Julius Randle was named SEC Freshman of the Year on Monday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Julius Randle faced a predictable line of questioning on Tuesday.
After John Calipari talked at length on his weekly radio show about a hush-hush offensive "tweak" he implemented, you knew reporters were going to poke and prod players to see if they could get the scoop.
Randle wasn't about to take the bait.
"You're not getting it from me," said Randle.
Searching for a scrap of information, reporters asked Randle whether the practice felt like a breakthrough moment because of the tweak.
"You're not getting it from me," Randle said. "You'll see it on Friday."
Jokingly, another media member asked whether the change was a move for Randle to point forward.
"You're not getting it from me," Randle said. "You'll see it on Friday."
Was a complete departure from what the Wildcats had done before or merely an enhancement?
"You're not getting it from me," Randle said, singing a familiar tune. "You'll see it on Friday."
The tight-lipped Randle was following his coach's lead, as Calipari once again decided to leave everyone guessing about the tweak that "changed everything" at his final press conference before UK departs for the SEC Tournament this week.
What Coach Cal did reveal was that the idea to make the change came to him on Sunday. Once implemented, he was left wondering why it took him so long.
"When you're coaching, your whole mindset is: How do you help individual players improve and how do you help your team improve?" Calipari said. "It's like, 'Oh, my gosh, how do I look as a coach? My ego is bruised! My pride!' You don't. You just: How do I continue to help the team? That's my job. These are 18- and 19-year-olds. What do I do to help them?"
As he's proven more than once over the last week, Calipari isn't afraid to issue a mea culpa when it comes to the way he coaches. His team appreciates that.
"The thing about Cal is he's going to admit when he's wrong," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "If he's wrong about something he's going to say he's wrong and he's going to fix it. That's just being a man. When you get to that point when you know you're wrong and you can admit it, that's powerful. You get a rally from your team after that."
It wasn't borne out of any previous mistake on his part this time, but Calipari matched the change on offense with a defensive one he was willing to discuss in a bit more detail. Adjusting to the progressively more physical play he says has been allowed as the season has worn on, Coach Cal instructed his players to put their hands up when defending but foul with their bodies.
The result was a practice Calipari compared to football.
"For two reasons, one, we can play against it because that's how everybody is playing now and I'm not just talking our league, I'm watching around the country," Calipari said. "The second thing is if we get in a game where we've gotta play that way then we gotta have - we gotta play that way."
Coach Cal anticipates that postseason play -- which begins for UK (22-9) against either seventh-seeded LSU or No. 10 Alabama at 7 p.m. ET in Atlanta -- will feature plenty of games like that.
"We have a couple days to prepare so we've kind of been able to go back to the practices of old, which are longer, more physical," said Randle, Monday's two-and-a-half-hour session fresh in his mind. "It's good for the team because that's how the games are being played and it'll be a good adjustment for us heading into the SEC Tournament."
As good as the preparation could be in a potential matchup with LSU, a team that split two hard-fought regular-season matchups with UK, Calipari appreciates the immediate benefits even more.
"All I can tell you is there was a different feel in the building," Calipari said. "It was not just the tweaking of what we did. It was the physical play brought something out of them that I wanted to see."
Said Cauley-Stein: "It felt like we was back in our groove before we lost the Arkansas game. We kind of had that feel, almost like that swagger was coming back to our team."
Optimistic as he may be about the changes, Coach Cal knows their true impact won't be known until later.
"Again, you gotta carry it over to the court," Calipari said. "And it isn't just that. When adversity hits - you know, teams from here on are fighting for their lives, so adversity will hit. What do you do now? How do you deal with it?"
Tweaks and all, Calipari and the Cats will be doing everything they can to position themselves to respond in the best way possible.
"Let's just keep coming together," Calipari said. "And that's what we're hoping to see. As much as what we did in the physical play and the tweaking and all, it'll still come back to that. My hope is they have a little better bounce in their step and that they know when things don't go right, we're still good." Randle credits teammates, coaches for Freshman of the Year award
Julius Randle was rewarded for a strong regular season when he was named SEC Freshman of the Year on Monday. Randle appreciates the recognition, but says he's far from the only one who shares in it.
"It's an honor, very humbling. I have great teammates, great coaches," Randle said. "It just goes to show what hard work can get you."
Delivering on the hype that accompanied his arrival in Lexington, Randle averaged 15.4 points and 10.5 rebounds, posting double-doubles in seven of his final eight outings in the process.
You'll surely be watching plenty of basketball played in the Georgia Dome this week. Before you do, check out this video showing how the court that will be used for the Southeastern Conference Tournament was assembled in this time-lapse video.
John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday, discussing his team entering the league tournament this week. He touched on a variety of topics, from the one-and-done rule (again) to the significance of the SEC Tournament.
Here's a complete transcript:
On this upcoming week ... "Yeah, we're, again, trying to get into practice today. Very important the next few days to get our mindset where we've got to be. I said it after the last game: We've got to get our mojo back. We played an outstanding Florida team (on Saturday). You're talking about a team that, No. 1 in the country on Senior Night, and they played well. And what I'm trying to get our kids to understand is let's get back to where we were two weeks ago. Let's get back to the kind of competitiveness and how we were playing and some different things we're going to do in practice to get our mindset back to where we were. But again, young kids, you can get rattled in a game like that. But I think these kids want--they understand that they're going to have to do this together, they're going to have to come together as a group, and, you know, it's time to do it." On how the one-and-done rule has affected the college game ... "Well, I've said for years it should be two years. If you're going to let them go out of high school then let them go whenever. The baseball rule won't work in this environment because there's no minor-league stuff, so my belief is it should be two years. And if the NBA and the Players Association, who would make that decision, come together and say, 'OK, you take a year off their rookie contract.' Instead of having four years, make them three years. Make them stay in school an extra year. And then you get with the NCAA and say, 'Hey, how do you take better care of these kids? How do you pay for their insurance so they don't have to pay themselves? How do you do the stipends and all the other things?' It may be they have the opportunity for every one of the kids on our team to get a loan if they choose to - to be able to do stuff to make them normal college students, yet also understand they're unique in what we're trying to get them to do.' So there are things that can happen. What's happened with the one-year rule is I don't think it's good for high-school players who--the top 150 players all think they're going to leave in a year. I think it's hard on the college players because by the end of the year this isn't five, eight years ago. They're all on the Internet -- all the things going -- I think it's a tough deal. So hopefully cooler heads come together between the NBA and the Players Association, and if that happens, the NCAA does their part to make sure that this all works." On how difficult his job has been because of the one-and-done rule ... "It is hard, but again, if you're about these kids, you've got to do what's right for them. So at the end of the of the year I'm not going to convince a kid who's in the draft - or even DeAndre Liggins who wanted to go in the second round or Jodie Meeks who, 'I'm good if I'm in the second round' - I'm not holding kids back. So at the end of the day I've got to do what's right for them. And I will tell you, one year, I don't think these kids are ready. Now, I'm not going to hold anybody back, but I think it would be better two years. They'd be better pros, they'd be more mature, they'd be more ready to walk in and have success. It's been hard, but I'm not complaining. I think we've done right by these kids. You have -- whatever it is -- 17, 18 kids in the NBA, and doing well. It's not like they're not doing well. But they would be doing even better, I think, if they had another year. But I'll say this again: If their insurance isn't paid for by the NCAA or by the schools, all the things you're seeing, kids in the draft - the Mitch McGarys who got hurt - what happens to a kid that was a top-10 pick and stays in school and is all of a sudden is injured? How do we deal with that? Because we're asking them to stay. And it's not us; it's the Players Association and the NBA. But how do we do our part to protect these kids? It's harder, but you deal with it if it's about these kids." On the importance of the SEC Tournament ... "Here's what I would tell you about us: A tournament, conference tournaments, a couple years ago we beat Florida in the finals and we beat them really good and it made no bearing on our seeding. That's why I'm saying, you know, what is the conference tournament for? Some teams are trying to play in (to the NCAA Tournament) but I'm saying, whether it's play in or improve your seed, that's why you're playing in the tournament. That's my opinion. My teams historically over the years have done pretty well in tournament play but it's not been the end-all. The end-all is that next tournament. So I would tell you that, (is the SEC Tournament) important for my team this year? Yeah. We gotta get our mojo back. Two weeks ago we were playing and we were looking pretty good and right now we're not. So we gotta get it back. We got four days of practice and then we're playing in that tournament. I will tell you, there are probably teams that are playing (as) well as they have all year. Arkansas, the game at Alabama kind of surprised me, but they have been playing well. Tennessee is playing as well as anybody in our league. Georgia's playing as well as anybody in our league. What do you think about how Auburn goes to Texas A&M and wins? South Carolina beats us and Missouri at the end of the year. I mean, you got a lot of teams playing that could go on a run. You got other teams that have played well during different spells of the season, whether it be us or Missouri or some of the other teams - Texas A&M has fought to stay in games - that are saying, 'Let's just get this back to where we were.' And Mississippi, another team. Won the tournament last year, probably coming in saying they're going to win it again this year."
On the one thing UK needs to improve on the floor ... "Well, there's two things. I can't give you (one thing). There's a lot of different things but the two things in the bigger picture: You gotta sustain your defensive effort. You gotta be scrappier. In other words, we all gotta be playing the ball. We all gotta do it for the entire shot clock. We all gotta have discipline because at the end of the day we are a defensive team that's a good offensive post-up team. And then on offense we just gotta share the ball more. Very simple stuff to talk about, but we got four days to really ingrain let's get back to these things that we have done at different points of the year that we now say, 'Let's do it for 40 minutes.' If you do, you will have a ball playing. Scrappy as heck, diving, crashing. We're going to be more physical in practice. The games have gotten more and more physical. Hands up and be physical. Put your hands up in the air on a drive and be physical. Put your hands up in the air in the post and be physical. We're going four days of that. The teams that have played that way have had a big advantage. So we're going back to that, but the flip side of it is, look, we gotta share the ball. We gotta share the ball to create good shots for each other. I said it: We got the game to six and we took two of the worst shots with people open that I could have told you throughout the year the last game. So those are the couple things that we're zeroed in on."
On what he means by "mojo" ... "Just playing off of one another more. More into each other. More emotion for the good stuff that's happening in the game."
UK will look to end Florida's bid for an unbeaten run through SEC play on Saturday at noon ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Rarely has a time come during the 111-year history of Kentucky basketball when UK has played the role of the underdog.
Saturday will be one of those times.
Headed to Florida for the regular-season finale against the Gators, everything appears to be pointing in Florida's favor. The Gators (28-2, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) are No. 1 in the country, they boast a school-record 31-game winning streak at the O'Connell Center and they are in search of some pretty remarkable history.
The Gators are looking to become the first team other than Kentucky to go undefeated in the SEC since Alabama navigated through the league with a spotless 14-0 record during the 1955-56 season. UK did it as recently as 2012, but Florida, with a win on Saturday at noon ET on CBS, would be the first SEC team ever to go 18-0.
Throw in the fact that UK (22-8, 12-5 SEC) lost two in a row before its ugly win over Alabama on Tuesday or that Florida will be revved up for Senior Day and, well, it doesn't look good for the Cats.
They understand their backs are against the wall, but it also doesn't change their belief in their ability to win Saturday. Asked how confident he was they could win Saturday, Willie Cauley-Stein left to margin for doubt.
"You play to win the game, so obviously 100 percent," Cauley-Stein said.
With a little amnesia, there is reason to believe UK can do what no other team in the SEC has been able to do this season against Florida.
Hear the Cats out.
Not too long ago, Kentucky appeared to be turning a corner against the Gators. For 30 minutes, UK looked like the better team. The Cats were clicking, they led Florida by seven points midway in second half and they appeared to be on their way to their biggest win of the season.
Then, as John Calipari noted Friday, they gave up two offensive rebounds, missed a few shots and wilted late down the stretch. Florida did what Florida does, relying on its experience to win late in games.
"We're so young you don't really know when the crunch time or the winning time is," Cauley-Stein. "It's the last five minutes of the game, and that's when - everything else before that really doesn't matter. You win or lose a game in the last five minutes, and I think we've learned that the past year."
Loss aside, there were a lot of positives that came out of that 69-59 loss at Rupp Arena. Cauley-Stein said his team felt afterwards like "we could beat anybody in the country."
"There was a lot of good stuff that came out of it," Calipari said. "We didn't play fearful. Went to Mississippi, didn't play fearful. Then we just hit a stretch of games where we got a little rattled."
They've been rattled of late by their inability to hit shots.
UK is shooting 31.6 percent over its last three games, the worst three-game shooting stretch during the Coach Cal area. The Cats have been a fairly poor shooting team from long range all season, but their problems from outside are now giving them headaches inside.
As more and more teams see shots rattle out for the Cats, the more they're packing it in inside. It's only compounded the problems for UK inside the arc. On 2-point jump shots - where the Cats have made a living for most of the season - they have made just 34.7 percent over the last three games.
Coach Cal has pointed to an inability to finish through contact as the culprit of UK's problems, but the players have suggested it's something more than that. After the Alabama win on Tuesday, Dakari Johnson said the shooting problems are more mental than anything. Like a contagious cold, the more they miss, the more the pressure adds up and the more the misses catch on.
And that's turned into a hesitancy to shoot altogether. Though James Young took 11 shots on Tuesday, making just one, he double-clutched on a pair of shots and passed up a couple he normally would have taken.
"I just think it's our confidence," Young said. "It's a lack of confidence on our shots and that's what keeps us missing. We have more confidence, we'll make them."
Jon Hood said after Tuesday's game that good shooters don't have a conscience. Coach Cal said if his players pass up shots he's taking them out.
"I'm just going to keep shooting the ball," Young said. "Coach Cal said I got the green light so I'll just shoot it."
Eventually, if Kentucky wants to soften up the middle of defenses it's going to have to make some shots. On Saturday, Calipari said it will be important the Cats do so against a Florida defense that he said presses more at home and forces the opposition to take jumpers.
"This is not a game you can go 2 for 22 from the 3," Coach Cal said. "Not this game. Their field-goal percent against the 3 is like 34 percent. Well, why is that? Well, they crowd. They make sure if they're going to give up something, it's going to be a 3. Obviously we play a little bit differently than that. So this is a game they force you to make some jumpers."
Amid all the doom and gloom surrounding his team of late because of its failure to meet preseason expectations, Calipari expressed belief in this group because of the ways it plays.
"We have some numbers that aren't great, but when you look at all that, to have people say this team's done, I just don't believe it," Calipari said. "I mean, a team that has this kind of skill and ability?"
Calipari noted the national perception of other teams that have lost games recently but are labeled as scary NCAA Tournament teams. He believes UK should be in that mix.
"We just need the light to go on," Coach Cal said. "And I've had teams come around at all different times. I believe in this team. I believe in the individual players."
And they believe a run is still coming.
"Definitely," Cauley-Stein said when was asked if this team still has a run left in it. "It's to that point where our backs is kind of against the wall. Players are going to have to show that they're players - everybody on the team. It's definitely a thing that we've got to keep in mind when we go in there."
A win on Saturday would certainly be a pretty big springboard into the postseason. Not only would it spoil Florida's date with history, Cauley-Stein said it would change the negative feeling and perception around the program.
"It would be great," Cauley Stein said. "That's what we go down there for and that's kind of the motivation of what we're trying to do. ...I think the team knows what we've got to do and what mistakes we've got to fix before we go down there and play tomorrow. But for the most part, I think we're prepared more than you can be. There's not much more we can do."
All that's left to do now is win.
The odds aren't in the Cats' favor - UK is 6-13 all-time against the nation's top-ranked team - but maybe a reversal of expectations is exactly what this team needs.
"The weight of the world, overhyped, over-this, set up for failure, all that, all of us, including me - bang, none of that matters," Calipari said. "Now go play. Let's go have some fun and ball and see where we are against the best team in the country on the road on Senior Night. Let's see where we are."
Jon Hood participated in UK's Senior Night festivities on Tuesday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. Today we hear from Jon Hood, who reflects on his five-year UK career two days after Senior Night.
Without wasting any time, let's just get right into it.
Tuesday night was a special experience for me. Arriving here five years ago at basically the same time Coach Cal did and finally ending my college career at Rupp was - I wouldn't say emotional - but very special for me. It brought back a lot of memories.
Yesterday was the first time when it really hit me that Senior Night was the last time I was going to be able to wear the white jersey at home. It hit me walking from class to shoot-around that this was the last shoot-around at home. I started thinking about all the guys I've played with over the years and who would have been there with me Senior Night had they stuck around. I thought about who would have been with me had I stayed four years and who would have been with me this year - guys like Brandon and Terrence.
I always get to Rupp early to get some shots up, but Tuesday was even more special for me because my dad was there. Dad came just because he's never seen me shoot before the games like that and warm up and then go out and play. It was really special having him there with me. It was almost like the old days where we would spend time together in an empty gym. It was just the lights, an empty arena, me and Dad again. That really meant a lot to me that he was there and that he could come down on the floor and rebound for me for a little bit.
Being a Kentucky kid, born and raised, the Senior Night ceremonies were really, really special for me. Being able to walk out through the hoop - through my face basically - onto the court and sharing that moment with my family, Jarrod - one of my best friends - and his family, it makes it all the more special. And then to hear "My Old Kentucky Home" played by a couple of buddies of mine and listen to them put their own little twist on it made it unforgettable.
Once we started going through warm-ups, I tried to keep everything the same, just messing with little kids in the crowd, tossing them the ball, throwing it back to them and then shooting -- try to get them an assist. That's something I've always done for a couple years. It was just going through warm-ups like it was the last time that I was going to be able to do it, just having as much as fun as I could with the crowd and with Jarrod.
Pregame intros were certainly different for me because I hadn't started a game in five years. It's really fun to hear your name called and get up and hear the crowd go crazy for you. You're hitting everybody on the way out and you get to the huddle and we do our little swaying motion, whatever it is, and then it's sit back down in front of Coach one more time, get the final instructions and go play.
When we went over to the huddle for our final talk with Cal, it was nerve-wracking because it was all new to me. It brought all the anxiety back. I had to tell myself, "OK, calm down, take deep breaths, you'll be OK, just play like you know how and shoot when you're open."
I'm glad one of my AAU buddies was on the other team because he actually calmed me down a little bit. Before the game started we walked out to the jump ball circle and Levi Randolph, who played with me with the Nashville Celtics, was standing right next to me. He looked at me, smiled, just kind of shook his head and said, "You've been here forever. Congrats." He said, "We've come a long way since playing in Nashville, haven't we?' I said, "Yeah," and we joked for a little bit while we were waiting for the TV guys to say it was OK to play.
The next thing you know, we went out and I found myself in the corner open for 3. I'm not one to run away from or shy away from an open shot, so I took it. It felt good when it left my hand and I knocked it down. I heard the crowd go nuts and everyone going crazy, but you don't really realize what's going on in a moment like that. I tried to block out how big the night was while I was in there and just tried to make it a game and just tried to have as much fun as possible. That's what the game's all about is having fun. If you don't have fun, there's no reason to play.
Everybody has something different they do when they hit a 3 these days. Carmelo taps the 3 to his head and we used to do the 3 goggles, but it's different this year. I told Jarrod I was going to do something different if I got the opportunity so I did my little holster motion. After I did it, I looked at him as we're running back down the court and he gives me one little quick glance, smiles and shakes his head. And then we just started playing. I thought the second and third ones that I took were also going to go down, too. They felt good when they left my hand; I just left them a little bit short.
It's a shame my last in-game shot in Rupp Arena never counted when they called my 3-pointer off because of a shot-clock violation. When I put that shot up, I thought it was going to him the rim, but then it bounced off the backboard and went straight in. I thought I made it and then the ref that was standing right next to me comes in waving it off like it was a huge call.
I'm sure you've all seen pictures of me going crazy. I wanted them to check the monitor because there was no doubt about it: It left my hand well before time expired. I've gotten four or five pictures today of different angles of it with the clock in the background and the space in between my fingertips and the ball. But that's part of the game. It's human error so you've just got to live with it.
Obviously we needed that win after losing two in a row. We've only lost two in a row a few times in my five-year career here, so we were kind of rattled Tuesday night. We just needed to pick it up and needed to get a win under our belt so we could have some confidence.
Confidence is the reason why I think we're missing some shots, which happens sometimes with young guys. When you come in as a shooter and scorer, you have to have no conscience. You have to be able to forget about the last one you made and go make your next six. If you've missed 12 in a row, you have to be able to have that mindset to where you go crazy and you hit your next 40. That has to be what you think about. And some guys naturally have that; some guys don't. I think our guys do and will continue develop it over time.
I know there have been some doubts about us lately, but we are confident that we can still do this. We just have to go out and do it. It's not on anybody but us. We're perfectly capable. It's just basketball. It's what we've done our entire life. Late in the season is when teams start to pick up and come together, and I still believe that we can do that. I still believe that that is where this team could go and where we should go.
I was asked Tuesday what my favorite memory was other than the national championship, and I'd have to say it was that summer of 2009 in June and July during my freshman year when we were all playing pick-up together for the first time. Me, John, Eric, DeMarcus and Daniel all played on the same team and played against all the old guys like Darius, DeAndre, Pat, Josh, Ramon and Perry. We just had that swagger about us, a connection before we got here that we wanted to just keep building. (My all-time starting five would still be our freshman five.)
Those two months was probably my favorite time in my college career just because we played every day and every day we would compete, play, talk trash and win - unless of course Pat got hot. Just being able to play those two months and come back over at night when nobody was here, come in and turn the lights on and play two-on-two -the two Johns/Jons vs. the two Bama boys - that's something I'll always cherish. We would play until two or three in the morning, and after we got done we would walk out, walk back to the dorm and about halfway to the dorm we would decide it was time to go get something to eat.
Seeing those four guys leave after the year really took a toll on me because they were all I knew when I got here. Those four guys, they taught me that relationships are a big part of this sport and really just this world in general. And to me, that's what this has all been about. I know everyone wants this team to do well and believe me, we want this team to do well, but as I wrap up my five years here, I've realized there's a bigger picture to this whole thing. To me, it's about the relationships that you form with your teammates and the people you meet during your time here, including the fans.
That's what I will always remember about this place, and I just want to thank the best fans in the world for all of the support you have given me the last five years. It's been the best time in my life.