Sometimes a coach just has to say what he knows sounds right. And I think that’s what Kentucky coach John Calipari did after Saturday’s loss at Auburn when the Cats blew a 12-point second half lead and lost to one of the SEC’s worst teams.
“We’re fine. I’m not worried about it. I just want to make some changes to see if guys will respond and fight,” Calipari said.
Not worried? Forgive me for not buying that, especially after Calipari said he plans to make changes starting with Thursday night’s game at Arkansas.
“Stuff is going to be a little tougher. We don’t have the margin of error that we’ve had in some of my teams, so when I talk about winning basketball, it matters. It matters. So all those plays that we’ve talked about over and over and over about, but you continue to do, came back to haunt us today. And it’s not just one guy, like three or four guys,” Calipari said.
Again, does that sound like a coach not worried. Sure his second UK team struggled to win SEC road games and made the Final Four. Two years ago the Cats had all kind of regular-season issues but go to the title game. However, there is no Terrence Jones or Julius Randle on this team that can give UK a low-post scoring presence.
“We gotta go back to football practice. All this stuff about the rules – like we’re not going to put hands on, we’re not going to hipcheck, it’s done. So they didn’t have the stomach to continue it so we’re just going to back to like I did in 2013 where I just said, ‘Put on the football helmets and let’s go.’ The games, they’re physical again,” Calipari said.
True, but how does that explain 5-9 Tyler Ulis getting more rebounds than Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress and Skal Labissiere combined in the loss at Auburn
“We had people who didn’t want to play and then we made a couple of decisions on the offensive end, “ Ulis said. “Didn’t play hard as a team. It’s very frustrating. There’s no way we should have lost game.”
True and if more of Ulis’s teammates don’t learn what playing harder means, Kentucky is going to lose a lot more games this season.
There was a time during the offseason that Kentucky coach Matthew Mitchell worried that star junior guard Makayla Epps might not stay at UK — and that was long before he had three players transfer and another player he had to dismiss off this year’s team.
Mitchell had suspended his star player in May after she was cited on alcohol-related charges in her hometown of Lebanon in late April. He did not specify at the time how long the suspension would be or exactly what she would have to do to be part of the team this season.
Epps was a first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick as a sophomore when she averaged 14.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
“That’s always part of the equation if you are really doing this for the right reasons. Makayla needed to understand that I cared much more about her as a person than I did as a player,” said Mitchell when asked about if he considered that Epps might leave UK. “I had to give her that option. We were probably pretty close to that. I knew we were at a spot [where] I didn’t know if she would stay or not.
“I just told her there were plenty of people who would take you and use you for your basketball talent, but we are not a place that is going to do that. It was more about her becoming responsible, and she has talked about this and she needed to grow up and this was the catalyst for change.”
Mitchell said “worry” is not the word he would use to describe how he felt about Epps’s possible departure.
“A few years back when it was not going well I just asked the good Lord for the strength to make the right decisions. At that point I had to be willing to lose a player if she was not living up to the standards needed to be a great person,” Mitchell said. “It has to be more about the person than the player. I think if you focus on that you will get a good player. Makayla is still growing and has room for growth. She has made great strides and I am just so excited to see what she can become.”
What she became was a catalyst for Kentucky’s surprising run into the top 10 this year that has already included wins over Duke and Louisville. She is the team’s leading scorer at 16 points per game and is also averaging more than five assists and five rebounds per game. Kentucky takes a 14-2 record into Thursday night’s game with Mississippi.
Mitchell joked last week he was trying to keep the lights on for Epps.
“Who does that, Motel 6? They leave the lights on for you. That’s what we’re trying to do for Epps is to leave the lights on at all times,” the coach said. “She can’t be all tied up in a straitjacket and have a furrowed brow and be dead serious. I’ve got to find a way for her to be responsible and do what she needs to do for the team, but she’s got to have some fun while she’s doing it.”
That’s when Epps, the daughter of former UK point guard Anthony Epps, is at her best. She’s no stranger to the spotlight after leading Marion County to a state championship and being named a McDonald’s All-American, the first ever at her school.
“She has a really great heart for people. I think it is special to her to play for Kentucky. I think that is why she ultimately stayed here,” Mitchell said. “One, she needed to grow up, but she has a tremendous passion for Kentucky. She understood the Louisville game and what that rivalry meant and how important that game was. That only comes from understanding how special Kentucky is. I think she loves every second of it. She has said she would not want to be anywhere else.”
Epps may not look like an elite athlete. She’s not the tallest or fastest player at UK or in the SEC. Yet she had a 42-point game against Mississippi State last season and was a big focus of No. 2 South Carolina’s defense last week when it beat UK.
“She is the physically strongest player I have ever coached. She is at elite level strength-wise and that is why she can get to places around the basket and finish where some people can’t,” Mitchell said. “Her strength is really different and a difference maker for her.
“And her basketball IQ is a combination a lot of good coaching and being around her dad coming up, she was allowed the freedom to explore some things as a basketball player that maybe some other high school kids could not do. That led to a really high basketball IQ. She is a very smart player. She knows how to find her teammates. She knows the right decisions. It is impressive.”
Impressive enough to help her play in the WNBA eventually? Mitchell thinks if she keeps doing what she has been and continues to improve, she can be a high firstround draft choice.
“She has got to continue her defense and rebounding, but her talent level is elite level. Those people at the top of the draft get separated by the intangibles. However much she wants to work, she can be a top five pick if she commits to it and under that a first round pick,” Mitchell said.
“The women’s league only has 10 teams, so you are talking about being a top 10 player. If she will keep doing what she is now, keep a great work ethic and stay humble and hungry, I think she is a firstround pick for sure.”
Ex-QB Touts Love, Walker
Former Kentucky quarterback Reese Phillips, who has transferred to Montana, says two defensive players — Courtney Love and Kobie Walker — who did not play last season could be stars for the Wildcats next year.
Love transferred to UK from Nebraska and sat out last season. Walker was a redshirt freshman who was academically ineligible last season. Phillips called them both “freaks” for the way they can play.
“They played scout team all year and gave our offense trouble,” Phillips said. “Love is one of the smartest linebackers I have seen. He is as smart if not smarter than Josh Forrest (UK’s top tackler last season). Walker is just incredible. He looks like a stud and plays like a stud.”
Head coach Mark Stoops throws Minnesota transfer De’Niro Laster into the mix as a potential big-time playmaker next year. He cited Love’s leadership and calls Laster an explosive player.
“He’s going to be a welcomed addition. He’s an explosive, violent guy,” Stoops said.
Firecrackers to Return!
Saturday Kentucky will host Vanderbilt in what is always one of my favorite games of the year in Rupp Arena and it has nothing at all to do with the Wildcats. Instead, it’s because the Firecrackers will be performing their jump rope magic at halftime and it’s easily the best halftime show of the year. These young girls from Ohio do a variety of stunts and tricks with jump ropes that are dazzling. The program started over 20 years ago as a way to help young girls believe in themselves and now they have been on national TV and have already performed at Wisconsin, Illinois and Belmont basketball games this year. However, the girls says Rupp Arena is their favorite venue.
I’ve had a chance to interact with the Firecrackers the last two years and the performers are so good that it’s easy to forget how young they are (third through eighth grade).
So I asked some of them what their favorite thing was about being a Firecracker. Here’s a few of the answers:
Zoe Geiss – 6th grade, third year Firecracker: “Performing in front of the crowds, the long car trips to new places and cities bigger than I can imagine, learning about etiquette and making new friends that are like family.”
Lily Kniskern – 6th grade, second year Firecracker: “Being taught that I will get it right if I do it one more time, no matter how many times it takes.”
Maddie O’Brien – 4th grader, first year Firecracker: “Making new friends on the team and being people’s brightest part of their day. It is exciting to perform for a bunch of people. When the crowd goes wild, it makes me feel like I’m doing great and they’re having fun.”
Emily Schowalter – 8th grade, fifth year Firecracker: “Performing in front of big crowds and knowing we are making them smile.”
Grace Peters – 7th grader, third year Firecracker: “Getting to travel to so many cool places and getting to perform for thousands of people with my friends! We’re basically sisters, we do so much together.”
Trip of a Lifetime
Astria Howard says her son, Jordan Steele, had a “great time” at the Football University Youth All-American Bowl in San Antonio last weekend.
The seventh-grader from Harlan County played both ways for his team and had four tackles in the game that brought together the nation’s best middle school football players. He was even named a team captain.
Kentuckians donated over $4,000 in less than a day when word spread that the Harlan youngster needed that much money to make the trip. His father was a former National Guard member who served in Iraq and suffered from PTSD and substance abuse when he returned home. He died in 2007 when his son was only 5 years old.
Those who donated so the 6-2, 220-pound Steele could make the trip included Mr. Football Kash Daniel of Paintsville, who is now enrolled at UK, and his parents. Daniel and future UK teammates Drake Jackson and Landon Young played in the Army All-American Game the same day as Steele’s game in San Antonio.
“We got to hang out with Kash’s mom. We went to the Army All- American Game together,” Howard said. “Jordan loved the game. His team got recognized at the end of the third quarter and got to get on the sideline.
“Kash even texted us and said he was doing an interview, but to walk over to where he was staying. He took a picture with me and picture with Jordan before going to practice. It was just a wonderful experience the whole time.
“We just appreciate all the people that donated money so we could make the trip. Me and Jordan both thank everyone so much for giving us this chance for him to do what he loves to do. For everybody that gave from the heart, we can’t thank them enough.”