Ka'ai Tom had a three hits, a homerun and three RBI as UK completed a sweep of Tennessee on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ka'ai Tom knew he would have to deliver for the Wildcats to have the kind of season they wanted to have.
He did on Saturday.
"Obviously he was impactful today," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Clearly."
With Tom anchoring the lineup in the No. 3 spot, Kentucky baseball completed a sweep of rival Tennessee for the first time in Cliff Hagan Stadium history. The Cats won 5-3, due in large part to Tom's big afternoon. The junior right fielder had three hits in four at-bats, driving in three runs.
"It does help us get back on track in the conference," Tom said. "We lost a lot of close games and it's good to finally pull one off."
Tom got the scoring started for UK (22-16, 8-9 Southeastern Conference) in the bottom of the first inning. With one out, he followed up an Evan White double with one of his own to stake the Cats to a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Tom was in the middle of a rally to retake the lead in the third inning, but he would save his biggest blow for later.
The game seemed destined for a tight finish before Tom stepped to the plate in the fifth inning with Kyle Barrett standing on third base. Needing a fly ball to send Barrett home with one out, Tom came up with just that. His fly ball, however, landed well into the parking lot past the right-field fence for his third homerun of the season.
"That was probably most clean I've ever caught the ball," Tom said.
For the season, Tom is batting a team-best .377 with 42 runs batted in, though he fell short of his second cycle of the season when he flew out to center in the seventh inning. The Kaneohe, Hawaii, native has had an uneven run through conference play, hitting just .257 entering Saturday's season finale against the Volunteers. That makes his performance all the more encouraging as UK enters the final month of the regular season.
"He's a real presence in the box," Henderson said. "He's a threat. He's an all-league kid and everybody's aware that he's a really accomplished hitter. He's a guy that if he doesn't do well his first at-bat you can count on him to give you a solid at-bat in the box, a solid approach throughout the game."
JaVon Shelby would follow Tom's two-run shot with another long ball for UK's first back-to-back homers since 2012 and the Cats wouldn't look back. Wildcat pitchers turned in another solid outing, with Andrew Nelson, Zach Logue, Zach Strecker, Logan Salow and Spencer Jack combining to allow just three runs on nine hits.
The Vols' biggest threats came in the final two innings. Tennessee loaded the bases with one out against Logue and Strecker in the eighth, but Salow entered and retired Chris Hall and Christin Stewart in order to preserve the final margin. In the ninth, Salow allowed runners to reach second and third. Jack entered and allowed both Vols to score, but got the save nonetheless.
Over the course of the three-game sweep, UK yielded just four runs.
"I think we're way advanced in terms of clarity and plan from where we were six, seven weeks ago," Henderson said. "Much more confident. Obviously the body language was pretty good all weekend on the mound. Our presence was good. We did a nice job pounding the zone early in the count."
Thanks to the stellar pitching and Tom's big Saturday, the Cats climbed to within a game of .500 in SEC play. The season they were all hoping for is still within reach, especially since UK faces the three teams it trails in SEC East standings over the next four weeks.
"We're fortunate in who we've got left because we've got the people in front of us," Henderson said. "So you get those people and then you can make up some room. It won't be easy. I'm not pretending like it's easy. But we're pretty fortunate with who we've got in front of us and if we continue to get that type of starting pitching we'll be in the ballgames."
Even more importantly than that, the Cats are trending the right way in the way they are playing the game.
"We're really taking some really positive steps forward where we have some real presence and some real body language that we didn't have six, eight weeks ago," Henderson said. "... I think it's been really, really a positive thing."
After shutting out the Tennessee Volunteers 5-0 in the first of a three-game series Thursday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the Kentucky Wildcats hoped to lean once again on a dominant defensive performance when the two teams squared off on Friday.
Anchored by junior right-handed pitcher Dustin Beggs, UK did just that.
"(Beggs) is awesome to play behind, and throws a lot of strikes," freshman first baseman Evan White said. "He gets a lot of ground balls. He's definitely fun because he works fast."
In throwing 109 pitches through eight innings, Beggs struck out eight UT batters and walked only two. The Roswell, Ga., native allowed just five hits, and Kentucky won the game 3-1.
"I was able to get it over (the plate) for strikes, which is helpful," said Beggs. "(Junior catcher Zach Arnold) did a good job back there catching it, framing it, and putting it in a good spot."
Kentucky held Tennessee scoreless for most of the contest, but gave up a lone run in the game's final inning. Freshman lefty Zach Logue relieved Beggs in the ninth, and went on to retire the final two Volunteer batters.
"I was a little disappointed at the end," Beggs (5-2) said. "I wanted to get it done and finish the game. I haven't had a complete game since I've been here. But, I'm glad Logue got to come in. He did a really great job shutting the door on them."
However, head coach Gary Henderson was anything but dissatisfied with Beggs' performance.
"Dustin Beggs keeps getting better and better," said Henderson. "We're really pleased about that."
Henderson went on to praise his pitcher for practicing a sentiment the head coach continuously preaches.
"We talk about (first-pitch strikes) pretty frequently here," Henderson said. "Dustin did a really good job of that tonight. If you can do that, it doesn't guarantee an in or an out, but it certainly puts you in a little bit better position."
Beggs echoed his team's emphasis on first-pitch strikes, and revealed just how much his coach's message resonates with him when he's on the mound.
"First-pitch strikes are a huge thing (Coach Henderson) preaches to all of our guys," said Beggs. "Just make sure you get ahead in the count ... So, I was really trying to get ahead."
Kentucky (21-16, 7-9 SEC) will look to complete the series sweep of rival Tennessee (15-19, 5-12 SEC) Saturday at noon on SEC Network. Senior right-handed pitcher Andrew Nelson will make his second start for the Wildcats this season.
The Kentucky football team closed out the spring with another solid practice, ending a stretch that Stoops called the "most consistent" of any time during his two-plus seasons in Lexington.
"We weren't perfect for all 15 (practices), but the guys were really out there trying to make a conscious effort to improve on the things we point out in the meetings," Stoops said. "We had great energy. Guys were really flying around this morning, having fun, competing, getting better the whole way through. Really pleased with the progress we've made."
Stoops is high on the improving depth of his roster, as well as the young talent he and his staff have brought in. That depth and talent has led Stoops to feel much different about his program than this time two years ago wrapping up spring practice, but there's another important factor in his optimism.
"I think it's hard to put into words exactly," Stoops said. "I just think it starts mentally. They understand what we want from them. They enjoy practice all the way through. Like I said, the 15th day -- all the way through they were enjoying themselves, concentrating on getting better. I think mentally we're much stronger. Definitely feel like we're developing them to be a winning football team."
A winning football team, of course, will reflect the culture Stoops has sought to build since he arrived on campus. That's a work in progress, but Stoops once again likes the Wildcats' direction.
"I feel very good about this team," Stoops said. "Again, we know where we're deficient and where we need to improve, but I like the attitude and I feel like we have good young talent that's still developing that's going to get better with every opportunity."
Stoops mentioned quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker as two of the players who have improved the most over the spring, with wide receivers Garrett Johnson and Blake Bone joining them on the offensive side. On defense, linebackers Josh Forrest and Ryan Flannigan have made strides, as has defensive tackle Melvin Lewis.
"He is a good nose guard," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He's a guy that I am very proud of and feel very confident about at his position, and he's completely earned that. Nothing was given to him, and he didn't walk in here a good player. He's a guy that, like I said, he may be the most improved player on our team from when he came in to where he's at now."
With the growth of players like Forrest, Flannigan and Lewis, Stoops and Eliot are feeling good about UK's defense up the middle. A key to building on UK's three-win improvement from 2013 to 2014 will be development at the cornerback spot.
"For that position, you have to be extremely skilled, but you have to be confident, too, because you're gonna get beat because it's so hard to play that position," Eliot said. "It's so hard to play that position. And you have to have the confidence to come back and be aggressive and execute your techniques the next play. I think that that's something that we've got to continue to build on are those things at corner."
That's one of many things Kentucky will need to do moving into the summer and eventually fall camp. This spring positions the Cats well.
"We need to keep that momentum, keep that consistency going here with the last two-and-a-half, three weeks of school and have a great summer -- physically and mentally getting tougher, getting stronger, getting bigger," Stoops said. "And if we do that, then we'll be excited heading into fall."
As the 2014-15 NBA regular season comes to a close, the yearlong journeys of Kentucky's 18 former players are concluding in various fashions.
Some former Cats, like John Wall and Rajon Rondo, are using the season's final week to prepare for the NBA Playoffs, which start April 18. Some, like DeMarcus Cousins and Brandon Knight, have already hung up their sneakers and join injured rookie Julius Randle in looking ahead to 2015-16.
Others, such as Anthony Davis and Enes Kanter, are fighting for their postseason lives and must play each remaining game like it's their last. Davis' New Orleans Pelicans and Kanter's Oklahoma City Thunder head into the week tied for eighth place and the final playoff spot in the NBA's Western Conference.
Performance of the Week Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 103, Golden State Warriors: 100 | April 7, 2015 In a contest that came down to the closing seconds, Davis propelled the Pelicans to a three-point victory over the owners of the NBA's best record. "The Brow" recorded a game-high 29 points, 10 rebounds, four blocks, two steals, and two assists in 40 minutes of play last Tuesday. If the Pelicans--who own a tiebreaker over the Thunder--secure the West's final playoff spot, they will face the top-seeded Warriors in the first round.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (39-41) Bledsoe averaged 14.0 points and 5.0 assists over three Suns games. Phoenix fell to the playoff-bound Atlanta Hawks on April 7 and Dallas Mavericks on April 8, and finished the week with a 90-75 loss to Davis' Pelicans on April 10.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (43-36) Davis followed up Tuesday's monster performance with 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks over his next two games. The Pelicans lost on the road to the Memphis Grizzlies by a score of 110-74 on April 8, but bounced back with Friday's blowout of the Suns in front of the home crowd at Smoothie King Center in Louisiana.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (43-36) As OKC competes with NOLA for a shot at the postseason, Kanter continues to be the anchor down low that the Thunder were missing to start the season. The Turkey native averaged 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds over three games last week. On Friday, the Thunder ended a four-game losing streak with a 116-103 victory over the Sacramento Kings, thanks in part to 25 points and six rebounds from Kanter.
With Kentucky entering the home stretch of spring practice, Mark Stoops challenged his team.
The Wildcats would have four practices and Stoops knew they would need to have a good week to carry momentum into the summer.
"I felt like it was the most consistent week we've had in a while with all the things we're doing," Stoops said. "The practices, what we're doing off the field, just with the accountability and dependability of our guys, whether it be academically and taking care of their business. I felt like we had a good week."
The good week culminated with a scrimmage on Saturday open to the public. In front of a big crowd at the Tim Couch Practice Fields and with perfect weather, UK had a competitive session of a little more than 90 minutes.
"The scrimmage today, overall was pleased," Stoops said. "Obviously it's not always pretty. We're a little watered down. I wish we could get it more at full strength at certain positions, but you still see the progress. I thought offensively they moved the ball some, and defensively came up with some stops and big plays at times."
The big plays weren't limited to the defensive side of the ball.
Whether Patrick Towles or Drew Barker was leading the offense, it was clear the vertical passing game is a priority under new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. Towles hit a pair of deep balls, one to Blake Bone for 47 yards another to Thaddeus Snodgrass for 50 yards.
"You gotta be able to throw the ball vertical," Towles said. "You gotta be able to stretch them when they're stacking the box in this league and there was times last year we just couldn't do that. We either didn't have the personnel or didn't make a good throw, but that's definitely an emphasis of Coach Dawson's offense."
Towles added a pair of touchdown passes -- a 23-yarder to Cameron Fogle and a 15-yard strike to Rashad Cunningham -- in demonstrating the kind of improvement Stoops is looking for out of his 2014 starter.
"It's confidence-building for me to go out there and play like I did today," Towles said. "I gotta be consistent with that."
Barker, Towles' competition for the starting job, is going through a similar process. The redshirt freshman made plenty of big plays of his own, most notably a 42-yard touchdown to Thaddeus Snodgrass on a play-action pass and a perfect throw over the middle to C.J. Conrad that Towles called the best of the day for either quarterback.
"One of us is going to go out there and play and other one's going to root for that one," Towles said. "So if it's Drew, then I'm going to be his number one fan. If it's me, I'm sure Drew would say the same thing. I love seeing him succeed and I love seeing him play well. It motivates me and increases my confidence."
Conrad's presence is helping the confidence of both quarterbacks. The tight end, who graduated high school early and enrolled in January, is adding a new dimension to the UK attack.
"You guys saw it today, have heard people talk about it this spring that he's a guy that the sky's the limit for him," Stoops said. "He's a great kid; he works extremely hard. He does everything right on the field, off the field and he's a great student. He made some big plays today and he's going to be a guy who plays an awful lot of snaps for us."
UK was without a few more passing-game threats who figure to play plenty of snaps themselves. Wide receivers Ryan Timmons, Dorian Baker and Alex Montgomery sat out due to injury, but the offense continued to function.
"The guys that are in there are making a lot of plays and I'm fully confident with the guys we got that are playing right now," Towles said. "It's going to help them add some depth when those guys are coming."
Along the offensive line, UK is at full strength. The group protected well and paved the way for dynamic running back Stanley "Boom" Williams, who got plenty of work with Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton sidelined due to illness and an ankle sprain, respectively.
"They're more confident up there," Towles said. "I'm more confident in them. (Center) Jon (Toth) is doing a phenomenal job of getting everything blocked up. Usually if there's a sack out there it's on us because we're not getting rid of the ball or doing something. So they're playing phenomenal. I cannot ask for anything from those guys and I look forward to them to continue to improve."
UK's defense had its moments as well, including a pair of interceptions by Josh Forrest. The athletic linebacker continues to excel in pass coverage, but Stoops is asking for him to develop against the run.
"We're still not quite as deep as we need to be where you could go scrimmage so many times, but you do see some bad plays stick out in the run game when we go live," Stoops said. "He had a few missed tackles in there. So that's where he knows he needs to improve, but he has great range and he's very good in space and can make some big plays in the pass game. We've just got to be more consistent. That's a lot of guys."
Consistency continues to be a buzzword with Stoops, but it doesn't cloud the fact that he has an improving team in his third season in Lexington.
"I still like the direction where we're headed," Stoops said. "I like the balance of our offense. I felt like we're getting better at throwing the ball down the field. We need to continue to get back at full strength at the receiver position. When that happens I think you'll see us take another big step forward with what we're doing.
"Again, just pleased. We have a long way to go, we have a lot of work to do, but this team is starting to grow a little bit." Stoops' post-scrimmage interview
Willie Cauley-Stein has always been the one with experience.
He knows what it's like to go through a freshman season under John Calipari. He's seen the difference between an NIT season and advancing to the Final Four. He understands the ins and outs of college life.
When his younger teammates have needed perspective, he's been there.
On Thursday, Cauley-Stein and six fellow Wildcats declared for the NBA Draft. UK's elder statesman is officially out of sage advice.
"I'm in the same boat as them," Cauley-Stein said. "I don't really have any. Just, I'm excited. This is a chance to start your life."
Cauley-Stein might be 21 years old, but saying moving on to the professional ranks is the start of his life is no accident. His three years in Lexington have been memorable - particularly thanks to fans and teammates - but Cauley-Stein now has his fate completely in his own hands.
"I'm saying life because that's you," Cauley-Stein said. "You can control everything. When you're in school, you control your schoolwork. That's what you have control over. Basketball-wise, you're told where to go, you're told when to be there, you're told everything."
For Cauley-Stein - projected as a top-10 pick - it's sink-or-swim time.
"When you take that next step, it's on you," Cauley-Stein said. "So if you don't go to that place--we're going to tell you to go here, but if you don't go we're going to find you or we're cutting you because you don't know how to be on time for your job. Here, it's like, OK, we're going to run you. OK. You're a kid. Now you're a grown man."
Cauley-Stein twice passed up opportunities to enter the NBA Draft, returning for both his sophomore or junior seasons when others might not have. A year ago, Cauley-Stein likely would have gone had he not gotten hurt during UK's magical tournament run.
Instead, he came back to take a shot at playing on college basketball's biggest stage. Though Cauley-Stein didn't get the two wins there he wanted, he now feels comfortable taking that next step.
"I was going to leave last year, broke my ankle, didn't get a chance to play in the Final Four," Cauley-Stein said. "That was my whole motive coming back. I got a chance to play in it, I'm healthy."
And in hindsight, the injury was a blessing for Cauley-Stein, who developed into a consensus first-team All-American in 2014-15. It gave him one more season to mature and play under John Calipari, the coach he says prepares his players for the next level better than any in America.
"It would chew anybody up and spit them out," Cauley-Stein said. "Being young like that and going, you gotta be here. Like, this place prepares you for that. The young guys that thrive in the NBA, there's a reason why. There's a method. There's a remedy that Cal does that that's why they're ready to go when they get there. Because they're mentally--the way everything is ran here is exactly how a pro team is set. That's why it's so successful here."
Cauley-Stein now looks to be the latest in a long line of Calipari pupils to excel in the NBA. Even though he played every sport under the sun growing up, Cauley-Stein has always worked toward this exact moment.
"I get a chance to take a step forward and have a chance to do something that I've been dreaming about since I was 7 years old playing against Tim Duncan and I'm Tim Duncan," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm playing by myself but I'm pretending that Tim Duncan's guarding me or something . I remember a day that I was in my driveway playing that to a 50 Cent song. You grow up dreaming that and you get a chance to do it, it's a wonderful feeling."
Cauley-Stein's road to realizing that dream has been a winding one. He wouldn't trade it for anything.
"It's like a weight off your shoulders just because, dang, I worked so hard to get to this point and I never thought it would actually come true the way it did," Cauley-Stein said. "But I couldn't ask for any better start to a story than what I have gone through."
For the last few days, I've spent a lot of time reflecting on the men's basketball season that was. As I know it is for all of you, shaking the disappointment of the season ending two wins shy of where we all wanted it to end hasn't been easy. But as the days have passed, it's become easier to remember exactly how special this journey has been.
As I wrote before the Final Four, it was an incredible group of young men that took us on this journey. When they came together before the Big Blue Bahamas tour, we all knew the talent and depth they possessed. Very quickly, it became clear they were intent on fully realizing their potential and that John Calipari was the coach to get them there.
Early in the season, they performed on the biggest of stages. They were dominant against Kansas and UCLA, showing the power of inexhaustible energy when it's mixed with the pure joy this team constantly showed in playing together. They handled opponents bringing every conceivable game plan to beat them, demonstrating intelligence and awareness in adjusting to various styles of play.
Seemingly every game, different players stepped up and took the reins. One game Andrew Harrison would stand out, the next Tyler Ulis. Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns didn't care whether they had two points or 21 even though they were both possible lottery picks, so long as the team was succeeding. Eight players led us in scoring in our first seven games, and it never seemed to matter to any of them, signaling the kind of selflessness and caring for one another that would last the season.
That caring, unfortunately, underwent its toughest test of the season when Alex Poythress went down with a season-ending knee injury. The compassion they showed for Alex immediately afterward, at the North Carolina game later that week and throughout the season, was a powerful example of what it means to be a teammate and truly a pleasure to witness.
In spite of losing Alex - a steadying veteran presence off the floor and game-changing player on it - they marched on. They kept their composure in some of the most hostile road environments I have ever seen firsthand, surviving tough tests at Louisville and throughout Southeastern Conference play. All the while, the pressure intensified as the calendar reached January, February and March and their record remained unblemished.
Unquestionably, Kentucky was the biggest story in college basketball this season. The spotlight is always bright here, but I have never seen anything quite like what this team faced. They were dissected and analyzed from every possible angle, with experts breaking down how they could be beaten and wondering whether they would be able to stay together. They fielded question after question in facing an unprecedented media blitz, never saying a word to start even the smallest controversy.
The clutter, as Coach Cal predicted it would be, was everywhere, but they tuned it out under his leadership. In doing so, they gave us some unforgettable moments. They played overtime games and rallied from late deficits, always finding ways to win with clutch plays on offense and some of the best defense I've ever seen. They won in dominant fashion too, creating some of my favorite moments when they cheered as the third platoon closed out the final moments of big wins.
All the while, they represented our athletics department, school and state in a way that made us all proud. With incredible demands placed on their time, they remained dedicated students and combined for a grade-point average of 3.129 in the fall. Just as impressively, these young men recognized the impact their high profile allowed them to make on the lives of others and embraced it. For every story like Marcus Lee visiting a sick child in the hospital that comes out publicly, there are a dozen more that happen without anyone ever knowing.
As the regular season closed and they remained unbeaten, we celebrated an SEC championship. As they won the SEC Tournament with Nashville overtaken by the Big Blue Nation, we did the same. All the while, they kept their ultimate goal of a national championship at the front of their minds. In the NCAA Tournament, they were able to shift their attention fully to their pursuit of that goal.
In front of huge UK crowds in Louisville, they advanced past Hampton and won a physical battle against Cincinnati. Moving to Cleveland, they overwhelmed West Virginia and once again showed their will to win against an excellent Notre Dame team. In winning the Midwest Region, they gave Coach Cal his fourth Final Four trip in five seasons and made him one of three coaches in NCAA history to earn that distinction. Truly, he has been responsible for one of the greatest runs in our program's illustrious history and I can't say often enough how happy I am that John is our coach.
Against Wisconsin, the latest Final Four trip and the undefeated season ended. I won't go into detail about the game itself because it still hurts, but I do want to talk about what happened afterward.
Speaking from my perspective, the end came before I could even process it. One moment we were up four, the next Wisconsin was celebrating. Everything our players had worked for all season was over in a blink. The emotions were overwhelming for me, and I wasn't even between the lines. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for the players who had shouldered a heavy burden all season long. Doing so at age 18-22 is even more difficult to fathom.
The actions of some of our players in the aftermath of the game were not acceptable and have been addressed internally. As a family, we keep matters like this in house and I am proud of the way John runs our program. These things remain inexcusable, but they came in the heat of the moment and do not reflect the true character of our players.
But just as we learned valuable lessons in unselfishness from the successes of this team, we learn lessons in forgiveness and how to respond to adversity from the way the season ended. These lessons apply whether you are a fan supporting this university, a player returning for next season or going on to the NBA, or me as an athletics director.
Standing on the pedestal afforded by being at Kentucky comes with privileges, there's no doubt. We enjoy the best fan support in the country and great facilities and resources that give us the opportunity to compete for championships annually. Scrutiny, however, accompanies all this. Even after doing the right thing for six months, a faction will quickly pounce on a split-second mistake. For this reason, we must be constantly vigilant. Missteps, however, are inevitable. We must be aware of that fact, able to respond in a positive way and able to forgive those missteps when others make them. As Coach Cal says, we are not machines.
In closing, I refuse to let a single bad night take away from everything this team accomplished both on and off the floor this season. These players have given a great deal not only to the fans that followed them, but to the game of basketball. I believe history will reflect that.
With Coach Cal leading us, our program has a bright future. Before we move into it, let's take one more moment to celebrate the season we all just had the honor of being a part of and thank the players and coaches who made it possible.