Alex Poythress called a team meeting following Kentucky's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Their flight home postponed by a day due to weather and stuck in Baton Rouge, La., the Kentucky Wildcats could do nothing but retire to their hotel rooms.
But instead of sulking alone after a disappointing loss to LSU, the Cats decided to put the time to good use.
"We had a team meeting actually, a players-only meeting after the game, which we shared a lot together," Dakari Johnson said.
It was Alex Poythress who called the meeting. The soft-spoken sophomore wasn't happy with how Kentucky played and summoned his teammates via text message to talk about it.
"Everybody shared their own opinion," Johnson said. "Lot of players apologized for not giving their hardest. I think it was a real important team meeting."
It wasn't one of those fire-and-brimstone meetings where one player aired all grievances. Instead, the Cats shared the floor.
"We just went one by one," Johnson said. "A lot of people apologized and just said this wouldn't happen again."
The Cats believe the meeting was a step in the right direction. Though players took responsibility for the lack of intensity and preparedness that cost them at LSU, the tone was positive because they don't believe UK all that far off track.
"You know, all the problems are fixable," Poythress said. "It's just little mental lapses. We correct those we should be in pretty good shape."
Naturally, the team meeting became the topic du jour at the media availability No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) held before its trip to face Missouri (16-4, 4-3 SEC) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. John Calipari, however, wasn't having any of it. In fact, he didn't even know the meeting happened until he was asked about it on Friday.
"Don't want to know," Calipari said. "Don't want to know, don't care. Let's play. This is all about what we do on the court preparing to go to war, understanding the other team is excited to play you. That's all that this comes down to."
It's hard to blame Coach Cal for taking a wait-and-see approach. After all, there was talk of UK having turned a corner before the setback in Baton Rouge.
"(I've) never had a team this young," Calipari said. "This is the youngest team I've ever had. I wish they would have changed right away, but it's more of how they think then just trying to change sole basketball habits."
What he means is that the Cats still tie their emotional state to their own play, not the team's. If a guard misses a shot but a big man grabs the rebound and dunks it home, the guard hangs his head. If a big man isn't getting touches but his teammates are filling it up from the perimeter, the big man still wants the ball.
That switch in mindset has been an emphasis all season, but it remains an issue.
"It's not that it's not being addressed; it's just a hard thing to crack," Calipari said. "You have to be more into your team than how you're playing. You have to bring us great energy and passion, and you have to play for your team more than yourself. That's a hard one when you've got a bunch of 18-, 19-year-olds."
For UK to win on Saturday, those 18- and 19-year olds won't have much choice but put team above self.
The Cats are facing one of the toughest road challenges in the SEC. The Tigers have lost just once all season at Mizzou Arena and that loss to Georgia on Jan. 8 ended the nation's longest home winning streak. In the last three seasons, Missouri owns a 40-2 record in Columbia, Mo.
"We just have to know that they're a tough team and everybody's going to give us their best game," Johnson said. "We just have to be prepared for that."
Of course, a lot of that home success has to do with the fact that the Tigers are simply a good team.
"Guard play is really good," Calipari said. "Their inside people are very role-oriented. They do what they're supposed to do. The big kid sets great screens, gets around the goal and makes baskets. But their guard play, the combined three of their guards are as good as we'll play in or outside of our league."
Those three guards -- Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross -- are the Tigers' three leading scorers. Together, they are averaging 52.8 points per game and accounting for more than 70 percent of Missouri's scoring production.
"I think they have some really nice guards," Poythress said. "I think we just have to come in, play some defense and be able to guard them."
But as always, it's not the matchups that Coach Cal is most concerned about. It's the way his team is playing.
"Lose yourself into the team," Calipari said. "When we do that, you'll start seeing change."
More than two months ago, Mitch Barnhart stepped to the podium at the unveiling of plans for a $110-million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.
He talked about the project would "change the personality" of UK football's long-time home, how the more intimate surroundings would positively affect fans and players alike. Barnhart was mindful that the day was a celebration of the hard work of many, but insistent at the same time how much work was ahead.
In no uncertain terms, he spelled out his goal to compete at the highest level in the Southeastern Conference under Mark Stoops.
"The transformation of Commonwealth Stadium is the first step in that process," Barnhart said of the stadium plans in November, "but it's not our last."
On Friday, the UK athletics director unveiled the next one.
Plans for a privately funded $45-million practice facility were approved by the Board of Trustees, setting into motion a process that will move UK's entire football operation.
"One-stop shop for all of our kids," Barnhart said. "So now they'll be able to academically do their work. They'll be able to train. They'll be able to get most of their food over there."
The two-story structure will be located at the east end of the Nutter Field House, with two practice fields and an adjoining drill area also a part of the project. When finished in 2016, administrative offices, locker spaces, team meeting areas, training areas, high performance and weight room spaces, equipment rooms, a hydrotherapy room, player locker rooms, lounge facilities, an academic lounge/study area, and an entrance lobby with enhanced visitor amenities will be housed there.
"All that gives us a better ability to take care and make sure we've got a really good understanding of what our kids are doing in all facets of their lives," Barnhart said.
The practice facility upgrades were in initial plans for Commonwealth renovations, but it was ultimately decided the projects would have to be separated. Now that the stadium renovation is in the beginning stages of construction, that fact is even cleared.
"There's no possible way you could've done both projects with one scope of money," Barnhart said. "You couldn't have done it."
Per university rules, no project of this size can brought to the board without at least half of the funding necessary to complete it secured. Barnhart didn't go into detail, but he did say UK is past that 50-percent threshold and "well on our way to getting the rest of it done."
There are still decisions to be made as the project moves forward, including exactly how the existing Nutter Field House will be affected and whether to change the playing surface in Commonwealth to turf.
"Our goal is to immediately get to design," Barnhart said. "We've got some pretty good thoughts about what we want to do. It's not without thought -- we've been doing this, thinking about what it would look like -- and we've seen other buildings, other places."
As football gets an upgrade, so too will other UK programs that will take advantage of open space in the Nutter Training Center.
"It's really important to keep that for our other sports," Barnhart said. "And then track and field and gymnastics will probably move into that facility in addition to some other things probably because that is closer to where they live."
Next on Barnhart's radar are facilities for the baseball and men's and women's tennis programs.
"The two things we have left to address -- really important -- is obviously our baseball stadium and our indoor tennis," Barnhart said. "Those are two that are hanging out that we have got to get fixed in order to have them be respectable in this league."
But at least for a little while, Barnhart wants to enjoy the accomplishment that is getting approval for the football practice facility. The news comes on the heels of the beginning of the Commonwealth project and just days before the best recruiting class in school history becomes official on Signing Day next week.
Combine all those things with the fact that alumni Jacob Tamme, Danny Trevathan and Wesley Woodyard are all set to play for the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl on Sunday and it's a special week for UK football.
"I hope they have a championship ring," Barnhart said. "That's what they've worked their whole lives to get to is those kind of moments, and they're all deserving guys. They've been unbelievable representatives of this program. And so to have that, and with what's going on with Mark and his staff, and to have the facility up and running, it's a very exciting time for our program."
The Kentucky swimming and diving teams' regular-season finale on Saturday will take on added significance, and not just because it's the final competition before next week's Southeastern Conference Championships.
The meet at Lancaster Aquatic Center vs. Cincinnati will mark "Senior Day," giving head coach Lars Jorgensen a chance to honor the first class of Wildcats he will see graduate since taking over the reins of the program last summer.
And for Jorgensen the fact that the 2014 seniors have made it through four years of what he calls "the grind" together is something to be especially proud of.
While graduating college is an achievement any student should be proud of, doing so while balancing the responsibilities of being a Division I athlete takes on added weight. Add to that the taxing weight of swimming and diving practices -- including the year-round two-a-day practices often during early, cold and dark hours that go along with that training -- and making it through four-to-five years of eligibility becomes an even more impressive achievement.
"I think their experience at UK really is going to allow them to be successful in life, and I feel really confident about that," Jorgensen said. "I'm not going to argue necessarily that swimmers are the best athletes on this campus, that's not my point. But I think in terms of mental toughness, we are the best. For us there's really no offseason, it's like 50 weeks a year, twice-a-day for 50 weeks. For them to make it, makes them survivors, because a lot of their piers didn't make it."
Perhaps most noteworthy in looking back at the current senior class's ability to endure the hardships of competing at the collegiate level for four years was the fact that this group of Wildcats accomplished the feat together.
"They made it through together, and I think is a badge of honor with that. Many want to come out and try it out, but very few make it through. All sports are difficult in their own way, but with swimming and diving, the amount of hours and the grind is pretty difficult compared to most other sports. The seniors have endured, and overcome challenges, which most importantly will help them be successful in life."
Given how momentous the seniors' accomplishment of eventually earning a degree while competing at such a high level is, the program is implementing new ways of honoring its seniors.
"It's going to be a really emotional day," graduating junior Lindsay Hill said. "Three and a half years of hard work being with this team is summing up to an end. I'm kind of nervous to be honest ... it's going to be a really good meet, and I know everyone is going to be swimming for the seniors, and wanting to put on a good show."
Indeed, for the new UK coach there's a certain nostalgia that will last with him about his first graduating class of Wildcats.
"Their parents are going to be here, which is pretty cool, and they will get mint julep cups," Jorgensen said. "The ceremonial aspect of it is something new for us. This is the first year we've really wanted to involve the parents. We haven't done that before.
"Almost all the parents are going to be here. It's pretty cool because it's really difficult as an athlete at this level to do it for four years. A lot of the walk-ons aren't getting anything, perks per say, other than being on the team. That to me is pretty cool. A lot of walk-ons have been here for four years through a lot of ups and downs."
And the highs and lows that go along with competing at such a high level have contributed to the group feel of the Wildcats being honored.
For senior, three-year captain Maclin Simpson, just about everything that goes along with representing UK in the pool will be missed.
"It's really difficult to pinpoint one memory or experience that stands out," Simpson said. "It's more just the day-to-day, coming in and being with your teammates and your best friends. Being in the locker room before and after workouts and being on the bus. It's really the little moments that sort of add up to being part of a team incredible."
Jorgensen is also cognizant of the everyday occurrences that add up to a memorable college swimming and diving experience.
"There's something to be said for long bus trips to and from meets, whether the outcome was good or bad," the UK coach said. "Yes, it's often uncomfortable, but there are a certain bonding opportunities that stem from being together so many times. That's one thing this group will always have."
Leadership is certainly a quality required to help endure those challenges as well as build the camaraderie that now seems so invaluable. Said trait is in heavy supply amongst the class the Wildcats will honor on Saturday, especially amongst the captains.
Greg Ferrucci certainly jumps to the top of the list, but many more have made lasting impacts on the program..
"He is our All-American, the best athlete on our team," Jorgensen said of Ferrucci. "He's phenomenal, has done a lot of good things. He's a world-class diver, but he's also developed a great sense of competitiveness. He likes the pressure moments.
"With our senior captains, a cool thing Maclin Simpson did was go to Ethiopia this summer with the athletic department as a way to expand his horizons. I think it was a life-changing experience for him. He's been a three-year captain and a Kentucky boy which is really cool. Lindsay Hill is a perfect 4.0 student; she's never not had an A. She's a great leader, a team-oriented person who has made a big difference developing our team here in our first year. John Fox and Lucas Gerotto are also great leaders who care a lot about UK, which is really cool."
Jorgensen is certainly appreciative of the leadership qualities his seniors have displayed in this his first season as UK head coach.
In fact, while they may not be around to directly impact the program's upward growth in future years, he's adamant that the 2014 senior class's impact will be felt down the road, nonetheless.
"It's always difficult when you have change, but they've been awesome," Jorgensen said. "I'm really thankful that I was here last year as associate head coach because it allowed me to get to know some of them so it's not my first year with them. It's a little bit different role now, but they've embraced it.
"They've been great in terms of recruiting, which is great because sometimes seniors become disinterested. All of the seniors have been engaged and very involved, so I've been real pleased with them as a group, their evolution. I think we've made a lot of progress this year with little details of recruiting that you're not going to see the impact until three or four years from now. I think we laid a lot of the groundwork. We may be a little bit better this year than last year, but not significantly. But I think it's going in the right direction where some of the changes we made this year are going to lead to a better future. All of our seniors have had an impact on that."
Dakari Johnson had a career-high 15 points and six rebounds in UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU students had good reason to stay home.
With a rare winter storm coating Baton Rouge, La., in ice, they could have hunkered down and skipped the UK-LSU game on Tuesday night. Instead, they filled the student section and were loud from buzzer to buzzer.
The Tiger team they were there to cheer matched that passion with their play. Kentucky did not.
"We're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine,' " John Calipari said. "And when you watch it you say we're not fine."
No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) fell to LSU (13-6, 4-3 SEC), 87-82. The Wildcats made the score relatively close with a last-minute 3-point barrage, but the final five-point margin was the smallest of a second half during which UK never seriously threatened.
"When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like," Calipari said at a press conference cut short so his team could find a way back to its hotel with roads closing throughout the city. "And we made it -- it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16 (in the first half), it could have been 30."
UK battled back from that big first-half deficit, closing to within two points with 5:25 left before the break after LSU led 22-6 at the 13:26 mark. The Tigers -- who shot 50.8 percent from the field and drained seven 3s -- had an answer.
"They were just playing harder than us," Dakari Johnson said. "They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today."
Johnson was one of only a couple Cats who didn't deserve to be included in that group.
The freshman center checked in for Willie Cauley-Stein barely two minutes with UK trailing 7-2. His mentality was simple.
"We got down early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game," Johnson said.
Along with James Young -- who scored 12 of his 23 points in the first half -- Johnson helped keep Kentucky within striking distance. Before he fouled out in the final minute, Johnson scored a career-high 15 points and added six rebounds.
"If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today," Calipari said.
Johnson also had the unenviable task of banging with Johnny O'Bryant. He was more effective than any of his teammates, but LSU's star junior still finished with 29 points and nine rebounds.
"I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant," Johnson said. "But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me."
By the time Johnson got his shot at O'Bryant, it may have been too late.
"Johnny O'Bryant killed us," Calipari said. "We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game."
O'Bryant was not the only reason Kentucky lost for just the second time in more than a month.
UK struggled most of the way against LSU's 2-3 zone, managing just 43.8-percent shooting and committing 13 turnovers that led to 16 Tiger points. Julius Randle found little room to operate, scoring six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
"They played the zone; we were tentative," Calipari said.
LSU's zone came as somewhat of a surprise to Calipari since the Tigers have relied primarily on man-to-man defense this season. Neither team's game plan, however, was the deciding factor.
"Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game," Calipari said. "They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game."
Troubling as that may be, it's not reason to push the panic button on the 2013-14 season.
The loss to LSU may have been a setback, but UK has made undeniable strides nearly three months into the season. After the Cats spend an extra night in frozen Baton Rouge and head back to Lexington on Wednesday, it will be back to work.
"So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it," Calipari said. "It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us."
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a Tuesday trip to LSU. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way John Calipari described it after Saturday's win over Georgia, to become a team you have to break down a team.
is about players first," Coach Cal said after one of his team's better
performances of the season, a 79-54 rout of Georgia. "You've got to get
them right. You've got to get them in the frame of mind, and then you
get your team right."
For maybe the first time all year, after a
half-season of breaking individual players down and redefining their
games, Calipari has hinted in recent days about having a team, not a
collective group of individuals.
"It took us time to get them to
think different, think totally different than you've ever thought about
this game, and then it's taken time to define how they should play,"
Calipari said on Monday. "You got to kind of define it, and we were all
discombobulated for the first month trying to figure that out."
play would suggest the Kentucky Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern
Conference), who moved up three spots to No. 11 in both major polls this
week, are starting to jell. For one thing, UK has quietly won seven of
its last eight games, but maybe more defining are the not-so-obvious
Talk to the Wildcats long enough and you will hear them
talk about having fun playing with each other. More and more often Coach
Cal is raving about the Cats' approach at practice, even on the
tough-to-recharge day after games. Watch the head ball coach during a
game and you won't see as much individual teaching.
Maybe, just maybe, they're starting to get it.
getting to where, like, every day you can try to get better because
we're not fighting it," Calipari said. "DeWayne (Peevy, UK deputy
director of athletics) says he doesn't hear me yelling every 12 seconds,
'Plaaay! Plaaay!' I don't yell that anymore because they're now, you
know, (getting it)."
Coach Cal said his players are getting better because they are learning to love the grind.
you do is going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing is we
learn to enjoy and love the grind and love the process," Julius Randle
said. "It just makes things a lot easier. We've fallen in love with the
whole process of getting better and changing habits, and because of
that, it's been smooth for us."
After Saturday's win over
Georgia, James Young said individual players only cared about how they
were playing two months ago, not how the team was faring. The more
they've worked together and the closer they've become, that notion has
been flipped on its head.
Now, as Calipari said at Monday's pre-LSU media opportunity, each player is rooting for each other.
so happy that Alex (Poythress) is playing the way he is," Coach Cal
said. "They're happy for what Willie (Cauley-Stein) has done. They're
happy for Dakari (Johnson). I mean, they're happy for each other."
that's why Cauley-Stein talked so glowingly of Johnson's play during
this three-game slump. Maybe that's why the ball movement was as good as
it has been all year on Saturday when the Cats passed up good shots for
Calipari talks about the youth of this team ad
nauseam, but there is a point to all the talk about inexperience. After
all, the Cats really are the youngest team in the country, ranked dead
last in Ken Pomeroy's experience rankings. Julius Randle was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday. (photo by Chris Reynolds)
takes time," Calipari said. "We got the youngest team in the country,
and there's all kind of things that we do that other teams don't have to
do. They got established teams. They're just hoping they don't get
injured. They know who they are, they know how they play. That's not
Now that Kentucky has figured that part out, the next test
is winning on the road where there Cats haven't fared well this season.
UK is just 1-2 in true road games this year heading into a stretch where
the Cats will play four of their next five away from the friendly
confines of Rupp Arena.
Though UK's stock appears to be up, some are waiting to buy until they see how this team fares in a hostile environment.
a big-time test for us. ... Wherever we go we have something to prove,"
Randle said. "We know it's everybody's biggest game."
Caliapri said the key to winning on the road the next couple of weeks will be mental discipline.
don't have anything behind you," Coach Cal said. "You're not going to
get a break. There's nothing that's going to go your way, so you can't
have the seven errors that we had at Arkansas. You can't (do that) and
win. 'Well, it went to overtime.' Yeah, and we lost because of those
seven breakdowns. And they were mental breaks. 'You just stopped. Why
did you do that.' 'I don't know.' And so, those are what we're trying to
The physical challenge for Kentucky on Tuesday when
it meets LSU at 9 p.m. ET in Baton Rouge, La., will likely come down to
how the Cats' front court handles LSU's big men.
Johnny O'Bryant, a bruising 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward who is
developing an outside game, is still the focal point of the LSU offense,
but he's got some help down low now in highly touted freshmen Jarrell
Martin and Jordan Mickey. Martin was ranked the 13th-best freshman in
the country by Rivals and Mickey wasn't far behind him in the Rivals
rankings at No. 41
Calling the Tigers' front court one of the
best in the league, Calipari compared to LSU's post players to
Tennessee's, only longer with a better touch from the outside. Remember,
Tennessee was one of the few teams this year that has physically
overpowered the Cats.
"They're bigger and longer," Coach Cal
said. "The advantage we had (over Tennessee) was, we were long. The
advantage (Tennessee) had was strength. These guys are strong and
they're big. They're not 6-7, 6-8. They're big."
Cauley-Stein admitted he hasn't exactly done well against more physical teams.
"They probably outweigh me by like 40 pounds," he said. "I don't know anybody who wants to do that."
just so happens to be in tied for the SEC blocked shots lead with
Mickey. In addition to using his speed and quickness to counter LSU's
bulk, Cauley-Stein said pride will be on the line going up against a
"Hearing about him is going to make
you step up," Cauley-Stein said. "Anybody in that position would step up
and try to prove themselves."
UK-LSU still a go -- for now
Despite canceling classes on Tuesday and even a suggestion by LSU head coach Johnny Jones on the SEC teleconference that the game could be canceled because of wintry weather on the way, UK-LSU is still on for Tuesday night.
LSU sent out a release Monday afternoon that said the school was "moving forward for the game to be played as scheduled" but noted that LSU Athletics personnel, school officials and the SEC will continue to monitor the situation throughout the night.
The forecast for Baton Rouge on Tuesday calls for a wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice with temperatures nearing record lows.
UK's flight left Lexington on time and arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday without any problems.
"We're good," Calipari said. "We'll practice and we'll get down there. Our fans are going to be there. They were in Dallas (during that ice storm), believe me, so they will be there."
The issue, as Coach Cal told the media, will be getting back to Lexington. UK usually flies home after road games, but there is a contingency plan in place to stay overnight in case the weather is too bad Tuesday night.
It took some help from a former player for Matthew Mitchell to realize he needed to make a change.
Crystal Riley is in her second season on Mitchell's staff after playing three years at Kentucky. All that time spent with the UK head coach led her to make an observation this week.
"She just helped me out tremendously," Mitchell said. "She said, 'Coach I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked."
The advice came as Mitchell was searching for answers following a loss on Thursday to Alabama in which UK lacked fire and energy. He applied it immediately.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Mitchell said. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."
The practices that followed have been predictably intense. Every drill has a winner and the loser has to run, all in an effort to inject competitiveness back into the Wildcats.
"I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive," Janee Thompson said. "But his mentality now is better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today."
On Sunday, No. 9/8 UK (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) responded, taking down Arkansas (15-5, 2-5 SEC) in Memorial Coliseum, 68-58.
"Well, we are happy to win a really hard fought game and I thought Arkansas really played hard and competed and we were finally able to find a group that would get in and compete in the second half," Mitchell said.
For the first few minutes after halftime, it appeared that wouldn't happen.
UK trailed 32-31 at the break and Arkansas went on a 12-3 run over the first 2:40 of the second half behind 5-of-5 shooting. Mitchell quickly called a timeout, forgoing the Mr. Nice Guy routine and spelling out exactly what needed to happen.
There would be none of the wallowing in self-pity, none of the self-doubt that led to losses in three of UK's last five games. In that moment, the Cats simply had to step up and they did. A 22-6 run gave the Cats a six-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell said. "So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that."
Mitchell didn't mince words in talking about the importance of that stretch, calling it a "very critical juncture for this team." The Cats didn't realize at that exact moment that it may have been a crossroads for their season, but they did after the fact.
"It was extremely important because that's something we've been struggling with for the past games now," Jennifer O'Neill said. "But I think the biggest thing was, when we were down 10, we played with poise. We weren't panicking; we didn't look to rush things. We played with poise and a sense of urgency."
O'Neill scored only two points during the game-changing run, but Mitchell said she was "the best player on the floor" Sunday. She scored a team-high 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers and adding six rebounds and five assists, also team highs. The performance came just three days after O'Neill scored just four points and took just two shots in the Alabama loss.
"That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense," Mitchell said. "She just has to have her mind right."
Helping on that front was a pregame meeting between Mitchell and the junior point guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup for just the second time this season.
"I had just spoke with Matthew before the game and I was just telling him, 'Basically, I need you to tell me what you need me to do before games,' " O'Neill said. "And that's something he did before and he stopped doing and it was helping me so I went back and told him."
That was just another example of Mitchell going back to coaching tactics that have worked well for him in the past, the most prominent of course being his demeanor and intense practice plan.
"It kind of reminds me back to my freshman year," Bria Goss said. "What we've done the past couple days has been what we did my freshman year and we were very successful, winning the SEC regular-season championship. So it's good to see him have that fire back, I guess."
"Like Matthew said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to being more intense," O'Neill said. "That's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys are going to see that from games here on out."
That's the hope, but Mitchell isn't about to let his guard down.
"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine. We have always been really good with a situation like that."
UK is looking to rebound from a 57-55 loss to Alabama on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell never misses a chance to express his gratitude for the position he is in as Kentucky's head coach, but he found a new reason to be thankful on Thursday night.
UK had just suffered a disappointing 57-55 upset at the hands of Alabama. Following a nearly two-hour meeting with his coaching staff, Mitchell went home to get a few hours of sleep and forget about what had just happened.
It was in that moment he realized how fortunate he is to have won 125 games since 2009-10.
"For me, I am glad that we have won a lot around here because I don't sleep at all on a performance like last night's," Mitchell said.
It wasn't Daisha Simmons' layup with 2.3 seconds that had him tossing and turning, rather a troubling absence of the fire that has come to define UK Hoops during his tenure.
"I was surprised with just the complete lack of effort and competitiveness last night and it was just all across the board," Mitchell said. "It just can't happen. Clearly there's an atmosphere that exists now that people think that's acceptable and that's 100 percent on me."
With that in mind, Matthew Mitchell returned to the Joe Craft Center early on Friday morning and got back to work. He drew up plans for Friday's practice, but his priorities have little to do with Xs and Os.
"Everything will be competitive-based in practice and we'll figure out who we can take the floor with on Sunday afternoon," Calipari said. "Between now and Sunday afternoon it is all about who is going to compete and who is going to work hard and who is going to play really, really hard for Kentucky. Hopefully, it's everybody."
Against Alabama, Samarie Walker and Bria Goss were the only two Wildcats who consistently turned in the kind of work Mitchell is demanding. Walker had 18 points and seven rebounds in 21 foul-limited minutes and Goss 14 points and six rebounds.
Now, Mitchell will be looking for more Cats to join them.
"If we can find a few players that will really, really compete hard I think a lot of things will flow from that," Mitchell said. "Until we get that straightened out, you can have all the talent in the world, if you don't play hard and don't compete and it doesn't mean something to you to win then I don't know who you are going to beat."
UK's next opponent certainly won't make life easy.
Arkansas (15-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) will enter Memorial Coliseum for a matchup with UK (15-4, 3-3 SEC) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET having lost three of four, but don't let that fool you.
"Well, they have really, really great ball-screen offense and they put a lot of pressure and stress on your defense," Mitchell said. "They have some tough, aggressive players. They have a point guard in (Calli) Berna, who I think is one of the better ones in our league."
Berna is averaging a league-high 7.7 assists per game, most often finding freshman leading scorer Jessica Jackson (16.4 points per game), but game-planning for the Razorbacks isn't Mitchell's primary concern.
"Quite frankly, we can't worry about Arkansas this afternoon," Mitchell said on Friday. "We have to 100 percent try to see who is going to have a chance to play against Arkansas and that will be all about competing in practice this afternoon."
Willie Cauley-Stein had eight points, six blocks and six steals in UK's win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A few times a season, John Calipari comes up with a catchphrase you know you'll hear again soon.
This week, it rhymed.
Explaining why Willie Cauley-Stein had practiced well after struggling of late, Coach Cal said it had a lot to do with his willingness to accept coaching. Calipari noted a different look about Cauley-Stein, one that told him the sophomore had heeded his advice that "the smirkin' ain't workin' " and was fully tuned in to what his coach was saying.
Speaking on Saturday, Cauley-Stein was asked what Coach Cal's newest creation means.
"I don't know," Cauley-Stein said, drawing laughs. "I just look at Cal like I know what he's talking about."
Joking aside, Cauley-Stein returned to form as No. 14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) took down Georgia (10-8, 4-2 SEC), 79-54. After averaging one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks over his previous three games, Cauley-Stein was his usual disruptive self.
"I think my teammates knew I was going to come out of it, it was just a matter of time of when," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein had eight points -- six coming after halftime -- six blocks and six steals. His blocks and steals led directly to 10 UK possessions and nine points.
"Well, I told you, he was unbelievable in practice, and he was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed," Calipari said. "Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but he's just now coming back from that other stuff, so you still had the dregs in there. He had a little bit of it in there. But I thought he played well, blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws. That's who he is for us."
He was confident throughout the week a game like this one was forthcoming, but Cauley-Stein wasn't sure he was "back" until he woke up on Saturday morning. It was based entirely on the way on the way he had performed throughout the week.
"I've had a really good couple days of practice and I felt like my normal self," Cauley-Stein said. "Other times in practice I was just kind of out there going through the motions. And this time I was actually juiced and ready to get back to producing."
Since UK had played well even as he had struggled, Cauley-Stein didn't think of himself as being in a slump until he heard others talk about it. He caught wind of media wondering about what was going on and heard from fans as well.
The tone of those interactions: very positive.
"I was touched by it because last year, that was happening, you're getting murdered for one because you're losing," Cauley-Stein said. "So this year I was kind of like, I'll just stay off Twitter but then I was on there and it was real positive. It was good that our fans are here to pick us up."
After showing up on social media for Cauley-Stein, fans did the same in person on Saturday. In spite of a winter storm and freezing temperatures in Lexington, 23,367 packed Rupp Arena. They were treated to a performance that may have been UK's most complete of the season.
Aaron Harrison led four Wildcats in double figures with 15 points as UK shot 50 percent from the field on the strength of crisp ball movement.
"Coach just said no ball-stoppers," said Harrison, who had three of Kentucky's 16 assists. "We just all know that we all can play, definitely, and just want to share the ball with each other."
UK had a similar all-for-one attitude on defense, holding Georgia to 16-of-49 (32.7 percent) shooting and forcing 20 Bulldog turnovers. It's no coincidence it happened as Cauley-Stein shook off whatever had ailed him over the past two weeks.
"I just got back to the roots of the game and just flying around, contesting shots and running the floor," Cauley-Stein said.
Even when Cauley-Stein wasn't racking up steals and blocks, he was affecting the game.
Georgia played a bigger lineup with second-leading scorer Kenny Gaines and backup Juwan Parker out due to injury, but the Bulldogs were clearly bothered by Cauley-Stein's length and activity and the Cats buoyed by it.
"We get a lot more pressure because he always gets defensive stops," said James Young, who had 13 points. "I feel like that's when we all step up too."
UK won twice during Cauley-Stein's three-game slump and lost only on a last-second dunk at overtime, showing the Cats are capable of staying afloat without the 7-footer at the top of his game. But at the same time, UK needs Cauley-Stein to reach its potential.
"Like I said, we can win without Willie," Calipari said. "We're not winning big without Willie."
Andrew Harrison is averaging 11.8 points and 3.8 assists in SEC play. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Imagine if UK ever played a game in which each one of its talented players played to his vast potential.
What if the Julius Randle who dominated Michigan State in the second half and the Willie Cauley-Stein who blocked nine shots against Boise State manned the Wildcat frontcourt?
What if the Andrew Harrison who scored 26 against Tennessee and the Aaron Harrison who poured in 28 vs. Robert Morris were on the floor together?
What if John Calipari could sub the Alex Poythress who went on a one-man 7-0 on Tuesday against Texas A&M for the the James Young who had 26 points against Mississippi State?
The prospect is certainly a tantalizing one, but it's not realistic.
"Everybody's not going to have a good game every game and people have to understand that," Andrew Harrison said. "But at the same time, it's not always about scoring points and stuff like that. It's about playing hard. If everyone plays hard, we're really tough to beat."
In both games and practice, it's all about effort. The Cats can't let that effort be affected by anything. Not the last play, the last game and especially not the "clutter" and outside voices to which Coach Cal has so often referred of late.
"Whether it's my point guard, whether it's James, this stuff is all game-to-game with these guys," Calipari said. "And if they get caught up in one game, you take your eye off the ball, which is the process of getting better as an individual and -- more importantly right now for us -- as a team."
No. 14 Kentucky (14-4, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) began the season atop the polls. Billed as one of the most talent-rich teams in recent memory, dominance wasn't talked about as a possibility so much as a certainty.
Instead, the Cats have had their moments and even a signature win over Louisville, but are only now beginning to find a rhythm.
"Other teams are well ahead of us right now," Calipari said, "either because they've been veteran teams and they're way ahead of us as a team, or they just needed each other more than we thought we needed each other. So we haven't made the strides as a team that we need. But we have made strides."
To continue to make those strides, UK will need Cauley-Stein to round back into form.
The sophomore had a remarkable December, blocking shots on pace with Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. But over his last three games, his production and minutes have plummeted. He's averaging just one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 15.3 minutes during that stretch and backup Dakari Johnson has filled the void with his best stretch of play this season.
"Again, he's playing behind Willie, and Willie's really playing well," Calipari said. "You're not gonna get many minutes then. But Willie didn't play well, so now what are you gonna do with your minutes? Well, he went in and said, 'You should be playing me instead of Willie.' "
If Thursday's practice is any indication, Cauley-Stein won't be able to be kept off the floor. After working out individually late on Wednesday, Cauley-Stein looked like a different player the next day.
"It was good to see him back to instead of avoiding everything, creating and doing the stuff that we've all seen him do," Calipari said. "You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way -- this game is more mental than anything else. And for him, he got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart."
After playing with him on Thursday, Andrew Harrison stated in no uncertain terms his belief that Cauley-Stein will be back in a big way when UK takes on Georgia (10-7, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network). If he is, Harrison knows what that can mean.
"He's probably the best center in the country and we need him to be as good as we can be," Harrison said.
UK will certainly need all hands on deck against the visiting Bulldogs. Georgia has won four of five to open SEC play, taking down Missouri on the road, Arkansas at home and only losing at Florida.
"They're playing exactly how they have to play to win," Calipari said. "Their guards are scoring. They're shooting the 3 when they need it. They're plus-10 rebounds in our league right now."
Guards Charles Mann (13.1 points per game) and Kenny Gaines (12.0) lead a balanced scoring attack, but Georgia remains simply "the next challenge up" in Calipari's eyes, a measuring stick for UK's progress. He knows exactly the things he'll be looking for.
"When we really, truly start playing for each other," Calipari said. "Where we have no ball-stoppers on offense. That ball moves or you make a play. On defense, that we play an entire possession and we show energy for our team, not just when we're guarding the ball. When we're not guarding the ball. That we block out on an errant shot with 0.2 seconds to go, because we're gonna finish the possession."
It's unlikely all those things will happen together on Saturday, but the Cats are working to get there eventually.
"When we get there, you'll see this team take a quantum leap," Calipari said.
Polson to have high-school jersey retired Friday
UK will take a break from its Georgia preparations to celebrate with Jarrod Polson as he has his jersey retired at West Jessamine High School on Friday night.
"I told them yesterday we were all going to go and be there for him, and they went crazy for him," Calipari said. "And what a great gesture for their high school to do."
Polson averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds as a senior, leading his team to a Sweet Sixteen berth and finishing his career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,884 points.
Even so, it's an honor Polson didn't see coming.
"I was pretty shocked," Polson said. "I didn't really know they do it actually while you're in college or anything like that so when they told me I was pretty excited and my family was pretty happy about it so I think it'll be a good night."
UK will hold the McCravy Memorial in honor of former track athlete Rodriq McCravy. (UK Athletics)
This weekend's track and field meet is named in honor of Rodriq McCravy, a former UK track athlete. McCravy, who quickly established himself as a leader with great respect and care for others, died in 1987 at age 19.
McCravy was just a sophomore, but he had already made a lasting impact on his teammates, coaches and the UK administration.
"He was such a great guy and an extremely well-liked member of our team," former UK track and field head coach Don Weber said. "He contributed in so many ways other than what he did on the track. He was really a unique person in that regard.
"The thing that really stands out was how universally, everyone had such a high regard for Rod. I've had a lot of great kids over the years, but I don't know if we've had anybody that everybody thought of him that way. It was people on and off the track team. He was an exceptionally unique person."
This weekend's Rod McCravy Memorial Meet, which was first held the year after McCravy died, extends his legacy and continues to teach others about what made him so special.
"He was a fabulous person," Weber said. "This is an opportunity to recognize Rod and also an opportunity to, each year, talk about Rod with the team. We talked about his qualities, and his impact and contributions to the team."
A graduate of Louisville Trinity High School, McCravy was a two-time state champion. Upon his arrival at UK, he set the freshman record in the 400-meter hurdles, finished sixth in the TAC National Junior Championships and was a member of the school-record 1,600-meter relay team.
Along with his actions away from the track, Weber remembers McCravy's demeanor as being just as positive on the track.
"He didn't have a negative attitude, in that 'They're defeating me.' " Weber said. "It was, 'They're helping me run faster and I have to do my best to run with them.' That, in a strictly athletic sense, Rod's story helped us, but also stressing the importance of all the qualities that Rod had and how those are important."
McCravy made a great first impression on Weber, who immediately saw something special in the high-school student during his recruiting visit to campus. McCravy was planning on competing for the Blue and White as a walk-on.
Instead, McCravy earned a scholarship based off his work ethic, attitude and leadership qualities. Weber knew he would make an impact not only on the track, but away from it as well.
"He came and visited," Weber said of McCravy's recruiting trip. 'We did not have any intentions of giving him a scholarship. I met with him and his dad in my office. His dad didn't say anything, he and I just talked. Over the course of our conversation, Rod impressed me so much with his leadership skills, him as a person that we ended up offering him a scholarship, mainly because of him as a person. That was the first non-athletic, 'people' scholarship that we gave out."
Now, 26 years later, the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet -- this year designated as the weekend's "best meet in the nation" by the United States Track Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) featuring perennial powers Oregon and Florida -- lives on, and so does McCravy's legacy. Current student-athletes and the coaching staff didn't know McCravy, but he continues to have an impact on the team and the track and field program. His influence lives on, even as the people he directly impacted move on.
This weekend as some of the nation's best track and field athletes compete at the Nutter Field House, McCravy will be remembered.