On this week's games against Tennessee and Auburn ... "Well, I will tell you that I think both programs probably have surprised all of us coaches in the league in that what they've done and how they've played this year. And both done it different ways. I mean, Tennessee playing an aggressive, attacking zone and an open offense and driving the ball and Auburn pressing and being physical and beating you on the bounce and offensive rebounding. Going on the road and winning in this league, which is really difficult, both of those teams have done that. Like I said, this league, top to bottom, we're there. We're literally there. I'm so happy. I was so happy to see an article say, 'You can say it over and over. It doesn't make it true.' And that people now are realizing that we got a bunch of teams. And just because we're beating each other does not make us weak. It means we're really strong. Every game is coming down to a one-bucket game, including our games." On how much he works with Alex Poythress during his recovery ... "Well, I'm not doing anything with him because they just tell me when the bus leaves. I'm not the physical therapist and the trainer and all that stuff. Now they tell me how far along he is. My thing to Alex all the time is, does it still hurt? Does it really hurt when you have to stretch? Because Brad went through it. I know how painful it is. And he says, 'Yes, it's killer.' I said, 'Lovely, it's exactly what you need. It's exactly the thing that's going to get you to that next point in your career. Just saw him this morning, asked him how his knee was. He said, 'I'm doing better, Coach.' So, great kid."
On how much he includes Poythress in team activities ... "He comes with the team and he's at meetings and all those things. I mean, it's hard. Ask Willie. Last year when he gets hurt in the NCAA Tournament run, if you're not in the fray, you're in the back lines, you're watching with binoculars, it's hard. They come back, you don't feel what they feel. You didn't have the same emotion that they had. But he's doing great."
On what lessons he took from long unbeaten runs at Memphis and UMass ... "Well, the reality of it is the kids have to manage those things. It's not me because I'm not out there on the court. But I've got one job, and my first time we did this at UMass, I knew we were slipping. But we kept winning so I put my head in the sand. I was just like, 'Let these guys go do their thing.' And I had done it years before we went that because we went on win streaks in previous years - 17, 15, whatever they were at UMass - and what you get as a coach, you win and you want to move on to the next game and you try to put your head in the sand when you have issues that you gotta deal with. I did a little bit of the same but got better at Memphis. I'm trying really hard not to do that here, to do my job, to correct them, to be tough on them, to not worry about score and coach them. But it's hard. They're looking at me like, 'We're up 25 and haven't lost and you're losing your mind.' My point being, if I allow it now then I gotta allow it in March. And if in March I allow it and it costs us a game, that's on me. That's not on these kids. And so I'm trying really hard to just stay focused on what's at hand. Don't put my head in the sand. If there's issues, I bring them out. If there's issues in the team that I'm not liking what I feel, I bring them out. Even if I'm wrong, I bring them out. Let's talk about this. And they'll, 'Look, Coach, you're just dreaming. What were you doing? You're reading a book and things pop in your mind? We're fine.' So that's the kind of stuff that we do and what I'm continuing to do. These kids, I don't think they're worried about, let's try to win every game. They're worried about trying to win the next game and how do we play. My message to this team is going to be real simple. Today, it's going to be, our strength is in the pack, more than any team that I've ever coached. And I've coached a lot of good teams. More than any team I've coached, the strength is in the pack. And I said, 'It doesn't mean we don't have some aggressive, tough wolves that'll come after you.' But by themselves, they're not the same. In the pack, we have a little swag about us. We're a little more aggressive. We're really about each other. Guys aren't afraid to step out and risk. This team more than others--when you had Anthony (Davis) or John (Wall) or DeMarcus (Cousins) and I could go back to Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose and Lou Roe and some of the guys we had. Tyreke Evans. You know, we were a good and we were efficient, but we knew that one guy could go do this and carry us. That's not what we have. The strength of this team is in the pack." On Anthony Davis talking to Willie Cauley-Stein at LSU and whether he arranged it ... "No, but here's what's great about it. All our players that went through here are watching this team, and they want to help. They want the team to be great. But the best thing that Anthony did - instead of just talking to (Cauley-Stein), he came to the game and watched him. So there's B.S., that 'You did this' or 'I tried this' or this or that. There's no B.S. If you want to do this, this is what you have to be or you can't do that. What I'm doing here, you can't be in this thing. And so then it's - I can say it all I want. Anthony Davis is busting up against being the best player in the NBA. And he comes back, he talked to Karl Towns. He grabbed Karl after the game and told him. It means something coming from me, but coming from those guys is huge."
On if leaving one day early could impact UK's normal routine ... "Well, you must know me well. I'm a creature of habit. For however many years I've been a head coach we've done it the same way. Offense is different, defense is different, players are different, but what we do as a family, how we travel, how are meals are, is very consistent. This was a change. We had no choice. Today, you're right, my concern is how do we do this and not get off point? So, we're going to go over this afternoon and do shooting and individual work. We have the main arena from 12-2, but we're only going to be there for about an hour and it's not going to be knocking each other out. But if I let them go all day, and they're going to sleep, and we get up to eat, and they go back to sleep, and then they sleep all night, then they get up for breakfast, and then they go back to sleep, and then we go to a shootaround and they go back to sleep, we will be sleepwalking in that game Tuesday. So, we're going to come back and practice later today, probably 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock, have a great meal, let them lay around, have a meeting and try to get back to the rhythm of what we do. But, yes, I'm a creature of habit. I'm meatloaf and potatoes, unless they don't have it, then I may try a steak."
Over the last three years, Kentucky catcher Greg Fettes has been AJ Reed's roommate.
When the two were freshmen, they stayed in the dorms together and for the last two years, they shared an apartment.
Fettes had a front-row seat for one of the most historic seasons in the history of college baseball, as Reed led the nation in homers, slugging and OPS, while leading the SEC in pitching wins.
"Watching AJ from his freshman year, to last year, I felt like a proud dad or brother," Fettes said. "It was unreal what he has done the last few years. Coming in with him, watching him changing his body, it was really cool to see. AJ is a humble guy, he was never different towards me. I wasn't playing that much and he was great to me. We are still great buddies and we talk all the time. AJ is a friend I will have for my whole life."
Now that AJ has graduated to the Houston Astros organization, Fettes will be one of the several UK returnees that coach Gary Henderson will be looking at to help fill a monstrous void. Not only must UK replace the irreplaceable bat of Reed in the lineup, the Wildcats also have to replace the leadership of fifth-year senior catcher Micheal Thomas.
Thomas made a Henderson-era record in starts behind the plate as a senior in 2014, keeping talented back-up catchers Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes from a large amount of playing time. The relationship between Thomas and Henderson was unique, as the two were extremely close and connected after half a decade of working together.
"Micheal was here for five years and as a catcher you have to be Hendo's second man," Fettes said. "With MT being with Hendo so long, he knew exactly what he was going to call and they were on the same wavelength. Hendo is in the dugout but the catcher is on the field, you have to talk to pitchers and know what to say. That is something I've learned over the last four years. "
Fettes, a former star out of Detroit, Michigan, joined the UK roster in 2012 and used it as a redshirt season while he firmed up his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. A powerful right-handed hitter with good arm strength, Fettes has always had the tools to produce but the backstop position is improved mainly by repetition and experience.
"I feel like I could be the best pitcher in the world," Fettes said about what he learned from Henderson in four years. "And I'm not even a pitcher but I feel like I could go out there and pitch because I've learned so much about pitching. I've learned so many things from him, from how to see how the pitcher is feeling, or how to calm a pitcher down, being able to spot what they might be doing wrong, or right, with each pitch."
Over his four year career, Fettes - a 43rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers out of high school - has hit .250 in 22 starts, with five doubles, three homers and 14 RBI.
In 2013, Fettes became the first catcher in UK history to earn freshman All-SEC honors after ripping his three homers in league play.
Now as a seasoned performer, and without his roommate in 2015, Fettes will be relied on to help lead a youthful UK club.
"Coming in, sitting on the bench and redshirting, having to watch, it was tough on me at first but it motivated me to get my reps in," Fettes said. "I improved on the things I needed to improve on because I need to be ready to help this team."
Lars Jorgensen leads the UK swimming and diving team into the SEC Championships this week. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The buildup to the Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships lasts the entire season.
Preseason training, dual meets and invitationals from September through January all lead to this moment. The excitement, speed and competitiveness at the SEC Championships rival even the NCAA Championships.
Kentucky enters the five-day championship coming off a win at Cincinnati on Jan. 30. Since then, it's been all about tapering, staying fresh and building on the momentum from the win over Cincinnati.
"The team is excited. The last few weeks of training has been really good," second-year head coach Lars Jorgensen said. "We've continued to build momentum in practice, along with getting rest and recovery so everyone is sharp when we get to Auburn. The key is to keep everyone sharp."
The buildup has been aided by the win at Cincinnati in UK's regular-season finale. Both the UK men and women notched identical 216-84 victories, which has propelled the Wildcats into a positive two weeks of practice leading into Tuesday's conference meet.
The championship preparation got a boost because of the win at UC. The excitement level from that win has translated into the two weeks of training.
"There's been a really positive attitude in practice," senior Christina Bechtel said. "Everyone's been excited, it's really good energy in the pool. We're gearing up, getting ready to swim fast at SECs. Getting that big win at Cincinnati will help us bring a lot of good momentum into the championship and bring some good performances."
"Our practices have been really good. We've had a lot of hard practices," sophomore Danielle Galyer added. "We're looking forward to SECs, everyone is tapering and we're excited to swim fast."
While attention and excitement for the SEC Championships has kicked into high gear after the conclusion of the regular season, the meet has really been the focus ever since September.
Ever since the beginning of the season, Jorgensen has preached the importance of building up towards the conference championship meet. Not only is it key to have your fastest times to earn more points for the team in the standings, but it's the personal-best times that gets individuals into the NCAA Championships.
"SECs is always in the back of our mind. That's what we're training for," sophomore Kyle Higgins said. "Everyone's excited, coming off a win over Cincinnati and some good swims vs. Louisville. We definitely want to get best times, but each of us doesn't want this to be our last meet. We all want to get fast times so we can earn a spot at the NCAA Championships."
Swimmers qualify for the national championship meet by their season-best times in each event, with the fastest athletes earning bids. From competing against a fast field to wearing special racing suits, those season-best times are routinely set at the league championship event.
Despite any success achieved during the regular season, it's at the SEC Championships were the season's story is written though.
"It's been a great year. We've achieved a lot of success so far. But this meet is important. It's where we can qualify some more athletes for NCAAs," Jorgensen said. "We want everyone to get as many personal-bests as possible and score as many points as a team as we can. It's a really difficult conference meet against some really good teams, some of the best teams in the country."
The season-long buildup has been aided by the fact that Jorgensen is in his second season. For the 35 athletes returning from last season, there are fewer unknowns. From preseason training to postseason tapering, the Wildcats know what to expect. There is plenty of familiarity with Jorgensen's coaching style.
The 16 sophomores, many of whom have played a vital role in the team's success in 2014-15, are now familiar with the grind of the collegiate season.
"This year I think it was easier to get started," Galyer said. "I don't know if that's just because I'm a sophomore now, but we knew what to expect coming in, so it was easier to get adjusted right away. We're just trying to keep moving in the right direction.
"Being a sophomore and going into my second SECs, it's helpful for mental preparation for the meet. We know what to expect, there are fewer unknowns. I'm able to focus on the swimming part instead of guessing about all the other things."
One of the unknowns for any first-time competitor at the SEC Championships is just how big the event really is. From a packed venue to many of the nation's best swimmers and divers and the best teams, the five-day meet packs plenty of excitement.
Add in the fact that the meet will be broadcast live on SEC Network +, and there are plenty of nerves to go around.
"It's definitely going to be different this year, knowing what to expect and not being so nervous," Higgins said. "I know what I'm going up against, I know what to expect. It's going to be really exciting to race against some of the best in the country."
Knowing what to expect can make a lot of difference. Just ask Bechtel, who broke out on the scene last year at her second SEC Championships.
Then a junior, Bechtel placed second in the 100 butterfly after finishing 17th as a sophomore in her first SEC appearance. It was UK's first swimming medal at the conference championship since 2012 and the Bechtel became the first Wildcat to earn a silver medal since 2010.
The podium finish for Bechtel catapulted her to the NCAA Championships, where she placed fifth in the 200 butterfly.
"This is my third SEC Championships, so I know what to expect at this meet," Bechtel said. "Last year I had some good swims, so I'm hoping for some even better swims this season and to score as many points as a can for our team. I know what to expect, and I know the upperclassmen do as well, so we can help the freshmen too. The coaching staff has done a great job this season preparing this team, and I can't wait to see the results that will come this week."
This year, Bechtel owns the NCAA's fastest 200 butterfly time and the second-fastest time in the 100 butterfly. That has earned her the top seed in both events this week.
With a bid to the NCAA Championships already secured, Bechtel hopes a strong showing at the SEC Championships is just a sign of things to come at nationals.
Whether they're chasing an SEC title or a spot in each evening's top final, looking to improve their NCAA qualifying time or just making their first SEC Championships appearance, it's important to step back and enjoy the moment.
"The SEC Championships is fun. It's a really exciting event to be a part of," Jorgensen said. "The whole team travels and is able to compete. The week is really a lot of fun and the team is excited. They work so hard for this moment, so I hope they will be able to compete hard and enjoy it. And have fun with it, that's important too."
With a sold-out crowd expected at Auburn's Martin Aquatic Center and some of the nation's fastest swimmers on hand, there will be plenty of reasons to have fun.
Kentucky was facing off against Kansas in the opener of the 2014 NCAA Louisville Regional.
With a potential matchup against a lefty-laden Louisville lineup in the second round and a right-handed dominant Kansas squad, UK head coach Gary Henderson turned to his sophomore standout righty, Kyle Cody, to make his first NCAA Tournament start.
Henderson and the Wildcats had the utmost confidence in Cody, who just nine days earlier had handcuffed the Southeastern Conference Champion Florida Gators to two runs over 5.1 innings in a win in the SEC Tournament.
Things did not go the way Cody pictured them when he laid down to go to sleep the night before.
One of the top arms in college baseball, Cody was rated as the seventh-best sophomore in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. He certainly had the stuff, makeup and experience to fire a gem and set up the Wildcats for a winner's bracket matchup.
After a seven-pitch walk to open the game, Cody misfired on his throw to first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, scoring a run and putting himself in an early jam. An RBI sacrifice bunt scored the second run and an RBI double put the Wildcats in a 3-0 hole. Henderson turned to the bullpen in the must-win situation, ending his outing.
"That motivated me more in summer ball. It helped me get going up there," Cody said. "I feel like that has just carried on into this year. All the success I had up there (in summer ball), that feeling has just carried on as I came back here. Just made me want to become a better player and made me look forward to this year even more. I just can't wait to get back on the mound and try to get back to that spot. And prove that we can win a regional and move on."
The memory of suffering the loss in the NCAA Tournament lidlifter was not something Cody could easily erase. He went to work at it however, venturing to the prestigious Cape Cod League for a summer baseball experience that helped him erase the memories of the regional start.
Cody had a great summer, earning the starting pitching honor for the Western Division in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, with his UK teammate Kyle Barrett starting in centerfield for the Eastern Division.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody finished his summer with a 2.72 ERA, tossing 36.1 innings with just 11 walks and 34 strikeouts. He ranked eighth in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the CCBL.
"It helped me a lot to face the talented hitters that you face in the Cape," Cody said. "Facing really good hitters and being able to throw to all types of hitters. It wouldn't really help me if I went somewhere in the summer and didn't face real competition. It really helped me a lot because it allowed me to work on my off-speed pitches and secondary stuff, which got a whole lot better up there. The coaching was phenomenal. Jim Lawler, my pitching coach, was really good. He helped me with some mechanical things and some mental things and just calmed me down a lot. It was an overall good experience for me this summer."
Cody, who has a 3.18 ERA in his two-year SEC career, enters his junior season ranked in the preseason as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. He is also a Baseball America third-team preseason All-America selection.
"I think there's two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive," Henderson detailed. "You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He's done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He's improved his body, he's a lot stronger, he's healthy right now, I think. He's a pivotal part of the team, there's no question about that. He's a guy who's in a gene pool, a skill level that's capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he's capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He's a talented kid."
Cody's relationship with Henderson has also grown over three years and the duo now has a unique trust and reliance on each other.
"(Henderson) has a lot more trust in me, now that I've been here for three years," Cody said. "My freshman year he was always dialed in to tell me what to do, and giving me clues, and now he is looking towards me to tell him what is going on. I feel like he has more trust in me and I've learned a lot from him in return. Our communication is really good and we work really well together."
Not only will Cody be expected to be a physical leader of the deep UK pitching staff, he will be tasked in a leadership role.
"That is a different spot for me right now compared to last year," Cody said. "I wasn't looked at as a leader last year because there were some guys ahead of me and I was still trying to learn. Now that most of them are gone it is a little different when some younger guys ask questions about what is going to happen or what happens next. It's little different but I kind of enjoy it. It gives you a good feeling to help out someone younger who is trying to get to where I'm at right now. It just gives me a good feeling about what the future holds for them and how it can only help us and the program."
Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 77-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
His team might be unbeaten and top-ranked, but that's not stopping John Calipari from pushing every button he can think of to get the most out of the Wildcats.
Even if it means changing long-standing coaching habits.
"Normal case, we back up off practice this time of the year," Calipari said. "Well, we went back Thursday to an hour of scrimmage and then they got after each other and I even scrimmaged them 15 minutes Friday, which I never do. "
By its historically high standards, Kentucky had lost a bit of an edge in recent weeks, especially on defense. Opponents had scored a point per possession in the previous four games entering a rematch with South Carolina after managing to do so just twice in the season's first 20 games.
"We got a good group of players that need to go after - they don't want to do drills," Calipari said. "They look at me and say, 'Stop the drills, let's play.' "
Of course, the Cats had held on to their unbeaten record in the process, but Coach Cal was out to recapture that edge.
"They argue, fight, foul, grab, and whoever loses has to run," Calipari said. "If I forget to tell them to run, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, White's got to run.' And then I got to make them run and then we--so they don't--if they beat somebody they're making that other team run. They're really competitive."
So competitive, in fact, that they can't even agree which group has the upper hand.
"Well, my squad hasn't been losing as much," Dakari Johnson said, laughing.
"We usually win - I'm just joking," Andrew Harrison said. "They're fun matchups. You have to compete or you're going to lose. No one wants to lose."
South Carolina saw that mentality up close and in person on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
UK scored the first basket of the game 17 seconds in and never looked back. The Cats (25-0, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) were dominant on both ends of the floor in a 77-43 victory. UK held South Carolina (12-12, 3-9 SEC) to 23.6-percent shooting and 0.694 points per possession and shot 50 percent from the field.
"We played well," Calipari said. "Offensively we were really good, which created a pretty big gap. But I thought we defended, we played with great energy, we needed to play a game like this."
Perhaps most impressively, UK outrebounded South Carolina, 45-21, just three weeks removed from the Gamecocks winning the battle on the glass against the Cats, 40-28. Kentucky had just three offensive rebounds in that first matchup, but 15 this time to South Carolina's nine defensive rebounds.
Those scrimmages had something to do with that.
"During practices we play physical against each other," said Johnson, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds. "We started scrimmaging against each other again. So we're really going at each other. I think it brought our competitiveness back out."
The competitiveness back, the Cats regained the form of some of their earlier dominant performances and tied the school record for the best start in school history set in 1953-54. Taking a break from his laser-like focus on improvement and best positioning his team for the postseason, Coach Cal talked briefly to his team about the achievement.
"We're all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein) and you played an unbelievable schedule," Calipari said. "One of the best nonconference schedules in the country and you're one of the best leagues in the country."
Cauley-Stein, who had a team-high 14 points to go with seven rebounds, fully understands the magnitude of what he and his teammates have done.
"It's just like special, for real," he said. "We don't really think about it as a whole, you just kind of take it day by day, work on stuff that you did wrong, and I mean the outcome is going to be the outcome, like you just prepare for it. But, like, I think it's just special to me because I came from one of the worst teams on Kentucky's history to now one of the top teams on Kentucky's history. I mean, it's just kind of cool to see the evolution of what was going on."
The evolution, however, isn't over.
"We can do something bigger," Cauley-Stein said. "We have the chance to do something way bigger than just tying it."
The last time Kentucky faced Tennessee, UK sophomore Makayla Epps led the way in scoring for both teams, but failed to convert one of Kentucky's several potential game-winning field goal attempts as time expired.
As the Wildcats (16-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare for Sunday's matchup in Knoxville almost two weeks later, the narrative is slightly different.
Once again, Epps is fresh off a career night in which she not only led all scorers, but also found the ball in her hands in the contest's closing seconds. This time, however, with the game on the line, she would not be denied the victory.
"I'm pretty sure after last night, a lot of teams are going to key in on me more, if they weren't already," said Epps. "Last night's performance was crazy."
On Thursday, Epps scored a career-high 42 points in Kentucky's 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13 Mississippi State. Epps sank the game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, converting 15 of UK's 18 points in extra time.
"Literally, maybe 100 times a game, (head coach Matthew Mitchell) will say, 'They can't guard you, Epps. They can't guard you, Epps. When are you going to understand they can't guard you?'" Epps said. "Sometimes when I'm scoring in sync, I'm like, 'Maybe Coach is right, they can't guard me.'"
Since losing to Tennessee 73-72 at Memorial Coliseum on January 29, No. 10 Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins over No. 21 Georgia, Vanderbilt, and No. 13 MSU. Epps leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring, with 17.3 points per game in league play.
"I'm a small-town kid from Marion County, Kentucky. Nobody expects people like me, from small places, to do anything big." said Epps. "I'm just here and happy to play."
The last time Mitchell's Wildcats visited Thompson-Boling Arena, UK emerged victorious for the first time in school history. The sixth-ranked Lady Vols, winners of eight national championships since 1987, lead the all-time series 51-10.
"Tough game ahead on Sunday," Mitchell said. "It'll be tough. It'll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. I'll be happy for (last year's road victory) to be a benefit, but it won't be something where I'm saying, 'We won last year, so mark it down this year.' That's not my approach."
The Cats will travel to Tennessee (21-3, 11-0 SEC) Sunday for a 3 p.m. nationally televised matchup on ESPN2.
"As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they're a great team and it was a tough game here," said Mitchell. "A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete."
Peevy's initial reaction was to literally search the plane for Lyles, who had inspired continual speculation in recent weeks with an illness that had kept him out of action since Jan. 29.
"And when he did that, I knew 'Uh-oh. This is gonna be absolutely outrageous,' " Calipari said. "And we had people camped out at the hotel. We had people camped out as we got off the bus."
Once the confusion was overcome, the tweet went out. More than 2,000 retweets and a #WhereIsTrey hashtag later, Coach Cal had a national story on his hands.
"That blew up kinda big," said Lyles, who even threw up the hood on his sweatshirt upon arrival in Louisiana to keep the ruse alive. "My mentions on Twitter wouldn't go away, so a lot of people were interested in it, getting into it. I thought it was funny. Coach was trying to have a nice little joke going there. I thought it was pretty funny. Coach had a good sense of humor with that and he played it out well."
For once, conversation turned away from top-ranked UK's pursuit of perfection. For Calipari, it was mission accomplished.
"I was on a plane and I'm thinking, 'Our fans are going nutty,' " Calipari said. " 'They got to loosen up a little bit. This isn't life or death. It's not March.' "
The Big Blue Nation was his primary target audience, but #WhereIsTrey also served to remind Calipari's team that it's still the regular season.
"I wanted them to understand, and I keep telling them, 'What's the worst?' " Calipari said. "I'll say it this time: We lose this game we're 22-1, 23, whatever it is. What's it matter? Just go play. Let's try to get better."
UK, of course, would win anyway by overcoming a late six-point deficit at LSU. With the victory, the Cats carry a 24-0 (11-0 Southeastern Conference) record into a rematch with South Carolina (12-11, 3-8 SEC) at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Lyles, of course, will be available again after returning to score four points and grab three rebounds in 18 minutes at LSU.
"I just had strep throat, wasn't feeling good for a few days," said Lyles, who is "feeling 100 percent." "Coach and them just wanted to keep me away from the guys so they wouldn't come down with anything."
In Lyles' absence, UK was outrebounded twice in three outings after losing the rebounding battle in just three of 19 games previously. Devin Booker sees Lyles helping to change that.
"Rebounding," Booker said. "He brings that to the team every time. He attacks the offensive glass and defensive rebounds. He's like a 6(-foot-)10 3-man. That helps a lot."
Lyles also adds depth, though that also requires an adjustment on the part of his teammates.
"Guys got to be willing to sacrifice three minutes or two minutes," Calipari said. "There are times where we got to go at him, which may take a shot away from some other guys, but what does it matter? At the end of the day, either you can play or you can't play. Reality. Either you're an efficient player or you're not. They don't need to see you for 40 minutes. That's all ego stuff."
Considering they've been checking their egos all season, that shouldn't be much of a problem.
Kentucky begins life after AJ Reed on Friday at 12 p.m. vs. Ball State (UK Athletics)
The 2014 season for the Kentucky baseball team was a historic one.
Not only did the Wildcats advance to their eighth all-time NCAA Tournament, but folks in Lexington and around the country were treated to one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the sport.
Two-way star AJ Reed swept the national player of the year awards while pacing the nation's most explosive offense. UK led all major conference schools in runs scored while Reed powered a NCAA-best 23 homers, also leading the Southeastern Conference in pitching wins, in one of the most remarkable individual seasons in college baseball history.
"You don't replace AJ with one guy," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club. You can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. It is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that's fine."
The 2015 UK roster will look quite different than the physical lineup employed a year ago. Gone are Reed and fellow sluggers Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas. UK will be built through speed, defense and pitching depth in Henderson's seventh season at the helm - with his previous six years the most successful in program history.
"Well we're going to run well," Henderson said. "I don't know how that's going to translate into stolen bases yet but we're going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly."
Kentucky returns first-team All-SEC outfielder Ka'ai Tom, who narrowly missed the league batting crown in conference play with a .373 average. In addition, UK boasts the return of 2013 Freshman All-SEC selections Kyle Barrett and Greg Fettes, and 2014 Freshman All-SEC second baseman JaVon Shelby.
UK's lineup will be anchored by fifth-year senior Thomas Bernal, who will transition to third base to accommodate freshman first baseman Evan White. Bernal, who hit .475 on SEC Friday nights last year, is a preseason All-SEC selection at the hot corner by Perfect Game.
On the mound, UK's history of talented arms continues as junior right-hander Kyle Cody enters the season as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. A 6-foot-7, 245-pound product of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cody is coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. UK also returns southpaw Dylan Dwyer and right-hander Andrew Nelson, a duo that helped fill UK's weekend rotation a year ago. UK will be boosted by junior transfer Dustin Beggs, who has been tabbed to make UK's opening-day start.
"I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well," Henderson said. "I'm really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis. We're really eager to get this thing started."
Makayla Epps scored 42 points, including the buzzer beater, in UK's 92-90 win over Mississippi State in double overtime. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
From the final play to the whole 50-minute game to her 42-point performance in it, Makayla Epps didn't need to say much more to describe what had just happened.
"Crazy," Epps said. "Complete craziness."
Epps, however, was talking only about the final possession that led to the buzzer-beating shot she used to send No. 10 Kentucky (19-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) to a thrilling 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-4, 8-4 SEC).
The play started when the Wildcats took possession following a Breanna Richardson basket with 35 seconds left. Matthew Mitchell didn't call timeout, instead opting to tell Epps to run the clock down and attack as the shot clock neared zero.
"I just thought it was kind of silly to have it in anybody else's hands but hers there at the end, no matter if four were guarding her," Mitchell said.
Epps would get a good first look, but missed a short jumper. Somehow, Jelleah Sidney came away with the offensive rebound in a mad scrum as the clock reached five seconds remaining.
"I feel like all 12 of my teammates crashed the glass on that one," Epps said.
"I can't wait to watch it again," Mitchell said. "It was a really incredible play."
From there, Sidney could do little else but fire the ball back into the fray.
"Jelleah Sidney, sometimes she has the tendency to throw the ball really hard at us," Epps said. "And she threw it really hard and it was bouncing off faces and noses and ears. And then I looked up and it was right there. 'Go get it, Epps!' "
Epps got it, and put the ball on the glass and through the basket with 0.6 seconds on the clock.
"And then Epps, we'd missed so many, and that one was as tough as any one that you'll ever shoot and we make that one," Mitchell said. "So go figure. Who knows? I can't figure all this stuff out. I don't know how we're winning all these games."
Epps has a lot to do with it, especially on this night.
Her buzzer beater brought her career high in scoring to 42 points, just one point shy of the school-record 43 Jennifer O'Neill scored in five overtimes against Baylor last season. She made 18-of-30 field goals and added six rebounds and five assists for good measure to outduel Bulldog star Victoria Vivians, who had 39 points of her own.
"Especially at the level we're at in the SEC, that's not common," Epps said. "That's not something you see every month or every week or (anything) like that."
With Epps leading the way - including scoring UK's final eight points in double overtime - the Cats weathered multiple furious Mississippi State rallies. Kentucky built and lost double-digit leads on four different occasions and the Bulldogs tied the game in the final seconds of regulation on a basket by Moran William.
"I was glad she scored 42 and not 39," Mitchell said. "We needed those extra three points that she had. So that was incredible. We didn't look like we could win any other way tonight."
Epps is now seven games into her run as UK's full-time point guard in place of the injured Janee Thompson. She's now averaging 21 points in those games and the Cats have won five of them, two against ranked opponents.
"I'm hoping that after every game she's proud of me and that she's happy I'm out here handling my business as she would if she was out there with us," Epps said. "At the end of the day, it's all for Janee. Regardless if I'm playing, Bria's (Goss) playing good, the team's playing good, in the back of our minds we're all thinking about Janee."
Just like all baseball-playing youth growing up in Hawaii, Kentucky junior outfielder Ka'ai Tom admired the exploits of MLB star outfielder Shane Victorino.
And for good reason.
Victorino has carved out a distinguished big league career, winning the 2013 World Series title with the Boston Red Sox.
"It's pretty big knowing how successful he has been, especially when he went to the World Series a few years in a row with the Phillies," Tom said about Victorino. "Being from Hawaii just shows that I can do it as well. He is a big example to all players from Hawaii, not just me in general, that even though we may be far away from the mainland we can still have the same opportunities."
Tom, a native of Kaneohe, Hawaii, is a very similar player to Victorino. A 5-foot-9 hitter with surprising pop for his size and great wheels, Tom is an above-average defender in the outfield and has the ability to impact the game with a line-drive approach at the plate.
A junior left-handed hitter, Tom earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in his debut season with the Wildcats in 2014. He narrowly missed the SEC batting crown for league games, batting .373 in conference play with 21 RBI.
Overall, Tom hit .328 as a sophomore, with 13 doubles, three homers, 41 RBI and 14 steals.
"Last year I was still transitioning in from junior college," Tom said. "I was still learning how to play baseball. There was a lot of knowledge I needed about how I could be better by hitting to all fields. Being a part of that club we had last year, (Austin) Cousino, (Max) Kuhn, MT (Micheal Thomas) and AJ (Reed), we had a lot of pop. Just following that and having them as mentors really helped me throughout the season."
Tom showed a disciplined approach and a discerning eye at the plate, sporting a .414 on-base percentage and 22-18 walk-strikeout ratio.
"I always like to be fastball aggressive," Tom said. "If there is a pitch early in the count that is in the zone I like to swing. I like to clear my mind in between at-bats and know what the pitcher is doing before I get into the box. Having a good mindset helps me generate good at-bats."
A year after hitting before and behind Reed in the lineup as he swept every national player of the year award, Tom will face a different challenge in 2015.
"This year, we have a lot of team speed," Tom said. "We can utilize the hit-and-runs. We can execute on the bunts. We can put a lot more pressure on the pitching staff. Even though it is great to have the home run hitting team we had. But this year, we have some real speed. We have Kyle Barrett, Connor Heady and me, a few guys with great speed. Having a different team than last year can really put pressure on the pitching staff."
Now as a proven performer in the league's best conference, Tom is seeking to improve upon a stellar season.