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Cody poised for breakthrough spring as junior

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Kyle Cody fired four shutout innings in his season debut on Saturday vs. Richmond (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics) Kyle Cody fired four shutout innings in his season debut on Saturday vs. Richmond (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Part 1 (Storm Wilson) - Part 2 (JaVon Shelby) - Part 3 (Kyle Barrett) - Part 4 (Andrew Nelson) - Part 5 (Thomas Bernal) - Part 6 (Zack Brown) - Part 7 (Spencer Jack) - Part 8 (Ka'ai Tom)

It was the biggest start of his career.

Kentucky was facing off against Kansas in the opener of the 2014 NCAA Louisville Regional.

With a potential matchup against a lefty-laden Louisville lineup in the second round and a right-handed dominant Kansas squad, UK head coach Gary Henderson turned to his sophomore standout righty, Kyle Cody, to make his first NCAA Tournament start.

Henderson and the Wildcats had the utmost confidence in Cody, who just nine days earlier had handcuffed the Southeastern Conference Champion Florida Gators to two runs over 5.1 innings in a win in the SEC Tournament.

Things did not go the way Cody pictured them when he laid down to go to sleep the night before.

One of the top arms in college baseball, Cody was rated as the seventh-best sophomore in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. He certainly had the stuff, makeup and experience to fire a gem and set up the Wildcats for a winner's bracket matchup.

After a seven-pitch walk to open the game, Cody misfired on his throw to first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, scoring a run and putting himself in an early jam. An RBI sacrifice bunt scored the second run and an RBI double put the Wildcats in a 3-0 hole. Henderson turned to the bullpen in the must-win situation, ending his outing. 

"That motivated me more in summer ball. It helped me get going up there," Cody said. "I feel like that has just carried on into this year. All the success I had up there (in summer ball), that feeling has just carried on as I came back here. Just made me want to become a better player and made me look forward to this year even more. I just can't wait to get back on the mound and try to get back to that spot. And prove that we can win a regional and move on."

The memory of suffering the loss in the NCAA Tournament lidlifter was not something Cody could easily erase. He went to work at it however, venturing to the prestigious Cape Cod League for a summer baseball experience that helped him erase the memories of the regional start.

Cody had a great summer, earning the starting pitching honor for the Western Division in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, with his UK teammate Kyle Barrett starting in centerfield for the Eastern Division.

A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody finished his summer with a 2.72 ERA, tossing 36.1 innings with just 11 walks and 34 strikeouts. He ranked eighth in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the CCBL.

"It helped me a lot to face the talented hitters that you face in the Cape," Cody said. "Facing really good hitters and being able to throw to all types of hitters. It wouldn't really help me if I went somewhere in the summer and didn't face real competition. It really helped me a lot because it allowed me to work on my off-speed pitches and secondary stuff, which got a whole lot better up there. The coaching was phenomenal. Jim Lawler, my pitching coach, was really good. He helped me with some mechanical things and some mental things and just calmed me down a lot. It was an overall good experience for me this summer."

Cody, who has a 3.18 ERA in his two-year SEC career, enters his junior season ranked in the preseason as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. He is also a Baseball America third-team preseason All-America selection.

"I think there's two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive," Henderson detailed. "You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He's done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He's improved his body, he's a lot stronger, he's healthy right now, I think. He's a pivotal part of the team, there's no question about that. He's a guy who's in a gene pool, a skill level that's capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he's capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He's a talented kid."

Cody's relationship with Henderson has also grown over three years and the duo now has a unique trust and reliance on each other.

"(Henderson) has a lot more trust in me, now that I've been here for three years," Cody said. "My freshman year he was always dialed in to tell me what to do, and giving me clues, and now he is looking towards me to tell him what is going on. I feel like he has more trust in me and I've learned a lot from him in return. Our communication is really good and we work really well together."

Not only will Cody be expected to be a physical leader of the deep UK pitching staff, he will be tasked in a leadership role.

"That is a different spot for me right now compared to last year," Cody said. "I wasn't looked at as a leader last year because there were some guys ahead of me and I was still trying to learn. Now that most of them are gone it is a little different when some younger guys ask questions about what is going to happen or what happens next. It's little different but I kind of enjoy it. It gives you a good feeling to help out someone younger who is trying to get to where I'm at right now. It just gives me a good feeling about what the future holds for them and how it can only help us and the program."

Video: Payne previews Tennessee trip

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Scrimmages help Cats rediscover edge in dominant win

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Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 77-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 77-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
His team might be unbeaten and top-ranked, but that's not stopping John Calipari from pushing every button he can think of to get the most out of the Wildcats.

Even if it means changing long-standing coaching habits.

"Normal case, we back up off practice this time of the year," Calipari said. "Well, we went back Thursday to an hour of scrimmage and then they got after each other and I even scrimmaged them 15 minutes Friday, which I never do. "

By its historically high standards, Kentucky had lost a bit of an edge in recent weeks, especially on defense. Opponents had scored a point per possession in the previous four games entering a rematch with South Carolina after managing to do so just twice in the season's first 20 games.

"We got a good group of players that need to go after - they don't want to do drills," Calipari said. "They look at me and say, 'Stop the drills, let's play.' "

Of course, the Cats had held on to their unbeaten record in the process, but Coach Cal was out to recapture that edge.

"They argue, fight, foul, grab, and whoever loses has to run," Calipari said. "If I forget to tell them to run, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, White's got to run.' And then I got to make them run and then we--so they don't--if they beat somebody they're making that other team run. They're really competitive."

So competitive, in fact, that they can't even agree which group has the upper hand.

"Well, my squad hasn't been losing as much," Dakari Johnson said, laughing.

"We usually win - I'm just joking," Andrew Harrison said. "They're fun matchups. You have to compete or you're going to lose. No one wants to lose."

South Carolina saw that mentality up close and in person on Saturday in Rupp Arena.

UK scored the first basket of the game 17 seconds in and never looked back. The Cats (25-0, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) were dominant on both ends of the floor in a 77-43 victory. UK held South Carolina (12-12, 3-9 SEC) to 23.6-percent shooting and 0.694 points per possession and shot 50 percent from the field.

"We played well," Calipari said. "Offensively we were really good, which created a pretty big gap. But I thought we defended, we played with great energy, we needed to play a game like this."

Perhaps most impressively, UK outrebounded South Carolina, 45-21, just three weeks removed from the Gamecocks winning the battle on the glass against the Cats, 40-28. Kentucky had just three offensive rebounds in that first matchup, but 15 this time to South Carolina's nine defensive rebounds.

Those scrimmages had something to do with that.

"During practices we play physical against each other," said Johnson, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds. "We started scrimmaging against each other again. So we're really going at each other. I think it brought our competitiveness back out."

The competitiveness back, the Cats regained the form of some of their earlier dominant performances and tied the school record for the best start in school history set in 1953-54. Taking a break from his laser-like focus on improvement and best positioning his team for the postseason, Coach Cal talked briefly to his team about the achievement.

"We're all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein) and you played an unbelievable schedule," Calipari said. "One of the best nonconference schedules in the country and you're one of the best leagues in the country."

Cauley-Stein, who had a team-high 14 points to go with seven rebounds, fully understands the magnitude of what he and his teammates have done.

"It's just like special, for real," he said. "We don't really think about it as a whole, you just kind of take it day by day, work on stuff that you did wrong, and I mean the outcome is going to be the outcome, like you just prepare for it. But, like, I think it's just special to me because I came from one of the worst teams on Kentucky's history to now one of the top teams on Kentucky's history. I mean, it's just kind of cool to see the evolution of what was going on."

The evolution, however, isn't over.

"We can do something bigger," Cauley-Stein said. "We have the chance to do something way bigger than just tying it."

The last time Kentucky faced Tennessee, UK sophomore Makayla Epps led the way in scoring for both teams, but failed to convert one of Kentucky's several potential game-winning field goal attempts as time expired.

As the Wildcats (16-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare for Sunday's matchup in Knoxville almost two weeks later, the narrative is slightly different.

Once again, Epps is fresh off a career night in which she not only led all scorers, but also found the ball in her hands in the contest's closing seconds. This time, however, with the game on the line, she would not be denied the victory.

"I'm pretty sure after last night, a lot of teams are going to key in on me more, if they weren't already," said Epps. "Last night's performance was crazy."

On Thursday, Epps scored a career-high 42 points in Kentucky's 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13 Mississippi State. Epps sank the game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, converting 15 of UK's 18 points in extra time.

"Literally, maybe 100 times a game, (head coach Matthew Mitchell) will say, 'They can't guard you, Epps. They can't guard you, Epps. When are you going to understand they can't guard you?'" Epps said. "Sometimes when I'm scoring in sync, I'm like, 'Maybe Coach is right, they can't guard me.'"

Since losing to Tennessee 73-72 at Memorial Coliseum on January 29, No. 10 Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins over No. 21 Georgia, Vanderbilt, and No. 13 MSU. Epps leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring, with 17.3 points per game in league play.

"I'm a small-town kid from Marion County, Kentucky. Nobody expects people like me, from small places, to do anything big." said Epps. "I'm just here and happy to play."

The last time Mitchell's Wildcats visited Thompson-Boling Arena, UK emerged victorious for the first time in school history. The sixth-ranked Lady Vols, winners of eight national championships since 1987, lead the all-time series 51-10.

"Tough game ahead on Sunday," Mitchell said. "It'll be tough. It'll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. I'll be happy for (last year's road victory) to be a benefit, but it won't be something where I'm saying, 'We won last year, so mark it down this year.' That's not my approach."

The Cats will travel to Tennessee (21-3, 11-0 SEC) Sunday for a 3 p.m. nationally televised matchup on ESPN2.

"As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they're a great team and it was a tough game here," said Mitchell. "A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete."

Trey Lyles returned to the lineup against LSU after a three-game absence. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Trey Lyles returned to the lineup against LSU after a three-game absence. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By this point, you might think John Calipari would be carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

His team piling up wins and the nation's last remaining unbeaten, he had reason to be wound up tight knowing LSU would be ready to give the Wildcats its best shot on Tuesday.

Instead, he was sitting on the team plane bound for Baton Rouge, La., hatching a prank to play on rabid Kentucky fans.

It started with a text message sent to Deputy Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy that eventually became this tweet.

Peevy's initial reaction was to literally search the plane for Lyles, who had inspired continual speculation in recent weeks with an illness that had kept him out of action since Jan. 29.

"And when he did that, I knew 'Uh-oh. This is gonna be absolutely outrageous,' " Calipari said. "And we had people camped out at the hotel. We had people camped out as we got off the bus."

Once the confusion was overcome, the tweet went out.  More than 2,000 retweets and a #WhereIsTrey hashtag later, Coach Cal had a national story on his hands.

"That blew up kinda big," said Lyles, who even threw up the hood on his sweatshirt upon arrival in Louisiana to keep the ruse alive. "My mentions on Twitter wouldn't go away, so a lot of people were interested in it, getting into it. I thought it was funny. Coach was trying to have a nice little joke going there. I thought it was pretty funny. Coach had a good sense of humor with that and he played it out well."

For once, conversation turned away from top-ranked UK's pursuit of perfection. For Calipari, it was mission accomplished.

"I was on a plane and I'm thinking, 'Our fans are going nutty,' " Calipari said. " 'They got to loosen up a little bit. This isn't life or death. It's not March.' "

The Big Blue Nation was his primary target audience, but #WhereIsTrey also served to remind Calipari's team that it's still the regular season.

"I wanted them to understand, and I keep telling them, 'What's the worst?' " Calipari said. "I'll say it this time: We lose this game we're 22-1, 23, whatever it is. What's it matter? Just go play. Let's try to get better."

UK, of course, would win anyway by overcoming a late six-point deficit at LSU. With the victory, the Cats carry a 24-0 (11-0 Southeastern Conference) record into a rematch with South Carolina (12-11, 3-8 SEC) at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Lyles, of course, will be available again after returning to score four points and grab three rebounds in 18 minutes at LSU.

"I just had strep throat, wasn't feeling good for a few days," said Lyles, who is "feeling 100 percent." "Coach and them just wanted to keep me away from the guys so they wouldn't come down with anything."

In Lyles' absence, UK was outrebounded twice in three outings after losing the rebounding battle in just three of 19 games previously. Devin Booker sees Lyles helping to change that.

"Rebounding," Booker said. "He brings that to the team every time. He attacks the offensive glass and defensive rebounds. He's like a 6(-foot-)10 3-man. That helps a lot."

Lyles also adds depth, though that also requires an adjustment on the part of his teammates.

"Guys got to be willing to sacrifice three minutes or two minutes," Calipari said. "There are times where we got to go at him, which may take a shot away from some other guys, but what does it matter? At the end of the day, either you can play or you can't play. Reality. Either you're an efficient player or you're not. They don't need to see you for 40 minutes. That's all ego stuff."

Considering they've been checking their egos all season, that shouldn't be much of a problem.

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