Obviously Kentucky wears blue uniforms.
But Coach Matthew Mitchell said this year’s version also has blue collars.
That’s not always a given, the coach said, especially when the team is like UK with a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans who were stars on their high school teams.
Sometimes those star players don’t work as hard because the game came easily for them. That is not this Kentucky team, which is ranked No. 6 in the nation and heads out on its first Southeastern Conference road trip Sunday afternoon at Alabama.
“They are clearly the most talented team we have had here,” Mitchell said Friday after UK’s SEC opening win over Florida. “So it is very good that we still sort of identify with that blue-collar work ethic that really got us to where we are now.”
The difficult 76-69 win over the Gators was a great reminder for UK’s players of the work they have to put in if they want to defend their SEC regular-season title.
They are not a team brimming with prima donnas. In fact, after the difficult win over the Gators on Thursday, he’s learned that this team might prove to be his toughest yet.
“We just made so many tough plays down the stretch,” Mitchell said of his team, which has won a school-record 12 in a row, tied nationally with Duke for the longest streak. “I was really pleased with their mental toughness. It was probably one of the better displays of it since we have been here.”
Junior forward Samarie Walker said the Cats (13-1, 1-0) are learning that they can trust one another.
“We’re tough,” she said. “That was a very tough game, one of the toughest I know I have ever played in, I think all of us. I think we have learned that we will never give up, we can trust each other, no one will ever give up, and we all play really hard.”
Alabama (10-4, 0-1 SEC) could prove to be another test of that intestinal and cerebral fortitude. Even though the Crimson Tide were at the bottom of the conference last season, they used a big first half to upset the Cats.
That defeat, the final of three straight road losses for UK last season, hasn’t been brought up often, but it has been used as a reminder that Kentucky can’t leave its toughness in Lexington.
“We certainly know how tough they are at home,” Mitchell said of Alabama. “We got beat down there last year so our team needs to be ready to go against a very athletic and aggressive Alabama team.”
It’s a loss UK players remember well.
“We went down there, didn’t play the game we wanted to play and got beat,” junior Kastine Evans said. “So that’s going to be some motivation coming into this game.”
Walker agreed no reminders are going to be needed in the days leading up to Sun-day.
“It happened and we know it’s something that won’t happen again,” she said. “We are a lot more talented this year and more together as a team so we won’t let it happen again.”
Cats meet their match?
Kentucky’s defense leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-11.4. UK is forcing 27.2 miscues a game, while only coughing it up 15.8 times. Those numbers will get a big test on Sunday. Alabama is No. 2 in the nation in turnover margin at plus-10.7. The Tide, which force 14.1 steals a game, are forcing 26.3 turnovers a game while averaging only 15.6 miscues.
Heart monitors for UK women?
Coach John Calipari announced via his website this week that his team is hooked up to heart monitors to make sure they’re working to their maximum potential each practice and game.
Mitchell laughed when he was asked on Friday if he was using a similar device. Here’s what he had to say:
“We don’t have time to put them on; we just have to get up and go. I’m probably not smart enough to read one or anything or even know what one looks like.”
Mitchell thought for another second or two, then added: “They probably should hook me up to one, that’s what probably they should do.”