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.
Dakari Johnson scored eight points in UK's 85-63 SEC-opening win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari had plenty to talk about in the locker room with his team down 40-37 at halftime to Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs' 10 fast-break points surely came up, as did Kentucky's 14 3-point attempts. He talked about carrying over the camaraderie the team had built during "Camp Cal" through better communication, as well as taking better care of the basketball.
But there was another message, delivered to a specific player, likely unanticipated by most.
"Before the second half started, Coach Cal told me he was going to put me in and just to post up and try to make moves because they were playing, I think, a 1-3-1 zone or a 2-3 zone so there were a lot of openings," Dakari Johnson said.
Johnson had played all of one minute in the first half, registering only a personal foul on the stat sheet, but Coach Cal sensed opportunity for the 7-foot, 265-pound freshman.
So barely two minutes after the break, Johnson came in for Willie Cauley-Stein. On three successive possessions, he scored, first on an impressive back-to-the-basket move. For an encore, he ran the floor and finished an Alex Poythress lob with a layup in transition. To cap it off, he grabbed a missed James Young 3-pointer, waited for traffic to clear and laid the ball in with some nice footwork.
The exchange turned a tie game into a 57-51 lead that No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) would continue to build on in an 85-63 win over the visiting Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1 SEC). When it ended, Johnson realized he needed a break.
"I was pretty tired," Johnson said. "It was a big momentum swing. I asked to get taken out of the game. I was kind of out of breath."
The breather was well-deserved for Johnson, who finished with eight points on 4-of-4 shooting.
"We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half, but we were getting pushed off the block when we didn't have to be pushed off the block," said assistant John Robic, filling in for Coach Cal at the postgame press conference. "The person that did the best job was Dakari. He got the ball tight. He got it with two hands and was forceful once he caught the ball."
This season, Johnson hasn't always had opportunities to show the talent that made him a five-star prospect. With Willie Cauley-Stein playing the best basketball of his career, Johnson has played double-digit minutes just twice in the last six weeks.
"It's been tough," Johnson said. "I'm so used to playing all the time, but it's been humbling. Just listening to (Calipari) during practice, just getting better each and every day, that's the main thing, to be ready for a game like this."
Thanks to that patient approach, Johnson was ready when his number was called in UK's SEC opener.
"Dakari played huge," said Alex Poythress, who had five thunderous dunks en route to a season-high 12 points. "He's great on defense and on offense. He's been doing it in practice, he's a big body. Just bury him under the rim and just score."
With Julius Randle facing double and triple teams on every touch, Johnson is UK's best option to score with his back to the basket. His ability in the post is what made him such a coveted prospect, and Wednesday served as a reminder.
"That was a big game for him and his confidence, and it's a big game for our team having a 7-foot, 265-pound player in the middle," Robic said.
The dimension Johnson adds on the offensive end has never been in question, but Johnson has struggled to carve out a more significant role because of defense.
With so many of UK's nonconference opponents playing smaller, quicker lineups, Johnson often hasn't had a natural matchup. Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, has the quickness to guard all five positions, allowing Calipari to implement a switch-everything defense.
Johnson knows what he has to do to overcome that.
"A lot of teams are going to be putting me in pick-and-rolls," Johnson said. "(Coach) said I've been doing a better job on that, so that's the main thing I'm focusing on."
With future SEC opponents featuring more traditional post players, he figures to have more chances to showcase his skills regardless. Johnson, however, is going to stick with the patient approach that yielded his game-changing second-half stretch.
"That's up to Coach Cal," Johnson said when asked about his role. "He's going to put the team in the best position to win the game, so whatever he thinks is fine."
UK will travel to No. 10/11 South Carolina for a game on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's common to hear coaches refer to road games as business trips, not vacations.
Matthew Mitchell has a different spin on the old cliche when it comes to UK Hoops' game at South Carolina on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
"Well, we are scheduled for our annual visit to the dentist's office," Mitchell said. "Our yearly root canal over in Columbia."
Mitchell's tongue-in-cheek analogy is no comment on the venue or the university. All he's saying is the No. 10/11 Gamecocks (14-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference)) are going to make life as miserable as possible for the No. 9/10 Wildcats (13-2, 1-1 SEC).
Dawn Staley's team, per usual, is among the best defensive squads you'll find. South Carolina is third nationally in scoring defense at 49.7 points per game, allowing opponents to hit a paltry 33.4 percent from the field.
"It is a real challenge to play over there," Mitchell said. "They have a really good program and always play really hard and it is always a tough, tough battle for us."
The last five games between South Carolina and Kentucky have been decided by eight points or fewer. The Cats have won three of those games, but lost a physical 55-50 battle a season ago in Columbia, S.C.
"They are obviously our permanent rival so we go to Columbia every year and it is always a really tough game," Mitchell said. "It is probably one of the best teams that Coach Staley has had. It is very impressive to watch them and how hard they play."
Unpleasant as it may be, facing South Carolina may be exactly what the doctor -- or perhaps more appropriately, the dentist -- ordered for Kentucky.
The Cats are coming off a home loss to Florida that left Mitchell disappointed by his team's intensity and focus. Taking on a team that succeeds because of those two things, Kentucky won't have any choice but to respond.
"It'll have our players' attention - certainly needs to have our players' attention - and the key to this game is being able to hustle and stay really tough mentally, emotionally, physically and rely on your fundamentals because they will really, really play hard and really play tough," Mitchell said.
DeNesha Stallworth remembers playing at South Carolina a season ago. The way the Cats built a second-half lead only to watch it vanish after they managed to score just 10 points in the final 11:37. Returning to the scene of their first SEC defeat of a season ago, UK will be able to gauge its progress following this year's first conference loss.
"I think it just tests us and see where we were are mentally," DeNesha Stallworth said. "I think we're on the right track right now and we're doing the right things."
Stallworth credits that, at least in part, to a players-only meeting and workout that immediately followed that loss to Florida on Sunday. Unhappy with what had just transpired, UK's veterans decided to do something.
"I think it definitely was a wake-up call," said Stallworth, a senior. "I think it was just something that needed to be done and everybody has stepped up so much in practice."
UK has benefited in practice from Stallworth's return. On Sunday, she played for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in December. After knocking the rust off in seven solid minutes, Stallworth has experienced no swelling and only minimal pain.
"She practiced really hard (Tuesday), made all the plays, did all the defensive fundamentals, all of our defensive footwork," Mitchell said. "So I think we will see her round into shape, however many games that takes her to get back."
She probably won't regain her All-SEC form on Thursday, but any contributions she can offer will be welcome against a big, physical South Carolina front line.
"It'll be a tough game Thursday," Mitchell said. "They are extremely big in the post and extremely physical and your physical conditioning will be a factor in this game. So still, we'll practice hard every day with her and we'll let her play as hard as she can play."
Whether Stallworth is a major factor or not, Mitchell knows what will decide the outcome.
"The key: Can we keep that strength about us and can we really hustle and try to outhustle South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "I think that's going to be such a key because I don't think there's really any secrets between the two programs. We play twice (each season) and the team that plays harder usually wins."
UK will open SEC play against Mississippi State on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Since they live together, practice together and work out together, it would seem a natural thing that basketball teammates would bond quickly with one another.
Not so, says John Calipari.
You see, for all the Wildcats share, they each still lead their own lives during the school year.
"When you're (in classes), everybody has their own schedule," Calipari said. "They all do. And so it's hard to say - they get up for breakfast, they really don't want to look at each other and go to class at 8."
But in Coach Cal's experience, that changes during the break between fall and spring semesters.
With academic responsibilities eased, the Cats have been on the same clock for more than two weeks now. They wake up together, eat together, practice together and spend nearly every waking hour in one other's presence.
"Every team I've coached has come together," Calipari said of the time known as "Camp Cal."
Coach Cal's latest team has noticed that process at work, partially due to the fact that the Cats' classmates are almost all out of town for the holidays.
"We just started to talk more," Andrew Harrison said. "We really had no choice. We really had no one to talk to besides each other."
Though it's been out of necessity, the Cats have enjoyed that time. They are also seeing the results.
"It has definitely been really important," Aaron Harrison said. "We all got to know each other going out to eat every night and spending a lot more time together. It definitely helped us off the court."
With a nearly two-week hiatus between games finally almost at an end, it's nearly time to find out what that means between the lines.
"Now, I don't know what that means on the basketball court, but I do know they know each other better, they have a better feeling for each other," Calipari said. "And it starts there, in my mind."
There's no way to quantify exactly what chemistry off the court means on it, but Calipari does know two areas he'll be watching when the No. 14/16 Cats (10-3) host Mississippi State (10-3) on Wednesday in Rupp Arena (8 p.m. ET, SEC Network) in both team's Southeastern Conference opener.
"Hopefully defensively we just ratchet it up a little bit," Calipari said. "Hopefully we're gonna hold the ball less."
The latter of those two hopes has become somewhat of a theme for UK. His mind always churning, Coach Cal has come up with one of his signature messages to hammer the point home.
"When you have the ball, you're a passer," Calipari said. "When you don't have the ball, think score. In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No. When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."
Strange as that may sound, the Cats are getting the message.
"It's weird, but we definitely understand where he's coming from and what he means by it, just being ready and try to move to the open spot when you don't have the ball," Andrew Harrison said.
"Actually, that makes a lot of sense," Aaron Harrison said. "It helps everyone be prepared to shoot and be prepared to play and score."
For those that don't yet understand it, a stretch in a recent practice served to illustrate the point.
Andrew Harrison, accustomed to creating with the ball in his hands as a point guard, has struggled at times when his teammates have the ball, standing straight up and down rather than being in a ready position. But for a few possessions in one of a seemingly endless string of practices, it seemed to click.
"He went down, and we threw him the ball," Calipari said. "It was basket, dunk, assist, basket, four straight times, when he didn't have it, it came to him and he just blew by them. We're just like, we're looking around like 'Wow, maybe he got it.' "
Not quite yet. Moments later, he reverted to the way he had done things for the first 18 years of his basketball life.
"Their basketball habits are bad," Calipari said. "Their response to situations: bad. But they're great kids. I mean, these kids--we have not an issue of anything. I mean anything. But their basketball habits stink. They're just the worst. I'm telling you. But they're changing. I'm seeing it right before my eyes. If we can get them where we need to have it, it's on. Right now, it's still, 'Let's see it in games now.' "
The first chance will come on Wednesday, but it won't be the last.
"We're just saying, 'OK, let's see what steps we've taken,' " Calipari said. "And not playing, we may be rusty."
The Cats' game against Mississippi State will be their first in 11 days and second in 19 and the Bulldogs will be out to make UK look as rusty as possible.
Coach Cal compared Mississippi State's defensive approach to Boise State in that the Bulldogs will pack the interior and challenge UK to hit outside shots. In Rick Ray's second season, MSU has already matched its win total from a year ago, scoring 14.1 more points per possession in the process.
"They're gonna fly up and down, run high-low offense or run some back screens to down screens," Calipari said. "They do some really good stuff and they play good as a team. So it's a challenge for us."
As you would expect, Calipari will be watching the way his team responds to the challenge more closely than the scoreboard.
"It's what we need right now, to have a team come in here that's going to run their stuff and play a different kind of defense to see where we are," Calipari said.
Kentucky will play for the first time in 11 days on Wednesday against Mississippi State. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's talent has never been in question, but John Calipari didn't know exactly how much work the Wildcats had ahead of them until they took the floor.
Through UK's nonconference schedule, the talent was on display. There were moments of brilliance, but also those that reminded Coach Cal of a simple fact.
"This is the youngest team I've ever coached, and I've coached young teams," Calipari said. "This team's habits, basketball-wise, were far worse than the other teams that I've had. They're great kids now; they just have bad basketball habits."
The Cats, for all their athleticism and skill, had understandably grown accustomed to dominating without the kind of consistency that was being demanded of them at the college level. Their individual gifts had always allowed them to succeed, carrying their teams in the process.
In defeats against Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina, that didn't work. Though UK was in position to win each time, the Cats couldn't come together and execute well enough in the final minutes. Those bad habits doomed them.
That's where Camp Cal came in.
With classes out of session for the holiday break, it's been all basketball all the time for Kentucky. The Cats have practiced twice most days, spending the remaining time together at meals or team outings.
With a week-and-a-half window between games, the Cats haven't even had an opponent to worry about. Coach Cal has used that time to zero in on the things he believes will lift his team to its potential.
"There were four areas on defense, there were four areas on offense and we scrimmaged about every day for about an hour and a half and it was nonstop, up and down the court trying to get them to stretch them out, mental toughness and get them to execute both on offense, to create good shots for each other, and on defense, to make it tough on the other team for the entire shot clock," Calipari said.
For example, Calipari has emphasized a somewhat counterintuitive offensive concept with his team.
Instead of thinking about scoring when players have the ball in their hands, Coach Cal wants them thinking pass first. The time for thinking about scoring is when a teammate has the ball.
"In other words, don't pass it the minute you know, 'I absolutely can't get a shot so I'll pass.' No," Calipari said. "When you have the ball, you're thinking pass. When you don't have it, you're down, you're loaded up and you're ready to attack."
UK took a step in the right direction on that front its last outing.
Playing without leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle for most of the second half, the Cats did what they couldn't in previous matchups with ranked opponents and finished off rival Louisville for a much-needed resume-building victory.
"Well, the thing that happened in that game, again, we played as a team better," Calipari said.
Since then, UK has gone to work building on that momentum and correcting some of the issues (free-throw shooting and careless turnovers, to name a couple) that led to the Cardinals still having an opportunity to win.
As much as fans might like to see the Cats take the floor again to see if that improvement will stick, this schedule lull was not an accident.
"We like to have a little more time and when the league moved the schedule back it was perfect for us," Calipari said. "We're going to see how this plays out. Maybe it helps us. Maybe it didn't. Maybe I wore them out."
Only time will tell, and the first returns come on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET vs Mississippi State.
"I will tell you that the players are ready to play," Calipari said. "Oh my gosh. They see me coming and their head goes down. They want to start playing games."