John Calipari leads Kentucky into a Tuesday trip to LSU. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The way John Calipari described it after Saturday's win over Georgia, to become a team you have to break down a team.
is about players first," Coach Cal said after one of his team's better
performances of the season, a 79-54 rout of Georgia. "You've got to get
them right. You've got to get them in the frame of mind, and then you
get your team right."
For maybe the first time all year, after a
half-season of breaking individual players down and redefining their
games, Calipari has hinted in recent days about having a team, not a
collective group of individuals.
"It took us time to get them to
think different, think totally different than you've ever thought about
this game, and then it's taken time to define how they should play,"
Calipari said on Monday. "You got to kind of define it, and we were all
discombobulated for the first month trying to figure that out."
play would suggest the Kentucky Wildcats (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern
Conference), who moved up three spots to No. 11 in both major polls this
week, are starting to jell. For one thing, UK has quietly won seven of
its last eight games, but maybe more defining are the not-so-obvious
Talk to the Wildcats long enough and you will hear them
talk about having fun playing with each other. More and more often Coach
Cal is raving about the Cats' approach at practice, even on the
tough-to-recharge day after games. Watch the head ball coach during a
game and you won't see as much individual teaching.
Maybe, just maybe, they're starting to get it.
getting to where, like, every day you can try to get better because
we're not fighting it," Calipari said. "DeWayne (Peevy, UK deputy
director of athletics) says he doesn't hear me yelling every 12 seconds,
'Plaaay! Plaaay!' I don't yell that anymore because they're now, you
know, (getting it)."
Coach Cal said his players are getting better because they are learning to love the grind.
you do is going to be a grind, but I think the biggest thing is we
learn to enjoy and love the grind and love the process," Julius Randle
said. "It just makes things a lot easier. We've fallen in love with the
whole process of getting better and changing habits, and because of
that, it's been smooth for us."
After Saturday's win over
Georgia, James Young said individual players only cared about how they
were playing two months ago, not how the team was faring. The more
they've worked together and the closer they've become, that notion has
been flipped on its head.
Now, as Calipari said at Monday's pre-LSU media opportunity, each player is rooting for each other.
so happy that Alex (Poythress) is playing the way he is," Coach Cal
said. "They're happy for what Willie (Cauley-Stein) has done. They're
happy for Dakari (Johnson). I mean, they're happy for each other."
that's why Cauley-Stein talked so glowingly of Johnson's play during
this three-game slump. Maybe that's why the ball movement was as good as
it has been all year on Saturday when the Cats passed up good shots for
Calipari talks about the youth of this team ad
nauseam, but there is a point to all the talk about inexperience. After
all, the Cats really are the youngest team in the country, ranked dead
last in Ken Pomeroy's experience rankings. Julius Randle was named SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday. (photo by Chris Reynolds)
takes time," Calipari said. "We got the youngest team in the country,
and there's all kind of things that we do that other teams don't have to
do. They got established teams. They're just hoping they don't get
injured. They know who they are, they know how they play. That's not
Now that Kentucky has figured that part out, the next test
is winning on the road where there Cats haven't fared well this season.
UK is just 1-2 in true road games this year heading into a stretch where
the Cats will play four of their next five away from the friendly
confines of Rupp Arena.
Though UK's stock appears to be up, some are waiting to buy until they see how this team fares in a hostile environment.
a big-time test for us. ... Wherever we go we have something to prove,"
Randle said. "We know it's everybody's biggest game."
Caliapri said the key to winning on the road the next couple of weeks will be mental discipline.
don't have anything behind you," Coach Cal said. "You're not going to
get a break. There's nothing that's going to go your way, so you can't
have the seven errors that we had at Arkansas. You can't (do that) and
win. 'Well, it went to overtime.' Yeah, and we lost because of those
seven breakdowns. And they were mental breaks. 'You just stopped. Why
did you do that.' 'I don't know.' And so, those are what we're trying to
The physical challenge for Kentucky on Tuesday when
it meets LSU at 9 p.m. ET in Baton Rouge, La., will likely come down to
how the Cats' front court handles LSU's big men.
Johnny O'Bryant, a bruising 6-foot-9, 256-pound forward who is
developing an outside game, is still the focal point of the LSU offense,
but he's got some help down low now in highly touted freshmen Jarrell
Martin and Jordan Mickey. Martin was ranked the 13th-best freshman in
the country by Rivals and Mickey wasn't far behind him in the Rivals
rankings at No. 41
Calling the Tigers' front court one of the
best in the league, Calipari compared to LSU's post players to
Tennessee's, only longer with a better touch from the outside. Remember,
Tennessee was one of the few teams this year that has physically
overpowered the Cats.
"They're bigger and longer," Coach Cal
said. "The advantage we had (over Tennessee) was, we were long. The
advantage (Tennessee) had was strength. These guys are strong and
they're big. They're not 6-7, 6-8. They're big."
Cauley-Stein admitted he hasn't exactly done well against more physical teams.
"They probably outweigh me by like 40 pounds," he said. "I don't know anybody who wants to do that."
just so happens to be in tied for the SEC blocked shots lead with
Mickey. In addition to using his speed and quickness to counter LSU's
bulk, Cauley-Stein said pride will be on the line going up against a
"Hearing about him is going to make
you step up," Cauley-Stein said. "Anybody in that position would step up
and try to prove themselves."
UK-LSU still a go -- for now
Despite canceling classes on Tuesday and even a suggestion by LSU head coach Johnny Jones on the SEC teleconference that the game could be canceled because of wintry weather on the way, UK-LSU is still on for Tuesday night.
LSU sent out a release Monday afternoon that said the school was "moving forward for the game to be played as scheduled" but noted that LSU Athletics personnel, school officials and the SEC will continue to monitor the situation throughout the night.
The forecast for Baton Rouge on Tuesday calls for a wintry mix of snow, sleet and ice with temperatures nearing record lows.
UK's flight left Lexington on time and arrived in Baton Rouge on Monday without any problems.
"We're good," Calipari said. "We'll practice and we'll get down there. Our fans are going to be there. They were in Dallas (during that ice storm), believe me, so they will be there."
The issue, as Coach Cal told the media, will be getting back to Lexington. UK usually flies home after road games, but there is a contingency plan in place to stay overnight in case the weather is too bad Tuesday night.
It took some help from a former player for Matthew Mitchell to realize he needed to make a change.
Crystal Riley is in her second season on Mitchell's staff after playing three years at Kentucky. All that time spent with the UK head coach led her to make an observation this week.
"She just helped me out tremendously," Mitchell said. "She said, 'Coach I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked."
The advice came as Mitchell was searching for answers following a loss on Thursday to Alabama in which UK lacked fire and energy. He applied it immediately.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Mitchell said. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."
The practices that followed have been predictably intense. Every drill has a winner and the loser has to run, all in an effort to inject competitiveness back into the Wildcats.
"I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive," Janee Thompson said. "But his mentality now is better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today."
On Sunday, No. 9/8 UK (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) responded, taking down Arkansas (15-5, 2-5 SEC) in Memorial Coliseum, 68-58.
"Well, we are happy to win a really hard fought game and I thought Arkansas really played hard and competed and we were finally able to find a group that would get in and compete in the second half," Mitchell said.
For the first few minutes after halftime, it appeared that wouldn't happen.
UK trailed 32-31 at the break and Arkansas went on a 12-3 run over the first 2:40 of the second half behind 5-of-5 shooting. Mitchell quickly called a timeout, forgoing the Mr. Nice Guy routine and spelling out exactly what needed to happen.
There would be none of the wallowing in self-pity, none of the self-doubt that led to losses in three of UK's last five games. In that moment, the Cats simply had to step up and they did. A 22-6 run gave the Cats a six-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell said. "So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that."
Mitchell didn't mince words in talking about the importance of that stretch, calling it a "very critical juncture for this team." The Cats didn't realize at that exact moment that it may have been a crossroads for their season, but they did after the fact.
"It was extremely important because that's something we've been struggling with for the past games now," Jennifer O'Neill said. "But I think the biggest thing was, when we were down 10, we played with poise. We weren't panicking; we didn't look to rush things. We played with poise and a sense of urgency."
O'Neill scored only two points during the game-changing run, but Mitchell said she was "the best player on the floor" Sunday. She scored a team-high 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers and adding six rebounds and five assists, also team highs. The performance came just three days after O'Neill scored just four points and took just two shots in the Alabama loss.
"That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense," Mitchell said. "She just has to have her mind right."
Helping on that front was a pregame meeting between Mitchell and the junior point guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup for just the second time this season.
"I had just spoke with Matthew before the game and I was just telling him, 'Basically, I need you to tell me what you need me to do before games,' " O'Neill said. "And that's something he did before and he stopped doing and it was helping me so I went back and told him."
That was just another example of Mitchell going back to coaching tactics that have worked well for him in the past, the most prominent of course being his demeanor and intense practice plan.
"It kind of reminds me back to my freshman year," Bria Goss said. "What we've done the past couple days has been what we did my freshman year and we were very successful, winning the SEC regular-season championship. So it's good to see him have that fire back, I guess."
"Like Matthew said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to being more intense," O'Neill said. "That's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys are going to see that from games here on out."
That's the hope, but Mitchell isn't about to let his guard down.
"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine. We have always been really good with a situation like that."
UK is looking to rebound from a 57-55 loss to Alabama on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell never misses a chance to express his gratitude for the position he is in as Kentucky's head coach, but he found a new reason to be thankful on Thursday night.
UK had just suffered a disappointing 57-55 upset at the hands of Alabama. Following a nearly two-hour meeting with his coaching staff, Mitchell went home to get a few hours of sleep and forget about what had just happened.
It was in that moment he realized how fortunate he is to have won 125 games since 2009-10.
"For me, I am glad that we have won a lot around here because I don't sleep at all on a performance like last night's," Mitchell said.
It wasn't Daisha Simmons' layup with 2.3 seconds that had him tossing and turning, rather a troubling absence of the fire that has come to define UK Hoops during his tenure.
"I was surprised with just the complete lack of effort and competitiveness last night and it was just all across the board," Mitchell said. "It just can't happen. Clearly there's an atmosphere that exists now that people think that's acceptable and that's 100 percent on me."
With that in mind, Matthew Mitchell returned to the Joe Craft Center early on Friday morning and got back to work. He drew up plans for Friday's practice, but his priorities have little to do with Xs and Os.
"Everything will be competitive-based in practice and we'll figure out who we can take the floor with on Sunday afternoon," Calipari said. "Between now and Sunday afternoon it is all about who is going to compete and who is going to work hard and who is going to play really, really hard for Kentucky. Hopefully, it's everybody."
Against Alabama, Samarie Walker and Bria Goss were the only two Wildcats who consistently turned in the kind of work Mitchell is demanding. Walker had 18 points and seven rebounds in 21 foul-limited minutes and Goss 14 points and six rebounds.
Now, Mitchell will be looking for more Cats to join them.
"If we can find a few players that will really, really compete hard I think a lot of things will flow from that," Mitchell said. "Until we get that straightened out, you can have all the talent in the world, if you don't play hard and don't compete and it doesn't mean something to you to win then I don't know who you are going to beat."
UK's next opponent certainly won't make life easy.
Arkansas (15-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) will enter Memorial Coliseum for a matchup with UK (15-4, 3-3 SEC) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET having lost three of four, but don't let that fool you.
"Well, they have really, really great ball-screen offense and they put a lot of pressure and stress on your defense," Mitchell said. "They have some tough, aggressive players. They have a point guard in (Calli) Berna, who I think is one of the better ones in our league."
Berna is averaging a league-high 7.7 assists per game, most often finding freshman leading scorer Jessica Jackson (16.4 points per game), but game-planning for the Razorbacks isn't Mitchell's primary concern.
"Quite frankly, we can't worry about Arkansas this afternoon," Mitchell said on Friday. "We have to 100 percent try to see who is going to have a chance to play against Arkansas and that will be all about competing in practice this afternoon."
Willie Cauley-Stein had eight points, six blocks and six steals in UK's win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A few times a season, John Calipari comes up with a catchphrase you know you'll hear again soon.
This week, it rhymed.
Explaining why Willie Cauley-Stein had practiced well after struggling of late, Coach Cal said it had a lot to do with his willingness to accept coaching. Calipari noted a different look about Cauley-Stein, one that told him the sophomore had heeded his advice that "the smirkin' ain't workin' " and was fully tuned in to what his coach was saying.
Speaking on Saturday, Cauley-Stein was asked what Coach Cal's newest creation means.
"I don't know," Cauley-Stein said, drawing laughs. "I just look at Cal like I know what he's talking about."
Joking aside, Cauley-Stein returned to form as No. 14 Kentucky (15-4, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) took down Georgia (10-8, 4-2 SEC), 79-54. After averaging one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks over his previous three games, Cauley-Stein was his usual disruptive self.
"I think my teammates knew I was going to come out of it, it was just a matter of time of when," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein had eight points -- six coming after halftime -- six blocks and six steals. His blocks and steals led directly to 10 UK possessions and nine points.
"Well, I told you, he was unbelievable in practice, and he was in a totally different frame of mind, and he performed," Calipari said. "Now, he was a little shaky at times out there, but he's just now coming back from that other stuff, so you still had the dregs in there. He had a little bit of it in there. But I thought he played well, blocks, steals, moved his feet, made some baskets, two free throws. That's who he is for us."
He was confident throughout the week a game like this one was forthcoming, but Cauley-Stein wasn't sure he was "back" until he woke up on Saturday morning. It was based entirely on the way on the way he had performed throughout the week.
"I've had a really good couple days of practice and I felt like my normal self," Cauley-Stein said. "Other times in practice I was just kind of out there going through the motions. And this time I was actually juiced and ready to get back to producing."
Since UK had played well even as he had struggled, Cauley-Stein didn't think of himself as being in a slump until he heard others talk about it. He caught wind of media wondering about what was going on and heard from fans as well.
The tone of those interactions: very positive.
"I was touched by it because last year, that was happening, you're getting murdered for one because you're losing," Cauley-Stein said. "So this year I was kind of like, I'll just stay off Twitter but then I was on there and it was real positive. It was good that our fans are here to pick us up."
After showing up on social media for Cauley-Stein, fans did the same in person on Saturday. In spite of a winter storm and freezing temperatures in Lexington, 23,367 packed Rupp Arena. They were treated to a performance that may have been UK's most complete of the season.
Aaron Harrison led four Wildcats in double figures with 15 points as UK shot 50 percent from the field on the strength of crisp ball movement.
"Coach just said no ball-stoppers," said Harrison, who had three of Kentucky's 16 assists. "We just all know that we all can play, definitely, and just want to share the ball with each other."
UK had a similar all-for-one attitude on defense, holding Georgia to 16-of-49 (32.7 percent) shooting and forcing 20 Bulldog turnovers. It's no coincidence it happened as Cauley-Stein shook off whatever had ailed him over the past two weeks.
"I just got back to the roots of the game and just flying around, contesting shots and running the floor," Cauley-Stein said.
Even when Cauley-Stein wasn't racking up steals and blocks, he was affecting the game.
Georgia played a bigger lineup with second-leading scorer Kenny Gaines and backup Juwan Parker out due to injury, but the Bulldogs were clearly bothered by Cauley-Stein's length and activity and the Cats buoyed by it.
"We get a lot more pressure because he always gets defensive stops," said James Young, who had 13 points. "I feel like that's when we all step up too."
UK won twice during Cauley-Stein's three-game slump and lost only on a last-second dunk at overtime, showing the Cats are capable of staying afloat without the 7-footer at the top of his game. But at the same time, UK needs Cauley-Stein to reach its potential.
"Like I said, we can win without Willie," Calipari said. "We're not winning big without Willie."
Andrew Harrison is averaging 11.8 points and 3.8 assists in SEC play. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Imagine if UK ever played a game in which each one of its talented players played to his vast potential.
What if the Julius Randle who dominated Michigan State in the second half and the Willie Cauley-Stein who blocked nine shots against Boise State manned the Wildcat frontcourt?
What if the Andrew Harrison who scored 26 against Tennessee and the Aaron Harrison who poured in 28 vs. Robert Morris were on the floor together?
What if John Calipari could sub the Alex Poythress who went on a one-man 7-0 on Tuesday against Texas A&M for the the James Young who had 26 points against Mississippi State?
The prospect is certainly a tantalizing one, but it's not realistic.
"Everybody's not going to have a good game every game and people have to understand that," Andrew Harrison said. "But at the same time, it's not always about scoring points and stuff like that. It's about playing hard. If everyone plays hard, we're really tough to beat."
In both games and practice, it's all about effort. The Cats can't let that effort be affected by anything. Not the last play, the last game and especially not the "clutter" and outside voices to which Coach Cal has so often referred of late.
"Whether it's my point guard, whether it's James, this stuff is all game-to-game with these guys," Calipari said. "And if they get caught up in one game, you take your eye off the ball, which is the process of getting better as an individual and -- more importantly right now for us -- as a team."
No. 14 Kentucky (14-4, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) began the season atop the polls. Billed as one of the most talent-rich teams in recent memory, dominance wasn't talked about as a possibility so much as a certainty.
Instead, the Cats have had their moments and even a signature win over Louisville, but are only now beginning to find a rhythm.
"Other teams are well ahead of us right now," Calipari said, "either because they've been veteran teams and they're way ahead of us as a team, or they just needed each other more than we thought we needed each other. So we haven't made the strides as a team that we need. But we have made strides."
To continue to make those strides, UK will need Cauley-Stein to round back into form.
The sophomore had a remarkable December, blocking shots on pace with Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel. But over his last three games, his production and minutes have plummeted. He's averaging just one point, 3.3 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in 15.3 minutes during that stretch and backup Dakari Johnson has filled the void with his best stretch of play this season.
"Again, he's playing behind Willie, and Willie's really playing well," Calipari said. "You're not gonna get many minutes then. But Willie didn't play well, so now what are you gonna do with your minutes? Well, he went in and said, 'You should be playing me instead of Willie.' "
If Thursday's practice is any indication, Cauley-Stein won't be able to be kept off the floor. After working out individually late on Wednesday, Cauley-Stein looked like a different player the next day.
"It was good to see him back to instead of avoiding everything, creating and doing the stuff that we've all seen him do," Calipari said. "You go down that road and you start thinking the wrong way -- this game is more mental than anything else. And for him, he got away from what he was doing to make himself and set himself apart."
After playing with him on Thursday, Andrew Harrison stated in no uncertain terms his belief that Cauley-Stein will be back in a big way when UK takes on Georgia (10-7, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network). If he is, Harrison knows what that can mean.
"He's probably the best center in the country and we need him to be as good as we can be," Harrison said.
UK will certainly need all hands on deck against the visiting Bulldogs. Georgia has won four of five to open SEC play, taking down Missouri on the road, Arkansas at home and only losing at Florida.
"They're playing exactly how they have to play to win," Calipari said. "Their guards are scoring. They're shooting the 3 when they need it. They're plus-10 rebounds in our league right now."
Guards Charles Mann (13.1 points per game) and Kenny Gaines (12.0) lead a balanced scoring attack, but Georgia remains simply "the next challenge up" in Calipari's eyes, a measuring stick for UK's progress. He knows exactly the things he'll be looking for.
"When we really, truly start playing for each other," Calipari said. "Where we have no ball-stoppers on offense. That ball moves or you make a play. On defense, that we play an entire possession and we show energy for our team, not just when we're guarding the ball. When we're not guarding the ball. That we block out on an errant shot with 0.2 seconds to go, because we're gonna finish the possession."
It's unlikely all those things will happen together on Saturday, but the Cats are working to get there eventually.
"When we get there, you'll see this team take a quantum leap," Calipari said.
Polson to have high-school jersey retired Friday
UK will take a break from its Georgia preparations to celebrate with Jarrod Polson as he has his jersey retired at West Jessamine High School on Friday night.
"I told them yesterday we were all going to go and be there for him, and they went crazy for him," Calipari said. "And what a great gesture for their high school to do."
Polson averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds as a senior, leading his team to a Sweet Sixteen berth and finishing his career as the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,884 points.
Even so, it's an honor Polson didn't see coming.
"I was pretty shocked," Polson said. "I didn't really know they do it actually while you're in college or anything like that so when they told me I was pretty excited and my family was pretty happy about it so I think it'll be a good night."
UK will hold the McCravy Memorial in honor of former track athlete Rodriq McCravy. (UK Athletics)
This weekend's track and field meet is named in honor of Rodriq McCravy, a former UK track athlete. McCravy, who quickly established himself as a leader with great respect and care for others, died in 1987 at age 19.
McCravy was just a sophomore, but he had already made a lasting impact on his teammates, coaches and the UK administration.
"He was such a great guy and an extremely well-liked member of our team," former UK track and field head coach Don Weber said. "He contributed in so many ways other than what he did on the track. He was really a unique person in that regard.
"The thing that really stands out was how universally, everyone had such a high regard for Rod. I've had a lot of great kids over the years, but I don't know if we've had anybody that everybody thought of him that way. It was people on and off the track team. He was an exceptionally unique person."
This weekend's Rod McCravy Memorial Meet, which was first held the year after McCravy died, extends his legacy and continues to teach others about what made him so special.
"He was a fabulous person," Weber said. "This is an opportunity to recognize Rod and also an opportunity to, each year, talk about Rod with the team. We talked about his qualities, and his impact and contributions to the team."
A graduate of Louisville Trinity High School, McCravy was a two-time state champion. Upon his arrival at UK, he set the freshman record in the 400-meter hurdles, finished sixth in the TAC National Junior Championships and was a member of the school-record 1,600-meter relay team.
Along with his actions away from the track, Weber remembers McCravy's demeanor as being just as positive on the track.
"He didn't have a negative attitude, in that 'They're defeating me.' " Weber said. "It was, 'They're helping me run faster and I have to do my best to run with them.' That, in a strictly athletic sense, Rod's story helped us, but also stressing the importance of all the qualities that Rod had and how those are important."
McCravy made a great first impression on Weber, who immediately saw something special in the high-school student during his recruiting visit to campus. McCravy was planning on competing for the Blue and White as a walk-on.
Instead, McCravy earned a scholarship based off his work ethic, attitude and leadership qualities. Weber knew he would make an impact not only on the track, but away from it as well.
"He came and visited," Weber said of McCravy's recruiting trip. 'We did not have any intentions of giving him a scholarship. I met with him and his dad in my office. His dad didn't say anything, he and I just talked. Over the course of our conversation, Rod impressed me so much with his leadership skills, him as a person that we ended up offering him a scholarship, mainly because of him as a person. That was the first non-athletic, 'people' scholarship that we gave out."
Now, 26 years later, the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet -- this year designated as the weekend's "best meet in the nation" by the United States Track Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) featuring perennial powers Oregon and Florida -- lives on, and so does McCravy's legacy. Current student-athletes and the coaching staff didn't know McCravy, but he continues to have an impact on the team and the track and field program. His influence lives on, even as the people he directly impacted move on.
This weekend as some of the nation's best track and field athletes compete at the Nutter Field House, McCravy will be remembered.
Matthew Mitchell will lead his team into a rematch with Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It isn't among Matthew Mitchell's three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline, but man-to-man defense isn't far down the list of things that have come to define UK Hoops.
UK has ascended the ranks of women's basketball utilizing man-to-man pressure defense, so much so that it's earned the moniker "40 minutes of dread." That's what made the second half of Kentucky's 73-71 win at Auburn on Sunday so surprising.
Mitchell audibled to a zone defense, forgoing pride and his own long-standing philosophy.
"I think it's important as a coach to find a way for your players to be successful," Mitchell said. "I think man-to-man defense is the way to play. I think that's the best way to play, but I'm not out there playing and it's not about me; it's about the players."
Mitchell didn't base that decision solely on what he saw during the first 20 minutes at Auburn either. At least statistically speaking, the UK defense has gone from dominant in 2012-13 to merely very good as the Cats (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host Alabama (8-10, 1-4 SEC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are allowing 68.4 points per game this season, up more than 10 points from last season's average of 57.9. The increase is due in part to the faster tempo of UK's games, but also to the 4.1 additional trips to the free-throw line opponents are making as the Cats toe the line between intense defense and fouling.
Before the season, the new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play received plenty of attention on both the men's and women's side. Eighteen games in, Mitchell and his team are still adjusting.
"If I'm in my space in a legal guarding position and the offense runs into me and I didn't create the contact, I think that's really what is giving us so much trouble," Mitchell said. "Just trying to figure out what's legal and what's not. It says in the rulebook that they can't create the contact and the foul will be on you. It has been difficult."
Unsure when the whistles are going to come, Mitchell says the Cats aren't as sure of themselves on defense, creating a cycle of sorts.
"You see that being one factor, but I think another factor is we could play a lot better, a lot harder," Mitchell said. "We watched film on it yesterday and so that's not all of it. It's not all the new way the game is being called. A lot of it is on us too."
That psychological effect was on display against Auburn, as UK looked a different team defensively in the second half.
"I don't know if the way it's being called is in our head and it just keeps us from really turning loose and playing because we were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man," Mitchell said.
Mitchell was particularly impressed with the way UK looked in that zone given the team had scarcely worked on it leading up to the game. In fact, he estimated the Cats played more zone in the game at Auburn than they had during their entire bye week in practice.
Having seen the zone in action, Mitchell has made it more of a focus in practice this week.
"We're working on that more now, so it may become a big part of what we do," Mitchell said. "I just don't know. I'm trying to figure that out from a coaching standpoint right now."
That throws a wrench into Alabama's preparation.
The Cats and Crimson Tide faced off three weeks ago and UK came away with an 85-63 road victory, the only time in SEC play the Cats have avoided the slow starts and early deficits that have plagued them.
"Alabama we got off to a great start and we got down to Florida, we got down to South Carolina, we got down to Missouri, we got down to Auburn," Mitchell said. "And to me that is a mental focus issue and the coaches and the players, we all have to do a much better job preparing."
Looking at the Auburn game only, Mitchell is looking for his team to both learn from the slow start that put the Cats in a hole and gain confidence from the way they battled adversity to win a tough road game.
"I just told the players we are just so proud of the part of the effort that got us the victory and we have to correct what got us into the situation where it looked so dire there for a while, 13 down in the first half," Mitchell said. "So there are reasons that's happening and those are the things that we have to correct."
Which defense UK uses to do that remains to be seen.
"They have been very active in man and zone yesterday in practice, so we'll practice both today and we'll see what happens," Mitchell said on Thursday.
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."