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.
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."
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.
The life of a freshman under Matthew Mitchell is not always easy.
The demands placed on newcomers in terms of effort and execution, particularly on the defensive end, make playing a major role from day one very difficult at Kentucky.
It didn't happen immediately for Linnae Harper, but the Chicago native is getting there 13 games into her collegiate career.
"I definitely think it took a lot of work, transitioning from high school to college," Harper said. "The speed is really different, but I'm now starting to get in my groove."
In a nonconference finale -- a 109-46 blowout win over Grambling State (3-8) -- Harper had 15 points and seven rebounds for No. 6/6 UK (12-1). After she scored in double figures just three times in her first nine games, the former McDonald's All-American has done so in three of her last four outings to boost her scoring average to 7.7 points per game.
The ability has always been there -- Harper, after all, is the highest-rated recruit in UK Hoops history -- but she is only now figuring out how to push through inevitable miscues.
"Really I think my mentality, just coming from high school to college and making a mistake and holding your head down," Harper said. "But I think each day in practice and the games and just having more experience is helping me with that. If I make mistake, just to know to push through it."
Harper's emergence has coincided with the absence of DeNesha Stallworth, who is targeting a return in the next two weeks. An injury to the star senior forward cut UK's rotation down to 10 players and opened up an opportunity for additional playing time. Harper, as well as fellow freshman Makayla Epps, has capitalized.
"We've had some injuries on this team and I think Makayla and Linnae have really stepped up," said Bria Goss, who posted a career-high 23 points against Grambling State.
Epps joined Harper in double figures with 10 points and added seven rebounds, showcasing the bright future, in both the short and long term, of UK Hoops as the Wildcats enter Southeastern Conference play next Thursday at Alabama.
"I think both of them have so much ability, so much talent and that's why we're so optimistic about their future here and so glad they're here," Mitchell said. "They're going to be really good players."
Neither Harper nor Epps, however, is hiding from the fact that there is a great deal of work ahead. That may be daunting, but it's also reason to be encouraged.
"I think that there's still a lot of room for improvement, although they're both doing so well right now," Goss said. "I think that just tells you where the team is. I'm really excited to see where they can be and where they will be. They're both very competitive and that's what we need on the court every day."
Alex Poythress and Kentucky defeated Louisville on Saturday at Rupp Arena, 73-66. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Their superstar was lost for the rest of the game with cramping in his left leg and their momentum was slipping with Louisville back in the game because of a stingy 2-3 zone.
If ever these Kentucky Wildcats were going to take the next step in their evolution, it was now, in the heart of another classic Dream Game matchup, with the game teetering back and forth.
No. 18/18 UK, in search of its first win over a top-25 opponent this season, got the marquee victory it's been looking for and maybe quite a bit more in a thrilling 73-66 victory over its archrival, No. 6/4 Louisville, on Saturday in front of a season-high 24,396 boisterous fans at Rupp Arena.
"We grew up today," John Calipari said.
They grew up together.
A day earlier, Coach Cal said his players would have to look like a team to overcome the defending national champions' relentless pressure. He told his team the same thing in the pregame meeting, ditching his normal basketball-centered keys for three all-encompassing lessons instead.
On the whiteboard, Calipari wrote: Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.
"There was no, let's guard your pick and roll," Coach Cal said. "Let's do it, just the team."
Perhaps for the first time this season, the Cats (10-3) did all three.
"Big game for us," said freshman guard James Young, who was named the game's most valuable player by the Bluegrass Sports Commission after recording his first career double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds). "We wanted to come out and show everybody that we're a good team and we're starting to mature a little bit. That's what we did."
It took an injury to their best player to bring out the best in Kentucky.
Julius Randle looked unstoppable during the first half, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, providing the Cats with a 41-36 lead. Louisville's Chris Jones kept the Cardinals close with a 15 first-half points, but UK dominated the glass in the first 20 minutes (25-14), broke U of L's pressure and answered an 8-0 Cardinal run to start the game.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly in a crazed, raucous atmosphere at Rupp Arena until Randle came up limping minutes into the second half. The freshman forward, who had already reached double-figure scoring for the 13th consecutive game, left the floor and headed to the locker room to get treatment for the cramping.
Randle re-entered the game twice over the next several minutes, but both times, unable to hardly move, he had to take himself out.
"They gave him like three bags of IV and the doc was squeezing it in to try to get him in because I was saying, 'Get him back,' " Calipari said.
Randle never came back, and when he left the floor for good at the 11:01 mark and Louisville regained the lead, the Cats' chances at a much-needed quality win appeared to be slipping away.
"I didn't even recognize he wasn't there," Coach Cal said. "I just coached the game. We have enough guys."
Instead of wilting, the rest of the guys answered with a game-defining - perhaps season-defining - 15-5 run. UK led 66-56 at that point with 5:21 left in the game, and outside of several nerve-wracking misses at the free-throw line in the final moments, the Cats never looked back.
"I feel like we took some punches with Julius going down and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "It just showed our resilience and that we can do anything."
Harrison, who has been criticized at times this season for his inconsistent play and poor body language, was at his best when UK needed him the most in the second half. As U of L slowed the tempo down and Randle sat back in the locker room, Harrison steadied the offense and came up with arguably the game's best play, a sweet spin move off the baseline for an old-fashioned 3-point play and a 58-53 lead.
The freshman point guard scored 11 second-half points as momentum was swinging, giving him a career-high 18 points.
"That's just showing how much heart this team has," Harrison said. "I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we would win this game. Going against a great team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
Alex Poythress played a huge role off the bench in filling in for Randle. The sophomore forward scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds while providing the exclamation point with a two-hand dunk with 1:41 to play.
"Alex was unbelievable, but he's been doing it in practice," Coach Cal said. "He's never been like this. And I thought he was great."
No surprise, the dunk materialized because of a baseline pass from Harrison.
"He could have tried to shoot that," Calipari said. "That dunk basically put it to 10 and kind of put it out of reach."
Harrison turned the ball over just three times against arguably the nation's best defensive team. As a whole, the Cats committed just 11 turnovers and held a plus-two turnover margin against the Cardinals', who entered the matchup with the nation's top turnover margin.
Calipari said his team's whole focus in practice this week was avoiding U of L's runs by hanging on to the ball.
"If you cannot negate the press and they are getting steals and dunks and 3s and all that, you are not going to beat them," Coach Cal said. "They are going to beat you by 25. That's what we tried to do, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job of it."
Young, who hit all three of UK's 3-pointers, called the victory a turning point for the young and learning Kentucky group.
"From here on out, we're going to be a really good team and we're just going to fight the whole game and not take quarters off and plays off and just keep fighting," Young said.
To guard against complacency, Calipari said his players will get no break during a long, 10-day stretch without any games. The Cats will be up at 6 p.m. Sunday for the start of Camp Cal.
The way Calipari sees it, the growth of this team has only just begun.
"This team is becoming a good team," said Calipari, who improved to 5-1 against Louisville as UK's head coach. "We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."
UK Athletics made steady progress toward Mitch Barnhart's goal of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in his first nine years, but only once did Wildcat student-athletes reach the mark.
Two years later, what was once a rare feat has become the norm.
For the third consecutive semester, UK Athletics posted a cumulative GPA better than 3.0. UK's competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a fall 2013 GPA of 3.088. It is the second-highest mark of the Barnhart era, trailing only the spring semester of 2013. UK began its streak of three consecutive semesters with a GPA of better than 3.0 with a 3.030 in fall 2012.
"Reaching a 3.0 GPA as a department is now expected, but that doesn't make it any less of an accomplishment," Barnhart said. "I am proud of the way our student-athletes have sustained their success in the classroom and even prouder of the way they have embraced academics as an important part of the UK experience." **SEE BELOW FOR COMPLETE GRADE INFORMATION BY SPORT**
Sixteen of UK's 20 teams had GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by women's tennis at 3.727. Women's cross country (3.608), softball (3.608) and women's swimming and diving (3.533) joined women's tennis in exceeding 3.5. Leading all Wildcat men's teams was men's tennis at 3.443.
Of the 12 teams that competed in regular-season play during the fall, 10 had GPAs of better than 3.0. That includes the men's basketball team at 3.038, marking the fourth straight semester in which John Calipari's program has had a GPA better than 3.0.
"Thanks to the work of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, I believe we are moving in the right direction in all facets of our program," Barnhart said. "We are coming off our first top-25 Directors' Cup finish ever last year and we are still out to prove strong athletics and academics can go together."
Dominique Hawkins and his fellow freshmen will face Louisville for the first time on Saturday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
It's become an annual guessing game, trying to predict how John Calipari's latest crop of freshmen will react to facing archrival Louisville for the first time.
DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Archie Goodwin all starred in their Dream Game debuts. Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Nerlens Noel, on other hand, had quiet games as they learned the intensity of the intra-state showdown firsthand.
Another group of youngsters will be going through that process again on Saturday in Rupp Arena, but there's one freshman who already has a good idea what he's getting into.
"It's a rivalry team that usually Kentucky fans don't like at all," Dominique Hawkins said of the Cardinals. "And this win's probably one of the biggest wins just for a regular-season game."
Hawkins, a Richmond, Ky., native, knows what he's talking about because he grew up a UK fan. While he was home for Christmas, his mother reminded him of a UK-U of L game during his youth that gives some insight into the emotion woven into the fabric of the rivalry.
"My mom just told me that I was crying one game," Hawkins said. "I can't really remember, but I think I was really little when I was crying that game." The freshman guard spent much of his childhood dreaming of wearing Kentucky blue against the Cardinals, but as recently as this spring it seemed unlikely he would ever get that chance. After playing his way into a scholarship offer at the Sweet Sixteen in March, Hawkins is living a Bluegrass dream.
"It's hard to describe what it really means to me because as a kid growing up in Kentucky you want to be able to play for Kentucky and play against Louisville and hopefully beat them," Hawkins said. "It just means a lot to me."
Hawkins has tried to tell his teammates about the rivalry and so has Willie Cauley-Stein, who made his first-career start a season ago in Coach Cal's only loss to U of L during his UK tenure. Cauley-Stein, however, knows there's only so much that can be said.
"This year is different because when you're a freshman coming in, you don't have the rivalry because really you don't really know about Kentucky or Louisville," Cauley-Stein said. "You're stuck between five different schools that you're thinking about going to so until you've been here for a year or you've lived in the state, you don't know about the rivalry."
Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young and Marcus Lee never have, so they're in for a sort of baptism by fire at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Turnovers, rebounding potential keys
Louisville enters the annual rivalry showdown ranked highly in both major polls, but the Cardinals are No. 1 by a fairly wide margin according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical rankings.
The biggest reason? Turnovers.
U of L is second nationally in both offensive and defensive turnover rate and is the only team to rank in the top 25 in both categories. The Cardinals force turnovers on 26.7 percent of their defensive possessions while giving the ball away on offense just 13.2 percent of the time.
The result is lots of extra possessions and lots of extra shots for an already efficient U of L offense. The Cardinals average nearly 10 more field-goal attempts per game than their opponents.
UK, meanwhile, has been inconsistent taking care of the ball. The Cats have committed turnovers on 18.8 percent of their offensive possessions and have committed 17 or more turnovers in four games already this season, including in defeats against Michigan State and North Carolina.
The Cats have made up for their turnovers by creating extra opportunities by crashing the offensive glass. UK leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 45.7. U of L is ninth at 41.5.
"They pose a lot of problems for us," Rick Pitino said. "One is they're the tallest team in America and in size certainly. We have a thin front court in terms of numbers and we're not overly big, so their size is going to pose problems for us."
The two teams are also nearly identical in defensive rebounding percentage, meaning the team that exerts its will on the glass will gain a significant edge.
"Big," said Calipari when he was asked of the importance of rebounding. "They're a good offensive rebounding team and so are we. That will be one of those battles." Calipari, Pitino keeping UK-U of L in perspective
Calipari has coached in more than his fair share of hyped regular-season games, but Memphis-Tennessee stands out.
During the 2007-08 season, No. 2 Tennessee took down Coach Cal's No. 1 Memphis team on the road in front of a sellout crowd and the largest television audience in ESPN history.
"It came down, and the game was so high powered, I can't begin to tell you how fast and how aggressive," Calipari said, "and we had a lead, they made a shot, we missed a shot, they made a shot, late at the buzzer, we missed a shot, they won."
The win propelled the Volunteers to their first-ever No. 1 ranking, but Tennessee lost three times in its final nine games and saw its season end in the Sweet 16. Memphis, on the other hand, wouldn't drop another decision until the national championship game.
All that's to say that final judgment won't be passed on UK or U of L until later, no matter the outcome.
"I coached eight years at Kentucky and I'm going on 13 (at Louisville), so I've seen 21 contests," Pitino said. "There's only been one big game for me and that was when they took our national championship away two years ago (in the Final Four)."
Of course fans from the winning side will enjoy bragging rights and neither Calipari nor Pitino is dismissing that. They're just looking at the bigger picture.
"This is just a very big game on your schedule, and it should be enjoyed," Pitino said. "I know the players enjoy it, but it's much more important for the fans than it is for the players."
Comparing UNC losses
From youth vs. inexperience to size vs. quickness, much has been made of the differences between Kentucky and Louisville.
The teams, however, have one thing in common: losses to North Carolina.
UK fell 82-77 on the road in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 14, while U of L suffered its only defeat against the Tar Heels at a neutral site on Nov. 24, 93-84.
Taking stock of the two games, both were fast-paced (78 possessions for UNC-U of L, 74 for UK-UNC) and the Tar Heels were efficient offensively both times, scoring 1.19 points per possession against U of L and 1.11 against UK. Both games were foul-heavy as well, with at least 50 combined fouls and 63 combined free throws in each.
The primary difference, as you might expect, came in turnovers and rebounding. UK held a 44-32 rebounding edge against UNC, but committed 17 turnovers to the Tar Heels 9. U of L was outrebounded 40-35 but was even in turnovers, 14-14.
UK will host No. 6/4 Louisville at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky-Louisville is always a big game, the biggest on the schedule in the eyes of the fans.
The two teams could enter the matchup without a win and without any relevancy on the national landscape and the arena would still be sold-out and the game would still be televised across the nation.
"This is the one game everybody in Kentucky looks forward to," sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. "This is the one game they circle on their calendar."
This year the importance takes on new meaning for the Kentucky Wildcats, who enter the annual Dream Game matchup ranked 18th in both polls but lacking what many people, including John Calipari, would call a marquee win.
"This schedule that we've played is top-heavy to this point and there are games that we won that are good wins for us, but they're not a team that's in the top five or top 10," Calipari said Friday.
Enter Louisville, the defending national champions, which will walk into Rupp Arena on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on CBS) with an 11-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.
Opportunities like Saturday were rife on UK's early-season schedule, but they're not so prevalent on the Cats' (9-3) Southeastern Conference slate. After Louisville, only two of UK's remaining opponents - No. 13/14 Florida and No. 25/25 Missouri - reside in either of the major polls at the moment.
"How many opportunities we have at games like that, how many are we going to have from here on in?" Calipari wondered out loud Friday. "Just not that many opportunities."
Hence, the heightened stakes for Saturday's showdown in Rupp Arena.
To this point, Kentucky has been good but not the great team it was billed to be when it was tabbed the preseason No. 1 team in the country. UK boasts decent wins over Providence (10-2), Boise State (8-3, RPI rank of 36) and Belmont (defeated North Carolina), but the Cats are 0-3 against teams ranked in the top 25.
Those three losses to nationally ranked Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina came by a combined 14 points and away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.
"They're all top-10 teams," Coach Cal said. "It's pretty hard to beat those guys. And obviously we're not -- three minutes to go in all those games, it's a one-point game and we were right there -- we're not ready to win those games yet. This team in February is not going to be what it is right now. Guys will get it."
The problem is there may be few opportunities at that point in the season to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, though Calipari said it's too early to think about things like that.
"It's only a big game if we win," said Coach Cal, who is 4-1 against Louisville since becoming the Kentucky head coach. "If not, it was the next game, move on."
Louisville isn't necessarily swimming in signature wins either -- of the Cardinals' 11 wins, just three are against the top 100 -- but Louisville won't suffer from a perception of quality-less wins because of its returning national championship experience.
"We're both going to have quality wins before March," Rick Pitino said. "We know it's a big game, so we're not concerning ourselves with quality win because we're going to have some before March. We don't know what a quality win is yet. Kentucky, I consider Belmont a quality win, and I think they've played three very difficult teams."
To the national pundits, a win for Kentucky over a quality opponent like Louisville would go a long way toward restoring the preseason faith in this still talent-rich team. More importantly for the Wildcats, it would prove to themselves they've still got the pieces to be a special team.
"It's important to me because it's a big game for us and we gotta prove that we can take on top teams," Hawkins said. "We haven't beat a ranked team, and so it would be a great improvement for us if we can win this game."
Asked if their desire to prove themselves in a game like Saturday's was a reflection of internal doubts of their preseason merits, Poythress said no.
"We just want to play like we've got a chip on our shoulder, to say we're still here, we're still a great team," Poythress said.
To prove they are a great team, Calipari said the Cats will have to "look like a team."
"The winning will take care of itself if we look more like a team, if we play with more energy, and when adversity hits, we respond to it in a positive way," he said.
Louisville is so good because it has some of those defining qualities, Calipari said. The Cardinals know what their roles are and accept them. Some players shoot more than others for Louisville, other guys do the rebounding and the dirty work, but collectively, Calipari said the Cards are all on the same page.
"The guy on our team who does his role better than anyone else is Dominique," Coach Cal said. "What his team needs him to do, he does. And so we're trying now to get everybody else to understand: Do you know what you have to do to help our team become better?"
A team effort will certainly go a long ways against one of the nation's top defenses. With Pitino's signature full-court press and stingy zone, Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-9.4 a game.
The turnovers lead to easy baskets for an offense that doesn't need any help. With a cast of Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan, the Cards rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
"They play in fourth and fifth gear," Calipari said. "Here they come, so if you stop at any point, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, you stopped playing.' It is really evident. ... If they see weakness, if they see blood, they're coming."
Kentucky has shown more weaknesses than many thought it would at this point in the season, but Saturday's game offers a chance to press the reset button, if you will. Win or lose, the Cats' season-long goals will remain in front of them, but there's no game like a rivalry game to prove one's self.
"We'll see where we are against a top opponent," Calipari said. "We'll see, and we'll figure out from there where we gotta go. Are we farther along than we thought? Maybe. Are we behind where we thought? Maybe. When you're talking about a team like this, it' more or less the progress and you just take steps along the way."
UK will play its final nonconference game of the 2013-14 season on Sunday vs. Grambling State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Of course he wanted to beat Duke on Sunday, but had you offered Matthew Mitchell a 12-1 run through a challenging pre-conference slate before the season, he would have taken the deal without hesitation.
On Sunday, UK Hoops will have a shot at exactly that.
"It'll be important for us to practice well to get ready for Grambling State to see if we can close out," Mitchell said. "If we are able to earn a victory it will really be a great nonconference season for us."
The No. 6 Wildcats (11-1) will play host to Grambling State (3-7) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET in their final tune-up before Southeastern Conference play. The opponent might not have the name recognition of Louisville or Baylor -- both of which UK has defeated this month -- but the Cats will have to be ready.
"Grambling State is a very quick, athletic team," Mitchell said. "They really like to push the ball in transition, so that will be a challenge for us to sharpen up our transition defense that we had some breakdowns in, in the last game, so we're going to be working hard on that."
Grambling State uses a deep rotation, but guard Joanna Miller is on the floor most all the time. The senior is averaging a team-high 18.2 points and 36.6 minutes, while senior forward Victoya Ricks is averaging 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
The Cats, however, are focused on themselves more than anyone else.
UK is entering a vital portion of its schedule during the semester break. The Cats returned to campus after a short break for Christmas and now will be focusing on basketball and basketball alone until classes resume.
Mitchell reported on Friday that his team posted a cumulative grade-point average of 3.1, the result of hours of work during the fall semester. They'll get back to it in the classroom on Jan. 15 but until then the Cats will look to make strides on the floor in the additional time they will spend together.
"... I think what will really tell the tale for us in conference will be how good can we practice over the next couple weeks because we need to make up some ground defensively and we need to sharpen up our press," Mitchell said. "We're going to work really hard on that today."
UK will devote individual practices to work on both ends of the floor, also spending plenty of time working on free throws. The Cats are shooting just 66.6 percent from the line through 12 games, including 21 for 48 over their lost two outings.
Against Duke in particular, missed free throws were costly. UK missed 11 of its 19 attempts in a game that was ultimately decided by just eight points.
"You're not going to beat a team of Duke's caliber shooting 8 for 19 many times," Mitchell said. "You may shoot poorly, it happens; you can win games shooting poorly sometimes, but over the course of the season we need to shoot free throws better."
Mitchell was sure to say he believes his team is capable of shooting well from the line and his solution to recent woes is simple.
"This morning they're lifting right now and then we'll go right into the gym and have a free-throw session," Mitchell said. "It's nothing but holding them accountable."
He will do that by setting goals.
For example, the Cats were called on to him 80 percent from the line on Friday morning. If they fell short, they would have to shoot more free throws following evening practice. The ultimate goal is to shoot 78 percent as a team in games.
"We're just trying to get reps, mental focus, and mental preparation," Mitchell said.