Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks in a 110-75 win over Auburn. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl knew all about Kentucky's post play even before he brought his Auburn team to Rupp Arena.
On Saturday, he witnessed it up close and in person.
"They are very physical defensively," Pearl said. "And it's nothing like anything we've seen all year long. What they do offensively as far as pounding it inside, there's nobody in the league who's even close to that."
And by the Wildcats' high standards, they even turned things up a notch for the Tigers.
No. 1 UK, in moving to 27-0 (14-0 Southeastern Conference), was dominant in a 110-75 win. The Cats overwhelmed with their strength and length, outscoring the Tigers 62-24 in the paint and outrebounding them by a margin of 44-22.
The Cats came in waves with Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson leading the way. Towns had 19 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks, while Johnson had 13 points and six rebounds in just 16 minutes.
"I thought Karl and Dakari were outstanding today," John Calipari said. "The other guys all played pretty well but those two stood out."
Towns' performance continued a run of recent strong play, with Saturday being his fifth double-digit scoring performance in seven games and third double-double of the stretch. Johnson, on the other hand, had a breakout game of sorts.
The 7-foot sophomore has struggled at times to score in the post this season, but experienced no such issues against Auburn. He made 6 of 7 from the field and made quick, decisive moves in doing so.
"It's about getting deeper position," Johnson said. "That's what Coach has been telling me, so I won't have to take as many dribbles and stuff. I can take one or two dribbles then go right up. That's what we've been trying to focus on the last couple of games."
Johnson's worthiest opposition on Saturday wasn't the opposition at all. It was Marcus Lee.
Midway through the second half, Johnson found himself in prime offensive-rebounding position when Devin Booker missed a short jumper. But instead of Johnson grabbing the rebound and putting it in for an easy two points, Lee streaked in trailing the play and dunked over his teammate.
"I tried to get the offensive rebound and then somebody just came over the back," Johnson said. "I was like--I was mad at first because it was my offensive rebound, then I saw Marcus. So it was crazy."
Johnson went sprawling and Lee tripped over him.
"We were very confused, because we both ended up on the floor, and he was like, 'You jumped over me and fell on me,' " said Lee, who had six points and eight rebounds on the night when Tony Delk, who preceded Lee in wearing number 00, had his jersey retired. "I was like, 'Sorry.' It was kind of like a big awkwardness."
Awkwardness aside, the play gave a little insight into what it looks like when the Cats go at each other on the practice floor at the Joe Craft Center.
"It's either, us going at each other and ending up fighting each other," Lee said. "... I think that's how we honestly get better is we always go at each other, even though we're on the same team. I'm always going at Willie, and Dakari and Karl are always going at each other and they're not stopping at any point. Cal has to stop because he thinks we're getting too rough. That's how our practices make us better."
For a brief time, Coach Cal backed off in practice anticipating the stretch run. The result, however, was a step back in games, most notably in the post. But in recent weeks, he's turned the heat back on. UK's smothering of Auburn is proof it's working.
"That's something we've really been focusing on lately," Lee said. "We've been doing that for a while - for the past, I guess, four or five games - because for a while, as a big team, we knew we were struggling getting stuff done."
There was no such struggle on Saturday.
Their inside presence reestablished and Johnson and Towns scoring at will on post-up opportunities, the Cats forced Auburn into a series of impossible defensive choices in scoring a season-high 110 points.
"So are they going to try to front the post?" Calipari said. "Are they going to try to trap? If they do trap, are they trapping from a big guy? Are they trapping from a guard? Are they just going to dig? And then we had to play off of it, and we played well off of it. We kicked it out for 3s. We kicked it out for drives. We posted the ball when the court was spread."
UK converted 6-of-17 3-point tries, just below UK's shooting percentage of .362 in SEC play, making the Tigers pay for sending bodies at UK's bigs.
"They hunt shots," Pearl said. "They want them. If anybody goes zone now, their eyes get big, you know? That's a good thing. They throw it down in the post. They hardly wait for it to get kicked back out. And the deal is, they're so much more dominant on the inside, because those guys can score down there."
With Kentucky's interior play rounding into form and the rest falling into place behind it, the Cats appear well positioned to peak come March.
"I mean, I call it baby steps," Lee said. "Every time you kind of just get better each time until you actually start walking. That's how we're getting it. We're taking our time knowing that we know where we have to be when March hits. So, we're just trying to get there at some point. We're not really in a rush."
Former UK gymnast Jenny Hansen is the only woman to win three straight NCAA all-around title (1993-95). She also captures NCAA titles on the balance beam (1994, 1995), vault (1994, 1995) and floor exercise (1995). (UK Athletics)
During a 7 p.m. meet vs. Arkansas in Memorial Coliseum, Jenny Hansen -- the greatest gymnast in Kentucky history -- will be honored with a jersey retirement ceremony. Jersey retirement is considered the highest honor UK Athletics can bestow, and it's a deserving one for Hansen, who won eight national championships during pretty much the most decorated career a college gymnast can have.
Ahead of Hansen's big night, we are republishing this story, which originally ran in the summer of 2011.
To call Jenny Hansen's career as a gymnast at the University of Kentucky "decorated" would be a gross understatement. Running down a list of her achievements is mind-boggling in and of itself.
Eight NCAA gymnastics championship titles. A record three straight all-around titles from 1993 to 1995. Thirteen All-America honors. Kentucky Sportsman of the Year in 1995. Most outstanding gymnast of the past 25 years as recognized by the NCAA.
Simply put, she's still the greatest gymnast in program history and one of the best student-athletes to don UK's colors.
For Hansen, though, the honors that meant the most were her inductions into the hall of fames for both UK and the state of Kentucky. Being recognized alongside fellow inductees like Pat Riley, Allan Houston, Tim Couch and Hillerich & Bradsby (the makers of Louisville Slugger baseball bats) was an experience that stopped Hansen in her tracks.
"It's kind of surreal," Hansen said. "I think of myself as Jenny Hansen. I'm Jen. I'm Hansen. I'm just me. I've been given this amazing gift and this incredible talent to be able to do what I can do. For the University of Kentucky and the state of Kentucky to recognize me and put me in their hall of fame, I was just blown away. There are no words really to explain it."
Humility and self-awareness are traits that we look for in athletes, but finding them in genuine form is often a tall task. With Hansen, they are unmistakable. She recognizes that the natural talent that she has been blessed with is a gift; a gift that has taken her places she could not possibly have foreseen; a gift that she believes she is responsible for stewarding and continuing to share with others.
It's that kind of attitude that has brought Hansen back to the place that made her a hall of famer: the gym. Her return started out as a foray into the world of television when a friend called her while Hansen was living and working in North Dakota.
"Two years ago, one of my best friends is a stunt woman, she called me up when I was living in North Dakota and she said, 'You need to train again, there's a show,' " Hansen said.
The cable television channel ABC Family was beginning filming on a new show that needed skilled gymnasts. Hansen picked up and moved to Simi Valley, Calif., for the new gig.
"I started training for this show called 'Make It or Break It,' " Hansen said. "It's an ABC Family show and it's about four girls that are trying to make the Olympics in gymnastics. They needed gymnasts and I ended up being a gymnastics double on the show and then I did background work and things like that."
Hansen had not seriously trained for a while, but the competitive fire that still burned inside of her responded in a way that she didn't foresee. She took her workouts "to the highest level" and found that her substantial talents had not yet been lost to the hands of time. Production on the second season of the show wrapped in December, but Hansen was not willing to end things there.
In fact, she has even higher aspirations. More than 15 years removed from her final season at UK, Hansen is trying to re-enter the elite level of gymnastics competition.
"That was for two years and at the end of December, we just finished up season two and during that time I guess I just started feeling like I wanted to continue on and keep working on it," Hansen said. "My ultimate goal would be to get to the Olympics but my current goal is just to try to get on the national team."
Of all sports, gymnastics is one that perhaps belongs most to the young. The roster of the United States national team for the 2008 Beijing Olympics included three 16-year-old gymnasts, one 18-year-old and two 20-year-olds. For perspective, Hansen was in college in the mid 1990s.
Hansen recognizes the challenge in front of her and embraces it. She is just a couple weeks away from the next milestone in her comeback. She will be participating in an elite qualifier on July 2 in Houston and there are two more meets on the horizon if things go according to plan.
"If I get the qualifying score, I'll get to go to the Cover Girl Classic and that's in Chicago," Hansen said. "In Chicago, hopefully I'll get the qualifying score to go to the Visa Championships in St. Paul (Minn.). This year that's my ultimate goal."
Hansen has learned the hard way that there is a reason why youth is favored in gymnastics, but the journey has been enjoyable nonetheless.
"There are a few little injuries that pop up, so I've had to back off my training a little bit, then I go back to it," Hansen said. "It's frustrating, but at the same time it's so much fun."
Naturally, Hansen is the type of athlete that will push herself to the brink in her preparation, even if the odds tell her that her chances of succeeding are extremely slim. Being more advanced in age than the last time she competed, Hansen has learned how to listen to what her own body is saying.
"It's taken a bit for me to listen to my body and what it needs," Hansen said. "I just can't stop and not work and everything is going to start piling up. It's my responsibility, as an adult, to keep myself afloat."
Also helping in her efforts is her sister, who serves as her coach for meets.
"I was talking to my middle sister who was on the national team in 1986 or 1987," Hansen said, "and I said, 'I don't know what to do. I don't have a coach and I have to go to this meet.' And she said, 'I'll be your coach.' She registered with USA Gymnastics. She got her coaching registration, she got all of this stuff and at the meets, she's my coach. It's really great."
While Hansen calls training her "full-time job," she still spends time as a personal trainer for a few clients and as a coach at her gym in California.
"I do a little personal training on the side, since out here you have to do everything," Hansen said. "I do a little personal training; I just have three clients. They're so much fun and I love working with them. I incorporate the gymnastics that I know and the things that I'm learning now. It's fun. I like encouraging these women. I also coach at the gym that I train at, only two days a week."
Once her gymnastics career reaches a conclusion, Hansen isn't willing to restrict herself to a single profession. Rest assured, though, she'll be using her talents and background as a gymnast, whether as a stunt woman, a trainer or a coach.
"That's my ultimate goal, to stay in the stunt world," Hansen said. "I would really like to do personal training and motivate people and maybe even motivate kids just to have fun in the sports that they do. There's so many things that I love doing and I want to stay in everything. I don't want to have just one occupation."
Whatever the future holds, much of Hansen's foundation was established during her time at the University of Kentucky. Though it was two decades ago, Hansen still looks back at her college experience fondly, from competition to academics to social life.
"An amazing experience," Hansen said. "I can't say enough about (then-UK head coach) Leah Little and (assistant coach) Tim Myers. I loved UK. I loved the college experience, I loved my roommates."
Hansen was especially full of praise for the athletic training staff during her time at UK, as well as her professors and classmates that she got to know as she worked toward her degree in animal science equine. Hansen had to cope with dyslexia as a student and said that without the support and tutoring at Kentucky's Center for Academic and Tutorial Services, her success in school would not have been possible.
"The CATS program was amazing," Hansen said. "Mike Haley, he was my adviser and he was the best. I would ask Mike what classes I should take and he was like, 'OK, Hansen, this is what you're going to do.' Being a student-athlete, you're so focused on (sports) that it was nice to have that CATS program to help you through so many difficulties, especially because I am dyslexic. That was a big help in my school."
Hansen has had the chance to briefly introduce herself to UK's newly-minted gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison and had a very positive impression about where he will take the program. She said that she was impressed by the work Garrison did with a gymnastics team in California close to Hansen's home.
"He was really great," Hansen said. "It's crazy that he's only the third coach at UK. I wish him success. I saw that he coached out here and he got a couple girls to nationals and things."
Little, Hansen's coach at UK, was largely responsible for the founding of the gymnastics program at the school. If there is one thing about Little that Hansen hopes Garrison can duplicate, it is the infusion of a spirit of fun into training and competition.
"I hope he keeps it fun for the girls," Hansen said. "That's what Leah was so wonderful at. She pushed us, but she let us enjoy our college experience. If we had problems, she would talk to us. There were times when I would just need a hug and she said OK and it was always such a heartfelt hug. She was right there with us. When we were crying, she would try to console us."
Finding perspective isn't always an easy thing for a coach.
Since the goal is constant improvement, Matthew Mitchell can't always separate himself from that.
"You just kind of view your team differently," Mitchell said. "You know all of the deficiencies your team has and you know what you feel like they're capable of doing and what they're not doing and all those things kind of roll into you maybe being a little more critical of your team than anyone else's."
But when he takes a step back, Mitchell can remember that Kentucky is in a good place. The No. 11/10 Wildcats (19-6, 8-4 Southeastern Conference) are well-positioned for the postseason. UK is in the top 10 of the RPI and currently projected to host first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games, an impressive fact considering the Cats have dealt with a month-long injury to senior defensive stopper Bria Goss and a season-ending one suffered by point guard Janee Thompson.
"I think all in all it could a lot different right now," Mitchell said. "So I'm really, really proud of the position they've put themselves in. We just need to finish. We need to finish and keep getting better. I think if we can do that we can do some special things here down the stretch."
The stretch run for Kentucky begins with a Thursday matchup with No. 15 Texas A&M (20-6, 8-4 SEC) that will go on as scheduled in spite of winter weather in Lexington. The Aggies are led by dynamic juniors Courtney Williams and Courtney Walker, who are averaging a combined 29.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists.
"Texas A&M is a very good team," Mitchell said. "Some of the best players in the conference are on their team. It will be a difficult challenge. Our team is upbeat and excited for the game, and we are going to work hard and see if we can earn a very, very important victory for our team."
The victory is important because the Cats and Aggies are competing not only in the SEC but for NCAA Tournament seeding. The two teams are currently knotted in conference standings in pursuit of a bye in the SEC Tournament and separated by a single seed line in ESPN.com's latest Bracketology. UK is a No. 3 and Texas A&M No. 4.
"It would be a significant victory," Mitchell said. "We're right there with them in competition for some positioning in the SEC and probably the NCAA, too. So, it's a big game. Big game tomorrow night. The thing I tell the team is that we still have an opportunity to get it together and really play some good basketball and see how good we can be."
As has been the case most of the season, Mitchell is targeting improvement first in the post. With a group now made up of two seniors and three freshmen with the return of veteran Jelleah Sidney, inconsistency has been an issue, including in a loss on Sunday at Tennessee.
UK was outrebounded 46-36 in the loss, a far cry from the 39-38 advantage the Cats enjoyed in a previous matchup with the Lady Volunteers.
"That was just a real rough game," Mitchell said. "It was a real rough game and if you didn't stick your nose in there and really play tough you weren't going to be successful. That's what I was disappointed in. I just thought we were out-toughed in the post a lot of times."
The Aggies are capable of inflicting damage similar to what Tennessee did if they Cats don't come ready.
"They look like an A&M team: Big and physical in the post, a good power game and if you don't play real, real tough they can make some plays and have great size," Mitchell said. "It's a very good A&M team and really tough in the post. We'll have to play well."
DeMarcus Cousins | Milwaukee Bucks: 111, Sacramento Kings: 103 In Sacramento's last game before the All-Star break, Cousins posted a monster double-double on the road versus Brandon Knight's Bucks. The 24-year-old Alabama native recorded 28 points (on 10-for-12 free-throw shooting), 19 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a losing effort on Feb. 11.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (29-25) After missing a Feb. 8 contest with Sacramento to witness the birth of his child, Bledsoe returned to action last Tuesday in a 127-118 loss to the Houston Rockets. With 12 points in 13 trips to the foul line, Bledsoe totaled 32 points on the day. He filled out the box score with four assists, four rebounds, two steals and a block.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (18-34) In only three matchups last week, Cousins recorded two 28-point games, each complemented by a double-digit performance on the glass. Before last Wednesday's double-double in Milwaukee, Cousins posted 28 points and 12 rebounds in an 85-83 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Enes Kanter | #0 C | Utah Jazz (19-34) Kanter-- who averages 7.8 RPG on the season-- grabbed at least 10 rebounds in both Jazz contests last week, highlighted by a 14-point, 11-rebound performance in a 100-96 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Brandon Knight | #11 PG | Milwaukee Bucks (30-23) After an uncharacteristically lackluster showing in a Feb. 9 Bucks win, Knight scored 20 points (with six rebounds and five assists) in Milwaukee's eight-point defeat of Cousins' Kings.
Jodie Meeks | #20 SG | Detroit Pistons (21-33) Despite two low scoring performances in Pistons losses on Sunday and Wednesday, Meeks poured in 18 points in a 106-78 Detroit win over the Charlotte Hornets on Tuesday.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (12-41) In the Sixers' only game, Noel stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, four assists, a block and a steal. Philly lost to the Golden State Warriors, 89-84. John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (33-21) Despite re-injuring a nagging sprained ankle in a Feb. 9 win, Wall bounced back on Wednesday with 21 points and eight assists in a 95-93 loss to the Toronto Raptors on Feb. 11.
Cats in All-Star Weekend
Rising Stars Challenge Nerlens Noel contributed four points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in a starting effort for Team USA in the Rising Stars Challenge. Team World, however, won the game, 121-112.
Skills Challenge After beating defending champion Trey Burke (Jazz) in the first round, and cruising past Kyle Lowry (Raptors) in the second, Brandon Knight was defeated by Patrick Beverley (Houston Rockets) in the Skills Challenge final. All-Star Game In his first career All-Star starting nod, John Wall scored 19 points and dished out seven assists in the Eastern Conference's 163-158 loss to the Western Conference. Cousins added 14 points and seven rebounds off the bench for the West. Anthony Davis, who was voted a frontcourt starter for the West, sat out the weekend with a sprained shoulder.
Kentucky moved to 26-0 with a 66-48 win at Tennessee on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Not many coaches can say it, but John Calipari has been in this position before.
Twice before this season he'd coached teams to 26-0 starts, experience he's calling on as Kentucky set a record for the best start in program history on Tuesday night.
It's with that in mind that Coach Cal has changed his approach to coaching through mistakes.
"I would have, you know, we keep winning, we're up 18, I'm not screwing this up," Calipari said. "Well you are screwing it up if you don't correct. You are screwing it up if it happens in March and you let it go in February, shame on me."
For that reason, Calipari didn't sound much like a winning coach after the top-ranked Wildcats (26-0, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) won at Tennessee (14-11, 6-7 SEC), 66-48. He isn't letting mistakes go by without comment.
Take Devin Booker for example. The freshman sharpshooter scored a game-high 18 points and added a career-best seven rebounds. He played good defense for good measure as UK held Tennessee to 37.5-percent shooting - including 17 points on 25-percent second-half shooting - but Calipari was looking for more.
"Yeah, but he missed a bunch of shots," Calipari said. "And I was getting upset because I kept saying we wanted to start the game posting the ball. So what did we do? We shot 3s."
UK made just 5 of 22 from 3-point range, but the Cats rebounded more than half their overall misses to make up for it. However, the fact that Tennessee had 19 offensive rebounds to UK's 17 did not escape Coach Cal's notice.
"Well, let me say this," Calipari said. "We didn't outrebound them, and they got 19 offensive rebounds and there was a clip with three minutes to go where they got five offensive rebounds in a row. So, we have some work to do."
In Calipari's mind, the same goes for UK's two-headed point-guard monster of Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. The pair combined for 22 points, eight assists and just one of UK's 11 turnovers, but they heard from their coach as well.
"I was on Andrew because he wasn't attacking," Calipari said. "I said, 'If you don't attack I'm not putting you in the game. I don't care if you turn the ball over. When you catch it if you just pass it, you're coming out.' Then, when he attacks, Andrew, now we got he and Tyler both attacking, we're coming running downhill at you, and we become the aggressor."
That mentality, to Calipari, is what it's all about.
"That's why I keep telling them, you've got to come out and play," Calipari said. "If you're not attacking, I'm taking you out. You can say that I'm messing with you but I don't care what you say, but you're not going to play. Because that's the way they're going to get us."
Aggressiveness wasn't the problem for Karl-Anthony Towns, rather controlling it. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week played just a minute in the first half after picking up a pair of fouls that Calipari says can't happen come tournament time.
"I was just really disappointed in those fouls, and they were fouls," Calipari said. "I mean, they were just a plain push - 'What are you - why would you do that? Are you going to do that in March? Is that the play you'll make in March? Then foul a shooter?' And he fouled him. So, there are things we have to know and grow from."
To the outside world, the Cats' pursuit of perfection defines them. There are ESPN commercials about it and all. But to Calipari, it's all about that improvement. Whether UK falters in game No. 27 as UMass did in 1995-96 and Memphis did in 2007-08 matters little. Getting to and winning game No. 40 is what counts.
"I'm telling you, we're playing to get better," Calipari said. "If that means we win more games, that's fine. We are playing to get better. There are areas of offense we're focusing on and there's areas of defense we're focusing on. And that's what we're doing."
And don't doubt the Cats have accepted that challenge.
"When Coach really says this is like a wolf pack, this is a wolf pack," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Like, we're trying to be something special. So every day we're trying to make each other better and that's powerful. That's what--you know that's the path we're on and we're going to continue to be on that path, so, I mean, that's the biggest thing I can tell you."
When catcher Zach Arnold arrived on Kentucky's campus for his freshman season in 2012, there was an immediately priority placed on strengthening his 6-foot-2 frame.
A star backstop at Franklin County High School, Arnold was a first-team all-state selection, hitting .445 as a senior.
Arnold, a 27th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft by the New York Mets, always had standout defensive tools. A great athlete with a quick exchange and good receiving skills, Arnold has what it takes to play baseball for a long time.
Catcher is a position that requires a unique amount of leadership. It is a position that can be strengthened by experience and maturity.
For the last five years, Kentucky had Micheal Thomas in the program. A walk-on who arrived on campus as a former star quarterback at Elizabethtown High School, Thomas waited until his junior season before securing a primary starting position. During his senior season, UK coach Gary Henderson relied heavily on Thomas due to a unique trust and faith in his veteran catcher.
That limited time for talented young catchers in Arnold and Greg Fettes. The two have made the most of their opportunities throughout their careers, with Fettes earning freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2013 behind the plate as the primary back-up to Thomas. Arnold served as the third catcher during his true freshman campaign, making one start.
In 2014, Arnold emerged as the primary back-up to Thomas, making three starts and playing in 18 games. At the plate, Arnold hit in nearly every opportunity, batting a robust .542 (13-for-24) with three doubles and eight RBI. He drew three walks and struck out just twice. He batted 8-for-13 with runners on base and 7-for-11 with runners in scoring position.
Twice in key situations, Henderson and the Wildcats turned to the talented Arnold at the plate in pinch-hit late in games in 2014.
In UK's final game of the regular season, Arnold was called on as a pinch hitter at Georgia. After the Wildcats fell down 11-3 after six innings, UK mounted a furious rally with a six-run frame in the eighth inning and scored a run in the ninth to cut it to 11-10. Arnold came to the plate with pinch-runner Marcus Carson standing on second base and one out in the final inning. He saw six pitches and took a called third strike, but earned praise from Henderson for battling in a quality at-bat in a key situation.
"I actually had a conversation with Coach Henderson after that at-bat," Arnold said. "Earlier in the game I got a hit. Then later in the game, I came up and I had never been in a situation like that. That was my first real big at-bat and maybe the moment was a little bit too big for me in that situation and I tried to over-do what I really needed to do, which was just put the ball in play."
That earned him a second opportunity at a game-changing at-bat. In the bottom of the 12th inning in the longest game ever played in the SEC Tournament, Arnold came off the bench with the bases loaded and no outs with Matt Reida standing on third to represent the game-winning run.
He smacked the first pitch he saw into the hole on the left side of the infield, with Reida scoring and Arnold notching his first career walk-off hit and helping UK to its best ever finish in the SEC Tournament.
Now as a junior in 2015, Arnold, as well as Fettes, will be relied on behind the plate for the Wildcats, with Thomas departed as a 23rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers.
"We've got Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes now," Henderson said. "They've both performed really well. They are team leaders, they are likeable, at the center of the club, good skilled kids, tough, smart. All those things that you need."
With Arnold now armed with key experience and a wealth of knowledge after working with Henderson and catching coordinator Keith Vorhoff, he is poised for a strong season.
"I have been able to work with Vor and Micheal, and listening to Coach Henderson, obviously has been a huge asset," Arnold said. "It really expands your knowledge as far as the aspect of catching and also being able to help the pitcher. You are the pitching coach on the field and I think that is what Coach wants. He's one of the best pitching coaches in the game and being able to listen to him, all the bullpens and our side conversations, are really helping to develop me into being that extra pitching coach."
Physically, Arnold has developed into a player that can swing a bat with more speed and confidence and can handle the rigors of the position.
"I've been able to really stick to Coach D's (strength coach Ryan DeVriendt) program while here at school and then at home away over the summer," Arnold said. "I just kind of stuck to the program and did exactly what he told me. I met with the nutritionist and really figured out how to eat as far as putting on weight. I was up to 187 in the preseason, so I have put on quite a bit of weight since high school."
Henderson is excited about the possibility of his 2015 catching duo of Arnold and Fettes and the ability to keep them both fresh through the grind of the SEC season.
"If you have watched us play over the years, I am a guy that likes to use two catchers if possible," Henderson said. "You have to have the people to do it. I enjoy that. I like it. It makes me feel good that we are giving somebody little bit of rest at a position that can be really demanding. I think we have a chance to do it with those two guys."
On this week's games against Tennessee and Auburn ... "Well, I will tell you that I think both programs probably have surprised all of us coaches in the league in that what they've done and how they've played this year. And both done it different ways. I mean, Tennessee playing an aggressive, attacking zone and an open offense and driving the ball and Auburn pressing and being physical and beating you on the bounce and offensive rebounding. Going on the road and winning in this league, which is really difficult, both of those teams have done that. Like I said, this league, top to bottom, we're there. We're literally there. I'm so happy. I was so happy to see an article say, 'You can say it over and over. It doesn't make it true.' And that people now are realizing that we got a bunch of teams. And just because we're beating each other does not make us weak. It means we're really strong. Every game is coming down to a one-bucket game, including our games." On how much he works with Alex Poythress during his recovery ... "Well, I'm not doing anything with him because they just tell me when the bus leaves. I'm not the physical therapist and the trainer and all that stuff. Now they tell me how far along he is. My thing to Alex all the time is, does it still hurt? Does it really hurt when you have to stretch? Because Brad went through it. I know how painful it is. And he says, 'Yes, it's killer.' I said, 'Lovely, it's exactly what you need. It's exactly the thing that's going to get you to that next point in your career. Just saw him this morning, asked him how his knee was. He said, 'I'm doing better, Coach.' So, great kid."
On how much he includes Poythress in team activities ... "He comes with the team and he's at meetings and all those things. I mean, it's hard. Ask Willie. Last year when he gets hurt in the NCAA Tournament run, if you're not in the fray, you're in the back lines, you're watching with binoculars, it's hard. They come back, you don't feel what they feel. You didn't have the same emotion that they had. But he's doing great."
On what lessons he took from long unbeaten runs at Memphis and UMass ... "Well, the reality of it is the kids have to manage those things. It's not me because I'm not out there on the court. But I've got one job, and my first time we did this at UMass, I knew we were slipping. But we kept winning so I put my head in the sand. I was just like, 'Let these guys go do their thing.' And I had done it years before we went that because we went on win streaks in previous years - 17, 15, whatever they were at UMass - and what you get as a coach, you win and you want to move on to the next game and you try to put your head in the sand when you have issues that you gotta deal with. I did a little bit of the same but got better at Memphis. I'm trying really hard not to do that here, to do my job, to correct them, to be tough on them, to not worry about score and coach them. But it's hard. They're looking at me like, 'We're up 25 and haven't lost and you're losing your mind.' My point being, if I allow it now then I gotta allow it in March. And if in March I allow it and it costs us a game, that's on me. That's not on these kids. And so I'm trying really hard to just stay focused on what's at hand. Don't put my head in the sand. If there's issues, I bring them out. If there's issues in the team that I'm not liking what I feel, I bring them out. Even if I'm wrong, I bring them out. Let's talk about this. And they'll, 'Look, Coach, you're just dreaming. What were you doing? You're reading a book and things pop in your mind? We're fine.' So that's the kind of stuff that we do and what I'm continuing to do. These kids, I don't think they're worried about, let's try to win every game. They're worried about trying to win the next game and how do we play. My message to this team is going to be real simple. Today, it's going to be, our strength is in the pack, more than any team that I've ever coached. And I've coached a lot of good teams. More than any team I've coached, the strength is in the pack. And I said, 'It doesn't mean we don't have some aggressive, tough wolves that'll come after you.' But by themselves, they're not the same. In the pack, we have a little swag about us. We're a little more aggressive. We're really about each other. Guys aren't afraid to step out and risk. This team more than others--when you had Anthony (Davis) or John (Wall) or DeMarcus (Cousins) and I could go back to Marcus Camby and Derrick Rose and Lou Roe and some of the guys we had. Tyreke Evans. You know, we were a good and we were efficient, but we knew that one guy could go do this and carry us. That's not what we have. The strength of this team is in the pack." On Anthony Davis talking to Willie Cauley-Stein at LSU and whether he arranged it ... "No, but here's what's great about it. All our players that went through here are watching this team, and they want to help. They want the team to be great. But the best thing that Anthony did - instead of just talking to (Cauley-Stein), he came to the game and watched him. So there's B.S., that 'You did this' or 'I tried this' or this or that. There's no B.S. If you want to do this, this is what you have to be or you can't do that. What I'm doing here, you can't be in this thing. And so then it's - I can say it all I want. Anthony Davis is busting up against being the best player in the NBA. And he comes back, he talked to Karl Towns. He grabbed Karl after the game and told him. It means something coming from me, but coming from those guys is huge."
On if leaving one day early could impact UK's normal routine ... "Well, you must know me well. I'm a creature of habit. For however many years I've been a head coach we've done it the same way. Offense is different, defense is different, players are different, but what we do as a family, how we travel, how are meals are, is very consistent. This was a change. We had no choice. Today, you're right, my concern is how do we do this and not get off point? So, we're going to go over this afternoon and do shooting and individual work. We have the main arena from 12-2, but we're only going to be there for about an hour and it's not going to be knocking each other out. But if I let them go all day, and they're going to sleep, and we get up to eat, and they go back to sleep, and then they sleep all night, then they get up for breakfast, and then they go back to sleep, and then we go to a shootaround and they go back to sleep, we will be sleepwalking in that game Tuesday. So, we're going to come back and practice later today, probably 4 o'clock, 5 o'clock, have a great meal, let them lay around, have a meeting and try to get back to the rhythm of what we do. But, yes, I'm a creature of habit. I'm meatloaf and potatoes, unless they don't have it, then I may try a steak."
Over the last three years, Kentucky catcher Greg Fettes has been AJ Reed's roommate.
When the two were freshmen, they stayed in the dorms together and for the last two years, they shared an apartment.
Fettes had a front-row seat for one of the most historic seasons in the history of college baseball, as Reed led the nation in homers, slugging and OPS, while leading the SEC in pitching wins.
"Watching AJ from his freshman year, to last year, I felt like a proud dad or brother," Fettes said. "It was unreal what he has done the last few years. Coming in with him, watching him changing his body, it was really cool to see. AJ is a humble guy, he was never different towards me. I wasn't playing that much and he was great to me. We are still great buddies and we talk all the time. AJ is a friend I will have for my whole life."
Now that AJ has graduated to the Houston Astros organization, Fettes will be one of the several UK returnees that coach Gary Henderson will be looking at to help fill a monstrous void. Not only must UK replace the irreplaceable bat of Reed in the lineup, the Wildcats also have to replace the leadership of fifth-year senior catcher Micheal Thomas.
Thomas made a Henderson-era record in starts behind the plate as a senior in 2014, keeping talented back-up catchers Zach Arnold and Greg Fettes from a large amount of playing time. The relationship between Thomas and Henderson was unique, as the two were extremely close and connected after half a decade of working together.
"Micheal was here for five years and as a catcher you have to be Hendo's second man," Fettes said. "With MT being with Hendo so long, he knew exactly what he was going to call and they were on the same wavelength. Hendo is in the dugout but the catcher is on the field, you have to talk to pitchers and know what to say. That is something I've learned over the last four years. "
Fettes, a former star out of Detroit, Michigan, joined the UK roster in 2012 and used it as a redshirt season while he firmed up his 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. A powerful right-handed hitter with good arm strength, Fettes has always had the tools to produce but the backstop position is improved mainly by repetition and experience.
"I feel like I could be the best pitcher in the world," Fettes said about what he learned from Henderson in four years. "And I'm not even a pitcher but I feel like I could go out there and pitch because I've learned so much about pitching. I've learned so many things from him, from how to see how the pitcher is feeling, or how to calm a pitcher down, being able to spot what they might be doing wrong, or right, with each pitch."
Over his four year career, Fettes - a 43rd round pick of the Detroit Tigers out of high school - has hit .250 in 22 starts, with five doubles, three homers and 14 RBI.
In 2013, Fettes became the first catcher in UK history to earn freshman All-SEC honors after ripping his three homers in league play.
Now as a seasoned performer, and without his roommate in 2015, Fettes will be relied on to help lead a youthful UK club.
"Coming in, sitting on the bench and redshirting, having to watch, it was tough on me at first but it motivated me to get my reps in," Fettes said. "I improved on the things I needed to improve on because I need to be ready to help this team."
Lars Jorgensen leads the UK swimming and diving team into the SEC Championships this week. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The buildup to the Southeastern Conference Swimming and Diving Championships lasts the entire season.
Preseason training, dual meets and invitationals from September through January all lead to this moment. The excitement, speed and competitiveness at the SEC Championships rival even the NCAA Championships.
Kentucky enters the five-day championship coming off a win at Cincinnati on Jan. 30. Since then, it's been all about tapering, staying fresh and building on the momentum from the win over Cincinnati.
"The team is excited. The last few weeks of training has been really good," second-year head coach Lars Jorgensen said. "We've continued to build momentum in practice, along with getting rest and recovery so everyone is sharp when we get to Auburn. The key is to keep everyone sharp."
The buildup has been aided by the win at Cincinnati in UK's regular-season finale. Both the UK men and women notched identical 216-84 victories, which has propelled the Wildcats into a positive two weeks of practice leading into Tuesday's conference meet.
The championship preparation got a boost because of the win at UC. The excitement level from that win has translated into the two weeks of training.
"There's been a really positive attitude in practice," senior Christina Bechtel said. "Everyone's been excited, it's really good energy in the pool. We're gearing up, getting ready to swim fast at SECs. Getting that big win at Cincinnati will help us bring a lot of good momentum into the championship and bring some good performances."
"Our practices have been really good. We've had a lot of hard practices," sophomore Danielle Galyer added. "We're looking forward to SECs, everyone is tapering and we're excited to swim fast."
While attention and excitement for the SEC Championships has kicked into high gear after the conclusion of the regular season, the meet has really been the focus ever since September.
Ever since the beginning of the season, Jorgensen has preached the importance of building up towards the conference championship meet. Not only is it key to have your fastest times to earn more points for the team in the standings, but it's the personal-best times that gets individuals into the NCAA Championships.
"SECs is always in the back of our mind. That's what we're training for," sophomore Kyle Higgins said. "Everyone's excited, coming off a win over Cincinnati and some good swims vs. Louisville. We definitely want to get best times, but each of us doesn't want this to be our last meet. We all want to get fast times so we can earn a spot at the NCAA Championships."
Swimmers qualify for the national championship meet by their season-best times in each event, with the fastest athletes earning bids. From competing against a fast field to wearing special racing suits, those season-best times are routinely set at the league championship event.
Despite any success achieved during the regular season, it's at the SEC Championships were the season's story is written though.
"It's been a great year. We've achieved a lot of success so far. But this meet is important. It's where we can qualify some more athletes for NCAAs," Jorgensen said. "We want everyone to get as many personal-bests as possible and score as many points as a team as we can. It's a really difficult conference meet against some really good teams, some of the best teams in the country."
The season-long buildup has been aided by the fact that Jorgensen is in his second season. For the 35 athletes returning from last season, there are fewer unknowns. From preseason training to postseason tapering, the Wildcats know what to expect. There is plenty of familiarity with Jorgensen's coaching style.
The 16 sophomores, many of whom have played a vital role in the team's success in 2014-15, are now familiar with the grind of the collegiate season.
"This year I think it was easier to get started," Galyer said. "I don't know if that's just because I'm a sophomore now, but we knew what to expect coming in, so it was easier to get adjusted right away. We're just trying to keep moving in the right direction.
"Being a sophomore and going into my second SECs, it's helpful for mental preparation for the meet. We know what to expect, there are fewer unknowns. I'm able to focus on the swimming part instead of guessing about all the other things."
One of the unknowns for any first-time competitor at the SEC Championships is just how big the event really is. From a packed venue to many of the nation's best swimmers and divers and the best teams, the five-day meet packs plenty of excitement.
Add in the fact that the meet will be broadcast live on SEC Network +, and there are plenty of nerves to go around.
"It's definitely going to be different this year, knowing what to expect and not being so nervous," Higgins said. "I know what I'm going up against, I know what to expect. It's going to be really exciting to race against some of the best in the country."
Knowing what to expect can make a lot of difference. Just ask Bechtel, who broke out on the scene last year at her second SEC Championships.
Then a junior, Bechtel placed second in the 100 butterfly after finishing 17th as a sophomore in her first SEC appearance. It was UK's first swimming medal at the conference championship since 2012 and the Bechtel became the first Wildcat to earn a silver medal since 2010.
The podium finish for Bechtel catapulted her to the NCAA Championships, where she placed fifth in the 200 butterfly.
"This is my third SEC Championships, so I know what to expect at this meet," Bechtel said. "Last year I had some good swims, so I'm hoping for some even better swims this season and to score as many points as a can for our team. I know what to expect, and I know the upperclassmen do as well, so we can help the freshmen too. The coaching staff has done a great job this season preparing this team, and I can't wait to see the results that will come this week."
This year, Bechtel owns the NCAA's fastest 200 butterfly time and the second-fastest time in the 100 butterfly. That has earned her the top seed in both events this week.
With a bid to the NCAA Championships already secured, Bechtel hopes a strong showing at the SEC Championships is just a sign of things to come at nationals.
Whether they're chasing an SEC title or a spot in each evening's top final, looking to improve their NCAA qualifying time or just making their first SEC Championships appearance, it's important to step back and enjoy the moment.
"The SEC Championships is fun. It's a really exciting event to be a part of," Jorgensen said. "The whole team travels and is able to compete. The week is really a lot of fun and the team is excited. They work so hard for this moment, so I hope they will be able to compete hard and enjoy it. And have fun with it, that's important too."
With a sold-out crowd expected at Auburn's Martin Aquatic Center and some of the nation's fastest swimmers on hand, there will be plenty of reasons to have fun.
Kentucky was facing off against Kansas in the opener of the 2014 NCAA Louisville Regional.
With a potential matchup against a lefty-laden Louisville lineup in the second round and a right-handed dominant Kansas squad, UK head coach Gary Henderson turned to his sophomore standout righty, Kyle Cody, to make his first NCAA Tournament start.
Henderson and the Wildcats had the utmost confidence in Cody, who just nine days earlier had handcuffed the Southeastern Conference Champion Florida Gators to two runs over 5.1 innings in a win in the SEC Tournament.
Things did not go the way Cody pictured them when he laid down to go to sleep the night before.
One of the top arms in college baseball, Cody was rated as the seventh-best sophomore in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. He certainly had the stuff, makeup and experience to fire a gem and set up the Wildcats for a winner's bracket matchup.
After a seven-pitch walk to open the game, Cody misfired on his throw to first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, scoring a run and putting himself in an early jam. An RBI sacrifice bunt scored the second run and an RBI double put the Wildcats in a 3-0 hole. Henderson turned to the bullpen in the must-win situation, ending his outing.
"That motivated me more in summer ball. It helped me get going up there," Cody said. "I feel like that has just carried on into this year. All the success I had up there (in summer ball), that feeling has just carried on as I came back here. Just made me want to become a better player and made me look forward to this year even more. I just can't wait to get back on the mound and try to get back to that spot. And prove that we can win a regional and move on."
The memory of suffering the loss in the NCAA Tournament lidlifter was not something Cody could easily erase. He went to work at it however, venturing to the prestigious Cape Cod League for a summer baseball experience that helped him erase the memories of the regional start.
Cody had a great summer, earning the starting pitching honor for the Western Division in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, with his UK teammate Kyle Barrett starting in centerfield for the Eastern Division.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody finished his summer with a 2.72 ERA, tossing 36.1 innings with just 11 walks and 34 strikeouts. He ranked eighth in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the CCBL.
"It helped me a lot to face the talented hitters that you face in the Cape," Cody said. "Facing really good hitters and being able to throw to all types of hitters. It wouldn't really help me if I went somewhere in the summer and didn't face real competition. It really helped me a lot because it allowed me to work on my off-speed pitches and secondary stuff, which got a whole lot better up there. The coaching was phenomenal. Jim Lawler, my pitching coach, was really good. He helped me with some mechanical things and some mental things and just calmed me down a lot. It was an overall good experience for me this summer."
Cody, who has a 3.18 ERA in his two-year SEC career, enters his junior season ranked in the preseason as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. He is also a Baseball America third-team preseason All-America selection.
"I think there's two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive," Henderson detailed. "You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He's done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He's improved his body, he's a lot stronger, he's healthy right now, I think. He's a pivotal part of the team, there's no question about that. He's a guy who's in a gene pool, a skill level that's capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he's capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He's a talented kid."
Cody's relationship with Henderson has also grown over three years and the duo now has a unique trust and reliance on each other.
"(Henderson) has a lot more trust in me, now that I've been here for three years," Cody said. "My freshman year he was always dialed in to tell me what to do, and giving me clues, and now he is looking towards me to tell him what is going on. I feel like he has more trust in me and I've learned a lot from him in return. Our communication is really good and we work really well together."
Not only will Cody be expected to be a physical leader of the deep UK pitching staff, he will be tasked in a leadership role.
"That is a different spot for me right now compared to last year," Cody said. "I wasn't looked at as a leader last year because there were some guys ahead of me and I was still trying to learn. Now that most of them are gone it is a little different when some younger guys ask questions about what is going to happen or what happens next. It's little different but I kind of enjoy it. It gives you a good feeling to help out someone younger who is trying to get to where I'm at right now. It just gives me a good feeling about what the future holds for them and how it can only help us and the program."