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.' "
Griffin Joiner is batting .405 with six home runs through 15 games as UK's catcher. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It would have been hard to blame Griffin Joiner if she had gotten frustrated.
With the junior catcher riding a three-game home-run streak and in the midst of a scalding start to 2014, Texas wised up and walked her four times in as many plate appearances. Only one was intentional, but it was clear the Longhorns wanted no part of Joiner as Kentucky clinched the Texas Classic.
At the FAU Invitational a week later, the trend of opponents paying special attention to Joiner continued.
"This weekend she didn't get a lot to hit," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "Because of that I think she got a little out of her zone a little bit. Teams are definitely targeting her. They're aware of her power numbers. They're aware she's a difference-maker."
Facing that careful pitching, Joiner had just two hits in 15 at-bats. A testament to how good she was in her first 10 games, Joiner is still batting .405 with six home runs, 14 runs batted in and a slugging percentage of .905.
"That's elite status," Lawson said.
But here's the thing about Joiner: She doesn't have to hit a lick to make a significant impact for No. 8 Kentucky.
"It's good that I'm a catcher because let's say they pitch me really tough and I don't have success," Joiner said. "It's good that I'm able to always know that I have a role on the team, that I can always make an impact being behind the plate. I can't take what happens hitting to the field with me and I always have to focus on the next task that's at hand."
Because of the position she plays, the next task is always an important one.
"I tell everybody that probably the toughest job in Division I softball is Griffin's job, to be the catcher at the University of Kentucky," Lawson said. "We're very demanding on our catcher."
Joiner has caught every inning during UK's 13-2 start to 2014, showing more of the durability and reliability that defined her first two seasons. Save for two games at designated hitter early in her freshman season, Joiner has started every game of her career at catcher and 130 in a row.
"She's an incredibly smart person," Lawson said. "She's a great ballplayer. She's very focused on the task at hand so she does a great job of separating offense from defense. I think that's actually a great way of looking at it. While she's not getting what she wants offensively, she's a huge contributor."
Over Joiner's three seasons, Lawson -- known nationally as a pitching guru -- has come to rely on her catcher more and more.
"Behind the plate she's done an exceptional job," Lawson said. "People don't really steal on her often and she does a great job handling the pitchers."
Joiner is facing a unique challenge this season given the composition of the Wildcat pitching staff.
She is in her second season with Kelsey Nunley, a Freshman All-Southeastern Conference performer last year who rewrote UK's record books. Joiner also works extensively with Lauren Cumbess, a senior who has seen it all.
"The second year having Kelsey has been a lot better," Joiner said. "We're a lot smoother with the way we're doing everything this year as far as signs and her pace on the mound. We're used to each other and they obviously Lauren and I are used to each other."
Joiner is still building that familiarity with Meagan Prince and Shannon Smith, the two freshmen who round out the UK staff. So far, she likes what she's seen.
"Meagan's really competitive. I really like that because I'm competitive too," Joiner said. "Shannon, she's a go-getter whenever she's on the rubber and she's fun to catch."
To this point, the group has combined for a 2.06 earned-run average and 93 strikeouts in 105.0 innings.
"All the pitchers are a lot different," Joiner said. "In the offseason, having all the bullpens with them, it's a lot of fun. You never know which pitcher you're going to get. They all have a different variety of pitches."
That diversity has played a role in UK's success on the mound, but Joiner is the glue that holds it all together.
"Without her, we wouldn't be where we are defensively," Lawson said. "Our pitchers have done a great job and I've never seen a great pitcher who didn't have a great catcher."
As UK prepares to host a three-day tournament beginning with its home opener on Friday at 3 p.m. ET against Butler, Joiner will be trying to help her pitchers remain as close to unhittable while hoping to see some hittable pitches herself. But even if she doesn't, Joiner plans to stay within herself.
"It's a good feeling knowing that everybody on the team's a good hitter," Joiner said. "If I don't get the job done, somebody behind me is going to. I can always count on that."
UK will travel to Mississippi State for a matchup at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Last week was an interesting one for UK Hoops.
It began with a historic win at Tennessee, the program's first since 1985. Next was a lopsided home defeat at the hands of Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina. To finish it up, UK took down No. 16/13 Texas A&M on the road.
The up-and-down eight-day stretch begged a question.
"Can we get some consistency going?" UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Because that's really important. We've been winning one, losing one, winning one and losing one. That's certainly not what we want to do tomorrow night."
With two games left in the regular season - starting in Starkville, Miss., at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday -- the Wildcats are looking to put together a winning streak. Wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt would assure UK (20-7, 8-6 SEC) of a double bye in the SEC Tournament -- certainly motivation enough -- but that's not why the games are so important in Mitchell's mind.
"I think still what we're trying to focus on is this team really rounding into form and being its best," Mitchell said. "We're getting close to a part of the season, if you win one then lose one, your season is over, so we're trying to build some consistency here at the end of the season."
In search of that consistency, Mitchell is asking for steadiness from individual players.
First on the list is Makayla Epps, who has emerged late in the season as an option at point guard.
In the loss to South Carolina, Epps was one of UK's lone bright spots, posting a career-high 16 points. She followed that up with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and zero turnovers against Texas A&M.
"She did a really good job on Sunday, so now what you're looking for is some consistency and you need to bounce back with another good game," Mitchell said. "It's going to be another big challenge just like it was in College Station. We'll just see if she can build on the performance."
Looking to do the same will be Jelleah Sidney, who had seven points, seven rebounds, three steals and two blocks as part of an unconventional crunch-time lineup against the Aggies that also featured freshmen Epps and Linnae Harper.
"You know Jelleah can make plays, you know she can do some things of great value we just need her to do those things consistently well," Mitchell said. "What I always love about her is her energy and her effort. She sure gave us that on Sunday and she'll have to tomorrow night. This will be a tough, tough game for us."
Mississippi State (18-10, 5-9 SEC) has Mitchell's undivided attention, clearly. The Bulldogs are 13-3 on their home floor and have been competitive throughout SEC play. Of their nine losses in conference, all but one has come by 10 points or fewer and two in overtime.
"Mississippi State has been really good at home this year," Mitchell said. "They are a very aggressive defensive team, really hard-nosed and tough competitors, make it difficult on you to score and one of the real premier frontcourts in the league."
Julius Randle and the Wildcats will host Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime loss on Thursday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Since he arrived in Lexington over the summer, Julius Randle has gotten used to his surroundings.
He knows the short walk from his dorm to the Joe Craft Center quite well. The same goes for the path from the training room to the men's practice gym.
This week, something new stopped Randle caught him by surprise after John Calipari had a photograph from the wild celebration following UK's win over LSU plastered on the wall under the word "FAMILY."
"He didn't tell us anything," Randle said. "It's just right there, a big picture."
The photo shows Randle on his back, smiling from ear to ear. His teammates are mobbing him after he hit a game winner in the final five seconds to take down the Tigers for their sixth win in seven games.
The image joins countless other memorable ones from the Coach Cal era, ones Randle first noticed on recruiting visits as a high schooler. Now, he's immortalized alongside his Wildcat predecessors.
"You see all the guys that have come through, to see them on the wall and you've got a picture of all us on the wall, it's a pretty cool thing," said Randle, the reigning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.
Most of the time, new decorations are saved for the offseason. This, Calipari believed, was a time to make an exception. It wasn't because of the significance of the shot either.
It was that moment of celebration that Calipari wants his players to remember.
"I think that's part of what, as coaches, it's what we want them to understand: That's what it feels like," assistant Orlando Antigua said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."
Shouldering the burden of expectations, there have surely been times when the Cats have lost sight of that fact, moments when basketball felt more like a responsibility than a game. But after months of work it's all beginning to pay off, paving the way for moments of elation like the one that punctuated the LSU victory.
"We see we're getting better as a team and once you see the results things start to become more fun," Randle said. "You may not see the results for a while but you gotta stick with, stick with it, stick with it and just keep fighting, keep getting better. We see that we're getting better."
The hope, now, is that improvement fuels more improvement and joy fuels more joy.
"They're competing and enjoying the fact that they're competing together, working together and seeing results," Antigua said. "To see that pure joy for one another, it's what the coaching staff has been working to try to get them to."
More than a month ago, UK showed signs of progress in a loss at Arkansas. In spite of dealing with numerous bad breaks, a hostile road crowd and an energized Razorback team, the Cats battled to the final possession.
"It was a tough environment to play, but I do remember that being kind of a little bit of a breakout game for us," Randle said. "It was learning how to fight, not stopping, just playing hard."
Of course, carelessness with the ball and a Michael Qualls put-back dunk in the final second would undo the effort in an 87-85 overtime loss.
"I think we had 17 turnovers that game, but we competed, played hard," Antigua said. "Arkansas comes out and plays really hard. Coach (Mike) Anderson does a great job of getting those guys to play the way they want to play, speeding up the game. I think we handled it pretty good."
No. 17/15 UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) will look to handle it even better on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET as the Cats host their second game in a row with payback on their minds.
"We've watched film of how we played at the end and the difference between then and now, it's a tremendous difference," Randle said. "We play harder. We play more as a team. We care about each other more. It's little things we do on defense. We've made adjustments since that game. We've gotten better each game."
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) can say the same. The Razorbacks have won five of six to play their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation, including two of three on the road.
"They're better," Antigua said. "They're right in the middle of the pack with the rest of the teams in the conference and we know they're going to go out and compete and play hard, and we're excited about the challenge."
Alex Poythress is averaging 6.6 points and 5.1 rebounds as UK's sixth man. (Chet White, 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 Alex Poythress, who writes about the celebration of UK's win over LSU, getting ready for tournament play and his classes.
As you all know, we are coming off the win over LSU, which was a hard-fought game. I kind of think we needed that game just to show we can win close games down the stretch. It shows what we're made of. It shows that we're capable of winning close games and that we can come together when we need to. We played great defense in the final closing minutes of the second half and we played great in overtime. They hit big shots, we hit big shots, but we came up with defensive plays to put us in a position to win.
Julius' rebound to end the game was great. It was really exciting to see the whole team come together like that. We were so hyped for him that we all just ran the court and just jumped on him. I know you all saw what happened already, but Andrew and Aaron led the charge. Dakari and I were jumping up and down on the court until we saw what was going on and then we just sprinted towards them and jumped on them too. The picture of the celebration was hanging up in the practice gym when we got to practice today so that was pretty cool to see.
As much as we needed to win a close game, I think we needed the boost of a celebration like that more than anything because everybody needs that one moment in the season where you come together. I'm glad we got to show the fans and everybody to see how much of a family we are and how much we care about each other.
It gets old hearing how we are a bunch of individuals and not a team because, personally, we think we're a great team. We think we're coming together and playing well. We think we're really close as brothers because we hang out all the time. We're just always hanging with each other in the lodge, in practice, walking to class with each other, seeing movies together, playing pool, playing video games, anything. We're just always with each other.
For me, this season's been a lot different just because of where we are a team right now. I can remember feeling like every game was the last game of the season for us at this point last year. We haven't been in that situation so far - which is nice - but sooner or later we're going to have to start playing like that because once you get into the tournament time every game's one and done. You're going to have to play your hardest each and every game, but I feel like this season's prepared us for that. I feel like we're ready to take on the challenge. I feel like we're just trying to better ourselves and just trying to reach our peak.
Individually, I just feel way more comfortable than I did a year ago. I feel like the game is coming to me easier because I'm making better plays and better decisions out there. I just feel like I'm a better all-around player. I feel like I'm more comfortable because I'm getting in the gym more and I'm in better shape. I feel like all those factors have helped me a lot.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't excited for the NCAA Tournament since we missed out on it last year. For me and Willie, this will be our first experience so we'll be just like all of our freshmen. I remember watching it when I was in school when I was a kid and dreaming about playing in it. It's funny, in school, the teachers, instead of teaching, they would put March Madness on the TV so it was kind of like March was the easy month. That won't be the case this time around.
I'm also looking forward to the SEC Tournament just because of what happened last year and because it will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament. That could be a great learning experience for the tournament style of play.
It's going to be tough trying to balance our postseason with all the schoolwork I've got. School has been a lot harder this semester now that I'm actually into my major now, which deals with accounting, business and marketing. I've always been good with numbers - they just come natural to me - but the classes are pretty hard. They're challenging, but I'll be alright.
I don't get to play as many video games as some of the other guys because of my class load, but when I do play, I'm not the worst. I just don't play it a lot to know all the controls and all the glitches and stuff in the game like some of the other guys do like Dom. He's probably the best and would win if we had a team tournament. Me and Archie used to play all the time but Archie would cheat because Archie would always choose Kobe and Kobe would go for like 80.
As you all probably know, I've got a twin sister that goes to school here too. She's been really supportive throughout the whole season. We see each other all the time. I'll go eat lunch with her a lot at the student center and go to her house and play cards. We do all type of things. We're just really close. She likes to give me advice about what I'm doing on the court sometimes but it's cool because she knows what she's talking about. She actually played in high school so she's no dummy when it comes to basketball. She's always motivating me in a positive way so it's always helpful.
Coming down the stretch, I like how we play a couple of teams that have beaten us because we feel like we owe them a game. We're not out for revenge or anything like that, but at the same we want to even out the series, so that kind of gives us a little more motivation, a little more fire in our belly to just going for those games and to just come out strong.
Alright, BBN, I'm about to head to the cold tub. I'll see y'all later.
A.J. Reed had five home runs and 11 RBI in three UK wins over the weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed has apparently mastered the art of the understatement.
On the heels of three games that made him the Southeastern Conference Player of the Week and one of four Louisville Slugger National Players of the Week, the junior first baseman/pitcher offered the following self-assessment.
"All I'm trying to do is just go up there and put a good swing on a strike," Reed said. "Luckily for us and for myself, I did that a couple times."
Unless he was talking about the fifth inning on Friday alone, Reed was selling himself a bit short.
In wins over St. Joseph's, Old Dominion and St. John's, Reed became the first player in the modern history of UK baseball to club five home runs in a three-game span. He added two more hits in his 13 at-bats -- including a double -- and posted 11 runs batted in and a staggering slugging percentage of 1.769.
"It's a lot of fun," Reed said. "This past weekend was a lot of fun and it's good to get some wins."
Reed got his weekend rolling on Friday. Five innings into a seven-inning, one-run pitching effort, he stepped to the plate after Max Kuhn worked a walk and promptly delivered a two-run homer. Reed the returned to the dugout, expecting to head back to the mound in relatively short order.
Instead, six of the next eight Wildcats reached base to load the bases for Reed. Naturally, the thought of doing something he can't ever remember doing came up.
"I was trying to not to think about (hitting a home run) again, but obviously that thought comes to mind," Reed said. "Just trying to hit a ball hard and put a good swing on it."
He succeeded on both counts and a grand slam was the result. Two home runs and six RBI would have been a decent total for UK's cleanup hitter through the Wildcats 5-2 start, but it's merely Reed's best inning among two weekends full of them.
Reed is batting .433 with six home runs and 17 RBI on the season -- not to mention his 2-0 record and 1.50 earned-run average on the mound. The Terre Haute, Ind., native was good a season ago, but is at another level so far in 2014.
"I think most of the time when you find guys that are really seeing it well, it's usually a little bit later in the year," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Typically not something you see the first three, four weekends. But he had a really good weekend, saw it well, a lot of good swings and not just on the home runs."
Some of that has to do with being in the middle of a balanced lineup.
"Last year my approach was a lot of pull, just trying to hit home runs to score," Reed said. "This year we have a lot different team. Guys are going to get on base and we got a lot of guys who can drive the ball in the gaps and hit doubles."
With Reed leading the way both statistically and in terms of taking a simple approach, UK is hitting .312 as a team and averaging 9.9 runs per game. The Cats have been even better with two outs, hitting .366 and tallying 32 of their 59 RBI.
"The thing you think about the most is the commitment the kids have to the process and the approach," Henderson said. "The right approach at the plate, staying with the one pitch at a time, that kind of a mantra to really stay with it when it's going well, when it's not going well, to stick with a plan. If they do that over time, they're going to be successful."
For Reed, that commitment began in mid-September.
After recovering from minor offseason surgery, the big lefthander went to work to become a little smaller. Recognizing the need to improve his conditioning and physique to best cope with a demanding dual role, Reed dropped 20 pounds and is now in the best shape of his life.
"I just have a lot more energy and I'm keeping that energy throughout the game and I'm not wearing down or anything," Reed said. "So it's good to be able to stay up. And obviously I'm a little quicker too so that helps out."
Physically speaking, Reed's slimmer, more athletic frame is paying dividends. The difference might be just as important psychologically.
"The bat speed's better," Henderson said. "The foot speed's quicker, faster. All that's good, and then the satisfaction of knowing that you've worked really hard to get to a certain spot where you're going to perform at a higher level. You're happy with yourself, you're more confident."
Confidence is a word that came up often when talking to the Cats in the preseason. With the way they have hit the ball through two weekends, that confidence has only grown.
"It's good to see early on that we're hitting the ball well," Reed said. "We've got a lot of confidence going and we're just going to hopefully continue to do it. We know once conference starts it's going to be a little tougher, but we just gotta stick to our approach: see the ball deep and let it travel and I think we'll be just fine."
The Cats will look to sustain that approach as they begin their home schedule with a Tuesday matchup with Wright State at 4 p.m. ET. UK plays nine of its next 10 games at Cliff Hagan Stadium, offering a chance to build the kind of momentum that sparked a record-setting 2012 campaign.
"You'd really like to get it started," Henderson said. "We won't get to that same spot that we did a couple years ago (starting the season 22-0) because we've stubbed our toe a couple times, but to be able to get home and play several games over a course of two-and-a-half weeks at your own place is something that we're looking forward to and hopefully we'll get on a good run."
With two weeks left in the regular season, there was plenty of ground to cover on Monday's Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference. John Calipari joined and spent time talking about UK's matchups with Arkansas and South Carolina this week, his team's progress and Alex Poythess's work to break out of a recent slump.
Here's a complete transcript, as well as relevant quotes from two other SEC coaches.
On UK's upcoming matchups this week ... "I hope we're not playing Georgia. They're playing so well right now. I know we're playing Arkansas. For some reason I don't think it's Georgia, but it may be. (Moderator who said Georgia earlier: "It's at South Carolina, sorry.") "OK. Are we hosting them or are we on the road?" (Moderator: "On the road.") "Let's see if we can flip that around and host them. I will tell you that Arkansas is one of those teams, they beat us already. They play extremely hard, got good players, they shoot the ball. And Arkansas, Frank and I have talked, he's getting those guys to compete and do things that is beyond the group, which is what coaching is about. So two hard games for us."
On how he would compare Arkansas and his team from the last time they played ... "I would guess that both teams have gotten better. I've watched a couple tapes of them. A lot of the scrambling and stuff they're doing, they're even taking it to another level. I think they've got their breakdown guys, really have the ability to get to the basket. In our case, I hope we're better. I think we're better. Our numbers--today was funny, BPI has us four and said we're the fourth No. 1 seed. Now I'm not sure we're quite there but you've got other teams that have the same record as us in other places being that high, so I'm not sure we're to that point, but we are getting better."
On what he thought of Michael Qualls' game-winning play in the first meeting and if they will be more aware of him now ... "What he does athletically is he can stand out, he can do things, and make plays that are broken down and he still goes in and makes a play. The rebound he got was off a missed shot and he just attacked the basket and won the game. We obviously know how good he is, but knowing how good he is and trying to slow a guy down are two different things."
On Qualls expanding his game ... "Yeah, and again, let's hope he goes back to 2 for 20 (from 3) in our game, but he has the confidence to be able do that. Really tells a lot about the young man."
On how Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are playing ... "Well, (Poythress) hasn't played as well he has been playing. We, again, you'd like to say it about Willie and I'd say it about Alex: If we're going to be that special team -- I mean, I think the RPI has us top 10, the BPI has us fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team -- strength of schedule is fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team, he's (Poythress) gotta perform. He's gotta give us double-digit scoring and at least six, seven rebounds. But he's capable of doing that. He is--last couple games, he's been in a little bit of a funk but it happens. These kids aren't machines. Willie went through it. Andrew (Harrison) went through it. Aaron (Harrison) went through it. James (Young) went through it. They all go through it. They're not machines. They're not computers. This isn't a computer game. So hopefully he cracks out of it. He was in the gym last night on an off day. Today is a lift and a film day with some individuals and he'll be in there again on his own with the coaches. But yesterday, like I said, he came in the gym on his own and said, 'Let's get some work.' "
On how encouraging it is that Poythress did that for him ... "Did what for me? (Came in and got some work on his own.) Well, he didn't do it for me; he's doing it for himself. It's good when I walk in my office on a Sunday and I'm driving to the office and lights are on in the building and I look out my window and he's out there in a full-blown sweat. Dominique (Hawkins), I was there earlier in the day after church I came in and Dominique was in. I came back later and Alex was in there. It's great to see, and they're in there by themselves. This cannot be coach-driven, if we're going to be special. It cannot be. It's gotta be player-driven. And it means you gotta be responsible for you gotta be into your team and add energy, add to your team, add to your teammates. I like what Andrew did last game. Couldn't make a shot. Could not make a shot. Made two big free throws, made a driving layup, but he got six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. What do you do when you can't make a shot? That's when you start talking about team play. That's when you start talking about player-driven. But we're still not quite there."
On the challenges of facing LSU ... "Well, you, first of all, have a very, very talented team. And as a coach, you gotta make a choice: What are we going to do with Johnny O'Bryant? Well, we decided down there, 'Let's see how he is one on one,' and he showed us. He got like 40 (points) and 20 (rebounds) and fade-away jumpers, step-backs, dunks. It was a really great coaching move and decision. Here, we said, 'I don't care who's near him. Run at him and trap him. Make him pass.' The problem is, you got (Anthony) Hickey who got 30 and you (Andre) Stringer who can get 30, you got (Jarell) Martin who can get 30 and their leading scorer was Jordan Mickey for the last five games. So you're talking about a team that can beat you in different ways and you gotta make a choice on O'Bryant first. What are you going to do? You know, they're a team that made 3s against us and that's why we were--we were 1 for 9 from the 3. We were lucky to get out alive." South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On his observations about Kentucky ... "I think they're real good, and I don't think Cal gets the credit he deserves for the job he does. To rely on so many freshmen, to not have those foundation guys--I guess (Alex) Poythress and I can't remember the young man's name, (Jarrod) Polson, that they've been with them for at least a year, they provide that consistency that he's looking for. But every year, I don't care if Cal is coaching seniors or freshmen, you don't want to play them at the end of the year because his teams play their best basketball at the end of the year, and that's obvious with this team that that's happening."
LSU head coach Johnny Jones
On what has impressed him about Julius Randle ... "Well, the thing that impressed me the most is he really doesn't force anything. We've tried to make sure that we've tried to defend him the right way and he's one of those guys that don't mind passing. He's a very unselfish basketball player and even with that he doesn't get frustrated as a freshman. He continues to play, as much to being able to make that last play in the game on Saturday. That's what impresses me the most with him because of his size and strength and awareness out there on the floor. Just a very heady basketball player."
UK and LSU split two hard-fought meetings this season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Having played LSU twice in the last month, John Calipari doesn't have any doubt about what kind of team the Tigers are.
He sees the athleticism. He sees the NBA-level talent. He knows about the Tigers' overall record, but the eye test tells him something different.
The same goes for much of the rest of the Southeastern Conference.
"LSU is a really good team," Calipari said after UK's last-second win over the Tigers on Saturday. "It's like I've said about Tennessee and LSU and other teams in our league -- Missouri: It amazes me when people beat each other in other leagues it shows how strong their league is. When we beat each other in our league, then the league is not very good. What?"
With two weeks left in the regular season, only Florida and Kentucky are solidly on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble among SEC schools according to most experts, only fueling the national perception that the league is a notch below its power conference brethren.
According to both the RPI and kenpom.com, the SEC is sixth among the seven so-called power conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, Big East, ACC and American Athletic Conference), leading only the American. There's no clouding those facts, but a deeper look at the numbers shows there may be merit to Calipari's words. SEC in the top 100
Let's start with a look at the RPI, where nine of the SEC's 14 teams are ranked in the top 100 -- led by No. 3 Florida and No. 10 UK. Only one conference has more:
1. Pac 12 - 10 2. SEC - 9 2. ACC - 9 2. Big Ten - 9 5. Big 12 - 8 6. Big East - 7 7. American - 5
1. ACC - 11 1. Big Ten - 11 3. SEC - 10 4. Pac 12 - 9 4. Big 12 - 9 6. Big East - 8 7. American - 5
Conference vs. conference
In nonconference play, SEC schools took down a total of six ranked opponents, including Kentucky's win over rival Louisville. What that total doesn't include is perhaps the SEC's most impressive win. On Dec. 30, Tennessee dominated Virginia, 87-52. Since then, the Cavaliers have lost just once in 15 games en route to a No. 13 ranking in the Coaches Poll and first place in the ACC.
On the strength of that victory, the SEC sports a 9-5 record against ACC teams. Here's how the league has fared against every power conference.
ACC: 9-5 American: 5-5 Big East: 3-4 B1G: 3-5 Big 12: 4-9 Pac 12: 1-4
A total record of 25-32 (.439 winning percentage) isn't exactly what SEC teams would hope for, but it also doesn't reveal a league completely outclassed by its competitors.
Tough road, close games
If you've heard it once, you've heard it a hundred times: UK always gets its opponents best shot when the Wildcats hit the road in SEC play. Even though other league schools might not have to cope with white outs and t-shirt nights as often as UK does, away games in the SEC are never easy.
The records prove it.
In conference play alone, home teams have a record of 69-29 (.704 winning percentage), best of any league in Division I. Including nonconference games, SEC home teams boast a winning percentage of .797, which trails only the Pac 12 (.814) among power conferences.
Offering further proof of the competitiveness of the SEC, 23.5 percent of conference games have been decided by three points or less or in overtime, according to kenpom.com. That also leads all power conferences.
Could the SEC be having a better season? Yes.
Have some teams underachieved? Probably.
Should the SEC be dismissed as a mere also ran? Definitely not.
After all, there's a reason SEC teams have won six of the last 20 national championships and three of the last eight.
National championships since 1994 (based on current conference alignment)
1. SEC - 6 1. ACC - 6 3. American - 4 4. Pac 12 - 2 5. B1G - 1 6. Big 12 - 1 7. Big East - 0
Julius Randle's game winner in the final seconds gave UK a 77-76 win over LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The script seemed perfectly written for LSU.
Riding a point guard making a return to his home state and a roster laden with NBA talent, the Tigers seemed poised to pull the upset in Rupp Arena.
But even though Anthony Hickey just kept hitting big shots and the Tigers couldn't miss in overtime -- shooting 5 of 6 from the field -- Kentucky found a way.
"We lost an overtime game before (at Arkansas)," Andrew Harrison said. "We all told each other during overtime, 'We're not losing this one.' So we just kept coming. They hit some big shots in overtime. Big shots. We just kept coming and kept fighting and kept swinging."
After Hickey hit a 3-pointer with 1:53 left in regulation, UK trailed for most of the next 6:50 and led for just 11 seconds after James Young drilled a pair of clutch free throws late it overtime. At various points, the situation seemed dire, especially when the Wildcats lost Hickey (20 points, eight assists and five rebounds) on an in-bounds play to fall behind 74-71 with less than two minutes on the clock.
Asked postgame whether he was concerned in that moment, Harrison didn't play it cool.
"Worried?" Harrison said. "Yeah, definitely. But Coach was saying, 'We're not losing.' Somebody says something like that, (you) have to believe it."
Harrison didn't play it cool when the buzzer sounded on a heart-stopping 77-76 Kentucky victory either.
After Andre Stringer hit a jumper to put LSU up one with 12 seconds left, UK countered quickly. Even though John Calipari had timeouts in his pocket, he let the young Cats play on.
"I wasn't going to stop that clock and give them a chance to interject coaches," Calipari said. "I just said, 'Let us play. Our kids are ready for this.' "
He was right.
James Young -- who scored six of his 20 points in overtime - drove, as he and Aaron Harrison (21 points) had done nonstop down the stretch. On the way up and facing contact, Young lost the ball. In the right place at the right time, Julius Randle grabbed the ball.
"That's the basketball gods," Randle said. "I mean, James was being aggressive like he was the whole game. He did a great job of getting into the paint, and if he put in on the rim or just put it up I was going to get it. They've been trying to box me out the whole game, killing me, but luckily that one just fell right into my hands."
Randle had 15 rebounds when the loose ball came to him, but his coach believed he should have had more. With that in mind, Coach Cal gave a directive to his star freshman in the closing minutes.
"Just get an offensive rebound to win the game," Calipari said. "Quit getting blocked out, quit getting in a mud wrestling match with somebody."
Calipari's words proved prophetic, though Randle wasn't officially credited with an offensive rebound on the game-winning play.
He gathered himself in the paint, rose through traffic and put the ball in his with his left hand. Randle had made just two baskets at that point, but his seventh and eighth points gave UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) a payback win over LSU (16-10, 7-7 SEC).
"I don't know what happened," Randle said. "The basketball gods, that's all I can say. James was being aggressive. I don't know if he missed it or he got blocked or whatever, but it fell into my hands."
It was a blur for Randle after the shot too.
With Hickey on the bench with five fouls, UK retreated on defense and Young came up with a game-clinching steal. As soon as the clock hit zero, Andrew Harrison did his best imitation of a defensive end pursuing a quarterback and tackled a jubilant Randle.
"It was pretty tough, but I took him down," said Andrew Harrison.
Andrew Harrison had to go above the shoulders to do it, which likely would have drawn a personal foul on the football field, but it was all in good fun.
"He apologized for it afterwards," Randle said. "But what can I say? I have great teammates."
Building that kind of camaraderie has been a theme all season, but especially over the last week.
"When we lost to Florida, we knew we could have won and made some mistakes at the end. So we started talking about thinking differently and having more confidence in us and chemistry," Andrew Harrison said.
UK's point guard called on that confidence in a crucial moment at the end of regulation. Andrew Harrison scored just nine points on 3-of-13 shooting, but stepped to the line with 10 seconds to go and his team down two points.
"I think (making) free throws is about confidence," Andrew Harrison said. "Knowing that you're going to make it is really the biggest thing."
He delivered and UK would go on to use Randle's heroics to win a game decided by five points or fewer for just the second time all season.
"We (are) still just going to keep working hard, just keep fighting, doing little things," Aaron Harrison said. "I think that's why we won. We scratched and clawed to get the win. So I think we're going to build off of this game and keep getting better."
Eyeing that improvement, Calipari knows what his team's next objective is. He confirmed UK is "getting closer" to where it needs to be, particularly with the way the Cats refused to wilt when they had every opportunity.
However, it took some prodding to get there.
Calipari recalled when UK had to foul at the end of regulation to extend the play. He noticed his players putting their heads down and had to encourage them. When the Cats do arrive, that won't be necessary.
"It proves we're still coach driven instead of player driven," Calipari said. "We've got to get to where I'm doing less and they're doing more."
Julius Randle and the Kentucky Wildcats will look to avenge a Jan. 28 loss at LSU on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In his first years as a head coach at UMass, John Calipari had a not-so-sophisticated approach to teaching zone.
His team needed to at least be able to show the defense in practice for the purposes of preparation, but Coach Cal never actually intended to use it in games. For that reason, zone installation was a quick process.
"I told them stand around and put your arms up," Calipari said, recalling his approach. "And if someone goes by you, kind of switch."
Two decades later, Calipari has softened a bit on his anti-zone stance.
Fielding the tallest team in the country, according to kenpom.com, Calipari has turned to a 2-3 zone in spots as a way to capitalize on his personnel.
"It's really good," James Young said. "It's active. We have our hands up. Coach tells us to communicate a lot so I think it's more effective than our man, really."
Calipari doesn't quite agree with that, but he does admit it has value as a change of pace. That's why he has committed himself to becoming a better teacher of zone, soliciting the help of Rob Murphy, whose Eastern Michigan team has visited Rupp Arena each of the last two seasons.
"Well, Rob at Eastern Michigan was the one who came in and really, you know, gave me the breakdowns and the drill work because you can't just do - you've got to break it down, you've got to do it, you've gotta give them an idea what they have to do and then I would call him," Calipari said.
Murphy was a longtime assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim, the coach perhaps best known for zone. In fact, UK's zone has caught Boeheim's attention.
"Jim Boeheim and I talked and I said, 'You know I played your zone?' " Calipari said. "He said, 'I watch it.' He said, 'You should play more zone.' And he says, 'Every time your team gives up a 3, you go back man-to-man.' And he said, 'But if the other team makes three 3s in your man, you don't go zone.' "
Much of that can be chalked up to ribbing between two friendly coaches, but the zone has been effective in spurts since Calipari began going to it more frequently.
"In the beginning, it was kind of shaky, a little kind of gaps and stuff," Young said. "But as we practice it more, there's not as many gaps and we're communicating in it more."
The first game -- a win at Missouri -- in which No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) used zone extensively came immediately after a road loss to the Wildcats' next opponent, LSU (16-9, 7-6 SEC). UK was blistered for a season-high-tying 87 points in the Jan. 28 defeat.
"Just the intensity and the fight just wasn't there," Julius Randle said. "It was embarrassing, but that's why we get another chance to play."
The Cats trailed by double digits for most of that icy night in Baton Rouge, La., as Johnny O'Bryant posted 29 points and nine rebounds. UK rallied in the final minutes with a flurry of 3-pointers, but don't let the 87-82 final convince you LSU was anything other than dominant.
"Johnny O'Bryant was really good, but he wasn't the only guy that outplayed us," Calipari said. "They outrebounded us. They outcoached us. They outran us. They got is in transition defense. They got us every which way to lose."
Randle and Young both conceded they are thinking about payback ahead of Saturday's 4 p.m. ET tip in Rupp Arena, but neither was about to offer anything in the way of bulletin-board material.
"I don't like to do too much talking," said Randle, who was held to six points on 3-of-11 shooting in the first LSU matchup. "We'll see what happens once we get on the court."
There will be similar intrigue regarding how often Calipari turns to the zone, which has evolved beyond a standard 2-3 in the last week. UK most often deploys the zone out of dead balls and it begins with a sort of 1-1-3 look when opponents cross mid-court.
"It's more like a tandem, like one guy up top and a guy under him," Young said. "When they get it toward the corner or anything, then we go back to our normal 2-3 zone. It's just to throw the offense off."
Calipari debuted the tweaked zone in a loss to Florida last Saturday in which UK defended as well as it has all season for the first 29 minutes. The Cats used it again in a Tuesday win at Ole Miss, holding the Rebels to 38.7-percent shooting.
Jarrod Polson drew praise from Calipari for his activity in the zone, but the real standout is Aaron Harrison.
"I'll tell you who is the best zone player I've seen is Aaron," Calipari said. "He's like; I'm calling him 'The Cat' now. The team is laughing their butt - I show them on the tape, man, he's like a cat."
Coach Cal fielded multiple questions about the zone on Friday at his regular pregame media availability, questions surely fueled in part by a rapidly growing group of zone advocates among the fan base. Calipari, however, doesn't want it to be forgotten the zone has been far from flawless.
"It's funny, people that want us to play zone it's kind of like coaching a kid and being positive 80 percent of the time and he only remembers that you get on him," Calipari said. "So the zone people out there see every stop and don't realize that Mississippi was getting back in the game because they made four straight baskets in a row (vs. the zone)."
It's in those moments that Calipari remembers why he's so staunchly relied on man-to-man defense throughout his career. Fittingly, it was a former player of his at UMass who reminded him of the same thing.
"(Auburn head coach) Tony Barbee said this to me: 'You're good in zone, Coach, but when you switch everything (in man-to-man), it's a one-on-one game. There is nothing else we can do,' " Calipari said. "When you play zone, you know they're always going to be able to get off a 3 at any point, now if they're making them, you lose."
That doesn't mean Calipari discounts the value of zone altogether. In fact, it's been a boost to a Kentucky team beginning to find its stride.
"But it's a good changeup," Calipari said, "it's a good defense for us, it's been good and we've worked on it every day which, you know, it's not something I've done in the past but we're working at it and trying to give these guys the best opportunity they can to win."