The hallways of the Joe Craft Center during the holiday break are busy intersections of basketball players heading to the weight room, the training room or the practice floor.
The coach of the team that started 38-0 last season couldn’t help but notice there was another unbeaten across the hall this January.
“Coach Cal saw us the other day and was like, ‘Great start, ladies,’” junior Makayla Epps said of their encounter with men’s coach John Calipari. “We feel pretty good about it.”
That “it” is the 11-0 record the seventh-ranked Cats take into Southeastern Conference play starting Sunday at Auburn.
If the Cats can manage to leave Auburn Arena a winner, they will be 12-0 for the first time in school history.
But it’s not a regular discussion in the locker room.
“In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter,” Epps said. “We’re focused on getting to the Elite Eight, the Final Four, winning an SEC title.”
Coach Matthew Mitchell will be more concerned about starting league play 1-0 than the overall 12-0 mark.
“We really, really obviously want to win next Sunday because we want to get conference play off to a great start and Auburn is a real tough team,” he said of the Tigers, who have lost seven straight times to Kentucky. “Last time we were down there it was an absolute knockdown, drag-out.”
Getting a victory to open conference play was on the players minds as well on Friday. And while being unbeaten is fun, there is a lot of season ahead.
“It’s another opportunity to show everybody in the country that we’re serious about our business and we want to make statements every night,” Epps continued. “I feel like when we go to Auburn on Sunday, that will be our first statement game in the SEC. I feel like we’re going to try to make a huge statement, give it everything we’ve got.”
When the season is over, a record-setting start would be something to reflect on, but not now, coach and players said.
“If we get 12-0 that will be great,” Epps said. “It’s something we’ll celebrate, but it’s not something we’ll worry about.”
Kentucky’s jarring offensive numbers, which might have seemed like a fluke in the first few games, seem here to stay.
The Cats are in the top 25 in several statistical categories, including No. 10 in field-goal percentage at 48.9 percent, nearly 10 percent higher than last season when they ranked 168th out of 343 teams.
At 42.6 percent, Kentucky is third nationally in three-point shooting after finishing 265th last season (28.6 percent).
UK has the nation’s No. 15 scoring offense (81.4 points a game) and is 14th in assists per game (18.3).
“They haven’t just made a small jump, they’ve made tremendous leaps and they’re very visible,” Epps said of the numbers.
The team has been working on shooting and footwork and getting thousands of repetitions offensively since June and it’s starting to show, Mitchell said.
Players have confidence in their shots and don’t hit the panic button when opponents pack it in with a zone defense. Previous foes hoped UK would hoist (and miss) a bunch of three-pointers.
“That would be their formula for beating us and we’re just really trying not to be that kind of a team,” Mitchell said. “We’re really trying to be a team that can be patient and take good shots and make enough to win games.”
Steals and assists
There will be an interesting battle within the battle on Sunday at Auburn, which has the SEC’s steals leaders in Katie Frerking (2.8 a game) and Brandy Montgomery (2.7).
They will be up against the league’s assists leaders in Epps and Janee Thompson at 6.3 a game and 6.2 a game, respectively. Epps is No. 3 in the league and 13th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3-to-1, and Thompson is in the top 25 at 2-to-1.
Kentucky will have to take care of the ball against that aggressiveness, said Mitchell, whose goal is 12 miscues or fewer a game. Right now the Cats average 15.9 turnovers.
“Dribbling the ball against them is problematic because they are so great at digging out the dribble,” he said of Auburn. “Preparation is the main key, making sure our good ball handlers and our good point guards know how to attack it because it is something we will need to be prepared for.”
‘Smart and efficient with our work’
While “Camp Cal” and its two-a-days are going on across the hall, a more measured approach is being taken on the women’s side of the practice facility.
Down to nine available players, the UK women want to keep improving without getting worn down. So Mitchell has moved to split sessions with shooting and individual skill work in the mornings where players are paired up and instructed to make 500 shots between them and then return for a more vigorous practice in the afternoon.
“We’ve got to be smart and efficient with our work,” he said, noting that the NCAA-permitted volunteer male practice players can’t return until Jan. 14. “So we’ve got to be really smart and use our time wisely. We can’t waste our time out on the court.”