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February 2010 Archives

taylor.jpgLife after James Paxton.

That's what the Kentucky baseball team now faces just two days since Paxton, a 2009 first-round MLB draft pick, decided to leave the team because of his decision to not meet with the NCAA over a potential NCAA amateur issue.
 
Now, despite a 6-0 record to start the season, a cloud of uncertainty looms over Gary Henderson's ballclub. With Paxton and sophomore stud Alex Meyer, UK possessed the potential to have not only one of the Southeastern Conference's best pitching rotations but one of the nation's best one-two pitching punches. Without Paxton, Henderson has had to patch together a makeshift weekend rotation.

However, with gray skies appropriately hanging over Cliff Hagan Stadium for most of the three-game weekend set with Bowling Green, an unlikely candidate has started to lift the clouds of ambiguity. With two sparkling performances in his first two collegiate starts, Taylor Rogers has shined through as potential diamond in the rough.

Just a freshman, Rogers is 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched. In his first career start last weekend at the Caravelle Resort Invitational in Conway, S.C., Rogers twirled a 7.2-inning gem, giving up just six hits and zero runs in the 6-0 win over West Virginia. On Saturday at Cliff Hagan Stadium vs. Bowling Green, Rogers allowed a base runner in every inning but allowed just one run in six innings of work. UK squeaked out the 4-3 win over Bowling Green.

"He's done an extremely good job with throwing the first pitch for a strike," Henderson said. "The fastball's got nice life on it when it's down. He's been able to find a secondary pitch the second and third time around the lineup, so that changes the pitch pattern a little bit. Those things have all been real positive. He's also kept his poise with runners on base. He's got a very constant demeanor and a very consistent approach."

Rogers' shot at the Saturday starting role as a first-year player is as unlikely a story as his journey to collegiate ball in the first place. Prior to his senior season, Rogers was off the radar for most colleges.

Then, the little-known pitcher out of Littleton, Colo., ventured down to the Perfect Game tournament in Jupiter, Fla., in October 2008. Assistant coach Brad Bohannon happened to be passing from one field to another when he caught a skinny, 6-foot-3, 170-pound southpaw in the corner of his eye. Something about him grabbed his attention, so he decided to stop for a few minutes and watch two innings. 

He needed all of 15 pitches to figure out he had a potential star on his hands.

"When you go out and see thousands of kids each year, sometimes kids just stick out like a sore thumb," said Bohannon, who said Rogers reminds him of former UK and All-SEC pitcher Chris Rusin. "He just had really good feel. You could tell he had really good command and could throw the ball where he wanted. Just the way he carried himself. He has a very calm demeanor."

After that, it didn't take long before Rogers' name started to circulate in professional circles. In a matter of months, Rogers went from unsung high school pitcher to can't-miss prospect. MLB teams, most notably the Baltimore Orioles, tried to woo him to the major leagues, but Rogers ultimately chose Kentucky.

"It is exceptionally rare that it happened the way it did," Bohannon said. "I would say he's in a pool of two or three kids I've signed in six or seven years that you just stumble upon. It's a really unique story. We're real glad he's here, obviously."

When Rogers initially arrived at Kentucky, he expected to compete for one of the starting spots. But now, in light of the Paxton departure, he is being counted on as one of the key cogs in a three-man pitching rotation that includes Meyer and junior Logan Darnell.

Henderson would have preferred to ease him into a bigger role as either a weekday starter or a secondary starting option, but the current circumstance has forced Henderson's hand.

"I think anytime you expect a freshman to be in your lineup or be a weekend guy, I think you're setting him up to fail," Henderson said. "We certainly thought he would contribute. I tell the coaches all the time, it's really hard to predict that a freshman is going to start or be in the lineup on a consistent basis on the weekends. I have that approach with all the kids coming in. After the fall it was pretty apparent that he was going to be able to help."

The hard-throwing lefty not only could help, the Cats needed him to help. Whether his potential was supposed to be harvested for next year or the year after is now a moot point with Paxton gone. As the great playwright and poet William Shakespeare once said, "Be not afraid of greatness; some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them."

Rogers, who admitted he felt a little anxiety when Paxton decided to leave, has clearly thrived in the situation.

"I want to do so good for these guys," said Rogers, who was named SEC Freshman of the Week in his first week with UK. "It's a little bit of pressure (as a freshman). James has helped me out so much since I've been here. I really progressed with him helping me along. It's been an awesome experience."

Henderson has always called recruiting an inexact science, but how does a kid who is now 2-0 for an SEC baseball team in his first two collegiate starts fall that far under the radar? How does someone go from two scholarship offers (Kentucky and Northern Colorado) to potential first-round pick in 2012?

"He's a thin kid and strength came late to him," Bohannon said of the late bloomer. "His junior year in high school he was probably a kid who threw 83, 84 miles per hour and his curveball was probably really slow and he didn't have a very good changeup. Over the last 18 months his velocity has gotten better. If you rewind the clock 18 months, 84 miles per hour, a soft curveball and a not-so-good changeup is not someone you would typically sign in the SEC."

Now he's pitching and winning for an SEC team that, despite the departure of Paxton, still has aspirations of competing for the schools' second SEC title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Rogers is one of the biggest reasons those dreams are still alive. He's been an instant band aid on the fresh wound of the Paxton ordeal.

Rogers' instant success has come of no surprise to Bohannon.

"You won't see him waver," Bohannon said. "He's got a very calm demeanor, which is a huge benefit as a pitcher. He's been great. Taylor's just a kid that has fun playing baseball and now it's really cool that he's good. He was probably a kid who had fun playing high school baseball, liked hanging with his buddies and then all of a sudden it was like 'Wow, I'm pretty good. I'm going to get a scholarship for a college.' And then all of a sudden it was like 'Wow, I must be really good. I'm getting drafted and pitching as a freshman.'

"The fact that he came on late, it helps him keep things in perspective. I think he knows he's really fortunate and appreciative of the ability he has and the opportunities he's been given."

UK certainly can't expect a 0.66 ERA from the Rogers the rest of the season. After all, this is a freshman that will be pitching in SEC games before long, the toughest slate in all of college baseball.

But Rogers' potential frame to add more muscle and cool, calm character has given Henderson a potential hope in the aftermath of the Paxton departure. UK, with Rogers, Meyer and Darnell still at the helm of the pitching staff, still has huge expectations.

"Mentally, I need to expect more from myself," Rogers said. "I need to come into the game more relaxed. I've been doing good throwing strikes, which is always an expectation. Just getting a 'W' every time out is an expectation now.' "

Not bad for a little-known pitcher thrust into the spotlight.

Live blog: UK baseball vs. Bowling Green

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Loss raises red flags, signs of encouragement

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Maybe this will be the final learning lesson; the last-minute cram for the final exam; one final dose of reality before the march to the ultimate dream.

Or maybe this team is that young and that inexperienced, two red flags head coach John Calipari has pointed to all season long. Maybe Saturday's 74-65 loss to No. 19/17 Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena, UK's second defeat of the season, was the telling sign of a team that isn't as surefire of a pick to make the Final Four as some would like to think.

Either way, valiant comeback or not, the No. 2 UK men's basketball team can't afford to spot teams 19 points in three weeks for the NCAA Tournament and expect to stay alive very long.

"What we've got to figure out is 40 minutes of how we play when we're trying to win a game," head coach John Calipari said. "They've never done that before. They were AAU players seven months ago. They played in Vegas, three games, and so they just play when they feel like it. Well you can't do that because it's one and done here in three weeks."

The good news, for now, is the season hasn't come to that point yet. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn't mean a whole lot. Tennessee, as Calipari alluded to in his postgame news conference, was a "desperate" team looking for a marquee win.

For the time being, it prevents UK from claiming a share of its 44th Southeastern Conference title and damages the Cats' chance at the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Nonetheless, both goals are still within arm's reach.

What the loss did do was raise some potentially serious red flags all the while providing more evidence as to why this team could be so scary come March. All things considered, was Saturday's second loss of the season a good loss or a bad loss?

"This was a great lesson," Calipari said. "I told them this was great for us. Losing this will wake us. This was not a bad thing. This was a good thing."

Well, for the most part. There was the brutally hostile environment, back-and-forth officiating, abysmal shooting and 19-point deficit the Cats had to overcome.

And yet UK had a chance in the waning minutes to squeak out another tough victory on the road. If UK can make that kind of comeback under those circumstances, what's not to like in March?

"We don't quit," Calipari said. "That's all I can ask from my team."

Down nearly three touchdowns as late as the 14:05 mark in the second half, UK stormed back in the game behind a second-half surge from John Wall. The freshman point guard rebounded from a 1-of-8 first half to lead UK on a 9-0 run.

After hitting Eric Bledsoe with an assist, Wall went on a personal 7-0 run, doing most of his damage with transition slicing layups. His "and one" bank shot with 12:40 left in the game evoked an intimidating arm flex and roar from the Kentucky faithful. It was the kind of swagger you see with Final Four teams.

"We were struggling making shots so once we got the opportunity (coach) said to grab the rebound and just push it and try to get to the basket," said Wall, who finished with a team-high 19 points and five assists.

Wall followed with pass to Patrick Patterson to cut the lead to eight for the first time since late in the first half. Just like that, it was game on.

Sophomore guard Darius Miller, who Calipari credited with keeping UK in the game, had seven key points in the final minutes before Wall eventually capped the methodical comeback with a full-court assist to Cousins to tie the game at 65-65 with 2:10 to play.

"He was unbelievable," Calipari said of Wall.

For that second-half spurt, he looked the part of the type of general UK will need in three weeks. But, like the totality of the game, he wasn't without his faults either.

Wall committed an alarming five turnovers, two of which came in the final minutes after the Cats had tied the game. His charge on Brian Williams all but sealed UK's fate.

Still, without Wall, the Cats are never back in Saturday's game. He helped UK overcome several disappointments that could turn into season-enders come March.

The most alarming of them all was the porous 3-point shooting. For the fourth game a row, UK couldn't throw it in the ocean. The Cats hit just 2-of-22 shots from behind the arc and have now hit just 12-of-73 perimeter shots (16.4 percent) over the last four contests.

That won't get it done, especially when teams go to a zone in the Big Dance.

"You are what your stats say, you are what your record is and as a player you what your stats say," Calipari said. "My thing is getting guys in the gym more. We don't practice long hours right now. Get in the gym and shoot if you want to play. You can't miss them all. You don't have to make them all. Just make a few."

A good chunk of the frigid shooting came from guards Eric Bledsoe (3-of-10 overall) and Darnell Dodson (0-of-5 overall), who combined to shoot just 1-of-10 from the perimeter. Those two would be the easiest guesses as to who Calipari referred to as sleepwalking during the game. You could also throw sophomore guard DeAndre Liggins (two points in 10 minutes) or freshman center Daniel Orton (one points in 13 minutes) in that mix as well.

"We had two guys, and I'm not going to mention names (because) you probably know, they were sleeping," said Calipari, who was so frustrated during one timeout early in the first half that he cut his hand slamming it on his clipboard. "They were sleeping during the whole game. They didn't have any energy. When you're in that mode during the game you can't change. That's who you are then."

That's the sign of a more troubling problem: a lack of energy. Whether it was youth, the rigors of the road or an arduous Thursday-Saturday turnaround, UK failed to show up for much of the first half and fell behind 18-4 after an 18-0 Tennessee run.

"We just came out with no energy," said Cousins, who notched his 18th double-double (15 points and 14 rebounds) of the season. "They came out early and hit us in the mouth. They came out with better intensity than we did and it showed."

Eventually UK responded and got back in the game, but it ultimately wasn't enough. In that respect, it's tough to gauge whether one should be encouraged by the feisty comeback or disappointed by the line of red flags that buried them in the first place.

"I think this loss is another good loss for us," Wall said.

Only time will tell.

Statement from UK on James Paxton's departure

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Statement from the University of Kentucky on James Paxton's decision ...

The University of Kentucky is very disappointed in James Paxton's decision to not meet with the NCAA about a potential amateurism issue. No one wanted James on the mound in a Kentucky uniform more than UK head coach Gary Henderson, athletics director Mitch Barnhart and the UK Athletics staff. Due to the possibility of future penalties, including forfeiture of games, UK could not put the other 32 players of the team and the entire UK 22-sport intercollegiate athletics department at risk by having James compete. It's about the team and giving student-athletes the opportunity to achieve their goals. Throughout the process, UK has remained confident that James would be able to pitch for Kentucky during the 2010 season and UK offered every bit of assistance to aid James in that NCAA process.

UK does not know all the facts of last summer's post-draft interaction among James, his advisors and the Toronto Blue Jays and has not prejudged his situation. James has an obligation under NCAA Bylaw 10.1 (j) to answer questions that relate to his amateur status. On advice of his counsel, James has elected not to be interviewed by the NCAA. UK has offered to pursue an immediate application for reinstatement for James with the NCAA if that became necessary. However, no request for reinstatement of his eligibility can be made based on mitigating circumstances until the student-athlete and his family cooperate and make all facts known to UK, with the NCAA having the opportunity to verify those facts. UK has never been provided all pertinent information from James and his family, who are following the legal advice of his attorneys not to be interviewed by the NCAA. Without knowing all the facts, UK cannot present mitigating circumstances to the NCAA on James' behalf.

UK is more optimistic than James and his family that any period of ineligibility could be shortened to allow James to pitch during the last and most important part of the season, the Southeastern Conference schedule. So it is disappointing that James is unwilling to go through the normal NCAA process, allowing UK to appeal for him, if necessary. The University of Kentucky is sad to see James leave its baseball team, especially after other players gave up portions of their scholarships in August so that he would have a substantial scholarship for his senior year.

While UK is extremely disappointed in the decision made by James to not meet with the NCAA, he will always be a member of the Wildcat family. UK hopes that James will stay and earn his degree and wishes him the best in his professional baseball career. Should James change his mind and be willing to cooperate with the NCAA inquiry, the door is open for him to return to the UK baseball team and UK will seek any immediate appeal necessary for his reinstatement.

Programming note

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I'll be traveling with the men's basketball team again this weekend for the UK-Tennessee game in Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.

That, of course, means we'll have live blog coverage on here followed by postgame video and a story.

I'm not leaving until early in the morning. With a noon tipoff, I could be cutting it just a tad close on my arrival, but expect the live blog to be launched at 11:40 a.m.

Be sure to check back Saturday for all your UK men's basketball coverage.

SEC title won't be easy with short turnaround

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 35.jpgBefore Kentucky can rightfully claim it has taken back the title of the nation's premier college basketball program, it must first find a way to reclaim the landscape of its own conference.

On Saturday vs. Tennessee (noon tipoff on CBS), the No. 2 UK men's basketball team will have a chance to win its 44th Southeastern Conference title and first since 2005. It's the longest stretch UK has gone without a regular-season conference title since going eight years without one from 1987 to 1994 (1988 title was vacated).

What does it all mean?

"Nothing, to be honest," said John Calipari, who will be looking for his first SEC title as UK's head coach.

Numbers-wise, it would give the Cats their 50th conference title overall (six came in the Southern Conference), second only to Kansas, which raked in its 53rd conference title Monday.

Kentucky could also claim a share of the conference title with just one more Vanderbilt loss. If Vandy loses one game and UK wins one more, the Cats would claim the outright championship.

That's great and all, Calipari said Friday, but it's just a small accomplishment in the broad scope of goals.

"This program has probably won that league X amount of times," Calipari said. "It's ridiculous. I've done it about 10 times (in other conferences) already."

For Calipari, a league crown seems trivial when the ultimate goal is a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a national championship.

"I've always taken the approach that it's about the seed in the NCAA Tournament," Calipari said. "I know I probably offended people last night on the radio show about the tournament - and I'm not talking about the one in Nashville - but if you want me to be honest about how I think and what we're doing to prepare, that's what it is. The SEC Tournament is about our seed in the NCAA Tournament."

But before the Cats can think about the top seed in the 65-team tournament, they have to concentrate on assuring themselves of the East's No. 1 seed. One more victory will assure them of that, but it will be hard to come by Saturday against No. 19/17 Tennessee in Thompson-Boling Arena.

In addition to the hostile atmosphere, the pure talent of the Volunteers and the uncertainty of what defense Tennessee will play - last time in Lexington, Bruce Pearl instituted a new 3-2 zone after going primarily man-to-man most of the season - UK will have to deal with a brutally short turnaround.

The Thursday primetime-Saturday noon transition gave the Cats all of one day to prepare for the Volunteers.

"It's a quick turnaround," Calipari said. "It's like a back-to-back, so it will be interesting. We'll find out a little bit more about us."

Fortunately for UK, it's the first time this season the Cats have had to deal with the immediate turnaround. Only two other schools in the SEC, Georgia and South Carolina, have yet to endure with the one-day layoff, and both have a Thursday-Saturday schedule this week.

The Cats worked strictly on free throws, watched film and did not undergo a full practice Friday before hitting the road to Knoxville in order to rest their legs.

How they'll cope with the short turnaround and the potential to win an SEC championship remains to be seen.

"Hopefully we're good enough to win on the road in an environment like that which is going to be nuts," Calipari said. "I go back to Florida, it was nuts, South Carolina was nuts, Mississippi State was crazy, Vandy was crazy. This will be crazy and guess what? Georgia will be nuts. It's just how it is."

Welcome to the life of an SEC champion.

Championships

School

Conferences

53 (clinched 53 Monday)

Kansas

MVC, Big 8, Big 12

49 (going for 50 Saturday)

Kentucky

Southern, SEC

37

Penn

Ivy

34

North Carolina

Southern, ACC

32

Utah

Rocky Mountain, Mountain States, WAC, MWC


Cal wouldn't 'touch' NCAA tourney: Consider Calipari and a huge detractor of a possible NCAA Tournament expansion.

"I wouldn't touch it," Calipari said. "I wouldn't mess with it at all."

Talk of an NCAA Tournament change that would expand the current 65 teams to 96 teams has gained momentum in recent months. While the NCAA continues to explore the idea, the possibility of an expansion has become very real as the NCAA's current contract, an 11-year, $6 billion deal, is set to expire in 2013. The contract also has an opt-out clause after this season.

Advocates of the NCAA Tournament believe it would allow for more deserving teams, notably mid-major teams and middle-of-the-pack teams from major conferences, to get into the tournament, but Calipari isn't buying it. 

"Why do you think this is coming from the NCAA?" Calipari said. "Money, that's all it is. It's about the money."

Calipari spoke openly and candidly Friday about a possible tournament expansion, leaving no doubt as to where he stood on the issue. The first-year UK coach seemed to believe that adding more teams would only reward mediocrity.

"The issue becomes if you expand, let's just open it up to everybody," Calipari said. "Why are we doing this? 'Well, we need to get 12 out of one league.' Then play better. Finish higher. I just don't agree with it. Where it is right now, it's hard to get in, which makes it neat. It's hard to be seeded right, which makes it great."

Calipari said he has perspective given his previous coaching tenures in mid-major conference. He understands where those teams' arguments are coming from but believes adding three more play-in games to play the No. 1 seed in each region would solve the issue.

Adding an additional week to an already arduous end-of-the-season schedule would only jeopardize the student-athletes' educations, Calipari said.

"Why would you mess with something that's as big and rates as high as it does and as exciting as it is?" Calipari said. "Why add another week into the kids with school?"

The NCAA Tournament has undergone several expansions during its history, but that last major one came in 1985 when the field was increased from 32 teams to 64.

"There was not 360 teams then," Calipari said. "So it's at 64. I know they talk about football. There's 62 bowls and every team if you have a .500 record you're in a bowl. Well that's football."

Live blog: UK baseball vs. Bowling Green

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Video: Calipari previews Tennessee rematch

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Matousek tosses no-hitter vs. Evansville

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SBL 08_09 UK_Kent Game2 Web 08.jpgFive innings, seven innings, nine innings - it didn't matter. Nobody was getting a hit off Amber Matousek on Friday morning.

Matousek tossed a no-hitter Friday in the first game of the Frost Classic in Chattanooga, Tenn., hurling just the second no-no in school annals. The senior pitcher was near flawless in the 8-0 win, which was shortened to five innings because of the run rule.

Even if it would have gone seven innings, all bets would have been on Matousek. She faced 21 batters in five innings, striking out eight. If there was one downside, it was that she walked seven batters, but none of them ever crossed the plate.

Matousek has been overshadowed just a bit over the last year a half with the splashes Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley have made in the circle, but after Friday morning's win, Matousek's first win of the year, she's made room for herself in the starting rotation.

Head coach Rachel Lawson raved to me in the preseason about the improvements Matousek made in the offseason. It's becoming increasingly clear that Lawson wasn't fibbing.

Bell tossed the program's first no-hitter last season in a 1-0 win over Western Kentucky. 

 

ESPN features UK Hoops' rise in the SEC

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Thumbnail image for WBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 38.jpgMechelle Voepel of ESPN.com said it best after Tennessee's 81-65 victory over the UK women's basketball team Thursday night:

Yes, Tennessee wrapped up the SEC title again, clinching the top seed in next week's conference tournament with an 81-65 victory over Kentucky on Thursday. The Orange Crush are once again the boss of the league, restoring order and all that. But ...

Let's give a nod, also, to Kentucky. It's not easy being blue in Knoxville, facing a legendary program that has now won 15 regular-season titles.

Who on the outside was really expecting that the Wildcats would have so much on the inside this season? So much in the way of guts, heart and ambition? Pretty much no one was predicting any glory for the Wildcats. Kentucky was picked to finish next-to-last in the SEC. Instead, the Wildcats (11-4, 23-5) are going to finish next-to-first.

Despite a letdown in Knoxville, Kentucky's season has been -- and still is, with the postseason still to come -- one of the best seasons in recent school annals. Instead of letting one blowout deflate a season of momentum, Voepel writes that we should all take notice of what UK has done this season.

Check out Voepel's full story when you get the chance.

Feb. 26 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

Kentucky players get to see the Big Blue nation's fervor up close, but even some of them were amazed to see more than 22,000 Cat fans turning out for a TV show at Rupp Arena when ESPN brought its "College Gameday" tour to town earlier this month.

"There's been a lot of players that have come through this program over the years but the one constant has been the UK fans," UK All-American Jack "Goose" Givens. said "And regardless of what happens, they're going to be here and that's what makes it special to play at the University of Kentucky."

Givens got a chance to take in a UK practice the day before and liked seeing how the players were enjoying themselves on the court. Asked if he'd ever seen a player as fast as John Wall, Givens said the only one that came to mind was former Auburn player Eddie Johnson, who played with Givens for the NBA's Atlanta Hawks.

= = =

John Wall, Demarcus Cousins and/or Eric Bledsoe could join some exclusive company Friday in Knoxville, Tenn., by doing something they've already done this season: score 20 or more points in a game.

In my research, I can only find two freshmen who scored at least 20 points for UK in a game in Knoxville: Dwight Anderson (22 in 1979) and Jack Givens (20 in 1975).

= = =

Soon, March Madness will be here, and we'll start breaking down the matchups for the Wildcats on a possible run to their first Final Four in a dozen years.

I recently asked Jimmy Dykes of ESPN to give me a team or two that UK fans should hope to avoid seeing in the Cats' bracket.

"Well, Syracuse is first on the list," he said, noting that Kentucky is probably safe on this one as Syracuse and UK are both looking like No. one seeds. "I think Wisconsin (is another one). They are a type of team that nobody wants to draw in their bracket anyways, but I saw them in Maui this year and they are getting better. Bo Ryan plays this style where it's not a zone, it is man-to-man, but it is pretty similar to a zone because they pack it in and take away you're drives. They are methodical and make you work offensively and make you work and have to break down and they are a veteran team at the guard position, which I think would be a tough matchup for Kentucky. But Kentucky's size would be something that Wisconsin would have a hard time dealing with as would most of college basketball right now."

= = =

Head coach John Calipari praised freshman Daniel Orton for his six-point, five-rebound performance in the win over South Carolina. Orton says he's comfortable in the role the coaches need him to play.

"It kind of takes me back to my freshman year in high school, when all I had to do was block shots and rebound," Orton said after the game.

Calipari noted that Orton's extra work on free throw shooting paid off with two makes in the game, meaning the Cats will have more confidence in feeding him the ball down low.

Orton was also asked if the Cats are tournament-ready now.

"I don't know what tournament-ready means because I've never played in the tournament," he replied.

Great -- and correct -- answer. You have to love the honesty of freshmen.

'Greene' no longer: Sophomore ready to make an impact

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RHL_5311.jpgThe UK baseball team kicks off its home season Friday at 4 p.m. at Cliff Hagan Stadium for a three-game set with Bowling Green. To prepare you for the opener, check out Adam Revelette's column on Chase Greene.

If you saw Chase Greene play two seasons ago, you were probably impressed. A shortstop as West Jessamine High School, he earned All-District, All-Region and All-State accolades in both his junior and senior seasons, and he received several scholarship offers to play in college.

If you saw Chase Greene play last year, you should have been astounded.

The current sophomore made the transition from shortstop to the mound last season, logging innings out of the bullpen at the University of Kentucky. As you might imagine, pitching in the Southeastern Conference can be a challenge. It's harder when you're only one year removed from high school play. If you rarely even pitched in high school, it can be overwhelming.

"It was a huge transition from high school to the SEC," said Greene, who pitched "a little" towards the end of his senior season at the bidding of scouts. "I've learned a lot more about it since coming to UK."

Greene had no intention of going to college as a pitcher, but after his fastball was clocked at 94 miles per hour, assistant coach Brad Bohannon decided to take a chance on him and sign him at UK.

It started to click for the 6-foot-11 right-hander this past summer. Playing for the Amsterdam Mohawks in the New York Collegiate League, Greene went 3-0 in over 25 innings, yielding only 11 hits and two earned runs. His 0.71 ERA was good for third in the league. And no, he didn't sport the Mohawk look -- only a couple of his teammates did.

"Our coach was thankful for hats in baseball," said Greene, who did make mention of "Mohawk night" in Amsterdam, where fans (who were willing) received a free "haircut."  

The team considered the look after earning a playoff bid but ultimately decided against it. Goofy haircuts or not, Greene and UK teammates Sean Bouthilette, Cory Farris and Braden Kapteyn helped Amsterdam sweep its way through the NYCBL playoffs en route to a league title. 

Speaking of titles, Greene is excited about UK's chances this season.

"We've been working out butts off, trying to make our way to the top of the SEC," Greene said.

The sophomore also noted the team's potential and depth. Over this past weekend, though, only one of was those on display. UK started the year 3-0 by defeating Virginia Tech, West Virginia and No. 12 Coastal Carolina at the Caravelle Resort Invitational in South Carolina. Potential: check. Of the busload of Cats that made the trip, however, only 16 made their way into games. Depth: hmm ...?

Greene was not one of them.

"Of course you want to be on the field," said Greene, who warmed in the bullpen against Coastal Carolina but was not called upon, "but you can still contribute a lot and stay involved by having a positive attitude."

And what will he be thinking when his number is called?

"It's about time," he said.

It will be about time for Greene and several other Wildcats very soon. Kentucky plays host to Bowling Green this weekend before a midweek trip to Morehead State and a West Coast swing featuring matchups with San Diego and San Diego State.

"Strength of schedule matters a lot, just like in college football and basketball," Greene said. "Coastal Carolina and the San Diego trip will definitely help get us prepared for the SEC."

Greene attributes much of his success in baseball to his work ethic. After his junior and senior seasons, he played with the Kentucky Baseball Club, a traveling summer team based in Nicholasville.

"It was one of the best baseball decisions I've made,"Green said. "I got to play with and against some really talented guys. There were over 150 scouts at some places. ... KBC really opened a lot of doors for me."

Greene was also a gym-rat of sorts, and could be found at Champions Sports during much of his downtime. Located in his hometown of Nicholasville, Champions, a 40,000-square-foot indoor sports facility, was a haven for Greene and many others during the winter. He participated in the Ohio Valley Showcase, Prospects 101, and other events, logging countless hours on his own under the roof of "the big red barn" in the meantime.

"I lived there more than I lived at home," Greene said. "It really helped my game... with things like Prospects 101, you could tell the real ballplayers from the ones that didn't care. You could really tell in the spring."

So when you see Chase Green play this season, prepare to be impressed. Again. And remember: He's just getting started.

Revelette is a 2006 graduate of UK and was a senior on the 2006 SEC championship team. He writes for the Lexington Sports Examiner and also contributes to BigBlueCats.com. His baseball column will appear weekly on Cat Scratches  

Patterson gets his revenge, finds his stride

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_DR46442.jpg

The dish was served cold, just as they planned it.

Revenge, redemption, payback and all that good stuff went down in Rupp Arena on Thursday night. UK (27-1, 12-1 Southeastern Conference) avenged for its first and only loss of the season with an 81-62 rout of South Carolina. The Cat killer, Devan Downey, did what he always does and scored a ridiculous 26 points, but the Cats won the battle of the boards this time, 47-31, and limited the rest of South Carolina's scorers.

Did revenge feel sweet? Sure, you could say that.
 
From the 7-0 get-go, UK clearly played with an energy it lacked in Columbia, S.C. Eight blocks, another DeMarcus Cousins double-double and one emphatic one-hand alley-oop from John Wall to Cousins said all one needed to know about how much revenge was on the players' minds.

But for all the respect Kentucky felt it need to reestablish Thursday night, payback was by far the least important goal. No, Thursday night was about the continued blossoming of Patrick Patterson.

It's safe to say, the Cats have their veteran leader completely back.

Patterson continued his best string of the season with 23 points, eight rebounds and four blocks. The junior forward hit 10-of-12 shots from the field and continually found himself underneath the basket for timely dunks.

"I'm just being more active," Patterson said. "I'm just doing whatever coach wants of me. I'm doing whatever my teammates need me to do out on the court. I've been more comfortable and taking my time in the post. Luckily the ball has been dropping the basket. My teammates have been believing in me and hard work in practice and extra work with coach is starting to pay off."

I wrote and raved about Patterson's game last week after the Mississippi State win in Starkville, Miss. At the time, I felt it was his best game of the season.

Then he went into an intimidating Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday and played with the coolness and calmness UK will need around tournament time. He finished that game with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

And then Thursday night rolled around, and Patterson topped everything he'd done this season. Against the very same opponent that he scored just five points against a month ago - which brought about a collective outcry of panic from the UK fan base - Patterson dominated the game. 

Twice when the score was cut to six points in the second half, Patterson answered, once with a dunk and then with an old-fashioned 3-point play.

"I think Patrick Patterson is terrific," South Carolina head coach Darrin Horn said. "He is one of my favorite players in the league and country. I don't know why anybody has ever said anything about him all year long not playing well. He does all of the little things and he is tough. I've never seen that kid not play hard - ever. He is capable of doing what he did tonight in terms of offensive production. I think the fact that he hasn't done that a lot is a credit to the depth and strength of this team."

"Anybody that has complained about him at any point this year, shame on all of you for that."

Over the last three games, Patterson is averaging 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds, including 63.9 percent from the field.

"I know I have to perform well," Patterson said. "I have to go out there with a lot of energy and just play basketball. I have to come in every game, every night and play ball, play hard and play tough. I know I need to put up some points. I know I need to rebound, block shots, play defense and just have a great game. I feel like I have to do that being that I am one of the veterans out there on the court. I should be doing that."

That, more than anything, is the importance of Patterson's revival. On a team made up largely of first-year players, he was expected to offering a leadership presence; a scorer the Cats could go to in times of desperation.

When Patterson hit a wall around the first South Carolina game, frustrations grew high. Why wasn't Patterson scoring as much, some wondered. Other wanted to know why he was so timid. Did he make a mistake in coming back?

Well, it turns out his demise was greatly exaggerated.

For the third game in a row, he was efficient and multi-faceted. He scored from the outside, from the baseline and from the paint. After a few months wait, we're witnessing the much heralded full package from Patterson. 

"When you have Patrick playing the way he's playing, it takes the heat off of everybody else," head coach John Calipari said.

It allows someone like Cousins - who notched yet another double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds - to have a little more room to operate.

Patterson's play in the first game was by no means the reason Kentucky lost. It was just one of many. But think about this: What's the difference when Patterson goes from five points to 23 points?

It should serve as no coincidence that UK won handily with his presence.

"There's going to be a gap in the scoring (when Patterson plays like that) so it's not a two-point game now to where a young kid's got to make a play on national television," Calipari said. "Now it's a 15-, 16-point game because our other guys have done their thing."

Nor is it a coincidence that it's Patterson's time to do his thing at this point in the season.

"This is kind of like the dog days of the season," Calipari said. "We've got three games left. You're just trying to get this done. You're playing for the (No. 1) seed. You're understanding that we're not the only team that's like 'Let's get on with the other tournament.' And I'm not talking about that tournament in Nashville."

No, he's talking about that four-lettered acronym tournament; that six-game waltz.

After taking Patterson under his personal tutelage, Calipari told us he was 30 percent away, then 20 percent away and then 10 percent away. Has he finally hit his full stride at 100 percent?

"(Coach) hasn't said anything to me yet," Patterson said. "He said, 'Patrick, you had a good game tonight. You're getting there.' Hopefully I'm at 90 percent now. I think one day I'll see (100). Hopefully it will come soon."

Just in time for the NCAA Tournament.

A little Magic in Rupp Arena

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_R6L8294.jpgLos Angeles Lakers great Magic Johnson was at Thursday's UK-South Carolina game at Rupp Arena. Read what Johnson had to say in an interview with Dick Gabriel during the pregame show. ...

On his commitment to education and desire to spread the word ...
"It really is. When you think about trying to make sure that the dropout rate doesn't increase. When you think about the age now is 16. Everybody is proposing now that they move that age up to 18. And that would be great for everybody. What young people have to realize now is that you have to graduate high school and hopefully go on. If you can't go to college then get a trade, to make sure you can get a job."

On why he was in Kentucky today ...
"I was here because your great governor and the first lady are really concerned about black males. Right now, when you think about unemployment for black males, 30 percent right now across the country. We are trying to get them to not only stay in school but graduate high school and also give them the opportunity to go on to college, because what they need to understand is that your way of going or getting out of the ghetto in your neighborhood is not through basketball and sports anymore. It is about education. President (Barack) Obama has proven that; others have proven that. We are trying to get them motivated, get them to see that someone cares about them, then they can go on to college."

On his experiences with Kentucky during his NCAA career ...
"What is funny is I am back here. The last time I encountered a Wildcat, in 1978, Kyle Macy and Jack Givens and Rick Robey they were not too kind to my Michigan State Spartans. We led that game. We were up 27-20 at halftime. We scored the first bucket out of halftime and went up 29-20. (We) thought we were in good position. They came roaring back with their crowd and also Western Kentucky's crowd. They joined forces against Michigan State. We were playing in Dayton, Ohio, and Kyle Macy - unbelievable right at the end. I think he hit either six or eight straight free throws to beat us and I think it ended up something like 55 or 52. What a game though it was. UK actually taught us how to win it the next year. We were not prepared to win it. But, what a show Jack Givens put on in the NCAA Tournament finals. I think it was 41 points. I said 'Wow, what a player,'."

On if he has had a chance to see John Wall play basketball ...
"Oh yes. And I have the dance down too. Let me just say to all the Wildcat fans: This is probably the best guard we have seen in five or six years to come into college basketball. The thing that I am most impressed with John is his ability to know how to win the game. Let's take last Saturday at Vanderbilt. The big play was when he stole it, got out front and got the layup. The next big play was of course when he got the blocked shot. Just before that, the same player had just hit a big three, the Vanderbilt player. He had a nice pump fake and got John up (off his feet). This time he stayed down, waited, waited and went up the same time as the shooter went up. That is what impressed me. I have seen this happen over and over again. When the game is tight for Kentucky, he always comes up with the key play, whether it is on defense and then on offense. He is poised, he is very confident in his ability and he is a great leader among these young players that they have here. But it starts with also a great coach. I think he has brought the excitement and the winning tradition back to Kentucky basketball."

Postseason awards page

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Kentucky men's basketball could rake in the postseason awards this year.

To make one final push, the media relations department has created a 2010 award candidates page for guards John Wall and Eric Bledsoe and forwards Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins.

Cousins, Wall and Patterson are All-America nominees and Bledsoe is an All-District nominee.

The page includes video highlights of each player, bios, stats and notes. Check out the page when you get a chance.

Tune into women's game for South Carolina rematch

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Just wanted to remind everyone to tune into the women's basketball game tonight at 7 as they take on Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn.

I know it's easy to think "out of sight, out of mind," especially with the men playing tonight, but don't let that mind frame affect you tonight. Matthew Mitchell's Cats still have a chance of capturing a share of the Southeastern Conference championship if they defeat Tennessee.

It will certainly be no easy task as the Lady Volunteers have returned to the nation's top, ranking No. 4 in both polls.

Before you head to Rupp Arena or turn on the men's game at 9, you can watch the women on FOX Sports Net (FS South, FS Southwest and Sun Sports) or ESPN360.com or listen to Neil Price on the radio on the Big Blue Sports Network.

A big night of UK basketball starts at 7. Don't miss out on what could potentially be a huge night.

Live blog for the men starts right here at 8:40 p.m.

And now ... The John Wall Song(s)

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Oh, there's more ...

Horn: Wall making more game-impacting plays

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Bama Web 42.jpgRemember just a short month ago when John Wall had that first, yet brief encounter with adversity when head coach John Calipari said he played "awful?"

Those comments were sparked by Wall's performance at South Carolina when, despite 19 points, Wall was outshined by South Carolina guard Devan Downey.

It turns out that performance wasn't enough to change USC head coach Darrin Horn's thoughts on Wall. Despite watching firsthand one of Wall's only subpar performances of the year, Horn raved about Wall's ability on the Southeastern Conference Coaches Teleconference earlier in the week.

"He's special. I don't think there is any question about that," Horn said. "I think what separates him and why he's so highly though of and he continues to prove that he deserves that is that he's not a guy that can just get 25 points. He's a guy that impacts every area of the game."

Despite a slight shooting slump over the last two games - Wall was a combined 9-of-27 from the field in wins at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt - Horn pointed to Wall's clutch plays late in the game to seal UK's victories.

Against Vanderbilt, Wall blocked a go-ahead 3-point attempt from John Jenkins in the waning seconds of the game. He also scored five points, including three key free throws, in the final 39 seconds of the game.

"He's had some huge blocks in recent games that have helped save games," Horn said. "I think that's great example of where his ability and his athleticism allows him to literally impact the game in every area. Ultimately that's what makes a player special. He's continued to show those things and show that ability and at the same time continue to improve in basketball things as well."

Collectively, Horn believes his team will see a different UK squad Thursday night than the one they saw a month ago in Columbia, S.C.

"I think you see continued growth (from Kentucky)," Horn said. "They've got a lot of young guys, obviously. They'll learning things, not only for the first time at this level but their whole program was in a transition level with it being Cal's first year. I just think you see their entire team, individually and collectively, continue to grow in basketball things. I think the win at Mississippi State is a great example of that. (They) really made some basketball plays and did some basketball things that you have to do on the road to win."

MBSK 09_10 UK_Bama Web 33.jpgIt sits there in the back of their minds, gnawing, nudging, poking and most of all reminding. That South Carolina loss one month ago is still very much there in the back of the players' minds, one subtle reminder of how close they were to perfection.

Thursday night at 9 in Rupp Arena, the UK men's basketball team will have its shot at redemption in a classic revenge game.

Last time these two teams met, South Carolina let the air out of a No. 1 ranking, a 19-0 start and a call from President Barack Obama. To make matters worse, the Gamecocks made the most of their opportunity and rubbed every grain of salt in the open wound of the Cats.

First there was the on-court celebration, where hundreds, maybe even thousands, of South Carolina students rushed the court and partied the night away. (One would have thought they would have tired from dancing to "Sandstorm," the techno song that blared in Colonial Life Arena Arena over and over and over again. But I digress.) 

Then came the student who called into a radio station and claimed freshman DeMarcus Cousins threw two punches at him during the postgame bum rush.

If that wasn't enough, South Carolina guard Brandis Raley-Ross took a shot at freshman guard John Wall after that game by saying that he didn't "buy into all that hype."

The South Carolina student government followed with a smack letter to the UK student government that pointed out the Cats had lost three straight to USC in men's basketball and challenged UK to play in Columbia, S.C., "anytime in any sport."

Basically, South Carolina milked the win for everything it was worth, and now the Cats want to make them pay for it.

"Of course we want to beat them because they beat us before," freshman forward Daniel Orton said. "Also, we want to beat them so we still have that good record. You want to beat everybody you play. It's probably not like every other game, but we're going to try to keep it that way."

Trash talk aside, the loss would have probably stuck in the players' craw no matter what happened postgame because it ended the (unrealistic) dreams of going undefeated. But does that mean revenge will play a part in Thursday's rematch?

"I would have to say it is because of the fact that they beat us before and we want to get them back more than anything," Orton said.

Coaches are never one to play the revenge game, and head coach John Calipari is certainly no different. When broached about a chance for payback, Calipari took the opportunity to insist that his team is only looking to see if it improved from the first meeting.

"They played us great last time," Calipari said. "They shortened the game, they made tough shots at the end of the clock and they got 20 offensive rebounds. They were more physical than us, they played harder than we played, they did late-clock stuff better than we did. Our shot selection and toughness around the basket, we probably missed five layups, most of them because we got bumped a little bit. You have got to give them credit for what they did. When I watched the game, they deserved to win."

Two disturbing trends stuck out in the loss at South Carolina: One, Devan Downey's ability to create shots and score points (30 of them) and the Gamecocks' decisive edge on the offensive boards (20 offensive rebounds).

No fan base will be happier to see Downey graduate than UK's. Appropriately labeled a Cat killer, Downey is 3-2 vs. UK teams in his career. He's averaging 21.4 points per game against UK, including a game-winner in Rupp Arena last year.

The Cats had no answer for the wily 5-foot-9 guard in the first meeting, but Orton doesn't anticipate any major defensive switches to shut him down.

"Really and truly we did a good job last time," Orton said. "He was 9-for-29. He made like, I want to say three or four of those shots there at the end. The whole game we did a really good job. If anything else, down there we really couldn't even touch him, to tell you the truth. Everything we did to him was a foul. I think maybe we'll have a little bit of leeway this time."

Calipari is under the impression that no matter who or how UK tries to defend him, he's going to get his share of shots and points. Six games of 30 or more points this season can attest to that.

The key, Calipari feels, will be limiting Downey to one and done, something UK failed to do the first time around when the Gamecocks posted 22 second-chance points. The Cats, a bit uncharacteristically for the season, stood around and watched as Downey ran around, through and over the defense.

"What was happening to us, because he was driving, we were ball watching," Calipari said. "When he shot a ball, their man went around and rebounded. That's the issue of the game. But the other guys hurt us. Guys made shots and different players made tough shots at a tough time in the game."

Injuries have finally caught up to South Carolina as the Gamecocks have lost three straight and four of their last five. Downey's shooting percentage (12-for-42 in last five contests) has also dipped as more and more players key on him.

Still, Calipari isn't taking them lightly. After all, this is the same team that stood in the Cats' pursuit of perfection.

"I'm going to tell you, they could beat us," Calipari said. "They are good enough to beat us; they have already beaten us once. They play hard, they play really physical. Did they win last year in this building? So, they aren't intimidated by this building. They could easily come in and beat us. We're not walking in this game and I'm certainly not saying, 'This is a W.' If we win it on a half court bank shot, I'll be happy; it will be a hard game for us."

Video: Cal, Orton preview South Carolina game

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Video: UK Hoops previews Tennessee showdown

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Feb. 21 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 21:

Men's basketball: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins, a 6-foot-11 forward from Mobile, Ala., averaged 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins at Mississippi State and at No. 17 Vanderbilt. He recorded his 16th double-double of the season at Mississippi State with 19 points while pulling down a game-high 14 rebounds. Against Vanderbilt he scored 19 points to go with five rebounds and three steals. Cousins has scored in double-figures in 18 of his last 19 games.

Women's basketball: Victoria Dunlap

Dunlap, a 6-2 forward from Nashville, Tenn., earned her fourth Player of the Week award this season after averaging a team-high 15.5 points on 11-of-19 shooting (57.9 percent) to go with 6.5 rebounds, 3.5 steals and 2.0 blocks in UK's two wins. The victories gave UK a school-record 11 SEC victories and its first undefeated home season (17-0) since 1980-81. It also set the school mark for home wins in a season with 17.

GYM 09_10 UK_FL Web 68.jpgGymnastics: Emily Green

Senior Emily Green won or shared two titles and finished second in another, helping UK post its season-high team score of 195.850 in a victory over Ohio State on Feb. 19. Green won the balance beam with a 9.850 and shared title honors with teammates Hillary Ferguson and Jasmine Minion on the floor exercise with a 9.900 score. Green has won back-to-back titles on the floor exercise after finishing first against Auburn with a 9.900 on Feb. 12. She has three floor titles this season and five in her career. Green's 9.950 score against Florida on Jan. 22 was tied for the top score in the event by any SEC gymnast entering last week.

Women's basketball: A'dia Mathies

Mathies, a 5-9 guard from Louisville, Ky., earned her third Freshman of the Week honor this season after averaging 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds to go along with 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals in the wins. She recorded 11 points with a 3-pointer, four free throws, five rebounds and two steals against Florida and had 10 points with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals vs. South Carolina.

Baseball: Alex Meyer

Sophomore right-hander Alex Meyer made the start against Virginia Tech in the season opener for the Wildcats, picking up his first win of the season. A 6-9, 220-pound right-hander who is rated as the seventh-best sophomore in college baseball by Baseball America, Meyer worked five innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out eight. Meyer recorded his first three outs of the season by strikeout, adding punch-outs in five of his first six outs.

MBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web 61.jpgMen's basketball: Patrick Patterson

Patterson posted back-to-back double-doubles in helping UK to wins at Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. He tied the game at Mississippi State on a field goal with :37 left to send the game into overtime. Tied for team-high honors with 19 points against the Bulldogs. Hit UK's only 3-pointer in the second half to give the Wildcats a 52-49 lead at Vanderbilt. Then, leading 55-53 with :39 left against Vandy, grabbed crucial rebound off Vanderbilt missed 3-pointer to help preserve win. Now has eight double-doubles this season and 29 in his career, moving him to a tie for seventh on UK's all-time double-double list.

Softball: Rachel Riley

Sophomore pitcher Rachel Riley tossed 14 scoreless innings in two shutout victories for Kentucky. Riley dominated Minnesota, limiting the Gophers to just two hits and zero walks in a complete game effort. She matched a career-high with six strikeouts against Minnesota as well. For the weekend, Riley recorded her third and fourth career shutouts in two starts while yielding no runs and just six hits in 14 innings of action.

Baseball: Taylor Rogers

Freshman southpaw Taylor Rogers made his collegiate debut in sparkling fashion, tossing 7.2 shutout innings to pick up the win over West Virginia Saturday. A 6-3, 170-pounder, Rogers was thrust in to the weekend rotation in his first college outing and dominated the Mountaineers, allowing only six hits and no runs, issuing just one walk and fanning two. A native of Littleton, Colo., Rogers got outs from the first 13 hitters he faced, carrying a perfect game into the fourth inning. Rated as the seventh-best freshmen in the Southeastern Conference and the 21st-best freshmen in college baseball, Rogers threw just 85 pitches, filling up the strike zone throughout the game, tossing first-pitch strikes to 25-of-29 batters faced. He forced 15 groundouts in the contest, fielding his position well with two assists and a putout. Rogers didn't allow a WVU base runner to reach scoring position until the fourth frame.

Softball: Natalie Smith

Senior Natalie Smith led the squad with seven hits on a .438 batting average for the week as UK charted a 5-0 week and a championship at the Florida Atlantic Kickoff Classic. She had at least one hit in four of the five games, and prior to her one game without a hit she had charted at least a single in five consecutive games.

Rifle: Megan English

Sophomore Megan English had an outstanding week, ranking a team-best sixth overall in the combined categories at the 2010 Great American Rifle Conference Championships. English  totaled a team-best 592 in air rifle, ranking third overall in the conference, also contributing a 573 in smallbore, good for 17th overall.

Rifle: Jen Pason

Senior Jen Pason finished third overall in the smallbore competition at the 2010 Great American Rifle Conference Championships, totaling a 581 to lead the team. Pason also charted a 582 in air rifle, ranking 21st overall in the match. 

Big game against Tennessee can only do good

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WBSK 09_10 UK_OleMiss 35.jpgThursday is big for the women's basketball team. Like potentially program-changing big - the biggest since upsetting No. 1 Tennessee in Rupp Arena four years ago.

Although Tennessee has already wrapped up at least a share of the Southeastern Conference title, UK can still claim a share with two consecutive wins and two consecutive Lady Volunteer losses.

There's that, there's the measuring stick of facing Tennessee, the spotlight of playing traditionally the best program in women's basketball and the opportunity to bolster an already strong NCAA Tournament résumé.

In other words, a lot is riding on Thursday's 7 p.m. game in Knoxville, Tenn.

But what if, after all the buildup Thursday's game will likely have, UK comes out flat, stumbles in its primetime matchup and walks away with a loss? Would one failed test take away from the historic turnaround after all the emphasis that will be placed on the Tennessee game?

"We've lost games this season," senior forward Lydia Watkins said, "but we've been able to bounce back very well from it."

Watkins isn't predicting a loss, much less even hinting of one. She's only emphasizing the Cats' remarkable ability this season to manage the big-game expectations and hype and to execute the game plan as if it were any other game.

"We're used to it now," Watkins said. "We had a lot of transfers and freshmen come in, but we've been able to play with each other and play as a team. Our team has not just involved around one person. Everybody can play, which helps in big games."

That's why, win or lose, head coach Matthew Mitchell isn't worried about his team's ability to treat Tennessee like it's any other game.

Is it big? Sure, Mitchell says. But he doesn't believe he has to guard his team from falling victim to the big-game mentality. According to him, they've responded to the pressure and hype all season long.

"I think our team has done a really fantastic job of staying balanced and grounded and I don't think that'll be an issue," Mitchell said. "They'll be highly motivated to play because it's great competition and I'm sure they will want to play well against great competition. We put a lot of emphasis into every game and that has been the beauty of our team, and they've responded to that and have been super prepared for every test they have had."

The numbers more than back up Mitchell's case. The Cats are 3-2 against top-25 teams this season and have broken notorious losing streaks to Vanderbilt and LSU. All were billed as big-time games, including Sunday's avenging win over South Carolina, which sealed an undefeated home record for just the second time in program history.

But none of those will compare to the crowd and the buildup UK will face Thursday. Junior forward Victoria Dunlap, who was named SEC Player of the Week for the fourth time this season on Monday and is a top contender for SEC Player of the Year, said the Tennessee game will be about the Cats' ability to execute their normal up-tempo offense and stifling defense.

"Obviously Tennessee is a good team," Dunlap said. "They've always had good players and they're going to come out hard. It's just a matter of us going in there and not worrying about the atmosphere or what they've done, where they're ranked or our ranking. We just have to go in there and play basketball and have fun."

Much like the decade-plus losing streaks to LSU and Vanderbilt that UK conquered earlier this year, the Cats will face a daunting losing streak in Knoxville, a place they haven't won at since 1985.

Even though UK upset a mediocre (by Tennessee standards) 13th-ranked Lady Vols team in Memorial Coliseum last year, this season's trip to Tennessee will be no easy task. The Lady Vols are more talented, more experienced and more balanced than ever. As a result, they're 25-2 overall, 13-1 in conference, and ranked No. 4 in the nation.

Five players are averaging 9.8 points or more per game for Pat Summitt, but Mitchell and Co. sounded particularly concerned about Tennessee center Kelley Cain, who is averaging 10.4 points, 7.7 rebounds and shooting 60.5 percent from the floor.

"The biggest thing that worries me is our ability to rebound," Mitchell said. "They are just so powerful on the boards and they have such big, athletic players.  That is something we have been battling all year is rebounding against bigger and more athletic teams.  If there was one really big concern going into the game, it would be rebounding."

The fact that Kentucky is even talking about shutting down Cain to stay in the hunt for the SEC title is a remarkable feat within itself. Mitchell maintains that the Cats always had a belief in-house that they could compete for a title, but that was not shared by the rest of the nation as UK was picked to finish 11th in the preseason by the league's coaches.

Dunlap hasn't been surprised by the results.

"I'm not surprised about our effort and how we've been playing," Dunlap said. "I was surprised at the beginning that we got picked 11th. Now that we've been showing people how we can play, I'm not surprised at all. I'm surprised at how people's reactions are because they haven't seen us play."

Now with a week to go in the season, UK has given itself an opportunity to compete for a conference title. To even be in this position with a week to play is a testament to the players and their ability to buy into the program, Mitchell said.

"It's a remarkable group of players that really care about each other and are starting to understand the opportunity that they have to play at a special place like Kentucky and that's just the thing that makes me happy about this group," Mitchell said. "They are a selfless group that plays for each other and the university and it's exactly how we want it to be around here.  It's fun to watch and something that is not going to be taken for granted."

No matter what happens in Thursday's "big game," it won't determine the season. The Cats have built too much and come too far to let one game dictate the season. Other goals still lie ahead - although a win wouldn't be so bad either.

"This is not a stopping point for us," Watkins said. "We've been putting in a lot of work just to get to where we are right now. Tennessee has always been our rival and it's going to be a huge game, not only because it's Tennessee but because where we're ranked and where they're ranked. To get a win over them would be a great feeling."

Timeline of a historic turnaround

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Thumbnail image for WBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 57.jpgIt's truly astonishing how much one year can make a difference. This time last year, the lifeblood of the state of Kentucky, basketball, was on life support.

The men's basketball team, already mired in its longest national title drought in two decades, was fighting just to get into the NCAA Tournament. Ultimately, after weeks of bubble watching, the Cats weren't invited to the Big Dance for the first time in 18 years.
 
Meanwhile, the women's team was fortunate just to make the Women's National Invitation Tournament. A plethora of injuries to an already depleted roster left head coach Matthew Mitchell with few options to field a bench. UK fought valiantly but stumbled into the WNIT for the third straight season.

The basketball reputation of the Bluegrass, seemingly tarnished for the near future, was hanging in the balance.

And now this. One year later, Kentucky basketball is on top of the nation. Ranked No. 2 (men) and No. 16 (women) in the nation, both teams are a shoo-in for the NCAA Tournament. Their combined record of 49-5 is the best mark in all of college basketball.

Basketball, as we know it, is back in Kentucky.

But how did we get here? What led us to this revival of hoops hysteria? One could certainly point to a number of things - two head coaches who just get it, deep and talented rosters, up-tempo teams, etc. - but to put things in perspective, relive where Kentucky was one year ago today and how it got here today.

I like to call it a "timeline of a turnaround."

Feb. 22, 2009: The women's basketball team had re-established slim hopes of an NCAA Tournament bid following an upset of nationally ranked Tennessee, but a heartbreaker at LSU all but ends the 14-13 Cats' chances of making the NCAA Tournament.

Feb. 25, 2009: At 19-8, the men's team appears to be limping into the NCAA Tournament, but in the Big Dance nonetheless. Then a 77-59 blitzing at South Carolina, where Patrick Patterson gets blocked some two-thousand times (a couple of those swats just landed), firmly places the Cats on the bubble watch.

March 5, 2009: If the women were going to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, they had to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But with only seven players left in the rotation, Georgia bounces UK in the first round.

March 7, 2009: The men's NCAA Tournament pulse grows faint. One game after an embarrassing loss to last-place Georgia on Senior Day, UK drops a 60-53 decision to Florida, its fourth straight loss. Only a deep SEC Tournament run will save the Cats' postseason hopes at this point.

March 13, 2009: A 67-58 loss to LSU in the second round of the SEC Tournament all but seals the men's fate to the NIT.

March 15, 2009: The run of 17 straight NCAA Tournament appearances officially comes to an end for the men's team when the Cats are left out of the 65-team NCAA Tournament and relegated to the NIT.

March 16, 2009: For the third straight year, the women are selected for the WNIT. The Cats host Chattanooga in the first round.

NIT 08_09 UK_UNLV 09.jpgMarch 17, 2009: UK fans show their support for the men's program has never wavered when 8,327 people pack Memorial Coliseum for a first-round NIT win vs. UNLV. It was the first time Kentucky hosted a game at Memorial Coliseum since 1976.

March 22, 2009: The women's 2009 season officially comes to an end with a 49-45 loss to Wisconsin in the second second round of the WNIT.

March 25, 2009: The men's 2009 season officially comes to an end with a 77-67 loss to Notre Dame in the NIT quarterfinals.

March 25, 2009: Women's basketball signee A'dia Mathies is named the 2009 Kentucky Miss Basketball. It was the beginning mark of a stellar recruiting class for head coach Matthew Mitchell. Mathies' infusion would be one of just several highlights of first-year talent into the 2010 team.

March 27, 2009: Billy Gillispie's two-year reign as head coach of the men's program comes to an end when Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announces that UK will not retain Gillispie for a third year. An immediate coaching search is put into place. Gillispie ends with a 40-27 record at UK.

April 1, 2009: John Calipari is announced as the 22nd men's basketball coach in program history. After signing an eight-year contract worth $31.65 million, Calipari is introduced to the Kentucky fan base and vows to return Kentucky to the top of college basketball. He would stay true to his word.

April 7, 2009: Jodie Meeks submits his name to the NBA for the June draft. Meeks ends up staying in the draft and is picked in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks. The decision leaves the men's team without its leading scorer.

April 27, 2009: Calipari creates a Twitter account. Small in terms of its relevance to his job at Kentucky, but the beginning mark of a coach that understands and embraces the UK fan base. The Twitter phenomenon started an ongoing trend of a coach who reached out to the fan base. Calipari currently has more than 1.1 million followers.

June 14, 2009: Mitchell institutes an offseason program for the women's team to renew and strengthen their commitment to the team. Each player was ordered to dribble a blue and white ball around campus at all times except inside buildings. At the time, Mitchell hoped the players would understand how fortunate they were to be able to put on the Wildcat uniform.

May 8, 2009: Forward Patrick Patterson withdraws his name from the NBA Draft and decides to return to Kentucky for his junior season. The return of Patterson, who averaged 17.9 points and 9.3 rebounds in 2008-09, gives Calipari's team a bona fide and experienced low post scorer.

May 20, 2009: Mega-recruit John Wall inks a national letter of intent to play college basketball at the University of Kentucky. The signing is the highlight of a No. 1 recruiting class that included the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Daniel Orton, Jon Hood and Darnell Dodson.

June 27, 2009: The women's team kicked off its "Drive for 5K," a campaign to break the season ticket record of 4,808, with the "5K for 5K." Kentucky not only breaks the record, it brings together a team that was made up largely of first-year players and forms a team chemistry that proves to be the team's greatest strength.

MBSK 09_10 LeBron Visit 25.jpgJuly 17, 2009: NBA superstar and Calipari friend LeBron James flies into Lexington for a tour of the Joe Craft Center. The visit and connection brings unmatched exposure to the men's and women's programs.

Oct. 16, 2009: Fans jam-pack Rupp Arena for the annual Big Blue Madness, kicking off the 2009-10 basketball season for both the men's and women's programs. Music stars Drake and Eddie Montgomery make special guest appearances, a precursor of the national spotlight yet to come.

Oct. 30, 2009: Despite the infusion of talent, the women are picked to finish 11th in the SEC by the media and coaches in what proves to be a motivational tool for the team.

Nov. 1, 2009: Without a wealth of interior players but a roster loaded with athletic guards, Mitchell decides to change the women's defensive philosophy and go to a full-court press and trap. The move pays dividends down the road. Guard Amber Smith sheds her knee brace, which Mitchell credits to her becoming a faster and better defender.

Nov. 13, 2009: The men's team opens the Calipari era with a 75-59 win over Morehead State at Rupp Arena. Eric Bledsoe scores 24 points in his UK debut, jumpstarting a 19-game winning streak.

Nov. 13, 2009: The makeover was quickly underway for the women's team. In its first game of the season, the women pound Boston 92-58 at Memorial Coliseum. UK converts 29 turnovers into 30 points, setting the tone for an in-your-face defense and up-tempo offense that changes the direction of the program.

miami1.jpgNov. 16, 2009: The legend of John Wall begins - as if it hadn't already begun. After serving a one-game suspension, Wall makes his highly anticipated collegiate debut in sparkling fashion. The freshman phenom hits a game-winning jump shot with. 0.5 seconds left on the clock to give the men's team a thrilling 72-70 win over Miami (Ohio). Wall scores 19 points in his first game.

Nov. 26, 2009: The men's team claims the Cancun Challenge championship with an overtime victory over Stanford. At 6-0 on the season, the rest of the nation takes notice of Kentucky and realizes the Cats are legit.

Dec. 1, 2009: The women's fast start is legitimized with a 107-53 pounding of Miami (Ohio). The Cats surpass the 100-point mark for the first time since 2005 behind 59.5 percent shooting, 28 turnovers and a 17-plus rebounding edge.

Dec. 20, 2009: Breaking a school record never felt so sweet for the women as they capture the best start to a season (10-0) with a win against archrival Louisville. UK forces a school-record 38 turnovers to snap a five-game losing streak against the Cardinals.

Dec. 21, 2009: The men's basketball team becomes the first program in NCAA history to 2,000 wins with an 88-44 romp over Drexel.

Dec. 28, 2009: Middle Tennessee hands the women their first loss of the season in Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Jan. 2, 2010: The men's team breaks a two-game losing streak to archrival Louisville and matches the best start in 40 years with a 15-0 record. DeMarcus Cousins scores 18 points, pulls down 18 rebounds and inserts himself into the National Player of the Year discussion.

Jan. 10, 2010: Former football coach Rich Brooks often talked about breaking the notorious losing streaks in order to climb the ladder in the SEC. The women's team does exactly that by breaking a 10-year losing streak to Vanderbilt and defeating the No. 17 team in the nation.

Jan. 19, 2010: The women's team finally earns some respect in the polls when they crack the ESPN/USA Today Coach Poll for the first time since 2006. UK would continue to climb in both major polls.

Jan. 24 2010: Calipari and his men's team reminds Kentucky once again how special this team is with the generosity of "Hoops for Haiti," a telethon to help the millions affect in the aftermath of the horrific earthquake in Haiti. With the help of matching funds, UK raises more than $1 million. United States President Barack Obama calls the team two days later to thank them for their efforts.

Jan. 25, 2010: Kentucky basketball is back on top. For the first time since 2003, the men's team is ranked No. 1 in both the Associated Press Top 25 and USA Today/Coaches Poll.

Jan. 26, 2010: The men's pursuit of perfection is halted in South Carolina, where a feisty Devan Downey leads the Gamecocks to an upset of Kentucky. The loss snaps a 19-game winning streak and ends the Cats' brief stay at No. 1.

WBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 44.jpgJan. 27, 2010: The women break another notorious streak with a 71-62 win over LSU, UK's first win at LSU since 1995. More importantly, it puts the Cats in the hunt for an SEC  title, a chase they'll be in until the season's end.

Feb. 1, 2010: It took a while, but the AP voters finally placed the Cats in the top 25. UK debuts at No. 20.

Feb. 11, 2010: The women display their staying power with a vengeful win over Georgia, a previous top-10 team that beat the Cats earlier in the year. With the win, UK takes commanding control of second place in the league.

Feb. 13, 2010: ESPN College GameDay comes to town for the UK-Tennessee game. With the eyes of the nation on Lexington and the men's and women's programs, UK sets the GameDay attendance record with 22,144 fans during the live morning broadcast. The men's team goes on to defeat Tennessee later that night.

Feb. 20, 2010: The men's team finishes off its second straight come-from-behind thriller in hostile territory, this time against No. 17 Vanderbilt in Nashville. The win prompts many national analysts to believe UK has locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Feb. 21, 2010: For just the second time in program annals, the UK women complete a perfect record at home with a 71-50 win over South Carolina. With the win, the Cats finish the season 17-0 in Memorial Coliseum.

March 4-7, 2010: Women's SEC Tournament

March 11-14, 2010: Men's SEC Tournament

March 18, 2010: Men's NCAA Tournament begins.

March 20, 2010: Women's NCAA Tournament begins.

April, 5, 2010: Men's national championship game from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis

April 6, 2010: Women's national championship game from the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas

Feb. 23 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

With three weeks to go before the NCAA Tournament, the identities of teams are pretty well established. So the focus is now on honing the execution of whatever way you play.

Last week, UK coach John Calipari said his team is talented enough to beat anybody it might face but also vulnerable to losing to almost anyone because of how they play (i.e. too many turnovers, defensive lapses, etc.). Can a team this young close much of that gap in these final three weeks before March Madness?

"We've got to," Calipari said on the Big Blue Sports Network pregame show before Saturday's contest at Vanderbilt. "When you're in one-and-done situations and you give someone a chance, they start making shots they shouldn't make and you get beat. You can't put yourself in that position by taking bad shots, by turning it over. We're stopping on defense and giving up easy baskets. You play the whole possession. If they make a tough shot, that's OK, but not backdoor, not an offensive rebound because you were ball watching, not a play where you get caught on a screen because you just stopped playing."

It's the maintainence of focus on defensive assignments that is Calipari's biggest concern on that end of the floor.

MBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web 15.jpg"The committment to play the whole possession is the only thing," Calipari said. "We're playing pick-and-roll better. But you can't play for 24 seconds on the clock and that's what young kids do and we do a lot of that."

Calipari said his teams have normally started playing their best basketball by this time of the year, but he acknowledes that having a team this young means the past doesn't predict that this group's evolution will be as smooth.

Still, others are noticing significant growth in this Kentucky team from earlier this year.

Take Jimmy Dykes of ESPN. He was courtside for Kentucky's loss at South Carolina and then last Tuesday, he worked the game in Starkville, Miss., where the Cats erased a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes of regulation to win in overtime. He remembers a comment Calipari made after that loss at USC about his team being "fractured" and not playing together as well as they should have.

"They were a fractured team that night on the road both offensively and defensively, I think that's what he was talking about," Dykes said. "Then I look at the game the other night at Mississippi State where that building was going crazy and just a phenomenal atmosphere for a game and Kentucky never got fractured. They stayed on the same page. It wasn't one-on-one and one guy trying to win the game. There were multiple touch possessions and getting open shots for guys and taking what State gave them. I think they have really grown up in that part of the game. I think only time cures things like that and I talked to Cal after their shootaround on Tuesday and he said even their pregame shootarounds have more purpose, more focus.

"I picked that up with my own eyes watching. So they are maturing in different ways and they are rebounding a lot better and passing a lot better. I think there are a lot of things that are starting to come on. I think teams are still going to force them to make multiple 3s in a ball game. That game the other night, I think they were 1-for-12 in the first half. That is something that always concerns coaches and when you start breaking down teams for March Madness, when you get on that neutral floor, 3-point shooting is where things come back a few points anyways. Bledsoe will have to continue to make them. I know Patterson will have to make one or two if he can in game if he is open and when Dodson is in there, he will have to make them. I don't feel that any coach right now feels great about their team in every area. Kentucky is no different and has a few areas that they can seal a little bit or work on percentages. I think for Kentucky that is where they still could be vulnerable in that one game. But they are so strong in other areas that they should be OK, I think."

Fellow ESPNer Andy Katz and Dykes both agree that too much is made of how heavily Kentucky relies on freshmen.

"There are certain freshmen that are more mature beyond their years," Katz told tomleachky.com. "When my colleagues say 'How are they going to handle the NCAA Tournament -- they're only freshmen,' I think because of who they are, that's not going to matter."

"I think it is over-analyzed compared to where we were 15 years ago," Dykes said. "These guys have played so many basketball games in their life with AAU, high school. They have been on so many big stages in front of big crowds. It used to be an issue with freshmen and getting on the big stage and bright lights, can they handle a pressure-packed situation? But that is not going to phase these guys. I am a guy when it comes to experience, that when it comes to experience or talent, I will take talent every time."

And The Sporting News' longtime college basketball writer, Mike DeCourcy, says he's seen a lot of maturing out of Cousins and Wall in particular.

"I think there is still questions about (Cousins') temperament and there are places where he needs to improve and be on good behavior through the NCAA tournament," DeCourcy said. "He needs to understand when he gets there that they are not going to take a lot from him in a showcase like that, because they (the officials) all want to get to the Final Four, too, so he is going to have to be mindful of that and if he does something out of bounds, he will be in trouble. In that part of it, I think he has probably gone from a D-minus to a C-plus and on being a hard-playing player, I think he has gone from a D-minus to a B-plus. He might even be an A.

"There has been a lot of evolution which has made Kentucky a better basketball team. There is John Wall, who has become a more composed player. He is not as spectacular as he was in the first month, but I think he is better now. He plays hard for the entire game and not just, 'OK, we haven't played well the first 35 minutes, let's play hard the last five and we will win.' And that is how the first month went. I think John is more focused now and knows that if you play the full 40 minutes, you don't have to scramble through the last five"

Q and A with Henderson

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henderson 3.jpgSorry for the lack of posts today, everyone. Been working on a rather large item for much of the day in between some interviews. I'll have a couple of posts up in a little bit.

In the meantime, check out a one-on-one interview Kendall Rogers of Yahoo! Sports had with baseball head coach Gary Henderson. Rogers talks with Henderson about the opening weekend, the status of James Paxton and the improvement of the bullpen.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the interview:

Rogers: After going through spring workouts and such, what were your biggest concerns entering the first weekend of the season?

Henderson: The biggest concern for me was who would step up out of the bullpen and get some hitters out. You know, what roles were going to be filled by which guys out of the bullpen. The next concern was how the guys that have never started a game - Taylor Rogers and Logan Darnell - would do. But overall, I was just most concerned with fulfilling some bullpen roles.

R: Speaking of Rogers, the freshman hurler threw an absolute gem in the second game against West Virginia. Thoughts on his performance? What makes him so effective?

H: The No. 1 thing about Taylor is that he throws strikes. He throws low strikes, and just knows how to throw strikes all over. He did a great job of pounding the strike zone in that game against West Virginia. He threw three pitches for strikes and had some action on his fastball. He also showed to be a very calm competitor while also working ahead of the count and keeping balls down in the zone. I liked what I saw.

R: You mentioned Darnell and his lack of starts. He made 28 appearances and no starts last season. Why the move to the weekend rotation this season?

H: In terms of moving him to the weekend rotation, I just think he's the guy. He is a veteran and really was the clear-cut option as far as I'm concerned. He is a junior and has a lot of experience pitching. He started at the Alaska League last summer really did a nice job, so that's another reason we looked at him a little closer as a starting pitcher.

Basketball nearly sweeps SEC awards

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image007.jpgThe shoo-in was inexplicably the only one left out.

After a banner week of Kentucky basketball, UK just missed out on sweeping all four Southeastern Conference basketball awards this week. Victoria Dunlap was named Player of the Week for the women, A'dia Mathies was tabbed Freshman of the Week for the women and DeMarcus Cousins was picked as the Freshman of the Week for the men.

Dunlap earned her fourth Player of the Week award after averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in UK's wins over Florida and South Carolina, Mathies averaged 11.0 points and 6.0 rebounds, and Cousins notched his fifth SEC honor this season after averaging 19.0 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.

What's even more impressive is that it's a league record 13 SEC honors for the men and the second time the women have swept the awards this year.

Yet, it feels like something missing. It feels like someone was left off. Who, you might ask. None other than Patrick Patterson.

I'm not here to argue how the SEC chooses its weekly award winners or make a big deal out of a seemingly arbitrary award, but how does Patterson, after his best week of the season, not get the SEC Player of the Week honors?

Of the four awards given to the men and women, he had the strongest case of any of them.
Patterson notched back-to-back doubles last week, scoring 19 points and 13 rebounds against Mississippi State, including the game-tying basket in regulation. He followed that up with a 13-point, 13-rebound performance at nationally ranked Vanderbilt.

Those numbers aren't overwhelmingly spectacular until you look at the other individual performances last week.

Nothing against this week's winner Wayne Chism, who is hands down one of the best players in the league, but his numbers did not meet those of Patterson's.

Patterson scored more points, more rebounds, shot a better percentage from the field and free-throw line, committed fewer turnovers and had the same amount of blocks. The only categories Chism beat Patterson in were steals and assists.

Numbers can sometimes be manipulated to value worth, but there's no questioning that Patterson was the most valuable player in Kentucky's wins over the second-place team in the SEC East (Vanderbilt) and first-place team in the West (Mississippi State).

For what it's worth, you've got my vote, Patrick.

Rankings, bracketology update

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WBSK 09_10 UK_ARK web 05.jpgNo significant movement in the rankings this week. The men stayed put at No. 2 in both major polls this week and the women remained at No. 16 in the Associated Press Top 25.

The men picked up four first-place votes in the AP and one first-place vote in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. Full rankings are below.

While you're at it, take a look at this week's Bracketology by Joe Lunardi. To little surprise, UK is listed as the No. 1 seed in the East Region against the play-in winner.

The catch this week, however, is that Lunardi has UK's potential second-round matchup against the winner of Louisville-Clemson. Could you imagine the Dream Game in the Big Dance?

On the women's side, Charlie Creme has UK Hoops as a No. 4 seed in his bracketology. If the tournament were to start today, Creme would have the Cats playing No. 13 seed Arkansas Little Rock in Tempe, Ariz.

AP Top 25 (men) 
 1. Kansas (61) 26-1 1,621
 2. Kentucky (4) 26-1 1,559
 3. Purdue 23-3 1,470
 4. Syracuse 25-2 1,455
 5. Duke 23-4 1,323
 6. Kansas State 22-4 1,302
 7. Villanova 22-4 1,189
 8. West Virginia 21-5 1,183
 9. Ohio State 21-7 1,097
10. New Mexico 25-3 997
11. Georgetown 18-7 846
12. Pittsburgh 21-6 806
13. Brigham Young 25-3 795
14. Michigan State 21-7 794
15. Butler 25-4 673
16. Vanderbilt 20-6 599
17. Wisconsin 20-7 528
18. Gonzaga 22-5 506
19. Tennessee 20-6 480
20. Temple 22-5 452
21. Texas 21-6 445
22. Texas A&M 19-7 225
23. Richmond 22-6 202
24. Baylor 20-6 147

ESPN/USA Today Poll
 1. Kansas (30) 26-1 774
 2. Kentucky (1) 26-1 745
 3. Purdue 23-3 697
 4. Syracuse 25-2 682
 5. Duke 23-4 654
 6. Kansas State 22-4 613
 7. West Virginia 21-5 571
 8. Villanova 22-4 556
 9. Ohio State 21-7 461
10. Butler 25-4 446
11. Brigham Young 25-3 430
12. New Mexico 25-3 413
13. Georgetown 18-7 392
14. Michigan State 21-7 373
15. Gonzaga 22-5 322
16. Pittsburgh 21-6 319
17. Tennessee 20-6 294
18. Temple 22-5 232
19. Wisconsin 20-7 216
20. Vanderbilt 20-6 212
21. Texas 21-6 177
22. Northern Iowa 24-3 119
23. Texas A&M 19-7 88
24. Richmond 22-6 76
25. UTEP 20-5 37  

AP Top 25  (women)
 1. Connecticut (40)  27-0 1000 
 2. Stanford 25-1 959 
 3. Nebraska 25-0 918 
 4. Tennessee 24-2 882 
 5. Xavier 22-3 809 
 6. Duke 23-4 791 
 7. Notre Dame 23-3 724 
 8. West Virginia 24-3 706 
 9. Florida State 23-4 676 
10. Ohio State 26-4 663 
11. Oklahoma 19-7 592 
12. Texas A&M 19-6 514 
13. Georgetown 22-4 493 
14. Texas 19-7 457 
15. Iowa State 20-5 426 
16. Kentucky 23-4 422 
17. Baylor 19-7 372 
18. St. John's 21-5 309 
19. Gonzaga 23-4 236 
20. LSU 18-7 185 
21. Virginia 20-6 176 
22. Georgia Tech 21-7 129 
23. Oklahoma State 18-8 118 
24. Georgia 20-7 114 
24. Hartford 23-3 114 

Calipari on SEC Coaches Teleconference

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image013.jpgWith the men's basketball team off until its Thursday night rematch with South Carolina, there will be no media availability today with the team. In lieu of our typical Monday coverage, read what head coach John Calipari had to say on this week's SEC Coaches Teleconference.

On this week's matchups with South Carolina and Tennessee ...
"We've got two hard games. South Carolina beat us and Tennessee had us 52-50 with a few minutes to go and played well against us. (Tennessee) threw some zone and different things at us and affected us. Going up there, I imagine it's going to be probably a huge crowd and crazy game, so I think both games are going to be hard. We're just a young team trying to get better."

On Eric Bledsoe's play in recent weeks and if there is anything that concerns him about his play ...
"He's a freshman. You're not going to play great every night out. He's not going to make great decisions every time. He missed some free throws, which was really, really unusual for him. But he's a tough kid. What I loved about it, is I didn't think he played particularly well against Vandy - as a matter of fact, it wasn't one of his better games - (but) he was the happiest guy in the locker room after the game. That's what I want to see. I don't care that you don't play great. They're not machines. They're not going to. I just want to know that it's not about you, it's about our team. He was ecstatic, so I feel good about him.

"He's emotional, but he's coming back quicker than he did at the beginning of the year. There were times at the beginning of the year that he wasn't playing well where you just had to sit him out the rest of the time. He's getting better. He's young. He's 19 years old. You've got to understand that they've got to learn, and by the time March hits around, you've got to have less and less of this hopefully or we're not going to be the team we need to be."

On hesitating before shooting and the consequences of not shooting freely ...
"It happened three or four times - it didn't happen 20 times - but on those, they lead to bad shots or they lead to turnovers. What I'm trying to say to our guys is we're one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. Only three things can happen when you shoot the ball: You make it, I like that; you miss it and we rebound it and make that, I like that; or they rebound the ball. I don't like that but that's OK because we get two of the three. You're trying to convince them (that). What happens is we've got some guys not making shots and now they don't want to shoot? Well, then you can't be in the game. The consequence is you cannot be in the game. You've got to shoot it. 'Well what if I go 0-for-5? I'm embarrassed.' I understand that. Then get in the gym and spend more time in the gym. Get in there at night. Be there in at 11 o'clock at night. It doesn't change overnight. So you work for two days and you don't shoot it any better and you don't feel any different, that's right. It happens over a period of time - weeks, months and then all of a sudden you're in a different frame of mind. We've got a great group. We're still one of the best shooting teams in the country. There are games we don't shoot it particularly well and most of the case is because I think we're tentative.

On whether being one of the best shooting teams in the country is a product of offensive rebounding and second-chance points ...
"No, we're one of the best 3-point shooting teams, too. I think we're the best 3-point shooting team in our league overall and for the season. We're better than everybody gives us credit. I think why Kevin (Stallings) went man-to-man against us the whole game is he didn't want us to get open 3s. He thought, you know what, if we give them contested 3s vs. open 3s, we're going to be better off. So all this stuff about you've got to play them zone, the two teams that gave us the best games were South Carolina, who beat us, and Vandy, played zone."

On the most important part of team chemistry and why a team that is made up of so many parts has had such great team chemistry ...
"They like each other. I think they respect each other. I think the veterans respect the talent of the young kids. I think the young kids respect the talent of the veterans. They've all accepted roles. The biggest thing is they like each other. As long as that's the case, we're going to be fine.

"Some of it has to be natural. You've got guys that are respectful kind of people that like each other. The other part of it is you're doing things to get them to understand how important it is to get along. Whether it's doing things at the house, whether it's watching movies together in Wildcat Lodge - whatever it is you do to bring them together to get them to understand the more we're together the more you're going to respect each other."

UK named Team of the Week

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It wasn't pretty or flawless, but the Kentucky men's basketball team managed to pull out two nail-biting victories in hostile territory last week. For the team's effort, ESPN.com has tabbed UK its Team of the Week in its Weekly Watch.

UK squeaked out a six-point victory at Mississippi State and a two-point win at nationally ranked Vanderbilt.

Here is what ESPN wrote:

Kentucky won two critical road games this past week in the SEC.

As well as Purdue and Kansas played, both of those teams played at home Saturday.

Kentucky is the marquee game for every SEC team and the freshmen are handling the chore quite well. There are natural lapses but the Wildcats find ways to win.

John Wall's block on the perimeter against Vandy was another example of the type of defensive play that the Wildcats are making at opportune times. Patrick Patterson's baseline jumper against Mississippi State was another example of the type of offensive play the Wildcats are making late in games to win.

Kentucky has locked up a No. 1 seed. Now the Wildcats are working on securing the SEC regular-season title.

Everybody's doing it

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Mitch.JPG

Everybody's doing the John Wall Dance. Even UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.

When your basketball teams are a combined 49-5, there's reason to smile -- and dance. So forgive Barnhart if he cuts loose for a little bit and joins in on the dance sweeping the nation.

The picture was taken prior with Andy Schum of Louisville prior to the Tennessee game. Thanks to Mandy Schum for sending it in.

Remember, if you have UK fan pictures that you would like to send in, please e-mail them to catscratches@email.uky.edu.

The UK athletics program could do no wrong this weekend.

At a combined 49-5 on the season, we already knew a few weeks ago that something special was brewing on the hardwood. But now baseball and softball? Talk about an athletics program hitting its stride.

If you happened to get caught in the excitement of the basketball teams' wins this weekend and didn't hear about baseball and softball's perfect weekends, let me catch you up.

The baseball team kicked off the 2010 season with a perfect weekend at the Caravelle Resort Invitational in Myrtle Beach S.C. The Cats defeated Virginia Tech, West Virginia and No. 12 Coastal Carolina in a three-day span.

Meanwhile, the softball team notched five straight victories in Boca Raton, Fla., en route to winning the Kickoff Classic championship. Rachel Lawson's ballclub toppled Maryland, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Florida Atlantic twice.

For those of you keeping count, that's a 10-0 weekend for the basketball, baseball and softball teams.

So how'd the baseball and softball teams do it? Pitching, pitching and pitching. Both teams were nothing short of dominant from the rubber.

In helping Gary Henderson to the first 3-0 start in his head coaching career, the baseball team surrendered just eight runs (seven earned) in three stellar outings.

Alex Meyer, Logan Darnell or Braden Kapteyn - you could do no wrong in picking them as pitchers of the week. But how about the debut of freshman lefty Taylor Rogers? (Check out this story on Rogers by PGCrossChecker.com.)

The southpaw made his collegiate debut in sparkling fashion, tossing 7.2 shutout innings in the win over West Virginia on Saturday. The 6-foot-3, 170-pounder allowed just six hits in the 6-0 win, fanning two and walking one.

It was just one game, but if Rogers can pitch like that on a routine basis, Henderson is going to easily have one of the best pitching staffs in the Southeastern Conference.

As good as the baseball team was on the mound, though, it might have been outdone by the softball team. The stats say it all: Five games, three runs, two shutouts. That's dominance, folks.

Lawson received stellar outings from all three of her starting pitchers as Chanda Bell, Rachel Riley and Amber Matousek all picked up wins.

Riley picked up a pair of shutouts over the weekend, Matousek matched a career high with 10 strikeouts and Bell notched her third and fourth victories behind a 23-strikeout weekend.

With the pitching prowess of both teams, the UK baseball team starts the season 3-0 and the softball team improves to 8-2.

The old adage in sports is that defense wins championship, but when it comes to baseball and softball, it's all about the pitching. Based on what we've seen in the first two weekends of the spring season, both teams have it. 

A perfect sendoff for Senior Day

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Though it was no culmination of the season or retribution for the loss to South Carolina a month ago, Sunday's 71-50 victory over South Carolina seemed so sweet.

"I've had the good fortune of being a part of some wins over my career and none is more satisfying that today," head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

Because for two seniors, it was a grander exit than they could have ever dreamed. After three difficult seasons at the University of Kentucky, Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins walked off the Memorial Coliseum floor for the final time in their careers with a mark that nobody can ever take away:

Perfection.

With the help of Watkins (10 points and six rebounds) and Franklin (nine points and nine rebounds), UK became just the second team in school history to go undefeated at home. The Cats notched 17 straight victories on the season, winning by a margin of 27.8 points per game.

"We've worked extremely hard on a few levels," Mitchell said. "One is trying to make these players understand how special it is to play at Kentucky and the opportunity they have to be Kentucky Wildcats. There is no greater opportunity you have than to put on your jersey in front of your fans and play in this storied building. I think we're very fortunate to do that."

It was fitting then that a season-high crowd and sixth largest in Memorial Coliseum of 7,742 fans showed up Sunday to celebrate the seniors' season and record-breaking year. It was one final push of momentum from the home crowd before the Cats embark on what will likely be their first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years.

Afterwards, a choked up Mitchell thanked the fans for their support and dedicated the victory to his seniors.

"Our players understand that it's important to play well at home," Mitchell said. "We're trying to create a very tough home-court advantage. The more games you win, that helps you accomplish that. For 17 times they were able to find a way to get motivated to win. To me, it's a tremendous sign of progress in our program. We beat some really good teams on that floor this year."

A lot of really good teams that were supposed to be better than UK.

That Cats were picked to finish 11th in the conference at the beginning of the season but sit in sole possession of second place with two games to go, thanks in large part to the undefeated home schedule.

It's why, even when the season isn't over yet, it was OK to step back on Sunday and celebrate the accomplishment. After achieving perfection for just the second time in school history, they deserved it.

"We started out a team that was not expected to do very well by people outside this building," Mitchell said. "We had a lot of confidence in our players. It's a credit to them for understanding how hard we have to work. We were not going to blow people's door off on talent alone. It just shows you what a group of people who can get committed to each other and play for each other can accomplish."

image011.jpgNASHVILLE, Tenn. -- This one had all the writings of a devastating upset.

John Wall and Eric Bledsoe were a miserable 5-of-19 from the field. DeMarcus Cousins, the only real legitimate offensive threat Saturday, was plastered to the bench with four fouls with nearly 10 minutes to play. UK revisited its early season free-throw woes, going just 17-of-30 from the charity stripe. As for an offensive flow? Forget about it. It was non-existent.

And that wasn't even the worst part, according to head coach John Calipari. After Wall swished a free throw with 2.5 seconds left and UK leading by two, Calipari made what he called "one of the dumbest timeouts" he's ever called in his career.

"As I left the timeout, I said, 'Guys, this is the stupidest timeout I've ever called,' " Calipari said. " 'Please make me look good. Somebody do something.' "

The timeout set up Ogilvy for a potential game-tying, length-of-the-court pass with 2.5 seconds left in the game. If there was ever going to be a Christian Laettner repeat (Ogilvy even resembles the Dukie in an eerie kind of way), this was it.

But not on this night. Not this year. Not with this team.

No. 2 UK won again, 58-56, sprinting out of a nasty, hostile Memorial Gymnasium with yet another heart-stopping win, this one over No. 19/17 Vanderbilt.

"We just shot the ball 35 percent on the road, 18 percent from behind the (3-point) line, shot 56 percent from the free-throw line and had 14 turnovers - and won," Calipari said. "I love it. That is exactly the win I love to have."

The 14,316 fans in Memorial Gymnasium would tell you UK didn't deserve this one. They'd point to an even colder Vanderbilt team that shot 32.1 percent from the floor and hit just 2-of-20 from behind the arc.

But good teams - check that, championship-caliber teams - no matter how ugly, no matter how close it is, find ways to win games like these. These are the type of wins that matter in the NCAA Tournament, when everything is on the line and nothing matters but the win.

Who cares about style points when you're 26-1?

"You've got to be a grinder," Calipari said. "You've got to be a team that grinds it."

As Calipari mentioned after the game, everybody, including himself, wants UK to score 100 points and win by 40. But when March rolls around and the different styles of the nation converge on the tournament, all that will matter is who will be the last one dancing.

That's what has to make the UK faithful so confident after Saturday's low-scoring street fight. If the Cats can win in that type of nasty environment with nothing going their way, what can possibly hold them back?

For the second game in a row, when the Cats needed stops, they got them. UK held Vanderbilt to just four field goals in the final 10 minutes.

"If you want us to play you in the 50s, we'll play you in the 50s and try to beat you," Calipari said. "If you want to play a zone, we'll try to beat you that way. We don't force our will on the other team. We want to play different ways.

"When you get into that NCAA Tournament, you don't know if you're playing a team that's going to play Princeton, play fast, play slow - you've got to beat them," Calipari said. "You've got to beat them anyway. This was one of those ones. I love this."

Sure, the collective blood pressure of the Bluegrass State is surely through the roof, but there's a reason Kentucky pulls out a seven-point, come-from-behind win at Mississippi State.

There's a reason it pulled out the team's first win at Nashville in five years in the city's biggest game in years.

What's that old saying about fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? Well, this is sort of like that. The first time Kentucky won to a buzzer beater, it was easy to think about Kentucky's flaws. But when the Cats do it again and again and again - and twice in two games - it shows a pattern that you can't ignore:

These guys are clutch.

Who would have thought we'd ever say that about a bunch of freshman.

Wall fits the bill better than anyone. By all accounts, Wall did not play well Saturday night. The freshman point guard hit just 3-of-11 shots from the field, 6-of-10 from the free-throw line and dished out just one assist.

Yet when the game was on the line, the game's most dynamic playmaker made the plays that mattered most.

Tied at 54-54 with less than a minute to go, Wall drove right, lost the handle and somehow banked it in among the trees. He followed with a critical rebound, two key free throws and a one-hand block on Vanderbilt's best 3-point shooter.

With mere seconds left on the clock and down by three, Jenkins tried to shake Wall in open space to launch the potential game-winning shot. Wall never budged, stuffing Vandy's first-place conference bid.

"John has bad nights, I have bad nights, Patrick (Patterson) has bad nights," Cousins said. "Somebody steps up. Maybe he doesn't score 20-plus points. He's still going to make key plays down the stretch."

If Kentucky makes a run for the Final Four in Indianapolis, there will inevitably be more heart-pounding nights like Saturday's.

But with the game on the line and the stakes at their highest, is there a team in the country anyone can feel more confident about?

Feb. 19 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

Anytime Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt, the unconventional layout of Memorial Gymnasium becomes one of the dominant storylines. That's understandable now because the Cats have lost four in a row there but former UK star Jim Master says the current players need not get stressed out.

The Wildcat teams on which Master played won all five of their games there (the final one being the 1984 SEC Tournament title game win over Auburn).

And Master shot better than 50 percent from the field in four of those games, including a 12-for-16 performance en route to a 26-point night in 1983.

"I thought it was one of my favorite gyms to shoot in and I think Kentucky might actually shoot better in this game," Master told coachcal.com. "It's a great shooting gym, the way it's light. Ofcourse the benches are at the end but it never bothered us much. The way it's lit and the way it's conformed, it's more like a high school gym when you're shooting the ball."

= = =

If the Cats can get a win at Vandy, it might bode well for their Final Four chances. Of the 11 UK teams that reached the Final Four, eight of them played an annual game at Memorial Gym. And only the 1993 team failed to get a win there.

= = =

ESPN's Dick Vitale unveiled his picks for the Final Four this week and he expects Kentucky to join Kansas, Syracuse and Purdue in Indianapolis.

Vitale, who will work the UK-Vandy game tomorrow night, says Kentucky has made its improvement to this point on the defensive end. And he raves about the rookie combo of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.

"The combination of Wall and Cousins is the best inside and outside freshman combo I've seen since Jalen Rose and Chris Webber," Vitale told tomleachky.com. "Two guys that, no question, are rated top five by the NBA people."

= = =

Patrick Patterson is coming off one of his best games of the season in the Cats' overtime win at Mississippi State. Not only did he record his first double-double since December 23, Patterson also played a pivotal role in the Cats' rally from seven points down in the final three minutes of regulation, with a block that keyed a fastbreak layup and then hitting a game-tying baseline jumper with about 30 seconds left.

Eventhough Patterson sometimes gets overshadowed by the attention lavished on Wall and Cousins, former UK star and NBA executive Dan Issel says Patterson remains a big-time NBA prospect.

"I've always loved Patrick. He's reminded me since the day he got to Kentucky of one of my favorite players--Antonio McDyess," Issel said. "And he's done something this year that even Antonio couldn't do when he got to the NBA, which is make that (perimeter) jump shot. I think he's going to be a tremendous professional player."

= = =

Even this many months in the job as head coach of the UK men's basketball program, John Calipari can still be surprised by the fervor of the Big Blue nation--such as the turnout for last week's telecast of ESPN's "College Gameday" show at Rupp Arena.

"Let me just first of all thank the fans. It was incredible. To have 22,000 show up to show what Kentucky basketball is about, it just shows we're a cut above. The people at ESPN couldn't believe it," he said. "There's a lot of spinoff from it and not just financially. We're trying to make sure we're not just having success for ourselves but for everybody else, too. If it brings light to us, we try to steer it (to other programs). A program like Kentucky is like that, Kansas is like that, North Carolina is like that."

Calipari has been consistently comfortable in this intense spotlight and he says it's a matter of mindset.

"The fans want to be hugged, they want to be a part of it, they enjoy the success and they take great pain when you lose. Either it overwhelms you or you have fun with it and I've just decided to have fun with all of this. I've been at outposts for 20 years," he noted. "I've never been at a BCS school, have the opportunity to go to football games and cookouts and all that stuff. I just want to enjoy it."

Programming note

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Road trip!

I'm headed to Nashville on Saturday for the UK-Vanderbilt men's basketball game. I'll provide all the normal coverage that I do from home, including a live blog (Internet pending), video and postgame story.

I'll post the live blog on here tomorrow. I'll likely be away from the blog most of Saturday while I hit the road to Vandy, but tune in tomorrow evening for Cat Scratches' first road action of the year.

Vandy thrives in quirky gymnasium

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 34.jpgJohn Calipari wouldn't go as far as to call himself a "master psychologist" with this year's freshman-laden team, but there's no doubt he's had to put together one of his most interesting coaching jobs in his 21-year tenure.

With the spotlight continually centered on a team full of personalities and youth, he's had to play the role of nurturer, babysitter, disciplinarian and psychiatrist in addition to the Xs and Os of coaching.

But like any proud papa, there comes a time when one has to let his kids go and fight on their own. Saturday at Vanderbilt will be that day, even if it's only for 20 minutes.

In Memorial Gymnasium, one of the quirkiest, most unique arenas in all of college basketball, the benches sit behind the baskets as opposed to the sidelines. That means for a half, when Kentucky is going the opposite way of its coach, they'll be on an island of their own. Communication between the coach and players is basically non-existent for that half when the players' backs are to their coach and the raucous crowd at Memorial starts to roar.

"They have yet to lose in their building so we know what we're up against," Calipari said. "I talked to one coach in the league and he said it is really hard because in the first half you aren't able to speak to your team, and if they turn around to look at you, they get the ball stolen. I'm telling John Wall and Eric (Bledsoe) they are going to have to run the team. They are just going to have to do it."

Saturday's game will present the toughest road obstacle Kentucky has faced all season. The Commodores are 13-0 on their home floor this season and 59-7 over the last four years. They've won four straight over the Cats in Nashville, including a 93-52 shellacking two years ago.

Here's the scary part: This Vanderbilt team is better than those previous four and sits just one game back of UK atop the Southeastern Conference standings.

"They're very good," senior forward Ramon Harris said. "You see they went into Ole Miss last night and won in a tough environment. Ole Miss, that's a hard place to play away."

Now the Commodores are on their home floor, a place they rarely lose.

The majority of the wins are a credit to head coach Kevin Stallings' teams, but there's no doubt the peculiar setting creates an additional advantage for the home squad. In addition to the baseline benches, the court is elevated above the first few rows of seating and the beams that attach to the support columns for the basket sit much farther back than most basketball goals.

"The most different thing is how it's set up," sophomore guard Darius Miller said. "It's like you're playing on a stage."

Maybe not the biggest stage freshmen guards Wall and Bledsoe have played on this year, but certainly the most unique. Without their coach in their peripheral vision, it'll be up to the Kentucky's youth to direct the offense.

"I told them they won't be able to hear me in the first half and they said, 'Really? Good,' " Calipari said. "They were happy."

Calipari has earned a reputation for being a hands-off coach who lets his players play at times, but he's been more hands-on with this team than any other in his career because of the inexperience. The first-year UK coach said he's called more timeouts this year than he ever has, which leaves to question how he'll handle the first half when his team will be at the other end of the court.

"I think it'll be good in a way because guys can just play and go out and try to execute the game plan," Harris said. "At the same time, if the coaches see something that's going to work, if you can't hear them, we can either score or we can't."

Harris admitted that the lack of communication played a role in some of the mishaps in years past but said they won't use hand signals this year. But if they aren't going to use hand signals and will have trouble communicating verbally, what does Calipari have up his sleeve?

"We've been working on mental telepathy," Calipari joked. "I'm not sure that's something that we can go to, but we're trying."

The Cats will need something special to counter the "Memorial Magic" and undefeated home streak of the 'Dores in yet another Super Bowl-like atmosphere. As Stallings alluded to Friday, it's one of the biggest games of the year for the city of Nashville because it's the closest Vanderbilt has been to the top of the standings this late in the season in a long time.

"This is a big game every year that we play it," Stallings said. "Everybody enjoys when Kentucky comes into town. I just wish that you were given two wins if you win instead of just one."

With all the eccentricities that Memorial Gymnasium presents, it might feel like two wins if the Cats can do something that no other team has done this season and squeeze out a victory in the opera-like setting.

"I like going on the road," Harris said. "I like playing in other people's gym. I just think it's fun. That's what's college basketball is about, going to a new town, a rough environment and coming out with a win."

However, Calipari was quick to caution the players about building up the first-place showdown too much. As coach, psychiatrist, nurturer, disciplinarian and babysitter, it's his job to make sure the youth of Kentucky approaches every game the same.

"You can't ask these guys to charge mountains every game, and I don't," Calipari said. "We approach every game like it's the same because if you want to try and win them all you will lose to a team you're not supposed to lose to."

Video: Calipari, players preview Vanderbilt game

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Video: Mitchell proud of seniors' resolve

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Live blog: UK baseball vs. Virginia Tech

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From the sound of things, it appears Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins are just a few games away from graduating and moving straight to a retirement community.

With all the injuries, physical therapy, personal obstacles and uphill battles they've had to overcome, there's hardly enough tread left on the tires to stroll onto the court for Sunday's Senior Day festivities.

"Me and Lydia, we're the old ladies of the team," Franklin said. "We've been through it all."
But don't take them out to pasture just yet. No, the "old ladies" of the team still have a few destinations they'd like to visit before wrapping up their UK careers. The chief goal is the NCAA Tournament.

With Senior Day set for Sunday against South Carolina, the final home game of the 2009-10 season, Franklin and Watkins are in position to make their first NCAA Tournament after three straight appearances in the Women's National Invitation Tournament.

"It's been really special," Franklin said of her final season at UK. "I'm happy at the position we're at right now. We have a chance where we are going to make it to the NCAA Tournament if we continue to play well. It's just been great."

But not always easy. Each has undergone decades worth of adversity in just four short years.
Watkins had to overcome spondylolisthesis, a stress fracture of her vertebrae in her first season. She had eight screws inserted into her back and still deals with pain today. Just when she put the back problems behind her last season, she became pregnant, had her first child and sat out the rest of the year.

She's returned as a vital backup this season but has already battled through a dislocated shoulder and hyper-extended knee.

While Franklin's injuries haven't been as severe, they have been equally as aggravating. She's dealt with nagging knee injuries throughout her career, which have flared up as of late.
Both Watkins and Franklin have been relegated to the training room bike more than they have the practice floor.

"That's my best friend in the training room," Franklin said of the bike.

Their various ailments have appropriately earned them the nickname of "the grannies" from the man at the helm.

"They're very old and they have numerous elements that remind me of a granny," Mitchell said softheartedly. "It's a term of endearment, but they are just a little hobbled. They don't practice a lot at times. Anna Cole was on the bike yesterday and Amani said the bike is broken. I said, 'Well if anyone knows about the bike, you would know,' because she is on the bike a lot instead of running sprints because of her various ailments. We've had fun with that in some of our lighthearted moments. That's carried over to the team."

When Mitchell brought in a wealth of talented first-year players and changed the identity of the team, it was tough to gauge where Franklin and Watkins were going to fit in. However, they never worried and have blossomed in their roles as leaders, adding the irreplaceable trait of experience to a very green team.

"I've said all season how proud I am just to have a chance to coach this team but particularly proud of those two," Mitchell said. "Both of them have overcome personal obstacles, basketball difficulties with their games, academic challenges they may have faced. Whatever it is, they've had adversity all throughout their career. You want them to do well their senior year and both of them have.

"Both of them have a chance to make it an incredibly special senior year, and that's all a coach could ever want for the players is for them to leave feeling a sense of accomplishment. I feel like they're in a position to do that and this team is in a position to do that. We've relied heavily on both of those players at different times during the season for leadership. I'm proud of them."

WBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web 39.jpgMitchell pointed to Watkins' leadership at a key point during the season.

Following the loss to South Carolina, really the only game Mitchell would characterize as a disappointment this year, Watkins provided a huge energy boost off the bench at a critical juncture in the beginning of conference play.

"I felt like I owed my team this year," Watkins said after having to sit out most of last season.

Watkins averaged 10.3 points and 8.8 rebounds during the four-game stretch from the South Carolina game to the Auburn game, igniting UK on its current surprise run to second place in the Southeastern Conference. She played a similar role in UK's win over Florida Thursday night, erupting for 19 points and nine rebounds after a scoreless first half.

"I was able to put her in the spotlight and say, 'This is how you need to play for our team to be successful,' " Mitchell said. "It helped us tremendously."

Franklin hasn't had a breakthrough moment quite like Watkins, but she has provided steady consistency on the boards, an area she didn't always buy into. Although her scoring numbers have dipped, her importance has never been greater.

"I'm just happy that we're winning," Franklin said. "If I have to sacrifice scoring, that's what I'll do. If I have to work on rebounding, that's what I'll do."

And she has, averaging a career-high 6.8 rebounds per game.

"The light came on when she understood how valuable she could be to help her teammates to succeed," Mitchell said. "She's a real selfless player. She's more worried about her teammates than herself. A lot of times I just feel like she didn't believe how important she really was. Once she understood that, it's been a lot better for her."

Both expect to have family and friends in attendance for Sunday's Senior Day ceremonies. While neither could say for certain whether or not they'll cry in their final home game at Memorial Coliseum, both agreed it would be an emotional end to a gratifying turnaround.

"Very emotional," Watkins said. "It finally came. I can remember when I was freshman I didn't think it was going to get here so fast."

Old age has a way of sneaking up on people, but with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, don't take these two out to the pasture quite yet.

The No. 16 UK women's basketball team rebounded from Sunday's loss at Vanderbilt with a 77-51 victory over Florida.

The Cats trailed 33-29 at the half, but a 25-2 run midway through the second half left little doubt in Thursday's rout.

Sophomore guard Keyla Snowden and senior forward Lydia Watkins were the stars of the night. Snowden scored 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, including 5-of-5 from behind the 3-point line. After a scoreless first half, Watkins rebounded for 19 points and nine boards.

UK improves to 22-4, 10-3 in the Southeastern Conference with the win.

UK will return to the court Sunday at 3 p.m. for the final home game of the season vs. South Carolina. Seniors Watkins and Amani Franklin will be honored for Senior Day.

A pink Boogie

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Cousins.jpg

DeMarcus Cousins squeezed into Anna Cole's jersey prior to the UK women's basketball game vs. Florida on Thursday at 7 p.m.

The women will be wearing pink to raise breast cancer awareness at this year's WBCA Pink Zone game.

There will be an online auction at UKteamshop.com for fans to bid on that jersey, on UK Hoops Coach Matthew Mitchell's pink tie and the actual pink uniforms worn by the Wildcats. The auction ends Friday at 5 p.m. EST. All proceeds will benefit the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. 

Lunch notes

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KY Rupp Arena.jpgA few nuggets to chew on during your lunch break:

- Former UK guard Jodie Meeks is reportedly involved in a trade that will send him from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Philadelphia 76ers. According to ESPN.com, the Bucks will trade Meeks, Francisco Elson and a second-round draft pick to the 76ers for Primoz Brezec and Royal Ivey. The deal hasn't been finalized yet. The teams have until the 3 p.m. trade deadline to make it official. Meeks, a three-year star at UK, is averaging 4.1 points and 1.8 rebounds for Milwaukee.

- Don't know how long it's been up there, but ESPN.com has a button near the bottom of its homepage titled "Hoops eRUPPtion." If you click on the button, it will take you to a short photo gallery of Rupp Arena that chronicles the history of Rupp Arena and the UK men's basketball team. Nothing you haven't seen before, but still worth checking out.

- Live women's basketball blog tonight at 7 as the Cats take on Florida.

ESPN: Kentucky's Smith savors final season

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SBL 08_09 UK_UL Web 15.jpgWe won't see the softball team in Lexington for some time -- the Cats' first home game isn't until March 10 -- but that doesn't mean they should stray too far from our minds. After all, they could very well be one of the stories of the 2009-10 athletics season before it's all said and done.

To keep up with the team, check out Graham Hays' feature on senior second baseman Natalie Smith on ESPN.com's softball blog. Hays talks with Smith about defeating Arizona State in front of her family and friends, her final season in Lexington, and the turnaround the program has undergone during her four years at UK.

Here is some of what Smith had to say:

"The first two seasons were just, they were really tough to get through," Smith said of the time before Bell's arrival. "It's a long year in the SEC conference and we just didn't have the pitching, we didn't have the experience. And it is just an amazing feeling being behind someone that you know is going to hit their spots, that you know is in the game -- head in the game all the time, just a great athlete. I can't say enough about Chanda Bell. She has helped turn this program into the program it is and to what it's going to be. It's top notch. And I absolutely love playing with her. she's a great girl on and off the field, and I just can't say enough about her."

Check out the full story at ESPN.com.

Smith and UK are back on the road this weekend for Florida Atlantic's Kickoff Classic in Boca Raton, Fla.

Revelette: Cats gear up for opening weekend

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The University of Kentucky baseball team travels to Myrtle Beach, S.C. this weekend for the start of the 2010 season at the Caravelle Resort Invitational. The Cats take on Atlantic Coast Conference foe Virginia Tech, West Virginia and Coastal Carolina. If you missed the 2010 season preview, check it out here.

According to BoydsWorld.com, UK's turned in the 22nd-toughest schedule in the country. Opponents such as San Diego, San Diego State, Western Kentucky and Louisville along with 30 games in Southeastern Conference play presents quite a challenge for the Cats.

With recent records like 25-3, 13-3 and 19-0 (twice) to begin the year, Kentucky is used to hot starts, but hasn't turned them into anything more than a regional bid. Will taking their lumps early help or hurt the Cats?

"It depends on how we play," said head coach Gary Henderson, who expects his team to "play well, have some losses" and enter their SEC schedule "very confident."

With snow in 49 of 50 states at some point in past weeks and most of the world's best players yet to pack their bags for MLB spring training, it could be tough for some to become convinced that it's baseball season just yet. Henderson's not worried, noting that the team has been working out since Jan. 13, and, after 37 days practicing against each other, they're ready to face another team.

"It's a good group, and they like each other," Henderson said. "We've got a lot of guys who consider themselves to be baseball players. Our goal is to play well game by game. ... If we get that done, we'll be in good shape."

In Yahoo's preseason Regional projections, Kentucky is left on the outside looking in to the likes of SEC foes Vanderbilt, LSU, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Alabama. In-state foes Louisville and Western Kentucky join regional contenders Wright State, Dayton and Middle Tennessee in the projections. If you're not aware of my take on preseason guesses stabs in the dark picks, specifically within college baseball, find out here.

The Baseball America early draft preview features several Cats that will be worth watching this season. Senior LHP James Paxton is the No. 1 ranked player in his class and the 21st overall in the entire draft. Junior LHP Logan Darnell is the 81st-best prospect in the draft, and junior INF Chris Bisson comes in at No. 98. Super sophomore RHP Alex Meyer is the fifth-best prospect in his class, while, according to BA, Taylor Rogers is the 22nd-best freshman in collegiate baseball. Here's the full story.

Now that you're all set with your preseason knowledge on all things college baseball, do yourself a favor: forget it. All of it. Anyone who knows baseball well enough not to run around the bases clockwise knows it's a hard enough game to control while you're playing it. The Tampa Bay Rays went to the World Series. Fresno State won it all in Omaha. No one knows what's going to happen, and that's the beauty of it. Yogi Berra said it best when he so eloquently put, "in baseball, you don't know nothing."


So get out to Cliff Hagan Stadium and see the Cats this year. You never know what's going to happen.

Sophomore stars poised to make championship impact

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BSB 08_09 UK_AU Game3 Web 20.jpgCounting on a stable of sophomores to determine your season sounds like a lot of pressure for a group of 19- and 20-year-olds.

But this isn't your typical sophomore class.

A season ago, with the Cats decimated by injuries and the graduations of All-Americans Sawyer Carroll and Colin Cowgill, freshmen like Andy Burns, Chad Wright, Cory Farris, Braden Kapteyn and Alex Meyer were thrown into the fire almost immediately and leaned on to carry UK's 2009 season.

Freshmen, well, are freshmen, and last year's class was no different.

At times they sparkled. Wright was second on the club in batting average at .343; Meyer, one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball, tossed 80 strikeouts, handling the national spotlight of being a potential top draft pick about as well as anyone could have expected; Kapteyn emerged as a budding two-way player and grabbed hold of the closer spot by season's end; and Burns and Farris cemented starting roles as the season progressed.

But counting on freshmen to win in the rugged Southeastern Conference, quite arguably the toughest league in the nation, was like dangling a blood in front of a shark.

"Everybody knows it's one of the best leagues in the country, but until you actually play in it you don't understand it doesn't get any better than that," Burns said. "The competition is the best there is."

Because of injuries, Henderson had little choice but to play his prized freshmen. Still it was like handing the keys of a Mercedes to a 16-year-old getting ready to drive in the Daytona 500. The Cats had little chance.

And yet by season's end, thanks to breakthrough performances in both the batter's box and on the pitcher's mound, UK was in it until the final day of the season, just narrowly missing out on the postseason with a heartbreaking loss to Florida.

Burns said coming up short left a "bitter taste" in the mouth of the young stars, but it was a great learning experience for the class of potential stars.

"To win the SEC you've got to play older than what you are," Burns said. "You can't play like a bunch of freshmen, which is what we did for a while last year. We finally started to figure it out a little bit towards the end. It wasn't quite enough to make it in the SEC, but it's something we're building off for this year."

With a year of experience under their belts, the possibilities are endless for this year's sophomore class and 2010 baseball season. In today's world of college athletics, last year's freshmen are this year's seniors.

"They are going to be extremely important," Henderson said. "You start talking about whether it's the top of the order or where they are defensively.  You've got Chad Wright, Andy Burns, Braden Kapetyn, Cory Farris - it's a big class and a considerable chunk of our club.  They need to perform well and I think that they will."

A lot of them will be counted on heavily early in the season, particularly Meyer.

With the playing status of James Paxton still very much up in the air, Meyer will assume the role as the club's ace, a role he was born to play as a longtime Kentucky fan and candidate for the No. 1 overall selection in the 2011 MLB Draft.

After weathering a season in the national spotlight - Meyer often pitched in front of dozens of professional scouts last year - he has harnessed his game, strengthened his frame (Henderson said he's added about 20 pounds of muscle) and realized what it takes to win at the college level.

"He's much calmer, more relaxed and has become stronger," Henderson said. "His delivery has really benefited from the increased strength and he controls his body on the mound much better at this point. He has a better idea of what to expect in the conference and I think he's going to be a much better pitcher."

Although Henderson isn't quite sure exactly what role Kapteyn will serve on the pitching staff yet, he will almost certainly serve as the team's most dynamic two-way player. As an emergency closer a season ago, he notched four saves while batting .319 with 27 RBI at the plate.

Henderson expects him to add experience to the bullpen and offer a potential everyday starter at first base or designated hitter, at the very least.

Offensively, the sophomores will be counted on immensely to carry the Cats (Henderson hopes UK's power numbers will return to the 2008 and 2006 levels). With the exception of Chris Bisson's breakthrough season, Chris Wade's bat and the veteran plate appearances Marcus Nidiffer provided, UK didn't have much at the dish other than its freshmen.

BSB 08_09 UK_ISU 2 Web 06.jpgFour first-year players alone - Wright, Burns, Kapteyn and Farris - carried UK offensively last year. Those four accounted for 31.5 percent of UK's runs and 29.5 percent of the RBI. Remember, 19 players saw the batter's box last season.

Wright, the brother of former player Brock Wright, was the biggest producer of the four, hitting a robust .343 at the dish with 40 runs scored, 23 RBI and four home runs. A much-overlooked and underrated prospect out of Heath High School in Paducah, Ky., said that while last year's success came as a bit of a surprise, it will go a long ways in building this year's success.

"We've got a year of experience under our belt which is the biggest thing you could ask for," Wright said. "We're going to know what to expect. We have a lot of talent. For us to put our talent and mental game on the same level is just going to excel that process and excel us to better players."

Burns couldn't agree more. As a freshman a year ago, Burns could remember dealing with the anxiety of collegiate baseball early in the season. As a result, he struggled to find the Mendoza Line in the first few weeks.

Once he got acclimated to big-time baseball and started taking it one pitch at a time, he blossomed. By the end of the season, he was Kentucky's starter at third base.

"The more you play the more comfortable you get," said Burns, while also admitting that it took the entire team time to adjust to the new coaching style of first-year coach Henderson. "I remember last year our first game at LSU, I just had butterflies going everywhere. Then you look at the last game against Florida and I'm relaxed, not trying to do too much. That's how you have to play to be successful."

The same could be said for just about every freshman last year. Now as sophomores, they're more experienced and more confident. The only thing stopping that could halt them in a potential sophomore slump would be contentment.  

"The job that we have as coaches is to make sure that they know they have not arrived yet," Henderson said. "A little bit of success as a freshman, a good summer and a good fall is not the same as getting it done in the SEC. Our kids understand that and they are eager to prove that they are ready."

They might only be sophomores, but after tasting one season of college baseball, they're ready for their big splash.

"We're trying to win championships whether it's SEC, Regional or Super Regional and even into Omaha," Burns said. "That's the goal, that's the dream."

The Cats depart from Lexington on Thursday for their season-opening tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. UK will face Virginia Tech at noon on Friday in the Caravelle Resort Tournament. As long as the Internet cooperates, Cat Scratches assistant Evan Crane will be blogging from Myrtle Beach with the team.



What's your favorite color, baby? Blue and pink!

On Thursday night, blue and white won't be the only colors UK women's basketball supports. In an effort to raise breast cancer awareness, the Cats will be wearing pink uniforms for the WBCA Pink Zone game vs. Florida on Thursday at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.

The WBCA Pink Zone initiative is a global, unified effort for the WBCA's nation of coaches to assist in raising breast cancer awareness on the court, across campuses, in communities and beyond. The window set aside for this year's initiative is Feb. 12-21. The WBCA's charity of choice is the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund®, in partnership with The V Foundation.

"We want to raise a bunch of money tomorrow night and proceeds from ticket sales are going to help in that," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We have a really unique opportunity to raise money as our team will be in pink uniforms tomorrow night and those will be auctioned off as well. It will be a great night for our team to try through their efforts and visibility to do something very good and raise money for a cause that just about everybody has been touched by. We are excited about that."

There will be an online auction at UKteamshop.com for fans to bid on the actual pink uniforms worn by the Wildcats against the Gators. The auction ends Friday at 5 p.m. ET. All proceeds will benefit the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.

The hottest item, according to Mitchell, will be worn by the man at the helm.

"Probably the most attractive item will be the tie that I am wearing and I know that will create tremendous interest all in an effort to raise money," Mitchell said. "It is pink with a little navy and white. I picked it out."

Also, $1 from every single-game ticket purchased will be donated to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund. Fans wishing to make a contribution in person tonight can do so at the marketing gazebos located on each concourse prior the game.

Last year, the WBCA's campaign raised over $1.3 million, reached over 912,000 fans, unified more than 1,600 participating teams and organizations, and saw 56-plus schools break attendance records at their event.

The UK gymnastics team will also host a "Pink Meet" on Friday at 7 p.m. when it hosts Ohio State. Admission for fans wearing pink will be $1 with all ticket proceeds benefitting breast cancer research, education and treatment at the Markey Cancer Center.

Turner overtakes Wall in POY poll

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John Wall has company at the top. As a matter of fact, he's been bumped from the top.

In the latest AnnArbor.com College Basketball Player of the Year poll, which surveys 49 college basketball panelists nationwide, Ohio State's Evan Turner has uprooted Wall from the No. 1 spot.

Wall led the way in the first two polls, capturing 32 first-place votes in the first poll and 25 in the second one. In the latest poll, Turner garnered 30 first-place votes and 110 total points to Wall's 13 first-place votes and 97 total points.

UK freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins also made the list with one second-place vote and two third-place votes.

After hitting a rough patch a couple of weeks ago, Wall appears to have regained his early season form. Against Mississippi State on Tuesday, Wall nearly recorded a triple-double with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

On the year, Wall is averaging 17.0 points, 6.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game. Turner is averaging 19 points, 9.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 1.9 steals for Ohio State.

Read the full story.  

Patterson rediscovering his game at the right time

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 17.jpgPatrick Patterson is a freshman when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.

A bad wheel restricted his dancing moves in the 2008 tourney and a subpar season in 2009 didn't even warrant an invite to the Big Dance.

But while the unused dancing shoes might not show it, Patterson's experience will loom large in March. On a team dominated by youth and inexperience, it has long been said that Kentucky will only go as far as its veteran leader is capable of taking them.

If that's indeed the case, what better time for the heart and soul of the program for the better part of the last three years to rediscover his game? In the national shadows of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Patterson has been quietly rediscovering his game.

A respectable 10-point, seven-rebound outing vs. Tennessee on Saturday appeared to be the start of the turnaround, and now 19 points and 10 rebounds in an 81-75 overtime thriller over Mississippi State has Patterson rounding into shape at the perfect time.

Patterson's game-tying jumper with 39.5 seconds left in regulation capped a 7-0 come-from-behind run to force overtime in a raucous (and sometimes dangerous) environment in Starkville, Miss.

Wall (18 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists) was the closer by hitting key free throws down the stretch, but none of it would have mattered had Patterson not come to play. He's the reason UK had a chance to eek one out in overtime.

After the South Carolina loss, fans (and even this writer) started to freak out about the lack of Patterson's presence. Some fans took it into their own hands and started posting on Patterson's Facebook wall.

Patterson took the criticism to heart, responded to the negativity and then quietly went about his business. Head coach John Calipari made Patterson a personal project of his, spending extra time with him before and after practice.

All the while, Calipari told us that NBA scouts were eating up Patterson's game, boasting that high-profile NBA know-it-alls, including Detroit Pistons Director of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars, were seeing Patterson do things that they never knew he was capable of.

Those things, presumably, were Patterson's newfound ability to put the ball on the floor and pull from behind the arc. Entering the season he had never made a 3-poitner. After the Mississippi State game, he now has 18.

Nonetheless, it was also the root of his struggles. Patterson appeared to be drifting a little too much to the outside and forgetting about his ability to dominate in the paint. Then he started deferring to his teammates and became lost in the offense.

It's all good and well, Patterson told us following the South Carolina game. Spoken like a true team leader, he said he was more worried about the team's success than his own personal well being.   

That might all be true, but his worth couldn't have been more obvious Tuesday night in Starkville.

In the first half when few shots were falling from the outside (1-of-12 from 3-point range), Patterson provided consistency. He finished the first frame with nine points and four rebounds before halftime, but it was how he got it that impressed the most.

In the first half alone, Patterson hit a 3-pointer, a turnaround jumper, an offensive put-back and a baseline jumper. For the first time in a long time, we saw the full repertoire from Patterson.

Patterson continued to score in the second half, but it was more about his ability to do the little things that made the difference. Among the key plays that weathered a desperate and pesky Bulldog storm:

- After MSU took an early 37-36 lead in the second half, UK immediately went to Patterson in the paint. He drew back-to-back fouls on Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State's best (and really only legitimate) low post player. Varnado spent most of the game on the bench and eventually fouled out.

- With the Cats teetering on a 42-38 deficit, Patterson took a key charge. Then he got a steal that led to a Wall breakaway and a tie game at 42-42.

- In the waning minutes with UK trailing, Patterson swatted a huge block off the glass that led to an uncontested Eric Bledsoe layup. That cut the score to 67-65, setting the stage for Patterson's heroics.

Those are just some of the highlights, but somewhere between the rim-rattling dunk with eight minutes to play or a key offensive rebound after a Daniel Orton  free-throw miss, Patterson regained his "mojo."

As analyst Jimmy Dykes put it best, it's the best Patterson has played all season long.

It wasn't because Patterson reverted to his old low block self (I'm getting flashbacks of the P-Pat afro, but let's move on) or because he played like a guard. It was because we saw the whole package.

More importantly, it was because he became more assertive and his teammates made a concerted effort to get him the ball. As a result, Patterson got his first double-double since the Long Beach State game.

For all the praise about this 25-1 season, Patterson, maybe a bit undeservingly, has been lost in all the talk. It's easy to nitpick when the season numbers are down, yet we somehow forget that he has to share the ball with two potential top-five picks in Wall and Cousins.

The best part of it all is he doesn't mind sharing. Amid the criticism, he's put his team first, his fan base second and himself third.

Patterson will no doubt prosper from his decision to return for his junior season, but there's little doubt that this team and this state benefited the most of that choice. Teams and coaches should be so lucky to have a player like him.

Even after Tuesday's performance, Patterson's numbers aren't going to rebound and come close to his first two seasons. It doesn't matter because it finally put his hard-to-find role into perspective.

He might not score as much as he used to and might not always have the ball in the final seconds, but he's going to provide uncanny leadership and experience this team will need down the stretch.

Down seven points with three minutes left on the road in a hostile environment, the Cats pulled off the type of win that only championship teams conquer. In the process, they got the heart and soul of their team back.

One month away from the NCAA Tournament, it couldn't have come at a better time.

Feb. 14 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 14:

Softball: Chanda Bell

Has nearly twice as many strikeouts collectively than any other pitcher in the league as she recorded two games with 13 or more strikeouts - including a 14 strikeout performance in an upset of No. 5 Arizona State. Tossed the first shutout of the season with a 2-0 win over Cal State Fullerton. Allowed just six hits in her first two starts, before facing a potent Cal attack.

Softball: Brittany Cervantes

Had two home runs against Western Michigan, which is a career-high for a single game. She is also the first UK player ot hit two long balls in a game since Brooke Marnitz in 2006. Led the team and the SEC for the weekend with three home runs while batting .429 in a 3-2 week for UK. Played catcher and third base for UK this weekend.

Softball: Kara Dill

Was the lone UK freshman to earn a start this weekend when she scratched the starting lineup in a win over Western Michigan playing third base. Went 2-for-3 in that outing with a pair of singles and a stolen base. Also swiped a bag against Cal in a pinch-running effort. Went .333 in her first collegiate action.

Gymnastics: Emily Green

Senior Emily Green posted UK's best individual score on any event, recording a 9.900 on the floor exercise to win title honors. It marked her second-best floor exercise score of the season. Green nailed a 9.950 effort to take first place at home against Florida on Jan. 22, a score that was tied for first in the SEC entering the week. She owns three floor titles in her career ... Green tied for second on the vault with a season-high 9.875 score.

Women's basketball: A'dia Mathies

  • Freshman guard A'dia Mathies averaged 14.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals per game in UK's two games last week.
  • Helped UK defeat No. 19/18 Georgia in Memorial for the first time since 1999 and chart its school-record-tying ninth SEC win by scoring a game-high-tying 15 points on 7-of-15 shooting.
  • Also recorded a game-high five assists, four rebounds and a game-best three steals in the win.
  • One of just two players to score in double-figures in UK's loss at Vanderbilt. She scored 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting and also shared team-high honors in steals with three.
  • Has scored in double figures in seven of 12 SEC games, including five in a row.

Men's basketball: John Wall

Wall, a 6-4 guard from Raleigh, N.C., averaged 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in wins over Alabama and No. 12 Tennessee. He recorded his third double-double of the season with 22 points and 10 rebounds against Alabama. It was the first time this season he had recorded a double-double with points and rebounds. Wall became the first Wildcat in school history to record double-doubles in points and rebounds and points and assists. He followed that effort with a 24-point outing against Tennessee, his most points in an SEC game

Spotlight on Calipari, Phillips

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UK's two most visible coaches, Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari and football coach Joker Phillips, were featured in a pair of Q and As by ESPN.com and CBSsports.com.

In Phillips' Q and A, he sits down with CBS's Dennis Dodd and discusses the past, present and future in Lexington. Phillips talks about the first time he learned he would become the next coach at UK, the recruiting landscape and why he believes Florida is vulnerable. Read the full story at CBSsports.com.

Calipari sat down with ESPN's Andy Katz for this week's Coaching Spotlight. Calipari discusses his coaching inspirations in the video below:

Video: Sophomore stars preview 2010 baseball season

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It's almost impossible to imagine with the six inches of snow blanketing the city of Lexington, but baseball season is indeed upon us.

Starting Friday in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the UK baseball season will be underway. The Cats will kick off their season Friday at noon vs. Virginia Tech in the Caravelle Resort Tournament. UK will return to the field Saturday against West Virginia and Sunday vs. Coastal Carolina.

Check out the above videos of sophomore stars Andy Burns and Chad Wright previewing the upcoming season. Behind Burns, Wright, Alex Meyer and Braden Kapteyn, the sophomore class is expected to be one of the keys to the 2010 season.

As freshmen last season and with Kentucky's lineup decimated by injuries, the sophomores stepped up and nearly led UK to the postseason. Now with a year of experience under their belts, the Cats are expected to blossom.

I'll have more on that story later in the week before the season officially kicks off, but for now, check out the videos from Burns and Wright.

Feb. 16 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

If I were an NBA scout and interested in DeMarcus Cousins for my team, I think Tuesday night's Kentucky-Mississippi State game in Starkville would a must-see event.

Cousins, aka "Big Cuz" aka "Boogie," has emerged as one of college basketball's hot topics in recent weeks as he has dominated Southeastern Confernece opponents in the paint. Now, he comes off a rare subpar performance against Tennessee, scoring five points against the Vols' zone, and he's going up against one of the all-time great shot blockers in the college game in Jarvis Varnado.

Cousins has overpowered most of his foes this season, but Varnado's length and instincts will present a unique challenge and it will be interesting to see how the Cats' big man responds.

Already, UK coach John Calipari says Cousins has come farther faster than any player he's ever coached.

"It's everything," Calipari said. "Basketball-wise, it's his feel. He's slowing down.

"He's holding his position better. He's catching it where they can't guard him, which is two, three feet from the basket. He's using his weight, his size to his advantage. Physically, he's in the best shape. Emotionally, he's got a smile on his face, enjoying life, he's not trying to fight the world.".

Cousins' play has also caught the eye of another former star big man at Kentucky in Dan Issel, the program's all-time leading scorer.

"He has gotten more patient," Issel told tomleachky.com. "When you're a young player, you get in a hurry. You get the ball in the low post and you want to make a move and shoot it. What he's done in the last few weeks is that he's patient, he reads the defense and then he takes what the defense gives him. And when he decides to go after an offensive rebound, there isn't anybody that can stop that."

Issel is also a former NBA coach and front office executive and he knows Cousins' pro stock is rising.

"If Cousins continues to play at the level he is now -- or improves -- he's going to be a top five or six pick, I would think," Issel said.

Coming out of high school in Birmingham, Ala., Cousins faced doubts about his ability to succeed at the next level because of concerns about his attitude and on-court behavior. But Calipari looked deeper and saw a young man with a different side to his personality.

"I saw how he was with his mother," Calipari said. "When a young man is as respectful and as loving as he is to his mother, that means he has that in him. He would never do any of the stuff he did anywhere else around his mother or to his mother. There are a lot of kids that has a history of things happening -- the teasing, the ridicule. When I got around him, he wanted to be coached. And his mother wanted him around someone who wasn't afraid of him and we were fortunate that he wanted to come here."

And one would think that the success Cousins is having would provide a big boost to Calipari's recruiting efforts and his ability to sell the idea that big men could flourish in the Dribble Drive Motion offense.

"I think this offense, it doesn't matter what position you are," Calipari said. "If you can play, if you can ball, then you'll be fine. If you can't, it's not a good place to come because I can't hide you. If you don't have those skills with the basketball, it'll show. Whether you're a big guy or you're a guard, you're going to be on that stage on which you want to perform (in this system)."

Cousins can definitely "ball" with the best of them and he also does a good job of keeping his teammates loose with his personality off the court.

"He likes to have fun," Calipari said. "He's like a little kid off the court. What we've try to do is get him to do is grow up on the court. On this court, it's all about business and getting better."

MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 55.jpgIf DeMarcus Cousins doesn't have an unlimited calling plan, he better hope he has some rollover minutes. He'll need them after all the prank calls he's received this week.

The freshman forward isn't quite sure how his cell phone number got circulated among the Mississippi State fan base, but his digits have become a speed dial number for some Bulldog fans. Since Saturday's Tennessee game, Cousins has received around 100 prank phone calls and approximately 1,000 text messages.

At least he has unlimited texting.

"Whew, did I (receive calls)?" Cousins said. "It was crazy. It started like right after the game. I got called some n-words, some b-(words). It kind of made me mad in the beginning but now I'm like answering the phone and having a conversation with them."

A number of callers phoned in with good old fashioned trash talking while others crossed the line with racial slurs and taunting.

"Some were racial and others were girls saying, 'Let's make out,' so I don't know what to expect in Starkville," Cousins said. "There were a lot of Mississippi numbers. I won't be a part of (the making out)."

To his credit, Cousins has taken it all in good fun. Despite questions about his maturity, Cousins never lost his cool, even when one of the pranksters called him and interrupted him during the middle of an interview.

A more mature, more polished Cousins appears to have handled the verbal abuse quite well, but it might be a different story when he has to face the nation's No. 1 shot blocker and soon-to-be NCAA leader in career blocked shots, Jarvis Varnado, on Tuesday.

Entering Tuesday night's game, Varnado needs just 17 more swats to be become the NCAA's one-man block party. He'll have an opportunity to cut into that number when he faces Cousins in one of the most anticipated interior matchups of the season.

"I love his athleticism, I love his length and I love his ability to block shots," said Calipari, who tried to recruit Varnado in high school. "Let me tell you, there's a skill to that. I had one guy named Marcus Camby who was exactly the same, who had guard kind of skills and physique but was tall and long and would block shots. (He has) unbelievable timing. You think you get a shot off and he's getting it. You try to go into his bodies and his arms are too long. You can't get that one over him.

"He's the reason everyone shoots a lot of jumpers against Mississippi State. That's why you shoot a low percentage. That's why they (are fourth in) the nation in field goal percentage. His presence in there gets guys to pull up and take shots that they don't make as easily."

For as well as Cousins handled the prank calls last week, one has to wonder how he will deal with the humiliation in a hostile environment if Varnado gets a hand on his shot. What's that old saying about sticks and stones? It failed to mention pride, although Cousins doesn't seem to be concerned with a blocked shot or two.

"I get my shot blocked by Daniel (Orton) all the time (in practice)," Cousins said.

Cousins was then asked if he was "scared" or facing Varnado.

"Scared? Nah, never," Cousins said. "It's a challenge. It's just another matchup. (A.J.) Ogilvy, Varnado, I've just got to go play my game," while adding that he'll probably have to add a pump fake or two to his repertoire.

If there is any prior indication of how Cousins may handle getting blocked, the Georgia game might offer the best evidence. During that game, Georgia's Travis Leslie posterized Cousins with a one-hand dunk over the 6-foot-11 forward.

Cousins never flinched and finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. In postgame interviews, smiles abound, Cousins shrugged off the dunk.

Last game against Tennessee was really the first time Cousins had shown any type of frustration since the South Carolina loss. With a nationally televised audience watching his every move, Cousins scored just five points, which tied a season low.

"I was playing mad," Cousins said. "I was getting beat up a lot. Every time I would go up for a rebound they would grab my arm and it wasn't getting called, so I let my frustration get to me."

It was noticeable at the free-throw line, where made just 1-of-8 foul shots.

"I wasn't thinking about the free throw," Cousins said.

On Friday, Calipari said he wasn't worried about Cousins' last outing.

"He walked in yesterday when we had a walkthrough (and) he didn't say one word," Calipari said. "He just came over and hugged me. He basically was saying, 'I'm sorry, do you still love me?' Without saying it, that's what he was saying. I just laughed and said, 'You're fine.' "

"These are kids. We want to act like they are 25 years old or 40-year-old veterans, but they are young kids. He couldn't get out of his own way. He couldn't do it. He tried. I tried to hug him and squeeze him, tell him 'I love you,' but it did not matter. He could not get out of his own way. But, he learned. You can't even make a free throw when you're mad. You can't do anything when you're mad."

So too knows the Mississippi State fan base. That's why they'll keep calling and keep prodding. They want to irritate Cousins. They want to make him mad.

Cousins could pull a Varnado-like swat and block the calls, but he's opting to hold on to his digits for a few more days. He has other ideas in store for the callers.

"I'm going to change it after the game," Cousins said. "I want to see what they have to say then."

UK rises to No. 16 in AP poll despite loss

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Even a loss isn't enough to stop the quick-rising Kentucky women's basketball team.

Despite a loss to Vanderbilt, UK's first defeat in a month, the Cats moved up in the latest Associated Press Top 25 rankings. UK checked in at No. 16 this week after watching their eight-game conference winning streak coming to an end.

It's the Cats' highest mark since ranking No. 15 in the first week of the 2006-07 season.

The ESPN/USA Today Poll will be released Tuesday.

WBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 19.jpgAP Top 25 
 1. Connecticut (40)  25-0 1000 
 2. Stanford 23-1 959 
 3. Nebraska 23-0 901 
 4. Notre Dame 23-1 891 
 5. Tennessee 23-2 848 
 6. Xavier 20-3 773 
 7. Ohio State 25-3 746 
 8. Duke 21-4 726 
 9. West Virginia 22-3 666 
10. Florida State 21-4 633 
11. Oklahoma 18-6 600 
12. Texas 18-6 568 
13. Iowa State 19-4 437 
14. Georgetown 20-4 385 
15. Texas A&M 17-6 380 
16. Kentucky 21-4 352 
17. Oklahoma State 18-6 324 
18. Baylor 17-7 308 
19. Georgia Tech 20-5 263 
20. Georgia 20-6 217 
21. Gonzaga 21-4 186 
22. St. John's 20-5 133 
23. TCU 19-5 128 
23. LSU 17-7 128 
25. Vanderbilt 18-7 117 

Video: Cousins, Cal preview Mississippi State game

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UK moves up to No. 2 in AP

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 68.jpgLike every Monday, the basketball news is flooding in. Here are the highlights:

- After an eight-week hiatus, John Wall has recaptured Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors. Wall averaged 23.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.5 assists in wins over Alabama and No. 12 Tennessee. Kentucky has received a league record 12 weekly awards from the SEC this season, including 10 SEC Freshman of the Week honors. Wall has won the award five times this season.

- Kentucky, of course, remains a No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology. Lunardi has the Cats playing in Milwaukee for the first and second rounds in the South Region. Their opponent would be the play-in game winner. The news this week in the mock bracket concerns the SEC. Lunardi, who at one point had six SEC teams in the tournament, has just three (UK, Vanderbilt and Tennessee) in the Big Dance this week.

- The Cats moved up to No. 2 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 following Syracuse's loss to Louisville. UK picked up three of the 65 first-place votes, with No. 1 Kansas picking up the remaining 62. Kentucky remained at No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, where UK earned one of the 31 first-place votes. Villanova, Purdue and Syracuse round out the top five in both polls. 

AP Top 25
 1. Kansas (62) 24-1 1,622
 2. Kentucky (3) 24-1 1,557
 3. Villanova 22-2 1,482
 4. Purdue 21-3 1,403
 5. Syracuse 24-2 1,389
 6. Duke 21-4 1,278
 7. Kansas State 20-4 1,239
 8. West Virginia 19-5 1,101
 9. Ohio State 20-6 1,068
10. Georgetown 18-6 966
11. Michigan State 20-6 906
12. New Mexico 23-3 888
13. Gonzaga 21-4 830
14. Wisconsin 19-6 697
15. Texas 20-5 674
16. Brigham Young 23-3 669
17. Vanderbilt 19-5 529
18. Butler 23-4 527
19. Pittsburgh 19-6 398
20. Tennessee 18-6 381
21. Temple 20-5 347
22. Baylor 19-5 316
23. Wake Forest 18-5 286
24. Texas A&M 18-6 231
25. Richmond 20-6 101

ESPN/USA Today Poll
 1. Kansas (30) 24-1 774
 2. Kentucky (1) 24-1 745
 3. Villanova 22-2 704
 4. Purdue 21-3 658
 5. Syracuse 24-2 645
 6. Duke 21-4 636
 7. Kansas State 20-4 580
 8. West Virginia 19-5 510
 9. Gonzaga 21-4 507
10. Georgetown 18-6 443
11. Michigan State 20-6 432
12. Ohio State 20-6 428
13. Butler 23-4 411
14. Brigham Young 23-3 346
15. New Mexico 23-3 330
16. Wisconsin 19-6 322
17. Texas 20-5 287
18. Tennessee 18-6 241
19. Vanderbilt 19-5 200
20. Temple 20-5 187
21. Pittsburgh 19-6 181
22. Baylor 19-5 102
23. Texas A&M 18-6 98
24. Northern Iowa 22-3 73
25. Wake Forest 18-5 58 

Video: ESPNU College Road Trip

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Wall, Kentucky earn ESPN.com honors

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ESPN.com has honored freshman point guard John Wall and Kentucky in this week's Weekly Watch.

Wall just missed out on being tabbed National Player of the Week, making ESPN's "The Rest of the Rotation." Wall scored 24 points in Saturday's win over Tennessee. Here's what ESPN had to say:

John Wall, Fr., G, Kentucky: Wall was sensational in the win over Tennessee on Saturday night with 24 points, making 9 of 12 free throws, 7 of 15 shots and controlling the tempo for the Wildcats. He started the week with 22 points and 10 boards in a home win over Alabama. Wall continues to lock himself into All-American status in his chase to stay with Ohio State's Evan Turner in the player of the year race.

So much for that midseason slump he was going through.

ESPN also named Kentucky one of its "Five Golden Teams" after wins over Alabama and Tennessee:

Kentucky: The Wildcats blew past Tennessee late and are headed toward an SEC title and a No. 1 seed. DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall are easily two of the best in the country at their respective positions. All is good in the Commonwealth.

Final GameDay review

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An unforgettable weekend in Lexington with ESPN GameDay crew and UK victory over rival Tennessee. It felt like an absolute whirlwind at times with everything going on, but it made me remember why I love what I do and how passionate this fan base is. Truly the best in the country.

To close out the weekend, watch the GameDay crew's final analysis of Saturday night's game. 

Feb. 12 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

Count Kentucky coach John Calipari among those against the idea of expanding the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

In the pregame interview for last week's LSU game on the Big Blue Sports Network, coach Cal was asked for his thoughts on the debate on expansion of the tournament to 96 teams.  He does not endorse the idea.

"No, I don't. I think it cheapens league play and it cheapens league tournaments," Calipari said. "And I don't know why you'd mess with anything that's as successful as this (NCAA tournament). If you want to add a couple of play-in games for teams that have to win their league tournaments, I'd be for that. I have a different viewpoint. I'm not saying mine is right."

= = =

"It's certainly an exciting team to watch. They captured the imagination of all Kentucky fans and all of college basketball to be honest. It's such a dramatic turnaround. I don't know if there's ever been one like it."

So says NBC's Tom Hammond, who is spending the next few weeks in Vancouver, where he will do play-by-play on figure skating for the network's Winter Olympic coverage.

That assignment has helped to lessen the withdrawl pains for Hammond, who is not calling Southeastern Conference basketball on television for the first time in three decades. Before Hammond became the SEC's TV voice, he covered UK sports for Lexington's WLEX-TV, so he is well-equipped to put the current Kentucky basketball season -- and first-year coach John Calipari's work -- into some historical context.

"It (Kentucky basketball) gives people in this state something to be proud of," Hammond said. "It's a rallying point, and from the outset coach Cal understood that. He's reaped the benefits of that. Winning all but one of your games doesn't hurt either.

"He's taken the tradition that coach (Adolph) Rupp began and totally embraced it. That hasn't always been the case here. He understands the psyche of Kentucky fans. Coach Rupp was pretty much of a tyrant and you can't have it that way anymore. In press conferences after a loss, sometimes he was hard on kids. Coaches today have to be more of a diplomat."

Hammond says the intense spotlight that is focused on the Kentucky program means this job is not for everyone.

"Every slightest nuance becomes headline news," Hammond said. "It means so much to Kentucky fans that everything is second-guessed and every little bobble -- a misstatement by John Wall that he probably didn't mean -- it's headline news all over the country. You have to be able to embrace that living in the spotlight that the Kentucky coach has to deal with."

And Hammond says the return of Kentucky basketball to an elite level nationally is good for business in the SEC.

"Even the rival coaches would admit that," Hammond said. "As Kentucky goes, so goes public perception of the SEC. It's good for the SEC -- heck, it's good for all of college basketball -- when Kentucky is good. It's like when the Yankees are good, it's good for baseball. Those marquee teams, when they're good, interest increases in all of that sport."  

Video: New men's basketball uniforms

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UK guards get in the zone to crack a zone

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RHT_9282.jpgTennessee doesn't play a lot of zone. But like any team, when it comes time to face Kentucky, a zone appears to be the only way to slow the Cats.

For 30 minutes on Saturday night, it appeared to be the answer.

DeMarcus Cousins, for the first time in two months, couldn't generate anything in the scoring column. With Tennessee head coach Bruce Pearl going to a rare 3-2 zone, Cousins was swallowed up in a blinding see of orange.

Without Cousins' production, the backbone of Kentucky's four-game winning streak since the South Carolina loss, Kentucky had to figure out the Rubik's Cube that has perplexed them the entire season. The Kentucky guards had to figure out a way to overcome a zone - one they didn't even see coming.

"They went to a 3-2 zone, and I'm going to be honest with you, we didn't work on it," head coach John Calipari said. "I knew they had it in their arsenal but I didn't know they'd run it because I hadn't seen it on any of the tapes I watched. What happens in the first half? We come out and didn't look like we knew what they heck we were doing because we didn't."

Kentucky shot just 35.7 percent in the first half before torching the nets in the second half with 53.8 percent shooting, including 5-of-10 from behind the arc.

"When we had halftime I told them, 'Guys, they're playing a 3-2. That's not your fault, that's my fault. I'm not blaming you, but here's what we're going to do in the second half and how we're going to attack it,' " Calipari said.

John Wall and Eric Bledsoe, even if only for a 10-minute span, figured it out under the national spotlight on Saturday in front of jam-packed crowd of 24,402 at Rupp Arena. Wall and Bledsoe scored 23 of UK's final 25 points and ignited a late 20-4 run in the second half to lead No. 3/2 UK to a 73-62 win over league rival and 14th-ranked Tennessee.

Wall finished with a game-high 24 points and Bledsoe finished with 16 points -- all in the second half -- on 3-of-6 shooting from behind the arc.

"I was being physical but I wasn't getting certain calls I thought I would get going to the basket, so I just had to be a little more physical and starting finishing," Wall said. "When they gave me lanes that I found, I found my teammates and we got it going."

Especially Bledsoe, who busted out of a frigid shooting slump. Entering Saturday's game, Bledsoe had missed his last 14 of 16 attempts from behind the 3-point line over the last six games.

Bledsoe admitted Friday that doubt was starting to creep into his mind, but Calipari told him to continue to shoot or sit the bench.  All it took was a few makes and a big game to restore his confidence.

"I knew it was a big game we had to win," Bledsoe said. "Coach was kind of riding me about shooting the ball. I just kept trying to penetrate the zone to get other people shots. He just told me I was one of the best 3-point shooters on the team so I stopped thinking about it and just started shooting."

Once that second one fell with just over five minutes to play in the game and UK storming to a seven-point lead, it was all but over for a stingy Tennessee squad.

RHT_9270.jpg"It took a lot of pressure off me towards coach," Bledsoe said. "The first three I made, I didn't hesitate. I just shot it."

Bledsoe's timely shots cracked the pesky zone that riddled the Cats for much of the game. The fact that Tennessee was even able to hang with a deeper, more talented UK team was a huge credit to Pearl.

The fifth-year UT coach might not be able to pick out a fashionable coat to wear on game day - no matter how many times you see the orange suit, it's still hideous - but the guy knows how to coach. With a shorthanded frontline (Wayne Chism was bothered by an ankle injury and Tyler Smith was dismissed from the team a month ago), Pearl covered up the weakness brilliantly.

Kentucky's go-to man of late, Cousins, scored just five points, and the Vols held their own on the boards.

The Cats finally figured out the 3-2 zone midway through the second half by flashing a big man at the free-throw line and by running Bledsoe on the baseline. Bledsoe's back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half came from both corners.

They ultimately broke Tennessee's back.

"When a team is trying to hold a ball late in the shot clock and take a shot late, if you can make a shot it puts so much pressure on that team," said Calipari, whose team hit 7-of-19 shots from behind the 3-point line. "We have had games where we were missing every open shot. The first half tonight was similar to that. The second half we made them and you are seeing the gap that we were talking about.

"It is not like you have to make them all. You just can't miss them all."

Never lost in Bledsoe's reemergence was the continued solid play of Liggins. The second-year guard continued to provide an unmatched element of grit and energy off the bench.

"He's becoming a real high-profile prospect," Calipari said. "Everybody that's evaluated my team, all of a sudden DeAndre is being talked about. You've got people that absolutely love him. He's playing a style that he can play. ... There's no such thing as a 50-50 ball (with him). He'll rebound, he'll play hard and he'll bring energy to the game. He's as valuable to our team right now as anybody."

Liggins' seven-point, four-rebound, four-assist game provided only half the story of his value. A key steal and timeout underneath the Tennessee basket with 4:34 left in the game was so impressive that Calipari jumped off the bench, ran past midcourt and high-fived the once-maligned sophomore.

"That's the play that wins games," Calipari said.

The Kentucky guards, against unexpected adversity, could do no wrong Saturday night.

John Wall Dance sweeping the nation

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Video: 'The greatest day ever at College GameDay'

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Video: ESPN College GameDay live from Rupp Arena

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Video: Digger Phelps cuts a rug at Rupp

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Running blog from ESPN College GameDay

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Dance.jpgPhoto Gallery

Video: Digger Phelps cuts a rug; interviews with Phelps, Rece Davis and Jay Bilas; ESPN College GameDay live from Rupp Arena 

A record crowd of 22,144 fans showed up to Rupp Arena on Saturday for ESPN's College GameDay, shattering the previous mark of 8,159 set at Kansas State two weeks ago.  

10:25 a.m. -- Good morning, Wildcat fans. I just took my seat here at Rupp Arena for ESPN's College GameDay. I'll have some updates periodically from Rupp Arena to provide a scene for those of you who were unable to make it to today's event. We're still more than 30 minutes away from the live broadcast but this place is already rocking. Digger Phelps has been uring on the crowd to get into it and they've responded by drowning him out with "Go Big Blue!" chants. I don't know if the place is going to completely fill up, but it's definitely going to be a GameDay attendance record.

10:31 a.m. -- If you haven't heard, Digger Phelps is quite the dancer. The former Notre Dame coach and current GameDay analyst just cut a rug with some of the UK dance team members. It was ... well, interesting to say the least. I'll get a YouTube video up later on.

10:39 a.m. -- A ton of former players are in attendance at Rupp Arena. So far I've seen Jodie Meeks, Derek Anderson, Chuck Hayes, Ron Mercer, Richie Farmer and Jack "The Goose" Givens. No team and fan base knows a big game quite like the Kentucky Wildcats.

10:43 a.m. -- Crowd favorite Erin Andrews has been formally introduced to the crowd at Rupp. It goes without saying, she got a warm welcoming.

10:46 a.m. -- When I walked into Rupp About 45 minutes ago, I just happened to walk in the same time as the lone Tennessee fan in attendance. He was promptly booed by the ENTIRE arena.

10:49 a.m. -- Best thing I've seen yet: life-size cutouts of UK President Lee Todd, his wife, Patsy Todd, and former UK player Jodie Meeks. Hilarious! You should see them behind the GameDay crew in about 10 minutes for the live broadcast.

10:51 a.m. -- Well, I don't know if this can top the cutouts, but I was told someone in the arena was donning a wedding dress with a sign that asked for either John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins to marry her.

wideshot.jpg11:01 a.m. -- We're live from a near packed house at Rupp Arena. I'd say it's about 90-95 percent full, easily the most the GameDay crew has ever seen. The analysts are doing their opening bit right now. I wish I could tell you what they were saying, but the crowd is so loud here at Rupp that I can't hear a thing.

11:07 a.m. -- A must-see video from ESPN College GameDay analyst Digger Phelps dancing with the UK dance team. 

11:14 a.m. -- After you've been at this place so long (Kentucky, I mean), it's hard to get amazed. However, the UK faithful has once again stunned me. I expected this place to be about 60 percent full, but it's now near capacity. And boy are the fans loud. I have no clue what the analysts are saying because the crowd quickly drowns them out with cheers everytime they talk. It's just an unbelievable atmosphere. One of the few things I've heard so far that sums up the experience came from analyst Hubert Davis: "I went to North Carolina, but nobody does it like Kentucky." Isn't that the truth. 

11:19 a.m. -- Former Kentucky coach and current Louisville coach Rick Pitino's face just showed up on the broadcast. Let's just it wasn't appreciated by the fan base at Rupp. Boos rained down from every corner of the arena. They quieted down a bit when the zoomed in on his retired jersey in the rafters.

11:25 a.m. -- Head coach John Calipari just showed up to Rupp Arena to a roaring ovation. Easily the loudest cheer we've had all day. I believe he's about to be on for a short segment. Sounds like they're about to do a decibel meter test for tonight's game. Should be the loudest roar yet.  

11:32 a.m. -- They're showing video of the John Wall dance on TV along with some clips of fans doing it. Very funny. Interesting to hear Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps tell us yesterday that they had no clue what the John Wall dance was. Well, they do now. Calipari said that if they win the national championship, they'll all be doing the John Wall dance. Even Digger and Jay? We'll see.

11:36 a.m. -- Calipari is speaking with host Rece Davis at the moment. The first time the crowd goes quiet all day. Calipari, UK's greatest ambassador, gave a great shout out to the women's basketball team, prompting the cameras to switch over to the women's team. Great idea from Calipari. Even better exposure for a very good women's basketball team.

11:45 a.m. -- Video of Rupp Arena erupting as College GameDay goes live.

11:48 a.m. -- I'm not sure if all the players are here or not, but I do see Josh Harrellson, Ramon Harris and Mark Krebs courtside. As Calipari walked off the floor, he came over and gave everyone a high five and a handshake, including former player Jodie Meeks.

11:52 a.m. -- More Tennessee fans. More boos.

GameDay18.JPG11:55 a.m. -- A student just took the StateFarm half-court challenge. He missed the shot a few feet to the left, but he'll still get a $1,000 for his efforts. Had he hit it, he would have been given $17,500. Waiting on the analysts to pick who wins tonight.

11:59 a.m. -- Hubert Davis saved the best for last. As the show was going off the air and Rece Davis asked who was going to win tonight's game, Hubert Davis quickly stood up and started doing the John Wall dance, much to the delight of the 20,000-plus fans in attendance. Jay Bilas briefly did a rendition as well. Let me remind you that Hubert Davis is a North Carolina alum and Jay Bilas is a Duke alum. The crowd is still eating it up.

12:02 p.m. -- That's a wrap for the show. The crowd at Rupp gave a standing ovation as the cameras turned off. Again, just an amazing atmosphere for today's shows. The GameDay crowd congratulated the fans for a historic crowd. Digger Phelps said it was "the greatest day ever at College GameDay." I couldn't have said it better myself.

12:11 p.m. -- There's about to be a presentation of some sort on the floor. I'll have more on that in a bit, but I'm about to head downstairs to the media room now in hopes of getting a couple of video interviews with the GameDay crew. Wish me luck.

12:16 p.m. -- Looks like I'm staying for a few minutes more. Calipari, former players and UK President Lee Todd are on the court to launch the President's Scholarship Initiative. Calipari said he and his wife, Ellen, are donating $25,000 in scholarship money. Todd and several others are donating money as well. Fans wishing to contribute $5 can text "BLUE" to 50555. Former coaches and players are being introduced to the crowd now: Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, Joe B. Hall, Kenny Walker, Richie Farmer, Jared Prickett, Tony Delk, Derek Anderson, Cameron Mills, Scott Padgett, Wayne Turner, Chuck Hayes and Jodie Meeks. Now I'm headed down.

1:17 p.m. -- The ESPN College GameDay crowd at Rupp Arena was 22,144, nearly triple the previous high, which was 8,159 at Kansas State.

1:23 p.m. -- Photo Gallery

1:59 p.m. -- Video interviews with Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps is now on the Web. And with that, I'm taking a break. Don't forget, live blog tonight for the UK-Tennessee game. 

UK-Tennessee game among nation's best rivalries

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MBSK 08_09 UK_TN Web15.jpgTennessee has always and will always be one of Kentucky's premier rivals. But is it becoming the biggest rivarly?
 
With the built-in border-state rivarly, the recent top-25 battles between the two teams and now the addition of the frosty relationship between coach John Calipari and Bruce Pearl, there's a pretty strong case that Tennessee means just as much as, dare I say, Louisville.
 
Those are fightin' words in some parts of this state when one starts talking rivalries and UK-U of L. To some, the Dream Game is not only the biggest game of the year for the Kentucky basketball team, it's the biggest, baddest and only game that matters.
 
But in terms of significance on the season, the Southeastern Conference title and NCAA Tournament seeding, the Tennessee game might be the most important rivalry on the season's slate.

"It is definitely a big rivalry in the SEC," senior guard Mark Krebs said. "We play them twice a year, so it is always important to get that first win between the two and to get it at home. Both teams are going to come out fighting. It has always been a big rivalry and this year it is a pretty big game."

So big that ESPN College GameDay is in town, making its first appearance at Rupp Arena in three years.

The headline in this year's rivalry is the ongoing soap opera between Calipari and Pearl. Although Calipari was quick to dismiss any feud between the two coaches on Friday, there's been no shortage of jabs in the war of words over the past few years.

"I respect him," Calipari said. "He can coach."

But respect and friendship are two different things. The two have waged countless recruiting battles in the backyard of Tennessee during Calipari's days at Memphis. That means they aren't always going to see eye to eye.

"We don't exchange birthday wishes or Christmas cards because we're rivals," Calipari said. "Do you know of any two coaches who are going at each other with two programs that are going to exchange pleasantries other than when I see him on the road, 'How are you? Good to see you?' But I respect him."

Earlier in the week, despite a Jodie Meeks 54-point blasting of a year ago in Knoxville, Tenn., former Tennessee legend Bernard King told the current Vols that Tennessee doesn't lose to Kentucky. It didn't take long for King's bravado to make its way to Lexington, only adding fuel to an already fiery rivalry.

"I wouldn't say (there is) hatred, but yeah, it is a rivalry, which makes it an emotional game," Krebs said. "We are going to go into the game and keep our emotions in check and just play basketball."

That might be easier said than done for some of the young players who have never experienced the backyard rivalry.

Earlier in the season, some of UK's freshmen admitted that they were surprised by the physicality, magnitude and importance of the Kentucky-Louisville game. Saturday could serve as another eye-opener.

"(I don't know) much about it," freshman forward Daniel Orton said of the rivalry. "I haven't heard much about it."

Orton said he had some fairly big rivalries on the high school stage during his high school days in Oklahoma City, Okla., but nothing will compare to Saturday night's venue, when the eyes of the nation will weigh down on the rivalry.

"We take it as a statement game," Krebs said. "Every game is big for us right now. We are ready to play, we are confident going into the game which you have to have. If we keep that up, whether College GameDay is here or not, we will be ready to go."

The game also carries huge significance within the league. With a win Saturday night, Kentucky can seemingly bury Tennessee in the SEC standings. A loss would drop the Volunteers to 6-4 in the conference, three games behind the Cats with six games to play.

Tennessee has been playing without Tyler Smith, who was dismissed from the team a month ago for a violation of team rules, but has played inspiring ball and remains in the top 15.

Calipari, despite the national perception that UK will win handily, warned his team to be wary of the Vols.

"They beat the No. 1 team in the country and have three players that were made eligible for this game," Calipari said. "We know how good they are."

Tennessee still boasts the likes of Kentucky native Scotty Hopson and Wayne Chism, both of whom average 13.1 points per game.

"You are talking about a group of talented players," Calipari said. "Obviously, Tyler Smith is a big hit for them. They are still a talented team. They have size, athleticism and they are well coached. They withstood all of this stuff. No one goes to Vandy and wins. Everyone loses at Vandy, so that game was one you would expect. Everything else, they have done what they were supposed to do and continue to win."

But like any good rivalry game, one throws out the past, the stats and the records when Kentucky and Tennessee play.

"It's a good thing because you want to see when it's time to step up, who steps up and who steps back," Calipari said. "And the only way you can do it is in games like this."

More information will be made about the new uniforms tomorrow, but for now here's a tease...

EliteFit_College_Back_SP10_0176.jpg

The tech sheet from Nike is below.

About the Nike HyperElite Uniforms

Eight universities will debut in 2010 the Nike Hyperelite basketball uniform.

The EliteFit system, a jersey/short layered over a padded base layer, is designed to address the games' increased physicality.

Aerographics relate team spirit and history in a breathable, lightweight graphical mesh innovation relevant to each school.

Aerographic technology

- Developed for the Beijing Olympics, engineered mesh provides zoned cooling
- Unnecessary fibers are removed, creating mesh that reduces up to half the yarn in jersey
- Comprehensive curation and school-specific design seamlessly integrated into lighter-weight garment
- Creates natural convection flow, drawing heat from back of the body

University Inspiration

- Checkered 'pattern of excellence' inspiration from racing silks worn by Secretariat - contains Wildcats national championship years.
- Roses symbolize Kentucky Derby
- Illustration represents Lexington campus's historical Memorial Hall.
- The wildcat school mascot is a design focal point

Material innovation

- Lightweight, quick-drying woven material of 6-ounce-short enables superior moisture management.

Cooling features

- Laser perforations allow for increased air flow, breathability

Q and A with Jay Bilas

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GameDay 015.jpgFormer Duke player and assistant coach and current ESPN College GameDay analyst Jay Bilas took a few minutes out of his time Friday afternoon to answer some questions about the UK basketball team.

Bilas and the GameDay crew are in town setting up Saturday's live broadcast from Rupp Arena. The UK-Tennessee game is the featured game of the GameDay broadcast.

Cat Scratches: It's always a big deal when GameDay comes to town for any city, but this has to be kind of big for you all coming to a potentially sold out arena.
Jay Bilas: I can't believe it. I've never heard of anything like that. It just shows what fervor there is for basketball here and how great this place is. I don't know if anybody remembers it, but back when this job came open after Tubby Smith left, there was a bunch of discussion about how good the Kentucky job is. I was like, 'Are you kidding? This is the best job in the country.' Without argument it's top five. A lot of people were saying Billy Donovan should take it. People were saying Florida is a better job. No. Whether he takes it or not is a personal decision, but there is no way Florida is a better job than this. The support this place gets is second to none.

CS? How important is it for Kentucky to be back on the national scene for the sport of college basketball?
JB: It's helpful anytime the traditional powers are strong. It's kind of like golf with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson when they're playing well. In baseball it's always better when the Yankees are good. It means more when you beat them.

CS: Last year at this time you all were probably on a set somewhere else debating about whether or not Kentucky was even going to be in the NCAA Tournament. Are you surprised at how quickly things have turned around here?
JB: Yes, I am. I'm not surprised that John (Calipari) is doing so well, but how quickly and whatever the number of wins is vs. one loss is stunning. I've been on record as saying there aren't any great teams this year. I don't think it's a great year for college basketball teams. That shouldn't diminish how good Kentucky is because they're Final Four good; they have a legitimate shot to win this thing. If you took the same team and put them in last year's field I don't think it would be the same, but it's not - it's now. It's remarkable of what they've done.

CS: Specifically, what has Calipari done to rejuvenate this program?
JB: He's recruited. He's a great salesman, and I mean that in a positive way. You don't get this kind of response without players, and he's got players. They've got more talent than anybody. It's the most talented team in college basketball without question.

CS: You've been a big supporter of Calipari's even when critics were hammering on him. Do you think the position and the seat he holds is the reason people are able to take more shots at him? Is that fair?
JB: Nothing is fair, but that's kind of the way it is. John is one of the best in the business. I don't see how he should get treated different whether he's at UMass or Memphis or Kentucky, but there are more eyes on him here, so anything that happens is going to be a bigger deal, positive or negative. I'm fine with that. The scrutiny is fine as long as it's fair. I think for the most part it has been. Reasonable minds can differ on some of the issues. The only issue I've had with the way things have couched is when people say, whether they're media or otherwise, 'Well, the last two places he's been they've had Final Fours vacated.' That isn't his responsibility. That is unfair. There are things coaches are responsible for and there are things they aren't. Whether a kid takes money from an agent or signs a contract with an agent, I just don't see how you can hold a coach responsible for that. The NCAA didn't hold him responsible for that or make allegations against him in either case. The same thing at Memphis. We're talking about a kid who was in high school. No coach can police a kid in high school. That's unreasonable. I thought the way that was couched was unreasonable.

CS: Does Kentucky's freshman class remind you of any other freshman class of the past?
JB: The Fab Five maybe, but they're not as good as that. A couple of them are, but going across the board with what those guys did in that era, because you've got to remember that was 17 or 18 years ago. I was an assistant coach back then and we played against the Fab Five. When you remember most of college basketball then, it was juniors and seniors. That's not the case now. The game is so different. I think the players are generally better than they've ever been. Great players will be great in any year. But the teams aren't as good now as they were in the early '90s or late '80s because you don't have juniors and seniors. John Wall is an amazing talent. We're going to show stuff tomorrow about how much better he could be if he did some things that a senior would do and how high his ceiling would be. Back when I played in the dark ages in the '80s, everyone stayed. Can you imagine? Kenny Walker stayed for four years. He wouldn't stay for four years now. He'd be gone after his second year, maybe his first. Sam Bowie wouldn't have stayed four years. None of those guys would have. It's just so totally different now. We're not seeing juniors and seniors play against each other. We're seeing freshmen and sophomores play against each other. We're talking about freshmen as Player of the Year candidates, whereas years ago that would be an unusual happening. It happened, but it was unusual. Now it's the norm.

CS: Talk about DeMarcus Cousins' play of late. He seems to be playing as well as anybody in the nation. How important is he as far as establishing balance on this team for a potential title run?
JB: He's the one player that nobody has an answer for. You can't play him one-on-one, period. I've actually worked with him during the summer at the Nike Skills Academy. He's got tools that very few people have. The only thing that can stop DeMarcus Cousins is DeMarcus Cousins. I think it's pretty well documented that he needs to grow up, but that's not an indictment. A lot of kids need to grow up. He's got some maturity issues that once he straightens out, and I'm hopeful that he will, he'll be an unstoppable force. He's an NBA All-Star. He's Derrick Coleman, Roy Tarpley, all those guys wrapped into one. He's got amazing ability. 

Q and A with Digger Phelps

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Former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN College GameDay analyst Digger Phelps took a few minutes out of his time Friday afternoon to answer some questions about the UK basketball team.

Phelps and the GameDay crew are in town setting up Saturday's live broadcast from Rupp Arena. The UK-Tennessee game is the featured game of the GameDay broadcast.

Cat Scratches: With 24,000 people packing Rupp Arena is this going to be the pinnacle for GameDay?
Digger Phelps: GameDay has been building up over the years. Two weeks ago, in Manhattan, Kansas, we had 8,100 which shocked all of us. We knew about Coach Cal's marketing techniques, not just recruiting three great freshmen, but knowing he's coming to Kentucky to win a national championship, which gets this place fired up. Blue's back.

CS: How important is it for the sport of college basketball to have Kentucky back in the national picture again?
DP: When you look at the history of college basketball, you can probably name five schools starting with UCLA, who's won the most - 10 out of 12 national titles under John Wooden and Jimmy Harrick won one. What Roy has done to (North) Carolina in the last couple years winning two titles. You take Michigan State with Tom Izzo, the last 11 years before this season he's been to five Final Fours. So, for Kentucky to be back in the pack with all these traditional schools, this is the best of why Calipari is here.

CS: Are you surprised to see this amount of success with all these freshmen?
DP: They're that talented. And I think John has done a great job of bringing them along. But they're still freshmen and you've got to realize that. It's going to be interesting to see how they mature enough in trying to win six games (in the NCAA Tournament). You can have Derrick Rose, like at Memphis, but he was surrounded with upper classmen. These guys here, it's now like, 'OK can we do it?' You figure 30 games under your belt, and you've got six to win, yeah, they'll be in the hunt. But you look at Kansas and you say, 'hey, wait a second.' Sherron Collins doesn't worry about (Eric) Bledsoe and (John) Wall. He's won a national title. Cole Aldrich has been there so you got two seniors. And you take a look at DeMarcus Cousins, well all right he's become what he is, but don't forget Marcus Morris with Kansas is doing the same thing that Cousins is doing here. So that'd be interesting. And you look at Syracuse, their defense has been the best I've ever seen in all the years I've known (Jim) Boeheim. So it's going to be interesting. So you just take it as it comes and you've got time.

CS: In the GameDay meetings you mentioned the important of having a good point guard, or "quarterback" as you said, to guide you through the NCAA Tournament. John Wall appears to fit that mold.
DP: If you don't have a guard you're not going to get there. You've got to have (a good point guard). You saw what Ty Lawson did last year to get it done. Derrick Rose did it, but Sherron Collins gave the ball to (Mario) Chalmers and the game was overtime. If you don't have a great guard, in my opinion, you're not going to make it.

CS: How do you coach freshmen so they don't tire out mid-February?
DP: It's a mindset this time of the year.

CS: Do you have to tell them anything?
DP: No, just play. Game experience, the more games they play, you know you get 30 games under your belt, you're no longer a freshman. You just play. So you don't tell them they're tired or they're frustrated. As a coach you know that you just have to be sure that the mental focus stays focused. We saw what happened when they went to South Carolina. It was a wake-up call. We saw what happened when Kansas went to Tennessee because they didn't see Tyler Smith, it was a wake-up call. We saw what happened to Syracuse when they played home against Pitt, it was a wake-up call.

Video: Cal, players discuss Tennessee

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Behind the scenes at GameDay

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Thumbnail image for GameDay 004.jpg

As I mentioned earlier, I'm currently over at Rupp Arena for the ESPN College GameDay meetings. Rece Davis, Digger Phelps, Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis and the rest of the GameDay gang (sorry, no Erin Andrews yet) are currently in their production meeting hammering out the details for Saturday's show.

I've seen a lot of stuff and interviewed a lot of people in my time at UK and as a reporter, but this has been one of the cooler experiences for me. We had a chance to sit in on the meeting for about 20 minutes as the guys bantered back and forth between what they're going to talk about, who's in the NCAA Tournament if it started today, who is right, who is wrong, etc.

Thumbnail image for GameDay 008.jpgOnce the guys got down to business, the meeting was very similar to a war room. Any opinion, right or wrong, is on the table as the guys prepare for the show -- and not all of them agree. It's constant chatter between the producers and GameDay analysts with Rece Davis, the show's host, serving as the quarterback.

I'd love to tell you what was discussed, but unfortunately I can't provide any spoilers since I was given special access. I can tell you that Saturday's show will be Kentucky heavy (well duh!).

Outside the meeting room, though, has been the neatest experience. Seeing the GameDay guys interact has been nothing short of hysterical. It's like seeing four brothers get together for the first time in a year.

Since they're on the road most of the week, they catch up with one another, shoot the breeze and joke around on each other. At one point Phelps asked Bilas what his plans were for dinner. When he told Phelps he already had plans, Phelps looked at Rece Davis, said "I guess we're on our own," and stormed out of the room.

He was kidding of course, but it's that type of chemistry that the GameDay crew has on and off the court.

Alright, that's all I've got for now. We're waiting on the Rupp Arena floor for them to finish the production meeting and then who knows what's in store after that. There's a possibility we might get a few interviews with the guys. If that happens, I'll be sure to post the interview.

(Lower picture features Digger Phelps, Hubert Davis and Howie Schwab, ESPN's stat guru, preparing for the production meeting).

GameDay videos

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The folks at ESPN College GameDay have put together a few clips to preview this weekend's much-anticipated action from Rupp Arena.

Check out all the videos below, but first, host Rece Davis has some thoughts on the visit to Lexington this weekend:

The trip to Kentucky will be unlike anything GameDay has ever seen. Rupp will be rocking. I have a deep appreciation for the tradition of the great programs. UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Indiana join Kentucky in college basketball's most rarified realm. When I was a kid in SEC country, Kentucky was the ultimate gold standard. I can rattle off names like Kevin Grevey, Jimmy Dan Conner, Kyle Macy, Goose Givens, Truman Claytor, Dirk Minniefield were all guys that I loved watching as a kid. There's something magical about that big blue jersey. When those fans fill Rupp Saturday morning, pulling off a GameDay first with a sold-out house, it will give an exclamation point to what's obvious. The Cats are back!

Kentucky is going to get the record for a GameDay morning crowd, but there's one thing left for the Cats to do. Only two schools have had people make the State Farm half court shot. North Carolina and Duke. How fitting would it be if Kentucky follows suit. I've got a good feeling. I'd have a better feeling if former Cat bomber Jim Master showed up to shoot it. We're going back to our old Kentucky (adopted) home. Don't miss the scene Saturday morning. If someone makes the half-court shot, you never know who might storm the floor.

Hubert and Jay say they hope it's Ashley Judd.

See you this weekend.

Softball season-opening splash

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No inside information here to report -- just wanted to congratulate the UK softball team for a huge season-opening victory Thursday night at the Kajikawa Class in Tempe, Ariz.

The Cats upset No. 5 Arizona State 5-2 on the Sun Devils' home field late Thursday night. Three UK players belted home runs and Annie Rowlands drove in three runs to deliver a huge season-opening splash for the Cats.

Sophomore pitcher Chanda Bell picked up where she left off last season with a two-run (one earned) complete game. Bell fanned 14 batters on the evening and surrendered just four hits.

UK returns to action Friday morning at 11 vs. San Diego State for the first of two games on the day. If the Cats come even close to matching Thursday night's effort, there's little doubt they'll be in the top 25 next week.

GameDay pulls into town

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GameDay.jpgThe ESPN College GameDay crew, which will be broadcasting live from Rupp Arena Saturday morning and Saturday night for the UK-Tennessee basketball game, pulled into town Friday morning to begin preparing for the weekly show.

Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Hubert Davis are all expected at Rupp Arena for college basketball's premier preview show.

UK has already sold out its entire allotment of tickets for the show in hopes of setting a new GameDay attendance record. The show will be broadcast live on ESPN at 11 a.m.

I'm actually headed over to an ESPN production meeting at 2 p.m. to get a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into the show. I have no clue what to expect or what I'll be able to do from it, but hopefully I'll be able to get a blog post or two out of it for later on.

Unfortunately I'll likely miss today's media availability with head coach John Calipari and the players because of the meeting, but I'll have somebody cover for me so we can get some posts on the big game up on the Web later this evening.

Ex-Cat Holmes in 2nd place at Pebble Beach Pro-Am

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holmes action.jpgFormer University of Kentucky standout golfer J.B. Holmes is in second place after the first round at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Holmes carded a 7-under par on Thursday.

Holmes, the 2005 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, was posted seven birdies and one eagle on the day. The eagle was a score of two on the par-4 eighth hole. The native of Campbellsville, Ky., native started on the 10th hole scoring a 4-under par. On the final nine holes of the day, Holmes shot 3-under-par. 

Holmes, a member of the 2005 SEC Championship team, has played brilliant golf in 2010, finishing in the top 30 in both events he has played in. Last weekend, Holmes finished tied for third at the Northern Trust Open, shooting a 4-under-par for the final round and ending the tournament at 13-under-par.

Holmes, consistently one of the longest golfers off the tee in the PGA, is averaging 292.9 yards per drive this season, good enough for 11th on the tour. Holmes currently is 21st in the FedEx Cup standings.  

WBSK 09_10 UK_ARK web 38.jpgField-goal percentage, turnovers, rebounds - that's all good and dandy for winning championships, but there's something about the ugly that always looks so pretty.

No matter what sport we're talking about, it always seems to be the teams that win ugly take home the top prize.

Maybe it's fitting then that Matthew Mitchell's Cats continue to win and storm up the rankings by winning with grit. Think of them as the Southeastern Conference's ugly ducklings. Picked to finish 11th in the conference in the preseason, UK sits just a Tennessee slipup from first place.

Hard to believe? Not when you watch them play.

They fight, they scrap and they hardly ever give up. On Thursday night against Georgia, a team that broke the Cats' hearts about a month ago with a come-from-behind overtime victory, UK played far from its best game of the season.

"It was sloppy at times; it was physical at times," head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

SEC Player of the Year candidate Victoria Dunlap was just 3-of-12 from the floor, starting point guard Amber Smith was riddled in foul trouble most of the game and UK missed on 22 of its 29 3-point attempts.

And yet the Cats still won, 64-48. UK, not at its best - and sometimes at its worst offensively - went toe-to-toe with a once top-five team and derailed them by 16.

Oh, how far UK Hoops has come.

Asked afterwards if she was surprised Kentucky shot 33.9 percent from the floor and won by double digits, Amani Franklin stared straight ahead and flat out said no.

"It starts with our defense," said Franklin, who scored 15 points Thursday in her highest point outing in nearly a month. "We might not have a good shooting night, but it starts with our defense. With our defense we get some offense."

It's been a season-long formula that no other team has been able to crack to this point. The Cats press, they turn you over and they get steals. On Thursday they turned Georgia over 24 times, which led to 22 points.

If there was a difference in an ugly slugfest, that was it.

When you turn teams over that much on a nightly basis - and UK is, ranking second in the nation in turnover margin at plus-8.0 a game - it can cover up offensive ineptitude. The Cats certainly aren't short on offensive options with Dunlap, A'dia Mathies, Amber Smith and more, but it allows a margin for error on the offensive side if they bring it every night on the end of the floor where it matters most - defense.

"They earned it tonight," Mitchell said. "They played outstanding defense, worked extremely hard defensively and were able to overcome a very poor offensive showing in the first half to grind out just a crucial victory for us."

The ability to grind out games outweighs the ability to shoot or rebound or block shots. Coaches often talk about their love of players that possess intangibles. This team has 12 of them.

"On nights when you aren't playing your best and can still come through with a win, it gets you excited as a coach," Mitchell said.

Mitchell could sense early on that it wasn't going to come easy on the offensive end. The third-year coach paced the sidelines like his feet were on fire and yelled at the referees like they were delinquent children.

With just under 10 minutes to play in the second half and the Cats clinging to an 11-point lead, Mitchell threw his coat to the bench and went ballistic at a controversial call. He apologized after the game for the way he acted and denied it creating any momentum, but there was little doubt his team fed off his energy.

From there on out, the game was never in doubt. It was game, set, match - one of UK's best wins of the season considering the heartbreak it suffered in Athens, Ga., a month ago.

"It's comforting on one level that you can grind out some games with your defense," said
Mitchell, whose team improved to 3-1 against ranked opponents. "This was a huge win just because of where we are right now. The players have continued to take advantage of an opportunity. We are in the thick of this (SEC) race."

Thursday night was probably the best indicator of how good this team has become. It indicates staying power in a conference title race with Tennessee that very well could come down to the showdown in Knoxville, Tenn., at the end of the month.

We know now better than ever that UK has a legitimate shot to win that title, too, because when you can win ugly, you can win against anybody at anytime and at any level.

Rarely does a team snag six straight victories in the NCAA Tournament by winning in style. More often than not, it takes two or three ugly, hard-fought wins in March to make a significant run.

"When they're playing the way they want to play, they're very good," Georgia head coach Andy Landers said. "They've been able to do that, which is a credit to them and their coaches, most of the year."

Thursday was ugly, physical and sometimes downright hard to watch. But all 6,521 raucous fans in Memorial Coliseum loved every second they saw.

It was a confidence booster for a bunch of ugly ducklings who aren't so bad after all.

UK Hoops 'grinds out' its eighth straight win

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Tennessee time

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Tick ... tick ... tick ...

We're just two days away from one of the biggest games of the year when Tenneessee and ESPN GameDay come to town for the primetime showdown with the Cats.

As always, the Tennessee game gives us the perfect opportunity to revisit the historic night of Jodie Meeks. I don't care how many times you've seen the clip on here -- it never gets old.

Check back Friday for a full day of Tennessee coverage.

Video: Softball ready to build on historic season

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Head coach Rachel Lawson

Senior shortstop Molly Johnson



Starting Thursday night, the UK softball team will step into new territory.

Never having been to the NCAA Tournament before last season, the Cats will try to build off high expectations for the first time in program history and top last season's historic run.

The road ahead certainly won't be easy as UK once again faces one of the toughest schedules in the nation. But what head coach Rachel Lawson has on her side that few other schools can boast is a team that returns nearly ever key cog from a season ago, including All-American shortstop Molly Johnson and pitching aces Chanda Bell and Rachel Riley.

Kentucky begins its season Thursday night at 9 p.m. ET in Tempe Ariz., vs. Arizona State in the Kajikawa Classic.

UKAthletics.com will provide live statistics and ongoing coverage throughout the tournament. For more on the softball season, check out the season preview: Softball not settling for just good.

Basketball teams feeding off one another

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Cuz.jpgJohn Wall and DeMarcus Cousins rarely sit and watch from the sidelines, but if there's a team that can make them do it, it's the women's basketball team - not the men.

It never seems to fail: Every game, whether it's a Thursday night tilt or a Sunday afternoon affair, there is Wall and Cousins sitting front row and center on the upper concourse watching the women play.

This isn't a publicity stunt or cameo appearances either. Every game, Wall and Cousins pull up a chair, kick back and take in a full 40-minute game of the 20-3 UK Hoops team.
The loyalty goes much further than just casual fan. 

"I'm a big fan of the girl's team," Cousins said. "I try to get to all of their games because I just like the way they play defense. They are just all over their opponent every play of the game. It's crazy. I think they probably have the best chance against (No. 1 and undefeated) UConn of any team to be honest.

"Our girls are very good and deserve a lot more attention than they're getting. They're really good."

On Thursday, Mitchell echoed the solidarity, even joking that Wall and Cousins could pick up a thing or two to help with their season.

"DeMarcus and John have been very faithful fans," Mitchell said. "They come to our games and are always very encouraging to us. That's a compliment coming from those guys. I guess they just need to continue to watch so they can learn something and we'll see if they're gaining anything from the experience.

"They're great kids. They have a lot of positive energy. I always enjoy seeing them. Eric Bledsoe is the same way. They're kids I enjoy being around."

Mitchell said there's a noticeable change of air around the Joe Craft Center these days. With the programs riding a combined mark of 43-4, 16-3 in Southeastern Conference play, the best shared record among men's and women's basketball teams in Division I-A basketball, Mitchell can sense that something special is going on between the programs.

"I think it would be hard to miss," Mitchell said. "I think there's a real positive energy surrounding both programs. I saw John Calipari this morning and he and I talked. He always pops in and we talk about what's going on. He's a very upbeat and positive guy. I love being around people like that. I'm a big believer that you feed off the energy that surrounds you.

"(Assistant coach) Jon Robic has become a good friend of mine. I just enjoy watching their team play and compete. They're an outstanding basketball team. It's a fun time right now. Both Jon Robic and Calipari tell me to smile more and that I need to enjoy it more. We're still several spots behind them. Maybe if we get to three or wherever they are I'll start smiling."

One of only seven programs in the nation to have both men's and women's basketball teams ranked in the top 20 in both major polls, what's not to smile about?

Video: Gymnastics not content with top-15 ranking

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The No. 12 UK gymnastics team takes on No. 14 Auburn on Friday at 7 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum in yet another top-15 showdown. Head coach Mo Mitchell spoke to the media on Wednesday about facing Auburn and on raising the bar of expectations for this year's team.

The UK women's basketball team has had very few disappointments this season. A 20-3 record tells the story of that.

But if there was one game Matthew Mitchell and his squad want back, it's likely a trip to Athens Ga a month ago.

During that trip, the Cats had a top-10 Georgia team on the ropes. UK led nearly the entire overtime, but a 3-pointer in the final minute derailed Kentucky's upset bid. Since that game, Kentucky has blazed through the SEC, sitting in sole possession of second place with less than half the conference season to go.

Mitchell's Cats remain a game behind first-place Tennessee at 8-2 in the league, but he emphasized Wednesday that UK must continue to focus on its play, not the standings, to keep pace in the league.

"The thing that we have done well all year is that we have not paid a lot of attention about where we are relative to other teams," Mitchell said. "I think that it would be a big mistake to do that now. We are one bad week or two bad weeks away from not being very good at all. We desperately need to win this one on Thursday and desperately need to win one on Sunday. That is just how it is right now.

"As far as the conference race goes, it is getting down to the wire. There are three weeks left in the regular season and six games left and a lot can happen certainly. I know that I certainly feel like everything is a must win at this point in time from here on out."

Despite the ramifications of Thursday's game -- the seeminly wanted payback against Georgia and the pressure to keep pace with Tennessee -- Mitchell doesn't look at Thursday's game as a revenge game. 

"Maybe it would be for some teams or some games," Mitchell said. "Every game in the league is so important, it's so hard to have a real hated rival. We are as invested in this game as we were in the Arkansas game. For this team, we don't really have time to focus on anything but what we need to do to beat Georgia."  

The Cats tip off against the Bulldogs in Memorial Coliseum on Thursday at 7 p.m. in arguably the biggest game of the season. Sensing the importance of the game, Mitchell encouraged fans to pack the Coliseum on Thursday.

"We will look for an edge anywhere we can get it and being back home definitely helps," Mitchell said. "The fans can help that even more if we can get a really big turnout. We have had great, great attendance this year and they always give us energy, but we would love to have a few more in there tomorrow night and really pack Memorial. That would be huge for us."

Happy birthday, Cal!

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MBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 03.jpgKentucky's fearless leader, John Calipari, turned 51 on Wednesday, his first birthday as head coach of the UK men's basketball team.

His present? A 23-1 record and No. 2/3 national ranking. Who would have thought we'd be talking about that last February?

Calipari probably wouldn't want us to publicize his age, but what kind of blog would we be if we didn't.

One thing the age makes me wonder is how long Calipari will be at UK. A lot of successful coaches are coaching into their 70s now, but Calipari has made it pretty clear before that this isn't a lifetime deal for him.

UK fans are surely hoping this is just one of many more Calipari birthdays to come in Lexington.

New uniforms? You be the judge

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Head coach John Calipari tweeted a picture of a photoshoot with Slam Magazine this morning. Are those uniforms? You decide.

And can you spot what's wrong in the picture?

Update: If you haven't realized the snafu yet, I'll go ahead and point it out. "Kentucky" on the front of Wall's jersey was misspelled and read "Kentcuky."

UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy said they realized the mistake during the shooting and immediately sent out a picture to see if fans would notice the mistake. Because of the wonders of photoshop, it won't affect the final picture in Slam Magazine.

In short, the misspelling turned out to be no big deal.  

Feb. 9 From the Pressbox

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MBSK 08_09 UK_MissSt 35.jpgUK 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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"Not a day goes by where I don't miss it a lot. I want them to win, of course, but it is hard seeing them win and for me to not be a part of it although I probably could have. So I don't regret my decision to stop playing but it still is hard to realize that I am not a part of something like this that is so great."

The speaker is Michael Porter, the starting point guard for last year's Kentucky basketball team. He decided to forego his final season with the Wildcats to get started on a business career and because he and wife, Bryanna, were expecting their first child (Payslie, now just over six months old). Porter says he occasionally talks to some of his former teammates and he does notice a change from last season.

"I have gotten that from them," Porter said. "Things are a little different this year. Not only coaching-wise, but pressure from the fans and different areas, all those things combined has made things less stressful for them."

Porter is back in his home state of California but he's worked for a Paducah, Ky.-based technology firm named Zonson. One of the latest projects on which he's working is the new iPhone application for coach John Calipari's Web site.

"We know that Coach Cal is very popular and along with his new Web site, we figured that doing an iPhone app for him would be not only a good thing him but for us, too," Porter said. "So after working with some people, we created an iPhone app similar to his Web site but is something you can look at on your phone. We had a lot of work to do but I think it looks good. There is still going to be a lot of things that we are going to do with it, but now we have one of the things you can do with it is a 'where's Cal' feature. ... Right now, people already know where he is most of the time but the offseason will be different. It's kind of a cool thing and a lot of the fans will like that.

"There is also a trivia game that has UK facts and that is something the Web site does not have right now. We want to add a lot more features, some more games and more interactive things like live blogs and more interactive things like that for the fans."

Fans can purchase the application through the iTunes store online for $2.99, with proceeds benefitting the charitable foundation of coach Cal and his wife, Ellen. It was recently ranked as high as No. 2 among all sports apps.

So how did Porter hook up with Zonson?

"They knew that I was looking for a job after I graduated," said Porter, whose role is primarily sales-oriented. "We hooked up and talked about what their company was about and what they hoped for the future. I saw a bright future with them and really liked my boss. I have three of them. I felt comfortable with the company and that is pretty much why I chose them."

"Right now I am very happy with what I am doing," Porter said. "I can see myself possibly coaching one day, depending on what really happens. I can't see myself being away from sports that long. It really kind of depends on what happens with what is going on right now and how well it takes off. I am hoping it takes off really well. But I am happy where I am now."

Video: Cats pull out sluggish win over Alabama

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Feb. 7 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 7:

Men's basketball: DeMarcus Cousins

Cousins, a 6-foot-11 forward from Mobile, Ala., averaged 18.5 points, 13.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in wins over No. 25 Ole Miss and at LSU. He had double-double efforts with 18 points and 13 rebounds against Ole Miss and then 19 points and 14 rebounds at LSU. He has recorded six straight double-doubles, becoming the first Wildcat since 1989 to accomplish that feat. Cousins' 14 double-doubles on the season lead the SEC and are the most by a UK player since 2000.

Women's basketball Victoria Dunlap

The 6-1 junior forward posted 18 points, including 13 in the first half, on 6-of-10 shooting to go with seven rebounds in UK's 80-66 win against Ole Miss. She eclipsed 700 career rebounds against the Rebels, becoming just the eighth player in school history to register more than 1,000 points and 700 rebounds in a career.

Track and field: Walter Luttrell

- Luttrell captured the first win of his career in the 5,000 meters.

- Set a personal-best time by 19 seconds over his previous mark.

- Luttrell is coming off quadriceps compartment syndrome surgery last May.

Track and field: Jenna Martin

- Set an NCAA provisional qualifying time for the first time this season.

- It was Martin's first appearance in the 400m dash, running primarly in the 200m dash the last competitions.

- Former All-American.

WBSK 09_10 KY_Alabama Web 37.jpgWomen's basketball: A'dia Mathies

- Freshman guard A'dia Mathies averaged a team-high 24.0 points and 6.0 rebounds, helping Kentucky extend its school-record SEC win streak to seven games. With Mathies' help, the Wildcats have won eight of their first 10 SEC games in a season for the first time in school history.

- Posted consecutive career-high scoring efforts against Ole Miss (21) and at Arkansas (27) this week while shooting a combined 52.9 percent (18-of-34) from the floor.

- Netted a career-high 60.0 percent from the field against Ole Miss, making 9-of-15 attempts.

- Scored 15 of her 27 points in first half at Arkansas while finishing the contest 9-of-19 (47.4 percent) from the field and 7-of-7 from the free-throw line.

- Has scored in double figures in 16 of 23 games this season, including six of 10 SEC contests. All three of her 20-plus point scoring efforts this season have come against SEC competition.

- Has pulled down at least four rebounds in 16 games this season, including six in a row.

Gymnastics: Whitney Rose

Sophomore Whitney Rose earned title honors with a 9.900 on the vault against five-time defending national champion Georgia on Feb. 5 in Athens, Ga. The Frisco, Texas native has won three vault titles this season and five in her young career at Kentucky. She has earned scores of 9.900 or better on vault in three of five meets this season, including a season-high 9.925 set at the Lady Luck Invitational (Feb. 15) and matched at Arkansas (Jan. 29).

Track and field: Kristin Smith

- Smith won her first event of the season in the weight throw after finishing second last week at the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet.

- Set an NCAA Provisional Qualifying distance for the third consecutive competition.

- Improved the varsity record for the third consecutive competition.

Track and field: Rondel Sorrillo

- Posted an Automatic Qualifying time in the 60m for the second consecutive week following his performance last weekend at the Rod McCravy Memorial meet where he ran 20.77 in the 200m dash.

- Equaled his personal best set last year at the SEC Indoor Championships.

- This was Rondel's first appearance in the 60m dash this season.

Live men's basketball blog: No. 2/3 UK vs. Alabama

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Moving on up: UK Hoops No. 16 in ESPN/USA Today Poll

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Southeastern Conference coaches tabbed UK the 11th-best team in the league at the beginning of the season. If the Cats keep up their recent play, they could be the 11th-best team in the nation.

The latest ESPN/USA Today rankings tabs Kentucky No. 16 in the polls with 319 points. Only No. 5 Tennessee ranks higher in the SEC than the Cats.

UK is ranked No. 18 in the Associated Press Top 25.

ESPN/USA Today Poll 
 1. Connecticut (31)  23-0 775 
 2. Stanford 21-1 741 
 3. Notre Dame 21-1 697 
 4. Nebraska 21-0 696 
 5. Tennessee 21-2 654 
 6. Xavier 18-3 610 
 7. Duke 19-4 567 
 8. West Virginia 21-3 551 
 9. Ohio State 23-3 543 
10. Florida State 20-4 485 
11. Texas A&M 16-5 442 
12. Oklahoma 16-6 399 
13. Georgetown 19-3 395 
14. Oklahoma State 18-5 336 
15. Baylor 17-5 331 
16. Kentucky 20-3 319 
17. Iowa State 18-4 255 
18. Georgia 19-5 244 
19. Texas 16-6 217 
20. North Carolina 16-6 171 
21. Virginia 17-6 121 
22. Vanderbilt 17-7 117 
23. Gonzaga 19-4 72 
24. St. John's 19-4 67 
25. Hartford 20-3 49 

BSB 08_09 UK_Vandy Game 3 web 51.jpgThe dirt from the mound runs through Gary Henderson's veins. The powder from the rosin bag still builds up beneath fingernails.

If there is one thing Henderson knows better than anything else, it's pitching. It's in his blood. It's his forte and his love. It's also what likely broke his heart in his first season as head baseball coach of the Kentucky program.

Henderson took over the reins of the program last season after a long and successful career as a pitching coach. In his first season as skipper, Henderson's squad walked a fine line between potential breakthrough and disappointment.

Inexperience and injuries plagued the team, yet Henderson's ballclub built a strong foundation for the 2010 season and was on the doorstep of postseason play until the final game of the season.

If there was one thing that ultimately let down the Cats, it was an underachieving bullpen. And by underachieving it's not a knock on the players or Henderson's first year, only a glimpse of reality of how decimated the relieving corps was because of injuries.

That, inevitably, had to make things unbearable for Henderson last season.

"The injuries are extremely frustrating in the bullpen," Henderson said, almost hesitant to revisit the late-inning nightmares of a season ago.

See, if there's one thing a pitching coach knows, it's the importance of a bullpen. Chicks may dig the long ball and starters might make the big bucks on the pro level, but like all things in sports (defense in football and basketball), it's generally the position with the least appeal that makes the biggest difference.

Yes, bullpens win you championships in college baseball.

"College baseball is a game of bullpens," Henderson said. "The days of 35, 40 complete games from a pitching staff are over. People that pay attention know you can win with different styles of play and offense, singles, doubles and even three-run homers. But you cannot win if you don't have depth and quality in your bullpen. It is an absolute given.  You have to be able to pitch when it's important on the road and that is going to come out of your bullpen."

That more than anything is what separated UK from making its third postseason appearance in four years and an early start to the golf season.

The Cats possessed as good of a starting trio in all of baseball with James Paxton, Chris Rusin and Alex Meyer last year, but when it came time to hand the ball over to the bullpen to close out the game, Henderson rarely knew what he was going to get.

Often times it resulted in headaches and additional visits to the mound. Last year, in innings five through nine, the point in the ballgame where a team's bullpen will generally eat up the most innings, Kentucky had a 6.24 ERA. The only innings where teams hit over .300 came in innings six, seven and eight.

Henderson isn't going to make excuses for the numbers, but logistically he simply didn't have the numbers to compete. Injuries, most notably to Nick Kennedy, a suspension to eighth-inning specialist Tyler Henry and the ineligibility of Matt Little because of transfer rules, limited who Henderson could throw out there.

"Typically you can get a guy some experience positionally if you have enough regulars playing and you're going to be able to survive that experience," Henderson said. "You start putting guys in there that aren't ready to pitch, don't have enough experience or their skill level isn't where it needs to be and that becomes very painful and very disappointing for everyone involved."

Logan Darnell proved to be a reliable tourniquet last season and Braden Kapteyn, despite splitting time between the field and the mound, flourished in his surprising role as closer. But other than that, Henderson didn't have many options.

RHL_5619.jpg"You can run your fifth or sixth outfielder out there and still have a very good game and play very well over the course of a weekend, but if you start running a guy out there on the mound that's not ready and it's going to be a rough one," Henderson said.

This year Henderson has brought in help to aid his bullpen.

In addition to Little and the sidewinder Kennedy, Henderson can bring in any number of new arms, ranging from junior-college pitcher Kyle Jackson redshirt sophomore Joe Devine to freshmen Walter Wijas and Jon Carlson. That's in addition to junior Mike Kaczmarek and sophomores Sean Bouthilette and Chase Greene, all who gained invaluable experience last year.

"The depth is dramatically improved, which is a great place to start," Henderson said. "We've got some quality athletes, we've got some guys that have a little bit of experience and certainly many more options than we had last year. We don't have the experience that we had in '08 but that will come in time."

Kennedy had screws inserted into his elbow last week, but Henderson expects him to be available by Southeastern Conference play.

"We'll have some different options down there so you can give a guy some rest that's pitched recently or give a guy a rest that's maybe going through a rough patch," Henderson said. "Those two things are going to be very nice to have. When you get Kennedy back, you get Little back, even if they are not the complete and total answer, what they do is give you a stop gap."

The wealth of arms also provides Henderson with the ability to mix and match different options. If he wants to throw a left arm out there because the guy coming to the plate doesn't hit left-handed pitching very well, he now has the arms to do it.

And that's when Henderson is at his best. Henderson, cerebral by nature, can wield lefty-on-lefty or righty-on-righty matchups like a magician.

"Look at really good pitching staffs," Henderson said. "What they've got are matchups and depth in the bullpen. What that provides you is the opportunity to use a guy like (former player Andrew) Albers in a very specific role because you know you have a guy like (former pitcher Aaron) Lovett either before or after him. When you start having those types of options, and (former reliever) Tommy Warner is good enough to get you two outs to get you out of the sixth, that saves you those 12 pitches for Albers that he can use in the eighth. Those are the things that having the depth and experience does."

Last year he had few choices. He had to decide whether to use his top relievers in a tight game on Friday and risk not having them Saturday, or resting them Friday and throwing out inexperienced arms on the mound.

It's a dilemma Henderson likely won't have to deal with in 2010.

UK kicks off its season next week on Feb. 19 vs. Virginia Tech at the Caravelle Resort Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C. 

DeMarcus Cousins has taken on a slew of monikers this season. He's played the role of comedian, Peter Parker, Big Cuz, Boogie and even Russian (this picture says it all), but Monday may have been his most intriguing character yet.

Cousins put on his best acting hat in front of the media Monday, rehearsing an act that was in complete contradiction to some candid comments made earlier in the year.

"It's just another game," Cousins said of the Alabama game. "No big deal."

But don't expect an Oscar nomination for this Cousins performance. Just a few months earlier before the Louisville showdown, Cousins had called the Alabama matchup his biggest game of the season.

Somewhere along the line, between his double-doubles and Kentucky's 22-1 record, did Cousins get out a No. 2 pencil and erase the circle around Tuesday's date?

Likely not. Sandwiched between the grins and awkward pauses to bite his tongue, one could read the script going through his head. Barring a brain transplant, Tuesday's Alabama game is likely still Cousins' Super Bowl.

Monday, however, seemingly lacked the media day appeal of last week's Super Bowl game. Head coach John Calipari followed the script and played coy as well.

"I didn't know there was any bad blood in this past with (Cousins and Alabama)," Calipari said. "I have no idea why that would be. Obviously he and Eric (Bledsoe) from being down there, there may be some of that stuff."

What is or isn't going through Cousins' head and what did or didn't happen in Cousins' time in Alabama is up for debate.

What we do know is Cousins has deep Alabama roots having grown up and played in Mobile, Ala. Cousins was recruited by former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried to play for the Crimson Tide and Cousins said he considered attending Alabama before choosing UK.

MBSK 09_10 UK_Ole Miss Web 66.jpgThe 6-foot-11, 260-pound freshman had maturity problems during his high school and AAU ball in Alabama, but judging by his play and attitude of late, it appears those issues are quickly becoming a thing of the past.

"It was just a bad situation," Cousins said of his decision not to go to Alabama. "I'm here now so that's all that matters."

That answer shows that wounds from his home state are still present but bandaged up enough to move on. Three months ago, reporters would have expected nothing short of an open and honest answer from the always candid Cousins.

"He's growing up," Calipari said. "I've not had a player come that far that fast."

And it isn't like he's changed personalities off the court. Although he's riding a school-record streak of six straight double-doubles, he's still the jovial goofball outside the game that has made him both a media and fan favorite.

Take for instance his answer to a question about who he expected to be watching him from the state of Alabama on Tuesday night.

"Probably the whole state," Cousins said as he fought off a laugh. "I wouldn't say it's all friends and family. It's probably more people hoping for the worst more than anything."

But Cousins' play of late has warranted a fast-growing sentiment among the national pundits to place the big man on the ballots for the National Player of the Year race and even atop the NBA draft boards.

The biggest reason is his maturity and consistency. His talent has never been in question.

"I've grown up a lot as a player," said Cousins, who is averaging a team-best 16.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game. "My decision making is a lot better. I still have a ways to go in some areas. I've matured more and my (basketball) IQ has gotten better."

One area he still has to grow in is his relationship with the zebras. During a sequence in the first half against LSU on Sunday, Cousins was called for an offensive foul when he swung his elbows after a rebound, prompting the referees to check the replay monitors to see if it was an intentional or flagrant foul.

Cousins was outspokenly upset with the refs after the win over LSU on Sunday for the lack of whistles in favor of him. He reiterated those thoughts again on Monday.

"It's a hard thing getting beat on every single play of the game and probably getting it called 30 percent of the time," Cousins said. "It's hard, but I'm getting used to it. I'm still trying to adjust to it."

Cousins said he's taking the lack of foul calls as a compliment because it means the other teams don't know how to stop him, but he also believes no other big man in the country is taking the type of beating he's suffering on a nightly basis. After a while it starts to take a toll.

"It hurts," Cousins said. "Let me beat on you all day."

His head coach, however, seems to believe that it comes with the territory of being a dominant post player in college. Teams are going to do everything in their power to stop Cousins from continuing this current torrid streak.

"He should ask Shaq (what it was like) when he was in college," Calipari said. "What did they do to him to where he had to leave and go pro? They just put three guys on him and hung and pushed and shoved. It was ridiculous, so no, he's not the only guy."

As Calipari quickly noted, though, it doesn't always feel that way when you're in his shoes. When you're getting beat on every game, leading the No. 2 team in the nation and shadowing your eyes from an ever-growing spotlight, it's hard not to slip up once in a while.

Despite playing under a microscope, he rarely has this season.

Because of the past, Alabama will offer another opportunity for the naysayers to say, "I told you so" about Cousins. But to his credit, whether it was an acting job or not, he's put on his best game face and squashed the hype.

"It's just another game," Cousins said again with that million-dollar smile brimming from ear to ear.

Maybe he can't hide his emotions heading into the Alabama game, but there's no acting job that can cover up the maturity overhaul Cousins has undergone at Kentucky.

Video: UK's freshman big men preview Alabama

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Alabama coach on facing Kentucky

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Alabama.jpgHere are quotes from Alabama head coach Anthony Grant, whose team will take on Kentucky at 9 p.m. on Tuesday. Thanks to the Alabama media relations department fo the quotes.

Opening statement:
"Well we're facing two very good basketball teams starting with Kentucky tomorrow, one of the best teams in the county, extremely talented, very well-coached and playing very good basketball right now.  Then on Saturday we play Arkansas having lost to them the last time we played them in Fayetteville.  I think Arkansas is a team that has really hit their stride and is playing well right now.  I believe they've won three in a row here and lead the (SEC) West, so we have two tough opponents here this week."

On two of Kentucky's star players (DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe) being from Alabama and his philosophy on recruiting in-state:
"I think for every player you go to the right situation for you.  Certainly it's important to us to recruit the best student-athletes within our state and our region.  Obviously we're going to take a look nationally to make sure we get our program where it needs to be, and that's what we'll do."

On facing a tough Kentucky team following close losses:
"I think Kentucky, when you look at the talent and the way they're playing, that's a very tough opponent to play, regardless of the situation, so I don't think one has to do with the other.  For me right now, our focus is on our basketball team and continuing to do the things that we've talked about all year - getting an understanding of what it takes to win, what we've got to do and how we should approach each game and the preparation that's involved in each game so that we put ourselves in the best situation to play the best we can and be successful."

"Again, Kentucky is a very talented basketball team.  I think they're playing extremely well, so for us it's just a matter of going in and controlling the things that we can control - how hard we play, how well we compete and the attention to the details that are involved in what allows us to have a chance.  I think right now it's more about us than it is about anything else."

On Kentucky's freshman guard, John Wall:
"He's a very talented player.  I'm extremely impressed with his ability in what he's done as a freshman walking into college basketball, let alone the SEC, for what he's been able to accomplish.  I think with his scoring, his leadership and his ability to make the game easier for his teammates he is a very talented guy.  For us it's never going to be about an individual.  Kentucky is a very talented team.  We're going to approach it in terms of a team game and try to put ourselves in a position to have success."

On whether his team is experiencing a hangover following the past week's close losses:
"You know, our guys come every day, they listen and we try to keep the same approach in terms of understanding the process and getting better.  We'll find out here tomorrow, but right now I think our guys understand where we want the program going and what we need to try to do to make it happen."

On what makes Kentucky a great team:
"Well they're extremely talented, a very talented team and a very deep team.  Coach (John) Calipari has done a great job of blending the talent that he has.  He's got them playing extremely hard and they appear to be playing together.  Anytime you do that it's a great recipe when you have the talent that he has.  It makes for an awfully good team, which they are."

Video: Cal sick to his stomach about facing Alabama

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Rankings update

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The Kentucky basketball teams are on the rise again.

Both the men's and women's basketball teams moved up in the major polls after going unscathed in conference play last week.

Following Villanova's loss to Georgetown, the men moved up to No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 and No. 2 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll. UK trails Kansas and Syracuse, respectively, in the AP poll and Kansas in the Coaches poll.

The men notched two first-place votes in the AP and one in the Coaches.

Meanwhile, the women continued their climb in the AP Top 25, jumping to No. 17 in the latest rankings. UK's 8-2 record in league play marks the program's best start in Southeastern Conference play in school history. The women's Coaches poll will be released Tuesday.

Also, ESPN.com has its weekly Bracketology. This week the Cats are in Milwaukee as a No. 1 seed, of course.  

Full polls below:

MBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web 35.jpgAP Top 25 (men) 
 1. Kansas (55) 22-1 1,613
 2. Syracuse (8) 23-1 1,553
 3. Kentucky (2) 22-1 1,514
 4. Villanova 20-2 1,366
 5. West Virginia 19-3 1,361
 6. Purdue 19-3 1,301
 7. Georgetown 17-5 1,211
 8. Duke 19-4 1,142
 9. Kansas State 19-4 1,139
10. Michigan State 19-5 968
11. Wisconsin 18-5 871
12. Tennessee 18-4 850
13. Ohio State 18-6 845
14. Texas 19-4 789
15. New Mexico 21-3 725
16. Gonzaga 19-4 693
17. Brigham Young 22-3 532
18. Butler 20-4 422
19. Northern Iowa 21-2 298
20. Georgia Tech 17-6 269
21. Temple 19-5 223
22. Vanderbilt 17-5 222
23. UNLV 19-4 209
24. Baylor 17-5 202
25. Pittsburgh 17-6 149

ESPN/USA Today Poll (men) 
 1. Kansas (29) 22-1 773
 2. Kentucky (1) 22-1 731
 3. Syracuse (1) 23-1 728
 4. West Virginia 19-3 657
 5. Villanova 20-2 639
 6. Purdue 19-3 599
 7. Duke 19-4 574
 8. Georgetown 17-5 560
 9. Kansas State 19-4 506
10. Michigan State 19-5 455
11. Gonzaga 19-4 427
12. Tennessee 18-4 417
13. Wisconsin 18-5 401
14. Texas 19-4 361
15. Butler 20-4 326
16. Ohio State 18-6 302
17. Brigham Young 22-3 298
18. Northern Iowa 21-2 221
19. New Mexico 21-3 211
20. Georgia Tech 17-6 150
21. Temple 19-5 131
22. Cornell 20-3 112
23. Pittsburgh 17-6 89
24. Vanderbilt 17-5 76
25. UNLV 19-4 55

WBSK 09_10 UK_OleMiss 07.jpgAP Top 25 (women)
 1. Connecticut (40)  23-0 1000 
 2. Stanford 21-1 959 
 3. Nebraska 21-0 896 
 4. Notre Dame 21-1 894 
 5. Tennessee 20-2 850 
 6. Xavier 18-3 775 
 7. Ohio State 23-3 740 
 8. Duke 18-4 709 
 9. West Virginia 21-3 627 
10. Florida State 20-4 593 
11. Baylor 17-5 537 
12. Oklahoma 16-6 511 
13. Texas A&M 16-5 510 
14. Texas 16-6 475 
15. Oklahoma State 18-5 436 
16. Georgetown 19-3 402 
17. Kentucky 20-3 372 
18. North Carolina 16-5 358 
19. Georgia 19-5 323 
20. Iowa State 18-4 210 
21. Georgia Tech 19-5 205 
22. Gonzaga 19-4 118 
23. LSU 15-7 93 
24. TCU 17-5 70 
25. St. John's 19-4 68 

Derek Anderson could have won an NBA title, an MVP trophy and an Olympic gold medal and it still may not have mattered in this state.

When you're Kentucky blue once -- whether it's for two years, four years or 40, or whether you've scored two points or 2,000 -- you're Kentucky forever.

Anderson knew that to an extent when he left UK after his senior season, one year removed from a national championship in 1996. But it took a long and successful NBA career for Anderson to fully appreciate the passion and dedication of the Kentucky fan base.

"I was the first guy to wear Jordan shoes on his first deal, got drafted in the lottery, the first guy from Louisville, all those things, and it never matched up to being at Kentucky," Anderson said. "To me it's still amazing because you have that type of career, 11 years in the NBA, and you would think that somebody would remember you for one of those years more than Kentucky."

Not after what Anderson and his 1995-96 team, "The Untouchables" did nearly 14 years ago. For all that mattered to the fans, Anderson and the eventual stockade of NBA draftees could have flamed out in the Association. The fans still would have adored them for one of the most amazing runs in college basketball history.

Just last week Anderson boarded a plane out of the state of Kentucky and a fan brought up his two years in Lexington, not his decade-plus professional career. Moments like that got Anderson to thinking: If the championship and that team meant to such much to him, his teammates and the state, why not relive the experience?

After a couple of conversations with his former teammates, including current UK assistant director of basketball operations Tony Delk, Anderson decided to recreate the dream season with an all-access look back at "The Untouchables" with a self-produced documentary on one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. The documentary is titled, "The Untouchables: The Greatest Team Ever."

"It's still amazing that people remember us from that team," Anderson said. "When you talk and relive it, we didn't realize how good we were. We knew we were good. We won a championship and did what we were supposed to do. But our goal after that was to win a championship. When we talked about it we were just like let's relive it and let people see how good we were.

"We decided it would be best for us to leave a legacy, not just to be a part of something but to be remembered as something."  

Fans will have a chance to relive and remember just how good that team was with a blue carpet screening Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Hyatt Regency Ballroom in Lexington. Tickets for the 45-minuite preview are $150 and include one plated dinner, desert, unlimited beverages, official screening program and gift bag. The event will feature members of the 1996 team, former Wildcats, current Wildcats, alumni and more. Tickets can be purchased at the documentary's official Web site. 
 
What will likely stand out during the interviews and reflections with former players and coaches, all of which were conducted by Anderson, is a super-talented team that put its egos aside and came together on the court for the greater goal of a championship.

Despite having nine future NBA players, including six first-round picks, the players were able to co-exist with one another and put together one of the most historic runs in NCAA history. UK, with a star-studded lineup that featured the likes of Anderson, Delk, Ron Mercer, Antoine Walker, Walter McCarty and more, won 27 games in a row, including a Southeastern Conference record 16-0 in league play, en route to the 1996 title.

anderson_derek1.jpg"Most coaches would have to baby guys and not play some guys," Anderson said. "The coaches made us practice every day to where you were fighting just to play so you can go to the NBA. So if you were a starter and you thought you were going to start all year, (Rick Pitino) would start somebody else and make you get your job back. It almost scared us into playing harder because we were so talented. That's what a great coach does."

The fact that the documentary coincides with Kentucky's return to the national stage is merely a coincidence, Anderson said, but he made no hesitation about stating his belief that the 1996 team was the greatest to ever take the court.

ESPN.com recently ranked the '96 team No. 2 behind one of John Wooden's great UCLA teams in its rankings of the best college basketball teams of all time.

"When was the last time a team went to the championship game three years in a row?" Anderson said. "You can't remember it and you won't. That's why it was so special for us. We had five NBA players starting. Then the other four guys were coming in to play. Once we figured it, out it was easy for us to win."

All it took was an early season loss to Massachusetts to figure it out. After that, the Cats were out for revenge. UK went on to win 27 straight games before losing to Mississippi State in the SEC championship. It hardly mattered as the Cats cut down the national title nets a month later.

"We didn't want to just win; we wanted to beat you to death," said Anderson, whose team won by an average of 24.3 points per game. "Whoever we were playing we wanted to embarrass them and show them how good we were."

Anderson said they didn't realize at the time what they were doing or how special they were.

"We were so focused on just one thing, (winning the championship)," Anderson said. "We didn't sway of the NBA or sway of leaving a legacy. Coach always told us to live in the precious present which every moment counts today and nothing else matters."

Maybe, but they've left a legacy for which they will always matter. Greatest ever? That's up for debate. But on Friday, fans will have a chance to relive it and judge for themselves. 

For more information, visit the Official Web site at untouchablesofkentucky.com.

SEC previews UK baseball

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Snow piles still pack the sidewalks and streets in Lexington, but UK's baseball team is just 11 days away from opening the 2010 season.

Continuing its 2010 Southeastern Conference baseball coverage, the SEC's official Web site has an in-depth preview of the 2010 UK baseball team. In the preview, fans will get a position-by-position outlook on the upcoming season.

The SEC also has a short video clip with UK coach Gary Henderson. Henderson previews the upcoming season and provides us with a couple of key players to watch out for this season. Check out the video when you get a chance.

UK will kick off its season Feb. 19 vs. Virginia Tech in the Caravelle Resort Tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Catching up

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It figures, the weekend I decide to step away from the blogosphere a bunch goes on. I guess that's the great thing about UK Athletics is its unpredictability and constant action. There are rarely days off for any of us.

Anyway, thought I'd run through the three biggest stories of the weekend while I was away for those of you that didn't catch all the action.

MTEN uk_uva 2.jpg- The biggest story of the weekend that unfortunately got overshadowed by the play of the basketball teams was the UK men's tennis team. Thanks to a pair of upset wins by sophomore Alex Musialek and Alberto Gonzalez, the No. 14 Cats toppled No. 2 Virginia 4-3 on Saturday at the Hilary J.  Boone Tennis Complex. UK's win snapped a 63-match winning streak for Virginia and improved the Cats to 5-1 on the season (the Cats moved on to 6-1 later that day with a 5-1 win over Eastern Kentucky). Expect UK to jump in the next Intercollegiate Tennis Association rankings.

- The No. 3/4UK men's basketball team thumped LSU on Saturday by a count of 81-55. Freshman DeMarcus Cousins had 19 points and 13 rebounds for his sixth consecutive double-double and 10 players scored for the Wildcats, but the biggest thing to take out of Saturday's game was the re-emergence of Patrick Patterson. The junior forward finished the game with a modest 16 points, but for the first time in a long time, Patterson appeared to be more assertive down low. There was a concentrated effort to put his butt in the paint and post up. As a result, we saw turnaround hooks, a couple of dunks and even more offensive rebounding opportunities for Cousins. Sure, Patterson launched a few 3-pointers and played on the perimeter, but for the first time this season we saw a total package of his newly honed game. Head coach John Calipari said after the win that Patterson is about 20 percent away from where he wants him to be. After the LSU game, imagine a Patterson at 100 percent.

- Matthew Mitchell and Co. continues to roll on. They're picking up so much momentum at this point that it isn't unconceivable to think this team could win the Southeastern Conference title. Picked to finish 11th by the SEC coaches at the beginning of the year, the No. 18/20 Cats remained one game behind first-place Tennessee with a 71-57 victory over Arkansas on Sunday. The win improved UK to 8-2 in the league, the program's best 10-game start in the SEC in school history. Nobody in the league is playing better than the duo of A'dia Mathies and Victoria Dunlap. Mathies, a freshman guard, went for a career-high 27 points Sunday, and Dunlap notched another double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Dunlap was named SEC Player of the Week for the second straight week for her performances against Ole Miss and Arkansas. Inexplicably, Mathies was somehow snubbed from SEC Freshman of the Week honors despite averaging 24.0 points per game.

A break from the blogosphere

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For those of you loyal followers who follow this blog every day, just wanted to give you a warning that I won't have coverage today for the LSU game.

I'm currently on the road bidding farewell to a sibling who is moving out west, and since I'm helping him move, my availability today for the game will be limited.

Hope everybody enjoys the game. I'll return to the blogosphere on Monday at the latest.

Cats making strong case for top SEC honors

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WBSK 09_10 UK_Vandy Web 42.jpgThe only races Matthew Mitchell, Victoria Dunlap and A'dia Mathies are campaigning for this year is a Southeastern Conference championship and an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.

But in the process of getting there, the coach and his dynamic duo are making a pretty strong case for themselves.

They may not want to brag about it, but allow me to be the one to campaign for them. Consider this my party nominations for UK Hoops: On my midseason ballot I'm putting Matthew Mitchell for SEC Coach of the Year, Victoria Dunlap for SEC Player of the Year and A'dia Mathies for SEC Freshman of the Year.

That's quite a potential sweep right there. Sure, it's pretty lofty expectations, but for a team that was picked in the preseason to finish 11th in the conference, a lot has to go right,  both for the team and individually, to sit in sole possession of second place midway through the conference slate.

"That is the thing that has impressed me about our players up to this point is that they have not grown weary of doing the little things that we need to do in order to be successful," Mitchell said Friday. "As a coach you get concerned about that because it is a pretty simple formula for us. As a coach, part of your job is to be concerned about those things and make certain that you keep them focused."

Mitchell and his players don't have the time to be focused about end-of-the-year awards. The only thing the Cats want them for is icing for the cake. But in making the batter and fixing this program, those three Cats have earned the right to be mentioned in the annual award races as we gear up for the second half of the season.

Dunlap, for all intents and purposes, has been the most dominating player in the SEC this season. She's third in scoring (17.6 ppg), third in rebounding (8.8) and amazingly for a low-post player, first in the league - and second in the nation - in steals (3.4).

What's been the most encouraging attribute from Dunlap this season has been her consistency. On a team with a relative lack of size and depth in the paint, she's been unstoppable against double and sometimes triple teams.

In years past, where she showed flashes of potential, now she puts on a consistent 40 minutes of domination. Even when she plays bad, she still goes for a double-double.

"She never stops," Mitchell said. "I was watching the Arkansas game today and she just had a miserable first 25 minutes and then turned it on. A lot of players would get down and would get discouraged."

The Dunlap of old might have. The Dunlap of new, the one in the mix for Player of the Year honors, finished the game with 22 points and eight rebounds.

"She has a lot of character," Mitchell said.

What's helped her maybe more than anything is that she no longer has to be the main focus of the offense. If Dunlap didn't score last season, Kentucky was left for dead. Now Dunlap doesn't have to go off for 25 for the Cats to win.

She has a shoulder to lean on in Mathies, a freshman sensation.

"It takes pressure off of me to not have to score and make every basket," Dunlap said. "I can give it to my teammates and they will make baskets now, too."

Mathies came in and scored right away for the Cats, notching four straight games in double figures to start her UK career.

"A'dia is the definition of a difference maker," Mitchell said. "She's made a tremendous impact on our team."

While she's propelled herself to second among SEC freshmen in scoring at 12.1 points per game after a career-high 21 points against Ole Miss on Thursday night, it's been her ability to do the little things of late that has led to the Cats' longest winning streak in SEC play in school annals.

"It is remarkable to see a freshman function at that level," Mitchell said of Mathies, who is first among SEC freshman in steals (2.2 spg). "She has been a lot of fun to coach. She pulled the biggest defensive assignment last night in the top scorer in the league (Bianca Thomas) and we didn't hesitate to put her on her. We didn't know what she would do exactly but we knew she would give a good effort. She is doing a really good job."

But maybe nobody in the league - player, coach or towel girl - is doing their job better than Mitchell. In just a year's span, he's taken a team that could hardly field five starters and raised them from the depths of the SEC to a game behind first-place Tennessee.

WBSK 09_10 UK_OleMiss 34.jpgThe fact that he's taken the second-worst team in the SEC, according to a poll conducted in the preseason by the coaches (laughable in its own sense considering the talent on this team), and not only made it respectable but put it in contention for a league title, makes him the early favorite to win Coach of the Year honors.

Heck, if I were given a ballot at the end of the year, it isn't even close. He's a shoo-in.

Mitchell's greatest achievement to date has been keeping his kids humble and hungry. With a roster that includes two Miss Kentucky Basketball stars Rebecca Gray and Mathies, veterans Amani Franklin, Amber Smith and Dunlap, and impact transfers Crystal Riley and Keyla Snowden, Mitchell could conceivably have too many stars.

Yet somehow he's found a way to weave 12 players together while keeping everyone happy with the minutes and the shots they're given. He's fostered an attitude of unselfishness from the players to buy in the greater belief of the team.

In this "me! me! me!" society, it's refreshing to watch players put their team and teammates before themselves. It's one of the reasons UK has been so successful this year.

Credit Mitchell with spreading that belief and keeping the Cats focused despite a wave of attention and success.

With how well UK has played to this point, the trio of Mitchell, Dunlap and Mathies deserve to be in the consideration for the year-ending awards, which is an amazing feat for this Kentucky team. If the SEC were the U.S. government, it'd be like one of 12 parties - we're not just talking about Republicans and Democrats now - sweeping the executive office, Senate and House of Representatives.

They've been that good.

If the Cats had to choose between an SEC championship and individual achievements, it isn't even close - they're taking the team honors. But the individual play and coaching of some is what's fueled the greater good of the team.

Now that the team is finally getting the respect that it deserves, isn't it time the people that got them there get the recognition that they deserve?

"I don't even know yet," Dunlap said. "We have good nights, but we also miss small things like layups and turning the ball over. It is mind-blowing to know how great we have played but that we can still get even better."

Spoken like someone who's in it for the greater good. That, to me, sounds like a winner.

Video: Cats staying true to who they are

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Great story on Mathies

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WBSK 09_10 UK_OleMiss 15.jpgFantastic story by Mark Story (no pun intended) from the Lexington Herald-Leader on A'dia Mathies this morning. Story writes that Mathies is making a difference, just as she knew she could.

Mathies scored a career-high 21 points in Kentucky's 80-66 win over Ole Miss Thursday night, the team's sixth straight win in league play, a school record.

While junior forward Victoria Dunlap has paced the Cats all year long, Mathies, a freshman guard, has become the difference maker on a team full of stars.

"A'dia is the definition of a difference maker," Mitchell said after the game Thursday night. "She has made a tremendous impact on our team."

Story's lead sums it up beautifully.

A'dia Mathies twisted into the lane, rose off the floor, hung in the air and finally flipped an underhanded scoop shot around a Mississippi defender toward the basket.

Swish.

In the balcony of Memorial Coliseum, a guy who knows a little bit about theatrical basketball -- John Wall -- turned to DeMarcus Cousins with a "Can you believe that?" look on his face.

Turns out, the Wildcat men's team is not the only basketball squad on the Kentucky campus with a first-year player who can make you say "Wow!"

Check out Story's article when you get a chance. And tune back in later for a women's basketball story here on the blog.

Feb. 5 From the Pressbox

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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

= = =

This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the legendary shootouts in Southeastern Conference basketball history and it took place in Baton Rouge, La., where the Cats are headed this weekend.

On Feb. 21, 1970, Kentucky outgunned LSU 121-105 despite the 64 points of "Pistol Pete" Maravich. UK's Dan Issel countered with a 51-point day.

"Pete wasn't a great shooter -- he was a great scorer because he could get himself in position to take shots," Issel told me in an interview for coachcal.com. "He was the best ballhandler and passer I ever saw."

In the six games between Kentucky and LSU when Issel and Maravich were in school, Pistol Pete averaged 52 points per game but the Cats went 6-0 in the series. And Issel says coach Adolph Rupp's strategy was to let Maravich get his points but make sure his LSU teammates were held in check.

"Ray Mears at Tennessee and some of the other SEC coaches were trying to devise these defenses to stop Pete and you couldn't stop him. We played Pete one-on-one," Issel said. "Poor Jimmy Dinwiddie and Terry Mills and Stan Key, who had to cover him. They didn't have much fun."

Issel is arguably the Cats' best big man ever and he is really impressed with the improvement of DeMarcus Cousins from the start of the season.

"The biggest thing I've noticed is that he has gotten more patient," Issel said. "When you're a young player, you get in a hurry. You get the ball in the low post and you want to make a move and shoot it. What he's doing (now) is he reads the defense and then he takes what the defense gives him. And when he decides to go after an offensive rebound, there isn't anybody that's going to stop that."

= = =

Kids dream of tossing the game-winning pass or grabbing a miracle catch in the back of the end zone to cap a thrilling comeback. But even this is pretty heavy stuff for former Wildcat star Jacob Tamme.

"I don't know if I ever dreamed of doing this," Tamme said. "As a kid, I don't know that I could have dreamed this far. I credit God because he's blessed my life in so many different ways. It's just an amazing feeling (to be here)."

In just his second season, former Tamme is getting ready to play in Super Bowl XLIV with the Indianapolis Colts. And since Tamme plays on every special team but the field goal block unit, he will be on the field for the first moment of action this Sunday night in Miami.

"There's a certain amount of nerves in every game but when you prepare the right way, you don't have any of the bad nervousness," Tamme told tomleachky.com. "This is the biggest game in the world so it's a special kind of feeling I suppose. If you just focus on doing the same things you've been doing and doing your job, you'll be all right."

Peyton Manning's work ethic is legendary and Tamme appreciates even more having gotten the chance to see it first hand. Before the last Super Bowl, Manning watched every game of his opponent from that season and got a report on the preseason games and the ones from the previous year, looking for any edge he could find.

"It's a challenge to everybody," Tamme said of Manning's preparation. "He prepares harder and longer than anybody. It pushes everybody to excel."

= = =

Head coach John Calipari all but shrugged off John Wall's postgame comments early in the week.

"The pressure, the squeeze, all that's on everyone of these kids, they're learning to deal with it," Calipari said. "Early on, as they learn, they're not going to deal with it as well. When they understand, they'll play better. What I'm telling John to do is run our team. He's going to be fine. He's the least of our worries. He's not a machine. He's a normal, 19-year old kid."

That's how Calipari handled the story that emerged from the post-Vandy game interviews in which Wall vented about being frustrated.

Wall seemed to be back to his old self in Tuesday's win over Ole Miss. Calipari says one thing they're working on with him is develping more of a mid-range game, to make opponents have to play him there when he drives. Cal says Derrick Rose did that after he encountered some of the same defensive approaches in his season at Memphis and that did the trick to open things back up.

The Big Four: Rondo joins NBA's elite in Boston

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rondo3.9.jpgFormer Kentucky guard Rajon Rondo was selected to his first career All-Star game last week as a reserve. Already well on his way to a long and successful career in the NBA, Rondo has quickly placed himself on the brink of stardom in Boston in his third season in the Association.

Rondo's professional career to date has gone about as well as one could expect. He's the starting point guard for arguably the NBA's most storied franchise, has a championship ring on his finger and will head to the All-Star game next week to play with the world's best players.

Not bad for a guy who used to sit next to me in computer class in high school.

But every star needs room to grow. While Rondo has been blessed to play along three of the game's best players in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, he, at times, has been overshadowed by the star power of their long and established careers.

Not anymore.

Turn on SportsCenter or an NBA game on TNT and you're likely to find a developing story in Boston. It's Rondo - not Garnett, Pierce or Allen - who has quickly become the centerpiece of the Boston offense.

Now I'm not dumb enough to sit here and write that Rondo is the best player on Boston. Boston has three potential Hall of Famers on its team. The Kool Aid isn't that strong - at least not yet.

But it is time to make room for Rondo as one of the stars in Boston. Garnett, Pierce and Allen have long been tabbed the Big Three. Well, it's time to add one more number to the mix. How about the Big Four?

Rondo's play this season, especially of late, has made a strong case for it. The former UK star is averaging 14.3 points per game this season and a team-best 9.8 assists and 2.4 steals per game.

With his elder teammates were battling injuries during the month of January, Rondo took hold of the team and averaged 16.2 points and 9.8 assists. He's posted double-doubles in each of the past three games and is shooting a cool 52.9 percent from the floor this season.

Now I know what some of you are thinking: Isn't Boston struggling lately? I guess, if you call a 31-16 record struggling.

The bottom line is that the Celtics are once again in the hunt for the NBA Finals and they have Rondo to thank for that.

Softball not settling for just good

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SBL 08_09 UK_UL Web 03.jpgStanding next to Rachel Lawson was a two-ton elephant.

Before last season started, Rachel Lawson stood in the middle of the locker room and talked to her team about believing it could be good, that it could finally move from the depths of the Southeastern Conference and not only post a winning record but contend for an NCAA Tournament spot.

Standing next to her in total disagreement was the elephant in the room. As Lawson preached faith, it talked about the past. It stared at the 20 Wildcats in the room and said, "Why now? Why, after 12 years of losing and infertility would you finally succeed this year? You haven't done it before. You're not going to do it now."

It had a point.

For all the talk about winning, there wasn't an ounce of proof that things were going to change. Teams everywhere talk of winning. Few, even the ones with winning pasts, often do.

"I think we knew we could be and would be good," senior shortstop Molly Johnson said, "just how good, we weren't quite sure."

And then, like a raging stampede, the Cats started to run people over. UK stormed out to an 18-6 record in the first half of the season, launching the program onto the national scene for the first time in school history.

To call it an eye opener for a once stagnant program would be selling it short.

"If you just went historically on what Kentucky had done in the past, they were surprised by the speed," said third-year head coach Rachel Lawson. "I think everybody expected we would do well by the end but that it would be more of a gradual process."

It was a firestorm. The Cats blazed to 34 wins on the season, second most in program annals, winning the school's first SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament games. By the time Kentucky had dropped its NCAA Regional game to Ohio State, the foundation of a winning program had finally been built.

There was no longer talk. Now there was belief. And where there's belief, there's potential.
"Once we got to the SEC Tournament and got that first win, it kind of boosted our spirits a little bit and solidified that yeah, we are good," Johnson said.

Said sophomore pitcher Rachel Riley, one of the stalwarts behind UK's magical run: "I think last year we were almost surprising ourselves. We knew we could do it but nobody else did. When it actually started happening, we were like we can really do this. This year we're coming in knowing we have the talent and the ability to compete with anybody."

That's what Lawson and her team has to face this year. It's a double-edge sword that screams both excitement and possible disappointment.

For one, it presents a sense of belief that the Cats could build off an already historic run and reach even newer heights this season. And who's to say they couldn't? With virtually the entire 2009 team coming back, the possibilities of the program have never been brighter.

But with possibilities come expectations and with expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment. It's a role the softball program has never had to face.

"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."

That Cats' confidence has never been higher. Every player, with the exception of seldom-used Katie McCarty, returns for the 2010 season, including Team USA selection and All-American Molly Johnson.

In addition to Johnson, UK returns Riley, who posted the third-lowest ERA (2.35) in school history last year, veteran Natalie Smith, the hard-throwing Chanda Bell, who set the single-season and single-game record for school strikeouts, defensive captain Megan Yocke, home-run slugger Brittany Cervantes (team-high 10 round trippers) and the speedy Meagan Aull.

What's not to like about Kentucky's chances of competing for an SEC title in 2010? The return of nearly every key player has given the Cats an unprecedented swagger.

"I think that's a big confidence boost knowing that we can do it," Johnson said. "With the freshman class that we had last year, I think their experience now is going to make us even better this year. Our freshman class this year will give us a few spark plugs too. I think experience is going to play a big part this year."

The SEC should be even more alarmed by the fact that both Johnson and Riley acknowledged that it took some time for the massive freshman class of a year ago to mesh with the veterans. If that didn't faze them last year, imagine what they'll be able to do this year with a year of experience and chemistry under their belts.

"Last year was tough on the older girls because there were 10 freshmen so it was kind of split," Riley said. "We had to get to know each other. Now there are only a few frehmen so now we know how each other plays so I think it will really help."

But the Cats can't get overconfident or even cocky. They once again have one of the toughest schedules in the nation - UK doesn't play at home until March 10 - and must march through the always rugged SEC.

"I know they're not content because like every other team in the conference we want to win the conference," Lawson said. "As much as we did a great job last year in terms of our RPI - no other team increased as much as we did and we finished in the top 16 - we're still in the middle of the SEC. We need to do what we need to do to get to the top."

To get there, UK will need to improve in several areas, most notably developing consistency at the bottom of the order. For all the offensive progress the Cats established in 2009 - they scored more than 50 runs more than the season before - they left runners on base at an alarming rate, totaling just 217 RBI on the season, near the bottom of the SEC.

As good as Bell and Riley were last year, they must continue to improve and establish themselves as aces of the league. With the help of senior leader Amber Matousek, they've both worked diligently this offseason to develop new pitches.

Lawson called Riley one of the steadiest players she's ever coached, and despite already being one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the league, Bell has added three miles per hour to her already lightning-quick pitches.

SBL 08_09 UK_Kent Game1 Web 07.jpgBut the biggest advantage UK boasts, as has been the case the last three years, will be having Johnson in the team's arsenal. One of the nation's premier players, the senior will come into her final year of eligibility coming off a magnificent 2009.

Last year she led the Cats in average (.433), runs (53), hits (81), doubles (14) and slugging percentage (.695). As a member of Team USA, she learned from the likes of softball legends like Jennie Finch. Johnson belted a grand slam in one of the Team USA's victories.

The difference between the Johnson of the past, one of the best kept secrets in the country, and senior Johnson is the leadership and maturity she gained from playing with the sport's best players.

"I expect Molly to be the best," Lawson said. "She has a desire to lead in most offensive categories. Defensively she has the best arm in the country and there is not a better player than her."

When Johnson entered the program three years ago, she had visions of one day improving the program, but she admitted that she never imagined taking a dormant program and putting itself in the position it's in heading into this season.

"I was just hoping to really improve the program, but I don't know that I was really prepared for what we were going to have happen last year," Johnson said. "I think that was probably a bonus for me and the rest of the senior class. Whatever we can give to the program I think we're happy with that. Hopefully this year we can give more than anyone ever expected of us."

Kentucky begins its season next week on Feb. 11 when it travels to Tempe, Ariz., for the Kajikawa Classic.

Cats' class cracks top 50

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The Kentucky football coaching staff has never been one to put much stock into recruiting stars or rankings. Instead, the coaches have placed an emphasis on finding overlooked gems like Jacob Tamme, Wesley Woodyard and Trevard Lindley -- players who didn't have a bunch of stars behind their names -- and grooming them into all-conference performers.

That being said, recruiting rankings do hold some bearing of the strength of a team's recruiting class. Think that ridiculous 28-man class at Florida, ranked No. 1 by most recruiting services, won't play a significant role two, three years down the road?

Anyway, Kentucky's 2010 class was ranked in the top 50 by both Rivals.com and Scout.com. Rivals rated UK's class No. 49 in its team-by-team rankings and Scout tabbed the Cats' class at No. 47.

Rivals credited UK with picking up one four-star recruit and 18 three-star recruits. Scout's analysis concluded one four-star pickup and 15 three-star signees.

As mentioned above, though, Kentucky has generally paid more attention to the player than the stars that follow his name. That's why they could have another gem in its class in cornerback Dale Trimble.

The 5-foot-10, 175-signee out of Gadsden, Ala., was tabbed by Rivals.com as one of the five super sleepers of the 2010 class.

"Trimble does not have the size or overall athletic ability of fellow AL/MS All Star Classic teammate DaMarcus Milliner. But Trimble (5-10, 175) turned the All Star Classic around with a 36-yard interception return for a touchdown. Trimble's score helped lead the Alabama squad to victory. His biggest asset is his ability to come out of his backpedal and make plays on the ball. He does have good height, but will need to add some size and strength to help his durability in the SEC. I really think Kentucky has found a slightly shorter Trevard Lindley. Lindley happened to be a low two-star prospect who turned himself into a Senior Bowl participant and future NFL draft pick." 

The uphill battle for UK's recruiting class now that the dust has settled is that it once again goes against the nation's best conference as five Southeastern Conference teams dotted Rivals' top-10 team rankings.

Video: Phillips discusses 2010 recruiting class

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IMG_9126.JPG

Joker Phillips had barely closed the door on hours, days and months full of phone calls, sweat and tears to round out the 2010 recruiting class before he had a chance to breathe.

But there he was at his first Signing Day as head coach, smiling, upbeat and as relaxed as ever. Just 30 minutes since announcing a last-minute signee - junior college defensive back Michael Bailey - Phillips reflected on his previous statement leading up to college football's national holiday that he was confident Kentucky's football recruiting class would meet the fans' expectations.

"Did I say confident?" Phillips said, prompting room full of laugher among the scribes at Wednesday's news conference. "Sometimes you've got to act a different way (than you feel). I wasn't confident until a couple of them came across the board. I said, 'Dang, did I promise there would be some surprises?' I'm glad it came through."

Before the clock struck noon Wednesday, Phillips had managed to bank in on his promise to land a few surprises, propelling UK's recruiting class into most top-50 rankings while transforming a once disappointing recruiting class among the fans into a deep and talented 26-man class.

In a matter of 48 hours, Phillips and his staff managed to turn the sour, somber song of the message boards into a day of praise.

"I have not been a part of a class (that has changed this much in the last 24 hours)" Phillips said. "It says something about how relentless we were in this last 24, 48 hours in trying to get these kids to get the faxes in for us."

Inside the Nutter Training Facility, the football headquarters on Signing Day, all eyes were on the fax machines and phones. Coaches jumped at the sound of a ringtone and shouted with the joy of a signed piece of paper.

The day was filled with anxiety, excitement, jubilation and disappointment.

"It's always nervous because you want to know who is in and who's not and that sort of thing," recruiting coordinator and linebackers coach Chuck Smith said. "It's a nerve-racking deal."

Because anytime you're dealing with 18- and 19-year-old kids, nothing is for certain. We're talking about kids who can't decide what color shoes they want to wear to school. Choosing school colors is inevitably tougher to decide.

In other words, banking on a kid's word is hardly worth kicking back and relaxing. What makes a class certain is that final drop of ink on an "i" or the final cross on a "t."

That's why Phillips and Co. stuck to their convictions that they were going to churn out another step-stone building recruiting class amid the early disappointment that UK wasn't signing enough three-, four- and five-star recruits.

They continually put faith in the belief and the foundation of the program that had allowed the coaching staff to take a gamble on recruits the program had previously never had a shot at.

"We're not worried about recruiting," Phillips said. "We're going to continue to do what we do which is battle 'til the end. We'll sign great players. We'll be in some of those battles late in the game. That's what we did in this class."

Generally speaking, the more touted a player is the higher the chance he's being courted by more schools. That means more options and tougher choices and often times, last-minute decisions.

If UK wants to start nabbing those upper-echelon players, the coaching staff might have to take risks. More like calculated risks, actually, because the coaches believe in the facilities, the tradition and the foundation they've built.

"If you want better players, you're going to have to wait it out, you're going to have to sweat it out," Phillips said. "Believe me, we sweated it out a lot."

The historic four-year run allowed the coaching staff to go into homes they'd never been into and talk to recruits that would have never considered UK five years ago. The results spoke for themselves Wednesday morning when the fax machine started spitting out Phillips' promises.
Out came Brandon Gainer, the nation's No. 15 running back, according to ESPN.com. Gainer, who was generating a significant amount of buzz in South Florida, was thought to be headed to Central Florida or North Carolina.

Just before then, four-star tight end Alex Smith, a highly touted tight end that originally verballed to Cincinnati and then North Carolina ultimately settled on Kentucky. Among Phillips' first duties as a head coach was making a trip up Interstate 71 to visit a player many have called the best pass-catching tight end since Jacob Tamme.

"When you get into a kid's home and he starts bringing out his Kentucky gear that he got when he was a little kid and he wants you sign it, the first thing I can think of is he's always wanted to come to Kentucky - his dream was to play either basketball or football at Kentucky - and he wanted my signature," Phillips said. "I said, 'Hey, live out your dream. I am.' "

It's a dream that's become a reality for so many of these recruits in and around Kentucky. It's no longer just going to UK to get playing time. Now there's a proven environment of winning and bowls. In turn, that allows Phillips and his coaching staff to sell the vision to players that never even dreamed of playing for Kentucky.

Take for instance Tim Patterson.

The highly touted linebacker, considered one of the Commonwealth's top recruits, grew up a Louisville fan and was strongly considering the Cardinals when Charlie Strong was hired. But the Central High School star saw something in Phillips that made him believe in the direction Kentucky continues to head.

"That's real crucial for us," Phillips said. "We've gotten those guys that have grown up not being fans of Kentucky. The ones that we've gotten, they've come over here and had success and it's opened up the eyes of the other ones like Tim Patterson and Ridge Wilson. They were not Kentucky fans, but we slowly convinced them that they could be Kentucky fans."

That means recruiting in a rival's backyard.

"We always talk about the heart and soul of our program has to be in the state of Kentucky," Phillips said. "What's the biggest population in the state of Kentucky? The city of Louisville. We have to be successful in the city of Louisville, and we have."

One could go on and on about the recruiting class and its surprise signees. Defensive lineman Nermin Delic was a big get, Jerrell Priester adds Randall Cobb-like athleticism, Joe Mansour might have the strongest kicking leg in the country, etc., etc.

But whether we're talking about recruiting pipelines in Louisville, Georgia, South Carolina or Alabama, the belief is spreading among the bigger names. The recruiting stars won't all come at once, but they are growing with the addition of the late surprises.

Were they surprise signees? Sure. Should we be surprised at this point that Kentucky is getting higher profile athletes and putting together another recruiting class that will likely continue its recent trend of success? Not at all.

"The first phase of Operation Win is recruiting," Phillips said. "We finished strong with the 2010 class. We feel good about the class and how it ended up. Our staff was relentless in the last two or three weeks in trying to get names to fill this class. We feel like we fulfilled not only the things that we were looking for, but we add some size, speed and athleticism."

Video: Mitchell talks about moving up SEC ladder

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Video: Wildcat Weekly with Carly Morrow

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Football Signing Day Live Blog

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BOB_4843.jpgA blue and white Kentucky clad player might earn National Player of the Year honors before this season is all said and done, but here's a notion worth considering: it might not be John Wall.

That player a few national writers speculated could derail UK's season because of his emotions, it turns out he could be the difference in UK's national championship aspirations.

Yes, it's DeMarcus Cousins - not Wall - who has become the dominant player in college basketball.

If that takes a minute to digest, it's understandable. After all, we are talking about the John Calipari-described 12-year-old; the player that wears Peter Parker sunglasses and Russian hats, goes by the name of "Boogie" and "Big Cuz," and has drawn more analysis for his elbows and goofiness than his post moves.

But Cousins, if he wasn't in the discussion already, deserves to be on the short list of National Player of the Year candidates.

"DeMarcus Cousins is playing as well as any post player in college basketball," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. He's got the whole package. He's got the size and the strength, got good speed, he's got great touch, he's got good feel. He's a handful."

The only thing that can contain him during this torrid midseason run might be a cage, and even that might not work.

Kennedy tried to put a five-man cage around Cousins Tuesday night, but it hardly made a dent in the freshman forward's production. The big man scored 18 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and pitched four blocks in Kentucky's 85-75 victory over Ole Miss, Kentucky's 21st win of the season and sixth in league play.

"The beast goes crazy again," Calipari said of Cousins' night.

His fifth straight double-double was the first time a UK player has notched five or more straight double-doubles since Jim Andrews totaled six in 1973. That, in addition to his ridiculous 30.5 points, 18.4 rebounds per 40 minutes average, is the first among in a book full of reasons to include Cousins' name on the season-ending Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy ballots.

"This kid has certainly taken college basketball by storm," Kennedy said of Cousins, who reminded the third-year Ole Miss coach of another former freshman phenom, Chris Washburn.

Kennedy, who said he's known for Cousins a long time, said there was never any doubt that Cousins would transform into a dominant big man. The only thing that stood in his way was consistency and his sometimes wayward energy.

Neither are problems anymore.

Instead of having a potential breakout player in the post - Cousins' description coming out of high school and subsequent play in the first quarter of the season - Kentucky has an established, NBA-sized man-child in the paint who is no longer just capable of a double-double. It's now expected of him.

Cousins, who is averaging 19.6 points and 12.0 rebounds over his last five games, has learned to channel his emotions into an unstoppable raw energy.

He's had his teeth knocked out, been elbowed in the face, and after Tuesday night, a lengthy scratch across his back.

"I think I might be the next Shaq," Cousins said. "I just wish I was a referee sometimes just to see what they were seeing so I could understand. I wish they were in my shoes as well."

Teams are double teaming him and throwing elbows at him like lumberjacks fire axes at trees. And yet he still goes off for a double-double almost every night.

Might the next strategy be a Shaquille O'Neal-like hack-a-Cuz?

"He makes free throws," Wall said, encouraging teams to pick their poison.

It's been amazing and downright surprising to see Cousins' maturity given the brutal punishment and strategy to get in his head with goon-like moves, but that improvement in his personality has overshadowed the endless potential his game possesses.

_PAL1668.jpgCousins once again dazzled with uncanny, guard-like spin moves in the paint, a feathery touch and pure, brute strength.

Cousins described his night as sluggish, but the looks of media row said otherwise. A janitor needed a mop to soak up the drool of the 24 NBA scouts and general managers. Even in a league that owns the world's greatest athletes, they likely have never seen anything like him.

Calipari hasn't.

"Not a big man," Calipari said, "including in the NBA. I hate to do that to the kid ... (but) you're talking about a skilled, 6-11, player that can make free throws, that can pass, has a great mind for the game and is emotionally growing day by day by day."

"I have never had a player come this far this fast."

No disrespect to Wall, who is still likely a lock for the top spot in this year's NBA Draft, but Cousins has become the heart of the UK offense. Wall still runs the offense, but the offense runs through Cousins.

That much is clear in the defensive game planning for him. Teams are double and triple teaming him, zoning Kentucky to take Cousins out of the game and almost daring the Cats to shoot from the perimeter.

That's opened the way for players like Darnell Dodson and DeAndre Liggins to get open shots, and Tuesday night they capitalized. Dodson hit 4-of-5 shots from behind the arc, adding the type of balance that reminds one of the national championship Tar Heels from a year ago.

It's also reopened the door for Wall - still Kentucky's most skilled and dangerous player - to get better looks and allies in the lane. The result was an early season flashback of Wall, one filled with 17 points and seven assists.

Calipari said it was the best Wall has run the team all season. If Cousins can take some pressure off him and allow him to get back to games like Tuesday, Kentucky might have the perfect package.

"If we all contribute like that, it's hard for you to stop us," Wall said.

If Wall and Cousins can both turn it on like this together for the rest of the season, there will be no stopping the Cousins-Wall train for Player of the Year.

We knew Wall would be there at the end of the season. It's time to insert Cousins' name into the mix.

"(Cousins) is a special players and he's a special young man," Calipari said.

MBSK 08_09 UK_FL WEB 05.jpg
Kentucky men's basketball tickets have become like gold, and to alleviate a California-like Gold Rush inside Memorial Coliseum, the UK Ticket Office has made some slight alterations for the final student lottery of the year, which will take place on Monday, Feb. 8.

With the Cats opening up the season 20-1 and currently sitting at No. 3/4 in the polls, national exposure is at an all-time high, including the demand for UK student tickets. At UK's most recent student lottery on Jan. 19, a record number of students packed Memorial Coliseum hoping to be drawn in the lottery. In response to the overwhelming demand for tickets, UK officials are now preparing for the final regular-season lottery of the year, which will include tickets for the Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida games.

The actual process of purchasing tickets will not change significantly. However, UK officials from the athletics department and the Dean of Students office have made alterations to the entry procedures to alleviate crowding and ensure the safety of all students involved. 

Due to building capacity restrictions, a maximum of 8,000 students will be allowed into Memorial Coliseum for the final lottery. Two entry lines will be formed at the front of Memorial Coliseum, and students will be counted upon entering the lines.

Students will not be allowed to line up in front of Memorial Coliseum any earlier than 6 p.m. on Monday evening. Students will be required to show a valid student ID upon entering the line. If you do not have your student ID, you will not be allowed into the building. Once students are in the entry line, they may not leave for any reason. Once the line reaches 8,000 students, capacity will be reached and no more students will be allowed to enter the building. Doors will open between 8 and 8:30 p.m., and they will close when capacity has been reached. 

In a change from previous lotteries, students who wish to sit together must be in the entry line outside the Coliseum together, as lottery numbers will be distributed upon entering the front doors of the Coliseum. In past lotteries, numbers have been distributed at the tops of the Coliseum ramps. For the Feb. 8 lottery, students will pass through turnstiles when they enter the building, immediately receive their lottery number and proceed up the ramps; thus, students must be in their groups before they enter the building.

UK officials also stress the importance of filling in every available seat after entering the building.  Due to fire code restrictions, students may not sit in the balcony area next to the video board. All students who do not have an actual seat will be required to remain in the concourse areas until seating is available, keeping aisles and walkways clear.

Once the lottery begins, the order of numbers drawn will be shown on the video board and scoreboards at either end of the court throughout the lottery, as well as posted in the concourses.

As a reminder, to be eligible to attend the lottery, a student must be enrolled on a full-time status with valid UK ID card.  Your athletics fee must also be paid with your tuition each semester. Eligible BCTC students must register and pay the athletics fee online each semester to attend lotteries.  The UK Ticket Office does not anticipate having any guest tickets to sell for these final three home games. For questions regarding student lotteries, please call the UK Ticket Office at (859) 257-1818.

UK Hoops to sell $1 tickets for "Pink Zone" game at lottery

UK students will also have the opportunity to support a great cause at the lottery by purchasing $1 tickets to the Feb. 18 women's basketball game vs. Florida.  These tickets will be available to purchase at a separate table, so don't forget to bring your $1 bills.  Proceeds will benefit the team's contribution to the Kay Yow/WBCA Cancer Fund.   

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for joker_phillips_with_football.jpgBy the time the ink dries, you'll know who has signed with Kentucky.

With the help of Cat Scratches' live blog application, UKathletics.com will bring fans the latest and most accurate football Signing Day news on Wednesday. Cat Scratches will host a live blog from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility, the football headquarters for UK.

As soon as UK receives the National Letter of Intent, Cat Scratches will be the first to report the official news.

In addition to the news of the signees, Cat Scratches will host several live chats with some of the UK assistant coaches, live from the Nutter Training Facility. In between their busy day of recruiting, several of the coaches will sit down with Cat Scratches to discuss the latest signees, how the Cats' recruiting class is shaking up, and answer fans questions and comments in a real-time format.

Fans can submit their questions and comments during the live chat from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesday. Questions will be posted pending approval of the moderator.

UKathletics.com will also have coverage from the Signing Day news conference at 3 p.m. as well as video and bios of the signees. Cat Scratches will have additional posts on the blog throughout the day.

Cats climb to No. 18 in ESPN/USA Today Poll

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The latest accolade for the UK women's basketball team came Tuesday with the Cats' continued ascension in the polls.

Kentucky climbed to No. 18 in the latest ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll with 245 points. UK, one of four Southeastern Conference teams in the poll, sits behind conference foes Tennessee (No. 5) and Georgia (No. 14).

The Cats are ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press Top 25, the Cats' first AP ranking since 2006.

Bracketology update

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WBSK 09_10 UK_AU Web 40.jpgPut on your dance shoes, women. According to ESPN.com's Bracketology, you aren't the only Kentucky basketball team headed to the Big Dance in March.

ESPN unveiled its latest Bracketology on Monday, and while it should be noted that the men's team still holds a solid No. 1 seed despite its loss to South Carolina last week, the bigger story is the women's basketball team is projected as a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a little more than a month left in the season.

Charlie Creme has the 18-3 Cats slated to play No. 12 seed Rutgers in the Sacramento Region. If that were to hold true, UK would play in Norman, Okla., on March 21.

The regions will be a huge factor in the women's tournament for UK because of two of the sites' proximity to Lexington. If the Cats were to land in Louisville or Cincinnati for the tournament, there would be an expected huge home-court advantage.

Also, should UK continue on its torrid season run and make the tournament, it would be the program's first invite to the NCAA Tournament since 2006.

On the men's side, Joe Lunardi has the Cats facing No. 16 seed Robert Morris or the winner from the Northeast Conference. Lunardi projects UK in the West Region and playing in Milwaukee for its first- and second-round games.

Remember, these are just projections and will likely change several times over the next few weeks.

Revelette: Preseason picks more pointless than pertinent

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BSB 08_09 UK_AU Game3 Web 23.jpgThe term "preseason" might be the most overrated thing in sports. In the NFL, it raises no excitement. In the MLB, most starters are playing golf before spring training games are over. And in college baseball, incessant list-makers are often way off in their predictions of top players, teams and postseason champions.

It's not like UK and its players aren't heavily involved with said predictions. ...

- James Paxton (No. 7) and Logan Darnell (No. 82) appear on College Baseball Blog's "projected Top 100 players of 2010." (On a side note, Darnell mentioned that he might also be the 82nd-best ping pong player in the country, but roommate Chris Bisson quickly nixed the notion. "He's lying," Bisson said. "Last time we played I beat him 21-7.")

- Yahoo's Kendall Rogers did a feature piece on Alex Meyer, profiling how the sophomore could be a difference-maker this season for the Cats.

- The aforementioned Bisson has been named a preseason All-American by Ping Baseball. He's also on the Canadian Baseball Network's All-Canadian team. Think about that. All-American and All-Canadian? What's that like?

When asked, Bisson mentioned it gave merit to his leadership qualities,

"Being a leader is being a good person and working as hard as you can to be the best that you can," Bisson said. 

Since he's "been there, done that," Bisson, now in his junior season, admitted his intentions are to "show people how to get there" this season.

Bisson's achievements are particularly impressive when considering that they've come from competition within the Southeastern Conference, where about half of the league's schools have been slated in preseason top-25 rankings.

"Every team in the SEC is good," he said. "It comes down to who wants it more, especially on the road."

Including Kentucky, which is Ping Baseball's 22nd-best team coming into the 2010 season. Check out Ping Baseball's "2010 Haiku Preview.

If Japanese poetry doesn't get you excited about college baseball, its a good chance that preseason coaches polls, watch lists, and top-25 rankings won't either. As ESPN's Chris Berman says, "that's why they play the games."

And speaking of playing the games, Bisson can't wait. The junior has set his sights on the SEC Tournament, a goal that UK fell just short of a year ago.

"I'm ready to get after it," Bisson said.

Revelette is a 2006 graduate of UK and was a senior on the 2006 SEC championship team. He writes for the Lexington Sports Examiner and also contributes to BigBlueCats.com. His baseball column will appear weekly on Cat Scratches  

Feb. 2 From the Pressbox

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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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When you see opposing defenses clogging the lane to slow down John Wall's attacks on the basket, it's hard not to imagine how nice it would be to see Jodie Meeks spotting up at the 3-point line for the kick out.

Instead, Meeks is in his first year with the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks. The latest stats show the former Big Blue star averaging 4.4 points per game while shooting 38 percent from the field, 30 percent at the 3-point line and 94 percent on free throws.

Meeks' season of 21 points came at Portland last month. At the moment, Meeks isn't getting a lot of minutes but I'm told by folks with NBA connections that the Bucks are as high on him as ever. Once Meeks starts knocking down shots like Cat fans know he can, he figures to see him time increase.

"It is going pretty well," Meeks told tomleachky.com last week. "I think I am adjusting pretty well for my first year. I am taking steps toward the career I want to have one day, listening to what the coaches tell me and hopefully have a great career. I think it is being in a different role. Last year, obviously, I averaged 24 points a game and this year I am a role player and trying to fit in. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that but the next level guys are bigger and stronger so I just have to get adjusted to my new role."

SEC 2009 UK_LSU 19.jpg"I think I am playing against the best athletes in the world on a night in, night out basis is definitely tough, but it is the greatest league in the world and I am happy to be a part of it," Meeks said. "At the same time it's tough to be in your first year, so like I said I am just competing and trying to have a great career that I want to."

Scott Skiles is the Bucks' coach and Meeks says the relationship is off to a good start.

"I understand where he is coming from," Meeks said. "His practices are tough but at the same time we go hard and get out. He runs his practices and is organized and listens to his players. I like playing for him a lot."

Who is the toughest player he's had to guard so far?

"I think Carmelo," Meeks said. "I think playing the Nuggets, he was a tough matchup, but I am still in my first year and trying to get adjusted so, I am having a lot of fun. It was my dream to play in the NBA and am getting better every day."

Meeks said he watches as many of his alma mater's games as he can and he stays in regular contact with former teammates Patrick Patterson and Ramon Harris. Does he ever wonder what it would be like to get those open looks at the 3-point line if he had stayed to play at Kentucky?

"I think last year, my junior year, I was getting doubled teamed every night and to have that open look would be lovely," Meeks said. "I am happy for those guys and I am happy with my career up here also."

What does he remember most about his time at UK?

"I think the fan support," Meeks said. "The tradition is great and goes back a long time. I look back and think it was a great three years of my life. I definitely wanted to go to a basketball school coming out of high school and I committed to the University of Kentucky. I was very excited as it turned out to be one of the greatest decisions of my life."

And he frequently gets opportunities to renew connections with other former Wildcats.

"I think every time I play someone who played at Kentucky, I try to reach out and have dinner with them or see them before the game to say 'hello,' " Meeks said. "Chuck Hayes with Houston, Charlotte with Nazr Mohammed, all those guys are pretty good friends."

Jan. 31 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Jan. 31:

Men's basketball: DeMarcus Cousins

Averaged a double-double on the week, while recording back-to-back double-doubles against South Carolina and No. 21 Vanderbilt ... Shot better than 78 percent from the free throw line on the week ... Recorded his third and fourth 20-10 games this season ... Has 12 double-doubles this season, a UK freshman record ... Tied career high 27 points against South Carolina ... Recorded his 13 th multi-block game this season ... His double-double against Vanderbilt was his 12 th of the season, the most in the league ... He has recorded four straight double-doubles, the second time he's done so this season ... Double-double against Vanderbilt came in only 24 minutes

Women's basketball: Victoria Dunlap

  • Junior forward Victoria Dunlap averaged a double-double with 21.5 points and 11.0 rebounds while shooting 51.7 percent from the field.
  • Helped Kentucky earn its first back-to-back SEC road wins since 2005-06 and helped UK break the school record for most consecutive SEC games wins with five.
  • Posted her ninth 20-plus point performance of the season in UK's 71-62 upset at No. 18 LSU Thursday.
  • Netted 13 of her game-high 24 points in the crucial second half, including seven points in the final 8:57 of the game to help UK grab its first win in Baton Rouge since 1995.
  • Became the 27th member of UK's 1,000-point club on Sunday after registering her 19th career double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds in the win over Mississippi State.

Swimming and diving: Lisa Faulkner

Junior Lisa Faulkner posted the fifth double-victory of the season as she swept both of the boards in UK victories over Cincinnati and Vanderbilt. Faulkner, the lone diver on the roster, captured valuable points for the Wildcats as she swept the events -- and did so in 30+ point fashion over her closest finishers.

Swimming and diving: John Fox

Diver John Fox posted his first double-victory of his young career by sweeping the boards in a UK win over Cincinnati. Fox claimed the one-meter and three-meter boards in stylish fashion. His 303.33 score on the one-meter is a career-best clip. He also posted the victory by nearly 100 points over the second-place finisher in the event. The one-meter score is also good enough to qualify for NCAA Zones.

Men's tennis: Alberto Gonzalez

With a historic bid on the line, junior Alberto Gonzalez completed a brilliant come from behind win to push UK into the round of 16 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Associations National Indoor Championship. Gonzalez win over Wake Forest's Danny Kreyman at the No. 5 singles position gave No. 14 Kentucky a 4-3 win over No. 16 Wake and its first final 16 appearance in a indoor or outdoor national championship since 2005. With all matches decided it was up to Gonzalez to send the Cats to the finals. Gonzalez really stepped up his game and fought hard for the Wildcats winning both his single matches over the weekend while also helping UK claim the doubles point on Sunday.

SWIM 07_08 Greene action 01.jpgSwimming and diving: Kyle Greene

Senior Kyle Greene was instrumental in helping the Wildcats dominate Cincinnati to cap off dual meet action with a win. Greene, participating in Senior Day festivities, charted a season-best clip in the 100-back as he took second behind teammate Zach McGinnis for a 1-2 finish. In the 100-free he was UK's top finisher. Finally, Greene took the first-leg in UK's winning 200-free relay that captured an NCAA 'B' time standard in the winning tap.

Women's tennis: Caroline Lilley

  • Grabbed Kentucky's third point in their upset over No. 24 Alabama with a victory over No. 82 Alexa Guarachi 7-6, 5-7, 7-6 (11-9)
  • Upset No. 66 Sasha Krupina 6-4, 6-3 to take the Cats' first point in their 4-2 loss to No. 10 Georgia Tech
  • Lilley currently stands 3-1 on the indoor season

Swimming and diving: Zach McGinnis

Freshman Zach McGinnis continued to be a dominating force for the Blue and White in the backstroke events as he has emerged as UK's top threat in the discipline. McGinnis tapped first in both the 100 and 200-back events in a win over Cincinnati. He also took the opening backstroke leg of the winning 200-medley relay, which marked his third win of the day.

Rifle: Jen Pason

Senior shooter Jen Pason had a good week in leading UK to a win at Nebraska Saturday in Lincoln. Pason totaled a 576 in smallbore and a 584 in air rifle for the Wildcats against Nebraska. "Jen showed great determination in fighting for every point for her team Saturday against Nebraska," UK assistant coach Stacy Underwood said. "She is very eager to improve on her performance through hard training during the next two weeks before NCAA Qualifies. Jen and her senior teammates are looking forward to helping make a big push in the coming weeks for the postseason."

Track and field: Precious Nwokey

Precious Nwokey won the pentathlon at the McCravy Memorial Track Meet with a score of 3804 points, the top mark in the SEC this season.

Swimming and diving: Kayla Sergesketter

Junior Kayla Sergesketter was a valuable scorer for the Blue and White in its defeat of both Cincinnati and Vanderbilt on Saturday. Sergesketter notched a season-high time in the 50-free and also came home with a victory in the 100-free. Additionally, she was the third leg of the winning 200-free relay to cap off a tremendous meet for the Wildcats.

Track and field: Kristin Smith

Senior Kristin Smith broke the weight throw varsity school record for the second time this season. Smith's mark of 20.51/67-3.5 earned her an NCAA provisional qualifier and a national standing of fourth-place overall. The Wildcats hosted the Rod McCravy Memorial this past weekend where Smith finished in second place.

Track and field: Rondel Sorrillo

Rondel Sorrillo picked up the first NCAA automatic qualifier for the Wildcats this season. Sorrillo ran a 20.77 in the 200-meter dash, which currently stands as the second best time in the nation. His time of 20.77 is only .05 away from Sorrillo's personal best and the UK varsity school record set by Sorrillo in 2009. His time of 20.77 notched a first place win at the Rod McCravy Memorial, which the Wildcats hosted at the E.J. Nutter Field House.

Swimming and diving: Trina Winsor

Freshman Trina Winsor captured individual victories in three events -- the only UK swimmer to achieve the feat in wins over Cincinnati and Vanderbilt this weekend. Her victory in the 400-IM and time of 4:25.01 marked the sixth-best time in school history in the event. She also went on to claim wins in the 200 and 500-free events.

All eyes on UK-Ole Miss

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for nba1.jpgThe attention of NBA scouts will be firmly placed on the Kentucky-Ole Miss basketball game on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

UK is expecting its largest NBA contingent of the season for a matchup that's filled with potential professional stars. Twenty NBA scouts and eight general managers have been credentialed for the game.

Of the 28 credential NBA officials, 20 teams will be represented.

To give you a better perspective of how large the turnout is, 18 NBA scouts and three NBA general managers were credentialed for the North Carolina game.  

SEC previews Kentucky softball

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Softball.jpgThe Southeastern Conference's official Web site, SECsports.com, previewed the 2010 Kentucky softball team Monday as it continues its breakdown of the SEC.

The preview also includes a video clip of head coach Rachel Lawson discussing her team and expectations for this season.

Check it out when you get a chance.

Wall learns to battle adversity, criticism

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MBSK 09_10 UK_ARK Web 50.jpg

John Wall is facing adversity for the first time at Kentucky. For the first time in his much ballyhooed career, not every shot is falling, not every pass is getting there and not everything is going his way.

"To be honest, I really haven't been having fun for the last two weeks," a dejected Wall said after Saturday's win over Vanderbilt. "It's just being frustrated and things like that, so I just got to figure it out before we go further in league play."

Wall's reaction came after two mediocre performances by the superstar's standards and a day removed from his head coach's comments that he played "awful" in the South Carolina game.

"I didn't think I played that bad," Wall said Saturday, eyes directed to the floor. "I don't know what to expect. He's probably going to say I played bad today, too. I just try not to listen to him and go out and play basketball and try and help my team win."

Head coach John Calipari spoke on Monday for the first time since Wall's eyebrow-raising comments.

"He comes in like a puppy dog and I'm looking at him like, 'Are you alright?' " Calipari said. "He said, 'Coach, I'm frustrated.' "

Calipari's reaction? Criticism happens. Get used to it.

"Kid, you're trying to live up to this hype that they've built on you and you're going to be unhappy if you try to live up to it," Calipari said he told his star point guard following Saturday's comments. "Just play, have fun and enjoy yourself. When you play bad, it's OK to play bad. Derrick Rose and Tyreke (Evans) had bad games. It's OK. You act like you can't play bad. Yes, you can."

After watching the game tape from the South Carolina game, Wall said he realized his head coach was right, admitting that he let his emotions get the best of him.

"I listen to coach Cal because I know he knows what he was doing with Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans," Wall said Monday. "At the same time, I felt I didn't play bad at the time. That's why I said the things I said. I was frustrated. When you're frustrated you're going to say a lot of things you don't mean."

In one aspect, Saturday's remarks were a good thing, Calipari said. The first-year UK coach called Wall's humbling the "greatest teaching tool" UK has received all year.

"This is a young 19-year-old who just turned 19 who is dealing with stuff for the first time in his life," Calipari said. "He doesn't deal with everything the right way but he's maturing and he's learning. For me this was a great teaching time for him and our team on how to deal with stuff. It's not always rosy. They're trying to find kinks in your armor and how do you deal with that."

Calipari remained adamant in his affection for Wall and appeared more excited about Wall's misstep than he was upset. While he said it probably was the wrong way to handle the matter, it offered the perfect reminder to his young team of how far it has come and how far it still has to go.

"He's never been in this environment or this kind of situation," Calipari said. "Perfect. Because I hate to tell you, the rest of his career he will be. If we can teach him now how you have to respond in these kinds of situations, it's going to be good for him. It was a good teaching lesson."

Statistically, one could laugh at the notion that Wall is going through a slide or playing "awful." His 16.8 points and 6.8 assists per game would suggest otherwise.

But there's little doubt that Wall is facing adversity for the first time this season. Lanes that were once open are closed, attention that was once focused solely on him has shifted a bit to DeMarcus Cousins, and teams are hounding him with taller, faster defenders.

"People didn't know how fast and quick he was," Calipari said. "People didn't know he could race the court. People were running back wide and he was getting layups. Now they're all running right into the lane. They're trying to put bigger guys on him and back off and hope he's not making shots and hope he gets to his head.

"The other thing that's happening is DeMarcus Cousins has got it going. You've got to keep throwing him the ball and the kid understands that. How does he respond to that? Part of the reason DeMarcus is having such a field day is they're concerned with John Wall. It opens up the whole court."

Even Wall, with the incident now squarely behind him, laughed at himself at how long it's been since he's had a game-changing dunk.

"When you're a freshman and so much is on you, you're just going to try to live up to everything," Wall said. "I try to come out there and make spectacular plays or try to score the points that you need when I really don't have to do that. All I've got to do is lead this team and get us some wins."

And yet he's still averaged 16.0 points and 5.5 assists during this so-called two-game slump.

Even though his pride was initially wounded, it's been a blessing in disguise for Kentucky's most dynamic star.

"It was tough for me to hear it from coach Cal because he says so many great things about me, but he also tells us the truth," Wall said. "If we're doing bad, he's going to let you know. ... I've just got to mature and take it in and try to believe what he says and get better at it."

Maybe he already has. Even though he's been the player most responsible for UK's 20-1 start heading into Tuesday night's Ole Miss game, he is ready to take on an even bigger role for the No. 4-ranked Cats.

"Whenever we lose again it's going to be my fault because I'm going to feel like I didn't play the point guard role like I was supposed to," Wall said.

That sounds more like the nation's No. 1 player. Evidently, the water is already underneath the bridge.

"I love coach Cal and he loves me," Wall said. "We're just trying to get everything down pat. We're cool with where we're at."

Video: Wall, Calipari respond to postgame comments

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Cats' stay at No. 1 is brief

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Inevitably, the Kentucky men's basketball team slid in the latest college basketball polls released Monday after the loss to South Carolina last week.

The Cats dropped to No. 3 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and to No. 4 in the Associated Press Top 25. UK still managed to pick up one first-place vote in both polls.

Kansas regained the top spot, an honor it has owned for much of the season. Villanova and Syracuse followed at No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in the AP, and Villanova was ranked No. 2 in the Coaches Poll.

AP Top 25
 1. Kansas (54) 20-1 1,605
 2. Villanova (4) 19-1 1,534
 3. Syracuse (6) 21-1 1,506
 4. Kentucky (1) 20-1 1,460
 5. Michigan State 19-3 1,367
 6. West Virginia 17-3 1,230
 7. Georgetown 16-4 1,204
 8. Purdue 18-3 1,182
 9. Texas 18-3 1,069
10. Kansas State 17-4 1,025
10. Duke 17-4 1,025
12. Brigham Young 21-2 748
13. Ohio State 16-6 677
14. Tennessee 16-4 655
15. New Mexico 20-3 636
16. Wisconsin 16-5 585
17. Gonzaga 17-4 541
18. Vanderbilt 16-4 502
19. Temple 18-4 495
20. Baylor 16-4 461
21. Georgia Tech 16-5 459
22. Pittsburgh 16-5 278
23. Butler 18-4 216
24. Northern Iowa 19-2 193
25. Mississippi 16-5 132

ESPN/USA Today Poll
 1. Kansas (26) 20-1 769
 2. Villanova (4) 19-1 735
 3. Kentucky (1) 20-1 705
 4. Syracuse 21-1 703
 5. Michigan State 19-3 652
 6. West Virginia 17-3 596
 7. Purdue 18-3 552
 8. Georgetown 16-4 550
 9. Duke 17-4 503
10. Texas 18-3 495
11. Kansas State 17-4 433
12. Brigham Young 21-2 432
13. Gonzaga 17-4 351
14. Tennessee 16-4 330
15. Butler 18-4 297
16. Wisconsin 16-5 277
17. Temple 18-4 253
18. Ohio State 16-6 245
19. Georgia Tech 16-5 211
20. Vanderbilt 16-4 160
21. Pittsburgh 16-5 133
22. Northern Iowa 19-2 129
23. New Mexico 20-3 125
24. Baylor 16-4 109
25. Cornell 18-3 53 

Not to say I told you so ... but I told you so.

The women's basketball team is good. Like very good. And really, for the first time this season, Matthew Mitchell and his Cats are finally getting the respect they've deserved.

The evidence came Monday when Kentucky made its Associated Press Top 25 debut at No. 20, followed by the announcement that the Cats had swept the Southeastern Conference weekly awards.

Kentucky's AP ranking (full poll below) is the first time the Cats have been in the AP Top 25 since the fourth week of the 2006-07 season. The ranking comes on the heels of UK's first-back-to-back SEC road wins since 2005-06. It's also the first time in school history the Cats have won five straight SEC wins.

UK checked in the rankings just behind LSU, who UK defeated earlier in the week for the first time in a decade. Four SEC teams comprised the AP Top 25.

A pair of UK Hoops players also helped the team sweep the SEC awards as junior forward Victoria Dunlap captured SEC Player of the Week honors and guard A'dia Mathies won SEC Freshman of the Week.

Dunlap averaged a double-double in UK's two wins last week, scoring 21.5 points per game while pulling down 11.0 rebounds per game. The third-year forward became the 27th member of the UK's 1,000-point club on Sunday after registering her 19th career double-double.

Mathies, a Louisville native, averaged 11.0 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.0 steals in Kentucky's wins over LSU and Mississippi State.

The Cats return to action Thursday at 7 p.m. vs. Ole Miss in Memorial Coliseum.

WBSK 09_10 UK_ARK web 12.jpgAP Top 25 
 1. Connecticut (40)  21-0 1000 
 2. Stanford 19-1 960 
 3. Notre Dame 19-1 896 
 4. Nebraska 19-0 869 
 5. Tennessee 19-2 858 
 6. Duke 18-3 809 
 7. Xavier 16-3 721 
 8. Ohio State 21-3 665 
 9. North Carolina 16-3 655 
10. Oklahoma State 18-3 632 
11. West Virginia 20-2 593 
12. Texas A&M 15-4 529 
13. Oklahoma 15-5 493 
14. Georgia 18-4 478 
15. Baylor 15-5 431 
15. Florida State 18-4 431 
17. Texas 14-6 357 
18. Georgetown 18-3 288 
19. LSU 15-5 239 
20. Kentucky 18-3 228 
21. Georgia Tech 18-5 152 
22. Iowa State 16-4 130 
23. Wisconsin-Green Bay 18-2 126 
24. Gonzaga 18-4 83 
25. St. John's 18-3 78  

Henderson gears up for 2010 baseball season

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As promised last week, I had the chance to stop by the baseball office Monday morning to talk with baseball head coach Gary Henderson. The second-year skipper has been busy preparing his team for the 2010 season, which will begin Feb. 19 when the Cats travel to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to face Virginia Tech in the Caravelle Resort Tournament.

Weather permitting, the team is expected to have its first team practice of the season on Tuesday. I'll have some features on the team in the coming weeks, but for now here is three-minute snippet of some of the things Henderson and I talked about Monday morning.

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: He did play well, but this story was not intended as a general recap of the spring game. (Note that read more
  • trueblujr: Why was Reese Phillips accomplisments in the game completely overlooked. You mentioned Whitlow, Towles and Smith split the reps evenly. read more
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  • Guy Ramsey: That pitching is a big part of what makes LSU "arguably the nation's top team." Maybe it wasn't fairly represented read more
  • Patrick Stoufflet: Every break went LSU's way? Yep, every home run, triple, double and single went LSU's way. Maybe it had a read more
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