John Calipari often says there's no room for delusional players at Kentucky.
Derek Willis, then, picked the right school.
Asked on Monday what he needs to do to earn more playing time, Willis gave a refreshingly candid answer.
"I'm trying to be self-critical about everything right now, and I think just be more focused, just show that I really want to be here and I don't think, being honest, I've done that," Willis said.
The Mt. Washington, Ky., native, halfway through his sophomore season, has had a limited role on a top-ranked and historically deep UK team. Willis has seen action in nine games for the 17-0 (4-0 Southeastern Conference) Wildcats, most often in the final minutes of their frequent blowout wins.
Willis arrived in Lexington a highly regarded prospect, though without the McDonald's All-American credentials of most of his teammates. A star for Bullitt East High School, the 6-foot-9 forward had had to adjust to getting only spot duty.
"It's just kind of weird," Willis said. "I mean, you go your whole life playing and then you're just not playing as much, so I don't know. Just kind of fallen out of the game, just don't know what to do really, just looking for answers."
The first step to finding the answers, of course, is asking the right questions. One question he's never asked is whether UK is the place for him.
"I'm going to stay here four years, regardless," Willis said. "I love this place."
For the questions he doesn't have answers for, Willis has consulted everyone from his father to his friends to Coach Cal. A common theme has emerged.
"Just get in the gym more and be around the game more, I guess," Willis said.
Making that commitment in Willis' position isn't easy though.
"He's gotta really step on the gas and it's hard now," Calipari said. "When you haven't been playing to come in every day and spend extra time and not know if you're going to play or not. It's one thing if you know you're one of those 10 and you're playing. It's another thing if you're one of 10 or 11 or 12 and you don't know if you're going to play. It's a hard thing, especially for a young guy."
That's why the last week has been so important.
When Coach Cal elected to go back to the 10-man platoon system against Missouri last Tuesday, Dominique Hawkins - who has spent most of the season seated next to Willis on the bench - took full advantage of his opportunity.
"Dominique stepped up the last game that he played and played well," assistant coach John Robic said.
Four days later, with Hawkins - whose status is unknown for UK's next game - out after undergoing a minor medical procedure, it was Willis who got four minutes of first-half action in a blowout win at Alabama, posting two rebounds and a steal. Calipari and Robic both said he did well, but Willis was once again honest in admitting he was nervous in playing his first meaningful minutes in a long while.
"I was a little tense out there," Willis said. "I haven't really gotten a lot of experience in the games this year, other than like the beginning of the season, and I went out there and just tried to do like a million different things. My mind was all worried about everything else really but the game."
That drives at maybe the most difficult challenge facing Willis: balancing between the honesty and self-reflection needed to earn more time and the confidence needed to play well when he gets it. To cope with that, Willis would likely do well to listen to his teammates.
"Derek's been playing very well with the minutes that he's getting," Trey Lyles said. "He practices with us every day, so he just had to get his opportunity to go out there and play and that's what he did the other day. He did well."
Willis also excelled this summer on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour, averaging 6.0 points and 3.5 rebounds. With Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein out due to injury, he stepped in and more than held his own against professional opponents.
"With Willie not playing down there, it sort of put him into that role, and it was good to see," Robic said. "That was a little bit more free-wheeling type of basketball, which he's really good (at) because of his athleticism, the way he can pass the ball."
It was that passing ability that earned Willis six minutes last season against Vanderbilt, UK's next opponent. The Cats unable to effectively find post players inside, Coach Cal turned to Willis, who counts feeding the post as a specialty. With the Commodores (11-6, 1-3 SEC) coming to town at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Willis will need to be ready again.
But whether he plays against Vandy or not, he knows his time will come as long as he does what he needs to.
"I'll get a chance," Willis said. "I've just got to like turn it on. I know I can play. Everyone else knows I can play, and so I've just got to turn it on, kick it into gear. I haven't (done) that yet."
On the road recruiting, John Calipari called into the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday ahead of matchups with Vanderbilt and South Carolina this week. Read everything he had to say about the games, Devin Booker's development and Dominique Hawkins' status below, as well as comments from Vandy's Kevin Stallings and South Carolina's Frank Martin.
On this week's games ... "Well, they're both hard games. I watched some of the Vanderbilt tape, especially their game with Georgia. I think their big kid (Damian Jones) is really good. Obviously they shoot the ball well. Got a freshman (Riley LaChance) that'll shoot from anywhere and make it. And Kevin is at his best with these kind of teams. They're running like a combination of Princeton (offense) and their stuff to free 3-point shooters. So he's doing a little combo, but he's doing a great job with them. And then Frank's teams are Frank's teams. They're going to play hard. You're not just getting a game. When you go in there--we've lost, I think we've lost the last couple times we've gone in there. You're going to have to play. They're not giving you anything. They beat Iowa State and I watched the game. I called Frank after and I thought what a great win for his program and our league. So he's doing the things that he's gotta do to give his guys a chance, which he always does, and it's a hard place for us to play."
On Devin Booker's development ... "The thing that I was on him for early is getting it off. It's not high school; you're not going to jump over anybody. You gotta be able to catch and get it off. You gotta be able to have your shot prepared before you even catch the ball. And he's doing that. The rim has gotten big for him because of that, because it's not a slow, I'm going to jump over you and then all of a sudden the guy's all over him. These are looks that he's saying, 'I'm getting a good look at the rim.' But more importantly, you guys all keep looking at him shooting the ball and it's good stuff, but defensively I never thought he'd guard this way. His energy defensively, his ability to stay in front, fight screens is what's setting him apart for us right now. So we can all talk shooting, but the reason we're winning is because when you put him in and Tyler (Ulis), that energy defensively is what really takes us to another level." On the difference between coaching freshmen like his who will likely leave early and freshmen like Vanderbilt's who will stay four years ... "No, the reality of it is, you know what, we're all in position where we're forcing these kids to grow up fast. Kevin's asking them to grow up fast. So am I. We all have challenges. I told a coaching friend of mine the other day, 'Every team's having problems, all of us, and you gotta deal with yours better than someone else is dealing with his.' So the problems Kevin will have with freshmen, some of them are similar to what I'll have. Some of them are not. I know we're all dealing with helping these kids confidence-wise, feeling good about themselves, getting them to understand there's no escaping industry, hard work. You can't escape it. Either you're going to go and outwork the other guy or you're going to break down your confidence. And that's hard freshmen. Here's what freshmen usually have done in high school: Every fifth play, they did something really good that people said, 'Oh my gosh.' And the other four, they tried to hide, they tried to just kind walk through. And then they come to college and you're asking them to play on every single possession. Guess what. Really difficult for them. That's the challenge we all have." On the lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew Harrison, Devin Booker, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson ... "It depends on the game. I mean, guys, every game we play, somebody different has stepped up and done great. That's the great thing about having a lot of guys. What I say to them at times is, 'Look, I don't need all 10 of you to play well. I need five of you, and I'll ride those five. But if you want to play, play well.' And playing well for us is come with energy. Play extremely hard and I can leave you on the floor. If they're scoring points on your group, you're out. If you're the one not doing your thing at times, I'll take you out. Kind of the challenge is for them to help each other, to be there for each other and play off of one another. They seem to be doing it pretty good."
On what he liked about the aforementioned lineup against Alabama ... "There was a really good play where Andrew came down and assisted Tyler for a 3. Tyler assisted him for a 3, and he didn't take it. I was tell him to shoot it. That's how they have to play. If the other has the ball, you're the finisher, he's the playmaker. Either one of you two. And then, it gives you that one more ball handler, one more free-throw shooter that we can really grind out. And what we did against Alabama I'm guessing the last five minutes is play grind it out basketball. We weren't looking to score 85 (points). We were looking as though that was a six-point game and we have to grind it out and finish the game. And that's what we were working on and I thought they did pretty good."
On if there are matchups where Derek Willis will play more, or if it's strictly based on practice ... "He's gotta really step on the gas and it's hard now. When you haven't been playing to come in every day and spend extra time and not know if you're going to play or not. It's one thing if you know you're one of those 10 and you're playing. It's another thing if you're one of 10 or 11 or 12 and you don't know if you're going to play. It's a hard thing, especially for a young guy. But, Dom gives us that unbelievable energy that that unit needs. Now, if he's not bringing it, or something (where) I look at this and I say, Derek's better and Derek's earned time in practice, then it'll be Derek. Everybody was ecstatic for Dom, and then they were ecstatic for Derek last game. Now, I didn't put him in the first rotation because I didn't think he was ready for that. But I put him in the next rotation. Then in the second half we kind of got out of whack and I just was more or less trying to finish the game, but they both have done great." On the status of Dominique Hawkins ... "I don't know yet because I haven't seen him, but I would imagine after two days he should be fine."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings
Opening statement ... "We're coming off tough week. We lost a couple of close games that we felt like we could have won. So, it doesn't get any easier. Kentucky and LSU are both extremely, extremely talented. We're just going to have to try to figure out how to make ourselves better and climb out of this valley we're in a little bit. Every week is a tough week in this league. This one certainly is as tough as any we will have. I'm hoping our guys are up to it."
On if coaches would prefer to coach players three or four years as opposed to just one ... "I guess that depends on the stipulations. I certainly think that all of us would coach one and done guys if we were able to recruit those types of talents. Do I think that there are a large portion of coaches who would prefer maybe some different rules to where guys had to be in college a little bit longer? Perhaps so. Or maybe let them sign out of high school if they're that type of talent, and then maybe have a modified rule like baseball does or something. But certainly I think all of us would recruit and coach that type of player if we could get them."
On the ability of Kentucky's defense to take away players' confidence ... "Their defense is perhaps as good as I've ever seen. And, I don't think from a positive or negative perspective, I think if you allow your mojo, if you will, to be defined by what happens in one game, particularly in a game against Kentucky, then I think you're missing the boat a little bit because they're different than just about every other team we play, or they are than every other team we play. So, I don't think that that - I'm hopeful that that's not something I have to worry about. But, their defense is truly amazing. Hopefully it doesn't happen to where our confidence gets dinged any more than it already is." On Kentucky's shooting ability ... "Well, they've got shot makers and I just think they're a complete team. I think that's what makes them better than everyone else. They're complete. They're really good shooting. They're really good rebounding. They're really good defending. They're great at the rim, both offensively and defensively. They take care of the ball. They share it. There's just nothing that they're not doing well. You can sit back and hope they miss shots, but the numbers suggest they're not going to. They've got guys on that team that have made shots to win NCAA championships, so it's not like they're nervous about taking shots. Those two freshman guards obviously have come in and shot it very, very well. So, shooting is, to me, is a strength of Kentucky's. It's certainly not a weakness."
South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On games this week against Tennessee and Kentucky ... "Obviously we got two homes this week starting with Tennessee tomorrow. Donnie Tyndall, the job he's done to go through the transition phase and deal with injuries and defections and new faces and get them playing at the level they're at. A credit to him, his staff and those kids. And then finish off the week with the best team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, here also at home. Exciting week for us. Hard, but exciting and that's what it's all about in league play."
On what last year's win over Kentucky did for his program and what kind of atmosphere he expects Saturday ... "Well, I mean, those are the kind of wins that you want to build on. Anytime you can figure out a way to defeat one of the top programs in the country year in and year out and especially when they're in your own league. And I think that gave our guys confidence. We'd been close a whole lot towards the end of last year when we got that win. I think it gave us confidence, I think it gave our fans confidence and I think it's no surprise that we're fourth in the league in attendance, that our fans are buying into our players and our team and hopefully it's something we continue to build on."
Winning is woven into the culture of the Kentucky cheerleading team. So when the Wildcats don't reach their goal - a national championship - disappointment is inevitable.
That was the case on Sunday evening, as UK fell short in its bid for an unprecedented 21st national championship.
"I know we're better than that, but today just wasn't our day," head coach Jomo Thompson said. "Hats off to the University of Alabama for taking that title."
Kentucky finished third at the UCA/UDA National Championships in Orlando, Fla., behind Alabama and second-place UCF. Thompson cited execution as the reason why the Cats couldn't bring home their 16th championship since 1995 and second in a row, but a difficult routine still kept UK in the top three.
"The competition's tough, but I always tell the kids we're our own competition," Thompson said. "We compete against the UK teams in the past before and we just didn't live up to that standard today."
UK will have to wait a year to reclaim its spot atop the world of college cheerleading, but the Cats have a history of responding when they don't win the title. Each of the four times the cheerleading team has been beaten out for the championship since 1995, UK has won the title the following year.
"We definitely have to come back stronger," Thompson said. "That starts with getting some good recruits in here and using this lesson that we learned today and kind of letting it burn in our bellies and just using it as fuel for next year, to re-motivate us."
The Kentucky dance team, which also competed at nationals this weekend, will have plenty of motivation heading into next year as well having turned in one of its best performances ever. The Cats came in third in the Hip Hop competition behind only Cincinnati and UNLV.
"I could not be more proud of these young ladies," head coach Dawn Walters said. "This is such a positive and hard-working group of girls. Even after one-third of the team got the flu two days before we left, they continued to support each other and stay focused on our goal. I'm so excited that their hard work was rewarded. It's been our goal to make top three and I am so proud."
The finish marks an improvement of two places from 2014.
UK Athletics congratulates both the cheer and dance teams for their achievements this weekend!
Devin Booker scored 13 points and hit 3-of-6 from 3-point range in a 70-48 win at Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Armed with a handful of players who bypassed chances to enter the NBA Draft, this was set to be the season Kentucky relied on veterans to get the job done on the road.
Two precocious freshmen, however, have decided they want in on the action.
Three away games into their UK careers, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis are having little trouble coping with life on the road.
"It shows their character," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It shows how much fight and will power they have to win the game. It starts in the gym. They're the two dudes that stay in after, and they're there first. They get their shots up before and after practice, and it starts there for real."
Booker and Ulis combined for 24 points as No. 1 UK ran its record to 17-0 (4-0 Southeastern Conference) with a dominant 70-48 win at Alabama (12-5, 2-2 SEC). They shot 7 of 12 from the field and 6 of 10 from 3-point range as the Wildcats decimated a solid Crimson Tide defense to the tune of 1.25 points per possession and had home fans heading to the exits well before the final buzzer sounded.
This is no new phenomenon either. In three road games - wins at Louisville, Texas A&M and of course Alabama - Booker is averaging 13.7 points on 12-of-23 shooting, while Ulis is averaging 9.3 points and hit a clutch 3 in that double-overtime thriller at A&M.
"Each game that goes by they're building their confidence," Calipari said.
It's scary to think Booker could get much more confident, particularly when it comes to his outside shot.
"Super impressive, especially for a freshman and especially games like this," said Cauley-Stein, who had nine points, five rebounds and two blocks in UK's second straight blowout win. "The crowd's into you, they're bad-mouthing you, they're doing stuff, so to be able to shoot like that is remarkable to me."
The sweet-shooting 6-foot-6 guard, who led a balanced effort with 13 points, has made 20 of his last 28 attempts over UK's last seven games. On the season, he's now shooting 34 of 67 (50.7 percent) from deep, rending his 1-of-11 start through three games a distant memory.
"It's like I'm shooting into the ocean now," Booker said. "It's really coming easy for me. At the beginning of the year I started out in slumps and I kept telling everybody, 'Shooters keep shooting.' That's what I did, and now it's falling."
Though they keep on falling, Booker refuses to force his shots.
"I'm shooting shots that the team needs," Booker said. "Like, for instance, Dakari Johnson was working real well today. So I was throwing it in to him every time, and he was making easy layups for us. And that opened up the 3 for us."
Booker and the Cats went to Johnson when it counted, as Alabama cut an 18-point deficit to nine with 13:14 left before Johnson drew foul, hit a free throw and bullied his way to a layup to spark a decisive 16-2 run. It should come as no surprise that Ulis hit a pair of 3s during the run and Booker another.
"I thought the game was won by Dakari today though," Calipari said of his 7-foot sophomore, who joined Booker in Ulis in double figures with 11 points. "The game was touch and go, and then Dakari just went basket, basket, basket, and the team went crazy because they knew what he was doing."
For a couple games to start SEC play, sharing in and celebrating teammates' success in that way went by the wayside. But with the return of the platoons, that's come back as well.
"Instead of tolerating each other they're celebrating each other," Calipari said. "So it's good. We're a good team. I got players."
Calipari hopeful for Hawkins' return on Tuesday
After Dominique Hawkins was impressive after Coach Cal inserted him into the starting lineup on Tuesday, the sophomore guard was forced to miss Saturday's game after undergoing a medical procedure.
Hawkins traveled with the team to Tuscaloosa, Ala., but was unable to participate in shootaround and missed the game. Calipari hopes Hawkins will play when UK hosts Vanderbilt at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday in Rupp Arena.
The freshman quartet of Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz makes up Tim Garrison's first class fully his own.
Recruiting in gymnastics starts so early that Garrison has waited until the fourth year of his Kentucky tenure for the moment they arrived on campus.
That means they are carrying the weight of some serious expectations.
"There is a little bit of pressure on us, but we all know we have the confidence, the talent in general and we go great together, the four of us," Rechenmacher said.
It's a good thing they do, otherwise this group of freshmen would surely not be able to contribute as much as they're being asked so soon.
Two meets into UK's season, the four newcomers have been counted on for seven routines. The first time around in a win at Washington, Garrison said they grew out of being freshmen before the meet was over. In their second meet on Excite Night, they performed more like seasoned veterans.
"Going through the preseason, I was fairly sure they were going to contribute and contribute in a big way," Garrison said. "To this point in the season, it's really turned out to be so."
Counting scores on six of the seven routines performed by freshmen, No. 13 UK came in second in Memorial Coliseum with a score of 195.600, beating Arizona State and falling short of No. 2 LSU's 196.600.
"I guess taking second to No. 2 team in the country is some consolation, but not much," Garrison said. "It still doesn't feel good to not win, but a 195.6 at this point in the season considering the fact that we're based solely on score for our rankings, I guess we'll take it for now."
The score represented a marked improvement from the season opener and the highest so early in the season in Garrison's time in Lexington. The freshmen had a lot to do with it.
On vault, Furuyama and Waltz posted scores of 9.800 and 9.850, respectively, to close out a strong performance on the apparatus. On bars, Carlisle and Waltz went 9.800 and 9.875 before Rechenmacher turned in a 9.850 as the fifth of UK's six performers.
"She's almost the anchor on bars right now," Garrison said. "That's pretty good. That's pretty solid for a freshman."
Rechenmacher wouldn't go as big on beam, the second of her two events, but her score was even more important.
After redshirt junior Alexis Gross tallied a score of 9.050, Rechenmacher stepped up with no margin for error in the fifth spot in UK's lineup. Unfazed, she managed a 9.725 to sustain the momentum the Cats built on vault and bars.
"I just knew I had the confidence in myself," Rechenmacher said. "I've been doing great in the gym this week and I knew I just had to do it for Lex. She was a little upset with herself that she fell and I understand that, but I just wanted to make it for her and help the team."
It's perhaps the most impressive thing about this freshman class that its members are already placing team before self. Along those lines, they're setting some ambitious goals.
"Hopefully we have the power to get this team to nationals," Garrison said. "That's our goal and I think we definitely have it. We're all so talented and just improving day in and day out in the gym. I think we can take this team pretty far."
That's exactly why Garrison recruited them.
"I'm seeing a lot of fight," Garrison said. "I'm seeing a lot of toughness. I'm seeing a lot of what I want to see from our freshman class and everybody else on the team, also. It's a team effort, what we're doing right now, and I think there's a lot of great things in store for us this year."
At his introductory press conference, the Kentucky offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach was asked why he believes he will succeed in his new role in the nation's toughest conference. His answer was as simple as it was quick.
"Because I think I can be successful anywhere," Dawson said.
Elsewhere in the nearly 30 minutes he spent with assembled media, Dawson spoke about his belief in Mark Stoops and the upward trajectory of the UK program, but his instant answer reflects that confidence, which also happens to be justified.
At his previous stop, West Virginia, Dawson joined with head coach Dana Holgorsen to lead offenses that ranked among the nation's best attacks over the last three seasons. Before that, he helped resurrect lagging programs at Stephen F. Austin and Millsaps.
"The last time I checked, everybody can put 11 players on the field, right?" Dawson said. "And it's not like we didn't play anybody in y'all's league the past four years. We did. So, you know, I think you can be successful anywhere if you do it the right way."
Dawson got his break into coaching with Hal Mumme at Southeastern Louisiana, where Mumme was famously hard on Dawson. It was under Mumme, the Air Raid innovator who first popularized the fast-paced, pass-oriented system at Kentucky in the late 1990s, that Dawson developed his concept of what doing it the right way means.
"The problem that a lot coaches make is they change too much," Dawson said. "So our overall way we're going to practice and lay it out has been consistent over the years, and that's one thing that's been consistent from offense from 15 years down, the way we practice and the way we install.
"I just think you gotta program kids a certain way, and you gotta hold them accountable to it. Attention to detail is huge. So the moment you let one little thing slip, then that becomes two."
Dawson might not be one for change, but that doesn't mean he's not willing to adapt.
At Stephen F. Austin, Dawson relied heavily on the pass, with barely a third of the Lumberjacks' plays being runs. By contrast, West Virginia had more rushes (563) than passes (534) in 2014.
"We made a concerted effort to get physical and be able to run the ball more efficient, not that we're sitting there adding 100 more run plays into the offense," Dawson said. "We still have those run plays, but it's simply the fact that we're calling them a little more, just turning and handing it a little more."
If it hadn't been for that tweak in approach, Stoops surely would not have brought Dawson on as Neal Brown's replacement in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
"I think one thing that he was excited about was we were physical, we had to the ability to be physical," Dawson said. "So that evolution fired him up."
Stoops and Dawson discussed that philosophy first over the phone and eventually in a face-to-face meeting that lasted two-plus hours. While Stoops was sold on Dawson's commitment to physicality in his Air Raid attack, Dawson saw the opportunity to run his own offensive show and jumped. Dawson played in an important role in all facets of West Virginia's offensive operation, but Holgorsen maintained final say.
"Working for Coach Stoops, being a defensive head coach, obviously the dynamics of me and his relationship is going to be different than the dynamics of me and Coach Holgorsen's relationship," Dawson said. "So being back on the field -- I wasn't in the press box really until West Virginia -- so being back on the field, having that flow of the game was extremely important to me and really the reason why I took it."
After Stoops and Dawson's in-person meeting, it only took a couple days to seal the deal. And if there was any lingering doubt about his commitment to his new job, witness how Dawson, his wife and his infant daughter handled their move to Lexington.
On Dec. 27, West Virginia lost a 45-37 shootout to Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Dawson and his wife flew into Pittsburgh with the team around 11 p.m. and immediately made the drive to Lexington. Arriving in the wee hours of the morning, the Dawsons needed to secure health insurance and find a house in short order.
"Both things we got done within about four hours," Dawson said. "I promise you this: The whole family will be here a couple days after signing day. We'll be ready to go. I'm not messing around with that."
Makayla Epps and Linnae Harper have always been the future of UK Hoops.
That future has arrived sooner than expected.
A season-ending injury to Janee Thompson on Sunday left the two sophomores with no choice but to step up into featured roles. The tears Epps and Harper cried for their teammate weren't even dry when they realized it.
"We both knew it was on as soon as Janee got took off on that stretcher," Epps said. "We both knew right there mentally that it was on, that we have to step up now. There's no more excuses."
Epps would have to shift from her customary jack-of-all-trades role over to being UK's permanent point guard. Harper would have to go from being a part-time standout to a full-time star for No. 10/11 Kentucky (15-3, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) to sustain its strong start.
One game in - a hard-fought 62-56 win over Florida (9-9, 1-4 SEC) - Epps and Harper are handling themselves just fine.
"I think tonight we both did great things on the offensive end," Epps said. "We still struggle on the defensive end with ball watching, which I'm sure we'll see tomorrow in practice for film, but we just have to step up on both ends because, like I said, it's all for Janee."
The Cats repeated their "play for Janee" mantra all night on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum, from the moment Thompson took the floor on crutches alongside head coach Matthew Mitchell on. The junior received a loud ovation from the crowd of 5,134 and watched from a few feet behind the UK bench.
With Thompson so close, Epps found herself wanting to ask advice of the player she's replacing. She'd have to settle for the occasional knowing look.
"There was times where I would look up and look at her," Epps said. "She would smile at me so I'm like, 'I'm doing all right.' "
All right for Epps meant 20 points, five rebounds, four assists and two turnovers. After an uneven first half, Epps was aggressive throughout the second stanza in scoring 14 points, following advice given by her head coach when he called her back for some final private words in the halftime locker room.
"He always tells me there's not too many people that can guard me," Epps said, "and I think I just really have to start believing that because when I get my feet in the paint that's creating shots for me, that's creating opportunities for my teammates and I just think I have to start believing in myself more."
Epps showed no shortage of self-belief in the final minutes, burying six clutch free throws in as many attempts over the final 2:15 to salt away the win. Still, Mitchell will be demanding more from her as she settles into her new role.
"We wouldn't have won the game without her," Mitchell said. "She just needs reps. I really believe this: I believe she can be one of the best point guards in this league. I think she can be one of the best point guards in the country, but she needs reps."
Harper, on other hand, remains in a familiar role on the wing, but she can no longer afford to show only flashes of her talent. The injury to Thompson, who Harper has known and played with since fifth grade, might have hit her harder than anyone, but Harper still has to step up.
In her 32 minutes against Florida, Harper did just that. She had 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds, as well a career-high six steals.
"She's developed so much," Mitchell said. "Last year she didn't get on the floor because she couldn't defend and now she's out there the whole game and just on a torrid steals pace."
Harper has a team-best 40 steals, including 20 over her last six games. She plans to keep her improvement on defense and offensive emergence going in honor of her friend and teammate.
"Now it's just all about playing for her because I know that she would want the best for us," Harper said. "I think about her all the time, I think about her every day and think she's my motivation to work harder in practice, do the little things, get in the gym extra and I think that's going to be contagious to the rest of the team."
Dakari Johnson had eight points and seven rebounds in UK's 86-37 win over Missouri on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Dakari Johnson started his season with a bang.
He scored in double figures in six of his first eight games, showing off a leaner physique and improved conditioning.
He flew up and down the floor, played through contact inside and rarely took the path of least resistance, but fell into a trap soon after.
"It's hard," John Calipari said. "It's hard to play the right way. You try to go back to see if I can do it that other way. It's much easier."
Johnson, of course, would learn the easier way just doesn't work.
"And then what happens is, your confidence gets down," Calipari said.
His production suffered as well, especially in a two-point, four-turnover outing at Louisville. The 7-foot Johnson routinely yielded the advantage his size gives him by bringing the ball low and shooting off balance then and in games soon after and the difference was plain to see.
That version of Johnson, however, was long gone on Tuesday against Missouri.
"(I) just came out trying to be aggressive, just try to bring energy to the game (and) try to bring my shot up quicker," Johnson said.
Johnson's statistics - eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and seven rebounds - didn't look drastically different, but everything else about him did. He was running the floor, kept the ball high and easily dealt with double teams, mirroring the boost of energy UK got as a team as the 10-man platoon system returned.
The way Johnson played was hardly surprising to Coach Cal after watching him in the days prior.
"He's just better in practice," Calipari said. "I told him - you could almost watch guys in practice and say, 'If he plays like that, watch what happens.' But it's hard. It's hard to run really hard every time, outrun your guy."
Johnson has proven time and time again he's not afraid of a challenge, most notably this past offseason. Aware he needed to shed weight to take the next step in his game, Johnson changed his diet and took on an aggressive workout routine and he hasn't stopped since.
"I've been working on my body all summer so I can sustain that throughout the season, just keep on staying in the same diet, the same regimen that I've been staying on," Johnson said.
The results, save for that holiday swoon, have been plain to see.
"Dakari's playing great," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great player. He's changed so much from last year. I've never seen someone change as much as he has over a year. He just works so hard and I'm really proud of him and happy for him."
Set for a trip to Alabama, top-ranked UK (16-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will need Johnson to keep it up. The Crimson Tide (12-4, 2-1 SEC) is unbeaten in 10 home games this season and its only losses have come to No. 11/13 Iowa State, Xavier, No. 13/15 Wichita State and a much-improved South Carolina team on Tuesday.
"I know they're a big, athletic team that's a good defensive team as well and really have to play hard against them," Aaron Harrison said. "They play really hard."
Calipari anticipates Alabama will trap Johnson and his fellow post players.
"They have to," Calipari said. "They're not gonna surrender. I keep coming back to, 'Why are they playing like this and hard?' They're not surrendering. So they body-to-body him and they just try to lay on him."
By this point, Johnson is accustomed to that, and he's happy to create openings for his teammates on the perimeter.
"It's expected," Johnson said. "We're used to teams doubling down and going on the inside. As long as we're shooting it well that's going to open it up."
Tim Garrison thinks of everything he can to simulate a meet-like atmosphere in practice.
He turns up the pressure on his gymnasts as much as possible, but his hands are still tied. When it comes down to it, duplicating the feeling of competing when it counts just isn't possible.
"There's only so much you can do, so actually getting out there and competing and seeing what kind of team we have was a very good thing," Garrison said.
That first look at his team in competition came on Monday, as the Wildcats traveled all the way to Seattle for a season-opening meet against No. 24 Washington. UK came on top, 194.975-194.325, with a score good enough to bump its ranking nine spots to No. 13 entering Friday's home-opening Excite Night meet against LSU and Arizona State.
Garrison called it a "decent opening day," saying plenty of small mistakes and even a few large ones will need to be addressed. But most importantly, the Cats showed themselves to be a team capable of overcoming adversity.
"When we made a mistake that was a large mistake resulting in a fall, the very next competitor was able to step up and actually hit their routine," Garrison said. "So I think that's good. I think that speaks to the toughness of our kids which is something that we're proud of."
An example of that toughness was Alexis Gross, the redshirt junior who missed all of last season due to injury. After Sara Shipley fell twice on beam, UK's final event, Gross needed to post a score to steady the Cats and preserve a slim lead. She did just that with a 9.725. Garrison also cited senior Kayla Hartley as being in "mid-season form."
From veterans like Gross and Hartley, that kind of effort is expected. From freshmen in their first college meet, not so much.
UK relied on its four true freshmen - Katie Carlisle, Brittany Furuyama, Cori Rechenmacher and Sydney Waltz - for six routines on Monday. They weren't perfect, but they weren't afraid either, not as the night went on.
"The way I put it, I think they grew up in front of our eyes," Garrison said. "I think on the first event they were freshmen. They were freshmen being freshmen. I think by the time they competed their second events they had already settled down and kind of gotten into the rhythm of the competition, which is something that we were looking to see."
The freshmen will get more experience under their belt in Memorial Coliseum for Excite Night, the meet that annually kicks off the home season for UK. A pair of strong teams, including the second-ranked Tigers, will be there, making for an event worth seeing.
"I'm expecting a big crowd, that's for sure," Garrison said.
Garrison can't promise anything about the way the Cats will perform, but the way they handled their first meet is a good sign. Regardless, he expects it to be the start of a season to remember.
"As far as I'm concerned, this team is limitless in our potential," Garrison said. "I think we're going to break a lot of records this year."
It didn't take long for Matthew Mitchell to find a positive in Janee Thompson's horrific injury against South Carolina.
In fact, it was within a few hours of Thompson going down with a dislocated ankle and fractured fibula that Mitchell found that silver lining.
"The outpouring of support from people literally from all over the country, it was an amazing experience," Mitchell said.
It was an experience, of course, that Mitchell would give most anything to not have gone through, but amount of people who reached out and the way in which they did made it one he won't forget.
"It was very uplifting to see that and just all of the support we received from all of the people who aren't even connected to our program who just saw it on television and sent their thoughts, prayers and support," Mitchell said. "We are a very grateful team and program and we are excited for Janee to start the recovery process and get back to full speed."
Thompson's recovery has already begun. After receiving initial treatment and a diagnosis in South Carolina, she was able to fly back to Lexington with her teammates on Sunday night. On Monday at noon, she underwent successful surgery with an eye on returning next year.
"She will miss the rest of the season, but we are extremely optimistic that by the time the players gather up for summer school in June that she will be fully participating and will not know that she was injured if everything goes like the doctors feel like it will go," Mitchell said. "We are very appreciative of our doctors here. They did a great job, as always."
Thompson has spent the week resting, but will return to class as soon as she is able. Once that happens, she'll assume an important role as a team leader.
"She has developed into an incredible example of sacrificing personal things that might have been holding her back as far as her development and just really buying into the program with honesty, hard work, discipline, being high-character, being a person of great preparation, being a person of high preparation, being a person willing to sacrifice," Mitchell said. "All of the things we try and teach, she has become a great part of and is a great example of that.
"She is a powerful force on our team and will continue to be that and so we are moving in a positive direction in what has been a tough situation."
But as the No. 10/11 Cats (14-3, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) move in that positive direction, they'll have to do it without Thompson on the court. The junior was averaging 10.1 points and a team-leading 3.1 assists as UK's point guard, making her loss a significant one in every way, but not one that can't be overcome.
"The way you deal with it is that you have a very talented group of players," Mitchell said. "We're not the most talented group of players left standing in the country, but we are a talented group. Janee makes us less talented because she's such a great talent and has been performing so well for our team, but it certainly does not mean we cannot go out and be a functioning basketball team and be our very best."
To that end, the Cats have adopted a new slogan in Thompson's honor: "Our B3st." It's a play on the year's theme of "Our Season" and Mitchell wore a shirt bearing the slogan to his pregame press conference on Wednesday. The team will do the same for warmups before Thursday's 7 p.m. ET matchup with Florida in Memorial Coliseum.
"The t-shirts are our one and singular goal for this season and this team," Mitchell said. "We need to see if we can possibly become the very best that this team can be and so we put the number three for the E and 'Our B3ST' is what we will continue to try to be and Janee will be a big part of that. It's just a way to honor her."
The other way the Cats can honor Thompson is by sustaining their strong start to the season even though Mitchell says their margin for error is slimmer now. No longer can they rely on Thompson to pick up the slack in practice or games when someone lacks energy. Instead, everyone must be focused at all times.
"It does need to heighten everyone's sense of awareness of their responsibility to the team," Mitchell said. "It does impact everyone from that standpoint."
Fortunately, Bria Goss is expected to reenter the lineup just as Thompson is leaving it. The senior guard and defensive stopper has missed a month with a broken left thumb, but is slated to play.
"That's a blessing that we can get her back," Mitchell said. "I don't know to what extent she is going to be able to perform. I can't give you a percentage. I know she can perform very well defensively. She is shooting the ball great right now. It's still tender and it's not 100 percent in the hand, but she is cleared to play and she is going to give it a whirl on Thursday night and that will help us tremendously."
Considering the test the Gators (9-8, 1-3 SEC) always present, Goss will be needed. Florida took two of three from UK a season ago, with the Cats winning the third matchup in the SEC Tournament. The Gators are coming off a 66-47 loss at Missouri, but Mitchell says to pay little attention to that game since Florida played without junior guard Carlie Needles.
The Cats, according to Mitchell, have approached practice accordingly.
"We have a huge challenge ahead of us so I have not seen us lacking focus yesterday (Tuesday)," Mitchell said. "I thought yesterday was a good day and a step forward. We need to have a tremendous day today and we need to have a terrific practice tomorrow before tomorrow night's game and we got to come out incredibly focused and energized to beat a very tough Florida team.
"One thing, it doesn't matter what Florida's record has been is now has been they just always seem to be extremely prepared. Coach (Amanda) Butler does a great job and I'm not expecting anything other than a very difficult game and we've got to find a way to be tough enough to win."