Jon Hood participated in UK's Senior Night festivities on Tuesday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Today we hear from Jon Hood, who reflects on his five-year UK career two days after Senior Night.
Without wasting any time, let's just get right into it.
Tuesday night was a special experience for me. Arriving here five years ago at basically the same time Coach Cal did and finally ending my college career at Rupp was - I wouldn't say emotional - but very special for me. It brought back a lot of memories.
Yesterday was the first time when it really hit me that Senior Night was the last time I was going to be able to wear the white jersey at home. It hit me walking from class to shoot-around that this was the last shoot-around at home. I started thinking about all the guys I've played with over the years and who would have been there with me Senior Night had they stuck around. I thought about who would have been with me had I stayed four years and who would have been with me this year - guys like Brandon and Terrence.
I always get to Rupp early to get some shots up, but Tuesday was even more special for me because my dad was there. Dad came just because he's never seen me shoot before the games like that and warm up and then go out and play. It was really special having him there with me. It was almost like the old days where we would spend time together in an empty gym. It was just the lights, an empty arena, me and Dad again. That really meant a lot to me that he was there and that he could come down on the floor and rebound for me for a little bit.
Being a Kentucky kid, born and raised, the Senior Night ceremonies were really, really special for me. Being able to walk out through the hoop - through my face basically - onto the court and sharing that moment with my family, Jarrod - one of my best friends - and his family, it makes it all the more special. And then to hear "My Old Kentucky Home" played by a couple of buddies of mine and listen to them put their own little twist on it made it unforgettable.
Once we started going through warm-ups, I tried to keep everything the same, just messing with little kids in the crowd, tossing them the ball, throwing it back to them and then shooting -- try to get them an assist. That's something I've always done for a couple years. It was just going through warm-ups like it was the last time that I was going to be able to do it, just having as much as fun as I could with the crowd and with Jarrod.
Pregame intros were certainly different for me because I hadn't started a game in five years. It's really fun to hear your name called and get up and hear the crowd go crazy for you. You're hitting everybody on the way out and you get to the huddle and we do our little swaying motion, whatever it is, and then it's sit back down in front of Coach one more time, get the final instructions and go play.
When we went over to the huddle for our final talk with Cal, it was nerve-wracking because it was all new to me. It brought all the anxiety back. I had to tell myself, "OK, calm down, take deep breaths, you'll be OK, just play like you know how and shoot when you're open."
I'm glad one of my AAU buddies was on the other team because he actually calmed me down a little bit. Before the game started we walked out to the jump ball circle and Levi Randolph, who played with me with the Nashville Celtics, was standing right next to me. He looked at me, smiled, just kind of shook his head and said, "You've been here forever. Congrats." He said, "We've come a long way since playing in Nashville, haven't we?' I said, "Yeah," and we joked for a little bit while we were waiting for the TV guys to say it was OK to play.
The next thing you know, we went out and I found myself in the corner open for 3. I'm not one to run away from or shy away from an open shot, so I took it. It felt good when it left my hand and I knocked it down. I heard the crowd go nuts and everyone going crazy, but you don't really realize what's going on in a moment like that. I tried to block out how big the night was while I was in there and just tried to make it a game and just tried to have as much fun as possible. That's what the game's all about is having fun. If you don't have fun, there's no reason to play.
Everybody has something different they do when they hit a 3 these days. Carmelo taps the 3 to his head and we used to do the 3 goggles, but it's different this year. I told Jarrod I was going to do something different if I got the opportunity so I did my little holster motion. After I did it, I looked at him as we're running back down the court and he gives me one little quick glance, smiles and shakes his head. And then we just started playing. I thought the second and third ones that I took were also going to go down, too. They felt good when they left my hand; I just left them a little bit short.
It's a shame my last in-game shot in Rupp Arena never counted when they called my 3-pointer off because of a shot-clock violation. When I put that shot up, I thought it was going to him the rim, but then it bounced off the backboard and went straight in. I thought I made it and then the ref that was standing right next to me comes in waving it off like it was a huge call.
I'm sure you've all seen pictures of me going crazy. I wanted them to check the monitor because there was no doubt about it: It left my hand well before time expired. I've gotten four or five pictures today of different angles of it with the clock in the background and the space in between my fingertips and the ball. But that's part of the game. It's human error so you've just got to live with it.
Obviously we needed that win after losing two in a row. We've only lost two in a row a few times in my five-year career here, so we were kind of rattled Tuesday night. We just needed to pick it up and needed to get a win under our belt so we could have some confidence.
Confidence is the reason why I think we're missing some shots, which happens sometimes with young guys. When you come in as a shooter and scorer, you have to have no conscience. You have to be able to forget about the last one you made and go make your next six. If you've missed 12 in a row, you have to be able to have that mindset to where you go crazy and you hit your next 40. That has to be what you think about. And some guys naturally have that; some guys don't. I think our guys do and will continue develop it over time.
I know there have been some doubts about us lately, but we are confident that we can still do this. We just have to go out and do it. It's not on anybody but us. We're perfectly capable. It's just basketball. It's what we've done our entire life. Late in the season is when teams start to pick up and come together, and I still believe that we can do that. I still believe that that is where this team could go and where we should go.
I was asked Tuesday what my favorite memory was other than the national championship, and I'd have to say it was that summer of 2009 in June and July during my freshman year when we were all playing pick-up together for the first time. Me, John, Eric, DeMarcus and Daniel all played on the same team and played against all the old guys like Darius, DeAndre, Pat, Josh, Ramon and Perry. We just had that swagger about us, a connection before we got here that we wanted to just keep building. (My all-time starting five would still be our freshman five.)
Those two months was probably my favorite time in my college career just because we played every day and every day we would compete, play, talk trash and win - unless of course Pat got hot. Just being able to play those two months and come back over at night when nobody was here, come in and turn the lights on and play two-on-two -the two Johns/Jons vs. the two Bama boys - that's something I'll always cherish. We would play until two or three in the morning, and after we got done we would walk out, walk back to the dorm and about halfway to the dorm we would decide it was time to go get something to eat.
Seeing those four guys leave after the year really took a toll on me because they were all I knew when I got here. Those four guys, they taught me that relationships are a big part of this sport and really just this world in general. And to me, that's what this has all been about. I know everyone wants this team to do well and believe me, we want this team to do well, but as I wrap up my five years here, I've realized there's a bigger picture to this whole thing. To me, it's about the relationships that you form with your teammates and the people you meet during your time here, including the fans.
That's what I will always remember about this place, and I just want to thank the best fans in the world for all of the support you have given me the last five years. It's been the best time in my life.
UK defeated Alabama on Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's Senior Night, 55-48. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It didn't have to be a work of art, but make no mistake: Only one result was an option on Tuesday night in Rupp Arena.
"At the end of the day, you and I know we just had to win this game," John Calipari said. "Didn't matter the score. Could have been a half-court bank shot."
Having lost two in a row and facing scrutiny unprecedented even for a team Calipari dubbed a few weeks ago the most overanalyzed in sports, Coach Cal admitted afterward UK had to beat Alabama. But it wasn't to quiet the critics or to satisfy fans.
The Wildcats needed a victory after what had happened to their emotional state in suffering defeats to Arkansas and South Carolina and facing the fire that followed.
"They got a little rattled," Calipari said.
UK didn't end up needing that half-court shot, but the Cats' 55-48 win over Alabama wasn't pretty either. Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson's 3-pointers to open the scoring for Kentucky may have seemed like a start to a storybook Senior Night, but the No. 25/24 (22-8, 12-5 Southeastern Conference) Cats would have to scratch and claw from start to finish to take down the Crimson Tide (12-18, 6-11 SEC).
"Obviously you guys saw, we definitely didn't play the best we could have played," Polson said. "It didn't help that we couldn't hit a shot for the most part of the game. We did what we had to do to win and I think just getting a win, honestly, was good for us no matter how it looked."
UK struggled from the field yet again in the win, shooting under 35 percent for the third game in a row. The Cats, however, were able to overcome numerous misses from around the basket with a 41-27 rebounding edge and 18-of-24 shooting from the free-throw line.
Julius Randle (12 points, 11 rebounds) posted his sixth double-double in seven outings, while Dakari Johnson provided a spark off the bench.
"I thought Dakari was outstanding," Calipari said.
The freshman -- who laughed with reporters about being in seventh grade when Hood began his UK career -- had nine points and five rebounds. He played a key role in the 20-6 run the Cats used to claim control in the first 10 minutes after halftime with both his play and his energy.
"It's just who I am," Johnson said. "I like to have fun on the court. Anything that has a positive impact on the team, I'm going to do it."
Johnson is coming off a national championship in his final high-school season and his freshman teammates experienced similar success as prep star. Polson and Hood, having spent a combined nine seasons at UK, just aren't accustomed to losing either.
That makes a little mental fragility after two losses in three days understandable.
"I think all of us were a little rattled to a certain degree," Hood said. "We just had to rediscover, redefine what we were and we did that to an extent tonight and now we gotta move forward."
Asked to clarify his meaning, Hood gave an answer that reflects his experience.
"Players are going to play," Hood said. "Coaches are going to coach. Officials are going to officiate. You can't get all boggled up with the officials and how they're calling the call or how the coach is on you, whatever. We're 18 year old men and above. I'm 22. We know how to play basketball at this point. Just gotta go play."
To Calipari, that simply means having fun.
"I just keep telling them, 'You have to have more fun than the other team,' " Calipari said. " 'You have to.' If we lose, I've said this for five years, who is taking responsibility? I will take responsibility. If we win, they get all the glory."
There's ample opportunity for glory in UK's regular-season finale on Saturday. The Cats will head to Gainesville, Fla., with a chance to end top-ranked Florida's unbeaten run through SEC play.
"We have a day off tomorrow, two days, a noon game down in Florida," Calipari said. "Absolute war. It will be a hard game for us. But it's a great game for us. It's exactly what this team needs."
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood will be honored at UK's Senior Night on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood grew up as so many youngsters in the Bluegrass do, dreaming of one day wearing a Kentucky uniform.
Nonetheless, their decisions to ultimately become Wildcats were very different.
Leading West Jessamine High School to the Sweet Sixteen, Polson played his way into a walk-on offer from John Calipari. Following in his father's footsteps as a lifelong UK fan, Polson didn't hesitate for a moment in bypassing a scholarship to play at Liberty.
"I knew that if I ever got the opportunity to play for Kentucky that I would always take it," Polson said.
Hood, on the other hand, was a blue-chip prospect from Madisonville, Ky., who drew interest from the likes of Florida, Duke and Tennessee. Kentucky was always on his list, but Hood was no lock to choose his home-state school.
"Once I started getting recruited it just became another school," Hood said. "And then Kentucky turned out to be the best fit for me, my family and where I should go. Now I'm here."
Not for much longer though.
On Tuesday, Polson and Hood will celebrate Senior Night before No. 25/24 UK (21-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) hosts Alabama (12-17, 6-10 SEC) in its home finale. Coach Cal confirmed on Monday the two fan favorites will start.
For Hood, it will be his first start in a UK uniform. Holding court for his pre-Senior Night press conference, Hood was asked whether he questions his decision to stick it out at Kentucky rather than transferring elsewhere to play a featured role. Hood was quick to say he has "no regrets at all."
"I wouldn't trade this for anything," Hood said. "My experience and my five years here have been the best time in my life. I don't know, I guess it's kind of hitting me right now that it's coming to an end."
Both Hood and Polson are the last men standing from their respective incoming classes. Most of their freshman classmates have all gone on to the NBA, which makes the combined nine years the two have spent Lexington seem like an eternity to those who follow the program.
Polson can relate in some ways, but another part of him feels like the summer of 2010 really wasn't that long ago.
"It does in a way (feel like he's been at UK for a long time)," Polson said. "At the same time it feels like it's flown by. I can remember freshman year, getting here, and it seems like forever ago that that was the case."
Hood is even further removed from his own arrival in Lexington. In the summer before what would have been his junior year, the 6-foot-7 guard suffered a torn ACL and missed the entire 2011-12 season. It cost him a chance to play on a national-championship team, but the injury has also become a blessing in disguise.
"It made me look at things in a different way, look at the relationships I had with people, helped me develop my sense for basketball, love for basketball in a different way and a new light," Hood said. "It just made me respect the game a lot more."
The lessons Hood learned through his injury and recovery from reconstructive surgery color his perspective on his UK career as it approaches its conclusion. The national title remains his favorite team memory, but his favorite individual moments don't have anything to do with the times he's gotten opportunities for extended playing time.
What Hood will remember are the bonds he has built.
"That's what'll mean the most to me after this," Hood said. "Just the relationships I've had with people and the connections."
Hood has played with an unprecedented parade of talent during his UK career. Beginning with classmates John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, Hood has called 17 NBA Draft picks and 13 first rounders teammates with players from this current team likely to join that group.
"It definitely means the world to me being able to call those guys up, chit-chat, talk, whatever," Hood said. "Need something basketball wise or just talk to them how they're playing, how they're doing even outside of basketball. Guys that I've met around here -- media guys, different people around the program -- it's good to connect with people and I don't think that the fans understand that part of it."
The other thing Hood and Polson both said fans don't understand about playing at UK is the work involved.
"I guess people a lot of times see the glamour of it and how everyone's a pop star and all that stuff," Polson said. "And that's really cool and being able to be a role model for kids is really cool. But a lot of hard work goes into it, and we like that. We call it the grind."
For Polson, that grind has resulted in a regular role each of the last two seasons. He averaged 13.8 minutes per game as a junior -- with his breakout game coming in a 10-point performance in a season-opening win over Maryland -- and 9.4 minutes per game this season.
Confident in his ability, Polson always believed playing time to be a possibility, though he concedes others thought otherwise.
"I mean, me personally, just being a competitor, I always thought that maybe down the road I would get significant minutes and be able to compete with Division I opponents," Polson said. "I don't know if a lot of people thought that -- even people close to me would ever think that -- just because Kentucky is on such a high level."
What the future holds for Polson and Hood is unclear. The pair expressed interest in going overseas to play professionally before the season, but the fact that they already have their degrees means they have options.
Hood hasn't ruled out coaching as a possibility. If he chooses that route, he already has a solid foundation having observed Coach Cal for so long.
"Well I know the Dribble-Drive offense in and out, so that's one thing," Hood said. "I know how to motivate players, how to make it a players' program and he's a good coach. He knows what he's doing. I would take everything from Cal."
But first, Polson and Hood want to finish their careers the right way. They believe it's up to them and their teammates to make that happen.
"No matter how he's coaching, we have to respond to that in a good way," Polson said. "We've had a lot of talks with him personally and us as a team, so I think we're in a good spot. No matter what happens, we know that, at the end of the day, we have to go out and perform. It's not anyone else; it's us as players have to perform."
John Calipari and Kentucky will host Alabama in their home finale at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For whatever the reason truly is, the 2013-14 Kentucky basketball season has not played out the way it was supposed to.
After UK raked in a record six McDonald's All-Americans, collected what some hinted as the best recruiting class of all time and started the year with a preseason No. 1 national ranking, there was talk of a 40-0 season.
Regardless of where the undefeated chatter originated and whether or not the Wildcats did (or didn't do) themselves any favors by failing to temper expectations, the season is what it is now. UK is 21-8, just barely hanging on to a top-25 ranking in both polls, and slip-sliding its way down to an NCAA Tournament seed no one thought was possible when the year began with such visions of grandeur.
Speaking to reporters for the first time since Saturday's loss to 11-18 South Carolina - John Calipari did not attend the postgame press conference because he was doing his radio show at the same time - Coach Cal said if you're looking for someone to blame for the way things have gone so far, look no further than him.
"I don't know if it was my arrogance or the team's arrogance, but at the end of the day, whatever's going on with this team comes back to me," Calipari said.
On a number of occasions during Monday's Southeastern Conference teleconference and his pregame session with local reporters, Coach Cal took responsibility for UK's recent fall, which includes losses in two straight games and in three of the last five.
"It's on me," Calipari said. "I don't put this on 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids. They don't know. You think they know why they're going through that they're going through? In most cases they don't. It's our job and my job as the head coach to figure out what we have to do, how we have to do it to get them to play as well as they can possibly play."
If that means coaching a style more in line with his age and not like the 35-year-old he has been of late - jumping up and down with every call, pleading with his players to play harder - he said he will. If that means his players need more positive reinforcement - a "cheerleader," as he called it - and less of a general, he will do it.
"I will be whoever I have to be because this isn't about me; it's about this team," Calipari said. "And I've got to get them more confident and figure out what do they need me to be. A cheerleader? What do they need me to be at this point? And that's how I've always coached and it's never changed. If I have to be tough, I'm tough. If I have to be easy, I'm easy."
Calipari may have wanted to coach this group a certain way - he said he wanted them to hold each other accountable - but he admitted that these 18- and 19-year-olds "obviously ... weren't ready."
So he's ready to change.
Calipari said this situation is no different than some of his past teams that he's adjusted to. He noted that he's never been labeled as a my-way-or-the-highway type coach.
"Throughout my career, there's not been one way that I've done things," Coach Cal said. "There's not been one offense or zone defense or press. It's whatever the team needs from me. And that's what I do, and I at the end of the day I take responsibility."
With only two regular-season games left - Alabama at Rupp Arena on Tuesday at 9 p.m. and at Florida on Saturday - it may seem like it's too late to make major adjustments in approach, but the Cats are ignoring the fact that Selection Sunday is less than two weeks away.
"I don't think we've given up on the season at all," said Jarrod Polson, who will be honored alongside Jon Hood before Tuesday's game for Senior Night. "I think we're just trying to improve and work harder than we ever have before. We really don't think the season is over and we think we can write our own story, and that's exactly what we're trying to do."
For all the blame Coach Cal tried taking for failing to meet preseason expectations, Polson and Hood directed the responsibility their way.
"Honestly, it's not anything that he can do," Hood said. "It's the way we take it, the way we take the messages and the way that we play. He's not out there playing for us. He's not in between the lines. He can only do so much."
Regardless of whose fault it is - the responsibility probably lays somewhere in between - the key is collectively figuring to the solution to the problem. Calipari said that starts one little thing at a time.
The fifth-year UK coach said he just has to keep coaching them, noting that just two weeks ago, after good showings against top-ranked Florida and a blowout victory at Ole Miss, his team looked like it had everything "figured out."
"Part of it is, you got to work your way through it," Calipari said. "Part of it is, when adversity hits, will you come together?"
Getting their confidence back on the offensive end would be a good place, tactically, to start.
UK has made a combined 34.9 percent of its shots over its last three games and failed to shoot better than 40 percent in three of its last six. Against South Carolina, the Cats looked so discouraged in their inability to hit jump shots that they started driving the ball into a crowd of defenders with reckless abandon. The result was the worst shooting percentage (.269) of the Calipari era.
Calipari said his team is missing too many shots at point-blank range.
"We're not getting enough free baskets," Calipari said. "We've been working hard on running and getting it out and going. The other thing I think, again, getting the ball in the basket with contact. You've got to get it in. You can't have an excuse. You've got to get the ball in, so we've been working on that some with the kids. We're trying to do stuff to let them know, 'What you need to do, you're capable of doing. Now you have to get out there and do it.' "
While all can appear lost when you hit a rough patch at Kentucky, a senior like Polson knows the season isn't over. He said the players have had a lot of meetings of late, both with Calipari and without, and they've decided to focus on putting the past in the past and focusing on what they can control, which is their future.
"We're starting 0-0," Polson said. We're starting fresh. I think our spirits are better than what people think they are."
The Cats realize their backs are against the wall after their most recent adversity, but they're all taking responsibility to change the ending.
"Everyone in the nation doesn't think we have a shot," Polson said. "They think we're done for. ... It's us against the world and we're going to prove everyone wrong."
Philosophy isn't the problem
Coach Cal's ownership of the disappointing season thus far spanned the spectrum of his responsibilities.
"I'm responsible to get them to play right, to get them in the right frame of mind," Calipari said. "If they're not in that frame of mind, that's back to me. This team is young because we recruited a young team. So all of it comes back to me."
If you think that means Coach Cal is going to change his recruiting philosophy of recruiting the nation's best talent, not so fast.
Though Calipari has said youth has been a big part of UK's problems all year long, he's not going to start recruiting kids who lack talent just to get them to stay a few more years. He's not going to encourage players to stay longer than they should out of self-interest either.
"Look, I'd like to have guys stay for me but if the opportunity arises for them, I'm not going to hold guys back," Calipari said. "I'm recruiting good players. Some of them people think would go; others think they wouldn't go, and you don't know until the year's out. You just don't know. The environment we're in, you can either convince guys to stay that should leave or recruit players that aren't quite good enough to be here and compete. 'Well recruit a top-50 (player).' He thinks he's one-and-done, too."
Though Calipari gets labeled as a supporter of the "one-and-done" rule because of how many one-year college players he has sent to the NBA, he's actually long been an opponent of it.
There is recent speculation that the NBA may change its entry requirements, perhaps to a two-and-done rule, but Coach Cal reiterated that college coaches play no factor in the current NBA rules.
"It'll be between the NBA and the Players Association," Calipari said. "Has nothing to do with us. My hope is they come to terms with it and they know it's best for everybody involved, including the players.
Lock it up
Kentucky, technically, isn't even a lock for the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament or for the double bye.
If UK were to lose its final two games and both Georgia and Arkansas won their final two, the Cats would fall back to the No. 5 seed and play on Thursday of the SEC Tournament instead of Friday.
John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday morning, reflecting on Saturday's loss to South Carolina and looking ahead to the final week of the regular season. The theme, in Coach Cal's words: "At the end of the day whatever's going on with this team comes back to me."
On this week's matchups ... "Both teams are playing well. Alabama just had a great win against Auburn, their in-state rival. Played probably as well as they've played all year and Florida just keeps moving right along. I mean, everybody talks about the close games and this and this. Well, they could also beat you by 25. They're that good. So they deserve their ranking and we've got two great challenges for our team." On how frustrating the first 30 minutes of the South Carolina loss were in hindsight ... "Well, I wish I would have watched the last 10 minutes because I heard it was pretty good. But I will tell you that, you know, we're a team, like every other team out there, if--again, there's a lot of teams trying to figure out, OK, how do we do this? We went from playing Florida and Mississippi on the road thinking we have this figured out. I don't know if it was my arrogance or the team's arrogance, but at the end of the day whatever's going on with this team comes back to me. It's really funny: It was about a month ago that I said, 'Looks like I gotta coach this team like I'm 35 again.' And for a while, to get them to play harder, to get them to focus more, to get them to execute more, to let them know what was acceptable and not acceptable, that's what I talked about. But let me say this: I will be whoever I have to be because this isn't about me; it's about this team. And I've gotta get them more confident and figure out what do they need me to be? A cheerleader? What do they need me to be at this point? And that's how I've always coached and it's never changed. If I have to be tough, I'm tough. If I have to be easy, I'm easy. But, again, it was only a few weeks ago that's what we talked about. So as we go forward, the whole point of us: How do we get our defensive confidence? How do we get our offensive confidence? Well, we just had it 10 days ago, two weeks ago. How did that change? What did we do different? How did we think different? That's what we're going through now."
On players still losing focus at this point in the season ... "They're 18 years old. They're 18 and 19 and they're not machines. I've been through this. I've been, you know--and again, you've seen a little bit of everything and every team I've coached, it's a process and they're not one step up, the next step up. You know, I can remember in 2011, no one ever thought we'd win a game and we couldn't win a road game and all of a sudden we figured it out late and that's what's we're hoping with this team. And that would be our plan. My whole thing right now: Let's get this defensive confidence back. Let's get this offensive confidence back. What do we have to do in practice to build that? What do we have to do during the games to build that?"
On the importance of experience in college basketball ... "Well, there's no question the teams that are winning right now at the highest level all have some veteran guys. They've got seniors, a lot of them who were backups at one point in their career. And to play with all young guys like we are right now is really difficult. And what's difficult about it is, like I said, it was only two weeks ago we had played Florida and we'd have played at Mississippi and played as well as we had played all year and we're looking like we've got this thing figured out. But they're 18 and 19. You don't know what shoves them in another direction. Again, I was coaching hard for a while. Now you're trying to figure out what's the next thing. How do I have to do this? How do we have to practice to get them right? With a veteran team, as a coach you already know how they're going to respond. You have an idea. And they know how you're going to respond. So they know your response to not executing or, 'If I don't play hard, I know how he's going to respond.' Or, 'If I get physically pushed around, I know what's going to happen.' Well, we're all growing right now. And again, look, my team, we're talented enough to do what we want. We could beat anybody in the country. But we've also proven we can lose to anybody in the country. And so it is on us right now and basically it's on me. I don't put this on 18-year-old, 19-year-old kids. They don't know. You think they know why they're going through that they're going through? In most cases they don't. It's our job and my job as the head coach to figure out what we have to do, how we have to do it to get them to play as well as they can possibly play."
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant
On Alabama's upcoming matchups this week ... "Obviously our first game against Kentucky on the season. Watching them play, obviously extremely impressive. I know they're coming off two tough losses here in the last couple of games, but as talented of a team as we've faced all year. Senior Night in their building and coming off a road loss, I'm sure they'll be at their best. We'll have to get prepared for what we'll face against them tomorrow night. ..."
On what has gotten Levi Randolph going ... "I think he's playing really well. I think he's playing with a lot of confidence. Our team, I think, is feeding off of that of late, so we just need to have him keep with that mindset and stay aggressive and continue to step up and provide what our team needs."
On what gets a guy going like that late in the year ... "I think you see that all over the country. Sometimes, for whatever reason, guys will respond to certain messages or to certain things that happen over the course of a season. For Levi, obviously, the last four, five ballgames, I think he's really taken his game up another level and I think it's just a credit to him. He's worked extremely hard. He's a good player and I think we all feel like he's capable of doing what he's done for us. So, it's good to see him be able to step up and produce the way he is."
On if Trevor Releford should be a candidate for SEC Player of the Year ... "I think if you look at his numbers, you look at what he's been able to do night in and night out for a basketball team -- especially a year in SEC play when, from a scouting standpoint, teams obviously are aware of what he's capable and game plan to try to limit his opportunities - he's consistently been able to produce for our team. To me, obviously this is a one-year award, but over the course of his career he just continues to get better and improve and add things to his game. I think you look at the importance of him to our team in terms of being able to go out there and affect the game in a multitude of ways -- whether it be scoring points or getting his teammates opportunities to score points or making plays on the defensive end of the floor, getting a steal - I think he's been a guy that has affected the game in a lot of ways. Certainly he would have my vote, so I think he's had an outstanding year and I think he's very deserving of every consideration."
DeNesha Stallworth had 18 points in her final regular-season home game on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
With two players -- DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- who have transformed Kentucky's style of play celebrating their Senior Day on Sunday, Matthew Mitchell drew up an appropriate game plan.
Facing a smaller Vanderbilt team, Mitchell called for the Wildcats to throw the ball into the post early and often.
"Coach pretty much told the guards in practice -- even during the game -- that we have an advantage on the inside," Stallworth said. "So that was really our big emphasis and the high-low was very important."
Capitalizing on her opportunities, Stallworth scored a game-high 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting as No. 12/15 UK withstood Vandy in a 65-63 victory in Memorial Coliseum.
Walker, meanwhile, had just two points to go with her eight rebounds, but had four assists in often serving as the passer in UK's high-low attack against the Commodore zone. Three of those assists resulted in Stallworth baskets.
"I think me and Samarie, we play well together for the most part," Stallworth said. "So we were trying to take advantage of our size and get the ball inside."
UK (22-7, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) used that approached to build a first-half lead of as many as 17 points, but Vanderbilt (18-11, 7-9 SEC) rallied when the two post players went to the bench with fouls. Walker picked up her second with 9:51 left and Stallworth did the same a little more than six minutes later.
"I thought when DeNesha (Stallworth) and Samarie (Walker) went to the bench that we just didn't have much inside presence, and that's where our advantage was," Mitchell said. "You really needed to get tough in there and make some decisions and get some reads against their 2-3 zone."
Vandy went on an 18-2 run and eventually trailed just 36-33 at the break. It would be a back-and-forth battle from that point on, with neither team leading by five until the final minute.
At that point, the Commodores made one final push. Vandy used a 3 by Christina Foggie, a steal and two Foggie free throws throws to close to within one with less than 15 seconds to go. Bria Goss (12 points) then hit one-of-two free throws before UK used solid defense to force a Jasmine Jenkins miss in the closing seconds.
"I'm going to tell you, this team worked so hard to get ready for today's game," Mitchell said. "I thought we had a few terrific moments and really made it tough on Vanderbilt, but at the end of the day, to be able to walk off that floor with a victory on Senior Day, there are not many better feelings than that."
The victory gives UK five in its last six games, an impressive feat considering the Cats' position at the start of that stretch. Kentucky then sat at 5-5 in conference play having lost five of nine games and facing a crisis of confidence. Now, UK will head to the SEC Tournament in Duluth, Ga., with a double bye as the No. 4 seed and a renewed sense of self-assurance entering its opener on Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET.
"Four Sundays ago we were 5-5 and here we are still a No. 4 seed and I think that takes a lot of toughness and encouragement and support," Goss said. "I think that we really buckled down and got it together."
To Stallworth, togetherness is the most important word.
"I think us staying together was most important because it just would have been easy for everybody to go their separate ways and just say, 'You know, forget this,' " she said. "But I think we did a great job of just staying positive and just knowing that we have more opportunities ahead of us and we've just come together. That's why we're winning these games."
By closing with a win, UK sends off Stallworth, Walker, Kastine Evans and Bernisha Pinkett with a win in their final regular-season home game, which was Mitchell's goal more than postseason positioning.
"Our focus and our sense of purpose came from trying to make sure we won for the seniors today," Mitchell said. "That was our focus today. We didn't really worry about seeding in the SEC Tournament."
A year from now, it will be Goss embracing her family before her final home game. That thought struck her as she watched her teammates do the same and she intends to carry it forward into what's ahead for UK.
"I just learned I'm a junior and next year I'm going to be a senior and how fast these seasons are going," Goss said. "I just want to send these seniors out right and go down to Duluth and just put on a show and just fight for them and leave it all on the court."
Tim Garrison had a good feeling heading into a Southeastern Conference home meet against No. 11 Auburn.
Even after he learned on Friday afternoon that senior Holly Cunningham would have to be removed from UK's vault and beam lineup due to an issue with her hip flexor, Garrison couldn't shake the positive vibes.
"We had a great feeling about the night. I'm not sure exactly what it was," Garrison said. "Feelings are just that. You don't know why sometimes, but you just have them."
Garrison might not be giving himself enough credit for how well he knows his team.
Making the last-minute changes of inserting Kayla Hartley into the vault lineup and Shelby Hilton on beam, the Wildcats didn't miss a beat. UK posted the fifth-highest score in school history -- also a season high -- to take down No. 11 Auburn, 196.275-194.825.
"We had (the good feelings) and the athletes were all smiles and ready to go today and they were up for it and that's the way it played out," Garrison said. "Why it happened, I'm not exactly sure other than the fact that they were training well and they competed well for the most part tonight."
From the very beginning, UK seemed poised to do big things.
Audrey Harrison led off on vault with a season-high 9.875, while Hilton (season-high-tying 9.800), Shannon Mitchell (career-high-tying 9.900), Kenzie Hedges (9.850) and Hartley (career-high 9.775) followed with solid scores of their own. As a team, UK scored a season-high 49.200 on the first apparatus.
The Cats sustained the momentum on bars with career highs from Hartley (9.900) and Kayla Sienkowski (9.875). Each good routine seemed to lead into the next.
"Oh, you feed off of it so well," Hartley said. "The person in front of you sets you up and you're just like, 'Yes, here we go. Let's get to it.' "
UK experienced its only setback of the night on beam when Amy Roemmele scored a 9.050. Hilton -- stepping in as the Cats' anchor -- had a chance to erase the score but fell and posted an 8.450.
Beam has been somewhat of a bugaboo this season, as UK has posted its lowest score on the event in five of its last six meets, but the Cats weren't about to be derailed heading into the floor exercise.
"When you struggle on beam--that's what we talked about over there is not letting the energy go down," Garrison said. "In fact, we're going to bring the energy up a notch or two and they responded exactly the way we hoped they would."
Hilton, minutes removed from her disappointing beam routine, got it started.
"We've been having trouble on beam and I think some of the performances, we had to get mad and get it done on floor to bring the team back up again so that we can trust ourselves to know that we can do it," Hilton said.
Bucking the expression, Hilton both got mad and got even by nailing her routine and scoring a career-high 9.925. The tone set, Taylor Puryear, Hedges, Harrison and Hartley followed with career-high scores of their own.
On the strength of all those record-setting performances, UK shattered the school record on floor by 0.200 with a 49.650, which also happens to be the second-highest score in the nation this season.
"To be able to finish the night like that, especially rebounding from a rough beam rotation, we'll take it," Garrison said.
UK -- in command from the first routine onward -- didn't need a floor score nearly that high to defeat the Tigers on this night. The Cats are now 5-1 against Auburn in the last five years with four straight wins in regular-season meets, but that doesn't mean Garrison doesn't appreciate the victory.
"Wins over SEC teams are hard to come by," Garrison said. "So anytime you can get a win over an SEC team you definitely don't take it for granted. And we're not. That's what we talked about to the girls after the meet is, 'Listen, we don't take these for granted because they're hard to come by.' "
Garrison also isn't taking the fact that UK had 12 individual routines that set season or career highs for granted, but that isn't his primary goal either.
"I'm happy for all of our athletes that did break records, but overall as a team I'm pleased that we're moving forward with a great score that we can carry into next Friday, our last home meet, Senior Night," Garrison said. "We're excited to have a big crowd here and finish the home season off with a bang."
Earlier this week, the fourth-year head coach said he wanted to replace four scores in UK's final four meets to bolster his team's Regional Qualifying Score. After Friday, it's one down, three to go.
UK will honor Kastine Evans and three fellow seniors on Senior Day this Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Every senior class is unique, but the group UK Hoops will honor as part of its annual Senior Day festivities is special
The four Wildcats who comprise the class -- Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett, Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth -- come from all corners.
"As basketball players they are very productive and really helped us change the program," Mitchell said. "And then all four of them have very unique stories and have contributed in my life all four in different ways but very impactful ways and I've learned a lot from these seniors and they've been very important people to me and will remain that."
There's Evans, the guard from Norwich, Conn., whom Matthew Mitchell calls a "gift from God."
"I was impressed with her and excited when we signed her but I don't that you can ever anticipate somebody being as strong as she is in just every area of her life," Mitchell said. "She's a very high-character young woman, has a sense of purpose, wants people that she's around to do well."
Mitchell is hard-pressed to think of a player who has maximized her time in Lexington more than Evans. She has contributed from day one on the court, filling every role from sixth man to power forward without a moment's hesitation. Off the floor, she's been honored for both her academics and her service in the community.
Her coach admires Evans so much he said he'd like for his two young daughters to emulate her.
"I think it's important for all of us if we want to really accomplish something we have to enter into the process with intention of doing very well and she's always been very intentional about achieving and very conscientious," Mitchell said. "My life is so much richer and better because she's been in it and is in it and will remain in it."
Pinkett will remain a part of Mitchell's life as well, in addition to occupying a special place in his heart for the way she's overcome the odds.
"If you think about the neighborhood she's from in (Washington,) D.C., two percent of the kids attempt college and less than one percent of the kids out of her neighborhood get a college degree. And so just the fact that she got here and made it and is going to walk across that stage," said an emotional Mitchell before pausing to compose himself, "on May the 10th is something else."
Walker and Stallworth -- two transfers from West Carrolton, Ohio, and Richmond Calif., respectively -- round out the class.
The two McDonald's All-Americans had well-established basketball pedigrees before their arrival on campus. Walker came to Kentucky after a semester at perennial power UConn, while Stallworth was an All-Pac 10 performer at California before deciding to leave her home on the West Coast.
Though the duo that has patrolled the paint together these last two seasons didn't have a full four years in Lexington, Walker and Stallworth are no less a part of the program and school they've represented.
"So they were here quite a bit of time and invested a lot in the program and we were fortunate that they transferred to Kentucky because at the time they came here we weren't really in the mix on kids like that, of that talent level and that ability level and so they have put up some huge numbers and some big victories for us and they've both given a lot to the program," Mitchell said.
Their paths have been very different, but the four have their share of senior-year adversity in common.
Evans has dealt with a lingering leg injury for most of 2013-14, even sitting out a game in January. Pinkett, meanwhile, has coped with an ankle injury of her own while still playing catch-up following a trying offseason.
"Bernisha had a tough end of the year last year and a tough summer," Mitchell said. "Like I've said many times, it's just much more important for me to see her graduate and finish. Basketball sort of took a back seat for a while there and I just think it was difficult for her to ever fully get back to where she once was and that's OK."
Stallworth has faced a similar journey after knee surgery in December and is only now regaining the form that made her a preseason contender for every major award. She turned in her most dominant outing of the year on Thursday night, posting 16 points, 20 rebounds, four blocks and two steals to lead UK to an overtime win at Mississippi State.
"DeNesha certainly had a chance to use the injury as an excuse and not do the work to get back," Mitchell said. "There's been some times of frustration and some times of where we really had to soul search there for a while, but she's come around and worked hard."
Walker has stayed healthy, but the ride hasn't always been smooth for her either.
"I've had to learn a lot through coaching her about patience," Mitchell said. "She's been real hard on herself and she's sort of up and down and so that's sort of been a roller coaster we've been on together. That's been difficult at times, but you never questioned her heart for others and for people."
Everything his seniors have been through makes Mitchell want to send them off properly even more.
No. 12/15 UK (21-7, 9-6 Southeastern Conference) will host Vanderbilt (18-10, 7-8 SEC) with a chance to lock down the No. 4 seed and a double by in the SEC Tournament. That prospect is enticing, but Mitchell isn't thinking about that nearly as much as the four players who will play on their home floor for the final time in the regular season.
"So it's an important game but there's nothing more important to me than really preparing well and working hard to try to get ready for Vanderbilt so we can send these seniors off with a great victory," Mitchell said. "And obviously it has other implications that would be valuable to us as well, but we're really going to try to keep our focus on preparing well against a very good team and making sure that we have a sense of purpose for our seniors on Sunday."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 16 points and 13 rebounds in UK's overtime loss to Arkansas on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As Julius Randle, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein came for interviews following an overtime loss to Arkansas, the mood was understandably somber.
They walked down the hallway from their locker room slowly, sank in their chairs and spoke in hushed tones.
A day removed from talking about his team turning a corner with a raucous celebration of a win over LSU, Randle fielded questions about whether he saw the 71-67 defeat coming.
"I never go into the game thinking we're not going to put the effort out that we should and do the little things," Randle said. "We just didn't tonight."
John Calipari, meanwhile, ran down the reasons for the defeat in his own postgame press conference.
"They beat us to loose balls. We missed 10 one foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered." Calipari said, referencing UK's 12-of-22 free-throw shooting to Arkansas' perfect 16-for-16 performance. "We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts, not executing."
After UK (21-7, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) trailed for all but 2:43 of the first 34 minutes, the Wildcats pulled into a tie at 52-all and eventually a 57-52 lead on the strength of a 14-2 run. But after grabbing that five-point lead, UK shot just 1 of 5 from the field and 1 of 4 from the line.
Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 SEC), eager for the chance to sweep the season series against UK and pick up a resume-building win, took advantage and forced overtime. In the extra period, the Cats' bid for a second straight overtime win in Rupp Arena fell short due to three turnovers and numerous misses around the rim as UK shot 26 of 76 (34.2 percent) for the game.
"We couldn't throw a rock in the ocean, but it happens like sometimes in games," said Randle, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "The main thing is -- especially when things like that happen, you can't really get it going -- that's when you have to lock in on defense and come up with 50-50 balls. We didn't do that tonight."
UK had a 47-38 rebounding edge on Thursday night and even won the turnover battle, 20-18, but Arkansas blocked eight shots and contested countless more in the paint to flummox the Cats.
"We took two steps back today," Calipari said.
With just three games left in the regular season, now is not the time for that to happen. Concerning as that may be, it's also the reason why UK has to move on and move on quickly.
"There's no reason to soak in it, just remember the feeling," said Cauley-Stein, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds. "It's getting too close to crunch time. You can't dwell on it and then do the same thing the next game because you're thinking about the last game. Then the next thing you know, you stepped way too far behind and there's no return after that."
That's especially true because of the way UK's schedule sets up in the coming days.
The Cats will get right back to practice on Friday with a game at South Carolina awaiting them on Saturday. After less than 48 hours between games, UK will turn around and face Alabama on Senior Night on Tuesday.
Taxing, yes, but also exactly what the Cats want.
"That's the great thing about basketball, you know, is it's not like football (where) if you lose a game you have to wait a week," Poythress said. "Basketball, you know, you play the next couple of days, so we're just trying to get this out the window. We lost. We know that. There's nothing we can do."
Cauley-Stein, who according to Calipari saved UK from what could have been a "15- or 18-point" loss, agreed.
"You gotta come right back at it, gotta take the medicine tomorrow at practice and then you got a game the next day," Cauley-Stein said. "That's love to me; I wouldn't want it any other way."
In other words, the Cats don't have time to let a sour mood following the loss linger.
"We just gotta stay the course," Randle said. "Adversity's gonna hit anybody. It doesn't matter if you're a basketball player, it doesn't matter who you are. In life, adversity's going to hit you. It's definitely hit us this year, but if we're staying the course, keep being strong and don't let it waver you I think we'll be fine."
The clock is ticking on the 2014 gymnastics season.
Just three regular-season meets and the Southeastern Conference Championship remain before NCAA competition and Tim Garrison isn't hiding from that fact.
"We're looking for a big finish to the season, that way we can accomplish our goals," Garrison said. "If we don't have a big finish to the season, we won't accomplish our goals. So we're up against it. They realize it, we know it, we've told them exactly what we need to do and they've embraced it."
The goal for Kentucky is to move into the top 18 of the national rankings for NCAA seeding purposes, meaning the Wildcats need to bolster their Regional Qualifying Score (RQS). To do that, Garrison wants his team to post four scores high enough to replace scores currently counting toward UK's RQS and move up from its current ranking of No. 24.
Some coaches might keep that thinking and the projections that go with it to themselves, but not Garrison. He believes it's best for his athletes to know exactly what's being asked of them.
"I'll put the Excel file up on the big screen in our gym and say, 'Look, here's where we are,' " Garrison said. " 'Here's what we've accomplished to this point. Here's what we need to do to get to where we can achieve our goals.' "
With solid scores of 195.975 and 195.200 last weekend, UK took a step in the right direction. That's especially true for the three Wildcat seniors: Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham and Kayla Sienkowski.
"I think obviously we still have places that we can improve," Garrison said. "It's nice to see our seniors come out of a little bit of a slump they were in. They've gone through quite a bit of a struggle but I think the struggle has made them stronger."
Garrison put a fair amount of thought into the reasons for the seniors' slump. He's come to the conclusion that the sense of urgency felt in their final college season got to them.
"Maybe they've already checked out and they've moved on or maybe they're feeling pressure," Garrison said. "I think our athletes were feeling the pressure. I think our seniors were feeling the pressure. I think they've gotten through that."
Over those issues and enjoying a renewed sense of confidence, the seniors are leading the way as the Cats have begun to take control of their own destiny.
"It's always great when you can feel like your athletes are becoming basically autonomous," Garrison said. "They go on their own. Obviously we're driving them, we're pushing them, we're coaching them, but when they're taking those corrections that you've been giving them for many months now and then doing them on their own, it's a good feeling to know that they're feeling more confident in themselves."
UK will look to put that confidence on display. After returning from a rare two-meet road weekend, the Cats are home the next two weekends, beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Friday against No. 11 Auburn.
"Naturally, it's nice to be in comfortable surroundings back on our home floor in front of the Big Blue Nation again," Garrison said.
Back in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum, the Cats will be out to finish with a flourish.
"Toward the end of the season, I expect them to perform better because they've realized what's going on, they've dealt with it," Garrison said. "They've realized, 'What's the point in feeling the pressure? We need to go out there and just do the best we can.' "