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."
On Wednesday, Matthew Mitchell joined the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Teleconference. With his Wildcats in the midst of a one-week layoff between games, Mitchell talked about the strength of the SEC, leadership and his work in mentally preparing his team. Here's a transcript.
Opening statement "Well, we came off an important win on Sunday against a really good Missouri team and we're happy to get that victory. We're just going to try to take advantage of our open date on Thursday, try to help us get better as a team and try to get prepared for what we know will be a tough game on the road at Auburn. Always a tough place to play. We're just trying to focus on practice every day and see what kind of team we can become."
On parity in the SEC ... "I just think it's very early, too early to tell what will happen. Most teams four games into it, it's hard to know what's going to happen. So a lot of big games ahead, but I thought going into the year the league was a very, very high-quality league. It always is and it's no different this year. So think we'll have some really tough, tested teams because of league play will advance to the NCAA Tournament and I think the SEC will really be a conference to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament."
On whether any players who have exceeded expectations this season ... "Well, we have gotten off to a really good start if you look at it over 17 games and we've won some big games. I think, for us, what's always important is to have some balance and I've been so pleased with the team's performance. We've had a really, really good balance of people contributing on the team to victory and you never know from one night to the next exactly who's going to be the top scorer. We really try to focus more on our defense and our team play maybe more than we do someone's scoring. I don't know if there's any real surprises. I was very optimistic about our team going into the season and they've performed well so I couldn't really single out just one person."
On who has done a good job from a leadership standpoint ... "Well, I think that Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have both really worked hard, are excited to lead, have the courage to do that, really work on it and think about it. I think our seniors--always people look toward your senior class and I think that they have done a really good job working hard and setting good examples for the player. And then, you know, we've really tried to get the players that have been playing the point-guard position - Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill - to improve in that area. Just yesterday, I thought that Janee Thompson was really, really trying to focus in on being a good leader. So we believe in leadership development. We believe that you can develop those qualities and I think our team's worked really hard in that area."
On whether it has gotten easier to mentally prepare his team ... "You know, that is such an interesting part of being a teacher and a coach. And it's such a journey to try to figure out each and every year what works for a team and what works for players and players change from year to year. And so what I've found is if you ever start making assumptions and think that you've got it figured it out, that's where I've always gotten in trouble with that. I think it's so interesting from year to year how different that process is and trying to make sure players stay focused on what they need to do and you make look great on a Thursday and then you come back on a Sunday and you don't look that great and you just try to figure that out as a coach, how to get that consistency. And so I really admire the coaches who, over the years, are able to get consistent performances from their team year in and year out. For us, it just always goes back to the core tenets of our program. We're just always trying to develop our kids' character. We want kids of really high character. We want players that'll sacrifice for each other and we want players that'll work really hard to prepare and then players that are interested in our core principles: honesty, hard work, discipline. So we're always trying to mentally get them to a spot where they can embrace those things and I think that'll not only help our team this year, but it'll also help our players after they move on from Kentucky. So it is a very interesting part of being a teacher, is trying to keep people focused and on task and not looking too far in the future and maybe not holding on to mistakes made in past games. So it's a daily process, I think, as a teacher to try to make sure you're working hard in that are to help your players and students the best you can."
Julius Randle had 20 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 87-85 loss at Arkansas on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If ever there were a time for a young team to fall victim to finger-pointing, this was it.
Kentucky had just fallen in a fashion that will land the Wildcats on the unhappy end of what could be the play of the college basketball season. When Michael Qualls' thunderous put-back dunk went through the net, it undid 44:59.8 of tough road work and sent the Cats to a heartbreaking 87-85 defeat.
Fielding questions from reporters when he surely would have preferred to be on the team bus with his headphones on, James Young tried to take the blame for missing the box-out assignment of Rashad Madden's missed 3-pointer.
"It was just my fault," Young said. "I stopped playing at the last second. I thought it was just going to bounce off, the time was going to run out. I just stopped playing at the last second."
Answering a follow-up, Young started to say he never saw the athletic Qualls coming to make a play few could have. Julius Randle could have sat quietly and let his teammate fall on his sword. Instead, he interjected. The only fingers the Cats would be pointing on this late night in Fayetteville, Ark., would be at themselves.
"It's my fault," Randle said. "It's a team effort. That play is not what won the game. I saw the whole thing and I could have rebounded out of position too. If one person messes up, we've got to have each other's back. That's what we got to get to."
For all the work UK has to reach its still-vast potential, that simple exchange is proof the Cats are moving in the right direction.
So too was most of what happened on Tuesday.
Facing a hungry Arkansas (12-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) team desperate for win after back-to-back losses in front of its raucous home fans, the No. 13/12 Cats (12-4, 2-1 SEC) never wilted when they had every chance to do just that.
"I'm proud of my team that they didn't quit, they kept playing," John Calipari said.
In the first half, Arkansas seemed poised to take control following a bizarre exchange during which the Razorbacks made 4-of-4 free throws and UK missed 3 of 4 without a second running off the clock. Mardracus Wade then drilled a 3-pointer and Arkansas suddenly had a 37-28 lead.
But there was Young, scoring eight points in less than three minutes of a 10-0 run to put UK back in the lead. All told, Young scored 14 of his game-high 23 points in the first half while Willie Cauley-Stein, Randle and Aaron Harrison battled foul trouble.
Randle returned with a vengeance in the second half.
He carried his team for long stretches, showing no signs of the cramps that have bothered him on multiple occasions this season even though he was playing in a game that featured 60 fouls between the two teams.
"Julius, it's why he gets cramps because he gets whacked so much," Calipari said. "It's hard. He's sumo wrestling and running. It's hard. It's a new sport. He'd be a gold medalist in that sport."
He had 12 points and eight rebounds in the second half and overtime to finish with 20 points and 14 boards, Randle's 10th double-double of his freshman season.
His tireless effort positioned UK for a heart-stopping finish. Arkansas' Alandise Harris converted an and-one when Willie Cauley-Stein fouled out on a block at the basket, giving the Razorbacks a 74-71 lead with less than 10 seconds to play.
After Coach Cal elected not to use a timeout, Young passed out of a double team to Andrew Harrison. Even though the freshman point guard had missed all seven of his field-goal attempts to that point, he calmly drained a 3-pointer to force overtime.
Following a back-and-forth start to the extra period, Arkansas once again surged ahead. Qualls drained a pair of free throws with 26 seconds left, meaning UK would once again need a 3 to tie.
Young's first attempt went long, but Alex Poythress, continuing his emergence with 12 points, six rebounds and two blocks, made a crucial play.
"He made the effort play that saved the ball that got us the 3 at the end and tied up the game," Calipari said. "That was Alex. That wasn't anybody else."
Once UK secured the ball, Young came free for a second try at the top of the arc. He delivered, but the 9.6 seconds left on the clock proved to be too many and the Cats were left licking their wounds.
"It shook 'em, but it should," Calipari said when he was asked of the mood in the postgame locker room.
Shaken, maybe, but certainly not broken.
"It hurts a lot," Young said. "As everybody can see we're getting better as a team and that's what matters. We're getting closer. We're communicating a lot more and that's what I think helped us get into the overtime. We just got better as the game went on."
Coach Cal agrees.
"I hate losing, but I'm fine," Calipari said. "You know what? Those kids did not quit."
John Calipari will lead Kentucky into a Tuesday matchup at Arkansas. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After John Calipari was relatively positive following Kentucky's win at Vanderbilt, the Wildcats probably expected to hear more of the same sunny tune about the progress they had made when they reported to the Joe Craft Center on Sunday.
They were in for a surprise.
"Yesterday, I kind of hit them in the mouth," Calipari said. "I think they were all, like, stunned."
Yes, UK had won in Memorial Gymnasium, a venue that gives fits to the best of teams, but Coach Cal didn't see what he wanted in the final minutes. UK built a lead that grew to as many as 14 points, but Vandy battled back to make it interesting.
"You get a team down and you have a chance to put them away, you do," Calipari said. "And here's why you didn't. And we watched tape and talked about it."
In that film session, Calipari went around the room telling each player what they had done wrong ("And it was kind of like--slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap, slap," Calipari said.) In the practice that followed, UK went 30 minutes longer than initially planned to address all those issues.
"You have to have a sense of urgency and a sense of purpose on each possession, and we don't always do it," Calipari said. "Guys will stop, and they're pointing to go guard their man who came off a screen, or stop playing and a guy back-cuts."
Calipari's go-to analogy for those lapses in focus is "letting go of the rope." That's inevitable with a team as young as UK and the way to counteract it is by committing fully to the cause.
"Someone comes in to take it, you worked too hard," Calipari said. " 'I invested too much. You're not taking this from me. You ain't takin' this from me. I don't care how hard you play, how much you foul. It doesn't matter. You're not taking it.' If you're invested."
The "Breakfast Club" that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist formed en route to UK's 2012 national title is the most famous example of that kind of off-the-floor work, but Brandon Knight showed similar dedication on his own. At Memphis, Coach Cal remembers Tyreke Evans establishing a second home at the gym.
"He slept in the practice facility," Calipari said. "We had a lounge that, he had a lounge chair that he put a pillow and a blanket, and two to three times a week, he slept in the practice facility."
He didn't take it to quite that extreme - largely because the players' dorm is mere steps away from the Joe Craft Center - but Derek Willis spent more than an hour alone after midnight on Monday morning shooting.
Willis got his first extended minutes in more than two months at Vandy, but the sharp-shooting freshman forward missed both of his 3-point attempts. He was otherwise solid, earning a high-five from his coach for feeding the post effectively, but wants to make sure he takes full advantage of his next opportunity.
"When you're in the gym a lot, it's like going to church for some people or like talking to a counselor maybe," Willis said. "It's just good to like think of stuff and see how you're doing. It's really good, peace of mind."
"Peace of mind" is not a phrase likely to be used often when talking about the Cats' next game.
No. 13/12 UK (12-3, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) will travel to Fayetteville, Ark., to face Arkansas (11-4, 0-2 SEC) at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday (ESPNU). The Razorbacks rarely lose on their home floor in Bud Walton Arena and play a style similar to "40 Minutes of Hell" under Nolan Richardson disciple Mike Anderson.
"You have to have tough, strong-willed players," Calipari said. "Those guys will give themselves a chance to win. If you go in there with any kind of -- if you're timid in any way, they overrun you."
That's a good way to describe UK's visit to Arkansas last season, when the Cats committed 19 turnovers and fell victim to a second-half burst in a 73-60 defeat.
This season, Arkansas once again makes its living on defense with turnovers - forcing miscues on 24.9 percent of opponents' possessions, the sixth-best rate in the nation - but has taken a step forward on offense. The Razorbacks are 40th nationally in effective field-goal percentage at 53.5, an improvement of more than five percent from a season ago.
"They shoot the ball well," Calipari said. "They shoot it from the 3, they shoot the 2s well, and they shoot free throws at 70 percent. So it's not a game you can go down there and throw a bunch of clunkers up, because you're going to have a problem."
Arkansas is among the deepest teams in the country, as no Razorback is averaging more than 25.4 minutes and 12 average double-digit minutes. Sophomore Bobby Qualls leads four Razorbacks averaging double figures in scoring at 12.7 points per game.
"They just said it was a hostile environment," Dakari Johnson said when asked what his older teammates had told him of playing at Arkansas. "There's a lot of fans that's going to be hostile and the way they play, it's an up-and-down system so it's really going to be a good game."
No matter what, there's a good chance the game will come down to the wire. For that reason, Coach Cal wants the Cats judging themselves based on how they played, not the final score.
"You've got to get off this, 'Well, we won,' and get on this, 'Let's play at our best,' " Calipari said. "Now, what does that mean in the score? It may be a four-point win; it may be a 25-point win. But let's play at our best, and let's go out with that mentality."