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."
Makayla Epps had a career-high 16 points in UK's loss to South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
As South Carolina built a big lead, Makayla Epps allowed herself a peek when she checked in for the first time in the second half.
It wasn't pretty, but Epps could only think of one way to react.
"I looked up at the scoreboard once and I was like, 'We're down 20 and it can't get (any) worse so just go,' Epps said. " 'Fight to the finish.' "
When Epps came in with 15:09 left, UK trailed 53-32. Southeastern Conference-leading South Carolina had been dominant, turning an eight-point halftime lead into a comfortable margin with a 15-4 run. With no reason for the self-doubt natural for a freshman, Epps threw caution to the win and went on the attack.
Within a minute, she hit a jumper. Later, she scored six straight points as UK showed signs of life and cut the South Carolina lead to 11 with 9:31 left. The Gamecocks, however, were too much on this night.
"We ran into a really, really tough opponent that's extremely talented, plays real hard," Matthew Mitchell said. "They were tough defensively, tough offensively, really, really active on the boards and we got whipped tonight."
Riding an astounding 44-19 rebounding edge, the No. 4/6 Gamecocks (23-2, 11-1 SEC) took down No. 15/15 Kentucky (19-6, 7-5 SEC), 81-58. Aleighsa Welch had a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds and South Carolina shot 52.6 percent for the game and 60 percent in the second half to erase any thoughts of a comeback.
Epps, however, wouldn't stop.
"Coach Mitchell, four minutes to go at the last media timeout, he was like, 'Just finish the game. Keep playing hard, keep playing hard,' " Epps said. "And that's what I was trying to do.' "
Epps finished with a career-high 16 points, 14 of which came after halftime. She played point guard for much of her 15 second-half minutes, coping more effectively with South Carolina's physical defense than any of her teammates.
On a night that saw UK's two-game win streak end and a bid at a second straight win over a top-10 team come up short, that was at least one reason to be encouraged.
"She was able to use her size and strength to make some plays in transition that were available to us and I thought played with some good tempo offensively," Mitchell said. "She's a talented player and she'll just keep getting better, but she had a really good night."
Now, Epps and the Wildcats go back to work.
"You have to let go of this result and try to find out ways to address meaningful things that'll actually impact the game," Mitchell said. "So the score of this game will not impact Sunday's game unless we come in tomorrow down and defeated and discouraged."
Sunday's game won't be an easy one, as UK travels to Texas A&M to face the only team that's taken down South Carolina in SEC play. The good news is the Cats have some experience responding to losses.
"We've been here before," Epps said. "It's not like it's our first loss or (anything) like that. So we've been in this position before and we know what we're capable of. All the players, all the coaches, we know what we're capable of. So, like I said, we got Sunday to look forward to. We got Texas A&M and nobody says we can't go out there and beat them. So we're looking for a bounce back."
DeNesha Stallworth had 11 points in UK's 68-59 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 9. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Armed with the experience of facing South Carolina a little more than a month ago, Matthew Mitchell could alter his game plan to reverse a 68-59 result in Columbia, S.C.
Similarly, Dawn Staley could change the approach of her Gamecock team to catch Kentucky off guard in a rematch in Memorial Coliseum.
The two coaches could, but don't hold your breath waiting for it.
"They won't see a whole lot different from us and I doubt we see a whole lot different from them," Mitchell said. "We just need to play better than we did over there."
If the last week is any indication, it seems reasonable to expect No. 15/15 UK (19-6, 7-5 Southeastern Conference) will do just that on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are fresh off their first 2-0 week in SEC play, a week that included an upset of Tennessee on Sunday. The win over the Lady Volunteers -- UK's first in Knoxville, Tenn., since 1985 -- proved that Mitchell had good reason for keeping the faith that his team is capable of making noise the rest of the season.
He spent last week reminding the Cats of what they accomplished in starting nonconference play 11-0, showing tape of UK's memorable victories over top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor. With another such win now in the much more recent past, that confidence Mitchell worked to build goes to another level.
"It's just like a boost," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We knew we could do it and we've shown people that we can do it and now we just gotta go out there and do it."
No. 4 South Carolina (23-2, 11-1 SEC) won't make that easy.
The Gamecocks have reeled off seven straight wins in SEC play behind a dominant defense that allows just 53.9 points per game. South Carolina's only loss in conference came on the road against top-25 Texas A&M by just two points, and in overtime to boot.
"We have great battles and they certainly have brought out the best in us over the years and I think it's developed into a good rivalry," Mitchell said.
UK and South Carolina have split their last six matchups with each one decided by single digits. That means Thursday will be a challenge, but one the Cats think they need.
"I think it's really good that we face somebody as good as South Carolina at a time like this to really see where we are," Goss said.
The first time around, UK wasn't ready to cope with South Carolina's physical defense for 40 minutes. In that game, the Cats charged out to an early lead before going ice cold from the field. They shot a then-season-low 31.5 percent, putting them in a 22-point hole that a late rally could not overcome.
"I think it was because of us, because of our shot selection," Goss said. "But we're a whole different team from when we played them a little (more) than a month ago, so I'm really excited."
With DeNesha Stallworth back at full strength, UK looks different from a personnel perspective though their approach remains the same. The loss at South Carolina was the senior forward's second game back following a knee injury that sidelined her for a month. With 11 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes, she played well given the circumstances at South Carolina, but Stallworth is at another level now.
"She's a completely different player now, playing with a lot of confidence, playing with a lot of toughness," Goss said.
Over her last three games, Stallworth is averaging 16.7 points and 11 rebounds.
Stallworth's emergence has corresponded with that of point guard Jennifer O'Neill, the reigning SEC Player of the Week. After the junior scored just 12 points in 32 combined minutes against Georgia and LSU, O'Neill has scored 20 or more points in three consecutive outings.
"It's real simple with Jennifer, we want her to attack off the ball screens and look to score there and we want her down and ready when she doesn't have the ball, prepared to shoot," Mitchell said.
O'Neill didn't hesitate to shoot the first time around against South Carolina, but the shots certainly didn't fall. She was just 1 for 13 on Jan. 9, scoring five points. With the way O'Neill has played of late, Goss isn't doesn't see a repeat performance coming.
"I'm not expecting 30 points, 40 points, but, you know, for her she's playing with a lot confidence and she has every right to," Goss said. "She should feel like every shot's going in because I know every time she shoots it I know that it's going in."
It's no coincidence that Stallworth and O'Neill have played their best basketball since early in the season as the Cats have done the same. It's also no coincidence that the reasons are the same.
"I think just our mindset has changed," Goss said. "We're just more aggressive, we're confident, we're believing in ourselves, we're playing as a team and I think that's really key."
Aggressiveness and confidence will be even more important considering South Carolina's strength inside. The Gamecocks blocked 14 shots in the first matchup and rank third nationally with 7.1 blocks per game.
"I don't think we did a good job playing through that last time," Goss said. "But shot-blocking's part of the game and we just gotta go out there, you know, get your shot blocked, we'll go get another board or go get a defensive stop or make the stop or something like that."
UK coped well with Tennessee's length on Sunday and will look to do the same against Elem Ibiam and Co. If they do, the Cats could be celebrating their second top-10 win in five days.
Julius Randle had 25 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 84-70 win at Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
OXFORD, Miss. -- Seemingly, there was reason to worry.
Ole Miss had made a furious run to cut a UK lead that was once as large as 22 points, making it 76-70 with less than two minutes to go on a banked Anthony Perez 3-pointer.
The Wildcats, at that point, hadn't made a field goal in nearly eight minutes. With the shot clock running down, one of UK's assistants shouted for John Calipari to use a timeout and set up a play. For a moment, Coach Cal was going to follow the advice.
Until he saw the ball go to Julius Randle and his concern melted away.
"It was six seconds (left on the shot clock) and I looked up and he caught the ball and my mind quickly said, 'He's either getting fouled or he'll make this,' " Calipari said. "And that's how much confidence I have (in him)."
Randle delivered on his coach's confidence. He drilled a shot in the paint to trigger a game-ending 8-0 run as No. 18/16 UK (20-6, 10-3 Southeastern Conference) closed out an 84-70 victory at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6 SEC).
It wasn't a designed play that resulted in the game-changing basket, rather an example of Randle trying to put what UK has been working on in practice into action.
"It's just what Coach has been talking about the past couple of days: chemistry," Randle said. "I just wanted to get to the available spot and we just had to make basketball plays. Just get to the open spot and see if I can get in and try to make a play for my team or myself."
Randle did plenty of that on Tuesday night. He had his 14th double-double by halftime en route to a final line of 25 points and 13 rebounds -- both game highs.
With Randle setting the tone, UK was downright dominant in the first half in Tad Smith Coliseum. The Wildcats raced out to a 42-25 halftime lead, shooting 58.6 percent from the field with well-executed fast breaks and half-court sets. On defense, UK handcuffed the Rebels to the tune of 0.735 points per possession.
Fans still unable to shake the expectations that have followed the Cats all season likely wondered whether they had found a new, permanent gear. Much as they enjoyed the first half, the players know that's not realistic.
"That's probably how every team wants to play every game and it's not gonna happen," said Aaron Harrison, who had 17 points. "You always have bad games and you just don't have the energy there and stuff like that. So that's what we're working on: just having energy. I think that whole big run just came from energy and enthusiasm."
At halftime, Coach Cal warned his team to expect a counter-punch.
"I was really proud of them that first half," Calipari said. "And again, I said at halftime, 'They're going to make a run. You do know that, right? Now let's see how we respond to it and let's make our own run.' "
After a Willie Cauley-Stein layup with 9:10 left, UK took its largest lead at 62-40. From there, the Rebels pieced together a 30-14 spurt to make things interesting. Perez scored 15 of his 21 points during the run, Jarvis Summers notched seven of his team-high 22 and Marshall Henderson had a pair of 3s to ignite the home crowd.
If not for their second-best free-throw shooting effort of the season, the Cats may not have survived.
They hit 27-of-30 (90 percent) at the line for the game, including 19 in a row to close the game to account for all but two of their final 21 points. Randle hit 10 of them -- and 13-of-14 for the game -- Aaron Harrison four, Cauley-Stein three and Andrew Harrison two.
"We knew we had to make free throws because, I mean, we weren't really making a lot of buckets and they started to make their shots," Aaron Harrison said. "We just knew that in basketball you have to make free throws when other things aren't going. We just took that opportunity to just get focused at the line."
At morning shootaround before the game, UK closed the session with some work at the line. Seconds in, watching a couple free throws miss badly, Coach Cal blew his whistle. He told the Cats to focus on "self-talk" as they step to the stripe and to exchange the often self-fulfilling negative thoughts for belief that the shots will fall.
At least for one night, it worked.
"You just gotta know that you're going to go up there and knock it down," Randle said. "We all had that focus. We all knew that when we got to the free-throw line we wanted to shoot because we knew we would make it. That showed up today."
More often by the day, players' words -- and more importantly, their play -- reflect the lessons Calipari has been hammering home all season.
That's perhaps truest when it comes to the way the Cats measure success.
"We all have goals individually, but the biggest thing we know is if we play together, play for each other, play as a team, just keep building our confidence, energy, doing what Coach is asking us to do our individual goals will be taken care of," Randle said. "Winning's the most important thing for all of us."
UK's star forward had four 20-point, 10-rebound performances in his first five college outings, but the one he had against the Rebels was just his second in nearly two months. Opponents have made Randle priority No. 1 in their defensive game plans since his scorching start to 2013-14 and he has had to adjust his approach, both mental and physical.
That's why Randle hardly pays attention to the box score these days.
"I think what Coach is asking me to do is rebound, run the floor, play really hard, defend every position and just bring energy, being a great teammate," Randle said. "And the rest will take care of itself. If I score or I don't, it doesn't really matter. If I do those things, I think I can put my team in position to win."
The 2013-14 swimming and diving season has been a transitional campaign at Kentucky. First-year head coach Lars Jorgensen has instituted changes across the board from training to the all-around culture within the team.
No Wildcat has transitioned better with her coaching staff than butterfly standout Christina Bechtel.
"She has been phenomenal really," Jorgensen said. "Not just in meets, but every day in practice. At the end of the week she always seems better then she was the previous week. It's kind of a mark we like to have from all of our athletes, but she's kind of exceeded that expectation."
At the start of the campaign, Jorgensen took every member of the team aside to discuss the team's goals. With Bechtel, the benchmarks were lofty. The targets were set so difficult to attain, in fact, that when the junior started reaching them during the fall season - months before the NCAA Championships when she could be expected to round into form - both the swimmer and coach were pleasantly surprised to a significant extent.
In late November, during a three-day invitational meet at Ohio State - one of the nation's best programs - Bechtel broke the school records in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly.
Breaking school records ranked high amongst the accomplishments Jorgensen had told Bechtel she was capable of attaining before the season started. But to do so in a manner so convincingly, - she broke the 200 fly record by more than four seconds - and so early was frankly astonishing to all parties involved.
"I intended on breaking the records, but I didn't intend on doing it so early," Bechtel said. "The new coaching staff has really pushed me this year, and it has paid off. The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference. There are really high expectations and standards. I like that about the program because if your coaches don't hold you to high standards, then what are you supposed to hold yourself to."
Indeed Bechtel enters this week's Southeastern Conference Championships as one of the favorites in both the 100 and 200-yard butterfly events, an impressive feat given the quality of competition in the conference. The SEC regularly has half or more of the top-10 ranked teams in the country.
Her growth since Jorgensen took the helm at UK has provided a standard of excellence for her teammates. The Wildcats will hope that standard reaches full sail at the conference championship.
"She's a great competitor, a really hard worker and a leader," Jorgensen said. "She's kind of the total package in terms of what we ask for from the members of our team."
Bechtel's performances early in the year afforded UK the luxury of tapering her training toward the championship portion of the season, as her times qualified her for the NCAA Championships with plenty of time to spare.
As a result, she didn't have to spend the season chasing qualifying standards; instead she's been working toward peaking when the championship meets come. That time is now.
"She's worked hard, but the biggest thing we have done is trying to prepare her for the NCAA Championships just to try to be really competitive there. By November, we already knew she was going (to NCAAs) so the other meets were important just as stepping stones. It was nice to be able to focus on February and March from early in the season.
"We've been taking a really simple approach. It has been the old cliché of trying to win today, take it one day at a time, because if you don't do a good job in December, then the SEC Championships in February or the NCAA Championships in March become insignificant."
Much of Bechtel's success has been attributed to her new approach in training, one of the main points of emphasis Jorgensen instilled once he took over the program.
"The training has been really a lot more intense this year than last year and I think that's the major difference," Bechtel said. "When you're on the pool deck the atmosphere is more intense. You walk into practice and are expected to perform well.
"Every time you get in the water is like every time you swim a race, and that's the expectation every day. The goal is to practice as fast, or faster, than you would in a meet. That's what Lars always says; 'you're only as good as how well you train.' "
But Bechtel didn't just improve because of her attitude adjustment; she also changed how she races tactically.
At the forefront of those changes was a greater focus on kicking for longer distances, specifically under water - without taking a breath - upon entry off the blocks and during turns.
"The way my stroke has changed this year is basically I have done a lot more kicking, and a lot of faster kicking," Bechtel said. "This year Lars is always telling me to be a world-class kicker. In swimming there's been a big change as far as underwaters - where you kick most of the time underwater after the dive in and on turns - that has been a major change in the sport, especially in the butterfly and backstroke; most of your race is now under water, not really on the surface.
"We've been focusing on swimming underwater as fast as you can. We also do a lot of breath control because if you can't hold your breath then you can't kick under water. I'm faster under water than I am on the surface."
Bechtel's kick is a huge advantage for her, thus her coach hones in on that aspect of her race.
"She might be the best in the country under water," Jorgensen said. "I don't think there's anybody in the country better than her. She has helped other people on our team become better at it. I think it's something we really focus on as a program. It's important that everybody does that well. She combines that, which she has great talent for, with making other people better. That's also a reason why she's a captain."
Bechtel has taken on a leadership role this season, in large part as an extension of the head coach. The two seem to embrace a strong connection in training that serves as an example for the rest of the team.
Such a relationship is important as elite swimmers are asked by their coaches to push their bodies beyond most tangible limits of comfort.
"He's like a coach, but also one of my best friends," Bechtel said of her coach. "Whenever I'm having an issue or something I can talk to him and he will just make me laugh. I think that's a good thing because honestly, I probably spend four and a half hours a day with Lars. I think it's important to have a good relationship with your swim coach because if you are constantly annoyed by the person you have to see every day it just makes it terrible. Lars is always passionate, and he really makes you want to swim faster.
"That's really important; to have a coach that pushes you and makes you want to do better. Lars does that, he is never satisfied."
The fruit of Bechtel's labor, put in during countless training sessions over the past few months, will be on full display this week at the most competitive conference championship meet in America.
Aaron Harrison had 16 points in UK's 80-64 win over Ole Miss on Feb. 4. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If you were thinking doom and gloom would set in following UK's loss to Florida on Saturday, think again.
As painful as the defeat may have been -- and look no further than postgame interviews with the players for proof of that -- Sunday was a new day for John Calipari and the Wildcats.
"Everybody from the players to the staff to Cal was very, very upbeat, really positive," assistant coach John Robic said. "That's the most positive I've seen Cal and our staff after a defeat in a long time, and we haven't had that many defeats so we don't have that many opportunities to be like that."
It wasn't some false motivational pretense lifting the mood in practice either.
The coaching staff broke down tape of the loss to the Gators and saw all the good work the Cats did for nearly three-quarters of the game. The issues, of course, were plain to see in crunch time, but there was plenty of reason to be positive.
"What happened down the stretch was that mental discipline that I talked about before the game," Calipari said. "But it showed me that we can beat anybody in the country. We've got to shore up how we finish games off. It showed me our goals do not need to change -- at all."
UK might have fallen to No. 18/16 in the latest major polls on Monday, but everything -- Final Four, national championship and all the rest -- thought to be in play before the season remains that way.
"We just kind of found out that we could play with anybody in the country, but we just have to shore up some things and just work hard again and see where that takes us," Jarrod Polson said.
To pursue those goals, the Cats (19-6, 9-3 Southeastern Conference) must hone in on what prevented them from closing out what would have been their biggest win of the season on Saturday.
"What we did for the guys is we watched the last 11 minutes and 12 seconds of the game, dissected that, because that was the game," Robic said. "Saw what they did. In a lot of ways, that's what we need to do. We saw what we did, and we now know the adjustments that we have to make, and the players really, really understand that now."
Heading into a trip to Ole Miss (16-9, 7-5 SEC), UK will look to demonstrate that understanding.
UK took down the Rebels two weeks ago in Rupp Arena, 80-64, on the strength of a dominant second-half rebounding performance. In the rematch, however, the Cats expect a stiff test from an Ole Miss team returning to its home floor -- where the Rebels are 5-0 in SEC play -- hungry after back-to-back losses last week.
"Road games are always tough no matter where it is," Aaron Harrison said. "Ole Miss is a great team. I'm pretty sure it will be a great environment and a great game."
UK was solid defensively against Ole Miss on Feb. 4, limiting the dangerous Marshall Henderson to 16 points on 6-of-18 shooting and holding the Rebels to just two fast-break points.
"We were effective in our game plan," Robic said. "We carried it out very, very well. There were only two breakdowns, and Marshall Henderson hit two 3s on the two breakdowns. But that's what we're getting ready to go into practice now and make sure we're sharp on that."
With the Rebels playing on their home floor this time around, UK isn't expecting to pull away in the second half in Oxford, Miss. Instead, another test of the Cats' ability to execute late is likely in order.
After the loss to Florida, UK has six losses in games decided by 10 points or fewer. Coincidentally, that number is identical to the six defeats the 2010-11 Kentucky team had this time three years ago with Brandon Knight leading the way.
Polson was a freshman on that team and recalls battling many of the same issues that have caused problems in the final minutes this season.
"I think just trying to develop that will to win is what we're working on right now and I think we're getting better at it," Polson said. "Obviously we didn't succeed on Saturday, but I think that game will teach us more than it will hurt us."
As fans will surely remember, UK reeled off 10 straight wins to close the regular season, sweep through the SEC Tournament and reach the Final Four. With three true freshmen playing featured roles for a team with a short bench, UK won eight of those games by single digits.
UK is both younger and deeper this year, but the Cats must develop that same will to win.
"The more the young guys experienced those games, the more they knew what it was going to be like," Polson said. "I think that was the biggest thing: just taking the losses and realizing how bad it hurts to lose and taking that to the next games and wanting to win so bad."
The Southeastern Conference season wears on and league coaches called in on Monday for another SEC Coaches Teleconference. John Calipari gave an update on his team entering this week, which you can find below.
Additionally, you can read what Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy had to say as the Rebels prepare to host UK on Tuesday night, as well as some thoughts from Florida's Billy Donovan on Julius Randle.
On this week's matchups against Ole Miss and LSU ... "Well, we're playing two really--teams that have given us problems. I mean, Mississippi at home was anybody's ballgame with six minutes to go in the game. Obviously LSU had us down double digits most of the game, almost got it 20 and so they'll be two tough games for us."
On how much different of a team Ole Miss is without Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner ... "Well, those younger guys are pretty good players now too. And they're different. They're more athletic as far as--they may be, you know, more slender. But those two, anyone would be more slender compared to those two. But I think they're athletic, I think they're long, they give them a little different dimension and those other two were veteran, big-bodied guys, hard to go against. But I'm liking Mississippi's team."
On what his team did to have success against Ole Miss ... "You could say that, but I'm telling you, with six minutes to go it was anybody's ballgame. And then we got a couple breakouts and made a shot and all of a sudden it was 12, and then we got going a little bit. But that was late, late in the game. You're at the mercy of them making jumpers. And again, I think their point guard (Jarvis Summers) is really - I think he makes them go. They've got other players on that team that can score baskets, and then (Marshall) Henderson at any time can make five straight baskets. Can you keep your head about you if he does? And he seems to do it at home more than he does on the road."
On whether being out of the conference race changes the psychology of how he approaches his team ... "I've never been big on conference championships or conference tournaments. Every game we play is to prepare us for March, and that's how we approach it. I think the history of my teams have done well in conference play and conference tournaments because they're not the goal. The goal is to be at our best in March. And so, the last game we played, I'll be honest with you, (for) 30 minutes that's as good as we've played all year. What happened down the stretch was that mental discipline that I talked about before the game. But it showed me that we can beat anybody in the country. We've got to shore up how we finish games off. It showed me our goals do not need to change - at all. And I told the team this: It's about chemistry, energy and a will to win for your team. There were three rebounds you would have figured our best rebounder would have got balls, and he was right there with another guy, and they got all those balls. (Dorian Finney-)Smith got one, (Casey) Prather got one down the middle, they got another one, tipped back one for a 3. There was all that will to get that ball that they had more than we had. But, again, our goals haven't changed. I'm happy with my team. What that game showed me: We're as good as anybody in the country; we can play with anybody. Now let's shore this up, let's get this chemistry together and this energy together, let's create a little more will to win down the stretch, execute. They got to the line by driving it. We took bailout 3s. Can't do that. Can't do that late in the game. But again, we're still learning."
On the up-and-down play of some of his players ... "For us, we've got a pretty inexperienced front line, and I think really as it occurs across the league and across the country, kids that are a little more inexperienced, whether it be because they're freshmen or sophomores or because they've never really played the roles that they're currently holding, they typically play better at home. They're more comfortable at home. They play more confidently, more assertively, and I think that's been the case with our guys. We go on the road and we're not nearly as assertive as we need to be, and as a result we're not nearly as productive. We've got to take the right approach. We've done that when we've been at home and we just haven't been able to carry with us on the road. You're well aware of the number differential from a productivity standpoint home and away, and as a result we're not having as much success on the road."
On Calipari saying the game at Rupp was anyone's game with six minutes left ... "Well, Cal's pretty diplomatic in that answer. We stayed around for a while. I believe it was a two- or three-possession game maybe until the 10-, 12-minute mark of the second half. We couldn't get a rebound, which has really been kind of a broken record for us. But we just could not get a rebound in the second half. If you remember, we had some dead-ball rebounds, but the first one that an Ole Miss Rebel got I believe was under two minutes to go in the second half. So we zoned them quite a bit and they did not make a 3-point shot in the second half, but even the ones that they missed they got every rebound. I think Willie Cauley-Stein probably played his best game in a Kentucky uniform and just dominated on both ends. They certainly got some run-outs, but they got control of the game at about the 30-minute mark and then we were just trying to hold on for dear life."
On bringing Marshall Henderson off the bench on Saturday and how it worked ... "It worked out pretty good. He's just really been struggling with his shooting percentages in road games, non-league and SEC. Going into Georgia, he was shooting close to 30 percent from the floor and less than 25 percent in the first half. So I was just doing something to try to change the way that he approached the game, allow him to see it for a few minutes on the bench and, you know, I don't know if that directly affected his performance but he came out and made shots. I think he had 14 (points) in the first half on 6-of-8 shooting, something like that. As a result, we were leading at the half. Second half, he struggled a little bit and as a result we came up a possession short. But that was the thinking: just trying to find a winning combination."
On playing UK and Florida this week and whether he brings up Ole Miss's bubble status ... "Well, it's out there anyway for sure. But we've lost two--we had two heartbreakers last week. Really our focus is on winning a game and Kentucky presents the next opportunity to do that on Tuesday night. We know it's going to be a difficult challenge because we've seen that firsthand a couple weeks ago in Rupp. But for us right now, we've lost two in a row and we're sitting at 16-9 through 25 (games) but those 16 seem like a faint memory simply because we haven't won one in a week. So for us the focus is on winning a game."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan
On what he said to Julius Randle after Saturday's game ... "I just said, 'Congratulations on a great year.' I didn't get a chance to see his mom. I know she was cheering real hard for him. After the game I just said, 'Congratulations for a great game' and 'I see your mom cheering hard.' He just smiled. He's a great kid and certainly I was fortunate to get the opportunity to be around him for about two or three weeks there in the summer before he went to Kentucky, so that was an enjoyment of mine because he is such a great kid."
On what impresses him the most about Randle ... "Besides what people can see with his talent and his skills, the way he puts it on the floor and his size. And again, John can probably comment better about this than I can because obviously I had him for a short period of time. The thing I was impressed with him is, when I had him he was the same guy every single day. He was the same guy. We went double sessions because there was a lot to get prepared for because we only had about a week of practice before we competed so we had to do double sessions. As a young kid, being in high school and maybe not going through college practices before and playing against other good players, he was always there early, he was getting shots up, he was always ready to go, he had a smile on his face, he enjoyed playing, he enjoyed working and competing and trying to get better, and I thought he was an everyday guy. Now obviously that was only for a couple weeks and a college basketball season is a lot longer. I'm sure like most guys there are going to be ups and downs. But I always appreciated his disposition in practice each day."
Andrew Harrison had 20 points in UK's loss to Florida on Saturday night. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
UK was in as good of a position as John Calipari could have hoped for.
After a driving layup by Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats led No. 3/4 Florida by seven with barely 11 minutes to play in an electric Rupp Arena.
But even then, he figured the veteran Gators would make a run. He figured his team would be tested in the final minutes.
He was right, because Florida didn't waste any time getting back into it. Within three minutes, the Gators had a lead. From there, they did what they've done all season.
"What they did, they've done -- I'm guessing -- 10 games this year, where, with five minutes to go, four minutes to go, three minutes to go, it's anybody's ballgame," Calipari said. "Then they just grinded better than the other team grinds it, like they did us. They were just a little too experienced for us down the stretch."
Fittingly, it was a trio of seniors that carried Florida (23-2, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) to its 17th victory in a row by a final of 69-59.
When the Gators needed points, Billy Donovan put Scottie Wilbekin into pick-and-rolls. He responded by scoring 12 points over the decisive final 10:41 during which Florida outscored UK 31-14 to finish with 23 points and zero turnovers.
When the Gators wanted to go inside, they went to Patric Young. He delivered by scoring eight of his 10 points over the first four minutes of Florida's game-ending run.
When the Gators needed a hustle play, leading scorer Casey Prather (24 points, four steals) was there, most notably on an offensive rebound with 1:27 left. On the play, Prather skied over three Wildcats with his team leading by five to all but salt away victory.
"We have to make that play," said Andrew Harrison, who had a team-high 20 points on Saturday night.
It's those kinds of plays that mark fine line between winning and losing in a game such as this one.
"We lost to a good team," Calipari said. "I'm not happy. We lost to a good team. But we had our chances and we're not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that."
For the better part of 29 minutes, it looked as if UK (19-6, 9-3 SEC) was indeed ready. The No. 14/13 Cats had played their best defense of the season, holding Florida to an average of just 0.86 points on its first 44 possessions.
To follow that, UK had a series of breakdowns and miscommunications, all of which had to do with Florida's execution. Over the final 13 possessions of the game -- excluding the last one when the Gators ran out the clock -- Florida scored 31 points for an astounding average of 2.38 points per possession.
"Florida deserved to win the game," Calipari said. "When they got all those rebounds late and the execution, it's just an effort that I'm going to go get this ball. They got those three rebounds that cost us seven points. In a game like that, you can't recover with that least amount of time left."
Especially not with Florida locking down defensively.
Florida entered the game ranked as one of the best defenses in the country and backed it up. UK shot the ball reasonably well (47.6 percent), but managed only eight second-chance points on nine offensive rebounds, an area that has been UK's strength all season.
"We didn't execute well enough," Harrison said. "We just didn't make enough plays at the end."
Calipari praised Harrison for his play for most of the game. The freshman point guard overcame a 1-for-7 start from the field to shoot 6-of-12 and 8-of-8 at the line, but the senior he was matchup up with was simply better at the end.
"I thought Andrew played a terrific basketball game, but the last four minutes, Scottie just outplayed him," Calipari said.
As UK looks to move forward, it's facts like that one Calipari will be asking his players to face.
"So we've got to understand and listen and not blame each other," Calipari said. "Take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it, the guy outplayed me."
UK will host No. 3/4 Florida at 9 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A group of 18- and 19-year-olds, the Kentucky Wildcats are still in their formative years. Most of them still developing physically, trying establish themselves with an eye on their bright futures.
At the same time, they are faced with more immediate priorities. With almost certainly just one year together as presently assembled, the Cats know they have no choice but to come together and come together fast.
There's no overstating the magnitude of that challenge.
"They're trying to grow as an individual player yet come together," John Calipari said. "Think how hard that is. Trying to establish who they are and how they have to play, yet do it for each other. This stuff is impossible."
But at Kentucky, "impossible" is not part of the vocabulary.
"I told them yesterday, 'It's not fair what I'm asking you to do,' " Calipari said. " 'Now do it. Now do it.' It's not fair. You can't ask kids to do what we ask them to do. It's not fair. But, now do it. And they're trying."
The challenge facing UK's team almost exclusively comprised of freshmen and sophomores is what they signed up for. By coming to Kentucky, the Cats decided they wanted to take center stage, to bypass the chance to develop in the shadows behind upperclassmen. They chose these bright lights.
The lights don't get any brighter than the ones under which No. 14/13 UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) will play on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. No. 3/4 Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC) comes to Lexington two games ahead in the conference race and in the midst of a 16-game winning streak. To add to the hype, ESPN will be in town to host its weekly College GameDay show the morning of the game.
"It's a great opportunity," Calipari said. "It's why you come here, to play these kind of games against highly ranked teams that come into your building favored to win with veterans, and here we are."
A familiar storyline will be trotted out again for the rivalry game: Will UK's youngsters be able to overcome the Gators with talent? Or will Florida's experience rule the day?
"This game is going to be our 19-year-olds against their 23-year-olds," Calipari said. "Now, how does that play out? I know when they're 35 and 36, and you're 30, that's a difference. The old guys have got a little problem there. But at the younger ages, they've got an advantage. And it is an advantage. Most of it is the discipline they play with."
Though it's a fact that four of Florida's regulars are seniors and all five of UK's starters over the last four games freshmen, the Cats aren't all that interested.
"We just don't want use it as an excuse," Alex Poythress said. "It's not that he tells us to drop (youth as an excuse); it's just like we don't want to make excuses for ourselves. We just want to come out and play the game.
But to call Florida a team facing a major talent deficit is doing a disservice to the Gators. Florida has inserted itself into the upper echelon of national-title contenders on the strength of a deep, skilled rotation. All-America candidate Casey Prather leads four Gators scoring in double figures at 15.3 points per game and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin closely follows at 13.0.
When Coach Cal talks about the Gators, he uses phrases familiar to UK fans. He references their ability to focus for 40 minutes and their ability to close games. The thing, however, that most catches his attention is defense.
"Their emotion is all tied into their defense," Calipari said. "That's what they do well."
Florida ranks seventh nationally and first in the SEC in defensive efficiency, allowing just 0.908 points per possession. The Gators excel in all areas, holding opponents to 39.3-percent shooting, forcing turnovers on 21.8 percent of possessions (24th nationally) and ranking 30th in the country in defensive free-throw rate.
"Florida plays real good on defense," Poythress said. "You know, they got some veteran players. They know how to play, have been there a long time, know how to help each other."
The defense starts on the ball with the tireless Wilbekin, while fellow senior and lead shot blocker Patric Young protects the rim. UK freshman Dakari Johnson -- who was recruited by Billy Donovan -- knows Young well.
"When I went up there to visit I shadowed him," Johnson said. "So he's a real good player. He competes hard for 40 minutes, so we've just got to compete with them."
In preparation, it's Coach Cal's custom to show only limited tape of opponents to his team. However, he spotlighted one play Young made in Florida's 67-58 win over Tennessee. The physical 6-foot-9, 240 pounder forgot all concerns about his own personal safety to dive for a loose ball.
"What are you willing to do to win a game?" Calipari said, explaining his reasoning for showing the play. "I know what he's willing to do to win a game. I saw it. Now you look at it."
Now, the Cats have a chance to show they can match that kind of effort.
"This game will tell us where we are, and I would imagine they're coming in not to just win," Calipari said. "They want to smash. We're going to find out."
Matthew Mitchell will lead his Kentucky team into a trip to No. 8 Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell doesn't typically make a habit of looking back, but this week was an exception.
His team facing a crisis after five losses in nine games, he pulled the tape on UK Hoops school-record-tying 11-0 start. He showed the Wildcats clips of their wins over top-10 opponents Baylor and Louisville. He reminded them of their four hard-fought road victories.
"I just tried to show them that we're not sitting in some rah-rah session where I'm making things up and trying to make you look good," Mitchell said.
Since that start, optimism about UK's Final Four chances has faded outside the program. Inside the walls of the Joe Craft Center, the Cats' confidence followed a similar trajectory. Mitchell, however, has remained steadfast in his faith.
"I just wanted to tell them the reason that I believe we can move forward and be a great team and be heard from in this league and beyond, is because they have already proven to me that they can do it," Mitchell said.
Mitchell's only goal was to encourage a similar belief on the part of his players.
"Whether we ever get there or not is not the point, the point is that you believe that and then prepare that way," Mitchell said. "We just need to know that we can show up every day and if we choose we can be the best team in the country. That mindset is what I was trying to get them back to."
Early returns suggest the film session may have worked.
In a dominant 108-78 win over Ole Miss on Thursday, UK looked closer to its early-season form than at any point in Southeastern Conference play. DeNesha Stallworth (19 points, 11 rebounds) rediscovered her All-American form from before a December knee injury and Jennifer O'Neill (27 points) combined with her to form a potent inside-out duo.
The performance was another shot of confidence.
"I think that most of our problems, while we had some physical problems with injuries and some of what has been going on has been physical, but to me the lion's share of it has been mental and emotional," Mitchell said. "I think that confidence is very important for this team right now."`
It will be particularly important as No. 18/18 UK (18-6, 6-5 SEC) travels to No. 8/8 Tennessee (20-2, 9-2 SEC) for a matchup at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday. As good as the Lady Volunteers may be, Mitchell knows his mind needs to be on his own team more than anything else.
"My concerns are about Kentucky right now," Mitchell said. "I just want to get ready to do the things that we need to do to beat Tennessee, and that is more about Kentucky than them."
That begins with tempo.
"I think we need to get our minds ready on playing Kentucky basketball," Mitchell said. "That means a fast-paced game."
In half-court offense, UK will need to be ready for a UT defense that features a great deal of zone. On defense, UK's bigs must be prepared to battle with the likes of Isabelle Harrison and Bashaara Graves.
"They have some really powerful interior post players that they try to get the ball in there to," Mitchell said. "It will be a great battle and a great opportunity for us to beat a quality opponent."
Senior guard Meighan Simmons spearheads the attack for Tennessee, averaging 15.2 points.
"She's real fast, really fast, explosive and an explosive scorer," Mitchell said. "She's one of the fastest players with the basketball that I've coached against. When she's on, she's one of the most explosive scorers I've ever been around."
That description doesn't sound much different from UK's O'Neill, a player with whom Mitchell describes his relationship as "complicated."
"She's a joy in my life because she has brought so much to us and so much to our program," Mitchell said. "She's a kid that's done a lot for me in a lot of different ways and hopefully I've helped her, but she's just real, real stubborn."
Her stubbornness comes from her cerebral nature. O'Neill has a tendency to overanalyze, while Mitchell wants her to keep it simple.
"You need to attack every time and when you don't have the ball you need to be ready to shoot," Mitchell said. "Every time you need to be down, whether you do or not, but you need to be ready because it's a threat. Defensively, you need to be in a stance getting after the basketball every time. It's not complicated."
O'Neill made it look pretty simple against Ole Miss on Thursday. If she can repeat that performance on Sunday, Mitchell might not need to go into the archives to find tape of a big win any longer.