Cat Scratches: When people think about some of the premier franchises in the NFL today, one of the first organizations that come to mind is the Colts. Tell me about your experience with the Colts in your first two seasons. Jacob Tamme: There's definitely a lot of nationwide respect for the franchise. Mr. (Bill) Polian, (president of the Colts) and (head coach) Mr. (Jim) Caldwell have done a great job of putting the right pieces together and now we have a chance to win the big one. It's a great group of guys and a lot of really good football players. Playing with this team has been a lot of fun.
CS: It appears to be a perfect fit for you in the sense that Kentucky was a high-octane offense during your playing days and then you basically moved on to the NFL's high-octane offense. JT: Yeah, they have a lot of offensive weapons. They use the tight end in a lot of different ways, probably as many or more than any other team. It's a great fit and I've just been pleased to do my part and be a part of it and to hopefully help us come out on the winning side a whole lot this year. Hopefully we'll do it one more time.
CS: You have one of the all-time greats throwing you the pigskin in Peyton Manning. What's your relationship like with him? JT: He's been great. He's everything that everybody thinks that he is. He's an amazing quarterback and he's a great leader. Being a part of an offense where you have a guy like that who pushes himself to the limit and prepares as hard as anybody maybe in the history of the league is great. He gets himself mentally and physically ready every single week. He challenges you to be the best player you can be. He's a perfect quarterback to play with and to be in an offense like this with.
CS: As you mentioned, the Colts utilize tight end Dallas Clark probably better than any other team. What has it been like to learn under one of the game's best pass-catching tight ends? JT: Dallas has been great. He's a guy that I actually watched a little bit of film of when I was at Kentucky in trying to become a better tight end. To play with him and compete with him and learn from what he does, I couldn't really ask to be in a better spot to become a better football player. He has definitely helped with that by showing me the ropes a lot last year. He was a huge help to me as a rookie. He's a great friend and a great player."
CS: I know you still follow Kentucky and keep touch with everybody in Lexington. What were your thoughts on the retirement of Rich Brooks, a coach who meant a lot to you and your development? JT: It was kind of bittersweet. He obviously poured his heart and soul into the program and cared about it very deeply and did an outstanding job. He gave me a chance to come to Kentucky so I was kind of sad to see him retire, but it's that time in his life. At the same time it's really exciting for Joker Phillips. I couldn't be more happy for him and I am excited for their future as a program. It's an exciting time. I think it's a perfect combination. I'm sure Joker will change a thing or two, but a big part of it is consistency where you won't have a huge switch. In a lot of ways it's similar to what we have here with coach (Tony) Dungy and coach Caldwell. Coach Caldwell didn't keep everything the exact same but there is still that consistency. What a great job that coach Brooks did. He certainly means a lot to me. I look forward to seeing him sometime pretty soon.
CS: Your class featured a lot of notable players that really changed the program and then went on to the NFL. Do you still keep up with those guys? JT: One of the highlights of the year this year was playing against both Keenan (Burton) and Wesley (Woodyard). Both of those guys I was real close to at Kentucky. They are guys who care about the program and they were obviously instrumental in helping us turn the program around. I got some pictures with Keenan and Wes before and after the games and was able to catch up with them and have a conversation. What a neat moment to be able to sit there and hang out with the guys that I played with at Kentucky before and after an NFL game.
CS: What's the schedule like for the next week leading up to the Super Bowl? JT: We leave for Miami on Sunday. We will try to keep the practice schedule as normal as possible with obviously having to use a different facility and everything. There will be a lot of media obligations and things like that, although not too many for me (laughs). It's going to be fun. It's going to be a great week. I'm sure there will be some great chances to have fun with family and friends, and also we'll remember the number one thing which is to try and win the game. I'm looking forward to it. I'm going to soak it up and try to remember it forever, so that's another reason to make sure you win the game. You want that to be the ultimate memory.
When one thinks about Kentucky football's historic turnaround, they think of players like Andre Woodson, Keenan Burton and Wesley Woodyard. They also almost certainly think of tight end Jacob Tamme.
Without Tamme, UK's four straight bowl appearances probably doesn't happen. Arguably the program's greatest tight end, Tamme was one of the cornerstones of a legendary football class that transformed an annual Southeastern Conference bottom feeder into a perennial contender.
Tamme played for UK from 2004-07, finishing his career sixth on the school's career receiving list. He totaled 133 catches for 1,417 yards and 11 touchdowns during his four-year career in Lexington.
Next Sunday, though, Tamme will have the opportunity to do something that millions dream of but only few have the opportunity to do: play in a Super Bowl. In his second season in the NFL, Tamme and the Indianapolis Colts will take on the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV in Miami.
Although Tamme is still fighting for time as a tight end - he's caught three balls for 35 yards this season - he's become a special-teams stalwart for the AFC champions.
Cat Scratches had the opportunity to catch up with the UK legend before he left for Miami for a two-part interview. Part two will be posted later on Sunday afternoon. Without further ado, here's part one:
Cat Scratches: Jacob, you'll be playing in Super Bowl XLIV on Sunday vs. the New Orleans Saints in just your second season in the NFL. Talk about the opportunity to play in the world's biggest game. Jacob Tamme: It's definitely an amazing opportunity. Most guys play a long career and don't get a chance to play in the Super Bowl. I'm going to try to make the best of it and try to come out with that win. What a blessing to have this opportunity.
CS: You're just three years removed from playing in the Music City Bowl with Kentucky. Did you imagine something like this would happen so fast for you? JT: From growing up and even through my time at Kentucky, I have always tried to take matters one thing at a time. As a kid you obviously dream of moments like this but I never dreamt that I would actually get to play in the Super Bowl. I dreamed of really playing college football. You play in the backyard and you dream of playing in the Super Bowl but you never really expect it to come true. Lo and behold I'm part of a great team here. It's been an amazing season.
CS: You talked about growing up and dreaming of playing in the Super Bowl, but did you have visions of catching the game-winning pass? JT: From going out in the backyard and reenacting those moments and throwing the ball around and pretending that you're catching a touchdown in the corner of the end zone, it's fun to know that I've been there before already as a kid. I'm sure that in reality it will be all the more exciting and a great feeling, but at the same time you have to temper some of that and realize that you have to prepare for the game and prepare to win. In a lot of ways we're approaching it as we would any other game while knowing that it's obviously a really big one.
CS: You're in your second year with the Colts so I know you're still trying to fight for time at the tight end position, but talk about your role on special teams this year and what you hope to contribute in Sunday's big game. JT: My special team's role this year has been big. It's been great for me. I play on every special team except for field goal blocks, so I'm out there a lot. I'm basically going in and out of the game every few minutes. Getting that spot on all those teams is an honor. Going down there with a chance of making a big play, whether it's getting a block on a kickoff return or making a hit on a kickoff or making a play on both of the punt return teams, there's always a big play to be made on special teams. Being a guy that has a chance to do it in the Super Bowl, what a spot to do it to try to help my team win. Offensively, I wish I was playing more but I'm part of a great offense. My role is limited and sometimes it's more, but you've just got to prepare to do your job and be ready to do what is asked of you.
CS: How big of an adjustment has that been for you going from a prolific tight end on the college level to a special teams stalwart? JT: It's definitely different than anything I did at Kentucky. I played on a few special teams plays here and there, especially early in my career, but I'm playing on some teams now that I've never played on before in my entire life. I probably didn't make a tackle since high school and now I have a lot more tackles than catches, but it's been really fun. Football is such a great game. There are so many different parts of it and to be able to do it at this level has given me a lot of confidence in my ability as a football player overall.
CS: What's the past week been like in Indianapolis with all the national attention focused on your team? JT: It's been pretty crazy. We have a pretty full locker room. They have a set time when the media can come into the locker room. It's hard to walk around in there. It's been a crazy week. It's been a really blessed season. We've put in a lot of hard work. We prepare and work really hard but we're definitely blessed to be where we are. We've got some great leadership on this team. All that stuff is great and it's nice, but I think everybody is doing a good job keeping the focus on the Saints still having fun with it what I'm sure should be a very fun week next week.
Lebron James never went to Kentucky and never really even considered going to college. But kind of like the son a father never had, James is the player Kentucky never had. Or didn't have.
Because after Saturday's Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, it's become apparent that James has become UK's adopted son. Had King James ever gone to college and John Calipari been the coach in Lexington, it's a pretty sure bet that James would have chosen Kentucky.
At the very least he's become a Kentucky adopted son.
James, arguably the most iconic figure in sports and the face of the NBA, sat courtside for Saturday's UK-Vanderbilt game. Dressed in a gray and blue striped sweater, James sat not even 50 feet from the Kentucky bench.
Not that Calipari noticed.
"I forgot he was there and I was losing my mind in the first half," Calipari said "I saw him in the hallway (at halftime) and said, 'You showed up? When did you get here?' I was worried about him coming because it's another distraction, so I was hoping with the snow maybe he wouldn't come, but they responded."
They relished in it.
DeMarucs Cousins joked around with him, DeAndre Liggins got his autograph and the players played with a surprising calmness, overcoming the season's first loss with an 85-72 win over No. 21 Vanderbilt.
"It was great," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "For LeBron James to take time out of his busy schedule - we know he has games, preparation, practice and other obligations to tend to - to come down here and support us and show his face means a tremendous amount to us. To have someone of his stature come to our game is motivation for us."
Calipari established a budding friendship with James a few years back, which has since blossomed. James took a personal tour of the Joe Craft Center as a "recruit" over the summer and vowed to come back for a UK game later this year.
Rumors ran rampant before a couple of games this season that James was going to be in the house, but that gossip never came to fruition. Until Saturday.
With the team wearing James' custom-made shoes, James braved the wintry weather conditions and strolled into Rupp Arena - without a king's red carpet, I might add - about midway through the first half.
During the second half, James was Kentucky's honorary "Y" during the spelling of Kentucky. James played the part brilliantly, spreading his 6-foot-8 frame to symbolize the Y.
"He's a good friend, a great guy, a great ambassador for basketball and obviously we wear his shoe," Calipari said. "He's proud of this team and this group. It would have been better if he was an alum, had played here and came back. They probably would have had about four more national titles up there."
The alarms went off and Kentucky promptly answered.
Yes, you crazy Cat fans, that loss to South Carolina on Tuesday wasn't the end of the world after all. No, this team is going to be OK. With an easy 85-72 victory over No. 21 Vanderbilt - a team that has owned UK over the past few years - the Cats are back on top of the Southeastern Conference standings.
Head coach John Calipari went into Saturday's game waning to see how his team would respond. Well, he learned a little bit, although maybe not as much as he would have liked, because 58 total foul calls disturbed the rhythm of a top-25 showdown.
So, instead of giving you the traditional after-game post, I thought I'd offer a few snapshots from Saturday's game and what we learned from the bounce-back Cats.
1.) They're resilient - Many of the problems that plagued Kentucky in its loss to South Carolina, the first defeat of the year, were solved against the Commodores.
After getting outrebounded on the boards in Columbia, S.C., UK crushed Vandy on the glass 41-22, including 18 offensive rebounds.
The Cats also responded with a balanced all-around effort. DeMarcus Cousins once again led the way with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but Darnell Dodson (16 points), John Wall (13), Eric Bledsoe (13) and Patrick Patterson (12) all responded with double-digit performances.
Sophomore guard DeAndre Liggins (more on him later) posted one of the best games of his career with nine points and four rebounds.
Also, four days removed from a subpar perimeter performance, Kentucky hit 12-of-23 shots from behind the 3-point line.
"We wanted to come out and prove something," Wall said. "We had a tough game at South Carolina but they played great, too. We know that every team we play is going to play well. We wanted to come out here and show people that we were not going to back down and that one loss was not going to keep us down. I think we did that. We got a tough win against one of the top teams of the SEC."
Patterson, a game removed from possibly his worst performance in a Wildcat uniform, responded to a minority of fans' criticism by nailing a career-high three 3-pointers. While he's still not quite the Patterson of old, Calipari said he's getting closer and will continue to work with him before practice.
"He wasn't the reason we didn't beat South Carolina," Calipari said. "It wasn't Patrick Patterson. Now he didn't play great, but we had eight other guys that didn't and I didn't coach great. We all got beat."
But Saturday they at least responded.
"I'm asking a lot of these guys," Calipair said. "I am. I was mad after the South Carolina game. I'm asking a lot of a bunch of young guys who have never been together on a team and never played this style, are trying to learn from a coach who gets vocal and emotional. ... They play like if they lose, they're going to go to the electric chair."
Big Blue Nation was reminded Saturday with a resilient performance that indeed no, UK is not going to the electric chair. At 20-1, this is still one of the best teams in the nation.
"We're 20-1," Calipari said. "How about that? How about that? 20-1. That's ridiculous."
2.) Cousins is a "beast" - John Wall is the most talented player on Kentucky. He has the most raw skills, possesses the best long-term potential and is the biggest reason UK will be one of the favorites to cut down the nets in April.
But nobody is playing better in the entire country right now than DeMarcus Cousins.
Fresh off a dominating 27-point, 11-rebound performance against South Carolina, Cousins did it again. The freshman forward tallied 21 points and 10 rebounds on Saturday, his 12th double-double of the year, in just 24 minutes of play.
"He's a beast," Calipari said.
Cousins was the focus of yet another brutally physical game. He took elbows to the head, forearms to the back and said he even took a shot to the chin. A national announcer said Cousins is the most fouled player in the nation.
"I totally agree," Cousins said. "I'm used to it now."
Yet with double teams galore, Cousins still did work, notching four "and ones" on the evening and outplaying Vandy's senior leader A.J. Ogilvy.
"You've got to foul him to keep him away from the glass and then you've got to try to foul him if he's trying to score and now he's making free throws. He's a beast. How about 24 minutes and he gets 21 points and 10 rebounds? That's so stupid. It's ridiculous."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings made Cousins the focus of Vanderbilt's defensive game plan, but as has been the case lately, it hardly mattered.
"A lot has been made about John Wall and deservedly so because he's a terrific player, but Cousins, even though he's at a different position, is just as much of a factor right now for their team. He's really becoming very quickly the dominant inside and maybe the dominant inside player in our league."
He may be becoming the best player in the league, inside or on the perimeter. Instead of the offense running through Wall, it's now running through Cousins.
The part to pay attention to in the coming weeks is how Wall handles the change in direction -- and the change of attention. For the first time all season, it was Cousins, not Wall, who was mobbed by the most media members after the game.
Does Wall notice? Does he care? Keep an eye on how the superstar handles himself over the next few weeks as he battles adversity for really the first time in his career.
3.) Liggins gluing it together - Commentators and analysts often talk about "glue guys," players that do the little things and make the good teams special.
DeAndre Liggins is becoming that guy, albeit a bit surprisingly.
After riding the pine the first nine games of the season, Liggins has emerged as one of Calipari's go-to players off the bench. The sophomore guard played a season-high 25 minutes on Saturday.
He likely totaled a season-high in court burns diving after loose balls on the floor. It's become the embodiment of UK's energy player.
"I just try to come in and give energy off the bench," Liggins said. "That's why coach likes me and that's why I played some valuable minutes today."
It's surprising when one considers how deep in the doghouse Liggins was at the beginning of the year. No one knows exactly why Liggins couldn't get off the bench, but it's becoming more and more clear that it's going to be hard to put him back there.
"I just need to keep my confidence up," Liggins said. "That's the biggest part with me. I get down on myself a lot. I've got to stay free-minded, don't think a lot, don't play timid and just play my game."
Stallings praised Liggins for his defensive intensity, but Liggins' nine-point, four-rebound effort was just as valuable.
"The big shot I thought was DeAndre's (in the second half) because we were teetering a little bit on not knowing what we were doing," Calipari said. "That just took the wind out of their sails. That was a courage shot. They're making their little run so you've got to beat them back."
Whether they needed it or not, Tuesday was a humbling experience for the Cats.
One would expect that for first-year players who, until Tuesday night, didn't know what it felt like to lose on the collegiate stage.
But Tuesday's loss ended up hurting one player one wouldn't expect more than any other. Patrick Patterson, the soul and leader the Kentucky men's basketball team, had his worst outing of the year, scoring a season-low five points. Patterson took just four shots in the game and failed to register a field-goal attempt in the second half for the second time in the last three games.
"It was just one of those games where the ball wasn't rolling my way," Patterson said. "I was missing shots and I wasn't providing the effort I should have. It was one of those games where nothing was clicking on my part."
Patterson said no one has taken the loss easy since.
"We all took it pretty tough, especially the day after," Patterson said. "I don't think anybody had any smiles on their faces. Everybody was just extremely frustrated."
But Patterson took it especially tough. Following the game, message boards ran rampant with speculation about Patterson's play. Some fans took the loss so hard as to put the blame on the centerpiece of UK's program for the last two-plus years.
Patterson took exception to the criticism, posting a Facebook reply on Wednesday.
"To the entire Big Blue Nation, Don't talk to me or message me about the performances of myself & my teammates OR question our talent, pride or love for this University," Patterson posted.
Patterson responded Friday to his message to the fans, pointing out that it wasn't anything personal between him and most of the fan base.
"I know I didn't play my best game," Patterson said. "It was probably one of my worst games ever but for a fan, or a couple of fans, to send me messages on Facebook stating their opinions on my play, how well I represent the university or stating facts or say things about my other teammates was uncalled for and wasn't necessary. A couple of fans just decided to mess with my Facebook so I just put a little post up just stating how I felt about it.
"There are always those couple of fans who are bold enough to say something to you. There are always the fans that bleed blue but also will say some negative things about you and that's the one percent."
Head coach John Calipari has since talked to his junior forward about the reaction (and overreaction) of both the fan base and his players about the loss, in essence telling Patterson to suck it up.
"It's the first time we've lost," Calipari said. "Now all of a sudden with all the adulation, one or two people write a few critical thought on their Web sites. Well, you've got it up there. Your Facebook is up there and that's part of what this Facebook stuff is. What I told them is 99.9 percent of people in this state absolutely love you. The other four wrote stuff on your Web site, so why would you deal with that? Don't be mad at the 99.9 percent of people that absolutely adore what you do, how you are, how you perform, what you are doing for our state, university and the program. Take down your site if you can't deal with it. Don't have it up. Again, they reacted to some stuff.
"Every coach from coach (Joe B.) Hall up told me there is one percent of people in this state that are absolutely out of their minds, you can't deal with them. The other 99 percent are beautiful, loving, great hearts. You can't let it bother you."
And besides a minor post on a social networking site he hasn't.A
Despite taking a backseat to John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, lofting just 19 shots, and scoring only 26 combined points over the last three games, Patterson's poise has not been shaken.
"Confidence is not affected at all," Patterson said. "Everyone has an off game. Even the best players have an off game and that was one of mine. Hopefully it won't happen again. I'll just stay focused, just move on, look past it and concentrate on the next day at hand."
Patterson has been putting in about 30 minutes before practice the last few days working with Calipari on regaining his offensive form. Calipari said he often does it with certain players when they're thinking too much or battling through a slump.
"A lot of times when they start spending more time, they feel that, 'OK, I'm going to get through this,' " Calipari said. "This is in their minds. We have guys that do a five-minute shooting drill, make 68 shots, then go in the game and go 1-for-7. How do you do that? It's more mental than anything else."
The 6-foot-9 Huntington, W.Va., native admitted that he's been getting away from the bread and butter of his game: playing in the paint.
"I think I'm just being more perimeter wise than post wise," Patterson said. "I'm starting to be more of a perimeter player than post player. I was watching tape from the game and I saw myself not running up and down the court, not being in the post as much, passing first rather than looking to make a play and trying to get one of my teammates open. I was just being too hesitant on the court."
Calipari wants his veteran star to become more assertive and demand the ball, but he made sure to point out that Tuesday's loss was far from just Patterson's fault, even calling superstar sensation John Wall's performance against South Carolina "awful."
"Until I watched the tape I didn't realize it," Calipari said. "(Wall) did not run our team, broke off plays and stopped on defense. John Wall really hurt us. He had a breakout that he tried to dunk instead of get an and-one. We had a lob that he didn't come down with. He tried to shoot it from his hip. They are not machines. There is going to be five or six games a year we are going to play awful."
Even the stars fall from the sky sometimes.
"It was just one of those days," Patterson said. "It happens to the best of us."
"... skeptics might want to give Lexington, Ky., a wide berth this spring," Hays writes in his preview for the season. "There is ample reason to believe that Kentucky's giant leap forward last season may yet prove to be one small step in a program's emergence as a national contender as long as coach Rachel Lawson is around."
As I'll write about in the coming weeks in my season preview, he couldn't be more right. Kentucky has done the hardest part in building a foundation. Sure, measuring up to expecatations will add another element to contend with this season, but the chance to springboard off last year's success makes Kentucky a potentially dangerous team.
Kentucky battled with North Carolina in the race to 2,000 wins, it went toe-to-toe with perennial national contender Connecticut in Madison Square Garden and slugged it out with archrival Louisville.
But believe it or not, Saturday's game with Vanderbilt might be the toughest game to date. Yes, the so-called "nerds" of the Southeastern Conference can ball.
In fact, they might be the Cats' biggest hurdle in winning a conference title.
Vanderbilt (17-3, 5-0 SEC) heads into Saturday's top-25 showdown playing its best ball of the year. After an early December two-game losing streak, the Commodores have reeled off 10 straight wins by an 18.3 average margin of victory.
At 5-0 and fresh off an 85-76 victory over No. 14 Tennessee, Vandy is off to its best start in SEC play since the 1965-66 season.
"This (Vanderbilt team) reminds me of my UMass teams," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Just a team that five guys, three guys off the bench, they all know what their jobs are, they make shots. They're tough. They're not beating themselves. You're either beating them or they beat you."
Vanderbilt's start should come as no surprise. The 'Dores started the season ranked in the top 25 before suffering an early loss to Cincinnati in the Maui Invitational.
At the time, All-SEC selection A.J. Ogilvy wasn't quite 100 percent and head coach Kevin Stallings was still trying to find a core rotation in an extremely deep and talented basketball team.
Since finding that rotation, the 'Dores have been the most underrated team in the country. "The things that we've done well this year are they have responded to what the coaches have asked for," Stallings said. "We went through a stretch early in the season where rebounding was a problem. We've addressed that and we've gotten better. We went through a stretch where we turned the ball over a lot. We've addressed that and that's gotten better. We went through a stretch where our defense was not as good as it needed to be. We addressed that and that's gotten better. ...
"They've just been very good about responding to the things we've asked them to do."
Vanderbilt is solid in just about every phase of the game. The Commodores out-rebound their opponents by nearly three boards a game, shoot 49.8 percent from the floor and hold their opposition to just 40.4 percent shooting.
The roster might lack star power, but the guard-heavy lineup isn't short on talent when you consider the names of Ogilvy, Jeffery Taylor, Jermaine Beal and five-star recruit John Jenkins. All four score more than 10 points per game.
"You can't worry about one guy," Calipari said. "Every guy that they have can shoot 3s, can bounce the ball, can pass the ball. Everybody is a basketball player, and they're physically tough. You're not going to out-punk them. That isn't happening. None of that stuff is working in this game. They're a veteran team and they're tough."
And of all the teams UK (19-1, 4-1 SEC) has played this season, who would you think has Kentucky's number more than any other team of late?
Yes, you guessed it. It's the "nerds" of the SEC. Heading into Saturday's game, they've won six of their last eight vs. UK.
That's troubling news considering UK is coming off its first loss of the season, a 68-62 loss to South Carolina in the program's first game the No. 1 team in the country in seven years.
To counter adversity for the first time this season and retake the top spot in the SEC, Calipari said he must get more involved in the game. That includes calling more timeouts and taking some pressure off John Wall and Patrick Patterson.
"This should be on me," Calipari said. "Let me get these guys playing right. We went down there and it looked like there was some anxiety from some guys."
Perhaps a burden to stay undefeated and build on some unrealistic dreams that the rest of the nation was starting to whisper in their ears. With those expectations gone, Calipari is hoping that now they can go back out on the court and just play ball.
"Now we're not going to be undefeated," Calipari said. "(Now) it's about us getting better. Winning and losing shouldn't be as big of a part in their mind. Anxiety comes from trying to be result-oriented. In other words, we have to win. It's like you're playing golf and before the match starts you're saying, 'I have to win this.' Well, good, your first ball is off a car in the parking lot. ...
Calipari called Tuesday's loss an opportunity to learn, not only for his team but for himself as well. It's a chance to understand that one loss isn't the end of the world for either he or his first-time players.
"This may have been good for me - forget them - to say, 'Hey, man, would you cool out and coach your team and get them better and figure out what you've got to do,' " said Calipari, who sat in his hotel room Tuesday night in Charlotte, N.C., sweating. "It's all how you take this stuff."
Still, Calipari would have rather have figured that out without the consequence of a loss. "I hate to lose," Calipari said. "I would have liked to have won them all."
Getting back on the winning track could not have come at a worse time with a streaking Vanderbilt coming to town.
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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If the 1996 national championship team was not the best ever at UK, "The Untouchables" are at least in the conversation for that title. And yet they lost twice.
Derek Anderson says he and his teammates did not have their confidence damaged after an early loss to U Mass that season. Instead, he said the setback made them stronger.
"We lost the second game to UMass and then we went on that (27-game) winning streak and it was because we felt we were better than that. We had made mistakes and that is what you do as players--you make mistakes. And we learned from that and found out we had more heart than anybody in the country," Anderson told coachcal.com's "Wildcat Legends" section. "It didn't bother us that we were number one and losing. We were still the better team and we felt that way and proved it. What this team has to do is pull out the memory banks, remember how you lost and play as hard as you can from here on in.
"We took it out on the next team and then the next team and the next team. We continually kept saying that we were so disappointed that we lost. It wasn't about someone not playing well or the coach. It was us and we stood back and said, 'Hey, we can't let this happen again'. And so we just took it out on the other team. There was no arguing in practice and no complaining about any playing time. We had 10 guys that went to the NBA and a couple of other guys that were All-Americans. So we more concerned about playing time but we said forget that and just played. So right now, there mentality right now should be that whoever we are getting ready to play, we just need to take it out on that team."
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Kentucky and Vandy meet for the 175th time Saturday at Rupp Arena and it will mark the 13th time they've met when the Wildcats carried the No. 1 Associated Press ranking.
UK's record in those games is 8-4. Three of the losses came at Vandy and the other was on a neutral court in the 1951 SEC Tourney finals. The last time they met with the Cats at No. 1 was 1993 and the 'Dores prevailed in Nashville. You have to go back to UK's 1978 national title year to find the last time Vandy faced a number one UK team in Lexington.
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While Kentucky moved to the top of the polls this week, the Wildcats only moved up from 10th to seventh in the latest RPIratings.com rankings -- behind Syracuse, Kansas, Duke, Villanova, West Virginia and Georgetown.
Jim Sukup, who crunches those numbers each week, says it's the 117th-rated strength of schedule that has held UK down, but that will change as Kentucky runs into the best teams in the SEC.
"There are three different things that go into the RPI. The first is the winning percentage, which is 30 percent of what goes into the RPI. Second factor is the schedule strength, which is the winning percentage of the opponent you have played after you have taken out the common game between the team and the opponent," Sukup told tomleachky.com. "After that, the third factor is the opponent schedule strength or the opponent's opponent's strength and that is 25 percent of the RPI. The schedule percentage is 50 percent of the RPI. And just to clarify winning percentage, about five years ago the NCAA decided to weight the winning percentage for home and away games. So if you win a home game, you actually get credit for point-six wins. If you win a road game, you get credit for one point-four wins. Lose a road game you get credit for point-six losses and if you lose a home game you get credit for one point-four losses. So that throws a little bit of a wrench in the winning percentage there."
= = =
Interesting numbers from mrsec.com on talent production in the SEC states. Of the latest committments and early signees, the most have come from the state of Georgia -- and the least from the state of Kentucky.
Georgia has produced 57 new recruits thus far this recruiting season, followed by Florida's 41. Alabama has produced 34, Mississippi 30 and Louisiana's 19 to round out the top five states. Next is South Carolina (15), then Tennessee (10), Arkansas (five) and Kentucky two).
That speaks to the recruiting challenge Kentucky coaches have always faced and why Joker Phillips is putting such a strong emphasis on that part of the program he now leads.
In an already breakthrough season for the Kentucky women's basketball team, head coach Matthew Mitchell had but one more proverbial monkey -- or one-ton gorilla in this case -- to get off his back to put UK Hoops back on the map: a significant road victory.
Well, consider Thursday night's historic victory over LSU the final seal of approval in the rebuilding job Mitchell has done. With a resounding 71-62 victory over the No. 18/19 Tigers, the No. 23 Kentucky women's basketball team has officially announced itself as a contender in the rugged Southeastern Conference.
"We had talked all week long in preparation for the game is the first thing we had to do is outwork LSU," Mitchell said by phone Thursday night. "It was a real simple idea and that sort of drove us through practice all week and our preparation. We never got off of that.
"In order to outwork them, we knew our attitude had to be right. We had to have the enthusiasm, energy, effort and all those things. I think the team caught on to that and held on to that. Even when we got down in the second half and it looked like the tide was turning for their favor, we just really talked about sticking with outworking them and it really paid off."
In a season of firsts, Kentucky notched its first win in Baton Rouge, La., since 1995. Overall, the victory snapped a 16-game losing streak to the Tigers.
When one considers the barriers that stood in the Cats' way, namely the inability to win big games on the road, especially within the treacherous SEC, Thursday night's victory might have been the biggest win in Mitchell's tenure at Kentucky.
Mitchell, in typically humble format, wasn't so quick to jump on the landmark win, in part because he wants to keep his team focused while it remains on the road for Sunday's game at Mississippi State.
"The reason it's significant is because it just continues our positive momentum," said Mitchell, now in his third year at the helm of the program. "We're not in a position where we can stop and smell the roses. We have to keep playing. It's just one more win for us trying to get into the NCAA Tournament and trying to get ourselves in the hunt for a good finish in the conference.
"All of these things that are happening are happening because the players' attitudes have been right. We just have to keep it that way, so we can't get too wound about this victory. It is a great victory, a significant victory and a great win for the program, but these players need to stay focused on being successful."
But make no mistake about it, there was an exuberance in Mitchell's voice Thursday that said all one needed to say about the win over LSU. It was monumental in reaffirming the belief within the players that they can compete with anybody.
Former UK football coach Rich Brooks used to talk about the importance of breaking notorious losing streaks to the SEC's best. Without getting over the hump against some of the league's elite, it was hard to talk about taking the next step from mediocrity to the top.
In that sense, Mitchell and his team accomplished something similar Thursday night. With the long-awaited win over LSU, the Cats might have established a turning point in the program, one filled with annual NCAA Tournament trips and quite possibly SEC titles.
"There a lot of great things that are happening for the program that don't necessarily equate to good for the team," Mitchell said. "For the program it's great to break these streaks. It's great for our players to have confidence going on the road and great that they have confidence going against a certain team in beating them."
Victoria Dunlap was key in the victory over the Tigers. After hitting a relative rough patch - if you can still call double-digit scoring nights a rough patch - Dunlap emerged huge in Thursday's win.
The junior forward finished with a team-high 24 points and nine rebounds, including crucial points during an 11-0 run when the Cats trailed by three with eight minutes left in the game.
"She really calmed down tonight, slowed down and squared her shoulders and was able to make some plays," Mitchell said. "With the way LSU was guarding her, they were letting her catch the ball and sort of looked like the game plan was to make her face up and score over the defense, and she can do that. I was really impressed with how she played tonight. It's incredible for us tonight to not only go to our go-to player and get something for her but get a spectacular performance from her. I'm real proud of her. She played a whale of a game."
Not to be overshadowed in the victory was sophomore guard Crystal Riley. Playing in front of the school she transferred to UK from, Riley notched a career-high 11 points.
It would have been easy for Riley to get caught up in the emotional revenge of Thursday night's game, but Riley never let it affect her.
"There has never been a player in this kind of game that has played with the poise and played with the focus that Crystal played with," Mitchell said. "I could not be more proud of her. She played for her team. I never even once thought about it being a big game personally for her because of the way she prepared. Everything she told our assistants she said, 'Hey, this is a big for us.' She didn't say it was a big game for me. She played fantastic."
The victory for Mitchell and his team not only establishes a belief that the Cats are around to stay, it also smacks them right dab in the middle of the SEC hunt for first place. Yes, first place in the rugged SEC.
With the win over the Tigers, UK is just one game back of first-place Tennessee.
"If you just look at the SEC standings, this was a huge game because it puts us right there in the mix," Mitchell said. "Where the finish in the conference is so important would be getting that first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. We have so many games left, so I'm not sure if it's helpful to get too caught up in that right now, but the reality is we're going a great job.
"We've been telling this to our team all season: They have a chance to beat anybody in the league on a given night. We can beat anybody we play."
Not a bad deal for a team picked to finish 11th in the conference at the beginning of the year.
Former Kentucky Wildcat Rajon Rondo was selected to the 2010 NBA All-Star game as a reserve. Rondo, who played two years of ball at UK, will make his All-Star debut on Feb. 14.
Rondo, now in his fourth season with the Boston Celtics, is averaging 14.2 points, 9.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. The former first-round pick has evolved from the shadows of Boston's "Big Three" (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen) and established himself as a bonafide star at the game's highest level.
With Rondo running the point, the Celtics are off to a 29-13 to the season with a seven-game lead in the Atlantic Division.
Apologies for the lack of posts today. I've been working on some future stories, plus it's been a rather slow news day, so not much to post.
Anyway, before I head home, I figured I would give you at least a little something to chew on this evening, albeit a small dose of information.
As we get closer and closer to March, the computer rankings are going to start taking more weight in the seeding of the NCAA Tournament. Rest assured, if the Big Dance started today, the Cats would be a No. 1 seed without question.
However, it is a bit concerning at this stage that even with a 19-1 record, UK isn't atop the major computer rankings. In fact, it's not even in the top five. Because of the strength of schedule rank, Kentucky sits at No. 9 in three of the major computer measurements (Sagarin ratings, RealTimeRPI and CBSSportsline RPI).
The Cats have a schedule rank of 82 in the RealTimeRPI system and 126 in Sagarin's ratings.
Again, it's only January and it doesn't weigh as heavily now, but if the Cats want the No. 1 overall seed come March, they'll likely have to improve that number.
The good news on the women's side is that Matthew Mitchell's Cats have RealTimeRPI ranking of 33, which, if the tournament started today, would almost definitely get UK in the Big Dance for the first time since 2006.
Just something to keep an eye on as the next month and a half plays out.
Paul Daugherty, a columnist from the Cincinnati Enquirer and my favorite writer of the time -- if you don't read Daugherty's "The Morning Line," I highly suggest you do -- came to Lexington on Wednesday to talk to freshman point guard Eric Bledsoe.
Of all the columnists I read, Daugherty often hits the nail on the head more than the others, and this column is no different. Daugherty basically calls them studs, the best first-year players a coach can hope for, but says they're exactly that -- first-year players. He says as talented as they are, there are questions as to whether a team dominated by freshmen can win it all.
Stroll down alumni drive and listen for a second. Beyond the whistling wind, the rumble of traffic and the chirping of the birds, you might here a familiar but forgotten sound. Hear it?
Yes, the ping of the bat is back on the diamond on the UK Softball Complex as the Kentucky softball team gears up for the 2010 season.
I had a chance to stop by the field Wednesday afternoon for an upcoming preview and video, but I thought I'd give a quick update on the team following my interviews.
The Cats have been practicing since mid-January in anticipation for its Feb. 11 opener vs. Arizona State in the Kajikawa Classis in Tempe, Ariz.
"It's gone well," head coach Rachel Lawson said of the first few weeks of practice. "The team looks good. We had a great offseason where everybody is very strong. I'm excited to play in a couple of weeks."
The team looks good, in part, because it returns just about every piece of the record-setting puzzle from a year ago. Virtually the entire team returns from the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance, setting the stage for possibly another historic year.
The return of the Cats' key cogs has allowed Lawson to basically pick right back up where she left off with the team at the end of last year's NCAA Regional run, one in which UK totaled 34 victories, the second most in school history.
"Because we return just about every player - we only have three freshmen - we're kind of expanding what we're doing in terms of our offensive strategy and we're still getting into the swing of things defensively to get faster," Lawson said.
The Cats already have an added advantage over last year in that they're already outside. Because of the unseasonably nasty weather last season, UK was forced indoors at Nutter Field House all of last preseason. The first time the Cats saw the dirt was at their season-opening tournament game.
This year they've already played outside twice with a few weeks still to spare.
"It's been important because everything is a lot harder outside than it is inside," Lawson said. "Inside you feel very fast. When you get outside in the elements where it's windy and a little bit colder, things just move a little bit slower, so it's important that we can step outside."
I had a chance to talk to the players about finally achieving what they've wanted to do since the program's inception in 1997. Now that they've finally achieved some success and taken a significant step forward, there is a different sense of confidence that they've never felt before.
Whereas before they were talking about doing something special, now they've done it. Now they know they can do it again.
Lawson believes that firsthand glimpse of success could be a double-edge sword in 2010.
For one, it presents a sense of belief that even bigger things are possible this year, as Johnson mentioned, but the Cats must now also face the daunting task of actually living up to high expectations for the first time in program history.
"It's different," Lawson said. "Last year everything was so new that every time we stepped on the field something really exciting was going to happen. This year is a completely different ballclub because they believe they can get it done and they don't have any doubts. With that is the added pressure of actually going out there and living up to their own expectations."
I'll have much, much more on this later in a future preview story for the 2010 season. Keep an eye on the blog for that and upcoming video on the UK softball team in the coming weeks.
Also, I hope to get out to Cliff Hagan Stadium in the coming days and do something similar for the 2010 baseball season.
Gregg Doyel isn't shy about speaking his mind. In fact, of all the columnists I read, he's by far the most blunt.
Much like his hair - or lack thereof - what you see with Doyel it what you get. He's the most brutally honest columnist I know, upsets people on a fairly weekly basis with his opinions and makes no apologies about it.
"Kentucky lost to unranked South Carolina on Tuesday night, but I've never been more impressed with the Wildcats," Doyel writes.
Anyway, Doyel goes on to praise the efforts of UK's "Hoops for Haiti" telethon, pointing out that the Kentucky's team and its fan base are the biggest winners of them all - despite the team's first loss of the season Tuesday night.
First of all, this isn't one of your "oh my god, UK lost, let's jump off a bridge" overreaction posts.
No, sir or madam, it's one loss. Calm down. Kentucky is still in the hunt for the national title and still arguably the best team in the nation.
But Tuesday night rehashed a disturbing trend that had UK fans in an uproar Wednesday morning: Where is the Cats' fearless leader, Patrick Patterson? Too often this season, he has vanished down the stretch, either by his doing or the offensive mind set.
So I ask: Has Patterson become a secondary option on this team? Heck, I beg to wonder after Tuesday night whether he's even a second or third option. Based on his shot attempts in the second half - an ugly bagel - it no longer seems out of the question.
On the year, Patterson has taken 205 field-goal attempts, third most on the team. That comes out to roughly 10.3 shots per game, just slightly less than his 11.7 attempts per game last season.
But over the last three games, two of which came down to the wire, Patterson has taken just six, nine and four shots each game, respectively. In both of the close games, he failed to get a shot up in the second half.
(I wish I knew the exact number, but I'm willing to bet that a good chunk of those shot attempts are on second-chance attempts or transition opportunities (35 of his 125 makes this year are dunks). We no longer see Patterson with his back to the basket posting up.)
So again, I ask: Why isn't Patterson taking more shots? There are multiple parties to blame.
For one, Patterson needs to be more assertive. I'm not saying he needs to demand the ball and become selfish, but there needs to be some communication at some point between he, his coach and his teammates that he needs to get the rock more. Say something in a timeout. Have a talk with your coach at practice. Find a way to reestablish yourself, Pat.
Secondly, the new offense has inevitably changed Patterson's playing position. One of the reasons Patterson returned to Kentucky was to hone his face-up game and develop a jump shot. Without question, he's done that, most likely upping his stock for this year's NBA Draft.
But there are certain times you need to be on the perimeter and there are certain times you need your horse in the paint where he belongs. Head coach John Calipari said at the beginning of the year that Patterson's butt would be in the interior when the game was on the line, but that was not the case Tuesday night.
And finally, we all knew Patterson's shot attempts were going to go down this year. This team is more talented and deeper than last year's team, there are more people that need touches, and let's face it, Patterson might not be the best overall player anymore.
But he can't be the forgotten man in the offense. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe deserve the ball, but it can't be at the expense of Patterson. He can't become a role player. When the game is on the line, your leader needs to shoot the ball. After all, he is shooting 61.0 percent from the field, tops on the team.
One needs to look no further than the national championship team from a year ago. The Tar Heels were stocked so full of talent that their 10th man could have started for most Division I schools. There was Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis.
There were only so many shots to go around, but when the game was on the line, Tyler Hansbrough, UNC's bread and butter, had the ball in his hands.
Offensive balance is important, but so is feeding the hand that feeds the mouth. Patterson, no matter what the 2010 NBA mock drafts say, should be the go-to guy on this team. He's the returning leader who has proven over time that he's capable of leading the scoring load.
If there is one lesson UK needs to take out of Tuesday night's loss, it's how to get Patterson reestablished in the offense. Whether it's by his doing or the offense, Patterson cannot become an afterthought.
Camouflaged crazies shook the arena, "Sandstorm" blared in the background and Devan Downey played like a 5-foot-9 Michael Jordan.
So this is what it's like to be the No. 1 team in the nation. Or at least it was.
After waiting seven years to reclaim the mountain peak of college basketball, Kentucky was toppled with 40 minutes of rattled play.
South Carolina defeated top-ranked UK 68-62 Tuesday night at Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C. Downey, as he's been accustomed to doing in Southeastern Conference play, took over the game with yet another sensational 30-point night.
Gone is the talk of an undefeated season. Snapped is John Calipari's NCAA record streak of 65 wins over league foes (including conference tournaments). And say goodbye to that No. 1 ranking.
South Carolina played better. South Carolina played harder. South Carolina wanted it more.
Kentucky came into the game overconfident (presumably by the voice of the nation talking them up). Kentucky came into the game lackadaisical and loose. Kentucky walked away defeated for the first time this season.
"As I sat there and watched it unfold, I just said, 'This is what happens to a young team,' " Calipari said. "Then what happened is we weren't really listening with how we were trying to execute down the stretch. We tried making hero's plays."
I don't buy into the notion (or the cliche) that a team needs to lose to find out how to win. Baloney. Did the 1976 Indiana team need to lose to cut down the nets? Did the nearly undefeated UNLV team need to experience heartbreak to march to the Final Four before losing to Duke in 1991?
But maybe, just maybe this will teach the Cats that talent doesn't always overcome hard work. This isn't to say Kentucky didn't play hard, because the Cats played their tails off at stretches. But it was evident Tuesday night that the Gamecocks wanted it more.
At least Devan Downey did.
For the first time this season, somebody got the better of John Wall. When Downey started getting to the line and the crowd was at its feet, there was a noticeable look of distraught on Wall's face. For once, the spotlight turned to somebody else.
But let's give the kid a break. He's never had to experience adversity before. And really, Downey was just that good.
One minute Downey was going five miles per hour, the next he was going 100. It was like watching a mouse scurry between the legs of five giants.
Although Downey took a game-high 29 shots, he dictated the pace of the game. Sure, some of his shots were forced, but they were actually good shots for the South Carolina offense. All he had to do was put the ball near the rim. His ability to break down the defense left other Gamecocks open for tip-ins and offensive rebounds.
"We were saying if he makes tough shots it's going to be hard," Calipari said. "He made about three tough ones in tough times."
The tiny senior from Chester, S.C., did what he wanted when he wanted.
And-one fade away with the shot clock expiring? Check. Half-spin, change-of-direction runner off the glass? Check. Defense-splitting bank shot? Check. Downey did it all. And that was just within one one-and-a-half-minute stretch.
That run late in the second half changed the game for good. It epitomized the art of an upset. One team - one man - wanted it more.
And maybe in the process it taught the Cats a thing or two about bringing it all the time every time because Tuesday wasn't just about one team's glory and another one's lapse. No, this had some to do with effort.
Take for instance the rebounding margin. South Carolina outrebounded UK 44-40, including a difference-making 20 offensive boards. That's troubling news for a team that had an almost laughable size advantage down low. The Gamecocks were supposed to get destroyed in the paint. They answered the criticism with heart.
"I was begging them on every timeout to go block out," Calipari said. "What it meant was South Carolina was working harder than we were."
I can't tell you what's going through the heads of those 13 young men right now in the Kentucky locker room. I can tell you that Wall, despite some visible frustrations Tuesday night, is one of the most poised and confident 19-year-olds I've ever seen. I know this will only strengthen him. He'll bounce back.
I don't know how DeMarcus Cousins will react. His maturity has exponentially increased in recent weeks, but there's no telling how he'll handle adversity. He unmistakably late in the second half demanded the ball, and for good reason. Cousins finished the game with a monstrous 27 points and 11 rebounds.
"If he doesn't play, we get beat by 20 today," Calipari said.
I do know that Patrick Patterson will be the voice of reason in the locker room. If there was a time to lean on the team leader - because they surely didn't in the second half - this will be it. He must quickly regroup this team and make the players realize that one regular-season loss is far from the end of the world.
I also know that he must - must! - start demanding the ball more. For the second time in three games, Patterson failed to register a shot in the second half. Once again, unacceptable.
Folks, the sky isn't falling. It's one loss. Kentucky is still one of the favorites to win the national title. And I would rarely bet against a Wall-led team.
But the key from any loss like this is learning. Learn what it's like to play with a target on your back. Learn to shut out the overwhelming praise in your ear. Learn to put down the newspaper articles. Learn to play with the eyes of the nation on you. And learn to play like you're No. 1.
It is, after all, what this team is playing for. One abbreviated week at No. 1 won't affect the ultimate goal to be No. 1 at the end of the season - if they learn from these mistakes.
"No. 1 is not a championship," Cousins said. "We're playing for a championship."
Maybe you don't have to lose to learn how to win, but maybe these inexperienced, young guns needed a little bit of a slap of reality.
"We've got to mature," Cousins said. "We've got to work harder. We've got to come in more focused. We've got to play every game the same."
If they didn't know before, they do now: Being on top is fun, but it sure isn't easy.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for
our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending
Sunday, Jan. 24:
Swimming & diving: Elvis Burrows
Senior Elvis Burrows was an integral part in three of Kentucky's top events
in a loss to No. 16 Louisville this weekend. Burrows took the butterfly leg
of the second-place 200-medley relay which achieved an NCAA 'B' time standard.
He then led a 1-2 finish in the 100-butterfly by the Blue and White. Finally,
he was the second place finisher in a 1-2 finish for UK in the 50-free. His
time in the event (20.07) was an NCAA 'B' time standard and his best of the
Men's basketball: DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins, a 6-11 forward from Mobile, Ala., scored 16 points and pulled down
14 rebounds in only 17 minutes of action in helping lead Kentucky (19-0, 4-0
SEC) to a 101-70 win against Arkansas. It was Cousins' 10 th double-double
of the season, one shy of the UK freshman record of 11 (Chris Mills) in a season.
He has recorded two straight double-doubles and has recorded six double-doubles
this season while playing less than 20 minutes in the game.
Swimming & diving: John Fox
Freshman John Fox gained valuable points for the Wildcats with a victory on
the three-meter board and a runner-up finish on the one-meter board at Louisville
this weekend. Fox's three-meter score of 324.08 was nearly 20 points more than
the second-place finisher, and it is his career-best mark in the event.
Rifle: Logan Fox
Logan Fox had an outstanding week, with solid performances in both the win
over Army and the loss to Alaska-Fairbanks. In the win over Army, Fox totaled
a 587 in air rifle and a 573 in smallbore, with his air rifle score ranking
fifth best in the match. In the match with UAF, Fox had a 581 in air rifle
and a 576 in smallbore. "Logan has made some great gains in his performance
this semester," assistant coach Stacy Underwood said. "He has been very focused
on working and fine-tuning his mental game plan in practice. This weekend's
match against Ole Miss was indicator that his training is paying off and he
is ready to compete at a higher level. It's great to have such depth on our
team so that ever team member continually strives for a better performance."
Gymnastics: Emily Green
UK senior Emily Green won the floor exercise with a career-high and meet individual-high
score of 9.950. She became only the third gymnast in school history to record
a 9.950 on the floor exercise along with former Wildcat and current assistant
coach Heather Hite and three-time all-around NCAA champion Jenny Hansen. Green
posted her second title of the season, first on floor exercise. Green finished
second on the beam with a team-high 9.800.
Rifle: Ashley Jackson
Ashley Jackson continued to lead the UK rifle team with solid performances
against Army and Alaska-Fairbanks. Jackson has had an outstanding senior season
and totaled a team-best 589 in air rifle against UAF and a 578 in smallbore.
In the win over Army, Jackson had the best air rifle score of the match (592)
and the second-best smallbore score of the match (583). "Ashley was an unwavering
force in the past three matches," assistant coach Stacy Underwood said. "Although
she had solid scores, the most impressive part was the determination and focus
she displayed during each match. There were several times where she had to
make the decision to expect more from herself and she prevailed like a true
Swimming & diving: Chatham Penrod
Junior Chatham Penrod claimed both backstroke events for the second consecutive
meet, and was the only UK athlete to earn two individual victories. Her time
in the 100-backstroke (55.61) is an NCAA 'B' time standard. She also took the
backstroke leg in the winning 200-medley relay which also achieved an NCAA
'B' mark in Kentucky's loss at No. 13 Louisville this week.
Women's basketball: Lydia Watkins
Senior forward Lydia Watkins averaged 8.0 points and 7.5 rebounds off
the bench in helping Kentucky earn two SEC wins and improve to 16-3 overall
and 4-2 in SEC play.
Watkins scored 10 points on 4-of-9 shooting from the field in an 18-point
win over Auburn. With the Tigers trimming a 20-point UK lead to 10 points
midway through the second half, Watkins made a series of critical plays for
the Cats. She recorded two steals, made a conventional three-point play and
scored another basket, all in a span of 49 seconds to thwart the Tigers'
rally and extend UK's advantage to 17 points.
Pulled down a season- and game-high 12 rebounds and scored six points
in UK's win over Arkansas.
Has scored in double digits in four consecutive games while averaging
just 18.0 minutes per game.
According to ESPN.com, it doesn't matter who has the top pick in this year's 2010 NBA Draft. John Wall is the man, and no draft lottery is going to change that.
I had a chance to cycle through ESPN's draft lottery this afternoon (special thanks to the UK media relations staffers who helped me click through the random lottery a few hundred times), and every team in the lottery would select Wall if given the opportunity to have the top pick in the draft, according to ESPN.
If the season ended today, the New Jersey Nets, with a 3-40 record, would have a 25.0 percent chance of getting the top pick. Minnesota has a 19.9 percent of acquiring the No. 1 pick.
What I found the most interesting is that the New Orleans Hornets, who at this point have only a 0.6 percent chance of winning the top pick, would select Wall. New Orleans already has a multiple NBA All-Star in its backcourt running the show in Chris Paul. Apparently, at least as ESPN sees it, Wall is talented enough to warrant a possible backcourt battle.
Freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins seemed to be a consensus lottery pick and junior forward Patrick Patterson frequently made the top 14.
This is only a mock lottery by ESPN and in no way will determine what happens June 24, but it's interesting to see no less because it's become without a doubt that Kentucky truly has potentially one of the all-time greats in its backcourt this season.
As the Kentucky men's basketball team took a conference call from President Barack Obama on Tuesday, it was hard to tell who was more awestruck: freshman phenom John Wall or Obama.
Wall and the rest of the Kentucky men's basketball team took part in a conference call with Obama on Tuesday for their contribution in helping with the relief efforts in Haiti. Obama called the team to thank them for the "Hoops for Haiti" telethon, which raised more than $1 million with matching funds.
"Everybody admires what a great team you have," Obama said. "Everybody admires the dedication on the court and athleticism on the court. It's just fun to watch you guys. But the main reason I'm calling, is for you in the middle of the season to take the time to do something like this for people you don't know but have seen and have touched you, I think it's just a great testament to each of you individually, it's a great testament to your program and it's a great testament to Kentucky."
The team, clad in its blue "Hoops for Haiti T-shirts, took the call from the media room at the Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, S.C., where the Cats will take on South Carolina at 9 p.m. on ESPN. Obama placed the call around 1:30 p.m. from the Oval Office in Washington D.C. to express his gratitude for raising funds that will go directly to those in need in Haiti.
"I just want to let you guys know that I am very, very proud of what you guys do and that shows a lot of character and I hope that carries over," Obama said. "Some of you are going to be going to the NBA. Some of you are going to be doing other things in your lives. I hope that spirit of doing things for others continues because each of you have been given a lot, a lot of talent and a lot of opportunity. To those much is given, much is required."
Kentucky Rep. Ben Chandler was with Obama during the call from the White House.
"Guys, congratulations," Chandler said. "You all are making all of us proud in Kentucky. You really are. Congratulations on a No. 1 ranking and congratulations on being great people. Congratulations on the 'Hoops for Haiti' thing. What a wonderful thing for those who are in desperate, desperate need."
Head coach John Calipari and three Kentucky players - Wall, junior forward Patrick Patterson and freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins - had a chance to personally thank the president for the call.
"On behalf of the Kentucky basketball team, we just want to thank you for everything you're doing for the country," Patterson said. "This 'Hoops for Haiti' means as much to us as winning a basketball game and your leadership has inspired us all."
Of course, it wasn't all about Haiti for Obama, who has long been a fan of college basketball.
"I'm honored to speak to the No. 1 team in the country a few days after it happens," Obama said.
After Wall introduced himself, Obama stopped him before he could issue a special invitation.
"What's going on all-star?" Obama said. "I've been watching you."
The freshman point guard then invited the 44th president of the United State for a game in Lexington. Wall said if he arrives early enough, they can play a game of HORSE."
"I'm not going to play HORSE with you," Obama said. "I don't want to lose."
Obama did tentatively agree to the offer.
"I'm going to make sure you're on my team," Obama said. "I'm going to hook it up so I've got a chance."
Chandler said the president assured him that he and Chandler are going to play ball with the team if the Cats "allow" them to. If they come, Chandler promised the players they would put on Kentucky jerseys.
Obama inquired the team about its next game. When Calipari informed him that they were playing South Carolina in a few hours, Obama felt confident they would take care of business and improve to 20-0.
"You should be alright," Obama said to the laughter of the players. "There is that tendency once you get to be No. 1 to start to let down a little bit. It's a tough place to play, so you guys stay focused. I expect to see you guys in the championship game at some point."
Who knows, maybe they'll get a chance to show the commander in chief some national championship hardware.
"What we really look forward to is seeing you at the end of this season," Cousins said.
"The way you guys are going, that may happen," Obama said. (Special thanks to Marissa Hopkins at the Office fo the Press Secretary at the White House for the photo of Obama and Chandler).
After a historic 2009 softball season, one in which the Cats traveled to postseason play for the first time in school annals, the Kentucky softball team has picked up receiving votes in both the USA Today/NFCA Division I Top 25 Poll and the ESPN.com/USA Softball Pre-Season Collegiate Top 25 Poll.
The Cats, led by third-year coach Rachel Lawson, picked up 11 votes (36th) in the USA Today/NFCA poll and just missed out on cracking the top 25 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball poll with 26 votes (26th).
But should UK feel a little overlooked after last year's historic run? Maybe so.
In the school's first NCAA Tournament appearance, the Cats picked up wins over Canisius and BYU while notching 34 wins, the second most in school history.
But here's why Kentucky might be a bit underrated to start the season: the Cats return virtually its entire team from a year ago. Back are offensive stalwarts Molly Johnson, Megan Yocke and Brittany Cervantes. Record-setting pitchers Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley also return.
We're not just talking about the core of a team - we're talking about an entire uprising squad that was just learning how to win last year. Now with a year of success in the books, the ceiling appears higher than it ever has for the UK softball program.
Regardless, the votes the Cats received in the polls is telling of how far the program has come.
On Feb. 11 in Tempe, Ariz., UK will try to take it even farther.
As Rogers and those that follow SEC baseball know, survive in the SEC and make it to the NCAA Tournament and you have as good of a shot as any team in the nation to win the College World Series. The league is that tough.
"The Wildcats welcome back eight position starters, but the uncertainty surrounding ace pitcher James Paxton and the bullpen keeps them down in the eastern division pecking order for now," Rogers writes.
Senior pitcher James Paxton makes Rogers' All-Conference Team and sophomore hurler Alex Meyer is included in his "Rising Stock" list.
"The Wildcats hope they can count on ace pitcher James Paxton this season, but with the uncertainty surrounding his situation, there's a good chance Meyer will be the go-to guy on the mound," Rogers writes. "Meyer had a respectable freshman campaign, but impressed coaches by adding 20 pounds to his frame during the offseason. The right-hander is primed for a solid campaign."
UK kicks off its season Feb. 19 vs. Virginia Tech at the Caravelle Resort Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Keep an eye out on the blog in the coming weeks for previews of the upcoming 2010 baseball season.
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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ESPN's Jimmy Dykes saw Kentucky's first game day shootaround of the season, back in mid-November when the Cats were getting set to open the season against Morehead State. Calipari lamented how poor the practice was and Dykes didn't see anything that would make him argue with that assessment. But he says the newly number one-ranked Cats have come a long way since then.
"I think they understand how to play team basketball. I saw them the first practice and I don't think they had any clue about team basketball on the offensive end and the defensive end. I saw them four weeks later and they had glimpses of it. And I saw them two weeks after that and they were really looking like a team on both ends," Dykes told tomleachky.com. "Defensively, in the exhibition game and first couple of games, John Wall looked uninterested on the defensive end and now John Calipari has taken an elite talent level guy and got him to buy into how hard you have to play defensively. The progress he has made with DeMarcus Cousins is, to me, one of the great coaching jobs this year. To be able to get this guy to embrace being a low post player, because he wasn't one in high school, and to hustle up and down the floor each time he is in the game is, I think, those two areas have really stood out to me."
Calipari has said his NBA experience--as a head coach with the Nets and an assistant to Larry Brown in Philadelphia--made him a different and better coach. Dykes says that experience has made Calipari one of the best in the college game at managing groups of talented young players who may leave after a year or two in college.
"I don't think there is any question. I think he is as good as there is in the college game right now.at doing that. He had to manage ego and talent the last several years at Memphis. He had elite level guys there and I think he has a great way to communicate with those kids. I have been there at practice and have been privileged to sit with him in some team meetings with him and his staff and players and see how he gets his point across to them and not everyone can do it," said Dykes.
"Not everyone can take that highly talented player; a Wall, Bledsoe, a Patterson and get them to play hard. He does that as good as anyone in the college game right now and it seems easy to do but it ain't," he continued.
"I think the whole key in guys that play and are done in one year, a lot of coaches are scared of that. There is no reason to be scared of them as long as you do your background and homework on them. John has never been a guy to bring someone into his program that is a one year player that is going to be a selfish player," Dykes added. "John is a good guy at figuring out quickly in the recruiting process that if he is going to have a guy for one year, how will he blend with my guys for that one year and there have been some guys in the college game that have not done a good job at that but I think that Cal does a great job in his evaluation with those players that if you are going to come and play for me, you are going to do things the way I want you to do it and he holds them to it. He will be the first to tell you that the worst mistake you can make is to bring in a guy with the one-year agenda and is selfish and can't get him out of it and he has not had that happen to him. That selfishness is like the flu," Dyke said, "and that's why you don't want it to seep into your team, because when it comes, it can be hard to get rid of."
Tonight, Kentucky takes the number one ranking out for its first test drive--on the road against South Carolina. Devan Downey is averaging more than 31 points per game in SEC play and Dykes says the best plan in defending him is just to make it hard for him to get his points--because he's going to get them.
"I think what teams try to do, you are not going to take away everything this kid does so you have to try and take away a few areas. I don't think you can let him stand up there and bomb away three's because he is very good. He shoots with deep range, has a lot of confidence and has a green light," Dykes noted. "He shoots 22, 23 shots a game right now, so I think you have got to really crowd him and take away his threes and can't let him get clean layups at the rim. Anything in between are difficult shots and you need to make him take as many difficult shots as you can, knowing he is going to make them but at least he is not making three's and layups on you."
Dykes says Kentucky will have to be ready to face South Carolina's most rowdy crowd of the season and the first sellout for the Gamecocks. As for the rest of the SEC race, Dykes believes Vandy is the team that would have the best chance to knock off UK.
John Wall is supposed to be the best point guard in the nation, but he might not even be the best scoring guard in his own conference.
For all the buildup the 6-foot-4 guard from Kentucky gets, one need look no further than mini 5-foot-9 guard from South Carolina to find a better pure scorer than senior guard Devan Downey.
Who is the better overall player? That might be the determining factor in Tuesday's matchup in Columbia, S.C. when Kentucky, now the nation's top-ranked team and only undefeated squad in the nation, takes on South Carolina at 9 p.m. at Colonial Life Arena, where the Cats were blitzed 77-59 last year.
The graduation of Zam Fredrick and the season-ending injury to Dominique Archie has made this year's Gamecock team a much different one than that of last year's UK drubbing. Now when one thinks of South Carolina, the buck stops (and starts) with the lightning-quick guard from Chester, S.C.
"I think Devan Downey," Wall said. "Their team is more than Devan Downey but that's their go-to player. He can make a lot of baskets, he can shoot it, he can get to the basket and he's scrappy. You think of Devan Downey first."
Although Tuesday night's game could come down to much more than just Wall and Downey - for instance, UK has a sizeable depth and height advantage in the paint - it will be billed as a showdown of the league's two top guards.
"When you talk about the ability to get whatever shot you want, the ability to change the complexion of the game and get to that rim, it takes away certain things you want to do defensively," UK head coach John Calipari said of Downey. "John is just learning. Devan is more of an experienced player and understands the league better, but John is a talented kid, too."
Wall, already a heavy favorite to collect hardware for National Player of the Year honors, is averaging a team-high 17.0 points, 6.9 assists and 3.7 rebounds a game for the No. 1 team in the nation. Downey, meanwhile, in his fourth and final season in the garnet and black, is scoring a league-best 21.9 points per game.
In conference play alone, Downey is averaging a healthy 31.6 points a game. He's taken 27.7 percent of the shots for the Gamecocks and is the only established offensive presence on a team plagued with a lack of scoring options.
Against Florida on Saturday, he nearly pulled off a heroic late-game runner when he raced the length of the floor, split four defenders on the sideline - albeit with a double dribble - and leaned in the lane to bank in the game-tying shot.
Florida's Chandler Parsons spoiled Downey's game-high 36 points with heart-dropping 3-pointer at the buzzer, but it hardly overshadowed the will of Downey.
"I watched him the last game where they played Florida," Wall said. "He was lighting them up."
What Downey lacks in size - his official measurements are 5-9, 170 pounds - he makes up for in heart. He's been through three coaches - not even including the one (Bob Huggins) that initially recruited him at Cincinnati - a transfer, two NCAA Tournament snubs and a host of pressure to will his team to the Big Dance after the loss of Archie.
He's responded by leading his team in scoring and assists the past three seasons.
"We know he is the number one factor on that team so when he is on the court it is going to take a total team effort and all five of us to stop him," said junior forward Patrick Patterson, who vividly remembers Downey's game-winning step-back jumper over Jodie Meeks in the final seconds at Rupp Arena last year.
Florida's Billy Donovan decided to throw multiple defenders at Downey over the weekend to counter his scoring, but it hardly mattered in Gainesville, Fla.
Calipari said he'll use multiple guys on Downey, including a possible zone to keep the speedy guard from penetrating. However, there's little doubt that Wall will get his shot at Downey in a matchup of quite possibly the two most fleet-footed guards in the country.
Wall said he doesn't take the notion that Downey may be the SEC's best personally and even admitted that Downey's height - or lack thereof - might cause problems for him.
"It's a bad thing for me," Wall said. "That's too low to get down and guard him."
For all the attention Wall gets, Calipari believes Tuesday's primetime showdown will hinge on the Gamecocks' supporting cast.
"(Downey's) going to get his," Calipari said. "You know he will. He's going to take his shots. He can score in a multitude of ways. He can get to the foul line, he breaks down their press. What you don't want him to do is make everyone on the floor 10 times better, too."
Because if South Carolina can figure out how to get some of its other offensive weapons involved - only one other current South Carolina player (Brandis Raley Ross) averages double figures (10.1 ppg) - the Gamecocks could reestablish themselves in the NCAA Tournament hunt.
"It's a matter of other guys giving us a little more," South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said. "Devan's doing what he's doing because he can but we need everybody collectively to give us a little bit more."
Kentucky would be content if South Carolina figured out how to do that after Tuesday night. An undefeated record and now No. 1 ranking may depend on it.
Ten months ago Kentucky was playing in the National Invitation Tournament. Now it's on top of the college basketball word, unanimously ranked No. 1 in both major polls for the first time this season.
Following Kentucky's 101-70 rout of Arkansas and Texas' two straight losses last week, the Cats have taken over the top spot in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, picking up all 65 first-place votes in the AP and all 31 in the Coaches Poll.
It's the first time UK has been ranked No. 1 since March 2003.
"I think our kids are excited about it," head coach John Calipari said. "I think they wanted to be No. 1, which is a good sign, and now we are trying to teach them what it means to be No. 1. We talked at my house last night about it. What will come at them now (are) the different obstacles, different distractions that will take you away from what you're trying to do. An added level of that comes with being No. 1."
Although they downplayed the rankings beforehand, there was a noticeable sparkle in the eyes of the players now that they're the top team in the country.
"It means a lot," freshman guard John Wall said. "It shows us that coach Cal is doing what he's supposed to. He's getting us better and we're doing good as a basketball team. It's not where we want to be. We're thankful to be No. 1 in the country. That means a lot, that means you're working hard and you're winning games, but you want to be that No. 1 overall seed when that tournament comes."
UK easily beat out Kansas for the top spot, which came in at No. 2 in both rankings. Villanova, Syracuse and Michigan State followed at No. 3, 4 and 5, respectively. Last week's No. 1, Texas, dropped to No. 6 in both polls.
Calipari's Cats will now face similar expectations as to what the Longhorns faced over the last two weeks. How UK's players respond to the pressure will determine their staying power.
"It will be everything," Calipari said. "You'll have people coming out of the woodwork, ticket requests out of the woodwork, media requests and how we deal with those. All of the sudden, the guy who isn't very good looking becomes a beautiful young man. We'll talk some more and I have some other things to give them before we go on the practice court, but this is a pretty level-headed group."
It's the 89th week Kentucky has spent atop the AP poll. The Cats haven an all-time mark of 153-23 during that reign.
"It feels good (to be No. 1)," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "It is something we have worked on all year to be number one, and we want the respect of others, and I feel like we have earned that now. Everyone is just happy, and we want to continue working hard and just get better."
- Florida head coach Billy Donovan came away from Saturday's thrilling game with South Carolina impressed by the ability of South Carolina guard Devan Downey. "He can (score) in a variety of different ways. He can do it from behind the 3-piont line with deep range, he can take you off the dribble and hit runners and floaters in the lane, and then one of the things he does the best is he goes to the free-throw line 10 times a game." Because Downey is such an integral part of the Gamecock offense - the 5-foot-9 guard has taken 27.7 percent of South Carolina's shots - Donovan often times threw two guys on him. Donovan said he thinks the matchup with Kentucky will be a little different because of UK's length and athleticism.
- South Carolina head coach Darrin Horn doesn't anticipate a letdown on Tuesday after his team suffered a heartbreaking loss to Florida on Saturday. Horn expects Kentucky's likely No. 1 ranking and a sellout crowd to be all the motivation his players need.
- With the graduation of Zam Fredrick and the season-ending injury to Dominique Archie, it's fairly evident that Downey is the heart of the South Carolina offense. Horn said on Monday's teleconference that some of the other players need to give a little more to help out Downey.
- As great as Kentucky's guards have been, Horn said the most daunting task about facing Kentucky is its size in the interior.
- UK head coach John Calipari said the matchup between John Wall and Downey is likely a matchup of two of the nation's best guards. Calipari raved about Downey's ability to get to the basket and said Downey obviously has the edge in terms of experience. Downey was the focus of the teleconference, and justifiably so, but I'll have more on that in the South Carolina preview.
- Interesting to hear Calipari say that the Cats will "bring it" if it's a "significant game." Sounds like Calipari doesn't have to worry about getting his players up for a big game. However, he still doesn't think they've figured out to play an entire 40-minute game, which falls on their inexperience.
- DeMarcus Cousins, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week for his 16-point, 14-rebound performance against Arkansas, had his two front teeth repaired. Calipari joked on the teleconference that Cousins was back to being his "cute self," but said he came away really impressed with the kid's ability to keep his composure. "It was the funniest thing," Calipari said. "How much has this guy grown? He got basically punched in the mouth - not on purpose - but he likes their little point guard (Courtney Fortson). They're all from Mobile, Alabama, so when the kid whacked him in the mouth with his fist as he went for a layup and it knocked out his tooth, he came walking over and when he showed us his tooth, the entire team - and me - bust out laughing because here is this kid, 6-11-, 280, and looked like he was 11 with his tooth missing. It was hysterical."
Each offseason, Baseball America, one of the best baseball-centered publications out there, does a ranking of the top 10 prospects in each respective MLB organization. Each year, former Wildcats dot the rankings, with outfielder and Lexington native Collin Cowgill earning the distinction as a top-10 prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization this season.
This year, Strieby was left off the Detroit Tigers top-10 listing, but when Baseball America announced their top 10 players in the American League not to make their respective organizations top 10, he was tabbed as one of the 10 players.
"Strieby was part of our Detroit Top 10 list before the Tigers acquired Austin Jackson and Daniel Schlereth in the three-team Curtis Granderson/Edwin Jackson trade," Baseball America's Executive Editor Jim Callis said in the prospect breakdown. "Easily the best power hitter in the system, Strieby has launched 68 homers in 382 pro games despite battling hand injuries the last two years. He's blocked by Miguel Cabera at first base but his pop could win him a job at DH."
A fourth-round MLB Draft selection in 2006, Strieby has had an excellent minor league career for the Tigers, as Baseball America listing Strieby as the best power hitting prospect in the organization. A 6-foot-6, 235-pound first baseman, Strieby excelled in 2009 in double-A for the Erie SeaWolves, batting .303 (89-for-294) with 18 doubles, 19 homers and 58 RBI in 86 games before ending his season prematurely in late August with a hand injury. In an effort to gain playing time at the MLB level, Strieby has dabbled with playing left field in the Tigers organization.
While at Kentucky in 2006, Strieby helped pace a high-octane UK offense that helped the Wildcats capture the first SEC Championship in program annals, with the team blasting over 100 homers and scoring a school-record 500 runs. Strieby batted .343 with 20 homers and a then-school record 77 RBI in 2006, earning SEC Player of the Year honors and consensus All-America accolades.
Joker Phillips joked before Saturday's basketball game that he had been vacationing in the Bahamas since taking over the reins of the Kentucky football program.
He'll certainly need one after the work he's put in the last few weeks.
In trying to secure late commitments in the 2010 recruiting class, hiring two new assistant coaches in David Turner and Mike Summers, and transitioning the program from the Rich Brooks era to "Operation Win," Phillips has been engrossed in a three-week whirlwind.
"A friend of mine said that there was nothing you can do to prepare you for what is about to happen," Phillips said. "He's right. There is a lot dumped into your lap. I have been out recruiting last week and I come into the office and there are six players lined up. There is an operational guy lined up to see you and a secretary lined up to see you. There is nothing that can prepare you for it. The thing you have to do is relax and take it one day at a time. It gets slower every day."
Phillips described his new role as head coach as "fast-paced," adding that he could use a few more hours in the day to adjust to the job.
"It's a fun gig," Phillips said. "There's no question about that. The reason why it's so fun is because I'm doing something at a place I want to be at."
The former UK assistant and player has been on the recruiting trail for most of his first few weeks trying to wrap up the 2010 recruiting class before National Signing Day on Feb. 3.
Phillips said his move to the big office has been met well with the current players in the locker room and the prospective student-athletes on the recruiting trail. However, Phillips admitted his coaching staff is in a unique situation because they still have scholarships available.
"We're very active," Phillips said. "We have three, maybe four more spots that we'll try to fill. Those three or four spots, they've got to be the right three or four guys. We're not going to take guys just to take guys. We want to take better than what we have."
Phillips said there are a couple of players they've targeted to fill some of the need roles the Cats have, specifically at the defensive line position, which Turner will now head.
"We always need defensive linemen," Phillips said. "We have to find guys that can compete at this level and a high level. That high level is the SEC. We have to get guys that can control the line of scrimmage, and you can never have enough of them. So if there's a guy out there that we have targeted and tried to get to say yes, we have to keep them. We have been in this business a long time and what we haven't had is scholarships at this time of the year. We usually are not able to wait on people. This time we have a chance to wait on some really good football players and defensive linemen."
Phillips is hopeful that the newly hired Turner will help in that department, injecting an extra edge of physicality to the defensive line.
"You have to play hard, because it's a tough league," Turner said. "This is a grown man's league. There is only one league better than ours and that is the NFL. I would like to think that my guys show a physical nature during the game in the way it's played up front. I'm a big believer in keeping things simple. We will be fundamentally sound and simple, guys will know what to do and we will have fun. It's a game of emotions and the guys need to go out there and have fun, but also play hard, fast and physical."
And make no mistake about it, Phillips is counting on both Turner and Summers to make an immediate impact on recruiting as the time ticks down to Signing Day. One of the main reasons Phillips brought in the two new assistant coaches was because of their recruiting reputations.
"They better (make an impact)," Phillips said. "If we didn't think they would impact recruiting we would have waited until after recruiting to fill those spots. I've been at home with both of them this past week and they do an unbelievable job. They are great salespeople, which is what you have to be. They have a passion for this place and that is what is important to us."
Some interesting news this offseason involves the usage of a pitch clock and an in-between-innings clock, which the Southeastern Conference will implement into its conference tournament this May. There will be 20 seconds allotted between pitches and 90 seconds between innings.
Junior pitcher Logan Darnell has seen it all before, and experienced the play clock last summer. When asked if either would be an issue, Darnell wasn't concerned.
"I work pretty quick anyway," Darnell said.
It's good to see that baseball is going to use things from other sports to spice up play on the diamond. In lieu of that, I've got a few other suggestions to offer:
Baseball at all levels has continuously made the effort to keep hitters in the batter's box between pitches. From taking signs to tightening batting gloves, hitters can delay, delay, delay if they so choose. Umpires have been told to call a strike for the batter if they violate this rule, but it never happens and I have a better idea:
If a hitter kicks too much dirt, thumps his chest, kisses his bat, or points to the sky ... yellow card. Yep, just like in soccer. And if he does it again after the next pitch? Red card. See ya. Darnell liked it as well.
"It's certainly a good idea," Darnell said, but did mention that some of his teammates could be in trouble. "I know a couple guys."
Excessive celebration is a controversial issue in college football, specifically within the SEC. How about baseball? Our '06 team was into a little bit of that:
As Josh Harrellson put the finishing touches of a 101-70 rout of Arkansas with a leaning layup in the final few seconds of Saturday's victory at Rupp Arena - the 19th straight victory to start the season - DeMarcus Cousins raised up from the bench, waved his hands in the air and flashed his million-dollar smile.
It was without parts of his two front teeth (crowns) and with blood still swishing around his mouth, but No. 1 has never looked so good.
With a gritty, stingy defensive effort on Saturday, UK left no doubt on the floor - only a few teeth - as to who the No. 1 team in the nation will be when the polls come out Monday.
"I don't know (if we're the No. 1 team in the nation), but I thought we played well," head coach John Calipari said in his postgame news conference. "What I liked was our bench. I have a good idea of what those first five, or at least those four, are going to do. It's those next four or five that make us from good to really good."
Maybe the best. If 360 other teams would have came to Rupp Arena and faced the Cats on Saturday, they would have suffered the same fate as Arkansas, Calipari said, because the Razorbacks simple ran into a "buzz saw."
It was the closest to a complete 40-minute game the Cats have put together this season.
"If we played anyone in the country today, they were going to get smashed," Calipari said. "I'm not trying to be arrogant; I'm just being real from what I saw. I asked them after, 'Are we this good?' "
Although Arkansas is now just 8-11 on the season, its largest margin of defeat in Southeastern Conference play was enough to lead former Kentucky player and Arkansas coach John Pelphrey to say yes.
"They're very good," Pelphrey said. "Their size and speed separate them. Quality frontcourt depth make them very unique at the college level. They're very well coached. They have a chance to be the best team in college basketball team this year."
"I think it's probably by far the best team that we've played in terms of physical talent," said Pelphrey, whose team has already played the likes of current No. 1 Texas.
The difference Saturday, according to Calipari and the players, was defensive effort and intensity.
Earlier in the week, Calipari instructed his team to practice and play like it was riding a two-game losing streak and its back was against the wall. After a complete 40-minute defensive stomping, one of the few missing keys on this UK team, one has to wonder if the Cats will even lose two - or one - for the rest of the year.
"The difference was coach Cal," said Wall, who finished with 16 points and seven assists. "He's stepping up in practice, being even meaner and giving it to us like we lost two games. We came out here with a chip on our shoulder that we wanted to play 40 minutes of defense."
UK set the tone early with a 10-0 run to start the game, one that was fueled by offensive efficiency (Darius Miller's career-high 18 points will unrightfully go fairly unnoticed) and defensive perfection.
Rotnei Clarke, one of the quickest and most lethal triggers in the SEC, was basically a non-factor in Saturday's rout. Although he entered the game with a 51-point boasting against Alcorn State and 66 triples on the season, he had little room to wiggle free for an open shot against UK.
The Cats fought through screens and switched on picks, often times getting in Clarke's jersey before he could even take a shot. The sophomore guard finished the game with 13 points, but it came on just 5-of-15 from the floor, 2-of-9 from 3-point range.
"I'm from Oklahoma and I've seen him play. I've seen him average like 45 and 50 points, so I know the type of player that Rotnei is and know that if he does get a couple of 3s going, he won't be stopped," freshman forward Daniel Orton said. "He'll be hitting everything. Just crazy shots and everything, so I knew we couldn't let him get going."
Orton was a huge part of the defensive effort, altering shots and returning four to its original sender. After the game, Calipari called Orton the biggest factor in Kentucky's wildest fantasies.
"Daniel Orton is probably the difference for us to be that team you all want us to be," Calipari said. "When he comes off the bench and blocks shots and he defends like he defended today, (we can be that team)."
Kentucky totaled season highs in blocks (nine) and steals (nine) Saturday. At one point in the first half when the Hogs were limping to a 23.1 first-half field-goal percentage, one wondered whether UK would end up with more blocks in the first frame than Arkansas had field goals.
The Hogs ended the first half with nine field goals to the Cats' seven blocks.
Cousins once again played with an unstoppable physical force. He notched his 10th double-double of the year - one short of tying Chris Mills' UK freshman record for double-doubles in a season - with 16 points and 14 rebounds.
His relentless play after Arkansas guard Courtney Fortson inadvertently elbowed him in the mouth on a layup and knocked out one of his crowns and part of another set the tone for Saturday's tough-minded effort to snatch the top spot in the polls.
"It doesn't matter if he's got half a tooth or no teeth," Wall said. "He's going to play. He's just going to play aggressive. He got his mouthpiece in and kept playing the same way he was before."
Although the Cats didn't talk about it much during the week, it's clear the No. 1 ranking at hand meant something to them. After watching Texas drop back-to-back games this week, they understand it takes more than just talent to be the best in the land.
"They wanted it bad," Calipari said. "That's why they played this well. I think it was a pride thing. I tried to tell them (that) those seven national titles are not a burden; they're a badge of honor. No. 1 in the country is not a burden; that's an honor. We'll see how we respond now."
Because Kentucky, for the first time this season, both looked and played the complete role of No. 1. On Monday, they'll rightfully earn the title.
With a proverbial target on their backs, the Kentucky Wildcats have chosen to take the arrows out of their backs and aim the bow at the rest of the nation.
Although UK is the hands-on favorite to be the No. 1 team in the nation if it beats Arkansas on Saturday, head coach John Calipari has decided to motivate his team with an interesting concept: a two-game losing streak.
Apparently, as Calipari has told reporters and instructed his players to practice like, they're beaten, bruised and hungry. No. 1 team in the nation? One would hardly know it by the change in practice leading up to Saturday's 4 p.m. game vs. Arkansas at Rupp Arena.
Caliarpi said he has become more aggressive with the players in practice and has extended the sessions about 15 minutes longer than he usually does around this time of the year. Unexpected of an undefeated team to say the very least.
"There' s no joking around (in practice)," senior guard/forward Ramon Harris said. "Guys are drill to drill, guys are hustling, guys are running hard. I'm not saying we weren't doing that before, but when you lose two games, you focus a little more and that what guys are trying to do."
Freshman guard John Wall, who has yet to experience a loss of any kind on the collegiate level, is fine with reversing to an underdog's mentality.
"I think that is the best thing that coach Cal has done with us except for Camp Cal when we were off for break and we had those three days of practice," Wall said. "I think that is the best thing he did because everybody is playing different and harder than we did before. When you think about it, when you lose two games you are going to be upset. He said he hasn't lost two games in a row in a long time, so he got our mind set to practice that way."
Only the Cats haven't lost two games. They haven't even lost one. They're really a win away from snatching the No. 1 ranking for the first time since March 2003.
The players said before Friday's practice that a No. 1 ranking would mean a lot to them because, as Wall said so accurately, "Everybody plays the game to be No. 1 in college basketball."
However, it's crystal clear that the top of the polls is just a small goal in a much more elaborate plan.
"We are playing for a No. 1 seed," Calipari said. "If this game Saturday helps us get a No. 1 seed, that's all fine. But, you don't know. It's not life or death. Our thing is let's go out and let's see if we are playing the way we need to play."
That's the main motivation behind Calipari's more aggressive practices of late. While the rest of the nation is talking in one ear about how good they are, in the other ear Calipari is telling them to stay humble and hungry.
Otherwise, Kentucky will endure the same fates that previous No. 1 Kansas and soon-to-fall No. 1 Texas have endured in the last few weeks. Or, take for instance the suddenly downtrodden Boilermakers of Purdue, who lost three straight after starting the season 13-0.
"What coach is trying to tell us is there are certain things that separate different teams," Harris said. "We're not the only good team in this country right now. There are other teams that can beat us and can play as good as us. What he's trying to say is those little things separate the good from the great teams."
Calipari has continued to emphasize that Kentucky is one off-night or one hot shooting night from an opposing player away from dropping its first game.
And his words might prove to be prophetic if Arkansas sophomore guard Rotnei Clarke (18.3 points per game) repeats some of his previous performances from this season.
"I recruited him really hard and I loved him as a high school player," Calipari said. "I've watched four or five tapes and he doesn't need a whole lot of time to get it off. He works real hard to get shots off, and if he takes 15 3s and hits 11, it's been one heck of a start to our season. We aren't going to stop him from shooting them."
Clarke is filling it up with the best of the nation this year. In a season eerily familiar to the one Jodie Meeks put together in 2008-09, Clarke has drilled 66 3-pointers on the year at a sweltering 49.3-percent rate.
What makes Clarke nearly un-guardable is that he has quite arguably the quickest release in the Southeastern Conference and has the freedom from Arkansas head coach and former Kentucky great John Pelphrey to shoot from just about anywhere on the floor.
"If you're not ready for that then you might get beat by 40 because if he gets going it is going to be tough to stop him," Wall said. "Our main thing this week in practice has been fighting through the screens because if he gets hot teams are in trouble. He's the type of person you don't want to get hot because he can change the game for them like Corey Allmond did in the Sam Houston State game."
Clarke nearly topped Meeks' record-setting performance early in the season with a 51-point explosion vs. Alcorn State. A few games later, he dropped 10 treys on East Tennessee State.
Even more troubling is that point guard Courtney Fortson, the primary playmaker in the Arkansas offense, has returned from a 14-game suspension and has added an instant boost to a team that was in shambles at the beginning of the year.
Clearly, with a potential No. 1 ranking on the horizon, a target will be on the backs of the Wildcats when they host Arkansas on Saturday.
"Now, how are we going to practice?" Calipari said. "What are we going to go to get ourselves ready? What's your mentality? What's your focus like if we just lost two? Because if we don't start stepping up and practicing that way, we are going to lose two in a row."
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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With a win over Arkansas tomorrow, Kentucky will no doubt ascend to the top spot in the nation's major college basketball polls. And if the Cats keep winning, you'll soon start to see stories comparing these Cats to the last team (Indiana '76) to complete an undefeated season.
ESPN's Jay Bilas is in line with most every analyst out there in thinking Kentucky will not enter March Madness with a perfect record. And he says a knock or two is not necessarily a bad thing.
"The problem with young players, and no one has a time machine to make them older, is they are going to see some adversity and it will be the first they have ever faced," Bilas told tomleachky.com. "I go back to (last year's) North Carolina team. They are the model for what I am talking about. They had been knocked down a lot during their career. That senior class last year had lost in the first round to George Mason. Then the next year, they got to the Elite Eight and lost to Georgetown in a game they had won and should have won. Then, the third year, they make it to the Final Four and get blitzed by Kansas. So they had be knocked down and had to get back up again.
"To this point, Kentucky has responded to challenges but they haven't gotten knocked down yet. I think that the best thing for a team is to get knocked down. I believe Kentucky is going to lose and most basketball observers are going to agree with that. When they lose, it is not going to be any fun for Kentucky fans, but for Kentucky, it's not going to be the worst thing in the world," he added. "It will be kind of like that book 'The Value of a Skinned Knee'. Getting knocked down and having to get back up again is a good thing for a basketball player and basketball team."
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Like all of us, Bilas has seen all of the hype about John Wall but the ESPN analyst and former Duke star says what makes Kentucky a legitimate title threat is the help that Wall has.
"He has got NBA All Star ability and is learning how to harness it. It is enjoyable to watch him learning how to harness it. He has the ability to explode in spurts and score 10 points in a row or make Sportscenter-type plays," he said, "but the beauty of it is that he is not alone. I worked with DeMarcus Cousins at the Nike Skills Academy between his sophomore and junior year. I think he is the best rebounder in the country ability-wise and that certainly bears out on per-minute. He has a lot of maturing to do. And then there is Eric Bledsoe. Some people think that Bledsoe is getting overlooked in a big way because of his ability level and being overshadowed by John Wall. I think Wall is the better prospect but Bledsoe is a pro. They have four pros in the starting lineup. You could look at Final Four teams in the past and say okay, that team is a championship contender. They have four starters in the starting line up out of the gate and if all of them were a little bit older this wouldn't even be a contest. You would be talking about Kentucky being the best team. Experience is the only thing keeping me from saying that."
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Kentucky's annual matchup with Arkansas no doubt rekindles some good memories for Cameron Mills. The one-time walkon had his breakout performance in a game against the Hogs on Super Bowl Sunday, 1997.
Mills got his chance after Derek Anderson went down with a knee injury and he responded with 12 points off the bench in the Cats' 10-point win in Fayetteville. And that led to Mills becoming a valuable contributor on teams that played for the title ('97) and won it ('98).
Coach Calipari has talked about bench play being a key to this UK team's long-term development and Mills says players in that role need to have the right mindset.
"You try to make an impact on defense first. You're looking for opportunities to help out, to shoot the gap and make a steal. What your mentality needs to be is, 'just because I'm coming off the bench, there shouldn't be any expectation of a letdown'," he told coachcal.com. "I shouldn't have that expectation, my shouldn't have that expectations and my teammates shouldn't have that expectation. That was what was so impressive about the '96 team. The opponents never had a break. The second team came in and they put the opponents through it just like the first team did. The sixth game, the seventh guy, the eighth guy coming off the bench for coach Cal, their attitude needs to be 'it doesn't get easier for the opponent--it gets harder'. "
And as a former UK player, Mills is thrilled with the way Calipari has embraced the full scope of the role of coach of college basketball's all-time winningest program.
"The thing that was very evident early on was that he understood something you have to understand at the University of Kentucky--that is, you're not just the basketball coach. I would say your responsibilities are probably split 50-50 in being a basketball coach and being an ambassador for not only the University of Kentucky but the commonwealth of Kentucky. He understood that from the git-go," Mill said.
"He understands that every little 80-year old lady's hand that he shakes and says 'she's the biggest UK fan he'll ever meet and she used to listen to the games on the radio' and he understands that the impression he makes on her matters," he continued. "It's fun to watch and he's got the entire state exicted. And what he did with the Haiti relief. Who thinks of that? There wasn't another coach that even thought of that and then to pull it off in two days and to raise a million dollars. But what he understood is that the state of Kentucky is capable of pulling it off if they've got somebody like him leading the charge. That's one of the reasons he's so special."
Former Kentucky great Wayne Turner was featured on lostlettermen.com in a recent interview and podcast. In the post, Turner talks aboutthe 1998 NCAA Elite Eight classic against Duke, why the momentum suddenly shifted in UK's favor and how he overcame criticism of his unusual jump shot.
LL: The one knock on your game was always that unorthodox jumper. At what point did you say forget it, I'm not going to listen to people trying to fix my jumper. I'm just going to stick with it?
WT: I want to say in '98. In '98 I definitely had that whole year I was with coach Mike Sutton, who coaches at Tennessee Tech. He worked with me a whole lot on my shooting and he always told me the best shot is the next shot. That shot that you've already taken is already gone. It's already marked down as a field goal attempt. You worry about the next shot.
And that whole year I shot 38 percent from the 3-point line which is a big change for me and my free throw percentage went up. I just felt like everybody shoots different, everybody's different, every player is different from another player. There's some similarities but they're differences and unfortunately my shot had to be the most different.
But hey, I'm grateful that even with that type of shot, I made shots. A lot of people would say, "How do you make shots?" and I say, "Hey, it feels normal to me."
Sitting courtside Thursday night at the UK women's basketball game, Rich Brooks looked like a man at ease with his decision to end his 44-year football coaching career.
"Well, I am," Brooks said. "It was time."
Nearly three weeks since retiring, Brooks kicked back and relaxed with his wife, Karen, on the sidelines as Matthew Mitchell and his team notched their second straight Southeastern Conference victory and 15th overall with a 69-52 victory over Arkansas.
Maybe there is still a tiny little fire in him to coach - after all, he had a few words for one of the referees for a non-call late in the second half - but it's apparent after Thursday's game that Brooks was ready to hang it up.
"I've been good. I'm not doing any recruiting," Brooks said as he cracked a smile. "I had a chance to go down and see my little grandson for his second birthday in Atlanta, so that was fun."
Brooks attended the American Football Coaches Association coaches' clinic in Orlando, Fla., last week, but otherwise he has spent his time catching up on the things he was unable to do as often while he was coaching, such as visiting with family and friends.
The seven-year Kentucky coach caught up with former players Marcus McClinton and Keenan Burton on Wednesday in Lexington. Brooks had a few words of encouragement for Burton, who suffered a season-ending knee injury with the St. Louis Rams a few months ago.
"He's going to be ready to go for the passing camps in June," Brooks said. "He's looking forward to the year. He's a little uncertain with maybe a strike coming up or a lockout or whatever in 2011. I just hope he has a good year coming up."
The retirement of Brooks has been far from easy for some of the players, especially the former ones, who, with the help of Brooks, took a stagnant football program and transformed it into an annual contender in the Southeastern Conference.
"I think they're doing fine," Brooks said. "I talked to (current players) a week ago Wednesday for their first day back at school and they're just going about their business getting ready for spring ball."
There has been an especially high outpouring of love and support from the Kentucky fan base following Brooks' retirement for a man who made football matter in the Bluegrass State again. Brooks said he is grateful for the kind words but admitted he's had to take it with a "grain of salt," much like he did when he took a beating of criticism for his first few years on the job, because it's only a few weeks into the Joker Phillips regime.
Under the new initiative "Operation Win," Brooks said Phillips has been doing a "great job." The two have had several conversations over the past couple of weeks while Phillips has been on the road recruiting. Brook said he would like to help Phillips in whatever capacity he can, but he admitted it's now Phillips' show to run.
"He's the guy," Brooks said. "He will bounce a few things off of me from time to time, but I'm sure that will diminish as the weeks go on."
Mitchell and his team dedicated the game ball to Brooks on Thursday for his longtime dedication of UK Hoops.
"That's a real honor," Brooks said. "I've been a big fan of his and what he's trying to do here and I think this is the team that's in transition from being semi-competitive to one that can get back into the Big Dance, so I'm really excited for him."
As far as the long-term future is concerned, Brooks has no set plan. For now, it's time to catch up with family and friends and enjoy the good life of retirement.
"I'm just going down to do a little bone fishing with a friend of mine in the Bahamas and then back out to Oregon to see my family out there and then probably back here to see some more friends," Brooks said.
After his honest, hard-working rein at UK, he has plenty of them to go around and see.
Former UK pitcher Joe Blanton has signed a three-year extension with the Philadelphia Phillies worth a reported $24 million.
The 29-yeard-old right-hander, who made 55 career appearances at UK from 2000-02, went 12-8 with a 4.05 ERA for the Phillies last season, including two postseason appearances.
"They came at me with the prospect of going long-term. I was thrilled," Blanton said, according a a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "I've enjoyed my time here in the past year-and-a-half. I just feel the organization has gotten better and better.
"When you hit free agency, you want to go to a winner. I'm already with a winner, so I was thrilled."
Blanton is best known for his heroics in the 2008 World Series. In addition to pitching six innings of two-run ball for the world champion Phillies, Blanton belted a solo home run vs. the Tampa Bay Rays, the first home by a pitcher in the World Series since 1974.
The Franklin, Ky., native went 5-7 with a 4.59 ERA in 14 starts in 2002 for UK, fanning 133 in 100 innings.
Calipari said he would wrestle John Wall to the ground if he bypassed the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft to come back to school for another year.
"If he came to me and said he was the No. 1 pick in the draft, and he wanted to come back, we'd probably be wrestling around on the floor because there's no reason other than me trying to win more games that he should come back," Calipari said on the show.
Calipari also showed some love for Patrick when he brought up Sunday's telethon for the relief efforts in Haiti.
"I'm going to kiss you right on the lips," Calipari said. "Can I get through the pone? Have you ever been kissed on the lips by a man?"
In a way it's ironic that Storey Morris can even perform when the spotlight shines down on her when one considers how potentially tragic the eyes of an audience can be on her.
In a sport for where every move, gesture and landing is critiqued, anxiety must be mastered. For Morris, a sophomore on the UK gymnastics team, conquering it could mean life or death.
Morris has battled asthma since being diagnosed with the inflammatory disorder at 2. As a child in Tyler, Texas, Morris dealt with frequent asthma attacks, both minor and serious, where an emergency inhaler was always in her pocket and a nebulizer, a breathing machine, was always close by.
"There were a couple of Fourth of Julys where I had an asthma attack and had to go into the car to get away from the smoke," Morris said. "My mom just kept giving me the emergency inhalers."
Before her teenage years, Morris would have to take frequent breaks during her routines and practice just to get her breath back. She's developed bronchitis from the disorder, she takes Advair twice a day to combat the asthma, and she was rushed to see a doctor last year as a freshman because of the change in environment from Texas to Kentucky.
That's why it's so remarkable that Morris is even able to perform in a sport where every move can be scrutinized. There's anxiety and there's pressure, and when stress levels go up, asthma symptoms can often go into overdrive.
And yet Morris has learned to control her asthma in her sophomore year. In addition to a nagging ankle injury that shortened a disappointing freshman season, Morris has returned to the floor this year as strong as she's ever been.
In helping UK to its first victory over LSU in more than two decades, a 3-1 record and a No. 12 national ranking, the highest mark since 1998, Morris has captured two event titles on the beam and bars and another second place on the beam in a tournament in Las Vegas last weekend.
Clearly anxiety, and more importantly her asthma, has not been a problem.
"You're always going to be nervous before a meet no matter how long you've been competing," Morris said. "It's never been too severe or anything, only a little jittery."
The coaching staff at UK believes Morris has been able to overcome the inflammatory disorder because of her mental toughness.
"She's very mentally strong," head coach Mo Mitchell said. "What we expect to do on the competition floor they've been doing all their lives. What changes? The mental aspect of it. If you're not mentally tough and you don't have it upstairs, it will manifest itself in competition."
Morris, with the aid of the coaching staff and trainers, has been careful in her handling of the asthma. Morris has developed a trust with the staff that if she needs to stop doing something, she doesn't need to ask.
"The amazing thing is I knew she had asthma all throughout club gymnastics but you really didn't notice it a lot because she took care of herself," said assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, who coached Morris at the club level at Texas East Gymnastics. "She would keep it to herself. If she had to go do breathing treatments she would do it on her own. She was very self-efficient with it. Some days we would have to watch how many turns she took on floor routines and stuff, but you don't notice it much. She doesn't let it hinder her one bit. Still doesn't."
Morris and the staff have been so diligent in their work and preparation that her condition has started to elude some of the team.
"To be honest with you, I forgot she had asthma," Mitchell said.
The fact that Morris has been able to battle back from asthma and injury - she's still only about "90 percent" of the way back from ankle surgery and is only competing on the beam and bars while she recovers - has helped turn around a disappointing 2009 season for the Cats into a promising-filled 2010.
UK has already knocked off a top-20 opponent in LSU and hopes to topple No. 4 Florida, a school the Cats have beaten just once in program history, this weekend at Memorial Coliseum. The Cats have already met the 195.525 mark this season, a feat they conquered just twice last year.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, attitude and level of expectations," Mitchell said. "We told them at the end of last year we're going to make some minor changes that are going to make some major differences. As far as we're concerned, raising the level of expectations is a minor change that makes a major difference.
"They've embraced the fact that they're tired of losing. They've embraced the fact that this is what we need to do to get better."
But getting better and changing that level of expectations has a lot to do with landing a healthy Morris. A star-studded recruit out of Texas, one who was the 2005 U.S. Challenge National All-Around champion, Morris chose Kentucky over top-20 schools like Alabama, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Missouri.
Mitchell believes she has the potential to be an All-American in three different events. "Storey's just a phenomenal person," Mitchell said. "She's a 4.0 student, gets it done in the classroom, makes good, sound decisions outside of the classroom, she's well balanced both spiritually, emotionally, academically, athletically. If I could clone a student-athlete, she would be the prototype."
Morris has been a huge activist in combating asthma as well. Back home, she's become the poster child for overcoming it.
Her doctor in Texas, Paul Sharpy, who was affected by the loss of one his patients to asthma, reached out to Morris to help with an asthma awareness campaign he was starting. Sharpy purchased a bus to visit low-income families in Tyler to help kids with asthma, show them how to control it and provide medicine.
Morris made an eye-catching impression.
"Yeah, I'm on the side of a bus," Morris said, blushing.
But Morris' contributions have made a huge impact. Just recently the 5-foot-2 gymnast reached out to a young aspiring gymnast in Texas who was thinking about quitting the sport because of asthma. Morris inspired her to stick with it.
"I did it to inspire other kids who are struggling with their asthma and give them encouragement in any way I can," Morris said.
Morris' success has not only embodied the battle against asthma, it's personified the belief in this year's gymnastics team.
"We believe more now," Dickerson said. "I've been telling them the two years I've been here, just keep believing and you're going to see the fruit of your labor."
Former Kentucky great Wayne Turner was featured on lostlettermen.com in a recent interview and podcast. In the post, Turner talks about his future playing career, his goal of coaching and his relationship with current UK coach John Calipari.
LL: I know that coach Calipari has brought back Scott Padgett and Tony Delk for the coaching staff. Have you talked to him about a position in the future?
WT: No I haven't. I pretty much understand how the coaching situation goes. I'm pretty sure a thousand other people that coach Calipari knows would love to be a part of his coaching staff that hasn't surfaced yet. Coach Cal has been great for me as far as my return back here. He's been showing me great loyalty. I can go to most practices whenever; I mean everything's open arms with him. Just by him helping me actually transition back into school because I did call him before I made my return and he was all open arms and did everything that he could to get me in the position I am right now to finish up my degree.
Update:Tickets for the next four home games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama have been sold out.
Kentucky men's basketball tickets have become like gold.
With the Cats' riding an unscathed 18-0 record to begin the season, a potential No. 1 ranking coming and national exposure reaching an all-time high, the demand for UK tickets may have never been higher. At Tuesday night's lottery, the third of the season, an estimated 8,200 control numbers were handed out to students hoping to purchase tickets to upcoming basketball games against Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Alabama, just a few hundred short of the total number of control tickets handed out for all of last season.
Joe Sharpe, assistant athletics director for the ticket office, said they gave away approximately 10,000 control numbers all of last year over four different lotteries.
Students packed Memorial Coliseum Tuesday night, lining up outside the arena more than an hour and a half before doors were opened at 8:30 p.m. Sharpe said they started to sell tickets around 9:50 p.m. and sold the last few around 12:50 a.m.
Sharpe also said they sold out the entire ticket allotment for the Vanderbilt game on Jan. 30, the first time UK has sold out tickets for a game at the lottery since former UK coach Rick Pitino returned to Kentucky as the Louisville coach in 2001.
The first 2,000 students at Tuesday night's lottery received a ticket to ESPN College GameDay, which will visit Lexington on Feb. 13 for the Tennessee game. UK is hoping to sell out Rupp Arena for ESPN's program, setting a new GameDay attendance record and becoming the first program to pack its arena for the weekly basketball show.
If a student's control number is called at the lottery, they are allowed one ticket per game with a valid student ID. Tickets cost $5 each.
UK Public Relations announced Friday that it hopes to break the ESPN College GameDay attendance record when the ESPN crew visits Rupp Arena in Lexington on Feb. 13 for the UK-Tennessee game. See the previous Cat Scratches entry on Gameday for more info.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for
our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending
Sunday, Jan. 17:
Men's basketball: Eric Bledsoe
Averaged 19 points to go along with 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists on the week,
helping lead Kentucky to wins at Florida and at Auburn ... Scored a career-high
and game-high 25 points at Florida leading the Cats to their first win in Gainesville
since the '04 season ... Scored a first half career best 15 points ... Hit multiple
three-pointers for first time since going 4-5 against Indiana ... Scored in double-digits
in five straight games ... Become the third UK freshman to score 25 in a game
this season. It's the first time Kentucky has had three freshmen score 25 in
a game since the 1975 season ... Birmingham native finished with 13 points in
helping UK to a road win at Auburn
Gymnastics: Storey Morris
Sophomore Storey Morris (Tyler,
Texas) headlined Kentucky's gymnasts, sharing titlist honors in two events.
Morris recorded a personal best in matching teammate senior Emily Green (Penfield,
N.Y.) for first place on the beam with a 9.825. Morris also shared top honors
on the uneven bars with teammates senior Jacque Behrendt (Franklin,
Tenn.) and senior Jamie Reimann (Johnston,
Iowa) by scoring a 9.750.
Women's basketball: Lydia Watkins
Senior forward reserve Lydia Watkins averaged 12.5 points, a team-high
6.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals in two SEC games.
Came off the bench to score 10 points, grab five rebounds and snag a team
high-tying three steals in 19 minutes in a 79-71 setback at South Carolina.
Was perfect from the floor vs. the Gamecocks, hitting 4-of-4 attempts,
including her only three-point shot.
Turned in her best career effort against an SEC foe, recording 15 points
on 6-of-9 shooting to go with seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals in
20 minutes vs. Alabama.
Few things can alter one's life like the birth of a child.
In most cases, bringing a child into this world signals the proudest moment of a person's life. To be able put another person's life ahead of your own marks one of the purest things in life.
When Lydia Watkins talks about her child, Jaylen, her smile says it all. She's happy, she's proud and she's blessed to be able to take care of her 9-month-old son.
But even the proud mother of one can look back and realize how much her life has changed over the past year. At this time a year ago, Watkins was on the bench pregnant with her future very much in doubt.
"It's been pretty much an eye opener really," Watkins said of the past year. "It has changed a lot of things as far as maturing more and trying to focus on my career so I can make my life better for my son. It's been an eye opener and a blessing in disguise."
Watkins could barely even stand to watch last season as her teammates struggled down the stretch to a Women's National Invitational Tournament berth. As the season drug on, the Cats barely had enough players to field a starting lineup.
The Hopkinsville, Ky., native took it to heart because she said her decisions put her team in that position.
"That's the roughest part of it all was sitting there and watching knowing I couldn't do anything about it," Watkins said. "It was one of the toughest things I've ever been through. Last year was really tough because I knew some of the decisions I made led to me sitting out."
The pregnancy and the birth of her child put things in perspective, she says. Life's responsibilities forced your typical college basketball player into a mature adult, one who is more conscientious of the decisions she makes and how it affects her and her son's future.
"I'm more responsible," Watkins said. "I have to be on a schedule, drop my son off at daycare and go to class. There have been a lot of changes as far growing up to be a great mother."
Before Jaylen, Watkins was an athletic 6-foot-1 swing guard who could play tenacious defense and spell minutes in the paint. Her work ethic was great, but her attitude wasn't always in the right place.
"She's always played with energy," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It just wasn't always positive energy. At times she would get really down on herself or down on the situation, so then it would be a detriment to her."
But the birth of her child and a career bout with back injuries, specifically spondylolisthesis, a stress fracture of her vertebrae, have put things into perspective. When you've got another person to tend to and take care of, basketball can seem so trivial.
And yet it felt so important for Watkins. Returning for her senior season with a newfound look on life, Watkins viewed it has her final chance at UK - an opportunity to make one final mark in Lexington.
She rebuilt her attitude and harnessed her work ethic, and as a result, it's revitalized what was always a promising career.
"She's always played hard with a lot of effort, but she's doing just a better job of channeling her energy in a positive direction and not getting upset with the negative plays," Mitchell said. "She's always been a player who gave a lot of effort. Just at times when she would get down on herself the effort would drop. She's much more consistent now."
Over the last two Southeastern Conference games Watkins has averaged 12.5 points per game and a team-high 6.0 rebounds.
Against South Carolina, on a night when few of her teammates brought their intensity, Watkins came off the bench to score 10 points, grab five rebounds and snag a team-high-tying three steals in 19 minutes of action. In the win over Alabama on Sunday, Watkins recorded 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go with seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals.
"She was very important for us last week," Mitchell said. "One thing she did is she showed a consistent effort on a night (at South Carolina) when not a lot of people were doing that. It gave me an opportunity to have an example of what you should be doing. She practiced extremely hard trying to get ready for the Alabama game, setting a great example for our team. I thought her leadership was key in our play on Sunday."
Before the season started, Watkins didn't know if she would even have a role on the team, much less a leadership position. With nearly a year's absence, new players coming in and a new system, it was hard to envision what her role would be with this year's team.
"I was kind of nervous," Watkins said. "Having to sit out and knowing I was going to be so far behind everyone, I knew that I would have to work. When I came back after having my son I tried to work hard every single day. Whatever coach wanted me to do I did."
Her work ethic has paid off. Despite late nights staying up with her son, and balancing class and her child, she's becomes the self-described "energy player" off the bench, spelling key minutes for junior forward Victoria Dunlap and offering critical depth at a thin position.
"I am constantly going," Watkins said. "There is never a break. If I get tired I just think about (Jaylen). He basically keeps me going just to be able to go home and see him."
Watkins has embraced the role of the team energizer.
"Me being a senior, this is my last go around, so every game I try to bring it," said Watkins who is averaging 7.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. "I try to bring the energy to the team. Wherever we're lacking, that's where I try to pick us up at. I know I'm not the leading scorer or the leading player on this team, but the little things I do helps this team a lot."
Although Watkins has become more dedicated on the court, she's realized there are bigger things off it. The last year has redefined her life and helped her focus on her future.
Watkins hopes to graduate this year and move on to Eastern Kentucky University next year so she can get her master's degree in juvenile justice. After that she hopes to become a probation officer and take care of her son.
With everything Watkins has been through in the past year, there is little doubt she'll persevere.
"All of the things I've been through from the back surgery to having him, a lot of things have come into place," Watkins said. "Things have worked out well. I sit back and think about things sometimes and I'm just like, 'I'm still going hard.' "
During that phone call, as the post profiles, Wooden told Calipari that he was playing too many players.
"The option is to tell everyone to be ready and if one guy is playing well then accept that,'' Calipari said in Katz's blog post. "In the NCAA tournament, as you know, you really only play seven or eight. But Wooden's point was to do that now. He's probably right. I try to make too many people happy."
Calipari also spoke with Katz on the Cats' chance to take over the top spot in the polls after Texas lost to Kansas State on Monday night.
"This was an NIT team last year,'' Calipari said in the interview with Katz. "Suddenly, these freshmen and this returning group have to play well to win Saturday. And if they do, they're No. 1. But what does that mean?''
Better late than never, Matthew Mitchell and his players must be thinking after Tuesday.
Although its play has probably warranted a ranking far earlier, the UK women's basketball team finally cracked one of the major top-25 polls. The Cats entered the ESPN/USA Today Poll this week at No. 25, marking the Cats' first appearance in the top 25 since Nov. 23, 2006.
Head coach Matthew Mitchell took a page out of men's head coach John Calipari's book on Tuesday before practice when he joked that his team deserves to ranked 50th and should not have as many wins as it does.
In all seriousness, Mitchell said he was happiest for the fans because they have been concerned with the lack of a ranking.
"The ranking we want to be in is the top 64 and that's the 64 teams that get invited to the NCAA Tournament," Mitchell said. "That's where our focus is and a national ranking or poll will not get you there. You have to win a certain amount of games and that's where our focus is on. Anything that's happening positive in the program that shows we're maybe making some progress is good. It's just not something we can really dwell on at this point in time."
UK is coming off a 1-1 week in which it lost on the road at South Carolina but bounced back to defeated Alabama at home by double digits.
With the Cats' ranking, the Southeastern Conference now has four teams in the ESPN/USA Today Poll.
"That's a great opportunity for us to be ranked to get recognized like that," junior forward Victoria Dunlap said. "We just take that and move on and try to get better and better. As a team we want to get recognized. We want people to know we're out here playing and that we're a good team. It was bound to happen sooner or later because people were going to realize how we play and our potential."
With 13 receiving votes, UK sits at No. 33 in the Associated Press Top 25.
Kentucky returns to the court Thursday at Memorial Coliseum vs. Arkansas at 7 p.m.
Following one of his first sessions with the Kentucky basketball team, John Calipari, as he tells it, went back to his office and wondered what he had gotten himself into.
Without a star-studded recruiting class at that point in April, Calipari realized the talent pool was a bit dry.
One player, however, that appeared to stand out in those individual drill instruction sessions along with eventual NBA draftee Jodie Meeks was Darius Miller. With his length, athleticism and quickness, Miller appeared to be the perfect fit for Calipari's vaunted Dribble Drive Motion Offense.
Miller's ability to drive to the basket provided Calipari, now the king of Camelot, his Excalibur to slice through defenses and reestablish Kentucky's rightful place atop the ranks of college basketball.
A couple of things still ring true: One, Kentucky appears poised to take over the top spot in college basketball and Miller still possesses those same physical traits to take over a game in Calipari's run-and-gun system.
As Calipari said on multiple occasions, he's solid at everything and good enough at all aspects of the game to fit "in this system as well as anyone in the program."
However, halfway through the season, Miller finds himself searching for a role on a team full of superstars. On natural ability alone, Miller has started for the Cats in all 18 games this season, averaging 7.3 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, but Calipari issued a personal challenge to him after the Louisville game to be more aggressive.
"He's just got to play," Calipari said. "It's not deferring. He slows down in the game and has opportunities to dunk balls and he doesn't. Come on, man."
Since a season-high 16 points against Hartford, Miller has averaged just 4.3 points per game over his last four contests. Miller believes it has everything to do with his bad habit of deferring to his teammates.
With a roster stocked full of McDonald's All-Americans, Player of the Year candidates and future NBA stars, Miller has had a tendency to take a backseat to his teammates.
"It's tough at times, especially with the amount of talent we have on this team," Miller said. "We have (Patrick Patterson) who is an All-American, John (Wall), too, and DeMarcus (Cousins), who has been doing a really good job of scoring and dominating games. At times it is tough to kind of get out of that habit.
"I really didn't feel like I had to (score) really because when you've got people scoring 20 points a game with three different players, I really was just trying to do a little bit of everything else."
Calipari, who at one point in the season had to yell at Miller during the middle of a game to take an open shot, said deferment is not the problem. He believes it's aggressiveness.
"On the excuse board (deferment's) No. 6," Calipari said.
Although his scoring hasn't been there the last two games, it appears Miller has started to get the message after a season-low eight minutes vs. Louisville.
Against Florida in a hostile environment in Gainesville, Fla., Miller scored nine points, including a key dunk. The throw down was his first of the year, and judging by Calipari's reaction on the sideline, one would have thought the two-hand baseline jam was a between-the-legs, one-hand tomahawk slam.
"We were all doing back flips on the bench," Calipari said.
On Saturday vs. Auburn, Miller came up with back-to-back rejections, including a one-hand swat on Tiger guard DeWayne Reed, who tried to fly down the lane and posterize the Maysville, Ky., native and former Kentucky Mr. Basketball winner.
To his credit, Miller has handled Calipari's challenge in good spirits.
"I knew it was my fault," Miller said. "All I had to do was change. (Calipari) was straightforward. He told me what he wanted. If I didn't do it he wasn't going to play me."
Last week he answered reporters' questions with a smile on his face nearly the entire time and he's taken the ribbing from his teammates in stride.
"They've been joking with me about not having a dunk so far," Miller said. "I was probably one of the only guys not to."
The most important thing is that Miller has seemingly responded to Calipari's ultimatum to either play harder or sit on the bench.
He has always had the skills and potential. At 6-foot-7, he possesses length and speed, and he's become a surprisingly consistent threat from behind the 3-point line, hitting 27-of-65 long-range shots (41.5 percent) this season.
Now if he can combine that offensive potential with more aggressiveness and the "junkyard dog" defensive mentality that Calipari so often raves about Ramon Harris, Miller will have discovered the role Calipari has been asking of the sophomore guard.
"He wants a lot from everybody," Miller said. "Just everybody being aggressive and going out and playing comfortably. He really wants us to focus on defense and rebounding and making tough plays."
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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At the start of the season, ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas didn't think Kentucky could win the national championship, because of its inexperience. But two months, the Wildcats' play has caused him to re-think that opinion.
Bilas believes it's a much more wide open race than it was last year when a veteran North Carolina team began and ended the year as the best team. He thinks a team as young as Kentucky could not win it all in a year like 2009 when there were several elite teams with experience. But in the 2010 race, he says the Cats are definitely in the mix, thanks to what he calls "stunning" improvement from mid-November to now.
"This Kentucky team now can win the national championship. Last year, they couldn't. If you put this same team in last year's field, that team would not have won the national championship. It can this year," Bilas suggested in an interview with tomleachky.com "Does that mean this year should be thrown out? No. This happens all the time.
"I think it has been remarkable what Kentucky has accomplished and it's not just the young players and the fact that they have freshman at prominent positions. It's that every player on the roster is new to John Calipari and his system, and they are all new to him," Bilas continued. " I was one of those that thought that a lack of experience and a lack of having played together before would have caught up to them by now in at least a game or two, but every time they have been challenged or faced adversity, they have shown a tremendous amount of resiliency. And I think it's really remarkable. I think the job John Calipari has done in his first year at Kentucky is remarkable and I cannot think of one through the first 16 games of a coach's tenure that has been any better."
In what areas has Kentucky shown the most growth?
"I think their decision-making has gotten better and their cowboy wildness has subsided in a good way. We used to call it, when I was an assistant, the 'Superman complex', where the kid has the best of intentions but pulls into the phone booth pull off his shirt and says 'I am going to do this'. They are not doing that as much," Bilas observed, adding that he's been impressed with the Cats' defense and that Calipari's teams have always been distinguished by how well they guarded the opponent.
To Bilas, this year's championship race reminds him of the 2006 season. That year, the favorite, Connecticut, was upset in a regional final by George Mason.
"I don't think anybody had a reasonable handle on who was going to win and ultimately it was Florida. UCLA made it to their first of three straight Final Fours. I think it is a lot like that (in 2010) and if I were coaching the 14th-best team in the country right now. I would feel pretty darn confident that if we stick by what we are doing and we get better, we have just as good a chance to win it. Kansas has shown they can be beaten. I believe Texas can be beaten. I believe Kentucky can be beaten. They can all certainly be beaten in an NCAA tournament where stranger things happen on a neutral court with different officials."
Can one of the top teams in the current polls take that step from "very good" to "great" and start to look more invincible?
"I don't see anyone, no matter what, being as good as last year as North Carolina was last year. They could score 100 points every night. They were powerful, had already been to a Final Four, they had experience. There is nobody in the field that is bringing a team back that had been to the Final Four the year before. So, everyone is different from last year. I thought that Michigan State could elevate with the players they have but they have gotten off to a slower start than I expected. Some of it has to do with injuries and leadership issues, but I think they are still a team that can win this whole thing. There are a number of them. I don't want to cap it and say there are like eight teams that can win this whole there. I would say there are, if the one on top gets clipped along the way, there are as many as 15 to 20 teams that can have a shot or an outside shot."
With No. 1 Texas losing to No. 9/10 Kansas State on Monday, the UK men's basketball team becomes the only undefeated team left in Division IA college basketball. More importantly, at 18-0 on the season, UK will in all likelihood be playing for the top spot in both major polls when the Cats host Arkansas on Saturday at 4 p.m.
UK entered the week at No. 2, picking up eight first-place votes in the Associated Press Top 25 and one first-place vote in the ESPN/USA Today Poll on Monday.
Should Kentucky take care of business Saturday against Arkansas, the Cats would be poised to take the top spot in college basketball in the AP poll for the first time since the final week of the 2002-03 regular season.
The Cats now stand alone. By Monday, if all goes according to plan, they should stand on top.
With the holiday and all, I took the day off today to recharge the batteries. Let's hope it worked. Anyway, a couple of basketball items to pass along in my absence today:
- Kentucky picked up a league record ninth weekly award from the Southeastern Conference when guard Eric Bledsoe was named SEC Freshman of the Week. Bledsoe averaged 19.0 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists in wins over Florida and Auburn. It's the second time this season Bledsoe has earned the honors.
- With the win over Auburn on Saturday, head coach John Calipari has won 53 straight regular-season conference games, breaking Adolph Rupp's NCAA record. Calipari has also won 64 straight league games, including conference tournament game, tying Rupp's NCAA record against league foes.
Not a whole lot out of today's Southeastern Conference Coaches Teleconference. Let's quickly run through the highlights:
- Calipari called Sunday's "Hoops for Haiti" telethon a "huge success." Calipari said it was not only a worthy cause but "a great experience for our players to start understanding at a young age, you can use your fame and fortune for others."
- The first-year UK coach said his team would probably rather just keep playing basketball than have a week off. He said he's not sure his players realize that everyone around the league is starting to play their best game.
- Kentucky's backcourt takes steps up and then it takes steps back, Calipari said. Against Auburn, UK had a chance to put the game away but then the Cats just started to turn it over. Calipari said there are still a lot of things they need to learn. "I'm trying to do everything I can to get these guys just to stay humble in the success we're having and understand that we're not as good as everybody thinks we are. But also stay hungry. Are you trying to get better? Are you trying to learn every day you step on that floor." Calipari sounded worried that some of the players are starting to believe all the praise they're receiving.
- A reporter from Arkansas asked about DeMarcus Cousins. Calipari once again emphasized his love for him, saying Cousins would be the first to give him a kidney if he needed one. Calipari said Cousins is in "the best shape of his life but he still needs to get better." One of the biggest things they're working on with Cousins is his body language. "He's such a great kid, but in certain situations he's still learning how to present himself because he only knows to frown or be sad. There is no reason. When you put him in front of a camera, he's as good as Charles Barkley." Calipari alluded to an interview he did with a kid Sunday on the telethon and raved about how good he was. Calipari called him intelligent and bright, but he's still learning how to act on the court. If Cousins can learn to contain his emotions, "he will have as big an impact on college basketball as anybody," Calipari said.
- LSU head coach Trent Johnson praised Calipari for the job he's done this year, saying it's one thing to have talent but another to get everybody on the same page competing hard. Johnson said one of the things that's stuck out to him about this Kentucky team from day one is just how hard players like John Wall and Eric Bledsoe compete on a daily basis. A lot of that, he believes, goes back to coaching.
At some point the Kentucky cheerleading team is going to finish somewhere other than first. But that day is not today, nor does it looks it's coming anytime soon.
For the third straight year and the 14th time in the last years 16 years, the Kentucky cheerleading team has won the Universal Cheerleading Association national championship. UK captured its unprecedented 18th crown Sunday night at the 2010 College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championships at the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando, Fla.
The national championship, the most in Division IA, raised an already unmatched bar of dominance even higher. The Cats won with a score of 96.517, defeating second-place Alabama (89.517) and third-place Central Florida (88.517), both of which were led by coaches with UK ties.
"Each one we win is just as special as the first one," UK cheerleading head coach Jomo Thompson said via cell phone Sunday night from Orlando. "It is great to see the kids work so hard and accomplish a goal. We did what we set out to do: win another national title."
But will winning it all ever get old? Apparently not for the eighth-year head coach, who has captured six national titles as coach of Kentucky.
"No, it never gets old," said Thompson, who also captured 12 championships in all (three as a member, three as an assistant and six as head coach). "I enjoy winning. I'm a very competitive person. I want to collect as many rings as we can get, and so does everyone else in this program. That's something that we strive for every year is to bring another one home. If we get second or third, we're not satisfied with that. We want first place."
Complacency is often what tears down even the best of the best dynasties. When you win it so much, what's the motivation the next year?
That's the year-end struggle Thompson and his squad must battle each and every year. Yet, amazingly, it's never knocked them off their pedestal of dominance.
"It's important to keep the kids motivated because you don't want to ever get complacent," Thompson said. "What we do is we try to top the year before. We try not to worry about the competition. We just try to do better than the year before. Our goal next year is to do better than the year before."
It's a matter of beating the tradition, not the competition - toppling some of the all-time great UK teams.
"You're standing on the shoulders of the people before you," Thompson said. "When you're done with the program, that's your time. That's when people look back towards you. You helped create that lineage and that legacy, so try to keep those people before you proud. And when it's their turn to step away and have someone to step in their shoes, they'll experience that same pride and joy seeing the University of Kentucky carry on."
Thompson said they achieved near-perfect routines last year and in 1997. The decorated head coach said he'll have to go back and review this year's tape before comparing it to some of the best UK teams, but he sounded fairly certain Sunday night that this routine might have topped them all.
"We really upped the level of difficulty with pyramids, tumbling, creativity wise and I think the kids just did an awesome job of bringing it together," Thompson said.
What might have made 2010 even more special is that unforeseen adversity the Cats had to overcome. Three key members of the team came down with what Thompson described as a "stomach bug" over the weekend, but thanks to the help of trainer Meghan Newlin, all three were able to take part in the national championship routine.
The Cats' first title came in 1985 and they won eight straight from 1995 to 2002. UK lost out on first place in 2003 and 2007, but it still remains the only squad to win three, four, five, six, seven and eight national championships in a row.
And what makes every championship so special is what goes on behind the scenes to get there. While most of Big Blue Nation only sees the award-winning Cats when they're on the sidelines of UK's athletic events, there is tireless recruiting, long hours of practice and unmatched routines that must all come together for an unbeatable recipe of success.
"It starts with recruitment," Thompson said. "You look for people that are talented and have that competitive drive. They have to be able to come here and compete because we function in a pressure cooker. All of the kids come in being the best of the best from where they're from when they get to this program. Now they have to work even harder here to stand out. I think that helps to elevate our level of competitiveness and things that we're able to execute."
It might not be their first title and it almost certainly won't be their last, but winning the national championship will never get old.
"It's still sweet," Thompson said. "It doesn't matter how many times you win. When you win again, it's just as good as the first time."
The UK dance team, under the new direction of first-year head coach Dawn Duncan Walters, finished fifth at the national championships in the pom category, two spots higher than last year's finish in the jazz category.
Kentucky coach John Calipari asked Big Blue Nation to come together and help the hundreds of thousands affected in the aftermath of a horrific earthquake in Haiti. Kentucky fans - albeit unsurprisingly - answered the call with one giant slam dunk.
With the efforts of Calipari, WKYT, UK coaches and players (current and former), local and national celebrities, the collegiate coaching community, local and national businessmen across the country, and more, UK raised $525,000 in funds in its "Hoops for Haiti" telethon, a four-and-a-half fundraiser to help the relief efforts in Haiti. With $500,000 in matching funds, UK raised more than $1 million.
Those figures were as of 7 p.m. on Sunday. Final figures will be released later in the week when the bidding for the auction items is complete.
"The people and the fans of Kentucky, this state of Kentucky and the people all over this nation called in," UK head coach John Calipari said on the telethon. "I don't know what to say. It's emotional. We just spent a day and all you people did it. I just want to thank you. Thank you, Kentucky."
Through the United Way and the American Red Cross, the donations will go straight to the relief efforts in Haiti.
"Right now, as we speak, (the Red Cross) is spending the funds," Calipari said. "It's going where it needs to go and that's what makes me feel good."
UK's on-the-court mantra for the year has been "One World, One Big Blue Nation." That theme could not have rung truer Sunday afternoon as the Kentucky fan base came together both nationally and locally for a nation in dire need of support.
"I've been saying for months that Big Blue Nation is full of 'crazies,' " Calipari said. "But after Sunday's outpouring of support, I can call everyone something else: compassionate and generous."
As players answered the phones, celebrities like actress Ashley Judd, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and country star Taylor Swift participated by volunteering to auction various items on eBay. As of Sunday at 6 p.m., the majority of the 11 items associated with "Hoops for Haiti" were going for thousands of dollars each.
The bid for the dinner for six at the Calipari's home with Ashley Judd was going for $11,100 as of Sunday evening, and the meet and greet with NBA basketball superstar Lebron James and Cavaliers playoff tickets was more than $5,000.
With more than two days left until the eBay auctions are close, the biddings are expected to grow, only adding to the more than $1 million that will be sent to Haiti.
Kentucky native and Alliance Coal President and CEO Joe Craft, who donated $100,000, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who contributed $5,000, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale, who gave $1,000, and former UK coach and current Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who provided $1,000, were some of the more prominent contributors. Texas coach Rick Barnes and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo also donated.
Former UK star Nazr Mohammed and Charlotte Bobcats center helped UK pass the $500,000-mark with a $10,000 donation before the phones closed at 5 p.m.
Big or small, every contribution counted Sunday, as hundreds of people called into the telethon or donated online.
"Whether you donated 10 dollars or 10,000, you should feel good about what you did today," Calipari said.
The private matching donators, "Cal's Pals for Haiti," will be honored at halftime of Saturday's basketball game vs. Arkansas, said Calipari, who contacted WKYT general manager Wayne Martin on Friday to organize the telethon.
"This is not about me or my team or the university," Calipari said. "This is everybody. The people answering phones, the people from WKYT who offered their time, all you guys. It's just a great, great thing."
"I know we won a game on Saturday afternoon, but when I left the studio early Sunday evening, it felt like we'd all just won a championship," Calipari said. "It's amazing how good you can feel when you are helping others."
Kentucky won again on Saturday, this time with a 72-67 road victory at Auburn. The undefeated dream remains intact with a now unscathed record of 18-0.
But the potential dream is going to turn into a surprising nightmare one of these days if UK doesn't learn to develop a killer instinct.
In what's becoming a troubling theme for the Cats, they let a first-half double-digit lead evaporate into a last-second thriller. For some reason UK can't seem to put the nail in the coffin when the grave is already dug.
And it nearly cost them Saturday.
"We were fortunate to win," head coach John Calipari said after the game.
After roaring to a 19-point first-half lead on Saturday, thanks to an 18-3 run, UK let off the gas pedal to end the first half. Guard DeWayne Reed, who to that point couldn't throw a ball in the ocean, hit two 3-pointers to end the half, cutting the Cats' lead to 39-26 entering halftime.
Slowly but surely, the double-figure lead continued to slip away in the second frame. Reed scored the next seven of eight Auburn points out of the halftime break, part of a 32-14 run dating back to the first half. By the end of the run, the Tigers had somehow taken what was a 19-point game and gotten it to within one at 53-52.
Kentucky's fault or Auburn's doing?
Fortunately for the Cats, despite a tie at 60-60, a barrage of Auburn 3-pointers and a less-than-spectacular game from John Wall, UK pulled out some late-game dramatics and preserved the 72-67 win.
But I have a hard time imagining all was well in that Kentucky locker room after the game.
A coach will take a win on the road in the Southeastern Conference anytime he can get it, but Calipari has to be concerned with the Cats' inability to put away an opponent when it's down. After all, leading up to the Auburn game, Calipari had voiced his concerns with the media over the last two weeks.
"I showed them tape of three games where we let people back in the game," Calipari said on Friday before practice, following the Florida game in which Kentucky let another double-digit lead shrink to mere points. "I showed clip by clip and then I went to where we made runs. There is a market difference in their defensive intensity, shot selection, aggressiveness in attacking defense. They see the difference and they need to carry it over. They are a young team."
For the record, UK has let leads of 10 points or more slip back to three points or less in the second half in six of the Cats' games this year, including the last four contests.
That, for what it's worth, shows signs of a team that lacks a killer instinct.
Hold on a second, you might say, Kentucky is undefeated.
But for all the wins the Cats are piling up, games are becoming closer and closer down the stretch. Eventually, one is going to cost UK. As the old saying goes, when you let an opponent hang around, it usually comes back to bite you.
On Saturday, Auburn had a lot to do with the comeback because of nine 3-pointers, but there were once again glaring issues that must be corrected.
For one, the free-throw shooting has to improve. When you take 21 more shots from the charity stripe - on the opponent's floor of all places - you have to take advantage. But as has been the case for much of the season, UK struggled from the line, hitting just 23 of its 35 shots (65.7 percent).
Two, where is Patrick Patterson when it's time to go for the jugular? Just when the Cats sharpened their dagger - Patterson went for 12 points on 4-of-6 shooting in the first half - they for some reason decided to put it back in its sheath. Inexplicably, Patterson didn't take a single shot in the second half after fueling the first-half run.
That is unacceptable. Patterson's willingness and unselfishness to let the offense come to him has been admirable, but there comes a time when you take a page out of Keyshawn Johnson's book and say, "Just give me the damn ball!" It's the job of both Patterson and his teammates to make sure he gets more touches.
And three, the Kentucky youth needs to realize that those game-altering plays they make in crunch time to seal a game can be made earlier. Remember that Wall layup with just under two minutes to go when Wall sliced through four Tiger defenders and gave UK a six-point lead? How about the five straight points from DeAndre Liggins late in the game that gave the Cats the lead for good?
It's easy to say in hindsight, but if the Cats make those plays when they're up 19 and not let off the gas, Ashley Judd isn't standing on the sidelines shaking her head and the collective blood pressure of the Bluegrass can stay somewhere near normal.
"When we get up, there are certain guys I'm going to have to take out of the game," Calipari said.
In a way, it's a good thing if you're a Kentucky fan that we're even discussing this. When you're talking about giving up double-figure leads, well, you must be pretty good.
But what UK fans want and what Big Blue fans demand is perfection. If the Kentucky players want that magical season and a national championship to boot, it's an issue that must be corrected.
Kentucky has the tools to kill its opponents. Now it's time to develop that instinct.
In the wake of the earthquake in Haiti, which has left hundreds of thousands dead or homeless and crippled an already poverty-stricken nation, Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his team will hold a telethon with WKYT on Sunday to raise money for those affected in the tragedy.
The telethon, "Hoops for Haiti," will start at noon on Sunday and be televised live on stations in Lexington, Bowling Green, Hazard, Louisville, Hopkinsville and Huntington, V. Va., until 1:30 p.m. The telethon will continue throughout the afternoon with break-ins until 4:30 p.m.
"To get our state energized and to get the Commonwealth to understand this stuff is really crazy down there, we're going to do anything we can here," Calipari said. "We're going to spend our Sunday as a staff, and hopefully we'll get the other coaches involved here, we'll get our players involved to the level they're allowed to be involved."
Calipari said there will be matching funds, auctioned items and several chances to donate during "Hoops for Haiti." Several local and national celebrities are scheduled to take part in the telethon from Lexington and remote locations, and current and former coaches and players are planned to call in and take part in the telethon.
The telethon will be run through the United Way to the American Red Cross, meaning the funds will go directly to Haiti, Calipari said.
Calipari volunteered former UK head coach Joe B. Hall during the announcement for the event and said he will try to get as many current and former players involved.
The first-year coach, who has been outspoken in recent days about the loss in Haiti, is hoping other Lexington affiliates will pick up the telethon for broadcast.
"It's more than just about TV stations," Calipari said. "It's about people and young people and young kids who lost everything and probably in many cases their whole family."
The University of Kentucky mascot, Wildcat, palced fourth overall and second in video at the Universal Cheerleading Assocation's Division IA Mascot National Championship on Friday in Orlando, Fla.
The fourth overall finish is the highest ranking of any UK mascot in the 11 years UK has been participating in the event.
"It is a pretty cool thing," said senior Ross Turner, the main man behind the Wildcat mask. "We have an awesome spirit program here at the University of Kentucky and we try to work as hard as we can and bring a lot of energy into anything that we do."
Video below of the Wildcat's performance on Friday.
The UK dance team will be in the semifinals Saturday night in the jazz category. The cheerleading finals are not until Sunday.
UK Public Relations announced Friday that it hopes to break the ESPN College GameDay attendance record when the ESPN crew visits Rupp Arena in Lexington on Feb. 13 for the UK-Tennessee game.
Here is the full release from UK PR:
The University of Kentucky was the first college basketball team to win 2,000 games. Now, UK hopes to be the first to pack its arena for ESPN's College GameDay.
To accomplish that feat, UK needs your help.
"I know our fans are the greatest in the world," said Coach John Calipari. "They have proved that to me from the moment I arrived on campus. But College GameDay provides us a platform to show the rest of the nation what makes University of Kentucky basketball so special. I personally invite all of our fans - from across the Commonwealth and beyond - to join me and members of the Big Blue Nation at Rupp Arena to show everyone that the greatest tradition in college basketball is alive and well in Lexington, Kentucky."
ESPN's hit Saturday morning show is returning to Lexington this year and will be held at Rupp Arena from 11 a.m. until noon Saturday, Feb. 13 - the day of the UK-University of Tennessee men's basketball game, which begins at 9 p.m. that evening.
Following the broadcast, UK is planning a series of special events and activities to celebrate the event. - Coach Calipari and UK President Lee Todd will address the crowd; - Former UK players will be on hand to take part in basketball competitions, interact with fans, and sign autographs; - UK will be handing out a commemorative, limited edition UK2K poster that will only be available to GameDay attendees.
Calipari also will use this opportunity to illustrate how UK Athletics is committed to enhancing the entire university community. He will help the university launch and promote the President's Scholarship Initiative, a major fundraising campaign that is aimed at providing young Kentuckians with the greatest gift - the opportunity to attend the University of Kentucky and learn from UK's world-class faculty. Calipari is a co-chair of the President's Scholarship Initiative.
The first 2,000 UK students with a valid UK ID will receive a ticket to GameDay at the already scheduled student basketball ticket lottery in Memorial Coliseum Jan. 19.
General public GameDay tickets are free of charge (attendees will have to pay the Ticketmaster convenience fee). Tickets will be available starting at 10 a.m. Monday, Jan. 25. There is a limit of eight tickets per transaction.
Whether it's the underdog mentality of the road, the pressure of being away from home or the adversity of thousands of fans hoping he fails, there's something about the road that lights a fire in Bledsoe's eyes.
"I like playing on the road a lot because the fans go crazy when the No. 2 team in the county goes into their gym and everybody will be wondering what John (Wall) is going to do," Bledsoe said. "Then that is when everybody else steps up."
Bledsoe doesn't mind the attention his best friend and fellow guard Wall is getting. While Wall has become the face of the UK program, it hasn't diminished the effectiveness or the accomplishments Bledsoe has put together in a much overlooked and impressive freshman campaign.
"John, he deserves (the attention)," Bledsoe said. "He doesn't do nothing but try to help us win."
But Kentucky probably would not have won as much - or be undefeated - without the services of Bledsoe this season. When Kentucky has needed a player to step up the most, it's often times been Bledsoe who has shined the brightest.
When the Cats played their much-anticipated season opener in November without Wall, who was suspended one game by the NCAA, Bledsoe handled the point guard duties and scored a then-career high of 24 points on 7-of-14 shooting.
In UK's only two true road games of the year, he's been the team's leading scorer, averaging 24.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists in front of two hostile crowds in Bloomington, Ind., and Gainesville, Fla.
And when Georgia guard Travis Leslie was scoring at will against the Cats in a seesaw affair last weekend, Bledsoe was the first and only player in the huddle to volunteer to guard him, according to freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins.
"I think Eric always steps up when we need him to," sophomore guard Darius Miller said. "When we're down or when we need a bucket, that's when Eric is at his best."
Kentucky isn't short on talent, but it is still developing the proper winning mentality, especially on the road. If there is a bone to pick with this team, it is its inconsistency and inability to put teams away when they're on the ropes.
As Calipari said Wednsday, "On the road, they don't get it."
If all the players mirrored the junkyard dog mentality of Bledsoe, as Calipari would tell it, that wouldn't be much of a problem.
For some reason, when the stakes are at its highest and his back is against the wall, Bledsoe plays better.
"I like to see kids emotional, and he's one of those that will say something and back it up," Calipari said. "He's a little different soul, that young man."
Calipari said he isn't concerned about any potential jealously coming in between Wall and Bledsoe, self-described "brothers," for one's spotlight and the others lack of attention. That wedge in the relationship has not shown this year.
"He loves John," Calipari said of Bledsoe's relationship with Wall. "You can't separate them. You can't say that he's faster, a better shooter and runs a better point guard thinking that will affect those two. Those two are brothers. One would get mad that the guy said it. It just doesn't work."
If anything, one man's attention has become another man's gain.
"It was real fun (at Florida) because all five of their players were sagging on John to try to keep him from penetrating," said Bledsoe, who is averaging 11.3 points and 3.1 assists this season. "That left me to penetrate and get bodies in and let everybody else do what they can do."
As soft spoken as he is camera shy -- he's a man of few words once the cameras kick on and the recorders start taping -- Bledsoe seems to relish the lack of national exposure.
But while Bledsoe doesn't mind the national exposure Wall is getting, he said it does motivate him once he steps on the court.
"Because everybody on my team knows what I can do," Bledsoe said. "They just tell me to take my man because everybody is trying to see what John can do."
Maybe - and that's a big maybe - most of the attention will be focused on Bledsoe in Beard-Eaves-Memorial Coliseum on Saturday at 4 p.m. when Bledsoe makes his first return to his native state, and more importantly, when the Cats face an up-and-down Auburn team.
Bledsoe, a Birmingham, Ala., native will play in front of several friends and family members, including his grandmother and mother.
"I play a lot better when my mom is there," Bledsoe said.
It will also be a chance to show Auburn, a school that surprisingly never offered one of its state's best players a scholarship, according to Bledsoe, what they missed out on. Bledsoe, despite an "on and off" relationship with Auburn in high school, won't make redemption a focus of Saturday's game.
"I'm not worried about it," Bledsoe said.
In the shadow of his freshman teammates, few things seem to worry or rattle Bledsoe.
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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Kentucky's amazing freshman class produced another "first" in the win at Florida.
Eric Bledsoe became the third different freshman to score at least 25 points in a game this season, joining John Wall and Demarcus Cousins.
The last time that happened was 1975, when Jack Givens, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips achieved that feat.
And Bledsoe became the first freshman to score at least 25 points in an SEC game since Keith Bogans did in 2000--also at Florida.
The nation's best traditions will try to reaffirm their dominance this weekend at nationals.
The 17-time defending national championship cheerleading team will try to capture its third straight national championship this weekend at the Universal Cheerleaders Association National Championships at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
Kentucky, which is the only squad to win back-to-back championships three times, has captured an unprecedented 17 titles (1985, 1987, 1988, 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2009), setting the standard in collegiate cheerleading.
Led by head coach Jomo Thompson, the Cats compete Sunday (full schedule of both the cheerleading and dance teams will be listed below).
Although the dance team hasn't achieved quite the dominance the cheerleading team has conquered, its success throughout the years has been matched by few schools.
Under the direction of first-year head coach Dawn Duncan Walters - who has injected a noticeable sign of enthusiasm back into the dance program - the Wildcats will look to build on their seventh-place finish in last year's Universal Dance Association College Dance Team National Championships in Orlando this weekend.
Most of the dance team's success has come in the United Spirit Association College Nationals, although the Cats do stake claim to a fourth-place finish at the UDA National Championships in 2000. In the USA Nationals, UK has gathered six top-four finishes since 2003. Kentucky has finished third in the last two years and second in 2006. In 2005, the squad won the national championship in the jazz category.
This year's team will compete in both the UDA jazz (Saturday) and pom (Sunday) categories.
The Kentucky mascot, Wildcat, will also compete in the Division IA mascot national championship on Friday at 6:52 p.m.
I can still remember sitting in this very same spot in the Joe Craft Center more than one year ago, twiddling my thumbs and surfing the Internet when DeWayne Peevy, UK's associate athletics director of media relations (and my boss), wandered into the room and said, "Hey Eric, when are we going to launch the blog?"
See, weeks earlier, UK Athletics brought me over from the traditional media to kind of pioneer a new social media aspect in what was your typical run of the mill media relations department. To that point, few schools had tried to reach out to their fans and provide content other than the tradition news release.
Peevy, hired just months earlier as the new leader in the media relations department and the new men's basketball contact, had different ideas.
He wanted to bring the fans closer to UK Athletics and provide them with in-house information that no one else could provide. Peevy wanted a UK Athletics insider, a person that would write news stories, features, run live blogs, shoot video, etc. from inside the athletic department to give the most passionate fan base in the world another avenue for sports information.
Although we didn't know where we going at the time, Peevy entrusted me with starting and developing "Cat Scratches," the official blog of UK Athletics.
When we first conceptualized it, as I described above, I was a recent - and lost - graduate twiddling my fingers in the office of a multi-million dollar athletics department. In short, I had no idea what I was getting into.
Weeks later after that initial conversation with Peevy, we launched Cat Scratches on Jan. 14, 2009. Although we've dived into multiple other social media endeavors since then with Twitter, Facebook, multimedia, etc., Cat Scratches was the engine behind the movement.
Well, today marks our first birthday. Although my tired and mangled fingers would tell you different (they've typed enough to make me feel like I'm 60) today we turn 1 year old.
Contrary to the amount of words this post is going to eat up, we don't want to make a tremendously big deal out of it. After all, we feel like we just started this yesterday. But today we did want to look back at what got us here and reflect on 10 key moments of the blog.
We have no clue where we're headed or what the next year holds, but we will continue to build on the mission we set more than a year ago when Peevy strolled into the office and asked me when we were launching the blog.
That is to provide you, the fans, with a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week blog with the most up-to-date news surrounding the UK program and offer you the opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on inside the UK athletics program. In short, we want to continue to provide you premium information on a daily basis without the premium cost, because you are, after all, what makes the blog possible. (We want to continue to encourage everyone to send us their feedback and comments either on the actual posts or to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Without further delay, here's our look back at some of the key moments that have helped shape this blog (in chronological order):
2.) The live blog introduction: One of the biggets components of Cat Scratches was the introduction of the CoveritLive live blog. The application allowed us to bring fans a live blog in real-time format where fans could send in questions and comments and join in on the discussion. We started the live blog with the UK-South Carolina game and it's blossomed ever since. We've used it for everything from live game blogs to live player play chats and live scouting previews.
3.) Football Signing Day: We didn't know what we had going on until Football Signing Day when we hosted a live Signing Day blog with some of UK's assistant coaches. As we reported on the letters being faxed in, we sat down with some of the UK coaches to talk about the recruiting class. We anticipated a few hundred people would be on, but we never could have imagined the 4,000-plus people that logged in. To borrow a much-used cliche: It was a whirlwind. Expect something similar this year.
5.) Along for the journey: Cat Scratches finally hit the road with some of the teams in early March with a trip Gainesville, Fla., for the UK-Florida game. Just a week later we were back on the road for the SEC basketball Tournament in Tampa to profile the Cats' tourney run. Although the journey ended a bit early for UK, it opened the door for future road trips and expansive coverage. Expect more this spring.
7.) UK Athletics is more than basketball: That notion was reaffirmed on our trip to Columbus, Ohio, for the softball team's first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in school history. We traveled to and from Columbus for three consecutive days - that's a story for another time - to cover each game of the Cats' historic postseason appearance. UK ultimately came up short of a Super Regional appearance, but the feedback and numbers on the live blog shed proof of Big Blue Nation's love for all 22 of its varsity sports.
8.) The multimedia factor: It took me a while to warm up to the use of video - after all, my forte and background is writing - but I finally embraced the use of video a few months ago and quickly realized I couldn't have been more wrong about the use of multimedia. Since our first rifle video feature with student assistant Evan Crane, we have shot video at news conferences and at interviews with players and coaches, each of which has picked up hundreds - sometimes thousands - of views on the blog and our YouTube channel.
9.) A growing production team: One thing I've always wanted to make sure happened with this blog is that it was not all about me. It truly isn't. It's about UK Athletics, and there are so many different people that can tell the never-ending stories of the student-athletes, the tradition and the history of the athletics program. That's why I've been so pleased over the past few months to introduce the likes of Tom Leach, our newest baseball contributor Adam Revelette, our student assistants, and of course, Pete Camagna (better known to some of you as Cam) to help tell the stories. Without Camagna, UK's web coordinator and the blog's right-hand man, the blog is not possible.
10.) A new look: If there was one thing that lacked about our blog for months, it was the fact that, well, it didn't look like a traditional blog. Quite frankly, we didn't have the blogging software to do the things we wanted to do. Finally, on Oct. 21, we were able to unveil Cat Scratches Version 3.0, giving the blog a much-needed facelift. The new look separated each post into its own individual entry, opened the door for comments and questions, created an RSS feed for each post and helped organize our archiving system.
There are so many other posts and stories that I could go on and on about. Whether it was the LeBron James visit, the retirment news of Rich Brooks or the historic run by the volleyball team, they have all played a key role in developing Cat Scratches.
Although it seems like just yesterday when Peevy encouraged me to start the blog, we've come a long way and hope to take it much farther.
Here's hoping we're back to do it again next year.
For all the things that went wrong Tuesday night -- giving up a double-digit lead, John Wall struggling from the floor, DeMarcus Cousins' four fouls -- UK won again.
And really, Tuesday was just a microcosm of the season. How many times this year have the Cats made mistakes only to pull through and win? If you listen to head coach John Calipari, they should be 10-7 with how they've played. Yet, because of supreme talent, they're undefeated and a clear favorite to compete for the national championship.
Sure, a mistake or two might come back to haunt the Cats with a loss or two as the season progresses, Katz writes, but it's clear at the halfway mark that UK is here to stay.
Here is more from Katz's story:
There is something special going on here that everyone needs to notice. It's pretty clear UK has moved to another level. There is a separation now, with Kentucky, Kansas and Texas as the three favorites to win the national title. It's not an exclusive group and there are no guarantees, but it's clear the Wildcats are talented enough, poised enough and even mature enough to be a real contender. Sure, the group can expand beyond these three teams, but we may not know the others in this class until March.
Look, talent wins -- and Kentucky simply has more than most. The speed, the size and the ability to make plays ... it was all on display here in Gainesville. Kentucky will lose somewhere -- maybe more than once in the regular season -- but that won't mean the Wildcats can't win the title.
So I ask, are the Cats too talented to fail this year? You be the judge.
Vitale My choice is the flamboyant, controversial Kentucky leader, John Calipari.
He has created a frenzy in Lexington by recruiting blue-chippers and teaching them how to play defensively and as a unit offensively.
Oh, I can hear the cries now from the Calipari critics. They will complain that he should win with all of that talent. Let's give the first-year coach credit for facing the challenge of taking on every opponent's best shot.
Even a loss to an SEC rival would not change my mind about picking Calipari and the job he's done with a young team.
Now for the midseason pick for player of the year. It is really a tough call, but I am staying in the Bluegrass State.
Diaper Dandy John Wall has been Mr. Clutch. He has wielded his magic in magnificent fashion, especially in key moments. Go ask Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams and Rick Pitino about Wall's value to the 'Cats!
Wall could follow the lead of Texas superstar Kevin Durant, who was not only the Diaper Dandy of the Year, but won the Naismith and Wooden Awards in his lone season on the college hardwood.
DeCourcy Kentucky PG John Wall has dominated the season. Don't expect that to change. Wall explained his ability to perform so consistently as a freshman: "I learned a quote from Michael Jordan: This might be the first time a kid or somebody gets to watch you play, and it might be the only time."
Kentucky G Eric Bledsoe was Scout.com's No. 37 player in the 2009 recruiting class -- and he's a better freshman than about 30 guys ranked ahead of him.
Matthew Mitchell hardly had enough players to field a team at the end of last season. Now he could build a team with guards alone.
The UK women's basketball announced the addition of Bernisha Pinkett, a highly touted 5-foot-7 guard out of Howard D. Woodson High School in Washington D.C., to the 2009-10 roster. Pinkett has enrolled for the spring semester and will be eligible immediately for the remainder of this season, although it's unclear what her immediate future is with the team.
"There is a chance (she could play this year)," head coach Matthew Mitchell said Wednesday. "I am just being totally honest with you today. I really can't give you a percentage. I would think it just depends on a lot of different factors, so it is hard for me to say. There is a chance. If she gets out there and she looks like Sheryl Swoopes or something, then there will probably be a great chance for her to play."
Pinkett's addition gives Mitchell nine players who are capable of playing the guard position.
Although she is well regarded after averaging a team-high 24.1 points per game in leading her high school team to a 22-6 overall record last year, it remains unclear what her role will be with this year's UK team. Pinkett joins a 13-2 team in the middle of the season when team chemistry has already been developed.
There is the possibility the first-year guard could redshirt.
"She has a bright future, but she just got here Sunday, so I don't really have a real good handle on what her immediate future looks like," Mitchell said. "We are just trying to help her get acclimated to the campus and all those things. It is a tough situation for her to come in at this time of year with a team that is much engrained into the team now. She will have a lot to catch up with. We are trying to make her feel at home and welcome her into our family and not put a lot of pressure on her as far as playing. I'm sure that is what everyone has on their mind. I just don't know what her immediate future holds for her. But I do like her long-term future."
Pinkett scored more than 1,600 points during her prep career and netted a career-high 45 and 42 points in games last season. She was also named Most Valuable Player of the D.C. Interscholastic Athletics Association and was a first-team All-Beltway selection in 2009.
"She is a talented young woman and talented basketball player - very talented offensive player," Mitchell said. "She can shoot the basketball, can handle the basketball and has good athleticism. I think she can develop into a defensive player that can develop into our style that we are playing right now."
Mitchell said she is so athletic, versatile and strong that she can play both guard positions, although she would probably only play the point in "emergency situations."
If Matthew Mitchell would have taken the podium Wednesday and publicly voiced his displeasure with the latest rankings, nobody would have blamed him. After all, the Cats' were inexplicably left out of the top 25 of both major polls yet again this week despite nearly upsetting then-No. 8 Georgia and defeating then-No. 17 Vanderbilt last week.
But Mitchell isn't one to complain, even if it is bothering him.
"It would not mean anything to me," Mitchell said of being ranked in the top 25.
Whether that's coach speak or Mitchell's true feelings, that's for you to judge. But Mitchell was rather outspoken on Wednesday about the importance of rankings.
"The challenge for us is we have to know how to get into the NCAA Tournament, and that's a big step for us to even be talking about that right now because nobody thought we were very good," Mitchell said. "We're at a point here now where we have a chance (to make the tournament). The only way to do that is to win games. If we're the 25th- or the 23rd-ranked team, it doesn't guarantee you entry into the NCAA Tournament. A certain amount of wins (does)."
Do the rankings mean absolutely nothing to Mitchell and his team? Well, maybe that notion is stretching it a little too far.
"I would like to be ranked No. 1 in the country," Mitchell said. "That would be the optimum thing for us. Hopefully one day that's something that this program can talk about, but right now it just has no meaning whatsoever because we're just fighting like crazy to get ready for the next game."
Mitchell did take pride in the fact that the disrespect Kentucky is receiving means so much to the UK fan base. In Mitchell's eyes, that means they care.
"I really appreciate the fact that it means something to our fans," Mitchell said. "I think that's a major reason why this is such a great place to coach and why I want to be the coach here forever because it does mean something to people. To be overlooked means that somebody here in this town cares about that and the Commonwealth cares about that, so that part means a tremendous amount.
"I understand why they have pride in their school and why they have pride in their program. We have a very great group of young women who have not listened to other people say they are not good and who have since late August and early September committed to doing some things that not a lot of people would be committed to doing. They work so hard."
UK (13-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference), ranked No. 26 and No. 27 in the ESPN/USA Today Poll and Associated Press Top 25, respectfully, will look to continue its push to the top 25 and the Big Dance on Thursday at 7 p.m. at South Carolina.
One year ago today, Jodie Meeks did the unthinkable.
Playing in front of a sold out crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn., Meeks scored a school-record 54 points in Kentucky's 90-72 victory over Tennessee. The record-setting performance broke Dan Issel's 39-year-old single-game scoring mark of 53 points.
Kids across the Bluegrass State had long grown up in their backyards emulating legends like Issel, Tony Delk, Kenny Walker and Jamal Mashburn. With one historic night in Knoxville, Meeks gave them a reason to shoot it like Jodie.
"It means a lot to be in the same sentence as Dan Issel. It's mind-boggling," Meeks said after the game. "I was just out there playing to win."
It is my great pleasure to introduce Adam Revelette to Cat Scratches. Revelette, who helped UK to its first Southeastern Conference championship in school history in 2006 as a reliever, will be joining Cat Scratches as a contributor to write a weekly column on the UK baseball team.
With his experience with the UK program and his four years in the minor leagues as background, Revelette will write weekly features, opinion pieces and offers fans an inside view into the Kentucky baseball team.
Before joining UK in 2005, Revelette spent two years as a reliever for Dayton, hurling 63 innings. In 2005, Revelette pitched in 21 games for UK, second most on the team, totaling a save and a 1-2 record. As a part of the 2006 SEC title team, the Lexington native and graduate of Lexington Catholic pitched in 12 games, including the SEC Tournament.
The "ping" of the bat means something different to me now.
After four years in the minor leagues, I'd gotten used to the "crack" of wood bats. As a pitcher, the crunch of a splintered Louisville Slugger on a great inside pitch was particularly satisfying. But, upon my return to Lexington for each of my offseasons, I never felt I was far away from the "ping."
Lexington, contrary to popular belief, is a baseball town. While the Commonwealth teems with (well-deserved) excitement over its basketball and football programs, the Kentucky baseball team has been steadily building one of the nation's most respectable college baseball teams. Two consecutive top-five recruiting classes. Four years in a row finishing in the top 35 in attendance. A boatload of players moving on to professional baseball. An SEC championship in 2006. The list goes on and on. And so does Kentucky baseball.
Names like Blanton and Downs paved the road for Shelby, Strieby, and Bertram. Webb and Green lit the path for Carroll and Cowgill. Coaches Madison, Cohen and now Henderson have helped build the program, and, while they may not be as popular as Rupp, Smith, and Calipari, you could make the argument they've done just as much in (and on) their respective fields.
Fans in the Commonwealth regularly speak of UK's rich basketball tradition. They gloat about four consecutive bowl appearances on the gridiron. In time, perhaps very little time, they'll know about Kentucky baseball. And so will you.
My years at UK were fun, fleeting and fulfilling. Just getting to wear "Kentucky" across my chest was good enough. Winning an SEC championship, hosting a regional, earning a degree and getting a chance to play professional baseball was icing on the cake.
It's not my job to raise awareness about the baseball program at UK. I won't need to convince you to get out and see the Cats this spring. It's something you will do on your own. Yes, just like James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams, "People will come. People will most definitely come."
In the following weeks leading up to the season, I'll provide you with a little perspective into what it really means to be a Wildcat on the diamond. Accompanied with contributions from Kentucky players, coaches and staff, my goal will be to provide you, the fan, with a unique, entertaining and enjoyable point of view on college baseball in the nation's most powerful conference.
You won't see Eric Bledsoe on any magazine covers anytime soon, but it isn't for a lack of star potential. While he lacks the flash and media attention of Wall and forward DeMarcus Cousins, Bledsoe proved yet again Tuesday night that he belongs in the discussion as one of the best freshmen in the nation.
Even on this team of freshman stars, he takes a backseat to no one.
Bledsoe, a native of Birmingham, Ala., scored a game-high 25 points to lead UK to an 89-77 win over Florida on Tuesday night in the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla. The win marked the Cats' 17th straight victory to start the season.
Bledsoe was the spark and the extinguisher. His 15 first-half points ignited UK to a double-digit victory in the first half. His 3-pointer and ensuing tip-in with a few minutes left in the game iced a 14-4 Florida run that gave the Gators a 73-72 win with 5:12 to play in the game.
The first-year guard finished with a career-high 25 points, seven rebounds and five assists. He hit 10-of-13 shots from the floor, including 3-of-4 from behind the 3-point arc.
For the second time this season in just the second true road test of the year, Bledsoe was the most explosive, most calming guard on the floor. Against Indiana, Bledsoe scored a team-high 23 points in the 90-73 victory over the Hoosiers.
This isn't to take anything away from Wall. After all, we've seen enough to tell that he's the most talented player not only on the team, but maybe in the country.
But when it comes to road games so far this year, Bledsoe has been the road warrior.
His averages in two road games: 24.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists. He's hit 18-of-23 shots in those two games, and he continues to be Kentucky's most consistent 3-point shooter, despite entering college with a reputation as a streaky shooter.
If anything, Bledsoe was the reason Kentucky won Tuesday night.
During UK's 23-12 run to close the first half, Bledsoe scored 10 points. In the second half when the Cats didn't look Bledsoe's way enough, Florida got back in the game. Fittingly, when he had the ball in his hands with a few minutes to go on the 3-point arc, he closed the game with a nothing-but-net 3-point dagger.
Freshmen aren't supposed to do that on the road in the SEC (just ask Kansas freshman Xavier Henry). When you walk into a jam-packed O'Connell Center filled with 12,000-plus maniacs, you're supposed to waver.
Apparently the freshman doesn't know any better. Credit Bledsoe's attitude for the road mentality.
When Georgia's Travis Leslie went off last game in Rupp Arena for 20 points, head coach John Calipari looked at his team in the huddle hoping someone would step up and guard Leslie. One player, according to Cousins, stepped up and demanded the duties. Of course, that player was Bledsoe.
That mentality, by my guess, is the reason Bledsoe has succeeded on the road. It's that attitude that has created an opportunity for a much-overshadowed player to blossom in the shadows of Wall and Cousins.
If Wall and Cousins decide to make the jump to the pros after this season, Kentucky fans should take comfort in the fact that they'll likely have a player like Bledsoe, who is just beginning to scratch the surface of his potential, to lead this team.
On a team of freshman stars, Bledsoe takes a backseat to no one.
Recorded 16 points, seven rebounds, two blocks and career high three steals in Kentucky's SEC opening win over Georgia ... Tied career high with three steals against the Bulldogs ... Once again, Cousins turned in a strong performance in the second half. Sidelined by foul trouble in the first half, he scored 12 of his 16 points in the final period. For the season, Cousins is averaging 15.4 points per game, 9.3 of which are coming in the second half, more than a quarter of UK's second half point production. Averaging 12.3 rebounds in last three games.
Gymnastics: Storey Morris
Sophomore Storey Morris (Tyler, Texas) headlined Kentucky's gymnasts, sharing titlist honors in two events. Morris recorded a personal best in matching teammate senior Emily Green (Penfield, N.Y.) for first place on the beam with a 9.825. Morris also shared top honors on the uneven bars with teammates senior Jacque Behrendt (Franklin, Tenn.) and senior Jamie Reimann (Johnston, Iowa) by scoring a 9.750.
Women's basketball: Amber Smith
Junior guard Amber Smith scored 15 of her career-high 20 points in the second half, lifting UK to a 63-53 upset win over No. 17/16 Vanderbilt.
With UK trailing 41-31 at 12:29, Smith scored nine of UK's next 16 points in a 16-5 run that gave the Wildcats a one-point lead at 47-46. She scored 13 of her 15 second-half points after UK trailed 41-31 at 12:29.
Smith scored all of her team-high 15 points in the second half to force overtime at No. 8 Georgia.
With UK trailing 49-42 at 5:33 in the second stanza, Smith scored eight of UK's next 14 points before overtime, including a pair of clutch free throws with 2.1 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime.
Smith has scored in double figures in eight times this season, including two consecutive games.
Averaging a team-high 4.6 assists over the last 11 games.
Say what you want about former Dukie Jay Bilas, but the guy knows his basketball. Of ESPN's bevy of college basketball analysts, I put him right there at the top.
Well, just today, Bilas unveiled his midseason awards for the college basketball season, honoring two Wildcats in the process.
Bilas named freshman guard John Wall to his midseason All-America first team, joining Duke's Jon Scheyer, Syracuse's Wesley Johnson, Texas' Damion James and Notre Dame's Luke Harangody.
Also, Bilas tabbed UK coach John Calipari the best coach of the midseason. Here is what Bilas had to say about both:
Guard: John Wall, Kentucky. Wall is the most explosive player in the college game, has led his team to an undefeated start and might just be the best player on any team, of any age. He is averaging 17.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 2.3 steals per game, all while shooting an impressive 51 percent from the floor and 77 percent from the free throw line. Sure, Wall also averages four turnovers per game, but he has spearheaded an incredible turnaround in Lexington that would not have occurred without his presence. The fastest player in the country with the ball in his hands, Wall is more explosive and more efficient than Derrick Rose was in his rookie season, and so far, he has been every bit the same winner.
Best Coach of the Midseason: John Calipari, Kentucky. The job that Calipari has done in Lexington is nothing short of remarkable. To have the Wildcats, a team so young it should be referred to as Kittens, still unbeaten is an amazing job. Kentucky is getting better and better, and with the talent assembled by Calipari, there is little reason to believe that the Cats will not be playing in the NCAA tournament's second weekend or beyond.
What does the Kentucky women's basketball team have to do to get ranked in the top 25? Beat the undefeated men's team?
It sounds crazy, but it's not anymore inexplicable than the puzzling news that Matthew Mitchell's team has once again been left out of the top 25 of the two major polls, despite a 13-2 record.
Kentucky picked up 35 receiving votes in the Associated Press Top 25, the equivalent of 27th, and 64 votes in the ESPN/USA Today Poll, which checks the Cats in at No. 26.
Sure, it means UK is getting close to cracking the top 25, but why aren't they already in there?
Before last week critics could have pointed to a so-so nonconference schedule, but the Cats more than proved themselves against the Southeastern Conference's best last week. UK took then-No. 8 Georgia into overtime in Athens, Ga., before toppling then-No. 17 Vanderbilt on Sunday.
What's even more head-scratching is that Georgia moved up two spots to No. 6 and previously beaten Vandy remained ahead of the Cats in both polls.
Look, I'm no women's basketball expert and I'm not here to argue the credentials of Georgia and Vanderbilt - they certainly deserve their lofty national rankings - but how can the pollsters leave out a team that was every bit as good as nationally ranked Georgia and Vandy?
It just doesn't make sense.
Whatever the case is, Mitchell didn't sound concerned after Sunday's victory with the respect (or lack of respect) his team has received. Mitchell said he knows what his team has, and that's all that matters.
Maybe the rest of the nation will know what Kentucky has after games against South Carolina and Alabama. Just maybe.
Maybe the Kansas loss at Tennessee was a bit of an eye-opener for the rest of the nation, but the teams of the Southeastern Conference know better.
Winning in hostile SEC environments is no easy task, one Kentucky will have to face Tuesday night after a home dominated first half of the season. UK will play just its second road game of the year at Florida at 9 p.m. Tuesday in front of a nationally televised audience on ESPN.
"This is what guys came here for," senior guard Ramon Harris said. "They see it on TV. They see all the rivalries - the Duke-North Carolina rivalry, they see the Kentucky and Louisville rivalry - and they want to play in that type of environment."
The O'Connell Center in Gainesville, Fla., sometimes referred to as the O'Dome, is expected to be sold out, raucous and rowdy for Tuesday night's tilt.
Because of the Cats' longtime history of success and the Gators' recent surge in the last decade, the UK-Florida game has become one of the most intense and anticipated games of the SEC slate.
"I always like playing at Florida," Harris said. "It's a great environment. It's something that you dream of when you play D-I basketball is playing in a hostile crowd on the road, and that's what Florida is."
Arenas like Rupp, Thompson-Boling and Bud Walton make the SEC a haven for hostile environments, but you could make an argument for the O'Connell Center being one of the toughest places to play in America - when it's a marquee game. In recent years, "ESPN The Magazine" has dubbed it the "Scariest Place to Play in the Country" and the "House of Horrors."
Although the O'Dome seats just 12,000, it provides an intimate, deafening environment because of its unique seating arrangement. Fans, whether they're in second or 22nd row, feel as if they're on top of the court. A Gator fan can almost raise their arms out and touch the players with one of their widely known Gator chomps.
The student section, appropriately named the "Rowdy Reptiles," sits so close to the court that I had multiple students breathing down my neck and commenting on every word I typed as I live blogged the game last year in Gainesville.
It's enough to drive opposing teams over the edge, especially one loaded with inexperienced first-year players, who, outside of a road trip to Bloomington, Ind., have not experienced the rigors of the road.
"I've been down there and they tell me that it is a great environment for college basketball and they will be mean and vicious and say stuff and have signs," head coach John Calipari said. "They are not going to do what I say to do which is just cheer for the teams. They are going to go after us and that is OK. That is part of that environment and that is fine. We are going to find out where we are. That is why you do this."
Young pups like Daniel Orton seemed to surprisingly thrive in the hostility of Assembly Hall in the December game at Indiana.
"It's going to be a lot of pressure on us to see how well we do on the road," freshman forward Daniel Orton said. "I think we'll play our own game and play pretty well because we have great leadership. We'll get our minds straight and play well. We won't pay attention to it and we'll block everything out. We like having people against us."
Harris said the veterans will advise the freshmen to focus on every possession, but nothing can simulate the beaten path of the SEC.
"I just tell them that it's going to be loud like they see on TV," Harris said. "It's going to be fun, though."
As fun as eight SEC road games with a target on your back can get.
Liggins' play warrants more PT: Sophomore guard DeAndre Liggins, who was benched the first nine game of the season for undisclosed reasons, could see increased playing time against Florida because of the noticeable spark he's provided off the bench in recent games.
While Liggins won't join the starting five - Calipari wondered out loud to himself after the Georgia game whether Liggins has played well enough to start - he has seen enough to become one of the first players off the bench.
"I think that we will need him coming off the bench," Calipari said. "But (he) and Daniel (Orton) will be the first two subs. When you talk about seven now, he has worked his way into that seven. I will then go from there."
Liggins totaled six points and three steals in 14 minutes of action in the win against Georgia.
Inexplicably, the women's basketball team remained outside of the AP Top 25 this week despite a near upset of now-No. 6 Georgia and previously ranked Vanderbilt. The Cats picked up 35 receiving votes, good enough for 27th.
Entering the 2009 season, there were a bevy of question marks about who would secure certain roles on the Kentucky baseball team. Among them was the uncertainty of who would start at second base, a position vacated by four-year starter Ryan Wilkes, who Rawlings named the best defensive second baseman in college baseball a year before.
That was when then-sophomore Chris Bisson stepped up and locked down the position, becoming UK's top offensive threat throughout the year, providing consistency and spark to the Wildcat lineup.
The Orleans, Ontario, native, made good on the opportunity, leading the club in nearly every offensive category, including average (.360), at bats (222), runs scored (49), hits (80) and RBI (52), reaching base safely in 49 of 52 games and earning All-Southeastern Conference accolades. Not bad for a first-year starter who picked up the game late as a youth in hockey-mad Canada and mustered just a .157 average in 13 starts a year prior.
"Chris had an excellent offensive year for us last season," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "He brings a spark and energy to the lineup that is important to put pressure on the opposing defense."
A 5-foot-11 infielder, Bisson's game is as a speedy top-of-the-order hitter, a left-handed hitting igniter of the offense. With UK facing a host of injuries throughout the lineup and the lack of a proven RBI producer, Henderson made a successful midseason lineup shift, moving Bisson from leadoff to the No. 3 spot in the order. Bisson blossomed in the three hole, batting .352 with 25 RBI in 22 games.
Following the season, Henderson and the UK staff wanted the explosive infielder to be challenged in the best summer collegiate league in the country, the prestigious Cape Cod League.
Bisson was challenged in the Cape, and he passed with flying colors.
Playing with Cotuit, Bisson led the league in stolen bases, leading the Kettlers to the championship series. He swiped 36-of-45 bases during 42 games, matching a club record and becoming just the fourth CCL player in the last 10 years and the third in the last nine years to steal 30 or more bags during a summer. Of the three previous players to steal 30 or more bags in the Cape, two advanced to play in the big leagues. Overall during the summer, Bisson batted .269 (36-for-134) with a team-best 36 hits for a club that hit just .239 as a team in the pitching-laden Cape Cod League.
"After the summer Chris had in the Cape, he established himself as a legitimate prospect with his defensive abilities, athleticism and consistent bat," Henderson said. "We expect Chris to continue his progress into the 2010 season and have another excellent year for us, both offensively and defensively."
Back for his junior season, Bisson has his sights set on leading the Wildcats into yet another breakthrough season in the rugged SEC. When the Wildcats, ranked as high as No. 22 in the preseason, take the field for the Caravelle Resort Invitational in Myrtle Beach, S.C., to open the year against Virginia Tech on Feb. 19, there won't be any doubt about who will open up at second base. It will be the now-veteran Chris Bisson.
Some notes and quotes from Monday's Southeastern Conference Coaches Teleconference. Kentucky will play Florida on Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN
Florida coach Billy Donovan
- Donovan alluded to the quick turnaround both Kentucky and Florida will have for Tuesday night's primetime affair, saying his team will have to correct in a short amount of time after a loss to Vanderbilt as well plenty to prepare for against a "very, very good" and "consistent" UK team.
- Donovan called both John Wall and Eric Bledsoe terrific players, but he really seemed to praise Bledsoe, who Donovan tried to recruit to Florida. "Everybody knew a lot about Wall coming out. I had a chance to see Bledsoe play quite a bit as well and think he is a terrific player. They are really playing with two point guards, more or less. On film, their chemistry and cohesiveness is something that has probably been a very strong strength of their team. Both guys are having terrific years. Never mind them being freshman. They're both playing very, very well."
- The longtime Florida coach also spoke on Patrick Patterson's ability to step out and shoot this year. "I always felt like he could step out and make midrange jump shots. He did some of that last year. I think now John (Calipari) is probably giving him some opportunities to step even farther away and take some 3s. I think he's always been able to do a lot of different things. ... John's still got him playing inside and that's where I think he's obviously truly special."
- After giving up 40 points in the paint to Vanderbilt over the weekend, Donovan was asked how he thought his front line would hold up against UK's frontcourt. "When you look at Kentucky's size and strength and length up front, I think they have a couple things. They have tremendous size, they're physical, they're very, very long and they rebound the ball very well. If our front court was a phenomenal front court, they still pose problems. I think Kentucky's front court and their teams poses problems for anybody that's playing them."
- The first-year head coach started the teleconference by congratulating Tennessee for its win over No. 1 Kansas on Sunday, calling it a terrific win for their program and the SEC. The win, more than anything, signified the strength of the league, Calipari said. "You just go right up and down the line of other teams that are really getting it done in the league. ... This is turning out to be the league we thought it was going to be."
- Calipari also said he would give his midseason SEC Coach of the Year selection to Georgia head coach Mark Fox, whose team, Calipari said, is one of the most improved in the nation. Patterson has been putting up his typical gaudy numbers, but Calipari has spoken in recent weeks about getting more out of his junior forward. On Monday, he expanded on that notion. "His numbers are fine. But I want (him) to go against somebody and have a marked advantage that you got the better of that guy and that's not happening every game. I thought (Trey) Thompkins held his own, if not was more aggressive on the backboard. We're doing a lot with him. He's inside, he's outside, we're asking him to defend out on the floor - we're asking a lot of him. But that's because he's capable of that. I keep telling him you're a first-team All-American. Just go and look at the guy you're playing against and say I'm playing better than this guy. Don't just play to play and put up numbers."
- Calipari was asked to compare Wall to his freshman greats of the past few years, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose. Cal said he loves all three players but said each one is different and played in a different situation. "John Wall has taken over a team that was in the NIT (last year). There was more that he had to do and he's doing whatever he has to do. There are games he scores more, there are games where he passes more. ... He still has a ways to go. One of the things that's an issue for us and it was for our teams at Memphis is we get people down (but) we don't put them away. We get them down 10, 12, 13. Well get it to 20. All of a sudden you turn around and it's four, it's two, you're down two. What in the world just happened? That's a lot of John and our other guys understanding that when you go on the road and that happens, you cannot stop the avalanche. It just bowls you over. It's all that experience stuff that we don't have that scares me more than anything else."
Archrival Tennessee may have opened the door for Kentucky to return to the top of college basketball.
No. 16 Tennessee - without the services of leading scorer Tyler Smith, who was dismissed from the team earlier in week - defeated No. 1 Kansas 76-68 Sunday night at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
The stunning upset might have paved the way for Kentucky, currently No. 3 in both major polls, to return to No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll for the first time since the final week of the 2002-03 season.
Kansas entered the week with 56 of the 65 first-place votes in the AP poll and 30 of the 31 first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll. The loss will almost assuredly drop them from the top few spots.
The remaining hurdle in the Cats' way is current No. 2 and undefeated Texas Longhorns. Texas entered the week picking up eight first-place votes in the AP and one first-place vote in the ESPN/USA Today poll.
Texas has notched marquee victories over North Carolina and Michigan State and defeated Arkansas and Colorado earlier this week.
Kentucky, fresh off a victory over conference foe Georgia, has significant wins over North Carolina, Connecticut and Louisville. The Cats garnered one first-place vote in last week's AP poll.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Texas will move to the top spot this week (and that would be my guess as well), but expect the Cats to pick up a large chunk of the first-place votes.
For all the good feelings surrounding one of the best starts in school history, one word seemed to elude the Kentucky women's basketball team:
Twenty-point dustings, one of the nation's top ranked defenses and an All-American candidate in Victoria Dunlap (yes, she is playing like one) weren't enough to squash a (ridiculous and quite laughable) preseason prediction that tabbed the Cats the second-worst team in the Southeastern Conference.
Sunday's pivotal 63-53 win over No. 17 Vanderbilt - the Cats' first victory over the Commodores since 1999 - should put to rest any doubts about the legitimacy of Kentucky's 13-2 start to the season.
"I think they have a lot more talent than they had last year," Vanderbilt head coach Melanie Balcomb said. "Matthew (Mitchell) is doing a great job with them defensively and they have more offensive weapons. I have no idea why they were picked 11th."
Whoever did certainly won't want to fess up to it now. Much like the football coaches at SEC football media days when they were questioned for not voting all-world Tim Tebow to the All-SEC first team, Balcomb quickly pointed out that she wasn't one of the coaches that tabbed UK 11th in the preseason.
Even if she did, nobody wants to look that foolish with how the Cats are playing this season.
Thursday's near upset of No. 8 Georgia and Sunday's streak-stopping win over nationally ranked Vanderbilt confirms what the non-conference slate led us to believe. This is a very good basketball team under third-year coach Matthew Mitchell, a defensively, up-tempo style team designed to compete with the powerhouses of the rugged SEC.
"There may be this notion out here that we haven't been a tested team and we don't know what's going on with the team, but I know what we have," Mitchell said.
He knows he has a team on the verge of contending, one filled with players that needed just a little more proof as to how close they are, regardless of what the pollsters and national media thinks.
"This was a very, very important game," Mitchell said. "If you lose this game, it's harder to get back in there and sell to (the players) that defense is where it is. As hard as we play and as difficult as the league is, you need to see some success."
The entire team should be reassured after Sunday's win because defense is what put the brakes on a decade-long streak. Defense is what gave them their first win over a ranked opponent in nearly a year and defense is what should - if they pollsters place any value in their ballots - put the Cats back in the top 25 next week for the first time since the 2006-07 season.
Junior guard Amber Smith, who scored a team-high 20 points and put UK on her back at times in the second half, believes it's the type of signature win that could finally turn attention back to the Wildcat program.
"I think it is," Smith said. "We can't worry about the media. We're just going to keep playing hard and we're going to keep winning games. They're going to have to respect us. We're going to force them to because we're going to play hard every night."
It was also important for the Cats to keep their confidence intact. An 11-0 start to the season followed two conference losses and three in the last four games might have fractured their psyche.
But the second half of Sunday's game painted a pretty clear picture that the Cats' mentality isn't easily broken.
"If we would have lost this one I still think we would have bounced back because I know the demeanor of this team, I know the players on this team and I know we could, but we didn't want to lose," Smith said. "That's basically it. We refused to lose. We wanted to win. We wanted to go 1-1 (in the SEC) and continue to win."
Smith, who Mitchell called the team's emotional leader, was the main reason behind the come-from-behind win.
When everything was going Vanderbilt's way, Smith was at her best. Mired in a shooting slump as cold as the wintry snow outside - the Cats shot just 21.9 percent in the first half and dipped as low as 17 percent in the second half - down by 10 points early in the second half and without sophomore guard Rebecca Gray (stomach virus) for the second game, Smith took over.
With UK trailing 41-31 at the 12:29 mark, Smith scored nine of UK's next 16 points in a 16-5 run that gave the Wildcats a 47-46 advantage. The Cats never trailed again, going on a 32-12 run to close the game.
Smith scored 13 of her 15 second-half points after UK trailed by 10, but she credited the turnaround to the Cats' unwavering ability to defend.
"We turned it around on defense," said Smith, whose team forced a Vanderbilt season-high 26 turnovers. "We got turnovers that we converted into points. We just went back to our bread and butter and that's defense. We turned it up on that end with a lot of intensity. Once we got that going, shots started falling."
"(Defense) got us this far, so why go away from it?" Smith said.
The players are buying in, the coach believes it and the fans are full onboard. When will the SEC and the rest of the nation get it?
"I think that it is particularly important for me today to put the credit exactly where it should go and that is to the players," Mitchell said. "We did not call a lot of different plays and didn't make any adjustments. The players just kept battling. They changed their attitudes and just are a very determined group of basketball players. They deserve this win and it is a great win for us."
A win that should give the Cats the type of national respect they deserve.
Kentucky women's basketball head coach Matthew Mitchell and his team dedicated Sunday's 63-53 win over No. 17 Vanderbilt to recently retired football coach Rich Brooks.
"We want to honor coach Rich Brooks with this win," Mitchell said. "Our retired football coach is a man that has always supported our women's basketball team and they enthusiastically agree that we should give this win to coach Brooks as a parting gift, if you will. He is a man that means a lot to our team and means a lot to me personally. He has been a great example for me and has always exhibited what we are all about: honesty, hard work and discipline. We just want to honor coach Brooks with that."
Perry Stevenson called it a "new season" on Friday. Mark Krebs predicted it would be as physical as the Louisville game. John Calipari said Kentucky could get upset if it didn't match Georgia's intensity.
Heed the warning.
Conference play opened Saturday in Rupp Arena with a rude awakening. The message? The march through the Southeastern Conference won't be as easy as the waltz through the non-conference.
Kentucky defeated the Georgia Bulldogs 76-68 in front of a season-high crowd of 24,342 fans at Rupp Arena, but the Cats needed a late 11-3 run to close out last year's SEC East last-place team.
"I guess that's welcome to the SEC," head coach John Calipari said.
If you consider a punch in the mouth at the opening of a door a welcoming.
The Cats are going to compete for an SEC title. In fact, they're going to be the hands-on favorite to win an unprecedented 43rd league championship.
But before you start designing those undefeated T-shirts and compiling highlights for your UK YouTube video, remember, this isn't last year's conference.
Heed the SEC.
"It was real physical," said freshman guard Eric Bledsoe, who finished with a team-high-tying 17 points. "It was kind of like the Louisville game."
In fact, it looked eerily similar. UK-Georgia was another slugfest down low, one characterized by poor shooting, turnovers and free-throw shooting.
That's conference ball, and now the young guns like freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins know.
Cousins spent most of Saturday's bruising slugfest with two and three defenders draped on his arms, but for the second game in a row he helped push UK past its opponent with a dominating second-half effort. The first-year star rebounded from a slow first half for 12 big second-half points.
His free throws down the stretch were a key part of an 11-3 run at the end of the game that helped seal the seesaw affair (12 lead changes and nine ties).
More importantly, he kept his cool after a posterizing dunk in the first half and a physical second half. Cousins' composure led to three Bulldogs fouling out in the last 10 minutes.
"All of them should have fouled out," Cousins said.
Cousins was asked after the game if he should wear his Peter Parker-like glasses to prevent from getting fouled so much.
"If I wore these and we played Georgia, these would be in two (pieces)," Cousins said.
He might want to think about keeping them in the case for the rest of league play. It will get no easier against an improved league.
The SEC returned a bevy of experienced players this year, turning a much-maligned three-bid NCAA Tournament conference into a possible five- or six-bid league. Georgia is a first-hand example of that improvement.
After struggling to 12 wins a season ago, the Bulldogs have already pulled off wins against No. 20 Georgia Tech - who toppled No. 5 Duke earlier Saturday - and Illinois. Saturday the Bulldogs gave the No. 3 team as much as any other team, including Louisville, North Carolina and Connecticut has all year long.
"It's what happens in the league, and that's at home," Calipari said. "I can't even imagine what's going to happen when we get out on the road."
It will likely be a battle night in and night out. If UK is going to win a league title and maybe go undefeated, it's going to earn every win. Freshman guard John Wall, who struggled Saturday with an illness, won't always be there to bail out the Cats.
If the first-year players didn't know that before Saturday, they do now.
"I think it (was an eye-opener) for all of us," said junior forward Patrick Patterson, who tallied 17 points and six rebounds Saturday. "Those who think that what we have done is going to carry over to league play, (they know better now). You want to continue to play hard and you want to continue battling, but you know that the competition, you're going to have a target on your back. Every team in the conference is playing well, and whenever they play you they're going to play their best game."
So Kentucky is going to have to continue to take it up a notch. Players will have to continue to improve and step up in key conference situations like Saturday's.
"One of the things I was looking for from the guys on the bench was their fight," Calipari said.
Having been through the rigors of conference play, DeAndre Liggins came to play with his gloves on.
The sophomore guard pitched in a critical 14 minutes of play, scoring six points and totaling three steals. He brought energy in the first half when UK was lacking fire.
Calipari is hoping Liggins, who was benched for the first nine games of the season for undisclosed reasons, will become the poster child for handling conference adversity.
"The tentativeness, the softness, the 'I got screened, I didn't hear, I'm sorry,' it's too late now, man" Calipari said. "We're halfway through a season. You've got to ball. You've got to go out there and fight and compete."
Because if Georgia is supposed to be a cellar-dwelling team, what's that say about the rest of the league and the fight the Cats have ahead?
"This is a great league," Georgia head coach Mark Fox said. "I think it's pretty balanced. Members of the media voted us unanimously as the last-place team. If you guys are right, then this league is pretty balanced."
Saturday was win No. 1 of the new season. Expect 15 more battles.
OK, let me make an admission. I in no way thought the Kentucky Wildcats would go undefeated (15-0) through the non-conference portion of their schedule. No way, no how, I thought, would they glide through a brutal three-game stretch against North Carolina, Connecticut and Indiana unscathed. Louisville, as always, was a major hurdle.
I was wrong. There, I said it.
Now comes the difficult 16-game Southeastern Conference schedule. Do the Cats have what it takes to make it through the year undefeated? Do they even have enough to win the conference? Here are the main hurdles entering conference play:
1.) Familiarity - Knowing your opponent is an advantage. When you know the tendencies of a team, it's easier to scout, easier to game plan for and easier to defend, especially when you play an opponent twice in one season. Although UK's roster has undergone a major overhaul from last season, teams like Georgia are fairly familiar with the play of Patrick Patterson, Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson.
Look no farther than John Calipari's past Memphis teams. Although Calipari posted the best four-year mark in NCAA history the last four years, his Tigers went through wars against a much weaker Conference USA.
"Any league you're in, when you have to go on the road, it's hard. It's just hard," Calipari said. "It was the same in (C-USA). We won a lot of close games."
For more proof, just look to last week's annual battle with Louisville. Although the Cats and Cardinals aren't conference affiliates, they play each other so much that they know each other's games. The end result is usually an all-out war. Expect no difference against the brethren of the SEC.
2.) Physicality - Some of the Kentucky players admitted Friday that they've pushed around some smaller non-conference opponents. No offense to the little guy, but size rules in college basketball. The SEC certainly isn't short on muscle or height.
"It's good that we just had a game against Louisville which was real physical because that's what it is. It gets more physical playing SEC schools," senior guard Mark Krebs said. "You're not going to play teams that are a lot smaller than you anymore, so you're going to have to play teams that are just like you physically and you've just got to out-tough them."
Kentucky has one of the tallest teams in the nation, but how will it handle the trees of the SEC like Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado? Familiarity fosters more physical and aggressive play.
Kentucky's young, unproven freshmen have never been through the rigors of league play. How they handle the elbows, the foul calls and the brutality of the SEC will determine the Cats' undefeated chances.
3.) Experience - Don't let some of the non-conference losses fool you. The league march the Cats are about to embark upon is considerably tougher than the one they went through a year ago.
As of now, Joe Lunardi of ESPN predicts that six teams will make the Big Dance in March, three more than last year. Veterans like Varnado, South Carolina's Devan Downey, Vanderbilt's A.J. Ogilvy and LSU's Tasmin Mitchll have returned to make the SEC a much more formidable conference than the one UK struggled to get through last season.
Kentucky's opponent on Saturday, Georgia, provides all the proof for the league's improvement. Last year's SEC East dweller has remarkably improved. Earlier in the week the Bulldogs upset nationally ranked Georgia Tech.
"They had a chance to beat them pretty good, too," Calipari said. "Georgia Tech hung around, but the reality from the start to finish is it was Georgia. They're physical, they're big, they've got an athletic small forward, their guards can shoot. They're a good team."
4.) Non-conference means nothing - The Kentucky name might be back nationally with an undefeated start to the season, but that means nothing to the teams of the SEC. Where other teams might falter at the challenge of walking into Rupp Arena, the SEC teams look forward to it. It's an opportunity for them.
Any good feeling the Cats might be riding now would quickly evaporate with a couple of conference losses. There's no such thing as momentum as UK starts the second half of its season.
"It's the start of a new season," Stevenson said. "It only helps with the selection committee and all that stuff. It does nothing for you in the conference."
UK alum Tom Leach has
been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12
years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky
Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective
into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read
Tom's full biography
Brought to you by:
= = =
Sports Illustrated has featured a Kentucky basketball player on its cover
several times, but as far as I know, this week's profile of UK freshman point
guard John Wall represents the first time an individual Wildcat has been the
subject of a cover story.
Grant Wahl wrote the article and came away impressed with Wall beyond his
"He was a good interview. Very personable. Gave good answers--and detailed
ones," Wahl said in a podcast at tomleachky.com. "And really seemed
to be excited about being in Sports Illustrated. That's good for him as he
looks toward the future and maybe tries to get endorsement deals down the road.
To have a personality that people find engaging is a good thing to have."
Wahl says it's rare for a freshman to take over games the way Wall has at
times this season and the writer says it's equally rare for a player like Patrick
Patterson to handle the attention a younger teammate gets without developing
any jealousy. And Wahl was a bit surprised as how serious Wall takes his classroom
But Big Blue fans should savor the chance to watch John Wall play the game,
because Grant Wahl is sure this is a one-and-done deal.
"The NBA player personnel director I spoke to says he thinks Wall is
the clearest number one overall pick in the last decade, other than Lebron
James," Wahl said. "He said everyone in the NBA will tell you this
guy is the number one overall pick."
= = =
"It's a big accomplishment. A lot of great players have been there. Mainly,
I want to thank the coaching staff and my teammates," Wall told ESPN's
college basketball writer, Andy Katz, in a podcast available on espn.com.
Katz asked Wall about the prospect of Kentucky matching the feat of the 2003
Syracuse team, riding a freshman (Carmelo Anthony) to a national title.
"We have a chance. That's one of my goals I put on my list coming to
college. You try to win a championship at every level you can. We got a lot
of great players on this team. That's our goal," Wall said. "We know
it's not going to be easy. We've been working hard every day to get better.
Coach Cal is pushing us and I'm going to keep pushing to be the best player
Wall also said Patrick Patterson has been a big key to what the Cats are accomplishing.
"He's been the big leader for us," he said. "He told us what
the Louisvile game was going to be like. He told us what it was going to be
like playing at Indiana."
= = =
This isn't the first time a freshman has gotten an abundance of acclaim at
In the 1986-87 season, one of the most ballyhooed high school players ever
in the state, Rex Chapman, joined the UK program. Teammate Cedric Jenkins says
he sees some similarities between Chapman and the hype surrounding John Wall.
"Absolutely. Both are fierce competitors. Will do anything it takes to
win. And anytime they step on the court, there's always one scene for the highlight
reel," Jenkins said in a podcast on coachcal.com.
"Very down to earth. Always respectful," he said of Chapman. "Was
confident, knew he was good but never was overly cocky. To this day, a lot
of respect for Rex."
= = =
The last time Mark Pope was on the court at Rupp Arena was for his Senior
Night game in 1996. Tomorrow, he returns as the basketball operations director
for new Georgia coach Mark Fox.
"I never saw myself on the coaching track. Didn't think I'd have the
patience or skill to do it. But when I got away, I just missed it so much.
It's where my heart is and what I'd like to do forever," Pope said in
a podcast available at coachcal.com.
"The biggest thing I've learned is how much of college basketball has
very little to do with basketball," he added, referring to dealing with
academcs, recruiting, planning, boosters, administration, etc.
Pope started his college career at the University of Washington and Fox was
a graduate assistant there. Pope transferred to UK after a coaching staff change
and played two years for the Cats, including the '96 championship year.
"I remember eveything about my experience at Kentucky. That was such
a rich, full experience. Every day was just a fantastic thing you'd dreamed
about your whole life coming true," Pope said. "I still have to remind
myself that I got to go be a part of that."
= = =
Joker Phillips will be his own man as the new head coach of the Kentucky football
program, but former Shane Boyd says he shares at least one trait with outgoing
"He'd give it to you real," Boyd said of Phillips, "tell you
what you're doing wrong and what you're doing right."
Boyd, whose younger brother, Aaron, is a sophomore wideout on the UK team,
says former players are excited about a former Wildcat like Phillips getting
"It means a lot. He's played the game of football in this state for years
and he's made it to the next level. And it means a lot to see him get that
milestone of being the first African-American (football) coach here," Boyd
said, adding that Phillips is well-equipped to succeed.
"He knows what buttons to push. These are different players from athletes
of old, maybe even when he was playing. He knows how to relate to players," Boyd
said, "and get the best out of them."
The head coach of Rocky Mountain HS since the 2004 season, Scott Bullock has led the program to a sparkling 119-27 record, with Burns assisting in two state championships and 65 wins from 2006-08. Bullock has shaped the program into the force of the state, consistently producing Division I talent, including Burns, Scott Bachman (Kansas State) and Jake Stewart (Stanford). In 2010, Fort Collins will seek to become the first team in Colorado to win four straight state championships since 1998. In addition, Bullock's team have become involved in the local community, including Fort Collins Respite Care Inc., which provides short-term care for children with developmental disabilities.
While at Rocky Mountain, Burns established himself as one of the top players in school history, earning Colorado State Tournament Most Valuable Player honors in consecutive seasons. Burns joined a school-record fourth-ranked recruiting class on the UK campus in 2009 and along with right-hander Alex Meyer, Burns is considered one of the more highly recruited players in Kentucky history. Following his high school senior season in 2008, Burns was named an Aflac and Louisville Slugger High School All-American, the Gatorade Colorado Player of the Year and rated as the 38th-best prospect in high school baseball by Baseball America. After a senior season that saw him hit .488 with 10 homers and 34 RBI and a junior campaign where he boasted a .546 average with 13 homers and 43 RBI, the hometown Colorado Rockies drafted him in the 25th round of the 2008 MLB Draft.
Burns elected to decline the offers from the Rockies and attend Kentucky, where his father did some post-doctorate studies and the town he lived in for four years as a child. With injuries crippling the UK lineup in Burns freshman season, Kentucky thrust him into the starting spot at third base in the toughest conference in college baseball. Burns, a 6-foot-2, 190-pounder, rose to the occasion, batting .287 with nine doubles, one triple, seven homers and 33 RBI. After getting acclimated to the high-quality pitching of college baseball, Burns improved drastically late in the season, hitting .304 in SEC games with five homers and 17 RBI.
Entering the 2010 season, the UK coaching staff has high hopes for Burns, who has the abilities to become one of the top hitters in the college game.
In the feature story, written by Hap Fry of the Fort Collins Coloradoan on Jan. 5, Burns speaks highly of his former high school coach and the impact Bullock has made of his athletes.
"There's not a better guy out there than Coach Bullock," Burns said. "He wants only the best for his players, and he taught us a lot about life outside of baseball. He proved that you can have an influence on other types of people. The list is endless about all the things he has taught us."
Every once in a while we get some really cool UK pictures from fans across the nation, much like the one up top. We want to encourage you to continue to send your pictures in to email@example.com. If the feedback is good, we'll start posting a picture of the week.
Thanks to William Warfield for providing the photo above.
There are a few things non-conference play told us about the women's basketball team.
One, this team, already just four wins shy of last season's win total, is remarkably more talented from top to bottom than last year's team. Two, UK, which is among the nation's leaders in turnover margin with a plus -10.8 spread a game, is a much better defensive team. And three, the Cats are faster, quicker and play a much more up-tempo game than they did a year ago.
But what else do we know about this UK Hoops team as it enters conference play Thursday in the always rugged Southeastern Conference? More importantly, how good is a team that played against the nation's 189th-ranked schedule (according to RealTimeRPI.com)?
We should know more Thursday at 7 p.m. when the Cats square off against an undefeated (14-0) and nationally ranked (No. 8) Georgia team.
"The intensity is at a different level and the athletes are at a different level (when you enter SEC play)," UK Hoops coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I think that your margin of error is much slimmer which magnifies the mental mistakes. If there is any beef that I have with our younger players right now it is in mental mistakes, which is just a product of youth. Those are the things that concern you.
"If you are switching out on a screen or suppose to get in front of a post players, just little things that make a difference that maybe you can get away with in non-conference but get magnified in conference play. The ability to play the game mentally and figure out your assignments is at a premium."
UK has been loaded with first-year Wildcat players. From freshmen A'dia Mathies and Brittany Henderson to transfers Rebecca Gray, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley, they've all played key roles in the rebirth of the Kentucky women's basketball program.
But how they will handle conference play, when turnovers presumably will go down and baskets won't come as easy, will tell a lot about how far this team has come in just a year's time.
"One of the big challenges for us is to try to create turnovers and score off turnovers," Mitchell said. "We have been able to do that in non-conference but it will be interesting to me to see how that translates into conference. I don't anticipate turning Georgia over 40 times, but can we create enough of those opportunities where we can score some will be, I think, the key to our success in the conference."
The conference opener isn't so much about facing a nationally ranked Georgia team as it is a measuring stick for what a 12-1 non-conference mark - the best record heading into conference play since the 1990-01 season - really means.
Was there substance behind those 25- and sometimes 35-point victories against so-so competition?
Mitchell defended his team's non-conference schedule Wednesday.
"I think it was what this team needed," Mitchell said. "We had some things we needed to figure out. We need to figure out style of play, we needed to figure out who could do what, so I don't think five ranked opponents out of the gate would have been the way to go with this team."
But what happens if UK starts a tough opening week to conference play with two losses? Other than a hiccup at Middle Tennessee State, this young team has yet to face adversity.
"I don't think it's going to crush the team (if we were to lose two games to start conference play)," Mitchell said. "I don't think we're that fragile. The one thing I have to do as a coach is I have to keep telling them that they're good players, because they are, and keep trying to put them in positions where they can have success."
Mitchell summed it up best when he said there are still plenty of questions with his team, questions which should be answered in the coming weeks.
One other thing we should be certain of by now: that preseason pick of finishing 11th in the league appears to be a bit, well, off.
"After watching our team prepare and watching our team play, I have one perspective about our team because I'm with them every day," Mitchell said. "The other coaches in the league think that we are the 11th-best team in the league. As you develop with the team and you develop a relationship with the players, that might upset me more than it did earlier in the season before I knew they were going to come to work every day and have a great energy and a great spirit and really lay it on the line.
"We may still be the 11th-best team, I don't know. I don't think we are. I don't want our players to think they are. If that gives our players any motivation that the coaches in our league don't think we're any better than 11th, we'll try to use that. Right now we'll use whatever we can use to get wins because it's just so tough to get wins and there are a certain number of wins that we'll need to get, so we'll continue to fight and claw for each one."
Kentucky has earned respect with its non-conference opponents. Clawing for respect in conference play begins Thursday at 7 p.m.
Thanks to everyone for following the live blog with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe this afternoon. As expected, we had a huge following.
More than 1,400 readers tuned in to watch the event, and nearly 300 people have replayed the event in the 30 minutes since the chat ended.
We understand that not everyone's comment made it through. We apologize if you didn't get a chance to ask a question. We had such a large following that we tried our best to make due with the time we had.
We had 5,754 comments sent in during the one-hour time frame -- as head coach John Calipari would say, "You guys are crazy" -- and nearly 200 were published.
Again, we hope everyone enjoyed the chat and look forward to doing more in the future.
The Kentucky men's basketball team has been the talk of the 2009-10 athletics season. Now you will have a chance to talk with some of those players.
On Thursday, Cat Scratches will have freshman point guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe and freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins for a live blog. Starting at 1 p.m., Wall, Bledsoe and Cousins, the self-nicknamed "Three Amigos," will field questions and comments from fans in a real-time format on UK's live blog application.
Fans can send in questions and comments, pending approval of the moderator, by clicking on the live blog application Thursday starting at 1 p.m. We are expecting a large audience for the live chat, so please be patient if your question does not make it through the first time. We will do our best to get to as many people as possible.
The "Three Amigos" have been three of the stalwarts behind Kentucky's 15-0 start and No. 3 national ranking.
Wall, largely considered a National Player of the Year candidate, is averaging a team-best 17.2 points and 7.3 assists this season. Cousins is scoring 15.4 points per game, including 9.6 rebounds a contest, in just 19.2 minutes per game. Bledsoe is averaging 10.2 points and 3.1 assists per game.
It's been a long last few days with the retirement of Rich Brooks and now the official hiring of Joker Phillips. It's been exciting and I've enjoyed it, but at this point I'm getting severe writer's block. So to end the hiring of the Phillips' hiring, I thought I'd quickly run through the last few news items from the news conference.
- Phillips did not say whether there would be staff changes one way or another. He said any staff adjustments will be talked about at a later date.
- As to how that pertains to his current role as the offense's play caller remains a mystery. Phillips said he will oversee all three units (offense, defense and special team), but he will make a decision on his exact offensive duties at a later time.
- Phillips did not sound concerned about keeping the current recruiting class. "The thing that we've done the last couple of years is Rich has been honest with them and he has told them he probably wouldn't be there through their senior year. We've been honest with them. All of them are on board, but you never know they're on board until Signing Day. We'll try to secure all of them that we can."
Nobody, including Joker Phillips, wants to see Rich Brooks go. His contributions and his footprint will be eternalized in Kentucky football lore.
But Brooks is gone and the program is now at a transition. Where will it go? That direction will be determined by Phillips, a coach who has long paid his dues to get where he is today.
"It's an interesting journey (trying to move to your dream job) and there are days ... that you think that day will never come," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "I had the journey for about 16 or 17 years. Joker has been an assistant coach for 20-plus years and I'm sure there were times when he wondered if he was going to get his chance. I'm very glad that the day has come for him to take the reins and be a head football coach."
He's earned it and he deserves it for all of the reasons he deserved it and earned it two years ago when he was named the successor to Brooks.
"Two years ago when I introduced (Phillips) as head-coach-in-waiting, it was a very unique deal at the time but since then has been used a couple other places," Barnhart said. "There are those that are proponents of it and critics of it. Regardless, we're at a spot where we hoped to be a couple years ago with the characteristics of a guy we truly believe understands and wants to carry Kentucky football to another level and build on the foundation that Rich and Karen (Brooks) have left for us to move on with."
For the same reasoning a couple of years ago, it was the right move Wednesday. Those very same characteristics are what made it so easy.
The credentials that warranted Phillips' hiring are long and accomplished. In fact, it probably would be easier to try to dissect the few reasons why maybe Phillips wasn't qualified (but we'll take a stab at all the reasons he was hired anyway).
Maybe more importantly than all the rest, he earned it.
As an offensive coordinator for the last five years and wide receivers coach for the last seven, UK's offense has thrived. In 2007, the Cats scored a school-record 475 points, helping spark UK to a second consecutive Music City Bowl championship.
When offensive stalwarts like Andre Woodson, Rafael Little, Keenan Burton and Jacob Tamme left for the NFL, it left Phillips to juggle with an inexperienced and unproven roster of playmakers.
Even when injuries, a disciplinary dismissal and constant quarterback changes in 2008 and 2009 piled on, Phillips was still able to put on a show, helping UK to seven wins and bowl appearances in each of the last two years.
Phillips faced some minor criticism the past two years - largely from a minute fraction of the fan base that was spoiled by the high-flying 2007 team - yet he still managed to finish in the top half of the SEC in scoring offense last year and transformed the Cats into an unstoppable run machine in 2009.
And make no mistake about it, whether it's been stellar recruiting classes or dynamic play calling, he's been one of the most important people in the turnaround.
"Our program has come an awful long ways the past seven years," Barnhart said. "From the journey of probation, from the lack of scholarships, lack of competitiveness, to where we have the ability to line up on the field and compete anywhere at any time, that's a tribute to the coaching staff and the effort they've put in place. ... Joker has been an intricate part of that."
He was an integral part because he shared the same vision of the man largely credited with the turnaround. Just because the visionary is gone doesn't mean the dream has to die.
"(I'm) just passing the torch," Brooks said Monday.
The choice to replace Brooks with Phillips two years ago and today created stability within the program. With Philips at the helm, not much is going to change. The goal to win and the desire to take the next step is still there.
That much was obvious when Phillips instituted his first order of business as head coach at the news conference, an initiative called "Operation Win."
"This means continuing to strive for excellence in every possible area related to the Kentucky football program," Phillips said. "This is not about Joker Phillips. This is about we. There are many parts to a successful program and my job is to evaluate where we can turn it up a notch."
As Brooks' right-hand man and successor, Phillips was placed in a unique position where he could study what he needed to do to be ready.
"I thought that he was prepared a few years ago and obviously, the administration agreed as well," said Brooks, who two years ago at the Music City Bowl approached Barnhart and UK President Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr., that Phillips should be the next head coach.
"He is a Kentucky guy who lives and dies the job of college football," Brooks said. "There is a week here and a week there where you can shut it down, but it is a seven-days-a-week, 24-hour-a-day job. Joker lives it and breathes it. He is prepared from a fundamental standpoint. He has a great personality and he is good with the young men he coaches. He and the coaching staff are in a position to take it and run with it and do a very good job."
After all, it's not like he hasn't learned from one of the best.
"Rich has prepared Joker well," Barnhart said. "I've watched them interact. When I call Rich sometimes he'll be in the car and Joker is right here with him. You don't drive miles and miles on the recruiting trail and travel on planes together without gleaning knowledge from someone you trust."
The stability will trickle down to recruiting as well, which Phillips, a nationally respected recruiter, called the most important part of building a successful program.
Those high school kids, then and now, that Phillips and Brooks recruited, knew as well as anybody that Brooks likely wouldn't be around for their entire careers, but they chose to commit to UK anyway because they placed their trust in Phillips.
If nothing else, it saves a long and arduous coaching search. Although people are sad to see Brooks go, they can take solace in the fact that a proven, deserving guy is taking over.
"It hit me (Sunday) night as I was kind of letting this all sink in," Todd said. "It's great not to be doing a coaching search right now. Those things are anguishing. You get tons of opinions, tons of analysis ... We know who the coach is going to be. Joker has paid his dues. He is, as Rich said, a Kentuckian. It does make a difference."
Because Phillips understands where Kentucky came from, what it's been through and where it wants to go. He's lived it. He's breathed it. He's waited for it.
Throughout Phillips' 20-plus years as an assistant coach, he never knew quite when it would get here.
"I was just plowing ahead trying to be the best assistant," Phillips said. "I learned from Bill Curry (to) do the best job with the job you got and people will call. That is all I ever tried to do."
That call finally came Wednesday. It was the right one two years ago, and it's the right one now.
The day was supposed to be about Joker Phillips, but Kentucky's newest head coach had one person on his mind: his former coach.
With Rich Brooks seated not even 10 feet away to his right, Phillips struggled to fight back emotions for the man that made Wednesday's historic hiring possible.
"The guy that I owe the most thanks to is Rich Brooks and his wife, Karen, who have worked tirelessly to build this program and build it the right way," said Phillips, choking up nearly every two or three words as he tried to find the words to thank his mentor. "He has done a phenomenal job, and as I follow a true champion, plowing against adversity, he has had a huge affect on me as a person and as a coach. As I take the reins from him, I feel confident knowing that he has prepared me well."
Phillips took the reins of the program Wednesday, just weeks away from the two-year anniversary when he was named the successor to Brooks.
The Kentucky native has waited a long time to get the UK job. Even before his days as a wide receiver on the UK football team from 1981-84, Phillips dreamed as a young boy in Franklin, Ky., of being a Wildcat in a time, as Phillips described it, "when it wasn't a very popular choice."
That love and affection for Kentucky football turned into a desire. Soon after, it turned into a playing destination and eventually an assistant coaching job.
"I remember when I was a recruiting host while I was a player," Phillips said. "Back then, the recruiting coordinator was Dick "Fox" Redding. As I went to pick up my $20 that I had to take out the recruit, I remember telling Dick, 'One of these days, I want your job. I want to be a coach at Kentucky.' "
Wednesday he got finally got the big job, taking over for a man that showed him the ropes and helped open the door for just the second black coach in the history of the Southeastern Conference.
The shoes he has to fill are undoubtedly big.
"I predict the appreciation for Rich will grow even greater as time goes by," Phillips said. But as Phillips mentioned, he had the added advantage of learning as Brooks' right-hand man, knowing that this historic hiring would one day come.
Looking back at everything Brooks had taught him brought Phillips to tears at one point. When everything that led up to Wednesday's hiring came rushing back, Phillips put his head in his hands and wiped away the tears and memories, knowing wholeheartedly that his mentor and friend would no longer be on the sidelines with him.
"This guy (Brooks) means the world to me," Phillips said. "He does. I mean it sincerely. When I was asked about if I was getting anxious (to take the head coaching job), no, no, I was not getting anxious. I had one of the best jobs in America. I was able to sit back. I am in a unique position, first of all. I am getting the job that I was able to study for, for two years. I got to study from one of the best in the business."
After all the battles to get to Wednesday, Phillips felt a sense of perpetual gratefulness to Brooks.
"One of the things that I have admired about him is that at a time when we had a lot of young coaches, me included, on our staff and we might have taken a different direction the first few years, Rich stayed the course," Phillips said. "He didn't listen to the noise of us young coaches that thought we knew everything. He stayed the course of the plain and we made the turn."
The next turn will be up to Phillips, a move that seemed to give Brooks some noticeable ease and relaxation as he arrived at Wednesday's news conference.
As Phillips projected the image and vision he shared for the future of the UK football program, one Brooks helped mold and construct, Brooks sat nearby with the smile of a proud father.
"I'm very proud," Brooks said, "(because) one, two years ago the administration was confident enough to name him the coach-in-waiting and now to see it fulfilled, I am very proud."
Brooks said he was a little surprised at how emotional Phillips got at the microphone, in part because he didn't know he had that large of an influence on Phillips, but he made sure to offer a hand of support to UK's newest head coach, even if that means sticking his head in on a practice or two.
"I'll be around," Brooks said. "I don't want to be in the way. "I don't want to take anything away from Joker because this is now his time."
With an emotional, historic news conference underneath Commonwealth Stadium on Wednesday, the tenure of Joker Phillips as the 36th football coach in program history finally began.
That you already know. But with any new coach comes a new contract and new salary. Phillips jokingly (and classically) downplayed the contract when he was asked about the details Wednesday.
"Mitch is paying me a lot of money to run this program," Phillips said.
Then, with almost perfect timing, Phillips paused, turned to his left and looked at Barnhart.
"Hold on once second," Phillips said. "You are paying me a lot of money, (right)? I hope this isn't a community service job."
Barnhart played his part.
"Based on what I signed, I think we're good," Barnhart said.
All joking aside, Phillips will be paid handsomely and deservingly for taking over the reins of the football program.
Phillips will make $1.7 million annually for the next five years, plus incentives. Phillips will make a base salary of $400,000 annually, but an additional $1.3 million for participation in radio and television programs and athletically related endorsements, including endorsement of athletic footwear, apparel and equipment, will bring the total deal to $1.7 million, with a chance to make more, based on incentive-base performances.
Those incentives include Phillips' performances in the Southeastern Conference (including wins in the SEC, claiming the SEC East title and winning the outright league), bowl appearances, and academic and graduation performance.
If Phillips were to fulfill all accomplishments, he could make up to an additional 1.1 million in a year.
It did not take long for either side to come to an agreement. Barnhart estimated they were in negotiations for maybe an hour.
"It wasn't about (the money)," Barnhart said. "You get to a stop (where) it's not about that. You want to be fair to him. You want to be fair, you want to make sure everybody is squared away and compensated properly, but at the end of the day this is about an opportunity to be the head coach in the Southeastern Conference at the University of Kentucky."
Kentucky has called a news conference today at 3:08 p.m. to announce the appointment of Joker Phillips as head football coach. Like Monday, we will have a live blog and live streaming video from the news conference to bring you the latest updates, as well as take your questions and comments. We will start a 3 p.m.
Also, check back Wednesday evening for a video replay and additional coverage.
The following story was published Jan. 22, 2008, in the Kentucky Kernel after Joker Phillips was named the eventual successor to then-head coach Rich Brooks.
In light of the news conference Wednesday at 3:08 p.m. to officially appoint Phillips the 36th head coach of the football program, I thought it would be worth taking a look back to that frigid day in January when the pieces were set in motion.
By Eric Lindsey
More than 20 years ago, Joker Phillips had a decision to make.
As family members and friends advised Phillips on where to go to college, it took a simple question from his mother to reveal his choice.
"My mom came to me and asked, 'Joe, where do you want to go?' I told her that I wanted to go to Kentucky, always have," Phillips said. "It wasn't the popular choice of many of my friends and family, but it was where my heart was."
Phillips' decision more than two decades ago in his hometown of Franklin, Ky., came full-circle Friday.
In what head coach Rich Brooks and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart called a move of "continuity and consistency for current and future players," Phillips was named the eventual successor as the head coach of UK football once Brooks decides to leave the position.
"To have the opportunity to someday lead this program is real special to myself and my family," Phillips said. "The thing is, I appreciate the support of everybody. The journey has been fun."
Phillips, UK's offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, was named the successor at a news conference Friday, which President Lee Todd attended. Barnhart also announced that Brooks will receive a contract extension through the 2011 season and will receive a pay raise to $1.6 million a year.
"I'm really thankful that Dr. Todd and Mitch (Barnhart) believed in this program," Brooks said. "I made a statement when I came here when Mitch hired me that I wanted to do the same thing here that we accomplished at the University of Oregon during my tenure. ... I believe we're on a solid foundation in this program."
The announcement of a succession plan and Brooks' contract extension comes three weeks after UK completed its second consecutive 8-5 season and first back-to-back bowl victories since the 1950-51 seasons. The Cats beat Florida State in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl on Dec. 31.
Leading up to the bowl game, there were rumors that Brooks, 66, would retire. Following the victory, Brooks reiterated what he has said throughout the season: that he wants to leave UK as the longest-tenured coach in school history.
For Brooks to accomplish his goal, he will have to coach five more seasons. Fran Curci has the longest tenure and coached for nine seasons at UK from 1973-81.
As UK continued to have success in the 2007 season, other reports surfaced that Phillips, 44, was generating a lot of interest for head coaching vacancies at other schools. With the program's future facing speculation, Barnhart and Brooks decided a succession plan needed to be in place.
Succession plans are highly uncommon in college football, but it appears the move will keep Phillips in Lexington until Brooks steps down.
The UK offensive coordinator had several opportunities to coach at other programs, according to Brooks, but Phillips said UK and working with Brooks is where he always wanted to be.
"He's hard to leave," Phillips said of his head coach.
Todd added his support of the decision and commended Brooks for the job he has done in rebuilding the football program over the last five years.
"Coach Brooks has built this program the right way, with hard work and integrity," Todd said in a news release. "Joker Phillips has played a major role in that effort and I'm proud to see one of our own poised to take the reins of this program. He deserves it and, frankly, we could not find a better candidate to lead UK football into the future."
Phillips will begin that future whenever Brooks decides to step down. At that point, Phillips will then be offered the job, Barnhart said, citing the contract they signed. The details of the coaching contract, specifically the salary, will not be addressed until Phillips is offered the position, Barnhart said.
When Phillips takes over as head coach, he will become the second black head coach in Southeastern Conference history. He will also be the first black "coach-in-waiting," Brooks said.
"It's historic for the University of Kentucky," Brooks said. "I think it's historic obviously for the SEC and for college football."
Phillips has been UK's offensive coordinator for three seasons. He, along with Brooks, has helped transform UK from a perennial bottom-feeder in the Southeastern Conference to one of the nation's most potent offenses.
Under Phillips' tutelage, the Cats' offense has improved in each of the past three seasons. UK led the SEC in passing offense (287.9 yards per game) and ranked fourth in scoring offense (36.5) this season. The Cats' scoring average was the second-highest in school history, trailing only the 1998 team that posted 37.9 points per game.
Phillips has never been a stranger to the program. He played at UK from 1981-84, primarily as a wide receiver, and was on the football staff form 1988-96, serving several roles as an assistant coach. Phillips returned to the program in 2003 after coaching stops at Cincinnati, Minnesota, Notre Dame and South Carolina. He also has three years of professional experience as a player.
Phillips will try to continue the Cats' success as offensive coordinator under Brooks. Once the time comes, Phillips said, he will be ready to take the reins as head coach.
"When Rich is ready to go fishing," Phillips said, "I'm looking forward to someday running this program."
As you would suspect, Kentucky was tabbed a No. 1 seed for the Big Dance. If the tournament started today, Lunardi would have them in New Orleans facing Campbell or the winner of the Atlantic Sun. The other two teams in New Orleans are Cincinnati and Texas Tech.
Despite the Southeastern Conference's early season struggles, six teams from the league make Lunardi's projections.
UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and 9 year's for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography
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Tony Barnhart not only knows football, he's an expert on the Southeastern Conference, in his role as the national college football correspondent for CBS Sports and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. So it's noteworthy when he heaps praise on outgoing UK football coach Rich Brooks.
"He changed the culture of Kentucky football, from one that aspires to hopefully compete to one that is definitely going to compete and started scaring the heck out of people. I think you look at that but I think you look at the touch of class he brought to this program (too)," Banhart told tomleachky.com "Every single week, you knew you had to be ready to play Kentucky because if you weren't, you were going to get beat. There were a lot of 'firsts' at Kentucky during coach Brooks' time there and that's something folks can be proud of."
Brooks himself acknowledged that he didn't achieve some of the things he wanted most--ending the streaks against Tennessee and South Carolina, taking the Cats to a bigger bowl. Coaches are like that. They focus more on the gut-wrenching losses than the memorable wins. But Barnhart says "football people" have a great appreciation for Brooks' coaching ability.
"I think people who understand football understand what an incredible job he's done. It's a tough job for a lot of different reasons," he said. "For him to come into that atmosphere and make them consistently competitive is not an easy thing to do. You're not far enough north or far enough to sometimes get the players you want but to give him and his staff credit, they went places and got players.
"Football people know how good this guy is. He brought a level of intensity to Kentucky football that they definitely needed," Barnhart added. "There's a toughness about Kentucky football that wasn't there before.
"When you play a Rich Brooks team, you know they're not going to beat themselves. They're just not going to roll over and make a whole of mistakes. You're going to have to beat them," he continued. "That's been the hallmark of Kentucky teams in recent years--if you weren't ready to play, you were going to get beat."
Barnhart says UK president Dr. Lee Todd and athletics director Mitch Barnhart deserve credit for standing by Brooks after 2005 when it looked the experiment of bringing this old guy out of retirement from Oregon wasn't going to work out.
"There's a huge lesson here. I think it's a very important lesson, that if you're got the right man as the head coach, then you stick with them. Are you recruiting players, are you coaching them up, are you doing what you need to academically? If all of those things are in place, the lesson is 'if you've got the right guy, then give him enough time'," Barnhart said.
"Joker Phillips takes over a program where the bar has been set higher. He can't let the program slip and he won't let the program slip. He understands the kinds of athletes it takes to compete in the SEC. I think the challenge for him is to take that foundation and build on it."
Barnhart says the 2007 college football season was perhaps the craziest ever. He says one reason why he believes that is that he found himself traveling to Lexington, KY for three games--LSU, Florida and Tennessee. Barnhart says Big Blue fans should look at that season when considering where Joker Phillips can take their program.
"The standard is 2007. Look at what that team did and the players that were on that team. There were a lot of really good football players on that team. That's the benchmark that Kentucky is shooting for--to put a scare into every team they play," he said. "That 2007 team was capable of beating anybody in the SEC and that's what they've got to achieve."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Jan. 3:
Men's basketball: DeMarcus Cousins
Cousins, a 6-11 forward from Mobile, Ala., averaged 18.5 points and 15.0 rebounds in leading the Wildcats to wins over Hartford and Louisville.
Cousins recorded his fourth straight double-double and his league-leading eighth this season with 18 points and 18 rebounds against Louisville. The 18 rebounds tied his career-high and were the second most by a Wildcat freshman in a game. It also tied a 49-year old record, set by Louisville's Bob Lochmueller in 1951, for most rebounds in a UK-UofL game.
Cousins also tallied 19 points and 12 rebounds in just 19 minutes against Hartford earlier in the week.
Women's basketball: Victoria Dunlap
Junior forward Victoria Dunlap averaged a team-high 18.3 points and 9.0 rebounds in UK's last three games.
Posted her fifth double-double of the season and 18th of her career with 20 points and 16 rebounds vs. Middle Tennessee.
Her 18 career double-doubles ranks fifth on UK's all-time list.
It marked the fifth 20-point, 15-rebound game in her career. She joins former UK All-American Valerie Still (1980-83) as the only Wildcats in school history to record four or more 20-15 performances.
Scored 21 points and added five rebounds and five steals in UK's win over Mississippi Valley State.
Averaged a team-high 5.7 steals in UK's last three games.
The SEC's leader in steals has recorded at least one steal in 18 consecutive games, including three or more in eight straight contests.
Has scored in double figures in 18 consecutive games, including back-to-back 20-point performances.
Kentucky's head coach to be released a statement Monday night on the retirement of Rich Brooks.
"Coach Brooks has done an unbelievable job in getting the program competitive in the Southeastern Conference," Joker Phillips said. "The thing I like about him is that he stayed the course and stuck to his plan when many doubted that the program was headed in the right direction. As a Kentuckian, and a former player, I'm very proud of what he's done for Kentucky football."
Phillips did not attend Monday's news conference, but it is expected that he will be available for comment later in the week. Stay tuned.
On Rich Brooks' day, his day of retirement, oddly there sounded like a hint of regret in his voice.
"I have decided that it is time for me to step away and turn this program over," Brooks said. "Hopefully it will be not only competitive but reach the heights that I failed to get to. That is my biggest regret, not having broken more of the streaks that needed to be broken."
Rich, you have nothing - absolutely nothing - to regret at Kentucky.
"I don't think that magical year is impossible here," Brook said. "It is a lot closer to happening now then it was seven years ago. I feel good about that. I don't feel as good as I would like to feel about what I have accomplished here."
Rich, it's OK. You should feel like a million dollars. For everything you've done, you deserved to walk out of the media room with your head held high. Nobody would have blamed you had you hit it on the top of the doorway. That's how much you've done.
Throw out the records and the mystique of past coaches. You have pulled off the greatest coaching tenure in school history because you did it against every odd and every critic in perhaps the best talent one conference has ever assembled.
"I think his legacy is that he was a guy that went through an incredible difficult period of Kentucky football and brought it back to absolute respectability," Barnhart said.
The four straight bowl appearances speak for themselves. How he did it, though, is still tough for some to comprehend, especially those thousands of people who were ready to personally carry Brooks to the Lexington city limits and toss him to the curb.
Through it all, Brooks put blinders on and stared straight away into the eyes of adversity. He did it through impeccable relationships with the players and unwavering hard work.
Brooks looked out for the players and the integrity of the program first. His priorities were right, and that's why he was rewarded with wins.
That will forever be his legacy.
"His toughness," Barnhart said of what he will remember Brooks by. "He never blinked. He never wavered in the face of tough decisions. And just his bold-faced honesty. ... He was who he was."
That more than anything is what I'll miss about Rich Brooks: his candor, honesty, underrated sense of humor, approachability and general likability.
In a time where honesty and hard work aren't rewarded enough, Brooks taught us that it was OK to stick by your guns and to do things the right way.
As journalists, we're taught not root for the players, teams and coaches we cover. Yes, I know I work for UK Athletics now. But I too was a part of the working media before I started with UK, and often times I found myself rooting for the guy.
How couldn't you?
Despite growing up and going to college in the midst of the "Ditch Mitch and Rich" days, I found myself pulling for him. I wanted him to win. I wanted him to succeed. And pardon me for not wanting the guy to leave.
Without him, UK won't be the same.
I'll never forget the playful jabs he had with reporters, the genuine love and care he showed for the players, and the honest and steadfast work he put in, in turning the UK football program around.
The UK football program is better for having been a part of Brooks' life. We all are better for having known Rich Brooks.
I could go on and on about Brooks, a man I enjoyed covering and dealing with more than any other coach during my five years dealing and working with UK Athletics, but anymore of my rambling and I would be selling the man short.
I rarely step back to the beat reporters around Lexington, but in this case (and given I've already written some 3,000 words on the matter today), I'm going to stop there and leave the rest to my much older and wiser counterparts to tell the entire story about Brooks, a man we're all better for having known.
Before Rich Brooks turned the Kentucky football program around, playmakers like Randall Cobb didn't come to Kentucky. They went to the Tennessees, the Alabamas, the Georgias and the Floridas of the Southeastern Conference world.
Cobb, a bit surprisingly, chose UK over Tennessee two years ago, in part, because of Brooks' vision for the UK program.
Now that Brooks is on his way out, the Alcoa, Tenn., native has mixed feelings.
"It's a little bit of mixed emotions because I've learned so much from coach Brooks and he's a great coach and a great man," Cobb said Monday. "He's one of the reasons I'm here and as developed as I am now. But I guess it's time for a change, too. With Joker taking over I think there will be a lot of changes with our staff and with the way we approach things."
When Cobb was recruited of Alcoa High School, he was informed by the coaching staff that Brooks might not be the coach for Cobb's entire collegiate career.
Although he was fairly certain Monday's announcement was imminent after the team meeting they had after the Music City Bowl, one in which Brooks told the team he was "80 percent" sure he was stepping down, Monday morning's news still came as a shock to the sophomore sensation.
"I was a little bit (surprised)," Cobb said. "I figured that it wouldn't be while I was there. But it was and now I will have to cherish those memories that I have with him and continue to try to push the program forward."
Randy Sanders, who was the recruiting coordinator at the time of Cobb's recruitment, was one of the main reasons Kentucky was able to pluck Cobb out of Tennessee's backyard, but Brooks' leadership played a big part as well, Cobb said.
"When I was being recruited by Kentucky, I didn't really know much about (Brooks) besides the fact that he had taken them to a few bowls in the last two years before I came," Cobb said. "Really that was all I knew about (Brooks), but once I got to know him and got to meet him, I got to know what kind of person he is. His drive for excellence and his drive to be the best every day has really influenced me. He gave me opportunities my freshman year to go in and be the starting quarterback and he made me grow up pretty fast."
Cobb said Brooks was a like a grandfather to him, not only in terms of his maturity on the field but off of it as well.
"If you could sit down and talk to him, it's just like sitting in a family atmosphere," Cobb said. "He's pretty funny at times. Some of the things he says and some of the things he does sometimes is pretty funny. I'm going to miss that side of him too."
It was that connection with Brooks that ultimately made Cobb feel like he was at home in Kentucky and allowed him to blossom into one of the most dynamic players in the SEC.
Brooks has long been remembered and praised for his down-to-earth honesty and relationship with the players. Despite the gap in generations, Brooks has had an uncanny ability to relate to today's players.
Cobb said he could tell that from day one, recalling one of his first visits to the Brooks house.
"Whenever I first walked into his house, I was expecting it to be like real showy type, real luxurious stuff," Cobb said. "When I walked in, it was a real old-timey, country-style house. I knew from then it felt like home to me."
And since then, Brooks has helped foster an even stronger drive for Cobb to one day become a coach.
"I've learned a lot from him as far as being a man and being a player, but as well as my future in coaching," Cobb said. "I've learned so much from him about the mentality you have to have as a coach."
Brooks told reporters Monday morning that he was just about the only one who felt comfortable with his decision to retire. Players and family members called and texted the longtime head coach during the last week, urging him to stay put.
Cobb, however, was not one of those phone calls.
"I tried to step back out of the way and let him make the decision for himself because I know how that was whenever I was getting recruited," Cobb said. "A lot of people are trying to influence you to do certain things, but you have to go with your heart."
When Cobb learned of the final decision Monday morning, he called Brooks to simply "catch up." Cobb said Brooks told him he would still be around in Lexington and that they would meet up in the near future, but Cobb said they didn't talk about anything too serious.
"I feel like I have a relationship with him where I can call him at anytime and we can talk about anything," Cobb said. "It doesn't have to be anything motivational or serious."
Despite the coaching change, Cobb sounded cool and confident that the program Brooks built would continue to move forward under Joker Phillips, a coach Cobb said he has all the confidence and respect in the world for.
"Coach Brooks has really put that into our offensive mindsets that we were so close and we've brought the program to the edge and making sure that our team mentality is still pushing towards those goals," Cobb said. "We just have to make sure we continue to move in a positive direction."
Rich Brooks, although he was fighting back emotions admirably, sounded like a man Monday still torn between his decision to retire and a coach with enough fire left in him to coach the next three years - if the proper things were in place.
That, at least, was the talk leading up to Monday's official retirement announcement after Brooks announced after the Music City Bowl that he was "80 percent" sure he was stepping down. Reports from the Lexington Herald-Header and the Courier-Journal hinted that if certain conditions were meant - such as better pay, a facilities upgrade and the construction of a multi-purpose recruiting room - that he would consider coming back.
Brooks confirmed Monday that those improvements were on his mind as he contemplated retirement over the past week and emphasized that those additions will still need to be made for Kentucky to take the next step.
"I think that there are some things that do need to be done," Brooks said. "I think the facility thing still needs more attention. We are currently redoing the meeting rooms over in the Nutter Training Center. I do feel that there is a need for stadium renovation that will also provide a continued revenue stream for the program to continue to grow. One other item, I think at least on my agenda, would be the expansion of the weight room on our current facility over there. I think that those things are important to continue the progress of Kentucky football."
However, Brooks said even if those conditions were met, he likely would have still been at the podium Monday.
"We were negotiating salaries for coaches, and for me and in the end, it was close to what I had asked for," Brooks said. "It wasn't exactly what I had asked for, but that was not the overriding thing. Had they given me everything that I asked for in that regard, I probably would still be here making this same decision. As I went through the last week, it became clear to me that I was at peace with this."
Brooks, even if he was one of the only ones satisfied with the decision, ultimately sounded like a man comfortable with his decision to retire from football.
"I have had texts and some other calls from players encouraging me to stay, as my own children did," Brooks said. "It seems, at this point in time, the only person that was comfortable with this decision was me. But, like I said, when it is time, it is time. I just feel good that it is time to turn this program over to somebody else."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart met with Brooks last week and was willing to meet some of Brooks' demands to keep him around.
In the end, though, Barnhart said it was Brooks' decision, one the coach had to be comfortable making.
"Money can buy some things," Barnhart said. "It can't buy happiness, as the old saying goes. You've got to make sure that's truly what's in your heart. I can't speak to what that was. I want Rich to be happy. He's been a friend. He was a friend when he came here and I want his friendship when he leaves. It means a lot to me personally. I very much appreciate what he gave this program. He gave incredible energy and he gave incredible foundation and respect to this program."
Even in transition, Barnhart wants to see that those demands and improvements are met so the program can continue to evolve.
Heading into the 2009 season, UK's assistant coaches were ranked 19th in the nation in payroll, according to Barnhart, although those numbers were low by Southeastern Conference standards.
"We were low in our league because our league is very top-end heavy, so we've got to make sure we're doing the right things to keep our coaches in a spot where this is a place where they want to be as a destination, not as a transition," Barnhart said.
"We've done a pretty good job of keeping those assistant coaches here the past few years. That's really, really important for us. Having said that, going forward we'll always keep examining that and making sure that we're competitive in that world. We may not be first, but we're not going to be last. We're going to be competitive and we're going to make sure we do a good job of keeping the coaches we want to have here at Kentucky."
Upgrading UK's football facilities also remains a top priority for Barnhart.
"It has taken longer than I wanted, but that process, we're working our way through it," Barnhart said. "It is a very complicated, unique process that hopefully puts us in a position to do some things to our stadium that we get the design phase of it and go work our way through it and get through that in the next year and a half, two years and get going and have this thing going where we want it to be."
Those renovations and upgrades include improvements beyond just Commonwealth Stadium.
"That includes a multi-purpose recruiting room, whatever you want to call that, and so those are the last pieces of the puzzle," Barnhart said. "The team meeting rooms are being addressed. The weight room, we have done some renovations to the weight room right now, but there are some other things they would like to see done. That's all do-able."
Although Brooks won't officially be around to watch those improvements be made, he is interested in the continual evolvement of the program.
"I am interested in staying around and watching the progress of the program," Brooks said. "I hope that people will get behind the program even more to try to take it to the next level. I know that all the fans want that to happen and it is close to happening. I just hope that everybody will support it in a way that is necessary."
In what's becoming a weekly Kentucky praising, the Southeastern Conference has named freshman DeMarcus Cousins SEC Player of the Week after leading Kentucky to two wins last week. Cousins averaged 18.5 points and 15.0 rebounds in wins over Hartford and archrival Louisville.
It's the eighth time this season a UK men's basketball player has been honored by the SEC office and second honor for the first-year center. The Cats have captured six SEC Freshman of the Week honors and two SEC Player of the Week awards.
Cousins is averaging 15.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per season in just 19.2 minutes of play.
And while we're at it - and taking a break from the Rich Brooks retirement news - take a look below at the updated men's top-25 rankings. Once again, no real change at the top as UK remains No. 3 behind No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Texas.
AP Top 25 1. Kansas (56) 13-0 1,614 2. Texas (8) 13-0 1,550 3. Kentucky (1) 15-0 1,489 4. Purdue 13-0 1,457 5. Duke 12-1 1,348 6. Villanova 12-1 1,279 7. Syracuse 13-1 1,173 8. West Virginia 11-1 1,147 9. North Carolina 11-3 1,098 10. Michigan State 11-3 1,009 11. Kansas State 13-1 996 12. Georgetown 11-1 911 13. Connecticut 10-3 760 14. Mississippi 11-2 699 15. New Mexico 14-1 667 16. Tennessee 10-2 649 17. Wisconsin 12-2 526 18. Florida State 12-2 446 19. Gonzaga 11-3 351 20. Georgia Tech 11-2 203 21. Temple 11-3 173 22. Texas Tech 12-2 166 23. Pittsburgh 12-2 156 24. Washington 10-3 149 25. Brigham Young 14-1 145
The following post was written in the early morning hours of Dec. 28, just hours after Rich Brooks announced that he was "80 percent" sure he was retiring. As we all know now, that decision has become 100 percent certain as Brooks announced Monday that he was stepping down as the head coach of the Kentucky football program.
Although the post has old quotes and old news, I thought it would be appropriate to repost it now that we know the future of Brooks. As for the program? Well, read on.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Rich Brooks walked into a never-ending pit of probation-riddled quicksand seven years ago. Surprisingly, maybe a bit miraculously, he planted pillar after pillar and built a tradition of stability and winning, two terms that had become foreign to the Kentucky football program.
Now that Brooks has decided he might not return next year to coach the UK football team, the foundation he worked so steadily and fiercely to build might be shaken.
The question is, with a rare bowl loss, the departure of an irreplaceable senior class and quite possibly the loss of Brooks, will it be a critical splinter?
UK lost a bowl game Sunday night, but with or without the man that got them there, it can ill-afford to lose more than that.
For the first time in four years, UK must face an offseason mired in disappointment. Brooks had talked Saturday about what a bowl game - both positively and negatively - can do for a team in offseason workouts, practice and recruiting, and now his team will get a firsthand taste of what that downside is like.
How the players handle it will go a long way in determining where this program heads. In the big picture, a bowl loss is hardly the tell-all of a football season or a program. But it was one of celebration and jubilation for the last three years.
Now with a loss, UK will have to discover what it feels like to end another good season on a bit of a down note. Does it remain a seven-win team content with late December bowl games, or does it build off the bitter feeling of disappointing losses to Clemson and Tennessee to end the season?
All that would have been hard enough to forecast as is, and then Brooks dropped the bombshell - albeit a foreshadowed bombshell - that he is "80 percent sure" he will not return next season.
"I've been thinking about (retirement) the last week," Brooks said after UK's 21-13 bow loss to Clemson. "I haven't had enough time because of the game preparation and everything. I think it may be time for a change and time for Joker (Phillips) to take it over. I'm not totally sure, but I just feel like maybe it's time."
That puts a rather encompassing cloud over the state of the program. Not that it's Brooks' fault. He has, after all, as Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said following the game, earned the right to decide when he wants to step down.
But that doesn't make the aftermath of Sunday's bowl game any easier to swallow. Even if Brooks decides to come back and Sunday just turns out to be a loss for the stats sheet, how UK handles a loss in a bowl game and rebounds from a so-so season will be the final telling point of this era of Kentucky football.
Because for all the good feeling about four straight bowl wins, a magnificent achievement, now is when we'll find out whether this program is content with where it is or if it's ready to make a jump forward.
One need not channel their inner wisdom to hear that Brooks isn't content with where UK ended this year, even as his retirement plan is about to kick in. When asked how to characterize the season, Brooks was far from calling it another success.
"A lot of disappointment," Brooks said of the season. "We would have liked to have extended our non-conference winning streak and win four straight bowl games because not a lot of schools have been able to do that. ... It's a disappointing season. We were able to do some good things, but not as much as we wanted to."
So why walk away from it now if there is more to be done? Well, quite honestly, Brooks feels like he's placed the program where it needs to be to take that next step with Joker Phillips at the helm.
Whether it's he or Phillips making trips to New Year's Day bowls in the future, we'll always remember Brooks as the one that ignited it all. If Brooks could do what he did at Kentucky, we should all have faith in him that he knows what he's doing.
"(The program) is a lot better (than it was five years ago)," Brooks said. "We have a full complement of scholarship players, we have much better talent and it's been a program that's gone to four straight bowl games. I would think it's in pretty good shape and I think it can continue to go up whether I'm here or not."
With or without Brooks, it will be the defining moment of the next era in UK football history. With the close of a historic chapter of UK seniors - cornerstones like Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Trevard Lindley and more - how will the next page be written? Is this the prologue or the epilogue of a wonderful turnaround?
A murky picture as unstable as quicksand has crept around the program again, but it isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, that unstable situation at the beginning of the Brooks regime is what got this program here anyway.
"He gave great foundation and stability to a program that needed it," Barnhart said. "He brought it from a position of the basement. He brought it from that spot and gave it life again."
Great things never stop evolving, and maybe that's what this program now needs - the next step in its evolution. Maybe a bitter pill of disappointment for once and some uncertainty is good. Maybe it reignites Brooks and inspires him to come back. Maybe it's the end of one great thing but the start of something better.
Really, no one knows. But make no mistake about it, the end of this season and quite possibly the Rich Brooks era marks a crossroad. Will it be another opportunity to springboard off of or step back from?
With questions galore, consider a bowl game another defining moment in UK football history.
Two things were made certain Monday morning at Commonwealth Stadium.
One, Rich Brooks is 100 percent sure this time he is retiring. Two, the most successful rebuilding project in program history has come to a close.
"I have decided that it's time for me to step away and turn this program over," Brooks said, "Hopefully it will not only be competitive but reach the heights that I failed to get to. That is my biggest regret is not having broken more of the streaks that needed to be broken.
"We did get quite a few of them. We did achieve some things, and I can't leave without saying thank you to a great group of players who dedicated themselves to coming here and making Kentucky football respectable on a yearly basis, to a great group of coaches who have really done so much for this program, not only on the field but off the field."
With an anticipated, yet nonetheless somber news conference Monday morning at Commonwealth Stadium, Brooks announced his official retirement. After seven seasons at the helm of the Kentucky football program, Brooks will step down and hand over the reins to current head coach of the offense, Joker Phillips.
"Rich Brooks changed the culture and the direction of the University of Kentucky football program," UK President Dr. Lee Todd said. "He was willing to take the heat and face the critics in the early years and build our program the right way. His no-nonsense, high-integrity approach earned the respect of his players, our fans and the media.
"It has been a pleasure having Rich as our football coach because I always knew that whatever decisions he was making were in the best interest of the program and his students. The University is grateful for his impact on our program and for paving the way for future success."
Brooks will best be remembered for transforming a probation-riddled program into a respectable Southeastern Conference contender. Despite inheriting a team burdened by the effects of NCAA probation, Brooks turned the program around and led it to four straight bowl appearances for the first time in school history.
The seven-year UK head coach will end with a 39-47 record at UK despite a difficult first three years. The former Oregon and NFL coach went 30-22 in his final four seasons with the Wildcats. He will finish with a career record of 130-156-4.
"The University of Kentucky cannot begin to express its thanks to Rich and Karen Brooks for their contributions to the Wildcat football program," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "Rich took a program from a very difficult time and raised it to respectability on a national level, all the while doing it with dignity and class.
"His toughness was a trademark for the program he put together. The foundation that he has laid will give those that follow an opportunity to experience success on a conference and national level. I wish him all the happiness he deserves in his retirement and look forward to continuing our friendship for many years to come."
Phillips, who was announced as the future of the Kentucky program nearly two years ago, will take over as the head coach.
Brooks emphasized his confidence in Phillips taking over the reins of the team. He said the program needs to continue to move forward and will need additional improvements, namely facility upgrades and a rise in coaches pay, but none of that would have changed his decision to call it a career.
Even if he would have received everything he asked for, Brooks said he would have likely still been at the podium.
"I just felt that it was time to make the change," Brooks said. "The losses take their toll. It's very, very frustrating to be close to something and not be able to grab it. I didn't want my frustration to change the direction of the program. I think a younger person that has been through it can be a better position to take the program forward."
A strong contingent, one made up of players, friends and families, strongly wanted Brooks to stay.
"None of them wanted me to give it up," Brooks said. "They all thought that I would miss it a lot, that I could come back and ride out on the white stallion next year and have victories over all those teams we hadn't beaten and everything would be wonderful."
The "only sane one," as Brooks described it, was his wife, Karen.
"She just wanted me to do what I wanted to do," Brooks said.
The end of Brooks' career at UK will end a 25-year college coaching career.
"This is the end of the road of the old man's coaching career," Brooks said.
Kentucky football head coach Rich Brooks will hold a special news conference at 11 a.m. to discuss his future with the Kentucky football program. We will have a live blog to bring you the latest updates.
By now just about everyone has seen the opening sequence of the Kentucky-Louisville game, one that started with a loose ball and ended with three technicals, some shoving and jawing, and a lot of controversy as to what was intentional and who should have been ejected.
DeMarcus Cousins, who was at the center of the scrum, was charged with a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct for an elbow to Jared Swopshire's chin.
Was it intentional? Should he have been ejected? Was it provoked by a knee to Cousins' head before that? What about Reginald Delk's ensuing push? That, not even 24 hours since Saturday's melee, is still the hot topic of debate.
"I was just going for the loose ball," Cousins said of the fracas. "I never knew I did it."
Regardless, all players stayed in the game and the refs, commendably, took control of the situation in an ugly, physical slugfest at Rupp Arena.
Cousins finished the game with an incredible line of 18 points and 18 rebounds, but Saturday's opening few minutes may have been a blueprint for what teams are going to try to do to Cousins for the rest of the season: toy with his emotions.
"He's kind of like a kid I had at Memphis named Joey Dorsey where the other team used to do whatever they could to get his goat, because they knew he'd lose it," head coach John Calipari said. "Well, I think Louisville came in to try to get this kid's goat. Now we told them they were going to do that, and they did it as we walked in and off the court."
The Cardinals pushed him, double-teamed him, jawed with him before and during the game, and tried to get inside his head. They tried getting a self-described emotional player to let his emotions unravel him.
It nearly worked.
"The kid never budged," Calipari said. "He said 'It's not bothering me, I'm going to play.' He's grown up. He's really maturing. He's playing with a lot more confidence. He still does the reverse layup dunk. 'What are you doing? You had it on the other side.' He reverts to AAU ball every once in a while, but he's getting better and better."
But teams are going to continue to bait him in hopes of letting Cousins' emotions get the best of him.
"I think teams are going to go after him and try to foul him hard or try to talk junk to him just to get him out of it," freshman guard John Wall said.
Wall can relate. As a young and promising prospect growing up, Wall became notorious for attitude problems. Issues on and off the court rattled the young man in his early high school days and would often spill over to the court.
"I was emotional," Wall said. "If someone fouled me, I got up and wanted to fight. That's something you can't do. College coaches start looking at you and people start judging you by it."
Wall refined his attitude and his talent shined through, propelling him to the top of the recruiting rankings.
Now his teammate appears to be going through a similar situation.
"I think people are going to start judging him not just because of the way he plays but how he carries himself and how he acts on the court," Wall said.
The problem is you can't completely put Cousins' emotions on ice. It's what makes Cousins who he is. Without his emotions, he isn't the same player. With them, he's a dominant force, one capable of taking over a game.
The key isn't containing Cousins' emotions, rather channeling them and finding the right balance.
"I am an emotional player," Cousins said. "It helps me get going. I just try to come out and play. I'm not trying to get into a fist fight or anything. I just want to come out here and help my team win."
Having a history with emotions in the past, Wall said it would be unfair for Cousins to earn a bad reputation for playing the type of basketball that makes him so good.
"I don't think it's really fair," Wall said. "You can't help if you're the type of player like he is. He's emotional. He lets his emotions do his game, so you can't really judge him off that."
Teams will continue to test those emotions as the season wears on. How Cousins handles them remains one of the keys to the 2009-10 season.
Regardless of what you believe did or didn't happen in Saturday's scrum, all parties would agree that Cousins is still a work in progress.
If John Wall is Kentucky's Superman, it's become increasingly aware that cramps are his kryptonite.
Wall has battled cramps on and off for much of the season. He missed significant minutes in the second half of the North Carolina game and missed a few minutes Saturday against Louisville with cramps in his legs.
The freshman phenom returned to the game, scored six straight points to fuel the UK win, and finished with 17 points and four assists, but the recurring problems with cramps could pose a threat to the Cats come crunch time in other marquee games.
Head coach John Calipari, in part, took the blame for Saturday's cramps.
"I may have rode him too long in this game trying to get by," Calipari said.
Wall isn't quite sure what the problem is because he never had problems with cramping in high school.
"They're saying I'm using a lot of energy and sweating a lot," Wall said. "I've gotten a lot of minutes. I drank enough Gatorade and ate bananas before the game, but (the trainers) said I use so much sweat that I've got to keep drinking them."
Wall expends so much energy on the court that it shouldn't be all that surprising that he's cramped up late in games.
"I'm playing to another level I thought I could never be at," Wall said.
Calipari said he might have to institute a unique subbing pattern with Wall to keep his legs fresh while not limiting his role.
"What I've done with players like him is I've basically let them sub themselves," Calipari said. "You tell me when you want to come out twice each half, right before which timeout, a media timeout, so you can get a long one. We may have to do that with him."
Kentucky-Louisville is usually Ali-Frazier. Saturday afternoon looked more like a backyard brawl.
When the Cats and the Cardinals meet on the hardwood, we know the fundamentals are usually out the door. But Saturday's game?
Sheesh. Bring your mouth guard, boxing gloves, bandages and towels. How about some ice for the slugfest? Actually, no need to - the two teams were plenty cold without it, especially in the first half.
The 2010 Dream Game lived up to its emotional billing in every way possible. Elbows were thrown, technical fouls were assessed and a fight nearly broke out. And that was just in the first 45 seconds.
Kentucky defeated Louisville 71-62 on Saturday afternoon in front of a Rupp Arena record crowd of 24,449 blue-clad fans. The win snapped a two-game losing streak to the Cardinals.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has been through Memphis-Tennessee, Memphis-Louisville and Massachusetts-Temple - a game Calipari said you had to go through metal detectors just to get into - but he might have a new appreciation for one of the sport's best rivalries.
"This start was physical, but neither team was going to give an inch," Calipari said. "You can come out and do that bravado (but) it wasn't working in this game. Too much talent on both sides and too much pride on both sides."
Pride is what UK-U of L is all about. And the stakes to claim bragging rights have never been higher.
With Louisville's coach mired in an offseason of personal controversy, a new head coach (and Pitino rival) at the helm of Kentucky and the sport's winningest program seemingly back on the map, emotions filled the Battle of the Bluegrass from the opening tip.
At times, maybe for the worse.
On the game's opening possession, three fouls were whistled and freshman Eric Bledsoe was yanked to the pine for jawing with a Cardinal.
Things were just heating up.
On the following possession, an altercation - and nearly a fight -broke out when Cardinal Jared Swopshire and Kentucky freshman DeMarcus Cousins hit the floor for a loose ball. Cousins landed on Swophshire while trying to pull the ball away. In the process, an elbow - inadvertent or not - checked Swopshire just below the chin.
"I was just going for the loose ball," Cousins said of the scrum. "I never knew I did it."
Swopshire's teammate retaliated once Cousins got up with a two-hand push to Cousins. Whistles blew, players jawed, the crowd booed and three technical fouls for unsportsmanlike conduct were handed down.
Chaos - more appropriately, the UK-U of L rivalry - was underway. Duke-North Carolina? Texas-Oklahoma? Cincinnati-Xavier? I'll take Kentucky-Louisville. The rivalry is as alive and as nasty as ever.
"Coach Cal warned us," said Cousins, who admitted last week that the first-year players maybe didn't appreciate the rivalry as much as they should. "We saw their tape and we saw how they pushed in the back and did all that, so I was expecting a physical game."
It started with the technicals and it never let up. The teams combined for 51 fouls and five technicals in a brutal, physical, Ultimate Fighting-like brawl. Kentucky critics will be quick to point to Cousins' elbow as sure-fire offense for an ejection, but Dream Game locals would understand it's what's at the heart of the UK-U of L rivalry.
"It was intense going through a game like this," said junior forward Patrick Patterson, who finished with 17 points. "The rivalry in this game made it so much more important. Not just the rivalry between the teams but the history that comes along with it."
For better or worse, it's about hatred.
"Did you see how the game was played?" Calipari said. "There were things, (players), grabbing, kicking, grabbing, punching, eyeball dragging, fish hooks, nose drags. There was everything in the game."
Execution, at least early on, might have been the only thing lacking. As emotions boiled, focus was lost. After UK stormed to an 11-1 lead, both teams hit a wall, one they helped build brick by brick.
Louisville failed to a hit a field goal until Samardo Samuels tipped in a ball with 10:54 left in the first half. The Cardinals missed their first 14 shots, made just one of their first 19 and finished the first half 5-of-29 from the field.
Kentucky wasn't much better. The Cats took a 27-19 halftime lead to the locker room on 10-of-30 shooting, including 6-of-12 from the free-throw line, leaving the door open for U of L to come back. For the first time this season, freshman phenom John Wall was held in check, amassing more turnovers (four) than points (three).
But when things are at its ugliest and fighters start to stumble - which came when Louisville clawed its way back to its first and only lead at 42-41 - the best ones always get off the mat.
And Wall did exactly that. Whether it was the physicality of Louisville, the suffocating pressure or the eyes of the nation weighing down on him, Wall had a rare off-afternoon. But once the sun set outside, Wall made sure the night was his.
A tough layup in traffic by Wall with less than 10 minutes to go gave the Cats the lead back. The freshman phenom followed it with an 18-foot jumper and two free throws. His six straight points gave UK a five-point lead, and the Cats never looked back.
"I wasn't really frustrated but I wish I would have made some of the shots I got when they were open," Wall said. "They did a great job of defending me. I was just trying to get my teammates involved. We got a good lead but in the second half we needed to make a couple of plays. I got the opportunity to get the basket and hit some open shots and some free throws, so it was all good."
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino used the untouchable names of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in the same breath of Wall when he talked about Wall's impact.
"The egos of young people today are so out of wack," Pitino said. "It's national television and everybody just wants to show up John Wall. He just relaxed. He did his job. We were turning him over and he didn't get frustrated by it. He got back in the game and made the big plays. His demeanor of 'It's OK, the game can be on the line and I'll show my greatness,' I really appreciate that."
As always, UK-U of L was enjoyable to watch. It was nasty, ugly and sometimes just downright out of hand, but it's the essence of the rivalry.
"They needed to (be physical) because if they didn't they were going to get punked today," Calipari said. "You better be ready to go because there was bumping going on before the game even started. You better have been jacked up and ready to go. But I thought we handled it well. ... We won a ball game. We never really lost our composure. I can hear all the stuff (already). If you weren't in this building you wouldn't know."
You wouldn't know that the melee on the hardwood is what makes this state, these teams and this state so special. It's raw emotions and pride, even if at times it isn't pretty to watch.
Louisville will bounce back, because let's face it, it's a great basketball program led by one of the all-time great coaches. But on this afternoon and in this special season, UK was the last one standing.
The 3-point shot is known as the great equalizer in the college game.
It's how the mid-majors have pulled upsets in the NCAA Tournament throughout the years, how teams have come back from insane deficits and what's revolutionized the game.
The general consensus heading into Saturday's UK-Louisville game is that the Cats have the advantage talent wise. But don't think for a second the 3-point shot can't even things up.
And Rick Pitino knows that. Long known as a coach who encourages his players to shoot the perimeter shot, Pitino's Cardinals could match the Cats' athleticism and speed with their ability to shoot the long-range shot.
The Cardinals' ability to shoot the long-range shot isn't lost on UK head coach John Calipari, who sounded concerned on Friday about Louisville catching fire.
Calipari predicted the Cardinals will shoot between 25 and 30 treys. They average nearly eight 3-pointers a game on more than 24 shots a contest.
"What if they make 18?" Calipari said. "We've had that done to us. You know they're shooting. Will they shoot it from the NBA line? Yes they will. Do you guard them to the NBA line? Some of them. If they are making those, and they are that jacked up and they are making them all, it's a tough road."
Not much has concerned Calipari this year en route to a 14-0 start, the best opening mark for a first-year coach in UK history, but if there's one thing that's made his blood pressure rise this season, it's been teams ability to make the 3-point shot against the Cats.
Or maybe more accurately, UK's inability to guard on the perimeter.
"The issues we've had with guarding the three are going to be exposed," Calipari said.
Just a few days removed from allowing 12 treys to Hartford, UK has now allowed five opponents this season to hit nine or more 3-pointers, including a 11 by Sam Houston State guard Corey Allmond, a Rupp Arena record, and 15 long balls by Miami Ohio.
Louisville hasn't exactly torched the nets this season - the Cardinals are shooting just 32.1 percent from behind the arc - but they do have shooters, namely Jerry Smith and Preston Knowles, capable of hitting the 3-ball.
With UK's anticipated inside advantage of DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton, surely Pitino will try to counter with the great equalizer on the perimeter.
Calipari knows the shots are coming. Now how will his team defend them?
"We're not doing as good a job against the 3-point shot as we need to," Calipari said after Tuesday's game. "But if a team wants to come in there and try to beat us with 3s, I'll live with that. I'll take our chances, you know."
The UK compliance department asked me to pass this message on to the fans. Please read the following:
NCAA rules state that a current student-athlete can lose their future collegiate eligibility if their name, picture, autograph or likeness is sold. Those rules further state that the University of Kentucky, on behalf of the student-athlete, must take whatever steps are necessary to prevent this from happening.
Some fans are under the mistaken impression that, if the student-athlete is not paid for the autograph, it is permissible to sell it. That is NOT TRUE!!! The sale of the autographed item is prohibited and can cause the student-athlete to lose their collegiate eligibility.
The easiest way to comply with this rule is to not allow our current student-athletes to sign autographs at any time. However, we feel that decision would be unfair to the true UK fan who treasures the item because of its connection to the program rather than its monetary value.
Therefore, we are currently choosing to control the problem by informing our fans of the rule and its potential effect on the eligibility of our student-athletes in hope that those fans will assist us in protecting the future of these fine young student-athletes. Your compliance with this rule will prevent us from being forced to limit autograph opportunities in the future.
If you are successful in obtaining an autographed item with the name of a UK student-athlete, it is with the mutual understanding that the item received will never be sold or traded for anything of value as long as any autograph on that item represents a student-athlete currently competing for the University of Kentucky. Your cooperation in protecting our student-athletes is greatly appreciated.
If you have any questions concerning this important information or if you are aware of an item being sold in violation of these rules, please do not hesitate to contact our compliance office at (859) 257-6482 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The gossip writers at US Weekly magazine would blush at some of the rumors posted on the UK and Louisville message boards over the past months regarding the two schools' head coaches.
One coach faced a tumultuous offseason embattled in personal transgressions that poked at his integrity and his character. The other had a Final Four visit stripped away from his resume, notoriously becoming the first coach to have two Final Four appearances vacated (Memphis is currently appealing the NCAA's decision).
The stabs between the fans have been aplenty. The longtime competitive battle between the coaches - which has stretched from the college game to the NBA to the recruiting world - is about as warm as ice cream.
Just a few days ago, following the win over Hartford, Calipari issued a statement asking UK fans to show the country that they're the classiest fans in the nation. In other words, Calipari wants to make the Kentucky-Louisville rivalry game about the players, not the coaches.
"I respect him," Calipari said of Pitino. "We've gone nose to nose many times in the NBA and in college and they were all good games. They were all wars. I would expect this is going to be the same. But this is about Kentucky players and Louisville players. They've got terrific players who are good people and so do we and it should be about them."
For all the talk about the coaches, the most glorified memories always seem to lie with the players. Think the Derek Anderson dunk in 1996, the Patrick Sparks' 3-point foul in 2004 or the Edgar Sosa heave from last year.
The coaches often write the headlines and the fans make the rivalry what it is, but it's the players that make the difference in the game. And that, if you're a UK fan, has to be a cause for concern heading into Saturday's 3:30 p.m. tipoff.
For all the talent the Cats possess, some of the most important UK players have no clue what they're getting into. For players like John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton, Darnell Dodson and Jon Hood, this will be their first experience with the Dream Game.
"Four freshmen don't know anything about this stuff and neither does a sophomore," Calipari said. "So five of the guys of our top seven or eight have no idea what this is about. 'Why are these people all excited?' They don't know. They're not from here."
It is the game when it comes to the Kentucky season. Championship banners are the most important, but the UK-U of L rivalry strikes a certain chord with fans that have some saying a championship won't matter if it doesn't include a Louisville win.
It might sound crazy to the newcomers, but it's the type of history and passion newbies like Wall will have to get used to in order to pull out Saturday's game.
"It's extreme hatred, I guess you could say," Patterson said. "It's something that the fans are very passionate about and something you can't prepare for. I can tell you about it, but you don't really know until you actually experience it."
After admitting earlier in the week that he probably didn't appreciate the rivalry as much as he should, Wall has quickly picked up the importance.
"I don't think that you have to talk to (the older) guys. You can just look at a newspaper or message board and see the rivalry," Wall said. "We have been going out and people have been saying, 'I don't care what you do, you could lose every other game, but just beat Louisville.' That is what they have been saying. We know it is a big game and it is going to be a tough game. ... We are every team's Super Bowl. We have to be ready to play."
In typical coach fashion, Calipari downplayed the overall importance of the game, saying "it's not a big game unless (UK) win(s)." Then, Calipari jokingly said, it becomes huge.
"There is nothing bad that's going to come out of this unless we get smoked," Calipari said.
But for all of Calipari's concerns about his first-year players playing in a game of this magnitude, he himself has never played in a Kentucky-Louisville game either.
The first-year UK coach didn't sound too concerned with understanding the importance. He pointed to his past rivalry games with Memphis-Tennessee, Memphis-Louisville and Massachusetts-Temple to prove he's battle-tested.
Some might call Calipari the poster child for rivalry games anyway. His now-famous (or infamous) battle of words and near fight at a postgame news conference with then-Temple coach John Chaney is one of the most replayed clips on ESPN when rivalry week is renewed.
"We were fighting after one game," Calipari said. "It was ridiculous. So yeah, I've been in enough of these."
That's why, Calipari said, you throw out any and all advantages when it comes to a game like the Dream Game. Louisville, which Calipari fully expects to launch 20-plus 3-pointers, could come into Rupp Arena and knock down 15 of them.
"This thing, records out the window, home court is out the window," Calipari said. "That stuff, none of it (matters)."
All that matters is what happens between the ears of the players on Saturday. For all the bad blood, war of words between and offseason stories of the two coaches, it's the players that will once again determine the top team in the capital of college basketball.
"This should all be about these kids," Calipari said. "It should be a fun atmosphere. I want my kids to have fun. This is not life or death. If it's life and death you die a lot. Enjoy this."
Freshman guard Eric Bledsoe, who missed Tuesday's Hartford game with a left ankle injury, is expected to play and start Saturday vs. Louisville.
"He's fine, he's fine," head coach John Calipari said. "He'll start."
Bledsoe has battled nagging injuries all season long, although it's hard to judge by the early part of his career at UK. The freshman from Birmingham, Ala., is averaging 10.1 points per game and has become UK's best perimeter threat (18-of-36 from behind the 3-point line).
Bledsoe tweaked his left ankle in Sunday's practice before Hartford. Calipari said he finished the practice and said he was an absolute "monster," but the trainers advised Calipari the next day that it would be a good idea to give the ankle some rest.