By Julius Randle (Follow on Twitter)
What's up, Big Blue Nation? I've done this kind of thing before for USA Today back in high school, so I'm glad to be doing it again.
We've had a lot going on lately, so I'll start by talking about our trip to New York to play Providence. I enjoyed it a lot. My first time there was last year for the Jordan game but we didn't get to spend a lot of time in the city. I told my mom we have to come back on vacation or something one day, so to be able to go back there and have a day to walk around the city and enjoy it was a cool and neat experience.
Since we flew up there a day early, we had a little bit on that Saturday to ourselves to explore the city. We walked around to a couple stores. We all wanted to shop but we're college kids so we don't really have money like that. We just walked around the city with each other and that was just a neat experience in itself. It was kind of like team bonding.
We got to do some sightseeing while we were there too with Coach Cal guiding the tour from the front of our bus. I'm pretty sure he's been to New York a lot and has a lot of experience with it, so it's kind of cool to get the tour from him even when there were so many buildings. That's Coach Cal for you.
One of the landmarks he pointed out was the 9/11 Memorial and the World Trade Center, which was pretty eye-opening for all of us. I remember exactly where I was on Sept. 11. We didn't hear about it much at school, but I remember coming home and watching the news with my mom. I was only 6 at the time, so I just thought somebody had lost control of the planes and they had crashed into the building. I didn't really know what was going on. But I do remember exactly the day and where I was.
I think the big thing with Coach Cal is he's not just trying to make us basketball players. He's trying to make us mature and make us better people and better men. He's not only going to show us the basketball aspect of life. He's going to show us everything. He's a well-rounded person, so he's definitely helping us out.
Once we got ready to play Providence, the Barclays Center kind of had a different feel from the Jordan game, but it was still pretty cool just to play in a New York atmosphere in Brooklyn and to play in that new arena. We saw Marcus' picture from the Jordan game in the hallway and got the win too, so it was a good night.
I keep getting asked about the ice storm in my hometown last week, so let me just tell you, that was not normal. Dallas in the summer had about 20-something days of 100-plus degrees, so that's not normal. It will snow every year, but that was terrible. I don't know what that was. That's what kind of made me feel like, "I know I'm home, but am I back home?"
What did make it feel like home was getting to see all my family. The place where we were staying was a 45-minute drive without the ice from my house because Dallas is so spread out it's ridiculous, but a lot of my immediate family and my god-family and my mom, they stayed at the hotel. I got to spend a lot of time with my mom and hang out with all of them. After the game, I got to see them a lot. So it was pretty fun even though the ice kind of ruined the mood a little bit.
It was fun making that trip with the women's team, but four overtimes? Oh my goodness. They showed a lot of heart and I was happy that they won, but I wish it would have ended a lot sooner. At the end of regulation, we went out there and I was all excited to play in front of my family. Then it's overtime. Then we go back into the locker room. Then we go back out and Baylor hits a 3. Finally I just decided to put on my headphones and wait until someone told me it was over because I thought I might be bad luck.
Pregame for Baylor was a lot different from what we're used to, but I still thought you might be interested to hear how I get ready for a normal game. We have a pregame shoot-around five or six hours before the game and then we eat a pregame meal together four hours before the game.
Depending on whether it's a home game, I go to the team chapel. That's just something that's important to me that I spend time hearing God's Word before I go out and play. Then we get there at least two hours before the game. It's my time to listen to my music, warm up, get a good stretch in, meet with Coach twice before the game and then go out and play.
Back to Baylor, losing made the trip home feel a lot longer. At least I had my mom there, but it was tough to know that we lost a game that clearly we had no business losing. The good thing is we knew what the problem was. We know we didn't play hard enough. We know we didn't defend well enough. We didn't run the offense how we were supposed to. We didn't run the floor and get easy baskets. We know that they, at the end of the day, just played harder than us and that's just totally unacceptable.
We were just ready to attack practice the next day and get better from that. If we didn't know why we lost, then it would have sat on me a lot more. But we had the answers to why we lost right after and went back to work.
If we would have had a week after we lost, that would have sucked because I'm ready to play constantly, constantly, constantly. Having that Boise game pretty much right after and then Coach challenging me to play harder definitely was a big help.
It was good being back in Lexington because there's no better place than playing in Rupp, but I also love going on the road and having that feeling of everybody against you. Playing North Carolina this weekend especially, we're the two of winningest programs in the country. The greatest player of all time played there. Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams, who constantly gets great players.
They're a great team and ultimately as a competitor you just look forward to that challenge. I can't wait to actually get there, get ready to play. I love big games like this and I think big games like this bring the best out of me.
You guys have gotten to know me pretty well as a basketball player, but I'm super laidback and a lot different off the court than I am on the court. I like to shop, eat and I don't really like doing much. If I'm away from the basketball floor, I like to recuperate, rest and hang out with my friends and teammates. I don't really like going out, running wild and stuff like that.
With practice, games, school and finals coming up soon, I haven't gotten much time to rest, so getting a break for the holidays will be nice. I hope everyone has a good Christmas and a great New Year's too.
In October, freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was lost for the season due to a blood clot. Less than a month later, Samantha Drake went down for the year with a knee injury.
The latest Wildcat to be sidelined is DeNesha Stallworth, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee.
"Not the kind of news you want to hear, but we are glad it was nothing serious," Matthew Mitchell said.
Stallworth -- a Naismith Trophy watch list selection -- is expected to miss three-to-four weeks. She was evaluated on Monday after experiencing persistent swelling following UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Friday night and had successful surgery on Wednesday.
"Certainly when you lose someone like DeNesha everybody has to rally and really come together and work hard and pick up the slack that's created by her absence," Mitchell said. "I think that our team is certainly capable of doing that and I think they will want to do that."
Stallworth's temporary absence leaves UK with just three healthy players listed as forwards or centers on the roster. Azia Bishop -- who is averaging 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 17.0 minutes of reserve duty -- is one of them and will slide into a starting role alongside Samarie Walker.
"You add another eight minutes to her and we are hoping to see those numbers go up with extra time on the floor," Mitchell said. "Now she will have to get that done. I think she is playing probably her best basketball since she has been at Kentucky."
With Stallworth out, Mitchell reports Bishop had two solid days of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, positioning the junior to take a step forward in her development.
"It is good for Azia because you fast forward a year from now, we are certainly going to need her to be in a featured role in the post," Mitchell said. "It is all good and very good that she can have this opportunity."
Jelleah Sidney also will see her role expand, while freshman Makayla Epps will shift full time to the 4 position after previously splitting time between the post and the perimeter. Though certainly not ideal, the athleticism of Sidney and Epps can impact the way the Cats play in a positive way.
"Jelleah is so active in the press and does such a good job in the press," Mitchell said. "I think we can play a little bit more up-tempo defensively and turn up the pressure a little bit. Then Makayla, being able to focus on one position for the next four weeks can really help her progress."
And in a pinch, Mitchell won't hesitate to go to a four-guard lineup with Stallworth out.
In that memorable win against Baylor, Mitchell went to that look for extended stretches, often with both halves of his two-headed point-guard monster playing together. Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill combined for 63 points in 65 minutes of the 133-130 victory.
"No matter who has the ball they're a real, real threat to go to the basket or get into the paint and make the defense shrink and guard the paint and then whoever's out there and has the ball kicked to them can make 3s," Mitchell said. "They're a lethal combination when they are on the court together."
That lethal combination has gotten plenty of attention following the Baylor win, UK's second in a row over a top-10 opponent, as has Mitchell's program as a whole.
"It's been so nice around town because the game against Baylor was so exciting and people around town are complimenting us, but we're almost a week removed from it and people are still talking about it," Mitchell said. "As a player and as a coach you have to move forward and understand what's real. It's real that we won that game, but it's over and done with."
With the Baylor victory in in the rearview window, the Cats are shifting their thoughts to a tough road test at DePaul on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1). The Blue Demons (4-2) are averaging more than 85 points a game and have reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno.
"It's a high-octane offense and they can really spread the floor," Mitchell said. "They can get five players out on the perimeter and put stress on your defense, especially a defense like ours that likes to put pressure on a team and tries to get out in passing lanes."
DePaul is the latest in a string of challenging December opponents for Kentucky, but the first UK will have to face without Stallworth. Losing the senior forward is a blow, but not one the Cats can't absorb.
"It's like I told our team, I think we're as well-equipped to handle it as anybody because we've had some kids who have sacrificed to come here that maybe don't play as many minutes that they might at other places, but they are very good very players," Mitchell said. "We have 10 really good players available for us tomorrow night at DePaul."
And due to the relatively short-term nature of Stallworth's injury, her absence could end up benefitting Kentucky down the road.
"I think any time you have to focus and do a better job and sort of raise your level of play, I think it gives you an opportunity to be better and stronger when she comes back," Mitchell said. "I do think you have to believe that if you are going to remain positive and move forward positively."
With a 6-foot-6 point guard in Andrew Harrison and a fleet-footed 7-footer in Willie Cauley-Stein manning the five, he knew there would be times the Wildcats could switch everything.
But as enticing as the possibility was, the concept was completely foreign to the players who would be executing it.
"Once I got here I wasn't really familiar with it because I was just used to face-guarding the guy all the time," James Young said. "So it took us some time to get used to it but we're getting better at it."
That improvement was on display as No. 11/10 UK (8-2) stifled Boise State -- previously the nation's second-highest scoring team -- in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena. Playing primarily a four-guard lineup, the Broncos (8-1) shot just 22 of 69 (31.9 percent) from the field on Tuesday night, including 22.9 percent in the second half.
"You've got Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein switching," said Boise State's Anthony Drmic. "They can still defend the guards."
More often than not, Cauley-Stein's defense resulted in blocked shots or, at the very least, altered ones. With nine swats on Tuesday to go with six points and seven rebounds, the sophomore upped his season total to 43.
"He was able to switch out on guards and play them," Calipari said. "They couldn't score on him. That's a problem. When you're a guard, you drive right around them. The nine blocks, it's incredible what he did."
Cauley-Stein now has 28 blocks in his last four games to bring him to within one of Anthony Davis's record-setting 2012 pace through 10 games. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein didn't block his 43rd shot until February.
"I just know what I have to do now," said Cauley-Stein, who fielded as many questions about his newly bleached blonde hair as the win over Boise State. "Last year I was in between on what I was trying to do and this year just try to play around and block every shot I can or at least contest it."
As capable as Cauley-Stein may be of blocking shots and switching into smaller matchups, doing it is another matter. In fact, it's nearly impossible without the communication that was lacking as recently as Friday night in a loss to Baylor.
"There's a lot of things that happened from last game from the pick-and-rolls and stuff to just the communication, talking and breakdowns," said Randle, who had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. "We talked a lot better on the floor. We still had some breakdowns, but we got better."
According to the Cats, that has a lot to do with the little things that were so emphasized in practice on Sunday and Monday.
Coach Cal noticed in the Baylor defeat that his team was missing out on simple stuff like huddling before free-attempts and high-fiving teammates when they came to the bench, so they went to work.
"You notice we huddled," Calipari said. "How about this one? We touched each other. In the huddles we talked to one another. You may have noticed when a guy came out of the game, they all stood up, except one time they didn't. I jumped the bench."
Simple -- and maybe even silly -- as it may sound, those things matter.
"You touch and talk," Calipari said. "That's how you start becoming a team and coming together. Again, you can't be into your own thing. It's stuff that we have to teach."
It's not happening overnight or even in a pattern as steady as he may like, but the Cats are learning.
"It definitely is helping us," said Young, who had 21 points and a career-best nine rebounds. "Before we really didn't do it so I feel like we were kind of separated. But it's just bonding us more."
Nine days ago, the Cats were signing a similarly positive tune. They had just dispatched a solid Providence team on a neutral court and believed they were making significant strides. But last Friday, that progress was erased along with UK's nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes to go against Baylor.
Now, UK looks to put an end to that two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance with a trip to No. 18/21 North Carolina.
"I think we took a big step back from the Baylor game so we just back where we was at before that," Cauley-Stein said. "Now we just gotta make sure this next game that we keep it up and guard like that again and start from there and keep on building on little things until it becomes perfection."