Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.
He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.
"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."
You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."
There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.
"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."
Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.
"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."
Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.
"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."
Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."
"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."
The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.
UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.
"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."
In Kentucky's 10th consecutive postseason appearance (and third hosting the NCAA Tournament's opening weekend), a pair of familiar faces forged the Wildcats' way to a win.
"As seniors, Lauren O'Conner and Jackie Napper really led us tonight in their respective responsibilities," said head coach Craig Skinner. "(That) is what you want and need out of your senior group."
In her typical dominating fashion, O'Conner recorded a game-high 14 kills, with a .452 hitting percentage. Along with teammate Kaz Brown, O'Conner also anchored a two-player defensive wall at the net, blocking three balls on her own.
"I was pleased with our effort tonight," Skinner said. "Defensively, holding (Oakland) to .107 (hitting percentage) was a big key."
In the Kentucky backcourt, Napper was responsible for 22 digs--12 more than the Wildcats' next closest player. With 519 total digs on the season, Napper's relentless effort in part earned her SEC Libero of the Year accolades in 2014. However, with less than 24 hours to prepare for their next match, the Cats aren't basking in any of 2014's successes--including Friday's three-set sweep.
"We don't play back-to-back matches, but when we are on the road, we play Friday, practice Saturday, and play on Sunday," Skinner said. "When you get the adrenaline pumping, and you're playing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, (fatigue) becomes less of a factor as execution and the desire to compete."
No. 14 Kentucky (27-5, 15-3 SEC) will face Ohio State (21-11, 12-8 Big Ten) Saturday at 7:00 p.m. ET at Memorial Coliseum. Although UK has not faced a Big Ten opponent all season, the Cats are confident that game planning will not be an issue.
"I think we'll be prepared," Napper said. "Ohio State's a great team, and we've got to come out and play the best match of the season."
"Through the SEC, there are always different styles of games," said O'Conner. "I think we do a good job of adjusting throughout the games, and doing the things that we need to do, depending on that team."
With a group led by veterans, Skinner realizes the fine balance between ample preparation and over-analysis as his team heads into the tournament's second round.
"You want to be prepared, but you don't want to over-prepare, either," Skinner said. "We're going to give (the players) information that we've executed on certain teams in the past, and see where it falls."
"We just take it one match at a time," said O'Conner. "After (Friday's victory), we're going to go watch video on Ohio State. This match is past us, and it's all Ohio State now."
Willie Cauley-Stein had a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks in UK's 63-51 win over Texas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In the midst of an offseason of unprecedented hype, there was one question John Calipari kept asking because he wasn't sure of the answer.
You see, he remembered the two national championship games he's coached in the last three seasons. He remembered how the outcome was decided.
"When we played Connecticut, who was the best player on the court? (Shabazz Napier) And that's why they won," Calipari said in a preseason interview. "When we played Kansas in that final game, who was the best player on the court? (Anthony Davis) My guy. And we won."
The question, then, as UK worked toward another trip to college basketball's biggest stage bearing a preseason No. 1 ranking, was whether the Wildcats would have such a player when the games got big. Immediately, a candidate, Willie Cauley-Stein, came to mind.
"So now, on this team, when we play in that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have?" Calipari said. "And so who would that be? Can it be Willie?"
It's still only December, but Cauley-Stein answered resoundingly yes in No. 1 Kentucky's first close game of the season, a 63-51 win over No. 6 Texas on Friday night in Rupp Arena.
"He was ridiculous today," Calipari said.
Ridiculous to the tune of a career-high 21 points to go with 12 rebounds, five steals and three blocks as UK (8-0) survived what Texas head coach Rick Barnes aptly termed a "big-boy game."
"It was crazy," said Alex Poythress, who had eight points of his own. "He was everywhere blocking shots, getting steals, offensively he was real good at getting rebounds. It was the best I've ever seen him out there."
"He affected the game in every way he could affect it," Barnes said.
The game was one in which Cauley-Stein would likely have struggled in his first two seasons. He would often dominate against smaller opponents, but not in more bruising contests. The messages Calipari delivered about staying low and negating physical play just weren't sinking in, at least not until recently.
"The biggest thing was before I wasn't seeing success at it. So I'm like, 'Why do I gotta play like this? I'm not even seeing success.' I started seeing success at it and I'm like, 'Well...' "
The Longhorns came close to matching UK's incredible size and strength inch-for-inch and pound-for-pound, but the junior 7-footer didn't back away from the challenge. Cauley-Stein called the matchup one between two teams with the top bigs in the country, and he was the best of the bunch.
Not only did he sky for rebounds, swoop in for blocks and streak into passing lanes for steals as he's become known for, he was also UK's primary offensive option, even in the clutch.
After battling to a 26-26 halftime draw, the Cats came out of the locker room fired up and used an 18-2 run to build what appeared to be a safe lead considering the suffocating defense they were playing and had played all season. Instead, the Longhorns charged back, twice cutting UK's lead to five points in the final five minutes.
Both times, it wasn't Aaron Harrison, he of the game-winning 3-pointers, who stepped up. It was Cauley-Stein.
The first, with 4:19 left, came when Cauley-Stein grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-pointer by Tyler Ulis. In one motion, he gathered himself and rose again for a basket.
"I've just been working on that shot and working on those shots in the paint," Cauley-Stain said. "They just played off me the whole time so I just shot it."
Minutes later, Cauley-Stein scored five points in a row with three made free throws in four tries and an alley-oop from Andrew Harrison on which he jumped and seemed to keep rising to bump UK's lead back to double digits.
"I've just been working on my game so the confidence is going to continue to come the more and more I work on it," said Cauley-Stein, who played 33 minutes, the most for any UK player this season. "That's just the biggest thing, is doing it. Tonight I just did it."
Unsurprisingly, his performance drew rave reviews from all around, including ESPN NBA Draft guru Chad Ford. Cauley-Stein would have been a lottery contender had he not defied expectations and left UK last spring, but he opted to return. He's looking like a smart man after being the best player on the floor in a game that featured more than a few future pros.
"That's one of the biggest reasons why I came back is just to develop myself more as a basketball player," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like I'm starting to do that. And the good thing is I've got so much more time. It's only December. I've still got like three months of that."
Not all teams enter the NCAA Tournament carrying confidence and momentum.
That won't be an issue for the Kentucky Wildcats.
"I think they'll feel pretty good," UK head coach Craig Skinner said.
The Cats (26-5, 14-3 Southeastern Conference) enter the postseason with a No. 13 seed and the right to host yet again. They've won eight times in nine matches ahead of a first-round matchup with Oakland (22-9, 12-2 Horizon League) at 7:30 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum. The victor will advance to face either Ohio State or Lipscomb at 7 p.m. on Saturday.
"With 26 wins and beating a lot of good teams this year, playing 10 matches that are already in this tournament I think gives us an understand and appreciation of the level we need to play at to advance," Skinner said, "We've been practicing really well and I think the energy and the confidence is in a good place."
The confidence is no accident, as UK has rebounded successfully after two losses in three matches against LSU and Texas A&M. Since then, the Cats have lost just five sets in their last 30 tries to claim the best NCAA Tournament seed in school history behind SEC Libero of the Year Jackie Napper and four more all-league performers.
"It's a tribute to our players, who had a great regular season and several all-conference award winners and just to me and especially our young players the most exciting time to be participating in this sport," Skinner said. "So we're excited to have Oakland here and especially Lipscomb and Ohio State competing in the first match and with the winners competing Saturday. I just can't wait to get on the floor and get after it."
Skinner and the Cats are excited, but that doesn't mean they don't fully grasp the challenge ahead of then. Oakland has four players averaging better than 2.3 digs per set, representing a departure from the typical first-round opponent for a nationally seeded team.
"Typically a team like Oakland has a couple players that dominate," Skinner said. "Oakland's a team that has four or five players that really make an impact in the match and so we have to have a great game plan to know what they're going to do against us and how to defend their players because they are uniquely balanced I think in that regard."
Fortunately for the Cats, they'll be performing in front of their home crowd. Other coaches might prefer to hit the road and play free of the added pressure that comes from playing in front of their home fans, but Skinner is eager for the chance to host another big crowd in Memorial.
"Some people might say it's a disadvantage because you've got a lot of distractions at home," Skinner said. "I think it's a great advantage because we do have our home fans."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had a quiet trip to the beach last week, at least offensively.
Managing just nine points on UK's three-game voyage to the Virgin Islands, including just one in her final two games combined, Goodin-Rogers had gone cold after a strong start to her college career.
She had to come home to chilly Kentucky to heat back up.
Goodin-Rogers poured in a game-high 19 points, including 16 in the first half of an 82-64 Kentucky win over Northern Kentucky. In fact, she exceeded her previous career high less than eight minutes in.
"She was aggressive to start offensively and when she gets in a rhythm and can make some 3s for us and get to the basket and play with some energy offensively in transition, she can help us out," Matthew Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers was the star in an otherwise sluggish start for the Wildcats, who moved to 7-1 on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday trip to archrival Louisville. She scored 13 of UK's first 19 points to help build an early nine-point lead, capped by the first of her two 3-pointers.
She didn't waste any time surpassing her point total from the Virgin Islands games, but she also wasn't overly concerned about her offense from last week. Facing powerful front lines against the likes of Illinois and Oklahoma, she knew her role on UK's Thanksgiving trip.
"In the Virgin Islands I was more focused on defense than I was on offense because I needed to rebound more because the girls were so big," Goodin-Rogers said. "And tonight I was able to just play instead of focusing on one little thing."
Goodin-Rogers certainly played in her return to Memorial Coliseum, but she and her fellow post players still have room for growth.
Among UK's regular interior rotation, only Azia Bishop had played a college game entering this season. As a result, Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings have suffered more than anyone from the game slippage that comes from so little early-season practice time with a packed schedule.
"We've just got to take advantage of some practice time and get better in the half-court," Mitchell said. "Our post players are seeing a lot of packed lanes and we're not reading those situations real well in the half-court."
That places an added importance on the three days of practice UK will have leading up to a matchup with No. 7 Louisville.
"I thought tonight we were a bit unfocused and we can't play our best when we play that way," Mitchell said. "We played well enough to win tonight and you can't take that victory away from us, but clearly we have to play much sharper. I think their confidence level can increase between now and then with some good practice."