TAMPA, Fla. — Entering Kentucky's locker room for the first time all season, reporters saw a relaxed group of players. Tension did not hang in the air. Smiles crossed faces. You wouldn't necessarily think the Cats would play Mississippi here on Thursday in what guard Michael Porter called "a do-or-die game, obviously."
Twenty-four hours before beginning play in a Southeastern Conference Tournament that Kentucky says it must win to retain its birthright (i.e. a bid to the NCAA Tournament), the Cats were at ease.
A.J. Stewart playfully completed teammate DeAndre Liggins' response to a pointed question: Are you coming back next season?
"Yep," Liggins said.
To which, Stewart added, "He's not going nowhere."
As Patrick Patterson sat in a chair fielding questions, Ramon Harris stood in front of UK's big man. A closer inspection showed Harris playing reporter. He thrust a tape recorder under Patterson's chin and asked the question of the hour: "How do you play with all the negative stuff going around?"
The lighthearted mood suggested either a team embracing a fresh start after a tumultuous regular season, or a team knowing freedom from the incessant spotlight is at hand.
Patterson answered quickly and with passion when asked whether the Cats might want to get this dysfunctional season over with.
"Oh no," he said. "Nobody wants to get it over with. Nobody wants the season to be over. We all want to play basketball."
The players acknowledged the abundant negativity surrounding UK basketball. Perhaps the warm Florida sunshine can melt it away.
"Oh, it's everywhere," Patterson said. "People talking about the team, talking about Coach (Billy) Gillispie, how he shouldn't be here this year, how we need to get him out, blah, blah, blah.
"I hear it every day."
After predicting that Gillispie will be Kentucky's coach next season, Patterson said that losses in eight of the last 11 games (and four straight to end the regular season) had not dulled the Cats' desire.
"We want to win the tournament," he said. "Probably more than anybody else in the SEC."
Mississippi Coach Andy Kennedy expected an aroused Kentucky. When asked whether the recent losing made UK a dangerous team, he blurted out, "Oh, no question. I think they're a wounded animal."
Two factors stood out when Ole Miss beat Kentucky 85-80 in perhaps the season's pivotal game. Ole Miss showed the type of urgency needed to contain the SEC's leading scorer, Jodie Meeks. And the Rebels had much the better of it at point guard with freshman Terrico White outplaying UK's tandem of Porter and Liggins.
Meeks, who went into that game as the leading scorer (31 points per game versus the SEC) for the league's only unbeaten team (5-0), struggled to 21 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
Meeks acknowledged that Ole Miss set the standard for defending him. "Yeah, they did a very good job defending me everywhere I went on every single time around the court," he said. "That was the first time anyone had defended me that way."
Kennedy credited team persistence led by Zach Graham, an AAU teammate of Meeks.
"We just try to limit his rhythm shots," the Ole Miss coach said. "If you allow him to have rhythm jump shots, you're at his mercy."
As for White, the freshman scored 21 points and handed out seven assists in a game that paved the way for one of his three SEC Freshman of the Week awards. That led to the Freshman of the Year recognition from the coaches.
White seems immune to the ups and downs of first-year players. In the Rebels' last 11 games, he's been the leading scorer 10 times. That includes nine games of 20 or more points.
"Special player," Kennedy said before adding, "He just turned 19 on Saturday. God's not done with him yet."
For the moment, Kentucky is more concerned about the basketball gods' plan for this season's final act.
Kennedy, whose team also needs to win the SEC Tournament to get an NCAA bid, saw one overriding factor necessary for such a run.
"First and foremost, a sense of urgency," he said.