Darius Miller will play his final home game as a Wildcat on Thursday against Georgia. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
He never saw transferring a real possibility, but there were certainly moments Darius Miller wondered what he had gotten himself into during his freshman season.
Spending his first year at Kentucky under then-head coach Billy Gillispie, the Maysville, Ky., native found himself in an irregular role on an underachieving team.
As the team fell short of an NCAA Tournament berth, ending a 17-year streak, Miller would play over 30 minutes one game, then barely 10 the next. Even so, he persisted.
"It was rough for I think everybody on the team but we stuck with it," Miller said. "Everybody stuck with it throughout the first year and it ended up being great for us."
Miller's patience paid off in the form of 92 wins over three seasons and a Final Four berth. With John Calipari at the helm, UK has evolved into a powerhouse. Miller has played alongside nine current NBA players since Calipari arrived in Lexington and spent the majority of that time on teams ranked in the top five nationally.
Ever the deferential teammate, Miller won't talk much about it, but the fact remains that the lone holdover from that 2008-09 team has had one of the most unique careers of any UK player. He has played in all 141 of UK's games the last four years and ranks in the top 50 in school history in points, assists, steals, blocks, free-throw percentage, 3-pointers and 3-point percentage.
The statistics are nice and all, but as Miller prepares to suit up for his final game in Rupp Arena alongside fellow senior Eloy Vargas, it's the relationships that really count.
"I can imagine it will be emotional for me," Miller said, though he ruled out crying as a possibility. "I've been here for a while, had a lot of good memories and met a lot great people, great coaching staff so I can imagine it will be emotional for me."
Miller will participate in the traditional Senior Night festivities before No. 1 UK (28-1, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) takes on Georgia (13-15, 4-10 SEC) Thursday at 9 p.m. in Rupp Arena, but there was a brief moment when it looked like there was a chance the moment wouldn't come.
When he was hired, Calipari was tasked with making over an NIT team in short order. The roster for his sophomore season was in a state of flux and Miller wasn't even sure if he would return.
"I think all of us were, the guys that were here and the guys that planned on staying," Miller said. "I think we were all worried about what was going to happen."
Those concerns were quickly allayed when Calipari watched the 6-foot-8 guard/forward play for the first time.
"When I first got here, of all the players that I watched, and this is before any of the freshman class came in, he had a better feel for the dribble drive than anybody there and I was pleasantly surprised," Calipari said.
All of a sudden, Miller was projected as a breakout performer. That idea was only reinforced when he was unveiled as a starter alongside John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins, but Miller wasn't an instant star. He had some big games, including a 20-point outburst in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, but he ended up playing just 21.2 minutes per game, identical to his freshman average.
After the other four starters from the 2009-10 departed for the NBA along with Daniel Orton, it was clear Miller would need to step up for the Wildcats to match the previous year's success. Early on, Miller's inconsistency matched that of his team, but when the switch flipped on for Miller, the team surged. He would score in double figures in all but three games as UK won 12 times in 14 tries to advance to the school's first Final Four since 1998.
Surrounded by players ranging from Wall to Brandon Knight to Anthony Davis who made substantial impacts at the start of their collegiate careers, Miller's more measured development has been frustrating to some, including his coach. As his career has drawn to a close, Calipari has come to appreciate Miller.
"All these kids are on different timetables," Calipari said. "Just because a young man stays three years, four years doesn't mean well the guy that's one or two years (is better)."
In past years, opposing coaches might not have even noticed Miller on the floor next his dynamic teammates. Now, they can't help but sing his praises.
"I always just see him doing whatever he has to do to help his team win," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said.
"Darius Miller is the fiber that holds that team together," Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury said.
Miller has been repeatedly referred to as the "glue guy" on a team that has been occupied the top spot in the rankings for six straight weeks, a notion Calipari supports.
"He completes everybody," Calipari said. "He's not competing, he's completing. If he needs to rebound, defend (he will). He plays some guard, he plays some four. Whatever position we ask him, he just completes. He completes everybody."
Essentially, the things that made people wonder whether Miller would live up to his potential are what make him great now. He's willing to do whatever it takes to win, whether it means coming off the bench, deferring to his teammates or asserting himself in the clutch, which is what he's taken to doing of late.
In recent close games against Vanderbilt (twice) and Mississippi State, Miller has been quiet for the majority of the game only to come to life in the final minutes to lead his team to victory. The Wildcats trailed late in each of those games only for Miller to dominate late. He tallied a combined 26 points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal in 28:30 of clutch time in those three games.
Unsurprisingly, Miller points to anyone but himself when describing why UK has fared so well in close games.
"I feel like the whole team does a great job of focusing in on the end of the game and trying to make big plays for us to win," Miller said. "We all focus on the same thing, which is winning, and I think we do a great job when it's crunch time."
With his level of play and his unselfish approach, Calipari believes Miller has played his way into an NBA future. Miller is happy with what he's been doing on the floor of late, but he has a more immediate goal in mind.
"I feel like I'm playing the way I need to play," Miller said. "Coach Cal has supported me the whole time and so have my teammates. We're all focused on one thing and that's winning a national championship no matter what the roles are."
The recognition just keeps on rolling in for Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,
The two freshman roommates were named on Wednesday to the Midseason 30 Watch List for the Naismith Men's Basketball Player of the Year Award. UK is one of four schools, along with Missouri, North Carolina and Syracuse to have two players on the list.
Davis has thrust himself into contention for nearly every major player of the year award with a record-setting block pace and a rapidly developing offensive game. He leads the No. 1 Wildcats in scoring with 14.3 points per game to go with a team-best 9.8 rebounds per game, 138 blocks and 43 steals. His 138 blocks have set a Southeastern Conference freshman record and lead the nation.
Kidd-Gilchrist has cultivated a big-game reputation, posting half of his six double-doubles against top-10 opponents. On the season he is averaging 12.0 points and 7.8 rebounds. He also ranks among team leaders in assists, blocks and steals.
The Naismith Award is among the most prestigious in collegiate athletics. The Atlanta Athletic Club will present the award the weekend of the Final Four in New Orleans.
ESPN appraises races for SEC player, coach of the year
A'dia Mathies was named SEC Player of the Year on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Freshman of the Year than Bria Goss. And for that matter, I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Player of the Year with A'dia Mathies."
That's what Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell said before Wednesday morning's announcement of the Southeastern Conference award winners.
He was proven right.
Mathies took home top honors as the conference's Player of the Year, Goss was the Freshman of the Year and Keyla Snowden shared the Sixth Woman of the Year award with Deana Allen of Florida. Mathies was also voted to the All-SEC first team by the league's coaches, as well as the All-Defensive team. Goss is a member of the All-Freshman team.
The one major individual award the Wildcats did not take home was Coach of the Year, which Mitchell jokingly foretold.
"Let me tell you something," Mitchell said. "You don't live inside this brain. You could find plenty of reasons to come to a different conclusion on Coach of the Year (than Mitchell winning), trust me. Thank God for A'dia Mathies and Bria Goss."
Tom Collen of Arkansas was named Coach of the Year.
A'dia Mathies helped lead UK to a trip to the SEC Tournament final in 2011. (Victoria Graff Photography)
Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats head down to Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday afternoon for the Southeastern Conference Tournament. UK Hoops opens play on Friday at 1 p.m. in Bridgestone Arena against the winner of eighth-seeded Florida and No. 9 seed Auburn. Metz Camfield will be traveling with the team and bringing you features, video and other blog fodder.
Mitchell spoke to the media Tuesday afternoon about the start of postseason play. I couldn't pick out just one thing to write about from his comments, so here's a pre-SEC Tournament notebook:
Cats needing to shift from celebration mode to focus
Matthew Mitchell is still flying high. It has been 48 hours since his team clinched its first regular-season SEC title, but he still has a smile on his face.
As UK Hoops begins intensive preparations for the upcoming conference tournament, Mitchell will shed that contentedness in favor of his customary intensity in practice, but he doesn't figure to be able to suppress it early Friday afternoon.
For years, Mitchell has watched the SEC Tournament as a fan, a volunteer assistant coach, a full-time assistant coach and finally as Kentucky's head coach, and for years he has envied the SEC's regular-season champions when they are honored with that trophy before that first game on Friday.
"I've always watched that trophy presentation and said, 'Boy, how cool would that be to be that team?'" Mitchell said. "Now we're that team and I think that's going to be a cool moment. I wish we didn't have to play right after that. I wish we could kind of enjoy it a little bit more."
The moments immediately following that trophy presentation could go a long way to deciding what kind of March the Wildcats have. Will they bask in the afterglow of the school's first SEC title in three decades or will they move on to the next task at hand?
"They're going to give us that trophy before that game and I don't want us to be sort of satisfied starting the game," Mitchell said. "I think that's the main thing I'm going to be working on this week, is trying to make sure we are locked in and ready to go (on Friday) and try to get off to the best first four-minute segment we can."
Mitchell isn't one of those coaches that views the conference tournament as a chore. When he says he wants his team to get off to a strong start in the first four minutes against either Florida or Auburn, it's not just because he wants to prepare them for the NCAA Tournament two weeks later. Though that element is certainly there, Mitchell wants badly to find out what it's like to win the SEC Tournament.
"It's just a really special thing, I would think since we have haven't experienced it," Mitchell said. "I think it would be a real special thing to be the champion of the tournament. We have a lot of respect for it."
Nashville an ideal site
As an unabashed fan of the SEC Tournament, Mitchell sees Nashville as the best possible home for it.
He doesn't just want you to take his word for it though.
"Nashville, to me, is the best place we can have it for the fans," Mitchell said. "My dad is a big, big fan of the tournament and he says Nashville is the best so I think Nashville's a great spot for everybody. I wish we could have it there every year."
Historically, orange-clad Tennessee fans have dominated attendance in Nashville just as their Lady Volunteers have dominated play on the floor, but Mitchell has noticed more and more blue infiltrating Music City.
"For years and years, all you ever saw at the tournament was orange," Mitchell said. "Nashville's location, and then our team's great play, and then our fans' passion for the team has really been neat to see people show up for us. We've had really strong contingents the last few years at the tournament and it's a neat thing."
Last year, especially, Kentucky fans followed their team in large numbers. As UK Hoops was in the midst of a run to the finals of the tournament, Mitchell observed the wardrobe of people walking Nashville's main thoroughfare.
"That's been a real neat thing to see over the last few years and I shared that with the team last year as we were getting ready to play the semifinal game or the final game, I can't remember which," Mitchell said. "We had gone for a practice and we were driving back down Broadway there and you saw a lot of blue."
With their continually improving play over the years, UK has cultivated more and more loyal supporters, which was evidenced by the impromptu celebration of the Wildcats' SEC title. Even though it was announced early on Sunday afternoon that the team would gather with fans in Memorial Coliseum that evening, hundreds of enthusiastic fans showed up.
At the end of the event, coaches and members of the team signed autographs, at which time Mitchell encouraged fans to make the trip down to Nashville as well. The feedback he received bodes well.
"(At) our celebration Sunday night, everybody that came through said they'd be there," Mitchell said. "So if they were all telling the truth we're going to have a heck of a crowd down there and it's going to be good."
Mitchell makes pitch for Mathies, Goss, Snowden as SEC award candidates
On Wednesday, the SEC is expected to announce its awards for this season. After such a successful season, it stands to reason that UK would have a number of contenders for those awards as well as All-SEC honors.
By rule, Mitchell can't cast his vote for any of his own players when coaches choose their league awards, but that doesn't mean he can't have an opinion that says otherwise.
"I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Freshman of the Year than Bria Goss," Mitchell said. "And for that matter, I don't know how you could reach a different conclusion on Player of the Year with A'dia Mathies."
Goss was among UK's most consistent performers, starting all 29 games of her freshman season and averaging 11.6 points and 4.1 rebounds. She scored in double figures in all but eight outings and was named SEC Freshman of the Week four times, including the final week of the season.
Mathies led her team in scoring, steals, 3-point field goal percentage and 3-point field goals made. She was second in the SEC in scoring and was named conference Player of the Week or Co-Player of the Week three times. All her numbers are great, but Mitchell sees a more compelling reason why she deserves the award.
"Last year, the coaches said Victoria (Dunlap) wasn't Player of the Year because we didn't win the title. If we go along that, the best player on the best team you would think would be the Player of the Year and that's A'dia Mathies."
Mitchell didn't forget Keyla Snowden when making the case for his players either, as she is a top contender for Sixth Woman of the Year, though he wasn't sure how fellow SEC coaches would view voting for so many players from the same team.
One person's case Mitchell did not make was his own. Though he said he customarily casts his Coach of the Year vote for the coach who leads his/her team to the conference, he jokingly said he could very easily make a case against himself.
"Let me tell you something," Mitchell said. "You don't live inside this brain. You could find plenty of reasons to come to a different conclusion on Coach of the Year, trust me. Thank God for A'dia Mathies and Bria Goss."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 26:
Men's basketball: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis tallied a pair of double-doubles on the week leading the Wildcats to a 2-0 record and its 45th SEC championship ... Davis posted his first double-double of the week in UK's come-from-behind victory at Mississippi State, giving him 12 on the season ... His 13th of the year came in Kentucky's victory over Vanderbilt which clinched the Wildcats' league championship outright ... Davis scored a career-high 28 points to go with 11 rebounds and five blocked shots ... Davis hit 91 pct. of his shots on the day the highest single-game pct. (min. 10 att.) for UK since the 1994-95 season.
Softball: Kara Dill
Junior Kara Dill earned All-Tournament team accolades as she extended her team-leading and season-best hitting streak to 10 games with a hit in all four games at the Georgia Southern Invitational. Dill also had two or more hits in three of UK's four outings to run her season total to multi-hit outings to six games including five of her last six games. In a win over Jacksonville State, Dill nearly recorded a cycle with a single, double and triple in her three at-bats. She also scored twice in a pair of games.
Swimming & diving: Lucas Gerotto
Tyler Reed and Lucas Gerotto both qualified for the 2012 NCAA Swimming and
Diving Championships with swims Sunday afternoon that catapulted them into
elite company in the final day of the Bulldog Last Chance Meet. Gerotto swam a 46.75 in the 100-fly, just three one hundredths of a second
off the UK record, and good enough to place him 13th overall in the nation
Women's basketball: Bria Goss
Goss helped guide Kentucky to three victories in the last week, as the Wildcats won their first SEC Championship since 1982, and their second all-time. The Indianapolis native averaged 11.3 points per game during the three-game stretch, reaching double figures in scoring against Vanderbilt and South Carolina with 12 points and 14 points, respectively. Goss got to the line well throughout the week, converting 12 of her 14 attempts (.857), including a perfect 6-6 clip at Mississippi State on Sunday.
Gymnastics: Audrey Harrison
Harrison grabbed a career-best 9.9 on floor exercise, becoming the 19th gymnast in school history to record a 9.9 or higher on the event. A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Harrison's score is tied for the highest score by any gymnast on any event this season. Harrison won the all-around title at the event with a career-high all-around score.
Softball: Griffin Joiner
Freshman Griffin Joiner had a break-out weekend in helping lead UK to a 3-1 record at the Georgia Southern Invitational. She logged a .417 batting average which ranked second on the squad with five or more at-bats. She had two multi-hit outings, reached base four other times by way of a walk and hit by pitch. She also notched a pair of sacrifice hits and stole her first career base. Her two-out RBI-single in the top of the seventh against Georgia Southern forced extra innings. She's started every game of her freshman season and played all four games this weekend behind the plate.
Men's basketball: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tallied a a double-double at Mississippi State and grabbed eight more rebounds against Vanderbilt leading the Wildcats to a 2-0 record and their 45th SEC championship ... Kidd-Gilchrist recorded his sixth double-double of the season, scoring a team-high 18 points while grabbing 10 rebounds in UK's win on the road at Mississippi State ... He was just as solid on the defensive end, guarding MSU's Dee Bost in the second half and holding State's leading scorer to just 1-6 from the field and allowing only five of his game-high 21 points ... Kidd-Gilchrist then pulled down eight rebounds in UK's win over Vanderbilt, the eighth time in the last nine games, he's pulled down seven or more rebounds ... the win gave UK its 45th SEC championship outright
Track and field: Luis Orta
Cliff Harper Trophy Co-Winner, awarded to both the men's and women's high-points scorer of the SEC Championships (20 points)
First winner of 3,000m and 5,000m runs in the same SEC Championships since 2007
Only male student-athlete to win two events at SEC Championships
First-ever UK winner in the 3K, and the first UK winner in the 5K since 1987
Holds the SEC's fastest times in the 3K and 5K
Swimming & diving: Tyler Reed
Tyler Reed and Lucas Gerotto both qualified for the 2012 NCAA Swimming and
Diving Championships with swims Sunday afternoon that catapulted them into
elite company in the final day of the Bulldog Last Chance Meet. Tyler Reed swam a 43.08 in the men's 100-freestyle to push himself to
Seattle for the NCAA Championships in that event.
Men's golf: David Snyder
Finished in a tie for 10th at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate, the best finish of his career.
Shot a final round career-low 4-under-par 68 to finish at even par for the tournament.
His 54-hole total of 216 is also a career-best.
Carded five birdies and one bogey in the final round.
Baseball: Zac Zellers
Junior outfielder Zac Zellers turned in a breakout week at the plate for the Wildcats, leading UK to a series sweep vs. Buffalo in the home-opening series ... The right-handed hitter led UK with a .667 average (6-for-9), with a double, triple, two homers and five RBI ... Zellers reached base safely in 9-of-12 plate appearances during the weekend, with a .750 on-base and a 1.667 slugging percentage ... He drew a walk and got hit by two pitches without striking out ... In the series opener on Friday, Zellers launched his first career home run as part of a 1-for-3 day ... On Saturday, UK star freshman centerfielder Austin Cousino was pulled from the lineup after starting 2-for-2 due to a minor injury, with Zellers coming off the bench to go 3-for-3 with two runs, a double and his second homer ... Became the first UK player to homer in back-to-back games since Taylor Black against Alabama in 2010 ... In the series finale, Zellers went 2-for-3 with a triple, walk and hit by pitch, driving in three runs ... Zellers' big hit came as the go-ahead, three-RBI triple in the sixth inning to give UK a lead ... After UK allowed the game-tying runs in the ninth inning, Zellers led off the bottom half of the inning with a walk, scoring the walk-off run with two outs ... On the year, Zellers leads UK with a .583 average (7-for-12).
Back in December, after Anthony Davis' game-saving block in the win over North Carolina, veteran college basketball writer Chris Dortch send out a tweet that quickly went viral--"could Davis be (John Calipari's) best player ever?"
"I didn't realize D-Rose (Derrick Rose) had so many fans," Dortch said of the reaction to his suggestion.
Back then, nobody was talking about Davis as a national player of the year but now he and Kansas' Thomas Robinson are vying for favoritism for those kinds of honors.
For those like Dortch who favor Davis as POY, it's about impact. Dortch, longtime editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, says points are "not a true measure" of what Davis does to put his mark on the games.
"I don't think there's a more impactful player in the country than Anthony Davis," said Dortch. "He just impacts the game in a way that incalculable. If you look at his blocks, and then the shots that he alters, and then the 'reconsiders' (of shots), then he's preventing more than he's scoring and that means he's worth to his team, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 points per game. I don't think there's another player impacting his team's score and the other team's score to the tune of 35 points per game."
No doubt one of the reasons "The Artist" won the Oscar for Best Picture was it was unique. Sometimes, in a competition with other worthy rivals, one entity stands out as exceptional or memorable or one-of-a-kind. That's the case one can make for Davis.
"I voted for him for number one," CBS college basketball writer Gary Parrish said of their website's recent survey. "I don't think there's anything wrong with putting Thomas Robinson there right now. He's a deserving number one but when I talk to college basketball coaches, the things they say about Robinson, they could say about (any top player in any year). When you talk to coaches about Davis, they say you've near heard. 'He changes the way we have to play, he changes the sport. He's a one-in-a-generation-type guy. He's a freak.'
"Forget how many shots he blocks, what about the shots not taken because he's there?" Parrish continued. "He's the most talented player on the best team in the country and the impact he has on the game is enough to make him the national player-of-the-year. If I were betting, I think ultimately it's going to be Anthony. He's been everything they said he'd be."
John Wall won the Adolph Rupp Award in 2010 and that's the only one of the national POY awards currently being given out that was ever won by a Wildcat. If Davis wins the Associated Press honor, he'll have the lowest scoring average of anyone who has ever won it.
"He's a very humble person and a very hungry person," said teammate Darius Miller. "He never complains about getting the ball. If you watch the games, we don't run a bunch of sets for him and he doesn't complain about that. He's one of the best teammates I've had."
Kentucky's most famous fan, Ashley Judd, has taken notice of the respect Davis has within his own team.
"I think we have a bunch of stars and yet they play as a team. There seems to be a lot of joy that the guys experience in each other's talents. There's a lot of support of each player's individual excellence. Anthony Davis is one of the most remarkable players in a lifetime and you see his teammates loving that and admiring that in him," Judd told "The Leach Report" radio show.
"Him (Davis) and Kidd-Gilchrist are both unique for freshmen," Dortch said. "They can give a doggone about the stats. They just care about the 'Ws'. You just don't see two freshmen of that caliber on the same team that are on the same page, in terms of 'team' before 'me.' That just isn't seen these days. These guys are rare and unique."
Davis has set an otherworldly pace when it comes to blocking shots. He could also be the first Kentucky player since Kenny Walker in the mid 80's to average 10 or more rebounds per game. But as is the case with Dortch, it's something that doesn't show up in the stats that most impresses UK radio network analyst Mike Pratt--Davis' hands.
"Just put it in the area code," Pratt said of passes directed to Davis. "You don't even have to have the right number."
Dortch adds that Davis' demeanor is also impressive.
"He was a 6-2 shooting guard hoping to latch on with a mid-major as a shooting guard. Nobody had any idea he'd get this tall this quickly and he views it as a gift," said Dortch. "He was brought up well and he's not going to squander this gift and it's fun to watch."
Men's basketball - Kentucky won its 45th SEC Championship outright Saturday on the heels of an 83-74 win over Vanderbilt. - Freshman Anthony Davis led the way with his 13th double-double of the season, scoring a career and game-high 28 points to go along with a game-high 11 rebounds. He also added five blocked shots and two steals. - Freshman Marquis Teague added 16 points while dishing out six assists and grabbing four rebounds. Terrence Jones also scored in double-figures with 12 points to go along with six rebounds and two blocks. - UK celebrates Senior Night against Georgia on Thursday, honoring seniors Darius Miller and Eloy Vargas.
Women's basketball - Kentucky won all three games last week, including an impressive 76-40 win on the road at Mississippi State in the regular season finale on Sunday to give the Wildcats their first regular season championship since 1982. - The Cats earned the No. 1 seed, and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament for the third-straight season and now prepare to square off against the winner of Florida (No. 8 seed) and Auburn (No. 9 seed) in the quarterfinals Friday, March 2. - The Cats, who were picked to finish second in the SEC standings by the league coaches and media, have had another remarkable season under the direction of head coach Matthew Mitchell. He has led UK to its third straight 20-win season with a 24-5 overall record, including a 13-3 mark in SEC play. - The 13 league wins were a school record for SEC wins in a season and UK was the only school in the SEC to go undefeated at home. UK's 18-0 home record is just the third undefeated season in school history.
Baseball - The Kentucky baseball team posted three wins on the weekend to sweep Buffalo in the home-opening set. - The Wildcats return to action with home midweek contests vs. Morehead State (Tuesday) and Xavier (Wednesday) at 4 p.m. ET, before hosting Illinois-Chicago in a three-game series Friday-Sunday. - Kentucky (6-0) is off to its best start to a season since opening 19-0 during the 2007 and 2008 seasons. The Wildcats have utilized a balanced approach with a .341 team average, a 3.50 team ERA and a staggering .996 fielding percentage. UK has made just one error on the year, coming on an attempted pickoff at second base.
Rifle - UK rifle finished second at the 2011-12 GARC Championships over the weekend at Ole Miss, placing third overall in smallbore and second overall in air rifle, finishing just six points shy of champion West Virginia. - Kentucky completed the final day of the GARC Championships with a solid air rifle score to finish second to West Virginia overall, after UK placed third in smallbore on Saturday. UK, the regular-season conference champions and the defending NCAA Champions, fell just six points shy of the Mountaineers. - UK was led on Sunday by a strong air rifle performance, as Settlemires paced the team with a 595. Greathouse fired a 592, while Wheatley finished with a 590. Henri Junghanel totaled a 585 and Katie Fretts fired a 579 to round out the starting lineup.
Men's tennis - Kentucky could not avenge an earlier loss this season to highly ranked Ohio State, falling 4-0 to the second-ranked Buckeyes on Saturday in Columbus, Ohio. The win extended Ohio State's home winning streak to an impressive 136 consecutive matches, which is the longest in the nation. - The Wildcats dropped the doubles point with tight losses at Nos. 1 and 3 doubles, while OSU continued its momentum in singles action, earning singles matches at Nos. 2, 4, and 6 for the win. - UK junior Anthony Rossi, who is the reigning SEC Player of the Week, did not record a decision in the match, keeping his singles streak alive at 16 consecutive matches. Gymnastics - UK gymnastics posted its best meet of the year Friday, earning a team score of 195.525 en route to defeating No. 15 Auburn and Pittsburgh. It was Kentucky's first league win this year. - The Wildcats earned season-best team scores on two events, scoring a 49.125 on uneven bars and a 49.2 on floor exercise. The high score on bars is tied for the 12th-highest score on the event in school history, while UK's 49.2 on floor is tied for the 16th-best in school history. - Sophomore Audrey Harrison won her second all-around title on the season for UK, scoring a career-best 39.175. Senior Storey Morris finished first overall on uneven bars, while Harrison finished tied for first on beam and won the floor title outright with a 9.9. Softball - UK went 3-1 at the Georgia Southern Invitational where Kara Dill and Chanda Bell were named to the All-Tournament team. Dill batted .600 for the weekend and extended her season-long hitting streak to 10 games. Bell picked up two wins to become the school's all-time career leader in victories with 55. - Freshman Griffin Joiner had a breakout weekend with a .417 average. Joiner also reached base three other times by way of a walk and a hit by pitch, and registered her first career stolen base.
Track and field - The Kentucky men's team finished eighth at the SEC Championships with 38 points, while the women's teams placed 12th with seven points. - Senior Kentucky men's distance runner Luis Orta won the men's 3,000m run Saturday and the men's 5,000m run Sunday, becoming the first student-athlete to win both races in the same championship since Georgia's Ian Burrell in 2007. - Orta was a co-recipient on the men's side of the Cliff Harper Trophy, awarded each year to the high-points scorer of the meet. - Orta was the first Kentucky athlete ever to win the 3K at the SEC Indoor Championships, and was the first Wildcat to win the 5K since Richard Ede in 1987.
Women's tennis - Kentucky traveled for a midweek match with Akron, where the Cats lost a heartbreaker, 4-3. UK also traveled to Indiana to face the Hoosiers and dropped the match, 5-2. - Sophomore Khristina Blajkevitch excelled despite the tough competition at Indiana, bringing home a win in singles and doubles play. - Edmee Morin-Kougoucheff and CeCe Witten grabbed wins for the Wildcats in singles play vs. the Zips while also defeating their opponents in their respective doubles matches.
Men's golf - Kentucky finished in a tie for ninth at the Mobile Bay Intercollegiate, its first tournament of the spring season. - Freshman David Snyder finished in a tie for 10th after a career-low round of 4-under-par 68 in the final round to finish at even-par. - Junior Chase Parker carded a career-low round of 5-under-par in the final round to finish in a tie for 25th. - Kentucky's final round team score of 285 was the second lowest third round of the tournament.
Swimming and diving - Tyler Reed and Lucas Gerotto both qualified for the 2012 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships with swims Sunday afternoon that catapulted them into elite company on the final day of the Bulldog Last Chance Meet. - Gerotto swam a 46.75 in the 100-fly, just three one hundredths of a second off the UK record, and good enough to place him 13th overall in the nation this year. Tyler Reed swam a 43.08 in the men's 100-freestyle to push himself to Seattle for the NCAA Championships in that event.
Tuesday, Feb. 28 Baseball hosts Morehead St. - 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 1 Men's basketball hosts Georgia - 9:00 p.m.
Friday, March 2 Women's basketball vs. Florida/Auburn - 1:00 p.m. (Nashville) Softball vs. Texas A&M CC - 2:30 p.m. (Lafayette, La.) Men's tennis at LSU - 4:00 p.m. Baseball hosts Illinois-Chicago - 4:00 p.m. Women's tennis hosts LSU - 5:00 p.m. Softball vs. Stephen F. Austin - 7:30 p.m. (Lafayette, La.) Gymnastics at Illinois - 8:00 p.m. Track and field at NCAA Qualifying
Saturday, March 3 Softball vs. Stephen F. Austin - Noon (Lafayette, La.) Softball at Louisiana-Lafayette - 2:30 p.m. Baseball hosts Illinois-Chicago - 1:00 p.m. Women's basketball SEC Semifinals - 4:00 p.m. (Nashville) Track and field at NCAA Qualifying
Sunday, March 4 Softball vs. Nicholls State - 11:00 a.m. (Lafayette, La.) Men's basketball at Florida - Noon Women's tennis hosts Arkansas - Noon Baseball hosts Illinois-Chicago - 1:00 p.m. Men's tennis at Arkansas - 1:00 p.m. Women's basketball SEC Finals - 6:00 p.m. (Nashville) Men's golf at USF Invitational
Keyla Snowden and the Wildcats celebrated their SEC title by cutting down the nets in Memorial Coliseum on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell joined the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference on Monday afternoon to preview the upcoming conference tournament. Mitchell and some his Wildcats will be talking to the media tomorrow at which point we'll have a story and video, but here are a few notes from his comments today:
A running theme on the teleconference was the parity in the league and how open the conference tournament is expected to be because of it. In past years, Tennessee or other of the league's powerhouses were prohibitive favorites heading into the SEC, but this year is expected to be completely different. "I think it was a really good year for our conference and a lot of competition," Mitchell said. "I think that makes for a very exciting tournament." Even though Kentucky comes in as the No. 1 overall seed, with seven other likely NCAA Tournament teams taking part, Mitchell understands the line of thinking that it's anyone's tournament to win. "I do think it's a wide open tournament," Mitchell said. "I don't think that we are an unbeatable team by any stretch of the imagination. As you can see, we suffered three losses so it's certainly possible for us to lose and I think we are aware of that."
The parity in the league only adds to Mitchell's excitement for this weekend. While some coaches (John Calipari, for one) would prefer not the play conference tournaments at all, the four days coming up are among Mitchell's favorite of the season. "The SEC Tournament, to me, is one of the most special times of the year," Mitchell said. "I love the SEC Tournament. I think it is one of the toughest championships to win. For teams that play on Thursday, to have to win four games in four days to win the championship and for teams even that get the bye who have to win three games in three days, I think takes a Herculean effort." If UK is able to pull off three wins beginning on Friday at 1 p.m. against either Florida or Auburn, Mitchell would likely be unable to contain his excitement, not that he would even try. "I think it would be a tremendous accomplishment for our team if we could be the champion so we're excited to be the No. 1 seed," Mitchell said. "We want to try to prepare as hard as we can this week to try to have a great tournament and I think it's very important to try to take advantage of the opportunity."
Mitchell was clearly still on a high from clinching the regular season title. He was asked twice by reporters how he was doing, and both times he replied by saying, "I'm great," about as earnestly as you could imagine. Mitchell, though, understands concerns that Sunday's celebration in Memorial Coliseum could have a negative effect on his team moving forward. "We're going through handling this for the first time and I do have concerns like that and I think it's important for us to make certain we put the regular season behind us and try to get focused on the tournament," Mitchell said. However, he believes the conference title merited a celebration regardless. "We work so hard and the kids prepared even before the conference season started to get themselves in a position to be the regular season champions and our fans had supported us so much so we wanted to have a celebration of that accomplishment and I wouldn't do it any differently," Mitchell said. "I think it was a great night for us." As for the future, Mitchell doesn't have any concerns whether he'll be able to capture the attention of his team. "Our team has been able to stay focused and do some great things this season and they've had a lot of great successes," Mitchell said. "While I'm concerned about it and will try to do everything from a coaching standpoint to make certain that we're moving in the right direction going into the tournament, I'm not overly concerned."
The news on a busy Monday just keeps on coming. I'll have some notes from the Southeastern Conference's women's basketball coaches' teleconference a little later on, but here are a few links and notes:
Washington also helped Tennessee earn four trips to the SEC Championship game. A win in the 1998 title tilt propelled UT to the Fiesta Bowl, where the Volunteers dispatched Florida State 23-16 to cap an undefeated national championship season.
During his term at Tennessee, Washington produced a string of notable receivers such as Joey Kent, Marcus Nash, Peerless Price, Cedrick Wilson, Donte' Stallworth and Robert Meacham. Nash, Stallworth and Meacham were National Football League first-round draft picks and all six players enjoyed NFL careers. Kent, Nash, Wilson and Price still remain, respectively, as the top four pass catchers in school history.
"Pat has a lot of energy and expertise and is an outstanding person," Sanders said. "He is also an excellent evaluator and recruiter, both in handling his recruiting territory and in evaluation of wide receivers."
-Sean Cartell of the SEC Digital Network conducted a Q&A with Larry Templeton, who is the chair of the SEC's transition team that is responsible for managing the integration of new members Missouri and Texas A&M during the 2012-13 season. Check out this link to read the complete interview, but here are a couple highlights:
SEC Digital Network: In addition to the football scheduling, what has the scheduling process been like for each of the league's other 19 sports? Larry Templeton: "We have just completed the scheduling for the 2012-2013 academic year for the other sports with the exception of men's and women's basketball. That has basically been the same philosophy - it is a one-year schedule that we will review during the next academic year, as to whether we want to adopt that format permanently, or whether we want to look at different parameters and concepts. For instance, in the sport of baseball, with two additional teams in 2013, we're playing 10 weekends. Is there a desire to play one additional league member than 10 and play 11 weeks? That's only an example. There have been, or shortly will be, meetings of coaches groups and one of the main items on their agenda has been future scheduling." SEC Digital Network: What has been discussed by the transition team with regard to compliance and governance?
Larry Templeton: "With our in-person meetings, particularly when the staffs from Missouri and Texas A&M came to Birmingham, we went page by page of the SEC Constitution, we went page by page through the Commissioner's Regulations. We broke out into individual sessions as it related to sports and discussed such things as game management, contracts, television, etc. We did an extensive review of the compliance issues, particularly as it relates to the welfare of the student-athletes in the Southeastern Conference, specifically pointing out where the SEC rules are more stringent than the NCAA, and we have several of those issues."
-Greg Doyel of CBSSports.com took on the subject of rating John Calipari's greatness and he came to the conclusion that the narrative that he needs to win a national championship to prove himself:
"John Calipari doesn't need a national championship to give his career the imprimatur of greatness, not any more than Syracuse' Jim Boeheim needed his title in 2003, or North Carolina's Roy Williams needed his in '05, or Kansas' Bill Self needed his in '08. There's nothing official about greatness, no box you check to complete the deal. Greatness isn't a parking garage, with a ticket that can be validated only by cutting down the net on the season's final Monday."
-Darius Miller's one-handed alley-oop against St. John's and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's slam against Portland are both finalists for Dunk of the Year. Voting began today and lasts for the next two weeks. You can vote once per day at this link and I wish you luck in choosing between the two.
Doron Lamb once again has managed to shine despite a Kentucky rotation filled with elite talent and he has done so while being more efficient in an expanded role. While his struggles getting and finishing inside the paint suggest he may be better suited in a complementary role, his combination of elite perimeter shooting, improved shot creating abilities, and developing instincts as a facilitator in the half-court are intriguing when projecting him at the next level. So, too are his defensive abilities, which should allow him to see minutes relatively quickly whenever he chooses to play in the NBA.
Lamb has proved himself as an extremely effective shooting guard prospect at the collegiate level, and appears to have everything needed to emerge as a strong role player in the NBA.
-Marquis Teague conducted a radio interview with SiriusXM College Sports Nation after an SEC title-clinching win over Vanderbilt this weekend. Click here to listen.
during basketball season, this Monday is a busy one with new rankings coming out
and weekly awards being distributed. Let's get to the news:
With the men's
team clinching the outright Southeastern Conference title this weekend, it's only
fitting that Kentucky should dominate this week's awards. That's exactly how it
turned out as Anthony Davis earned Player of the Week honors and his roommate
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is the Freshman of the Week. Davis had a pair of double-doubles
this week, averaging 20.5 points, 11 rebounds, 3.5 blocks and 2 steals.
Kidd-Gilchrist was solid as well, scoring 26 points and grabbing 18 rebounds
total this week.
Bria Goss of
the women's team was also recognized, taking home SEC Freshman of the Week
honors. UK played three games this week in clinching the SEC title and Goss
averaged 11.3 points.
three wins, UK Hoops moved back into the top 10 of the Associated Press Top 25.
Entering this week's SEC Tournament, the Wildcats will be ranked No. 10. UK
opens play in the tournament on Friday at 1 p.m. against the winner of a game
between ninth-seeded Florida and No. 8 seed Auburn in Nashville. The game will be
televised on FSN.
first time this season, UK is the No. 1 overall seed in Joe Lunardi's
Bracketology for ESPN.com. Lunardi has Kentucky heading to Louisville for
second and third round games and Atlanta for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
Other teams of note in UK's bracket are North Carolina (No. 2), Baylor (No. 3),
Louisville (No. 4), Wichita State (No. 5), Murray State (No. 6), Purdue (No. 8)
and Kansas State (No. 9). The top overall seed likely has something to do with
UK's new RPI. Kentucky rose to No. 2 from No. 4 this week with wins over
Mississippi State and Vanderbilt.
On the upcoming matchups against Georgia and Florida ... "Thursday night game, late, against Georgia, who just went and beat Florida and is really playing a lot different than they played in the beginning of the year. Lot more pick and rolls, lot more spacing of the court. They still run some of their flex stuff but they're only sprinkling it in. They're playing some good zone and doing that, and Florida is Florida. They're at home. They're going to play and shoot the ball. Both games are going to be difficult games for us."
On Bradley Beal's impact and how ready he is for the NBA ... "What he is, is a truly prototype two guard in that league. What he can do is, he plays above the rim. Obviously (he's) a knockdown shooter. When you space the court and do pick and rolls with him in the game and he's out on the floor, you've got to play him, which opens up the court for everybody else. And he rebounds the ball. He's good. One of the issues for us when we play them is his rebounding. Now you want to talk about scoring and all the other things, he rebounds, he goes after the ball. He's a terrific player." On the difficulties of player turnover when guys go to the NBA early ... "It's not my rule. I don't even like the rule, one and done. It's not my rule. Right now, whether it's (North) Carolina, Duke or Florida, we're all in the same boat. If a kid plays really well and that's what he chooses to do, you can either try to talk him out of it or the option is don't recruit good enough players that can be drafted. And so, until the rule changes, we're all dealing with it. For me, I just think as long as you have the players' well-being in mind, even if they leave, if it's right for them - what I try to here (is), during the year it's about our team. When the year ends it's about each individual player. Right now we're trying to be an efficient team, we're trying to play together, we're trying to have low turnovers, we're trying to defend, we're trying to share the ball, which means no one is taking more than 10 or 11 shots. And then you have people going publicly saying, 'Well, the guy can't be an All-American. He's not scoring enough.' What are you talking about? You must have been a volleyball player. I don't understand. We're trying to get them to share and do the right things, but when the year is out, now it's about each individual player. I imagine Billy (Donovan) will do what I do and give them the information and let me know what you're going to do."
On the specific changes Georgia has made and how much better the Bulldogs are playing ... "They're way more confident. They're shooting the ball extremely well. They're spacing the court and doing much more pick and roll. They're playing off of handoffs, which I've not seen them do before. They're bringing their four man and making him almost like he's a three man in pick and pops and (isolations). I told my staff today, what I get impressed with in other coaches is, as the year goes on, they start adjusting to their team. It's not, 'This is how we play here.' It's like, 'OK, this is my team, we've got play a little different.' And that's what Mark is doing. They're playing different than they did at the beginning of the year and he's getting results. They're winning games. Winning at Mississippi State and winning against Florida, those are huge. Those are two ranked teams when they played them, and they won those games. So I know we're going to face an opponent that's ready and is coming in here to win." On what Eloy Vargas has done for the program as he heads into his Senior Night ... "He's been fabulous and a great teammate and all those things. Anytime we've needed him he's been there. He's in the same position Josh (Harrellson) was in. The difference is, because of an NCAA ruling, Josh ended up being thrust into the limelight and he was ready. He was the first Jeremy Lin. He was ready for it and now he's gone on to an NBA career. I've had NBA personnel call me about Eloy and say, 'Is he another Josh Harrellson playing behind Anthony Davis?' And if you watch Anthony Davis you know he's going to play behind Anthony because any player in the country would be playing behind Anthony. What I hope is he gets a lot of minutes, he plays well. I hope there is a game or two that he gets a great opportunity to play and he plays so well that he has an opportunity post-playing here to do what he chooses to do. He will be a professional player. He's got great size and all those things. He's going to be fine. He and Darius (Miller) will both have their college degrees, staying the four years, and have opportunities to play professionally." On Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's comments that he is going to stay at Kentucky and get his degree ... "He says, 'I want to get my degree from Kentucky,' and I agree, I want him to also. Basketball wise, he's just got to wait until the year is out and figure out where everything is. He is a young freshman. He is very young. But at the end of the day, he and his family have to get together, and we'll get him information and he can make that choice. I'll be with him whatever he wants to do. Obviously if he wants to stay I'm going to be very happy, but in the same sense, it's too early to tell what anyone's going to do right now. And so my thing to all guys (is), worry about being a great college player. And everyone of them, whether it's John Wall, whether it's DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, they all come back and say, 'Man, I wish I could have stayed three or four years.' So the group we have right now, these freshmen, 'Man, I'd love to be here four years,' but there are opportunities that arise, and just like Bill Gates, Bill Gates says, 'I'm done with school, I'm going to chase my dreams,' and then in his case changed the world. Steve Jobs did the same thing - left school and went out and changed the world. You have opportunities, you've got to look at them and figure out what's right."
On if he would wrestle with Kidd-Gilchrist about his decision if he was the No. 1 overall pick ... "If Michael is the (No.) 1 pick in the draft, yes, I would wrestle him to the floor and say, 'What are you thinking?' And the reason is, he's got to come up with some reasons he's coming back and convince me. Here's why: What if he got hurt and I'm out there convincing him to come back? What if that happened? Or something happened to him that all of a sudden really hurt him in his draft-ability and future? It's hard to live with yourself unless you're just trying to win five more games and how many games can I win before I retire and all that (stuff). This is about these young people, and you can't make a decision until the year's out and see what all the information is. Right now I want him worried about our team, I want him worried about being the best college player and best team they can be, and at the end of the year we'll worry about all that. Right now he's not worried about it. I'm not worried about. We're just worried about our team right now."
Georgia head coach Mark Fox On what the win over Florida might do for his team going into the Kentucky matchup ... "I don't think it will do much. I feel that our team has been pretty focused on taking things one game at a time and not trying to take the previous game into the next game. Obviously a win over a great Florida team gives us some confidence, but it's not going to have a whole lot to do with the outcome on Thursday. Obviously we're going to play a different team and play on the road, and we'll have to play extremely, extremely well to have a chance to win the game."
On what has changed about Kentucky since the first meeting ... "They're better and they're better in probably every way. I think offensively they appear to be playing extremely well together. Defensively they were dynamite before. They're a team that can beat you so many different ways and I think Jones appears to be playing pretty well, where maybe the first game he wasn't as hot coming in. When you look at Kentucky you have a hard time finding any weaknesses. They have size, guard play, shooting, great defense, high finish rate offensively and obviously a terrific home-court advantage to go with all that." Florida head coach Billy Donovan
On Georgia's improvement ... "I told Mark (Fox) after the game that the one thing I really, really respect and a lot of times we have a tendency maybe to look at a team's won-loss record and determine maybe how (good) of a job somebody is doing coaching. I think that when you're coaching a team that's really struggling, and I went through that my first two years here at Florida, where you're having losing records inside your league and potentially losing records for the overall season. I think Georgia's team continues to improve and they continue to play very hard and they continue to play with very good passion and energy. I have great respect for that and I would say the same thing for Tony Barbee and what he's done at Auburn. Both Mark and Tony are starting off in programs a couple years into it, but they have gotten better and improved. They play very, very hard, very physical and I think it's a great tribute to their kids, regardless of what the record is that they continue to battle like that every game."
On the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game this weekend ... "Certainly it was a really, really well played game. I thought it was played at a very high level. I thought both teams played really exceptionally well. Vanderbilt I think gave themselves every opportunity to win the game. I thought Kentucky did a terrific job on Jenkins most of the game, but he's got great ability and Kevin (Stallings) puts him in situations where he can free him up with different things they're doing offensively and obviously he went through a four-minute stretch there where he made some really tough shots. Once he gets going, if he gets it off with a good chance, it's going to go in. I thought Kentucky really answered the bell. (Anthony) Davis had some incredible plays down the stretch and certainly made a real big 15-foot jump shot there late in the game. I thought the game was played at a very, very high level by both teams. I thought both teams played exceptionally well and obviously Vanderbilt ended up with the loss but I think Vanderbilt played a very, very good and maybe even more so that anybody in our league, has played them the most difficult considering the teams on the east who get a chance to play Kentucky twice. They've given themselves an opportunity both times playing them at home and on the road." On Davis' shot-blocking ability and how he stacks up historically ... "I think he's definitely one of the best of all time. You start talking about Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and guys like that, I can't probably go back that far, but certainly here in recent times, the last 20, 25 years he's as good as anybody that's out there. I think the thing with him that's very, very unique is he's not 7-foot-1 or 7-foot-2 but he's obviously a quick jumper and he's got long arms. I think the thing that is very, very difficult with him is there's times when guys shoot balls with him or when guys go to the basket or guys have jump shots is he has an ability to become a lot longer than he appears and very quickly. It's different I think than most guys. I remember when Shaquille O'Neal was in the league, he's 7-foot-1 standing back there. You can see the enormous size. He's not a guy that's 7-foot-1 and he's not also a guy that's like 285 pounds so he can be a little bit unassuming physically, but I think he's a tough kid. I think he has great timing and I think he's very, very deceptive in how long he can become when he leaves the floor. He is as good as I've seen shot-blocking as I've seen in this league for a very long time." Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings On whether Vanderbilt gets a boost from playing Kentucky close for the second time ... "I don't know that we get any boost from that. We expected to play them well and quite honestly we expected to play them better than we did. I thought Kentucky played very, very well. I thought they had to play well but I thought they did. I thought they played extremely well, especially on offense. Obviously we were just beaten by a better team but I don't fault my team's effort in any way and I thought we competed and we didn't execute always the things we were trying to execute, but nonetheless, overall I was fine with how we played for the most part. I just hope that we have a good week this week. I don't know if it will give us a boost. I don't think it does because I don't think losing gives you a boost. Hopefully we'll play that hard but play better this week."
On what makes Kentucky so dangerous on offense ... "Really, really, really good players. Their scheme is good but their players are really good. In our case, Anthony Davis was terrific and we didn't provide a lot of resistance for him I didn't think. It's just more that they're good. They're set up well, they play together, they're big and long and skilled and they pass the ball to each other well and they share it. They're a hard cover for anybody, but again there were some things we could have done that we normally do that we just failed to execute which I thought could have given us a little better chance anyway. The reason you don't play perfectly or real well against a team like that is because they put you in position to make mistakes and that's happened. On whether Kentucky is different on offense compared with recent seasons ... "They've adjusted their offense quite a bit and (Calipari) suits it to his personnel, which is what good coaches do and they put their guys in spots to be the most effective that they can be. I think that's what all of us are trying to do. We're all trying to put our guys in the best spots we can put them in in order to have the most success. Certainly that's what John has done and they run offense very well."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart celebrated UK Hoops' SEC title with the team on Sunday night in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Within 26 hours of one another, the Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams clinched the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship outright.
With the double title, UK asserts itself as the center of the SEC basketball world and it's not just about the tradition-rich men's program this time.
"The only other time in our league history that the same school held the title, men and women, simultaneously was LSU in (2006)," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart told fans at a celebration of UK Hoops' title. "(This is) only the second time in conference history that the same school held both the titles (outright) in the same year."
The achievement may be the same for the two basketball programs, but the circumstances surrounding each title couldn't be more different.
One was the 45th in school history. The other was the first since 1981-82.
One was clinched in a tight, comeback win at home with a week to go in the regular season. The other was clinched in a never-in-doubt blowout road victory on the regular season's final day.
One was celebrated by a few words said by the public address announcer after a win. The other was rung in with a net-cutting ceremony in Memorial Coliseum attended by hundreds of fans.
After his team upended Vanderbilt 83-74 in Rupp Arena on Saturday, Anthony Davis reacted to winning the SEC with a few simple words.
"We came out here and put in work, did our job and kept this thing going," Davis said.
Matthew Mitchell was slightly more excited.
"When I first arrived as an assistant, to see it today, what Coach (Mickie) DeMoss started and what we've been able to try to accomplish, this is the stuff you were dreaming of doing," Mitchell said. "I think this team has so much more they can accomplish, but this is a special night."
The difference in emotion between the two teams is understandable. The men's team has been on the throne of the SEC for the better part of 70 years and has come to view winning the conference as a step along the way to a run in the NCAA Tournament.
The women, on the other hand, have been trying to forge themselves as a threat to a team that has been similarly dominant to UK's men's team: Tennessee. Finishing a game ahead of the Lady Volunteers, while not an endpoint, is clearly a sign of progress.
As Mitchell, his staff and his players have looked to close the gap in the conference, they've turned to their allies across the hallways for support. Rather than viewing at the men's team as an obstacle and a competitor for fans and interest, Mitchell used that storied history to try to help build something similar.
"I think the men's program's done nothing but help us," Mitchell said. "The excellence the men have created over the last hundred years has made Kentucky such a great brand name for basketball, college basketball in particular. It's been a real, real resource that we've tried to use and it's been great for us."
Making the championship even sweeter is the path UK Hoops to get here. Like the men, the women charged through the first half of the conference season, going unbeaten through 10 games. Unlike the men, the women stumbled, losing three games in a row, including a lopsided loss to Tennessee.
Just a week ago, UK Hoops was in a tie with Tennessee atop the standings with just three games to play. The Wildcats would face two likely NCAA Tournament teams and a road test in their quest to win the conference.
"That was such a disappointing night (against Tennessee) and we clearly didn't play our best and then suffered another real tough defeat in Tuscaloosa," Mitchell said. "So this was a real gauntlet we had this week: Monday, Thursday, Sunday. They had to play tough to win these three games. We just tried to go back to defensive intensity and it carried us through."
While almost everything about the two titles looks different on the face of things, there is one unmistakable similarity: there's still basketball left to play.
"I think this team can continue to get better," Mitchell said. "I think that we have a lot of room for improvement so we'll get a couple days of rest and a couple of practices and we've done a pretty good job in the tournament. Hopefully we can not be satisfied right now and keep going."
"We have won over the years a lot of conference championships and tournament championships, but I'm telling you ... that isn't what we are playing for," John Calipari said. "It's all about that seed (in the NCAA Tournament). So hopefully we are doing what we need to, getting better. It's nice, I told (the players), congratulations, but you all know, this is not why we are playing, and they know that."
Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky Wildcats cut down the nets in Memorial Coliseum in celebration of the school's first SEC title since 1981-82. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
There were hugs, there was dancing, there were two net-cuttings and there was even a blue Stormtrooper.
Fans were invited to come to Memorial Coliseum on Sunday evening to help the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate their first regular-season Southeastern Conference championship in three decades and they came out in force.
The UK women's basketball team drove directly from the airport upon arriving home from Starkville, Miss., where the Wildcats clinched that title outright with a dominant 76-40 victory over Mississippi State. Upon seeing the assembled crowd, head coach Matthew Mitchell couldn't help but smile.
"I am really just overwhelmed with the support you've shown," Matthew Mitchell told the crowd. "I can't thank you enough. This is unbelievable to have you all out here."
Of course, the celebration was tipped off by the title and centered around it, but to say it was the only thing being commemorated would be untrue. The scene was a chance for players, coaches and fans to recognize what UK Hoops has become.
UK Hoops has arrived as a force to be reckoned with in the women's college basketball landscape, and it all begins with the players.
"This championship started when all these young women decided that Kentucky was a place they were going to come play," Mitchell said. "It started last summer when they were up at 5:30 a.m. lifting weights and running. It started in individual workouts in September where they just didn't even think they could go another step.
"They just worked as hard as any group I've ever seen."
The festivities gave those players a chance to take the floor one more time in Memorial to the cheers of the fans that have so embraced them and their style of play. Feeding off that crowd, Kentucky was a perfect 18-0 in Lexington.
"You, the fans, had a huge part in this championship, a huge part of this championship," Mitchell said. "There was only one team in the conference that went undefeated on their home floor and that was Kentucky.
"This has become the toughest place in the country to play and this is how we need to keep it."
Before Mitchell arrived at UK as an assistant to Mickie DeMoss in 2003, a night like this one would have been unthinkable. The hard work of the players, the support of the fans and an administration unwavering in its belief that championships could be won at UK turned that all around.
"We're just so fortunate to be here at a place where our administration decided that women's basketball is important," Mitchell said. "We go on the road so many times and there's not this many people at games."
Leading that administration is Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart, who opened the evenings events with a few brief comments and an introduction of Mitchell. The crowd cheered when appropriate, but was quiet while he spoke, save for one instance. "We're not done yet!" a fan shouted, Barnhart and everyone in the building agreed.
Barnhart went on to explain the players would be receiving rings for winning the SEC title, but made it clear that it's in their hands to determine if anything will be added to them.
"I will also tell you those rings have two sides on them," Barnhart said. "One has got your name and number and all those wonderful things. On the other side of the ring, from here on, you get to decide what the other side of that ring says."
He blocked shots at a record-setting pace, scored on put backs and dunked every lob pass within three feet of the rim, leaving it to his talented teammates to drive to the hoop and shoot from the outside.
Now, Davis is making things a little harder on himself.
Davis scored 28 points on 10-for-11 shooting as No. 1 Kentucky (28-1, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) defeated Vanderbilt (20-9, 9-5 SEC) 83-74 as the Wildcats clinched their 45th SEC title outright.
Each game, it seems that John Calipari is putting Davis in new situations and asking him to expand his game. On Saturday afternoon, he took more than a few steps forward.
"I don't know what (the coaches are) doing, but it was a great day for me," Davis said with a smile.
The freshman tallied just two points via his beloved dunk. He drilled six jumpers, eight free throws, two layups and one tip-in en route to his career-high scoring performance.
From his first basket, it was clear that this was going to be a different kind of game for Davis. Early in the first half, he received the ball at the top of the key with Steve Tchiengang guarding him, driving from the 3-point line toward the rim. Tchiengang bumped him and as Davis fell to the ground, he flipped the ball off the backboard for an "and-one."
Due to All-Star Weekend, fewer NBA scouts were in attendance for the Kentucky-Vanderbilt game, but it was the kind of play that demonstrated that Davis is the most unique combination of production and potential outside of the professional ranks.
It was also the kind of play that begged the question why Davis hasn't shown those parts of his game all season. Calipari had a tongue-in-cheek response to that line of thinking.
"I've been holding him back," Calipari joked. "I'm trying to get him to stay in school another year."
The real reason why Davis is unveiling new dimensions to his game on a daily basis is a combination of a couple different factors, the first of which is his burgeoning confidence.
"I think he's gotten more comfortable, especially with his shot," Darius Miller said. "He's really knocking down his shot now and we can really count on him to knock it down. Earlier in the year, he wouldn't have taken it, but I feel like he had it the whole time."
The other is his inexhaustible work ethic.
"I just try to work hard at it," Davis said. "I know what type of player I am. I know I'm capable of doing a lot of things. That's why I put in work. When it comes time in the game for me to do it, that's what I try to do."
Davis raised eyebrows when he arrived on campus this summer, saying he tried to pattern his game after the NBA's two-time defending leading scorer. Having only recently grown from a 6-foot-3 guard into a 6-foot-10 big man, Davis still saw himself as a swingman in a forward's body.
"I still do some of my guard workouts, basically like Kevin Durant does," Davis said in July. "He goes in the post, he shoots jumpers (and) he does dribble pull-ups. I really watch Kevin Durant a lot and try to (model) my game after his."
Early in the season, the Durant comparison seemed a bit far-fetched, at least in the immediate future, but with the way Davis was driving and hitting clutch shots for the Cats, his words from seven months ago look to be prophetic. On three separate occasions, Davis made plays for himself at the end of the shot clock, including one play in the final minutes that put an end to a 9-0 Vanderbilt run.
The Commodores had rallied from a 10-point deficit to close to within 66-65. UK had the ball, but with the shot clock running down and no apparent openings, it appeared Vanderbilt would get the ball with a chance to regain the lead. Instead, Davis rose for a fadeaway jumper 12 feet out. The shot hit nothing but net to start a 6-0 UK run.
"It seemed like every time they needed something (Anthony) Davis got it done for them, he was spectacular," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said.
Kentucky would lead by at least five points the rest of the way.
"That's what great players do, they get those plays done at the end of the clock," Stallings said. "We played exceptional defense two or three times and they threw them in at the buzzer against us."
Teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist saw shades of another NBA star in Davis' performance on both ends of the floor: LeBron James. Davis shied away from that comparison.
"I wouldn't say LeBron," Davis said. "LeBron is LeBron. He's in his own category."
Davis may have shown some skills on the perimeter reminiscent of some of the stars of the game, but that doesn't mean he's eschewing the defense and rebounding that put him on the radar in the first place. He had 11 rebounds, five blocks and two steals on top of his scoring outburst, but still sees room for improvement.
"I think I just came out and played my game," Davis said. "There's some stuff I could have done better: being stronger with the ball, more rebounds, blocks. I played well, but there's always something you can do better."
Davis will likely be the only person in the country poking holes in his outing against Vanderbilt. Most others are too busy talking about his National Player of the Year credentials.
For Davis, the Naismith Award or the John R. Wooden Award would be nice, but he has another trophy in mind.
"It would be a great honor, especially for a freshman," Davis said. "I just want to win a national championship right now, that's my main focus. If I win it, it would be great but at the same time, my goal here is to win a national championship."
Freshman Terence Boyd will compete in long jump and triple jump at this weekend's SEC Indoor Track and Field Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, Kentucky track and field is hosting the Southeastern Conference Indoor Championships. In a two-part series, UK freshman athlete Terence Boyd is writing an exclusive running diary of the event for Cat Scratches. Boyd will compete in long jump and triple jump on Saturday and Sunday, but supported his teammates and took in the action as the meet opened Friday with the heptathlon and pentathlon. Here's what Boyd observed.
2:35 p.m. - After running across campus to make it to Nutter Fieldhouse for our 2:30 p.m. deadline, (freshman jumper) Todd Nibbs and I arrived through the door a mere five minutes late unnoticed. As we walked in the door, our fellow jump squad members greet us. Jokes and laughter cover our nerves. (Freshman jumper) Brittany Britt ruins the conversation by asking if the University of North Carolina was going to be at the track meet but then quickly retracts her statement when she realizes they weren't in the SEC. We won't let her live this down. UK freshman Daniel ("D-Bucks") Buckles will be competing in his first SEC conference meet at 3:15 p.m. with the 60-meter dash
3:15 p.m. - (Freshman jumper) Ryan ("Big Country") Ratliff finally found his camo UK hat just in time for the SEC meet. (Senior pole vaulter) Sam Stenzel, joking tells the crew to cut out our attitudes, but we quickly responded by tell her to "skit" (a term used for everything, basically meaning "get out of here with that") Over the intercom, we heard Daniel's name and quickly ran over to see him compete. As they introduce him to the crowd, he rubs his lucky tights for good luck and settles in to the blocks. He ended up with a PR (personal record) in his first event of the day. In the second heat, Gray Horn from Florida, last year's champion, is announced as well as Gunnar Nixon, the freshman from Arkansas who currently owns the World Junior Record for the heptathlon. 3:55 p.m. - I walk passed Coach (Sammy) Dabbs, UK's men's sprints coach asking him why he upgraded his normal chewing toothpick to a much larger chopstick. I quickly flee the scene towards the long jump pit to avoid his humiliating jokes. Last minute runs throughs occurred when the long jump judge yelled "five minutes." There are three jumps per athlete in this competition, unlike the six for normal long jump competitions. Horn jumps 7.50m two times in a row, which is only 10 cm away from the SEC heptathlon long jump record. Buckles, the third jumper, steps on the runway and the Kentucky crowd stands to its feet, giving him an energy boost for his first jump. On his second attempt, Buckles leaps to 6.25 meters. 4:30 p.m. - What was supposed to be a jump squad lunch/dinner turned into a bros-only lunch as Todd Nibbs, Ryan Ratliff and I rode up to Fazoli's before Daniel's last event. We smashed the alfredo and breadsticks in a matter of seconds upon them being placed on our table. 5:15 p.m. - As we finished our meals and were preparing to leave, a lady in her late 50s to early 60s walked in and told us good luck and that she was proud of us. A short conversation followed, but after being recognized as athletes, our ears shut down due to pure excitement. It's not every day that something like that happens because it's usually the basketball team who gets noticed in that sort of way.
6:00 p.m. - Daniel Buckles, competing in his fourth event of the day with high jump, cleared his season-best height on his first attempt. The rest of the jump crew and I were so excited every time he cleared a bar. With increased confidence, the bar was raised five inches above his season best. With the crew's support and the loud chant of "Let's Go D-Bucks," he soared over the bar on his first attempt. The UK crowd erupted as we banged on the plastic fence enclosing the high jump area, anxiously waiting to shake his hand. His three attempts at the next height were extremely close but unfortunately, he was unsuccessful. He got off the mat with a smile of his face and walked over to us so we could congratulate him on his performance.
8:30 p.m. - Now being back at the dorm (Kirwan Tower), Todd Nibbs and I, still hype from his performance, gave his a quick motivational speech for the next day and sent him on his way. Minutes later, I knocked on his door to ask him some questions for the diary but he didn't answer. I don't blame him though; he's had a long day.
Kentucky baseball played its home opener on Friday evening at Cliff Hagan Stadium, defeating Buffalo 13-4 to move to 4-0 on the season.
Taylor Rogers allowed a triple and a home run to lead off the game and put the Wildcats in a 2-0 hole, but he settled down with the wind blowing stiffly out and registered his second quality and start and second win. He pitched six innings, allowing three runs and striking out nine.
Freshmen A.J. Reed (2-for-5, one home run and six RBI) and Austin Cousino (2-for-6, one home run, three RBI) led a 13-hit UK attack that posted five runs in both the first and fourth inning.
UK hosts Buffalo for the second of a three-game series at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
Cat Scratches talked to head coach Gary Henderson, Rogers and Reed about the victory. Henderson
Marquis Teague had 13 points and eight assists in a win on Feb. 11 at Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In Southeastern Conference play, Marquis Teague had played fewer than 30 minutes just once. Even in that game, the point guard's minutes were limited to 28 simply because the outcome was determined early in a blowout win over South Carolina.
For a player used to having the ball in his hands on nearly a full-time basis for his Kentucky team, spending the final 8:06 on the sidelines of a close game against Mississippi State had to be at least a little strange.
If it was, Teague certainly didn't show it.
UK would outscore the host Bulldogs 25-9 en route to a 73-64 victory with Doron Lamb running the point while Teague sat on the bench.
In truth, he didn't do all that much sitting. Rather than pouting or demanding to reenter the game, Teague turned into the Wildcats' chief towel-waver.
"The greatest part of it was how he cheered. He was into every possession down the stretch cheering his team on," John Calipari said. "Here's a guy who's been out there every one of those situations all year and this situation we didn't need him out there because the team was playing well."
When he was asked about why he had that attitude, Teague wasn't overly philosophical in his response.
"Because I just want to win," Teague said. "That's the only thing that matters. I was cheering my teammates on like they would for me. It's just all about winning."
Teague knows his fellow Wildcats would do the same for him because he's watched them in the very same position. There isn't a player on the roster who hasn't found himself on the bench for an extended period because the group of five on the floor was playing so well.
"'He wasn't out because of him,'" Calipari told his team after the game. "'He was out because you all played well. But that's happened to Terrence (Jones), it's happened to Doron, it's happened to Darius (Miller), it's happened to Michael (Kidd-Gilchrist).'"
Other than Teague's unselfishness, Calipari learned something new about his young team after the point guard's stint on the bench. With his physical style on defense, Kentucky is likely to face a game in which Teague is saddled with foul trouble. Knowing Lamb can handle himself and the team in a competitive game is a valuable piece of information as the Cats close in on postseason play.
"If we have to go with Doron extended minutes at point guard, we're fine," Calipari said.
No matter how well Teague proved himself as a cheerleader or Lamb showed what he can do as a point guard on Tuesday night, don't expect the Indianapolis, Ind., native to reprise the role when No. 1 Kentucky (27-1, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) hosts Vanderbilt (20-8, 9-4 SEC) on Saturday at noon on CBS.
The Wildcats and Commodores faced off just two weeks ago and Teague had somewhat of a coming out party in primetime. After some had called him the "weak link" in UK's national championship chase, Teague dazzled with 13 points and eight assists against just one turnover. He seamlessly shifted from scorer to facilitator as UK edged Vanderbilt, 69-63.
"When I was penetrating, they were kind of trying to take the lob away from Anthony so they gave me free layups and things like that," Teague said.
Vanderbilt senior Brad Tinsley opened the game on Teague and the freshman took advantage of every hole that was given to him. He scored eight of his points in the first half before Vanderbilt deployed a 2-3 zone defense that was much more effective in limiting both Teague and his teammates.
The Commodores will surely account for Teague much more in their game plan than the last time around, but Teague still plans on exploiting any opportunities given to him.
"If it's there, (he will attack)," Teague said. "I'll just take whatever the defense gives. Maybe they might step up this time. I don't know."
Having faced off so recently, the Cats and Commodores won't be surprising each other much on Saturday.
"We kind of know what they're going to do, but they know what we're going to do," Teague said. "We know the matchups real well because we just played them. It will be a well fought out game."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings could certainly mix in that zone earlier and try to limit Teague, but the framework for how the two teams try to attack each other will remain in place for the last matchup.
"That's just normal second time you play a team, third time you play a team," Calipari said. "We are what we are. They are what they are. There will be some small little bumps. You two really good teams going at each other in a really significant game, one that would mean something to both teams. Hopefully we play well and they play well it's a great game."
UK Hoops clinched a share of the SEC regular season title with a 53-50 win over South Carolina on Thursday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
With three games left in the regular season, the Kentucky Wildcats controlled their own fate.
Tied atop the standings in the Southeastern Conference, UK needed only to win out to guarantee a share of its first conference title in three decades.
Deep into each of the first two legs of that final stretch, the Cats were in firm control. Against Vanderbilt, UK led by 17 with just 6:44 to play. Hosting South Carolina, Kentucky was up nine with 5:05 left.
Both times, things got much more interesting before the final buzzer for UK Hoops.
"It was very concerning because we got some good shots and we were coaching every possession," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We found some good shots there and they just did not fall."
UK would survive comeback bids in both games. The Commodores closed to within six points in the final minutes while the Gamecocks got as close as two before a bizarre final sequence, only for the Wildcats to come away with a pair of wins.
"We all have to realize these kids are going through this for the first time," Mitchell said. "I'm going through this for the first time. I don't care what you say, it's difficult to go through. I hope experience will help the next time we go through something."
With the benefit of a Tennessee loss on Thursday night, the No. 13/10 Wildcats (23-5, 12-3 SEC) clinched a share of that conference title and will have a chance to grab sole possession of the championship and a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament in a trip to face Mississippi State (14-14, 4-11 SEC) on Sunday at 1:30 p.m. on ESPNU.
"The respect that I have for this league growing up in the SEC country and just seeing all the great champions throughout my lifetime and what it's taken to win a championship in this league, I just have a tremendous respect for an SEC championship," Mitchell said. "It would be hard for me to think of the words to say what it would mean."
A native Louisville, Miss., Mitchell has been familiar with the quality of basketball in the SEC from an early age, and Mississippi State coach and former UK head coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is a part of that. Fanning-Otis will be coaching her final home game as she plans to retire following the season and Mitchell owes a debt of gratitude to her.
"There weren't a whole lot of people when I was staring out as a high school coach in Mississippi that I learned more from than her," Mitchell said. "She spent a lot of time with me as a high school coach. I worked her camps. She is a great lady. She has meant a lot to me. She has meant a lot to this program too, she has the second-most wins of any coach in this program."
Though UK defeated Mississippi State 88-40 earlier this season in Memorial Coliseum, the Bulldogs figure to be motivated to play for their departing coach and players on Senior Day.
Also working against the Wildcats are the bad memories of their last three road games. Before besting Vanderbilt and South Carolina, Kentucky lost three in a row to allow Tennessee back in the SEC race.
"The LSU game, we let officiating bother us," Mitchell said. "We didn't adjust to that. Tennessee game, we let our offense bother us. And then Alabama, I don't have any explanation for you on that one but we learned something. Our back got against the wall and now we've had a three-game season and we've completed the first two successfully."
There were different factors at play in those three losses, but defense was the common denominator in Mitchell's eyes. Fortunately, UK's ability to defend is what allowed the Cats to hold on down the stretch of the two recent wins.
Mitchell also believes that familiarity played a big part in the Commodores' and Gamecocks' furious comebacks.
"I just have to believe we're going to play through that at some point in time," Mitchell said. "I always think in the NCAA Tournament you get a bit of a refresh button because now you're not as familiar. With South Carolina, we play them year after year after year. Dawn Staley and I watch each other coach and we're going on four or five years or whatever it's been. It's tough when people know you that well so I'm not terribly concerned about any late-game issues."
Though the prospect of winning a conference title outright is certainly exciting, the NCAA Tournament is ultimately how the Wildcats will judge their season.
Incredibly, March is just days away. Regular seasons for both men's and women's college basketball are drawing to a close with conference tournaments to follow.
The Kentucky men have three regular season games remaining, while the women have just one game left at Mississippi State on Sunday at 1 p.m. on ESPNU. Both teams are well positioned to receive high seeds in their respective Southeastern Conference Tournament, with each having already clinched a share of the regular season title.
Since the tournaments are almost at hand, let's take a look at what the brackets could look like:
Men's tournament - New Orleans - March 8-11 UK's seed if the season ended today - No. 1 What UK needs to do to clinch the No. 1 seed - All the Cats need is one win in their final three games or one loss by second-place Florida in its last three outings. Worst possible seed - No. 2 What has to happen to fall to No. 2 - UK would have to lose to Vanderbilt at home, Georgia at home and Florida on the road while Florida would have to win at Georgia, at Vanderbilt and at home against UK. UK would also then have to lose a tiebreaker, which would come down to the two teams' record against the No. 3 seed proceeding through the No. 12 seed.
No matter what happens, UK will receive a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. If the Cats do clinch the No. 1 seed, they will play the winner of a matchup between the No. 8 and No. 9 seed at 1 p.m. on Friday. Through Thursday night's games, Arkansas and Ole Miss would face off in that 8-9 game.
In the semi-finals at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Kentucky would go up against either the No. 4, No. 5 or No. 12 seed. Through Thursday night's games, Alabama, LSU and Tennessee are tied for fourth place, while South Carolina would be the No. 12. UK would play in the final at 1 p.m. on Sunday if the Cats advance. Women's tournament - Nashville - March 1-4 UK's seed if the season ended today - No. 1 What UK needs to do to clinch the No. 1 seed - A win on Sunday at Mississippi State or a loss by Tennessee at home against Florida. Worst possible seed - No. 2 What has to happen to fall to No. 2 - UK would have to lose to Mississippi State and Tennessee would have to hold serve against Florida. UK would also then have to lose a tiebreaker, which would come down to the two teams' record against the No. 3 seed proceeding through the No. 12 seed.
All in all, a very similar situation to the men, but in a more condensed timeframe. UK Hoops will have a first-round bye no matter what, but would face the winner of the 8-9 game on Friday at 1 p.m. As of today, the No. 8 seed is Florida and the No. 9 is Mississippi State.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., UK will face either the No. 4, No. 5 or No. 12 seed. Since five different teams could finish fourth or fifth and three could finish at No. 12 with a game to play, it's really not even worth it to go through the scenarios for who these teams could be.
All either team needs to worry about right now is winning its next game and everything will take care of itself.
"I think Kentucky is the only stumbling block to Kentucky. They're so much better than everybody else right now."
That's the take of CBS college basketball writer Gary Parrish.
"I talked to a coach (who has played Kentucky) after that Vanderbilt game and he said 'unless Anthony Davis gets in foul trouble, they ain't losin'. Not only has John recruited a top-notch roster, but he's got them playing together. He's got them playing with a purpose," Parrish said on "The Leach Report" radio show. "I don't think team is flawed like maybe some of his (Calipari's) past teams. Even that 2008 at Memphis, they didn't have a shooter. The John Wall-DeMarcus Cousins team (at UK) didn't have a shooter. I don't see this team doing one of those two-of-17 from three-point range. The only way they slip up is something out of the ordinary--somebody hits 10 three-pointers."
Parrish says when the brackets are unveiled, he'll "put Kentucky in the middle as national champion and work (back) from there." SEC Network analyst on UK's progression
SEC TV Network analyst Joe Dean, Jr. brings an interesting perspective to Kentucky's evolution this season. That's because the first UK game he worked was in mid-January at Auburn and the second was last Saturday, against Ole Miss. He says two things stood out to him in comparing those two performances.
"One was their zone offense because they're going to see a lot of zone. I thought they really attacked the Ole Miss zone very well. They had played against a zone at Auburn and really struggled a little," Dean told "The Leach Report" earlier this week. "The second thing is the improvement of Marquis Teague. He has really taken to John Calipari's coaching. Very impressed with that young man and what he's doing to run the Kentucky team." Cats elite on offense too
For all of the worthy praise for the Wildcats' defense, Kentucky is the only team that ranks in the top five in points-per-possession on offense, too.
And Coach Cal's squad went into the Mississippi State game hitting 48.7 percent of its shots, a level topped by only the 2003 and 1987 teams in the shot clock era (since '87). No Kentucky team has hit 50 percent or better from the field during that span.
Davis POY candidacy unprecedented
Anthony Davis is making a strong bid to become the first consensus National Player of the Year in UK history. John Wall won the Rupp Trophy two years ago but the rest of the POY awards went to Ohio State's Evan Turner.
If Davis wins the Associated Press' POY award, he will likely set a record for the lowest scoring average.
Georgetown's Patrick Ewing averaged 14.6 points per game when he won the honor in 1984 and since Shane Battier's win in 2001, every AP National Player of the Year has averaged better than 20 per game.
Davis is currently averaging just under 14 points per game.
And he is also on pace to become the first UK freshman to finish in the top five in points, rebounds and steals.
Amber Smith, Crystal Riley and Keyla Snowden took part in Senior Night ceremonies before UK's win over South Carolina. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Considering it was a feat they had not accomplished in 30 years, it was fitting the Kentucky Wildcats clinched a share of the Southeastern Conference title in the most pulse-pounding of ways.
Kentucky overcame a furious rally by South Carolina and a final 10 seconds that made March Madness feel like it had arrived early to defeat the visiting Gamecocks 53-50 to complete a perfect 18-0 home record on Senior Night in Memorial Coliseum.
"I couldn't be prouder of our team because they certainly did not make it easy on us tonight," Matthew Mitchell said. "They challenged us in every way possible, every way imaginable. This was a great victory for us and it was earned and it was tough."
A'dia Mathies led all scorers with 20 points and Bria Goss joined her in double figures with 14, but it was a hustle play by the freshman guard that made the final moments stressful for the 7,062 fans in attendance.
No. 13/10 Kentucky (23-5, 12-3 SEC) had a seemingly comfortable lead with 2:55 remaining after Mathies scored a layup to give UK a 50-43 lead, but South Carolina (20-8, 9-6 SEC) refused to wilt. The Gamecocks clamped down defensively, holding Kentucky scoreless for nearly three minutes while scoring five unanswered points, capped by a basket by Ashley Bruner and a foul on Samarie Walker send her to the free throw line.
Bruner, who had a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, would miss the free throw to keep the score at 50-48. Mathies came away with the rebound and Mitchell would call for UK's final timeout with 32 seconds left. Using the Samarie Walker screen Mitchell called for, Mathies drove through the lane and missed a driving layup off the backboard.
Walker, rolling to the basket after setting the screen, attempted a tip-in that fell well short. The ball would eventually settle in the hands of Maegan Conwright, who was unable to shoot before the 30-second shot clock expired, or so it seemed.
The officials gathered around a television monitor to watch the sequence, determining that Walker's shot did indeed graze the rim. The play was deemed an inadvertent whistle and Kentucky was given possession on a jump ball with eight seconds remaining.
Mitchell and South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley were summoned to mid-court in order for the officials to explain the call, but Mitchell admittedly tuned out once he heard the most important news.
"I didn't listen to the details much when they said it was our ball," Mitchell said.
South Carolina would foul to send Goss to the free-throw line for one and the bonus. She made the first, but missed the second, only for Conwright to set a career high with her seventh rebound of the night. She made the two subsequent free throws after a South Carolina foul to give UK a 53-48 lead with under five seconds remaining.
With victory seeming a near-certainty, Mitchell instructed his players to back off as South Carolina took possession, but Goss sensed an opportunity to make a steal as the Gamecocks rolled the ball in to save time. She dove to the floor and made the steal, calling a timeout the Wildcats did not have.
"I was supposed to stay back and I ended up running up when they had rolled the ball," Goss said. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"She was just hustling," Keyla Snowden said. "It was a hustle play and I guess just where you're in the moment of the game, you just kind of react."
By rule, a technical foul was assessed to Kentucky, giving South Carolina two free throws and the ball with three seconds remaining. La'Keisha Sutton would score her team-leading 13th and 14th points at the line before the Gamecocks tried a desperation pass in an effort to set up a game-tying 3-pointer, but Kentucky intercepted the pass, touching off a celebration in Memorial Coliseum.
The celebration, though, was for the victory and UK's three seniors, Amber Smith, Snowden and Crystal Riley, not the SEC title. When the Wildcats left the floor after a speech by Mitchell and a final ovation for the seniors, they had not yet locked down a share of their first SEC title since the 1981-82 season.
It was only during postgame interviews that Arkansas put the finishing touches on an overtime victory over Tennessee, making a dream the Wildcats had long pursued a reality.
"It means a lot," Snowden said. "We're just really glad that our hard work is going to pay off no matter what happens. It feels great just to be a part of this team and to see where it's come throughout the year."
Even after learning of the news, the mood of the UK players was more business-like than festive.
In the not-so-distant past, the idea of earning a share of the conference title would have been exciting. Now that the moment has arrived, the Wildcats have bigger things in mind.
"We don't want to stop here," Goss said. "We got other goals to fulfill. Yeah they lost, but we got to focus on us and what we got to do on Sunday."
This weekend's trip to face Mississippi State affords the Wildcats a chance to win the title outright and clinch the No. 1 seed in next weekend's SEC Tournament.
While Kentucky is not yet ready to celebrate its accomplishments in SEC regular season play, Mitchell does look at the Wildcats' spotless home record as a major milestone.
"I don't put a lot of importance on a lot of stats," Mitchell said. "I'm not a big stats person. I'm an honesty, hard work and discipline person. But I'm telling you, that's a really, really big accomplishment. There's no other team in our league that went undefeated at home this year."
Anthony Davis has grabbed the lion's share of the attention on the record-breaking front with his ridiculous shot-blocking pace, but this Kentucky team as a whole has a chance to accomplish some never-before-seen feats. Adam Warner over at CoachCal.com took a look at all the records Davis, his teammates and the team could threaten this season:
Every once in a while there comes along a special team that changes the landscape of college basketball as we know it.
Ultimately, who cuts down the nets in April will define this season, but this year's Kentucky team is having a historic run as the Wildcats continue their push towards March Madness and an eighth national championship. Along the way, Kentucky and its individual parts are either breaking records or on the verge of approaching them.
The most noticeable is Anthony Davis, who continues to gather National Player of the Year headlines for his dynamic all-around play. But to help you keep track of the history UK is making this season, we've compiled a long list of the records UK is approaching.
Keyla Snowden is part of a three-member senior class that will play its final home game on Thursday against South Carolina. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Senior Night in Memorial Coliseum feels different these days.
As recently as three years ago, Kentucky's final home game was a way to close the book on a season and say goodbye to a group of players with a ceremony before the game. Sure, there were trips to the Southeastern Conference Tournament and Women's National Invitational Tournament to follow, but Senior Night still seemed like a conclusion
The 2012 edition is anything but.
The home fans will have a chance to bid adieu to seniors Amber Smith, Keyla Snowden and Crystal Riley, but Matthew Mitchell and his UK team have far too much to play for to think in those terms.
"This is not a night that I'm going to make a real big deal about anything other than trying to beat South Carolina because this is not a night where we need to get nostalgic at all," Mitchell said. "This team has a ton to accomplish."
Heading into Thursday's game at 7 p.m. against South Carolina (20-7, 9-5 SEC), No. 13/10 Kentucky (22-5, 11-3 SEC) sits tied atop the SEC standings with Tennessee with just two games left in the regular season. With so much still to accomplish, UK's three seniors can't help but approach their final home game as more of a beginning than an end.
Smith is the lone member of this senior class to play her entire college career at Kentucky and is now in her fifth year after sitting out 2010-11 due to reconstructive knee surgery. The Winter Haven, Fla., native played on teams each of her first two seasons that failed to reach the NCAA Tournament and finished a combined 13-15 in SEC play.
Back then, competing for an SEC title was a far-off goal. Now, it's just the start.
"God has a plan and I think He meant for this team to be together at this time," Smith said. "I'm just very blessed to be on this team. We have a great chance to first compete for an SEC championship, but then a national championship. I haven't said that many times being here five years. I haven't said that and really believed but this time it's just a different vibe from the team."
Like Smith, Snowden and Riley are fifth-year seniors, but they arrived via transfer from Akron and Louisiana State, respectively. They formed a sort of "accidental" group of three that was a part of a turnaround season in 2009-10 that ended in an Elite Eight berth and ushered in a new era of UK Hoops.
"We watched the team evolve from back where it was back then to where it is now," Snowden said. "That transition period, it was a tough period. The team just changed completely within a year."
Even with all the talk about focusing on the task at hand, it's hard for Snowden not to take a moment for reflection when she recalls how far both she and the program have come in the years since she elected to transfer to her hometown school. She remembers what Senior Night was like for Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin before her, so keeping her emotions in check won't be easy.
"Me personally, I cried for everybody else's Senior Night, so I can only imagine mine," Snowden said.
Smith, the vocal leader of this Kentucky team, has half-jokingly exhorted Snowden to "Keep it together."
"We've all talked about it," Smith said. "I already told them, 'Don't cry because we've got to play a game. Let's get this win and then y'all can cry.'"
Beating South Carolina won't be an easy task though.
The Gamecocks are the top defensive team in the conference, allowing just 49.9 per game. UK managed to score 66 in a hard-fought eight-point win in Columbia, S.C., earlier this season, but South Carolina will have plenty to play for between that earlier loss to UK and the and four-team tie for third place in SEC play in which they currently find themselves.
"Coach Dawn Staley does such a great job of trying to find where your weakness is and trying to find the mismatch," Mitchell said. "They do a good job of that. I just think that with them being so well coached and having such versatile guards poses a lot of difficulty for us."
A sweep of the Gamecocks would give UK a perfect 17-0 home record, which would mark the second time in three seasons the Wildcats won all of their games in Lexington.
"I place priorities in the program, competitive priorities," Mitchell said. "I think if you're going to be one of the top teams in the country, if you're going to be one of the top teams in this conference, you have to establish a tough home court."
Establishing home-court dominance will certainly be a part of the legacy of this senior class, but the three hope to be remembered first and foremost as leaders.
"Coach Mitchell is always on us," said Riley, who will stay at UK as a student assistant next year. "We take blame for anything that goes on in practice, outside of practice. Anything that we have problems with, we basically take blame for it. I hope they remember us as leaders."
With all the contributions Riley, Smith and Snowden have made to the Kentucky program, they are deserving of the honorary starting positions often granted to seniors for their final home game. Mitchell is opting against that, but not because he doesn't want them all on the floor.
"I will start Amber but Crystal Riley is a very important part of our rotation and our backup point guard so she'll be a huge part of the game," Mitchell said. "Keyla is a huge part of our rotation coming off the bench. I think she's the best sixth player in the league and I hope she wins that award. There's so much on the line tomorrow night that I think those kids want to win an SEC championship or beat South Carolina more than they want to do something ceremonial."
Voting for the Infiniti Coaches' Charity Challenge is still ongoing and it's been a back-and-forth battle between John Calipari and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins in the East Region.
At last check, Calipari trails his Huggins 38 percent to 35 percent. The winner in the East Region will move on to a final two-week round of voting to determine which coach's charity will receive $100,000.
Even though Calipari is good friends with Huggins, he wants badly to defeat him and win the money for his charity, Samaritan's Feet. Fans can log on and vote once per day until regional voting ends on Monday, Feb. 27. CLICK HERE TO VOTE FOR COACH CAL
Terrence Jones and Anthony Davis helped UK overcome a 13-point deficit and defeat Mississippi State on Tuesday night. (Victoria Graff Photography)
If you missed it late last night, here's my recap of Kentucky's 73-64 comeback victory over Mississippi State written from Lexington. Since I didn't make the trip though, I figured I would point you in the direction of some of the perspectives from writers that were in attendance.
If Kentucky ends up winning the national championship this year - and those chances are looking better and better every day - this might be the classic moment that everyone looks back to, the defining game that underscores an unbelievable season.
And should UK cut down the nets in April, this might be the senior moment that forever etches Darius Miller, a Kentucky native and fan favorite, into program lore.
Top-ranked Kentucky, led by a senior who has grown a reputation for stepping up when the game is on the line, survived its biggest scare since its buzzer-beating loss at Indiana with a thrilling, statement-making 73-64 at Mississippi State on Tuesday night in Starkville, Miss.
"Look, this team has a will to win," coach John Calipari said. "I told them: If this game's close, your will to win will take over. Let's get it close."
UK did better than that. It still hasn't fallen since a Dec. 10 defeat at Indiana, which was the only other time this season the Wildcats trailed by double digits. Senior Darius Miller helped Kentucky avoid a repeat of that outcome by scoring all 12 of his points after halftime, including nine in the final six minutes.
"Darius Miller, he's the fiber that holds that whole team together," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said.
UK opened the half on a 13-4 run capped by an Anthony Davis dunk with 13:54 to play that pulled the Cats to within four, 45-41. Terrence Jones' layup with 7:20 remaining cut the Bulldogs' lead to 55-53, the closest the Cats had been since the opening minutes.
But there was one more test left for the Cats' resolve.
The Bulldogs reeled off five quick points - a putback dunk by Arnett Moultrie and a deep three from Bost - to stretch the lead back to 60-53 with 6:28 remaining.
Mississippi State scored four points the rest of the way. Miller had nine by himself.
To hear Stansbury tell it, the injury to Bulldogs' freshman guard Rodney Hood late in the first half was the beginning of UK's comeback - "A huge, huge, huge blow for us" the coach said - but this was more about Kentucky's defense down the stretch. Ask Vanderbilt how that worked out for them. The Cats forced Mississippi State into missing five of its final six shots in the last five minutes, turning those misses into points on the other end on nine of the Cats' final 10 possessions. When Jalen Steele was whistled for fouling Miller on the elbow on a three-pointer with 6:17 remaining, the Cats' comeback was on and State never recovered.
Kentucky has delivered heartbreak to Mississippi State so many times over the years.
On Tuesday night, Darius Miller drilled a stake in the Bulldogs' heart.
The Kentucky senior nailed a 3-pointer from NBA range on the left side of the key with 1:28 remaining, extending the Wildcats' lead to seven points and the nation's No. 1 team cruised in the final minute to a 73-64 win in front of an announced crowd of 10,213 at Humphrey Coliseum.
Darius Miller scored all 12 of his points in the final 7:51 to rally UK to victory in Starkville, Miss. (Victoria Graff Photography)
The Big Blueprint is back. A rapid recap of the game, the Big Blueprint looks at the nuts and bolts of the latest UK game when Cat Scratches is not in attendance. Today, we break down UK's 73-64 win at Mississippi State.
The skinny: The way things were going, it felt like one of those nights. No. 1 Kentucky trailed 41-28 at the half as Mississippi State was rolling behind Dee Bost and a raucous Humphrey Coliseum. The Wildcats just couldn't get things going and seemed prime for the kind of road upset even the best teams so often fall victim to. UK, though, got down to business after the break, clamping down on defense and finding quality looks on offense. Kentucky (27-1, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) outscored Mississippi State (19-9, 6-7 SEC) 45-23 in the second half en route to a 73-64 win that clinched a share of UK's 45th SEC regular season championship. The difference: Will to win. UK cut the deficit to just two points with 7:18 play, but the Bulldogs answered with five quick points. After Bost's 3 put MSU back up seven, the crowd in the "Hump" was rocking again and the nation's top-ranked team looked in trouble. Trailing 60-53 with 6:28 remaining, Darius Miller came to play. The senior hit a pair of 3-pointers and three more free throws to score nine of his 12 points during a decisive 20-4 run to close the game. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Doron Lamb all came up with big plays down the stretch as well. Player of the game: Kidd-Gilchrist. Not only did he continue his habit of posting double-doubles in close games with 18 points and 10 rebounds, he also was the key factor in UK's improved second-half defense. Bost torched UK for 16 points and six assists in the first half with Marquis Teague primarily defending him. In the second half, the senior point guard saw a whole lot of the man Kentucky fans call "MKG." With the 6-foot-7 freshman chasing him over screens and on drives, Bost managed just five points and one assist over the final 20 minutes. Turning point: Kidd-Gilchrist's hoop with 4:06 left that gave UK its first lead was big, but the Cats set the tone for the second half in the opening minutes. Lamb scored five points before the first media timeout, as UK scored 11 of the half's first 15 points to immediately cut the lead to six points. Just as importantly, Kentucky locked in on defense after Mississippi State hit 14-of-29 (48.5 percent) from the field in the first half. In the second half, MSU was just 8-for-25 (32.0 percent). Key stat: Points in the paint. Teams don't keep pace with UK too often in this department, but Mississippi State did in the first half behind the deft point guard play of Bost. The Cats held just an 18-16 edge in the paint over the first 20 minutes, but it was a different story in the second. UK scored 16 more in the paint after the break and allowed just six to a Bulldog frontline that features Arnett Moultrie, one of the best big men in the nation. Not only did UK protect the basket, but the Cats also closed out possessions with rebounds, out-boarding Mississippi State 36-32. Unsung hero(es): Doron Lamb. Teague tied a season low by playing just 23 minutes on Tuesday night, which left it to Lamb to run the point for the majority of the second half. Considering he spends no more than 10 to 15 minutes per game in that role normally, he handled himself admirably. He didn't have his best shooting night, hitting just 3-for-9 from the field for 11 points, but the sophomore got his team into the right sets and took care of the ball, committing zero turnovers in 33 minutes. He said what? "This was as good an environment as we played in this year, and respectful." - Kentucky head coach John Calipari
"I was thinking about starting the game that way and obviously I made a mistake not doing it." - Calipari on Kidd-Gilchrist guarding Bost
"I love that challenge right there. I love playing defense. That's just my game." - Kidd-Gilchrist on guarding Bost
"The only reason Marquis Teague didn't go back in the game is we were on a run and I didn't want to screw it up by making any kind of substitutions. The great thing for him is he was cheering as loud as anybody in the building for his teammates." - Calipari
"When we started playing defense, started locking down, that's what got us going. That provided us with opportunities to make shots." - Miller
"I told them, 'If this game's close, your will to win will take over. Just get it close.'" - Calipari
"Darius Miller is the fiber that holds that whole team together." - Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury What this one means: The immediate and obvious consequence of Tuesday's win is clinching that SEC title, but UK will need one more win or a Florida loss to seal the top seed in the SEC Tournament and an outright title. Beyond that, the victory proved UK can win a game against a talented team when things do go its way. With how well the Bulldogs played and how poorly the Cats played in the first half, Kentucky looked to have no business winning its 19th straight game, but this resilient bunch had other ideas. With just three games left in the regular season, Kentucky is getting closer and closer to locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 19:
Baseball: Austin Cousino
Dynamic freshman talent Austin Cousino made a monumental debut in his first two collegiate games, leading UK to wins at Wofford and vs. Eastern Michigan ... A native of Dublin, Ohio, Cousino's first five career hits came as extra-base knocks, with four doubles and one triple ... The 2009 MVP of the 16-U USA National Team's gold medal winning club in the IABF Championships, Cousino hit leadoff in all three games and started in centerfield, delivering the type of energetic, spark-plug at the top of the order igniting the UK offense ... A 2011 first-team high school All-America outfielder by Baseball America, Cousino added two outfield assists in his first three games, gunning a run down at the plate and nabbing a sure double at second base with a bare-handed grab and strong throw from the gap ... In addition to his sparkling defense and energy at the top of the order, Cousino had a play in his collegiate debut where he took third base from first on a routine grounder to the third sacker ... In his second career game, Cousino tallied a double and a triple, a game after recording a hit and a RBI in his debut ... On Monday at USC Upstate, Cousino opened the game with doubles in both the first and second innings to give the Wildcats a cushion ... Later in the tilt, Cousino laid down a perfect bunt single for his career-high third hit of the contest.
Swimming and diving: Greg Ferrucci
Greg Ferrucci took second in the men's 3m springboard to cap what was the best-ever 3m competition for UK in school history. Ferrucci went on to place third overall in the 1m springboard, jumping from 7th to 3rd in his final dive of the competition. Ferrucci won all three of the preliminaries for the 1m, 3m, and platform while medaling in two of them.
Swimming and diving: Lucas Gerotto
Lucas Gerotto led the way for UK, placing third in the men's 100-fly with a time of 47.00 in the finals. The Sao Paulo, Brazil native finished on the podium of the SEC Championships for the first time in his career. The finish of 3rd was the best finish for the Wildcats in the water for the 2012 SEC Championships.
Men's basketball: Terrence Jones
Tallied his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds in Kentucky's win over Ole Miss ... Scored in double-digits in five of the last six games ... Has six or more rebounds in nine-straight games ... Helped UK win its national best 50th straight home game while extending the nation's longest winning-streak to 18 games
Baseball: Corey Littrell
In his first start of the year on Monday afternoon at USC Upstate, Kentucky sophomore southpaw Corey Littrell turned in his best career outing ... A native of Louisville, Ky., Littrell worked a career-long seven innings, allowing just two singles and fanning a career-best eight, facing just one hitter over the minimum ... Littrell dominated a Spartans team that had scored 10 runs in their first two games, including a blowout win over 2011 37-win Eastern Michigan earlier in the weekend ... Littrell's quality start was his fifth career.
Baseball: Taylor Rogers
Kentucky junior Taylor Rogers turned in a career performance in his first start of the year, tossing six innings in a win at Wofford in t he season lidlifter ... The 2011 Cape Cod League All-Star allowed only five hits and one run, walking one and striking out a career-high nine ... Allowed one run in the game on a fielder's choice that scored a runner, who had stole third base earlier in the at bat ... His quality start was the 12th of Rogers career.
Men's tennis: Anthony Rossi
Went 3-0 in singles action at the ITA National Indoors, taking his season record to 26-2, including a 9-0 mark in dual matches. Has won 16 consecutive matches dating back to his singles title in the SEC Coaches Indoor Championships.
Men's basketball: Kyle Wiltjer
Tallied 13 points in UK's win over Ole Miss ... 13 points was a personal best in SEC play for Wiltjer ... Three 3-pointers tied a career-high ... Shooting .462 pct. from the 3-point range in league play ... Helped the Wildcats extend the nation's longest home-winning streak to 50 games and the longest current winning streak to 18 games.
Baseball: Lucas Witt
Kentucky sophomore leftfielder Lucas Witt had two great games in his season debut, leading the Wildcats to wins over Wofford , 2011 37-win club Eastern Michigan and previously undefeated USC Upstate ... Witt finished the three games with a .462 average (6-for-13) with three RBI and one stolen base ... In the season opener, Witt recorded a 2-for-5 game with an RBI ... In a win over EMU, Witt collected a career-high three hits with two runs and one RBI ... On Sunday, Witt collected a hit and a RBI with a line-drive single up the middle.
John Calipari grew up as a Pittsburgh Steeler fan so he was predisposed to root for Mike Tomlin as the team's coach. But something happened in 2007 that made the UK coach much more of a fan of his counterpart with the Steelers.
One day when Calipari was coaching at Memphis, the offensive coordinator for the football team stopped by to tell Cal that he was leaving to join the staff of the Steelers. And Randy Fichtner proceeded to tell Calipari about how Tomlin had come to work for the University of Memphis program back in the 1990's and had lived with the Fichtner family while coaching there. When Tomlin got his big break, his first call was to Fichtner, the friend who had helped Tomlin out.
"Randy comes in my office and said 'I just got hired by the Steelers'," Calipari recalled in his pregame interview last Saturday on the UK radio network. "'The first call he made was to me, to thank me for helping him'.
"I said 'what you position are you going to coach' and he said 'I don't know, he just said 'you're on the staff'," Calipari continued. "From that point on, I said 'I've got a meet this man'. Anybody that is that loyal, I want to be friends with."
And soon that friendship was born.
"Mike is a good friend and I'm a big Steelers fan. Marvin (Lewis) and I are friends and I'm a big fan of the Bengals but I grew up in Pittsburgh. If you grow up in Pittsburgh, you bleed that Steeler gold and you have that Terrible Towel--which I have in my office," Calipari noted.
Year before last, Calipari saw Tomlin's loyalty shine through another challenging circumstance.
"He sticks with his guys. When Ben (Roethlisberger) was going through his stuff (off-the-field issues in 2010), I went up to training camp. I wanted to see the rapport between those two and it was incredible," said Calipari. "Mike let him know that 'what you did was unacceptable but I still love you and you're still my guy'. That's what I believe you should be. These guys (pointed to his own players) do dumb things but I'm with them."
Later that year, Tomlin came to Rupp Arena, to see his first UK basketball game. The Steelers' coach says he gets to follow the games much more closely after the NFL season ends and he enjoys getting to see Calipari and his team in action up close.
Last Saturday, Calipari had Tomlin address the team after the Wildcats' gameday practice. And Tomlin talked to the players about rising to meet challenges.
"That's what this is all about--chasing greatness and not being afraid to aggressively do so. They've got daily reminders of what the standard is and that's one of the many things that attracts me to this place," Tomlin said in an inteview for "The Leach Report" radio show. "You're trying to uphold the standards. It's an awesome thing to be a part of. It's bigger than all of us and that's why you respect it so much."
So what impresses Tomlin about the way Calipari goes about his coacing job.
"I enjoy watching Cal instruct. I love the way he communications. He's a clean communicator. He's very deliberate and consistent with messages. He's a great teacher," Tomlin said.
What does the phrase "clean communicator" entail?
"Meaning what you say. Using a concise amount of words to express your thoughts. That enables guy to listen better," Tomlin answered, adding that enjoys getting away from his job for a few hours to watch a friend Calipari do his.
"More than anything, I just love watching young people chasing and living out their dreams. It's a special time in their life," said Tomlin. "And it's obvious in my profession, you know what you're looking at when you see it and you appreciate it."
Particularly in recent years, Kentucky's been known for having talented freshmen. You and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are teammates and both finalists for national freshman of the year. Is it nice having other talented young players around you?
It's always good to have other great players on your team who can do the same thing you can do -- score the ball, rebound, block shots, make free throws, whatever the case may be. It's always good. It takes the pressure off you.
When you're on a team like ours, everyone can contribute and it doesn't matter who starts. It makes the game a lot easier and a lot of fun.
Do you guys feel pressure being ranked No. 1 right now? How do you guys handle attention -- just last week, your practice was televised and shown on ESPNU.
We like the attention, but at the same time, we know we have to get out there and focus to win ballgames. There are always a lot of people at our practices. We don't get bothered by it. (Calipari) always tells us, like when we had practice on ESPNU, 'It's just practice. We're still running through all we do like it's a normal practice. There's no point in trying to do anything fancy or out of character just because there's a crowd here.'
Don't forget, Davis and the top-ranked Wildcats will look to move to 27-1 on the season and clinch a share of the Southeastern Conference title at 9 p.m. tonight against Mississippi State. Since Cat Scratches will not be in attendance, we won't be hosting a live blog, but tune in to ESPN to watch.
Dermotti Dawson, a offensive lineman at UK from 1984-87, will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August. (UK Athletics)
Dermontti Dawson won't be the only person with Kentucky ties involved with the Hall of Fame ceremony on Aug. 4.
Presenting Dawson at his induction will be Steve Parker, Associate Dean for Academic and Career Services and Associate Professor for Kinesiology and Health Promotion at UK. Parker may have moved into the Kentucky administration, but Dawson has him to thank for the start to his decorated career as an offensive lineman at UK and eventually with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Dawson was a teenager, Parker was a football coach at his high school that wouldn't take no for an answer. John Harris, a sports columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, has the story:
Steve Parker, the young coach at Bryan Station High School in Lexington, Ky., wanted to meet Dawson and convince him to come out for the team. Parker had heard all about Dawson, a big kid who would be a natural fit despite limited playing experience.
Dawson, however, let it be known he was a track star in the shot put and discus who had no interest in football.
Parker wouldn't be denied. He convinced Dawson to come out for the team.
Dawson, in turn, became arguably the greatest center in the history of pro football.
Dawson never forgot who gave him his start. He selected Parker to present him at the Hall of Fame ceremony on Aug. 4 in Canton, Ohio.
"He was instrumental in getting me to play,'' Dawson said Monday. "I thought it was only fitting for him to present me.''
Men's basketball - The Wildcats pushed the nation's longest current winning streak to 18 games after posting a 77-62 win over the Ole Miss Rebels in Lexington on Saturday. - Terrence Jones tallied his first double-double of the season with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. - Doron Lamb led all scorers with 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting from 3-point range, while Darius Miller hit 3-of-7 from 3-point range for 15 points. Kyle Wiltjer was 3-of-4 from 3-point range for a personal best in league play with 13 points. Anthony Davis was the fifth Wildcat to record double-figures with 10 points. - As a team, UK hit 10-of-18 from downtown, the most in SEC play this year.
Women's basketball - The Wildcats currently sit in a tie with Tennessee for first place with three games remaining in the regular season. UK had one of its best starts in program history, winning 21 of its first 23 games and each of its first 10 games in SEC play. - The Wildcats have their sights set on winning their first SEC regular season championship since 1982. The Cats are just one win away from tying the most SEC wins in school history at 11. Kentucky has won the last three meetings against Vanderbilt, including a 78-68 win last season in Lexington. - UK ranks in the top 10 of four national statistical categories, including leading the nation in turnover margin (+11.9). The Cats have forced at least 23 turnovers in six of the last seven games.
Baseball - The baseball team opened up the 2012 season with two wins on opening weekend and will finalize the opening weekend Monday at 2 p.m. ET at USC Upstate (2-0) after rain postponed the regular-scheduled Sunday finale. - The Wildcats used a 10-4 win at Wofford in the lidlifter, behind a dominating performance from Taylor Rogers on the mound, who fanned a career high nine in his season debut. UK also got a homer from 2011 All-SEC third baseman Thomas McCarthy to cap the scoring, extending his hitting streak to a career-high 11 games. - In a 10-2 beatdown of Eastern Michigan, a team that won 37 games in 2011, UK used a 13-hit attack to total 10 runs for the second consecutive game. UK's starter Jerad Grundy turned in a winning performance in his debut, striking out four in 5.2 innings and retiring 12 consecutive hitters in the middle of the game.
Rifle - Kentucky completed the NCAA qualifying competition on Saturday at Barker Hall, totaling a 4657 total team score. - Kentucky will return to action at the Great American Rifle Conference Championships, hosted by Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss., at the Patricia C. Lamar Army National Guard Readiness Center Feb. 25-26. - UK was led in air rifle by Wheatley and Greathouse, with the duo each charting a 590. Henri Junghänel (587), Emily Holsopple (589) and Ethan Settlemires (587) rounded out the UK starting lineup in air gun.
Men's tennis - UK went 1-2 over the weekend in the ITA National Men's Team Indoor Championships. The Wildcats defeated No. 11 Texas A&M 4-0 in the first round after claiming the doubles point and getting three quality singles wins. The win punched UK's ticket to the quarterfinals of the event for the first time since it advanced to the semifinals in 1997. - UK would fall in the quarterfinals in heartbreaking fashion, dropping one of the closest matches of the tournament to No. 3 Ohio State 4-3. Against OSU, seniors No. 6 Eric Quigley and No. 20 Alex Musialek defeated ranked foes. Quigley took down No. 16 Chase Buchanan, while Musialek defeated No. 12 Blaz Rola. - Rossi led UK at the event, going 3-0 in singles play. The junior has won 16 consecutive singles matches for UK and is an impressive 26-2 on the season, including 9-0 in dual matches.
Swimming and diving - The swimming and diving teams wrapped up the 2012 SEC Championships on Saturday with the men placing in seventh and the women finishing ninth. - For the swimmers, Lucas Gerotto led the way for UK, placing third in the men's 100-fly with a time of 47.00 in the finals. The Sao Paulo, Brazil native finished on the podium of the SEC Championships for the first time in his career. - For the divers, it was a very successful meet as the Wildcats qualified divers for the finals in every event. Greg Ferrucci took second in the men's 3m springboard to cap what was the best-ever 3m competition for UK in school history. The Wildcats also qualified John Fox and Corey Cowger for the finals of the event. Ferrucci went on to place third overall in the 1m springboard, jumping from seventh to third in his final dive of the competition. Gymnastics - UK concluded the road portion of its 2012 SEC schedule by falling 197.225-193.125 to No. 4 Georgia on Saturday. UK gymnasts set or tied four season highs and three career highs in the meet. - Junior Caitlyn Ciokajlo led UK on uneven bars for the third time this season with a career-high tying 9.875, while sophomore Holly Cunningham paced UK on vault for the third time in the last four meets. - Sophomores Kayla Hartley and Kayla Sienkowski performed well. Hartley continued her strong scores on floor exercise with a team-high 9.8, while Sienkowski finished tied for first overall on balance beam with a career-best 9.825. The event title for Sienkowski was the first of her career. Softball - The softball team went 3-2 over the weekend at the FAU Kickoff Classic. UK shutout Wright State behind a terrific pitching performance from sophomore Lauren Cumbess who yielded just two hits and struck out six in the win. - Kentucky then rallied for a seventh-inning comeback for the second time this season in knocking off the host Owls. UK plated four runs in the final frame to pull away 6-3 in the game. - Junior Kara Dill led the bats for the Wildcats with a .438 weekend that included a pair of multi-hit outings and converting on all five steal attempts. Dill scored twice, drove in two runs and hit her first double of the season. Women's tennis - The women's tennis team hosted its last doubleheader of the season, defeating Eastern Kentucky, 5-2, and Evansville, 7-0 on Saturday. - Junior Jessica Stiles posted an impressive comeback at the No. 1 singles spot against Eastern's Amandine Faouzi after trailing in the first two sets. She ultimately won, 4-6, 7-5, 6-1. - Kentucky kicked off the spring with an eighth place finish at the UCF Challenge in Sorrento, Fla. - Junior Ashleigh Albrecht led the Cats, finishing tied for 20th with a 5-over-par 221. - Sophomore Liz Breed finished the weekend with a team-high 11 birdies.
Monday, Feb. 20 Baseball vs. USC Upstate - 2:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Women's basketball hosts Vanderbilt - 9:00 p.m. Men's golf at Mobile Bay Intercollegiate (Mobile, Ala.)
Tuesday, Feb. 21 Women's tennis at Akron - 1:00 p.m. Men's basketball at Mississippi State - 9:00 p.m. Men's golf at Mobile Bay Intercollegiate (Mobile, Ala.) Thursday, Feb. 23 Women's basketball hosts South Carolina - 7:00 p.m.
Friday, Feb. 24 Softball vs. North Florida - 11:30 a.m. (Statesboro, Ga.) Softball vs. Jacksonville St. - 1:30 p.m. (Statesboro, Ga.) Track and field hosts SEC Championships Baseball hosts Buffalo - 4:00 p.m. Gymnastics hosts Auburn/Pittsburgh - 7:00 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 Softball vs. Radford - 11:30 a.m. (Statesboro, Ga.) Men's basketball hosts Vanderbilt - Noon Baseball hosts Buffalo - 1:00 p.m. Softball at Georgia Southern - 3:30 p.m. Men's tennis at Ohio State - 4:00 p.m. Track and field hosts SEC Championships Rifle at GARC Championships (Oxford, Miss.)
Sunday, Feb. 26 Women's tennis at Indiana - 11:00 a.m. Baseball hosts Buffalo - 1:00 p.m. Women's basketball at Mississippi State - 1:30 p.m. Track and field hosts SEC Championships Rifle at GARC Championships (Oxford, Miss.)
In putting together a promotional website for Kentucky's 2011-12 postseason award candidates, the UK publications and media relations staff had quite a challenge.
Rather than the one, two or maybe three candidates that most schools have, this year's Kentucky team has seven different players with realistic chances of winning awards, ranging from National Player of the Year to Freshman All-SEC.
On Tuesday, all the hard work was unveiled.
Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer are all featured on this newly launched website touting their credentials for various awards. The site features photos, videos, stats and quotes about each of the seven. At the very least, it should help you get excited for Tuesday's 9 p.m. tipoff against Mississippi State on ESPN.
Entering Monday night's game against Vanderbilt on a three-game losing streak, the Kentucky Wildcats needed to bounce back with a victory to keep pace in a tight Southeastern Conference race.
To do so, Samarie Walker and the No. 13 Wildcats took to the glass.
Kentucky outrebounded the visiting Commodores 40-29 en route to a 70-61 victory to move to 11-3 in SEC play, 22-5 overall. Walker posted her first double-double as a Wildcat with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
"I really like the way that we practiced the last couple days," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We were in a tough spot clearly and had not played well and had suffered some losses. For us to be able to come out and stay focused and not get down, I was so proud of these players and I thought they played to win tonight."
Senior Keyla Snowden added 14 points and freshman Bria Goss had 12 to pull the Wildcats back into a tie for first place in the SEC with the Tennessee Lady Volunteers. On the strength of 21 second-chance points, UK led by as many as 20 points in the second half as Walker had eight of Kentucky's 22 offensive rebounds in playing a career-high 35 minutes.
"Coach always gets on me about rebounding," Walker said. "That's the first thing that was on my mind and scoring just comes."
Using a shortened rotation that had six players on the floor for 24 or more minutes, UK shot just 23-for-62 (37.1 percent) against a Commodore defense that shifted from zone to man-to-man to pressure, but the way the Wildcats attacked consistently opened up opportunities on the glass.
"We tried not to focus on what they were doing and focus more on what we were doing and how we moved and how hard we cut and screened," Mitchell said. "I just thought the aggressive play by everybody got Vanderbilt in a lot of rotation situations and that opened up a lot of offensive boards and Samarie was a monster on those."
Walker's tireless rebounding helped UK to that big lead, but an extended second-half drought nearly made it disappear. After Walker hit a pair of free throws to give Kentucky a 17-point lead with 6:44 remaining, UK would not score for the next 5:25. Vanderbilt (20-7, 8-6 SEC) capitalized, scoring 11 unanswered points to close to within 61-55 with 1:21 left.
Tiffany Clarke scored four of her game-high 19 points during the run, while Christina Foggie, the SEC's leading scorer, had four of her 16.
"The six-minute drought in the second half really turned a game that we had firmly in control into a real tough game that we had to grind out so I was real proud of the players," Mitchell said. "Sometimes those are harder to close out when you start to lose the momentum."
Goss ended the run with a jumper as she and Kastine Evans combined to score Kentucky's final nine points.
"Anybody can score at anytime if we go through droughts," said A'dia Mathies, who had nine points and seven rebounds. "We can easily break the drought. Whether it be me, Keyla with a 3, Samarie with a put back or anything, we just find ways to score."
After fouling out with 1:21 remaining, Maegan Conwright was not on the floor as Kentucky closed out the victory in front of 4,624 fans in Memorial Coliseum, but she played as big of a role in the win as any Wildcat. Starting at point guard in place of Amber Smith, who sat out to rest for the season's home stretch, Conwright had a quiet night according to the box score with six points, two rebounds and four turnovers, but she was anything but quiet according to her coach and teammates.
"(Maegan) is very talented," Mathies said. "She can play a lot of positions and she just came in and did her job. She ran the team and she got us into the offense she needed to and she played great defense. I applaud her for the job she did today."
Whether Conwright or Smith gets the call at point guard for Thursday's Senior Night game against South Carolina, the Wildcats will be looking to carry forward the momentum gained by getting back in the win column.
"Hopefully this is going to give us a big boost. We have a very difficult opponent to play," Mitchell said. "South Carolina's one of the best teams in the league and we'll have to get ready, but like I said earlier, however we could get it, we needed to get it. If it was one point, it would have been fine. I'm just really proud of our team."
John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats face Mississippi State at 9 p.m. on Tuesday on ESPN. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Ask any coach of a team ranked in the top 25 and you'll get the same answer: the goal at this point in the season is to prepare his team for an extended run in the NCAA Tournament.
Watch each one of those teams practice and it's a different story. The objective may be the same, but the path to get there couldn't look more different from practice gym to practice gym.
"There are guys that go three and a half hours right now and that's what they do and they're doing it now and they win and they do fine," John Calipari said. "There are coaches that go live right now and they go at each other the whole practice, not worried about anything. And then there are guys that back off."
Calipari falls in the latter group.
"I've always done it this way and I think my teams have historically played well in March and April but we backed up this time of year," Calipari said.
With two Final Four trips and three Elite Eights over the past six seasons, it's difficult to argue with his results, but in Calipari's words, "There's a thousand ways to do this." It just so happens that Calipari has always become more of a psychologist than a drill sergeant by the time the final two weeks of the regular season rolls around.
"I'm coaching their minds right now," Calipari said. "I've coached their bodies two, three weeks ago like conditioning and toughness and now we're coaching minds, trying get them in a great frame of mind as an individual and a team."
What Calipari wants is an unencumbered team, one that plays free and doesn't worry about schemes or being in the right place or being berated by their coach.
Take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as an example. The swingman is his own harshest critic, which has surely helped him become one of the nation's top freshmen, but Calipari wants him to let go.
"I told Michael, 'You're too hard on yourself kid,'" Calipari said. "When guys look at me when they miss a shot, I say, 'What are you looking at? Why are you looking at me? Just play.'"
Taking a cue from his mentor Larry Brown, the professional and collegiate coaching legend, Calipari's belief is that he must accept his players for what they are and ride their coattails to the end.
"His thing is you've got to be their cheerleader at the end," Calipari said. "You got to back up. That's his thing to me at the end of the year. 'No, you're not changing them now. They are what they are. Cheer them on.'"
Considering his team is ranked first in the nation, is riding an 18-game winning streak and sits one victory shy of clinching a share of the Southeastern Conference title, acceptance is likely a bit easier for Calipari than most coaches. Beyond their 26-1 record and perfect 12-0 mark in conference play, these Wildcats are, by all accounts, a close-knit group that enjoys each other's company both on and off the floor.
"We do a lot of talking right now and I keep telling them, 'You want to feel joy every morning? Wake up every morning and feel grateful, grateful that you have an opportunity to be with this team, these guys,'" Calipari said. "There's a lot of teams right now that have turmoil. There's a lot of teams that have all kinds of issues. You guys are enjoying each other."
Walking into UK's gym at the Joe Craft Center a half-hour before practice, it's impossible not to take note of the fact that the majority of the team is going through voluntary drills. That kind of collective work ethic is exactly what Calipari is looking for.
"I'm talking about swagger right now and I said there's only one place to develop swagger right now and it's in that (practice gym)," Calipari said. "You walk out knowing you're going to play well. It doesn't matter how you play the beginning of the game. You know over the course of the game I'm going to play well because I've worked at it and I deserve it and I'm prepared to play well."
However, it's not a big leap to cross from confidence into a sense of entitlement.
"Ego is, 'We just beat this team by a ton. They're not ranked and I'm just hungry. What time's the meal?' Then you get beat," Calipari said,
Considering the Cats will travel to play one of the most talented teams they'll face all year in Mississippi State (19-8, 6-6 SEC), they can't afford to let arrogance creep in. With talented senior guard Dee Bost running the show and SEC Player of the Year candidate Arnett Moultrie roaming the paint, Rick Stansbury's Bulldogs will be hungry to topple the Cats after losing three in a row to UK by just 13 combined points.
Mississippi State's weapons don't end with Bost and Moultrie. Freshman Rodney Hood is a 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare for smaller guards trying to defend his shooting and driving ability. Junior forward Renardo Sidney is a game-time decision due to back spasms, but he is as talented an offensive player as there is in the conference.
"The talent on the team, no one's questioning it and I'm not," Calipari said. "I watched them. I think they've got a bunch of really good players and any of them can go off at any point. They run a lot of pick and rolls, they run a lot of diagonal screens, screen the screener, they're not afraid to shoot 3s, they're not afraid to let loose, that's how they play."
An expected capacity crowd in Humphrey Coliseum only figures to help the Bulldogs. Junior Twany Beckham was on the other sideline the last time UK paid a visit to Starkville, Miss., in an 81-75 overtime thriller and he knows his current team is in for a major challenge.
"The fans get really crazy and it gets really loud," Beckham said. "I know two years ago when Kentucky came, it was the loudest place I've ever been in so it's going to be hard going in there and trying to get a win but I'm looking forward to it."
On Tuesday night and beyond, all Calipari wants from his team is for them to be in the best possible position to succeed.
"I'm just trying to continue to coach to get them to think right," Calipari said. "It doesn't guarantee anything. It just gives you your best chance. Your team plays its best. If that's not good enough, you go on (to the) next game, sometimes (to) the next season."
With games coming up this week against Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference coaches teleconference to talk about his team. Here's what he and a couple other league coaches had to say.
On this week's games... "We've got two tough games. Obviously the game at Mississippi State's going to be a hard game and we're going to face a talented team that'll be at their best and it will be a hard game for us to win and we know it. Vandy is one of the better teams in the country I believe and a veteran team. Went to Mississippi and just went nuts. I watched that tape because I was getting ready for Mississippi and I saw a team that was a top-five team the way they played that night. The two games we have coming up are very difficult for us but in February you need tests and you need to find out where you are at this point. This isn't football. You can drop games in February and still be fine. We're worried about us. Let's play our best and see if that's good enough." On Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie... "He's a double-double, very long and active, skilled offensively, can block shots. He's going to be a handful and it's not going to be one guy guarding him whether it's Anthony or Terrence or Eloy or Kyle or Darius. It's going to be our team having to guard him. The stuff that I've watched, he's as good as anyone in our league. He's that talented so it'll be a challenge for us." On whether Mississippi State is UK's toughest frontcourt challenge of the season... "The guards are good too though. Dee Bost is good. You've got guys that could go for 30, you've got five of them that could go for 30 so all of a sudden it's let's stop this guy. You can't do it that way. You've got to play basketball and try to make it difficult for them but they're at home. It's going to be sold out and white out and blue out, black out, whatever they've got going down there. It's the game so we're going to walk in and they're going to play their best. Let me just tell you, we just got done with Mississippi who had a tough game against Vandy and a lot of it was how Vandy played. They played great against us. Mississippi played great. If we didn't make shots the way we did, that game could have gone the other way. Matter of fact, did to us offensively what really no team has done to us this year. I would expect Mississippi State will do the same. They're going to play great and we're going to have to play a good ballgame to have a chance."
On which Mississippi State player presents the most difficult matchup... "They all do because of how they play. The talent on the team, no one's questioning it and I'm not. I watched them. I think they've got a bunch of really good players and any of them can go off at any point. They run a lot of pick and rolls, they run a lot of diagonal screens, screen the screener, they're not afraid to shoot 3s, they're not afraid to let loose, that's how they play. What if they come in and they make 15 3s, which they're capable of doing? Well then we go on to the game Saturday. Arnett could go for 35 or 40, it could happen just like (Vanderbilt's Jeffery) Taylor went for whatever he went for against Mississippi. What you're doing is you just try to make that stuff difficult but they may do it anyway. Then you go on to your next game. They're a really good team. They've got great size. They're big too. And they're skilled. That's what makes them what they are. I know they've dropped a couple games but it doesn't matter. I don't even like watching those game tapes because they won't play that way against us. They're going to have their best effort." On UK's maturity... "Michael Gilchrist may be one of the youngest freshmen in the country. He's the youngest player on our team. We start three freshmen and we bring another freshman off the bench in Kyle Wiltjer, who played great last game. We have two sophomores that start with those guys in (Terrence Jones) and Doron (Lamb). We've got Darius Miller and Eloy (Vargas), basically that's who we're playing so we're a very young team. The reason we appear to be mature is because early in the season it was like mugging, grabbing, pushing, shoving and having to play through guys trying to throw you into the cheerleaders. You couldn't fight, you couldn't swing, you just had to play and figure out how do I combat this. If the officials are going to let this go, I've got to play basketball. That's what we had to get by. We're still trying to be able to physically combat teams that come in and say, 'Hey, you've got to go right after these guys physically, body-to-body, hard screens, get up in them, put two hands on them.' We've got to be able to negate that but we're getting better. That's made us grow up. That's what we understood, like these dudes are trying to kick sand in our face. Are you going to let them or are you going to battle back? And you can't battle back punching and elbowing in the face. You can't do that. You battle back by playing and understanding leverage and angles. They've gotten better with that."
On what is different about Vandy this year in terms of a longer NCAA Tournament run... "I didn't see the Georgia game. I know they went on the road and won. But I did see their Mississippi game and that was right after our game. Again now, I think they're playing like a top-10 team. I grabbed (Jeffery) Taylor after our game and I told him - you understand last year he was a really good player in our league, really good. I grabbed him after our game and said, 'I've watched tape. You're 10 times better than you were a year ago.' Think about that. And I meant it because he makes shots, he's physically now going around the rim, he's not shying away, he's passing the ball better, his skills have improved. You still have (John) Jenkins, you still have a veteran team. They've got size. They've got four or five 6-9 guys. And again, it doesn't matter how they've played to this point. It's just like us last year. We kicked it in at the end of the year - our last three league games and our league tournament and then we went to the Final Four. We had the talent to do it or we wouldn't have done it. But we had to get together as a team. So I think what you're looking at in Vandy is a team that, let's just watch them these next three or four games. They come down here this weekend. Going to be a hard game for us. You see what they do in the next three four games going into the tournament. I think that starts telling the tale of where they're going at the end."
On how many bids the league has at this point... "I think we've got five teams that'll be in. I think that if somebody crazy, one of those other teams wins our tournament, we may have six in. Now people have to finish the year. They have to play it out. People could fall flat on their face these last two weeks and then you've got no one to blame but yourself. But what our league has done nonconference and what we've done within playing each other, we've got five teams in. And then I would tell you, does someone win the tournament and get us a sixth team in? Where I hope this league goes is that we're a seven-, eight-team league. Adding the teams we're adding, (Texas) A&M and Missouri, I think we start saying, 'OK, we're going after eight or nine bids.' Our league is as strong as any. You're talking about whether it's the ACC or the Big East or us, the Big 12 at the top of their league, but they've got some teams faltering. The Big 10 has got some teams faltering. We're all the same. Now you can hype them different, but the reality of it is when you look at the teams, look at who's played who. I think Marquette lost at LSU. Michigan lost to Arkansas. All teams that are top 10. Those teams lost to people in our league. So you're looking at a league that's just got to keep promoting each other. We've got to keep promoting all of our coaches and the jobs they're doing so people get the right picture of this league. But I think we've got five in unless someone falls on their face, and I hope none of us do. And I'd say if someone goes in the tournament and goes on a crazy run - and let me tell you something, the other teams can do that. We played Tennessee. Ask Florida about Tennessee. Ask them. Now Arkansas loses a tough game to Florida. They hadn't lost at home. What if one of those two teams goes on a crazy run and wins the tournament. They're capable. Now all of a sudden we've got six teams in. And let me say this: six teams that are able to advance, not putting in seven teams and only two teams win after the first round. I'm talking about teams that can get in this thing and advance."
Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury
On the upcoming week... "We have a couple tough games for sure at home against Kentucky and on the road against Alabama. There's no question (Kentucky) is the best team in the country so we'll have our hands full, that's for sure."
On Renardo Sidney status with back spasms... "It's day to day with him. He wasn't able to do much yesterday at all so it's still day to day. I'll probably know at game time."
On whether Sidney will be a game-time decision... "That's kind of where it will be right now, see what he's able to do."
On the importance of Sidney... "I think it's very obvious we need his big body out there, especially our lack of depth. That's the thing. We missed him over there Saturday just giving us another guy you can throw it in the block to and score. We need that depth in there defensively and that body. It's very obvious against a Kentucky team as talented as they are. You need every body you can possibly get and we don't just need his body, we need his body to play well for us to have any kind of chance at all." On the league standings with four teams at 6-6 in conference play... "What if I told you I don't really look at that a whole lot? We know there's Kentucky and Florida separated themselves and Vandy. Those are the three teams that separated themselves from everybody else. After that, I guess there are maybe six or seven teams there close but there's two weeks left. Probably a lot of those teams in there are playing some so there will be a lot of shuffling going on here. It won't be decided until that last game on next Saturday if that's the last game. Maybe Sunday. Whenever that last game is, that last game will probably decide where everybody's at."
On whether the situation is unique... "It's a little different I guess. We're used to look at that in divisions so much. I guess there's one team in the other division you're not used to seeing over here and that's Tennessee. There's been many years we've had that western conference thing. There's four teams bunched up going down to the final week. Like I said, the only difference is you got one eastern conference team in there so it makes it a little bit different."
On where his is at after three close losses... "It's very obvious you'd rather come into these games winning those games. Whether you get drubbed or not, you either put a W or an L. It doesn't say an L but not a drubbing. It just says a W or an L. That's where that is. We lost two of those games in overtime and didn't have Sidney against Auburn. Coming into this game, you're not coming into where you'd like to, but again, all that's done and over. The only thing you've got to focus on is that next game, and that's your challenge as a team is to not let what you've done, whether you've been good or bad, cost you that next game. But against Kentucky, you can have the best frame of mind in the world and that's (still) a very difficult challenge. I've seen a lot of Kentucky teams and this may be as good as I've seen. It's amazing how, and something I don't think that gets talked about enough, is how good they are defensively. I think that kind of separates them. Offensively they've got lots of pieces, but defensively it gives you the opportunity to go on the road and win. There isn't no question they have an opportunity to do something not many teams have done in a long time, is go undefeated in this league on that road. That's quite a challenge, and to do that you've got to build to defend."
On how important the 3 is if Sidney is not himself or can't go... "When you're playing Kentucky, you've got to hit on all cylinders. You've got to do some things maybe better than you're capable of doing or darn sure better than you've done them to have any type of chance at all, and then maybe hope Kentucky doesn't play their best because if Kentucky plays their best, I'm not sure there is anyone anywhere that has a chance against them. We know it will be a huge challenge for us in here."
On whether Moultrie will try to prove himself against a team like Kentucky and shot blocker like Anthony Davis ... "I wouldn't hope so. I hope he's got the same frame of mind every game you play and what you're trying to prove is how to help your team win. That's how you prove things. I don't think it's a Moultrie, Davis or (Terrence) Jones situation at all. Now kids look at things and are seeing things, and naturally it's Kentucky. That's why anywhere Kentucky goes, most of those teams play at a different level because of who they are. That's tradition. That's not this year's team. That's the way it's always been. So I don't think any coach, through the years, have any problems when they start talking about motivation, worrying about what their mindset is getting ready to play Kentucky. Kentucky does two things: They bring out the best in you or they bring out the worst in you. That's what you've got to be ready for. To have any chance at all, you've got to be at your best to have any kind of chance against this Kentucky team for sure. Out of all the Kentucky teams I've seen through the years, this may be as good of a team as I've seen." Florida head coach Billy Donovan On Kentucky's maturity... "I made some comments when we played against them that I like their disposition. I think John probably has a lot to do with that as well but you've got to have a presence and a maturity about you. With those guys being young, a lot of them do.
"I know on the court, they've got great presence. I think they play the game the right way. They defend you, they're very, very focused, to me, on making winning plays whether it's a loose ball, a deflection, an offensive rebound, getting a stop. They have a presence and a focus there to me that is very good." On how difficult it is to coach a team with multiple players with NBA futures... "I think when you've got really, really good guys that winning is very important to them. It makes the job a lot easier. I think a lot of times guys have an illusion of what it takes to be an NBA player. It's not so much about being an NBA player in my opinion, it's about having a long career in the NBA and being able to stay there and get a second and third contract and be somebody that can play 10 years because it's certainly very difficult to do. When you've got guys that are focused on maybe thinking that they have to score or certain things that they have to show if they have a weakness if someone says that they don't shoot the ball well enough. They don't play to their strengths; they play to their weaknesses. I think all these guys are consumed by that. They all want to play at the next level. I don't think any team in the country is any different. They want to have the opportunity to play at the highest level. I think when you've got guys that are really focused on winning and understanding that certain things in the NBA are all statistically driven. If you're a frontcourt player, they're going to watch how many rebounds you grab per minute that you're on the floor. If you're a point guard, they're going to look at your assist to turnover ratio. A lot of the things guys looking or in my opinion are ultimately going to help your team in the end. The one thing that really never ever has anything to do with these guys getting drafted is their point. With (Joakim) Noah, (Al) Horford and (Corey) Brewer, we had three guys go in the lottery and I don't know if any of them averaged more than 13 points a game. Taurean Green was our leading scorer and he was a second-round draft pick. I think that's one of the biggest misconceptions for a lot of these kids. They watch TV and 80 percent of the NBA, guys are filling a role. The other 20 percent are guys that their offense is being run through and they're taking a majority of the shots. I think, for a lot of these guys, understanding that they have to fit into a role, because when you get to the next level, you have to fit into a role and probably the least concerning statistic for NBA people is how many points a guy scores per game."
In a ceremony on Saturday in Rupp Arena, NFL-bound senior linebacker Danny Trevathan was presented with the "strongest linebacker performance" award by the College Football Performance Awards. Here are highlights of Trevathan's senior season and footage of him accepting the award.
Good luck to Trevathan as well as Winston Guy at this week's NFL Combine!
A'dia Mathies scored 26 points as UK's furious comeback bid fell short against Alabama. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Quite a bit has changed since the last time the Kentucky Wildcats played in Memorial Coliseum.
After a win over Ole Miss on Feb. 2, UK Hoops was 21-2 on the season with a perfect 10-0 mark in Southeastern Conference play. The Cats were firmly in control as they sought to win their first conference title in 30 years, up two games in the loss column on second-place Tennessee.
Since then, the road has been unkind to Matthew Mitchell's team. UK has lost three straight at LSU, Tennessee and Alabama.
At long last though, the Cats are returning to the comforts of a building in which they've lost just twice in the last three seasons.
"We have obviously been through a tough spot here - a tough patch of basketball," Mitchell said on Friday. "Our team really needs our fans to come out Monday night. I know it's a late tip, but this team has been terrific at home and we've had a great season up to this point at home in Memorial and we need a big crowd for a very, very important game against Vanderbilt."
For Monday's 9 p.m. tip against Vanderbilt (19-6, 8-5 SEC) on ESPN2, No. 7/8 Kentucky will be relying on a home crowd that's helped the Cats to a perfect 16-0 mark in Lexington this season. More than anything else, UK Hoops needs to regain the swagger that lifted the team into the top five of the coaches' poll just three weeks ago.
"I don't think you artificially can manufacture confidence," Mitchell said. "I think that's the wrong road to go down. I think that it is a great opportunity for us in this time of adversity, as much as adversity can be related to playing basketball."
Even with the ongoing three-game skid, UK remains in a tie for first place in the SEC with Tennessee, which is a really a testament to how well the Cats played through the first month of conference play.
Moreover, seven of the league's 12 teams have records of 8-5 or better, which means UK needs to right the ship quickly or face the prospect of not even getting a bye in the first round of the conference tournament.
"I think it's always a tough conference and it's interesting to see a lot of (teams) have similar records right now," Mitchell said. "Nobody's out running away with it and there's a lot of teams grouped up there at the top. It's a very good conference."
Further proving the depth of the league was UK's last game, which they lost on the road to last-place Alabama. The Crimson Tide raced out to a lead that reached 23 points before the Cats rallied in the second half only to fall short by a score of 77-75.
"If we just could have found a way to hang in there in the first half, you saw what happened in the second half," Mitchell said. "We played with the kind of defensive effort you would expect our team to play with, but we just failed to do that for about 12 crucial minutes in the first half. We acted as if the game was over."
As disappointed as Mitchell was by his team's approach for portions of that first half, he's still been impressed with the way his players have gone about their business following the loss. As a result, Mitchell's opinion of his team has probably been less affected by this losing streak than anyone else's.
"I think as a coach what you have to do is when you're winning it's not always as great as it looks, and when you're losing it's not as bad as it looks," Mitchell said. "What I'm excited about is we have a lot of really good players, young players that we're going to get to practice with over the next couple days and get the ship on the right course."
There's no question the Cats' recent play has been damaging to both their prospects in the conference race and their eventual seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the fact that it has happened in February and not March means the season goes on. However, Mitchell does know that if the Cats continue to execute poorly on offense and allow that poor execution to affect their defensive effort, the results on Monday night and beyond will be no different.
The 7,000-plus fans in Memorial will do everything in its power to provide a shot of energy to their Cats, but whether they return to the form of which they are capable is ultimately up to the players themselves.
"A win would do a world of good as far as building confidence," Mitchell said. "I think that's where the confidence is going to come from."
Darius Miller scored 14 points against Ole Miss, including this dunk on Reginald Buckner. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Through five minutes, it didn't look like Kentucky's starters would be needing any help.
The Wildcats jumped out to an 11-point lead on visiting Ole Miss and John Calipari had not made a single substitution. The Rebels had other ideas though.
Two Terrence Henry free throws tied the game at 24 with less than eight minutes left in the half, only for a pair of bench players to retake control.
Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats' sixth and seventh men, would score 16 straight points to stem the tide and send UK on its way to a 77-62 win.
"I think we got a deep team and Coach can go to a lot of guys," Terrence Jones said. "A lot of guys have confidence to step in and fill that role. Kyle and Darius pretty much always do a good job."
At the half, Miller and Wiltjer were the only two players for UK (26-1, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) in double figures, scoring 10 points apiece and hitting four combined 3s. They would finish with 14 and 13 points respectively and six 3s, but none of the shots from deep was the most memorable play against Ole Miss (15-11, 5-7 SEC).
Down 31-29, Miller received the ball in the middle of the Rebels' troublesome 2-3 zone defense. He rose, sizing up the 6-foot-9 Reginald Buckner, and threw down a dunk that likely supplanted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's slam against Portland from earlier this season as the highlight of the year.
"Top five, definitely," Jones said when asked to rank Miller's dunk over his two years at UK. "Probably one. It was crazy how he jumped over him."
There was probably a flash when Miller questioned his decision to go up for the dunk, but the only thing really weighing on his mind was responding to Calipari's command to finish with authority.
"I don't think I knew until after it happened, honestly," Miller said. "I was just trying to go up and finish strong. I missed two bunnies before that and I was kind of mad at myself. Coach Cal talked to me about it so I tried to finish strong."
Miller and Wiltjer are in a similar position of having to be patient in a bench role, and the freshman has come to look up to the senior.
"It really shows you a lot when a player can come off the bench and just cram on them in a zone with Darius Miller," Wiltjer said. "He's such a fantastic player and he's given up a lot being on such a loaded team. He'd be starting for a lot of teams. It really shows our character that we all care for each other and we all want to win."
Miller's dunk injected life into a team and a crowd of 24,239 that had otherwise lacked it to that point, starting a 14:26 stretch during which the Cats outscored the visitors 39-17 and grabbed a 20-point lead.
"It just gave us more energy, got the crowd more into and it makes the team feel, especially in this building, like the whole game just shifted," Jones said. "It just helps us and gives us a lot of energy."
Miller's flush may be destined for endless replay in the SportsCenter Top 10, but it was Wiltjer that Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy believed to be the difference.
"Kyle (Wiltjer), I thought he came in and changed the game first half," Kennedy said. "The zone bothered him a little bit, I just thought (Marquis) Teague was so fast he wanted to go, go, go. I thought Wiltjer came in and really was a big key for settling them down and all of a sudden other guys stepped up and made shots."
Wiltjer's offensive game and confidence has certainly evolved, but it's his defense that's allowing Calipari to keep him on the floor for extended stretches as he had to do when Anthony Davis was limited to just eight first-half minutes by foul trouble.
"I've just learned a lot from the coaching staff," Wiltjer said. "They really emphasize me playing good defense. It's a lot more angles than I anticipated coming into college. You don't have to be the quickest, strongest guy; you just have to be ready every play and got to be there for the charge, help side and being able to talk. It makes it a lot easier having such a good coaching staff."
Wiltjer's defensive improvement was certainly evident on Saturday, but the Cats' defense as a team was actually less suffocating than it has been of late. The Rebels' field-goal percentage of 47.2 percent on 25-for-53 shooting was the second-highest UK has allowed all season.
"That means if they shot this high percentage, they got layups," Calipari said. "Whether it be breakaways - if you look at it, there must have been, you know, eight or nine layups, which is eight for eight. That doesn't happen to us very often."
Considering the Cats are allowing 35.8-percent shooting from the field on the season, UK should return to the lockdown defensive form that has helped carry them to the No. 1 ranking.
With that defense and Wiltjer growing by the day, UK becomes that much more dangerous.
"I just want to be there for my teammates and do what I can to help my team win because we just want to continue to get better like Cal said," Wiltjer said. "We want to peak at the right time and that's the tournament."
It's time once again for our regular trivia contest before men's basketball games: Robic's Riddle.
We have yet another question from the annals of Kentucky basketball history and this one is from reader Corey Price.. The first fan to submit a correct answer via email to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a prize.
Today's question is about UK's dominance in Southeastern Conference play.
UK has a winning percentage of .883 (98-13) against Ole Miss, best against any SEC opponent. Which SEC school does UK have the second-best winning percentage against?
Again, please submit your answers to email@example.com. We will announce the correct answers at halftime of today's game, assuming we have a winner by that time.
Don't forget to tune in and watch the Cats take on Ole Miss at 4 p.m. on the SEC Network.
On Friday night, the name of the Palace in Detroit may as well have been changed to Rupp Arena North.
At various points during a game between the Pistons and Sacramento Kings, four former Wildcats were on the floor together. Former Kentucky players DeMarcus Cousins and Chuck Hayes of the Kings and Tayshaun Prince and Brandon Knight of the Pistons all played at least 20 minutes in Detroit's 114-108 victory.
Even more impressively, Cousins, Hayes and Knight each registered double-doubles. Cousins continued his recent stretch of strong play with 26 points on 15 rebounds as the Kings led by two entering the fourth quarter. Knight and Prince weren't going to be denied the win though.
Prince had 22 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, but it was Knight who came up with the big plays down the stretch to grab a late lead and hold onto it. Knight had 23 points, 10 assists, six rebounds, zero turnovers, and a 3-pointer with 2:20 left that put the Pistons ahead to stay.
Cousins' team may have fallen short, but it happened in spite of his performance. In fact, he wasn't even supposed to play on Friday due to back spasms, but Cousins played anyway. Also, if you missed it earlier, you need to check out this profile of the player UK fans came to know as "Boogie." Here's an excerpt:
Because here in Alabama, walking into the sanctuary of the gym for an evening workout with his equally massive 18 year-old brother Jaleel, along with his personal trainer and mentor Keith Williams, DeMarcus is the anti-Cousins, the person that never seems to be mentioned in news headlines: laid back, serene, playful, thoughtful, lovable, silly and hilarious.
You see, to comprehend who DeMarcus Cousins is, you have to go to the source and see him in his true element, amongst the people he trusts. You have to peel back the layers of everything you think you know about the young man and take a trip, not only to his Alabama home, but also back in time.
As a member of a large extended family, DeMarcus was a playfully mischievous bundle of energy as a child. Reared in a humble home in a blue collar pocket in the city of Mobile that may have been small in physical dimension, the love and support inside was immeasurable.
Marquis Teague is the defending SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in wins over Florida and Vanderbilt. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Praise is being heaped on Kentucky from all directions.
National pundits are predicting the Wildcats will not only win the national title, but also run the table in doing so. Fans are struggling to come up with a nickname for the team in the vein of the "Comeback Cats" or "Rupp's Runts." Opposing coaches are raving about Anthony Davis as the biggest defensive difference maker in years and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a player they all would love to coach.
The talk is impossible to avoid, but so far, the Cats remain unaffected.
"You've got a lot of people watching, a lot of pro players watching and these guys aren't worried about anyone," John Calipari said. "They're just zeroed in on me saying, 'Tell us how to get better. What do we have to do?' It's a neat thing."
Winners of 17 straight and 49 in a row at home, No. 1 Kentucky (25-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) has put together a three-week stretch that has prompted questions about the Wildcats' place among the SEC's recent elite.
"They're certainly very good and I would put them right up there with some of the best that I've seen, yes," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. "Particularly on the defensive end, I think they're outstanding so, yes, I think this Kentucky team is as good as a lot of the really, really good teams, great teams that I have seen in our league in years that I've been in it."
Before a gutty 69-63 win over Stallings's Vanderbilt team in one of the league's toughest venues, the Cats had won five games by an average of 23.2 points. In all conference games, UK is outscoring its opponents by a jaw-dropping 0.27 points per possession, best among "Big Six" conference teams by a significant margin.
"This is a unique team," Calipari said. "To have this many guys and have them get along like they do and have the skill set that we have. We're winning all the games and it just means it's fun to come to work every day. It's fun to try to teach because they want to learn. There's not a whole lot of back and forth."
The second half of Calipari's comment above is the most telling. Yes, the Cats are worthy of the compliments being showered on them, but Calipari isn't going to quit coaching. Fortunately, his players keep on listening.
"I told them, 'I'm not changing, I'm not backing off,'" Calipari said. "'We're stepping forward and hopefully you'll do it with me cheering. If you have to do it with me dragging, I'll drag.' Right now, I've been cheering, so it's been fun.'"
UK is in position to go unbeaten through an entire SEC season, which would be the first time a team has done so since the Cats' forebears did it in 2002-03. Of the possibility, point guard Marquis Teague said, "We don't really talk about it," but that doesn't mean he plans on losing any games.
"Hopefully we can go undefeated but it's not something we're really focused on," Teague said.
What Teague and his teammates are thinking about is continual improvement. Calipari's statement from January that he's more concerned about his team getting better than wins or losses still rings true.
"We've still got to mature a little bit more," Doron Lamb said. "We (are not) perfect. We're just playing good so far and we got to keep doing what we're doing and keep working hard in practice."
Somewhat counterintuitively, less time on the practice floor as a team is actually helping pave the way fpr the Cats' development.
"A lot of it this time of year is we don't practice long," Calipari said. "So now each individual is getting in the gym by himself. What do you need to work on to get better, you personally? Well then let's work on that. What happens is as individual players get better...when a bunch of them do that, the ceiling rises."
The ceiling of a team Florida head coach Billy Donovan said last week has six future first round draft picks getting any higher is slightly frightening.
The next coach to have to deal with all that talent is Andy Kennedy of Ole Miss (15-10, 5-6 SEC). The Rebels have the unenviable task of trying to put an end to UK's home winning streak that dates back to March 4, 2009 and they'll take it on less than 48 hours after a 26-point home loss to Vanderbilt.
"We know that doesn't matter because when everybody plays us we always get their best game," Teague said. "We know when they come in here tomorrow, they're going to play great and they're going to be ready."
Ole Miss has the kind of size inside that has bothered the Cats on occasion this year with Terrence Henry (6-foot-10, 210 pounds), Murphy Holloway (6-foot-7, 240 pounds), Reginald Buckner (6-foot-9, 225 pounds) and Demarco Cox (6-foot-8, 280 pounds). For UK to be successful, Davis, Terrence Jones and company will need to keep one of the nation's better offensive rebounding teams off the glass.
"As I watched the tape, if they have their way on the backboard they'll beat us," Calipari said. "If we can control that, the game swings a little bit in our direction. If they do what they have been doing it is going to be a really hard game for us."
Even if UK runs up another big margin on Saturday, the sentiment Calipari expressed before Friday's practice doesn't figure to change, and it won't until the season reaches its conclusion.
"I'm happy but I'm not satisfied," Calipari said. "The question when you're coaching is, where can this thing go? Can you dream the invisible and chase that?'"
This is the sixth of
a six-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's standout returnees entering
the season opener. UK opens its 2012 season in Spartanburg, S.C., facing
Wofford on Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
Ever since Andrew Albers and Brock Baber shared the closer role during the 2006 Southeastern Conference Championshipseason, the Wildcats have been in search of a reliable late-inning reliever.
Several candidates have tried the challenging role with mixed success, including former UK hurlers Matt Little, Aaron Lovett, Scott Green, Mike Kaczmarek and Braden Kapteyn. Closing games in the SEC is no small feat, as 15 games will be played in the most hostile atmospheres in college baseball against the top hitters in the nation.
UK sophomore right-hander Trevor Gott appears to be designed to pitch in crucial, late-inning situations. A 6-foot, 190-pounder, Gott possess a competitive streak on the mound and an ability to focus in key situations.
"It is key to have a competitive streak as a reliever," Gott said. "The adrenaline is pumping at all times. You have to be focused. You may have to come in and get six of the most important outs of the game. You have to go in and be on top of your game. It is going to be a tight situation when you go in. There can't be any mistakes. You have to love pressure to be a late-inning reliever."
As a freshman, Gott was used in a key reliever role, at times closing games and coming in when UK needed outs from its bullpen in the most important of situations. A product of Tates Creek High School, Gott came to UK as the Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year and as a legend in the local little league community.
UK head coach and pitching coach Gary Henderson was not afraid to put Gott into the fire early, as the freshman made 23 relief outings in 2011, totaling a 2-4 record, a 3.62 ERA and two saves. He tossed 27.1 innings and struck out 34.
Gott's ERA was inflated due to three rocky outings, at LSU, at Western Kentucky and at No. 4 Florida. Without those three outings in 2011, Gott had a 0.70 ERA with two saves and 32 strikeouts in 25.2 innings.
"It was awesome," Gott said about playing such a prominent role in the staff as a freshman. "You face the best every day and are put in tough environments. Pitching in front of all those fans at South Carolina and LSU is a unique SEC experience. You learn to pitch in high-pressure situations and you are facing the best college players every weekend. You have to have your best stuff and your best focus every weekend or you won't succeed. You have to be on your game all times."
The freshman had a several standout moments in 2011, including a crucial two-inning save in a 2-1 win over red-hot, undefeated and tournament front-runner Utah in the Houston College Classic at the Houston Astros' Minute Maid Park. He notched his second career save with two strikeouts vs. No. 12 Arkansas and picked up wins over Tennessee and Illinois-Chicago.
The offseason is when Gott's development started to take off. Henderson arranged for a spot for Gott in the Cape Cod League for Orleans. In the CCBL, Gott was unquestionably the top reliever in the league, becoming the first UK player to earn the prestigious Russell Ford Cape Cod League Reliever of the Year award since Scott Smith in 1992.
"That is a huge honor," Gott said about winning the CCBL reliever of the year award. "It is humbling to be named the best reliever in the best college summer league. It was a great experience and a tremendous honor."
In the CCBL, Gott posted a 1.29 ERA in 18 appearances, with 13 saves in 13 chances in the regular-season. He was selected to the CCBL All-Star Game, along with UK southpaw Taylor Rogers, played at Fenway Park. Henderson and UK baseball media relations director Brent Ingram flew to Fenway Park to watch Gott and Rogers in what turned out to be a banner day for the Wildcats.
Rogers made the start and picked up the win, with Gott summoned from the Fenway bullpen in the ninth inning with rain starting to pound down on top of the historic mound. Gott was unfazed in front of the crowd and in the driving rain, picking up the save with a perfect ninth inning.
"It was a great experience," Gott said about the Cape Cod League. "For one, it was good to get away from Lexington. I was comfortable here and part of baseball is getting out of your comfort zone. To get away from home and face the best guys in the nation in the Cape, it really helps you get ready for the SEC. It made me a lot better for this year."
Big Blue Nation - and the rest of the nation, too - got a behind-the-scenes look at a Kentucky basketball practice this week. ESPN's Jay Bilas got that opportunity earlier this season and fans may find it interesting to compare their takes with what Bilas observed then.
"The thing that's different between Cal's practices is his personality. Every coach has a different personality and runs things differently," Bilas said. "It's not like the drills are drastically different or that there is some secret that Kentucky has that nobody knows about. The best coaches are the ones who get their teams to do the simple things well together. John is one of the best coaches in the game, period at any level.
"The more competitive you can be in practice, the sharper you can be throughout the duration of a season. I think what coaches are dealing with right now is not having enough bodies so your first few may be playing against a second unit that is nowhere near as good and that affects how competitive they can be, how sharp they are, how much resistance there can be. Some teams don't have 10 really good players." Davis' impact not limited to defense
Anthony Davis has had a tremendous impact on the game at the defensive end from day one of this season. But now, his offensive presence is causing increasingly more problems for opponents.
"It's good because you can't really just play him, because of the rest of our guys. And for the rest of our guys, you can't just play him one-on-one. If you leave him, we're dunking, dunking, dunking," coach John Calipari said in a recent pregame interview on the UK radio network, adding the opponents' fear of the lobs to Davis opens up other areas of the court for the rest of the team.
"You get middle lane, which you wouldn't have. The (rest of) the players are helping him and he's helping them." Jones reasserting himself
"He knows what he felt like three or four weeks ago and he knows what he feels like now."
That's Calipari's explanation for the recent resurgence of sophomore Terrence Jones.
"It doesn't mean he's going to play great every night but his mentality of being aggressive and going after balls and aggressively attacking the rim - he and Darius both," Caipari said. "It makes us a different team."
Jones' free-throw shooting has shown marked improvement of late and Calipari says Jones is being more accountable to his teammates in that area. Cal says the rest of the players don't have to run for the free throws they miss as long as Jones makes 80 percent or better on his free throw attempts. Long-time AP reporter impressed by Cats
Veteran Associated Press college basketball writer Jim O'Connell watches probably more basketball than any media member in any given season. And even though he didn't cover the UK win at Vandy, he still came away with an even stronger opinion about how good this Wildcat team is.
"The best thing that happened to them was they lost the lead (at Vandy) and you get to see how they'll respond," he said. "From the perspective of a national writer, everybody had questions and you check them off as you go along (in the season) and there aren't many left (for UK)."
Both Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are top contenders:
1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky (Last Week: 1): 14.0 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 4.9 bpg, 65.1 FG% Davis finally missed a few shots over the weekend against Vanderbilt, but he had one of his best defensive performances of the season, blocking seven shots.
3. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky (Last Week: 2): 12.3 ppg, 7.7 rpg Kidd-Gilchrist has been very inconsistent on the offensive end lately, making five or more field goals in a game just twice since December 31. He has six single-digit scoring games in that span.
Point guard Marquis Teague didn't crack the top 10, but he did merit this mention:
It's time to stop calling Kentucky's Marquis Teague a disappointment. He's playing more within himself (and the offense) and has really cut back on his turnovers. Averaged 12.5 points and 9.0 assists in his last two games.
Comment: Davis has shown to be a difference-maker on both ends of the court. He dunks everything on offense and blocks everything on defense. If Kentucky wins a national title, he'll be the main reason. Last week: No. 2
He might not end up pulling it off, but Davis definitely has the shot of hitting the grand slam as the National Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft.
Pitcher/infielder Rachel Riley leads a six-member senior class into the 2012 season. (Joey Wilkinson, UK Athletics)
Since Rachel Lawson took over as head coach before the 2008 season, Kentucky softball has made a habit of surprising people.
Playing in the nation's top conference, the Wildcats have steadily upgraded their talent and results have followed. Even so, the program has remained off the radar in spite of consecutive 30-win seasons in 2009-2010.
That all changed with UK's magical postseason run of a season ago.
After finishing 14-9 in Southeastern Conference play, the Cats charged through the NCAA Tournament to within one win of advancing to the 2011 College World Series.
No longer will Kentucky be able to use stealth to its advantage.
"Kentucky is not sneaking up on anybody anymore, which is a nice position to be in," Lawson said. "Before we were definitely the underdog and in some situations we will be but I don't think we're going to be the underdog a lot this year. To be able to have that target on your back, that's something that we're going to have to learn to deal with."
As proof of the program's ongoing evolution, the Cats were tabbed with their first-ever preseason ranking (No. 13 according to the National Fastpitch Coaches Association and No. 18 in the ESPN.com poll). With the majority of last season's roster returning, including all four members of a strong pitching rotation, UK looks on paper like a shoo-in to live up to that preseason billing. Things are never that simple though.
While it's true that most players on the 2012 team experienced the success of 2011, the Cats are tasked with replacing the 32 home runs and 112 RBI lost to the graduation of Megan Aull, Megan Yocke, Samantha DeMartine and Annie Rowlands. In their place, UK is breaking in players with limited playing experience.
"We have a lot of new people this year, not necessarily new to the team but new to the starting lineup and they've done an outstanding job," Lawson said.
While those players have done everything asked of them in preparing for the season, a few bumps in the road were inevitable. Kentucky felt a few such bumps in its first action of the season this past weekend in Los Angeles, where they won just once in four tries, losing three times to No. 19 UCLA.
Lawson's optimism for the season wasn't dampened at all by the 1-3 start. In fact, she views it in more of a positive light than anything else.
"As much as you talk to people during practice and games, young people don't really believe you when you're my age," Lawson said. "It's nice, when we were able to open up with UCLA, obviously they're going to be one of the best teams in the country. We learned a lot because a lot of the little things that you take for granted when you haven't been on the field and in that stage ever, they come back to haunt you a little bit."
Lawson and her team recognize that the long season in front of them is a marathon, not a sprint. The nonconference season gives the Cats a chance to build for a run through the demanding SEC. By the time Alabama comes to town on March 9, senior pitcher/infielder Rachel Riley expects players to be settled into their roles.
"I think people realize that there are a lot of areas for people to come in and take spots," Riley said. "A lot of positions are up for grabs and it's going to be who can produce offensively and do their jobs on defense. I think we're definitely an unfinished product right now but I think that with our work ethic, things will fall in place."
It's no coincidence that Riley referred only to the batting lineup when talking about roles still being up in the air, because UK's pitching staff of Riley, Chanda Bell, Lauren Cumbess and Ellen Weaver appears to be fairly set. Inning distribution will certainly vary based on matchups and production, but the group projects to be among the SEC's elite.
"I don't know if we're the best pitching staff but I don't know that there's a pitching staff that's better than ours," Lawson said. "I think in the SEC, there's three or four of us that have a number of outstanding pitchers. I wouldn't trade my pitching staff for any staff in the league."
Having four pitchers as good as the ones UK has is rare in and of itself, but it's the way the styles of each complement one another that makes Kentucky's rotation so impressive.
"I think that the combination of us four is a pretty tough combination," Riley said. "Chanda throws rise balls, I throw drop balls and then we have a lefty (Weaver) and Lauren does a mix of everything. With the four of us, it's a great combination."
Softball is a sport in which teams so often rely on one dominant pitcher, but the Wildcats proved a season ago, just how well-built for the postseason they are with so much depth.
"We have something that no other team has and I think we'll be able to go deeper in the season," Riley said. "When you have a pitcher that you ride the whole season, once you get to Regionals and Super Regionals, you might play multiple games in a day. It's going to be harder on the teams that don't have that depth because we can go with different combinations."
The next step for UK is developing a defense and offense to match that pitching staff. The Cats may have been outslugged by UCLA last weekend, but the four home runs they hit showed what could be in store this weekend at the Florida Atlantic Tournament and beyond.
"It's great and it gives you hope for what we have," Riley said. "With Megan Aull and Sam DeMartine and (Megan) Yocke, they all put up 10-plus home runs. It's a great feeling as a pitcher to know we're going to be able to have some offense to back up the defense."
Catchers Michael Williams and Luke Maile combined for 16 home runs and 59 RBI in 2011. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Don't tell Gary Henderson he can't play two catchers at a time.
No, baseball rules don't allow him put two players behind the plate, but that doesn't mean he's not going to do all he can to write the names of his two standout catchers in his lineup every day.
In Michael Williams and Luke Maile, Henderson has a pair of catchers who have already been selected in the Major League Baseball Draft. The fourth-year head coach intends to take full advantage.
"The catching situation should be somewhere between very good and outstanding for us," Henderson said "I am hoping to keep them healthy throughout the year but with Michael Williams coming back for his fourth year in the league and then Luke Maile coming back will give us an outstanding one-two combo."
In 2012, Williams and Maile will split catching duties close to evenly, but the Wildcats can't afford to have either of the two bats that accounted for a combined 16 home runs last season on the bench. On days that Williams is catching, Maile will shift to first base or designated hitter, and vice versa when Maile puts on the pads.
With Williams, Maile, and returning All-Southeastern Conference third baseman Thomas McCarthy in the middle of the order, the Cats could strike fear into the hearts of even the pitchers in the nation's toughest league.
With professional futures lying ahead for both, the timeshare arrangement would seem to have the potential to cause chemistry issues between the senior Williams and junior Maile, but they haven't allowed that to happen. Instead, the two catchers have spent the offseason identifying what they need to do to carry UK back to the NCAA Tournament.
The conclusion? They believe they need to step as vocal leaders.
"Me and Luke kind of hit that on the head this year," Williams said. "We've talked about it wanting to lead by example but also telling people what they're doing wrong or if they're not giving it a hundred percent every day. It takes that leadership daily to become the team you want to be in the postseason."
There will be even more of a premium placed on their leadership ability with the makeup of UK's pitching staff. Catchers play an important role in the success of pitchers regardless, but with 10 new arms on UK's staff, the experience and presence of Williams and Maile become that much more important.
"I think having those guys reiterate, reinforce, pat them on the back, love them, whatever they need at that point in time is really valuable," Henderson said, "because you are not talking about catchers that are trying to find their way in their relationship with me or (assistant coach Keith) Vorhoff or how life works here or where is class."
As Henderson suggests, the most valuable aspect of having experience behind the dish is that the two catchers understand what their coach wants and how to deliver that message to their battery mates.
"We have to get the pitchers acclimated with our program and what Gary Henderson wants," Williams said. "They come up to me, Luke or any of the catchers and ask us what kinds of pitches need to be called there or there. They get the work in, so that's good."
Williams and Maile will also be faced with the unique challenge of handling a weekend rotation that will feature three left-handers to begin the season: junior Taylor Rogers, junior college transfer Jerad Grundy and sophomore Corey Littrell, in that order. That is not set in stone as the pitchers will continually compete for spots, but starting three lefties could work to UK's advantage, especially with the dimensions of Cliff Hagan Stadium.
"I think it brings out the best of all of them because they have to compete and earn their spot every day," Williams said. "Nothing's guaranteed in our league of course. I think it throws a loop for most teams because they have to think of the lineup lefty-wise now. In our ballpark, it's a short porch to right so it helps us out."
Starter or reliever, whoever takes the mound for the Cats is going to have quite the luxury in throwing to Williams or Maile. Concerns over a two-strike slider in the dirt skipping to the backstop are significantly alleviated by the experienced duo.
"There is no better feeling for a pitcher when you have a catcher that knows what they are doing," Littrell said. "Both Mike and Luke, they really know what they are doing. You have confidence in them."
That confidence is only bolstered by the fact that whoever is catching figures to be fresh. The grind of a long season can turn even the best catcher into a shell of himself, but neither Williams nor Maile will have to play the position more than every other day if both stay healthy.
"It gives us an opportunity to be fresh," Maile said. "It gives the pitchers an opportunity to have a guy that they can throw to that is on top of their game and not with heavy legs or is flat-out tired. That is a big confidence boost for our pitching staff. It also allows us to have a break to go swing the bat and not lose anything behind the plate."
Williams and Maile have a strong relationship and plenty of nice things to say about each other, but that doesn't mean they're not competitive.
"We bring out the best in one another," Williams said. "We both work hard and we know that we lead by example and people are looking up to us because we're the older guys. We push each other on and off the field and we try to keep each other motivated to be the best we can be."
The two catchers will need to be at their best from the opening pitch for the team to reach its lofty goals in 2012, which begins at 4 p.m. on Friday against Wofford.
"We are ready to get going and feel like we can make it to the postseason with the team we have this year," Williams said. "Our team is coming together and we are closer and have one heartbeat as a unit. We have the talent here and the right leadership abilities and it will be a privilege to play."
This is the fifth of a six-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's standout returnees entering the season opener. UK opens its 2012 season in Spartanburg, S.C., facing Wofford on Friday at 4 p.m. ET.
Every year, Kentucky baseball recruits and signs the top high school prospect in the state of Kentucky.
In 2010 it was Mr. Baseball Luke Maile out of Covington Catholic and in 2012 class the top prospect was current UK freshman right-hander Chandler Shepherd.
The top prospect in the state of Kentucky in 2011 could have been either UK infielder J.T. Riddle or UK southpaw Corey Littrell. Regardless of who was the most highly regarded between the two young standouts, UK has consistently owned in-state talent, providing its prospects the best competition in college baseball: the Southeastern Conference.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Littrell was the Kentucky High School Louisville Slugger Player of the Year out of Trinity High School. Littrell had dominated hitters at powerhouse Trinity and turned down the Washington Nationals as their 35th round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft to attend Kentucky.
After Littrell's strong fall and preseason established him as the young pitcher to watch on the UK staff, UK head coach Gary Henderson was excited to try Littrell out in a variety of roles.
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound lefty came out of the pen in his first collegiate appearance and dazzled through two innings at No. 20 College of Charleston in the season opener. He ran into trouble in his third inning though, as five runs touched up his ERA.
After the season-opening weekend in Charleston, Henderson gave Littrell his first career start in the home opener vs. Eastern Michigan. Littrell responded, wowing the crowd as he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, before back-to-back hits snapped his dominance. Following the game, Littrell was tabbed as the SEC Freshman of the Week.
"Any freshman going into their first start in college is going to be a little nervous," Littrell said about his first career start. "After I settled in and went no hits through six innings, I was pretty excited. It gave me the confidence I needed to go into some of those starts following that game."
After that outing, Littrell continued to miss the bats of his non-conference competition as a midweek starter, making sporadic appearances in relief on the weekends when needed. His superiority over the non-league foes on UK's schedule was obvious and with struggles from UK weekend starter Jordan Cooper midway through the year, Henderson gave Littrell the starting nod in the weekend staff at No. 3 South Carolina, the defending NCAA Champion and the eventual two-time national champs.
Littrell held his own in front of over 9,000 fans at an electric Carolina Stadium, tossing six innings and allowing only two runs.
"After those non-conference starts and then going to South Carolina, I was nervous, going to play the defending College World Series Champions and there were 10,000 people there yelling at me," Littrell said. "Once I threw that first pitch, I just felt at home, I felt comfortable. After that game was over, and even though we had lost, I felt like I could pitch in this league. It gave me that confidence that I knew I belonged in the SEC."
He continued in the weekend starting pitching staff throughout the year, gaining valuable experience against the best competition in the nation. Despite some rocky outings that inflated his ERA, Littrell had great starts vs. No. 12 Arkansas and Georgia. In the start vs. Arkansas, Littrell began the game on the mound on Saturday, before weather forced the postponement of the contest until Sunday afternoon.
The polished southpaw demanded the ball and returned to the bump to finish what he had started. He held Arkansas to one run over 5.2 innings, striking out four and picking up his fifth win of the year.
"That was a unique game. It was like little league," Littrell said. "You pitch one day and you come back and pitch some more the next. I started off really well through the first three innings and I was in a rhythm and having the rain delay wasn't cool. But I came back and threw two more innings and felt good. I knew I could pitch in the SEC and that was another confidence builder."
All told, Littrell owned a 6-6 record and a 6.95 ERA in his 16 appearances as a freshman, including 13 starts. He tossed 66.2 innings, walking 29 and striking out 51, with four quality starts.
During the summer, Littrell stayed in Lexington to work on adding strength to his projectable frame, also taking classes and preparing for the fall and spring seasons.
"I was supposed to go to the Cape (Cod League) but I threw a lot of innings as a freshman. And I was only 175 pounds," Littrell said. "One of the big things that Hendu (coach Henderson) always told me was that I needed to get some strength because it would help out my mechanics, rhythm and velocity. Putting on weight, taking some classes to get some more credit hours and working out, was pretty much all we did every day. I put on 25 pounds and that has helped me out tremendously in the fall and spring. I feel more comfortable and stronger when I am pitching."
A vocal leader on the staff, Littrell benefited throughout his freshman season from the mentoring and leadership of UK stud Alex Meyer. Now regarded as a veteran on the talented UK pitching staff, Littrell has embraced a leadership role passed on to him by the first-round pick Meyer.
"Alex was one of the biggest influences on my pitching career, along with my parents and my coaches," Littrell said about being a leader. "This team is extremely close. Everyone gets along and we are a close-knit group. We have players who are going out there to play for each other and the name on the front, not the name on the back and that is a huge thing."
In theory, a mid-February Wednesday during the open date for the men's basketball team should be a comparatively quiet day.
Not so much.
Wednesday afternoon is going to be a crazy one even though swimming and diving is the only sport in action (at the SEC Championships). Men's basketball, women's basketball, softball and baseball all have stuff going on that we'll be covering for the blog, so let's run it down:
John Calipari and his Cats will be holding a much-talked about open practice and scrimmage this afternoon at 3 p.m. If you haven't heard, it's open to students, faculty and staff and tickets are still being distributed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Just over 1,000 tickets were distributed on Tuesday, so head over to the Memorial Coliseum ticket office on Euclid Ave. to get yours. In addition to the practice and scrimmage, there will be promotions throughout and the remainder of the Anthony Davis poster will be distributed (about 900 posters). If you can't attend, you can watch on ESPNU, WKYT in Lexington, or online at ESPN3 and UKathletics.com. Additionally, we'll be live blogging the festivities.
Coach Cal will be talking to the media right before the event and we will have video of his comments on the blog later. Calipari will be preceded by UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team is looking to bounce back from back-to-back losses to LSU and Tennessee. The Cats still own sole possession of first place, leading the Lady Volunteers by a game.
Beginning at noon, the baseball and softball teams will hold a joint media day. Coaches Gary Henderson and Rachel Lawson will address the media, as well as select players. We'll have video of all those interviews on the blog later today, with stories to follow on Thursday.
When a coaching staff is on the recruiting trail filling its future baseball rosters, one of the hardest positions to come by is catcher.
Not only are you looking for a strong-armed and defensively-aware backstop, but a one who is capable of producing offensively in the middle of a batting order.
The 2012 Kentucky baseball roster is made up of two such catchers: junior Luke Maile and senior Michael Williams.
"Well we have one of the best catchers in the country, Michael Williams," Maile said when asked about UK having two of the best catchers in the country. "I don't think I would throw myself in that ring. Mike is really a lot of fun to watch catch. He has so many tools, is so talented and knows the game so well. I learn a lot from him on a daily basis. He is a guy that works as hard as any athlete that I have been around, at any sport or any level. The nice thing about that is it brings my work ethic to another level."
The two make up one of the best catching duos in college baseball, with Williams boasting a reputation as a lock-down defender with a developing offensive game and Maile regarded as an advanced hitter with great power potential at the plate.
Having a pair of star catchers give the Wildcats a great luxury, as the two can share the position, allowing them to avoid the majority of the physical tolls of catching in the Southeastern Conference.
"It gives us an opportunity to be fresh," Maile said. "It gives the pitchers an opportunity to have a guy that they can throw to that is on top of their game and not with heavy legs or is flat-out tired. That is a big confidence boost for our pitching staff. It also allows us to have a break to go swing the bat and not lose anything behind the plate. Our catching core is definitely one of the team's strengths."
A 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, Maile has been a key member of the UK lineup since arriving in Lexington as the 2009 Kentucky High School Mr. Baseball out of Covington Catholic High School.
As a freshman, Maile snagged the back-up catching role behind fifth-year senior Marcus Nidiffer. He appeared in 26 games with 12 starts, launching three homers, including a monster shot against defending NCAA Champion LSU as part of a series sweep against the Tigers.
"I was really lucky to be behind a guy like Nidiffer," Maile said about his freshman campaign. "We had a bunch of older guys leading us my freshman year. They definitely showed a lot of maturity in how they handled everything, from how they treated their bodies to how they handled a first-round pitcher on the mound that day."
The two catchers rotated in 2011, with Maile starting 50 games, including 23 behind the plate, 24 at first base and three as the designated hitter. For the majority of the season, when Maile was behind the plate, Williams manned first base, switching roles with Williams flashing the signs behind the dish. Such versatility provided UK a unique opportunity to keep its talented backstops fresh and capable of producing offensively.
A native of Crestview Hills, Ky., Maile led UK in homers as a sophomore, cranking nine roundtrippers to rank fifth in the talent-laden SEC. He finished with a .282 average, charting 10 doubles, three triples, and 36 RBI, stealing six bases with his good base-running instincts.
"The first thing that comes to mind about last year is that I struck out more in a two-month period than I had in my entire life," Maile said. "But I did do some good things. SEC pitching was a big challenge for me in the beginning of the year and I handled it better towards the end. From an offensive mindset, I managed some rough times well. There was some times where I hit .200 for a month. That was a big challenge for me but as an offensive guy and someone who has to produce, you can't panic. You just have to trust your skills and that it was going to get better and by the end of the year it did which was a great learning experience."
A 43rd-round pick in the 2009 MLB Draft by the Boston Red Sox, Maile then went up to the Cape Cod League and Perfect Game League for summer baseball. After playing in 10 games in the CCBL, Maile sifted to the PG League, where he quickly became the most dominating offensive player in the circuit. Baseball America named him the second-best prospect in the league.
Catcher Luke Maile ranked fifth in the SEC in homers as a junior in 2011. (Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
"The main thing was it gave me an opportunity to get some at bats and get some innings behind the plate," Maile said about his smashing offensive summer. "The game started to slow down for me. The ball started looking a little bit bigger. Those big breaking balls didn't seem quite as sharp and the fastballs seemed a bit slower. That really allowed some aspects of my game to take off during the summer, fall and preseason."
During his 26 games in the PG League, Maile hit .378 (34-for-90) with seven doubles, eight homers and 28 RBI, with a .722 slugging and a .509 on-base percentage.
Following the summer, Maile returned to Lexington for his junior season and picked up right where he left off, leading UK in nearly every offensive category during the fall practice season and solidifying himself as a vocal, physical and emotional leader of the 2012 Wildcats.
"I always get a little uncomfortable calling myself a leader," Maile said. "I just consider myself a baseball player who wants the best for the team. Hopefully the guys respect me and like how I handle my everyday business. It is a humbling and exciting deal and I couldn't even imagine helping lead a SEC baseball team when I was young. Hopefully I can continue to get better at it. I definitely have some flaws and some strengths, so it is important to learn how to lead every day."
This is the third of a six-part series, highlighting some of Kentucky's standout returnees entering the season opener. UK opens its 2012 season in Spartanburg, S.C., facing Wofford on Friday at 4 p.m. ET. Sunday's feature was on senior catcher Michael Williams and Monday's story was on junior southpaw Taylor Rogers.
Ever since Ryan Strieby showed up in Lexington in 2006 to lead Kentucky to the Southeastern Conference Championship and earn SEC Player of the Year accolades, junior college players have thrived in the UK system.
During a four-year span, three UK baseball junior college sluggers earned first-team All-America honors while suiting up for the Wildcats, including Strieby, Sawyer Carroll (2008) and Sean Coughlin (2007). In addition to the decorated All-Americans, immediate-impact talents like Taylor Black, Mike Brown, Gunner Glad, Shaun Lehmann and Lance Ray have helped push UK into one of the better programs in college baseball as junior college transfers. Over the last seven seasons, a junior college product has led UK in hitting six times.
In 2011, Thomas McCarthy added his name to that distinguished list.
A native of Corvallis, Ore., McCarthy came to Lexington from Western Oregon and Feather River College, where he had destroyed opposing pitching, hitting over .400 at each stop. The SEC is a different ballgame however and it is always hard to predict how a junior college star will adjust to playing in the best conference and the best division in college baseball.
It didn't take long for McCarthy to solidify himself as the next junior college star for the Wildcats, starting 54 of UK's 55 games and reaching base safely in 53 contests. Following his dynamic junior season, McCarthy became the first UK third baseman to be voted by the league coaches as first-team All-SEC since 1972.
"I'd say it was a successful year, personally, in 2011," McCarthy said. "Team-wise, we didn't do exactly what we wanted to do. Looking forward to 2012, I plan on having my personal success but also being more of a leader. Hopefully win some more games and having a more successful season."
In achieving such an All-SEC milestone as a league preseason unknown, McCarthy had to put up monster numbers, which he did. The 6-foot-2, 200-pounder led UK in average (.371), hits (78), doubles (19) and slugging (.581), totaling the second-best average for a UK player since 1988.
One could dissect the statistics from McCarthy's junior season for hours but some of the highlights include a staggering .411 average in SEC play, where he finished just shy of the league batting title. Overall, McCarthy finished with seven homers and 39 RBI, stealing eight bases and adding two triples.
McCarthy's offensive prowess was on complete display as the 2011 season wound down. The right-handed hitter began a 10-game hitting streak to conclude the season during a 2-0 win over No. 1 Vanderbilt, where he provided the only run that UK starter Alex Meyer would need in his complete-game win, a solo homer off VU ace and first rounder Sonny Gray.
His 10-game hitting streak began after UK head coach Gary Henderson pulled McCarthy from the lineup in the middle of a loss at LSU on April 30. McCarthy - regarded as a strong defender at the hot corner - committed three errors through the first few innings in Baton Rouge.
After that game, and with the UK team somberly waiting on the bus to fly back on its charter plane to Lexington, Henderson and McCarthy sat in the Alex Box Stadium dugout and had an in-depth conversation about his future and what Henderson saw in McCarthy as a player, leader and young adult.
"That was obviously probably one of the lowest points of the season for me," McCarthy said about his three-error game. "Hendu (coach Henderson) and I had a really good conversation about what I want to do with this opportunity here and it kind of opened my eyes to try and just make the most of what I can do here. I just started playing better and never looked back and instead of playing to not make mistakes, I just tried to maximize my opportunity to be the best player that I can be here."
That talk sent McCarthy on a historic run. An offensive tear that defied logic, vaulted him into first-team All-SEC candidacy and toppled any hot streak in the recent history of the program.
During his hitting streak McCarthy boasted a .605 (26-for-43) average with three homers, 16 RBI and a bevy of national accolades, including Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week.
"Well obviously that's the goal every time I go out there," McCarthy said about his hot streak. "You know, it's a real special thing. Baseball is a crazy game and I just got hot and every time I went to the plate I knew I was going to get a hit some way somehow. It was a really fun time and hopefully I can start out the season like that and carry it throughout the entire 2012 season."
McCarthy's infectious personality and leadership skills will take center stage during the 2012 season, when the Wildcats will count on the senior - who earned preseason first-team All-SEC honors by Collegebaseballdaily.com - to lead a talented UK club.
"We have multiple leaders, Taylor Rogers, Michael Williams, Luke Maile and I," McCarthy said about being a leader. "My personal style of leadership is to lead more by example. Some of the other guys are more vocal than I am, so I just try to set an example for the younger guys by going in and getting my work done and show them how things should be done around here."
The veteran's leadership style has been well received by the crop of newcomers, as the Wildcats boast a close-knit group ready to face the challenges of the SEC.
"We have an extremely close group this year," McCarthy said. "We had a team building meeting and that's kind of been a highlight of the preseason so far for us. We all feel like we have a really good group of guys. Everyone gets in and works hard every single day. I think we all have a sense that this team can be real special. Everything that translates in the classroom and off the field carries over to on the field where we have really good team chemistry."
Sophomore Alejandro Gomez has won the clinching point for UK in four consecutive matches. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Story and video by Erin Ashley Simon, UK media relations intern and women's soccer team member
Throughout Dennis Emery's illustrious career as the head coach of the Kentucky men's tennis team, he has had his fair share of dominant collegiate tennis players. Stars like Cedric Kauffmann, Jessie Witten and Eric Quigley were no strangers to NCAA Championship success. These players helped lead the Wildcats with their individual success deep into the NCAA tournament over the course of their career.
This year's Cats are poised for another deep run and now more than ever they eye the championship as a group. The 2012 Wildcats are off to their best start in the modern era of UK men's tennis and have climbed up to a No. 6 national ranking thanks in large part to an impactful sophomore class that has developed faster than what Emery expected.
Coming off of a hard-fought 4-3 victory against No. 30 Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the Wildcats have continued to push off from the greatest start in Emery's 30-year tenure with a record of 9-0. For the fourth consecutive match, the clinching point came from sophomore Alejandro Gomez, one of two sophomores to earn singles points for the Cats.
Gomez, along with the rest of his sophomore class, has continued to develop and consistently win matches at the bottom of the lineup.
"What they (sophomores) have done this year is step in and become the core of the team," Emery said. "I truly believe that their development right now is why we are a top-10 team and then, depending on how much more they progress, will decide how special this season is going to be for us."
The sophomores' progress on the court was not the only development seen this year; their bond off the court has strengthened them as the core of the team, despite having different backgrounds.
Gomez hails from Cali, Colombia, joining Panav Jha (Montreal, Canada), Tom Jomby (Nantes, France), Ryuji Hirooka (Tokyo, Japan), Maks Gold (Louisville, Ky.) and Grant Roberts (Lexington, Ky.) in a geographically and culturally diverse group.
"They are a very close group and I know that every coach says that, but this group really is close on and off the court," Emery said. "The closeness of the second-year performers has made a huge difference."
A commonality between these talented players that continues to hold this great bond is their thirst for success. Last year, the Wildcats were able to take a sip of sweet victory before falling in the Elite Eight.
"When you make a run to the Elite Eight like we did last year, then it helps your program in every aspect," Emery said. "Those guys were able to see what it took on and off the court to make something special like that happen. They knew that we had two seniors last year and that someone was going to have to step up and fill those roles this season."
So far, the sensational sophomore class has undertaken a crucial role in developing the team as a whole. But, the sophomores are not the only ones who have served a vital position within UK men's tennis.
Seniors Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek and junior Anthony Rossi have been the very backbone of the sophomores' development this season. With Rossi's 2011 record of 20-6, Musialek's spring 2011 ranking, which peaked at No. 32 last year, and Quigley's honor of singles All-America in 2011, these leaders have laid the foundation for the sophomores' growth. With standards set high, the sophomores have much to gain and look forward to for the rest of their season.
"Eric Quigley and Anthony Rossi are very quiet leaders, while Alex Musialek is a lot more vocal on the court, but possess the same type of leadership qualities just in a different way." Emery said. "All three have been really big to the development of our sophomore class in showing them what it takes to be a top-eight team in the nation and what you have to do to be successful in these national events."
With great leaderships and a crucial development of the sophomore class, UK looks to build on their 2011 success. Each step of the way will bring them closer towards their goals. Video interview with Alejandro Gomez before UK's win over Notre Dame
It's one thing to identify talented college basketball players and convince them to come and play for you. Kentucky's John Calipari is universally lauded as one of the best in the business in that area. But as CBS' Ian Eagle recently pointed out in an appearance on the Kentucky Sports Radio show, Calipari also gets "the right ones" for his program.
In this run of three straight top-rated recruiting classes, Kentucky has avoided any major ego or chemistry issues. Some pundits have suggested there may be as many as six first-round draft picks on this current UK squad and yet the Wildcats are continually praised for how hard they play and how tough they are defensively. Those are the less-than-glamorous traits that are not always associated with teams awash in highly rated prospects.
"A lot of coaches are scared of them (one-and-done type players) but there's no reason to be scared of them if you do your background work on them. John has never brought a guy into his team that would be a selfish teammate," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes told "The Leach Report" show. "I think (he) does a great job of evaluating those kids and he holds them to it. The worst mistake you can do is bring in a one-year guy with his own agenda because it can destroy your team."
So how does Calipari do it? He says it is definitely something they are thinking about when they're chasing recruits.
"It starts in the process of how you recruit them. First thing we tell them is 'this is the hardest place you could come and play basketball. I'm not promising you'll start or how much you'll play or how many shots you're going to get. What I'm promising is 'you're going to be on a terrific team that's going to be coached and going to be challenged.' We play young people so if you're good enough to play, you'll play. Watch us play and if you're not willing to do that, don't come here," Calipari said on a recent pregame show on the UK IMG Sports Network. "We're not going to talk about other programs. We don't care who is recruiting (them)."
Dykes says Calipari is as good as any coach in the college game at getting the right kids for his program and then getting them to buy into his way of thinking.
"He has a great way of communicating with those kids, how he gets his point across to them. Not everyone can take that highly talented player and get them to play hard. That sounds simple to do but it ain't," said Dykes.
CBS' Kevin Harlan watched a UK practice last season and was taken aback by how frank Calipari was in dealing with his players.
"The one thing I noticed about John that's different from a lot of coaches is that he's very direct with these kids. He doesn't try to flatter them--he's after them. I think a lot of kids want to be led and he goes right at them," said Harlan. "I think they're looking to get better and looking for somebody who is going to be honest with them."
For Calipari, it's about finding players who "fit" into this very high-profile program at Kentucky. And he says just as important as that evaluation is in the minds of the coaching staff, it is just as important to know if that player thinks he fits.
"'Are you the type that can prosper in this type of environment?' You're being coached every day and on every play. You're being challenged not only by the guys within our own practice but then, let's go outside of practice and every game we play is someone's Super Bowl and it's sold out. 'Are you ready for that, are you up for that?'
"That gets them in the mindset that they understand that this is not 'we're going to run everything through you and you're going to get at least 15 shots a game.' We don't any of that and anybody we've recruited will tell you that.
"Most kids know if they're right for a situation or not, unless you try to convince them otherwise. I've lost kids and then I look back and I see why. The kid knew better than I did. The ones that aren't right for here don't come here."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 12:
Gymnastics: Kayla Hartley
Led Kentucky to a season-best score on floor exercise with a career best score of 9.9 ... Hartley, a native of Versailles, Ky., is only the 18th gymnast in school history to earn a 9.9 or higher on floor ... Her solid score is the highest for any UK gymnast this season on any event and the highest floor score of UK since Andrea Mitchell posted a 9.95 last season on March 4.
Men's basketball: Doron Lamb
Helped lead the top-ranked Wildcats to a 2-0 record on the week, including wins over seventh-ranked Florida and on the road at Vanderbilt ... Scored a game-high 18 points in 20-point win over seventh ranked Florida ... Went 4-5 from 3-point range in win over Gators, tying his season-high for 3s made in a game ... Scored game-high 16 points in win at Vanderbilt, hitting multiple 3-pointers for the seventh time in the last eight games ... Averaging three 3-pointers per game over the last three games ... His first 3-pointer against the Commodores game UK a four-point lead in a back and forth game, while his second 3-pointer put Kentucky ahead for good 64-63 with 3:18 left in the game.
Track & field: Luis Orta
Ran a career-best 14:02.45 in the 5,000-meter run, the fourth best 5,000m run in school history. Orta has the best 5,000m in the SEC by 11.90 seconds, and the 25th best time in the country. Orta finished sixth in the at the Husky Classic on Friday, which featured eight teams ranked in the latest top 25.
Track & field: Bradley Szypka
Set a career-best mark in the shot put with a throw of 16.31m/53-06.00. Syzpka has the ninth best shot put throw in the SEC, and the second best among freshmen. Szypka's mark leads the team this season.
Men's basketball: Marquis Teague
Helped lead the Wildcats to a 2-0 mark on the week including a 20-point win over seventh ranked Florida as well as a win in Memorial Gym against Vanderbilt ... Teague tallied his first-career double-double in the win against Florida scoring 12 points and dishing out a game-high 10 assists ... He also hit a pair of 3-pointers, the fourth time this season he's hit multiple 3-pointers ... Teague followed that performance with a 13-point, eight assist, one turnover game on the road at Vanderbilt ... Over the last eight games, Teague has dished out 46 assists against just 17 turnovers.
Track & field: Keilah Tyson
Won the 200m dash at the SPIRE Division I Collegiate Invitational by breaking the UK 200m dash freshman record for the second time in as many weeks with a time of 23.69. Her time of 23.69 is a career-best and the second best in school history. Tyson is tied for the fourth fastest 200m in the SEC this season, and is the fastest time among freshmen. Additionally, Tyson's time is tied for the 15th fastest in the country. Tyson also competed in the long jump this weekend, finishing sixth in the event, but with the top mark among the freshmen.
MEN'S BASKETBALL - With a pair of wins over SEC foes this week, Kentucky owns a 17-game winning streak. UK knocked off No. 8 Florida at home before defeating Vanderbilt in Nashville. Kentucky's win over the Commodores marked the first victory for a No. 1 ranked team in the last four tries against the home-standing team in Memorial Gym. - Kentucky has won its first 11 in league play, the best SEC start for the Wildcats since the 2002-03 team went 16-0. - Doron Lamb scored a game-high 16 points against Vanderbilt. He has hit multiple 3-pointers in seven of the last eight games. - Anthony Davis finished with seven blocks against the Commodores, giving him 127 on the season and moving him to seventh on the SEC single-season blocks list and 12th on UK's career blocks list. - In the win over Florida, Marquis Teague notched his first career double-double effort with 12 points and 10 rebounds. It marked the first double-double by way of points and assists since John Wall achieved the feat during the 2009-10 season.
GYMNASTICS - The gymnastics team posted its best home score of the season on Friday, falling 196-194.7 to defending National Champion Alabama in Memorial Coliseum. - UK earned a season-high score on floor exercise with a 48.85 and was led on the event by sophomore Kayla Hartley's 9.9 score. Hartley's high mark brought home the floor title on the event as she became only the 18th gymnast in school history to earn a 9.9 or higher on the event. The score of 9.9 is the highest for any UK gymnast this season on any event. - Senior Storey Morris had a great meet, finishing tied for second on beam and tied for third on uneven bars, while sophomore Kenzie Hedge finished second on vault.
MEN'S TENNIS - Behind another match-clinching point from Alejandro Gomez, the men's tennis team continued its blitzing pace to start the season with a 4-3 win over No. 30 Notre Dame on Sunday. - Kentucky is now 9-0 on the year, extending its best start to a season in the 30-year tenure of head coach Dennis Emery. The win over UND was UK's sixth of the season over a ranked foe after already taking down No. 12 Pepperdine, No. 22 Tulsa, No. 29 Indiana, No. 53 Michigan State and No. 59 North Carolina State. - Four Wildcats earned singles wins Sunday, including No. 5 Eric Quigley, No. 36 Anthony Rossi, No. 95 Tom Jomby and No. 111 Alejandro Gomez. Rossi is currently riding a 13-match winning streak, while Quigley has won nine consecutive matches.
SOFTBALL - Kentucky went 1-3 in its opening weekend of the season with its victory coming in dramatic fashion. The Wildcats used a seventh-inning rally highlighted by a two-run homer from Rachel Riley to capture the win over the Tigers. - Freshman Griffin Joiner hit the game-winning solo blast for UK. Two other Wildcats hit their first career homers in L.A. as well. Ginny Carroll and Krystal Smith belted back-to-back bombs in the final game with UCLA.
TRACK AND FIELD - Keilah Tyson won the 200-meter dash, breaking the UK 200m freshman record for the second time in as many weeks with a time of 23.69. Tyson's time is the second fastest in school history. - Luis Orta finished sixth in the 5,000m run with a time of 14:02.45, the fourth fastest time in UK history, and the fastest time in the SEC this year. - Walter Luttrell finished 10th in the 3,000m run with a time of 8:08.90, the 10th fastest in UK history and the third fastest in the SEC this year. - Darryl Bradshaw ran a career-best 8.00 in the 60m hurdles. Bradshaw's time is the sixth fastest in program history.
WOMEN'S TENNIS - Women's tennis hosted a doubleheader, defeating Winthrop 4-0 and Cincinnati 7-0. - The Cats moved into second place in the SEC Eastern Division with their two victories. - Sophomore Misha Testerman played her best match of the year, defeating Cincinnati's Carly Wilson, 6-0, 6-0.
WOMEN'S GOLF - Through one round at the UCF Challenge in Sorrento, Fla., the women's golf team sits in ninth place, 13 strokes off the lead. Kentucky finished the opening round with a nine-over-par 297. - Junior Ashleigh Albrecht paced Kentucky through the first round, shooting a one-under par 71. With two birdies and an eagle, Albrecht finished the day tied for fifth, five strokes off the lead. Albrecht carded an impressive eagle on the 354-yard, par-four ninth hole - the only eagle of the day.
Monday, Feb. 13 Women's basketball at Tennessee - 7:00 p.m. Women's golf at UCF Challenge
Tuesday, Feb. 14 Women's golf at UCF Challenge
Wednesday, Feb. 15 Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Thursday, Feb. 16 Women's basketball at Alabama - 7:30 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Friday, Feb. 17 Softball vs. Wright State - 4:00 p.m. (Boca Raton, Fla.) Baseball vs. Wofford - 4:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Softball at Florida Atlantic - 6:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (Knoxville, Tenn.) Men's tennis at National Team Indoors (Charlottesville, Va.)
Saturday, Feb. 18 Rifle hosts NCAA Qualifier - 8:00 a.m. Softball vs. LIU Brooklyn - 9:00 a.m. (Boca Raton, Fla.) Women's tennis hosts Eastern Kentucky - 10:00 a.m. Baseball vs. Eastern Michigan - Noon (Spartanburg, S.C.) Softball vs. Michigan - 1:00 p.m. (Boca Raton, Fla.) Gymnastics at Georgia - 4:00 p.m. Men's basketball hosts Ole Miss - 4:00 p.m. Women's tennis hosts Evansville - 6:00 p.m. Swimming and diving at SEC Championships (Knoxville, Tenn.) Men's tennis at National Team Indoors (Charlottesville, Va.) Sunday, Feb. 19 Softball vs. Maryland - 11:00 a.m. (Boca Raton, Fla.) Baseball vs. USC Upstate - 3:00 p.m. (Spartanburg, S.C.) Men's tennis at National Team Indoors (Charlottesville, Va.)
"We will go through our normal practice routine for 30 to 40 minutes, break for a couple of things for you, and then we'll scrimmage for two 10-minute halves," Calipari told students on CoachCal.com. "The first half both teams will play man to man and the second half both teams will go zone."
The impetus for the one-of-a-kind occasion, even above providing students a chance to support the No. 1 Wildcats, was UK's only loss of the season at Indiana. That game was one of just two so far this season that the Cats have had to wait a full week to play (the other a win the next week over Chattanooga), and Calipari does not want a repeat of that performance.
"The last time we had a week off what happened?" Calipari said after UK's 69-63 win over Vanderbilt. "Yeah, we played Indiana. I don't want to take away (from Indiana). Indiana did their thing and played well, but it wasn't one of our better outings."
Calipari penned that aforementioned letter to students as a way to ask for their help. Sure, Wednesday is for the students, complete with special promotions like a 3-point contest with players and a Q and A session with the coach, but it's also designed for a team that's looking more and more like it could do something truly special over the next two months.
"Understand I'm asking for your help," Calipari wrote. "Because we have a week off, I want this to be a midweek jolt to my players. We want to keep this thing going, so I want a packed Memorial Coliseum. I want everybody into it like it's a midweek game."
Whether it's after seeing 550 tents pop up in line for tickets to Big Blue Madness or when UK fans travel by the thousands across the border to see the Cats play a few exhibition games in Canada, Calipari regularly breaks out a familiar loving jab at the Big Blue Nation.
Wednesday figures to be another one of those "Only at Kentucky" moments that prompts Calipari to say to fans, "You people are crazy."
But after Calipari was the driving force behind a practice on a random Wednesday afternoon that is being broadcast nationally (ESPNU), locally (WKYT in Lexington) and online (ESPN3 and UKathletics.com) and will likely be attended by thousands, I think it's time to make another conclusion too.
Coach Cal, I hate to break it to you, but you might just be crazy too.
On the teleconference, Calipari discussed the possible open practice or scrimmage he mentioned after the win over Vanderbilt. Since UK has no midweek game, plans are in motion to hold a special event on Wednesday that may be open to students. As of right now, nothing is set in stone, but Memorial Coliseum has been talked about initially as the site for the event with an outside chance of going to Rupp Arena should attendance warrant a larger venue. Calipari also mentioned the possibility of opening the event to non-students. Again, no definitive plans have yet been made, but stay tuned for more information later today or tomorrow.
No surprise here, but the Cats remain No. 1 in both major polls for the fourth consecutive week. In the Associated Press Top 25, UK once again received 63 out of a possible 65 votes, with the other two going to second-ranked Syracuse. Cal's Cats received all 31 first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll.
The No. 1 ranking in the polls is nice, but it doesn't matter much (at least not directly) to UK's seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The ranking that does matter to the Cats' tournament resume is the RPI and Kentucky jumped two spots to No. 3 this week with a pair of wins over top-30 foes. UK's lone opponent this week, Ole Miss, checks in at No. 50 in the RPI.
Marquis Teague played two of the best games of his young career in wins over Florida and Vanderbilt and was rewarded with SEC Freshman of the Week honors. In winning the award for the first time, Teague posted averages of 12.5 points, 9.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds. He also had the first double-double of his young career in a dominant win over then-No. 8/7 Florida. Early in the season, UK was succeeding at times in spite of inconsistency from Teague, but the point guard has been a guiding force in Kentucky's best stretch of play this season, dishing 46 assists against just 17 turnovers in his last eight games.
ESPN.com released a new edition of Bracketology and the Cats check in as a one seed yet again. Joe Lunardi pegs UK as the No. 2 overall seed behind Syracuse, playing its first two games in Louisville and Sweet 16 and Elite Eight games in Atlanta. Take a look at this link to see what UK's path to New Orleans might look like if the season ended today.
Kentucky head coach John Calipari joined the SEC's weekly teleconference to answer questions and talk about his team's upcoming week. Here's what he and some of the league's other coaches had to say:
On UK's upcoming week off before a game against Ole Miss on Saturday... "We get a little bye week here so we're not playing midweek. We're going to do something here on campus but that will Wednesday. Mississippi's playing well. You're talking about a team that's very, very physical. They were up 20-4, ended up getting beat. They have played well and done some really good stuff and we expect it to be a tough battle."
On the possibility of going unbeaten through SEC play... "We're not talking in those terms and it might happen, it might not happen. My concern is: Are we improving as a team? What I'm seeing right now is we are. I expect our game at Florida to be very, very difficult to win. Our game here against Vandy, very, very difficult to win. We still have hard games with Mississippi State on the road who may be as talented as anybody we play this year. Very, very difficult to win. Even now Georgia, who's playing better and Mississippi obviously gives us matchup issues because of their size. It will be very difficult for us. It's not about running the table. What it's about is putting us in the best position at the end of the year to make a run. Last year's team, at the end of the year, was the best team in the country at the end of the year. We lost six league games on the road during that stretch that you're talking about and we became a very good team so we did what we were trying to do. We're trying to do the same with this team."
On Kyle Wiljter's improvement... "He's getting better and there's no question that he's understanding defensively what he's going to have to do. He's rebounding the ball better, which leaves him the game. You and I know, with him in the game, boy does he stretch defenses. Wow. That means now you've got four guys, you've got slashers, you've got people that are shooting 3s. His offensive skill, his ability to pass the ball and what you're going to find out with time as he gets stronger from the waist down, just able to hold his position, able to stand in a stance longer, able to bust through where he can bump and play, you're going to see him go to a completely 'nother level. Some guys come in and are physically...like a Michael Gilchrist is physically advanced. Even though Michael's the youngest player on my team, he's physically advanced where Kyle is not physically advanced. Anthony Davis wasn't physically advanced so he's trying to figure out with where he is physically, 'How do I have to play to survive?' Kyle is doing the same kind of thing."
On how valuable Wiltjer can be if he's able to play 10 to 12 minutes per game... "Hopefully more than that and I'll you why: because his ability to score the ball makes us a totally different team when he's on the floor. It really does. Now all of a sudden the other coach is saying 'Oh my gosh. If he has Darius Miller, Doron Lamb and Kyle Wiltjer on the floor, you're talking about three 45 to 50 percent 3-point shooters on the floor. Oh my gosh, what do we do here.' It makes us a better team when he's out there."
On plans for Wednesday's possible event for fans... "We're right now in the process of putting it all together. We were meeting and we'll have some information...It's not completely out yet."
On what the format of the event will be... "We don't know yet. We're putting it all together and we're trying to figure out exactly. I want it to be a great experience for our students and then possibly, if it's not just students, maybe there's some way that we recognize that there are 3,000 students or 5,000 students that are coming and we open it up to whoever else doesn't get to see us play. There are so many fans in this state that never get a chance to feel the experience and see the players and see them up close. If we can get three or four thousand in here to watch them, then that's what we'll do. We're just walking through this morning on exactly how we're going to do it. It may only be students if it's 8,000, but if it's 4,000 students and 4,000 fans that don't get a chance to see us play, it may be that too."
On Florida head coach Billy Donovan's praise of Darius Miller... "You know what, what's happened is against Florida, Darius has had his best games, truly. In the conference tournament this past year. I mean, he plays his best basketball and I don't know why, but he does. Darius Miller to us, he made an unbelievable stride last game. He played poorly in the first half. He fouled, he just didn't play well. The second half, he played OK and got another foul. I put him in with four fouls and I said, 'Kid, just play. It doesn't matter now.' He went in and then the last five minutes of the game, he basically won the game. He made the 3 that got us close, he got the assists, he came up with balls and then when Marquis Teague was falling and tipped him the ball, they ran two players at him, he went between two, jumped about 35 inches, got hit twice and laid the ball in which basically gave us the gap we needed to win the game. In a way, he is as important as anybody we have on this team."
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
On whether his team has improved recently... "I wouldn't say better. We're kind of who we are and I think our team continues to compete. I think our team continues to try to win the effort areas as we refer to them. We've got to be good on the glass, we've got to make timely shots and try to value the ball a little bit better. Most every game, we've competed and we've put ourselves in a position where, if we make the necessary plays, we have a chance and that's not going to change. It's who we are and I've accepted that. My hope is that we can finish strong."
On his impressions of Kentucky... "It's ironic, I saw the tail end of the game live against Vanderbilt on Saturday. Obviously Vanderbilt being first opponent and Kentucky being our next opponent, it would make sense for me to watch that tape and I did this morning. I think they're scary good. When you look for holes that maybe you can have an opportunity to exploit, they don't have many. Tremendous defensively and I think that they play as a cohesive unit, which is really a tribute to Cal. When you're mixing in freshman along with a couple of upperclassmen and you're doing it at that level where they really look impressive. As impressive as they are as individuals, I think they're even better as a team which, again, is a tribute to Cal and his staff."
On whether he was surprised to have to play Vanderbilt and Kentucky in a three-day span... "I didn't think like that honestly. I just kind of take it for what it is. I've said before that I understand the dynamic of television and it's what I think is going to help SEC basketball moving forward. I think it's helped the exposure of our league. Whenever we're supposed to play, that's when we're going to play. I didn't think anything more of it than that. Our guys like games anyway. They don't really like to practice. This extra day of practice leading into the Thursday game, they're not very fond of that. They would rather play games like every kid would. From a preparation standpoint you could probably give me a month at least heading into Rupp and I'm not sure how much help that would. We don't think much about it. We're going to play two of the best teams in not only in our league, but in my opinion in the country. My hope is that our guys will come out and meet the challenge." Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings
On comparing Kentucky to some of the SEC's best teams in recent years... "They're certainly very good and I would put them right up there with some of the best that I've seen, yes. Particularly on the defensive end, I think they're outstanding so, yes, I think this Kentucky team is as good as a lot of the really, really good teams, great teams that I have seen in our league in years that I've been in it. I would expect that they will continue to do very well and will have a great chance to make a run for a national championship."
On how difficult it is to go undefeated in SEC play... "I think it's very difficult. Very, very, very difficult actually and I don't recall it being done one time since I've been in the league. That would speak to the difficulty of it. Because of the way they defend, they'll have a chance to do it. They're really a terrific defensive team. They're a good offensive team as well, but I think it's their defense that gives them a chance to win every night."
On Anthony Davis' candidacy for national awards... "I would be surprised if there was anybody out there that was any better. I can't profess to say that I study all the top players around the country and who even would be the best candidates for Player of the Year or any of those things. I have a hard time believing that there is anybody that's having any more of an impact on the success of their team than Anthony Davis is. And that would be whether it's a freshman or anything other classification for that matter. I can't imagine that there's a more impactful defensive player in all of college basketball than he is. It would not surprise me in the least if he swept all those awards and I think he would be very deserving. Again, I say that and I can't really say that I pay attention to what people in other leagues are doing."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan On Darius Miller... "I love him. I've always loved him. I've got a tremendous amount of respect for him because I think just what he's been through.I think he started off with Billy Gillispie there as a young player and then John came in and then he's playing with Wall and Bledsoe and Cousins and those guys and then they basically lose a lot of guys to the NBA and then last year, comes in a new crop of guys. I just think he's a 'steady Eddie.' I think he's an incredible core glue guy that probably in a lot of ways is overshadowed by maybe Gilchrist or Davis or Teague. But he is a really I think a guy that presents a lot of problems because, one, he's highly intelligent. He plays a lot of different position. He's a mismatch when you play him at the three. He's a mismatch at the four. He can even play the two. He's battle-tested, he's been through it. He's got incredible leadership qualities but I just there's a lot of intangibles that come. He just seems like he always embraces the new faces that come in there. John knows better than I am; he's with him every day but I always just see him doing whatever he has to do to help his team win. I just don't think on any team you can have enough of those guys and I also think he's very talented. He's a very talented player but he adds a different element to their team."
On the element he adds to UK's team... "I think his versatility. I think being a senior, an older guy. Playing on a lot of different teams. I would assume that he really understands team chemistry and understanding how to work. He doesn't seem to be an 'I' guy. I never see him with a bad attitude out there. The thing that I had mentioned about Kentucky after our game was I love their disposition. Even their younger guys, they've got a great presence and a disposition when they play and I respect that and I think Darius has got that kind of disposition as well."
On comparing Kentucky to some of the SEC's best teams in recent years... "I thought Coach Pitino's team was really, really good my first year here (1996) when they won the national championship when they had (Antoine) Walker and (Tony) Delk and (Ron) Mercer and (Derek) Anderson. I mean, they were really, really good. I think depth-wise, talent-wise I think John's first team may have been as talented as any team that's been there. They had incredible depth in the frontcourt with (Daniel) Orton and (DeMarcus) Cousins and (Patrick) Patterson and then you obviously had incredible depth in the backcourt with (Eric) Bledsoe and (John) Wall. I mean that was a pretty talented team. These guys are very, very good. I think every team brings a different element and wins in different ways but this Kentucky team is a very, very good team and has played very impressively."
On how difficult it is to go undefeated in SEC play... "I think anytime, in any league, it's very, very difficult. Very hard because you're always going to have, there's always going to be games where you're maybe not going to be at your best and things are not going to go well. I don't know how many games they've had like that but there's always those games. They've been able to have the ability to I think win. When you have an ability to win in a lot of different ways, when one of those ways is not working for you, you can rely on something else to help you win. I think they're a good shooting team but they're not a great shooting team. They shot it very well against us but if they have a bad shooting night, they can still do it with other things: defensively, posting up, getting to the free throw line. There's other things they can hang their hat on and I think what makes really, really special teams is when you have a variety of different ways you can win. I think they can win in a slow-down game, a fast game. I think that they can win if they're not shooting the ball well. I think they can win in almost any kind of situation that they're in."
This is the second of a
six-part season preview, highlighting some of UK's top returnees before
the season opener on Feb. 17 in Spartanburg, S.C., against Wofford. Also see the Sunday story on Michael Williams.
Taylor Rogers showed up in Lexington as a skinny freshman in 2010 from Littleton, Colo., but it didn't take long for him to make an impact.
In his first career collegiate appearance, Rogers dominated the scrappy hitters of West Virginia on opening weekend at the 2010 Carravelle Resort Invitational. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound southpaw carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning to earn Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week accolades.
"That first start was something that got me started off good. In the season opener, it is always a different feeling to get out and face another team," Rogers said. "Being a freshman, they are bigger and stronger than you are. It was nice to get some confidence and know that I could do it. It was a good stepping stone into my college career."
After that start, Rogers solidified himself as a productive member of UK's weekend pitching staff, making 26 weekend starts over his first two seasons at UK. Overall, Rogers has been a fixture in the rotation, tossing 160 innings in his two-year career, with 88 strikeouts.
As a freshman, Rogers led UK in starts and innings pitched, tossing 83 innings for an injury-crippled UK pitching staff that entered the season counting on first-round pick James Paxton to anchor the rotation. When Paxton withdrew from classes in the spring, Rogers and then UK sophomore Alex Meyer became the stalwarts in the staff.
Being the main guy as an 18-year old in the rugged SEC in no easy task, as Rogers experienced the typical ups and downs of an SEC freshman. He finished his 2010 season with a 4-7 record and a 6.40 ERA, numbers that were inflated by some rough starts.
"First of all it was a lot of fun," Rogers said about leading the team in starts as a freshman. "It was a lot of fun to be able to go out there and compete every weekend with the team. It was something that I figured you just did, you go out and compete every weekend against the best hitters in the nation."
While he did have the occasional ERA-inflating outing, Rogers served notice to the SEC with several dynamic outings, including a complete-game loss at Vanderbilt, where he allowed one earned run in a 2-0 loss. During his freshman season Rogers ran up a stretch of 35 consecutive innings without issuing a walk, at times displaying the kind of pinpoint fastball control and dominating breaking ball that led to his collegiate debut as a weekend starter.
After spending the 2011 offseason adding strength and working in the classroom in Lexington, Rogers entered his sophomore season as part of a three-man weekend staff that included Meyer and righty Jordan Cooper. Rogers again had moments of brilliance during the year but finished with a 3-7 record and a 5.14 ERA.
After scuffling on the weekends late in the year, UK head coach Gary Henderson inserted him into a midweek starting role, his first career non-weekend start. Rogers responded with a brilliant outing to return to the weekend rotation in the final series at No. 4 Florida.
Knowing Rogers' unlimited potential, his need for additional innings and summer baseball experience, Henderson arranged for a spot in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League for Rogers. The moment Rogers arrived at the Harwich Mariners he excelled, turning in a 4-4, 1.72 ERA in nine starts in the summer, striking out 40 in 47 innings and leading the Mariners to the CCBL Championship Series.
"The Cape (Cod League) was awesome," Rogers said. "It was cool to see a different perspective of baseball. To see how everyone else does things daily and how they can be succcessful. I got to learn a lot, a lot more about myself and how things worked better with me, my mechanics and making the ball move more. It is really going to be good for me this spring."
Rogers earned the starting nod in the CCBL All-Star Game played at historic Fenway Park in July. With Henderson watching proudly from the stands, Rogers picked up the win in the prestigious game.
"It helps you grow as a pitcher, but so much more than that. It helps you grow as a man," Rogers said on Henderson's coaching style. "You can relate the stuff that he talks about with baseball to your everyday life. After hearing it for three years, it is starting to get ingrained in my brain. Everything that he says is correct. I know that may be hard to hear at times when you are a freshman coming in. After seeing what he has taught me, using it on the mound at UK and in the Cape, he knows what he is talking about. When you buy in it can do nothing but help you. We are fortunate to have coach Henderson."
Entering his junior season, Rogers has bagged a bevy of accomplishments in his two seasons. As a third-year talent on the UK roster, Rogers will be relied upon to anchor the pitching staff - a role he was thrust into as an underclassman. Rated as the 20th-best SEC prospect in the 2012 MLB Draft by Baseball America and boosted by the confidence-building summer in the Cape Cod League, Rogers is poised for a great junior season.
"It is different, this year than the last few years," Rogers said about the depth of the pitching staff. "It is nice to have all those lefties to use. It is nice to have them on the staff and it is very clear that we are going to have a deep bullpen and be able to compete every single day. If there is a day you may not have you best stuff, you can rely on them to come in and get the job done."
A'dia Mathies scored with 4.2 seconds left to lift UK to a 61-60 win over Tennessee on Jan. 12. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Matthew Mitchell was asked about Tennessee's loss to South Carolina this past week, he began his answer as you would expect a coach to do.
He and his coaching staff watched the game that gave Kentucky a two-game lead in the Southeastern Conference race, but he said their focus was trained on what the Wildcats could learn about their upcoming matchup against the Lady Volunteers.
"At the end, I was just trying to think of some things that we could do well against them, some things that we are going to have to do well against them," Mitchell said.
Ultimately though, Mitchell gave voice to what every UK Hoops fan was thinking.
"I think anyone would be lying if they were to say that was not a good development for us," Mitchell said. "I mean, you want as much separation as you can have."
Tennessee's loss on UK's open date changes the dynamic of Monday's matchup between the two teams at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Yes, the Cats still have to do something they've never done and win in Thompson-Boling Arena, but the narrative entering the game is different.
For the No. 7 Cats (21-3, 10-1 SEC), the trip to Knoxville, Tenn., is nothing but an opportunity. Instead of needing a victory just to hold onto sole possession of first place, the Cats can put a sleeper hold on the SEC race with a victory and grab a three-game lead with just four games to play. Tennessee (17-7, 8-3 SEC), on the other hand, will need to protect its home floor to stay in realistic contention in the conference.
"We are excited about it, we are looking forward to it and we will see what happens on Monday," Mitchell said.
The game also provides UK with a chance to grab a two-game sweep of the Lady Vols in regular season play for the first time in school history, as the Cats prevailed in a 61-60 thriller in Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 12. Kentucky needed a last-second shot from A'dia Mathies to overcome a furious Tennessee rally in the final minutes.
Mitchell called his team "real fortunate" to survive that first matchup and he knows the Cats will need a better effort to knock off the SEC's preeminent power on the road.
"We learned a lot from that game and we are working hard to try to make some corrections that didn't go well in that game and just get as prepared as we can for what we know will be a very, very tough challenge for our team," Mitchell said.
UK will also be tasked with bouncing back from its first SEC loss of the season, a 10-point defeat at LSU that saw the Cats score a season-low 51 points in a physical battle.
"We got into a game that happens every now and again where we are unable to control the tempo," Mitchell said. "That is complete credit to LSU because I am certain that many teams want to do that."
The Cats will have had eight days without a game by the time they take the floor on Monday, which has been hard for Mitchell, who wants to get back on the floor, but beneficial to his team.
"It was great, and they needed a little time off, so I think it was really good for them," Mitchell said. "We had some good work yesterday. The great thing about us right now is we have a chance to get better."
That improvement has to take place, especially on the offensive end. UK shot just 21-of-60 (35.0 percent) against LSU, and only Mathies and Keyla Snowden reached double figures.
While some coaches might despair over having an offense needing so much improvement, Mitchell looks on the bright side. UK has tied the best start in school history and is in contention to win its first SEC title in three decades, but they still have room for growth.
"We are not operating at a real high level offensively right now," Mitchell said. "I think that is something that we can improve on. So, to be at this stage in the season, and be in the position we are in, and still have a chance of getting better is a real positive thing."
Mathies, UK's leading scorer and conference player of the year candidate, doesn't have as much room for improvement as her teammates in terms of skill and execution, but there is a key step forward she can take in terms of her approach.
SEC opponents have employed a physical defensive style against Mathies, forcing officials to make repeated calls throughout the game. Mitchell is asking his star junior guard to understand it's impossible for every bump she plays through to be called.
"I think that she has a hard time sometimes dealing with acceptance," Mitchell said. "I think she just needs to accept sometimes that there is very little she can do about how the referees are going to call (the game)."
With as strong and athletic a group as any team in the country, Tennessee figures to use that same strategy to defend Mathies, who scored a career-high 35 points her first time against the Lady Vols.
Just as Mitchell is viewing this matchup with Tennessee and the Cats' offensive struggles with a "glass half full" mentality, he wants Mathies to do the same in the face of the challenges she will face.
"That is how people are going to play her," Mitchell said. "They are going to try to get her out of her game. That is a great opportunity for her."
This is the first of a six-part season preview, highlighting some of UK's top returnees before the season opener on Feb. 17 in Spartanburg, S.C., against Wofford.
Every summer, one of the biggest jobs for every college coach in the country is to help its juniors and seniors with the MLB Draft process.
For some juniors, the decision to sign as a draft pick is simple. For others it is one to ponder and important to gather information and make an informed decision.
A 37th round selection of the defending World Series Champion San Francisco Giants, Kentucky senior catcher Michael Williams fell in the latter category.
"It was a tough decision," Williams said. "When it came down to it, you just have to go with your heart and I feel like with the class we have coming in and the team we have already have there we have a good chance to compete in the SEC and make the tournament this year, make a run in the postseason this year. I am just ready to get back there and impact the team and help the young guys out."
"Well we have one of the best catchers in the country, Michael Williams. I don't think I would throw myself in that ring. Mike is really a lot of fun to watch catch. He has so many tools, is so talented and knows the game so well. I learn a lot from him on a daily basis. He is a guy that works as hard as any athlete that I have been around, at any sport or any level. The nice thing about that is it brings my work ethic to another level."
Junior catcher Luke Maile on Williams
A native of Knoxville, Tenn., Williams could have signed and began his professional career or he could elect to return for his senior season, improve his draft status and help the Wildcats complete some unfinished business.
Regarded as one of the top defensive backstops in college baseball, Williams became UK's biggest recruit during the offseason, helping solidify the UK defense and form a dynamic offensive catching tandem with UK junior Luke Maile, who led UK with nine homers in 2011.
"It helps the team greatly," Williams said about the two-headed catching tandem. "We are both really good friends. We have different personalities and leadership styles which is a tremendous asset in how we relate to the team and the pitching staff. We have the ability to move between different positions which creates some versatility. Plus, it really will help keep us fresh so we can continue to produce offensively through the grind of a college season behind the plate."
A 6-foot-2, 220-pound strong-armed and physical catcher, Williams returns after a strong junior season that saw him make 47 starts, bat .264 (46-for-174) and slug seven homers. A key member of UK's school-record fourth-ranked recruiting class in 2008 out of Farragut High School, Williams was a high school All-American.
"We are very pleased that Mike has elected to return to school for his senior season," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Mike has meant a lot to our program over the last few years and as a junior he really started to progress offensively and defensively. His decision to return to school will help him continue to develop in the best league in college baseball, will help him finish his degree and will help further his development for professional baseball."
After coming to UK, Williams split time with incumbent starter Marcus Nidiffer in 2009 and 2010, before he joined Maile to form the best two-headed catching tandem in college baseball. A physical and strong right-handed hitter, Williams boasts potential as a power bat and as a lock-down defender.
As a freshman, Williams was thrust into playing time behind the veteran Nidiffer. He played in 15 games with seven starts while he learned to cope with the challenges of playing in the SEC, both offensively and defensively. During his sophomore campaign, Williams played in 16 games with nine starts, batting .241 while helping spell Nidiffer and Maile.
As a draft eligible junior in 2011, Williams solidified himself as one of the top defenders in the nation and as an offensively productive catcher. In addition to his offensive success, Williams ranked among the Southeastern Conference leaders in putouts, pickoffs and runners caught stealing.
During the summer, despite negotiating with the Giants as a late-round draft pick, Williams appeared in the Northwoods League, ranking among Perfect Game USA's top prospects in the circuit.
Williams' decision to return for his senior season is not an unprecedented one for Henderson, who has seen eight UK players drafted as a junior and elect to return to school for their senior seasons since 2007. Among the players who have improved their draft positions by returning to UK include MLB outfielder Collin Cowgill (29th round in 2007, fifth round in 2008), Sawyer Carroll (18th round in 2007, third round in 2008), Scott Green (15th round in 2007, third round in 2008), Taylor Black (28th round in 2010, 16th round in 2011), Chris Rusin (23rd round in 2008, fourth round in 2009) and Sean Coughlin (42nd round in 2006, 13th round in 2007).
Not only is Williams focused on improving his baseball skills for the next level, but finishing his college degree is a top priority.
"It is always a big deal to get a college degree, because you never know when your baseball career could end," Williams said. "It is always a big thing because like that commercial says for the NCAA, everyone is not going to be a pro athlete so you have to have a degree and have that higher education. It is certainly a goal of mine to get my degree so I am excited to get closer to that this year." No one appreciates the talented catchers the Wildcats boast more than their pitching staff.
"There is no better feeling for a pitcher when you have a catcher that knows what they are doing," UK sophomore starter Corey Littrell said. "Both Mike and Luke, they really know what they are doing. You have confidence in them. You know you can throw a 0-2 curveball in the dirt with a runner on third base and they are going to block it. If a runner steals, you pretty much know they are going to be out because they have such good and accurate arms. They have that leadership, that presence about them that you can just tell they get it. It makes you feel good on the mound."
"We are very fortunate to have those two," UK junior weekend starter Taylor Rogers said. "Even playing up in the Cape (Cod League) this summer you get to see just how lucky we are to have Mike and Luke behind the plate. With both of them back there you feel great, they are tremendous players offensively and defensively and that is a huge boost to a pitching staff."
With a team boasting a bevy of talent in the field and on the mound, including several fresh faces and young arms, Williams will have to step into a vocal and physical leadership role, one his is excited to embrace as a senior.
"Being a leader you have to be outside of yourself," Williams said. "Even when you are struggling personally and individually, you still have to have the strength to help other people out even when you are not doing good. You just have to show people how to work hard, be humble and be accountable for their actions and what they do. You learn that through life as you go along. But the older you are and the more experience you have the more people look up to you because you have been there, you have done it and you have experienced it."
Kentucky ran its winning streak to 17 games with a 69-63 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kentucky's first experience in an away game was one they would rather forget.
A raucous crowd helped Indiana hand the Wildcats their only loss this season and they unquestionably did not enjoy leaving the floor amid a swarming celebration of Christian Watford's 3-point buzzer.
Two months later, UK is feeling differently about leaving the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.
"There's nothing better than playing on the road, especially an environment like this," freshman forward Anthony Davis said. "Playing on the road in these types of games is going to make us a better team."
The environment of which Davis spoke of was Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium. It's difficult to imagine any venue matching IU's Assembly Hall, but the Commodore fans hosting ESPN's College GameDay did their best.
"Hats off to them, their fans," John Calipari said. "What a great environment. This is why we do what we do as coaches and players is this kind of game."
Calipari has been trying to drill that kind of mentality into his young team, the mentality that there's no sweeter sound than the hush that comes over a big crowd after a big play is made by the team those fans are loudly cheering against.
"It's a great environment, but it's what you want," Calipari said. "What I put on the board before we started the game: Love the road. Just love this. Love the environment. Relish this. Keep this in your mind. When you're 40 you'll think about playing this game."
Unlike Indiana, the Cats will look back fondly when they remember this road trip.
No. 1 Kentucky (25-1, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) won its sixth straight on the road in a 69-63 victory over Vanderbilt (17-8, 6-4 SEC). UK strengthened its grip in an SEC race losing suspense by the day, moving a full three games ahead of second-place Florida in the loss column.
Kentucky led by as many as 14 points during a suffocating first-half performance, guided by the now-steady hand of point guard Marquis Teague. The freshman had eight points, five assists and three rebounds at halftime en route to a 13-point, eight-assist, one-turnover outing that dealt another blow to the narrative that Teague is the weak link on an otherwise dominant team.
"I'm feeling real comfortable," Teague said. "I'm playing with some great guys and they make it easy for me. I give them the ball and they knock down shots so they make it real easy for me. I'm just trying to pick and choose when to go and when to find somebody else. I'm trying to control the tempo and just keep getting wins."
Over his last six games, Teague has 36 assists and 11 turnovers.
Teague and the Cats may have knocked down to the Commodores in the first half, but Vanderbilt counterpunched, hitting 12-of-16 field goals to open the second half after shooting just 27.6 percent in the first. Vandy tied the game at 51 with 10:13 remaining, triggering back-and-forth action up to the 4:10 mark, when UK trailed 63-61.
At that point, UK's focus was unmistakable.
"We just told each other in every huddle that we had that we were going to lock up defensively," Davis said. "We needed a stop and the only way we were going to win was to lock up and that's what we tried to do."
From then on, the Commodores scarcely had room to breathe.
UK would miss three free throws in the final minute, but they proved to be inconsequential because of the defense the Wildcats played. The Commodores' final nine shots went awry as Kentucky closed the game on an 8-0 run to make last season's 2-6 road record an even more distant memory.
"This year we just know how to close out games really," sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. "We got a lot of great players and we got a lot of weapons on this team that can score and defend. Last year we just broke down at the end of games and didn't close the game out."
His stat line (five points, two rebounds and two assists) may not jump off the page, but Darius Miller was arguably the most important factor in the Cats slamming the door down the stretch. He picked up his fourth foul with 17:56 left, but his crucial 3-point shot with 10:40 remaining and his consistent penetration opened things up for UK against Vandy's 2-3 zone defense that befuddled the Cats after halftime.
"It's a senior leader," Lamb said. "He's been doing this for four years. He knows this game and makes big plays for us. That's what we need from him."
Calipari would have preferred another blowout win over needing big plays from Miller and defensive stops down the stretch to eke one out. At the same time, Saturday night's tight victory can't hurt for the future.
"We needed a game where we had to fight," Teague said. "We've been beating people by 20 and 15 and things like that and this was a good game for us to build up on our experience and just to get us ready."
"I thought it was a great place to play and I even tell some of my buddies that it was one of my favorite places to play to shoot in."
So says one of UK's all-time best sharpshooters of Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium, Jim Master.
"It is a great shooting gym with the way it is lit," Master said. "Of course the benches are a little different but that didn't faze us much. It is a really, really good shooting gym for most players.
"I think it is the lighting," Master continued. "It feels to me to be more confined as opposed to Rupp Arena which is a big space if you will. The way its lit and way it is formed, it is more like a high school gym the way you are shooting the basketball. Some people may say that Coach Hall or Coach Calipari are on the other side of court so you can't hear them screaming at you. But it is really a comfortable gymnasium to shoot the basketball in. I think you can even look at how Vanderbilt shoots the ball not only at home but how they have shot their free throws over the years. They have always been a really, really good free-throw shooting team."
This figures to be the most hostile crowd Kentucky will have faced since its trip to Bloomington, Ind., back in December but Master says players usually feed off that energy and passion directed against them.
"I think you have to go out and play. I enjoyed playing on the road as a player and having a feeling like it is us against the world," Master said. "Also, we had some good players during my four years at Kentucky. But again, I think you put it out of your mind. Coach Hall always talked about it and I think Coach Calipari does certainly talk about where the benches are and that it is a little different. But when you are playing hard, it is still basketball and I enjoyed the lighting of it and the atmosphere of it. And Vanderbilt has improved over the years. They have had some good players and Coach Stallings does a heck of a job. So, they make it an even tougher place to play."
Bilas praises Cats
With a win at Vanderbilt, Kentucky may well become the media's definitive favorite to win the national title. Already, ESPN's Jay Bilas has them in elite company.
"I would put them on the top shelf along with Syracuse, Ohio State and perhaps North Carolina," Bilas said on ESPN radio's "Scott Van Pelt Show." "They've got something that nobody has in Anthony Davis. He's the best big guy to come along in a period of years. He absolutely covers the basket up. He's an extraordinary talent and he's just scratching the surface of how good he's going to be. And they've got in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the single hardest-playing player out there. They're well-coached and they guard you every possession and they're going to be really hard to beat," Bilas added.
Van Pelt raised the issue of trust for a team as young as Kentucky, wondering if the inexperienced Wildcats can be counted on in March to string together the kinds of performances it takes to win a title.
"I don't trust even older teams," Bilas said. "This is the third year in a row that we don't have any historically great teams. The last great team we've had was North Carolina in '09 and I don't think anybody can hold a candle to them. I think college basketball has taken a step down from last year (in overall quality). I think they're all vulnerable to getting beat on the second weekend (of the tournament)."
Bilas will see the Cats play in person, as part of ESPN's College GameDay show tomorrow at Vandy's Memorial Gymnasium.
Terrence Jones averaged 20 points and nine rebounds in two games against Vanderbilt as a freshman. (Robert Burge, UK Athletics)
It seems a little crazy to say it, but even the life of a Kentucky basketball player can begin to feel repetitive.
Even with all the glamor associated with (and perceived to be associated with) playing for the most tradition-rich program in college basketball, daily routines can become just that: routine.
"We handle every game the same way," head coach John Calipari said. "The format of our practice is exactly the same even though some of the drills are different. We go on the road. We do exactly the same things when we go into town and when we meet and what we do on game day."
Far be it from Calipari and the Wildcats to complain about their situation, because any such complaints would most certainly fall on the deaf, uncomprehending ears of the Big Blue Nation. UK fans would likely jump at the chance to spend one day living that routine, no matter the cost.
Nonetheless, guarding against the complacency that can grow from the tedium of a long season is an important part of Calipari's job.
"Today I just spent the day thinking; I like adding things, tweaking the offense, tweaking the defense, because it makes them think," Calipari said. "I don't want them to walk into practice, because it is monotonous in that we do the same things throughout the year in some cases. I like changing things up to just make them really focus and concentrate."
For the very same reason, Calipari loves the next challenge awaiting top-ranked Kentucky (24-1, 10-0 Southeastern Conference). At 9 p.m. on Saturday, the Wildcats hit the road to face Vanderbilt (17-7, 6-3 SEC).
"Every one of these teams gives us something different," Calipari said. "Now we've never played Vandy with this team, so just like Tennessee, who is totally different than Vandy, who is totally different than Florida, who is totally different than Mississippi State, you've got teams for us that it's just important to see how we respond. Every experience for us is new."
Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb have each faced the Commodores at least twice, but this collective group of Wildcats that includes four freshmen has never done it together. Meanwhile, Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt team is among the most experienced teams in the country, featuring five seniors and a junior among its top six in terms of minutes per game.
"They're a team that has played us three years now," Calipari said. "It's the same guys that have played us for three years minus one or two guys. I imagine they're ready for this, their fans are ready for this, Nashville's ready for this, the administration's ready for this, their parents are ready for this and they've probably been ready for two weeks."
As if the Commodores needed any additional reason to focus, Vanderbilt will play host to ESPN's College GameDay for the first time in school history. Memorial Gymnasium is already among the nation's toughest and most unique venues and the national stage and late tip time should only add an extra edge to the black and gold-clad fans in attendance.
For Marquis Teague, the raucous environment and bizarre bench configuration will be particularly demanding.
"It's the first time I've ever heard of that," Teague said. "I heard about it plenty of times from different people. They said it's a crazy place to play in."
Considering the infrequency with which he'll be able to communicate with his point guard, Calipari will change up the way he calls plays, giving Teague a couple at a time for a handful of possessions and handing the reins over to him. A month ago, that proposition would have been much more worrisome for both, but the strides Teague has made during UK's ongoing five-game stretch of dominance (25 assists, nine turnovers during the run) makes the arrangement much more palatable.
"I'm more comfortable with it," Teague said. "I'm able to read and see what we need to call."
However, unlike some other opponents this season, Vanderbilt has the kind of talent that could allow them to send UK to its first SEC loss even if the Cats play well. The Commodores, in spite of some early losses, were ranked in the top 10 to open the year for a reason. They are experienced, but more importantly, extremely talented.
"They're a great team and a great program," Jones said. "They got a lot of great players but hopefully we can execute like we've been doing on the road and just stay successful."
Junior guard John Jenkins is Vanderbilt's leading scorer and joins Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist among top Player of the Year candidates. UK has faced some exceptional shooters this season, but none quite like Jenkins.
"We're going to have to look to contain him," Miller said of his Team USA teammate from last summer's World University Games. "He's probably the main part of their team. He does a great job of getting looks and getting his shot off and knocking them down. We've got to try to contain him."
Last season, Jenkins poured in 32 points as Vanderbilt defeated Kentucky for the fifth time in the teams' last six Memorial matchups.
"What if Jenkins goes 12 for 12 from the 3?" Calipari said. "It's been a nice start to our season. When's the next game? And you could be all over him and he could still do that."
As good as Jenkins is, he's far from the Commodores' only dynamic threat. Senior center Festus Ezeli had 22 points and 13 rebounds in a loss last season in Rupp Arena, while swingman Jeffery Taylor has evolved from an exceptional athlete and shutdown defender into an offensive stalwart. He's averaging 17.8 points this season, making 44-of-92 3-pointers after converting just 49-of-165 (29.7 percent) his first three seasons.
"He's a tough matchup for anybody," Miller said. "He's big, he's quick, he's strong, he's a very athletic player and he's been shooting the ball pretty well recently so we got to look to contain him. He's another key part of their team and hopefully he doesn't go off on us tomorrow."
If Taylor and his teammates turn in the kind of effort that has carried the Commodores to four straight victories over top-ranked opponents on their home floor dating back to 1987, Calipari isn't going to lose the same perspective he's had all season.
"We could go to Vandy and they play 40 minutes of great basketball and we go back to the hotel and figure out when the next game is and regroup and go," Calipari said. "This is not a football season. For this team it's about getting better and learning our players. And I don't know, because they're so young, how they're going to respond."
Former UK great Sean Woods is in his fourth season as coach of Mississippi Valley State. (UK Athletics)
Sean Woods, famous for helping resurrect Kentucky basketball as part of the Unforgettables team, is in his fourth year as head coach at Mississippi Valley State.
The job, due to scant funding, is one of the toughest in Division I basketball, but Woods has plugged along. Annually the Delta Devils play a murderer's row of nonconference opponents on the road to help the entire athletic program, resulting in a string of nearly guaranteed losses before beginning play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
This year, MVSU was 1-11 on Jan. 1, but since then, Woods' bunch has reeled of 11 consecutive victories in conference. The Delta Devils will need to win their conference tournament to make the NCAA's, but with a top seed in the SWAC Tournament looking more and more likely, there stands a good chance Woods could be roaming the sidelines at March Madness.
On the 20-year anniversary of his shot that almost decided the greatest college basketball game ever, Woods and the Mississippi Valley State University men's basketball team he coaches are creating a story that may produce an even more improbable ending.
Would you believe Woods has a team that started the season 1-11 but now has a winning record (12-11) and viable hopes to make the NCAA Tournament?
It is so.
Woods is in his fourth season as head man at Mississippi Valley State. There may be no tougher head coaching job in all of NCAA Division I basketball than leading the school best known as the alma mater of NFL great Jerry Rice.
The Kentucky women's basketball team hasn't had a game since Sunday, but the Wildcats got some good news in the Southeastern Conference race anyway.
Vanderbilt hosted second-place Tennessee in Memorial Gymnasium on Thursday night, defeating the Lady Volunteers 93-79. The loss by Pat Summitt's team drops their record to 8-3 in SEC play, increasing UK Hoops' lead in conference to two full games (see standings at right).
The Cats (21-3, 10-1 SEC), since the beginning of the season, have set out to win the school's first conference championship since the 1981-82. Owning a two-game cushion with just five games left in the regular season, UK is very much in control of its own destiny.
Monday night will afford the Wildcats a chance to put a stranglehold on the conference crown, as they travel to Knoxville, Tenn., looking for a two-game sweep of the Lady Volunteers for the first time in school history. A win would give UK a three-game lead over Tennessee with four games to play. A loss and Tennessee is just a game back.
Kentucky-Tennessee will be televised at 7 p.m. on Monday on ESPN2.
Here are the remaining schedules for the two teams: Kentucky at Tennessee at Alabama Vanderbilt South Carolina at Mississippi State
Tennessee Kentucky at Mississippi State at Ole Miss Arkansas Florida
NOTE: Vanderbilt, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, LSU and Florida have not been eliminated from contention for the SEC title.
Under Tim Garrison, the Wildcats have posted a season-high score of 195.05 in their last two meets ahead of a matchup with No. 1 Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Tim Garrison can't help but look ahead.
In the future, he sees the Kentucky gymnastics program he was chosen to lead in April 2011 consistently attracting the nation's best athletes. He sees UK going routine for routine with the elite in the Southeastern Conference, the nation's premier league.
Nearly 10 months into his tenure, Garrison sees the program moving in the right direction, but he's not forgetting about the small steps it's taking along the way.
"We're laying a foundation, but we haven't written this season off," Garrison said. "We want to continue to get better."
Improving is exactly what the Wildcats have done a month into the 2012 season. UK is fresh off a back-to-back meets in which the Cats posted season-best scores of 195.05, rebounding from a disappointing 191.975 in their first SEC meet against Arkansas.
UK relies on an unusually young roster, using 18 or more routines from freshmen or sophomores in all five meets so far this season, so Garrison has opted to institute a simpler approach to competition. The Wildcats willfully undertake routines with a lower level of difficulty than many of their opponents, focusing on consistent execution.
"I think the higher level of difficulty you have, the less consistent you'll be," Garrison said. "With athletes like we have right now, which are athletes that need to be doing more simplistic routines because they need to be more comfortable with what they're doing."
Garrison is refreshingly forthright in evaluating his team, whether he's talking to a reporter, an assistant coach or an athlete. His honesty lends him credibility when he lays out his expectations. That's crucial, because setting standards and living up to them is at the center of his philosophy for rebuilding this program.
"We're changing the culture, there's no doubt about it, just the expectation level," Garrison said. "We go out there and get a 195, we're not satisfied."
He was characteristically frank with the Wildcats after their effort in Fayetteville, Ark., making it abundantly clear he was unwilling to accept that kind of performance. The way they have responded with progressively higher scores since is encouraging for the rest of this season and beyond.
"We don't come in and get scared," freshman Alexis Gross said. "We went into the first meet scared and he said that's not what we do anymore. Now we expect more of ourselves so the younger generations are going to carry that on so we'll have a fearless team."
Gross is nothing if not fearless. Although just a freshman, the Pasadena, Md., native has stepped in as an all-around performer because she is unfazed no matter the opponent or surroundings, a desirable attribute in the daunting SEC.
"I have no fear to be honest," Gross said. "Obviously I get scared of skills and stuff like that, but when it comes to meet day, I don't think that anyone else is any better than I am even if I know they are."
With No. 2 Alabama coming to Memorial Coliseum to face the Cats on Friday at 7 p.m., that kind of mentality will come in handy.
"The biggest thing I look for in an athlete, especially in this kind of environment, is for them to be unflappable," Garrison said. "Nothing's going to get them out of their comfort zone. Nothing's going to intimidate them. She's that athlete for us. It doesn't matter who's performing, it doesn't matter what performance was just done on the other rotation, she's not going to look at that and say, 'Wow, they are really good. Maybe I'm not so good.' She's going to look at that and say, 'Really? Here I go.'"
In more ways than one, Gross is exactly the kind of athlete Garrison loves coaching. Not only does she steadfastly refuse to accept anything but her best effort, but she also matches her coach in honesty. Because of that, it should come as no surprise that she has already established herself as a vocal presence on the team in spite of her youth.
"I've always been very vocal," Gross said. "I guess I would say I'm pretty blunt, and that's just the way that I am. My club coaches raised me very well to be that way. In the beginning, I was a little timid, but as I saw there was a vocal role that needed to be filled, I filled it. I think the girls trust me too, so that helps."
Both before and during the dual meet with the defending national champion Crimson Tide, Gross will be helping deliver Garrison's message that the Cats are competing with themselves more than anyone else. His goal is to get to the point where UK is on a level playing field with a team like Alabama but for now, he wants to be the one with an eye on Alabama's routines, not his student-athletes.
"If they never look up and see another performance by anybody else on Alabama's team, I'd be happy as I could be," Garrison said. "I look around and I see what's going on because I want to know what's out there. I'm pretty versed on what's out there but I want to see what they're doing and how far we need to go to get to that level."
Garrison is demanding tunnel vision out of his gymnasts because the team's goals are more about scores than wins and losses, at least at this point.
"Even though we're competing with those teams on the floor at the same time, that's not really who we're competing against," Garrison said. "We're competing against teams who are ranked between 16th and 26th, where we are. We want to try to get in the top 18 to qualify for regionals as a three seed. That's really our goal."
The Cats are currently ranked No. 26 with an eye on moving up incrementally in the short term. In the more distant future, Garrison envisions more drastic jumps.
"We have a very clear understanding of where we are," Garrison said. "These guys know where we are. We intend to get better as the weeks go on. But as the years go on, we're going to recruit and we're going to train and we're going to get better."
John Calipari and Matthew Mitchell will both have good reason to tune in to the McDonald's All-American Game.
A trio of 2012 Kentucky signees were named McDonald's All-Americans, two future members of the men's team and one for UK Hoops. Forward Alex Poythress and guard Archie Goodwin will each play in the boys' game, while point guard Janee Thompson will play in the girls' game in her hometown of Chicago.
Poythress and Goodwin, each consensus five-star prospects in this year's class, become the ninth and 10th of Calipari's signees to earn spot in the prestigious game in what will be his fourth recruiting class as head coach at UK. Of players on Kentucky's current roster, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer each played in the game.
Thompson, a 5-foot-7 high school senior, is the latest in a recent run of Mitchell recruits to become McDonald's All-Americans. Current Cats DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker, Jennifer O'Neill and Bria Goss all received the same honor.
Both the boys' and girls' games will be played on March 28 in Chicago's United Center.
Matthew Mitchell has led UK Hoops to a school record-tying 21-3 start to the 2011-12 season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Even for a program boasting a storied basketball history, the 2011-12 season has been a banner one for University of Kentucky basketball.
The men's team sits at 24-1 and is a nearly unanimous choice as the nation's No. 1. UK Hoops, led by Matthew Mitchell, has tied a school record with a 21-3 start. Combining the two, UK is one of just two schools in the NCAA with both its men's and women's team ranked in the top seven of both major polls.
Neither team has lost a home game all season, helping both teams to reach the top of the standings in the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky is one of just five schools, along with Wichita State, San Diego State, Mississippi Valley State and Middle Tennessee State, that can claim sole possession of first place in its conference in both men's and women's basketball.
The two teams have been showered with attention in light of their success, but the spotlight is about to shine just a little brighter beginning this weekend.
Both teams will take the floor in featured games over a three-day period beginning with the men's team's trip to Nashville, Tenn., to face Vanderbilt. The game will be featured this week on ESPN's College Gameday, with the broadcast going from 10 a.m. to noon.
On Saturday night at 9 p.m., the Cats and Commodores will hit the floor in Memorial Gymnasium as Vanderbilt tries to win its fifth straight home game against a No. 1 ranked opponent. ESPN's biggest names and personalities will be on hard for the festivities, including Dick Vitale and Erin Andrews.
The Gameday crew won't be in attendance on Monday when the UK women take on No. 11 Tennessee in Knoxville, Tenn., but the stakes will be even higher. Kentucky, up a game over the Lady Volunteers in the loss column, will look to solidify its top spot in the SEC race with a win and pull off a rare regular-season sweep of Pat Summitt's team. The game will be broadcast nationally on ESPN2 at 7 p.m.
The two games will be on the road, but the Wildcats' primetime placement is proof that nobody does basketball quite like the Bluegrass State.
"To be honored as one of the top five classes in the country is pretty special to say the least," Lipsitz said. "You sort of read the top five teams on the list and you see 'Kentucky? How'd they get in there?'
Parallel to his on-field work with the Wildcats, he has toiled just as tirelessly to cobble together UK's 2012 signing class. Beginning the moment he set foot on campus, Lipsitz had his eye on Feb. 1, 2012. Along with a staff of Michelle Rayner, Aaron Rodgers and Courtney Wiesler, Lipsitz made National Signing Day one to remember for UK.
The 15 new players came from eight different states, and most committed well before the team had hosted an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1999 this past November."
"You have to realize that the players decided to come here when we were coming off of my first season," Lipsitz said. "We won five games (in 2009). So, it is really quite a leap of faith that people said it was a special place, the relationship that we can have with the current players and the coaches is important enough that we are going to do something special."
With 12 of the 14 players who scored a goal for last year's team that spent most of the season ranked in the RPI top 25 returning, the Cats might not have long to wait before doing something special. Included in that group of returners are rising junior forward Caitlin Landis, who was second on the team behind Kelsey Hunyadi with six goals, and Arin Gilliland, who lived up to her billing as one of the nation's top recruits with a strong freshman season.
The group of newcomers adds a much-needed measure of depth to a UK team that fielded just 21 players a season ago. The Wildcats embraced their short-handed roster, adopting "21 Strong" as their motto for the season, but having significantly more players on next season's roster will add a competitive dynamic to practice.
"Last year, '21 Strong' was special," Lipsitz said. "Every player had to be ready. I think this year it will be a little bit different because every player will have to be ready, otherwise it will be exposed on the practice field."
Just as importantly, a bigger roster will allow Lipsitz a training tool he sorely missed in 2011.
"Think about a basketball team not being able to play five on five for an entire season in practice," Lipsitz said. "It's difficult. We didn't play 11 vs. 11. We didn't have enough players. There will be a great excitement to be able to do that every day, and I think that we will develop a lot more competitively because of that."
As a coach, Lipsitz is all about development, whether he's talking about his team or the program as a whole. It all begins, though, with the student-athletes.
"That comes first," Lipsitz said. "Who they are academically, and getting a fantastic degree, and doing well in school, and obviously development as a student-athlete involves soccer. They came here to play soccer. They care about everything else, but some of that package is soccer."
If Lipsitz is able to help his players as both athletes and people as he sets out to do, he expects success in other areas to follow, including recruiting.
He expects classes like this one to continue to arrive on UK's campus. Others around women's soccer at the college level may have been taken aback by the talent headed to the Bluegrass, but Lipsitz and his staff weren't. They believe in what Kentucky has to offer and think others will follow suit by the time their work is through.
"Our hope is in the long run that no one is surprised anymore," Lipsitz said.
Marquis Teague had his first career double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds against Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Thinking about Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's split-second drives to the rim and Anthony Davis' above-the-rim finishes in the open floor, Kentucky doesn't seem like a half-court-oriented team on the face of things.
The numbers, especially during the Wildcats' ongoing blitz through Southeastern Conference play over the past two-plus weeks, suggest otherwise.
Beginning with a road win over Georgia, UK has won five games in a row by an average margin of 23.2 points, cementing the Wildcats as a team on the shortlist among NCAA Tournament favorites.
Kentucky, with its balance and versatility, has won those games in a variety of different ways. Four different players have led UK in scoring over those five dominant performances and the Cats have gotten the job done with hot 3-point shooting, overwhelming rebounding or killing opponents slowly at the free-throw line, depending on the game.
The one constant over the five games, other than smothering defense, has been the pace of play.
The Wildcats began the season in the top half of the nation in possessions per game, averaging 69.4 through the first 20 games of 2011-12 (that number would place them in the 50s nationally as of Feb. 8). Since then, UK has averaged just 58.6 possessions per game, playing its best basketball of the season in the process. For a little perspective, Wisconsin is the nation's slowest paced team on the year, playing an average of 59.0 per game.
Why is this happening?
Well, I think it begins with the fact that UK, led by Marquis Teague, has a much better idea of what it wants to do in the half-court. Early in the season, the youthful Cats would often revert to high school/AAU tendencies and "break off plays," as John Calipari often says, resulting in quick shots and turnovers. Now, the Wildcats are much more confident in their sets and patient enough to wait for a good look at the basket, whether it comes with 25 seconds on the shot clock or five.
Another key factor is the simple fact that UK has had big leads late in games. By taking the air out of the ball over the final eight to 10 minutes, Calipari estimates the Cats take away "six or seven" precious possessions from their opponents, thereby shortening the game. A shorter game makes it that much more difficult to overcome a double-digit deficit.
Finally, and most simply, it's about the opponents the Cats are facing. Of the last five teams UK has faced, none is ranked higher than 180th nationally in adjusted tempo and two are in the 300s.
Not only that, but the scouting report is out on the Cats. Right or wrong, one of the first items on that list is likely to cut out transition opportunities. Thunderous dunks and back-breaking "and-ones" on fast breaks tend to stick in the mind of opposing coaches when watching tape and the sheer athleticism of this team makes the Cats look like the kind of team that would much prefer to fly up and down the floor.
UK hasn't turned its back on the open-floor game (they scored 16 fast-break points against Florida), but teams that think they can best the Cats by forcing them into the half-court do so at their own peril.
Donovan a UK believer
Billy Donovan knows what he's talking about when it comes to evaluating top teams.
Not only has he coached two national championship teams and another that advanced to the title game, but he's also now coached against the teams rated first, second and third nationally already this season.
Before visiting Rupp Arena on Tuesday night, Florida lost by four at No. 3 Ohio State and by seven at No. 2 Syracuse, so his evaluation of Kentucky against those other two carries some weight.
Donovan called Ohio State a "three-headed monster" with Jared Sullinger, William Buford and Aaron Craft, while pointing out that Syracuse matches Kentucky in length and surpasses the Cats in depth.
"I don't know necessarily who would be better because I think Syracuse will play them all zone and their zone is a little bit unique," Donovan said. "If you're looking at talent, I think Kentucky's got it. They have, clearly, six guys that are going to be first-round draft picks on their team."
The Wildcats talent makes them dangerous, but it's their makeup that could potentially make them special, particularly that of Kidd-Gilchrist, who went for 13 points and 13 rebounds in 39 minutes against the Gators.
"The one thing that I like about their team is I love their disposition on the floor," Donovan said. "I got a lot of respect and admiration for Gilchrist, just his disposition out there."
There's still another month until tournament time, but the mentality that Kidd-Gilchrist and UK bring to the floor reminds Donovan of the kinds of teams he's seen win at a high level in March and April
"In 2000 for us and '06 and '07 having a chance," Donovan said, "there's a certain disposition you have to have, and I'm not talking about an arrogance or a cockiness, but there's a focus level in terms of what really goes into winning at that level. There's a mentality there that's just different."
The NCAA Tournament bears the moniker of "March Madness" for a reason, so Donovan can't predict the future, but the idea of Calipari cutting down the nets at the Final Four is by no means far-fetched this season.
"When you get into the tournament, it's a one shot deal and anything can happen in one game," Donovan said. "But clearly, I think that if they went all the way, it wouldn't be surprising."
Doron Lamb scored 18 points on 4-of-5 3-point shooting in UK's 78-58 win over Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Erik Murphy drained an apparent 3-pointer for the game's first basket, John Calipari's pregame warning looked like it might come true.
Florida, the nation's leading 3-point shooting team, was out to an early lead behind its floor-stretching big man. The Gators seemed like they might be on the way to the kind of hot-shooting night from deep that Calipari said could put an end to Kentucky's winning streak.
Fittingly, the officials ruled retroactively that Murphy's foot was on the line, striking the game's first shot from deep from the record.
From there, the Wildcats out-Gatored Florida, gunning down the visitors and taking a commanding Southeastern Conference lead in the process.
"We got a lot of 3-point shooters on our team," sophomore guard Doron Lamb said. "We just don't shoot as many as they shoot. Today the game plan was just eliminate 3-point shots and we did that today. Every time they shot a 3-ball, we put a hand in their face and made them drive to our bigs and get blocked. We played great defense today."
Once Murphy's shot was ruled a 2-pointer, the Wildcats completely turned the tables on the Gators, holding them to just 6-for-27 (22.2 percent) shooting from long-range, their worst such performance of the season.
"Our goal was to try to hold them to eight 3s, that's what we were shooting for," Calipari said. "We figured if we held them to eight 3s they would be middle 60s and we thought we could score a little bit more than that and that was our whole goal."
No. 1 Kentucky (24-1, 10-0 SEC) drilled 9-of-15 shots per game in a 78-58 win over No. 8/7 Florida in front of 24,389 fans in Rupp Arena, looking more like the team that was averaging 10.5 3-pointers per game. Calipari's strategy proved to be prophetic, as Florida hit two fewer shots from deep than the goal UK set, and ended up scoring in the high 50s.
Meanwhile, Lamb and his teammates were there to can long jumper after long jumper to ensure Kentucky's 16th straight win would come in blowout fashion. Lamb hit 4-of-5 3s en route to a team-leading 18 points, matching his point total from his previous outing against South Carolina.
His two big games came on the heels of an uneven start to conference play and three games in a row that saw him fail to reach double figures.
"It's going to come, you've just got to be patient," Lamb said. "Everybody has bad games. The focus is just winning games. The more you win, the better it is."
Point guard Marquis Teague found Lamb for assists on three of his four 3s, helping him to reach a cool 52-of-104 (50 percent) shooting from deep on the season. Teague had a career high with 10 assists, but he took part in UK's hot shooting as well, canning 2-of-3 3-point attempts.
His distributing and his shooting were crucial to the Kentucky victory, but his defense on Florida's Erving Walker was important too.
"He had one play where he broke down, kind of stopped on a play, they had a 3 in the corner right in front of our bench," Calipari said. "Short of that, he was terrific. You can't dribble around him."
Walker, Florida's third-leader scorer and leading passer, had a night to forget with Teague hounding him. The senior guard was held scoreless for just the second time in his Florida career and the first since his freshman season. He missed all seven of his field goal attempts and all four of his 3s, committing a pair of turnovers and dishing just one assist.
"I just wanted to contain him," Teague said. "I know he's a quick guard and he can shoot the outside shot very well so I just wanted to pressure up on him and just try to contain him and keep him in front of me and keep him out the lane to make plays for other because they got a lot of shooters."
The only of Billy Donovan's shooters to hit more than one 3 was Kenny Boynton, but three of his four treys came in the final 10 minutes as the celebration of UK's third home win over a top-10 team was already on in Rupp. The Wildcats faced a ranked opponent on Tuesday night for the first time since a New Year's Eve victory over Louisville, as UK's conference schedule is back-loaded with the SEC's top teams.
The Cats heard the talk that their unbeaten record was largely attributable to that softer early schedule, so they were out to prove the road to the conference title runs through Lexington.
"I think we made a big statement," Teague said. "We just wanted to come and show we feel like we can beat anybody that we play and we can beat them by a good amount."
After winning their last five games by an average of 23.2 points, the coronation of the Cats as not only as the SEC's top dog but an NCAA Tournament favorite is likely quick to follow, but Calipari wants to pump the brakes on all that.
UK certainly played a role on Florida's cold shooting, but so too did the Gators. Some of their 21 missed 3s were good looks at the basket, looks Calipari fully expects the Gators to hit when UK travels to Gainesville, Fla., for the regular season finale on March 4.
"It will be a different game in Florida, I promise you," Calipari said. "I know what it will be down there. But it was a good win. I'm glad we won. I'm glad we stretched it out a little bit. But the reality of it is, you know, they're a terrific team and they're going to be fine."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 5:
Gymnastics: Holly Cunningham
Had a fantastic meet against No. 14 LSU, performing well on both the vault and balance beam. Started the meet by sticking her vault and posting a career-high score of 9.85, which tied the highest individual vault score on the season for UK. Cunningham was the last to go on balance beam with Kentucky currently holding a team score of 194.95. The native of Colorado Springs, Colo., delivered a clutch routine that was scored 9.8, which helped UK eclipse the 195 mark for the second consecutive meet.
Men's basketball: Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis helped lead the Wildcats to a 2-0 mark on the week picking up a win at home and one on the road ... Posted 15 blocks on the week, including eight blocks against South Carolina pushed his season total to 116, breaking Shaquille O'Neal's SEC freshman record for blocks in a season, doing so in only 24 games ... Now ranks ninth on the league's single-season blocks list ... Leads the nation in blocks and has more blocks than eight other schools in the league ... Has blocked at least two shots in every game this season ... Missed only two shots on the week ... Led all scorers in both games ... Also led both games in rebounding as well as blocked shots.
Men's tennis: Alejandro Gomez
Clinched Kentucky's match against No. 12 Pepperdine with a straight-sets 6-1, 6-1 win over David Sofaer. The native of Cali, Colombia, has earned the decisive fourth point in three consecutive matches for UK, including two against top-25 ranked foes. Gomez is 7-0 in dual matches this season and has a season record of 27-4.
Men's tennis: Alex Musialek
The senior co-captain showed his heart and toughness in UK's win over No. 12 Pepperdine by defeating No. 21 Sebastian Fanselow in a three-set thriller 6-4, 3-6, 6-4. With the match tied 2-2, Musialek broke the Pepperdine star to win the third set and give UK a 3-2 lead it would not relinquish. Musialek is now 3-0 in dual matches and 17-5 this season.
After a brief hiatus, it's time once again for our regular trivia contest before men's basketball games: Robic's Riddle.
Tonight's question comes from reader Corey Price (@coreyp08 on Twiter). The first fan to submit a correct answer via email to firstname.lastname@example.org will receive a Kentucky basketball box calendar.
Today's question is about John Calipari's success in his first 100 games as Kentucky head coach.
Following Saturday's win over South Carolina, John Calipari owns a record of 87-13 in his first 100 games at UK. How many of his first 100 games did legendary coach Adolph Rupp win in his first 100 games at UK?
Again, please submit your answers to email@example.com. We will announce the correct answers at halftime of today's game, assuming we have a winner by that time.
Don't forget to tune in and watch the Cats take on Florida at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
Marquis Teague has 25 assists and just nine turnovers over his last five games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
With weapons all over the floor, balance is what has made Kentucky's offense so deadly in 2011-12.
Marquis Teague, with his increasing focus on running his team, has recently seen his scoring average dip to 9.6 points, meaning the Wildcats no longer have six players in double figures.
Whether or not Teague bumps his average back over 10 and gives UK six double-figure scorers in a season, John Calipari has an historically versatile team.
Offensive balance is normally measured by the way points and field goal attempts are spread among players, but it's the way this Kentucky team is scoring that is catching my eye.
As I often do, I was perusing Ken Pomeroy's rankings and statistics when I noticed something interesting. Pomeroy uses four main factors to measure efficiency and in each of the categories, this year's Wildcats rank among the top 40 nationally: Kentucky 2011-12 offense Effective field goal percentage (eFG%) - 53.5 (32nd) Turnover percentage (TO%) - 17.0 (38th) Offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) - 38.4 (20th) Free throw rate (FTR) - 43.5 (29th)
That struck me as rare, so I began to do some research.
Looking at some of the other most efficient offensive teams in the country (UK ranks fourth), most rely on excellence in one or two of the four factors to get the job done. Missouri and Florida, the first and second-ranked teams in offensive efficiency, are both in the top 10 of eFG% and TO%, but no higher than 96th in the other two.
Duke is the only other team in the country to even approach UK's balance across the four factors. Here's what the Blue Devils' profile looks like: Duke 2011-12 offense eFG% - 55.4 (eighth) TO% - 18.3 (48th) ORR - 35.6 (59th) FTR - 46.8 (eighth)
Initially, I was a little discouraged to see that another team ranked in the top 60 in all four factors, thinking the Wildcats' versatility wasn't as rare as I thought. I soldiered on anyway, going through Pomeroy's data (which dates back to the 2002-03 season) to see how many teams matched this year's UK group.
The answer: none.
Dating back to the 2002-03 season, no team in the country has ever ranked in the top 40 of each of the four factors for an entire season. In fact, the only other team to even rank in the top 50 of all four offensive factors was Duke in 2004-05. Duke 2004-05 offense eFG% - 52.1 (49th) TO% - 18.9 (49th) ORR - 37.3 (42nd) FTR - 42.9 (34th)
So, UK's offense this season is somewhat of a statistical anomaly in recent college basketball history, but what does it mean?
As simplistic and obvious as it may seem, I think it proves the Wildcats can win games in a number of different ways.
Just as UK can survive an off-night in terms of scoring from any of its main contributors due to an even scoring load, so too can the Cats overcome a subpar performance in one particular offensive area.
There will be (and have been already) nights when Kentucky simply isn't hitting shots. However, with the way UK takes care of the ball, attacks the offensive glass and gets to the foul line, they can overcome a poor shooting night.
Think back to UK's win over Louisville. The Cats eFG% on New Year's Eve was just 32.5, but Kentucky grabbed 20 offensive rebounds and got to the foul line 43 times to allow them to overcome poor shooting and win anyway.
In the same way, the Wildcats had an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers against Kansas in the second game of the season. However, UK attempted 29 free throws and had an eFG% of 57.8.
Cal's Cats will run across opponents that play a variety of styles in NCAA Tournament play. Some will excel in contesting shots, while others refuse to allow offensive rebounds. With how many different things this Kentucky team is good at on offense, they will be well-positioned to deal with whoever they run across.
Anthony Davis now holds the SEC freshman record for blocked shots in a season with 116. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
If you'll remember, Chris Dortch was on the panel of experts that got the All-Calipari Team debate going. Dortch picked Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis to play power forward his Dream Team from John Calipari's first three seasons at Kentucky, so it's no surprise to see him writing good things about the Chicago, Ill., native in his latest story for NBA.com
In the article, Dortch discusses the substantial impact he is making on the college game as well as the potential he has to do the same at the next level. Here's an excerpt:
In coaching parlance, Davis is a "plus six," meaning his 7-foot-4 wingspan is six inches longer than his 6-foot-10 body. Combined with his leaping ability and an innate sense of timing that allows him to wait out an opponent's fakes, those arms have become the biggest defensive weapon in college basketball and, very possibly, will make Davis the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft in June.
Led by Davis, who hides 220 pounds on his lanky frame, Kentucky has become the most fearsome defensive team in the country, and in so doing the No. 1 team in both major polls. The Wildcats, as of last weekend, are second in the nation in defensive field-goal percentage (36.4), first in blocked shots per game (9.3) and 15th in scoring defense (58.5). Before an 86-52 win at South Carolina last Saturday, they had held three straight opponents to under 50 points, something that hasn't happened at Kentucky since the 1950-51 season.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has altered his defensive philosophy a bit this season. His goal is to finish last in the Southeastern Conference in steals. The Wildcats don't gamble for deflections. They try to keep their opponents in front of them. And if they allow one into the lane ... well, too bad for him. That's where Davis awaits.
Last month, Kentucky fans helped vote Darius Miller's one-handed alley-oop against St. John's into the finals for Dunk of the Year. The Big Blue Nation shouldn't have any trouble doing the same for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's signature throwdown.
Voting will be open through Monday, Feb. 13, after which the top-two vote getters will advance to the finals alongside Miller and others. From that group of finalists, a winner will be announced as part of the Dunks of the Year special, which airs March 26 on ESPN2.
Men's basketball -The Wildcats continued to reverse their road fortunes tallying an 86-52 win in Columbia, S.C., over the South Carolina Gamecocks for their fifth-straight road win. It marks the longest such streak in league play since the 2004-05 team ran off five-straight wins away from Rupp Arena in the SEC. - Anthony Davis just missed a triple-double in the win, scoring a game-high 22 points, while pulling down eight rebounds and blocking eight shots, both game highs. - Doron Lamb added 18 points, a season-high in league play, while Terrence Jones finished with 16 points, all coming in the first half. Jones also added six rebounds and four assists. Kyle Wiltjer chipped in 12 points, to round out the UK double-digit scorers. - UK shot 51.6 pct. from the field, while holding South Carolina to 30.5 pct. from the field.
Women's basketball - Kentucky went 1-1 last week with an 82-41 win over Ole Miss in Lexington and a 61-51 loss to LSU in Baton Rouge. The Ole Miss win gave the Wildcats their 18th consecutive victory at home, a winning streak that ranks fourth in school history and ties for sixth nationally. UK forced an SEC-high 36 turnovers in the game, breaking the previous record of 30 set vs. Auburn on Jan. 26. - Freshman guard Bria Goss led four players in double figures with a team-high 19 points to go along with three steals. Her 17 double-figure scoring games this season are tied for the sixth most in UK freshman history. - On Sunday, UK struggled to find its offensive rhythm as it scored a season-low 18 points in the first half vs. the LSU and shot just 35.0 percent (21-of-60) for the game. The loss snapped UK's school-record 13-game SEC winning streak and gave the Cats their first loss in conference play this season. - The Wildcats' 21-3 start ties their best start in program history. UK also began the 1982-83 season at 21-3 UK is just one win away from tying the most SEC wins in school history at 11. Rifle - The rifle team completed its regular-season with two wins in Morgantown, W.Va., during the weekend. The wins over West Virginia and N.C. State clinching UK's second consecutive GARC regular-season championship. - UK finished 6-0 in conference play for the second consecutive season, with its win on Friday vs. WVU coming as a matchup of the only remaining conference unbeatens. Following the win vs. WVU, UK was guaranteed of the conference title, completing the undefeated league slate with a win over N.C. State on Saturday. - UK was led on the weekend by strong performances from Emily Holsopple, Henri Junghanel and Ethan Settlemires.
Gymnastics - The gymnastics team continued to show its improvement by tying its season-high team score of 195.05 in a dual-meet loss at No. 14 LSU on Friday. The Wildcats have now eclipsed the 195 mark in two consecutive meets for the first time since the beginning of the 2010 season. - UK was led in the meet by all-around competitors sophomore Audrey Harrison and freshman Alexis Gross, who each posted career-high scores in the all-around. Harrison earned a 39.125, while Gross posted a 38.975. - Sophomore Holly Cunningham performed extremely well for the Wildcats, sticking her vault to earn a career-high 9.85 and then finishing off the meet by going 9.8 on balance beam. UK defeated the top-15 ranked Tigers on beam with a team score of 48.875, while the Wildcats posted a season-high 48.75 on floor exercise. - The Wildcats again used 18 or more routines from freshmen or sophomores and have now used at least 18 routines from underclassmen in every meet this season. UK also set or tied nine season and career highs in the meet.
Men's tennis - The men's tennis team has started the season with an 8-0 record and is off to its best start in the 30-year tenure of head coach Dennis Emery. UK posted two wins over the week, defeating No. 12 Pepperdine 4-2 and Abilene Christian 7-0 on Sunday. - Three Wildcats earned singles wins over ranked foes against Pepperdine led by senior No. 13 Alex Musialek's win over No. 21 Sebastian Fanselow. Fellow senior No. 5 Eric Quigley took down No. 35 Finn Tearney, while junior No. 36 Anthony Rossi defeated No. 49 Mousheg Hovhannisyan. Sophomore No. 111 Alejandro Gomez clinched the match for UK against PU with his 6-1, 6-1 win over Daivd Sofaer. - The win against Pepperdine marked Kentucky's 21st win over a top-25 opponent dating back to the 2009 season, while both wins extended UK's home record over the past four years to 49-9. - Against Abilene Christian, Kentucky received singles wins from Quigley, Gomez, sophomores Grant Roberts, Maks Gold and Ryuji Hirooka, and freshman Brett Johnson. UK also got doubles wins from Gold/Hirooka and Matt Davis/Roberts.
Track and field - The men's and women's track and field teams competed in their third meet of the indoor season Friday and Saturday, as they headed north for the Notre Dame Meyo Invitational in South Bend, Ind. - Keilah Tyson, the reigning SEC Women's Freshman of the Week, broke her second UK freshman record in as many weeks. Tyson competed in her first 200-meter dash of her collegiate career, winning the race with a time of 23.93. Tyson's time is the third best 200m dash in UK history. The Norfolk, Va., native also had the seventh best long jump mark (6.08m/19-11.50) in school history. - Junior Walter Luttrell shattered his career-best time in the 5,000m run Friday en route to winning the event with a 14:14.35, the fifth fastest time in UK history. Luttrell's time is the top time in the SEC this season. - Junior Darryl Bradshaw ran a career-best time in the finals of the 60m hurdles, finishing sixth with a time of 8.01. Bradshaw's time is the sixth fastest in Kentucky history.
Swimming and diving - Louisville defeated UK on the men's side with a final tally of 188-107, and also took home the win on the women's side 183-107. - Kentucky was led by its divers, as three of the four diving competitions were Wildcat victories. Greg Ferrucci took home first in both events, claiming a 366.30 on the three meter, and earning a 353.17 on the one meter. - Tyler Reed had yet another impressive meet in his senior campaign, as Reed placed second in the 100-free tapping in at 44.79, and also recorded a fourth-place finish in the 50-free with a time of 20.85. - Megan Eppler finished first in the 50-freestyle tapping in at 23.36, while also taking first in the 100-freestyle turning a time of 50.84. - The meet in Louisville served as the Wildcats final dual meet of the season, as UK's focus now shifts towards the SEC Championships Feb. 15-18 in Knoxville, Tenn. Women's tennis - Women's tennis continued its nine-game homestand, hosting Purdue and Miami (Ohio) over the weekend. - The Cats fell to Purdue, 6-1, but defeated Miami (Ohio), 4-1. - Freshman Edmee Morin-Kougoucheff had a strong performance in doubles. With the help of Caitlin McGraw against Purdue and Khrisina Blajkevitch against Miami (Ohio), Morin-Kougoucheff grabbed victories at the No. 1 doubles position in both matches.
Bill Ransdell, Pookie Jones, Tim Couch, Dusty Bonner, Andre' Woodson, Randall Cobb and Mike Hartline have all quarterbacked Kentucky to winning seasons and/or bowl games in the last 30 years but none of them started in their very first game as a Wildcat. But Jared Lorenzen did - as a redshirt freshman at Louisville in 2000.
Patrick Towles would like to top that feat by doing it as a true freshman. He talked about his plan to prepare himself for the starting job last week at his national signing day news conference. It includes coming to UK during spring break to watch some practice sessions.
It also will include working with Lorenzen, who was his quarterback coach at Fort Thomas Highlands High School.
"I think he can compete," Lorenzen said last week on "The Leach Report" radio show. "I'm going to do everything I can to have him as ready as he possibly can be. If I had my perfect world, he would redshirt and learn for a year, just because that's the easiest and best way to do it. But I want to make sure he's 100 percent ready (to compete) when he steps on campus."
Lorenzen redshirted and got to watch Dusty Bonner lead the Wildcats to a surprising Music City Bowl bid in 1999. He knows his job would have been much harder than it was the next year without that experience.
"I can't imagine (how hard it would have been)," he said. "Kentucky high school football has come a long way but it's not where it needs to be compared to Georgia, Florida, all of those places. The speed of the game is so much faster. There's not a bigger jump you'll ever make than high school to college. I'll have him ready but if I had my way, he'd sit out and learn the system and learn the game."
Lorenzen says they will work on "everything it takes to be a quarterback, so that when you set foot on campus, you're ready to go" and that will include plenty of tutelage on taking snaps from under center, something Towles did not have to do in the Highlands' system.
"We're going to find ourselves a center and we'll take 200 or 300 snaps a day if that's what it takes," Lorenzen said. "We've got to work on explosiveness and getting away from the line of scrimmage, but he's smart and he'll pick it up. You tell him once and that's it. He proved that this year, throwing just one interception."
Towles is 6-foot-4, 230 pounds and like Lorenzen, possesses a cannon for an arm. Is it stronger than Lorenzen's?
"It's right there," Lorenzen said. "I don't know if he has velocity coming off ( his hand) but he can throw it as far (as I did) if he wants to."
Joker Phillips called Towles "the face" of this latest recruiting class and noted to reporters that Towles' letter-of-intent was the first one to arrive on signing day.
"That's Pat," said Lorenzen. "That's what it takes to be a quarterback."
He says leadership comes naturally to Towles.
"That may be because he was thrown into it as a sophomore," Lorenzen said. "The more you're in that situation, the easier it becomes. To Pat, it's just there. He's one of those guys that all of the guys in the locker room just gravitate to."
In case you missed the news last night, fans attending Tuesday night's game between the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats and No. 8/7 Florida Gators will be greeted by a poster bearing the image of Anthony Davis above. The poster supports Davis' already strong credentials for National Defensive Player of the Year honors. The poster was designed by Craig Hornberger and photographed by Chet White, both of UK Athletics.
While we count down the hours to tipoff of the third top-10 matchup in Rupp Arena this season, let's run down some of the more notable happenings from around the world of UK Athletics.
I don't mean "most dominant" within its own conference, because Kentucky will be hard pressed to bulldoze this year's SEC the way Calipari's Memphis teams used to simply blow away the rest of Conference USA. For example, Calipari's 2007-08 team, the one led by Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts, outscored C-USA by 0.29 points per trip. While UK's current scoring margin in SEC play is more or less identical (0.28 points per possession), the calendar says it's early February and the Wildcats have the meat of their schedule still to come.
No, I mean simply if I had to choose two of Calipari's teams to square off for the title of Coach Cal's best ever, I'd match up this group with that 2007-08 team. The scoring margins recorded by both are way beyond anything we saw from Calipari's first two teams in Lexington, and you might remember those teams reached the 2010 Elite Eight and 2011 Final Four, respectively. Right now, I would rate Anthony Davis & Co. as the strongest of Calipari's three Kentucky teams. That's how good they've been to this point. Add the defense of 2010 to the offense of 2011 and you have Kentucky in 2012
The 2010 Kentucky team that starred John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson played much better defense than many observers realized at the time. Relative to what was "average" for the SEC in 2010, that UK team was actually a hair better on D than this group is this season -- and if you've seen the Wildcats this year, you know that's saying something. But even with Wall doing his thing on offense, that team couldn't come close to what Calipari has this season in terms of scoring efficiency. In this respect, the current edition of Kentucky more closely resembles last season's high-scoring team. Calipari always has talent, but this season he has something that he hasn't been able to claim before: the SEC's best offense and best defense.
Also from ESPN, a new edition of Bracketology came out yesterday. Yet again, Kentucky nabbed one of four top seeds, along with Syracuse, Missouri and Ohio State. Joe Lunardi also has the Wildcats heading to Louisville for their first two games, but this time he places Kentucky in the South Region (Atlanta) rather than Midwest (St. Louis). This is a preferable destination because either Kansas or Missouri is likely to be the second seed in the Midwest.
UK Hoops may have dropped its first SEC game of this season on Sunday against LSU, but Matthew Mitchell's team remains in sole possession of first place, 1.5 games ahead of Tennessee. The Wildcats have a week to recover from the loss before a mammoth rematch against the Lady Volunteers next Monday in Knoxville, Tenn. In the most recent Associated Press Top 25, UK fell one spot to No. 7 while Tennessee sits at No. 11.
The loss didn't do much harm to the Wildcats in the latest edition of ESPN's women's basketball Bracketology, as UK holds firm as a No. 2 seed. Charlie Creme has UK headed to Chapel Hill, N.C., for first and second round games and Kingston, R.I., for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.
I neglected to mention this on the blog yesterday, but the men's tennis team continued its winning ways this weekend with a pair of wins. Headlining a strong Sunday was a win over visiting Pepperdine, the 12th-ranked team in the nation. The Wildcats recovered to win after losing the doubles point for just the second time this season, with Alejandro Gomez winning the decisive last point for the second consecutive week in a 4-2 victory. UK's 8-0 start is the best in modern program history.
Back to basketball, two of the Three Amigos from UK's aforementioned 2009-10 team had huge nights in the NBA on Monday. DeMarcus Cousins had 28 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks in the Sacramento Kings' 100-92 comeback victory over the New Orleans Hornets, following up strong on a 21-point, 20-rebound effort on Saturday night. Cousins is currently fifth in the NBA with 11.6 rebounds per game and second with 4.4 offensive rebounds per game. John Wall's second season with the Washington Wizards has been a bit more of a struggle, but Wall was dominant in Monday's 111-108 win over Toronto. He posted 31 points, seven assists, five rebounds, and two steals. He also had a pair of crucial blocks in a 16-second stretch in overtime to preserve the victory. We're less than three weeks from NBA All-Star Weekend, when Wall and Cousins will likely be taking the floor together in the Rookie-Sophomore Game.