Mark Stoops signed the highest-rated class in school history on Signing Day. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops has never been short on confidence.
From the moment he arrived in Lexington, Stoops has declared in no uncertain terms his belief in his vision, his belief in Kentucky football.
But to reel in the best class in school history barely a year into his tenure? To piece together a group that fits perfectly in terms of both personnel and character?
"If I'm honest, we maybe had a little bit better success than I thought this quick," Stoops said.
All 28 members of UK's 2014 signing class -- 16 of which are rated four-star prospects by at least one major outlet -- sent in valid National Letters of Intent before 11 a.m. ET, short-circuiting some of the drama typical of Signing Day. None of the coaches or support staff at the Nutter Training Facility for an unprecedented live webcast of the event seemed to mind.
At last check, the Kentucky class ranks 15th nationally according to Rivals.com, 20th according to both ESPN.com and Scout.com and 22nd according to 247sports.com.
"I knew we'd recruit good players," Stoops said. "Where it was rated and all that and the publicity, I like it, and it helps our program and all that, but, again, that's not what I'm out for. I'm out to get great players to help build this program day in and day out."
On extremely short notice, Stoops and his staff did that with their first class. With just two months to work, they brought in a group that contributed immediately, which was vital to UK's future in both the short and long term.
This class, however, was even more important.
"I thought this was going to lay the foundation to turn this program, and it was a very critical year, and I felt like we really had to hit the pavement and recruit extremely hard," Stoops said. "Could not be more proud of this staff and the way they went about their business."
The staff made waves with the 2014 class immediately, scoring verbal commitments from a variety of prospects early in the process. UK shot up recruiting rankings accordingly, drawing national attention. Pundits were impressed, but wondered whether the class would remain intact.
A year and just one de-commitment later, the answer is an emphatic yes.
"This is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've ever been a part of," Stoops said. "This group was so solid for so long."
Of course, there were nervous moments and the occasional rumbling about a recruit falling off the wagon. In those cases, there was no substitute for the hard work that has come to define Stoops and his staff.
"We don't take anything for granted," Stoops said. "We recruited every bit as hard last night and today as we did last year or the day after Signing Day or the whole year. We recruited from start to finish extremely hard, don't take anything for granted, and go about our business the right way."
In the end, not only did UK hold on to its verbal commitments on Signing Day, but a new one also came on board.
Lloyd Tubman, a Louisville, Ky., native rated a four-star prospect by 247sports.com, announced his UK pledge late Wednesday morning and sent in his NLI not long after.
"We liked Lloyd a lot," Stoops said. "Recruited him for a full year. Again, I think he's one of the top players in the state, a great football player. And he's a great student and a fine young man."
Originally a Vanderbilt commitment and later a Penn State pledge, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound defensive end was finally swayed by defensive coordinator and lead recruiter D.J. Eliot.
"I think it just took time for him to see what we had to offer and what was the best future for him," Eliot said. "When he sat down and looked at everything, I think it was the right thing for him to do and he made that leap."
Tubman is the third-ranked player in Kentucky according to Rivals.com, meaning UK signed four of the top five prospects in the state. Quarterback Drew Barker and defensive tackles Adrian Middleton and Matt Elam will join Tubman in staying home to play their college ball.
"Really feel good about what we did in Kentucky," Stoops said. "I said that a year ago. I said that in my opening press conference about how important it was to recruit this state."
When a quarterback like Barker is in your backyard, that becomes even more important.
Asked to pick out a turning point when UK's momentum on the trail went from encouraging to unstoppable, Stoops mentioned Barker's commitment last May. Though his new coaches never encouraged him to do it, Barker took on a reputation as Kentucky's unofficial recruiting coordinator. Stoops doesn't discount Barker's role making a big Signing Day a reality.
"He just has that ability to be a leader, and he wanted other great players around him," Stoops said. "You know, I said that a year ago as well. Players want to be around other great players."
Barker is only the most prominent example of a group of players who have already built a bond even though just seven are on campus. From the 10 Ohio signees to the two from Texas and four from Florida, UK's signees have developed a sort of collective personality.
"They've been very solid that way," Stoops said. "They've got to have a--this group is very confident in their ability, but you know what -- and I know they have some fun with the media, which is great. They have the personality, and it's good. It's good for everybody. I want them to be themselves. But as a group, they're also very humble, and I think humility is very important."
Humility will be necessary as the recruits arrive on campus and compete for playing time. Because for both players and coaches, it's time to grind after a short celebration of a memorable day for Kentucky football.
"I've read a lot of quotes from these guys that caught my eye that they know and understand that this is just the beginning of a lot of work," Stoops said. "We've got some good players that's going to help this program, but we've got to go to work now and keep on building and put another great class together and do all the work, whether it be right now in winter if they're here, or the guys that are going to show up in the summer. I think they're very special that way."
Alex Poythress scores two of his 10 points on a rim-rattling first-half dunk vs. Ole Miss. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within just a couple games of his college career, opponents realized they had to throw two and three defenders at Julius Randle. Otherwise, he was perfectly capable of winning a game on his own.
After more than two months of watching his star freshman swarmed from tip to buzzer, John Calipari drew up a similar game plan for Marshall Henderson.
"Obviously, Henderson could go for 40 and we were doing stuff that you don't do to a normal player," Calipari said. "He gets played like Julius gets played. You've got to keep him away, and it forces you to do different things. That's how good he is."
Henderson, of course, gets the job done in very different ways from Randle. He uses off-ball screens to create openings, hoisting nearly 75 percent of his shots from beyond the 3-point line. So instead of sending bodies inside at Henderson as teams do with Randle, UK took a team approach to defending the senior guard.
"You can't try to stop him from shooting; you just have to make him take some tough shots," said Aaron Harrison, who scored 16 points. "He's going to hit some tough shots but you gotta keep making him take tough shots."
Harrison began the game guarding Henderson, but he was hardly alone. When he got hung up on one of the seemingly countless screens the Ole Miss Rebels set for their leading scorer, one of his teammates switched onto Henderson.
"When a shooter runs off screens and picks and baseline run-ins like he does, that's a smart thing you can do is switch out because we are so versatile," Poythress said after a solid 10-point, seven-rebound effort. "A lot of our players can guard a lot of positions so it works to our advantage."
As expected, Henderson scored his points -- 16, to be exact -- but the Cats made him work to do it. He shot just 6-of-18 from the field and 4-of-12 from 3-point range, committing three turnovers in the process. With Henderson limited, No. 18/14 UK (17-5, 7-2 Southeastern Conference) rode a dominant second half to an 80-64 win over Ole Miss (15-7, 6-3 SEC) on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.
At different points, everyone from Aaron Harrison -- the defender who opened on Henderson -- to Alex Poythress to Willie Cauley-Stein was in one-on-one situations with him.
"That's what I really take pride in is guys think that because I'm so long and tall that I can't guard them," said Cauley-Stein, who found his December form with 17 points, 11 rebounds and six blocks. "And when I do guard them it's like, you kind of peep them after a dead ball and they look at their coach like, 'What do I do? Like I can't get past him and I can't shoot over him so what am I supposed to do?' "
The approach worked as planned, but that wasn't the only reason Coach Cal implemented it.
"It makes us communicate, and that's why I wanted to do it as much as anything else," Calipari said.
With a group of players that too often falls into the trap of focusing on individual play, Calipari knew the defensive scheme he drew up against Henderson would fall flat on its face if the Cats didn't forget all that.
"When you do what we did today, they've got to talk," Calipari said. "Because you can't start switching like we did and do the things we did unless everyone talks."
Successfully putting the game plan into action was just another step in the evolution of the youngest team in the country.
"For the last week, all we've been doing is recognizing teammates doing things well, and they had to verbalize it," Calipari said. "So if a guy got a good rebound or dove on the floor, nice pass or made a shot, I needed to hear a bunch of guys saying, "Hey, Willie, great," because I'm trying to get their emotions out of their offense and how they're playing."
As UK football welcomes a new class on Signing Day, fans will be able to follow along like never before.
Coverage on UKathletics.com will begin at 8 a.m. ET on Signing Day and continue late into the morning or early afternoon. The centerpiece of the coverage will be a webcast live from the Nutter Training Facility produced by UK Sports Video that will spotlight Mark Stoops' signing class currently rated No. 13 nationally by Rivals.com as National Letters of Intent arrive.
The live stream will feature exclusive access to UK's coaches, including a special "Xs and Os Room" with star UK quarterback Tim Couch. Couch -- the top pick in the 1999 NFL Draft -- will break down film of signees with their respective position coaches, showing why the newest Wildcats project to be the future stars of UK football.
Dick Gabriel, Tom Leach, Kentucky Sports Radio's Matt Jones and former UK quarterback Freddie Maggard will join Couch on the coverage. UK's seven mid-year enrollees - including highly rated quarterback Drew Barker - will be interviewed as part of the coverage as well. As soon as live coverage concludes, the webcast will be rebroadcast on UK's official YouTube channel.
In addition to the webcast, fans are invited to be a part of Signing Day. Not only will Cat Scratches host its annual live blog, the first place to learn when signees become official, but UKathletics.com will also provide a social-media experience that will integrate the best fan posts on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Fans are encouraged to post with the hash tag #UK2014Class. The best content will be featured both on a social-media mosaic and on the live webcast.
Fans will also be able to welcome signees on Twitter to the Big Blue Nation using the "Congratulate a Cat" feature. The signees generating the most buzz on Twitter will be compiled on a leaderboard called "Trending Cats."
Fans unable to follow online can listen to the Leach Report from 9-10 a.m. and Kentucky Sports Radio from 10 a.m.-noon. Both shows will be broadcasting live from the Nutter Training Facility.
It all begins bright and early on Wednesday morning.
Andrew Harrison scored 14 points in UK's win at Missouri on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the positive from Kentucky's win at Missouri on Saturday.
Facing a team that almost never loses at home, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead and held on to it down the stretch. Just days removed from a disappointing loss at LSU, UK refused to wilt.
"I think it just showed our will to win," Andrew Harrison said. "We knew we had to pull it out and we did. It shows that we're growing mental toughness. We do have what it takes to win."
Offense is where UK got it done.
With the home-standing Tigers rallying, the Cats scored on their final four possessions in an 84-79 win. For the game, they shot 53.6 percent from the field and scored 1.25 points per possession, UK's best total in Southeastern Conference play.
"We've matured offensively, and guys executed," said assistant coach Orlando Antigua. "I think they understand what we're asking of them, especially Andrew. Andrew had a great floor game for us."
With his 14 points, four assists and one turnover, Harrison didn't have his best statistical game or even the biggest afternoon on his team according to the numbers, but don't make any mistake about his importance. The freshman was responsible for orchestrating the UK attack.
"He knew when to attack, when to shoot, when to pass," Antigua said. "Defensively he did a pretty good job. But more importantly than that, he kept us organized. When they were trying to throw different things at us, he was able to make the right calls. He's starting to get the feel of what we need."
With its point guard becoming steadier by the day, UK's offense has evolved into an unquestioned strength.
The Cats are first in the Southeastern Conference and sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, relying on a combination of solid 2-point shooting (53.1 percent, 25th nationally), regular free-throw line trips (free-throw rate of 54.5, seventh nationally) and unmatched offensive rebounding (offensive-rebounding rate of 42.7, first nationally).
"We're excited about the way we're playing offensively obviously," Antigua said. "We've got to continue to do that and just continue to work."
On offense, the goal of that work will be to refine and maintain. Defensively, there is more room for improvement.
For the first time in John Calipari's tenure in Lexington, UK has allowed back-to-back opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field in splitting games last week against two sets of Tigers. The Cats have also allowed more than one point per possession in four of their last six outings.
"We've been concentrating on trying to get better defensively as a unit," Antigua said. "I think with a young group, guys have to understand the kind of commitment that you need to make in order to do the things that we want to do. The good thing is that they're coming along, they're getting better."
It's also good news that the Cats can win a game like the one at Missouri even with their defense so clearly a work in progress, particularly considering how fixable some of their problems are.
"We should be a better defensive team than we are right now, but a lot of it's just transition defense," Calipari said. "How about we sprint back? How about--you know, last game we (said) every huddle, 'They're driving right and they're driving right. Make them go left.' And they just kept driving right."
Missouri scored 18 fast-break points against Kentucky, including a number off of made baskets. When the Tigers did have to set up in the half-court, Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28) continually made the Cats pay for not heeding Calipari's coaching.
Recognizing the need to change it up, Calipari went to a 2-3 zone defense for prolonged stretches for the first time this season. By no means was it perfect, but UK's length makes the prospect of using it again an interesting one.
"It worked really well," Harrison said. "We're a pretty big team, so I think it got them off guard because we usually don't play too much zone. Us being so long and being able to deflect balls and stuff, I think that affected them a little bit."
The question now becomes whether Calipari will turn to the zone again with No. 18/14 UK (16-5, 6-2 SEC) set to host Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
The Rebels, of course, have a player and personality the likes of which Kentucky has not faced in Marshall Henderson. After sitting out the first two games of conference play, Henderson has returned to average 20.2 points as the Rebels have won four times in five games.
"You just know he's going to shoot," Antigua said. "We're expecting that. He's a talented, talented player. It's going to be a good challenge for our guys--and not just for our guards, but for our entire team--to make it difficult on him. He's going to get his shots up. We know that."
UK was effective against Henderson a season ago, limiting him to 5-of-19 shooting in an 87-74 win in Oxford, Miss. Henderson, however, still managed to score 21 points, a lesson that he is likely to score his points regardless.
Where the Cats aren't conceding points is in transition.
"I think everybody's going to try to test our transition defense because of our size and length," Antigua said. "Once we get in the half-court, I think we're pretty solid defensively as a unit."
To get there, Antigua sees a couple simple steps.
"I think the first part of transition defense is getting back and then communicating," Antigua said. "That's one of the things that we've been honing in on the last couple weeks: just getting back and communicating, stopping the ball first and then identifying the threats in transition."
To Harrison, it's even simpler.
"It's just a matter of sprinting back and just having a 'want to' to sprint back and be a defensive team," Harrison said. "I feel like we'll be much harder to beat if we become that defensive team."
Bria Goss scored a team-high 11 points in UK's 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
After a loss at Georgia on Thursday, the Kentucky Wildcats had dropped four of their last seven games and were searching for answers.
In the midst of that prolonged slump, Matthew Mitchell knows every second of practice counts. But on Friday, he bypassed the chance to take the court with his team.
There was more important work to be done.
"We didn't take the floor Friday," Mitchell said. "We just sat in a room and weren't leaving until we got some things straightened out about how we are going to move forward."
You see, Mitchell didn't think drills or running would cure UK's ills, at least not right away.
"I am telling you, this is not a physical thing," Mitchell said. "It is mental. It is a mindset."
Instead, the Cats spent the afternoon watching film, talking through the reasons they had gone from unbeaten barely six weeks ago to questioning their talent.
"Friday was intense, even though we didn't get on the court," Samarie Walker said. "It was kind of like a tell-all meeting. He was being very open and honest with us; we were being very open and honest with him."
With everything on the table, UK went back to work on Saturday, making up for lost time with back-to-back "great" practices. On Sunday, that work -- first mental, then physical -- paid off in a 63-56 win over No. 14/14 LSU (17-5, 6-3 Southeastern Conference).
"I am just so proud of them for pulling together and getting this victory," Mitchell said. "This was one of the top teams in the country and we are not playing particularly well right now and we have to find ourselves and to gut this one out and find a way to win is huge."
No. 13/12 UK (17-5, 5-4 SEC) went back to its roots to get it done, relying on stingy defense and capitalizing on LSU mistakes. The Tigers shot just 32.3 percent from the field and UK scored 25 points off 18 LSU turnovers to claim a slugfest in front of 6,333 fans in Memorial Coliseum.
"We're going to have off nights, but we should never have an off defensive night," said Bria Goss, who led a balanced scoring effort with 11 points. "So we can bring our defense a hundred percent of the time and just relying on our defense is just going to get us to the next step."
Jennifer O'Neill, who added 10 points in just 15 minutes off the bench, says the performance was all about transferring good practice habits to the game.
"We've been going like cutthroat, really going at each other one on one," O'Neill said. "We have a lot of drills where you play for the team you're on and we just wanted to bring that to the court today."
Perhaps the best example of that was freshman Makayla Epps, who hadn't scored a point in exactly a month after a strong start to her freshman season. Epps had to listen to some hard truths in that Friday meeting, but she didn't put her head down.
"She is unbelievably talented and strong and skilled and gifted and was just doing nothing for us," Mitchell said. "I think she probably did one of the best jobs I have ever seen a freshman just really, really getting taking to task in a film session and actually showing up the next day and trying to correct it."
Epps was quiet in five first-half minutes, but turned in one of the game's most important stretches with less than seven minutes left in the second. With LSU looking to make a run behind freshman Raigyne Moncrief -- who had a game-high 19 points -- Epps scored seven straight points in the span of less than two minutes to keep UK's lead in double digits.
"She wasn't trying to step outside her role," O'Neill said. "She was trying to do the things she was doing in practice like attacking the basket and trying to look to get the ball inside to the post."
Pleased as they may be with the win, Epps and the Cats have no choice but to attack practice the way they did Saturday.
"It's just all about being consistent," Goss said. "This game was a really good game for us and it looked like we were back to Kentucky's way of playing. It won't mean anything if we go back to being down and low-energy."
Asked a question about whether his team had overcome its January lull for good, Mitchell took the "out-of-the-woods" metaphor as far as he could think to do.
"We are working hard and in the woods right now trying to get through some briar patches and get some machetes out and hack our way through," Mitchell said. "We are not even close to being out of the woods yet. We have a lot of work to do."
Aaron Harrison scores two of his team-high 21 points to give UK a five-point lead with 19 seconds left in an 84-79 win at Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even if they might try to block out the outside noise, the Kentucky Wildcats don't live in a vacuum.
After a loss at LSU on Tuesday, they heard their toughness being questioned. They heard fans and pundits wondering whether they would ever reach their potential. They even heard the talk about their togetherness after a play on which Dakari Johnson's teammates failed to rush over to help him after a fall.
Frustrating as it may be that UK hasn't progressed as quickly as everyone might like, there is still solace to be taken in the criticisms being lobbed at the Cats.
"Look, these guys see what's--they know," John Calipari said. "They know. And the stuff that anyone's saying about this team and these players, they can change it."
No one is saying Kentucky lacks the talent needed to live up to its preseason hype. No one is questioning whether the Cats have the pieces to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
"It's that you don't compete, that you don't play with enthusiasm, you don't sprint, you're into your own self," Calipari said. "Well, you can change all that."
On Saturday, the Cats showed they might do just that.
No. 11 UK (16-5, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) notched arguably its best win of the season, taking down Missouri (16-5, 4-4 SEC), 84-79. The Tigers lack the top-10 ranking Louisville had when Kentucky beat the Cardinals, but did have one of the SEC's best home-court advantages on their side in Mizzou Arena.
"It was pretty big, especially in this building," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. "I think Coach had told us that they have like three losses since (Frank Haith) got here, so pretty big time. That's a tough environment to play in. We made some errors down the stretch but we kept fighting and we were able to hold them off."
UK led by 10 at halftime and built the margin to as many as 16 points with 14:32 left in the second half, but Missouri and its stellar backcourt wouldn't wilt. Behind Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28), the Tigers charged to within three points with 7:07 to play with a 20-7 run.
"Coaches told us they were good scorers but I didn't think they were going to get off like that," James Young said. "They had a nice right-hand strong dribble and that's what they did."
With leading shot-blocker Willie Cauley-Stein limited by foul trouble and a continuing slump, UK struggled to contain penetration. The Cats even turned to a 2-3 zone defense, which was more effective than Coach Cal's preferred man-to-man in spite of some early hiccups.
"We were going to go every free throw and then we went zone twice and they scored twice and I went, 'There's your zone,' " Calipari said. "And then I went back to it again and then we started screwing up the game a little bit. This is a long team. This is a big team. This is a good zone team if they'll scramble."
Zone or not, there was no slowing Missouri on this day. The Tigers shot 52.9 percent from the field and 56.3 percent in the second half, scoring 1.20 points per possession, most for a UK opponent this season.
All that meant the Cats would have to win with offense, which is precisely what they did. UK shot 53.6 percent as a team, 8-of-14 from 3-point range and committed just seven turnovers. When UK needed a crucial bucket, Aaron Harrison (21 points), James Young (20), Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison (14) delivered.
Missouri never got closer than three points as Aaron Harrison scored UK's final four points -- including a reverse layup to make it a two-possession game with 19 seconds left -- to close out the victory and move UK's record on the road to 2-3 this season.
"I thought Aaron was really good today," Calipari said. "And I said, 'If you look like you did against LSU, you will play five minutes in that game. I won't play you.' "
It wasn't Aaron Harrison's 5-of-13 shooting at LSU or the four turnovers Coach Cal was worried about either. Instead, it was all effort. The same goes for the team as a whole.
"You can't emphasize everything with these guys," Calipari said. "All we talked about was passion and intensity. I didn't care about any of that other stuff. Play. But again, I loved the fight, I loved the emotion they played with, the enthusiasm they played with."
Making that performance all the more impressive was the travel nightmare the Cats faced in flying to Columbia, Mo.
With an ice storm hitting the area hard -- a common thread among UK road destinations this season -- UK landed in St. Louis, Mo., on Friday night and waited for the team bus to meet them. The Cats finally arrived in Columbia at midnight CT before meeting briefly and going to bed. UK then skipped its regular morning shootaround ahead of the noon CT tip.
"It was really hard for us, but we actually got a lot of sleep out of it so I think that probably helped us and helped us focus during the game," Young said.
Whether a good night's sleep was a factor or not, UK has now played its best and worst games in the span of five days.
"All this stuff, we lose to LSU - and they beat the crap out of us," Calipari said. "They outcoached us, there was nothing--that was one of those games. And we didn't look very good. So we play a little bit better. I mean, are we this team or are we the other team?"
That's not so much a question as it is a challenge.
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."