Before Kentucky had played its first game of the season or won its first 11 games or earned a No. 7 ranking, Matthew Mitchell was confident about one aspect of his team: It took well to coaching.
“It’s about embracing everything that’s going on here, and sometimes you get teams or players on teams that like some of the benefits of being here in this environment but don’t particularly like everything about it,” he said.
The UK coach described how some teams have “cafeteria Wildcats” who want to pick and choose one part of the message and ignore other parts.
“I don’t quite like to eat my spinach, so I’m just gonna load up on mac and cheese,” he offered as an example.
After suffering the team’s first loss of the season in stunning fashion, coughing up a 17-point first-half lead at Auburn on Sunday, Mitchell is about to find out just how coachable his team is.
As UK prepares for its Southeastern Conference home opener against Alabama on Thursday, he’s feeling pretty good.
It started Tuesday morning with what players described as a “brutally honest” and “tough” film session.
“They played so much harder than we played,” Mitchell said of Aubrn. “You can talk about what you could’ve done or what you should’ve done, but what happened was that Auburn just outplayed us. Credit to them and a great lesson for us.”
Junior guard Makayla Epps didn’t believe it until she saw it.
“You don’t think that you look as bad as you do until you put the film in, you’re like, ‘Wow. I was just standing around or moping around,’” she said. “You think you’re playing hard, you think you’re giving your all at the moment, and then the film shows you that you weren’t.”
The good news, Epps and senior Janee Thompson said, was each player left the film session and immediately went to work.
There was no pouting.
“We went immediately after the film and took a look in the mirror of what we were doing in that game,” Thompson said. “Pretty much in the second half and we went out and tried to correct it in practice, which was good. Everybody had a ton of energy, had a good attitude.”
There has been a renewed sense of motivation, and a recommitment to playing hard and with enthusiasm in practices since the loss, Mitchell said.
“They responded well yesterday afternoon, and it was a very tough practice, not to punish them, but because the things that we are going to have to do to be successful in the league are built around toughness,” he said.
Those things start Thursday against Alabama, which has won 12 of its first 14 games and three in a row, including its SEC opener over Louisiana State.
The players and coach seemed pretty sure that the aggressive Crimson Tide would find plenty to salivate over when they popped in UK’s Auburn film, too.
The Tigers’ trapping press forced Kentucky into a season-high 26 turnovers. It held the Cats to their second-fewest points of the season. More than anything, it made the players doubt themselves.
“Very disappointed in myself for that,” said Epps, who had an uncharacteristic five turnovers. “I let Auburn dictate (things) for me a lot.
“It’s a growing experience for me. I need to be more aggressive against the press because we’re going to see Auburn again here in a couple weeks, and I’m sure a lot of teams around the country are going to be pressing us now, too.”
It’s a growing experience for all involved, Mitchell said.
But the good news is this version of Kentucky (11-1, 0-1 SEC) seems happy to grow.
“Their response yesterday (at practice) signaled that they’re coachable,” Mitchell said. “Now I don’t know that that’s going to mean we’re going to win every single game. Maybe it will. … We’re just trying to win tomorrow night, but I think it’s a coachable group, and they’ve shown that so far.”
Alabama at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
TV: Part of SEC Network whip-around coverage
Live video broadcast: SEC Network Plus (online only)
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Records: Alabama 12-2 (1-0 SEC), Kentucky 11-1 (0-1)
Series: Kentucky leads 25-17
Last meeting: Kentucky won 78-66 on Jan. 2, 2015, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Reserves: 2-Trista Magee, G, 6-0, Fr.; 3-Khadijah Carter, G, 6-1, Sr.; 5-Breanna Hayden, G, 5-8, Sr.; 12-C’Coriea Foy, G, 5-11, Fr.; 21-Taylor Berry, G, 5-9, Fr.; 23-Shaquera Wade, G, 6-0, Fr.; 35-Diamante Martinez, F, 6-3, So.
Reserves: 1-Batouly Camara, F, 6-2, Fr.; 2-Ivana Jakubcova, C, 6-6, Sr.; 24-Taylor Murray, G, 5-6, Fr.; 45-Alyssa Rice, C, 6-3, So.