As demanding as Matthew Mitchell is, he has to admit his three young post players are playing as hard as they ever have.
Alexis Jennings, Alyssa Rice and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers have all developed in their first college season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The intensity of their play, game by game, is picking up.
"But it's just not quite hard enough for what's coming and what looms in the conference," Mitchell said.
Kentucky's non-league schedule is over and the Wildcats sit at 11-2 and No. 11 in both polls. Those young post players have had a lot to do with UK's strong start, too.
Jennings has come on strong of late, scoring in double figures in four straight games, including a 27-point explosion in a win over Tennessee State on Sunday. Goodin-Rogers, meanwhile, is averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in starting all 13 games, while Rice has contributed regularly as well.
But since last weekend's nonconference finale, the Cats have gone to work on taking the next step.
"It's some good, some bad and what we're really trying to do is even that out," Mitchell said. "And it's difficult because we're so young there and I just don't think--well, I think we're having a hard time understanding how hard we have to play."
Alabama, UK's first Southeastern Conference opponent, is likely to make the Cats pay if they aren't clear about that.
The Crimson Tide sit at 11-4 as it prepares to host UK at 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Sophomore forward Ashley Williams, averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, leads the way.
"It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama," Mitchell said. "They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you."
To cope with that challenge, Mitchell knows it's going to take a level of focus his young post players are still developing.
"You just can't do one thing and then rest," Mitchell said. "You have to keep playing throughout the possession. So I think that's our biggest challenge right now, is just defensively for our post players to understand how consistent the effort has to be. But before we're consistent we just have to learn how tenacious and how hard we have to play."
Jennings is at the top of the list when it comes to developing consistency, and she'll surely be motivated to do so in returning to play in her home state. The Madison, Ala., native might inspire some frustration on the part of her coach as she learns to play with the kind of defensive effort that's being asked of her, but she's more than capable of contributing meaningfully in the meantime.
"I feel good about how she is progressing," Mitchell said. "One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense."
Long term, that's not what Mitchell has in mind. He expects Jennings to become a two-way player.
"When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her," Mitchell said.
O'Neill 'progressing well' with knee injury
Senior guard Jennifer O'Neill sat out Sunday's win over Tennessee State with a strained patellar tendon. Days after she was labeled as day to day, O'Neill was back on the court going through a shooting workout. There's no official word on her status for the Alabama game, but there is reason for optimism.
"She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were
game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning," Mitchell said. "So I
think--it looks to me like she's progressing well. We are feeling good
about her progress right now."
As the 2014 calendar year comes to a close, the 2014 NFL regular season ended on a high note for former Kentucky football players now making a living at the professional level. Several NFL Cats concluded Week 17 with outstanding personal performances, while others prepare for their teams' postseason runs on the road to Super Bowl XLIX.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4) After being shut out of the end zone since Week 11, Cobb exploded for two touchdowns in Green Bay's division-clinching 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions. Cobb caught four passes for 80 yards, and rushed for six more on the ground.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14) With four tackles (two solo, two assisted) on the day, Williamson broke former Titan Alterraun Verner's four-year record for most tackles by a rookie in franchise history. Williamson recorded 105 tackles on the season, but the Titans dropped their 10th straight with a 27-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14) In Woodyard's final game of his seventh NFL season, the former Walter Payton Man of the Year recorded four solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' loss to Indy.
Cats in the Playoffs
(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Carolina Panthers -- Saturday, 4:35 p.m. Though the Panthers finished the regular season with a losing record, 7-8-1 was good enough to clinch the NFC South and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Former Wildcat Garry Williams is still part of the Panthers' roster, though the offensive tackle has seen only limited playing time thanks to serious injury.
(6) Detroit Lions at (3) Dallas Cowboys -- Sunday, 4:40 p.m. After recovering from a left knee injury that caused him to sit out from football for the first time in his playing career, Lions right guard Larry Warford was carted off the field with a right knee injury in Detroit's Week 17 loss to the Packers. Warford is listed as day-to-day and hopes to contribute at some point to the Lions' postseason run.
(1) Seattle Seahawks -- January 10, 8:15 p.m. The defending Super Bowl champions will face the remaining team with the lowest seed after receiving a bye in the first round. Former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews was signed from the Seahawks practice squad earlier this month, but has not seen the field with Seattle since. (2) Green Bay Packers -- January 11, 1:05 p.m. Like Seattle, Green Bay received a bye in the playoffs' opening round. The Packers, however, feature two former UK standouts as prominent members of the NFC North champions. Punter Tim Masthay and Cobb--who does a little bit of everything for head coach Mike McCarthy--look to be major factors in the Packers' sixth straight postseason appearance. Green Bay will face the highest seeded NFC team (save for the Seahawks) on January 11.
AFC (2) Denver Broncos -- January 11, 4:40 p.m. After losing a shootout to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 16, last year's AFC champions bounced back with a 47-14 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders last Sunday. The Broncos feature tight end Jacob Tamme and injured defensive standout Danny Trevathan. Like the Packers, Denver will face the higher seeded winner of this weekend's opening slate of games.
With things slowing down just a bit over the holidays, I've had some time for reflection. I've thought about where we are and where we're going. I've thought about what we have accomplished and what we are working to accomplish in the future. I've thought about all the people that make this place so special, from fans to student-athletes to coaches to staff.
As we close 2014 and move into 2015, I want to share a few of those thoughts with you, first by looking back.
We began this year by capping a record 11th-place Directors' Cup finish for the 2013-14 season. But as we did that, I challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to seize that momentum and pursue even greater things. So far, that challenge has been accepted.
Thanks to the work of our student-athletes and coaches, our fall sports got us off to a good start. Led by Jon Lipsitz, our women's soccer team turned an incredible finish to the regular season into our first NCAA Tournament national seed and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. Our volleyball team reached the NCAA Tournament yet again, making it 10 straight postseason berths with Craig Skinner as head coach. Our men's soccer team reached the NCAA Tournament as well in spite of relying almost exclusively on underclassmen in Johan Cedergren's third year. Football fell short of the bowl berth we all wanted, but the progress of our program under Mark Stoops is unmistakable.
Our winter sports have kept the ball rolling, led of course by our top-ranked men's basketball team. John Calipari's group has been truly a pleasure to watch so far this season with its unselfishness, talent and commitment to defense and I only expect to have more fun through conference and postseason play. Our women's basketball and rifle teams, as usual, have given us plenty to be excited about as well and I look forward to the schedule heating up for all our teams in 2015.
I also want to make sure I recognize some of the standout individual performances we've seen this year, because there have been plenty. Bud Dupree is the first player who comes to mind. Watching him develop into the player and leader he is today has been so special and we're thankful for everything he's done for our program. We wish him the best as he prepares for the NFL Draft and congratulate him on being named to the All-SEC First Team, where he was joined by Austin MacGinnis.
Arin Gilliland has made a similar impact on our women's soccer program. After she was honored with the Honda Inspiration Award this summer, she had the best season of her decorated Kentucky career, earning All-America and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in the process. I know she will continue to represent UK well as she moves on to a professional and international playing career.
Fortunately, we have a year left with Morgan Bergren and Callum Irving, who had great seasons for our volleyball and men's soccer teams. Morgan was named an All-American, while Callum nearly swept Conference USA postseason awards.
Our student-athletes continue to make us proud off the field as well, starting with our cumulative GPA of 3.112 for the fall semester, our fifth straight semester with a GPA of better than 3.0. We are lucky to have so many positive role models on our campus, like AFCA Good Works Team member Max Godby from our football team and Good Works Team nominee Bria Goss from our women's basketball team. Balancing practice and game schedules, class and life is a challenge, but our Wildcats do it well.
I'd like to close by expressing my heartfelt appreciation to our fans. Thanks to your feedback, your passion and the work of my staff, BBN First has helped make game day at Commonwealth Stadium and all of our events that much more special this season. We know we have work ahead of us - and I'll talk more about that next week when I look ahead to 2015 - but the atmosphere at games like our win over South Carolina tells me we are headed in the right direction.
Your support means so much to us, and it's about much more than what happens on game day. Take Alex Poythress as an example. After he suffered a season-ending injury earlier this month, the outpouring from the Big Blue Nation was incredible to watch and I know it uplifted him at a difficult time. I want to thank you for that and ask that you continue to show that kind of care for student-athletes from all 22 of our sports. It means more than you know.
I'll be back later this week to talk about what's on the horizon for UK Athletics in 2015. In the meantime, I hope you get to ring in the New Year with family and friends.
For the fifth semester in a row and sixth time in seven semesters, University of Kentucky student-athletes have combined to reach the athletics department's goal of a 3.0 grade-point average.
UK's scholarship student-athletes had a cumulative GPA of 3.112 for the fall semester of 2014, continuing to meet the challenge of matching athletic success with excellence in the classroom.
"Our student-athletes work hard to meet the high standards that come with being a part of this department and I want to congratulate them on the results showing in their grades once again," Barnhart said. "Academics are an important part of our mission and I'm thankful our student-athletes and coaches have embraced that."
**SEE BELOW FOR COMPLETE GRADES BY SPORT**
Eighteen of 20 teams posted GPAs of better than 3.0, led by women's swimming and diving (3.535), women's golf (3.484), women's soccer (3.462), softball (3.425) and baseball (3.417). The three UK teams that reached the NCAA Tournament this fall - women's soccer, volleyball and men's soccer - all had GPAs of 3.108 or better even though postseason play coincided with the end of the semester.
UK's top-15 basketball teams both excelled academically as well. The women's team combined for a GPA of 3.335, while the men had a 3.111 GPA.
"Our CATS (Center for Academic and Tutorial Services) counselors and tutors do an outstanding job providing our student-athletes with the tools and resources they need to succeed," Barnhart said. "I am grateful for the role they have played in building the academic culture of this department."
To go with the solid grades in the fall, 31 current and former Wildcats graduated at December commencement. Moreover, UK student-athletes set a school record for graduation rate in the annual report issued by the NCAA in October.
The success comes on the heels of one of the top competitive seasons in school history. UK finished 11th in the 2013-14 Directors' Cup standings, putting the department a year ahead of schedule in the goal to become one of the nation's top-15 departments as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. With continued academic success and the current tally of 13 conference or national championships, UK Athletics is positioned to meet all three goals set as part of the plan.
Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
If you had watched only the Kentucky bench, you might not have known Alexis Jennings was having a career offensive day.
"I was very hard on her today during the game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I had no idea she was scoring 27 points because I was trying to coach her up on defense a little bit and it was just a tough game."
It was a tough game that, in large part, the No. 12/13 Wildcats (11-2) won because of Jennings. Along with the career high in points she scored on 8-of-15 shooting, the freshman post player added eight rebounds in UK's hard-fought 87-75 win over Tennessee State (3-8) on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.
The performance was the latest in a string of good ones by Jennings, who scored in double figures for the fourth straight game after not doing so once since her collegiate debut.
"I wouldn't say I saw it coming," Jennings said. "We had four days off and coming back I really wasn't expecting that. But as I got out there, I adjusted well and I was able to score offensively."
Jennings showed off a diverse skillset, burying three of her four tries from 3-point range and scoring on both post moves and put-backs off her five offensive rebounds.
"We would not have won without her and I've told y'all before: She is supremely talented and skilled on the offensive end and I am really seeing a lot of progress out of her," Mitchell said.
Her teammates are particularly impressed with that progress considering how hard Mitchell has been on her both in practice and in games knowing what she is capable of.
"I give Alexis a lot of credit being as whenever we're in practice Coach Mitchell is extremely hard on her," said Makayla Epps, who scored 16 points. "He's hard on all of us, but some days she gets it harder than any of us and she's got thick skin. She's a tough kid from Alabama and I give her a lot of credit because most players would get down and go in slumps."
Linnae Harper - who had a big all-around game with 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals as the Cats fended off a game Lady Tiger team - has seen the same. And with it, she's seen Jennings become more and more self-assured in her continuing adjustment to college.
"I just think, personally, her confidence level has just increased drastically day by day and it's making a difference in the game," Harper said. "She's more tough and I think that's really going to help us when we start SEC conference because we have the toughest conference in the nation."
With Bria Goss missing again due to a broken thumb and Jennifer O'Neill day to day with a strained patellar tendon, Mitchell knew the Cats would be tested on Sunday. With Jennings and others stepping up - including Janee Thompson with her ball pressure and career-high seven steals - they passed.
"Those are the kind of games we need while Bria's out to help us be stronger when Bria comes back," Mitchell said.
Now, when it comes to Jennings, Mitchell will continue to push her to improve defensively.
"I definitely believe that she's capable," Mitchell said. "There's no question. The reason I'm hard on Alexis is because her offense is a little bit further ahead than her defense right now. And so usually when I'm hard on her it's defensive driven."
Tyler Ulis scored a career-high 14 points in UK's win at No. 4 Louisville on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Tyler Ulis looks different than your typical John Calipari point guard.
Coach Cal's floor generals, in recent seasons, have been physical specimens, most standing well above 6 feet, but Ulis is 5-9.
What then prompted Calipari to offer Ulis a scholarship to come to Kentucky?
"He wasn't afraid of the challenge," Calipari said.
Through the first 10 games of his college career, Ulis showed that fearlessness repeatedly and earned fan-favorite status in the process. In the 11th, he erased any lingering doubt about whether a spotlight could get too bright for the diminutive freshman.
Not only would Saturday be Ulis' first college road game, it would also be his debut in one of college basketball's most heated rivalries. But as No. 1 UK prepared for a trip to the KFC Yum! Center to face No. 4 Louisville, Ulis had a similar reaction to when Coach Cal began recruiting him.
"I was more excited than nervous because it was my first away game," Ulis said. "Being a freshman I just wanted to see what the atmosphere felt like."
The atmosphere, predictably, was crazy.
The 22,812 fans in attendance - a notable number wearing blue - were loud from well before tip all the way through the final buzzer of UK's 58-50 win in a defensive slugfest. Ulis was never fazed.
"He was really good today," Calipari said. "That's the best I've seen him play since I've coached him."
Ulis was poised throughout, handling Louisville's trademark pressure with little issue, but briefly exited late in the first half after taking an elbow from Chris Jones. He would receive treatment, return quickly and dominate from there.
"I think he's a great basketball player," said Louisville's Rick Pitino. "He's a true point guard who makes other people better."
Prior to sustaining the cut - which would require three postgame stitches - Ulis had two points. Afterward, he had 12 for a total of 14. He would post just two assists, an uncharacteristically low number for a player called repeatedly a "true point guard," but committed no turnovers on an afternoon when UK had a season-high 18 as a team.
"He just led the team," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 10 points and nine rebounds. "He led the team. That's one of the things: Against a team like this, you need to make sure everything's under control. He kept the game under control. He was hitting shots like he always does. Hit a floater. He was pretty, pretty, pretty good today. Pretty good."
Ulis scored his career high on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, all the while setting the tone for a UK defense that held Louisville to 25.9-percent shooting and 0.82 points per possession. He rarely looked to shoot, but did so without hesitation when the moment called for it. His two biggest baskets came as UK built a double-digit lead for the first time in a hard-fought affair, burying a 3 when the Cats lead by five and another shot a minute later to give UK a 45-34 lead with 6:19 remaining.
"He's incredible. He's showing people -- you guys -- things you haven't seen out of him before, but I've seen it because we've played on camps and teams all the time, so it's nothing new to me," said Devin Booker, who scored nine points as UK's four-member freshman class combined for 39 points. "He's a real special player."
Ulis would return to a more familiar distributor role as the Cats drove home the dagger, penetrating and passing to Aaron Harrison for a 3 from his familiar spot on the left wing to give UK a 53-43 lead with 1:01 to go.
"They were really big," Ulis said. "Three people hit big shots late: me, Aaron and Andrew hit three 3s late in the game, which really opened it up for us in that point of the game."
Andrew Harrison's late 3 was particularly notable after UK's starter at point guard struggled for much of the day. After playing some of his best basketball in two wins over Louisville last season, he managed just three points and four assists against six turnovers.
"They're not machines. They're not computers," Calipari said, repeating a familiar refrain. "I told him, 'Man, I love you. I got your back. You're my point guard. Stop it.' He's down."
Down but certainly not out.
"Andrew took us to the national championship game last year," Calipari said. "Andrew did. So what I have is I have two terrific point guards, who I can play together if I choose. If Andrew's playing really well Tyler will maybe not play as much or I'll put him as a wing. Tyler's playing well or out of his mind (and Andrew Harrison won't play as much). That's what good about this."