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."
Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 77-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
His team might be unbeaten and top-ranked, but that's not stopping John Calipari from pushing every button he can think of to get the most out of the Wildcats.
Even if it means changing long-standing coaching habits.
"Normal case, we back up off practice this time of the year," Calipari said. "Well, we went back Thursday to an hour of scrimmage and then they got after each other and I even scrimmaged them 15 minutes Friday, which I never do. "
By its historically high standards, Kentucky had lost a bit of an edge in recent weeks, especially on defense. Opponents had scored a point per possession in the previous four games entering a rematch with South Carolina after managing to do so just twice in the season's first 20 games.
"We got a good group of players that need to go after - they don't want to do drills," Calipari said. "They look at me and say, 'Stop the drills, let's play.' "
Of course, the Cats had held on to their unbeaten record in the process, but Coach Cal was out to recapture that edge.
"They argue, fight, foul, grab, and whoever loses has to run," Calipari said. "If I forget to tell them to run, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, White's got to run.' And then I got to make them run and then we--so they don't--if they beat somebody they're making that other team run. They're really competitive."
So competitive, in fact, that they can't even agree which group has the upper hand.
"Well, my squad hasn't been losing as much," Dakari Johnson said, laughing.
"We usually win - I'm just joking," Andrew Harrison said. "They're fun matchups. You have to compete or you're going to lose. No one wants to lose."
South Carolina saw that mentality up close and in person on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
UK scored the first basket of the game 17 seconds in and never looked back. The Cats (25-0, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) were dominant on both ends of the floor in a 77-43 victory. UK held South Carolina (12-12, 3-9 SEC) to 23.6-percent shooting and 0.694 points per possession and shot 50 percent from the field.
"We played well," Calipari said. "Offensively we were really good, which created a pretty big gap. But I thought we defended, we played with great energy, we needed to play a game like this."
Perhaps most impressively, UK outrebounded South Carolina, 45-21, just three weeks removed from the Gamecocks winning the battle on the glass against the Cats, 40-28. Kentucky had just three offensive rebounds in that first matchup, but 15 this time to South Carolina's nine defensive rebounds.
Those scrimmages had something to do with that.
"During practices we play physical against each other," said Johnson, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds. "We started scrimmaging against each other again. So we're really going at each other. I think it brought our competitiveness back out."
The competitiveness back, the Cats regained the form of some of their earlier dominant performances and tied the school record for the best start in school history set in 1953-54. Taking a break from his laser-like focus on improvement and best positioning his team for the postseason, Coach Cal talked briefly to his team about the achievement.
"We're all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein) and you played an unbelievable schedule," Calipari said. "One of the best nonconference schedules in the country and you're one of the best leagues in the country."
Cauley-Stein, who had a team-high 14 points to go with seven rebounds, fully understands the magnitude of what he and his teammates have done.
"It's just like special, for real," he said. "We don't really think about it as a whole, you just kind of take it day by day, work on stuff that you did wrong, and I mean the outcome is going to be the outcome, like you just prepare for it. But, like, I think it's just special to me because I came from one of the worst teams on Kentucky's history to now one of the top teams on Kentucky's history. I mean, it's just kind of cool to see the evolution of what was going on."
The evolution, however, isn't over.
"We can do something bigger," Cauley-Stein said. "We have the chance to do something way bigger than just tying it."
The last time Kentucky faced Tennessee, UK sophomore Makayla Epps led the way in scoring for both teams, but failed to convert one of Kentucky's several potential game-winning field goal attempts as time expired.
As the Wildcats (16-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare for Sunday's matchup in Knoxville almost two weeks later, the narrative is slightly different.
Once again, Epps is fresh off a career night in which she not only led all scorers, but also found the ball in her hands in the contest's closing seconds. This time, however, with the game on the line, she would not be denied the victory.
"I'm pretty sure after last night, a lot of teams are going to key in on me more, if they weren't already," said Epps. "Last night's performance was crazy."
On Thursday, Epps scored a career-high 42 points in Kentucky's 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13 Mississippi State. Epps sank the game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, converting 15 of UK's 18 points in extra time.
"Literally, maybe 100 times a game, (head coach Matthew Mitchell) will say, 'They can't guard you, Epps. They can't guard you, Epps. When are you going to understand they can't guard you?'" Epps said. "Sometimes when I'm scoring in sync, I'm like, 'Maybe Coach is right, they can't guard me.'"
Since losing to Tennessee 73-72 at Memorial Coliseum on January 29, No. 10 Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins over No. 21 Georgia, Vanderbilt, and No. 13 MSU. Epps leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring, with 17.3 points per game in league play.
"I'm a small-town kid from Marion County, Kentucky. Nobody expects people like me, from small places, to do anything big." said Epps. "I'm just here and happy to play."
The last time Mitchell's Wildcats visited Thompson-Boling Arena, UK emerged victorious for the first time in school history. The sixth-ranked Lady Vols, winners of eight national championships since 1987, lead the all-time series 51-10.
"Tough game ahead on Sunday," Mitchell said. "It'll be tough. It'll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. I'll be happy for (last year's road victory) to be a benefit, but it won't be something where I'm saying, 'We won last year, so mark it down this year.' That's not my approach."
The Cats will travel to Tennessee (21-3, 11-0 SEC) Sunday for a 3 p.m. nationally televised matchup on ESPN2.
"As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they're a great team and it was a tough game here," said Mitchell. "A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete."
Peevy's initial reaction was to literally search the plane for Lyles, who had inspired continual speculation in recent weeks with an illness that had kept him out of action since Jan. 29.
"And when he did that, I knew 'Uh-oh. This is gonna be absolutely outrageous,' " Calipari said. "And we had people camped out at the hotel. We had people camped out as we got off the bus."
Once the confusion was overcome, the tweet went out. More than 2,000 retweets and a #WhereIsTrey hashtag later, Coach Cal had a national story on his hands.
"That blew up kinda big," said Lyles, who even threw up the hood on his sweatshirt upon arrival in Louisiana to keep the ruse alive. "My mentions on Twitter wouldn't go away, so a lot of people were interested in it, getting into it. I thought it was funny. Coach was trying to have a nice little joke going there. I thought it was pretty funny. Coach had a good sense of humor with that and he played it out well."
For once, conversation turned away from top-ranked UK's pursuit of perfection. For Calipari, it was mission accomplished.
"I was on a plane and I'm thinking, 'Our fans are going nutty,' " Calipari said. " 'They got to loosen up a little bit. This isn't life or death. It's not March.' "
The Big Blue Nation was his primary target audience, but #WhereIsTrey also served to remind Calipari's team that it's still the regular season.
"I wanted them to understand, and I keep telling them, 'What's the worst?' " Calipari said. "I'll say it this time: We lose this game we're 22-1, 23, whatever it is. What's it matter? Just go play. Let's try to get better."
UK, of course, would win anyway by overcoming a late six-point deficit at LSU. With the victory, the Cats carry a 24-0 (11-0 Southeastern Conference) record into a rematch with South Carolina (12-11, 3-8 SEC) at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Lyles, of course, will be available again after returning to score four points and grab three rebounds in 18 minutes at LSU.
"I just had strep throat, wasn't feeling good for a few days," said Lyles, who is "feeling 100 percent." "Coach and them just wanted to keep me away from the guys so they wouldn't come down with anything."
In Lyles' absence, UK was outrebounded twice in three outings after losing the rebounding battle in just three of 19 games previously. Devin Booker sees Lyles helping to change that.
"Rebounding," Booker said. "He brings that to the team every time. He attacks the offensive glass and defensive rebounds. He's like a 6(-foot-)10 3-man. That helps a lot."
Lyles also adds depth, though that also requires an adjustment on the part of his teammates.
"Guys got to be willing to sacrifice three minutes or two minutes," Calipari said. "There are times where we got to go at him, which may take a shot away from some other guys, but what does it matter? At the end of the day, either you can play or you can't play. Reality. Either you're an efficient player or you're not. They don't need to see you for 40 minutes. That's all ego stuff."
Considering they've been checking their egos all season, that shouldn't be much of a problem.
Kentucky begins life after AJ Reed on Friday at 12 p.m. vs. Ball State (UK Athletics)
The 2014 season for the Kentucky baseball team was a historic one.
Not only did the Wildcats advance to their eighth all-time NCAA Tournament, but folks in Lexington and around the country were treated to one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the sport.
Two-way star AJ Reed swept the national player of the year awards while pacing the nation's most explosive offense. UK led all major conference schools in runs scored while Reed powered a NCAA-best 23 homers, also leading the Southeastern Conference in pitching wins, in one of the most remarkable individual seasons in college baseball history.
"You don't replace AJ with one guy," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club. You can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. It is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that's fine."
The 2015 UK roster will look quite different than the physical lineup employed a year ago. Gone are Reed and fellow sluggers Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas. UK will be built through speed, defense and pitching depth in Henderson's seventh season at the helm - with his previous six years the most successful in program history.
"Well we're going to run well," Henderson said. "I don't know how that's going to translate into stolen bases yet but we're going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly."
Kentucky returns first-team All-SEC outfielder Ka'ai Tom, who narrowly missed the league batting crown in conference play with a .373 average. In addition, UK boasts the return of 2013 Freshman All-SEC selections Kyle Barrett and Greg Fettes, and 2014 Freshman All-SEC second baseman JaVon Shelby.
UK's lineup will be anchored by fifth-year senior Thomas Bernal, who will transition to third base to accommodate freshman first baseman Evan White. Bernal, who hit .475 on SEC Friday nights last year, is a preseason All-SEC selection at the hot corner by Perfect Game.
On the mound, UK's history of talented arms continues as junior right-hander Kyle Cody enters the season as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. A 6-foot-7, 245-pound product of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cody is coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. UK also returns southpaw Dylan Dwyer and right-hander Andrew Nelson, a duo that helped fill UK's weekend rotation a year ago. UK will be boosted by junior transfer Dustin Beggs, who has been tabbed to make UK's opening-day start.
"I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well," Henderson said. "I'm really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis. We're really eager to get this thing started."