Alex Poythress had 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Texas A&M on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Caught in somewhat of a lull and on the verge allowing another opponent to hang around, UK needed a jolt.
The Wildcats led Texas A&M by just four points early in the second half after building a double-digit advantage before halftime. The Rupp Arena crowd was anxious, surely anticipating another nip-and-tuck finish.
It was then, however, that UK turned to a source of energy that has gone from unlikely to expected within the last two months: Alex Poythress.
"He made plays like, 'How did he make that play?' " John Calipari said. "And that's how we got a little gap."
He scored the game's next seven points, the last three coming on an open-floor and-one that drew a big reaction from his teammates and even a smile from the normally stoic Poythress. After an A&M 3 briefly cut the lead to eight, Poythress delivered a gravity-defying dunk to give the No. 14/14 Cats (14-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish en route to a 68-51 win over the Aggies (12-6, 3-2 SEC).
"We wanted to get the game and keep it going and stretch out the lead," said Poythress, who finished with a season-high 16 points. "We were playing great defense. We just needed a couple stops."
Not long ago, Poythress would have been among the last players expected to step up in that moment. Still battling the inconsistency that plagued him as a freshman, Poythress teased with his incredible potential but far too infrequently for him to be relied on regularly.
Over the last month, that's changed completely.
It began in preparation, which prompted Coach Cal to make occasional mention of Poythress's performance in practices. In December, the results began to trickle in on the floor. There was the solid six-point, eight-rebound effort and North Carolina, the seven points he scored in UK's best win of the season over Louisville. Though he wasn't blowing anyone away with his statistics, UK just seemed to be better when Poythress was in the game.
Meanwhile, Poythress was building his confidence brick by brick.
"I can't really speak for him, but just what I see when I'm guarding him he's more assertive, sure of himself and playing with a lot of confidence and just attacking and not thinking so much," Julius Randle said.
With newfound self-assurance, Poythress has become the sixth man UK can always count on to deliver, even if it doesn't always mean scoring 11 straight points for his team.
"I'm just trying to bring energy off the bench and just play my role and do what I can to help the team win," Poythress said.
Poythress has evolved into a 6-foot-8, 239-pound terror Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy called "dominant" after his team lost in Rupp Arena. Coach Cal had a more violent though no less complimentary description.
"Mentally, Alex thinks he's going to kill you, so he will," Calipari said. "Last year that's not how Alex was thinking."
In five games of SEC play, Poythress is averaging 10.6 points and at least one rim-rattling dunk per game. On defense, Poythress has gone from a nonfactor to a versatile weapon capable of guarding both post and perimeter players. During that same stretch to open conference play, he has 10 blocks after registering two against Texas A&M. He had just 14 his entire freshman year.
"Alex, I keep saying, Alex, what you're seeing is what I'm seeing in practice, which is like, holy cow," Calipari said. "I mean, he's just dominating, making his free throws, making jump shots."
Randle has had an up-close view of that dominance, as the two athletic forwards most often matchup with one another in practice. He's ecstatic to see the player he has to deal with in practice show up in games.
"We all see the work he puts in and just to finally see him break through and play great, I couldn't be more happy for him," said Randle, who had his 11th double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "It's just real exciting because if he does that we know our team just goes to another level."
That's perhaps no truer than when opponents deploy the zone defenses the Cats are likely to see throughout the season.
Normally, the term "zone buster" is reserved for a knockdown outside shooter, but Poythress proved to be just that on Tuesday night. Against A&M's 2-3, Poythress roamed the baseline. Waiting for either a pass and a chance to attack the rim or an offensive-rebounding opportunity, he was constantly ready to pounce.
"He's just so explosive," Randle said. "Our guards can penetrate and shoot or they can penetrate and kick to him and he'll score the ball and dunk the ball or whatever. So it's a huge help."
As much of a help as that may be, Coach Cal is much more concerned with attitude, mentality and hard work when it comes to any of his players. After all, those are the reasons for Poythress's transformation. Now, Calipari is looking to apply those lessons elsewhere.
"It's kind of like chipping away at a rock," Calipari said in reference to Derek Willis. "You keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and then all of a sudden it's been weeks and it's been months and there's one hit and it splits and you split the rock and you made it. You're over the hump."
Poythress may appear to be over that hump, but Calipari still knows there's only one way for anyone to stay on the right side of it.
"It's never good enough," Calipari said. "You're always hungry. You're always humble, but you're always hungry to get better. The minute you're satisfied, you start going the wrong way."
Not to worry, Poythress isn't.
"Just keep on working hard," he said. "We've got an off day tomorrow. Just come in Thursday prepared and ready to practice, have a good practice then and a good practice Friday and just translate to the game."
James Young is averaging 14.2 points 17 games into his freshman season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
James Young had never really thought much about his shooting stroke. Before he got to Kentucky he had always, well, just shot the basketball.
Now, Young is more aware of his mechanics. He can feel when he doesn't keep his shoulders forward. He knows when he jumps or lands or just one foot.
"I think about it a lot recently, how I'm shooting," Young said. "I've just gotta clear my mind a little bit and just let it go."
It's not that Young has been ineffective. The freshman guard is averaging 14.2 points and getting to the foul line nearly five times per game.
"I know he's not shooting at the percentage that he would like, but he's putting the ball in the basket," assistant coach John Robic said. "He's just creative in the way he (scores)."
Nonetheless, the Rochester Hills, Mich., native with a reputation as a knockdown shooter is shooting just 32.5 percent from 3-point range as No. 14/14 UK (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) prepares to host Texas A&M (12-5, 3-1 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. The tougher competition he's facing at the college level has something to do with that.
"They play a lot more defense than they did back in high school, so it'll probably affect me a little bit," Young said. "I've just gotta stay confident in my shot."
So far, losing confidence has been no issue for Young. Though the shots haven't always fallen, Young has not stopped shooting. That's the way John Calipari wants it.
"He gave me the green light to shoot so whenever I'm open I'm just going to keep shooting it," Young said. "I've just gotta knock them down."
To do that, Young needs to strike a balance behind clear-headed confidence and awareness of his mechanics. There's only one way to get there.
"Get in the gym and practice," Robic said.
Young is working on that, but he's making plenty of plays in the meantime. He made 2-of-5 3s on Saturday as UK shot 7-of-16 (43.8 percent) from deep in a win over Tennessee. Young also made a game-tying 3 near the end of overtime at Arkansas after missing one earlier in the same possession.
"The shot that he made at Arkansas, the one that Andrew (Harrison) made at Arkansas, were big shots, and it showed us something," Robic said.
Young, however, doesn't need to hit 3s to score. More than 54 percent of his points this season have come on either shots from inside the arc or at the line, oftentimes in unconventional ways that remind Robic -- who filled in for Coach Cal at Monday's pregame press conference -- of a former player now playing for the Charlotte Bobcats.
"He reminds me of the kid we had at Memphis, Chris Douglas-Roberts," Robic said. "Just a little unorthodox. It doesn't look like it's going in, but somehow it finds a way to go in."
Young expects to continue making those shots, but he's also challenging himself to find a more consistent form from outside.
"It's just about getting better every day," Young said. "That's what I just came here to do."
John Robic filled in for John Calipari on the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference this morning. Read what the assistant coach had to say about an upcoming matchup with Texas A&M and Saturday's comeback win over Tennessee.
On UK's matchups this week ... "We got two home games coming up this week, Texas A&M on Tuesday and Georgia on Saturday. I'm impressed really with both teams and what their new players are doing for them. I like the physical nature of both teams. Right now, both teams are playing very, very well. We're going to have to play a heck of a game in both outings."
On the similarities between Texas A&M's Jamal Jones and Elston Turner ... "You know what, that's a great point. Really like Jamal Jones. It seems like he should be averaging more than 12 points a game because it seems like every time he shoots it it goes in. He's really a smooth player, really good with the ball. He can create his own shot. He's a very shooter off the catch. It gives them that No. 1 scoring option for their team. He's really more of a three than he is a four. Sometimes he has to play that four spot, but it can create matchup problems because he can draw you away from the basket."
On Texas A&M leading the league in defensive field-goal percentage ... "They mix things up defensively between their man-to-man and zone. I really like (Alex) Caruso as a defender. Really anticipates well. They play solidly defensively. Not a whole lot of risk factors in trying to steal balls. They wall up really well in the post and make you take tough shots in and around the basket. We're going to have to do a good job of penetrating, being ready to shoot and hopefully do a little bit of damage on the offensive glass." On rebounding issues against Tennessee ... "You had two 6-8 kids that weigh about 275 pounds and they had their way with us. They were space-eaters inside that were really, really physical. I believe it's the first time all year we've been out-rebounded and we got our butts kicked on the glass, especially offensively. We showed that tape to our players yesterday before practice because we were plus-13 going into the game rebounding-wise. We were fortunate to come away with the win. There were a lot of those plays though there were probably two or three, sometimes even four offensive rebounds per possession. But we have to do a better job keeping guys off the glass for sure." On why Willie Cauley-Stein struggled against Tennessee ... "If you watch the film, once they made contact he didn't fight back. He had a big height advantage over them. He just has to get down and be physical and make the first blow with contact and then use his size to rebound it above the rim."
On Dakari Johnson's improvement ... "Well, we were really happy for Dakari. That's probably the best he's played and he's realistic about it. There are some games where it's a tough matchup for him, when the post players are a little smaller and thinner or quicker and can take you out away from the basket. He's really gotten in the best shape he's ever been in. He's running the floor well. He used his size the other day. That was a great matchup game for him. Defensively, he was pretty solid. Set good screens offensively. But how did he develop it? He's been in the gym getting extra work in and making sure he's doing extra conditioning and just focusing on the things that he can do to help us win a few more games."
The Kentucky cheerleading team claimed its 20th national championship on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Only for the Kentucky cheerleading team can one season without a national championship feel like a drought.
Last year, the cheerleaders were named runners-up to Memphis. On Sunday, UK returned to its familiar perch atop the world of college cheerleading.
"When you finally hear second place called and then they call first place, it's a lot of emotion, a lot of joy," Jomo Thompson said via cell phone. "We just feel vindicated, especially after coming in second place last year. We wanted to make sure we got back to the top and we did that."
UK won an unprecedented 20th national title at the UCA/UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship in Orlando, Fla., finishing ahead of second-place UCF. UK has now won an incredible 15 championships since 1995, only being dethroned five times during that span.
"I'm just fortunate to have been a part of this program for so long and I love UK," said Thompson, the former UK cheerleader who has won eight national titles in his 12 years as head coach. "I love UK cheerleading. I'm just glad I'm here to experience it with the kids. We strive every day to be the best. It's just a great thing that we've won so many times. It just speaks to the history and the tradition of winning and be the best."
The UCA's official Twitter account described the winning routine as both starting and finishing strong. Thompson saw much of the same, saying UK's finals routine was even better than a solid one in Saturday's preliminary round.
"I think they just really seized the opportunity," Thompson said. "They didn't let down. They didn't take anything for granted. They just did a really good job of going out there and executing and bringing home number 20."
The championship is the culmination of a year of hard work. UK didn't drastically alter the formula that has led to so much past success, but a seven-member senior class was intent on going out the right way. Thompson said those veterans played an instrumental role in setting the tone for UK's training.
"We just told the kids, 'You want to make sure that you're giving a hundred percent every time, even in practice, because you get one shot, one opportunity,' " Thompson said. "So you want to experience as many as things that can go wrong, encounter all those things in practice so if something like that happens at nationals, you're ready for it. I thought they did a great job this year getting themselves prepared."
The UK dance team also competed this weekend, turning in an impressive performance in the Division IA Hip Hop finals. UK came in fifth, an improvement from last year's sixth-place finish. Head coach Dawn Walters reported the team posted a score of 93.2, its best ever.
"The girls had a lot of confidence today when we went out to perform," Walters said. "They really went out there and had energy and excitement and the whole arena really went crazy when they were up there. Our degree of difficulty was higher this year than last year and we had a lot of group tricks. I think their confidence was the biggest thing this year."
UK Athletics congratulates both the cheer and dance teams for their achievements this weekend!
Sometimes bye weeks come at inopportune moments, short-circuiting a win streak when a team is playing its best.
Other bye weeks are welcome, offering a chance for players rest their weary legs during a long season.
Count the week UK Hoops had off following a win over Missouri on Sunday among the latter.
"We were so blessed," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "The good Lord blessed us with this bye week and we really needed it on a couple of fronts."
No. 10/12 Kentucky (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) survived that game against Missouri and ended a two-game losing skid without leader Kastine Evans and with Bernisha Pinkett playing just two minutes. Bria Goss and Janee Thompson stepped up, as the two guards combined for 36 points in an 80-69 victory, but the Wildcats were always going to need Evans and Pinkett at full strength in their bid for the SEC title.
With a little downtime, the two senior guards are getting there.
"Kastine was full go (Friday) morning, reported no issues, no pain," Mitchell said. "So she was off all week from practice activities. Stayed with low non-impact cardio and tried to stay up with that. So the time off for her and Bernisha was very, very good and they looked good."
DeNesha Stallworth is another player recuperating from injury, but she took a very different approach to UK's week without a Thursday game.
The senior forward has played three games since her return following arthroscopic knee surgery, but has shown signs of some of the rust to be expected following a month-long layoff. This week, she's taken full advantage of the opportunity to knock off some of that rust.
"DeNesha needed a week where she could just turn loose and practice and you weren't worried about playing Thursday and you could really go at it," Mitchell said.
And for UK as a team, the time off was productive as well. With some effects still lingering from that short-lived losing streak, a week of "high-level, high-intensity practice" was much-needed.
"We got it on both ends, got what we needed out of the open date and so I think we're starting to round back into full strength and we'll need to be as sharp as we can be to win Sunday, I can tell you that," Mitchell said.
UK will face a road test at Auburn (11-6, 2-2 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (SEC TV) that has Mitchell's undivided attention. The Tigers are facing 20.7 turnovers per game and are likely to throw multiple defensive looks at the Cats.
"Long, athletic, aggressive defenders and make it really tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "They've done a great job defensively."
Senior guard/forward Tyrese Tanner is leading the way for Auburn, scoring 16.4 points per game, but it doesn't end there for the Tigers. Ten players are averaging more than 15.1 minutes per game, meaning Auburn won't be fazed by UK's depth.
"Just their overall team is a really tough, explosive team," Mitchell said. "So going on the road in this league is always tough. It will be tough Sunday afternoon and we'll have to prepare well to win."
Andrew Harrison scored a career-high 26 points in UK's win over Tennessee on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
UK has won more than its share of games this season on the strength of rebounding.
The Wildcats made up for what they lacked at times in perimeter and free-throw shooting with their ability to overwhelm opponents on the offensive glass with size and strength.
Against Jarnell Stokes and Tennessee, the Cats got a taste of their own medicine.
"They have great big men," Andrew Harrison said. "Jarnell, he's a great player, most physical player we're probably going to play against. We just have to find a way to beat them in different ways."
For just the second time this season, UK was outrebounded. The visiting Volunteers held a 39-24 edge on the glass, outscored the Cats 20-10 in second-chance points and had more offensive rebounds than UK had defensively.
On another day, that may have spelled doom for UK. But on Saturday, the No. 12/13 Cats (13-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) found a way to take down Tennessee (11-6, 2-2 SEC) in a 74-66 win.
"Tennessee is not going to lose many in our league," John Calipari said. "I'm just happy we don't have to see them again until tournament time possibly, and I hope we don't see them there. They're a physical team."
UK overcame the Vols by maximizing their offensive possessions.
With the offensive rebounds not going their way, the Cats hit 23 of 24 from the free-throw line, nearly 30 percent better than their average for the season.
"We have guys who have great form and great technique," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points. "I think it's just a matter of time. Everybody can make shots and make free throws. It's just a focus thing."
UK also shot 7 of 16 (43.8 percent) from 3-point range, outscoring the Vols by 15 points from beyond the arc. And while in past close games turnovers have been UK's downfall, the Cats committed just eight.
"We just made tough plays, thank God," Randle said. "We played hard, we played together as a team and we made our free throws."
At least in the beginning, that physicality seemed it would be too much for Kentucky regardless, as the Vols grabbed a 6-0 lead and eventually led by as many as nine points at the 12:16 mark of the first half.
UK went to a familiar source to rally from that early deficit.
With Tennessee opting to guard Randle one on one, Coach Cal went to his star freshman forward. Randle responded with 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting before halftime, adding three assists, the last of which led to a James Young 3-pointer that gave UK a 34-32 lead to close out the first.
"What happened was we played through Julius in the first half, and you notice we kind of put him on different spots out on the court and then told him to beat the guy on the dribble, and he created for his teammates," Calipari said.
Not wanting Randle to beat them, the Vols sent the double and triple teams he has grown accustomed to. That's when UK found a novel way to win.
Spreading the floor, Coach Cal went to Harrison again and again.
"Julius had a big first half, so I feel like in the pick-and-roll I can get to the middle and beat the big guy on the dribble and maybe get to the lane and get fouled," Harrison said.
Decisively using the screen and attacking the Tennessee big, Harrison got into the lane at will and had his best game as a Wildcat. He had a career-high 26 points -- 16 after half -- on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and 10 of 10 from the line, adding three assists and not committing a single turnover.
"He got in the lane; he made the right play; he had no turnovers; he made big shots, the runner, the pull-up jumper; and he ran our team," Calipari said. "He played like a point guard. So he got better today, he really did."
Screening for Harrison most often on Saturday was Dakari Johnson, who stepped up in 16 solid minutes as Willie Cauley-Stein struggled to cope with the physicality of Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Johnson had no such issues, setting crushing picks that took Harrison's matchup almost completely out of plays.
"I just tried to set a hard screen, come up fast and just be a big screen so he could have isolation with the big men that's guarding me," Johnson said.
Johnson had only four points and four rebounds, but they all came in an eight-minute second-half stretch during which UK turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
"Well, Willie didn't play as well as he'd been playing, and we went with Dakari and he was terrific," Calipari said.
The 7-foot freshman also embraced the assignment of guarding Stokes, who torched the Cats for 12 points and 11 rebounds in a dominant first half. Stokes still finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds, but his life was much harder with Johnson battling him in the second half.
"He's real strong and he's so low to the ground," Johnson said. "He's different from me because I'm so high up to the ground. I just tried to be physical with him early to try to box him out."
Whether Johnson continues to emerge or Cauley-Stein regains the form that made it almost impossible for Coach Cal to take him off the floor remains to be seen, but the lessons UK will take from beating Tennessee will remain no matter what.
"We're not always going to be bigger than everybody else and we have to find ways to win," Harrison said.
Alex Poythress has scored a season-high 12 points in two of his last three games entering Saturday's matchup with Tennessee. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
At first look, the play was impressive and its significance clear.
As time ticked down on the five minutes of overtime at Arkansas, Alex Poythress hustled to track down a missed James Young 3-pointer. He grabbed the offensive rebound, leading to a game-tying 3 by Young that of course was rendered a footnote by Michael Qualls' put-back dunk with 0.2 seconds left.
But as good as the play was in real-time, only a slow-motion replay does it justice.
Poythress flies in from the left wing. In one motion, he rises to a seemingly impossible height, snares the rebound over a crowd, lands on one foot, dribbles as he falls to the ground and tosses underhand to Andrew Harrison.
"I honestly don't know (how he got to that rebound)," Poythress said. "I just (saw) the ball in the air, I just tried to go get it."
Immediately afterward, John Calipari praised Poythress's "effort play." Two days later -- with No. 12/13 UK (12-4, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) in the midst of preparations for a matchup with Tennessee (11-5, 2-1 SEC) at noon ET on Saturday -- he was even more glowing.
"I don't know of another player in the country that could make that play," Calipari said.
Three months ago, Coach Cal says not even Poythress would have been able to pull it off.
"He would have never gone after the ball," Calipari said. "He would have never attempted."
According to Calipari, it starts with conditioning for Poythress. A season ago, he never would have even seen there was a play to be made in that same situation because he would have been too fatigued.
"But now, he can be alert because he's in great shape," Calipari said. "He can be alert because he's busted through comfort levels. He's doing more than he's ever thought he could do. It just took him more time. I mean, these kids are on different timetables. They all are."
Poythress showed flashes of his sophomore-year improvement early this season, but seemingly regressed in back-to-back scoreless outings against Baylor and Boise State in early December.
Since then, he has looked like a different player.
In his last six games, Poythress is averaging 8.8 points and 5.3 rebounds, including 12 points and six rebounds against Arkansas. An outsider might point out he averaged 11.2 points and 6.0 rebounds as a freshman as evidence Poythress has regressed, but anyone who has watched knows better.
"I just look at it as I'm going harder in practice," Poythress said. "I'm just doing things I'm capable of doing."
That extends to defense, where Poythress has emerged as the versatile weapon his 6-foot-8, 239-pound frame suggests he can be. In just 16 games, Poythress has matched his freshman block total of 14, six of which have come in UK's last three games.
"I'm just taking defense more personal this year, just trying to stop people, trying to guard people, help my teammates on the weak-side rebounds, weak-side blocks, trying to be in position more," Poythress said.
Once again, Calipari cites Poythress's conditioning as a major factor in that, but also looks to something more intangible.
Poythress came to UK with a McDonald's All-American pedigree and even garnered some early-season buzz as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Calipari, however, said the talented forward had trouble dealing with the "clutter" and outside voices accompanying that.
"At some point, you've got to be a man and man up, and it isn't about another player on the team," Calipari said. "It's not about the coach. It's about me. And I'm going to change this. And you get rid of the clutter."
There's no clearer piece of evidence that Poythress has done that than the fact that he has embraced a role as UK's sixth man.
"It really just matters who's playing at the end of the game," Poythress said. "It doesn't matter who starts the game; it's who finishes."
Poythress has been finishing more than his share of games lately, and he will look to do the same against a physical Volunteer front line on Saturday.
Last year, Tennessee battered Kentucky in the Wildcats' first game after Nerlens Noel's season-ending injury, 88-58. Poythress was quiet in that game, tallying just four points and five rebounds in 20 minutes of the worst loss of the Calipari era at UK.
The Cats, especially Poythress and fellow returners Willie Cauley-Stein and Jarrod Polson, are eager to wipe away those bad memories from last year in Knoxville, Tenn., and earlier this week against Arkansas.
"We owe them one," Poythress said. "They came and embarrassed us a little bit. It's a new game. Trying to rebound from that loss Tuesday, trying to get a W."
Kayla Parker's career at Kentucky changed on a team bus trip in Nebraska in February of last year.
The UK track and field team was just a few months into head coach Edrick Floreal's first year in charge of the program and much of the team had not yet adjusted to the concepts the new staff was trying to instill.
Parker -- who experienced mixed results on the track in her first two years in Lexington and struggled to find a signature event, even trying her hand in the grueling pentathlon and heptathlon -- for her part was one of the first Wildcats to buy into the novel "Floreal" ethos.
With the Wildcats riding back from Nebraska's indoor track after a meet performance below the team's expectations, certain team members were acting as though they weren't upset about the lackluster results.
Parker, knowing the coaching staff would not take kindly to seeing the team in such good spirits after competing so poorly, stood up in front of her teammates to voice her disapproval.
"It seemed like people didn't care, and it kind of frustrated me," Parker said. "People were nonchalant. We just lost, why are you still laughing and joking? That was when I stood up and said something. Usually I talk to people individually, but that day was different. I can't repeat what I said on the bus, but I think the team got the message."
Word of Parker's talk with the team certainly got around and her head coach took notice, seeing the intervention as an initial turning point in the UK track and field culture.
"If we're going to win anything as a team the athletes have to be the ones who take ownership," Floreal said. "Kayla was one of the first people to do that. She took ownership on that bus. I was riding separate from the team, but later I heard Kayla had said something to the team and some team members were worried at how much the meet had affected her.
"My reaction was the opposite; I thought, this is perfect. We're starting to get people who think of it as 'my team.' She was making sure there was accountability."
Parker's sense of accountability translated into results shortly after her speech, as she began running head-turning times in the 100-meter hurdles.
Whereas in 2012, she failed to even make the final at the Southeastern Conference Championships, she finished fourth overall in 2013. Then she qualified for the NCAA Championships and broke a decade-old school record.
She has continued to wow early this season as Parker ran the nation's second-fastest 60-meter hurdles time last month, 8.24, breaking another school record in the process.
Parker attributes her success to buying into her coach's philosophies and moreover, holding herself accountable to the same standards she asks of her teammates.
The team's new standards were difficult to adjust to at first, and could explain why it took until the 2013 outdoor season before the hard work really started to pay off.
And the team has bought in too. Led by Parker, the UK women's team is ranked No. 6 in the preseason poll, released Monday.
"It was just too easy not to do everything in your power to get better before," Parker said. "Now we know the coaches' expectations are higher, and in turn our teammates expect more of each other too. You notice the difference in training, but also off the track. Everyone is just committed to the cause."
Parker led the way in changing her attitude toward the sport and competition. Kentucky's recent influx of talent into the program has only hastened the rest of the team's shift in outlook.
UK's ascent to national contender status, due in large part to Parker's emergence and a 2013 recruiting class ranked No. 5 nationally by "Track and Field News," has brought a level of competition to practice sessions previously unseen.
Parker certainly was challenged in training by teammates like transfer Kendra Harrison -- a seven-time All-American and six-time Atlantic Coast Conference Champion -- which seems to have translated into results given her top-class start to the season.
"As coaches we try to explain to the kids the things they need to do to be successful, but you can never fully impart that wisdom just by talking," Floreal said. "When you have members of the team that have been to the highest level the rest of the team gets a glimpse and that work ethic rubs off. That is important as you try to build a winning culture.
Like her coach, Parker knows preseason rankings do not make a successful year a given. Plenty of work -- as well as speeches to the team, should they be necessary -- remains.
"It's just the beginning," said Floreal of the strides his team has made in the past year, largely because of the steps Parker and other have taken to improve. "We're not there yet. Things like preseason rankings are small steps, but we have to put in the work to perform when in counts."
An initial test of how the many dividends the the team's hard work will yield comes this weekend when UK hosts the Kentucky Invitational at the Nutter Field House.
Kentucky native Derek Willis is in his first season playing for John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Today, it's Derek Willis's turn.
We're three games into conference play and it's been really exciting. I grew up watching the SEC, but it's a lot different playing in the games. Instead of being at home and hanging out, you're actually there in it. It's been really fun. The road games have been really hostile when we go in there. I really like environments like that just because that's when teams come to play and that's when you get the best out of the team you're going against.
Coming into the game, you've got to have the mindset of you're already down 15 points. You've got to work your way from that. It's an uphill battle. The biggest thing is probably getting your mindset right knowing you're going into someone else's territory. They're not going to like you. You've just got to be ready for whatever and not base how you're going to play on what the fans are saying or the calls the officials make.
I feel like we played well at Arkansas. We played hard and we competed with them. That was just a really tough environment to play in. We just learned from it. The free throws we missed really stuck with us. I think we'll be OK if we spend more time in the gym and just focus more.
That Arkansas game showed us how hard it is to win on the road, so it was good to get that win against Vandy. It was also fun for me because I think that was probably the most I've played this year. It was an SEC game, so I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm just glad I got in. I was trying to do what I could. I was seeing on the bench that their big men, they couldn't guard Willie and Julius and any of our big men, so I was just trying to get them the ball. If they kicked it out, I was just trying to shoot it.
The game was even more fun because I had a couple family friends there to watch. When I was a kid, my mom, my dad and my sisters, they played in this rec softball league. They met these people named Randall and Debbie Rice. They just ended up coaching together and becoming really good friends. They were big UK fans so they decided to come down and make me a poster and just support me and Kentucky.
The Vandy game was fun, but nothing like beating Louisville. As most of you all know, I grew up just south of Louisville and know all about the rivalry. Playing in that game for the first time, it was nuts. The night before I was really excited. I really wanted to play this game. It was an awesome game. I'm glad we won. We made some people mad, especially some of the U of L fans I grew up with.
The moment I remember most was kind of early in the game. Julius made a nice move on, I think, Montrezl Harrell. He just went around him. I think two guys went up and he just dunked on both the guys. I was happy to see that because I was hoping he'd have a good game.
Camp Cal is over now, but I have to talk about it. It was something different. I've never had anything like that. It was basketball, I'm talking, the whole day. That's all you did. It was a good experience because we got to kind of feel each other out even more and know each other better. I think it was good. I think it made our team a lot better.
We also grew off the court. You ate breakfast together, practiced together, and then after that you went and saw a movie or ate, and then you go to sleep, wake up and do it again for 13 days in a row. Whenever we weren't practicing, we all hung out with each other and played a lot of video games. I think Dominique is probably the best, and that's for any video game. We room together and he's pretty good.
Now we're back in class and I'm actually glad. I really like to be organized so having a schedule and knowing when I can plan out stuff and know what I'm doing, it really helps me. I was so worried about class coming in because I didn't know what routine to get into. I definitely have that figured out now after the fall. This semester, you know how Blackboard works, how to turn in assignments and communicate with professors.
Last week, you probably heard about some of my late-night shooting sessions. Cal actually brought it up. He said, "You need to get in the gym more and start shooting," so I listened. The only real downtime I have is late at night when I'm in my room. I usually can't fall asleep anyway so I thought I might as well walk over and start shooting. I started doing that a couple nights a week. I had my friends in one night and they came in and shot with me. It was good for them to see the gym. I'm going to start doing that a lot more, probably every night now.
I just want to make sure I'm ready the next time I get to play. We've got Tennessee on Saturday. I know they're pretty good so that will be another good game. Texas A&M is after that. They beat Arkansas and Tennessee, so that will be good too.
I just hope that the fans keep supporting us like they have been. We're working every day on becoming a better team, so just be patient if you're frustrated about certain things. Just know we're doing everything we can to fix them. Come March, we hope to bring back another title.
Tom Jomby will occupy the top spot in UK's singles lineup when the 2014 season begins on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Cedric Kauffmann has depth on his side.
With six seniors on Kentucky's 2014 roster and two more regular contributors returning, there is competition aplenty for the 12 total spots in Kauffmann's singles and doubles rotation.
He plans to take full advantage of that fact.
"I think this year, as a coaching staff, we're willing to pull players out - if you will, kind of like basketball or football - if they're not performing," Kauffmann said. "I won't wait two, three matches for that."
The second-year head coach, however, knows managing the rotation of his ninth-ranked UK team will be a balancing act. He wants the Wildcats to know spots are always at stake, but not in a way that prevents them from playing their best tennis.
"It's motivation, but also sometimes it's pressure for them," Kauffmann said. "I tell them, 'Listen, if I put you in you're going to have a couple matches. I'm not going to throw you in and if you don't win, I'm pulling you out.' I think it's just too much pressure for those kids, especially 18 to 22 year olds."
The player who will occupy the top spot in UK's singles rotation is accustomed to dealing with that kind of pressure. Tom Jomby, now a senior, stepped into a regular role the moment he arrived in Lexington.
The Nantes, France, native played No. 6 singles and made the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team and has only grown since. As a sophomore, he moved into the national rankings. Last season, he was an ITA All-American after rolling up a 21-7 singles record.
But even then, Jomby played all but one of his matches on court two. Now, he's making the step up.
"It's always been my goal since I got here, trying to get to No. 1 on the first court here," Jomby said. "So I'm excited and I can't wait."
Jomby is following in the footsteps of Anthony Rossi, who had a similar wait for the top spot behind Eric Quigley's, the winningest player in school history.
"Like Anthony, I think he's waited his turn," Kauffmann said of Jomby. "And now it's his turn."
Jomby may have had to wait his turn, but he won't have to wait long to be tested now that it has come. After UK hosts a doubleheader on Friday against Dayton and Eastern Kentucky beginning at 1 p.m. ET, the Cats will travel to Cary, N.C., for a Sweet 16 rematch with No. 7 Duke.
"I kind of like it, having a top-10 opponent like Duke the first week right after we get back to school," Jomby said. "It will be a good opportunity to give us confidence."
Jomby - ranked No. 68 after an offseason injury - will likely face No. 29 Michael Redlicki. It will be the first of many highly ranked opponents for Jomby, so Kauffmann believes he will be best served taking a day-by-day approach.
"Our schedule is so tough, he's going to play somebody that's ranked almost every single match," Kauffman said. "If he looks at it as a whole five months, I think it's just too much."
As recently as a year ago, Jomby was not as well suited to handle the burden as he is now. Under the tutelage of fellow Frenchman Kauffmann, Jomby has evolved on and off the court while maintaining the personality that makes him who he is.
"I'm still the same person, but I'm kind of more of a leader," Jomby said. "I'm more mature. I'm maybe less crazy than I used to be."
As much credit as Kauffmann may deserve, he's sure to point out that it's taken a village - and buy-in on the part of Jomby himself - to make that growth happen.
"I think we have a good school," Kauffmann said. "I think our bosses are fair. I think they get on him when it's the right time to get on him. I think his teammates--it's not just me. Do I feel proud of him? Yeah, I feel proud of him. But I'm a perfectionist. I look for him to do even better."
If he does, Jomby and the Cats could have a season to remember.
"I don't know how many hard talks we had his freshman year," Kauffmann said. "Maybe 10. We had eight his sophomore year, we had five his junior year and I hope to only have zero or one (this season). If we can get to zero or just one, then he'll become one of the best players in the country."