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.
2014 starter Patrick Towles is competing with Drew Barker for the quarterback job this spring. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
For the third time in as many Kentucky seasons, Mark Stoops is leading his team through spring practice without an officially named starter at quarterback.
Redshirt junior Patrick Towles and redshirt freshmen Drew Barker are splitting time at the position with no clear leader yet emerging. Stoops understands how that may be perceived by some, but he doesn't agree.
"I know the old adage that if you have two you don't have any, but I don't believe that," Stoops said.
After Reese Phillips suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon this winter, Towles and Barker became the only healthy quarterbacks on campus for spring practice. The resulting battle, new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson says, has been good for both.
"To me if you've got one guy playing really good and one guy not then it's not making anybody better," Dawson said. "I think that the key to those guys right now, and both of them go out and one day one of them might be a little better, the other day the new one might be a little better but they're pushing each other. So, that's the best part of it."
It's familiar territory for Towles and Barker, who both competed for the starting job in 2014. Towles would of course win out and show flashes of brilliance in leading UK to a five-win season, an improvement from a 2-10 mark in Stoops' first season.
Towles started all 12 games, completing 57.3 percent of his passes for 2,718 yards and 14 touchdowns and adding 303 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. His coaches have said his experience does give him a leg up, but by no means makes him a lock to beat out Barker. It's a challenge he embraces.
"I've been in a competition since I got here," Towles said. "I'm not new to this at all and I'm going to go out there and worry about me. I can't worry about what any other quarterback's doing. I can help when I feel like I can teach a little bit, but I'm worried about how I play and how the guys play when I'm in there."
Barker is doing the same.
The highly touted Burlington, Ky., native redshirted last season after Towles won the job, taking the year to adjust to college life. His adjustment has been marked by two off-field incidents that have been addressed and addressed again by his coaches.
"He's a good kid that made some mistakes, and he's got to go out there and be consistent on the field and off the field," Stoops said. "He knows that. I like him, but what I like about him right now: He's just going about his business, trying to be the best quarterback he can be, take care of himself off the field. So far so good."
That doesn't mean every day is perfect.
"There's good and bad and there is every day," Stoops said after UK's 11th practice of the spring on Wednesday. "There's days when one or the other does separate himself, but not consistently, not every day. As I said throughout the spring and I saw it again today, we're improving at that position. Both guys are improving."
Improving and taking hold of the job are two different things, though it seems unlikely a decision on a starter is forthcoming based on what Stoops and Dawson are saying.
"It doesn't matter to the point to where I'm going to sit here and I'm stressing about making a decision, because we don't play Saturday," Dawson said. "So that doesn't matter to mean. I mean I'm pleased with where both of them are at. Obviously both of them do some things that are bad at times, but those things are slowly getting less and less."
The Wildcats might not be playing this weekend, but they will hold an open scrimmage at noon on Saturday at Nutter Training Center. The scrimmage will give the staff a chance to evaluate Towles and Barker in a live setting, but it's by no means a be-all, end-all situation.
"It's important, but you're not going to win a job in one day," Towles said. "It's a whole body of work kind of thing and I feel confident about my body of work and I feel confident going forward."
DeMarcus Cousins | Houston Rockets: 115, Sacramento Kings: 111 | April 1, 2015 After missing Sacramento's contest with the Memphis Grizzlies on March 30, "Boogie" Cousins bounced back with his second-career triple-double on April 1 in Houston. The fifth-year pro posted 24 points, 21 rebounds, 10 assists, six blocks and three steals in a Kings comeback effort that ultimately fell short.
Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (39-38) Highlighted by an 18-point, 11-assist showing in a 107-106 losing effort to the Golden State Warriors on April 2, Bledsoe averaged 15.3 points and 7.0 assists in four games last week. The Suns defeated the Utah Jazz 87-85 on Saturday, but fell to the Warriors, the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder in Phoenix's three prior matchups.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (26-49) Following last Wednesday's triple-double effort in a loss to Terrence Jones' Rockets, Cousins recorded a second consecutive triple-double on Friday when he met Anthony Davis' New Orleans Pelicans. The Alabama native finished with 24 points, 20 rebounds, 13 assists, four blocks, and a steal. However, Davis walked away with the 101-95 victory.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (41-35) Davis and the Pels finished the week with three consecutive wins, followed by a loss on Saturday in Portland. Davis averaged 21.2 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.5 steals over the four-game stretch.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (42-34) Kanter started out the week with a quiet 11 points and nine rebounds in the Thunder's sole win over the Suns. However, despite 27.0 points and 16.5 rebounds from Kanter in Oklahoma City's next two contests, OKC dropped two straight at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks and the Grizzlies, respectively. Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (18-59) Noel's week consisted of three straight double-digit rebounding performances, including two consecutive double-doubles. Noel averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds over Philly's first three games, but ended his week early with a cut on his right eyelid during the second quarter of Saturday's contest with the Charlotte Hornets. The Sixers concluded the stretch with a 0-4 record.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (44-33) With three wins and three double-doubles from Wall in four Wizards games, the former 2010 SEC Player of the Year averaged 15.5 points, 14.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds last week. Washington lost to the red-hot Rockets on March 29, but defeated the 76ers on April 1, the New York Knicks on April 3, and the Grizzlies on April 4.
John Calipari speaks after his Hall of Fame election was announced on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - John Calipari may have wanted a morning to decompress, some time to himself after a heartbreaking, season-ending defeat to Wisconsin on Saturday night.
He wouldn't allow it. He owed Sunday morning to his players.
"I met each individual player the next morning, because when our season ends it becomes about them," John Calipari said. "Our season ended that night, so the next morning I had individual meetings."
The agenda for the meetings, as Kentucky fans know by now, covered the decisions his players will make in the coming weeks regarding the NBA Draft. The meetings were the first of two five-minute meetings Calipari will have with the players who will think about making the jump to the pros.
"There's not going to be any brainwashing, forcing, pushing either in or out," Calipari said. "I want each kid to make a decision for themselves. I did tell a couple of the kids that it's a man's league; it's not a child's league. You can be physically ready (but) if you're not ready for a man's league, you need to come back. But that's your choice."
In the 30 minutes he spent with the media after the announcement of his election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Coach Cal said seven players are "considering their options." Piecing together everything he said, the seven are Willie Cauley-Stein, the Harrison twins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles andDakari Johnson.
"We will get information from probably 20-25 NBA GMs," Calipari said. "We'll then put their families in touch directly with the NBA. If they want my opinion, I'll give it. If they don't, I won't."
Cauley-Stein likely won't need Calipari's opinion. The junior and projected top-10 pick said after UK's Final Four loss he had "probably" played his last game in a Kentucky uniform and that "it's time to take another step." Calipari said nothing Monday to suggest Cauley-Stein's thinking had changed.
Towns, meanwhile, stopped short of making his intentions known. The freshman, however, is a contender to be the top overall pick in June's draft. Calipari wouldn't say unequivocally he should earn that distinction and join John Wall and Anthony Davis as the third player he's coached to be the No. 1 pick, but he did have plenty of good things to say about Towns.
"I'll say this is what he is: He's one of the greatest kids, really intelligent, really a smart kid, will make free throws, can play pick-and-roll defense, guard, block shots, and he's going to be a little bit like (a LaMarcus) Aldridge," Calipari said.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, have more uncertain draft prospects. Both ESPN and Draft Express peg the two twins out of the first round, but Coach Cal believes they would work their way there if they did declare.
"If they're not first-rounders, which I believe they will be when you get the workouts and the interviews and you see their size and their athleticism and all that - when you meet them and say, 'Those are two of the greatest kids; where did all this other stuff come from? Where's this narrative? It's not true,' " Calipari said. "And then I think what'll happen is they'll both be in the first round. But even if they're not, it'll be shortly thereafter."
Lyles and Booker, meanwhile, face choices between returning for promising sophomore seasons or the draft, where both are expected to be selected in the middle of the first round, while Calipari said Alex Poythress' injury makes him likely to return. Johnson is a possible late first-round pick, making the 7-footer's decision an interesting one as well.
"What if Dakari's the 25th pick of the draft?" Calipari said. "I'm not going to say, 'You should stay.' See, the worst thing for me is to be in that position and try to influence a kid because of what's right for me."
That's why Coach Cal will provide the information, give his opinion if asked and stand back.
"There's no reason to hold off if you know what you're doing," Calipari said. "Just say and let's move. And then now my job shifts from that to making sure we bring in people to help them interview, that they start training, that they get on the track - we help them. And then the other thing is now I'm their PR machine. That's why I said my season doesn't end until June 28."
While he's serving as the PR machine for his recently departed pupils, he'll be putting the finishing touches on his next talented crop of recruits. Calipari said he expects to lose a minimum of five players to the draft, meaning he's likely to look to add to a 2015 class that currently features three signees.
That means there's work ahead.
"I need to get through the next month and I know I can do it," Calipari said. "I'll go one step at a time, sleep as much as I can sleep, get done what we gotta get done, and then I can step off the gas. But it's what - if you do this and you're about letting these kids make their own decisions, you're in this boat every year."