Alex Poythress grabbed one offensive rebound at Arkansas, but it made a big impression on Kentucky Coach John Calipari.
"I don't know of another player in the country who could have (grabbed the rebound)," Calipari said Friday. "I know no one on our team could have."
Poythress's offensive rebound came at an optimal time. With UK trailing 85-82 inside the final 15 seconds of overtime, he raced from the left wing to grab James Young's missed three-point shot. The extra possession resulted in a Young three-pointer, which set the stage for the Hogs' winning putback in the final second.
Calipari cited improved physical and mental conditioning for Poythress's recent production: 17-of-24 shooting in the last four games, and averages of 11.0 points and 4.7 rebounds in Southeastern Conference play.
Never miss a local story.
"He's busted through comfort levels," said Calipari, who also noted how Poythress had moved beyond the "clutter" of excuse-making by family, friends and fans.
The UK coach also lauded improved defense, which Poythress attributed to better concentration.
"Paying more attention to it," he said. "It makes it a lot easier. You have to figure out so many offensive schemes, defense might get lost in the mix."Physical challenge
UK expects Tennessee to present a physical challenge. To simulate the bulk of Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon (each listed at 6-foot-8, 260), UK called upon freshman Dakari Johnson (7-foot, 265).
"It's rough," Marcus Lee said of Johnson's physical play in practice. "It's very entertaining when it's not (directed) toward you."
After the Arkansas game, Calipari noted how Willie Cauley-Stein had been a "non-factor." Cauley-Stein took a season-low two shots, blocked one shot, equalled season-lows of two points and 18 minutes.
"They're not machine," Calipari said of Cauley-Stein's low-impact performance. "He was unbelievable in practice (Thursday). He knows (he didn't play well). He takes responsibility."
Cauley-Stein might be a big factor against Tennessee, whose wide-bodies can struggle against imposing height.
Stokes said he lost weight — from 270 last season to 260 — to better deal with taller opponents.
"I really wanted to lose weight and run the floor," he said. "I think that's the answer."
To be called for a foul when blocking out on an Arkansas free throw attempt puzzled Lee.
"I block out the same way every time for the past 10 years," the freshman said.
Lee did not know what to think when the referees went to the monitor to review his block-out.
"I really didn't understand what was going wrong with it because it wasn't different from how everybody else blocked out."
Lee found it difficult to expect a player to block out on a last-second three-point attempt. Of course, Ky Madden missed such a shot Tuesday, but teammate Michael Qualls came from the perimeter to dunk the putback for the winning points with two-tenths of a second left.
"Those last couple seconds, it just kind of skips your mind to do things," Lee said of the block-out that didn't happen. "Because you're always like, OK, we got this. You kind of stop everything."
UK had not done any special block-out drills since the Arkansas game, he said.
Young took the blame for UK's loss, but Randle told reporters in the post-game press conference that wasn't necessary. Calipari said the same scene played out in the UK locker room after the game.
"Good sign, good sign," the UK coach said. "You've got to know you're there for each other."
UK may be the pre-season pick to win the SEC and the ranked team in the game, but Tennessee is not conceding anything.
"We feel we have the chance to beat any team we play," Coach Cuonzo Martin said before UT left Knoxville Friday. "We feel we can beat anybody."
That echoed comments leading scorer Jordan McRae (18.4 ppg) said at SEC Media Days.
When asked about UK and Florida being picked one-two in the SEC, he said, "I feel we can go head up with those teams with no problem."
Tennessee's keys to the game will be to limit Kentucky's fast-break opportunities and rebounding, Martin said.
UK (plus 13.0) and Tennessee (plus 9.1) enjoy the two best rebound margins of any league team. The Vols have outrebounded their first three SEC opponents by an average of 39.3-27.7.
The winner of the rebounding battle has won the seven UK-UT games.
As for pace, Tennessee hopes to manage the difficult trick of playing a transition game while making Kentucky operate in the half-court.
"We're not going to change our game plan to fit someone else," Josh Richardson said of the Vols' intention to run.
Martin gave UK's leading scorer and rebounder, Julius Randle, his proper due. Explosive and quick and aggressive. "Tough to defend that," the UT coach said.
Stokes, no lightweight himself, smiled and eyed the questioner when asked about the Vols going against Randle.
"I don't know," he said. "I feel I'm one of those guys, also, who was a top 10 player growing up."
Stokes noted Randle's "great talent" and combination of size and athleticism.
"But I was a top 10 player," he said.
Stokes said he roomed with Randle on USA team's trip to Brazil. "He's a funny guy," he said. "He enjoys the game of basketball."
Despite a slow start at Arkansas, Calipari said he would not change the starting lineup. . . . Andrew Matalon and Clark Kellogg will call the game for CBS.