Aaron Harrison scores two of his team-high 21 points to give UK a five-point lead with 19 seconds left in an 84-79 win at Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even if they might try to block out the outside noise, the Kentucky Wildcats don't live in a vacuum.
After a loss at LSU on Tuesday, they heard their toughness being questioned. They heard fans and pundits wondering whether they would ever reach their potential. They even heard the talk about their togetherness after a play on which Dakari Johnson's teammates failed to rush over to help him after a fall.
Frustrating as it may be that UK hasn't progressed as quickly as everyone might like, there is still solace to be taken in the criticisms being lobbed at the Cats.
"Look, these guys see what's--they know," John Calipari said. "They know. And the stuff that anyone's saying about this team and these players, they can change it."
No one is saying Kentucky lacks the talent needed to live up to its preseason hype. No one is questioning whether the Cats have the pieces to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.
"It's that you don't compete, that you don't play with enthusiasm, you don't sprint, you're into your own self," Calipari said. "Well, you can change all that."
On Saturday, the Cats showed they might do just that.
No. 11 UK (16-5, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) notched arguably its best win of the season, taking down Missouri (16-5, 4-4 SEC), 84-79. The Tigers lack the top-10 ranking Louisville had when Kentucky beat the Cardinals, but did have one of the SEC's best home-court advantages on their side in Mizzou Arena.
"It was pretty big, especially in this building," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. "I think Coach had told us that they have like three losses since (Frank Haith) got here, so pretty big time. That's a tough environment to play in. We made some errors down the stretch but we kept fighting and we were able to hold them off."
UK led by 10 at halftime and built the margin to as many as 16 points with 14:32 left in the second half, but Missouri and its stellar backcourt wouldn't wilt. Behind Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28), the Tigers charged to within three points with 7:07 to play with a 20-7 run.
"Coaches told us they were good scorers but I didn't think they were going to get off like that," James Young said. "They had a nice right-hand strong dribble and that's what they did."
With leading shot-blocker Willie Cauley-Stein limited by foul trouble and a continuing slump, UK struggled to contain penetration. The Cats even turned to a 2-3 zone defense, which was more effective than Coach Cal's preferred man-to-man in spite of some early hiccups.
"We were going to go every free throw and then we went zone twice and they scored twice and I went, 'There's your zone,' " Calipari said. "And then I went back to it again and then we started screwing up the game a little bit. This is a long team. This is a big team. This is a good zone team if they'll scramble."
Zone or not, there was no slowing Missouri on this day. The Tigers shot 52.9 percent from the field and 56.3 percent in the second half, scoring 1.20 points per possession, most for a UK opponent this season.
All that meant the Cats would have to win with offense, which is precisely what they did. UK shot 53.6 percent as a team, 8-of-14 from 3-point range and committed just seven turnovers. When UK needed a crucial bucket, Aaron Harrison (21 points), James Young (20), Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison (14) delivered.
Missouri never got closer than three points as Aaron Harrison scored UK's final four points -- including a reverse layup to make it a two-possession game with 19 seconds left -- to close out the victory and move UK's record on the road to 2-3 this season.
"I thought Aaron was really good today," Calipari said. "And I said, 'If you look like you did against LSU, you will play five minutes in that game. I won't play you.' "
It wasn't Aaron Harrison's 5-of-13 shooting at LSU or the four turnovers Coach Cal was worried about either. Instead, it was all effort. The same goes for the team as a whole.
"You can't emphasize everything with these guys," Calipari said. "All we talked about was passion and intensity. I didn't care about any of that other stuff. Play. But again, I loved the fight, I loved the emotion they played with, the enthusiasm they played with."
Making that performance all the more impressive was the travel nightmare the Cats faced in flying to Columbia, Mo.
With an ice storm hitting the area hard -- a common thread among UK road destinations this season -- UK landed in St. Louis, Mo., on Friday night and waited for the team bus to meet them. The Cats finally arrived in Columbia at midnight CT before meeting briefly and going to bed. UK then skipped its regular morning shootaround ahead of the noon CT tip.
"It was really hard for us, but we actually got a lot of sleep out of it so I think that probably helped us and helped us focus during the game," Young said.
Whether a good night's sleep was a factor or not, UK has now played its best and worst games in the span of five days.
"All this stuff, we lose to LSU - and they beat the crap out of us," Calipari said. "They outcoached us, there was nothing--that was one of those games. And we didn't look very good. So we play a little bit better. I mean, are we this team or are we the other team?"
That's not so much a question as it is a challenge.
Alex Poythress called a team meeting following Kentucky's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Their flight home postponed by a day due to weather and stuck in Baton Rouge, La., the Kentucky Wildcats could do nothing but retire to their hotel rooms.
But instead of sulking alone after a disappointing loss to LSU, the Cats decided to put the time to good use.
"We had a team meeting actually, a players-only meeting after the game, which we shared a lot together," Dakari Johnson said.
It was Alex Poythress who called the meeting. The soft-spoken sophomore wasn't happy with how Kentucky played and summoned his teammates via text message to talk about it.
"Everybody shared their own opinion," Johnson said. "Lot of players apologized for not giving their hardest. I think it was a real important team meeting."
It wasn't one of those fire-and-brimstone meetings where one player aired all grievances. Instead, the Cats shared the floor.
"We just went one by one," Johnson said. "A lot of people apologized and just said this wouldn't happen again."
The Cats believe the meeting was a step in the right direction. Though players took responsibility for the lack of intensity and preparedness that cost them at LSU, the tone was positive because they don't believe UK all that far off track.
"You know, all the problems are fixable," Poythress said. "It's just little mental lapses. We correct those we should be in pretty good shape."
Naturally, the team meeting became the topic du jour at the media availability No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) held before its trip to face Missouri (16-4, 4-3 SEC) on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET. John Calipari, however, wasn't having any of it. In fact, he didn't even know the meeting happened until he was asked about it on Friday.
"Don't want to know," Calipari said. "Don't want to know, don't care. Let's play. This is all about what we do on the court preparing to go to war, understanding the other team is excited to play you. That's all that this comes down to."
It's hard to blame Coach Cal for taking a wait-and-see approach. After all, there was talk of UK having turned a corner before the setback in Baton Rouge.
"(I've) never had a team this young," Calipari said. "This is the youngest team I've ever had. I wish they would have changed right away, but it's more of how they think then just trying to change sole basketball habits."
What he means is that the Cats still tie their emotional state to their own play, not the team's. If a guard misses a shot but a big man grabs the rebound and dunks it home, the guard hangs his head. If a big man isn't getting touches but his teammates are filling it up from the perimeter, the big man still wants the ball.
That switch in mindset has been an emphasis all season, but it remains an issue.
"It's not that it's not being addressed; it's just a hard thing to crack," Calipari said. "You have to be more into your team than how you're playing. You have to bring us great energy and passion, and you have to play for your team more than yourself. That's a hard one when you've got a bunch of 18-, 19-year-olds."
For UK to win on Saturday, those 18- and 19-year olds won't have much choice but put team above self.
The Cats are facing one of the toughest road challenges in the SEC. The Tigers have lost just once all season at Mizzou Arena and that loss to Georgia on Jan. 8 ended the nation's longest home winning streak. In the last three seasons, Missouri owns a 40-2 record in Columbia, Mo.
"We just have to know that they're a tough team and everybody's going to give us their best game," Johnson said. "We just have to be prepared for that."
Of course, a lot of that home success has to do with the fact that the Tigers are simply a good team.
"Guard play is really good," Calipari said. "Their inside people are very role-oriented. They do what they're supposed to do. The big kid sets great screens, gets around the goal and makes baskets. But their guard play, the combined three of their guards are as good as we'll play in or outside of our league."
Those three guards -- Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross -- are the Tigers' three leading scorers. Together, they are averaging 52.8 points per game and accounting for more than 70 percent of Missouri's scoring production.
"I think they have some really nice guards," Poythress said. "I think we just have to come in, play some defense and be able to guard them."
But as always, it's not the matchups that Coach Cal is most concerned about. It's the way his team is playing.
"Lose yourself into the team," Calipari said. "When we do that, you'll start seeing change."
As college basketball moves into February, games get grittier and the competition becomes fiercer. Every game counts as teams set their sights on the big dance and dig deep to triumph over rivals that stand between them and ultimate victory. It's a time for teams to draw on past successes for motivation.
Nike recognizes the tradition of college basketball and long-standing rivalries with seven special uniforms that fuse premium apparel innovation with school heritage.
The 2014 Nike Hyper Elite Dominance uniform celebrates the past and present of seven outstanding programs. The distinct jersey and short combination will be worn in select upcoming games.
The college basketball teams that will debut the Hyper Elite Dominance uniforms include Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Duke University, University of Kentucky, Syracuse University, University of Oregon and University of North Carolina.
Nike created the uniforms with performance innovation at the forefront -- considered design that benefits the athletes. The jersey is a lightweight, breathable and durable: sphere fabric with flocking at the interior neck for sweat management, while articulated armholes maximize range of motion. The back of the jersey features team-specific aerographic mesh graphics.
The four-way stretch woven short features laser perforations and ventilation throughout the short and waistband for breathability and maximum movement.
The Nike Hyper Elite basketball shorts are made of 100 percent recycled polyester while the jerseys are made of at least 96 percent recycled polyester -- saving an average of 22 recycled plastic bottles per uniform.
All seven uniforms honor each school's winning tradition with special logos, scripts and colors mined from each program's past.
The uniforms will make their debut on-court beginning in early February. Dates include Michigan State vs. Georgetown (2/1), Ohio State vs. Michigan (2/11), Duke vs. Maryland (2/15), Kentucky vs. Florida (2/15), Syracuse vs. Boston College (2/19), UNC vs. Wake Forest (2/22) and Oregon vs. Washington State (2/23).
The details will be revealed before each game with special stories on NikeInc.com and the uniforms will be available for fans in March at Nike.com.
Dakari Johnson had a career-high 15 points and six rebounds in UK's loss at LSU on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU students had good reason to stay home.
With a rare winter storm coating Baton Rouge, La., in ice, they could have hunkered down and skipped the UK-LSU game on Tuesday night. Instead, they filled the student section and were loud from buzzer to buzzer.
The Tiger team they were there to cheer matched that passion with their play. Kentucky did not.
"We're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine,' " John Calipari said. "And when you watch it you say we're not fine."
No. 11/11 UK (15-5, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) fell to LSU (13-6, 4-3 SEC), 87-82. The Wildcats made the score relatively close with a last-minute 3-point barrage, but the final five-point margin was the smallest of a second half during which UK never seriously threatened.
"When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like," Calipari said at a press conference cut short so his team could find a way back to its hotel with roads closing throughout the city. "And we made it -- it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16 (in the first half), it could have been 30."
UK battled back from that big first-half deficit, closing to within two points with 5:25 left before the break after LSU led 22-6 at the 13:26 mark. The Tigers -- who shot 50.8 percent from the field and drained seven 3s -- had an answer.
"They were just playing harder than us," Dakari Johnson said. "They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today."
Johnson was one of only a couple Cats who didn't deserve to be included in that group.
The freshman center checked in for Willie Cauley-Stein barely two minutes with UK trailing 7-2. His mentality was simple.
"We got down early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game," Johnson said.
Along with James Young -- who scored 12 of his 23 points in the first half -- Johnson helped keep Kentucky within striking distance. Before he fouled out in the final minute, Johnson scored a career-high 15 points and added six rebounds.
"If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today," Calipari said.
Johnson also had the unenviable task of banging with Johnny O'Bryant. He was more effective than any of his teammates, but LSU's star junior still finished with 29 points and nine rebounds.
"I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant," Johnson said. "But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me."
By the time Johnson got his shot at O'Bryant, it may have been too late.
"Johnny O'Bryant killed us," Calipari said. "We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game."
O'Bryant was not the only reason Kentucky lost for just the second time in more than a month.
UK struggled most of the way against LSU's 2-3 zone, managing just 43.8-percent shooting and committing 13 turnovers that led to 16 Tiger points. Julius Randle found little room to operate, scoring six points on 3-of-11 shooting.
"They played the zone; we were tentative," Calipari said.
LSU's zone came as somewhat of a surprise to Calipari since the Tigers have relied primarily on man-to-man defense this season. Neither team's game plan, however, was the deciding factor.
"Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game," Calipari said. "They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game."
Troubling as that may be, it's not reason to push the panic button on the 2013-14 season.
The loss to LSU may have been a setback, but UK has made undeniable strides nearly three months into the season. After the Cats spend an extra night in frozen Baton Rouge and head back to Lexington on Wednesday, it will be back to work.
"So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it," Calipari said. "It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us."
On whether he's at a point where he has to get Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress in the starting lineup ... "No. No. We're at a point right now that we've got guys that have to understand that they didn't come out with the energy of the other team and this is what happens. If Dakari plays like he's playing, he'll play the most minutes, which is what he did today. Alex did some good things but there were breakdowns that killed us. When you get the game to five and six and then you have breakdown, breakdown, breakdown - it's back to 13 - you can't win. And that's the stuff we're talking about: mental discipline, which this team does not have." On what he was seeing in practice the last few days that he liked or didn't like ... "We're fine. It's just again, they don't - we're playing teams that it means something to beat us, and we just think, 'Well, I'm OK individually and I'm fine.' And when you watch it you say we're not fine. So, you know, we'll go from here, we'll go back. Johnny O'Bryant killed us. We started the game, I didn't want to trap. I wanted to see what could happen. Probably a mistake on my part. Should have trapped from the beginning of the game. They played the zone. We were tentative. They offensive rebounded; we didn't - the ones we really needed. Alex was the only guy going after offensive rebounds. They kind of negated anything Julius (Randle) had. They sent two guys at him. They played good. You got to give them credit. They played well. We don't have many teams shoot 50 percent against us like this team did. We're a good defensive team. Not only that, 10 offensive rebounds, and they create 13 turnovers on us and most of us were in the zone where they're just hands in the middle of the zone. But they did a great job. You got to give LSU credit." On whether LSU did anything they weren't prepared for ... "Well, they switched the starting lineup, and I said that they must be playing zone then. So they went to a bigger lineup. But we didn't know before. I thought they'd play mostly man because that's what they play, but the minute they went big I told the staff they're playing zone. Normally we're better against zone than we are against man, so it didn't bother me, but we weren't ready for the physicalness of the game, we weren't ready for the energy of the game, the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball, from the beginning of the game to the end, and that's why they won the game." On whether LSU's steals and blocks surprised him considering UK's length ... "No. When the other team outworks you it's just what it looks like. And we made it--it was amazing we were in the game. We got down 16, it could have been 30. We fought back in, we got back to where we were fine, come the second half, do the same thing. I have to call an immediate timeout, like, 'Whoa, whoa, wait a minute.' So look, this team is in progress, a work in progress and I've said it. It's all about a process. The process we're at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to really break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it today. So now we go back and it's the next game and we continue to work on what we have to work on for us. We--not doubling Johnny early probably got him going. The rest of it is, you can't let another team outwork you on every ball, every possession, every free ball and win a game. Teams are too balanced, especially in our league."
On what LSU was doing that made it tough for UK to come back ... "They were just playing harder than us. They were hitting a lot of shots, a lot of open 3s. We just broke down a lot defensively and they just played harder than us today." On his mentality when he checked in ... "Just to try to fight and get us back in this game. We got early, they outworked us and I was just trying to help my team win and get back in the game." On whether playing physically was a focus ... "I just tried to be physical, get on the offensive boards and try to get physical with Johnny O'Bryant. But he's a good player. He was hitting a lot of good shots and I felt like I needed to do better defensively on him and that's on me. I could have moved my feet better, but he had a good game. He's a real good player."