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."
Bria Goss had 20 points and eight rebounds as UK ended a two-game losing streak with a win over Missouri on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
He wasn't about to admit it to his team, but Matthew Mitchell was nervous on Sunday afternoon.
UK was in the midst of a two-game losing streak and preparing for a matchup with a Missouri team coming off an impressive upset of No. 25 Georgia, so he wasn't sure what to expect.
To add to the uncertainty, a nagging leg injury bothered third-leading scorer Kastine Evans in two days of practice following UK's latest loss at South Carolina. On game day, Evans reported to her coach she would not be able to go at full speed and would therefore have to sit out.
In light of all that, Mitchell sensed the shorthanded Wildcats would need Bria Goss in a big way.
"Just with where our psyche was after the two losses and we were just not full speed and I just thought today we were going to have to play extremely well and extremely tough and I was talking to the coaches before the game and I just said, 'Bria Goss has to play today. We really need Bria Goss to have a big game,' " Mitchell said.
In every way imaginable, the junior guard delivered as the No. 9/10 Cats (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with an 80-69 defeat of Missouri (13-4, 2-2 SEC).
"That is a kid on a day where we needed a big effort and needed all hands on deck she was able to get it done on both ends of the court and that is a big-time, big-time game from Bria Goss," Mitchell said.
Goss's 20 points and eight rebounds stand out on the stat sheet, but her role in the victory began well before the opening tip. With Evans -- with whom she shares primary vocal leadership responsibilities -- unable to play, Goss spoke up.
"Before the game, I brought the team together and said, 'We're down another player, which means everybody has to step up,' " Goss said. "So that's really what I was going for. Not just me, but I knew my teammates were going to step up to the challenge as well."
Validating Mitchell's concern that the Cats were facing a deficit in confidence against the visiting Tigers, Missouri jumped out to a 24-16 lead when Bri Kulas hit an and-one layup with 7:32 left in the first half. When UK came to the bench for the ensuing under-eight media timeout, Mitchell challenged Goss's backcourt mate, Janee Thompson.
"Somebody at some point was going to have to stop worrying about being scared about losing the game and step up," Mitchell said. "I just tried to wake them up the best that I could and I thought from that point on just telling them to stop dragging around and feeling sorry for themselves and start making some plays."
After Kulas missed a free throw, Thompson calmly drilled a jumper from near the free-throw line, sparking an 11-0 run to give the Cats a lead they would never relinquish.
"In that timeout, he told us to let everything go, let it loose and play and just be confident," Thompson said. "Once he said that, I think that really picked me up and it gave the confidence to go in there with no fear and knock that shot down. We were just rolling from there."
But if not for Goss, UK may not have rolled to victory.
Kulas, Missouri's leading scorer, torched the Cats for 20 points and nine rebounds in the first half. She shot 7 of 12 from the field and Mitchell knew he needed to do something to slow the versatile post player.
The 5-foot-10 Goss switched onto Kulas, gladly accepting the assignment of shadowing the 6-1 forward.
"I evaluated what she was doing at the beginning in the first half and she's a great player, can score in a lot of ways and I was just honored to be able to guard her," Goss said.
Hounded by Goss for much of the final 20 minutes, Kulas scored just seven points on 2-of-6 shooting. With 2:22 left and UK leading by 10, Goss drew the second of two charges on Kulas. The foul was Kulas's fifth and all but sealed the outcome.
"The biggest thing that Bria did for us now was that she went on Kulas in the second half and really, really affected her and did a masterful job," Mitchell said.
Goss's work is the most important single reason why UK was able to get back on the right track.
"I think this was a huge win," Goss said. "Like I said, Missouri's a really good team and for us to come out the way we did and battle back and just get that confidence back and ease our way back into was really good for us."
Time will tell whether the win ends up deciding the SEC title race, but Mitchell believes Sunday was important regardless.
"Not from the standings or our long-term future, but just for our immediate psyche right now we needed to win," Mitchell said.
Andrew Harrison had 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists in UK's win at Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- With the break between the fall and spring semesters nearing its end and Southeastern Conference play just getting started, John Calipari has to be easing off the throttle at "Camp Cal," right?
Not just yet.
Ahead of a trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday, Kentucky scrapped its normal routine of taking a day off after a game.
"We practiced the day after the Mississippi State game," Calipari said. "They came in and couldn't believe we practiced. What do you have to do? We only went an hour. And then when they got going, we went."
No. 14/16 UK (12-3, 2-0 SEC) parlayed that intense practice schedule into a 71-62 win in Memorial Coliseum. It was far from a work of art -- victories at Vandy (8-6, 0-2 SEC) rarely are -- as the Wildcats shot just 26 of 61 (42.6 percent) from the field, but UK's 41-28 rebounding edge and Willie Cauley-Stein's 15 points and six rebounds were enough.
"I told them, 'You prepared to win this game,' " Calipari said.
Kentucky's preparation took a somewhat unexpected turn this week in the wake of another slow start against Mississippi State. The Cats, with all their length and athleticism, would seem to be best-suited for a fast-paced game, but Calipari opted to forgo a focus on transition.
"Coach was just saying we start off real sluggish in the beginning so we're just going to start off by grinding it out instead of trying to fly up and down and let the game come to us and then start running, and that's what we did," Cauley-Stein said.
As is to be expected with a team as young as this one there were hiccups in executing that game plan, but the Cats overcame their penchant for stumbling out of the gates, took an early lead and held it from the 14:50 mark onward.
"I think we played really good as a team, and that's been one of the biggest things this year is, the word is we're not a good team and we've got selfish guys," Cauley-Stein said. "The last couple days in practice we've been getting closer, basketball wise as a team, and in the game it just showed that we really do got each other's back and we really do got good guys."
Never before has Andrew Harrison's importance to that been clearer.
The freshman point guard has had better scoring days -- he had 10 points on 3-of-7 shooting -- but he heeded Calipari's most important piece of coaching.
"What he did was what I was asking him to do," Calipari said. "Get rid of the ball. Get us running. When you get it back, attack. Do not hold the ball. Don't be a ball-stopper. No one in the country wants to play with a ball-stopper. You have a play to make, make it. If you don't, get rid of it. He did that today, he really did."
He had four assists and just one turnover, leading a UK offense that had just 10 giveaways all afternoon. Harrison added a career-high-tying eight rebounds as the Cats had 18 offensive rebounds to Vandy's five and a 15-5 edge in second-chance points.
Harrison, as Calipari point guards often are, has been a lightning rod for criticism for much of the season and made his share of mistakes, to be sure, but he is beginning to find a rhythm. In fact, Coach Cal is reminded of one of his former pupils when he watches Harrison: Tyreke Evans.
"Both of them had habits that you had to crack," Calipari said. "Both of them had a mentality of how to play the game that was kind of opposite of the way it needed to be."
That mentality is beginning to change.
"And now when you begin to see him thinking differently and playing a little different, you're seeing a guy with that kind of size, can make shots, can make free throws, is a good passer and handler, has great speed," Calipari said.
Harrison has never had a reputation as a burner, and neither did Evans. But as he gets a handle on the line between pushing in transition and grinding it out, his speed is coming to the surface, just as it did for Evans.
"Tyreke Evans, because he wouldn't run, when he really started running his grandmother came to a game and said, 'Coach, I didn't know he was that fast,' " Calipari said. "His grandmother, who had seen him run his whole life, never saw him run that fast. Well he just never did it. And Andrew's the same way. I mean, he's really fast. He's fast. Just doesn't run it that way all the time."
So, will Calipari let Harrison slow it down in practice as the Cats prepare for another tough road trip to Arkansas on Tuesday?
Not so much.
"Now we're going home, we're practicing an hour tomorrow and then we're going to practice an hour and a half before we leave to go to Arkansas," Calipari said.
All-around champion Audrey Harrison led UK to an Excite Night win on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With nerves rattling and his Kentucky gymnastics team still very much still a work in progress, Tim Garrison knew Excite Night wouldn't go perfectly.
Hosting the season's first meet, that was actually the point.
"What we wanted to see was fight, grit," Garrison said. "If they struggled to not let it affect them. And that's exactly what we saw tonight."
It was on display within the first few routines.
UK opened on vault and the second and third Wildcats up -- Kayla Hartley and Shelby Hilton -- posted scores of 9.400 and 9.600, respectively. But rather than let the early disappointment affect them, the Cats responded with solid routines by Shannon Mitchell, Kenzie Hedges and Holly Cunningham.
"They very easily could have put their heads down and given up on them," Garrison said. "They didn't. They took a step forward, pulled their chest up and performed well for the rest of the way."
With vault behind them, the No. 21 Cats went on to take down No. 15 Penn State (193.975), West Virginia (193.700) and Ball State (190.875) in Memorial Coliseum. The 5,839 fans in attendance loved every moment, from pre-meet festivities to the final routine on floor.
"It was electric," Garrison said. "It was a fun night. When one of our athletes would hit a landing, the whole place would just go crazy. That's what we want to bring back three weeks from now when we come back and compete here."
UK's final score initially came in at 194.900, but an inquiry into two different starting scores yielded an extra tenth of a point and gave the Cats a 195.000, as well as a psychological boost.
"It makes a big difference hearing 194, even if it's a 194.9, to a 195 because we wanted to at least get a 195,"Audrey Harrison said. "It wasn't our best at all, but it's definitely good start."
Harrison won her 12th-career all-around title on Friday with a 39.075, turning in a performance representative of her team's. She was disappointed in her bar routine after she scored a 9.700, but was undeterred. She followed it up with a 9.850 on beam and a 9.825 on floor, her two best scores of the night.
"Tim was telling us at the end and all throughout that he liked the fight because we didn't give away anything," Harrison said. "Someone could have fallen but they didn't and they saved it. We saw that on each event where people were trying not to give away anything to get the highest score possible."
Though Harrison was in a familiar role as UK's top all-arounder, many of her teammates found themselves in new positions.
Hilton competed in all-around for the first time as a Wildcat, scoring a 38.700. She will surely post higher scores as the season goes on, but Garrison called her effort "special" nonetheless. Mitchell, meanwhile, had a 9.725 in her first vault routine and true freshman Montana Whittle a 9.775 on bars, her first college routine.
"It's just a good experience," Harrison said. "We had a lot of new people out there tonight, so having this meet under their belt's going to help. We're just to take that excitement, keep the fight and then just give away even less next time."
Throughout the offseason, Garrison has said he wants consistency to be the hallmark of his team. In terms of technique, the Cats aren't there yet. But as they prepare for arguably the nation's toughest schedule, their approach is looking good.
"We were consistent because we were consistently fighting," Garrison said. "We didn't hit everything. It was definitely not a flawless night, but it was a night where we were able to come back from subtle mistakes that were made and make a good show of it."
Dominique Hawkins has played at least 15 minutes in five straight games, including a career-high 23 in a win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein knew all about his soon-to-be teammates when he elected to return for his sophomore season.
He was aware of the hype surrounding Kentucky's top-ranked 2013 recruiting class and his hope was to compete for a national championship with the newest batch of Wildcats. There was, however, one incoming freshman completely unknown to Cauley-Stein.
Dominique Hawkins was the final member of John Calipari's signing class, parlaying a Sweet Sixteen performance for the ages on his future home floor into a scholarship offer into a scholarship offer. He was a decorated player, to be sure, but lacked the five-star billing of Julius Randle or the Harrison twins.
Nearly halfway through his first season at UK Hawkins still isn't a household name, but his teammates certainly know who he is.
"I honestly couldn't tell you what he looked like, what his last name was coming in," Cauley-Stein said. "But he can hoop. I love him to death too. He's a great guy and he can hoop."
He has proven his ability to his coach as well, playing his way into a regular role even though Hawkins himself expected it to take longer for that to happen. With No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) set for a matchup at Vanderbilt (8-5, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET, Hawkins has played double-digit minutes in five straight games and 10 of 11 overall.
His unselfishness and energy have made him indispensable, particularly on the defensive end, and a fan favorite. UK's home crowd has so taken to Hawkins that pleas of "Shoooot!" often fill Rupp Arena when he touches the ball and is open. It's a strange feeling for Hawkins, because he never needed to be told to shoot before he came to college.
"It feels like a big echo of somebody telling me to shoot," Hawkins said. "It's pretty crazy because I never had that before because in high school I always shot the ball. If I was open I was definitely shooting it."
Hawkins averaged more than 20 points a game during his senior season at Madison Central High School, but his scoring is not the reason why he's now in the rotation as a college freshman. With so much talent surrounding him, opponents have begun sagging off Hawkins, essentially daring the 6-foot guard to shoot.
That's exactly what Mississippi State did on Wednesday and the crowd reacted by imploring Hawkins to pull the trigger. In fact, his teammates may have even joined the chorus a time or two.
"I probably was one of them yelling," Cauley-Stein said. "To be honest, I was probably one of them yelling for it."
Hawkins, for the most part, resisted the urge to heed those calls.
"I kind of wanted to shoot it because I knew I was open, but I just let it go on the side and kept on running the offense," Hawkins said.
In the first eight minutes against the Bulldogs UK launched seven 3-pointers, falling behind 18-8 in the process. The Cats lost sight of their strength inside, so Hawkins decided to pass up his open looks outside. From that point forward, UK outscored Mississippi State 77-55 en route to an 85-63 victory.
Nonetheless, his teammates want Hawkins taking his open look.
"Personally, I think he should have shot way more," Cauley-Stein said. "If they're going to sag off of you, you may as well shoot it and let us rebound it if you're worried about missing."
Over his last five games, Hawkins is shooting just 1 for 12 from the field, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range. He is shooting 30.8 percent from the field for the season and knows it's something he needs to work on.
"I think it's kind of a process kind of deal right now because I've been shooting a lot of shots lately and most of them haven't been falling for me, so I got to get my confidence more up and get in the gym and shoot more," Hawkins said.
Though his shooting is a work in progress, it hasn't affected the rest of his game. No matter whether Hawkins is hitting his shots, missing them or not even taking them, he always brings intensity.
"None of this affects Dominique, I don't know how many people were here, the 23,000, it doesn't affect him," assistant coach John Robic said after the Mississippi State game. "But he just -- he does what we ask him to do."
What the coaches ask Hawkins to do is play defense and lift the energy of his teammates, both in games and practices. On that front, he's shooting 100 percent.
Take one practice last week for example.
With the Cats trying to get through a seemingly interminable stretch of practices during "Camp Cal," Hawkins cut back door in a scrimmage and Aaron Harrison bounced a pass to him. In one motion, he caught the ball and rose up for a dunk on Marcus Lee that Coach Cal posted on his website and social media.
"I didn't even think I was going to dunk when I went up," Hawkins said. "I thought I was just going to lay it up. I guess my body wanted me to dunk it or something because I wasn't thinking about dunking it all."
The scene that followed says everything you need to know about Hawkins' role on the team and his relationship with teammates. Calipari blew the whistle to stop the scrimmage and the Cats mobbed Hawkins in celebration.
"That saved practice for me, to be honest," Cauley-Stein said. "It got me a little extra juiced to finish out one of Coach's practices and it was a fun and hyped moment for everybody."
A couple dunks like that in games and everyone will know Dominique Hawkins.
For more than nine months, the No. 21 Kentucky gymnastics team has thought about this moment.
After UK's record-setting 2013 season ended with a program-best score in the NCAA Regionals, Tim Garrison and the Wildcats immediately set their sights on their 2014 debut.
At Friday's annual Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic, the long wait ends.
"It's the first meet of the year and we're obviously very excited about the opportunity to get out here and compete," head coach Tim Garrison said. "We have been training, going on four months now, so the girls are kind of chomping at the bit to get going."
Garrison has been pleased with his gymnasts' approach throughout the offseason, including at UK's Blue/White Meet last month. There, the Cats got a flavor for what meets will be like. Some athletes proved to themselves they were ready for the big stage; others learned they had some fine-tuning to do.
With No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State set to offer UK its first live competition of the season at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, Garrison expects the Cats to step up.
"I think we have some competitors on this team that are excited about the work, but are more excited about the competition," Garrison said. "Once you get on the competitive floor, most of the time they are going to bring their game to a different level and that's what I am looking for out of this group."
Garrison will also be looking for consistency. With the Cats still building toward routines with a higher degree of difficulty through training and recruiting, he knows success will come from steadiness.
He wants that to be just one part of his team's identity.
"I want them to be an excited group," Garrison said. "I want them to be a tough group. I want them to be fighters. I want them to be scrappy. I want them to come out of the meet tomorrow knowing if something happens or there is a slip-up here or there, that the next five will take care of it and make their routines."
It's Garrison's hope that that resilience is so plain to see that the big crowd there for Excite Night festivities will leave Memorial thinking about it.
"That is another thing that I asked the athletes to do is develop an identity, but not only for themselves, but for the fan base," Garrison said. "I want them to be excited, even if someone has a slip-up here and there. I want that fan to come back because they saw that athlete and how they reacted after and anticipation for the next time knowing they are going to hit it."
The athletes hitting those routines for UK will be familiar to fans.
Audrey Harrison -- who led the Southeastern Conference in all-around titles a season ago -- will once again anchor the lineup as a senior. Redshirt junior and All-SEC performer Kayla Hartley will likely compete on vault, bars and floor, where she will serve as UK's anchor.
Returners Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski, Shelby Hilton, Tiara Phipps, Marissa Beucler, Kenzie Hedges and Shannon Mitchell will all play a part as well, but it's not yet clear how UK's lineup will look. That will make Friday a learning experience for everyone, from athletes to coaches.
"Even though we have a lot of returners from last year's team, we are still playing around with some lineups and changing things around and will be very fluid even through the warm-up tomorrow," Garrison said. "We're going to learn a lot and they are going to learn a lot and it will make us better in the following weekend."
For that reason, Garrison won't measure his team's success this season until much later.
He hopes to settle on a lineup sometime around Sara Shipley's anticipated return from injury in late February or early March. Since UK is facing what many believe to be the nation's toughest schedule, some bumps in the road are surely in store for the Cats because of that.
"Trust me; I want to win worse than anything," Garrison said. "I don't like losing. It is not my makeup. But, at the same time, we are competing against tough competition and we are getting better every weekend and are really building this team for the future."
Whenever Garrison refers to the future, his meaning is twofold.
First, he's looking to lift his current team to its fullest potential. That was proven by the Cats posting their highest-ever Regional Qualifying Score in 2013, as well as setting a record with a 196.775 against the same Penn State team that will compete in Memorial on Friday.
But second, Garrison's goal of making Kentucky a perennial power on both the SEC and national scenes is never far from his mind.
"Part of this group right here is going to be there when I think that comes to fruition, so we want to go against tough competition every weekend," Garrison said.