Lots of coaches talk about starting the postseason on the right foot.
Kentucky's Matthew Mitchell took that adage one step further.
As part of a team-building exercise Wednesday night before the second-seeded Cats begin their NCAA Tournament run in Memorial Coliseum, all of Kentucky's players were blindfolded.
The players were instructed to put out their hands, palm side up.
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"When that happened, I hoped maybe we were getting something," Makayla Epps said, laughing.
Indeed. With help from UK's friends at Nike, each of the Cats was given a new pair of shoes, the highly coveted Nike KD VII, worn by Kevin Durant in the most recent NBA All-Star Game.
"It was so great," freshman forward Alexis Jennings said. "We're total sneaker heads, almost all of us."
Mitchell said the shoes were a way to get UK thinking about the positive steps it has taken in the past 30 days, going from losing three straight and struggling, to knocking off one of the top teams in the nation at home and playing well in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
The turnaround in team energy and effort on the floor deserved a reward, Mitchell said as the Cats prepped for Friday's first-round game against Tennessee State.
"I'm proud of this team," he said. "We're a very flawed group of individuals — starting with me — that has found a way somehow, some way, to come together now, and I'm really proud of them," he said. "It's just this time of the year is starting the season over and starting a new season."
Mitchell wasn't necessarily expecting the shrieks of joy as the players removed their blindfolds and found the new sneakers.
"I don't get as excited over shoes as they do," he said. "It amazes me how much they enjoy it. ... They loved those. I told them they better play good in them or we have to go back to the old ones."
Epps wore her new kicks for the Cats' practice on Thursday.
"Everybody was really excited about it," she said.
Epps feeling better
A little bit of rest went a long way for Epps, who has been slowed in recent weeks by an Achilles' tendon strain and soreness in her foot.
The nearly two weeks between the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament have been therapeutic for the first-team All-SEC player, who has gone off for 42 and 31 points in games this season.
"She looked really explosive today, looked good," Mitchell said Monday after the selection show.
After playing three games in three days, Epps said she could feel a difference that having couple of days off made.
"Everything has been better," the point guard said. "The rest really helped me a lot. I haven't had any extreme pain, no pain here lately. A lot of it's been real solid. I've been going real strong. Coach said I was real explosive in practice. ... I'm feeling good right now."
Coming home again
When Larry Joe Inman retired from Eastern Kentucky University, he thought he was hanging up his whistle for good.
Turns out, the Tennessee State coach and longtime Colonels coach wasn't quite finished.
Coming out of retirement and taking over at Tennessee State, he now has led three different teams to the NCAA Tournament, and for the Tigers this is their first trip in 20 years. Inman also coached Middle Tennessee State and EKU to NCAA appearances.
To do it with this team and returning to Central Kentucky while doing it made it extra special for Inman.
"I spent 20-something years up here in this neck of the woods," he said. "It's always very special. ... It's always special to be here and to be playing. I said that if I was going to go anywhere, I was hoping here to be able to share this great memory with my family and friends. It's always special for anybody that goes back home in any situation."
Kentucky's Mitchell was happy to be facing off against a legend and friend.
"I have the utmost respect for him, and he's one of the great coaches in women's college basketball and one of the real legends of Ohio Valley basketball, and this is the third school he's done it at," he said of Inman. "Probably hasn't been anyone better."
Old home movies
Unlike the past few seasons when Kentucky has played a first-round opponent that the Cats had never seen play, Tennessee State is a team UK has faced this season.
In the first game back from the holiday break and a game before the start of Southeastern Conference play, UK dropped the Tigers 87-75 on Dec. 28. Tennessee State had an eight-point lead early in that contest, and it cut the Cats' lead to five midway through the second half, making it an interesting game.
The Cats, who were playing without senior leaders Jennifer O'Neill (knee injury) and Bria Goss (broken thumb), barely recognized themselves from that game when they watched the tape.
"We weren't the team we are now," Epps said. "It was good to look at the film last night, to see where we messed up against them, to see where we've improved."
UK's coach is hopeful the team he's been seeing lately with high energy and effort will be the team that shows up Friday.
"There were some pretty glaring deficiencies that night as far as our defense and hustle," he said from watching the tape of the Dec. 28 game. "I hope that's corrected. We need to outhustle Tennessee State tomorrow and give maximum effort."