LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky senior Josh Harrellson knew that coach John Calipari would eventually turn him into a better basketball player. But he never thought he and his teammates would become good boxers, too.
The Wildcats can now make that claim after lacing up the gloves earlier this week. Instead of shooting free throws and running plays, some of the team's practice time was spent throwing haymakers into punching bags that were stationed on the court.
"It was fun," Harrellson said. "It got us loose, and I think it got our mindset different."
That was certainly Calipari's goal.
Kentucky is one of the more talented teams in the country with future pros such as freshmen Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. More than once this season, though, Calipari has questioned his players' fire and toughness.
Calipari said it was one of the key issues in Saturday's overtime loss at Florida. Three days later – after only a few sessions with the boxing gloves – Calipari's squad played with a different mentality in Tuesday's 73-61 victory over Tennessee.
"You've got to be rough," Calipari said he told his team. "You've got to be willing to fight."
Calipari's ploy worked, as the undersized Wildcats outrebounded Tennessee 38-28 in a game it led by as many as 19 points.
"It made us tougher," guard DeAndre Liggins said of the boxing. "We're just going to try to continue to be tough and make plays down the stretch like we did [against Tennessee]. We need to do it on the road."
Indeed, even though the Wildcats (5-4) trail Florida (8-2) in the league standings, there is still plenty of time to go on a run and win the East division title. To do that, though, Kentucky will have to learn to win away from Rupp Arena. Calipari's squad is 1-4 in conference road games – and it's not like the schedule is going to get any easier. The Wildcats take on No. 23 Vanderbilt in Nashville on Saturday.
Hopefully Calipari will break out the boxing gloves a few more times between now and then. Hey, it worked before.
"I showed them how to box, how to jab," Calipari said. "I wrote on the board before the game, 'Refuse to Lose.' It's that time of the year. Refuse to lose. Figure out a way."
(Last week's rank in parenthesis.)
1. Florida (19-5, 8-2) – The Gators shot 55.4 percent against South Carolina on Wednesday, their best showing in 21 games. (1)
2. Kentucky (17-6, 5-4) – John Wall attended Tuesday's game against Tennessee. (2)
3. Vanderbilt (17-6, 5-4) – Some of the Commodores' losses are baffling. (4)
4. Alabama (15-8, 7-2) – Anthony Grant for SEC Coach of the Year? (5)
5. Tennessee (15-9, 5-4) – Scotty Hopson (ankle) returned to the court Tuesday following a two-game absence. (3)
6. Georgia (16-7, 5-4) – Trey Thompkins averages 16.6 points and 7.5 rebounds. (6)
7. Mississippi State (13-10, 5-4) – Ravern Johnson remains suspended. (7)
8. Ole Miss (16-8, 4-5) – Chris Warren has passed Elston Turner for fourth place on the Rebels' all-time scoring list. (8)
9. Arkansas (14-9, 4-6) – The Razorbacks were a combined 3-13 in the second halves of the previous two SEC seasons. (9)
10. South Carolina (13-9, 4-5) – Are some of the Gamecocks' top players hitting the freshman wall? (10)
11. LSU (10-14, 2-7) – The Tigers' last win was on Jan. 12. (11)
12. Auburn (8-15, 1-8) – Four of the Tigers' last five losses were by 10 points or less. (12)
Billy Donovan – Wednesday's victory at South Carolina marked the 350th win for Donovan during his time at Florida. Donovan averaged 23.6 victories during his first 14 seasons in Gainesville, a number that should slightly rise if the Gators (19-5) continue to post wins in his 15th year. Donovan led Florida to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007.
Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State – The Bulldogs' much-maligned big man continues to improve. Sidney had 16 points and 11 boards in a victory over LSU on Saturday before grabbing 10 boards and scoring 12 points in Wednesday's win over Arkansas. Sidney averaged 28.5 minutes in those two games, a clear sign that his conditioning has improved.
Ole Miss – After opening SEC play with four straight losses, the Rebels are now one of the league's hottest teams. Andy Kennedy's squad has won four of its last five games, including a victory over then-No. 10 Kentucky on Feb. 1. Chris Warren averages 18.6 points for a squad that plays three of its next four games on the road.
Mississippi State on the road – Like so many teams, the Bulldogs take on a completely different look when they're away from their home arena. Rick Stansbury's squad owns a win over SEC East leader Florida at home but was absolutely thrashed by Alabama and Georgia on the road.
John Pelphrey – The Arkansas coach can't seem to establish any sort of consistency in Fayetteville. One week the Razorbacks are beating Vanderbilt or Alabama. The next they’re losing to LSU, South Carolina or Ole Miss. Pelphrey's job security is enhanced by the fact that he's got a great recruiting class coming in next season.
Georgia – Even at 16-7, the Bulldogs haven't been nearly as impressive as some folks thought they would be entering the season. Mark Fox's squad needed overtime to defeat SEC doormat Auburn at home on Saturday. Three days later, Georgia lost to a non-Big Six team (Xavier) by eight points in its own gym. Things are only going to get tougher with upcoming road games against Tennessee, Florida and Alabama.
THREE TO WATCH
Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday – Will the Wildcats finally beat a good team on the road?
Tennessee at Florida, Saturday – Welcome back, Coach Pearl. Now go play Kentucky and Florida on the road.
Mississippi State at Kentucky, Tuesday – Renardo Sidney could cause matchup problems for the Wildcats, but Mississippi State will have no chance unless Ravern Johnson is reinstated.