A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
When he put together his team's 2014 schedule, Gary Henderson didn't know at first that UK would face the nation's top-ranked team to start the season.
What he did know was that the Wildcats would travel to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Hughes Brothers Baseball Challenge. He saw the event as an opportunity get the season started with "something different," so he called UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf to commit to playing in it.
It wasn't until later that Henderson found out No. 1 Virginia would be UK's season-opening opponent at noon ET on Friday. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.
"We kind of caught a break there," Henderson said.
In fact, Scalf made sure to run the possibility by Henderson before finalizing the plans. The conversation wasn't a long one.
"When Mark called me up and asked if I would be willing to (play Virginia) in the opener and I said, 'Absolutely,' " Henderson said. "I think that is great. It is win-win."
Opening day always brings excitement, but playing the team tabbed by Baseball America and Perfect Game as the best in the country adds a little extra edge.
"We've put in so much work in the offseason and continued to this spring," pitcher Chandler Shepherd said. "We're all just ready to go. That's all we're talking about and it's to the point now where we're just ready to let loose and have fun and play ball. It's that time."
With a constant onslaught of cold weather, ice and snow this winter, it hasn't always felt that way. For that reason, the Cats haven't gotten nearly as much outdoor work as they would like. That's a challenge -- and one teams throughout the country have shared these last two months -- but no excuse.
"Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it," Henderson said.
Henderson anticipates the biggest learning curve happening in the field, while UK's star junior center fielder expects to use a simplified approach at the plate.
"When you're growing up, you go out there your first two times and it's like riding a bike," Austin Cousino said. "You see the ball and hit it and you don't try to get too complicated with it."
After a scorching start to 2013, UK struggled to put together enough offense to back a solid pitching staff. The Cats scored just 3.8 runs per game last season in narrowly falling short of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2014, Cousino doesn't expect UK to be the kind of offensive juggernaut the 2012 squad was in slugging 56 home runs. He does believe, however, that the Cats will be more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.
"Our lineup's not going to have as much bang as it did freshman year, but we're going to play to our strengths a lot better," Cousino said.
If Cousino is right, the Cats could be the kind of team they thought they would be a season ago.
UK has a three-man weekend rotation that could be among the nation's best. Shepherd, a junior, will move from the bullpen, where he excelled, into a Saturday role, while sophomore Kyle Cody will occupy a Sunday spot after pitching his way into the rotation late in his freshman season. On Fridays, Henderson will hand the ball to two-way star and preseason first-team All-American A.J. Reed.
"We are going to have three starting pitchers that are good, if not very good on any given date," Henderson said. "We'll be able to match up with starting pitching every weekend."
Reed enters the season as the staff ace for the second year in a row, but could be poised for an even better junior season.
"In the offseason and the fall we really worked on changing my body so I can last throughout the season longer," Reed said. "I dropped about 20 pounds, which was a big thing for us being able to work the whole field hitting wise and going the other way using the gaps. Also really enhancing my pitches by making them better, sharper and I got a better curveball."
But as much as Reed's transformation will help him at the plate and on the mound, it could be an even biggest boost in the way it sets the tone for his younger teammates.
"I think any time a college kid makes a commitment like that and changes how he goes about his business, I think it's a really positive thing," Henderson said. "I think everybody appreciates it. I think everybody respects it and appreciates it and I think we are going to benefit by the fact that A.J. has taken his physical condition to a new level."
Henderson has already seen that pay dividends.
"The maturity of our group is at a different level than it was at any time last spring, so that's really a positive," Henderson said. "The team culture is good to this point and obviously I'm well aware we haven't played a game yet, but I am proud of what the kids have done."
Now, UK has its first chance to show what that work means on the field.
On opening day a season ago, UK-Virginia would have been a matchup of highly ranked teams. This year, the Cats are the underdogs.
"There are less expectations for us out there," Cousino said. "I don't think there's any shortage of that in our locker room. I think we know what we're capable of, I think we know what kind of squad we have and I think it'll be a good game."
Regardless of how good of a game it is or even the outcome, UK's will still have work ahead this weekend. The Cats will face host UNC Wilmington on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, VMI at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday and USC Upstate at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
The way UK handles that will be the first measure of what Cousino expects to define this season.
"I think we just have to get back in the process, the approach of playing a game one pitch at a time, one weekend, one game," Cousino said. "I think year's club is a lot better at that."
Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points in UK's 64-56 win at Auburn on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Tonight, we break down Kentucky's second road win in five days, a 64-56 victory at Auburn. The skinny: At some point, you figured the shots would start falling for Kentucky. They never did, but UK survived anyway. The Wildcats pulled away late at Auburn, outscoring the home-standing Tigers 29-18 over the final 11:29 to turn a three-point deficit into a 64-56 win. UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 30.9 percent for the game, but scored 21 second-chance points off 22 offensive rebounds in winning its fourth game in a row. Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points and Julius Randle added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The difference: Defense. As hard as it was for UK to score on Wednesday night, the Cats made it even harder on Auburn. The Tigers shot just 32.7 percent as a team, getting consistent scoring only from leading scorer Chris Denson (26 points on 8-of-18 shooting). Denson's backcourt mate, K.T. Harrell, struggled from start to finish with UK's length and scored only seven points -- more than 12 points below his season average -- on 2-of-15 shooting.
Player of the game: Harrison. UK's most consistent offensive threat, Harrison didn't shoot the ball particularly well (3-of-10). However, he pushed the ball in transition effectively and picked his spots on drives to go 8-fot-11 at the free-throw line. The freshman point guard also converted a big and-one with 6:23 remaining to double UK's lead from three points to six. Auburn would get no closer than five the rest of the way.
Turning point: With 11:25 left and UK trailing 38-35, Randle had just four points and five rebounds. At the under-12 media timeout, John Calipari called his star freshman's number. UK fed Randle in the post and he delivered a basket in a matter of seconds, getting himself and his team going. Starting with that basket, Randle had eight points and seven rebounds as UK finished off its fourth victory in a row.
Key stat: 3-point shooting. On the season, UK is shooting 52.6 percent from inside the arc. The Cats typically make their living inside, but they only 12-of-43 (27.9 percent) from 2-point range on this night. Thankfully, the shots were falling at a reasonable clip -- 5-of-12 or 41.7 percent -- from 3. UK, meanwhile, held Auburn to 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) shooting from 3.
Unsung hero: Johnson. The 7-foot freshman has settled nicely into a starting role. Johnson had eight points and eight rebounds in his 21 minutes, grabbing a team-high seven boards on the offensive glass in the process. He also added two steals and a block. What this one means: For the second game in a row, UK wasn't at its best on the road. In SEC play, that often means back-to-back losses. The Cats, however, were able to gut both games out. Coach Cal will have plenty to talk about in Thursday's film session, but it will be much more pleasant coming off another win. UK has now won seven times in eight games to set up a highly anticipated showdown with SEC-leading Florida on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
UK will host Ole Miss on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in its annual Play4Kay game. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell saw positives in Kentucky's 86-80 loss to Florida on Sunday.
The Wildcats turned in one of their best offensive efforts of Southeastern Conference play, shooting 56.3 percent in the second half in nearly coming from a double-digit deficit.
The silver lining, however, was merely a reminder of the issues that have plagued UK of late.
"We scored 80 points and that was good," Mitchell said. "It's just been difficult. Some games we've held teams in the 50s and then we don't score. And then the day we score 80, we give up 86 and so that was tough."
Game to game, Mitchell doesn't know what to expect from his team. He needs look no further in search of reasons for UK's five losses in nine games.
"Just the lack of consistency's what hurting us right now," Mitchell said. "If we ever get that going in practice, we're going to be in really good shape. When we were playing really well early in the season, we were very, very consistent with what we were doing."
That fact is what Mitchell is counting on as he looks ahead to the remainder of the season. The Cats know what they are capable of because they've already done it. They know they can compete with the best because they're already beaten the likes of Louisville and Baylor.
"We're not a team that's dreaming about having good players and being able to make things happen," Mitchell said. "We can do it, so for me right now you just can't give into frustration, you can't give into negative thoughts and you can't give into discouragement."
Kastine Evans - whom Mitchell counts on as a team leader along with Bria Goss - feels the same way. That's why she's altered her approach to dealing with her teammates, trying to uplift them with text messages rather than berate them for mistakes.
"I think I've been a lot more vocal and encouraging (not) so much as criticism or constructive criticism just because that's something that we've needed," Evans said. "It's hard when the coaches are on you and somebody who's at the equal level as you because I'm playing with my teammates to also try to more critical."
No. 18/18 UK (17-6, 5-5 SEC) will look to prove that approach is working when the Cats host Ole Miss (10-15, 1-10 SEC) in its annual Play4Kay game. Both teams will wear pink uniforms and UK is encouraging fans to wear pink of their own for the game, which will tip at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum.
"It's going to be a tough game," Mitchell said. "Ole Miss is certainly a team that has some explosive athletes, one of the best point guards that I've seen in the conference in (Valencia) McFarland and (Tia) Faleru is a very explosive post player that can drive the basketball and just plays with great, great energy and can make an impact on the boards."
The most familiar face on the Ole Miss sideline will be Matt Insell, who spent five seasons as an assistant under Mitchell at UK before being named the Rebel head coach this offseason.
"We speak pretty frequently," Mitchell said. "I mean, we spent a lot of time together in the trenches and have a real strong friendship and he's done a lot for this program and contributed a lot and I certainly was proud for him to be able to move and realize his dream of being a head coach, especially in the SEC."
As warm as the feelings may be between the two, they'll be put aside for two hours on Thursday night.
"We want to beat him really bad tomorrow night if we can, but when we are not in that arena I'm there to support him," Mitchell said. "And he's supported me a bunch over the years, I'm telling you. He's really been a great friend to me, so it's a relationship that I think's built on some friendship and some mutual respect for one another."
UK will travel to Auburn for a game against the Tigers at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This late in the season, there's a line of thinking that says teams are what they are. Some might say that with just a month before conference tournaments tip off, the only work that can be done is fine-tuning.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne disagrees.
"I don't buy it," Payne said. "I think that every day we come in, our sole philosophy is to get better each day. And we're so young, and what we are can change tomorrow."
Payne can say that with confidence because he's seen it happen.
"One game we can be an excellent post team, one game we can be an excellent guard-oriented team," Payne said. "We have very good depth, but they have to play well together. For us, it's every day getting better."
A particular emphasis in that process of daily improvement since a win at Mississippi State on Saturday has been transition defense. The Bulldogs -- though the box score showed they only outscored UK 8-2 in fast-break points -- repeatedly made UK pay for not getting back in transition.
"Their game plan I think was just to outwork us and so that's what it was," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "The only way they could really score was if they were to do it in transition or straight-line drives. That's what we've really been working on."
The issue, at least for 40 minutes, seemed to be resolved in last Tuesday's victory over Ole Miss. Just days after Missouri torched the Cats in transition, UK held the visiting Rebels to just two fast-break points. But as you might expect of a team as young as Kentucky, learning a lesson takes more than one misstep.
"We've been working on it for quite a while, and I think the thing that we have to continue is continue to build on it, continue to remind them of how important it is, because every team seems to be using that as a disadvantage for us," Payne said. "That's a weakness of our team that we've got to correct."
If they don't, the Cats' next opponent figures to make them pay.
Set to host No. 14/13 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Auburn (11-10, 3-7 SEC) has won three of four. The only loss came over the weekend at LSU at a score (87-80) nearly identical to the one from 87-82 loss UK suffered in Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago.
"Their coach is probably one of the best coaches in the country at scheming it and stopping people's offense," Cauley-Stein said of John Calipari protege Tony Barbee. "So that's what we're really worried about because we're going down to Auburn, it's going to be a tough place to play at and with our up and down on our transition and stuff they got a couple guards that can really hurt us."
Those guards -- Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell -- have done plenty of that lately. The two are averaging 26 and 20.8 points over their last four games and 20.2 and 19.4 points on the season, respectively.
"If we walk in there and think that we're just going to beat them, it's not happening," Payne said. "We will have to play well to beat that team, and especially at their home."
UK has certainly played well in stretches this season -- Payne named UK's offensive effort against Missouri as an example -- but hasn't put it all together on one night. Coach Cal said it's no given the Cats reach that point this season, but Payne has a good idea what it will look like if they do.
"I would like to say that we're really close, but until we do it once, it's hard to say," Payne said. "If this team ever gets five or six of these guys playing great the same night, who knows how good we can be? And if we do it consistently, it's scary."
When it launches on Aug. 21 of this year, the SEC Network is going to forever change how fans of the Southeastern Conference follow their teams, in addition to helping secure and strengthen the future of the nation's best conference.
The 24/7 network will provide unprecedented coverage of all league sports, from studio programming to at least 450 live events every year. That will include more than 100 men's basketball games, many of which will feature Kentucky.
Although a schedule for next season won't be released until later, a look at this year's UK men's basketball slate gives an idea of how the SEC Network will affect fans' ability to watch games it the future.
In past years, UK games not picked up by national television have been aired on outlets like the UK IMG Network, Comcast Sports South, Fox Sports South and SEC TV. The new SEC Network is expected to replace all of these options, as you can see in the 2013-14 schedule below.
As many as 10 regular-season games, Big Blue Madness and both exhibitions this season would have been broadcast on the SEC Network had it launched in August 2013 rather than August 2014.
High-definition broadcasts with announcers intimately familiar with the SEC will enhance the watching experience for all of these games, provided fans have access to the SEC Network through their cable/satellite provider.
As of today, AT&T U-verse is the only national provider that has signed a deal to make the SEC Network available to its subscribers. If the SEC Network launched today, fans using major providers like DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner and Comcast would not be able to access it.
If you love Kentucky basketball and you want to make sure you'll be able to watch every game, visit GetSECNetwork.com to tell your provider you want the SEC Network.
Note: The information below is based on how the SEC Network is expected to affect the way games will be broadcast after launch and is NOT official.
It's impossible to pinpoint the exact genesis of UK Hoops' January slump, but the problems that led to the were on display for the first against Florida.
After the 83-73 defeat, Matthew Mitchell bemoaned the fact that the Gators simply played with more passion than his Wildcats.
"I am just so disappointed that happened and that we were outplayed from an energy standpoint and from a focus standpoint," Mitchell said on Jan. 5. "It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us."
It was a tune Mitchell found himself singing far too often as UK lost four times in seven games.
"We just looked like a team that I thought was entitled to win, felt like they were entitled to win the game," Mitchell said, reflecting on the game more than a month later.
Mitchell went on to say the Cats played like a team that expected to win by virtue of the incredible success they have had on their home floor of Memorial Coliseum. The belief was reinforced as UK took a nine-point lead at the 12-minute mark of the second half after trailing by double digits.
"We were able to get it flipped and go up and I thought that hurt us probably even more," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, this is what we thought. We're going to win the game.' We lost a lot of composure when it got close down at the end, so that would be the best way to describe it. I just thought we sort of felt like we were going to win the game no matter what."
Now facing a rematch with Florida (16-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference), it's hard to imagine No. 15/13 UK (17-5, 5-3 SEC) will feel the same way.
"They really took it to us here in Lexington and beat us pretty badly on our home court, so we definitely have to focus in on a very good opponent and try to get prepared this afternoon and tomorrow for what we know will be a tough game," Mitchell said. "It's always a tough game with Florida."
Though they certainly won't assume victory, the Cats have reason to be confident this time around. They are coming off an impressive home victory over top-15 LSU and have tried to build on that during a bye week before a trip to Gainesville, Fla. The focus has been entirely on building team closeness.
"Our whole key is we have to have a team mentality," Mitchell said. "We can't have a collection of individuals playing individually well. We really have to come together as a team. Our whole deal is playing for each other and great energy on the court, great energy on the bench."
Mitchell says UK is "making progress," but he isn't about to pronounce his team as being over the proverbial hump.
"We didn't start playing that way overnight and I think it's been some great stuff that we've been able to do as a team to try to see if we can get the situation to where we can become our best," Mitchell said.
Just as UK's struggles didn't start all at once against Florida, the Cats can't prove they are over against the Gators. That will take time.
"I think you're going to have to let it play out here over the last seven games of the conference season," Mitchell said. "The team needs to play well and win some games and get into the NCAA Tournament and take advantage of the SEC Tournament and see what happens."
Jon Hood played a season-high 13 minutes in UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Today, we break down UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State.
The skinny: By no means was it pretty, but Kentucky got a precious road win on Saturday, taking down Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., 69-59. No. 18/14 UK (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) won for the sixth time in seven games behind a solid defensive effort. MSU (13-10, 3-7 SEC) shot just 38.3 percent from the field and scored 0.881 points per possession. UK, meanwhile, never could quite pull away, but led by no fewer than six points after closing the first half on a 19-6 run. Julius Randle scored 16 points to lead all scorers, while James Young added 11 points in 20 foul-limited minutes. The difference: Second-chance points. UK's 38-33 rebounding edge wasn't its widest of the season, but it was enough to give the Wildcats the separation they needed. UK grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Mississippi State's eight and outscored the home-standing Bulldogs 14-4 in second-chance points.
Player of the game: Randle. Coping the double and triple teams to which he's grown so accustomed, Randle was efficient from the field (8-of-13) in scoring a game-high 16 points. He also added seven rebounds, a steal and a block and made a number of nice passes out of the post even though he finished with just one assist.
Turning point: That run to close the first half. His team trailing 17-13 with 9:38 left in the first half and Andrew Harrison, Young and Willie Cauley-Stein saddled with two fouls apiece, John Calipari went to his bench. In search of energy, he inserted Jon Hood and the senior delivered exactly what UK needed. Hood had played only five minutes since the start of SEC play, but he -- along with Jarrod Polson -- was on the floor for every second of the run that turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point halftime lead. For the game, Hood had only three points and two rebounds in 13 minutes, but he sported a team-high plus-minus of plus-15.
Key stat: Nine turnovers. At no point was UK in sync offensively, but the Cats positioned themselves to win by committing just nine turnovers to the Bulldogs' 13. With offensive rebounders like Randle, Dakari Johnson and Cauley-Stein, a missed shot can often be UK's best plan of attack. Limiting turnovers allowed UK to maximize those chances. Unsung heroes: Johnson. Making his third consecutive start, Johnson continued his recent emergence in posting nine points, eight rebounds and a block. He was a perfect 3-for-3 from both the field and the line in his 21 minutes, showing toughness and touch around the basket. What this one means: A win is a win. Even though the performance revealed the Cats still have a great deal to work on, UK avoided short-circuiting the momentum it built against Missouri and Texas A&M by surviving a trip to a hostile road venue. The Cats stayed within two games of first-place Florida with games against Auburn and the Gators looming next week, moving to 4-5 away from Rupp Arena in the process.
Video: Postgame interviews with Calipari, Johnson, Hood
Audrey Harrison's season-best all-around score of 39.225 highlighted UK's season-high 195.450 against top-ranked Florida. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Holly Cunningham was pretty sure what was in store on Monday.
Kentucky was just two days removed from a season-low score in a meet at Georgia, the kind of effort that simply hasn't happened during Tim Garrison's time as head coach.
Practice, she figured, wasn't going to be any fun at all.
"We had one of our worst meets ever and we were expecting to come into the gym and for it to be really hard and for him to really mad at us," Cunningham said.
Cunningham was wrong, a pleasant surprise to her and her teammates.
Garrison decided the Wildcats didn't need a drill sergeant. They didn't need to be told the performance wasn't good enough because they were perfectly aware already.
"I think every athlete, every coach at some point has to have amnesia and I think that's what we needed to do because that wasn't a representation of what our team is," Garrison said. "It's not what we're about, it's not the way we train, it's not the way we compete, speaking of last week."
With that in mind, Garrison and his coaching staff took a positive tone as the Cats prepared to host No. 1 Florida.
"You don't know what to expect after a bad meet, but all the coaches know we're so much better than that and we just need to believe in ourselves," Audrey Harrison said.
The approach worked, as UK posted a season-high score of 195.450 on Friday night in Memorial Coliseum.
"We definitely didn't have a perfect meet, but if someone did wobble they tried to save every tenth," Harrison said. "I saw a lot of fight and excitement and positivity."
It started on vault, UK's opening event.
Showing no signs of a hangover from last Saturday, the Cats opened with five solid scores. Stepping to the runway as the anchor for her only routine of the evening, Cunningham executed and stuck her landing for a season-high score of 9.850 to give her team a season-high score of its own, 49.000.
"She did what she was capable of," Garrison said before pausing to think. "Actually, I think she's got a little bit more in the bag. She can make that thing a little bit better, but at least she stuck the landing and that's what we're looking for. Last person on vault, bringing it home for the team, getting ready to move to the second event, we need somebody to make a statement and she did that for us."
UK rode the momentum to solid scores on the bars and beam, as gymnasts refused to let minor mistakes turn into major missteps, save for Shelby Hilton's fall on beam. But even then, Marissa Beucler and Harrison picked up their teammate with good routines.
"That was huge for us," Garrison said. "Not that we wanted the mistake to happen, but the fact that it happened and the fact that two athletes immediately after her corrected that, that was huge for us to see moving forward."
Finishing up the night on floor, the Cats posted four scores of 9.800 or better. Included in that group is Harrison, who closed out a season-high all-around score of 39.225 with a 9.825 on floor.
"Being a senior and the fact that she means so much to this program in the gym and also in the classroom, she's just a stellar person," Garrison said. "To have her come out and compete a good, solid all-around, she struggled the last couple weeks, to have her turn that around at home in front of her fans was really exciting to see."
UK's season-best score wasn't enough to take down the defending national champion Gators, who tallied a 197.175. Though he noticed Bridget Sloan's perfect 10.000 on beam en route to an all-around title, Garrison wasn't all that concerned with Florida.
"We want to be seeded for the first time in University of Kentucky gymnastics history, which means top 18 in the country after SECs to give ourselves a chance to make it national championships," Garrison said. "We really weren't worried a whole lot about what they were doing. We were running our own race tonight."
In running their own race, Garrison said the Cats "made progress" Friday night.
It was around this time last season when UK hit its stride and began shattering program records. Garrison can see a similar stretch around the corner if his team keeps up the work.
"What tells me that more anything else is what I see in the gym," Garrison said. "So now we're getting more comfortable. We've been in a competitive environment five times now. We're starting to get more comfortable in the gym. What I'm seeing in the gym is going to come through more and more on the competition floor, whether we're home or away."
James Young had 26 points and 10 rebounds in UK's 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 8. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a unique experience in conference play, facing a rematch with a familiar opponent. This weekend, Kentucky will take on that challenge for the first time.
After taking down Mississippi State 85-63 on Jan. 8 -- exactly one month before the second round with the Bulldogs -- the Wildcats have reason to be confident.
"(The coaches) really haven't told us anything special about it, but since it's our first time playing a team twice we feel like we should be able to play just like last game because last game we played great," freshman Dominique Hawkins said.
Hawkins is one of eight scholarship freshmen on the youngest team in the country, a fact that might cause some concern that the No. 18/14 Cats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) could overlook Mississippi State (13-6, 3-6 SEC), a team that has lost four in a row. UK, however, is on guard entering Saturday's game at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC TV).
"We definitely don't want to do that because we know playing in the SEC anything can happen," Hawkins said.
That's especially true away from the comforts of Rupp Arena. At home, UK is a perfect 14-0. In games not in Lexington, the Cats are just 3-5.
"Going into atmospheres on the road, I never experienced anything like this before and I think it's insane how the fans are like yelling at us, telling us names that I never heard before," Hawkins said. "It's just unique though how the fans come up with creative stuff just to try to mess with us and get in our heads."
UK last traveled to Starkville, Miss., en route to its 2012 national championship. The Cats trailed by as many as 13 points and seven with 6:28 to play before rallying to a 73-64 win. In 2010, UK needed double-doubles from John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson to survive an overtime thriller against the Bulldogs.
"I think they've already learned that any road game in the SEC is tough," Jarrod Polson said. "Us veterans have told them: It doesn't matter what team you're playing; if you're on the road in the SEC, it's going to be a dogfight."
Though the final score may have indicated otherwise, the first edition of UK-MSU was a dogfight for much of that Wednesday evening. The Cats fell victim to one of their trademark slow starts as Mississippi State took a double-digit first-half lead. And with 13:11 to go in the game, UK led by just three.
Mississippi State leading scorer Craig Sword had 19 points in that game as the Bulldogs poured in 40 points in the first half.
"They're not going to walk away from us," John Calipari said. "This is a great challenge. They left our building saying, 'We can beat these guys.' "
Previewing the matchup, Coach Cal jokingly asked reporters whether there were any promotions going on with UK coming to town. Told UK-MSU is yet another white-out game, Calipari feigned surprise.
"It's a huge game there, sellout and everything else going on," Calipari said. "It will be a hard game for us."
UK survived a tough road environment last weekend at Missouri, coming away with one of its best wins. Their confidence buoyed, the Cats are looking forward to Saturday.
"I think, honestly, we kind of like to play on the road," Polson said. "It's kind of just us against the world when we're on the road, and we kind of like that, so we're excited for the challenge and hopefully we can come out with a win."
Andrew Harrison is the latest Wildcat to blog for our "In their own words" series. (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. Our latest entry is from Andrew Harrison, who writes about the string of bad luck with weather and travel, UK's big win at Missouri and his development.
Coming off Tuesday night's win against Ole Miss, I feel like we're improving a lot on the defensive end and the game is starting to become more enjoyable for all of us. We're starting to learn. I think each individual is playing better.
Willie played his best game in a while and everyone was happy for him. I sent out a tweet Tuesday night just to show him how good we all know he is. Willie is talented. Sometimes I don't think he knows how good he can be. I just wanted to show him how proud of him I was for how hard he's been working.
Crazy game by @TrillGeta15 he's the best center in the country when he wants to be
Practices have been pretty tough. Even though we won a couple games, Coach is still pushing us to get better and better every day.
It's been pretty crazy lately with all the weather we've had to deal with. It was bad at LSU, and then on our trip to Missouri we were stuck on the plane for a few hours after we landed because we had to land in St. Louis and wait for the buses to come from Columbia and pick us up. That was pretty tough on our bodies with a lack of sleep, and it's also tough on your mindset.
When you're stuck on buses and planes, you don't' really think about the game. You can't help but think about when you're going to get to the hotel and are we going to be safe and stuff like that. Coach told us there is nothing we can do about it. You just try to relax and get to know each other better, crack a couple of jokes and have fun.
While we were waiting, we talked about a lot of stuff, including the NBA All-Star Game coming up. We were just giving Alex a hard time and talking about how he is going to have to guard LeBron in a couple of years. They were making fun of me saying I was going to have to guard Chris Paul and Dakari was going to have to guard Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard. We were just having fun with that.
I was surprised DeMarcus Cousins didn't make the game. I think he's one of the top two or three centers in the league. And Lance Stephenson is having a pretty good year. I'm pretty surprised neither of those guys made it.
Anyways, back to the whole travel thing. Coach just turned the waiting around into a positive. He said it just comes with the territory and you never know what's going to happen. He said it can really prove what we have inside of us and that we can show our mental toughness right now. Even though we didn't get as much as sleep and weren't on our normal routine, we had to take care of business, try to win a basketball game and get back to Kentucky. We had to show that we can still persevere and do what we have to do, and I think we did that at Missouri.
The win at Missouri was very emotional and everyone was so enthusiastic about playing the game. I think everyone could see on TV that we have the fight that we didn't show at LSU the game before and that we're growing and maturing as a team. It's exciting because the sky's the limit for what we can do.
Playing on the road in the SEC has been a fun experience for me. I like when you come out and everyone is booing you. It's fun. It makes it exciting. At the same time it's a little bit more difficult because I feel like the teams hit shots they normally don't make because they're at home and everyone is behind them, so we just have to be ready for that and be prepared to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Being on the road also makes you appreciate playing at home even more. When you come back to Rupp and play it's exciting because all the fans are rooting for you. Every time someone makes a good play, the place goes crazy. It's fun playing here.
Personally, I think I'm doing pretty well right now. I'm just trying to run the team and trying to be a better leader on and off the court and making sure I know what's going on and know what Coach wants. I'm just trying to display that out on the court. I need to make sure I'm not worried about myself and how I'm playing and be more concerned about my teammates. I'm still working on getting used to the speed of the game, making sure my teammates are involved and having fun out there playing with me.
I'll be honest, it's been pretty tough taking a lot of the criticism and stuff like that. I've never been criticized this much in basketball, but I think it's helped me grow as a person and as a player. You have to remember who you are playing for. You're playing for your family and your teammates, so you can't really worry about what everyone else is saying. There are going to be ups and downs no matter what happens. You have to keep playing. You can't look at the polls. Of course you see yourself scrolling down at the bottom of ESPN, and we were pretty surprised going down some spots after that big road win at Missouri, but that's just how it is. It just makes you hungrier.
It's been good for me having my brother here. I feel like our relationship has gotten stronger because some of the criticism we get falls on both of us. We're getting used to it and I feel like it's just putting a chip on our shoulder and making us play better.
At the end of the day, I just want to be the best point guard in the country and just become a leader of this team. For this team, every one can say they want to win a national championship, and of course we want to do that, but we just want to become better every game. That's all we're worried about right now.
School is going good right now. It's tough getting from class to class with all this snow. They didn't tell me about all this weather before I came here, but we were pretty excited about getting a snow day on Monday. We were hoping to get another one after all the ice Tuesday night.
But school is school. It's hard on us with all the basketball responsibilities we have and sometimes you're tired and don't feel like going to your tutors. What makes it easier is going through it with all of your teammates. We all know we've got a job to do.
I know some of the other guys have written about this already, but we really like hanging out with each other. We don't have a clique or anything like that on this team. We all play video games together, just talk and joke with one another like any college kid. Marcus likes to buy these toy guns and shoot people with them so we've got to be careful with him.
It's our day off so I'm going to get out of here and go enjoy a little time off. If my mom is reading this, I want to let her know I miss her and I hope she's doing well. Talk to you later, BBN.