Tim Garrison thinks of everything he can to simulate a meet-like atmosphere in practice.
He turns up the pressure on his gymnasts as much as possible, but his hands are still tied. When it comes down to it, duplicating the feeling of competing when it counts just isn't possible.
"There's only so much you can do, so actually getting out there and competing and seeing what kind of team we have was a very good thing," Garrison said.
That first look at his team in competition came on Monday, as the Wildcats traveled all the way to Seattle for a season-opening meet against No. 24 Washington. UK came on top, 194.975-194.325, with a score good enough to bump its ranking nine spots to No. 13 entering Friday's home-opening Excite Night meet against LSU and Arizona State.
Garrison called it a "decent opening day," saying plenty of small mistakes and even a few large ones will need to be addressed. But most importantly, the Cats showed themselves to be a team capable of overcoming adversity.
"When we made a mistake that was a large mistake resulting in a fall, the very next competitor was able to step up and actually hit their routine," Garrison said. "So I think that's good. I think that speaks to the toughness of our kids which is something that we're proud of."
An example of that toughness was Alexis Gross, the redshirt junior who missed all of last season due to injury. After Sara Shipley fell twice on beam, UK's final event, Gross needed to post a score to steady the Cats and preserve a slim lead. She did just that with a 9.725. Garrison also cited senior Kayla Hartley as being in "mid-season form."
From veterans like Gross and Hartley, that kind of effort is expected. From freshmen in their first college meet, not so much.
UK relied on its four true freshmen - Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz - for six routines on Monday. They weren't perfect, but they weren't afraid either, not as the night went on.
"The way I put it, I think they grew up in front of our eyes," Garrison said. "I think on the first event they were freshmen. They were freshmen being freshmen. I think by the time they competed their second events they had already settled down and kind of gotten into the rhythm of the competition, which is something that we were looking to see."
The freshmen will get more experience under their belt in Memorial Coliseum for Excite Night, the meet that annually kicks off the home season for UK. A pair of strong teams, including the second-ranked Tigers, will be there, making for an event worth seeing.
"I'm expecting a big crowd, that's for sure," Garrison said.
Garrison can't promise anything about the way the Cats will perform, but the way they handled their first meet is a good sign. Regardless, he expects it to be the start of a season to remember.
"As far as I'm concerned, this team is limitless in our potential," Garrison said. "I think we're going to break a lot of records this year."
It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.
In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.
"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.
It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.
"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."
Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.
"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."
Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.
"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.
"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."
But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.
"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."
To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.
"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."
The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.
"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."
Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.
"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."
Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.
The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.
"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.
"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."
Dominique Hawkins scored six points and had two steals in 20 minutes on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari was cagey speaking to the media on Monday.
He mentioned a "great" team meeting. He asked rhetorical questions about what Kentucky needed to do to regain the swagger the Wildcats had seemingly lost in a pair of overtime wins to open Southeastern Conference play, questions to which he seemed to think he knew the answers. There was something he was choosing not to say.
On Tuesday night, when starting lineups were posted before UK's matchup with Missouri and Dominique Hawkins' No. 25 appeared, everyone found out what he was withholding.
The platoons, they were coming back.
"Well, I had planned on it, I just didn't tell you guys," Calipari said. "I don't tell you guys everything."
Following Alex Poythress' season-ending injury, Coach Cal cut his rotation to nine players, abandoning the strict 10-man platoon system that had drawn countless headlines and propelled UK to a hot start. The Cats kept winning after the move, but in increasingly unconvincing and therefore uncharacteristic fashion, eventually prompting Calipari to declare "enough is enough."
Perhaps everyone should have known then what he was about to do. Maybe everyone should have known how top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 SEC) would respond, too. The dominant form that had inspired talk of a possible unbeaten run through SEC play, it was back with the platoons in an 86-37 win over Missouri (7-9, 1-2 SEC).
"We just needed to get back to what we were," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. "We looked ourselves in the mirror and said we aren't playing the way we normally play. We did that and did a great job with that tonight."
As it always has for this team, that started on defense.
UK overwhelmed the visitors, using a 20-2 first-half run to turn a 12-10 lead into a far bigger one that continued to balloon with every missed Missouri shot. The Tigers shot just 27.1 percent and managed only 0.578 points per possession. In the process, UK allowed the fewest points scored by an SEC opponent since Mississippi State managed 36 in 1987 and rolled up the biggest blowout of a conference foe since a 106-44 shellacking of Vanderbilt in 2003.
"I thought our defensive intensity because of the platoons was back to where it was," Calipari said, later comparing his team to a "buzz saw" the likes of which Kansas and UCLA had experienced in November and December, respectively.
The player who set the tone wasn't even a lock to be on the floor.
Calipari, reflecting on Saturday's double-overtime win at Texas A&M, decided to go back to the platoons. With that out of the way, his next choice was between Hawkins and Derek Willis, gifted yet very different players who have ridden the bench in recent weeks.
Making his judgment based on performance in practice, Calipari told Hawkins on Sunday he would be making the third start of his career.
"Coach, he told us he wants to get back to the Blue and White platoon," said Hawkins, who later revealed he had a sleepless night on Monday thinking about the game. "He told me I was going to be on the Blue one and he just wanted high energy from me and me to be aggressive on offense."
For Hawkins, high energy is pretty much a given.
He was dogged in his 20 minutes, chasing and making life on the Rupp Arena court generally miserable for Missouri's Keith Shamburger with his ball pressure.
"He brings so much energy and so much athleticism to the game," said Aaron Harrison, who bounced back from an off game at A&M with 16 points and five made 3s in seven tries. "And we're all excited for him when he plays well. We're all proud of him. I've seen him get a lot better over these past couple years and I'm proud of him."
Hawkins, true to his humble nature, credited that improvement to his teammates.
"When I'm playing another team's point guard, I feel like it's easier for me to contain them because Tyler (Ulis), he's so quick, he helps me out, like trying to stay in front of a quick guy," Hawkins said. "Andrew (Harrison), he's so big, he's helping me (learn) how to stand up when they get me in the paint and be strong and body them up."
On the other end of the floor, Hawkins displayed the aggressiveness Coach Cal asked of him. He missed all three of his 3-point tries, but took each confidently and buried a pair of shots inside the arc to post six points.
"We know Dom can play," Aaron Harrison said. "He's very capable and he's a really talented basketball player and he showed it out there tonight."
In spite of that talent, Hawkins hadn't played a minute since Dec. 20 against UCLA, when the Cats last blitzed an opponent as they did Missouri. That hasn't been easy on the 2013 Kentucky Mr. Basketball, but he was undeterred.
"It's really hard to stay patient, but with this team you definitely know if you stay patient and get the opportunity you have to go out and ball," Hawkins said. "I was patient enough and Coach finally gave me some time to play and I was able to do well."
Hawkins said he felt his play had earned him the chance to make another start when the Cats hit the road to face a tough Alabama team on Saturday, but he was quick to point out the decision is out of his hands.
That call, of course, belongs to Coach Cal, who was back to his coy, unrevealing self in discussing it.
"I don't know if I'll do it next game," Calipari said. "I may not."
When the Detroit Lions lost on Wild Card Weekend, and the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos followed suit the week after, the playoff dreams of former Kentucky players Larry Warford and Jacob Tamme (as well as injured standouts Garry Williams and Danny Trevathan) were vanquished. Though UK alumnus Chris Matthews signed with the Seattle Seahawks late in the regular season, Randall Cobb and Tim Masthay of the Green Bay Packers are the only starting former Wildcats with Super Bowl XLIX hopes still alive. The Packers will travel to Seattle to face the defending champions in Sunday's NFC Championship at 3:05 p.m. ET on Fox.
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4) Cobb caught a game-high eight passes in Green Bay's 26-21 divisional round win over the Dallas Cowboys. The former second round pick finished with 116 yards, including a 31-yard haul late in the first half and a heroic reception off a deflected pass to seal the victory.
Devin Booker is shooting 16 of 21 (76.2 percent) from 3-point range in his last five games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The numbers don't even seem real.
Over his last five games, Devin Booker has missed just five times in 21 3-point attempts. Twice during the month-long hot streak, he's won Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors, including this week.
Kenny Payne has been on the sideline for every one of those 16 makes, but he's not willing to say Booker has reached his shooting ceiling.
"I think he's hot, but I think he has more in the tank," UK's associate head coach said with a smile. "I'd like to see him be a little bit hotter."
Told Booker is shooting better than 76 percent, as if to suggest he can't do any better, Payne didn't bat an eye.
"Let's get to 85," said Payne, his smile even bigger this time.
Of course, expecting the smooth guard to shoot any better from the outside than he has been is probably unrealistic, but the notion that Payne would even think to say it speaks to Booker's ability.
"He's willing to take any shot we need him to take," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We all feel like (his shot) is going in any time he puts the ball in the air. One of those things about Devin Booker is he's just a flat-out shooter. He's a flat-out shooter and a flat-out scorer. Anytime you give him the ball it feels like two or three points are going to be put on the board at any given time."
Booker's hot streak has bumped his 3-point shooting percentage on the season to .500, which would tie him for fourth nationally if he wasn't just shy of the 2.5 makes per game needed to qualify for the NCAA leaderboard. Considering he was shooting 35.9 percent a month ago and 1 of 11 through his first three games, that's all the more impressive.
"He's worked so hard," Payne said. "From the day one that he walked into this program to today, he's gotten so much better. He's playing with unbelievable confidence. If you give him an inch he can shoot the ball."
Add in Booker's 47.6-percent shooting from inside the arc and 83.3 percent from the line and it should come as no surprise that he ranks 13th nationally in offensive rating according to kenpom.com entering a matchup with Missouri (7-8, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
It's a game, by the way, that Payne says will mean a little more to Booker.
"His father's one of the best players to ever play at Missouri," Payne said. "Kid has spent a lot of time up there. This will be a rivalry game for him."
Booker's father, Melvin, was the Big Eight Player of the Year and a first-team All-American in leading the Tigers to an unbeaten conference regular-season record and the Elite Eight in 1994.
"Devin's a competitor," Towns said. "He's always been a competitor, so I just see him being very energized for this game."
Booker was plenty energized in his last game even without the added edge of playing his dad's team, playing a career-high 35 minutes and scoring 18 points as No. 1 UK moved to 15-0 with a double-overtime win at Texas A&M. In a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds, Booker made big play after big play.
"Well, you know what was great for him last game: It's the first time he has been in late and he really performed," John Calipari said. "He attacked, he didn't settle for jumpers, made his free throws. Broke down defensively, but we all did in that game, the last one. But we wouldn't have been in the game if he didn't make shots in the first half."
The game was UK's third in a row decided by single digits after the Wildcats blitzed through their first 12 games without a single such outing, to which Coach Cal said "enough is enough." He knows similar battles await the Cats in conference play no matter what he says, but he is asking some open-ended questions to push his team back toward the form that had experts talking about an unbeaten regular season as if it was closer to a likelihood than a possibility.
"Have we lost our edge?" Calipari said. "Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was it? What was our swag about? What was our focus about? What was our edge? What gave us an edge?"
To that end, Calipari held individual meetings on Monday followed by a team meeting. Afterward, Payne suggested that lost edge is mostly to do with energy and focus on the defensive end.
"We've gotta get that back," Payne said. "I think if you look around every media outlet, every newspaper article is Kentucky basketball. People are coming to play against us, they're playing hard against us. That should intensify us, not make us go backwards."
So far, Booker is responding to the challenge in kind, though Payne says even he has room for improvement.
"Like to see him put it on the floor a little bit more, because he's capable," Payne said. "But what can you say about a kid with a stroke like that? He's a threat no matter where he is on the floor."
John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday to revisit the first week of conference play and look ahead to a Tuesday matchup with Missouri. Check out everything he had to say, as well as quotes from Missouri's Kim Anderson. Calipari
On this week's games ... "I think both teams are playing well. Missouri had a great win at home (against LSU) and really played well on the road and obviously Alabama is doing what they always do. They're playing great defense and holding people to low numbers and playing a physical game. They'll be two hard games for us."
On what Devin Booker has provided ... "Well, you know what was great for him last game: It's the first time he has been in late and he really performed. He attacked, he didn't settle for jumpers, made his free throws. Broke down defensively, but we all did in that game, the last one. But we wouldn't have been in the game if he didn't make shots in the first half."
On the value of playing two close games ... "Well, I've said all along that you don't want to go through a season where you're never in a close game because you don't learn about your team. You need to be down 10 or 12 and see how you respond and you need to be in overtime games where they need to really lock down and be efficient offensively and make free throws or create good shots. Some eyes were opened. Trey Lyles making free throws. Dakari (Johnson) making free throws and coming up with huge rebounds. You know, the way Devin played down the stretch really showed some things. But enough is enough. We had enough of these games now. Let's get some games that are a little bit easier for us, but I don't think we'll have any. I think every game we play is someone's Super Bowl. They're going to play out of their minds. The kid from Mississippi had cramps and says that you can't have cramps, not at the biggest moment of your life. Like, what? The biggest moment of your life? But that's how guys feel playing against us and that's what I'm trying to tell our team. If you don't play with desperation and they do, you're losing."
On whether his team was affected by the unbeaten talk ... "No, but one of the things we're addressing today - and I just got done with individual meetings and we're going to have a great team meeting here in a little bit after I'm done and show a little tape and come back this afternoon and practice - but have we lost our edge? Have we lost our swagger? Have we lost a little bit of our focus? And then if we have, what was it? What was our swag about? What was our focus about? What was our edge? What gave us an edge? And then the question becomes, how do we get it back? If we lost it, what were reasons we could have lost it? And it's not like we're totally--we're still winning tough games and we're fighting like crazy. It's just that we're not exactly where we were and it's all good because I don't want us to be like it's March right now. It's too early to be like it's March. It isn't. One of the things we talked about: Are individuals feeling something they shouldn't be feeling? So we got a lot of things working. And it's crazy. Every team right now has issues in the country. Every team. Every team's working through something. All I'll tell you is I'm happy I'm coaching this team. I believe I have the best team in the country with the best players. So we got some things to figure out. We'll do it together."
On moving Tyler Ulis to the blue platoon ... "No. No, we're still, I'm good. The thing I would tell all of our guys - and what we talked about today - I believe in all of them. Now, if there's any reason you're not thinking right, because they're all talented. The things we're asking them to do, they can do. But, no. We have a good group of kids, man. I'm telling you, great kids. They've all stepped up at different times. They've all played bad at times, yet the team covered for them. It was like the game vs. Mississippi. I couldn't have Tyler in at the end if we wanted to win the game. He couldn't be in. I think everybody is watching spots of this, spots of that, I'm watching the full body of work. I'm fine with where our team is."
On the Missouri Tigers ... "They lost a lot. You would think they wouldn't be this confident, but their big man is playing well. Their wings are competing, their guards are playing great in pick-and-rolls and doing things they have to do. They're excited about league play. You can see the fight they have. They're not surrendering, they don't have it in their bones. They're just going to play. It's going to be a tough opponent for us."
Missouri head coach Kim Anderson
Opening statement ... "Good morning. We had a much needed win on (Thursday) against LSU. Obviously, a quality win for us and something we had struggled early on - we have played better lately - especially against some good teams, Illinois, Oklahoma State, we weren't able to get over the hump. Then in this game we were able to execute and should have probably won the game in regulation, (Keith) Hornsby makes a great shot for LSU. We miss a good shot to win it in regulation, and then go into overtime. I was really proud of our guys. We have been in this situation a couple times, and as I said earlier, we haven't been able to get over the hump. We got over it against LSU.
"Then the other night when we played Auburn; great game. I thought we started off pretty well. We handled the ball pretty well against them. We made some shots and they had a great performance from (Cinmeon) Bowers. They shot the ball better from 3 than they had been, which was something that we obviously didn't plan on. Then they did a great job of rebounding. Bowers I think was a force, especially at the end of the game. He made some plays, got some boards for them. (Jordon) Granger hits a big 3 there right down the stretch that basically put them out of reach a little bit.
"I think we remain a team still trying to find itself completely, but we've gotten a lot better. Our young guys are playing better. They're playing with more confidence, and the LSU game gave us that confidence - gave us some confidence. Hopefully we can carry that over now through the rest of the season.
"We know we have a tremendously tough game tomorrow night against Kentucky, the best team in the country. I'm hopeful that what we have learned here in the past week in the SEC will carry over and we can play well."
On facing Kentucky with UK coming off a couple close games ... "Well, I wish they hadn't had a couple of close games to be quite candid with you. But I think that what we face is certainly a team that has so many different weapons. They're very deep, they're big, they're long. The thing that most impresses me about Kentucky, other than all the things I just said, is when they don't play great, they still find ways to win. They did that Saturday against (Texas) A&M. That's the most impressive thing to me about Kentucky. We all know they have good players and they're very well coached and they have a great fanbase.
Going through the league undefeated takes - it was a long time ago when it happened here. I think other than the skill and the talent, it takes a little bit of luck. I can remember in the situation we had here at Missouri in '94 maybe it was, Eric Piatkowski shot a ball - it was a game to go to 14-0. He shot a ball and to this day I swear the ball was in and somebody punched it out of the net. So, it takes some luck, but they're so well coached and they're so good that the most impressive thing for me is they find ways to win even when they're not playing great."
On the play of Keanau Post and the challenge of facing UK's bigs ... "Well Keanau has found himself a little bit. And I think the thing with this whole team has been that we're trying to--we've got young guys and we're trying to build this program and the confidence level I think was something that was lacking. And Keanau, we put him in--he didn't play for a couple of games and not because he'd done anything wrong. It just was a production thing. Put him against Lipscomb the other night and they had a big guy - 6-10 or whatever he was, 300-some pounds - and Keanau did a great job on him and was also able to score some buckets. That carried over to the LSU game. Again, a team with great size. So maybe--in my mind he's gained some confidence. The other night against Auburn, he played all right. He wasn't great. He wasn't bad. Ryan Rosburg gave us some good minutes. So against Kentucky, we obviously need him. We need Rosburg. We need everybody that we have to play maybe above the level that they normally play because the thing that Kentucky does so good is, other than execute, they do so such a great job rebounding and we will be undersized no matter who we put out there. So to me a huge key to this game is us being able to compete on the boards and keep them from just getting a ton of second shots and certainly Keanau, Ryan and all of our front-line guys gotta figure into that." On whether there is an update on Montaque Gill-Caesar ... "He will not play. He will not play. No."
On how to attack this UK defense and whether there are areas where they are vulnerable ... "No. I think what we have to do is - and we did not do a great job of this against Auburn - is that we have to do a better job of executing. I thought against Auburn a couple times we called a play or we were going to run a set and we didn't get to the right spot and we got four guys running it and one guy not. Your margin for error against Kentucky is so slim that you gotta be on top of your game on both ends of the floor. But from an offensive standpoint, certainly their size presents a problem for us. We've got some ideas. There are some things we're going to do, but it's gonna come down to making shots. And that seems like a very simple statement, but it's gonna come down to making perimeter shots if we can get good perimeter shots. Maybe trying to extend their bigs out on the floor a little bit so we can get to the basket. But they're so long. They have a great capability to block shots. I just want to go in there and play, play hard, kind of see where we stack up and see where it takes us."
On whether Ole Miss and Texas A&M's close games vs. UK are encouraging ... "I think the thing--you watch them play Ole Miss and you watch them play A&M, both of those teams played exceptional games. Both of them had great performances from guards. I know (Danuel) House played well from A&M and I know Mississippi's guy played great. So I think in order to beat them, you're going to have to have somebody have a special game. If anything, they've been challenged two games in a row, probably haven't played their best game and they still won. And I think that says a lot about their team and about their program. So you can look it two ways. You can look at it like, well, you know, Ole Miss and A&M pushed them to the wire. Maybe we can too. Or Ole Miss and A&M pushed them to the wire and, uh oh, we're going into Rupp Arena and they're going to be upset and they're going to really be ready to play. So I really don't get into all that. I think it's go down and play the game and try to execute better than we have and see if we can play better than we have in the last couple of games."
The top-ranked Gamecocks are outscoring opponents by more than 31 points on average and feature arguably the nation's most imposing frontline.
On Sunday, Kentucky faces the task of handing South Carolina its first loss on the road. The challenge, significant as it may be, isn't one that has the Wildcats cowering.
"We're certainly not going over there to give it the old college try and hang with them," Matthew Mitchell said. "We're going to go over there to win. It's a tall task, but we have a plan. I think if we go over there and execute our plan and work our tails off, we'll have a great chance to win."
Mitchell has reason for confidence.
His team, after all, enters Sunday's 1 p.m. ET trip to Columbia, S.C., with a No. 10 ranking, a 14-2 record and two wins over top-10 opponents. The Cats, in spite of playing without senior defensive stopper Bria Goss, are off to the same 3-0 start to Southeastern Conference play as South Carolina (15-0).
UK, in other words, is pretty good too.
"To think that we are some prohibitive underdog here and we don't have a chance to win - now could we go over there and lose? There is no question," Mitchell said. "If we don't play well. We are certainly not going over there to just give it all we've got and hopefully hang in there with them. We're going in there to win."
But to win, the Cats will have to adhere strictly to the plan Mitchell mentioned, especially inside. UK will be at a size disadvantage against the Gamecocks, who feature four players 6-foot-4 or taller and block an average of 6.2 shots per game, which means it will have compensate in other areas.
"We are going to have to play real strategically sound basketball, which you can't do in the post against them," Mitchell said. "You just can't go in there without a plan. You can't just go in and shoot the ball around the basket. You've got to have some focus on some technical things you need to do to guard the post. You can't just go chest to chest with them and challenge them."
The likes of Aleighsha Welch, Alaina Coates and freshman A'ja Wilson will have a field day if the Cats try that. Dawn Staley's group might be ranked higher than it ever has been before, but the team doesn't look all that different to Mitchell, and he means that in a good way. He would know since the Gamecocks are a permanent conference rival, meaning two annual matchups between the two teams.
"When you play somebody twice a year, you get to know them, and no matter where they're ranked, if they're ranked No. 1 or we have played them when they are unranked, it just doesn't matter," Mitchell said. "They're always real tough. Always play together, always play real hard, always make it tough on you to score. So really, they're doing the same things that South Carolina has become known for."
Rebounding, of course, is one of those things.
The Gamecocks are outrebounding opponents by an average of 11 per game, which is of particular concern considering the Cats were just bested on the boards 45-35 in a win over Auburn on Thursday. With that in mind, UK will go to work.
"We've just got to figure out a way to be a good box-out team," Mitchell said. "Listen, if we don't rebound well Sunday, it'll be a long day. They can just reach over you and go get the ball, so rebounding will be really important and we'll do everything that we can today and Saturday morning and Sunday morning to remind them and we'll go out there and see if we can make some improvements from Thursday night into Sunday afternoon."
To that end, Mitchell and his coaching staff reviewed film from the Auburn game and counted missed box-out assignments. The guilty parties were then assigned to run based on those missed assignments.
A few weeks ago, the Cats had to do something similar when turnovers became an issue. They have responded, most notably by committing 15 or fewer turnovers in three SEC wins, which suggest similar improvement on the glass is possible.
"This group has shown some ability that once they start focusing in on something, that they can do some things and correct some things," Mitchell said. "We've corrected our turnovers so far in league play, so hopefully, we can have that kind of improvement on rebounds."
UK Hoops is off to a quick start to the 2014-15 season, but rarely has that been the case in any single game.
The Wildcats have been consistently sluggish out of the gate, even in their best wins of the season, which Matthew Mitchell knew was unsustainable if they wanted to reach their goals.
On a bitterly cold Thursday night, UK reversed the trend.
"I thought we got off to a very good start," Mitchell said. "I will tell you the kids worked really hard this week on their games and on their minds. We tried to improve, so hopefully all of the hard work paid off with a good start."
Hosting Auburn, the Cats grabbed leads of 9-4 and eventually 21-10. The Tigers would battle back, but UK's lead never dipped below seven points en route to a 78-57 win in Memorial Coliseum to move to 14-2 (3-0 Southeastern Conference).
"I think we did a good job of starting off strong this game," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored 17 points due in large part to her five made 3s. "Usually we start out real flat or real slow, but we started off faster than we normally do, which got us off to a good pace."
UK's focus after a Sunday win over Ole Miss on improvement wasn't limited to getting off to a quick start.
In that victory over the Rebels, Mitchell was forced to rely on O'Neill, Janee Thompson, Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper to play a combined 140 minutes due to unpredictable post play. All week and against Auburn, Kentucky's young bigs took steps forward.
"I thought we played a little bit better tonight at times," Mitchell said. "They worked real hard. They've worked really, really hard since our game Sunday. They put a lot of time into it. We still have a lot of improvement that we need to make, but we're working like crazy to try to get up to speed."
Included in that group is Azia Bishop, the veteran of the group. The senior, now trying to step into a leadership role, says she's never worked harder.
"(Assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou pushes us really, really hard," said Bishop, who had eight points, 10 rebounds, five blocks and four steals. "We get in before practice, after practice, before games and he believes us a lot and he motivates us really well. So I think that this is the toughest year for me, but I think it's helping me and it's going to help me in the long run."
Though UK is more consistent in the backcourt, the guards haven't been excused from the hard work, most notably in taking care of the basketball. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Cats committed 20 or more turnovers six times. In the last six, they haven't done it once, including three straight in SEC play with 15 or fewer.
Considering Auburn was forcing 21.6 miscues per game with its full-court press and UK turned it over just 12 times against the Tigers, it's clear the Cats are on the right track.
"I'm just happy that we have been able to show some maturity in that area," Mitchell said. "I've really faulted the team throughout the year about our lack of maturity. It shows that they have taken it seriously."
With a trip to face an unbeaten, top-ranked and overwhelmingly big South Carolina team on Sunday looming, the next order of business is to address rebounding. UK was bested on the boards by a count of 45-35 against Auburn, but with the way the Cats dedicated themselves earlier this week, there's no reason to think they can't progress in that area against the Gamecocks.
"I can't tell you how hard the players and the coaches have worked this week and we're just fighting every day to try to get better and see if we can become a good team," Mitchell said.
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a road matchup with Texas A&M on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari took a new approach to the holiday break this year.
For this edition of the practices, workouts and film sessions known affectionately (or un-affectionately, depending on who's talking) as Camp Cal, Calipari shifted the focus from team to individual. He asked his players to name an area of their game they wanted to add or improve before the end of the season and committed to helping them do it.
Willie Cauley-Stein said he wanted to handle the ball more effectively. Andrew Harrison picked out his mid-range shot as an area for growth. So too did Dakari Johnson, who even attempted one such shot in Kentucky's first game after the break.
"I kind of scrunched, like, 'Phew, not now,' " Calipari said. "But we've been working on that. That's one of the things he's added to his game. So I can't now work on it with him and then tell him not to do it."
Johnson's shot, which missed, came in the second half of an overtime win over Ole Miss with UK up just two, so it's only natural Calipari cringed a bit when his bruising 7 footer decided to show off his newfound range. So then, does that reveal he may have erred in changing things up for a team that had steamrolled through its first 13 games?
Ahead of a Saturday trip to Texas A&M (9-4, 0-1 Southeastern Conference), Coach Cal thinks not.
"I'm not backing up," Calipari said. "Each individual by the end of this year, I want you to look at and say, 'He is a better player.' Every one of these guys you look at: 'He is a better player.' And if that happens, then our team has grown, we're doing all the kind of stuff we need to do."
Karl-Anthony Towns, meanwhile, acknowledges there's a balancing act for UK (14-0, 1-0 SEC) in adding new individual elements, but he's on board with Calipari's point of view. He used one familiar phrase and a new metaphor in the span of a sentence to make his point.
"Of course, but at the same time, if it's not broke, don't fix it, but if the pencil is good enough to use, why not make it sharper?" Towns said. "We can still do a lot of things to improve your game and make it even a more valuable part and asset to your game. That's my thing. I just want to make sure I continue growing and doing new things, but also, like I said, make the pencil sharper."
It's not as if the pencil was dull to begin with, which is why the fact that UK played its first close game after Camp Cal might concern some. Once again, Calipari isn't buying in. He just wants to make sure the new focus doesn't detract from what has made UK so dominant.
"My thing was not 'it's not broke, don't fix it,' " Calipari said. "It was did they focus more on what we were trying to teach them individually and got away from the energy that they need to play with? I'm going to talk about it today. But I'm still -- I'm telling them, 'I'm counting on you to bring energy.' "
If nothing else, Ole Miss proved the Wildcats don't have any choice but to bring energy if they want to keep that unblemished record much longer.
"It was definitely a wake-up call for all of us, I think," Trey Lyles said. "They're going to come out and play that much harder against us. It's SEC play now, very physical. I'd say it was the most physical game we played so far this year and we're going to get every team's best shot so we just have to be prepared for it."
That "everybody's Super Bowl" thing goes to another level on the road, too, and that's exactly where UK will go this weekend against the Aggies. Fortunately for the Cats, they have some experience to call on from their win at Louisville on Dec. 27.
"I learned we really just have to come out with energy," Towns said. "No matter where we are, we have to take control of the game from the get. If we can do that we can have a lot easier time during the game. If we allow the opponent to be the aggressor, it can be a rough night for us."
A&M dropped its SEC opener against Alabama, 65-44, but did so without leading scorer and rebounder Jalen Jones, who missed the game due to a sprained ankle suffered Jan. 3. Second-leading scorer Danuel House was also limited to 21 minutes after picking up two early fouls.
"They're great at pick-and-rolls," Calipari said. "They've got players at every position that can score. They're playing a pack-line defense, man-to-man. They'll also play a tandem zone like all these teams are now playing us. So, they're going to come in with one thought: Let's slow these guys down. They'll run offense. They'll shoot it quick when they get into transition, but they're going to make us play in the half court. They're a good team."
UK will have to respond, and there's only one way to do it.
"It's all effort and energy, but these guys are young," Calipari said. "What we're asking them to do is really hard. They'd rather not do it. They'd rather do it their way: Let me jog and stand straight up and shoot a fade away. You just can't win playing that way."
Vince Marrow signed a contract extension through 2018 to stay at UK. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The offer was tough to pass up.
Jim Harbaugh, one of the most respected coaches in the game, was returning to his alma mater, Michigan, to resurrect the winningest program in college football history. So when Harbaugh called Vince Marrow to offer him a job, Marrow had to listen.
Marrow, however, just couldn't leave what he was helping to build at Kentucky. More importantly, he just couldn't leave the people he was building with.
"Michigan, being a Midwest guy and being from Ohio, it was very tempting," Marrow said on Wednesday, "but it was just my relationship here with the administration and our staff and even the kids that I have coming in this year and the kids that I have recruited the last two years played a big part of that."
On Monday, Marrow signed a contract extension that will keep him at UK through the end of the 2018 season as tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. The news ended a week of speculation about whether Marrow would stay or leave.
"The last three days I couldn't really go anywhere without people saying things to me," Marrow said. "We were in church and the guy doing the offering said something, that is how deep it got. Relationships played a big part to just be honest with you guys."
Building relationships is the biggest reason why Marrow has developed a reputation as an ace recruiter, establishing a pipeline to Ohio and reeling in 14 prospects in UK's 2013 and 2014 signing classes. As for the 2015 recruits who have already pledged to come to Kentucky, even they were a little surprised he told Michigan thanks but no thanks after sleepless nights last weekend.
"I know that a lot of our recruits were very fired up because for some reason they just assumed I was gone," Marrow said. "I told people that it wasn't a slam dunk and a lot of people were saying that it was a slam dunk I was going."
Marrow, at the end of the day, had invested too much in Mark Stoops' vision for the future of UK football to leave even for an opportunity like the one he passed up. And with an athletics department so willing to invest in Marrow, as well as in more than $150 million in ongoing facility upgrades, he sees that vision become reality.
"It shows that our athletics director, Mitch (Barnhart), the route he is going, our administration and it shows were the program is going and I believe in that wholeheartedly," Marrow said. "You look at the stadium renovations and just at the type of support that we have been getting over the last two years here. That always plays a big part in it."
His decision made, Marrow's attention goes back to recruiting. He played a crucial role in securing classes ranked 17th and 29th by Rivals.com in the past two seasons, the two best classes in the history of the recruiting service. Marrow expects similar success come signing day in February.
"We are going to finish strong just like we did the last two years," Marrow said. "We have a couple more slots that we have to fill and it is just a situation where I know with me staying here a lot of those guys were very fired up to see that. We will see where we are going to finish, but I feel pretty good about it though. It is going to be pretty good."