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.
Rachel Lawson and the UK softball team look to build on a 5-0 start to the season at this weekend's Texas Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky softball team is coming off a record-setting opening weekend. UK is off to a perfect 5-0 start for the first time in program history, including an upset win over then-No. 2 Oklahoma, a year after a school-record 41-win campaign in 2013.
As UK prepares for its second weekend of competition -- the Texas Classic in Austin, Texas, Feb. 14-16 -- one would assume the Wildcats and head coach Rachel Lawson are feeling pretty good about things. After all, the perfect start to the 2014 season vaulted the Wildcats to seventh in the USA Today/NFCA Top 25 and No. 9 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Top 25, both the highest in team history. UK advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals last season for the second time ever.
Having moved past last year's success before fall training began, Kentucky is far from satisfied.
"Yeah, our team has a lot of high expectations," Lawson said. "They want to go to the World Series. We have been in Supers two out of the last three years and been in postseason five years in a row so for our program the next step is the World Series."
They are really happy that they were able to get some good games under their belt and to win. I think that is a really exciting thing for them."
Big expectations are the norm in the Southeastern Conference. The league is arguably the toughest in the country, with back-to-back College World Series title game appearances, including Alabama claiming the SEC's first softball national championship in 2012.
The Wildcats won't get too excited over a 5-0 weekend, knowing there is plenty left to play for and a multitude of big games ahead. Twenty-two games await UK the rest of the season against teams currently ranked or receiving votes in either poll.
"As much as they had a really good weekend, they are very focused on the end goal," Lawson said. "Being in the SEC, we are going to have so many big games ahead of us. They are taking it in stride."
"I think our offseason helped us offensively," junior catcher Griffin Joiner said. "We came out strong this weekend with that and I think this weekend we played good teams like Oklahoma and it gave us confidence. It was good to play teams like that because that's the type of teams we play in the SEC. It's nice to win the early season tests and have an extra-inning game to get prepared for SEC play."
Joiner had 10 hits with a .667 batting average in the opening weekend and was named the season's first SEC Player of the Week on Feb. 10. She slugged three home runs and had nine RBIs to pace the Wildcat offense.
Hearing Lawson and the players talk about what's ahead, and the goals for the team, there is no secret that the Women's College World Series is the target. School records, national accolades and NCAA Super Regionals aren't enough. The Wildcats want to make it to Oklahoma City and play as one of the final eight teams.
There are several important factors for UK to be successful and make it to the College World Series this year. Of course, offense, defense and pitching are important, but Kentucky's depth will be just as crucial.
In the Wildcats' opening weekend, it was a balanced attack that provided their run production.
"Actually, I was incredibly impressed by that," Lawson said of her team's depth in the first five games. "If you really went into the play-by-play of all the games, for example, when we played Oklahoma and beat them they got their runs from 1-2-3 in the order and we got our runs from 7-8-9 in our order, which is pretty cool. The top of our order did produce, but just to be so strong top to bottom is a lot of the reasons we won pretty convincingly this weekend. At no point were we out of it this weekend, it didn't matter who was up. We had a lot of key contributions from a ton of people and that is a good thing. In order for us to go where we want to go you have to be strong."
Going forward that depth will have to continue to be a strength. The Wildcats open the Texas Classic with Louisiana Tech and No. 15/16 Texas on Friday before facing IPFW Saturday. The weekend will continue with seeded contests Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning to conclude the five-game weekend.
"I think this is the most depth that we have ever had during my career," senior outfielder Ginny Carroll said. "Before the season when the players were talking with each other about what the lineup might be, and we had no idea. There are so many options. Each game could be different, which is great for competition and practice and then also seeing who is hot on that particular day. I think the competition makes everyone work harder, and no one can be complacent. It's really nice we've got a lot of good stuff."
So many options. Lawson and the coaching staff have to like that. While a consistent lineup might fall into place, the ability to have different options could be UK's secret weapon in 2014.
With their sights set on making the program's first trip to the World Series, the Wildcats will need as many of those secret weapons as possible.
DeNesha Stallworth had 19 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Ole Miss on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Six days ago, Matthew Mitchell offered a prediction about DeNesha Stallworth, the star forward who was then still trying to find her form after a December knee injury.
"One of these nights she's going to go for 18 or 20 (points) and eight or 10 rebounds and that's when you'll know she's back," Mitchell said last week.
The night was Thursday.
Stallworth nearly hit those forecasted numbers on the head in a 108-78 Kentucky victory. In just 22 minutes against Ole Miss, Stallworth posted 19 points and 11 rebounds.
"It feels good to have our All-American back," Jennifer O'Neill said.
Stallworth made 7-of-12 field-goal attempts in her best performance since her injury, registering her second straight double-double in the process.
"We need to get her the ball a little bit more because we're missing her, but just the effort and the willingness to go to the boards is important," Mitchell said. "It's being talented and being able to get up there and have strong hands."
The senior said afterward that she feels "a hundred percent," an encouraging sign for a UK team trying to shake off a prolonged slump in SEC play during which the Wildcats (18-6, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) lost five times in nine games.
"I think I was kind of a big piece that we were missing, but this is not always all on me," Stallworth said. "I think we all have out little parts as a team. But it just feels good to be back out there and playing hard and playing with a purpose. It's just a great feeling, especially to get a win."
When Stallworth had it going pre-injury, UK was one of the best teams in the country. The Cats sprinted to a 9-0 start with her in the lineup, taking down top-10 opponents Louisville and Baylor in the process. Since then, UK has never looked better than they did against the Rebels (10-16, 1-11 SEC).
"It was exciting to see that we could get back to playing the way we were once before," O'Neill said. "Even though we still have a lot of stuff to work on, it was really good just to get a win."
The win started with entry pass after entry pass.
UK built a first-half lead by getting the ball to Stallworth and she delivered with 10 points and six rebounds. At halftime, Ole Miss head coach Matt Insell -- a Mitchell assistant at UK until last season who received a big ovation when he was introduced in Memorial Coliseum -- had no choice but to adjust.
The inside game established, O'Neill -- the sharp-shooting point guard -- had ample room to operate.
"D's always preaching, 'Throw the ball inside, throw the ball inside,' " O'Neill said. "And we try to play inside-out and sometimes we miss the post a lot -- not sometimes -- we miss the post a lot and it was just good because it made her draw more attention and it allowed me to get open easier."
Taking advantage, O'Neill was dominant in the second half. She poured in 19 of her 27 points after the break, drilling 5-of-6 shots from the field and 3-of-3 from beyond the arc.
Watching O'Neill and Stallworth playing well together, it's not difficult to remember why UK was so good to start the season.
"They're real good when DeNesha Stallworth plays," Insell said. "They're even better when Jennifer O'Neill plays. And so you get both of those clicking together on the same night like they had tonight, that's a team right there that has a chance to play in Nashville."
The Cats have a trip to the Volunteer state on their mind, but to a city about 180 miles east of this year's Final Four site.
"It just felt fantastic, especially going into the next game versus Tennessee," Stallworth said of UK's Sunday trip to Knoxville, Tenn.
A.J. Reed will start UK's season opener vs. No. 1 Virginia at noon ET on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
When he put together his team's 2014 schedule, Gary Henderson didn't know at first that UK would face the nation's top-ranked team to start the season.
What he did know was that the Wildcats would travel to Spartanburg, S.C., for the Hughes Brothers Baseball Challenge. He saw the event as an opportunity get the season started with "something different," so he called UNC Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf to commit to playing in it.
It wasn't until later that Henderson found out No. 1 Virginia would be UK's season-opening opponent at noon ET on Friday. It was a surprise, but not an unpleasant one.
"We kind of caught a break there," Henderson said.
In fact, Scalf made sure to run the possibility by Henderson before finalizing the plans. The conversation wasn't a long one.
"When Mark called me up and asked if I would be willing to (play Virginia) in the opener and I said, 'Absolutely,' " Henderson said. "I think that is great. It is win-win."
Opening day always brings excitement, but playing the team tabbed by Baseball America and Perfect Game as the best in the country adds a little extra edge.
"We've put in so much work in the offseason and continued to this spring," pitcher Chandler Shepherd said. "We're all just ready to go. That's all we're talking about and it's to the point now where we're just ready to let loose and have fun and play ball. It's that time."
With a constant onslaught of cold weather, ice and snow this winter, it hasn't always felt that way. For that reason, the Cats haven't gotten nearly as much outdoor work as they would like. That's a challenge -- and one teams throughout the country have shared these last two months -- but no excuse.
"Until we get those repetitions under our belt and we get that experience you'll expect that maybe the game is not quite as crisp in weeks one and two as you'd like, but you'll grow from it," Henderson said.
Henderson anticipates the biggest learning curve happening in the field, while UK's star junior center fielder expects to use a simplified approach at the plate.
"When you're growing up, you go out there your first two times and it's like riding a bike," Austin Cousino said. "You see the ball and hit it and you don't try to get too complicated with it."
After a scorching start to 2013, UK struggled to put together enough offense to back a solid pitching staff. The Cats scored just 3.8 runs per game last season in narrowly falling short of the NCAA Tournament.
In 2014, Cousino doesn't expect UK to be the kind of offensive juggernaut the 2012 squad was in slugging 56 home runs. He does believe, however, that the Cats will be more than capable of putting enough runs on the board to win.
"Our lineup's not going to have as much bang as it did freshman year, but we're going to play to our strengths a lot better," Cousino said.
If Cousino is right, the Cats could be the kind of team they thought they would be a season ago.
UK has a three-man weekend rotation that could be among the nation's best. Shepherd, a junior, will move from the bullpen, where he excelled, into a Saturday role, while sophomore Kyle Cody will occupy a Sunday spot after pitching his way into the rotation late in his freshman season. On Fridays, Henderson will hand the ball to two-way star and preseason first-team All-American A.J. Reed.
"We are going to have three starting pitchers that are good, if not very good on any given date," Henderson said. "We'll be able to match up with starting pitching every weekend."
Reed enters the season as the staff ace for the second year in a row, but could be poised for an even better junior season.
"In the offseason and the fall we really worked on changing my body so I can last throughout the season longer," Reed said. "I dropped about 20 pounds, which was a big thing for us being able to work the whole field hitting wise and going the other way using the gaps. Also really enhancing my pitches by making them better, sharper and I got a better curveball."
But as much as Reed's transformation will help him at the plate and on the mound, it could be an even biggest boost in the way it sets the tone for his younger teammates.
"I think any time a college kid makes a commitment like that and changes how he goes about his business, I think it's a really positive thing," Henderson said. "I think everybody appreciates it. I think everybody respects it and appreciates it and I think we are going to benefit by the fact that A.J. has taken his physical condition to a new level."
Henderson has already seen that pay dividends.
"The maturity of our group is at a different level than it was at any time last spring, so that's really a positive," Henderson said. "The team culture is good to this point and obviously I'm well aware we haven't played a game yet, but I am proud of what the kids have done."
Now, UK has its first chance to show what that work means on the field.
On opening day a season ago, UK-Virginia would have been a matchup of highly ranked teams. This year, the Cats are the underdogs.
"There are less expectations for us out there," Cousino said. "I don't think there's any shortage of that in our locker room. I think we know what we're capable of, I think we know what kind of squad we have and I think it'll be a good game."
Regardless of how good of a game it is or even the outcome, UK's will still have work ahead this weekend. The Cats will face host UNC Wilmington on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET, VMI at 10 a.m. ET on Sunday and USC Upstate at 1 p.m. ET on Monday.
The way UK handles that will be the first measure of what Cousino expects to define this season.
"I think we just have to get back in the process, the approach of playing a game one pitch at a time, one weekend, one game," Cousino said. "I think year's club is a lot better at that."
Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points in UK's 64-56 win at Auburn on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Tonight, we break down Kentucky's second road win in five days, a 64-56 victory at Auburn. The skinny: At some point, you figured the shots would start falling for Kentucky. They never did, but UK survived anyway. The Wildcats pulled away late at Auburn, outscoring the home-standing Tigers 29-18 over the final 11:29 to turn a three-point deficit into a 64-56 win. UK (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) shot just 30.9 percent for the game, but scored 21 second-chance points off 22 offensive rebounds in winning its fourth game in a row. Andrew Harrison had a team-high 16 points and Julius Randle added a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The difference: Defense. As hard as it was for UK to score on Wednesday night, the Cats made it even harder on Auburn. The Tigers shot just 32.7 percent as a team, getting consistent scoring only from leading scorer Chris Denson (26 points on 8-of-18 shooting). Denson's backcourt mate, K.T. Harrell, struggled from start to finish with UK's length and scored only seven points -- more than 12 points below his season average -- on 2-of-15 shooting.
Player of the game: Harrison. UK's most consistent offensive threat, Harrison didn't shoot the ball particularly well (3-of-10). However, he pushed the ball in transition effectively and picked his spots on drives to go 8-fot-11 at the free-throw line. The freshman point guard also converted a big and-one with 6:23 remaining to double UK's lead from three points to six. Auburn would get no closer than five the rest of the way.
Turning point: With 11:25 left and UK trailing 38-35, Randle had just four points and five rebounds. At the under-12 media timeout, John Calipari called his star freshman's number. UK fed Randle in the post and he delivered a basket in a matter of seconds, getting himself and his team going. Starting with that basket, Randle had eight points and seven rebounds as UK finished off its fourth victory in a row.
Key stat: 3-point shooting. On the season, UK is shooting 52.6 percent from inside the arc. The Cats typically make their living inside, but they only 12-of-43 (27.9 percent) from 2-point range on this night. Thankfully, the shots were falling at a reasonable clip -- 5-of-12 or 41.7 percent -- from 3. UK, meanwhile, held Auburn to 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) shooting from 3.
Unsung hero: Johnson. The 7-foot freshman has settled nicely into a starting role. Johnson had eight points and eight rebounds in his 21 minutes, grabbing a team-high seven boards on the offensive glass in the process. He also added two steals and a block. What this one means: For the second game in a row, UK wasn't at its best on the road. In SEC play, that often means back-to-back losses. The Cats, however, were able to gut both games out. Coach Cal will have plenty to talk about in Thursday's film session, but it will be much more pleasant coming off another win. UK has now won seven times in eight games to set up a highly anticipated showdown with SEC-leading Florida on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
UK will host Ole Miss on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in its annual Play4Kay game. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell saw positives in Kentucky's 86-80 loss to Florida on Sunday.
The Wildcats turned in one of their best offensive efforts of Southeastern Conference play, shooting 56.3 percent in the second half in nearly coming from a double-digit deficit.
The silver lining, however, was merely a reminder of the issues that have plagued UK of late.
"We scored 80 points and that was good," Mitchell said. "It's just been difficult. Some games we've held teams in the 50s and then we don't score. And then the day we score 80, we give up 86 and so that was tough."
Game to game, Mitchell doesn't know what to expect from his team. He needs look no further in search of reasons for UK's five losses in nine games.
"Just the lack of consistency's what hurting us right now," Mitchell said. "If we ever get that going in practice, we're going to be in really good shape. When we were playing really well early in the season, we were very, very consistent with what we were doing."
That fact is what Mitchell is counting on as he looks ahead to the remainder of the season. The Cats know what they are capable of because they've already done it. They know they can compete with the best because they're already beaten the likes of Louisville and Baylor.
"We're not a team that's dreaming about having good players and being able to make things happen," Mitchell said. "We can do it, so for me right now you just can't give into frustration, you can't give into negative thoughts and you can't give into discouragement."
Kastine Evans - whom Mitchell counts on as a team leader along with Bria Goss - feels the same way. That's why she's altered her approach to dealing with her teammates, trying to uplift them with text messages rather than berate them for mistakes.
"I think I've been a lot more vocal and encouraging (not) so much as criticism or constructive criticism just because that's something that we've needed," Evans said. "It's hard when the coaches are on you and somebody who's at the equal level as you because I'm playing with my teammates to also try to more critical."
No. 18/18 UK (17-6, 5-5 SEC) will look to prove that approach is working when the Cats host Ole Miss (10-15, 1-10 SEC) in its annual Play4Kay game. Both teams will wear pink uniforms and UK is encouraging fans to wear pink of their own for the game, which will tip at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum.
"It's going to be a tough game," Mitchell said. "Ole Miss is certainly a team that has some explosive athletes, one of the best point guards that I've seen in the conference in (Valencia) McFarland and (Tia) Faleru is a very explosive post player that can drive the basketball and just plays with great, great energy and can make an impact on the boards."
The most familiar face on the Ole Miss sideline will be Matt Insell, who spent five seasons as an assistant under Mitchell at UK before being named the Rebel head coach this offseason.
"We speak pretty frequently," Mitchell said. "I mean, we spent a lot of time together in the trenches and have a real strong friendship and he's done a lot for this program and contributed a lot and I certainly was proud for him to be able to move and realize his dream of being a head coach, especially in the SEC."
As warm as the feelings may be between the two, they'll be put aside for two hours on Thursday night.
"We want to beat him really bad tomorrow night if we can, but when we are not in that arena I'm there to support him," Mitchell said. "And he's supported me a bunch over the years, I'm telling you. He's really been a great friend to me, so it's a relationship that I think's built on some friendship and some mutual respect for one another."
UK will travel to Auburn for a game against the Tigers at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This late in the season, there's a line of thinking that says teams are what they are. Some might say that with just a month before conference tournaments tip off, the only work that can be done is fine-tuning.
UK assistant coach Kenny Payne disagrees.
"I don't buy it," Payne said. "I think that every day we come in, our sole philosophy is to get better each day. And we're so young, and what we are can change tomorrow."
Payne can say that with confidence because he's seen it happen.
"One game we can be an excellent post team, one game we can be an excellent guard-oriented team," Payne said. "We have very good depth, but they have to play well together. For us, it's every day getting better."
A particular emphasis in that process of daily improvement since a win at Mississippi State on Saturday has been transition defense. The Bulldogs -- though the box score showed they only outscored UK 8-2 in fast-break points -- repeatedly made UK pay for not getting back in transition.
"Their game plan I think was just to outwork us and so that's what it was," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "The only way they could really score was if they were to do it in transition or straight-line drives. That's what we've really been working on."
The issue, at least for 40 minutes, seemed to be resolved in last Tuesday's victory over Ole Miss. Just days after Missouri torched the Cats in transition, UK held the visiting Rebels to just two fast-break points. But as you might expect of a team as young as Kentucky, learning a lesson takes more than one misstep.
"We've been working on it for quite a while, and I think the thing that we have to continue is continue to build on it, continue to remind them of how important it is, because every team seems to be using that as a disadvantage for us," Payne said. "That's a weakness of our team that we've got to correct."
If they don't, the Cats' next opponent figures to make them pay.
Set to host No. 14/13 Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Auburn (11-10, 3-7 SEC) has won three of four. The only loss came over the weekend at LSU at a score (87-80) nearly identical to the one from 87-82 loss UK suffered in Baton Rouge, La., two weeks ago.
"Their coach is probably one of the best coaches in the country at scheming it and stopping people's offense," Cauley-Stein said of John Calipari protege Tony Barbee. "So that's what we're really worried about because we're going down to Auburn, it's going to be a tough place to play at and with our up and down on our transition and stuff they got a couple guards that can really hurt us."
Those guards -- Chris Denson and K.T. Harrell -- have done plenty of that lately. The two are averaging 26 and 20.8 points over their last four games and 20.2 and 19.4 points on the season, respectively.
"If we walk in there and think that we're just going to beat them, it's not happening," Payne said. "We will have to play well to beat that team, and especially at their home."
UK has certainly played well in stretches this season -- Payne named UK's offensive effort against Missouri as an example -- but hasn't put it all together on one night. Coach Cal said it's no given the Cats reach that point this season, but Payne has a good idea what it will look like if they do.
"I would like to say that we're really close, but until we do it once, it's hard to say," Payne said. "If this team ever gets five or six of these guys playing great the same night, who knows how good we can be? And if we do it consistently, it's scary."
When it launches on Aug. 21 of this year, the SEC Network is going to forever change how fans of the Southeastern Conference follow their teams, in addition to helping secure and strengthen the future of the nation's best conference.
The 24/7 network will provide unprecedented coverage of all league sports, from studio programming to at least 450 live events every year. That will include more than 100 men's basketball games, many of which will feature Kentucky.
Although a schedule for next season won't be released until later, a look at this year's UK men's basketball slate gives an idea of how the SEC Network will affect fans' ability to watch games it the future.
In past years, UK games not picked up by national television have been aired on outlets like the UK IMG Network, Comcast Sports South, Fox Sports South and SEC TV. The new SEC Network is expected to replace all of these options, as you can see in the 2013-14 schedule below.
As many as 10 regular-season games, Big Blue Madness and both exhibitions this season would have been broadcast on the SEC Network had it launched in August 2013 rather than August 2014.
High-definition broadcasts with announcers intimately familiar with the SEC will enhance the watching experience for all of these games, provided fans have access to the SEC Network through their cable/satellite provider.
As of today, AT&T U-verse is the only national provider that has signed a deal to make the SEC Network available to its subscribers. If the SEC Network launched today, fans using major providers like DirecTV, Dish Network, Time Warner and Comcast would not be able to access it.
If you love Kentucky basketball and you want to make sure you'll be able to watch every game, visit GetSECNetwork.com to tell your provider you want the SEC Network.
Note: The information below is based on how the SEC Network is expected to affect the way games will be broadcast after launch and is NOT official.
It's impossible to pinpoint the exact genesis of UK Hoops' January slump, but the problems that led to the were on display for the first against Florida.
After the 83-73 defeat, Matthew Mitchell bemoaned the fact that the Gators simply played with more passion than his Wildcats.
"I am just so disappointed that happened and that we were outplayed from an energy standpoint and from a focus standpoint," Mitchell said on Jan. 5. "It looked like it meant a lot more to them than it did to us."
It was a tune Mitchell found himself singing far too often as UK lost four times in seven games.
"We just looked like a team that I thought was entitled to win, felt like they were entitled to win the game," Mitchell said, reflecting on the game more than a month later.
Mitchell went on to say the Cats played like a team that expected to win by virtue of the incredible success they have had on their home floor of Memorial Coliseum. The belief was reinforced as UK took a nine-point lead at the 12-minute mark of the second half after trailing by double digits.
"We were able to get it flipped and go up and I thought that hurt us probably even more," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, this is what we thought. We're going to win the game.' We lost a lot of composure when it got close down at the end, so that would be the best way to describe it. I just thought we sort of felt like we were going to win the game no matter what."
Now facing a rematch with Florida (16-7, 6-4 Southeastern Conference), it's hard to imagine No. 15/13 UK (17-5, 5-3 SEC) will feel the same way.
"They really took it to us here in Lexington and beat us pretty badly on our home court, so we definitely have to focus in on a very good opponent and try to get prepared this afternoon and tomorrow for what we know will be a tough game," Mitchell said. "It's always a tough game with Florida."
Though they certainly won't assume victory, the Cats have reason to be confident this time around. They are coming off an impressive home victory over top-15 LSU and have tried to build on that during a bye week before a trip to Gainesville, Fla. The focus has been entirely on building team closeness.
"Our whole key is we have to have a team mentality," Mitchell said. "We can't have a collection of individuals playing individually well. We really have to come together as a team. Our whole deal is playing for each other and great energy on the court, great energy on the bench."
Mitchell says UK is "making progress," but he isn't about to pronounce his team as being over the proverbial hump.
"We didn't start playing that way overnight and I think it's been some great stuff that we've been able to do as a team to try to see if we can get the situation to where we can become our best," Mitchell said.
Just as UK's struggles didn't start all at once against Florida, the Cats can't prove they are over against the Gators. That will take time.
"I think you're going to have to let it play out here over the last seven games of the conference season," Mitchell said. "The team needs to play well and win some games and get into the NCAA Tournament and take advantage of the SEC Tournament and see what happens."
Jon Hood played a season-high 13 minutes in UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Today, we break down UK's 69-59 win at Mississippi State.
The skinny: By no means was it pretty, but Kentucky got a precious road win on Saturday, taking down Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss., 69-59. No. 18/14 UK (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) won for the sixth time in seven games behind a solid defensive effort. MSU (13-10, 3-7 SEC) shot just 38.3 percent from the field and scored 0.881 points per possession. UK, meanwhile, never could quite pull away, but led by no fewer than six points after closing the first half on a 19-6 run. Julius Randle scored 16 points to lead all scorers, while James Young added 11 points in 20 foul-limited minutes. The difference: Second-chance points. UK's 38-33 rebounding edge wasn't its widest of the season, but it was enough to give the Wildcats the separation they needed. UK grabbed 13 offensive rebounds to Mississippi State's eight and outscored the home-standing Bulldogs 14-4 in second-chance points.
Player of the game: Randle. Coping the double and triple teams to which he's grown so accustomed, Randle was efficient from the field (8-of-13) in scoring a game-high 16 points. He also added seven rebounds, a steal and a block and made a number of nice passes out of the post even though he finished with just one assist.
Turning point: That run to close the first half. His team trailing 17-13 with 9:38 left in the first half and Andrew Harrison, Young and Willie Cauley-Stein saddled with two fouls apiece, John Calipari went to his bench. In search of energy, he inserted Jon Hood and the senior delivered exactly what UK needed. Hood had played only five minutes since the start of SEC play, but he -- along with Jarrod Polson -- was on the floor for every second of the run that turned a four-point deficit into a nine-point halftime lead. For the game, Hood had only three points and two rebounds in 13 minutes, but he sported a team-high plus-minus of plus-15.
Key stat: Nine turnovers. At no point was UK in sync offensively, but the Cats positioned themselves to win by committing just nine turnovers to the Bulldogs' 13. With offensive rebounders like Randle, Dakari Johnson and Cauley-Stein, a missed shot can often be UK's best plan of attack. Limiting turnovers allowed UK to maximize those chances. Unsung heroes: Johnson. Making his third consecutive start, Johnson continued his recent emergence in posting nine points, eight rebounds and a block. He was a perfect 3-for-3 from both the field and the line in his 21 minutes, showing toughness and touch around the basket. What this one means: A win is a win. Even though the performance revealed the Cats still have a great deal to work on, UK avoided short-circuiting the momentum it built against Missouri and Texas A&M by surviving a trip to a hostile road venue. The Cats stayed within two games of first-place Florida with games against Auburn and the Gators looming next week, moving to 4-5 away from Rupp Arena in the process.
Video: Postgame interviews with Calipari, Johnson, Hood