Matthew Mitchell seemingly has two teams on his hands.
There's the one that makes him say things like this: "This group is just not naturally competitive."
And then the one that makes him say this two sentences later: "But, they clearly are competitive because when they get into the situation that's sort of desperate, they come out swinging and lock in and get going."
The two Kentuckys have combined for an 8-1 record to start the 2014-15 season, including a pair of wins over top-10 reams, but not without causing their coach a serious dose of stress.
The Wildcats, lacking "competitive fire" out of the gates on multiple occasions, have fallen behind by 14 points against No. 8 Baylor, nine points against Oklahoma and USF and 16 at No. 7 Louisville. But each time, they've managed to claw their way back from seemingly dire circumstances to win.
Mitchell, thankful as he is that UK has had the fortitude to pull it off each time, wants the habit to end.
"I just think they understand that there is an immediate threat and so they respond," Mitchell said. "When there is 17 minutes left in the first half, they think, 'Hey, maybe we have time to respond,' and I'm just saying that that's not a sustainable course of action. We can't be the team that we want to be with that kind of attitude."
Since the latest slow start that set up a big comeback - UK's fourth straight win over rival U of L - the Cats have gone to work trying to shift that attitude. To that end, Mitchell has structured practices leading up to a matchup with Middle Tennessee (4-2) at 9 p.m. ET on Friday to be as competitive as possible from the outset.
"You've got to get them to a spot where it's ultra-competitive and see who is ready to roll and who is not and try to make sure that we are practicing with a sense of urgency so that hopefully we can start the game with a great sense of urgency and maintain that," Mitchell said.
To that end, Mitchell is considering tweaking his starting five of Janee Thompson, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Azia Bishop that he has used in all nine games this season.
"We won't just stay with it to stay with it because that's how we've started," Mitchell said. "It's very much a situation to where right now every minute is up for grabs in a competitive situation in practice and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, it's on you because we are being very clear on what needs to be happening in practice."
It would be one thing for Mitchell to hold his team to such a high standard if the Cats hadn't shown they can play that way, but they obviously have. Their No. 8 national ranking and No. 1 RPI proves that. Now it's about evening out the effort.
"We know what we are capable of doing," Mitchell said. "We know we can play some good basketball. We also know that when we are not focused, we can play some bad basketball, so just trying to get that consistent mentality of attacking and being aggressive and being tough and being competitive. That's what we have tried to do in practice."
Middle Tennessee will offer the next test on that front, and it won't be an easy one. The Blue Raiders have played among the nation's most difficult schedules and have won their last two games against Clemson and Xavier by a combined 63 points.
"It's going to be a very tough game," Mitchell said. "It always is with Middle Tennessee. They're a very good team, always tough and always able to score the basketball and well-coached. Coach (Rick) Insell does a great job with Middle Tennessee State and this is another good team. It's a huge challenge for us tomorrow night."
Janee Thompson might want to consider campaigning for UK to play more games in the KFC Yum! Center.
She seems to do pretty well there.
After leading a comeback from 14 points down and hitting the game-winning two years ago at Louisville, Thompson put on another second-half show against UK's archival on Saturday. The junior point guard poured in 16 of her 19 points after halftime, headlining a rally from 15 points down with just 18:01 left as No. 7 UK (8-1) topped the Cardinals (8-1), 77-68.
Thompson was clutch throughout, hitting the free throw that gave UK its first lead at 59-58 and the game-tying 3 with 3:03 left after the Cardinals had reclaimed a three-point lead to start a decisive 14-2 run to close the game.
She didn't miss a shot in the second half, deftly (and speedily) running UK's offense in the second half. The Cats shot just 36.4 percent from the field in the first half as a team, but 55.6 percent in the second to race past the previously unbeaten and seventh-ranked Cardinals.
Thompson was also at the top of UK's swarming pressure defense and snagged four steals. UK forced Louisville into 15 second-half turnovers and 28 for the game. Even when the Cardinals did manage to initiate their half-court offense, they found little room to operate, shooting 24.1 percent from the field after halftime.
The victory was UK's fourth in a row over Louisville, meaning fourth-year seniors Azia Bishop and Bria Goss, who scored 11 points in a team-high 35 minutes, have never lost to the Cardinals.
Matthew Mitchell has never changed his thoughts on the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry, but he has come to talk about it differently.
He's always seen UK-U of L as one of the biggest games on both teams' schedule, a game deserving of hype and a big-time atmosphere. The difference now that he's in his eighth season is he feels no need to try to convince anyone.
"When I was younger - and hopefully I'm wiser than I was when I started out, I was also a different person - I said some bad things about the rivalry to try and get it spiced up and everything," Mitchell said. "Over the years, you don't have to do that anymore."
You see, UK and U of L have established themselves among the nation's elite. The Wildcats and Cardinals are fixtures in the top 15, and that will be the case again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET when the two teams face off at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
"The players understand that it's a big game on our side," Mitchell said. "It's a big game. I think that's great that it's a rivalry game and people get excited about it and I'm sure there is going to be a large crowd there, and so I think the games have been pretty tough."
There's no reason to think that will change as UK (7-1) enters the latest matchup ranked No. 13, while U of L (7-0) is No. 7. The Cats have won the last three games played between the two teams.
"I think it's going to be an outstanding game," Mitchell said. "I just want us to go over there, have our minds right and play real, real hard against what looks like a real fine basketball team that U of L has."
Louisville seemed likely to take a step back last season without star Shoni Schimmel, who graduated after a decorated career. Watching tape on the Cardinals, that's not what Mitchell sees.
"It's a very, very strong basketball team with some great players that as usual, are very well coached," Mitchell said. "Their performance last night vs. Iowa was extremely impressive."
Louisville dispatched the No. 22 Hawkeyes unceremoniously, taking a 23-point lead by halftime and finishing off an 86-52 win on Thursday. Senior Sara Hammond scored 19 points, while standout freshman and leading scorer Myisha Hines-Allen added 16 points.
"This is nothing against Shoni, but after watching them (Thursday) night, that was one of the most impressive performances that I've seen from them in now eight years," Mitchell said. "I was really impressed with how they played. They have a lot of different weapons."
Nine Cardinals play at least 13.5 minutes per game and four average double figures in scoring, including Hines-Allen, Hammond and freshman Mariya Moore, whom Mitchell called "legit."
"They're just really big and athletic and they played so aggressive," Mitchell said. "They looked so cohesive and it was a very impressive performance to watch on tape this morning. It looked like they are really playing together. They are extremely explosive in transition, very disruptive on defense. They played a lot of man-to-man (Thursday) night and gave Iowa a tremendous amount of problems."
The Cats, of course, are perfectly capable of causing problems too.
UK remains a work in progress, particularly in the post where Mitchell relies on three players who are playing their first college season, but the Cats have already taken down one top-10 opponent this season, Baylor. To duplicate the feat, Mitchell believes there's a clear path for his team to follow.
"I think intensity is going to be the main thing for us," Mitchell said. "We can't do a whole lot in two days as far as sharpening some of the things that we need to sharpen. There are some things that we're doing well. We are running the floor well, and we have some speed and can get up and down the court and try and stress a team by tempo and pace. We are capable of that, and we are sure going to try to see if we can get that done and play to our strengths until we can really get sharp."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers had a quiet trip to the beach last week, at least offensively.
Managing just nine points on UK's three-game voyage to the Virgin Islands, including just one in her final two games combined, Goodin-Rogers had gone cold after a strong start to her college career.
She had to come home to chilly Kentucky to heat back up.
Goodin-Rogers poured in a game-high 19 points, including 16 in the first half of an 82-64 Kentucky win over Northern Kentucky. In fact, she exceeded her previous career high less than eight minutes in.
"She was aggressive to start offensively and when she gets in a rhythm and can make some 3s for us and get to the basket and play with some energy offensively in transition, she can help us out," Matthew Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers was the star in an otherwise sluggish start for the Wildcats, who moved to 7-1 on Wednesday ahead of a Sunday trip to archrival Louisville. She scored 13 of UK's first 19 points to help build an early nine-point lead, capped by the first of her two 3-pointers.
She didn't waste any time surpassing her point total from the Virgin Islands games, but she also wasn't overly concerned about her offense from last week. Facing powerful front lines against the likes of Illinois and Oklahoma, she knew her role on UK's Thanksgiving trip.
"In the Virgin Islands I was more focused on defense than I was on offense because I needed to rebound more because the girls were so big," Goodin-Rogers said. "And tonight I was able to just play instead of focusing on one little thing."
Goodin-Rogers certainly played in her return to Memorial Coliseum, but she and her fellow post players still have room for growth.
Among UK's regular interior rotation, only Azia Bishop had played a college game entering this season. As a result, Goodin-Rogers, Alyssa Rice and Alexis Jennings have suffered more than anyone from the game slippage that comes from so little early-season practice time with a packed schedule.
"We've just got to take advantage of some practice time and get better in the half-court," Mitchell said. "Our post players are seeing a lot of packed lanes and we're not reading those situations real well in the half-court."
That places an added importance on the three days of practice UK will have leading up to a matchup with No. 7 Louisville.
"I thought tonight we were a bit unfocused and we can't play our best when we play that way," Mitchell said. "We played well enough to win tonight and you can't take that victory away from us, but clearly we have to play much sharper. I think their confidence level can increase between now and then with some good practice."
Two weeks into the season, Kentucky is one of just three teams with a win over a top-10 opponent.
To go with that victory against then-No. 8 Baylor, the Wildcats have two more home wins and another on the road against a Central Michigan expected to contend for a conference championship.
But for UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
"We are off to a 4-0 start and it's good results for us," Mitchell said, "but we really, really need to get better as a basketball team."
During Thanksgiving week, the ninth-ranked Cats will have ample opportunity to do just that while getting some literal sunshine along the way.
Starting on Thursday, UK will play in the Paradise Jam Island Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Cats left for the U.S. Virgin Islands (forecast 81 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day) early Tuesday morning for a trip where they'll mix basketball and some tourist activities.
First up, UK will face Illinois, off to 4-0 start identical to the Cats', at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. Next is 3-0 Oklahoma (receiving votes in the AP Top 25) on Friday at 6 p.m. with USF (3-1) to close it out on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"Three games against three really quality opponents in three days will be a tough task down in the Virgin Islands," Mitchell said. "It's a great trip; it's a great tournament."
For UK to most effectively capitalize, Mitchell has one thing on his mind above all else.
"From a basketball standpoint right now, we are really needing to improve defensively," Mitchell said. "You can be a good defensive team if you give consistent effort. You're a great defensive team if you give consistent effort along with consistent fundamentals and technique. We are neither one of those right now."
More than anything else, it was the second half of UK's win at Central Michigan that had him thinking that way.
After a solid first half, the Cats built a lead that ballooned to 20 points with 16:13 left. The Chippewas would chip away from there, missing a would-be game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as UK survived, 71-68. CMU shot 44.8 percent from the field in the second half after the Cats held them to 28.6 in the first.
"A lot of energy in the first half, a lot of focus in the first half, a lot of disruption," Mitchell said. "And in the second half, it was very little attention to detail, very little energy defensively."
Mitchell, though he's demanding improvement, isn't concerned. Bumps in the road, especially this early in the season, are to be expected. What the Cats can't do is become satisfied with a little early-season success.
"We can't take the approach of, 'Well, we beat Baylor and we're a highly ranked team and so we just show up and take the floor,' " Mitchell said. "That's not our formula. Our formula is being honest with ourselves, working really hard and having some discipline. I think that the players, once they see the visual evidence, they'll get it corrected."
With that in mind, Mitchell will be looking for a few simple things as he coaches his team this week.
"If we do nothing else, we're just Kentucky tough and Kentucky tenacious and playing together and being the fastest, most disruptive, toughest team we can be in that tournament," Mitchell said. "If we can accomplish those goals, the technique and the positioning and those kind of mistakes will start to work itself out."
Janee Thompson had a team-best 15 points in UK's 91-62 win over Morehead State on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
Even though Kentucky was nine points away from scoring in triple figures Wednesday afternoon, no one player poured in more than 15 points individually.
Only four points separated the Wildcats' leading scorer, Janee Thompson, from its fourth leading scorer, Azia Bishop. In UK's 91-62 win over in-state foe Morehead State, cohesive teamwork was the key to victory.
"We don't just play five people," Thompson said. "Everybody is going to play, and that makes it that much easier for us when we get out on the floor."
Thompson, a 5-foot-7 point guard from Chicago, has accepted an increased leadership role through the first three games of her junior season.
"The position of point guard, it is a positional leadership role," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "People are looking to you as a point guard to be a leader, and sometimes you get true leadership and sometimes you get positional leadership. (Thompson) is really truly leading and I am very excited about that."
Committing zero turnovers in Wednesday's victory in front of 5,923 fans in Memorial Coliseum, including 1,500 sixth graders there for "Class of 2021 Day," Thompson scored 15 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting from the free-throw line, but received substantial help from the two remaining thirds of Kentucky's three-headed point guard assault. Senior Jennifer O'Neill recorded 14 points and six rebounds, while sophomore Makayla Epps stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench.
"Jennifer has an excellent attitude right now," Mitchell said. "So our leadership is doing really great. Even Makayla Epps (has) a great attitude right now. I am happy with that. We need that."
"I think the three of us--myself, (O'Neill), and Epps--have a really good relationship," Thompson said. "(We) are really starting to understand what Coach Mitchell is looking for and what our team needs from us."
From all five positions on the floor, No. 9 Kentucky (3-0) completely dominated its opponent from the Ohio Valley Conference. The Wildcats' starting frontcourt of Bishop and sophomore Kyvin Goodin-Rogers pulled down 11 and nine rebounds, respectively. As a team, UK outrebounded the Eagles 55-35.
"We love going out there and playing hard, and getting rewarded for the hard work we have put in in practice," Thompson said. "We work extremely hard every day, and to be able to see that stuff come out when we play on the floor is great for us."
Thompson's former high school teammate, current sophomore guard Linnae Harper, contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the UK bench. Along with Bishop, Harper was one of two Cats to log a double-double.
"We aren't going to be the most talented team around, but our intangibles can be really high," said Mitchell. "If we can work together and the sum be greater than the parts, we can really do some things."
After three games over the course of six days, Kentucky has until Saturday to relax and reflect on the season's hot start. The Wildcats will travel to Mount Pleasant, Mich., for 2014-15's first road matchup with the Chippewas of Central Michigan.
Jennifer O'Neill hit her first and only 3-pointer with 1:17 left in UK's comeback win over Baylor on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Good teams, they just keep on playing.
Good shooters, they just keep on shooting.
When Kentucky found itself down 14 early in the second half against perennial power and top-10 Baylor, the Wildcats refused to go away.
"It was a very, very poor start to the game, and we came back and really played a tough 20 minutes there in the second half, and I'm very proud of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
When Jennifer O'Neill had the ball in her hands having missed her first 10 3-point tries but with a chance to take the biggest shot of the night, she did.
"Really my teammates had a lot of belief in me and told me to keep shooting and fed me the ball," O'Neill said. "So I was going to keep shooting.
Even though she was aware she had missed her first 10 tries from deep, O'Neill followed through on that when she received a pass from Makayla Epps with 1:17 left. With UK having overcome that deficit to claim a one-point lead, O'Neill rose and fired from the right wing.
"I told her, 'I was going to keep feeding you regardless,' " said Epps, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. "She's the best shooter on the team. We don't play here often. We play here one time a year. So shots are going to fall; shots aren't going to fall. I had the utmost belief in her and I knew that once she got hot she was going to hit."
She did, sending an announced crowd of 22,075 into a frenzy and giving UK (2-0) a four-point lead the Cats wouldn't relinquish in a 74-64 win over No. 8/7 Baylor (1-1). In doing so, UK picked up the first top-10 win of the season and completed the 10th-largest comeback in program history with a 50-point second-half outburst.
"That's a great win for us," Mitchell said. "We have a long way to go as a basketball team, but learned a lot tonight, have a lot of room for improvement, but it's great to get into an atmosphere like this."
Whatever UK becomes as a team, O'Neill will play a key role. The senior guard, who finished with 22 points 11 months after dropping a school-record 43 against Baylor, better keep shooting if the Cats' fast-paced offense is going to work.
"They were running back to a packed lane and we were shooting in rhythm wide open 3-point shots, and our offense, we have to shoot that shot, and Jennifer is a great shooter and has been shooting the ball great," Mitchell said " ... I have no idea if she's missed them, made them. I'm just coaching every play, and I was telling her every time out to keep shooting the ball."
O'Neill was 0 for 6 from 3 and 1 of 8 overall in the first half, but she was hardly the only reason UK went into the locker room trailing 34-24.
"I give our team a lot of credit because I'm telling you, it was not good in the first half, as you all could see," Mitchell said. "It was disjointed, there was no rhythm, there was no focus offensively, there was no execution."
Due to that lack of execution, the Cats shot just 30 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Linnae Harper was the lone bright spot, scoring nine of her 11 points to help keep UK within striking distance.
"I think in the first half Kentucky beat Kentucky," Epps said.
There would be no repeat performance in the second half, though the Lady Bears scored six of eight points out of the break to take that 14-point lead.
"I think going into the second half Matthew had said enough about what we did in the first half, so we knew what we had to do," O'Neill said. "Yeah, we were aware that we were down, but the game wasn't out of reach."
Climbing their way out of a big hole, the Cats were buoyed by a crowd that never gave in either. Thousands filled Rupp in spite of freezing temperatures and snow and they weren't about to go down without a fight.
"When you are emotionally down," Mitchell said, "when you're playing not well and you're sort of clearly discombobulated, and we, I thought, were lacking energy and emotion there as we were starting to decline in the first half, there's no question for us, once we started playing with some energy and the crowd responds, it pumps you up."
UK will count on its home crowd one last time on Wednesday at 11 a.m. against Morehead State before four games away from Lexington, first at Central Michigan and then for games against Illinois, Oklahoma and South Florida as part of the Paradise Jam Island Tournament.
For all those games, the Cats will look to do what they did on Monday: combine winning and learning.
"Just the way the schedule hits us now, we don't have a lot of practice time, so we've got to make the most of our time here and try to get a little bit better and see if we can win some games while we're still learning," Mitchell said. "But that's why this one is so big and such a great win that will still show up at the end of the season, but we're not a finished product."