet Sixteen performance for the ages on his future home floor into a scholarship offer into a scholarship offer. He was a decorated player, to be sure, but lacked the five-star billing of Julius Randle or the Harrison twins.
Nearly halfway through his first season at UK Hawkins still isn't a household name, but his teammates certainly know who he is.
"I honestly couldn't tell you what he looked like, what his last name was coming in," Cauley-Stein said. "But he can hoop. I love him to death too. He's a great guy and he can hoop."
He has proven his ability to his coach as well, playing his way into a regular role even though Hawkins himself expected it to take longer for that to happen. With No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) set for a matchup at Vanderbilt (8-5, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET, Hawkins has played double-digit minutes in five straight games and 10 of 11 overall.
His unselfishness and energy have made him indispensable, particularly on the defensive end, and a fan favorite. UK's home crowd has so taken to Hawkins that pleas of "Shoooot!" often fill Rupp Arena when he touches the ball and is open. It's a strange feeling for Hawkins, because he never needed to be told to shoot before he came to college.
"It feels like a big echo of somebody telling me to shoot," Hawkins said. "It's pretty crazy because I never had that before because in high school I always shot the ball. If I was open I was definitely shooting it."
Hawkins averaged more than 20 points a game during his senior season at Madison Central High School, but his scoring is not the reason why he's now in the rotation as a college freshman. With so much talent surrounding him, opponents have begun sagging off Hawkins, essentially daring the 6-foot guard to shoot.
That's exactly what Mississippi State did on Wednesday and the crowd reacted by imploring Hawkins to pull the trigger. In fact, his teammates may have even joined the chorus a time or two.
"I probably was one of them yelling," Cauley-Stein said. "To be honest, I was probably one of them yelling for it."
Hawkins, for the most part, resisted the urge to heed those calls.
"I kind of wanted to shoot it because I knew I was open, but I just let it go on the side and kept on running the offense," Hawkins said.
In the first eight minutes against the Bulldogs UK launched seven 3-pointers, falling behind 18-8 in the process. The Cats lost sight of their strength inside, so Hawkins decided to pass up his open looks outside. From that point forward, UK outscored Mississippi State 77-55 en route to an 85-63 victory.
Nonetheless, his teammates want Hawkins taking his open look.
"Personally, I think he should have shot way more," Cauley-Stein said. "If they're going to sag off of you, you may as well shoot it and let us rebound it if you're worried about missing."
Over his last five games, Hawkins is shooting just 1 for 12 from the field, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range. He is shooting 30.8 percent from the field for the season and knows it's something he needs to work on.
"I think it's kind of a process kind of deal right now because I've been shooting a lot of shots lately and most of them haven't been falling for me, so I got to get my confidence more up and get in the gym and shoot more," Hawkins said.
Though his shooting is a work in progress, it hasn't affected the rest of his game. No matter whether Hawkins is hitting his shots, missing them or not even taking them, he always brings intensity.
"None of this affects Dominique, I don't know how many people were here, the 23,000, it doesn't affect him," assistant coach John Robic said after the Mississippi State game. "But he just -- he does what we ask him to do."
What the coaches ask Hawkins to do is play defense and lift the energy of his teammates, both in games and practices. On that front, he's shooting 100 percent.
Take one practice last week for example.
With the Cats trying to get through a seemingly interminable stretch of practices during "Camp Cal," Hawkins cut back door in a scrimmage and Aaron Harrison bounced a pass to him. In one motion, he caught the ball and rose up for a dunk on Marcus Lee that Coach Cal posted on his website and social media.
"I didn't even think I was going to dunk when I went up," Hawkins said. "I thought I was just going to lay it up. I guess my body wanted me to dunk it or something because I wasn't thinking about dunking it all."
The scene that followed says everything you need to know about Hawkins' role on the team and his relationship with teammates. Calipari blew the whistle to stop the scrimmage and the Cats mobbed Hawkins in celebration.
"That saved practice for me, to be honest," Cauley-Stein said. "It got me a little extra juiced to finish out one of Coach's practices and it was a fun and hyped moment for everybody."
A couple dunks like that in games and everyone will know Dominique Hawkins.
For more than nine months, the No. 21 Kentucky gymnastics team has thought about this moment.
After UK's record-setting 2013 season ended with a program-best score in the NCAA Regionals, Tim Garrison and the Wildcats immediately set their sights on their 2014 debut.
At Friday's annual Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic, the long wait ends.
"It's the first meet of the year and we're obviously very excited about the opportunity to get out here and compete," head coach Tim Garrison said. "We have been training, going on four months now, so the girls are kind of chomping at the bit to get going."
Garrison has been pleased with his gymnasts' approach throughout the offseason, including at UK's Blue/White Meet last month. There, the Cats got a flavor for what meets will be like. Some athletes proved to themselves they were ready for the big stage; others learned they had some fine-tuning to do.
With No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State set to offer UK its first live competition of the season at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, Garrison expects the Cats to step up.
"I think we have some competitors on this team that are excited about the work, but are more excited about the competition," Garrison said. "Once you get on the competitive floor, most of the time they are going to bring their game to a different level and that's what I am looking for out of this group."
Garrison will also be looking for consistency. With the Cats still building toward routines with a higher degree of difficulty through training and recruiting, he knows success will come from steadiness.
He wants that to be just one part of his team's identity.
"I want them to be an excited group," Garrison said. "I want them to be a tough group. I want them to be fighters. I want them to be scrappy. I want them to come out of the meet tomorrow knowing if something happens or there is a slip-up here or there, that the next five will take care of it and make their routines."
It's Garrison's hope that that resilience is so plain to see that the big crowd there for Excite Night festivities will leave Memorial thinking about it.
"That is another thing that I asked the athletes to do is develop an identity, but not only for themselves, but for the fan base," Garrison said. "I want them to be excited, even if someone has a slip-up here and there. I want that fan to come back because they saw that athlete and how they reacted after and anticipation for the next time knowing they are going to hit it."
The athletes hitting those routines for UK will be familiar to fans.
Audrey Harrison -- who led the Southeastern Conference in all-around titles a season ago -- will once again anchor the lineup as a senior. Redshirt junior and All-SEC performer Kayla Hartley will likely compete on vault, bars and floor, where she will serve as UK's anchor.
Returners Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski, Shelby Hilton, Tiara Phipps, Marissa Beucler, Kenzie Hedges and Shannon Mitchell will all play a part as well, but it's not yet clear how UK's lineup will look. That will make Friday a learning experience for everyone, from athletes to coaches.
"Even though we have a lot of returners from last year's team, we are still playing around with some lineups and changing things around and will be very fluid even through the warm-up tomorrow," Garrison said. "We're going to learn a lot and they are going to learn a lot and it will make us better in the following weekend."
For that reason, Garrison won't measure his team's success this season until much later.
He hopes to settle on a lineup sometime around Sara Shipley's anticipated return from injury in late February or early March. Since UK is facing what many believe to be the nation's toughest schedule, some bumps in the road are surely in store for the Cats because of that.
"Trust me; I want to win worse than anything," Garrison said. "I don't like losing. It is not my makeup. But, at the same time, we are competing against tough competition and we are getting better every weekend and are really building this team for the future."
Whenever Garrison refers to the future, his meaning is twofold.
First, he's looking to lift his current team to its fullest potential. That was proven by the Cats posting their highest-ever Regional Qualifying Score in 2013, as well as setting a record with a 196.775 against the same Penn State team that will compete in Memorial on Friday.
But second, Garrison's goal of making Kentucky a perennial power on both the SEC and national scenes is never far from his mind.
"Part of this group right here is going to be there when I think that comes to fruition, so we want to go against tough competition every weekend," Garrison said.
Dakari Johnson scored eight points in UK's 85-63 SEC-opening win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari had plenty to talk about in the locker room with his team down 40-37 at halftime to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs' 10 fast-break points surely came up, as did Kentucky's 14 3-point attempts. He talked about carrying over the camaraderie the team had built during "Camp Cal" through better communication, as well as taking better care of the basketball.
But there was another message, delivered to a specific player, likely unanticipated by most.
"Before the second half started, Coach Cal told me he was going to put me in and just to post up and try to make moves because they were playing, I think, a 1-3-1 zone or a 2-3 zone so there were a lot of openings," Dakari Johnson said.
Johnson had played all of one minute in the first half, registering only a personal foul on the stat sheet, but Coach Cal sensed opportunity for the 7-foot, 265-pound freshman.
So barely two minutes after the break, Johnson came in for Willie Cauley-Stein. On three successive possessions, he scored, first on an impressive back-to-the-basket move. For an encore, he ran the floor and finished an Alex Poythress lob with a layup in transition. To cap it off, he grabbed a missed James Young 3-pointer, waited for traffic to clear and laid the ball in with some nice footwork.
The exchange turned a tie game into a 57-51 lead that No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) would continue to build on in an 85-63 win over the visiting Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1 SEC). When it ended, Johnson realized he needed a break.
"I was pretty tired," Johnson said. "It was a big momentum swing. I asked to get taken out of the game. I was kind of out of breath."
The breather was well-deserved for Johnson, who finished with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting.
"We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half, but we were getting pushed off the block when we didn't have to be pushed off the block," said assistant John Robic, filling in for Coach Cal at the postgame press conference. "The person that did the best job was Dakari. He got the ball tight. He got it with two hands and was forceful once he caught the ball."
This season, Johnson hasn't always had opportunities to show the talent that made him a five-star prospect. With Willie Cauley-Stein playing the best basketball of his career, Johnson has played double-digit minutes just twice in the last six weeks.
"It's been tough," Johnson said. "I'm so used to playing all the time, but it's been humbling. Just listening to (Calipari) during practice, just getting better each and every day, that's the main thing, to be ready for a game like this."
Thanks to that patient approach, Johnson was ready when his number was called in UK's SEC opener.
"Dakari played huge," said Alex Poythress, who had five thunderous dunks en route to a season-high 12 points. "He's great on defense and on offense. He's been doing it in practice, he's a big body. Just bury him under the rim and just score."
With Julius Randle facing double and triple teams on every touch, Johnson is UK's best option to score with his back to the basket. His ability in the post is what made him such a coveted prospect, and Wednesday served as a reminder.
"That was a big game for him and his confidence, and it's a big game for our team having a 7-foot, 265-pound player in the middle," Robic said.
The dimension Johnson adds on the offensive end has never been in question, but Johnson has struggled to carve out a more significant role because of defense.
With so many of UK's nonconference opponents playing smaller, quicker lineups, Johnson often hasn't had a natural matchup. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has the quickness to guard all five positions, allowing Calipari to implement a switch-everything defense.
Johnson knows what he has to do to overcome that.
"A lot of teams are going to be putting me in pick-and-rolls," Johnson said. "(Coach) said I've been doing a better job on that, so that's the main thing I'm focusing on."
With future SEC opponents featuring more traditional post players, he figures to have more chances to showcase his skills regardless. Johnson, however, is going to stick with the patient approach that yielded his game-changing second-half stretch.
"That's up to Coach Cal," Johnson said when asked about his role. "He's going to put the team in the best position to win the game, so whatever he thinks is fine."
I'll confess to not watching much college football in years gone, but out of interest last year I started studying some defensive players. One of those was Sheldon Richardson and it was impressive to watch the Missouri defensive linemen. Except in one game where one particular right guard continually got the better of him. That man would end up the Lions third round pick, a second team All-Pro selection for us and our Offensive Rookie of the Year.
It's not the flashiest of picks. He didn't rumble into the end zone for touchdowns or make leaps at the goal lines to pick up scores. He doesn't play for a playoff team and you don't see him getting a lot of talk in review programs or during the actual game. Yet what Warford has done is look like an NFL player since Day 1. Of every guard in the league who we graded on every single play, Warford would finish fourth out of all of them. Positives in every area with no sacks allowed in pass protection and just four penalties called on him all year. While others experienced peaks and valleys, Warford was a model of consistency, grading out positively in all but three games.
On the subject of PFF's grades, Warford had a rookie season for the history books. He posted a total grade for the year of plus-22.8, the highest of any guard graded by PFF ... and by a wide margin. Mike Iupati -- a 2012 All-Pro selection for the San Francisco 49ers -- had the previous high grade of 14.8 in 2010.
UK will travel to No. 10/11 South Carolina for a game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's common to hear coaches refer to road games as business trips, not vacations.
Matthew Mitchell has a different spin on the old cliche when it comes to UK Hoops' game at South Carolina on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
"Well, we are scheduled for our annual visit to the dentist's office," Mitchell said. "Our yearly root canal over in Columbia."
Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek analogy is no comment on the venue or the university. All he's saying is the No. 10/11 Gamecocks (14-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference)) are going to make life as miserable as possible for the No. 9/10 Wildcats (13-2, 1-1 SEC).
Dawn Staley's team, per usual, is among the best defensive squads you'll find. South Carolina is third nationally in scoring defense at 49.7 points per game, allowing opponents to hit a paltry 33.4 percent from the field.
"It is a real challenge to play over there," Mitchell said. "They have a really good program and always play really hard and it is always a tough, tough battle for us."
The last five games between South Carolina and Kentucky have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Cats have won three of those games, but lost a physical 55-50 battle a season ago in Columbia, S.C.
"They are obviously our permanent rival so we go to Columbia every year and it is always a really tough game," Mitchell said. "It is probably one of the best teams that Coach Staley has had. It is very impressive to watch them and how hard they play."
Unpleasant as it may be, facing South Carolina may be exactly what the doctor -- or perhaps more appropriately, the dentist -- ordered for Kentucky.
The Cats are coming off a home loss to Florida that left Mitchell disappointed by his team's intensity and focus. Taking on a team that succeeds because of those two things, Kentucky won't have any choice but to respond.
"It'll have our players' attention - certainly needs to have our players' attention - and the key to this game is being able to hustle and stay really tough mentally, emotionally, physically and rely on your fundamentals because they will really, really play hard and really play tough," Mitchell said.
DeNesha Stallworth remembers playing at South Carolina a season ago. The way the Cats built a second-half lead only to watch it vanish after they managed to score just 10 points in the final 11:37. Returning to the scene of their first SEC defeat of a season ago, UK will be able to gauge its progress following this year's first conference loss.
"I think it just tests us and see where we were are mentally," DeNesha Stallworth said. "I think we're on the right track right now and we're doing the right things."
Stallworth credits that, at least in part, to a players-only meeting and workout that immediately followed that loss to Florida on Sunday. Unhappy with what had just transpired, UK's veterans decided to do something.
"I think it definitely was a wake-up call," said Stallworth, a senior. "I think it was just something that needed to be done and everybody has stepped up so much in practice."
UK has benefited in practice from Stallworth's return. On Sunday, she played for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December. After knocking the rust off in seven solid minutes, Stallworth has experienced no swelling and only minimal pain.
"She practiced really hard (Tuesday), made all the plays, did all the defensive fundamentals, all of our defensive footwork," Mitchell said. "So I think we will see her round into shape, however many games that takes her to get back."
She probably won't regain her All-SEC form on Thursday, but any contributions she can offer will be welcome against a big, physical South Carolina front line.
"It'll be a tough game Thursday," Mitchell said. "They are extremely big in the post and extremely physical and your physical conditioning will be a factor in this game. So still, we'll practice hard every day with her and we'll let her play as hard as she can play."
Whether Stallworth is a major factor or not, Mitchell knows what will decide the outcome.
"The key: Can we keep that strength about us and can we really hustle and try to outhustle South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "I think that's going to be such a key because I don't think there's really any secrets between the two programs. We play twice (each season) and the team that plays harder usually wins."
Women's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 on the week with an 85-63 SEC-opening win at Alabama followed by a loss to Florida at home. - Against the Tide, four Wildcats scored in double figures led by Jennifer O'Neill with 17 points off the bench. Azia Bishop looked impressive in her fourth starting assignment of the season, charting a season-high 16 points to go along with eight rebounds and two blocks. Kastine Evans followed with a season-high tying 15 points and Samarie Walker notched her fourth double-double of the season with 12 points and game-high 13 rebounds. - The Cats returned home only to struggle offensively against Florida on Sunday, shooting just 35.2 percent (25-of-71) from the field and 56.7 percent (17-of-30) from the free-throw line in the 83-73 loss. It marked UK's second-lowest field goal percentage of the season and the loss snapped UK's nine-game home winning streak and its six-game winning streak vs. the Gators. O'Neill once again led the Cats in scoring with 15 points. Walker posted her second straight double-double with 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. - UK will travel to South Carolina on Thursday before playing host to Missouri on Sunday.
Swimming and diving - The Kentucky diving team competed at the Georgia Diving Invitational, Jan. 3-5 in Athens, Ga. Seniors John Fox and Greg Ferrucci, along with junior Lindsay Keahey advanced to the finals and finished in the top 12 on each event at the three-day, 14-team competition. - Fox placed eighth on the 3-meter and ninth on the 1-meter and platform, while Keahey finished seventh on platform and 12th in the 1- and 3-meter finals. Ferrucci tallied UK's highest finish with a fifth-place showing on platform after finishing 10th on the 1-meter and 12th on the 3-meter. - UK swimming and diving returns to action on Jan. 11 against Alabama and Arkansas in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Wednesday, Jan. 8 Men's Basketball vs. Mississippi State - 8 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 9 Women's Basketball at South Carolina - 7 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 10 Gymnastics hosts Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic vs. Penn State, West Virginia & Ball State - 7 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 11 Swimming and Diving at Alabama, Arkansas - 11 a.m. Men's Basketball at Vanderbilt - 3:30 p.m. Rifle at Ohio State - All Day
Sunday, Jan. 12 Women's Basketball vs. Missouri - 5 p.m.
UK will open SEC play against Mississippi State on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Since they live together, practice together and work out together, it would seem a natural thing that basketball teammates would bond quickly with one another.
Not so, says John Calipari.
You see, for all the Wildcats share, they each still lead their own lives during the school year.
"When you're (in classes), everybody has their own schedule," Calipari said. "They all do. And so it's hard to say - they get up for breakfast, they really don't want to look at each other and go to class at 8."
But in Coach Cal's experience, that changes during the break between fall and spring semesters.
With academic responsibilities eased, the Cats have been on the same clock for more than two weeks now. They wake up together, eat together, practice together and spend nearly every waking hour in one other's presence.
"Every team I've coached has come together," Calipari said of the time known as "Camp Cal."
Coach Cal's latest team has noticed that process at work, partially due to the fact that the Cats' classmates are almost all out of town for the holidays.
"We just started to talk more," Andrew Harrison said. "We really had no choice. We really had no one to talk to besides each other."
Though it's been out of necessity, the Cats have enjoyed that time. They are also seeing the results.
"It has definitely been really important," Aaron Harrison said. "We all got to know each other going out to eat every night and spending a lot more time together. It definitely helped us off the court."
With a nearly two-week hiatus between games finally almost at an end, it's nearly time to find out what that means between the lines.
"Now, I don't know what that means on the basketball court, but I do know they know each other better, they have a better feeling for each other," Calipari said. "And it starts there, in my mind."
There's no way to quantify exactly what chemistry off the court means on it, but Calipari does know two areas he'll be watching when the No. 14/16 Cats (10-3) host Mississippi State (10-3) on Wednesday in Rupp Arena (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network) in both team's Southeastern Conference opener.
"Hopefully defensively we just ratchet it up a little bit," Calipari said. "Hopefully we're gonna hold the ball less."
The latter of those two hopes has become somewhat of a theme for UK. His mind always churning, Coach Cal has come up with one of his signature messages to hammer the point home.
"When you have the ball, you're a passer," Calipari said. "When you don't have the ball, think score. In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No. When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."
Strange as that may sound, the Cats are getting the message.
"It's weird, but we definitely understand where he's coming from and what he means by it, just being ready and try to move to the open spot when you don't have the ball," Andrew Harrison said.
"Actually, that makes a lot of sense," Aaron Harrison said. "It helps everyone be prepared to shoot and be prepared to play and score."
For those that don't yet understand it, a stretch in a recent practice served to illustrate the point.
Andrew Harrison, accustomed to creating with the ball in his hands as a point guard, has struggled at times when his teammates have the ball, standing straight up and down rather than being in a ready position. But for a few possessions in one of a seemingly endless string of practices, it seemed to click.
"He went down, and we threw him the ball," Calipari said. "It was basket, dunk, assist, basket, four straight times, when he didn't have it, it came to him and he just blew by them. We're just like, we're looking around like 'Wow, maybe he got it.' "
Not quite yet. Moments later, he reverted to the way he had done things for the first 18 years of his basketball life.
"Their basketball habits are bad," Calipari said. "Their response to situations: bad. But they're great kids. I mean, these kids--we have not an issue of anything. I mean anything. But their basketball habits stink. They're just the worst. I'm telling you. But they're changing. I'm seeing it right before my eyes. If we can get them where we need to have it, it's on. Right now, it's still, 'Let's see it in games now.' "
The first chance will come on Wednesday, but it won't be the last.
"We're just saying, 'OK, let's see what steps we've taken,' " Calipari said. "And not playing, we may be rusty."
The Cats' game against Mississippi State will be their first in 11 days and second in 19 and the Bulldogs will be out to make UK look as rusty as possible.
Coach Cal compared Mississippi State's defensive approach to Boise State in that the Bulldogs will pack the interior and challenge UK to hit outside shots. In Rick Ray's second season, MSU has already matched its win total from a year ago, scoring 14.1 more points per possession in the process.
"They're gonna fly up and down, run high-low offense or run some back screens to down screens," Calipari said. "They do some really good stuff and they play good as a team. So it's a challenge for us."
As you would expect, Calipari will be watching the way his team responds to the challenge more closely than the scoreboard.
"It's what we need right now, to have a team come in here that's going to run their stuff and play a different kind of defense to see where we are," Calipari said.
Kentucky will play for the first time in 11 days on Wednesday against Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's talent has never been in question, but John Calipari didn't know exactly how much work the Wildcats had ahead of them until they took the floor.
Through UK's nonconference schedule, the talent was on display. There were moments of brilliance, but also those that reminded Coach Cal of a simple fact.
"This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams," Calipari said. "This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other teams that I've had. They're great kids now; they just have bad basketball habits."
The Cats, for all their athleticism and skill, had understandably grown accustomed to dominating without the kind of consistency that was being demanded of them at the college level. Their individual gifts had always allowed them to succeed, carrying their teams in the process.
In defeats against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, that didn't work. Though UK was in position to win each time, the Cats couldn't come together and execute well enough in the final minutes. Those bad habits doomed them.
That's where Camp Cal came in.
With classes out of session for the holiday break, it's been all basketball all the time for Kentucky. The Cats have practiced twice most days, spending the remaining time together at meals or team outings.
With a week-and-a-half window between games, the Cats haven't even had an opponent to worry about. Coach Cal has used that time to zero in on the things he believes will lift his team to its potential.
"There were four areas on defense, there were four areas on offense and we scrimmaged about every day for about an hour and a half and it was nonstop, up and down the court trying to get them to stretch them out, mental toughness and get them to execute both on offense, to create good shots for each other, and on defense, to make it tough on the other team for the entire shot clock," Calipari said.
For example, Calipari has emphasized a somewhat counterintuitive offensive concept with his team.
Instead of thinking about scoring when players have the ball in their hands, Coach Cal wants them thinking pass first. The time for thinking about scoring is when a teammate has the ball.
"In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No," Calipari said. "When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."
UK took a step in the right direction on that front its last outing.
Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle for most of the second half, the Cats did what they couldn't in previous matchups with ranked opponents and finished off rival Louisville for a much-needed resume-building victory.
"Well, the thing that happened in that game, again, we played as a team better," Calipari said.
Since then, UK has gone to work building on that momentum and correcting some of the issues (free-throw shooting and careless turnovers, to name a couple) that led to the Cardinals still having an opportunity to win.
As much as fans might like to see the Cats take the floor again to see if that improvement will stick, this schedule lull was not an accident.
"We like to have a little more time and when the league moved the schedule back it was perfect for us," Calipari said. "We're going to see how this plays out. Maybe it helps us. Maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out."
Only time will tell, and the first returns come on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET vs Mississippi State.
"I will tell you that the players are ready to play," Calipari said. "Oh my gosh. They see me coming and their head goes down. They want to start playing games."
With Southeastern Conference play set to start this week, coaches participated in the league's first teleconference on Monday. With UK's long break between games, it's been a while since we last hear from John Calipari, so here's everything he had say, as well as a few quotes from Rick Ray. His Mississippi State team will come to Rupp Arena for a game at 8 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. Coach Cal
On entering league play ... "When you start league play, you're seeing across the country, the high-flying teams, all of a sudden they're scoring 60. Everybody knows each other a little bit better, and if you're going to foul, they're going to call it, so you've got to play a little straighter up. You can't just go put your hands on people and check people. The game's being called different, yet we know each other. The challenges that you had in nonconference just get raised. The bar is raised. Conference play brings out a little more excitement and a little more of a fight between both teams."
On what practice has been like this last week without any games ... "This team really needed this, what we've just gone through. We went from Christmas night to two-a-days just about every day. Played Louisville and come back and practiced the next day and go two-a-days for a bunch of days, but they needed it. It wasn't just the basketball; it's stretching them out mentally, getting to be together at breakfast, at dinners, practices, meetings, films and just bringing them closer. This was a big time. Now, we'll see how it carries over on to the court. You don't know, but they have really responded pretty good. They know, hey, we lost three games, but with three minutes to go in every game we're down one. We didn't know how to play. Did not know how to finish games. Did not know how to do it together. Didn't know how to be a team. Didn't know how to huddle. Didn't know to talk to one another. And we're getting closer to where we want to be, but we're not there yet."
On what he sees from Mississippi State's Craig Sword this season ... "I'm going to be honest with you, I'm just starting to watch the tape of Mississippi State, and not out of disrespect. It's just I'm so focused on getting my team right that, I told our staff, I won't start watching tape until Monday, which I've begun watching this morning. And what I'm seeing is a team that is playing off of one another well, a team that is a execution team, defensively a team that doesn't stretch it out all over the court unless they're in their 1-3-1, that's going to give you a tough shot, that's going to guard you from the 3-point line and in. They're not trying to give up layups. They're doing a great job. That's why they're 10-3. It's what we need right now, to have a team come in here that's going to run their stuff and play a different kind of defense to see where we are."
On whether closing out the U of L game can be a boost ... "Well, the thing that happened in that game, again, we played as a team better. Now, we still had breakdowns and we gave them a chance to come back and win a game that they should not have had a chance to win. It was based on what we did. But what you have is a team that's trying to figure out how we do this together. And at the end of that game, we executed down the stretch and guys made plays. Andrew (Harrison) made plays, Aaron (Harrison) made plays, Alex (Poythress) played awesome the second half and all of a sudden now we're grinding it, making extra passes and then making a play at the basket, which is how we've played historically here. It just takes time. This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams. This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other teams that I've had. They're great kids now; they just have bad basketball habits. And trying to understand, get them to define how we have to play together and how individuals have to be responsible for each other and to each other has been the challenge and that's why this little break we've had--we're really able to zero in on those four or five areas. That's all we did. There were four areas on defense, there were four areas on offense and we scrimmaged about every day for about an hour and a half and it was nonstop, up and down the court trying to get them to stretch them out, mental toughness and get them to execute both on offense, to create good shots for each other, and on defense, to make it tough on the other team for the entire shot clock. One of the things we talked to them about: When you have the ball, you're a passer. When you don't have the ball, think score. In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No. When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack. You know what's open when you catch that ball to score or make a scoring play and that's the total difference of how they played. So this has been a challenge."
On whether the break was planned ... "We like to have a little more time and when the league moved the schedule back it was perfect for us. We're going to see how this plays out. Maybe it helps us. Maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out. But we're going to see if this break helped us to see what we'll do a year from now. I will tell you that the players are ready to play. Oh my gosh. They see me coming and their head goes down. They want to start playing games. But for me, you have to--I'm even doing this: I'm putting the whistle down and making them continue to play for seven, eight trips up and down, which I normally don't do because I can't stand to see error. I need to let them know that's not right and I also need to let them know that is right. But now I've just put the whistle down, which they always get mad, I blow the whistle too much. Now they're saying, 'Coach, pick up the whistle,' because I stop them. Now they're just--it's up and down, up and down, up and down. It doesn't mean you're playing fast; it means you're not stopping. That's what makes it tough for them in the last 10 days, 12 days."
On whether he's confident his team can play the way it did in the second half against Louisville with Julius Randle on the floor ... "Here's the one thing I want to tell you: We've had games where Andrew wasn't getting it done, had no pressure on the ball, wasn't in the emotional state. We go to somebody else and we play better. So he's done. Now when you see him, hopefully you're seeing a different player. We've also won with Aaron on the bench. James Young against Belmont was in Detroit before the game started, so we won without him. Now we've won without Julius. Now the question is, can Dakari (Johnson) or Marcus (Lee) give us enough that we can win without Willie (Cauley-Stein)? Now what's important about that is those guys know if you don't come to play and compete and battle or you're not quite ready, you're out and we'll win without you. That is very important for a team to know and I've made it a point to let them know that, whether it's Julius or Andrew or Aaron or James, we have enough. When you talk about the way Dominique (Hawkins) is playing, the way Alex is playing, if Dakari will give us more and Marcus Lee give us more and the way Jarrod goes in and helps our team. The one guy that I gotta get in games and I gotta get him started a little bit is Derek Willis because he's really been doing good in practice. He and Marcus Lee are the two that we gotta keep engaged because I really think before it's all said and done they're going to help us win games."
Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray
On the start of SEC play ... "Excited to get ready for SEC play. I think we've had a successful nonconference slate. The fact that we were able to get to 10 wins as a team already when we didn't get to 10 wins until March of last season I think speaks well of the progress this team is making. But now we get a chance to test ourselves against the best."
On whether he's referring to Kentucky or the SEC in general when he says "the best" ... "I'm referring to Kentucky and the SEC."
On his impressions of UK ... "Well, they're obviously a really talented ball club. They've got a lot of individual talent and I think they're starting to figure some things out as a team. The thing that really concerns you about Kentucky is the way that they can draw fouls with their individual play. I think Randle is a complete handful and you have to help out on him but you also gotta be able to help without fouling. I think Andrew Harrison does a really good job of drawing contact with his physical drives and I think the thing that goes without saying--well, what I should say is most people don't notice this but I think Willie Cauley-Stein has really made strides as a basketball player. It looks like he's had a year of strength and development. He's really moving well as far as defensively. He's able to switch ball screens, he affects shots at the rim, he's done a lot of good things. I just think is on-the-ball activity and his ability to block shots off the ball has been really good."
On the improvement Mississippi State has made from last year ... "I think first and foremost you talk about maturity. Our guys got a lot of experience last year they wouldn't have gotten on any other team or if we had a veteran team. They probably didn't deserve most of the minutes that they got, but that was the one advantage of having a young and inexperienced team. We had guys that were able to play a lot of minutes as freshmen or as first-year players. That includes even our junior-college players. So I just think from a year of maturation and experience they've gotten better. I think the one thing that we've really gotten better at is just offensively. We're still not a great offensive team, but we've figured out what is our lot in our life and what our role is. So we don't take as many bad shots as we did last year and I don't think we take as many contested shots as we did last year. We're still not able to shoot the basketball the way we want to be able to shoot the basketball, but I don't think we take bad shots. I think when you take a bad shot it's the same thing as a turnover, so it really hurts your defense."
On what Mississippi State's "lot in life" is ... "Well, I think it's different for each individual. But I think the biggest thing is our guys are starting to accept what our roles are. I think it's always hard when any young man steps on the scene in college basketball. He wants to be that star that he was in high school and sometimes that just doesn't translate. But I think our guys have done a really good job of accepting who they are and what their roles are and not fighting that and it's really helped for the betterment of our team."
Samarie Walker had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's 83-73 loss to Florida on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky Wildcats pride themselves on intensity. In fact, it's the cornerstone of Matthew Mitchell's "40 minutes of dread" style of play.
That what made its absence on Sunday against Florida so notable.
"It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us," Mitchell said. "You have to credit them for getting in here and getting fired up and playing and really taking it to us today."
With that energy and focus, Florida (12-3, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) upset No. 6/6 Kentucky (13-2, 1-1 SEC), 83-73.
After falling behind by 11 points in the first half, UK recovered and built a 62-53 lead with 12:00 left. The Cats, however, made 1 of 15 from the field the rest of the way and committed seven turnovers against Florida's confounding 2-3 zone.
"I felt like we had momentum and I think it was a letdown and a lack of focus," said Jennifer O'Neill, who had a team-high 15 points. "We had a lot of unforced turnovers and forced shots and we weren't poised."
Both of UK's losses this season have come against an opponent playing primarily 2-3 zone, which would seem to be a concern down the road.
The Cats, however, don't see it exactly that way. UK was sound offensively against Alabama's zone on Thursday and had ample opportunities on Sunday, but layups and missed free throws (the Cats shot just 17 of 30 from the line) undid them.
"We were getting some pretty good attacks and some good passes, but we really didn't finish anything outside the paint or inside the paint," Kastine Evans said. "That just comes from staying composed in a tough game like, especially when Florida's playing at such high pace."
UK will face what could be an even tougher challenge in its next game, traveling to face No. 13/12 South Carolina on Thursday. The Gamecocks are perennially one of the nation's top offensive teams, meaning the Cats cannot afford to duplicate Sunday's performance.
Evans, one of UK's seniors and vocal leaders, will be delivering that message this week.
"I think we have voices on the team," Evans said. "It's whether we choose to listen to those voices and pull together as a team or we come and everybody is separate by themselves.
She has been through losses similar to this one before, so Evans knows to expect a tough week of practice. She also expects the Cats to respond.
"From my experience being here, it's going to be on the better side where we're going to pull together, we're going to encourage each other, we're going to be positive in a very tough situation where we're coming off a loss and have to go on the road," Evans said.
Every spring, John Calipari's latest class of star recruits plays in a series of high-school all-star games with the Big Blue Nation watching closely. With Mark Stoops at the helm, Kentucky fans will need to start doing the same with future football Wildcats.
Drew Barker -- the highly touted Burlington, Ky., native viewed as the ringleader of UK's 2014 class -- played in the Army All-American game on Saturday and showed why Rivals.com ranks him a four-star prospect and the No. 6 quarterback in the nation.
Playing on the West squad, Barker came on in relief and led his team on its first two scoring drives and an eventual 28-6 victory. In total, he played three drives and completed 4-of-6 passes for 54 yards. Final rushing totals were not available, but he also flashed some impressive athletic ability.
His play did not go unnoticed by his soon-to-be coach.
Congratulations Drew on the Win today. You represented the #BBN well!!! See you in a week!!
With the winter semester set to start in less than two weeks, Barker and six more early enrollees will arrive on campus soon. Included in that group are running back Mike Horton and wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass. Horton will play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl on Sunday (9 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1), while Snodgrass played in the Offense-Defense All-American Bowl on Friday. No statistics were available for the game.
Samarie Walker had 12 points, 13 rebounds, four assists and four steals in UK's 85-63 win at Alabama to open SEC play on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
For most of the last two years, you could hardly bring up Samarie Walker's name without mentioning DeNesha Stallworth, and vice versa.
Together, the two UK seniors established themselves as one of the nation's top post duos, helping to reinvent Matthew Mitchell's previously perimeter-oriented style of play in the process.
But in December, Walker learned she would have to play without Stallworth for at least a few weeks. Nonetheless, she wasn't about to change her approach.
"I have 12 other teammates -- nine that can play, I think, if I'm counting correctly -- but there was no pressure on me specifically," Walker said. "We all had to do a good job of coming together and filling in for her and making up for her points."
No. 6 UK (13-1, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) has won four times in five outings as Stallworth has recovered from arthroscopic knee surgery, the only defeat coming against second-ranked Duke. Whether it's been on her mind or not, Walker's presence has had a lot to do with that.
"In DeNesha's absence, Samarie has been really big for us," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.
Walker is averaging 11.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in the games Stallworth has missed, including a 12-point, 13-rebound effort in an SEC-opening win at Alabama on Thursday. In spite of missing her first five shots from the field, Walker's energy didn't wane, which is exactly why Mitchell was so pleased with her performance.
"If she will do that and just not let any external thing affect her and she stays with it, she is a double-double waiting to happen," Mitchell said. "She is just so strong, athletic, explosive, talented, skilled."
Mitchell will be looking for a similar effort on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET as the Wildcats play host to Florida (11-3, 1-0 SEC). The Gators have proven a historically tough matchup, with UK's five straight wins in the series all coming by seven points or fewer.
"We, I think, have really good games because they always have tough players and their coach (Amanda Butler) gets them ready to play and our style of defense has some difficulties against them because they always have good guards," Mitchell said.
Headlining that group of guards once again is senior Jaterra Bonds, who is averaging 16.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.6 assists.
"She's so explosive and can get out and make plays," Mitchell said. "Sometimes when you have one player, one really, really super ball-handler that is explosive, sometimes if you're not sharp in the press one player can really, really hurt a press."
She wouldn't match up with Bonds regardless, but Sunday could mark Stallworth's return from injury. It has now been more than three weeks since her surgery and Stallworth will be evaluated in practice on Friday.
"Our goal is to try to work her back in the first chance she can play," Mitchell said. "And so if that's Sunday, that'd be great."
But with the way players like Walker, Azia Bishop, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have played, Mitchell has no plans to rush his star forward/center.
"Even if she were back Sunday, I still think the team's mindset has to prepare for her role to possibly not be that big, which means we have to do what to do what we've been working on and we have to be successful without her," Mitchell said.
For UK, that means ratcheting up the pace and relying on Walker to patrol the paint.
When Stallworth first went down, Mitchell said it offered an opportunity for the Cats to improve in the long term. With Stallworth now on the cusp of coming back, Walker believes UK has done that.
"I think the main thing is us just coming closer together as a team, including with her," Walker said. "I think we've realized we don't have to necessarily count on just one person to do anything and everything."
A three-year starter at UK, Larry Warford just completed a standout rookie season for the Detroit Lions. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After watching him open holes and protect the passer for four years, Kentucky fans were pretty confident the Detroit Lions had gotten a steal in taking Larry Warford in the third round of the NFL Draft.
A season into his professional career, they've been proven right.
Warford stepped at right guard immediately and experienced a minimal learning curve. He started all 16 games for a Lions team that contended for the NFC North title until the end of the season and made a strong case for Pro Bowl honors.
Warford didn't end up getting picked for the Pro Bowl, but he's still drawing plenty of praise, most recently from Mel Kiper of ESPN.com. Kiper gave his picks for the top rookies in the league and Warford got the nod at one of two guard spots:
OG Larry Warford, Detroit: A total steal in the third round, he was the best rookie guard in the NFL. A better pass-blocker than I thought, and good in space.
Kiper also ranks Warford as the 10th-best rookie overall in the NFL.
Dakari Johnson and the Kentucky Wildcats defeated rival Louisville on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season,UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Next up, Dakari Johnson details the aftermath of the Louisville win and updates us on Camp Cal.
Happy New Year, Big Blue Nation! I hope everybody had a good Christmas.
want to start off with the Louisville game because it was one of the
best atmospheres I've ever played in. I lived here for a couple years
when I was in middle school, but I didn't fully understand the rivalry
until playing in this past weekend's game. It was kind of different
seeing how everybody was into it. I know our fans don't like Louisville
and Louisville fans really don't like Kentucky, but I was really
surprised with just how loud it was in Rupp. We could hardly hear what
plays we were running. So that was very intense and it was great to
play in. It gave us a lot of motivation, and the fans really helped us
pull out the win.
The locker room postgame was pretty fun.
Everybody was hyped. We were playing music and just dancing and stuff.
It was a good time. Some of my aunts, uncles and cousins came down for
the game so I went out to celebrate with them after the game. Some of
the other guys' families were in town as well. It was great just having
our families down just to experience that with us.
anything, it was nice to see the results. It's rewarding to have all the
hard work we've been putting in pay off and to play as a team. I think
we're coming together and realizing that everybody has a role on this
team. We saw that if everybody plays their role, it'll give us good
results and we can compete with anybody in the country.
get any further and because we're into a new year, I want to talk a
little bit about how the first semester went. The first few months here
gave me a sense of how to balance out class work with practice and just
getting used to college. I think the first semester was good just in
terms of getting my feet under me and knowing what to expect.
I didn't have any finals with my classes. I had a bunch of final
speeches and papers, but once I turned those in I was done, which was
nice because I got to catch up on some sleep. I know some of my other
teammates weren't as fortunate.
After finals and the Belmont
game, we got a few days off for the holidays. I didn't get to go home,
but my mom and my brother came to town and we drove up to Cincinnati to
visit some family. That was a good time up there, just to get away just
for a couple days, see some new scenery and take a little break from the
grind. We did a little shopping while we were up there too.
know there was some worry about us having a few days off before the
Louisville game, but since a lot of the guys worked out when they went
back home, it wasn't that tough for us when we came back and had to
prepare for the game. Everybody was just focused in and keyed in because
we knew we had to pull out the win.
We're now in the middle of a
really long stretch without any games. It's really hard not playing,
but it would have been a lot more difficult had we lost. Plus, we all
know how important this time of the year is with Camp Cal.
Camp Cal, we've been going through two workouts a day and then we
usually go to dinner or do some sort of activity afterwards since we
don't have any classes. Last week we got to see a movie together as one
of our activities. I'm a big movies person when I get some downtime, but
it was cool to go with the whole team. Half of us saw "The Wolf of Wall
Street" and the other half saw "Anchorman 2." I thought the Wall Street
movie was pretty good.
Camp Cal has been a little different for
me because I've never spent the whole day with my teammates, eating
together, working out together, practicing together and then spending
the night hanging out together is making us come together as a team
because we're with each other 24/7. I think we've become a lot closer
over the last couple of weeks.
As far as the grind of it, it's
hard just waking up every morning. All we're doing is practicing,
focusing on the things we need to fix, getting better defensively, doing
a lot of drills and stuff like that. It can take a toll on your body so
you have to be mentally prepared for it because it's a process. It was
hard at first, but I'm kind of getting used to it and you can see the
effect it's having. Guys are competing way more.
I'm hoping the
work will start to pay off as we open the conference season. I'm really
looking forward to going on the road in the SEC. I kind of want to see
the atmosphere during the away games and stuff like that. I hear it's
very hostile, so that'll be something new for me. I've been told that
everywhere we go is like the biggest game on the other team's schedule,
so I just want to see how other fans react towards us and stuff like
Alright, guys, we've got another practice coming up so I've
got to get out of here. I hope everyone had a good break and had a good
time off of work or school.
With 2014 upon us, I suppose it's finally alright to look ahead to the best time of the year: the NCAA Tournament.
With that in mind, Joe Lunardi released the latest version of Bracketology on Thursday. Fresh off of resume-building win over archrival Louisville, Kentucky is projected as a No. 4 seed. UK would open out west in San Diego against No. 13 seed Maryland and play possible Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Memphis, Tenn.
Check out the complete South Region to the right.
It's also worth pointing out that UK is currently No. 16 in the CBSSports.com RPI, a measure considered by the Selection Committee. UK has the 15th-toughest schedule in the country and sports top-100 wins over No. 21 Boise State, No. 24 Louisville, No. 51 Eastern Michigan, No. 62 Belmont and No. 97 Providence.
Southeastern Conference foes Missouri (No. 15), Florida (No. 19) and LSU (No. 22) will offer the best opportunities for quality wins the rest of the way.
The Kentucky Wildcats couldn't have asked for much more in their run through nonconference play.
Playing a challenging schedule, the Cats won 12 times in 13 games to establish themselves among the nation's elite. They took down Louisville, their archrival, in a top-10 matchup and used four overtimes to best Baylor in another.
Nonetheless, the Cats believe the best times are ahead of them in Southeastern Conference play.
"Some of the best memories go through the SEC season and now is really when the fun starts," Bria Goss said.
UK (12-1) kicks off conference play at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday against Alabama (7-6). The Crimson Tide is playing its first season under head coach Kristy Curry, but memories of the last two years won't be far from the Cats' minds.
"We have a lot of veterans on our team and they understand the challenge that is ahead of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
In somewhat of a scheduling quirk, UK will travel to Alabama for the third straight season. The Cats won last season, 87-70, on the strength of a late-game burst, but fell in 2011-12 even though they would go on to the league crown. To Mitchell, that's a testament to the strength of the SEC.
"They didn't have a great record, but they had great players and played well that night and beat us," Mitchell said.
The same is true two years later.
Leading the way are Shafontaye Myers and Daisha Simmons. Myers is shooting 44.0 percent from 3-point range, while Simmons is averaging 14.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.2 assists.
"There are some good athletes on that team," Mitchell said. "They push the tempo, so we definitely need to do a good job in transition defense against them. They have really explosive guards."