It took some help from a former player for Matthew Mitchell to realize he needed to make a change.
Crystal Riley is in her second season on Mitchell's staff after playing three years at Kentucky. All that time spent with the UK head coach led her to make an observation this week.
"She just helped me out tremendously," Mitchell said. "She said, 'Coach I've never seen you work harder at trying to make people feel good about themselves and build them up and stuff.' It just has not worked."
The advice came as Mitchell was searching for answers following a loss on Thursday to Alabama in which UK lacked fire and energy. He applied it immediately.
"No more Mr. Nice Guy," Mitchell said. "No more telling them how everything is going to be all right."
The practices that followed have been predictably intense. Every drill has a winner and the loser has to run, all in an effort to inject competitiveness back into the Wildcats.
"I do think he was being a little light on us and trying to stay positive," Janee Thompson said. "But his mentality now is better because it kind of lights a fire under us at times and it makes us play harder and that showed in the game today."
On Sunday, No. 9/8 UK (16-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference) responded, taking down Arkansas (15-5, 2-5 SEC) in Memorial Coliseum, 68-58.
"Well, we are happy to win a really hard fought game and I thought Arkansas really played hard and competed and we were finally able to find a group that would get in and compete in the second half," Mitchell said.
For the first few minutes after halftime, it appeared that wouldn't happen.
UK trailed 32-31 at the break and Arkansas went on a 12-3 run over the first 2:40 of the second half behind 5-of-5 shooting. Mitchell quickly called a timeout, forgoing the Mr. Nice Guy routine and spelling out exactly what needed to happen.
There would be none of the wallowing in self-pity, none of the self-doubt that led to losses in three of UK's last five games. In that moment, the Cats simply had to step up and they did. A 22-6 run gave the Cats a six-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"With the way we have been acting and feeling sorry for ourselves that was a critical juncture down 10 with no life whatsoever," Mitchell said. "So you give credit to those kids that went out there and flipped that 20-point swing and I did need to see that."
Mitchell didn't mince words in talking about the importance of that stretch, calling it a "very critical juncture for this team." The Cats didn't realize at that exact moment that it may have been a crossroads for their season, but they did after the fact.
"It was extremely important because that's something we've been struggling with for the past games now," Jennifer O'Neill said. "But I think the biggest thing was, when we were down 10, we played with poise. We weren't panicking; we didn't look to rush things. We played with poise and a sense of urgency."
O'Neill scored only two points during the game-changing run, but Mitchell said she was "the best player on the floor" Sunday. She scored a team-high 21 points, hitting five 3-pointers and adding six rebounds and five assists, also team highs. The performance came just three days after O'Neill scored just four points and took just two shots in the Alabama loss.
"That is how she has to play and she made things happen today and I am so proud of her defense," Mitchell said. "She just has to have her mind right."
Helping on that front was a pregame meeting between Mitchell and the junior point guard, who was inserted into the starting lineup for just the second time this season.
"I had just spoke with Matthew before the game and I was just telling him, 'Basically, I need you to tell me what you need me to do before games,' " O'Neill said. "And that's something he did before and he stopped doing and it was helping me so I went back and told him."
That was just another example of Mitchell going back to coaching tactics that have worked well for him in the past, the most prominent of course being his demeanor and intense practice plan.
"It kind of reminds me back to my freshman year," Bria Goss said. "What we've done the past couple days has been what we did my freshman year and we were very successful, winning the SEC regular-season championship. So it's good to see him have that fire back, I guess."
"Like Matthew said, his mentality has changed from Mr. Nice Guy to being more intense," O'Neill said. "That's going to reflect on us and I feel like you guys are going to see that from games here on out."
That's the hope, but Mitchell isn't about to let his guard down.
"I am not saying we are out of the woods yet," Mitchell said. "We have a lot of work to do. We have to find a group that wants to fight and show up every day and play and once we do that we will be fine. We have always been really good with a situation like that."
UK is looking to rebound from a 57-55 loss to Alabama on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell never misses a chance to express his gratitude for the position he is in as Kentucky's head coach, but he found a new reason to be thankful on Thursday night.
UK had just suffered a disappointing 57-55 upset at the hands of Alabama. Following a nearly two-hour meeting with his coaching staff, Mitchell went home to get a few hours of sleep and forget about what had just happened.
It was in that moment he realized how fortunate he is to have won 125 games since 2009-10.
"For me, I am glad that we have won a lot around here because I don't sleep at all on a performance like last night's," Mitchell said.
It wasn't Daisha Simmons' layup with 2.3 seconds that had him tossing and turning, rather a troubling absence of the fire that has come to define UK Hoops during his tenure.
"I was surprised with just the complete lack of effort and competitiveness last night and it was just all across the board," Mitchell said. "It just can't happen. Clearly there's an atmosphere that exists now that people think that's acceptable and that's 100 percent on me."
With that in mind, Matthew Mitchell returned to the Joe Craft Center early on Friday morning and got back to work. He drew up plans for Friday's practice, but his priorities have little to do with Xs and Os.
"Everything will be competitive-based in practice and we'll figure out who we can take the floor with on Sunday afternoon," Calipari said. "Between now and Sunday afternoon it is all about who is going to compete and who is going to work hard and who is going to play really, really hard for Kentucky. Hopefully, it's everybody."
Against Alabama, Samarie Walker and Bria Goss were the only two Wildcats who consistently turned in the kind of work Mitchell is demanding. Walker had 18 points and seven rebounds in 21 foul-limited minutes and Goss 14 points and six rebounds.
Now, Mitchell will be looking for more Cats to join them.
"If we can find a few players that will really, really compete hard I think a lot of things will flow from that," Mitchell said. "Until we get that straightened out, you can have all the talent in the world, if you don't play hard and don't compete and it doesn't mean something to you to win then I don't know who you are going to beat."
UK's next opponent certainly won't make life easy.
Arkansas (15-4, 2-4 Southeastern Conference) will enter Memorial Coliseum for a matchup with UK (15-4, 3-3 SEC) on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET having lost three of four, but don't let that fool you.
"Well, they have really, really great ball-screen offense and they put a lot of pressure and stress on your defense," Mitchell said. "They have some tough, aggressive players. They have a point guard in (Calli) Berna, who I think is one of the better ones in our league."
Berna is averaging a league-high 7.7 assists per game, most often finding freshman leading scorer Jessica Jackson (16.4 points per game), but game-planning for the Razorbacks isn't Mitchell's primary concern.
"Quite frankly, we can't worry about Arkansas this afternoon," Mitchell said on Friday. "We have to 100 percent try to see who is going to have a chance to play against Arkansas and that will be all about competing in practice this afternoon."
Matthew Mitchell will lead his team into a rematch with Alabama at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It isn't among Matthew Mitchell's three core principles of honesty, hard work and discipline, but man-to-man defense isn't far down the list of things that have come to define UK Hoops.
UK has ascended the ranks of women's basketball utilizing man-to-man pressure defense, so much so that it's earned the moniker "40 minutes of dread." That's what made the second half of Kentucky's 73-71 win at Auburn on Sunday so surprising.
Mitchell audibled to a zone defense, forgoing pride and his own long-standing philosophy.
"I think it's important as a coach to find a way for your players to be successful," Mitchell said. "I think man-to-man defense is the way to play. I think that's the best way to play, but I'm not out there playing and it's not about me; it's about the players."
Mitchell didn't base that decision solely on what he saw during the first 20 minutes at Auburn either. At least statistically speaking, the UK defense has gone from dominant in 2012-13 to merely very good as the Cats (15-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) prepare to host Alabama (8-10, 1-4 SEC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET.
The Wildcats are allowing 68.4 points per game this season, up more than 10 points from last season's average of 57.9. The increase is due in part to the faster tempo of UK's games, but also to the 4.1 additional trips to the free-throw line opponents are making as the Cats toe the line between intense defense and fouling.
Before the season, the new NCAA-mandated emphasis on officiating physical play received plenty of attention on both the men's and women's side. Eighteen games in, Mitchell and his team are still adjusting.
"If I'm in my space in a legal guarding position and the offense runs into me and I didn't create the contact, I think that's really what is giving us so much trouble," Mitchell said. "Just trying to figure out what's legal and what's not. It says in the rulebook that they can't create the contact and the foul will be on you. It has been difficult."
Unsure when the whistles are going to come, Mitchell says the Cats aren't as sure of themselves on defense, creating a cycle of sorts.
"You see that being one factor, but I think another factor is we could play a lot better, a lot harder," Mitchell said. "We watched film on it yesterday and so that's not all of it. It's not all the new way the game is being called. A lot of it is on us too."
That psychological effect was on display against Auburn, as UK looked a different team defensively in the second half.
"I don't know if the way it's being called is in our head and it just keeps us from really turning loose and playing because we were much more active and aggressive in the zone and played with the kind of energy that I wish we would play in man-to-man," Mitchell said.
Mitchell was particularly impressed with the way UK looked in that zone given the team had scarcely worked on it leading up to the game. In fact, he estimated the Cats played more zone in the game at Auburn than they had during their entire bye week in practice.
Having seen the zone in action, Mitchell has made it more of a focus in practice this week.
"We're working on that more now, so it may become a big part of what we do," Mitchell said. "I just don't know. I'm trying to figure that out from a coaching standpoint right now."
That throws a wrench into Alabama's preparation.
The Cats and Crimson Tide faced off three weeks ago and UK came away with an 85-63 road victory, the only time in SEC play the Cats have avoided the slow starts and early deficits that have plagued them.
"Alabama we got off to a great start and we got down to Florida, we got down to South Carolina, we got down to Missouri, we got down to Auburn," Mitchell said. "And to me that is a mental focus issue and the coaches and the players, we all have to do a much better job preparing."
Looking at the Auburn game only, Mitchell is looking for his team to both learn from the slow start that put the Cats in a hole and gain confidence from the way they battled adversity to win a tough road game.
"I just told the players we are just so proud of the part of the effort that got us the victory and we have to correct what got us into the situation where it looked so dire there for a while, 13 down in the first half," Mitchell said. "So there are reasons that's happening and those are the things that we have to correct."
Which defense UK uses to do that remains to be seen.
"They have been very active in man and zone yesterday in practice, so we'll practice both today and we'll see what happens," Mitchell said on Thursday.
Sometimes bye weeks come at inopportune moments, short-circuiting a win streak when a team is playing its best.
Other bye weeks are welcome, offering a chance for players rest their weary legs during a long season.
Count the week UK Hoops had off following a win over Missouri on Sunday among the latter.
"We were so blessed," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "The good Lord blessed us with this bye week and we really needed it on a couple of fronts."
No. 10/12 Kentucky (14-3, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) survived that game against Missouri and ended a two-game losing skid without leader Kastine Evans and with Bernisha Pinkett playing just two minutes. Bria Goss and Janee Thompson stepped up, as the two guards combined for 36 points in an 80-69 victory, but the Wildcats were always going to need Evans and Pinkett at full strength in their bid for the SEC title.
With a little downtime, the two senior guards are getting there.
"Kastine was full go (Friday) morning, reported no issues, no pain," Mitchell said. "So she was off all week from practice activities. Stayed with low non-impact cardio and tried to stay up with that. So the time off for her and Bernisha was very, very good and they looked good."
DeNesha Stallworth is another player recuperating from injury, but she took a very different approach to UK's week without a Thursday game.
The senior forward has played three games since her return following arthroscopic knee surgery, but has shown signs of some of the rust to be expected following a month-long layoff. This week, she's taken full advantage of the opportunity to knock off some of that rust.
"DeNesha needed a week where she could just turn loose and practice and you weren't worried about playing Thursday and you could really go at it," Mitchell said.
And for UK as a team, the time off was productive as well. With some effects still lingering from that short-lived losing streak, a week of "high-level, high-intensity practice" was much-needed.
"We got it on both ends, got what we needed out of the open date and so I think we're starting to round back into full strength and we'll need to be as sharp as we can be to win Sunday, I can tell you that," Mitchell said.
UK will face a road test at Auburn (11-6, 2-2 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET (SEC TV) that has Mitchell's undivided attention. The Tigers are facing 20.7 turnovers per game and are likely to throw multiple defensive looks at the Cats.
"Long, athletic, aggressive defenders and make it really tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "They've done a great job defensively."
Senior guard/forward Tyrese Tanner is leading the way for Auburn, scoring 16.4 points per game, but it doesn't end there for the Tigers. Ten players are averaging more than 15.1 minutes per game, meaning Auburn won't be fazed by UK's depth.
"Just their overall team is a really tough, explosive team," Mitchell said. "So going on the road in this league is always tough. It will be tough Sunday afternoon and we'll have to prepare well to win."
On Wednesday, Matthew Mitchell joined the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Teleconference. With his Wildcats in the midst of a one-week layoff between games, Mitchell talked about the strength of the SEC, leadership and his work in mentally preparing his team. Here's a transcript.
Opening statement "Well, we came off an important win on Sunday against a really good Missouri team and we're happy to get that victory. We're just going to try to take advantage of our open date on Thursday, try to help us get better as a team and try to get prepared for what we know will be a tough game on the road at Auburn. Always a tough place to play. We're just trying to focus on practice every day and see what kind of team we can become."
On parity in the SEC ... "I just think it's very early, too early to tell what will happen. Most teams four games into it, it's hard to know what's going to happen. So a lot of big games ahead, but I thought going into the year the league was a very, very high-quality league. It always is and it's no different this year. So think we'll have some really tough, tested teams because of league play will advance to the NCAA Tournament and I think the SEC will really be a conference to be reckoned with in the NCAA Tournament."
On whether any players who have exceeded expectations this season ... "Well, we have gotten off to a really good start if you look at it over 17 games and we've won some big games. I think, for us, what's always important is to have some balance and I've been so pleased with the team's performance. We've had a really, really good balance of people contributing on the team to victory and you never know from one night to the next exactly who's going to be the top scorer. We really try to focus more on our defense and our team play maybe more than we do someone's scoring. I don't know if there's any real surprises. I was very optimistic about our team going into the season and they've performed well so I couldn't really single out just one person."
On who has done a good job from a leadership standpoint ... "Well, I think that Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have both really worked hard, are excited to lead, have the courage to do that, really work on it and think about it. I think our seniors--always people look toward your senior class and I think that they have done a really good job working hard and setting good examples for the player. And then, you know, we've really tried to get the players that have been playing the point-guard position - Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill - to improve in that area. Just yesterday, I thought that Janee Thompson was really, really trying to focus in on being a good leader. So we believe in leadership development. We believe that you can develop those qualities and I think our team's worked really hard in that area."
On whether it has gotten easier to mentally prepare his team ... "You know, that is such an interesting part of being a teacher and a coach. And it's such a journey to try to figure out each and every year what works for a team and what works for players and players change from year to year. And so what I've found is if you ever start making assumptions and think that you've got it figured it out, that's where I've always gotten in trouble with that. I think it's so interesting from year to year how different that process is and trying to make sure players stay focused on what they need to do and you make look great on a Thursday and then you come back on a Sunday and you don't look that great and you just try to figure that out as a coach, how to get that consistency. And so I really admire the coaches who, over the years, are able to get consistent performances from their team year in and year out. For us, it just always goes back to the core tenets of our program. We're just always trying to develop our kids' character. We want kids of really high character. We want players that'll sacrifice for each other and we want players that'll work really hard to prepare and then players that are interested in our core principles: honesty, hard work, discipline. So we're always trying to mentally get them to a spot where they can embrace those things and I think that'll not only help our team this year, but it'll also help our players after they move on from Kentucky. So it is a very interesting part of being a teacher, is trying to keep people focused and on task and not looking too far in the future and maybe not holding on to mistakes made in past games. So it's a daily process, I think, as a teacher to try to make sure you're working hard in that are to help your players and students the best you can."