Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sam Malone's first three college seasons couldn't have been much different.
Coming to Kentucky as walk-on, the Scituate, Mass., native was there every step of the way as the Wildcats went from national champions in 2012 to first-round NIT losers in 2013 to within one win of another title in 2014.
"Freshman year I thought it was going to be like that every year, then the next with that NIT--it was totally different from the first year," Malone said. "But we just stuck with our game plan of what we were doing as far as the program goes, and we're back to where we want to be."
With UK sitting atop the polls with a record of 30-0 entering Senior Day for Malone and classmates Brian Long and Sam Malone, that might be an understatement.
The Cats are a game away from completing the first unbeaten season for a power-conference team since Indiana accomplished the feat in 1975-76. Malone and Long have already been a part of a pair of Final Four teams and they clearly have designs on making it three within the next month.
"So far it's been great," said Long, a Dumont, N.J. native. "We've had two real good years and this year the story's not over yet. It's been a great ride all four years. Just appreciate everything and it's been real fun."
The three seniors have had an inside view of the program that's been at the center of college basketball. They been a part of some downs, to be sure, but more often than not they've watched John Calipari mold groups of young stars into cohesive units.
"I think that he just gets people focused on buying into the team, like he says, and everyone's worried about winning," Malone said. "If we win it's been shown that good things will happen for everyone, so trusting in that is really how it works."
Even more than with that title team, the 2014-15 Wildcats are proof of how well Coach Cal's approach can work. Nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willie Cauley-Stein and in-state high-school stars Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins have put team above self and reaped the rewards beginning with a preseason island trip.
"I think it started in the Bahamas, but we're at the point where I think we know what we're doing is working really well, so why would we change anything," Malone said. "You know what I mean? Just keep trusting each other. There's no reason to do anything we haven't been doing and I think that's really been working out great for us."
None of the three seniors have had a regular in-game role this season or in any prior year, but don't tell them or their teammates they haven't been a part of it all.
"Coming in and seeing the results and seeing all these people succeed after they leave here," Long said. "Just being part of it and seeing everyone succeed has been the best part for me."
For Lanter, that's been extra special.
The Lexington, Ky., native is the son of former UK player Bo Lanter and a lifelong Kentucky fan. He started his college career at Gulf Coast State Community College, but elected to transfer home and take a shot at becoming a Wildcat. His gamble paid off.
"I've grown up around this program," Lanter said. I've seen its ups and downs. I've seen the ins and outs of it through--I've had a little bit of insight with my dad being here, stories and things, and I've had personal relationships with past players. So I've gotten a little bit more of an insight than most typical fans have.
But even Lanter has had moments when he forgets he's in a place he always dreamed of being. It's then that he gives himself a little dose of perspective.
"You get caught up in the ups and downs of a season and the ins and outs of practice and things and you sometimes lose track of where you actually are and what you're getting to go through and how many people would kill to be able to be in this position," Lanter said. "I try to take the time to take it all in."
He'll be doing plenty of that on Saturday when he participates in Senior Day activities. Lanter has long dreamed of walking through that hoop with his picture on it and standing alongside his family for the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
"Now I'm going to have to be a part of it and I'm sure it'll be tough, but at the same time it's part of the process and I'm thankful to be there," Lanter said.
The question then becomes whether the three will get the start against Florida. Malone showed his usual humor in answering that question.
"Unless 12 other people get a crippling flu, I don't think we're going to start," Malone said. "But we'll see what happens."
Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Defining success for this team has always been simple for Matthew Mitchell.
"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.
Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."
Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.
UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.
"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."
The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.
On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.
"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."
With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.
"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."
Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.
"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."
Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.
"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."
Aaron Harrison had 16 points as UK completed a nine-point comeback against Georgia on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There John Calipari was again, saying unexpected things in a Kentucky huddle.
Almost a month after he famously told the Wildcats he wanted them to lose at LSU, Coach Cal had an interesting reaction when UK found itself down nine with barely nine minutes left at Georgia.
"I hope we go down 10," Calipari told his team.
Just like against the Tigers in UK's last close game, there was a reason Calipari was talking that way.
"We need to find out who's who, who's going to make a play, who's going to do stuff, who's going to play," Calipari said. "I kept saying, 'Scared money don't make no money.' "
There no fear in the way the top-ranked Cats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) closed out the Bulldogs in a 72-64 win, especially not after Georgia was up six with five minutes to go.
"We're a really together team, so we knew we just had to lean on each other and depend on each other and that's what we did," Aaron Harrison said. "Players came through."
Harrison, unsurprisingly, topped the list.
The clutch sophomore guard scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including five points in a decisive and game-ending 16-2 run.
"Aaron, of course everyone knows what he's going to do in a big game," said Andrew Harrison, who started the run with a 3-pointer. "And Karl(-Anthony Towns), Karl stepped up great down the stretch."
Similar to that close call at LSU, a mistake by Towns seemed it might end UK's bid for an unbeaten season. Backing down in the post, Towns extended his arm attacking the basket rather than kick to a wide-open Tyler Ulis at the top of the key. The result was the fourth foul on Towns with 5:50 to go.
"They double-teamed him and he had Tyler Ulis wide open and he ball faked," Calipari said. "Why? And then he charged the guy. Throw it to the - don't be a hero. That's the thing he's learning. Easy play. Quit trying - he is so good, you don't have to do crazy stuff. Other guys do. They have to do crazy stuff to stand out. You don't. Why are you doing it?"
A little more than two minutes later, with UK on a 6-0 run to tie the game, Towns checked back in and Calipari called for the offense to run through the 6-foot-11 freshman. He promptly scored seven of the Cats' next eight points to finish a dominant 19-point, seven-rebound performance.
"That's how much I think of him," Calipari said. "I know he has the courage and he has the skill and the ability, and that's what we did: We went to him late."
But if not for UK's defense, Towns' offense would have mattered little.
In building the lead, Georgia had a stretch of seven straight possessions with points and later three straight. It was around the five-minute mark that Towns spoke up and said the Cats needed three stops in a row to climb back into the game.
Andrew Harrison, who scored 12 points and steadied a UK offense that committed a season-low three turnovers - raised him to five.
"I was looking at my jersey number," he said. "Nah, I mean, we just wanted to get as many stops as long as we could. That's what we did."
On cue, the Cats - with the help of two missed front ends of one-and-ones - held Georgia scoreless on six straight trips, much to the chagrin of a raucous Stegeman Coliseum crown.
"They're starting to be empowered," Calipari said of his team. "They're starting. Last year, it was about this time they said, 'Alright, we can listen to everyone make excuses for us, tell us it's not me, personally, it's somebody else. Or, we can come together and do this.' And they did it. This year, right now, again, I don't want them relying so much on me. I want them to be about themselves."
The Cats are accepting that challenge, whether that's in games like the five straight blowouts that preceded Tuesday or a hard-fought battle like the one Georgia gave them.
"It definitely builds confidence to know that we can win a close game 'cause we have guys that have been through this, and even our younger guys are mentally tough and ready for it," Aaron Harrison said.
Eric Bledsoe | Phoenix Suns: 117, Oklahoma City Thunder: 113 (Overtime) It took a near triple-double performance from the Suns' star player and five extra minutes of basketball for Phoenix to put away the Thunder last Thursday on TNT. Bledsoe recorded 28 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks in the nationally televised win at home.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) In addition to Bledsoe's superstar performance on February 26, the 6-foot-1 Birmingham, Ala. native averaged 19.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 6.3 APG through a four-game week. In two wins and as many losses, Bledsoe turned in two double-doubles. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (20-36) Before sitting out Friday's home contest with the San Antonio Spurs due to a sprained ankle and bruised hip on the left side of his body, Cousins produced 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 102-90 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on February 25.
Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (40-18) After missing almost the entire season with lingering injuries and illness, Jones is back in the Houston starting lineup and better than ever. The former 2011 First Team All-SEC performer manufactured two dazzling double-double showcases over three consecutive Rockets victories. On February 23, Jones recorded 15 points and 15 rebounds in a 113-102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Four days later, the Portland native exploded for 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 102-98 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (32-27) In three games last week, Kanter averaged 17.7 PPG and 7.7 RPG, resulting in two wins for OKC. On February 22, Kanter had 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 119-94 lopsided victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (23-33) Though the Hornets dropped two games and won only one, Kidd-Gilchrist boasted two double-doubles over last week's three-game stretch. On February 25, MKG had 18 points and 12 rebounds in Charlotte's win over the Chicago Bulls, and 12 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday.
Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) Eric Bledsoe's newest backcourt teammate put up double-digit scoring outings in three of the Suns' four games last week. Knight scored 20 points on February 23, 19 points (with six assists) on February 25, and 15 points the next day, before a season-low one-point performance in 17 minutes on February 28.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (13-45) Noel surpassed his season average for blocks per game in three of Philly's four matchups last week. The 20-year-old big man highlighted the four-game stretch with 18 points, seven rebounds and four blocks on February 23, and 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on February 27.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (34-26) Wall dialed in four straight double-digit performances in the assist category in four straight Wizards losses-- capping off a seven-game D.C. losing streak. The Raleigh, N.C. native averaged 14.8 PPG and 10.0 APG in one Washington win over a busy five-game week.
John Calipari and Kentucky face a rematch with Georgia on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The clutter isn't going away.
That's why John Calipari won't stop talking about it.
"I talked to them about it yesterday a little bit and just said, 'You've got to stay the course, and that's the one thing that can break us down,' " Coach Cal said.
As Kentucky has piled up wins, the noise surrounding them has intensified from an early-season buzz to a dull roar now that the calendar has flipped to March. Of course the national media has latched on to the top-ranked Wildcats' pursuit of perfection, but Calipari is more worried about immediate threats.
"Like I said to them, you're going to have people around that are trying to make you like them and they're going to say whatever they've got to say, which is, 'Ah, you should shoot more, you should play more,' " Calipari said. " 'Why is he going to him and not you? What about this? You really don't like that guy, right? You're the man.' I mean, again, it's all to enable, it's all to make them feel good and, 'Come with me, listen to me, talk to me.' That's the stuff they've got to be mature enough to deal with."
"I could put my head in the sand and say, 'Ah, that's not happening here,' " Calipari said. " 'This is Kentucky.' It's worse here. So these kids are strong, they're mature for their age, they've dealt with it, they've done it."
It's a good thing, too, because the tests on the court aren't getting any easier.
That starts Tuesday at Georgia (19-9, 10-6 Southeastern Conference), a team that was within six points of the Wildcats (29-0, 16-0 SEC) in the final five minutes of a February matchup in Rupp Arena. For further evidence that UK is in for a major test, look no further than the fact that Georgia played that game without leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton.
"This is a totally different game," Calipari said.
Working in Kentucky's favor is the fact that Trey Lyles is back in uniform. He missed the first game against Georgia due to illness, but has scored 18 points in back-to-back games. Coach Cal has labeled the freshman forward UK's X-factor, so figures to help against the Bulldogs.
"They're a better team, and they're playing better," Calipari said of Georgia. "Hopefully we're playing better. We have Trey now.
"They're an NCAA Tournament team we're playing on the road. It's gonna be a hard game for us."
Making it even more of a challenge is the coach who will walk the Georgia sideline. Calipari knows he can watch all the tape in the world and still not know what to expect from Mark Fox.
"He may come out and play zone," Calipari said. "He may come out and play man. They may sag. You don't know what he's going to do. He looked at the tape, and he's going to try to exploit us defensively. He is one of those coaches that I know when we walk in we better be ready. Our team better be ready, our staff better be ready. His team will be ready. He's one of the toughest ones to go against that I've been in 20-some years."
Led by Fox, Georgia has won three straight after a stretch of four losses in six games while the Bulldogs suffered through a rash of concussions.
"They run their stuff," Calipari said. "They do their stuff. They know how they're supposed to play and they play that way. They create the kind of shots they're trying to create. They put you in situations. They know where they're gonna find their shots. They do a good job."
Fortunately for the Cats, their preparation won't change much based on Georgia. Calipari just wants them playing basketball and having fun.
"If a team plays with anger, mad, that physiology can turn to fear," Calipari said. "I want you to play with joy. Play with joy. Have fun. Joy always beats anger, negativity. 'What's the worst thing I can say?' versus 'How can I build something up? How can I make this (positive)?' I just told them about it last game: Just play."
The season-turning meeting that Kentucky's seniors called on Tuesday night has been well documented.
The four veterans asked to come to Matthew Mitchell's house to talk about the state of their team entering the final week of the regular season. They told their coach he needed to turn up the discipline and accountability with the Wildcats in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Five days and two wins later - including an upset of No. 2 South Carolina on Sunday - it's clearly worked.
"All of them said, 'Listen, this thing's going to go off the cliff if we don't stop it. But if we stop it, we've got great things we can accomplish,' " Mitchell said. "As you saw something like beating South Carolina today and we were heavy underdogs."
Mitchell had spoken emotionally and at length about the power of the message prior to handing the Gamecocks (27-2, 15-1 Southeastern Conference) their first SEC loss, 67-56, but he had never revealed which senior had actually initiated the meeting. After No. 15/13 UK (21-8, 10-6 SEC) celebrated Senior Day with a signature win, he did.
It wasn't the most likely suspect. In spite of remaining the consistent vocal presence she's been throughout her four years, it wasn't Bria Goss who placed that phone call. It was Jennifer O'Neill, the soft-spoken fifth-year guard, which made it all the more meaningful.
"I was so happy that they called the meeting," Mitchell said. "And that Jen called the meeting - Jen was the person that called me - because Bria's been a rock her entire career and she's just done everything she can do. She's really worked hard. And I'd really been after Jennifer to step up and accept her importance to this team."
O'Neill has always been a potent scorer, capable of outbursts like the program-record 43 points she poured in against Baylor a season ago. She's always been a gifted player who can take over a game at a moment's notice, but she's still shied away from the spotlight at times.
"Her importance to the program is something that she has not always embraced," Mitchell said. "And I just could hear in her voice for the first time it kind of hit her. Like, 'This thing is winding down and I need to meet with you. All of us need to meet with you.' "
O'Neill, motivated by mounting losses and the on-rushing end of her college career, stepped up. Her willingness to do so is already paying off.
"When we had the three-game losing streak, it was just miserable," O'Neill said. "I hate losing and just to get this win meant a lot."
In both the win on Sunday and Thursday's potentially even more important victory at Arkansas, O'Neill proved it wasn't just talk either. She scored a team-high 15 points and added a career-high-tying eight rebounds, but her defense was even more important.
"She was all over the place," Mitchell said. "She really understood the game plan. She was really terrific defensively and I think that's what this team needs her to do. The offense will be there. It'll come. But we need her to be a lockdown defender."
Once again, O'Neill stepping up meant a great deal.
"Thursday night, her defense changed the game," Mitchell said. "I've always wanted her to value defense. When we've been good this year, she's cranked it up on defense. And she did it again today. She was the energy defensively that changed it. Bria's always there. Bria's always there. And so sometimes when you're always there, you're taken for granted."
The only time O'Neill wasn't there to provide a defensive spark was when she was on the bench saddled with foul trouble.
With 11:35 left, O'Neill picked up her fourth foul and went to the bench. At the time, UK had a commanding 48-29 lead on the strength of stifling defense spearheaded by O'Neill. Over the next six minutes, South Carolina outscored Kentucky 17-5 to trim the deficit to seven. It was then that Mitchell reinserted her as part of offense-defense substitutions with Linnae Harper.
"I was thinking I need to get back in," O'Neill said. "And once I got back in, I was just like, 'I have to play smart.' "
O'Neill promptly earned and hit two free-throw attempts to steady the ship. The Gamecocks would get no closer than nine points the rest of the way.
"It was a great performance and we need her to do that down the stretch," Mitchell said. "We might can do something special."
With UK set to open the SEC Tournament as the No. 6 seed on Thursday night at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET against either Vanderbilt or Alabama, O'Neill feels the same way.
"I just think we have to focus on what we're doing right now that makes us such a great team, constantly communicating with each other and showing up for practice and not taking any days off," O'Neill said.
When No. 2 South Carolina makes its way to Lexington on March 1, the stakes will be much higher for No. 13 Kentucky than a typical rematch with the toughest opponent on the Wildcats' schedule.
Sunday's game marks the last time seniors Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Azia Bishop, and Jelleah Sidney will ever take the floor at Memorial Coliseum. However, because of their accomplishments off the court, as well as on it, head coach Matthew Mitchell believes their legacy will live in UK lore forever.
"The seniors have had a great week, and in my mind, have really solidified their standing in this program, and how they'll be remembered for the job they did this week," Mitchell said. "Not just winning the game (Thursday at Arkansas), but the responsibility that they took on, and the passion that they have for the program, and the insight that they gave me to help coach the team better."
After rattling off three straight wins, the Cats dropped three in a row at the hands of No. 6 Tennessee (in Knoxville), at home versus No. 15 Texas A&M and on the road at Ole Miss. Before Kentucky's latest contest with the Razorbacks, UK's four seniors organized a private meeting with their head coach to discuss the state of the program and the prospect of administering adjustments before the season comes to an end.
"As a coach, you're trying to give your players the ability to grow up and be adults, and do what they need to do and learn," said Mitchell. "You don't want to be such a taskmaster all of the time, but that's what this particular group needed right now. (They were) kind of down in a funk and on a downward spiral."
Mitchell's seniors realized the team was on a negative trajectory, so they made sure their concerns were vocalized.
"They basically said, 'Hey, listen. If you don't step in here and really shake this thing up, and let people know this is a serious deal, I don't think it's going to change,'" Mitchell said. "Nobody was acting up, nobody was acting ugly, nobody was out late at night partying. It was just young kids lacking focus. We need to mature as a basketball team, and I needed to take a greater role of how the structure of the day has unfolded."
It wasn't the content of Tuesday's impromptu meeting that had Mitchell so taken aback with the leadership of his four seniors, but rather the initiative the group showed by calling the meeting in the first place.
"It's not anything earth-shattering," said Mitchell. "I just think it's more powerful. At this point of the season, they could have just said, 'Hey, I'm out the door here in 30 days, and I've had a good run. We've won the SEC, and we've been a championship-caliber program,' and just rolled off into the sunset. But, they care enough to say, 'Hey, Coach, we need a little bit more structure. We need to get focused.' "
Kentucky's top three contributing seniors -- O'Neill, Goss and Bishop -- combined for 34 of UK's 56 points in the Cats' win over the Hogs following Tuesday's consultation. The remarkability of one of the all-time most accomplished senior classes in school history has continued to shine throughout each season over the past four years.
O'Neill came to Kentucky as a consensus top-30 high school prospect and the first McDonald's All-American in program history. After missing her entire sophomore season in 2011-12 with a right foot stress fracture, O'Neill emerged as a full-time starter in 2012-13 and led the Wildcats to a 27-5 (13-3 SEC) record and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
As a redshirt junior, O'Neill led Kentucky in scoring off the bench (with 12.6 PPG) en route to being named SEC Co-6th Player of the Year and All-SEC Second Team. This year, the 5-foot-6 Bronx native is second on the team in scoring with 14.1 PPG, and leads the Cats in 3-point field goals by a large margin.
Named the state of Indiana's Miss Basketball in 2011, Goss made her presence known upon her first season in Lexington as a freshman in 2011-12. After starting every game, the 5-foot-10 defensive specialist was named SEC Freshman of the Year on the Wildcats' road to the Elite Eight. S
tarting in 56 of UK's 71 games over the next two seasons, Goss entered 2014-15 as the one of five former McDonald's All-Americans on the Kentucky roster. The Indianapolis native averages 8.9 PPG and 3.6 RPG on the year.
As a freshman, Bishop led the team in blocked shots with 31, good for fifth most by a freshman in school history. As a junior, she recorded a career-high five blocks in one contest, tied for UK's sixth most in one game by any player. At 6-foot-3, the Toledo native is the tallest player on Kentucky's roster. Bishop averages 6.4 PPG and 5.6 RPG on the season, accounting for 48 blocks in 2014-15.
Unlike her three senior colleagues, Sidney is in only her third season in a Kentucky uniform. The former high school teammate of O'Neill began her collegiate career at Chipola Junior College in Marianna, Fla., where she averaged 11.8 PPG and 8.3 RPG in 2011-12.
Appearing in 57 games as a sophomore and junior, Sidney sealed her Wildcat legacy in the 2013 NCAA Tournament with an outstanding defensive effort on eventual No. 2 overall WNBA Draft selection Elena Delle Donne of Delaware. The 6-foot-2 post player averages two points and 3.4 rebounds in 10.8 minutes per game this season.
When Sunday afternoon's monstrous matchup with South Carolina is all said and done, Mitchell will remember his latest group of seniors for much more than baskets and rebounds.
"I'll just remember Tuesday night when they came to my house and let me know what I needed to do," Mitchell said. "They also let me know what the program has meant to them, and you couldn't have tripled my bank account, or bought me a new car, or sent me on a vacation, or anything that would have been worth what Tuesday night was. No matter what happens going forward, what happened in that meeting... that solidified their legacy to me."
Kentucky (20-8, 9-6 SEC) will face South Carolina (27-1, 15-0 SEC) March 1 at 5:00 p.m. on ESPN2. The Gamecocks defeated the Wildcats 68-60 in Columbia, S.C. earlier this season.
"They've accomplished a lot on the court, but what they did on Tuesday night was more valuable than anything they could have ever done," Mitchell said. "They were not only concerned about this season and how we finished, but they were concerned about us going forward and what our young players needed to learn right now so a year from now, they would know what to do and how we needed to be. To me, that summed it up for them. So now we are really motivated to try and finish strong, and I think we are capable of that."
Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 84-67 win over Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
From the opening moments, you could sense Andrew Harrison was about to have a big game.
The way he dribbled screamed confidence. The way he was attacking, he seemed certain no one would stop him.
Not surprisingly, his coach took notice too.
"It's a spirit," John Calipari said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play."
No one felt it more acutely than the Arkansas players who had the unfortunate task of trying to shadow him on Saturday.
Harrison was in control from tip to buzzer as top-ranked Kentucky (29-0, 16-0 Southeastern Conference) led by as many as 31 in a victory over No. 18/16 Arkansas (23-6, 13-5 SEC) more dominant than the final score of 84-67 suggests. He had 18 points, three rebounds and three assists as UK clinched its 46th SEC regular-season title outright and moved to within two wins of a perfect regular season.
"I felt like I could get into the lane and find my teammates and score if they give me that," said Harrison, who made 2-of-4 3-point tries and 8 of 8 at the line. "I was just taking things given to me today."
Harrison also gave very little back.
The sophomore point guard committed just two turnovers in steadying UK against Arkansas' patented pressure. The Wildcats had nine turnovers as a team in 70 possessions, putting their turnover percentage at .129, well below the 22.9 percent Razorback opponents are averaging on the season.
By contrast, Harrison committed eight of UK's 35 turnovers in a pair of losses to Arkansas during his freshman season.
"We just remember last year," Harrison said. "We lost to them twice and didn't want that to happen again. We knew what they were capable of and we worked hard and came out with a win."
Harrison may have gleaned an added edge from the memory of those two losses, but it wasn't as if the spirit Coach Cal noticed in him appeared out of nowhere. In eight February games, Harrison is averaging 10.6 points, 4.5 assists and 1.4 turnovers per game, marked improvements in all three categories compared to his season totals.
"He doesn't stop on the court," Calipari said. "There's nothing. 'I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled.' "
Harrison has shown that kind of attitude in spurts over the course of his two Kentucky seasons, but never more consistently than this recent stretch.
"I had it when I got here," Harrison said. "It's just--you have to be ready to bring it every night. That's what you have to be prepared to do. That comes with maturity and stuff like that, I guess."
Improved conditioning doesn't hurt either.
"It's hard (to play the way Calipari asks me to play)," Harrison said. "You have to be in good shape. Not only do you have to push the ball on offense, but you have to pressure the ball on defense as well."
As much progress as Harrison has made, Calipari still thinks he can reach another level.
"I still want him to get to the rim more," Calipari said. "I thought he had two or three or four other opportunities to drive the ball, which I'm telling his brother the same thing. Don't settle, man. We threw it to him on the wing. It was him and no other defenders except the guy on him. Don't pass it to anybody. Drive the ball. You're 6(-foot-)6, you're a moose. Get the ball by the guy, get in the lane, shoot the layup."
If anyone understands what Coach Cal is asking, it's Tyler Ulis, Harrison's fellow point guard. Ulis also understands what Harrison means to Kentucky when he delivers.
"Andrew's playing great," said Ulis, who had 14 points himself. "When he's aggressive and pushes the ball he's one of the best players, one of the best point guards in the country. When he's doing that he's a great player and I feel like if he understands that and does it all the time then we're just going to be a great team."
Devin Booker leads Kentucky into a top-25 matchup with Arkansas on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As much as John Calipari tells them to avoid it, the Wildcats can't help but hear.
They don't seek it out, but they hear the talk about their unbeaten run and pursuit of perfection. They hear how many fans throughout the country want them to lose and how Arkansas, Kentucky's next opponent, could be the team to finally make it happen.
They hear and they respond.
"When we hear that a team is going to challenge us, you know, could beat us, in some aspects we take it personally," Trey Lyles said. "We want to go out there and show those people who said that differently and just go out there and compete."
The top-ranked Cats (28-0, 15-0 Southeastern Conference) can be sure the No. 18/16 Razorbacks (23-5, 12-3 SEC) will do the same on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. Needing a win to prevent Kentucky from clinching the conference regular-season title outright, Arkansas - UK's first ranked opponent in two months - will be ready.
"They will not be in awe of us," associate head coach Kenny Payne said. "They won't be intimidated. They'll come in with some confidence. But we will, too. We'll come in knowing that we're a different team, that we're going to get after them just like they're going to get after us."
Payne felt it necessary to point out UK is a different team because the previous edition of the Cats lost twice to Arkansas a season ago. Kentucky has dropped three straight to the Razorbacks overall, meaning no member of the regular rotation has won a game against Arkansas, a team led by Bobby Portis and Michael Qualls, combining to average 32.7 points per game.
"I just think that they have a competitive edge about them," Payne said. "They know that this team has beaten us twice, and they'll go out and compete."
UK's returners haven't been vocal about wanting to even the score against Arkansas, but their younger teammates are pretty sure the feeling is bubbling beneath the surface.
"I think they definitely remember," Lyles said. "They talk about it quite a lot now since the game is coming up, so I think they're going to have a little bit more energy and passion going out there tomorrow night."
Energy and passion will be at a premium against Arkansas, a team known for its up-tempo, high-pressure brand of basketball. The Razorbacks rank 15th nationally in defensive turnover percentage and sixth in adjusted tempo according to kenpom.com.
"I think Arkansas is the type of team that creates a lot of turnovers," Payne said. "They play well against us. It will be a great game tomorrow. We have to handle their pressure."
Payne compared Arkansas' pressure to Louisville's, which forced UK to commit a season-high-tying 18 turnovers. The Razorbacks, however, play at a different pace than the Cardinals, though Devin Booker has no reason to think the Cats won't be able to handle it.
"I feel like we can slow it down or we can play fast paced," Booker said. "With so many weapons that we have, we can just adjust to any type of game play. I think it will be a good challenge for us because we haven't really played an up-tempo game like they play in a while."
Most opponents have chosen to attack the deep, talented Wildcats by slowing the pace. UK, to this point, has passed every such test. Arkansas now presents a different kind of challenge.
"What it does is, defensively their style is making you play basketball," Payne said. "So if you think you're going to just catch the basketball, hold the ball, run offense, set offensive plays, it's not happening. They will force you to attack and hopefully teams that handle it have success; teams that don't, they struggle."
Whether Arkansas' style is the way to topple the last unbeaten team in the nation remains to be seen, but the Cats don't mind the chance to toss the shackles of a plodding, half-court game aside.
"I feel like we have good enough players to play basketball, so it'll be a good time," Booker said.
Trey Lyles scored a career-high 18 points in UK's win at Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Trey Lyles had just played arguably his best college game.
The freshman forward scored a career high at Mississippi State on Wednesday, showing the kind of versatility 6-foot-10 players aren't supposed to have.
But afterward, John Calipari was thinking bigger.
"He should have had 25 today," Calipari said, with a caveat. "But I thought he played well."
Lyles would have to settle for 18 points and six rebounds as top-ranked Kentucky moved to 28-0 (15-0 Southeastern Conference) with a 74-56 win in snowy Starkville, Miss. The Indianapolis native got off to a quick start, scoring the Wildcats' first basket on a lob dunk and 13 points within the first 15 minutes to make the illness that forced him to miss three games a not-so-distant memory.
"He's just getting healthy," Calipari said. "He's getting back to being who he is. You're talking two-three weeks, I don't know exactly how long he was out, but he was out awhile."
During the time Lyles spent away from his team, part of his treatment was to eat as much possible to avoid dropping pounds. He managed to stay near his listed weight of 235 pounds and now he's working to reach his pre-sickness fitness level.
"Lifting weights and doing extra stuff to try and get back to where I was, and I feel like I'm very close to that," Lyles said.
With Lyles on his way in that regard, Coach Cal is asking him to pick it up in terms of aggressiveness as well. Lyles is sixth among Wildcats in scoring, attempting barely six field goals per game, and Calipari doesn't think that's enough.
"My thing to him is, dominate," Calipari said. "Dominate rebounding around the rim. One-dribble pull-ups. Guard. Block shots. Do everything. You're capable of doing it."
It's the everything that makes Lyles so unique.
While Willie Cauley-Stein might create the most highlights with his high-flying dunks and Karl-Anthony Towns the most NBA Draft buzz with his potential and production, Lyles has a quieter game. Splitting time between the perimeter and the post, Lyles does what's asked of him and does it well.
"Maybe by (the media), but no one that evaluates basketball (overlooks Lyles)," Calipari said. "They know how good he is. They know what he's preparing for. I mean, he's being trained as a three. He's a 6-10, three-four and he's being trained as a three. All I want him to do is shoot more balls."
For the coach of a team playing one of the deepest rotations in the country, that's somewhat of an odd thing to have to tell a player to shoot more. Calipari, however, has good reason for doing so.
"I still think at the end of the day he'll be the X-factor for us," Calipari said. "He'll be the guy that they struggle to guard, that has offensive skills, that can still give us great size and rebounding ability."
Lyles has made an immediate difference since his return to the lineup. With him in the fold, UK has won the rebounding battle in four of five games after being outrebounded in three of the previous five.
Now Coach Cal is hoping Lyles can use his performance against Mississippi State as a springboard to being a spark in other areas.
"Let's say this is the start, maybe, of something," Calipari said.