Willie Cauley-Stein had 16 points and 13 rebounds in UK's overtime loss to Arkansas on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As Julius Randle, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein came for interviews following an overtime loss to Arkansas, the mood was understandably somber.
They walked down the hallway from their locker room slowly, sank in their chairs and spoke in hushed tones.
A day removed from talking about his team turning a corner with a raucous celebration of a win over LSU, Randle fielded questions about whether he saw the 71-67 defeat coming.
"I never go into the game thinking we're not going to put the effort out that we should and do the little things," Randle said. "We just didn't tonight."
John Calipari, meanwhile, ran down the reasons for the defeat in his own postgame press conference.
"They beat us to loose balls. We missed 10 one foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered." Calipari said, referencing UK's 12-of-22 free-throw shooting to Arkansas' perfect 16-for-16 performance. "We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts, not executing."
After UK (21-7, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) trailed for all but 2:43 of the first 34 minutes, the Wildcats pulled into a tie at 52-all and eventually a 57-52 lead on the strength of a 14-2 run. But after grabbing that five-point lead, UK shot just 1 of 5 from the field and 1 of 4 from the line.
Arkansas (19-9, 8-7 SEC), eager for the chance to sweep the season series against UK and pick up a resume-building win, took advantage and forced overtime. In the extra period, the Cats' bid for a second straight overtime win in Rupp Arena fell short due to three turnovers and numerous misses around the rim as UK shot 26 of 76 (34.2 percent) for the game.
"We couldn't throw a rock in the ocean, but it happens like sometimes in games," said Randle, who had 14 points and 10 rebounds. "The main thing is -- especially when things like that happen, you can't really get it going -- that's when you have to lock in on defense and come up with 50-50 balls. We didn't do that tonight."
UK had a 47-38 rebounding edge on Thursday night and even won the turnover battle, 20-18, but Arkansas blocked eight shots and contested countless more in the paint to flummox the Cats.
"We took two steps back today," Calipari said.
With just three games left in the regular season, now is not the time for that to happen. Concerning as that may be, it's also the reason why UK has to move on and move on quickly.
"There's no reason to soak in it, just remember the feeling," said Cauley-Stein, who had 16 points and 13 rebounds. "It's getting too close to crunch time. You can't dwell on it and then do the same thing the next game because you're thinking about the last game. Then the next thing you know, you stepped way too far behind and there's no return after that."
That's especially true because of the way UK's schedule sets up in the coming days.
The Cats will get right back to practice on Friday with a game at South Carolina awaiting them on Saturday. After less than 48 hours between games, UK will turn around and face Alabama on Senior Night on Tuesday.
Taxing, yes, but also exactly what the Cats want.
"That's the great thing about basketball, you know, is it's not like football (where) if you lose a game you have to wait a week," Poythress said. "Basketball, you know, you play the next couple of days, so we're just trying to get this out the window. We lost. We know that. There's nothing we can do."
Cauley-Stein, who according to Calipari saved UK from what could have been a "15- or 18-point" loss, agreed.
"You gotta come right back at it, gotta take the medicine tomorrow at practice and then you got a game the next day," Cauley-Stein said. "That's love to me; I wouldn't want it any other way."
In other words, the Cats don't have time to let a sour mood following the loss linger.
"We just gotta stay the course," Randle said. "Adversity's gonna hit anybody. It doesn't matter if you're a basketball player, it doesn't matter who you are. In life, adversity's going to hit you. It's definitely hit us this year, but if we're staying the course, keep being strong and don't let it waver you I think we'll be fine."
Julius Randle and the Wildcats will host Arkansas in a rematch of an overtime loss on Thursday night. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Since he arrived in Lexington over the summer, Julius Randle has gotten used to his surroundings.
He knows the short walk from his dorm to the Joe Craft Center quite well. The same goes for the path from the training room to the men's practice gym.
This week, something new stopped Randle caught him by surprise after John Calipari had a photograph from the wild celebration following UK's win over LSU plastered on the wall under the word "FAMILY."
"He didn't tell us anything," Randle said. "It's just right there, a big picture."
The photo shows Randle on his back, smiling from ear to ear. His teammates are mobbing him after he hit a game winner in the final five seconds to take down the Tigers for their sixth win in seven games.
The image joins countless other memorable ones from the Coach Cal era, ones Randle first noticed on recruiting visits as a high schooler. Now, he's immortalized alongside his Wildcat predecessors.
"You see all the guys that have come through, to see them on the wall and you've got a picture of all us on the wall, it's a pretty cool thing," said Randle, the reigning Oscar Robertson National Player of the Week.
Most of the time, new decorations are saved for the offseason. This, Calipari believed, was a time to make an exception. It wasn't because of the significance of the shot either.
It was that moment of celebration that Calipari wants his players to remember.
"I think that's part of what, as coaches, it's what we want them to understand: That's what it feels like," assistant Orlando Antigua said. "That's what it's supposed to be about."
Shouldering the burden of expectations, there have surely been times when the Cats have lost sight of that fact, moments when basketball felt more like a responsibility than a game. But after months of work it's all beginning to pay off, paving the way for moments of elation like the one that punctuated the LSU victory.
"We see we're getting better as a team and once you see the results things start to become more fun," Randle said. "You may not see the results for a while but you gotta stick with, stick with it, stick with it and just keep fighting, keep getting better. We see that we're getting better."
The hope, now, is that improvement fuels more improvement and joy fuels more joy.
"They're competing and enjoying the fact that they're competing together, working together and seeing results," Antigua said. "To see that pure joy for one another, it's what the coaching staff has been working to try to get them to."
More than a month ago, UK showed signs of progress in a loss at Arkansas. In spite of dealing with numerous bad breaks, a hostile road crowd and an energized Razorback team, the Cats battled to the final possession.
"It was a tough environment to play, but I do remember that being kind of a little bit of a breakout game for us," Randle said. "It was learning how to fight, not stopping, just playing hard."
Of course, carelessness with the ball and a Michael Qualls put-back dunk in the final second would undo the effort in an 87-85 overtime loss.
"I think we had 17 turnovers that game, but we competed, played hard," Antigua said. "Arkansas comes out and plays really hard. Coach (Mike) Anderson does a great job of getting those guys to play the way they want to play, speeding up the game. I think we handled it pretty good."
No. 17/15 UK (21-6, 11-3 Southeastern Conference) will look to handle it even better on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET as the Cats host their second game in a row with payback on their minds.
"We've watched film of how we played at the end and the difference between then and now, it's a tremendous difference," Randle said. "We play harder. We play more as a team. We care about each other more. It's little things we do on defense. We've made adjustments since that game. We've gotten better each game."
Arkansas (18-9, 7-7 SEC) can say the same. The Razorbacks have won five of six to play their way into the NCAA Tournament conversation, including two of three on the road.
"They're better," Antigua said. "They're right in the middle of the pack with the rest of the teams in the conference and we know they're going to go out and compete and play hard, and we're excited about the challenge."
Alex Poythress is averaging 6.6 points and 5.1 rebounds as UK's sixth man. (Chet White, 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 Alex Poythress, who writes about the celebration of UK's win over LSU, getting ready for tournament play and his classes.
As you all know, we are coming off the win over LSU, which was a hard-fought game. I kind of think we needed that game just to show we can win close games down the stretch. It shows what we're made of. It shows that we're capable of winning close games and that we can come together when we need to. We played great defense in the final closing minutes of the second half and we played great in overtime. They hit big shots, we hit big shots, but we came up with defensive plays to put us in a position to win.
Julius' rebound to end the game was great. It was really exciting to see the whole team come together like that. We were so hyped for him that we all just ran the court and just jumped on him. I know you all saw what happened already, but Andrew and Aaron led the charge. Dakari and I were jumping up and down on the court until we saw what was going on and then we just sprinted towards them and jumped on them too. The picture of the celebration was hanging up in the practice gym when we got to practice today so that was pretty cool to see.
As much as we needed to win a close game, I think we needed the boost of a celebration like that more than anything because everybody needs that one moment in the season where you come together. I'm glad we got to show the fans and everybody to see how much of a family we are and how much we care about each other.
It gets old hearing how we are a bunch of individuals and not a team because, personally, we think we're a great team. We think we're coming together and playing well. We think we're really close as brothers because we hang out all the time. We're just always hanging with each other in the lodge, in practice, walking to class with each other, seeing movies together, playing pool, playing video games, anything. We're just always with each other.
For me, this season's been a lot different just because of where we are a team right now. I can remember feeling like every game was the last game of the season for us at this point last year. We haven't been in that situation so far - which is nice - but sooner or later we're going to have to start playing like that because once you get into the tournament time every game's one and done. You're going to have to play your hardest each and every game, but I feel like this season's prepared us for that. I feel like we're ready to take on the challenge. I feel like we're just trying to better ourselves and just trying to reach our peak.
Individually, I just feel way more comfortable than I did a year ago. I feel like the game is coming to me easier because I'm making better plays and better decisions out there. I just feel like I'm a better all-around player. I feel like I'm more comfortable because I'm getting in the gym more and I'm in better shape. I feel like all those factors have helped me a lot.
I would be lying if I said I wasn't excited for the NCAA Tournament since we missed out on it last year. For me and Willie, this will be our first experience so we'll be just like all of our freshmen. I remember watching it when I was in school when I was a kid and dreaming about playing in it. It's funny, in school, the teachers, instead of teaching, they would put March Madness on the TV so it was kind of like March was the easy month. That won't be the case this time around.
I'm also looking forward to the SEC Tournament just because of what happened last year and because it will prepare us for the NCAA Tournament. That could be a great learning experience for the tournament style of play.
It's going to be tough trying to balance our postseason with all the schoolwork I've got. School has been a lot harder this semester now that I'm actually into my major now, which deals with accounting, business and marketing. I've always been good with numbers - they just come natural to me - but the classes are pretty hard. They're challenging, but I'll be alright.
I don't get to play as many video games as some of the other guys because of my class load, but when I do play, I'm not the worst. I just don't play it a lot to know all the controls and all the glitches and stuff in the game like some of the other guys do like Dom. He's probably the best and would win if we had a team tournament. Me and Archie used to play all the time but Archie would cheat because Archie would always choose Kobe and Kobe would go for like 80.
As you all probably know, I've got a twin sister that goes to school here too. She's been really supportive throughout the whole season. We see each other all the time. I'll go eat lunch with her a lot at the student center and go to her house and play cards. We do all type of things. We're just really close. She likes to give me advice about what I'm doing on the court sometimes but it's cool because she knows what she's talking about. She actually played in high school so she's no dummy when it comes to basketball. She's always motivating me in a positive way so it's always helpful.
Coming down the stretch, I like how we play a couple of teams that have beaten us because we feel like we owe them a game. We're not out for revenge or anything like that, but at the same we want to even out the series, so that kind of gives us a little more motivation, a little more fire in our belly to just going for those games and to just come out strong.
Alright, BBN, I'm about to head to the cold tub. I'll see y'all later.
With two weeks left in the regular season, there was plenty of ground to cover on Monday's Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference. John Calipari joined and spent time talking about UK's matchups with Arkansas and South Carolina this week, his team's progress and Alex Poythess's work to break out of a recent slump.
Here's a complete transcript, as well as relevant quotes from two other SEC coaches.
On UK's upcoming matchups this week ... "I hope we're not playing Georgia. They're playing so well right now. I know we're playing Arkansas. For some reason I don't think it's Georgia, but it may be. (Moderator who said Georgia earlier: "It's at South Carolina, sorry.") "OK. Are we hosting them or are we on the road?" (Moderator: "On the road.") "Let's see if we can flip that around and host them. I will tell you that Arkansas is one of those teams, they beat us already. They play extremely hard, got good players, they shoot the ball. And Arkansas, Frank and I have talked, he's getting those guys to compete and do things that is beyond the group, which is what coaching is about. So two hard games for us."
On how he would compare Arkansas and his team from the last time they played ... "I would guess that both teams have gotten better. I've watched a couple tapes of them. A lot of the scrambling and stuff they're doing, they're even taking it to another level. I think they've got their breakdown guys, really have the ability to get to the basket. In our case, I hope we're better. I think we're better. Our numbers--today was funny, BPI has us four and said we're the fourth No. 1 seed. Now I'm not sure we're quite there but you've got other teams that have the same record as us in other places being that high, so I'm not sure we're to that point, but we are getting better."
On what he thought of Michael Qualls' game-winning play in the first meeting and if they will be more aware of him now ... "What he does athletically is he can stand out, he can do things, and make plays that are broken down and he still goes in and makes a play. The rebound he got was off a missed shot and he just attacked the basket and won the game. We obviously know how good he is, but knowing how good he is and trying to slow a guy down are two different things."
On Qualls expanding his game ... "Yeah, and again, let's hope he goes back to 2 for 20 (from 3) in our game, but he has the confidence to be able do that. Really tells a lot about the young man."
On how Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are playing ... "Well, (Poythress) hasn't played as well he has been playing. We, again, you'd like to say it about Willie and I'd say it about Alex: If we're going to be that special team -- I mean, I think the RPI has us top 10, the BPI has us fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team -- strength of schedule is fourth -- if we're going to be that kind of team, he's (Poythress) gotta perform. He's gotta give us double-digit scoring and at least six, seven rebounds. But he's capable of doing that. He is--last couple games, he's been in a little bit of a funk but it happens. These kids aren't machines. Willie went through it. Andrew (Harrison) went through it. Aaron (Harrison) went through it. James (Young) went through it. They all go through it. They're not machines. They're not computers. This isn't a computer game. So hopefully he cracks out of it. He was in the gym last night on an off day. Today is a lift and a film day with some individuals and he'll be in there again on his own with the coaches. But yesterday, like I said, he came in the gym on his own and said, 'Let's get some work.' "
On how encouraging it is that Poythress did that for him ... "Did what for me? (Came in and got some work on his own.) Well, he didn't do it for me; he's doing it for himself. It's good when I walk in my office on a Sunday and I'm driving to the office and lights are on in the building and I look out my window and he's out there in a full-blown sweat. Dominique (Hawkins), I was there earlier in the day after church I came in and Dominique was in. I came back later and Alex was in there. It's great to see, and they're in there by themselves. This cannot be coach-driven, if we're going to be special. It cannot be. It's gotta be player-driven. And it means you gotta be responsible for you gotta be into your team and add energy, add to your team, add to your teammates. I like what Andrew did last game. Couldn't make a shot. Could not make a shot. Made two big free throws, made a driving layup, but he got six rebounds, four assists and two blocks. What do you do when you can't make a shot? That's when you start talking about team play. That's when you start talking about player-driven. But we're still not quite there."
On the challenges of facing LSU ... "Well, you, first of all, have a very, very talented team. And as a coach, you gotta make a choice: What are we going to do with Johnny O'Bryant? Well, we decided down there, 'Let's see how he is one on one,' and he showed us. He got like 40 (points) and 20 (rebounds) and fade-away jumpers, step-backs, dunks. It was a really great coaching move and decision. Here, we said, 'I don't care who's near him. Run at him and trap him. Make him pass.' The problem is, you got (Anthony) Hickey who got 30 and you (Andre) Stringer who can get 30, you got (Jarell) Martin who can get 30 and their leading scorer was Jordan Mickey for the last five games. So you're talking about a team that can beat you in different ways and you gotta make a choice on O'Bryant first. What are you going to do? You know, they're a team that made 3s against us and that's why we were--we were 1 for 9 from the 3. We were lucky to get out alive." South Carolina head coach Frank Martin
On his observations about Kentucky ... "I think they're real good, and I don't think Cal gets the credit he deserves for the job he does. To rely on so many freshmen, to not have those foundation guys--I guess (Alex) Poythress and I can't remember the young man's name, (Jarrod) Polson, that they've been with them for at least a year, they provide that consistency that he's looking for. But every year, I don't care if Cal is coaching seniors or freshmen, you don't want to play them at the end of the year because his teams play their best basketball at the end of the year, and that's obvious with this team that that's happening."
LSU head coach Johnny Jones
On what has impressed him about Julius Randle ... "Well, the thing that impressed me the most is he really doesn't force anything. We've tried to make sure that we've tried to defend him the right way and he's one of those guys that don't mind passing. He's a very unselfish basketball player and even with that he doesn't get frustrated as a freshman. He continues to play, as much to being able to make that last play in the game on Saturday. That's what impresses me the most with him because of his size and strength and awareness out there on the floor. Just a very heady basketball player."