UK returns to Rupp Arena for its final nonconference game vs. Eastern Michigan on Wednesday at 6 p.m. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Ryan Harrow had just returned from a nearly three-week absence when John Calipari summoned him for an individual meeting.
The purpose of the meeting was simple: Coach Cal wanted to make sure Harrow knew what his teammates needed from. Given his penchant to using the Socratic method, Calipari began the talk by asking Harrow's opinion.
Harrow, having spent his entire basketball career as a point guard, thought he had the answer.
"Being a leader," Harrow said.
"That's not what it is," Calipari said.
With all the time Harrow had spent away, leadership wasn't going to be in the cards. Calipari told him he had neither the credibility nor the rapport with his fellow Wildcats to pull it off, at least not immediately.
That wasn't necessarily easy for Harrow to hear at first, but the hard truth eventually sunk in. Having accepted that, he turned his attention to what Coach Cal told him his team did need.
"It's just me going out there and playing hard and doing what I need to do to help the team," Harrow said. "That's my way of leading is just going out there and playing hard and doing everything that the team needs me to do."
On its face, that may seem a simple task, but anyone who knows much about playing point guard for Coach Cal knows "doing your job" is tough enough on its own. So Harrow took every measure in his power to improve.
With the semester break from academics, he began working out as many as four times a day separate from organized practices. He called on friends from school and even one from Atlanta - who travels to Lexington twice a week - to help him in the gym.
Even his coach volunteered as a workout partner.
Taking individual time with both Harrow and Archie Goodwin, Calipari wanted to help the two players on whom the success of his backcourt hinges improve.
"We were just working on coming off the pick-and-roll or turning the pick-and-roll and taking the shot," Harrow said. "Even if we miss the shot, if I miss my floater, it's still a good shot because the big man would be able to tip it in or get the rebound and put it back up."
The results of all that work are plain to see.
In a span of a few weeks, Harrow has gone from having no role to having an uncertain one to being one of Kentucky's steadiest players. His remarkable turnaround culminated in a 17-point, five-rebound, three-assist performance in UK's 80-77 loss at Louisville. Most amazingly, he committed nary a turnover against a Cardinal team that's the best in the nation at forcing opponent miscues.
"For me to not have any turnovers, it was just me playing a smart game and doing all the things we worked on in practice," Harrow said.
It's quite clear that Harrow has taken his coach's message about doing his job to heart, but he also realizes he has a lot of work ahead. Calipari plans to continue working with Harrow individually, but Coach Cal has added another pupil.
In that loss to U of L, Alex Poythress played just 15 minutes. With uneven efforts and occasional foul trouble to blame, the freshman forward has seen his role shrink of late. Early in the season, he had four straight 20-point performances. Now, he has failed to score in double figures in back-to-back games for the first time in his college career.
On Sunday and Monday, Poythress worked on "things that are pertinent to how he plays" with Coach Cal. Included among those are transition, where he catches the ball on offense and running the floor. For breaks, he shoots five free throws. If he misses more than one, he runs. The Sunday session lasted 38 minutes, Monday just 27.
"He was way better today than he was yesterday," Calipari said on Monday. "It wasn't close. Now, was he all the way there? No."
According to Harrow, practice and individual workouts are a tale of two Caliparis. While Coach Cal often needs to play bad cop to make sure practices are intense, the good cop comes out when it's just he and one or two players.
"He's telling how good you're doing and if you make a mistake he'll try to correct it for you," Harrow said. "But he's telling you how good it looks when you do it and how it's going to work in the game and things like that."
A little positive reinforcement could go a long way for Poythress.
Following a 20-point, eight-rebound performance against now-top-ranked Duke, the Clarksville, Tenn., native gained some buzz as a potential top overall NBA Draft pick, though Calipari still made sure to point out that was far from a complete effort. Since then, he has hardly resembled the player his coach and teammates often refer to by a certain feral nickname.
"I definitely know what he can do because he's just a beast," Harrow said. "He has all the talent to be one of the best players in the country. It's just a mental thing with him. He has to believe it. We can't believe it for him."
Everyone involved is hoping the individual workouts will lead to a renaissance of self-assurance for Poythress, but Coach Cal is not overlooking the fact that belief a two-way street.
"You help build their confidence, because now you're working directly with them, but you also build your confidence in them," Calipari said.
Coach Cal isn't convinced results will show themselves when the Cats next take the floor vs. Eastern Michigan in their final non-conference game on Wednesday at 6 p.m. He's willing to be patient though.
"He's just gotta change his habits just like Ryan had to," Calipari said. "The minute he changes his habits, the minute he changes his mentality of how he wants to play and how he needs to play, he'll be fine. When you see him in two weeks you'll say slowly you've seen the change."
When it happens, look out.
"Once all of us are playing to our potential, you'll be able to tell that we could be one of the best teams in the nation," Harrow said. "We went toe to toe with (fourth-ranked) team in the nation and all of us didn't even play that well. Once all of us are doing everything that we're supposed to do, we'll be where everybody thinks we should be."
Jennifer O'Neill finished with a career-high 21 points in a win over Marist. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jennifer O'Neill and DeNesha Stallworth had career performances Sunday afternoon when their team needed them the most. Marist, the eight-time defending champion of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, had the right game plan, and in an off game, it may have been enough to help the Red Foxes knock off the No. 6 Wildcats.
This was not that game.
O'Neill and Stallworth combated the Marist defensive efforts to take away the interior game of Kentucky and make UK win from the perimeter. But Stallworth had the hot hand early scoring six of the team's first eight points on her way to a career-high 21 points.
While Stallworth was holding it down in the post, it was O'Neill taking care of business on the perimeter. While Marist looked to pack it inside against a much taller Kentucky team, O'Neill and the other guards plenty of opportunities around the arc.
"You could see holes in their defense, like the hard hedge and when they were going under the screens," said O'Neill. "You could take that 3-point shot. You could definitely see it was kind of force us to shoot outside shots."
O'Neill, ever confident in her outside shooting abilities, took advantage in a big way. She was 7 of 11 from the field including 4 for 7 from beyond the arc. With the recent season-ending injury of teammate Megan Conwright, O'Neill will have to play a much bigger role. Early returns say that should be no problem for the sophomore point guard, who lost last season to an injury of her own.
"Great offensive lift she gave us today," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "I think they were going to force someone to step up on the perimeter to make some shots, and boy did she do that today. I just thought she had a really, really good offensive day and gave us a big lift."
She was a huge lift indeed for the Cats. She finished the day with a career-high 21 points with just two turnovers in her 30 minutes on the floor Sunday.
Mitchell knew that potential was in there all along.
"She's a great perimeter shooter and a very skilled offensive player," said Mitchell. "I'm not surprised, just really happy and excited to see it because we needed it today. They really made it tough on us and our interior players."
After Kentucky set a record for the lowest point total allowed in school history on Friday against Alcorn State, the Cats would be in for quite a different type of game against Marist. Marist's offense, a screen-heavy attack, counteracted quite a bit of Mitchell's signature pressure defense. The visitors had success over the top against the press, found cutters going to the basket, and more importantly handled themselves admirably against Kentucky's full-court press. Though the Red Foxes finished with 27 turnovers on the game, when they broke the pressure, they often got a good shot out of it.
The ability to knock down big shots while also limiting Kentucky's opportunities in the post gave Marist a real opportunity to make things interesting. Kentucky clung to a 12-point lead at halftime, and the Red Foxes jumped all over the Cats in the second half, cutting the deficit to eight points twice.
As O'Neill and Stallworth traded baskets, senior guard A'dia Mathies emerged after a quiet first half. Mathies was bothered by two injuries that kept her out of action for pieces of the first 20 minutes. She looked to be fully healthy in the second half, however, hitting a pair of jumpers with active hands on defense.
As Mathies put up a quiet 10 points for the game, she became the fourth-leading scorer in program history with 1,608.
With the victory, UK moves to 12-1 on the season and will head into the Southeastern Conference portion of its schedule. After rolling over Alcorn State two days prior, this type of game against Marist was exactly what the doctor ordered as the Cats start to prepare for conference play.
"I think that you have a better idea about things that you need to work on as we lead up to our first conference game," said Mitchell. "I think it's much more beneficial than a blowout win.
"We'll have a good idea of where we are headed into Thursday."
Willie Cauley-Stein had six points and six rebounds in the second half as UK's comeback bid fell short in a 80-77 loss at Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Considering Kentucky traveled to Louisville as underdog, it wouldn't have been unreasonable to say the annual rivalry matchup was all but over with almost 15 minutes left.
Russ Smith had just scored on a steal and breakaway layup to give the home-standing Cardinals a 17-point lead with 14:45 left. The record crowd in the KFC Yum! Center smelled blood and wanted to end UK's five-game winning streak in the series with a blowout.
The Wildcats, inexperienced as they may be, were having none of that.
Kyle Wiltjer sparked a furious rally with a pair of 3s to account for six of his 14 points. From there, UK would tread water for a few minutes before going on a 14-4 run to cut the deficit to 63-61 with 5:32 left. It may not have been the path John Calipari was expecting, but his team found itself right where he hoped it would be in the waning minutes.
"I told them all week, 'You get us close, I'll help us get over the edge. You just make this close,' " Calipari said. "And they did."
After the Cats did as he asked, Coach Cal found himself taking the blame for UK's 80-77 loss. He blamed himself for not having Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein help in-bound the ball soon enough against the Louisville press that forced 12 turnovers in the game's first 25:12, but just three the rest of the way. He blamed himself for failing to call his final timeout as the Cats struggled to set up their offense down 78-74 with the clock ticking under 30 seconds. Archie Goodwin would throw an errant pass that lead to a Chane Behanan fast-break dunk.
"I'm standing there thinking, 'Timeout,' and I didn't call it," Calipari said. "That effectively ended the game. I told them this one was on me. Hopefully I'll do a better job. Hopefully I'll help them win more games than I cause us to lose, but this one right there, that play is a coach's play."
Coach Cal's players appreciated the sentiment. All season long, he has been holding the Cats accountable for their mistakes, so they can't help but like that he's willing to do the same.
"Coach, he steps up and takes responsibility," Archie Goodwin said. "Even if he thinks it's our fault, he's going to do that."
But as much as the Cats would like to forget about their own roles in the defeat, they cannot. Goodwin can't forget about his five turnovers or his three-point first half even though he would finish with a game-high 22 points. Willie Cauley-Stein can't shake off the four free throws he missed in as many attempts even though he played an otherwise solid game in the words of his coach with six points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
"Willie I thought was good," Calipari said. "Didn't make free throws, but all new to him and I thought he did a terrific job."
Cauley-Stein was far from the only Wildcat ruing missed opportunities at the line. Five different players missed at least one free throw and UK shot 11 for 23 as a team for a season-worst 47.8 percent.
"We missed 12 free throws," Cauley-Stein said. "(Coach Cal) didn't even have to call those timeouts if make 12 free throws. The game's not even - it's a whole 'nother momentum of the game if we make our free throws and if we don't give up runners."
The free throws will sting for a while for Cauley-Stein and his teammates, but the progress they showed on Saturday could prove to be much more important as the season goes on. The fact of the matter is that the Cats - without significant contributions from Julius Mays (three points on 1-for-8 shooting) and Alex Poythress (seven points and two turnovers in 15 minutes) - took a team Calipari believes to be the favorite for the national title down to the wire on the road.
"It just shows that no matter what we do, no matter how bad we shoot or anything like that, that we can still stick with guys as long as we tough it out," Goodwin said.
Learning to "tough it out" is what the last few weeks of "Camp Cal" have been all about. Taking advantage of the break from academics, the Cats have spent nearly every waking second together either practicing or eating. Calipari wanted to take a group that seemed to take losses to Notre Dame and Baylor lying down into and mold them into one that battles tooth and nail at every juncture.
"The thing we weren't doing is we weren't fighting," Calipari said. "There was no fight in the team. There was no sense of urgency. There was today."
Ryan Harrow is a big part of that.
Since the sophomore returned to the team after an extended absence, he has taken steps forward in each game. On Saturday, he took a few big ones. Facing a defense that forces the most turnovers of any team in the country, Harrow didn't commit a single one. Coping with pressure applied by Smith and Peyton Siva, Harrow served as the primary ball handler for 39 minutes and had 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals.
"Obviously I'm growing as a player and as a point guard because I'm doing things that I've never done before, but as I keep saying, I'm not at the point that I want to be at and for the team," Harrow said. "I think that I played a big role for the team and I think that I'm playing well, but if I could play even better it would be better for all of us."
Harrow clearly absorbed the message his coach delivered postgame.
"I grabbed him after, I said, 'This is where I wanted you at the beginning of the year,' " Calipari said. " 'Now where do we go from here? How do we build on this?' "
Calipari may have spoken those words to his emerging point guard, but they may as well have been directed at the team as a whole. With a final nonconference game vs. Eastern Michigan on Jan. 2 the only thing standing between them and Southeastern Conference play, the story of this season is very much unwritten.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino, however, has an idea of how it's going to end.
"They're going to be an excellent basketball team," Pitino said. "They're going to get better and better and better and John's the right guy to get them better. He's a hell of a coach."
It's gameday in the Bluegrass as one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports rekindles in Louisville, Ky. this afternoon. As usual, the matchup is getting a lot of attention not only in the state, but across the country. Here are a few links to get you ready, if for whatever reason you aren't already, for today's game: Battle of the Bluegrass | How the Cardinals and Wildcats match up (Kyle Tucker and C.L. Brown, Louisville Courier-Journal)
There seems to be a tendency for role players on both sides to have breakout performances in this game. Last year it was Russ Smith dropping a career-high 30 points for U of L. The year before that it was Josh Harrellson's career-best 23 points and 14 rebounds for UK. Who could it be today?
Looking on the bright side, Kentucky Coach John Calipari suggested that Louisville's signature style of pressure defense and the ability to create a chaotic game can help his freshman-dependent team.
"The good news for us is this is a game of less plays and more players making plays," Calipari said Friday. "That plays to our favor. It's less having to do with execution, which we are really too young to be a great execution team. And it's more reacting to three-on-two, two-on-one, four-on-three. Attacking the basket. Stuff we do better."
Polson is the counterargument to Woods' controversial comments this season when the former Cat said the current players don't know or appreciate the program's history. There was some merit to his point, illustrated by one UK player saying he'd never heard of Christian Laettner's infamous buzzer-beater that cost the Cats a spot in the 1992 Final Four.
UK coach John Calipari recruits mostly one-and-dones, elite players who spend less than a year on campus before bolting to the NBA, and he scours the nation for them. The team's top seven players this year are from seven different states -- all outside the Bluegrass. Naturally, they didn't grow up on Wildcats basketball. But Polson did.
If the "experts" are right, Louisville and Rick Pitino are finally going to show Kentucky and John Calipari that payback can be hell (or swell, depending on perspective) Saturday afternoon in the KFC Yum Center. Should that prove so, it will end -- or at least interrupt -- what has been one of the great periods of "rivalry dominance" in Kentucky history.
For the teams UK fans most yearn to beat, John Calipari has so far put the "L" in "rivalry."
Duke and North Carolina loyalists might disagree; Yankees and Red Sox devotees have a decent argument, too. But the Blue Devils and Tar Heels move on for most of the other 363 days of the year. Boston and New York have Connecticut as a buffer.
Aside from maybe Alabama and Auburn football, it is hard to find such yearlong enmity breeding and cultivating within the state borders like Kentucky. It is like a border-to-border Petri dish of festering vitriol and disdain.
And nowhere does the sickness exist as feverishly as it does in Louisville.
On the offensive end, much depends upon the point guard position. When Ryan Harrow is in control and plays in a mentally tough fashion, others are freed up to do what they do best without concern. When Harrow is scattered, it affects everyone. Archie Goodwin is the best scorer; Alex Poythress is the best wing offensive rebounder and most ferocious in attacking the rim; and Nerlens Noel is the best interior offensive rebounder and shot-blocker and is most active on both ends.
When college basketball magazines started hitting the newsstands this summer, many featured Kentucky and Louisville on the cover with predictions that the Wildcats and Cardinals would battle for a No. 1 national ranking en route to another potential high-stakes clash in the Final Four.
Much has changed since those magazines were first released, at least for half
of Saturday's matchup at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center.
You don't really believe I'm going to make a prediction on that, do you? I will say it will be the single most intriguing element of Saturday's game.
Harrow wasn't really there for any of UK's biggest games to date. Against Maryland, Duke and Notre Dame, he played a total of 19 minutes. His absence has been explained only cryptically. It is suspected the weight of expectations as Kentucky point guard was a lot for him to bear. It will be more so when Louisville, with more than 20,000 Cardinals fans screaming, slaps some full-court pressure in his face.
It's finally here. One of the greatest rivalries in all of sports. Kentucky versus Louisville. Saturday. KFC Yum! Center. And we've got you covered here at Cat Scratches as we get ready for the big game tomorrow. Guy Ramsey already covered many of the key components of Saturday's matchup, but here are a few more story lines heading into the game:
Players aware of rivalry in spite of youth
It's the nature of the beast for Kentucky basketball. Great players come and go year in and year out for the Wildcats under John Calipari. It's the give and take when it comes to recruiting the best talent in the country each and every year to give UK the best chance of winning a national title.
With that in mind, as Kentucky continues to bring in the best of the best, their short time as Wildcats sometimes means that the traditions and rivalries of Kentucky basketball can get lost in the mix.
Kentucky's storied rivalry with Saturday afternoon's opponent Louisville may not be the biggest game of the year for these Wildcats. It may just be "another game" for them. But to the fans, it's the biggest game of the year. Every year.
But do the players have any idea what this rivalry is all about? Calipari says not yet.
"They don't," said Calipari. "But they'll feel it once the game starts."
However, with the popularity of Kentucky's players on campus and their presence on the various social media platforms, how could these guys not at least understand the importance of this game to fans on both sides of the rivalry?
"It's a big game, especially for the state of Kentucky," said Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel. "We're ready to play this game out and really give it our all."
While Kentucky fans would give anything for a win Saturday over Louisville, the team, after seeing vast improvement last weekend against Marshall, is hoping that they can see just how far they've come since then against one of the best teams in the country.
"It's a big rivalry but that's something we're not really too focused on right now," said Noel. "We know how the rivalry is, but that's something we can't be focused on. We're focused on going in and playing hard and winning and listening to what Coach Cal tells us to do."
Dieng playing, presents interesting matchup for Noel
Louisville center Gorgui Dieng has been out of the Louisville lineup since breaking a bone in his wrist on Nov. 23. At the time of his diagnosis, it appeared there was a chance that the standout big man would miss the Kentucky game on Dec. 29. But a quick recovery and thumbs up from the team doctor has allowed Dieng to return to the Cardinal lineup. In fact, he's expected to start this Saturday against the Cats.
Louisville head coach Rick Pitino said that Dieng probably could have played in their Dec. 19 game against Florida International, but felt it would be best to hold him out one more game despite the desire to knock some of the rust off.
With Dieng cleared to play, it presents one of the more intriguing matchups of the game as two defensive forces in Dieng and Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel will go toe-to-toe in the post. It will be one of the biggest challenges in Noel's young career.
"He's a bigger dude, about 6-10, pretty mobile for his size and he's a physical player," said Noel. "I'm ready for that challenge."
Dieng has played in just five games this year compared to Noel's 11, but Dieng is a junior and has played at this level, at a high level, over the last two years. With Dieng back in the fold for Louisville, the matchup in the post between these two players should be one for the ages.
Noel is averaging 10.7 points, 9.1 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 2.7 steals per game this year. Dieng, in his five games, is putting up 8.2 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, and 1.6 steals per contest. That's a good sign for Kentucky as Dieng tries to get back up to speed with Noel having the statistical edge in each category in 2012. Kentucky a different team for first road test since Notre Dame
When Kentucky travels to Louisville for Saturday's annual matchup with the Cardinals, it will be their first road trip since the Wildcats lost to Notre Dame exactly one month earlier on Nov. 29. The Cats looked overmatched against the Irish in their first true road game of the season, falling 64-50.
UK has played five games since then, going 4-1 over that span heading into the Louisville game. The Cats are riding a four-game win streak, and look like a different team since that loss to Notre Dame. At least they hope so.
"We've really focused in on making sure we play hard at all times," said Noel. "That was our main problem then. This time around for our second away game, we're just really focused on playing hard and competing, which is the main thing for us."
Calipari has harped on his team for not being competitive and playing hard for 40 minutes a game. Because the players haven't been able to bring that out by themselves, effort and intensity have been main focuses of practice since Kentucky's two losses to Notre Dame and Baylor. Calipari liked what he saw from his team against Marshall last Saturday, and he's hoping to see more improvement a week later.
"We all know we've got to see some improvement," said Calipari. "This is a game that if you physically can't withstand this game, then it's going to show because they are physically - they're coming after you that way. So we've got to be able to fight and battle for 40 minutes.
"This thing is, alright, let's battle. Let's see what we've worked on. (Thursday) we had a terrific practice, but we'll see how we do (Friday) and then we'll get on the bus and go down."
Hood still out, will miss Louisville game
Kentucky junior guard Jon Hood will miss his second consecutive game with an upper respiratory illness. Hood was held out of practice before the Marshall game, did not dress, and has since missed practice as he tries to recover from his illness.
In the mean time, Calipari has asked that he take care of his health, but try and keep his distance from the team in efforts to keep the rest of the team healthy.
"We've kept him away from the team because I don't want anybody else catching it," said Calipari. "We got a couple other guys that have got some colds now. So we just tried to tell him, 'Stay away 'til you're healthy where nothing is contagious.' "
A head coach lets go of some measure of control when giving his team for a break around the holidays. It's impossible to know what players will do (or eat) spending time back home and therefore impossible to predict how they will respond in practice and games shortly thereafter.
Matthew Mitchell accepted that risk in dismissing his Kentucky Wildcats for four days, but was rewarded by some of the season's best practices when they returned. On Friday night, the Cats transferred that into game action.
"I'm really happy we were able to come back from the break and play with tremendous effort," Mitchell said. "You never know. Sometimes we haven't been able to do that."
UK delivered a dominant performance in playing its first home game since Dec. 9, defeating Alcorn State 90-23 in Memorial Coliseum and setting a school record for fewest points allowed in a single game. After leading just 5-4 at the first media timeout, the Cats reeled off a 20-1 run to build a lead that would never fall below 18 points the rest of the way.
"Anytime you do something that hasn't been done before, you have to credit the players," Mitchell said. "I don't care who you're playing, that's tough to do."
At one point, the Cats held Alcorn State without a field goal for 19 minutes, 27 seconds. Alcorn State made just 7-of-35 (20 percent) of its field goals and had one assist against 36 turnovers.
"I thought the players really hung in there and kept hustling all night," Mitchell said. "I think that's what the margin is what it ended up being. Those are not easy things to do. It's not easy to win a game like that and you just have to keep hustling and trying really hard."
Mitchell credited Samarie Walker and Bria Goss for setting the tone early with their effort and the two finished as the game's leading scorers with 21 and 18 points, respectively. After missing her first three shots, Walker finished shooting 8 for 13.
"It was a struggle for me in the beginning offensively, but my teammates encouraged me and pushed me to continue to work hard," Walker said.
Her impact extended well beyond scoring, as she added 14 rebounds, five steals and three blocks. Her fellow front-court starter, DeNesha Stallworth, joined her in posting a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. If not for the fact that she played just 23 minutes, she may have posted a triple-double as she finished with seven assists.
"I was sort of fussing at her during the game because I didn't think she was playing all that great," Mitchell said. "And then you look at her stat line and it's really something else."
Mitchell will be looking for similar production on Sunday when the Cats face a quick turnaround and a tough Marist team on Sunday at 1 p.m. in their nonconference finale. The Red Foxes have earned automatic bids to the last seven NCAA Tournaments, so the Cats know they're in for a test even though they haven't even begun preparations for Marist.
"I have not had a chance to watch them, but I do know, just being familiar with their program, that they will be very well-coached, very tough to guard," Mitchell said. "They will not miss shots around the basket, we'll have to play really tough defense." Conwright out for season with torn ACL
UK will be without Maegan Conwright for the Marist game and much longer. In practice this week, the junior guard sustained an injury to her left knee and an MRI confirmed that she had suffered a torn ACL. She will soon undergo reconstructive surgery but will miss the remainder of the season.
"We're real sad about that, but we will, I know, do a great job giving her support to rehab and get that surgery and get back onto a healthy track," Mitchell said.
John Calipari has a 4-0 record against Louisville as Kentucky head coach. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
On Friday afternoon, John Calipari stepped to the podium for his customary pregame question-and-answer session. It was just like any other such press conference, only everything was turned up a notch.
Barely 24 hours before Kentucky's annual rivalry matchup with Louisville, the horde of reporters surrounding him was bigger than normal. There were a few extra cameras and the dais was packed with microphones and recorders. Even Coach Cal's comments were somewhat exaggerated.
He typically praises the Wildcats' upcoming opponent, breaking down the problems his team with which his team will be faced. When it came to talking about the Cardinals, Coach Cal was downright effusive.
"This is a great challenge for us, and if you ask me I would say, with what I'm seeing right now, you're talking about a team that should be or is the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing," Calipari said. "That's how good I think they are."
The fourth-ranked Cardinals come in having won six straight games. They have lost just once this season and it came at the hands of top-ranked Duke. Rick Pitino has a deep and talented rotation with nine players averaging 15 minutes or more per game. Coach Cal is keenly aware; he named eight of those nine players in answering the first question posed to him.
"I've watched tape and they are really good with really good players," Calipari said.
With all that talk, you might think Calipari is dreading this year's "Dream Game." You'd be wrong.
"This comes at a great time for us," Calipari said. "We just are winding down a bunch of workouts, doing different things, trying to change mindsets, trying to change habits and then you're going against an opponent like this that's maybe the best team in the country with talented players that at each position they can beat you. This is what we need. Let's see where we are."
Saturday's game, which will be played at 4 p.m. ET on CBS, will mark the third consecutive outing the Cats have had a week to prepare for. Going through "Camp Cal," UK showed "a little" improvement two weeks ago against Portland, then more significant progress last week against Marshall. To compete on the road against a team that returns the core of last year's Final Four team, the Wildcats better take an even bigger step forward.
"They are a well-oiled machine," Calipari said. "We are a work in progress. I still like my team. I like that they're working hard, they're getting better, I'm feeling more comfortable, yet really a work in progress."
Especially on defense, U of L is capable of capitalizing on any cracks in the Cats' foundation. The Cardinals allow just 0.794 points per possession, making them the only team in the NCAA allowing fewer than 0.800. Louisville is also the only team in the country to force turnovers on more than 30 percent of its opponents' possessions.
"You've got to be strong with the ball," Calipari said. "You've got to have great spacing. You can't just be muddled up because they leave and trap. They do a great job of trying to muck up the game."
Only a few weeks ago, playing in such a game would be a much more terrifying prospect, but the return and emergence of Ryan Harrow has steadied the Cats' ship. The sophomore point guard has improved by leaps and bounds over his last three games, during which time he has averaged 14.3 points, 4.0 assists and just 1.0 turnover.
Those performances, however, haven't come against the likes of Louisville.
"Ryan puts people in the right spots and he's really gotten better and this'll be a great challenge for him because this is going to be a physical, body-on-body game and this is exactly what he needs," Calipari said.
With Russ Smith, Peyton Siva and company pressuring the ball in both the half and full court, Harrow and his fellow guards will need to be on their game. Mistakes are inevitable against that style, but Calipari also believes it will create opportunities. In fact, it could create exactly the kind of game UK is capable of winning.
"The good news for us is that this is a game of less plays than more players making plays," Calipari said. "That plays to our favor. It's less having to execute, which we're really too young to be a great execution team, and it's more of reacting to 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, 4-on-3s, attacking the basket, stuff that we do better."
Even if Calipari is proven right, the Cats will play an unfamiliar role: underdog. That's not something the players necessarily mind.
"That's something that people want," Archie Goodwin said. "You want people to doubt you because that brings out the best in you. It's always a great feeling to prove everyone wrong."
It will be a similarly great feeling for the Cats if they can send the 20,000-plus fans who will pack the KFC Yum! Center home stewing over UK's fifth consecutive win in the series.
"Having the fans there just really be into the game and we go in there and beat them and just pretty much mess up their whole day, their week or whatever, that's something to look forward to," Nerlens Noel said. "Tomorrow, that's something we'll be looking to do."
Since the Cardinals opened their new building for the 2010-11, UK has won there three times - once against U of L that season and twice more in the NCAA Tournament last year. Among current Cats, only Kyle Wiltjer has played significant minutes in the Yum! Center though, which makes this a completely new experience.
"We're going to find out where we are in a lot of positions and where we have to go," Calipari said. "But this team is a work in progress. I'm pleased that we're getting better. I don't know what that means when you start playing some more games and teams like this, but I do know we're getting better and I'm pleased with that."
If Kentucky can extend its win streak in the rivalry with Louisville to five in a row, it will mark the biggest upset in series history for a Wildcat team.
For now, the only time Kentucky has won in a matchup in which the Wildcats were either ranked lower or an unranked team facing a top-25 Cardinal squad was in December 2005.
Kentucky, ranked 23rd, upset the fourth-rated Cards 73-61 at Rupp Arena in a game dominated by then-sophomore point guard Rajon Rondo. He scored 25 points and dished out seven assists and was virtually un-guardable. While many were questioning Rondo's NBA future because of his lack of a jump shot, U of L coach Rick Pitino said in his postgame comments that Rondo would be a great pro because nobody could stop him from getting where he wanted to go with the ball - something that rivals of the Boston Celtics would surely acknowledge today . If Kentucky wins tomorrow, I think it might take a similar kind of performance, in which a player with big-time skills picks that day to showcase what he can do at the next level. And to me, Alex Poythress would be the most likely Kentucky player to fill that role on Saturday.
Poythress doesn't have Rondo's point-guard game but the freshman big man could certainly assume the role of hardest-to-guard player on the UK roster, with his combination of inside-outside skill set. Coach Cal wants Cats to follow Bledsoe's lead
Last Saturday morning's top-10 plays countdown on ESPN featured two different plays by former Wildcat Eric Bledsoe, one being a block and the other a spectacular dunk. When I told John Calipari this before our pregame interview for the UK IMG Network, he said he's proud of how Bledsoe has learned the work ethic that it takes succeed at the next level. And he proceeded to tick off a list of other players who followed that same path.
Cal says the challenge for his current players is to embrace that mindset.
"This is going to be a process. This team has a chance - if they start changing. If they don't change, we're just a very average team. If they change, this team's upside is greater than any team in the country," Calipari told the radio audience. "But they gotta change. Are you gonna fight, are you gonna dive on the floor, are you going to show your emotion, that you're having a ball playing basketball?"
Cards a slight favorite in per-possession stats
Louisville is a solid favorite in this matchup but if you go by points-by-possession statistics, it's close.
UofL ranks third nationally in defensive points per possession at 0.794, while Kentucky ranks 24th at 0.878, both very strong numbers. Offensively, in that stat, Louisville ranks 22nd nationally at 1.120 points per possession and UK 32nd at 1.112.
If you're under 1.0 with your defense and over it with your offense, you're doing well.
Lofty ranking no historical guarantee for U of L vs. UK
Louisville brings a top-five national ranking into this matchup, but the Cards have not fared well from that standing. Since winning the "Dream Game" in 1983, the Cards have lost all five games against Kentucky when Louisville was a top-five team.
However, UK is also 0-3 in games against Louisville when the Cats were not ranked and the Cardinals were.
DeNesha Stallworth has scored in double figures in each of Kentucky's last eight games. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's been an eventful December for Matthew Mitchell's Kentucky team.
The Wildcats have played five games and won all of them, including three over NCAA Tournament teams from last year. They've taken final exams and finished the fall semester. They've taken road trips near and far, traveling 75 miles to rival Louisville and more than 2,000 for a pair of games in California. They've been through multi-practice days with class out of session and taken four days off to spend the holidays with their families.
And yet, there are still four days and two games left in 2012.
"Some things just dictate the necessity where the games come on the schedule from a time standpoint," Mitchell said. "December was a real challenging month for us and I am looking for us to finish it strong. We need to try to earn these victories this weekend."
Those two opportunities for wins will come on Friday at 7 p.m. ET vs. Alcorn State and Sunday at 1 p.m. vs. Marist, UK's final nonconference outings before welcoming Florida on Jan. 3 for the start of Southeastern Conference play.. The games will be the first the Cats have played in Memorial Coliseum in almost three weeks and they are anxious to get back in front of their home fans. Mitchell expects those fans will see a team that has evolved in general, but particularly in one area.
"We have really started to blossom in our post game," Mitchell said, "especially our two starting posts are starting to play off of each other really well and get a feel for each other and that's an exciting combination."
Of course, DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker are the two post players to whom Mitchell is referring. They are averaging a combined 21.2 points and 13.1 rebounds. Players - both starters and reserves - listed as forwards or centers on last year's roster combined to average 23.2 points and 18.9 rebounds.
Entering the season, Mitchell certainly believed Stallworth and Walker were capable of that level of production. From day one, he inserted the pair into his starting lineup, committing to playing two bigs after he played just one at a time most of last season. The results, however, weren't immediate. Stallworth had some struggles adjusting to UK's signature pace of play and in turn experienced a dip in confidence.
In her moment of need, Stallworth turned to her fellow transfer.
"Samarie had a little more experience than me just transferring from Connecticut to Kentucky with her playing before me so it was really good," Stallworth said. "She was very helpful with helping me just transitioning and getting back to playing in Kentucky's style."
Walker had been through a similar transition. She had spent a year practicing with her new team, giving her a false sense that she would seamlessly integrate herself when she played her first game. Instead, she failed to score in double figures in seven of her first eight games before an 18-point, nine-rebound outburst in a 69-64 slugfest at Georgia.
"She just told me, 'Something just clicks and you realize that you just have to play,' " Stallworth said. "And when it did click, everything became a lot easier and it just flows better."
Stallworth didn't point out a specific time when it all came together, but it was clear it had happened when she averaged 15.7 points and 7.0 rebounds over a three-game stretch against Louisville, DePaul and Middle Tennessee State - UK's best wins of the season.
She carried it forward as she returned to her home state for wins over Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara. Stallworth was still a good distance away from her hometown of Richmond, Calif., but her family was there as she extended her streak of games scoring in double figures to eight.
"It was beautiful," Stallworth said of the trip west. "I had such a great time even spending it with my teammates and my family was there. It felt really good just to play in front of my family."
Walker, meanwhile, was making her first trip to Southern California. She had her third double-double in the win over UCSB, but the highlight of the trip was getting a look at the famous Hollywood sign.
"I was so excited to see it I almost started crying honestly," Walker said.
Stallworth and Walker are perfect examples of the way the Cats approached the trip. They were enthusiastic about the off-court opportunities they had, but their performance in practice and games was unaffected.
"We were able to mix some real important basketball with some real fun opportunities for them and the way they handled themselves, I was really impressed with their maturity levels," Mitchell said. "When it was time to really focus and practice and work hard, they did that."
As soon as the trip was over, players were dismissed for four days for Christmas. Following a few days of rest, family time and eating, they returned and have once again shown no ill effects. As a result, Mitchell expects the thousands that spend their Friday night in Memorial will like what they see.
"I think they will see that we have made some improvements and, if we can play like we practiced (on Thursday), I think they will be excited," Mitchell said.
Ryan Harrow scored a career-high 23 points in UK's 82-54 win over Marshall on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
John Calipari isn't normally one to call any regular-season game a big one. In fact, Coach Cal is already downplaying Kentucky's Dec. 29 matchup with Louisville.
But this week, he went against his nature. It was only a non-conference game in late December, but Calipari went out of his way to talk about the importance of UK's game against Marshall.
It wasn't because of the potential implications or even the final result though. After the Wildcats' second week of "Camp Cal," he knew they would have to show more improvement than they did against Lipscomb seven days prior or struggles would await them.
Coach Cal got what he wanted.
"Oh, we got better," Calipari said. "Whew."
UK (8-3) defeated the Thundering Herd (7-6), 82-54. After leading by nine at halftime, the Cats allowed Marshall to make a run and cut the deficit to 33-31 with 19:01 left. From there, UK outscored the visitors 49-23 in front of a Rupp Arena crowd of 24,271, the largest of the season, as Ryan Harrow led all scorers with 23 points and Nerlens Noel posted his first double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
"The thing I liked about Marshall, very physical, bump and grind team that we out rebounded, and they were big," Calipari said. "That's what we needed. We needed this game like this. We needed a team that would play that way."
There were moments when players reverted, but in terms of effort, communication and emotion, Coach Cal was delighted by what he saw.
"We're a long way from home," Calipari said. "But it shows that this team, and I keep saying, this team has more upside than any team in the country."
A major reason why Calipari believes that is the play of Harrow. The sophomore point guard seems to improve on a game-by-game basis, culminating in a career-high scoring effort against Marshall. He added four assists, four rebounds and three steals while committing just two turnovers.
"When he's playing the right way with aggressiveness, talking to his teammates, that look in his eye, he's as good as anybody in the country right now," Calipari said.
That's quite a change from less than a month ago when Harrow was away from the team due to illness. Now that he's back, he is a different player from the one he was before, at least most of the time. You see, Coach Cal has figured out there is a good version of Harrow and a not-so-good one.
"That other guy - you ready - the cool guy, he's not very good," Calipari said. "The guy that runs in and gets bumped and falls on the floor, throws the ball, that guy is not very good. That other guy we saw? Spurts today, just play that way. Every minute you're on the court, play that way."
That process of shaking off his tendency to try to look cool hasn't been easy. Old habits die hard and all of that.
"That's just always the way I played in high school," Harrow said. "I'd be real laidback but I'd still make my moves and score. But it's a different game in college basketball."
It's a game that requires plenty of talking on Harrow's part, something that his cool side wouldn't let him do. After the Lipscomb game, Harrow revealed that he often yelled to his teammates things with little to do with the game itself just to follow Calipari's directive to talk constantly.
So, did he take his talking to the next level by adding some meaning this time out? Not so much.
"It was nonsense today," Harrow said. "I just kept saying, 'Let's go,' and I told the guys before the game started that when I said, 'Let's go,' I meant, 'Let's go home.' That was just to make sure that we played good so that we were able to go home. I didn't want to have to stay here over Christmas break."
Harrow's not going to have to stay in Lexington over the holiday, as he rushed to catch a flight home to Raleigh, N.C., as soon as he finished his media responsibilities, like many of his teammates. He suggested - in a mostly joking manner - that the team's improvement had something to do with a desire to get home.
"It could have been that we were all trying to get home, to make sure that we get home," Harrow said.
The plan all along has been for the Cats to take a three-day break for Christmas, so was there actually a possibility Calipari would change his mind after a poor performance?
"I don't know," Harrow said with a smile. "You never know with him."
On second thought, Harrow knows the Cats' progress was rooted in much more than hoping to spend time their families and eat a home-cooked meal.
"Or we just really worked hard in practice," Harrow said. "We were just really focused and it was basketball, basketball, basketball so it had to have shown."
Kentucky's new offensive coordinator spent some time this week looking at tape of the players he'll inherit in his new job but he also wanted to be careful about developing any judgments on players before he sees them on the field this spring.
"A lot of times, a guy with a fresh start shows a whole new sign of being able to play at this level. Most of my time has been spent recruiting. We've got some kids here who are talented," Brown said Thursday on "The Leach Report" radio show.
"The three quarterbacks give us a starting point. You've got to have a (good) quarterback and we've got three that I think give us a chance to compete in this conference. The young O-linemen, I've been impressed with but we don't have a whole lot of depth there. At receiver, we're thin but I think the young guys that played last year have some ability and I think we can get those guys better. At running back, we've got good numbers. Probably need to sign a guy that can make people miss in space. We'll fit these guys into our system," Brown added.
Brown is a product of the coaching tree that traces back to Hal Mumme's tenure at Kentucky, when the "Air Raid" offense ranked among the most productive in the nation. Not all defensive coaches would embrace an offensive staff that wants to rely on a pass-first attack, but Mark Stoops and his brothers clearly don't think that way.
Stoops talked this week about his brother, Bob, reached out to then-UK offensive coordinator Mike Leach to run the Oklahoma offense when the elder Stoops took over the Sooners' program in 1999. Another Stoops brother, Mike, hired Sonny Dykes, a graduate assistant on Mumme's early staffs at UK, to run his offense at Arizona. And now Mark Stoops has hired another "Air Raid guy" in Brown, whose offenses at Texas Tech in recent years ranked among the nation's leaders in passing and total yards.
"He's 100 percent behind what we do," Brown said. "Athletics Director Mitch (Barnhart) gave him the opportunity to hire any type of offensive coordinator he wanted to. His brother, Bob, won a national championship with this same system and his brother, Mike, was one game away from a Rose Bowl with this system, so he (Mark Stoops) believes in it."
And a lot of Big Blue fans are wondering if we'll see a return to the Air Raid sirens that became associated with UK football in the late 90's.
"That's up to Coach Stoops and the marketing people," Brown said.
ESPN's Chris Low on Stoops as a recruiter
Some coaches develop a reputation for their recruiting prowess while others might not be as successful but win by virtue of their skill at evaluating prospects and finding those "diamonds in the rough." ESPN's SEC blogger, Chris Low, says Mark Stoops is viewed as one who scores well in both areas.
"He's a very good recruiter and a very good evaluator and he's also proven that he can develop guys. Some guys are really good recruiters and some guys are really good at developing them when they get on campus. You talk to folks around college football and (they think) he can do both," Low said of Stoops. "You've got to get some guys, sometimes, that are maybe under-sized or are late-bloomers but you've also got to go out and win some (recruiting) battles."
Cameron Mills recalls Wayne Turner's vocal evolution
Communication has been a hot topic for John Calipari as he pushes his young basketball to improve in terms of talking to each other on the court. Former Wildcat Cameron Mills says he can remember one of his former teammates who struggled early with that very thing.
"Wayne Turner is the perfect example," Mills said this week on "The Leach Report" show. "On the court, he just played - he didn't talk (as a freshman). By the time he was a junior or senior, he corner me and yell at me, which is what you want your point guard to me. I remember Travis Ford grabbing Rodney Dent by the jersey and pulling him down and just giving it to him because he missed a rotation on defense."
Mills notes Turner evolved into that kind of point guard over a multi-year career at UK. Mills says current Cat Ryan Harrow must embrace that mentality because it is crucial for the point guard to lead his team on the floor both verbally and with his play.
UK will take on Marshall at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even when their schedules are normal, John Calipari's players spend a lot of time on the basketball court. During the school year, they balance classwork, social lives, practice and games.
But now, classes are out of session for the holiday break and almost all their fellow students back home. Filling the void is Camp Cal, which means basketball, basketball and more basketball.
"It's the life we chose," Willie Cauley-Stein said, "It doesn't get better than that: sleep, eat, play basketball."
As soon as it became clear his team would need to play catch-up to live up to its preseason billing, Coach Cal knew how crucial the period would be. The Wildcats are now two weeks into it, and after week one, Calipari saw "a little change" in a win over Lipscomb last Saturday. It wasn't quite what he wanted or what he thought he would get after a productive week, making the one that followed it that much more important.
The Cats are now in week two of Camp Cal and their coach is singing the same tune. He likes what he's seen on the practice floor, but that's no guarantee of what's going to happen when they take the show downtown to Rupp Arena.
"They've done good, but the follow-through, the carry-over into the game is what we'll all wait for," Calipari said.
With Marshall (7-5) looming for UK (7-3) at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, the Cats are chomping at the bit.
"We're real anxious," Julius Mays said. "We've been practicing, getting a lot better. We're looking forward to implementing the things we've been working on in the game and look for the progression we made over the past week."
The progression Calipari and his players are looking for isn't complex. It's not about zone offense, pick-and-rolls, press attack or anything to do with Xs and Os. It's purely and simply about effort and intensity.
"Everybody's watching for the same thing," Calipari said. "Every fan and everybody else is just (wondering), 'Are they going to compete at a really high level? Are they going to battle? Are they going to talk more? Are they going to play with more energy?' If they do, we're all going to be really happy."
He won't be measuring those things by the final score against a Marshall team he said is "good enough to beat us." Instead, Coach Cal will be relying on his eyes and ears.
"Winning will take care of itself if we get to that point," Calipari said. "Right now, it's not even about that. It's just when you watch, are they competing at a higher level?"
Calipari wants to see a group of players functioning as one, and that can't happen without communication. The Cats have made small strides toward becoming a vocal team, but their coach believes they haven't quite grasped why that's so important.
"It's a form of selfishness when you don't talk," Calipari said. "You're worried about how you feel and you're understanding the impact that that has on your teammates. If you're really into what they are doing and you're there with your whole thought about helping your team, you talk a lot. If you're not into that thought, you're only into how you feel and what you look like, you don't talk."
Perfect communication is a tall order for a team of relative strangers, which is essentially what UK was just a few months ago. Kyle Wiltjer is the only regular returning from last year's national championship team, meaning no two Wildcats had played a meaningful college minute together before this season, save for a few minutes of Twany Beckham spot duty with Wiltjer on the floor.
However, the Cats are new to each other no longer, and the last two weeks have gone a long way toward breaking down any barriers on that front. Not only have players spent almost every waking minute thinking basketball or eating, they've done it together.
Mealtime was a favored point of discussion as players answered questions from the media on Friday. Cauley-Stein believes learning about his teammates off the court is paying off on it.
"It's fun when we go out to eat," Cauley-Stein said. "We get to learn about more guys that you wouldn't have thought they done that. Like last year, they tell stories about last year and it's just fun."
Calipari agrees that it all goes hand-in-hand.
"And now they're eating right, so now all of a sudden they're gaining weight, they're getting energy back," Calipari said. "It's all intertwined together. They're together, they're pushing each other, they're eating their meals together, they're eating all their meals."
New offensive coordinator Neal Brown was introduced to the media on Tuesday. (Evan Crane, UK Athletics)
The 2012 football Wildcats were bitten hard by the injury bug. There was perhaps no bigger blow to the team all season was the loss of sophomore starting quarterback Maxwell Smith.
The coaching staff had high hopes for Smith and the offense that had been installed during the offseason and heading into the fall. Early returns were strong. In four games played, which is realistically three because Smith went out early in his fourth game of the season, Smith threw for eight touchdowns and averaged 243.8 passing yards per game.
But with Smith's season-ending injury against South Carolina, true freshman Jalen Whitlow stepped in in an emergency role. He kept the Wildcats in it to halftime, but USC figured out the limited freshman and exposed the quarterback in the second half. Fellow true freshman Patrick Towles also saw some playing time as Whitlow and Towles were expected to split time for the rest of the season. But Towles also sustained and ankle injury that held him out and kept him from getting as much in-game experience as he had hoped.
Smith, who could potentially receive an extra year of eligibility due to the timing of his injury, will be ready to compete for the starting job in the spring. The key word is "compete," as all three of the top quarterbacks on the roster could be in the same class if Smith is awarded the medical redshirt. And according to new offensive coordinator Neal Brown, the position is up for grabs.
"It's a good problem," said Brown. "And it's really not a problem, it's a situation. We've got three guys who can play quarterback in the Southeastern Conference. It is going to be an open competition."
One of the first orders of business for Brown was to try and look at his personnel. After seeing what he had at the quarterback position, he and the staff decided that they would wipe the slate clean and allow all three quarterbacks to split reps in spring practice. The competition will then carry itself into the summer as they prepare for the 2013 season.
His message to them heading into the spring: "Let's get better."
"I said, 'Hey, I am not going to spend a whole lot of time watching what you did before," said Brown. " 'There are going to be some fundamental things that are nonnegotiable that we are going to do. Y'all are going to start on the same level playing field, best man wins.' "
Brown's offense simple but effective
Brown played in and is a disciple of former Kentucky head coach Hal Mumme's "Air Raid" offense. It's an offense that has spread throughout the college ranks, with slight variations and disguises.
"The base plays that you are going to see on Saturday afternoons when Coach Mumme was here, those plays are the same," said Brown. "Those base plays are really the same plays you are seeing at West Virginia being highly successful, at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State is using those same plays, Oklahoma is using those base plays."
And those plays haven't changed much since 1997 when Mumme brought his offense to the bright lights of SEC football. But at its base, the offense is a simple one that his players should have no problem picking up. Even from the first day of practice.
"It's really a simple system," said Brown. "The first three days of spring practice we'll install the whole system. It's a system that the quarterbacks will be able to learn in a two- to three-week period while I'm gone recruiting."
The offense is centered around the passing game, and with the simplicity of the offense, the quarterbacks should not have any trouble grasping it early on. But from there, those quarterbacks have to have skilled receivers to deliver on the other end.
Brown is looking for "good skill people" to get them the ball out in space and make defenders have to make open-field tackles. It's a key part of the offense. The spread offense does just that: the manner in which the offense lines up spreads out the defense, creating more one-on-one opportunities for the offense.
Tempo is another key to the success of Brown's new offense. They will run the offense fast and efficiently to keep the defense on their heels for most of the game. It wears out the defense and gives the offense more opportunities to put up points. But while the passing game might bring the excitement, the running game will play an equally important part.
Brown noted that he and his assistants must make a concerted effort to run the football to balance the offense and take advantage of some personnel mismatches on the other side of the ball. In the SEC, it's important to be able to run the football to keep the defenses honest. Luckily for Kentucky, the running-back position were the bright spot on the offense last season and they have a great experience returning for 2013.
Brown's family 'fired up' even after warning
It had been a dream of Brown's to one day coach at Kentucky. After all, he is a former Kentucky wide receiver from the nearby city of Danville. Brown is now back home and much closer to his family.
That proximity and comfort was also what worried him most about taking the position of offensive coordinator at his alma mater. Brown is worried about his family being exposed to the realities of the profession he is in.
"There was a little bit of hesitation from a coaching perspective because I have been gone other places," said Brown. "At Texas Tech I was 16 hours away. You guys know how the profession is, you have created some of the things in the profession so you know how it is, but there is a lot of pressure and that is the way it should be really."
After many discussions with his family and friends, everyone got on board with the decision and it didn't take long before Brown was back in blue.
"They were isolated from that when I was away, but now it is going to be at their front door," said Brown. "Those are things, when it got serious, were the discussions I had with my family and my wife's family just to make sure they understand.
"They do and they are fired up about it."
Brown's message to in-state recruits: 'Come be a hero'
One of the reasons Mark Stoops was hired as the next head football coach at the University of Kentucky was his recruiting connections in Ohio, Florida, and other recruiting hotbeds across the country. One of the most important recruiting grounds for the Wildcats, however, will be Commonwealth itself.
As a former in-state player himself, Brown knows how it feels to suit up for the blue and white after growing up a Kentucky fan all of his life. Brown mentioned former in-state Kentucky legends like Tim Couch and Andre Woodson. Those players became heroes in the state after illustrious careers as Wildcats.
What is Brown's message to Kentucky kids?
"Come be a hero," said Brown.
For those players that do, life is good.
"You look at the guys that play well at the University of Kentucky that are homegrown products," said Brown. "They come back here to live, and they have good lives."
Brown knows firsthand. After all, he's a product of it: a former player who has gone out and made a name for himself on the national circuit. But the former Wildcat has remained a household name for Kentucky fans. He's a prime example that if you do things the right way, you can always come home.
"You're at a place where you have a personal investment, where you grew up a fan," said Brown. "I was one of them. I can tell you that. If you can do that at the state school, then it's going to be a special thing.
"And to do it, there's a good opportunity that you're going to stay employed for a long time here."
In the words of the Athletics Director himself, Kentucky student-athletes came "dangerously close" to Mitch Barnhart's goal of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average each of the past two semesters.
This fall, UK surged past that threshold.
During a semester in which UK was just one of three programs nationally to earn the right to host first-round NCAA Tournament games in women's soccer, men's soccer and volleyball, competing scholarship student-athletes attained an average GPA of 3.030. The GPA for all competing student-athletes, including those not on scholarship, was 3.034.
"I see how hard our student-athletes work every day and this is the result," Barnhart said. "I am proud of the commitment our young people and coaches have made to academics. Education is one of the pillars of our program and I want to thank CATS and our entire support staff for taking that to heart." ***See below for complete grade information for each sport***
Counting competing scholarship student-athletes only, 17 of the department's 20 teams topped a 3.0 GPA, led by the women's tennis team at 3.842. Two more teams had cumulative GPAs of 3.6 or better: women's cross country (3.608) and women's golf (3.604). Men's tennis led all men's teams with a GPA of 3.210.
Among teams that hosted the NCAA Tournament this fall, women's soccer (3.103) and volleyball (3.093) achieved GPAs of better than 3.0. In total, 10 of the 13 teams that participated in regular-season play during the fall semester had GPAs better than 3.0, including men's basketball. Featuring yet another group of freshmen ranked as the nation's top recruiting class, John Calipari's Wildcats had a team GPA of 3.066.
Looking at individual GPAs, UK student-athletes' work this fall is equally impressive. More than half the student-athlete population - 273 Wildcats - had GPAs of 3.0 or better, while 54 student-athletes had perfect 4.0 GPAs.
The work, however, is far from done. Barnhart has said all along that his goal is to maintain a 3.0 department-wide GPA for a full academic year. UK will be pursuing that goal and more in a continuing effort to prove that excellence in competition and in the classroom can go hand-in-hand.
Unless otherwise noted, all listed GPAs are for competing scholarship student-athletes.
2. Kentucky Wildcats Mark Stoops (former FSU defensive coordinator)
The more I learn about the youngest of the three college-coaching Stoops brothers, the more I like about what Mitch Barnhart did in luring him to Lexington. Stoops turned around Florida State's defense in short order, which was impressive (and why he got the job), but I really like the way he's gone about hiring a young, respected staff. As Lexington columnist John Clay noted, Stoops is 45 and his staff has an average of 39.4 years old.
But the relative age does not mean the assistants are bereft of accomplishments and praise. Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, 36, was a priority for Stoops. Eliot was his right-hand man in helping the FSU D go from 42nd in yards per game in 2010 to fourth in 2011 and second in 2012.
But in particular, I loved the hire of former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown as the new Kentucky offensive coordinator. Three Big 12 O-coordinators got head jobs, and the 32-year-old Brown likely will not be far behind them. In the meantime, Stoops has a bright recruiter and offensive mind; that was important for a coach known for his work on defense. It reminded me, sort of, of when Stoops' brother Bob hired Mike Leach as his first O-coordinator at Oklahoma.
Will the staff immediately make Kentucky a winner? Probably not. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina have a hold on the division. But the Wildcats might soon start making waves. They could pick off a team here or there, eventually getting a foothold. Stoops and his staff will get into Ohio to recruit and Kentucky is more talent-rich than some might realize.
Mark Stoops is less than a month into his tenure as Kentucky football coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had never been a head coach before, but he had a couple good resources at his disposal as he prepared to make the transition.
When his conversations with Mitch Barnhart turned to contract negotiations it became just a matter of time before he'd be occupying the big chair at Kentucky. At that time, he did as he often does and solicited the advice of his two brothers Bob - the current head coach at Oklahoma - and Mike - the former head coach at Arizona.
"They said, 'The first couple days your head will be spinning and you'll sit there and ask yourself what in the world you've done to yourself,' " Stoops said. " 'Because your life certainly has changed.' "
Having watched his brothers for so long and worked at high-profile programs like Miami and Florida State, Stoops had an idea what he was getting into. That doesn't mean there hasn't been a lot to deal with.
"I don't know if there's been surprises, but it definitely has been overwhelming at times," Stoops said. "I don't think there's any way around that for anybody, whether you've been a head coach or not."
After he coached his last game as the Seminoles' defensive coordinator, Stoops flew to Lexington for the first time. He held his introductory press conference on Sunday, then sat down in his office on Monday, quickly realizing he was alone. Support staff and graduate assistants were there to help, but Stoops had not yet hired a single assistant coach. It was up to him to meet his current players, introduce himself to committed prospects, recruit new ones and find coaches to join him.
Needless to say, he had a lot on his plate.
Days later, D.J. Eliot signed on as defensive coordinator. A few more and Neal Brown joined as offensive coordinator. Barely a week later, Stoops had assembled a seven-man coaching staff, leaving just two slots open, and the recruiting dead period began. With the holidays around the corner, Stoops finally has a chance to return to something that approaches a sense of normalcy.
"Feel very good this week, being able to put your feet on the ground, settle in a little bit today and this week," Stoops said. "Again, the staff came together very nicely...It's been a hectic two and a half weeks. The first two weeks were a complete blur, this week able to settle down a little bit."
Of course, normalcy is very different for a head football coach less than three weeks into his tenure. His wife and two young sons still are living back in Tallahassee, Fla., and Stoops has had nary a free minute to call and check on his family.
"We understand that goes with the territory," Stoops said. "My wife does a good job of keeping me grounded at times."
She'll surely do an even better job keeping him grounded when the family is back under one roof again. That process is underway.
"I pick the job, she picks the house," Stoops said.
Stoops happy with coaching staff, coordinators in particular
Kentucky fans and media are still learning about the seven coaches Stoops has brought in as assistants, but one thing already sticks out about the group: youth.
Stoops confirmed on Wednesday that youth was an attribute he sought out in assembling his staff. But more than that, he was looking for a little hunger.
"I felt like the mold that I wanted was some guys that really had a little chip on their shoulder, wanted to prove something," Stoops said. "That fit very nicely with the coordinators and the rest of the staff."
The first two coaches to join Stoops were his two new coordinators, Eliot and Brown.
Brown, even though he's only 32, has five years' experience as an offensive coordinator. Not only does he fit the hungry bill, Brown's offense matches the description Stoops laid out at his introductory press conference.
"I think just being able to dress things up here and there, being creative in how you run the ball, being creative how you distribute the ball," Stoops said. "You've got to be obviously very well-balanced, but you've got to be creative to move the ball."
Brown would seem a good fit on the strength of his coaching credentials alone, but his background as a Kentucky native and former Wildcat wide receiver make him something close to ideal.
Stoops and Brown are still in the process of getting to know one another, but no such orientation is necessary between head coach and defensive coordinator as Eliot coached under Stoops at FSU. In spite of the fact that Eliot has never before been a coordinator, Stoops reported he had to "fend off" other schools seeking his services.
"It was important for me to be able to hire him here," Stoops said. "He's fired up and ready to go and done a tremendous job, full of energy and organization and work ethic, the whole deal."
If there were any lingering doubts before, Stoops knows now just how much he'll have to rely on Eliot.
"It would be impossible for me to run the defense the way it needs to be run with me being a head coach," Stoops said. "So Coach Eliot will run that. I have 100 percent confidence in him and he knows what I want and the way we do things together."
It's not as if Eliot will be on his own though.
"I will, of course, be there to help him because he has not been a coordinator, so I will be there to help put things together and game plan certain problems that he may be having," Stoops said. "Just the experience factor, I'll help him in that area. But I have tremendous confidence in him."
Stoops aware of excitement surrounding program
Stoops found out everything he needed to know about the passion and buzz surrounding Kentucky football at his introductory press conference.
He hasn't had a lot of time to gauge fan opinion since with all the responsibilities he's juggling, but he knows the assistants he has hired and the signing of junior college standouts Za'Darius Smith and Steven Borden have done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm.
"I'm not surprised by that," Stoops said. "This is the SEC and I know the fans of Kentucky want great football. That doesn't surprise me one bit. I expected that. I expect great support. I believe in the fan base here, I see their passion and so we're all in this thing together and working forward to it, embracing it."
Athletics department staffers help keep Stoops up to date on the goings on outside of his program and he also had a chance to meet with former UK quarterback Tim Couch on Tuesday night on the matter. Couch, who participated in the interview process that led to Stoops' hiring, made sure to pass along the belief that fans are very much behind him.
"It's great to hear," Stoops said. "We're going to need that. We're going to need great support. We're all in this together, and I need that. I mean it."
A two-time All-American, Sam Bowie is a Kentucky legend. He spent five years in Lexington, played in a Final Four and still ranks among the top-10 shot blockers and rebounders in school history. Nevertheless, Bowie is better remembered by the sports world at-large for a series of injuries that undermined the 7-footer's limitless potential.
On Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPNU, ESPN Films will provide a more nuanced look at Bowie's career. As part of the SEC Storied series, Going Big will dig deep into Bowie's story, from the Portland Trail Blazers selecting him second overall in the draft in 1984 to his final NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1994-95.
When he was first approached about the film, Bowie was reticent to participate. Ultimately, Bowie became convinced that director Tom Friend would paint a fair portrait.
"I would hope that (viewers) would take away that this Sam Bowie kid was relentless and he had no quit in him," Bowie said in an interview with ESPN Front Row. "Never give up. And I don't think that's a characteristic that can be taught. I think when they talk about God-given talent, that's one quality that's never really brought up. They talk about speed and how high one can jump and he's a freak of nature in regards to being an athlete. But you either have the "never give up" gene or you don't."
Bowie was there for a private premiere showing of the film on Monday on the UK campus. There, Bowie spoke about the film. Listen to some of his comments in the video below.
Also, here is a trailer for Going Big.
For more on the film, here are a few stories that have been written about it this week.
With almost two months before February's regular signing period, Kentucky's new coaching staff got a chance to test out the fax machine at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday morning.
This was no dry run though.
Dec. 19 was the first day mid-year junior college transfers could sign National Letters of Intent. It also happened to be the first opportunity for Mark Stoops had to add talent to his roster.
Two conclusions can be drawn based on the documents arriving at the UK offices. First, the fax machine works. Second - and more importantly - so too does Stoops' recruiting pitch.
"There were some high-fives in the office this morning, oh yeah," Stoops said. "We were excited, very much so."
Stoops and his fellow coaches had good reason for a little celebration as they welcomed defensive end Za'Darius Smith and tight end Steven Borden into the fold. Barely three weeks removed from being officially named UK head coach and with assistants anywhere from one to 13 days into their tenures, landing players of the two junior college standouts' caliber is quite an accomplishment.
Being the first to come on board is a leap of faith for the two signees - both of whom plan to enroll in January - but Stoops encouraged them to embrace it, Smith in particular.
"That was a part of what we were selling is, 'Hey, set the tone; set the precedence for the new Kentucky football,' so it was tremendous that he believed in us," Stoops said.
The 6-foot-6, 255-pound defensive end had his pick of schools, including Miami, Texas and Texas A&M. He is rated as a four-star prospect by most outlets and the top junior college defensive end in the nation by some. Smith was recruited by Stoops at Florida State and played for new defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh for one season at East Mississippi Community College.
"What helped me make my decision was my relationship with Coach Brumbaugh, Coach (D.J.) Eliot and Coach Stoops and my trust in them," Smith said.
The news of Smith's signing came as a surprise to many experts, especially considering he made his pledge without visiting the UK campus. Since he was in such high demand, Smith had already made his five allotted official visits this fall. Unable to host him in Lexington, Stoops and Brumbaugh flew to visit Smith and his mother in his native Greenville, Ala.
"Thank you to him and his mother for the tremendous confidence and faith that they have in us and this program to get this done, to sign the National Letter of Intent without ever even stepping foot on this campus says a lot about what he believes," Stoops said. "He believes in the people that are here at Kentucky and the staff that we put together."
Just as Smith believes in Stoops, Stoops believes in Smith.
With him having racked up 47 tackles and 6.5 sacks last season en route to second-team All-America honors, Stoops sees in Smith a versatile player who fits a need.
"Here's a player that has tremendous physical gifts," Stoops said. "He's 6-5, maybe 6-6, 250 and a tremendous player...an every-down guy. He'll be great against the run, great pass rusher, just an impact type of guy. For him to come in and address the situation at defensive end was very critical."
Borden addresses a similar need.
UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown recruited Borden to Texas Tech, so Brown immediately brought up the name of the 6-3, 250-pound tight end. Playing last season at Kilgore (Texas) College, Borden was selected second-team all-conference. Even though he only recently began playing tight end, he caught 11 passes for 118 yards and four touchdowns in 2012.
"Once Neal brought him to the table, we were able to watch film on him," Stoops said. "I loved him and felt like there was a need, felt like he was a very versatile player."
Even though he's officially been a Wildcat for less than 24 hours, Borden has already developed a following among UK fans. Last weekend, news of his on-campus visit spread rapidly as his father Steve - better known as his professional wrestling name, Sting - accompanied him. Aware of his background, Stoops jokingly issued a challenge to the elder Borden.
"I asked him in the indoor (facility) if he wanted to throw around a little bit but he didn't want any piece of me," Stoops said.
After his two signings, opposing coaches might not want any piece of Stoops either. He knows he won't win every one of these battles, but if Wednesday is any indication, that fax machine will be getting plenty of work.
"It makes you feel very good about the future," Stoops said. "Myself and the staff, we've been through those and we expect to win our fair share of recruiting battles, but that first one with a player like him in such a short amount of time definitely energized us."
UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart announced a six-year contract extension Wednesday for head volleyball coach Craig Skinner on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Craig Skinner was the third head coaching hire made by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart. Skinner came in after former football head coach Rich Brooks and former women's basketball coach Mickie DeMoss. Hired in 2004, Skinner is not only still the head coach of the women's volleyball program at UK, but Barnhart announced Wednesday that Skinner would be staying around even longer with a six-year contract extension.
Skinner has essentially rebuilt the volleyball program at Kentucky, one that had struggled since the early 1990s, and has restored it to national prominence with three appearances in the Sweet 16 in the last four seasons. It's been the dedication of both Skinner and his staff as well Barnhart and his administration that has allowed the volleyball program to not only rebuild but to reach new heights in program history.
Wednesday's announcement signified the unified efforts and dedication to try and take the Kentucky volleyball program to the next level.
"We are doing some special things," said Skinner. "We have done some great things and we want to continually compete for championships each and every year. We want to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament each year and be nationally recognized as the landscape of volleyball changes with the conferences changing."
The goal is to win championships at this point. Skinner has come close multiple times to winning an SEC championship, but has fallen just short. Those efforts will continue at an even stronger pace with a renewed vote of confidence from the administration.
His extension has Skinner fired up about next season and beyond as he looks to the future of the Kentucky volleyball program.
"To me, it's unbelievably exciting because in our sport, it doesn't happen very often that you get a contract of this length," said Skinner. "If it's exciting to me, I need to parlay that into our recruits, our current players, and I'm excited to take the next step and get better and never see a day that we aren't trying to improve ourselves. That the people we are trying to recruit understand that this is a long-term deal and something that we don't want to be OK, we want to be great."
The contract extension serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, it keeps one of the most highly esteemed volleyball minds at Kentucky to continue to build his program. The extension serves as a sign of stability to allow recruits and their families to know that Skinner will be coaching the Wildcats for the foreseeable future. It also allows Skinner to continue to raise his family in the only place that his children have ever called home.
"Megan (Skinner's wife) and I came here to Lexington wanting to raise our kids and come to a great place and we are grateful to have the opportunity to do that," said Skinner.
But now it's time to get to work.
Skinner isn't complacent. He never has been. And he's looking for ways to get over the hump. Reaching the Sweet 16 was a great first step, but this program, in his eyes and the eyes of the administration, is about setting their sights on winning those championships at both the conference and national levels.
This extension, along with some additional perks of the contract, should theoretically, and at some point realistically, allow Kentucky to not just compete for, but win those championships. Primarily, Skinner hopes that the new contract will help him be able to tell parents of recruits, "Yes, I'm going to be here if your daughter comes to Kentucky." He also hopes that it will allow him to go after and land some of the top volleyball talent in the country to help get him where he wants his program to be. That's why Barnhart felt it was necessary to keep his man, the guy he hired and is now the longest tenured Kentucky coach to be hired under Barnhart, to remain a Wildcat.
"Have people pursued Craig?" asked Barnhart. "I have no idea what all those conversations look like but we're foolish to think he's not on a lot of people's radar screen. We want to prevent that from happening. We don't want to give him any reason to go out there and pursue that.
"We want him here at Kentucky. He's an important part of us."
And because of that dynamic, the relationship has flourished and grown deeper, not only professionally but also personally.
"You get in the trenches with people and you're in with them, it gets personal," said Barnhart. "When you're standing in the hallway outside the locker room when you lose in the NCAAs and you see how hard they poured themselves into this deal and what it means. I think that slips away from us sometimes."
Barnhart was there with Skinner after his most recent loss, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of No. 1 seed and eventual Final Four participant Penn State. It's more than just words. It's more than just money. Both of these men are deeply invested in the growth of this program at all levels.
The next step for Skinner is to figure out exactly how to do it. That itself is a daily process.
"I think we try and learn every day," said Skinner. "We try and learn, 'Did we do this correctly? Are we attacking this system the right way?' I think as you get longer into the process, you learn quicker what works and what doesn't work."
What always helps that process is a strong roster full of talent. Not just talented athletes, but athletically gifted volleyball players who go about their business the right way. As important as Skinner might be to the structure of the program, the players he is coaching are the ones out of the floor, winning or losing games.
Thus far in Skinner's career, he's brought in several top-25 recruiting classes nationally. While he's been able to coach those players up, develop their skills, and teach them how to win in, he now seeks difference makers that possess unteachable skill and ability.
That's how you get to the next level.
"We all become a lot better coaches when we have great players," said Skinner. "Recruiting is everything. You need difference makers to get through the regionals, you need difference makers to win championships and we're continually seeking those players."
Those difference makes will not only affect the outcome of games, but will make huge differences in whether or not this program can reach those new heights.
"Going to the next level is big jump and I want our current players, our future recruits, our incoming players to understand, we've done great things but if we're satisfied with that then I don't want you to be part of this program," said Skinner. "I want people to be part of this program to compete with (national champion) Texas, to compete with the best teams in our league, to compete with teams going to the Final Four and it takes a heavy investment from myself, our players and a joint relationship with our administration to make that next pitch."
On Tuesday afternoon, Kentucky Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart spent nearly an hour talking to Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal about the hiring of Mark Stoops and the state of UK football.
Tucker has broken up the conversation into a three-part transcript that you can read at the links below:
"We needed new hope," Kentucky's athletics director said Tuesday in a 50-minute interview inside his office at the Joe Craft Center. "You go from believing you're going to win to hoping you're going to win to no hope. We've got to reverse that and go from no hope to having hope again to believing you're going to win. I think our fans have hope again."
The reason behind the hope is 45-year-old Mark Stoops, the former Florida State defensive coordinator Barnhart picked three weeks ago to replace Joker Phillips as head coach of the Kentucky football program.
Since Stoops' arrival, there has been a groundswell of enthusiasm from a football fan base that had suffered through a 2-10 season, a drastic drop in home attendance and the firing of the head coach, himself an alumnus.
Guy Ramsey took on the rigorous task last holiday season of dubbing Wildcats esteemed victors of the 2011 Scratchies. The Scratchies commemorate the best of the best of the fall semester, celebrating the many achievements and top events and performers so far in the athletic calendar. Guy has, with great regret and sorrow due to a stressful and hectic schedule, passed along the duties of handing out these illustrious Wildcats to me. After putting in countless hours of research and analysis, consulting with the Cat Scratches brain trust, and many sleepless nights, it is with great honor that I present to you the winners of 2012 Scratchies for the fall semester...
MVW (Most Valuable Wildcat) Cally Macumber (Cross Country) - The 2012 cross country season was one of the best in Kentucky history as junior Cally Macumber helped welcome new head coach Edrick Floreal with an individual SEC Championship. Macumber won the SEC Championship on Oct. 26, she earned SEC-best times in both the 5,000- and 6,000-meter events, won SEC Athlete of the Week twice, and was named 2012 SEC Cross Country Runner of the Year. She became the first Wildcat to win the women's SEC Title since 1989.
The Dream Team (team of the semester) Volleyball - For the second time in as many seasons and the third in four years under head coach Craig Skinner, the Kentucky volleyball team advanced to the Sweet 16. Kentucky earned the No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, giving the Cats the opportunity to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats defeated East Tennessee State to move on and face Ohio State. Kentucky won convincingly over the Buckeyes, 3-1, after dropping the first set.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, they would be matched up with the No. 1 seed in Penn State in the West Lafayette, Ind., Regional. The six-time NCAA Champions fought off the Wildcats as UK made runs in the first two sets and ended another successful Kentucky season. The Cats finished the year with another 20-win season with a final record of 22-11. They faced one of the toughest schedules in the country, beat Tennessee twice, and had three Wildcats named All-Americans including second-team selection Whitney Billings and honorable mentions Stephanie Klefot and Christine Hartmann.
The Adolph Rupp Award (coach of the semester) Jon Lipsitz (women's soccer) and Johan Cedergren (men's soccer) - The Kentucky soccer programs each reached new heights in the respective programs this season, and much of the credit goes to those running those teams. Women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz guided his team to the first NCAA Tournament win in program history with a victory over UT Martin in the first round. Kentucky racked up big wins against Louisville and Florida and finished 14-7-1 to cap off one of the best seasons in program history.
Johan Cedergren's first season at the helm of the men's program got off to a rocky start, but it didn't take long before he rallied the troops. The Cats dropped their first three matches of the season before getting in the win column against Saint Joseph's. The Wildcats' next win came in a huge upset over rival Louisville, which sparked a four-game win streak. After a tie against Memphis and losses to Indiana and Southern Methodist, Kentucky went on another four-game win streak to put itself in prime position to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Not only did Kentucky make the NCAA Tournament field, but the Cats were selected to host the first round for just the second time in program history. Kentucky fell to No. 19 Xavier in the first round, but UK finished with a 10-9-2 record and Cedergren looks to have his program on the rise.
The Butler-VCU Award (surprise team of the semester) Men's soccer - When UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hired Johan Cedergren to become the new head coach of the men's soccer program, most expected Cedergren to eventually right the ship and get the team headed in the right direction. But no one could have expected the run they would go on after starting the season 1-4-0. There was a gloomy outlook on the beginning of the season as Cedergren looked to install his style on his veteran squad. But the Wildcats got a broke out and broke through with an upset win on the road over rival Louisville. After the 1-4-0 start, Kentucky went on to post a 9-5-2 mark over its last 16 games, building a strong enough resume not only to make the NCAA Tournament, but also host the first round for the second time in program history.
One Shining Moment (best moment)
Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart introduces his newest hire in head football coach Mark Stoops in his first press conference. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Stoops Press Conference (football) - Kentucky football got a shot in the arm with the hiring of Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops as the new head coach at the University of Kentucky. It was a hire that reignited passion in the Kentucky football program as Stoops brings with him an impressive resume backed up by a pedigree of successful collegiate football coaches.
After an exhaustive coaching search, Barnhart found his man and officially named Stoops the next head football coach on Nov. 27. And for the first time as the new head coach, he was introduced to the media, donors, Kentucky Athletics staff and some fans for the very first time during an elaborate celebration/press conference on Dec. 2. Stoops and his family got to see firsthand what the Big Blue Nation is all about as he was first greeted by fans waiting outside of the Nutter Field House in the rain. As he entered, he was met by Kentucky cheerleaders and the sound of the Kentucky fight song on his way to the podium to meet Barnhart and UK President Eli Capilouto.
The hiring and the event sparked the Kentucky fan base and now has the state buzzing about football in the thick of the college basketball season.
The "Band is Out On the Field" Award (best game/match) Volleyball comes back from 2-0 deficit at Tennessee - Kentucky was looking for its first season sweep of Tennessee since 1995. The Wildcats earned their first three-set sweep over the Volunteers since that same 1995 season in their first meeting of 2012. Knoxville, Tenn., had not been kind to the Wildcats in recent history, and it looked as if history would repeat itself once more. After the first two sets of the match, the Wildcats faced a 2-0 deficit at the break and it was all but certain that UK would split matches with UT.
The Wildcats came out angry and hammered the Vols, 25-14, in the third set. They then held off UT in set four, forcing the decisive fifth set with a 25-22 victory. Riding all of the momentum of the match, stealing it directly from the clutch of Tennessee's hands, Kentucky handled the Volunteers with a 15-5 in a set where UT never threatened. And for the first time in 17 years, Kentucky returned to Lexington with two wins over the neighbors to the south.
The Doug Flutie Hail Mary Award (best play)
Hubly's golden goal in 93rd minute earns first-ever NCAA Tournament victory - Kentucky and UT Martin were locked in a scoreless battle heading to overtime. The Wildcats had earned the right to host the first round as they sought the first NCAA Tournament win in program history. In the 93rd minute of the game, freshman Kelli Hubly came from the right wing, took a one-on-one opportunity, beat the defender and knocked her shot in past the diving UT Martin goalkeeper for the game winner.
Honorable mention: Janee Thompson's three, Azia Bishop's block clinch comeback win at Louisville for UK Hoops
All-Wildcat Team (the Scratchies equivalent of the All-America Team) Cally Macumber (XC)- SEC Cross Country Runner of the Year, SEC Champion Whitney Billings (volleyball) - Second-Team All-American Avery Williamson (football) - Second in SEC in tackles with 135 while adding three sacks Larry Warford (football) - Three-year starter at offensive guard named All-American by AP Stephanie Klefot (volleyball) - SEC Libero of the Year for conference record third consecutive season Arin Gilliland (women's soccer) - First-Team All-SEC Matt Lodge (men's soccer) - First-Team All-C-USA Steven Perinovic (men's soccer) - First-Team All-C-USA Greg Ferrucci (diving) - Two-time SEC Diver of the Week so far in 2012 Henri Junghanel (rifle) - Tied a program best shooting a 597 in the air rifle event
All-Calipari Team (all-freshman team) Courtney Raetzman (women's soccer) - Freshman All-SEC scoring four goals with 12 total points Kelli Hubly (women's soccer) - Scored six goals, including a game winner in the NCAA Tournament Sara Schwarzwalder (volleyball) - Freshman All-SEC tallying 149 kills (1.51 k/set) in 30 starts Landon Foster (football) - Named to the first team Freshman All-America by Scout.com as well as earning All-SEC Freshman accolades Archie Goodwin (men's basketball) -Averaging team-highs in points (15.8) and assists (4.4) through 10 games Nerlens Noel (men's basketball) - Putting up impressive numbers across the board, averaging 10.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 spg, 3.9 bpg through his first 10 games Rebecca Hamperian (diving) - Named SEC Female Freshman of the Week (Nov. 6)
All-Up-and-Comers(non-freshmen on the rise) Kyle Wiltjer (men's basketball) -First double-double with 23 points, 12 rebounds vs. Lipscomb (averaging 11.7 points on the season) Zan Morgan (volleyball) - Started for the first time as junior in 2012 averaging 2.3 kills/set and 1.1 blocks/set Samarie Walker (women's basketball) - Has started all 10 games this season averaging 9.0 points and 7.6 rebounds Charles Pettys (men's soccer) - Scored six goals in his junior campaign in 18 games this season Liz Breed (women's golf) - The junior shot a 2-under-par (70) helping UK to a 6-under-par score, a record low round in program history, at the Alamo Invitational in San Antonio, Texas Will Bishop (men's golf) - The sophomore won the Cabo Collegiate shooting 2-under-par for the event to pick up his first collegiate victory
He said what? (quote of the semester) - "We've been sitting in the office for three years going, '2012, 2012, 2012. And that doesn't mean we didn't think it could happen before. We almost did it last year, but it was our dream that we knew it was going to happen this year. We knew." - Jon Lipsitz after women's soccer won the first NCAA Tournament game in program history.
The Dougie Award Coach Mitchell dances to MC Hammer at Big Blue Madness
On Tuesday, John Calipari joined with Samaritan's Feet and took his team to rural Campton, Ky., to deliver shoes and wash the feet of students from two local elementary schools.
Calipari called it a "big day" for his players and the children because of what both groups would get out of the experience. Eric Lindsey of CoachCal.com accompanied the team on the trip and has this account:
Calipari said Tuesday's stop at Campton was just another way to teach his players that they've been put in a position to help others.
"I think a lot of the people look at us as role models, so be able to actually come here and see us in person, it probably makes their world," graduate student Julius Mays said. "It's probably an early Christmas present for them."
Tuesday wasn't the only day the Cats will be giving back for Christmas. On Wednesday from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., Calipari and the players will be at three different locations in Lexington to collect coats for the Calipari Foundation's "Cal's Coats for Kids" drive.
Anyone in the Lexington area that has a new or gently used coat can drop one off at Man O' War Harley-Davidson or the Wildcat Wearhouse locations at Fayette Mall and in Hamburg. The coats will go to Lexington area families in need.
Current Cats aren't the only ones being charitable during the holidays. Charlotte Bobcats rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist donated more than 100 jerseys and backpacks to Sterling Elementary Basketball, the league in which Kidd-Gilchrist played as a youngster in Somerdale, N.J. Also, DeMarcus Cousins played Santa Claus and hosted a shopping spree for 50 Sacramento, Calif., children. Take a look at this video of "Santa Cuz."
A Bluegrass native and former Wildcat wide receiver, Neal Brown returns to UK after three seasons as offensive coordinator at Texas Tech. (Texas Tech Athletics)
Ever since he decided leave his home-state school in 2000 to finish his collegiate career at Massachusetts, Neal Brown has thought about a homecoming.
The Bluegrass native grew up a Kentucky fan and maintained his loyalty no matter whether football coaching had taken him to Deep South or the Northeast. He can even remember his family delaying the start of his grandfather's surprise 90th birthday to watch the end of UK's overtime upset of eventual national champion Louisiana State in 2007.
"We had to drive him around a little bit so the people at the house could finish watching the game," Brown said.
Brown, though, wasn't going to come back just come back. He had worked too hard to become recognized as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the game to make any move that wasn't the right one for himself, his wife, his two children and his career.
Fortunately for all parties involved, when new UK head coach Mark Stoops came calling with an offer to become offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, it was perfect.
At least for a while, it was no lock that Brown's UK return would happen.
Having coached offenses at Troy and Texas Tech that ranked in the top seven nationally in passing yards and top 15 in total yards each of the last four years, Brown emerged as a candidate for head-coaching jobs this offseason. As he sorted through his options, Stoops didn't pressure him for an answer. Quite the opposite in fact: Stoops related to Brown's experience and encouraged him to "Go through the process."
That told Brown everything he needed to know about the man he's now working for.
" 'This is a good guy. This is a good person. This is a guy that understands what we're doing on a day-to-day basis.' " Brown recalled telling his wife. "I said, 'I can work for him. I want to work for him.' "
Once he had a feel for Stoops, that cinched it. Brown already had all the information he needed about his new/old school.
"(Stoops) didn't have to sell me (on UK)," Brown said. "I have been sold on Kentucky football my whole life."
Brown was a part of some of Kentucky football's most memorable successes as a player. He was a wide receiver when Tim Couch was the quarterback and reached a pair of bowl games, including the Outback Bowl at the conclusion of the 1998 season.
In other words, he's seen firsthand the potential of Kentucky football.
"We have done it before and we are going to do it again," Brown said.
Looking to help take the program to new heights, Brown will install an offense that figures to remind fans of the Air Raid attack that set so many records in the late-1990s. The principles will remain much the same, as Brown plans to use tempo to catch opposing defenses off guard and spacing to allow athletes to make plays. The relatively simple nature of the offense will persist too. Brown said he expects complete installation to be complete within the first three days of spring practice.
The main difference between what fans will see out of UK next fall and the offense that had the sirens blaring in Commonwealth Stadium during the Hal Mumme era is versatility.
"Now, what we have done is we have made a concerted effort to run the football," Brown said. "We are playing at a faster pace and we dress those plays up with motions and different formations."
Over Brown's three seasons at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders rushed for 135.5 yards per game and 51 total touchdowns.
Fans who spend any time on social media have likely seen the nearly 11-minute video Brown encourages recruits to watch to demonstrate his offense. Although the touchdown-laced feature is certainly part of his pitch - which he had a chance to practice last week before the recruiting dead period - Brown is turning to something else entirely as his primary mode of persuasion.
"When I talk to people, I sell them on our vision and the number one thing we talk about is that our stadium will have 70,000 people in it," Brown said. "It will. There is a lot of excitement and our fan base is strong. It is going to be an exciting brand of football. It is a young coaching staff that can relate to players."
He has spent a lot of time around Kentucky football and Brown has never seen the mood surrounding it quite like this. He is following suit.
"I wish we had a game this Saturday because the excitement about football in the Big Blue Nation about football is at an all-time high," Brown said. "I really believe that. This state and this university are special to me. This isn't just another job to me. This is personal."
Winners of seven straight, the Wildcats travel to California for two games this week. (Michael Reaves, UK Athletics)
Kentucky had just completed a double-digit comeback at top-10 Louisville. Janee Thompson and Azia Bishop had just come through with the late-game heroics that gave the Wildcats their first win on their archrival's home floor since 1999.
Their coach, however, had a message to deliver that wasn't easy to hear. Once he and his team had finished celebrating their biggest victory of the season, Matthew Mitchell told the Cats they had not played up to his standards.
"We were not pleased at all with how we had played, and that's no disrespect whatsoever to Louisville," Mitchell said. "Louisville did a lot of things that made it difficult for us, but just the way that we played together in that game and...our lack of focus and cohesiveness really bothered me and we were so fortunate to win."
Overcoming a 14-point U of L lead with a 27-12 game-ending run demonstrated the kind of will to win that could carry the Cats in late-round NCAA Tournament games. But Mitchell saw elements of his team play that would never allow UK to get to that point if those things weren't addressed. In spite of the victory, he knew he had to tell some tough truths.
"I think that is just something that we try to adhere to as close as we can as our number one principle that we build the program on is honesty," Mitchell said. "Whether you win or lose sometimes you still need to be honest with the team with what you see on film."
Because honesty had been so well established as a core tenet of the program, Mitchell's players knew he wasn't using some sort of devious coaching ploy when he went after them in the days after the Louisville win. Because of that, Mitchell's players knew they had to respond with hard work in practice.
In dominating wins over DePaul and Middle Tennessee State the following Friday and Sunday, the fruits of their labor were on display. The No. 7/6 Cats (8-1) jumped out to a 25-2 lead over the Blue Demons en route to a 96-64 win, then prevailed in very different fashion two days later. UK used defense to smother MTSU, 68-46.
"They had some tough practices and I thought they responded really, really well particularly on the defensive end," Mitchell said. "We just made it difficult for either one of those teams, DePaul or Middle Tennessee, to do very much that they wanted to do."
Responding as well as the Cats did in the wake of a big win might be even more impressive than the way they bounced back from a loss at Baylor in November.
"That was a good sign that they understood we were fortunate to win, we didn't get our heads in the clouds that we had won a game on the road against our rival and I thought that did show something from them and show something positive," Mitchell said.
The Cats would have to wait nine days for another opportunity to show more such signs and try to extend their seven-game winning streak.
Last week was spent balancing final exams and practice obligations, but the fall semester is now over. On Sunday, the team departed for California for a two-game road swing. UK will take on Pepperdine at 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday and UC Santa Barbara at 6 p.m. on Friday.
"Being able to take some time as a team to get together and spend a good amount of time together I think will be beneficial," Mitchell said. "We are looking forward to it, we will need to go out and play real well to get two wins and I think that will be important heading into Christmas."
The trip will afford a pair of California natives - Brittany Henderson of Pasadena and DeNesha Stallworth of Richmond - an opportunity to play close to home.
"It's tough on their family and friends to get to watch them," Mitchell said. "We are real fortunate that most of our players are pretty close to or at least on the East Coast where they can get into Lexington pretty easily. Just to get them out there and give them that experience in playing in front of family and friends is important."
That's not the only reason why Mitchell planned the trip. Of course, spending extended time together as a team and playing in a pair of unfamiliar road environments are pluses as the Cats build for March, but Mitchell also put it on the schedule as a sort of reward.
The hotel where the team will stay in Santa Barbara is located within walking distance of the beach. The Cats will also head to Los Angeles on Wednesday night to watch a game between the Los Angeles Clippers and New Orleans Hornets to see Eric Bledsoe, Anthony Davis and Darius Miller.
"They have worked hard this semester, need to stay focused and take care of business out there," Mitchell said. "Get some wins but hopefully we can have some fun while we are there too."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Dec. 16:
Men's basketball: Nerlens Noel
Freshman Nerlens Noel continues to be a presence in all phases of the game following another quality outing in a win over Lipscomb. Noel posted seven points, nine rebounds, seven blocks, four steals and had an assist. He has logged five or more blocks in three-straight games including back-to-back seven-block performances. The seven blocks are a career-high. He's the first UK player to have 7+ blocks in two-straight games since Anthony Davis had seven vs. Tennessee and eight at LSU last season. He has logged at least six rebounds in every game and posted two or more steals in eight games this season. With four swipes against Lipscomb, Noel with 28 steals on the season is on pace to break UK's single-season steals record held by guard Rajon Rondo.
Men's basketball: Kyle Wiltjer
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer turned in the best performance of his career with a 23-point, 12-rebound outing in a win over Lipscomb on Saturday. Wiltjer registered his first career double-double effort with a career-high 12-rebounds and a season-high 23 point effort. His 7-of-9 day behind the arc also resulted in career-best tallies. The seven made 3-pointers matches a career-high total, while the .778 percentage is a career-high to couple with the made field goals and attempts. It is the first 20-point, 10-rebound performance for UK since Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in last season's Sweet 16 game. The 20-point game for Wiltjer is the second of the season and just the third of his career. The seven made 3-pointers ranks as the second-highest made in the John Calipari era, while the .778 clip is the fourth-best with a minimum of six-made 3-pointers during the four-year tenure of Calipari.
Joe B. Hall received some long overdue recognition last month with his induction in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame but his 1978 national championship team was not so fortunate. In conjunction with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the Final Four, the NCAA has come up with a list of the most memorable teams, players and moments and the '78 Cats were mostly ignored.
It's impossible to please everyone in an exercise like this so I can empathize with the criticism likely to come to the NCAA staffers who compiled these lists, with help from some media folks. Still, I'd love to hear some reasons why at particular Kentucky team got so little attention.
Jack Givens made the list of 75 players but his 41-point masterpiece against Duke in the title game didn't make the cut of 35 memorable moments. And he and his teammates were not among the 25 teams singled out as the all-time best (these lists can be viewed at NCAA.com and fans will get a chance to help pare them down for recognition at the 2013 Final Four).
Let's start with "The Goose." He made 18-of-27 field-goal attempts en route to the second-highest-scoring performance in championship game history. Givens bursts into the middle of the lane single-handidly ripped Duke's vaunted 2-3 zone to shreds.
To put someone on the list, it's only right to offer a suggestion or two for elimination. I'd offer up Rumeal Robinson's game-clinching free throws in the 1989 finale. Big shots, yes, but it hardly rivals what Givens did on the same stage. Or how about taking off Andre Turner's two buzzer-beaters in 1985? Clutch shots for sure and they propelled Memphis to the Final Four, where the Tigers lost to Villanova. I'd argue Givens' 41 points easily tops either.
Now, for the case for putting the '78 team on the list. Let's start with the 30-2 record and a national ranking that never slipped below third. And on the way to the title, each of the Wildcats' wins came against a top 20 team (No. 15 Florida State, No. 19 Miami, No. 4 Michigan State, No. 5 Arkansas and No. 7 Duke). And the Michigan State team that Kentucky defeated was led by Magic Johnson, who guided the Spartans to the championship the following season.
And let's talk numbers. The hyper-efficient Cats hit 54 percent of their field goal attempts and shot 76 percent at the free throw line.
Again, to put the '78 Kentucky team on the list of all-time greats, we need suggestions for which squads they could replace and I'll again offer two: 2004 UConn and 1993 North Carolina. Both lost more games and neither was anywhere near as dominant during their seasons or faced competition that was as stiff.
Men's basketball - Kentucky captured an 88-50 win over Lipscomb in its lone action of the week following finals week. - The Wildcats were led by a career-best day from sophomore Kyle Wiltjer who led the team with 23 points on 7-of-9 from 3-point range. He also added a career-high 12 rebounds for the first 20-point, 10-rebound double-double of the season for UK. - Freshman Nerlens Noel continues his steady play with seven points, nine rebounds, four steals and seven blocked shots. He's the first Wildcat to have consecutive seven-block efforts since Anthony Davis had seven vs. Tennessee and eight at LSU a season ago. - UK will enjoy another week between competition for the second-straight week before hosting Marshall on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET. Women's basketball - No. 7/6 Kentucky is in southern California this week for a two-game road swing. The Wildcats meet Pepperdine on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at 7 p.m. PST/10 p.m. EST in the Firestone Fieldhouse in Malibu, Calif., followed by a matchup with UC Santa Barbara on Friday, Dec. 21 at 3 p.m. PST/6 p.m. EST in Santa Barbara, Calif., at The Thunderdome. The trip gives California natives Brittany Henderson and DeNesha Stallworth the opportunity to play in their home state in front of their friends and family. - Henderson, a senior forward, hails from Pasadena, Calif., while Stallworth, a junior transfer from Cal, is a native of Richmond, Calif. Henderson played her prep career at John Muir High School, while Stallworth played at Pinole Valley. Stallworth went on to play two seasons at California before transferring to Kentucky last season. - The Wildcats return to game action after a week off for final exams. Prior to their break, the Cats defeated a tough Middle Tennessee squad 68-46 for their seventh consecutive win. The winning streak ties for 10th nationally. Overall, UK ranks seventh in the nation in scoring margin, outscoring its opponent by +26.2 points per game. UK also ranks third nationally in turnover margin (10.89) as the Wildcats are forcing 27.7 turnovers per game, while committing just 16.8. - Leading the way has been senior and All-America candidate A'dia Mathies. The 5-foot-9 guard averages a team-high 13.0 points, 2.7 assists and 2.2 steals per game. - Dominating the inside game is the dynamic post duo of Stallworth and junior forward Samarie Walker who average 11.3 and 5.4 points per game, respectively. Walker tops the team in rebounding with 7.9 rpg, while Stallworth averages 5.4 rpg and a team-high 1.7 blocks per game.
Tuesday, Dec. 18 Women's basketball at Pepperdine - 10:00 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 21 Women's basketball at UC Santa Barbara - 6:00 p.m.
Nerlens Noel has 39 blocks and 28 steals through 10 games of his collegiate career. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
By now, you've seen the breakdowns revealing just how similar Nerlens Noel's statistics through 10 games of his Kentucky career are to those of his predecessor, Anthony Davis.
Even though Noel and John Calipari insisted all preseason that the two big men should not be compared (a point that still stands, by the way), the fact of the matter is the two 6-foot-10 forwards don't look so different on paper.
The per-averages in points and rebounds (11.8 and 10.0 for Davis, 10.7 and 9.0 for Noel) are in the same ballpark. Noel is behind a bit in blocked shots (46-39, to be exact), but there's no shame in that given that Davis would go on to set UK and NCAA freshman records in the category. Davis has Noel in field-goal percentage (67.1-53.8), but Noel has almost twice as many steals (28-15).
That, along with Noel's bid to enter the record books in steals and blocks, has already been covered extensively in this blog post by Kyle Tucker. What I am more interested in determining exactly what all those statistics have meant to his team.
By the way, keep in mind that 10 games is a very small sample size.
Noel a wizard at keeping blocks in play
Noel arrived in Lexington with a reputation for emphatic blocked shots, which cast into doubt his ability to keep the ball in play. More than a month into the season, he is doing just fine with that.
Davis proved last year that a block that ends up in the hands of a teammate is much more valuable than one that ends up three rows into the stands. Amazingly, Noel has been even more effective than Davis at controlling his swats.
Let's take an inventory of Noel's 39 blocks based on play-by-play data.
17 (43.6 percent) were rebounded by a teammate
Five (12.8 percent) were rebounded by Noel
One (2.6 percent) went out of bounds off an opponent
13 (33.3 percent) were rebounded by an opponent
Three (7.7 percent) landed out of play
Noel's blocks have directly resulted in UK gaining possession 59.0 percent of the time, which is approximately a percentage point better than Davis last year. Moreover, an astounding 92.3 percent of Noel's blocks have either remained in play or went out of bounds off an opponent. By comparison, less than 80 percent of Davis blocks stayed in bounds.
On the 23 possessions that followed Noel blocks, the Wildcats have scored 25 points, many of which have come on fast breaks. When UK has scored after a Noel block, it has taken an average of 8.3 seconds to do so.
Now, here's a look at the kind of shots Noel has blocked.
25 (64.1 percent) were jumpers
13 (33.3 percent) were layups
One (2.6 percent) was a dunk
Most of Noel's blocks have come close to the basket. He is yet to block a 3-point attempt, which was a Davis specialty.
A look at Noel's thievery
Noel's 28 steals account for more than a third of UK's team total of 78. He ranks in the top 15 nationally in both total steals and steals per game and could top 100 for the season at his current pace, which would shatter Rajon Rondo's school record of 87. Noel also ranks 28th nationally in steal percentage at 5.38, according to kenpom.com, making him the only player taller than 6-7 to rank in the top 50.
Noel's steals have come in almost every conceivable way, ranging from pick-pocketing his man off the dribble to help defense to jumping a passing lane. That fact is proven by the following statistics.
14 (50 percent) of his steals came from players listed as forwards 10 (35.8 percent) came from players listed as guards Four (14.3 percent) came from players listed as centers
UK has scored 33 points directly off Noel's 28 steals, not counting second-chance points. Those scores have come almost exclusively on fast breaks with the Cats needing an average of just 5.1 seconds to do their damage. UK's scores an average of 1.18 points per possession off Noel steals compared to just 1.11 overall.
Overall defensive impact
When UK gets a defensive stop, there's a pretty good chance Noel will be involved.
Combining steals and the blocks that immediately result in UK possessions, Noel has personally accounted for 51 stops. Adding in his 60 defensive rebounds and taking away the five rebounds he has off his own blocks, Noel has had a direct statistical hand in the end of 106 opponent possessions. On the season, UK's opponents have had an average of 69.9 possessions per game, or 699 for all 10 games so far this season. Blocks, steals or rebounds by Noel have ended 15.2 percent of them.
Taking that a step further, Noel has played 74.5 percent of a possible 400 minutes this season. Using averages, he has played approximately 521 defensive possessions, meaning he has accounted for stops on 20.3 percent of them.
Going even deeper, UK's opponents have scored an average of 0.89 points per possession. With that number as the basis, the Cats have gotten defensive stops on an estimated 288 possessions with Noel on the floor. A Noel block, steal or defensive rebound has ended 36.8 percent of them.
When you consider this, along with the fact that the Cats have scored an average of 5.8 points per game directly off his steals and blocks, it's clear how important Noel is to UK's success.
Kyle Wiltjer scored 23 points on 7-of-9 3-point shooting in UK's 88-50 win over Lipscomb on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kyle Wiltjer's shooting struggles were well documented.
For six consecutive games, he had made no more than a single 3-pointer. Over that time, he was just 6 of 30 from beyond the arc and had seen his season 3-point percentage plummet from 63.2 to 34.7.
For a shooter of his reputation, it had to have felt good to see a career-high-tying seven 3s fall in just nine attempts. For his coach, it felt better to see him register another kind of career high.
"I don't care whether he made shots, he got 12 rebounds," John Calipari said.
For the first time in his 50 games at Kentucky, Wiltjer posted a double-double with 23 points and those aforementioned 12 rebounds. He split the boards evenly between the two halves and grabbed five on the offensive end in UK's 88-50 win over Lipscomb on Saturday.
"I kind of just went into the game having the mentality that I wanted to get some rebounds and mix it up," Wiltjer said.
Mix it up he did.
To open the game, the visitors - led by 6-foot-10, 285-pound freshman Stephen Hurt - had their way on the glass. In the first half, the Wildcat frontcourt players not named Wiltjer - Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein - combined for just five rebounds. To Calipari, that makes Wiltjer's rebounds impressive in spite of UK's wide final margin.
"You could say, well, they weren't that big," Calipari said. "Well, that big kid (Hurt) had nine rebounds at halftime. My two big guys, he had nine, so we had to go in there and mix it up a little bit."
At the opening tip, Wiltjer wasn't on the floor to stick his nose in. For the first time all season, Wiltjer came off the bench to allow Ryan Harrow to return to the starting lineup.
"I said, you know what?" Calipari said, recalling his ride to Rupp Arena. "I'm going to bring Kyle off the bench today. I figured it out an hour and a half before the game that that's what I wanted to do."
Considering Wiltjer's recent struggles, it would not have been a stretch to think the move was a motivational ploy on the part of Calipari, but that's not the case. Coach Cal said it was simply about getting his point guard back in the starting lineup and it came down to a decision between Poythress and Wiltjer. Once again, as Calipari said often last season, UK has more than five starters.
As for Wiltjer, returning to a reserve role did not affect his mindset.
"I just want to play my game whether I'm starting or coming off the bench," Wiltjer said. "I just wanted, when I got in there, to get some rebounds and I was lucky enough to be open."
Unlike in previous games, Wiltjer was able to capitalize on those chances. In searching for the difference, he looks no further than the hard work he logged in the week since UK last played.
"It shows how important extra work is and so hopefully we can keep working hard every day and keep getting better and making strides," Wiltjer said.
Certainly doing that on Saturday was the player who replaced Wiltjer as a starter. Harrow posted season highs in points (12) and minutes (31) against the Bisons while not committing a single turnover.
"I had a good week of practice so I felt like I was going to do good in the game today," Harrow said. "Taking some shots and missing some, but making some at the same time and staying aggressive and trying to find the open man and play defense. That's basically what I'm trying to do."
Harrow has also been undertaking an effort to be more vocal on the floor in an effort to address what Calipari believes to be a team-wide issue.
"It's frustrating, but we've gotten better," Calipari said. "We talked a little bit better today. Not where we need to be. What I want to do is get to a point where I don't have to yell, 'Talk.' "
UK's sophomore point guard recalled one instance when Calipari yelled at him specifically about talking more. Harrow's response was to speak up even when he didn't necessarily feel like he had anything worth saying.
"I might have been saying, 'Screen, screen, screen,' and the dude wasn't even up there to screen yet, so it was just something," Harrow said. "On defense, I (would say) a defensive term. 'Screen, screen, screen,' or something like that and the man wasn't even screening, so I was like, let me just say, 'Let's go!' from now on."
It might not be exactly what he was looking for, but Harrow making an effort to talk is progress.
The Cats just finished up a week of "Camp Cal," a week that greatly encouraged Calipari. Coach Cal didn't end up seeing quite the results he was hoping for, but the good news is that UK has a basketball-only week coming up. That makes the next seven days crucial in the development of this young team.
"I thought I'd see more of a change," Calipari said. "I saw a little change. We just went five days, and I saw a little change. So if I see a little change in this next week, from that point on, folks, we're not winning many."
John Calipari, Archie Goodwin and the Wildcats will face Lipscomb on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. in Rupp Arena. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Thursday was an especially busy day for John Calipari on his favorite social medium.
As he often does, Coach Cal took to Twitter to pass along a few thoughts to his 1.2 million followers. He voiced support for Kentucky's Miss America candidate, thanked a local business for providing lunch for staff, wished a friend a happy birthday and encouraged support for his "Cal's Coats for Kids" drive.
UK fans, as they always do, paid attention to what he had to say, but their ears perked up when he tweeted that he was "really encouraged" by the day's practice.
Inevitably, players were going to be asked about the practice when they talked to reporters on Friday. They agreed with Calipari's assessment.
"I think that we're definitely getting a lot better," Archie Goodwin said. "We sense it in just the way that the practices have been going, it's been helping us out as a team and individually with all the work that we've been doing. I feel a lot of confidence in us right now."
A sense of confidence isn't the only change at practice. Calipari also reported that Thursday's session was the most fun the team had had in the Joe Craft Center gym "probably in two months," a claim he based largely on a rarely seen expression on the face of Alex Poythress.
"Alex smiled for the first time this season," Calipari said.
Smiles aren't quite what you'd expect to see at a "Camp Cal" practice.
In the wake of back-to-back defeats and a second half against Samford that left much to be desired, Calipari announced he would be honing in on his team's conditioning. The Wildcats would awake before sunrise for workouts in addition to regular practices, during which they would run sprints as a team for any mistake - individual or otherwise.
It's been almost two weeks since the Calipari press conference at which he harped on conditioning, but in the 13 intervening days, it has become clear his words were about much more than his players' ability to physically exert themselves for long periods of time. Coach Cal was looking for his players to begin taking responsibility for themselves, for his players to hold each other accountable.
By waking up together to run, by running sprints no matter who committed the mistake, the Cats are understanding that they are in this together.
"What we're forcing them to do is be held accountable, we're forcing them to get up early and work out, which is mental toughness, and that they're held responsible for each other," Calipari said. "That's what I'm doing."
Early in the process, some players would speak up when ordered run to run the lines of the basketball court in 34 seconds or less, wondering aloud why they were included when they hadn't done anything wrong. Calipari had a simple answer for those complaints.
"Because we all lose," Calipari said. "When he does that right there, we all lose, including you, so get on the base line and run 34 seconds."
That message is now sinking in.
Calipari reports the team is running around 10 suicides per practice of late - down from 20 a couple weeks ago - and players are responding by talking to each other rather than talking back to their coach.
But there's still plenty of work to do on that front as the Cats prepare for a 12:30 p.m. matchup with Lipscomb in Rupp Arena.
"The reality of it is I had a guy in our gym watch us yesterday and say it's the quietest team he's ever seen," Calipari said. "Why would you be quiet? Why wouldn't you be really talking to your team?"
The fact that this team is the most inexperienced Calipari has coached at UK certainly helps explain that. The young Cats are often too consumed with their own responsibilities to concern themselves with much else. The mistake they are making is that concerning themselves with their teammates is part of each player's own job.
"That's what we're trying to break down," Calipari said. "If a team is a quiet team -- even though those kids are good kids -- they don't understand that's being selfish. They don't know. 'I passed the ball.' It's not about that. You're into your own thing if you're not communicating with your team."
Goodwin is perhaps the best illustration of that.
Effort has never been a problem for the athletic freshman guard. While some Wildcats have struggled to maintain intensity early in the season, Calipari has praised Goodwin for his "will to win" - though he did add Goodwin didn't always know how to channel it. In practice, Goodwin is the same way, finishing first in almost any sprinting drill.
On Friday, Goodwin was asked who is the most competitive player on the team. Without hesitation, he answered, "Me." As a follow-up, he was asked if his teammates would say the same about themselves. His competitiveness was apparent even in the way he fielded the question.
"If they told you that they were they're lying because I'm the most competitive guy on the team," Goodwin said.
Goodwin has typically relied on that zeal to inspire his teammates, but he knows he needs to evolve as a leader. He's not one to linger long on his own flaws, but he concedes that he must do a better job of taking Calipari's message about being vocal to heart.
"I'm vocal, but not as vocal as maybe a senior would be," Goodwin said. "I'm more a guy that leads by example that talks a lot, which is something that I've been working on. I've been talking a lot more (and) people on the team have too, but I've always been really the type to lead by example."
Thursday was proof that accountability can be fun. Keeping that going and taking the talking to another level will be the determining factor in how good the Cats become.
"He just wants us all, like I said, to hold each other accountable for things," Goodwin said. "He can do it, but until we do it we're not going to be a great team."
When CBS' Clark Kellogg worked the UK-Baylor game, he suggested Kyle Wiltjer might be trying to "aim" his shots instead of catching and shooting with confidence. I asked John Calipari what he thought about Wiltjer's shooting slump during a recent pregame radio interview.
"I just told him, 'Hold your follow through.' I think if he does that, he'll be fine. I'm not worried about that. I'm worried about him rebounding the ball. I'm worried about him helping his teammates on defense, staying in a stance, defending better. If he does that, he doesn't have to make every shot," Calipari said. "But if you're not and you're going 1 for 11, it's hard to keep (him) on the floor." Finding a comparison for Poythress
Fans like to find former players to use as comparisons to their current favorites. When Mike Pratt joined us on "The Leach Report" radio show this week, a fan wanted to know if Alex Poythress was a current version of James Lee, the rock solid sixth man on the 1978 national champs.
"He could use some of the James Lee aggressiveness," Pratt responded. "(I think) he's more of the Master Blaster, a Richard Madison-type of guy. If he can turn some of that finesse game into power, I think you've got one terrific baksetball player. He just lacks the consistency at both ends of the floor. He'll fade in and fade out." Extra practice time alone doesn't assure improvement
The Cats are getting an abundance of practice time this month, with a one-game-per-week schedule from December 8 through 29. But Pratt says there's no guaranteed timetable for the UK players answering the calls for certain areas of improvement.
"It's about maturity, about mindset, about drive. The maturity that you have to play a full game, right from the start. And that comes from the drive to be as good as you want to be. When that happens for this team, they're going to be very good," he said. "A lot of young teams have this problem every year. As a coach, you just keep pushing and talking and encouraging." Shot-blocking pace
Kentucky led the nation in blocked shots last season but this year's Cats are not too far off that pace.
UK currently ranks fifth nationally at 7.8 blocks per game. Kansas, St. John's, Syracuse and Arizona State rank ahead of the Cats.
Noel chasing Rondo
Much has been made of Nerlens Noel's shot-blocking acumen, so who would have thought that he could be on pace to break another defensive kind of defensive record? steals.
Rajon Rondo has the single-season steals record with 87 in 2005 but with a current average of 2.5 steals steals per game, Noel could re-write that entry in the record book, provided he keeps up his current pace (and Coach Cal noted in his postgame radio show last Saturday that Noel is taking a few too many gambles for steals right now).
Jared Prickett had 66 steals within UK's full-court press in 1997 and that's the best mark thus far for a player on the frontline.
Men's basketball senior guard Twany Beckham is working as a public relations and marketing intern with the University of Kentucky. As part of his internship, he interviewed Laura Luke - a graduating senior from West Liberty - about her time at UK in this video.
English transfer Ben Stow looks to put UK men's golf over the top this spring. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
He hadn't been in the United States much more than a month before he made a lasting impression on his coaching staff. They knew that they had found the foundation of their team, a guy who could take them to the next level.
English transfer Ben Stow was paired with two of his assistant coaches as well as a member of the Champions Trace Golf Club during their practice round. Due to a hectic school schedule created by the same circumstances that led him to the Commonwealth, he was forced to play in the first practice group in order to make class on time.
Stow was still new to the team, having just met his assistants and club member Jeff Garrett. While preparing for their first hole, volunteer assistant Tim Philpot laid out the situation for Stow.
"Jessie (Mudd) and I are playing you and Jeff Garrett, and Jeff is a 16-handicap," said Philpot.
Stow was first to tee off. As he teed up his ball and prepared his first shot, he looked back at the other members of the foursome and said, "Now he's an 11, because I'm a plus-five."
The English transfer promptly stepped up to his position in the tee box, wound up and launched his drive 300 yards down the middle of the fairway and went about his business.
That's who Stow is: a talented, confident, experienced player who figures to bolster a Kentucky men's golf lineup that found success in the fall without him.
Now Stow, who hasn't played in a single tournament since leaving his home in Salisburry, England in August, is chomping at the bit to compete for his new university and new teammates at the University of Kentucky.
That opportunity almost never came as concerns about credits transferring and visa issues arose.
Stow knew it wouldn't be easy, but the opportunity to test himself against some of the best competition the United States has to offer was the primary reason he chose to come to America, play for Kentucky and compete in the Southeastern Conference.
"I've competed at the highest level in Europe," said Stow. "So I was like, 'I want to go to America and see how I fare against those guys,' because there's some good players out here in collegiate golf."
Meanwhile, Stow was working tirelessly and purposefully to maintain his game as he plotted his potential move across the water hazard known as the Atlantic Ocean. He played a tournament in Iceland, the European Championship, spent six hours at home where he spent time with friends, ate dinner and was back in the air on his way to Kentucky.
It only took one visit to the United States, one visit to UK's campus - an empty summer campus with few students around - for Stow to make up his mind. He would spend his junior and senior seasons at the University of Kentucky instead of the United Kingdom.
"I sat down with my dad when I got back," said Stow. "I had eight hours on the plane, and I was like, 'Dad, I love it. I think it's the right thing to do.' "
Stow had other options. He says that South Carolina, Tennessee and Illinois each reached out to him, but Kentucky was the only place that he visited. But it was no stroke of luck that Stow randomly decided to play for Brian Craig and the Kentucky men's golf program. It all culminated with one of Craig's contacts, a valuable one that helped him land the talented European.
Terry Casey, the father of English golfer and PGA Tour member Paul Casey, had reached out to Craig to tell him about one of his players that he managed in the English Golf Union. Terry suggested to Stow that he think about playing in the United States and that he take a look at Craig's program at the University of Kentucky. Stow loved the atmosphere and the people that he met during his lone trip to the Bluegrass State.
The Atlantic Ocean was hardly the only obstacle between Stow and his collegiate golf career, however.
Often times, transferring from one college to another is a difficult process, even when both schools are in the same country. Credits don't transfer, curriculum differs, and not every institution offers the same degrees. Becoming an American student by transferring from an English university doesn't help much in those matters.
Stow and Craig waited, holding their breaths collectively waiting for a decision on whether or not Stow would be a Wildcat. It went down to the wire, but news finally broke that he would be eligible to play for Craig at UK.
Stow got over here as fast as he could, but time was ticking. Visa issues slowed the process down even more for him, and chances of him making it to campus in time for the beginning of his first semester were diminishing by the day. Looking for any possible way to speed up the process, the staff looked to Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell. The Senator came through, helped speed up the process and with great haste did Stow start his voyage.
At the last possible moment, Stow enrolled at the University of Kentucky right at the end of the add/drop period in the early portion of the fall semester. And the rest, well, is still to be determined.
Stow has yet to play a single round for Kentucky, but he's already making an impact on his new teammates who have taken him in almost immediately. While some players may resent a player of Stow's status and the experience he brings to the table, the team has embraced him with the possibilities of what could be.
"Ben's got a trait that every great player has, and it's the number one trait and that's desire," said Craig. "That's where he's rubbed off on the team is in desire because that trumps everything. So that kind of desire to train and do what you need to do to get better is a great model to your peers.
"Ben's got a unique opportunity to be a leader right off the bat even though he hasn't been here very long, he's very well connected with the guys."
His desire, or as Stow calls it, "work ethic," is what has made him into a player who has built a resume that says he has earned the No. 2 ranking in Europe among players age 21 or younger, played on several continents and competed in the top European events in the sport has to offer.
"I've always been a very, very driven person. Competitive I suppose," said Stow. "When I get my work hat on, it's kind of hard to get me out of that state."
Though Stow claims he's always had something "burning inside" of him, his competitiveness and passion for the game really took off after training sessions with Ryder Cup veteran and European player Gordon Brand Jr. Brand Jr., a relentless worker who told Stow stories of his days of playing in tournaments with bandages on his hands because of cuts left on his palms due to tireless practice habits, has made a long-lasting impact.
"He said to me, 'If you work harder than everyone else, then success is inevitable,'" said Stow.
Stow has weaved those words of wisdom into his own daily fabric.
"Kind of one of my mottos when I get up and train is if I give 100 percent every day, then success is inevitable," said Stow. "If I put in 100 percent every day, I don't need to worry about being successful because I know I'm going to get there. It's just a matter of when."
Stow, however, hopes the when is sooner rather than later. He has Tiger Woods-like expectations and aspirations. After a five-month layoff from the sport he's spent his whole life passionately training for, he's ready to get back into the swing of things to prove to everyone and to himself that he's one of the very best. He's not bashful about it either.
"I'd like to be the best player on the team, have the lowest stroke average," said Stow. "I'd like to kind of get the team into the top-25 and make the NCAA Tournament. On a personal level, I'd like to eventually get SEC Player of the Year and be an All-American."
But the Englishman doesn't just want to be an All-American, or an All-European. Stow has his sights set even higher. With his tireless training and desire, maybe his goals aren't that far-fetched.
"As far as I'm concerned, the sky's the limit," said Stow. "I want to be the best golfer in the world at some point."
When January rolls around and Stow finally tees it up for the first time as a Wildcat in the Jones Cup Invitational, it will be nearly five months since Stow played a meaningful round of golf, something he hasn't done since he was 12 years old. It will be an opportunity to get a head start on the season after sitting out the fall, but also to help to get him rolling as he looks to help elevate his team to the highest level. While Stow is brimming with anticipation for the upcoming season, his head coach is just as giddy with the opportunity to add a player of Stow's stature to an already surging UK lineup.
"I'm excited because I think we have a chance to be a really special team this spring," said Craig. "We have a chance to really be good. We were good in the fall, but we have some guys I think can play better. And then with Ben in there, we've got a whole new dynamic to the lineup."
Just months into his tenure as head coach of Kentucky track and field and cross country, Edrick Floreal has already seen results.
During the cross country season, the Wildcats improved significantly, with Cally Macumber and Chelsea Oswald each earning All-America honors and Luis Orta joining them at the NCAA Championships. The Cats also participated in their first track meet of the season last week at Indiana with encouraging finishes by many athletes.
As head track and field coach at the University of Kentucky, Edrick Floreal sometimes morphs into his alter ego:
Edrick the Entertainer.
Hired by UK last July to replace the retired Don Weber, Floreal and his staff are on the brink of bringing new twists to the program.
For instance, the annual Rod McCravy Memorial meet in Nutter Field House will feature elevated runways on the infield and temporary stands that will reduce the homestretch to six lanes.
A new facility will enable UK to host a collegiate outdoor meet for the first time since the Southeastern Conference Championships in 1996.
Floreal says he learned plenty at Stanford, where he succeeded Vin Lananna as head coach when the latter took over at Oberlin and, later, Oregon. Lananna stressed making the sport fan friendly.
"I don't want to just be a track coach," Floreal said Wednesday at his desk inside UK's Joe Craft Center. "I want to be sort of an entertainer -- a guy that's out there with the public doing community service, get the community to know you a little bit more. You really worry about the fan and about the community enjoying the sport."
Whitney Billings was named to the AVCA All-America second team. (Andy Jessop)
Last Friday signified the ending of another strong season for the Kentucky volleyball team when it lost to No. 1 Penn State in the Sweet 16. Obviously the result was an undesirable one as UK hoped to shock the volleyball world and take down the six-time NCAA champions. But it wasn't meant to be. That doesn't mean the season wasn't a success.
Actually, Kentucky may have earned more respect this season than in any of its previous seven seasons under head coach Craig Skinner.
A great deal of the season was a struggle for Kentucky, but it was by design. Non-conference matchups with Nebraska and Oregon, who faced each other in the Elite 8 with a Final Four bid on the line, as well as the annual rivalry match with Louisville added to the difficulty of the Southeastern Conference slate. But the Wildcats still managed to reach the 20-win plateau for the fifth time, the NCAA Tournament for the eighth time, and the NCAA Regionals for the third time in four seasons under Skinner.
It was a challenging season, one of the most challenging schedules UK had faced, yet it came out the other side a battle-tested team ready for the postseason.
Skinner has not only helped his team reach team success, but he's also helped some of his players earn national acclaim. Over the past four seasons 10 Wildcats have earned All-America honors. After the completion of the 2012 regular season, that number increased by three.
Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings, senior libero Stephanie Klefot, and senior setter Christine Hartmann were each named American Volleyball Coaches Association All-America selections Wednesday morning, making them the first trio to be named All-Americans in back-to-back seasons in Kentucky volleyball history and also the third time that three Wildcats were named All-Americans in the same season.
"It's definitely a special award for Kentucky volleyball and a special award for those individuals to feel good about," said Skinner. "They are great team players, they play for the program, and we're all very proud of them."
Billings proved herself one of the best right side hitters in the nation as one of the few versatile enough to play every rotation. She was named to the second team for the first time in her career, becoming the sixth Wildcat to earn second-team honors in school history. She put up career-high numbers with 365 kills to average 2.99 per set and 35 aces while averaging 2.75 digs per set, ranking second on the team.
Klefot earns honorable mention honors after earning second-team honors last season. Kentucky's libero for the last three seasons became the first player in SEC history to be named SEC Libero of the Year three times in a career. Hartmann joins Klefot as an honorable mention honoree after she averaged 10.83 assists per set and earned career-highs in aces (21), digs (226), and blocks (79) in her senior season.
In all, Kentucky has had 19 All-America selections in school history. Skinner has been at the helm for 13 of those including eight different players. Skinner has also had at least one All-America selection in each of the last six seasons.
Coincidentally, Kentucky has had great team success over that time span. Their team achievements, the 20-plus-win seasons, the multiple Sweet 16s have helped the program earn respect nationally, but it's also helped develop and promote some of their most important members.
"It's another sign of respect for the program and our team accomplishments," said Skinner. "I think without the success of the team, we may not get these recognitions. Individually, they are each very deserving and they each put a lot of time and energy into putting themselves into a position to be successful and it's paying off."
As Kentucky continues to advance deep into NCAA Tournaments, play the best teams the country has to offer and earn individual honors on a yearly basis, the respect for Kentucky will take care of itself. It has thus far.
In 1975, the Kentucky football team won only two games. By 1977, the Cats were 10-1. A few years ago, I had a conversation with a member of that team - strong safety Dallas Owens - and he said the team began to transform when players were accountable to each other, that you didn't want to let down the guy beside you, and the coaches no longer had to manage that accountability component.
I recalled that story in the past couple of weeks as I listened to John Calipari talk about the challenge he was facing with his latest group of Wildcats.
"If I need to be all over them, I'm not doing that just to do it," Calipari said on the pregame radio interview before last Saturday's win over Portland. "Last year's team, I can't remember a bad practice. That's why we won 38 games. This team stops all the time but I've had teams in the past that do that. They cannot sustain any kind of effort because they've never had to.
"This team needs us hold them accountable. Why? Because they're not holding each other accountable - because they don't know. There's no veterans to hold the other guys accountable to what they're supposed to be doing," he continued. "Every player on this court is important to us but no one is indispensible."
Calipari is not the kind of coach who fits every group of players into his "system." Rather, his coaching style is one in which he lets his team tell him, with their actions, how they need to be coached. It means some teams can take longer to jell than others. But this staff's track record suggests it will happen, sooner or later.
Two years ago, it took until mid-February. After an overtime loss at Arkansas, it looked like that UK team was just never going to win a close game that season. But something finally clicked. After the game shootaround practice before the team's next game, a friend of Cal's told me it was that team's best such workout of the season. Next time out, ESPN's Jimmy Dykes made the same observation after the gameday practice. The Cats won both of those games and then followed it up with a come-from-behind victory at Tennessee to close out the regular season and suddenly that Kentucky team couldn't lose a close game. The changed mindset carried those Cats all the way to the Final Four.
For Calipari, the focus now is all about getting his team to compete at the level it takes to achieve their goals. Once that happens, then he'll spend more time on Xs and Os, game situations, etc.
"It's going to be a process, day-to-day," he noted. "I just want to see us fight. We want to win every game but truly, we want to see these guys compete. That's what we want to see. If you're competing your brains out, you're diving on the ball and you have a bad shooting night, that's going to happen. We're not happy but at least they're competing. What we've been seeing is no sense of urgency. The toughness - we just get bulldozed, giving up on plays, not attacking on offense, being tentative. All that stuff, none of us want to see."
The NBA season is in full swing, and with it, several former
Kentucky Wildcats have been making an impact on their respective teams.
Kentucky's latest draft class is doing their best to make their mark with their
new organization, while several of the veterans are asserting themselves
preparing for the long haul of an NBA season.
Let's take a look at what the nation has to say about some
of our former Cats:
Second-year pro Brandon Knight popped off 22 points (8-18 FG), 2 3s, 3 boards, 4 dimes and 2 steals against the Philadelphia 76ers Monday night. It was the second game in a row in which he took at least 18 shots and the third consecutive game in which he scored at least 21 points.
The full effect of Bledsoe can be experienced only when the clock's running, because Bledsoe is fueled by live basketball -- the super-animated stuff we see in the NBA. Most players expend energy when they're asked to chase people around and sprint the floor and collide with enormous bodies and leap every five seconds for one reason or another and occasionally land awkwardly on thick wood or men holding large cameras, but not Bledsoe. He actually gets stronger, faster and more lethal as he chews up the court at warp speed.
Kentucky coach John Calipari, speaking with local media in Lexington, revealed Friday that Kidd-Gilchrist sent him text messages that "I may have made a mistake" turning pro, and "I don't think I'm good enough."
Although Davis made some spectacular plays like his alley-oop dunk in the fourth quarter after catching an Austin Rivers' high-sailing pass, it wasn't enough. The Hornets scored only 28 points in the second half, including just 10 in the fourth quarter. Davis scored 13 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Despite having five fouls, he played 24 minutes in his first game of the season coming off the bench.
He's making sure some of the younger players "get it," pulling the likes of Andre Drummond and Brandon Knight to the side to make sure they understand concepts, intricacies and specifics but being constructive.
"A lot of times I'm not overly aggressive with it," Prince said of this year compared to previous seasons. "But I'll pull them to the side and let them know, because just the coaches' point of view isn't going to help. They need guys who are out there on the floor with them as well. I'm trying to help as much as I can.
Under Mike D'Antoni, Meeks has emerged as a scoring threat off the bench. On the season he's averaging only 6.3 points per game while shooting 38.4% from the field, but his more recent numbers tell a different story.
D'Antoni has coached nine games with the Lakers. In those games, Meeks has averaged 8.0 points while shooting 47.6% from three-point range.
The NCAA is celebrating 75 years of March Madness. Since Kentucky has won more NCAA Tournament games (111) than any other program, you would expect UK to be featured prominently.
You'd be right about that.
On Tuesday, the NCAA named the top 75 All-Time March Madness Players, 25 All-Time March Madness Teams and 35 All-Time Madness Moments. Let's take a look at where UK figures in each of these lists: Players
Dan Issel Jack Givens Tony Delk Anthony Davis
1995-96 Kentucky - "Also known as "The Untouchables," nine players from the 95-96 team eventually played in the NBA." 2011-12 Kentucky - "16-0 in SEC play; 19-0 at home; third consecutive NCAA tournament; 344 blocks is the most in NCAA single season history." Moments
Texas Western vs. Kentucky - 1966 national championship game - "Texas Western's 72-65 victory against Kentucky was a win for the school and the Civil Rights Movement."
UCLA vs. Kentucky - John Wooden retires in 1975 - "After a Final Four win against Louisville, and at age 65, John Wooden announced his retirement during the postgame press conference. Two days later, the Bruins outran Kentucky 92-85 for his 10th crown."
Duke vs. Kentucky - 1992 Elite Eight - "In the East Regional final, Duke's Grant Hill hurls a three-quarters court pass to Christian Laettner, who catches it at the free-throw line. He takes one dribble to his right, spins left and shoots just before time expires."
2005 Regional Finals for the Ages - "Louisville earned a trip to the Final Four by rallying from a 19-point deficit to beat West Virginia in overtime 93-85. But that comeback paled in comparison to what Illinois had in store later in the day. Arizona led the Illini by 15 points with four minutes left but remarkably Illinois rallied to force overtime, eventually winning 90-89 in one of the greatest games in tournament history. A day later, Michigan State and Kentucky played a classic of their own, with the Spartans prevailing 94-88 in double overtime."
Randall Cobb is on pace to have the fourth-best all-purpose yards season in NFL history.
Former NFL linebacker and current SB Nation reporter Dhani Jones targets former Kentucky wide receiver... quarterback... running back... punt and kick returner Randall Cobb for his latest edition of 'In the Zone.'
Cobb, an emerging star with the Green Bay Packers, is enjoying one of the greatest all-purpose yard seasons in NFL history. He has racked up 2,091 all-purpose yards on the season and is chasing Darren Sproles who finished his 2011 season with 2,696 total yards ranking No. 1 all-time for a single season. Cobb is currently averaging 161 yards per game, putting him on pace for 2,574 all-purpose yards which would rank him fourth on the NFL single-season all-purpose yards leader board.
Jones sits down and talks with Cobb about his time at Kentucky, his journey to the NFL, and how he's been able become one of Green Bay's top offensive weapons this season.
Here's a short excerpt from the introduction to the video:
The native of Tennessee was named the state's Mr. Football as a quarterback, the position he intended to play at Kentucky. But after his freshman season, the Wildcats moved him to wide receiver, and the rest, as Cobb says, "is history."
Neal Brown - a former UK wide receiver - returns to Lexington as offensive coordinator after three years at Texas Tech. (TTU Athletics)
It's not quite being met with the buzz of Mark Stoops' hiring, but Neal Brown's return to Kentucky as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has generated quite a bit of excitement. Brown is one of the hottest young coordinators in the business and his arrival is the start of Stoops fulfilling his promise of fielding an exciting offense.
The official news broke on Monday afternoon, so the media have had plenty of time to absorb it. Let's take a look at what people are saying:
The Neal Brown hire also shows that UK is serious about hiring an SEC-quality staff. Brown is interviewing for second-level head coaching jobs now. If all goes well, he will get one of those jobs in the near future. And the guess here is that he didn't come cheap, nor should he.
After all, he might be the most significant assistant coach hire Kentucky football has made in a long, long time.
His work at Texas Tech was noticed by more than Stoops. He was interviewed for head coaching jobs at Louisiana Tech and Southern Mississippi. He likely could have got more interviews this week because of his reputation as one of the nation's rising young offensive minds. At age 32, he's already shown he can produce big numbers and wins.
Stoops' brothers both believe in this offense. Bob Stoops hired Mike Leach -- a Mumme disciple and coach at Texas Tech before Tuberville and Brown arrive. Mike Stoops hired Sonny Dykes -- another Mumme disciple -- as his offensive coordinator at Arizona when Mark Stoops was the defensive coordinator.
ON NEAL BROWN COMING TO UK: "Oh, I'm excited about it. A lot of people wanted to get Neal back in Kentucky, bring that offense back to Kentucky, and I was definitely one of those people. I'm excited to see him back and I know he's excited to be back home and get a chance to coach where he played. That's always a special thing for a player to come back and be able to do that. The biggest thing is the players should be excited - the offensive players at Kentucky should be excited. The quarterbacks, wide receivers, running backs, they're all going to see the football a lot. They're all going to catch a lot of passes and hopefully we'll score a bunch of points."
Yet, following the path of his older brothers, Stoops wanted an offense "that puts defenses in difficult situations" much as Mike Leach's offense did for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Sonny Dykes' offense did for Mike Stoops at Arizona.
Brown should be able to do just that for Mark Stoops at UK. His Texas Tech offenses ranked among the nation's top 15 in total offense and top seven in passing offense all three years he was in Lubbock. Consider that this year, Kentucky's offense ranked 113th out of 120 FBS schools.
"He is a very confident person. I am very proud he is not an arrogant person. He believes that what he is doing will result in good things," Tom Brown said. "He really likes Stoops and really feels like UK can be headed in the right direction. I just think he felt like this was the right time to make this move."
Media members aren't the only ones with good things to say about Brown. Check out a few of the best tweets in response to Monday's news:
Just met our new OC!! Can't wait to get to work! #BBN
With student-athletes taking finals, this week figures to be a little slower than normal around these parts. Men's and women's basketball are the only teams in action before the new year
Following back-to-back losses and a lackluster second-half effort in a win over Samford, John Calipari said he was going to be getting after his team. On top of early-morning workouts, Coach Cal harkened back to his UMass days in practice by ratcheting up the intensity. CoachCal.com had a camera at one such practice. Head to this link to see what was captured.
"Neal is a young, hungry, dynamic coach who has had a lot of success in the Big 12 (Conference)," Stoops said. "I want a style of offense that puts defenses in difficult situations. Also important to me was Neal's familiarity with the people of Kentucky and the University. When you put together the football and the relationships, it was a no-brainer."
That Big 12 success came over the last three seasons at Texas Tech, where Brown served as offensive coordinator. Each year, the Red Raiders ranked in the nation's top 10 in passing offense, top 15 in total offense and top 25 in scoring offense. With a bowl game still to play, Texas Tech is second nationally in passing at 361.9 yards per game, 12th in total offense at 501.4 yards per game and 16th in scoring with 37.8 points per game.
Clearly, Stoops is planning on following through on the promise he made at his introductory press conference to field an offense that will "rip it around a little bit."
That's not to say, however, that Brown ignores the running game altogether. In 2009 - the season before Brown arrived - Texas Tech averaged just 84.0 rushing yards per game. In the three seasons since, the Red Raiders have gained at least 125.2 yards per game on the ground.
If the statistics weren't enough to sell Stoops, legendary UK quarterback Tim Couch was more than willing to speak on behalf of his former teammate.
"He's one of the hottest young offensive coordinators in the country right now," Couch said on the day Stoops was hired. "I think he has the second-rated pass offense in the country at Texas Tech and he does a great job. So, you know, certainly if that's the route (Stoops) wants to go, I would fully support that and I know everyone in Kentucky would as well."
Based on the initial reaction to the news, Couch was right about that. Within an hour of being officially hired, Brown picked up more than 1,000 followers on Twitter.
Brown didn't need social media to get himself fired about returning to Lexington though.
"I'm excited about the opportunity to come home to the University that I grew up rooting for, and having played here, have a true personal investment in the program," Brown said.
"Coach Stoops sold me on the job. I'm excited about his plan. He has a great vision about where he wants to take the program and how he wants to do it."
Men's basketball - The Kentucky men's basketball team secured a pair of non-conference home victories this week with wins over Samford on Tuesday and Portland on Saturday. It was the third-straight year UK had met the Pilots in regular-season action with the Blue and White winning all three meetings. - Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein sparked the win over Samford with the first double-double of the year for the Cats. Cauley-Stein logged 12 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in that win. - Against Portland the Wildcats were spearheaded by the best performance of the season from sophomore Ryan Harrow who had season-highs with 10 points, four rebounds and six assists. - Freshmen Archie Goodwin and Nerlens Noel provided consistent performances yet again for UK. Goodwin led the team in scoring in both outings and logged four assists in both games to run his total to six straight games with four or more dimes. Noel had seven points, nine rebounds and a career-high seven blocks against Portland. He had 12 swats on the weekend for an average of 6.0 per game.
Volleyball - The Kentucky volleyball team closed its season with a 22-11 overall record after falling in the NCAA round of 16 to top-seeded Penn State on Friday. - The Wildcats were making their second-straight Sweet 16 appearance and third in the last four years under eighth-year head coach Craig Skinner. Only nine teams in the nation have reached that stage in back-to-back years, and 12 have advanced in three of the last four. UK is one of 14 teams in the nation to advance to eight-straight NCAA tournaments - all under the direction of Skinner. - Senior libero Stephanie Klefot closes out her career with 1,924 career digs including a team-high 10 in the loss to the Nittany Lions. She is also the only player in program history to play in three Sweet 16s. - Junior Whitney Billings has 987 career kills and 930 career digs, and is on pace to become the first player in program history in the 25-point rally scoring era to tally more than 1,000 career kills and digs.
Women's basketball - Kentucky improved to 8-1 on the season after two impressive home victories vs. DePaul and Middle Tennessee in a three-day span over the weekend. - UK has now won 27 straight home games, a streak that ranks second all-time and is just three wins shy of tying the school record of 30 consecutive home victories from 1980-1982. - Against DePaul on Friday in Rupp Arena, UK dominated the Blue Demons from the start, winning 96-64 in front of a school-record 18,488 fans. - Junior Samarie Walker posted her fifth career and second double-double of the season with a game-high 18 points and 10 boards. She is pulling down a team-high 7.9 rebounds and shooting a team-high .545 percent from the floor. - Junior DeNesha Stallworth recorded her 14th career double-double and second at UK with career highs of 17 points and 13 rebounds. She scored her 1,000th-career point with a field goal at the 16:25 mark in the first half, reaching the milestone in just 79 games. Against the Blue Raiders, Stallworth again put up big numbers as she scored a team-best 16 points, while recording a career-high five assists and two blocks. Overall this season, eight players are averaging between 13.0 and 5.2 points per game for a very balanced scoring attack. - Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies leads the team with 13.0 points per game.
Track and field - The Kentucky Track and Field teams began the indoor season on Friday as nine Wildcats won individual events. - Twenty-three competitors finished in the top three of their events as further evidence that the Wildcats are adjusting well to the new coaching staff. - Sprinter Morganne Phillips broke a 25-year-old Gladstien Fieldhouse record with a time of 37.70 in the 300 meters breaking the previous mark of 37.93, which had stood since Feb. 7, 1987. Phillips' time also stands as the fastest in the nation at 300m so far this season. - Bradley Szypka and Isiah Kent took the top two spots respectively in the shot put. Szypka's mark of 18.29m/60-00.25 currently leads the nation, and Kent owns the third best mark in America himself at 18.05m/59-02.75. - Keffri Neal vanquished the field in the 1,000m to win with a time of 2:25.97, which currently stands as the best time in the country. - The Kentucky men went 1-2-3 in the 60m hurdles final, as Keith Hayes won with a time of 7.82, Darryl Bradshaw took second (8.06) and Brandon Bagley (8:10) secured the podium sweep. Hayes' performance was second-best in the nation in the event this season. - Terence Boyd's winning jump of 6.95m/22-09.75 gave him the top spot in the long jump. - In the men's 300m, Hayes won with a time of 34.73 and he was followed by Ben Mason (35.14) in second place. - Kayla Parker claimed the 60m hurdles final with a time of 8.43 to provide another highpoint for the Wildcat women. - Andrew Evans, a 2012 outdoor All-American, won the weight throw with a top mark of 18.03m/59-02.00. Upcoming schedule Saturday, Dec. 15 Men's basketball hosts Lipscomb - 12:30 p.m.
DeNesha Stallworth had 16 points and a career-best five assists in UK's win over MTSU on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Through more than 30 minutes, A'dia Mathies went without a point. Kentucky's leading scorer and the Southeastern Conference's defending Player of the year was dealing with foul trouble against Middle Tennessee State and had managed just one shot attempt.
Last season, that would have been a troubling development for the Wildcats. But on Sunday, they found themselves leading by double digits before Mathies drained a pair of free throws with 8:40 left in the second half for her first points.
"It's a great development when you can't key on A'dia Mathies," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It speaks volumes for where we are as a program."
Mathies would score seven points in the final minutes, but UK's 68-46 victory over the Blue Raiders marked the second time in three games she has been held under double figures. Both such outings have come against teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, yet UK has picked up a pair of wins over MTSU and No. 7 Louisville.
Helping to fill the scoring void was DeNesha Stallworth, who scored 16 points. Stallworth has now scored at least 10 points in six straight games and has led her team in scoring three times in a row.
After the game, MTSU head coach Rick Insell called Stallworth the best post player UK has had in recent years. He also went on to say that she and frontcourt mate Samarie Walker figured more prominently into the Blue Raiders' scouting report than Mathies.
Mathies didn't take that as an insult.
"If they can take some of the pressure and stuff off of me I'm definitely all for it," Mathies said. "They do a great job at what they do and they feed off each other and they play great basically every game."
Walker added six points and a game-high eight rebounds, though the Cats didn't dominate the glass quite like they did in a win over DePaul on Friday night. Stallworth and Walker, though, were the Cats' two leading distributors. They combined for eight assists, including Stallworth's career-high five.
"We knew we were getting a very talented player and it's just kind of coming to life now," Mitchell said of the Cal transfer. "I think every game she's more comfortable and I think she can continue to get better."
Stallworth was a key factor over the last seven days as the Cats picked up wins over quality competition. The team is clearly different from the one that was overwhelmed by Baylor less than a month ago, but Mitchell knows the Cats must improve further. The coming weeks mark a crucial period as they look to do that.
With final exams coming up this week, UK doesn't play another game until the team travels to California for matchups against Pepperdine and UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 18 and Dec. 21. After Christmas, UK plays two home games before SEC play begins on Jan. 3.
"It's a big four-game stretch coming for us now," Mitchell said. "It's just basically a four-game season where we need to be very clear on where we need to go forward. We need to win four games, but we need to get better so we're ready for SEC play."
Mitchell sees that improvement beginning on the offensive end. UK shot just 38.5 percent from the field (25 of 65) against MTSU, relying on 33 forced turnovers to overcome the Blue Raiders.
"When we have to go score, I don't feel great about that right now," Mitchell said. "I don't feel as sure about what we would run if we just absolutely needed a bucket right now."
Players will of course be given ample time to focus on finals this week, but with chances to practice with no specific opponent in mind, Mitchell sees an opportunity to address his concerns.
"Without a game looming the next couple days, we can really try to go to work and I think sort of smooth out the edges in our offense would be really important," Mitchell said.
With work, the Cats will look to tap into their potential, which they believe to be limitless.
"I don't even think we've scratched the surface really," sophomore guard Bria Goss said. "We're all really good players and we all can go out there and score. But coming together and getting on the same page, there's a lot to improve on."
Ryan Harrow had eight points, six assists and just one turnover in UK's 74-46 win over Portland on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Since his return two weeks ago, Ryan Harrow has been trying to weave himself back into the fabric of his team.
That process, initially, was all about the practice court. Harrow was trying to work his way back into game shape and the flow of his team, but he quickly came to realize it started elsewhere.
Trying to assert himself as Kentucky's point guard, Harrow has begun spending as much time around his teammates as possible, no matter when or where.
"It's more of me doing whatever they want me to do basically," Harrow said. "If I've got to go to breakfast or I've got to go to the gym to shoot with them or go to the mall with them, I'm going to do that."
During the first four games following his return, Harrow showed brief flashes of why his presence could potentially be so important to the Wildcats' long-term prospects. But during a 74-46 win over Portland, Harrow flipped the script, delivering his strongest performance of the season. During Saturday's victory, the flashes were reversions to the Harrow that struggled to find a role. The majority of the game, Harrow effectively ran his team.
"I liked it," John Calipari said. "He had two lapses of his old self. I absolutely jerked him out of the game because he's not playing that way. The other parts of the game I thought he did fine."
Harrow finished with his most productive statistical line of the season by far, posting eight points, six assists and four rebounds with just one turnover. For the first time this season, Harrow scored more than two points. He made just three of his eight field-goal attempts, but had a 37-second stretch late in the second half during which he hit a short floater and a 3-pointer - his first of the season - back to back.
"I'll be more confident when I'm shooting now just to see that go in," Harrow said. "I'll still be in the gym shooting just to work on it."
Calipari, however, is more concerned about the way Harrow runs the team than anything else. With the sophomore playing the point the way he did on Saturday, it opens up the floor for everyone, Archie Goodwin in particular.
"It allows Archie to play off the ball and be more aggressive at the two or the three instead of having to find everybody at the point guard position," Julius Mays said. "And Ryan is a true point guard so it's just a whole different look because he's obviously looking to get other people involved."
With Harrow there to worry about bringing the ball up, Goodwin is free to streak down the floor for fast-break opportunities, a fact he capitalized on during a one-minute, 34-second stretch sure to be replayed a few times. Three times Goodwin threw down ferocious dunks, one of which resulted in an and-one that left the crowd buzzing and his teammates too.
"It got me hyped," Harrow said. "I screamed for him. They were nice."
Harrow added a steal on defense, which is the end of the floor on which those "lapses" happened. UK's defense begins with the point guard, which magnifies any mistakes Harrow makes.
"That's what he's looking for because they know I can play defense too," Harrow said. "Coach Cal always says that's the hard thing to do so everybody tries to go around doing the hard thing. This is kind of new for me, playing defense hard all the time, so I'm just trying to focus on that. If I do have a lapse, he's going to take me out and make me realize I had that lapse."
The sophomore point guard isn't the only one whose lapses Calipari is attempting to address. As a team, the Cats were closer to the complete game Coach Cal is trying to work toward by instituting early-morning workouts before the holidays, but not all the way there.
"We got better," Calipari said. "But we're still a ways away, folks. We're still doing the same things only a little bit better than we were doing them."
The good news on that front is the Cats have ample opportunity to make more incremental gains in the coming weeks. UK will practice twice on Sunday before an off-day on Monday and potentially Tuesday for exams. Beginning next Friday, Calipari will be going to three practices a day.
"We got one week with finals, but that means we'll have time, then we have no class for two straight weeks," Calipari said. "I cannot wait. I won't be leaving campus for anything. I'll be staying right here with these guys every day going."
During that time, Calipari will be putting a simple choice to his team.
"I'm looking at everybody in the country saying we're probably 50 to 100 right now, but we could be top 10, top eight," Calipari said. "Those eight are the only ones that truly have a chance to win the whole thing. Do you want to be those or not?"
DeNesha Stallworth posted her second double-double as a Wildcat with 17 points and 13 rebounds. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
DeNesha Stallworth didn't have a bad start to her Kentucky career, but Matthew Mitchell was asking for a lot more.
She had her moments, flashing the skill that had many experts pegging her as an instant star following her transfer from California. But again, Mitchell wasn't satisfied.
On Friday night, Stallworth showed every one of the school-record 18,488 fans in Rupp Arena exactly what her coach was talking about.
"I think she just continues to get better and better, and that's a great sign for our basketball team," Mitchell said.
From the opening tip of UK's annual "Pack the House" game against DePaul, Stallworth was dominant. She scored seven points and grabbed three rebounds in the opening minutes as the Wildcats overwhelmed the visitors en route to a 25-2 lead at the 14:40 mark of the first half.
"I was excited to see it, because I think when we play with great energy and we are on the offensive boards the way we were early in the game, that showed you that we were ready to play," Mitchell said.
Like her team, Stallworth wouldn't stop there.
By the time Kentucky had put the finishing touches on a dominant 96-64 victory to move to 7-1, Stallworth had season highs in points (17), rebounds (14) and assists (four) as well as her second double-double as a Wildcat. She made 7-of-13 field-goal attempts and did a great deal of her damage on the offensive glass, grabbing UK misses eight times.
Mitchell said the effort against DePaul was the culmination of a four-game stretch during which Stallworth has begun to live up the billing that accompanied her arrival in Lexington. Her scoring output has climbed in each game and she has become an irreplaceable cog in UK's deep rotation. Prior to Nov. 28, she had played at least 25 minutes just once in five games. Over her last three outings, she has played 28, 39 and 25.
Stallworth credits much of her growth to hard work on both ends of the floor. But just as importantly, she has settled into UK's style of play and the framework of her new team. Even though she spent a year practicing with her teammates, there's simply no substitute for in-game experience she's gotten in November and December.
"In the beginning the first couple games and I wasn't doing too good, I was kind of new to the pace and the system," Stallworth said. "But as you practice more and more and I'm around my teammates, you get the feel for them. It's just been an amazing experience and I'm so happy I'm here and I just wait for what the future holds for us."
It also hasn't hurt that her frontcourt mate - Samarie Walker - is less than a year removed from going through the same transition after transferring from Connecticut. When things weren't going smoothly, Stallworth wasn't afraid to ask for help.
"I actually talked to Samarie and I was like, 'What did you do?' " Stallworth said. "She just told me, 'Something just clicked. You just gotta play hard and everything will flow.' "
With those early-season hiccups now in the rearview mirror, things are certainly flowing for both of UK's starting bigs. Walker joined Stallworth in posting a double-double as the pair combined for 34 points and 23 rebounds, pacing the Cats as they outrebounded DePaul 48-33 and scored 24 second-chance points.
"I thought they played well together," Mitchell said. "I thought it was probably their best effort as a tandem tonight, the most consistent that they have been together."
Looking to sustain that level of play, Stallworth and Walker plan to call on a strong bond they've built over the past year playing with and competing against one another.
"DeNesha and I try to push each other as much as we can in practice and also on the floor when we play," Walker said. "Off the court we have a very great relationship where we can talk to each other about how to motivate each other."
If Stallworth and Walker motivate each other to play any better than they did in Rupp, it could be a scary proposition for other teams in the Southeastern Conference. UK won the league and advanced to the Elite Eight playing just one true post player for the majority of its games in 2011-12. Together, Stallworth and Walker have made one-big lineups a rarity.
"They need to be weapons for us," Mitchell said. "That needs to be one of the toughest post tandems in the country, and for us to realize our potential, we need some more games like that."
A strong Kentucky effort fell short Friday night against Penn State in the Sweet 16. (Andy Jessop)
It wasn't what the Wildcats hoped for, but Kentucky's loss to Penn State in the Sweet 16 Friday night will not go to waste.
Kentucky went into its Friday night Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State with a thoroughly constructed game plan. After all, it was going to take perfect preparation to knock off the top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
At times, it looked like Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner and his team had figured out the Penn State Nittany Lions.
But unfortunately, at other times, Penn State had figured out Kentucky as well. Penn State did the better job of following through and executing the game plan.
The No. 16 Wildcats' season came to an end after a 3-0 sweep at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., Friday night.
"Hats off to Penn State," said Skinner after the match. "They were awfully good tonight. They played a lot better tonight than I feel like they had in the last couple of weeks."
Kentucky felt very confident in its plan of attack to upset Penn State. In sets one and two, the Cats really looked as if they had a chance of threatening the traditional powerhouse. They served tough and brought physicality to the net with their blocking. But in each set, Kentucky often was its own worst enemy.
Unforced errors were costly, especially when Penn State was giving UK plenty of opportunities to take hold of the match. The mistakes undid the good works their game plan provided, and Penn State was able to reel off long runs. In the end, Kentucky's inability to stop the bleeding late in sets one and two made the comeback efforts too little, too late.
"Each point is such a momentum builder in a match like this that you need to capitalize in each phase of your game," said Skinner. "It can't be just attacking or ball control, it needs to be all phases. When you get the chance to transition for a point and extend the lead to three points, you've got to do it because Penn State is capable of running three or four points in a row and tying the match up pretty quickly."
Coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats weren't the same team they had shown to be after draining sets one and two. Penn State made quick work of Kentucky and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Kentucky would be going home and their season would be over. Friday night's loss would signal the end for three very giving and decorated seniors in Ashley Frazier, Stephanie Klefot and Christine Hartmann. But it also marked the beginning of looking forward to next season.
Junior right side hitter Whitney Billings will be one of the starters who will be back on next year's team. After playing in consecutive Sweet 16s, she knows that this can be a good learning experience when it comes to preparation for next season.
"Well the people that are coming back next year just need to remember how this feels," said Billings.
Though a loss was far from the desired outcome, the experience gained will serve as motivation going into next fall.
"You have to know how it feels, and I think our team did know how it felt," said Skinner. "If we're able to turn a couple more points in sets one and two and steal a game, then it's a completely different mindset for us. Penn State understands that we're for real to make this a match. The younger players have seen it, been around it, felt it, and now it's motivation for the winter."
Despite the disappointment of losing in another Sweet 16 for consecutive seasons, getting there twice and for the third time in four seasons is quite the accomplishment on its own. And both Klefot and Frazier are a big reason for the recent success of Skinner's developing program.
"I'm so happy I could be a part of the Wildcats and playing for Craig," said Klefot. "I'm going to miss (my team). This season, we didn't start off our best, and to make it to the Sweet 16, I don't think anyone thought we were going to make the tournament. I'm beyond proud of my team."
Frazier, a two-year player after transferring from Alabama after her sophomore season, knows that she made the right decision after seasons like this.
"When I transferred here, I came here because this was a winning program," said Frazier. "I mean, that's what I got when I came here. My two years I was eligible, we went to the Sweet 16 both years, so I'm really happy with that. Obviously I would have liked to have gone farther, but it was a good two years."
Now, Skinner and his staff will take some time to shake off the agony of defeat. But it won't be long before begin planning on how to continue to take this product to the next level. It's a process that all starts in the offseason, and most of the heavy lifting has to be done before the team ever even makes the NCAA Tournament field.
"We need to continue to develop the program and recruit great players," said Skinner. "We have a great class coming in. Providing the belief that this program is going to a Final Four and competing for a championship. We have several players now that have been in the Sweet 16 and understand what it's like, understand what it takes, and we can't just start thinking about that when it's tournament time."
Skinner hopes that Kentucky can start off stronger at the beginning of the season to help them be able to get a higher seed so that when the Cats face the Penn States of the world, it's in the Final Four instead of the Sweet 16.
"We need to think about that when it's week one of the season and playing good teams and putting ourselves in position to win those matches so that we get a better seed," said Skinner. "Working all season long to try and get yourself into a position when you're a top-five seed, a top-eight seed, so you can maybe give yourself a better chance to go beyond where you're at."
UK has held early-morning conditioning sessions on Thursday and Friday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
John Calipari began building his coaching reputation at UMass, taking the Minutemen from conference also-rans to the 1996 Final Four.
Those teams were overachievers, making up for a perceived lack of talent with hard-nosed defense and hard work, taking on the personality of the coach leading them. That personality transference began in notoriously tough practices.
Apparently, Coach Cal is making a return to days of yore this season at Kentucky.
"He said this is him going back to his old-school ways, his UMass ways," point guard Ryan Harrow said. "I guess this is the hardest he's been coaching for a long time."
After UK's last game - a blowout when in which the Wildcats outscored Samford by just one point after halftime - Calipari announced the Cats would be getting down to some serious work. During the holiday stretch he affectionately calls "Camp Cal," UK would be holding 7 a.m. conditioning sessions in addition to regular afternoon practices. In those afternoon practices, Calipari is making the Cats run lines for every mistake.
According to Calipari, the return to his "old-school ways" is out of necessity.
"(Of) the team's that I've had here, anyway, this team has the farthest to go," Calipari said. "It's not schemes, it's not offenses, it's not defense. It's a competitiveness, a will to win and then holding each guy accountable for that."
The immediate aim of the increased practice demands is for the Cats to deliver a 40-minute effort when they take on Portland at noon ET in Rupp Arena on Saturday. Calipari's long-term aim is for his team to take ownership of its own destiny.
"All that we've been working on, we're going to see now if you're only doing it because I'm making you do it or you're doing it because you want to change," Calipari said. "Now it will be for everybody to see. Because if they're only doing it because I'm making them do it, at some point in the game they'll let go of the rope. If they're doing it because they know they have to change, they'll play a full game."
Last year's national championship had its share of early-season kinks to work out, but delivering a complete game wasn't one of them. One of the few times it was came in the first half of the buzzer-beating loss at Indiana. The way the Cats responded then was to introduce Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-led early-morning workouts.
The pre-sunrise time players are spending with strength and conditioning coach Rock Oliver are similar, only Coach Cal is playing the Kidd-Gilchrist role.
"Part of what we're doing right now is kind of a forced Breakfast Club," Calipari said. "Now you don't have to do the Breakfast Club. In this case, you are. You hope at some point we stop (forcing them) and a couple of these guys will continue, even if it's two or three days a week, that they'll continue to do it."
Harrow is beginning to see some preliminary signs of just that.
"I think we're starting to fall in love with it more," Harrow said. "I can say that. A lot of us are in here again in workouts before practice and some of us are getting in late at night. I'm starting to see what the team had from last year."
Harrow himself in an example.
In addition to running with the team in the morning and practicing in the afternoon, Harrow reported that he worked out three times on his own. He's taking full advantage of the chance to focus solely on basketball with classes dismissed before finals.
"I knew once I had took that two weeks off that I would have to get myself back into the rotation," Harrow said. "I'm actually playing more than what I thought I would be playing, so I've just got to be prepared for whenever he calls on me."
Harrow is going out of his way to work his way back into shape and into the fabric of his team and Calipari says it's beginning to pay off.
"He's getting better," Calipari said. "He needs to be in the gym with a coach that's pushing him, but he's getting better. He's gotten better in practice. The team is starting to respond to him, which is what they need to do."
The team, however, isn't quite to the point where it's driving itself as Calipari eventually wants it to. Should that never happen, Coach Cal will compensate.
"At the end of the day, that lack of that will fall back to me, and I hope that they will do it, but if they don't, then I'll do it," Calipari said. "I keep saying, when this team is empowered, I can sit back a little bit. Right now I'm being really hard, I'm being really tough, and that's what they need."
Kentucky looks to break through to the Elite Eight with a win over No. 1 Penn State Friday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
If you didn't know any better, it would almost seem that Kentucky has been preparing for this Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Penn State since, well, they faced the No. 1 seed Texas in last season's Sweet 16.
Did Kentucky know it would be paired up in this year's bracket with the No. 1 seed for the second season in a row? No. But the Wildcats had the wherewithal to look ahead thinking that there might be a chance they could have success in the NCAA Tournament and eventually meet some of its top teams.
They loaded up in the non-conference portion of their schedule with a murderers row-like roster of competition. Kentucky faced tournament teams like Louisville, Nebraska and Oregon. Both Nebraska and Oregon are still alive in the Sweet 16 this season.
Kentucky head coach Craig Skinner would tell you that his team is battle-tested and that there isn't a situation this season that it hasn't been in. Playing the top team in the country on a neutral court is a new one, however, this season for the Wildcats. That just may play into their hands, knowing that they've faced top-ranked Nebraska on its home floor and coming dangerously close to upsetting the Cornhuskers on the road.
What Kentucky has been playing for is the experience and knowledge on how to handle tough situations like the one it will be in Friday night against Penn State at Mackey Arena on the campus of Purdue. The mixed results and the battles with some of the fiercest competition on the country will give Kentucky its best chance to upset the Nittany Lions.
"When you get to this point it is all about executing," said Skinner. "We've done our best all year to prepare us for these moments."
The players know what type of opportunity they had last season in the Sweet 16 to make a statement, and they believe they let one get away. Last year's team, however, didn't face one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country either.
While this year's matches will give UK a lot to draw on when it comes to different parts of Friday's match, the biggest influence could be that very Texas match that happened 363 days ago.
"The big thing about the situation that we're going into is it's one that we've already been in before playing Texas as first seed last year," said senior setter Christine Hartmann. "We've been here before; we know how to handle it."
And the situation is not one that these players are even thinking about backing down from. They are ready to show the country what they are made of and that they can play with the best of the best. For them, Friday night can't get here fast enough.
"When you're in the office on Monday and your players are saying, 'Can Friday just get here?' they're amped about the chance to get out and compete again," said Skinner. "I think that's really it. It's not necessarily who, what, where, it's just the chance to get out and compete again."
That attitude is the same approach the Cats have taken from the beginning of this year's tournament, if not even further back into the regular season.
Kentucky knows that in order to compete with any team that it has to take care of what it does and focus on the way it plays. Now is not the time to start changing things up, but rather continue to try and perfect the things that they already do well.
"It's a normal game day and nothing changes," said junior right side Whitney Billings. "It's Penn State and we know they are good, but we are going to keep doing the same thing that we've been doing which is focusing on the opponent."
It's the same message that Skinner has been preaching to his whole team, and based on their words, they've heard it loud and clear. Kentucky has built its identity, and now it's going to see if it's good enough to take down the Nittany Lions Friday night.
"We have to do what we do," said Skinner. "We can't really change who we are, how we go about things. We have a system. We have things we do well."
What Kentucky has done well in the tournament is serve tough and play great defense. Penn State is a team capable of blowing any team out of the gym with the type of athletes and physicality that it brings to the table. While it's easy to scout an offense, as Penn State has likely done extensively this week, it's almost impossible to game plan for a poised defensive team.
That's exactly what Kentucky has to offer on Friday night.
"I've always thought as a coach, whether this is who I've worked for or whatever it is, you can't prepare for a great defense," said Skinner. "You can prepare for a great offense, but a great defense is hard to prepare for. It's something we take a lot of pride in and work on every day."
Kentucky boasts the Southeastern Conference Libero of the Year in senior libero Stephanie Klefot. They also have the SEC's third-best blocking team, averaging 2.53 blocks per set, highlighted by junior middle blocker Alexandra Morgan who ranks sixth in the SEC with 1.08 blocks per set.
The Wildcats will also need to continue to serve tough to keep Penn State out of rhythm on offense. It's been a strong suit of theirs all season, as they averaged 1.47 aces per set. But in the tournament, they've turned up the pressure even more so. Against East Tennessee State, UK used five aces and tough serving attack to earn the 3-0 sweep. On Saturday, the Cats doubled that number with 10 aces against Ohio State to send themselves to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Penn State.
With the match looming, the focus and energy will be at an all-time high this season for the Wildcats. It needs to be. It should be. Skinner knows what kind of opportunity lies ahead of he and his team, and he expects everyone to be up for the challenge when first serve flies at 5 p.m.
"They're excited, their adrenaline is pumping and we've been ready to play since Monday," said Skinner. "There's no question that they will be excited and that there will be some nerves. If there aren't nerves then I think there is something a little abnormal there.
"We seem to rise to the occasions and rise to opportunity, and I expect nothing else."
When things aren't going well for an athlete, coaches know there's only way to get back on track: work longer and harder. When golfers are struggling, they spend extra time on the practice range. When hitters are in a slump, they take extra batting practice. And John Calipari wants his young team to come to grips with the notion that all the guys that came before and got where they wanted to be did it by putting in that time, by "falling in love with that gym," as Calipari tells them.
"Are we more committed to what we're doing? If we are, we'll be fine. If not, it'll be a prolonged pain," Calipari said on his pregame radio interview Tuesday night. "None of this fazes me because I've been doing this so long. I wish we were winning but I know who we are. Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to you is you get the shakeup - 'What do you want to do now, do you really want this?' "
Calipari got a great teaching tool earlier this week when an NBA general manager showed up almost an hour before a UK practice session. About 20 minutes into the practice, Calipari called the GM over to talk to the team about why he arrived so early.
"He told them 'I wanted to know who was on the court early,' " Calipari noted. "Every NBA team will come early to see who works on their game."
DeCourcy expects Wiltjer to bounce back
Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy is a big Kyle Wiltjer fan. And he has no doubt Wiltjer will rediscover his shooting eye. For now, DeCourcy says Wiltjer has to regain his confidence.
"When a player like Kyle struggles with his shot, there's only one reason and that's confidence. It's a different role for him to be a prominent player at this level. A year ago, it was, 'Come in and if you make a basket, great - UK wins by more - and if you don't, we'll probably sit you back down.' Now, they need him and he's got to embrace that. He's got to believe," DeCourcy observed. "There's no reason Kyle Wiltjer should not be making open shots with the stroke he has. It's all about believing. There's no reason he should not be confident in his stroke, other than it's different to be the man. But you came to Kentucky. You came to be the man - or one of the men."
Tony Barnhart likes Stoops hire
"Just a matter of time."
CBS college football reporter Tony Barnhart says that was the prevailing option of media members when it came to the topic of Mark Stoops as a head coaching candidate. Barnhart says it was clear Stoops was ready to make the move up.
"I think the Kentucky fans ought to be excited. It's all about recruiting and I look back at the good teams that coach Brooks had and there were some very good players on those teams. They've got to go back and get some of those players again," Barnhart said. "I would look down the interstate at Louisville and see what Charlie Strong has done in getting Florida kids to come to the state of Kentucky. I think kids just want to play and there are so many players in the state of Florida that you can convince someone like a Teddy Bridgewater to come to the SEC and play. But you've got to roll up your sleeves and put in a lot of work but it's absolutely doable."
Barnhart also believes Stoops is on the right track in looking for an offensive coordinator who thinks outside the proverbial box.
"There's no question that in this league, you really need to have some components of the spread because you're not going to out-Alabama Alabama. You're not going to recruit enough players to dominate the better teams in this league, so you better find a way for smaller, quicker people to beat big people," he said.
UK overcame a 14-point deficit in a 48-47 win over Louisville last Sunday. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
December victories can mean a great deal. You need look no further than Kentucky's come-from-behind win at Louisville last Sunday for proof.
But when you have built your program the point where Matthew Mitchell has, pre-New Year's triumphs are but resume builders for March. It's that time of year when a shot like the one Janee Thompson hit or a block like Azia Bishop's against the Cardinals is the difference between the end of a season and playing another day.
That time of year is also exactly why Mitchell is so excited to see what the next three days have in store for his team.
"This is exactly like an NCAA tournament weekend," Mitchell said.
This weekend, UK Hoops will play host to a pair of quality non-conference opponents in DePaul (6-2) and Middle Tennessee State (5-3). Playing on Friday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m., the Cats will have limited time between games to prepare, exactly the kind of situation UK will face come March.
"This is a lot about your preparation leading up to the first game because the second game is going to be far more mental preparation than physical and it's a tough weekend but it's a great challenge," Mitchell said. "We wanted it this weekend. We wanted our team to have to be in this kind of setting."
As Mitchell suggested, the way the weekend fell is no accident. He wanted to see how his team would respond in this kind of setting when he drew up the schedule. Now that it has arrived, he is particularly looking forward to see how his players respond to it offensively.
"I think we have too many, right now on offense, that kind of stand and watch," Mitchell said. "This is a great, great weekend for us to show that mentally we can apply ourselves."
In victory, that was true against Louisville. UK managed just 48 points and 32.7-percent shooting along with 23 turnovers. Even on the game-winning shot, Thompson was forced to go one-on-one.
"I called a play initially and it went very similar to most possessions in the game where we did not execute the play," Mitchell said. "Janee was being totally honest when she said she didn't know the plays and didn't know what play to get in. That's a very accurate assessment and that's why we are in the shape we are point guard wise because they don't."
It's a testament to the talent of his team that the Cats were able to defeat a top-10 opponent on the road and move to 6-1 without a point guard with a complete grasp of the offense. Mitchell was elated to have won the game, but he isn't deluding himself into thinking his team is anywhere close to a finished product.
"We made a bunch of outstanding individual plays, but that will eventually catch up to you," Mitchell said. "We have to play much, much better than how we are playing and we are going to have to play very well to win."
There will always be pressure to perform when facing a team that has reached the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, but Friday night's game will dial up the pressure a little more. The Cats will play their annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena and are poised to break the school's all-time attendance record.
"We are really trying to impress upon our players the importance of a sharp, focused and aggressive effort tomorrow night to honor the folks who have put so much into getting out and watching this game," Mitchell said. "We are really looking forward to it."
DePaul, however, will be intent on crashing the party.
Four different Blue Demons are averaging in double figures, led by Brittany Hrynko at 14.4 points per game. DePaul also averages 18.8 assists per game as a team against just 14.9 turnovers.
"They are extremely talented on offense," Mitchell said. "They are well coached; Coach (Doug) Bruno has a great program. They are a perennial top-25 NCAA Tournament team and watching them on film has really gotten our attention that it is going to be a tough, tough game. We are going to need to be really in sync defensively to be able to slow DePaul down."
Fans who came to Rupp last year to watch the "Pack the House" game were treated to an upset win over Duke. Should the No. 7/6 Cats win on Friday it won't be an upset, but Mitchell is expecting a similarly exciting game.
"We want to encourage anyone who doesn't have a ticket to get out there and we would love to make this the most well-attended women's basketball game in the country this year," Mitchell said. "We have a chance to do that." As of Thursday afternoon, 17,158 tickets had been sold. Last year's NCAA high for a women's basketball game was 18,563. Tickets for each of UK's four December home games can be purchased for $1 at TicketMaster.com by using the code DOLLARDAYS.
Tim Garrison is looking to take the No. 25 Wildcats to new heights in 2012-13. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
There is always a level of uncertainty for a first-year head coach. The struggle of getting to know the team members, building a staff and rebuilding a program is no walk in the park, and much of what that new coach deals with is unexpected.
Kentucky gymnastics head coach Tim Garrison has now had time to appreciate and let his first season leading his program sink in. It was an important one, as all inaugural seasons are. He looked to set a tone and a base for what he wanted his program to become.
He started with the training regimen of his athletes, including how they practiced, conditioned and ate. The changes in the structure but also the philosophy paid dividends.
Under Garrison, his gymnasts helped Kentucky reach new heights. For the first time in school history, Kentucky posted three consecutive scores of 195.875 or above. It was the Wildcats' best three-meet stretch in program history. And Garrison became the first Kentucky head coach in program history to lead his team to a top-25 ranking in his first season.
Kentucky finished as the No. 25 team in the country last season. That's where they'll begin the 2012-13 season.
The gymnastics team will hold its first meet in Memorial Coliseum as it hosts the Blue/White Meet this Thursday at 6 p.m. After holding the first intra-squad scrimmage at the team's practice facility Nov. 16, Garrison likes the way his team competed.
He's looking for that same type of competitive spirit when they hit the Memorial Coliseum floor in front of an actual crowd Thursday night.
"We've done a really good job of preparing to this point," said Garrison. "Now it's just about getting out there and competing and showing it, getting in front of a crowd in a competitive venue, our home venue on hard surfaces and see what they do. It will be an interesting wrinkle on it this time going in Memorial for the first time."
But above and beyond being competitive, Garrison is looking to build on last season's experience and creating a higher level of consistency, an area Garrison feels can be a strength for his team.
"I fully expect them to be consistent this year," said Garrison. "I'm hoping that, beyond anything, is our strength: the consistency of how we perform. We might not be a 9.9 every event, every time, but I'm expecting that we're consistent with what we do."
For most teams, leaders are in charge of creating that competitive atmosphere and keeping everyone consistent. Those are two attributes that most, if not all, coaches preach to their teams. The head coach and his staff can only preach it so much, so it's up the athletes to perform, carry out the plan and lead one another.
The burden of those duties is often left to the seniors and upperclassmen, but Kentucky was a very young team last year in Garrison's initial season. The leadership came from within and the Cats found their way despite the youth at key positions in their lineup. Their experience and leadership took a hit as they began to prepare for their second season under Garrison's tutelage.
In August, rising senior Caitlyn Ciokajlo suffered an injury in workouts that would put her in the hospital and eventually end her gymnastics career. Ciokajlo is making an inspiring and triumphant recovery as she continues her road back to health.
The initial shock of the injury, however, was a setback for the team. Now the team is trying to move on without one of its fiercest competitors.
"We've had some time to heal," said Garrison. "That's important, I think. The closer to the season that happens the more of a shock it is and the less time you have to compensate for it.
"I don't think we'll ever be able to compensate for her completely because she was such a strong competitor, on bars especially, and is such a force in the gym. She is still around the gym. She's still a part of the training. She's there in person, which I think is a help."
As she continues her school at the University of Kentucky, she's also decided to maintain and involvement with her team to help the Cats cope with losing their teammate and senior leader.
"She's taken an active role in conditioning some athletes," said Garrison. "She's helping us with some video work. And then, you know, we'll ask her opinion every now and then on certain things."
With Ciokajlo sidelined, Garrison and his team will turn to the four juniors on the roster to help lead the way. That should be no problem, however, as they are already veterans in their own right. As part of last season's youth movement, those sophomores-turned-juniors saw plenty of action in competition.
Garrison has no problem leaning on his junior class to take a hold of leadership responsibilities.
"They bring a lot to the table," said Garrison. "They've had two years of competitive experience and because the team was so young last year, they got a lot of experience competing last year. So I would say they're seasoned. I'm expecting a lot from them in the leadership role this year."
With a roster full of 10 freshmen and sophomores, Kentucky will be young once again. But after getting to spend his first full offseason with his team since taking over the program, Garrison now fully knows what to expect from his team, as do his athletes of him and his staff.
The offseason was a great learning experience for both the staff and the athletes, and now Garrison feels like he has this thing going in the right direction and it's time for this team to take the next step in the Southeastern Conference.
"I'm very proud of what this team did last year, but that was just a baby step," said Garrison. "It's trying to level off. That's what we're trying to do. Let's get some consistency and then this year, we're trying to take a bigger step."
In order for that to happen, this team will need to continue to build and already strong team chemistry that seems to be growing each day in practice. It's a group of wide-ranging personalities that all fit in perfectly with Garrison's plan. If the chemistry is truly as strong as Garrison believes it to be, that could be plenty to help Kentucky reach the levels of competition and consistency that the Cats are seeking.
However they hope to be successful this season, the Cats expect it's going to take a full team effort to help them reach their goals.
"There's all different mentalities on the team," said Garrison. "I think we have people that are just aggressive people that will get up in people's faces and say you've got this. Then we have other people who are passive and lead by example.
"I think it's a total group effort. I really do, because we need all the different personalities to mesh and bring the chemistry it takes to be a competitive team. I really feel we have that."
Nerlens Noel had 13 points, six rebounds, five blocks and two steals in UK's 88-56 win over Samford on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For 20 minutes against Samford, Kentucky delivered the kind of effort John Calipari expected after back-to-back defeats. For one half, UK dominated the Bulldogs with tireless intensity.
The second 20 minutes, however, were another story. The second half is the reason why the Wildcats are going to be waking up before dawn from now until Christmas for early-morning conditioning sessions.
"Strap 'em on, boys," Calipari said.
UK headed to the halftime locker room leading 45-14. The Cats shot better than 50 percent from the field, held the visitors to 20-percent shooting, forced 14 turnovers and had nine steals.
"The way we played in the first half, we took these guys out," Calipari said. "We played, blocked shots, took charges, played - like played - basketball, competed against the other guy."
The rest of the way UK outscored Samford just 43-42. The Cats once against shot well over 50 percent from the field, but the Bulldogs shot better than 50 percent themselves while UK forced just three turnovers and had just two steals en route to an 88-56 victory.
To Coach Cal, the statistical difference between the two halves doesn't even tell the whole story. The lack of exertion he saw on the floor was particularly troubling because that very thing is the reason why his team took losses in each of its last two outings. In searching for an explanation for the second-half lapse, Calipari sees just one possibility.
"You come out for 20 minutes and you compete, then you come out the second half and you don't," Calipari said. "Then you're not in shape or you don't care. I don't want to even go that way. I don't even want to hint that way."
In light of that, Coach Cal sees just one option for how to resolve the conditioning issue.
After a day off on Wednesday, players will be summoned to the Joe Craft Center at 7 a.m. for running, running and more running. Later in the day, the team will hold its regular afternoon practice.
"We'll get (strength and conditioning coach) Ray Oliver," Calipari said. "20 to 30 minutes of straight running. Heart rates will be high. Not heart rates at 120. Your heart rate is going to be at 175, 180."
By the time players are dismissed for three days to spend time with family for the holidays, UK won't have a conditioning problem any longer. That could simultaneously solve another issue.
"Some of it may be mentally you're not strong enough, you're soft," Calipari said. "So the conditioning is good. It makes you stronger mentally."
If you ask Willie Cauley-Stein - who posted his first career double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds on Tuesday night - the mental side is really what this is all about.
"It's all mental," Cauley-Stein said. "He's trying to get us more mentally tough. There's no way we can't be in shape. Going through offseason and even how practices are now, there's no way we're not in shape."
If Cauley-Stein is right and he and his teammates are in shape, that will certainly help come Thursday morning. That doesn't mean he's looking forward to losing sleep to pre-dawn exercise. At the same time, he knows viewing it with a sense of foreboding won't help anything.
"If you dread them then it's worse," Cauley-Stein said. "So you gotta approach it as it's going to help you. A lot of guys don't do that but you approach it like it's going to make us better and in three weeks it's going to be crazy how good we are. If you approach it in a good way then it's going to be a good outcome."
The outcome Calipari is looking for is the Cats playing a full 40-minute game. If they do that, Calipari is sure UK will look a lot more like the top-five team they were billed as entering the season.
In fact, Coach Cal sees that preseason hype as sharing in some of the blame for what happened in the second half against Samford and in the games against Baylor and Notre Dame.
"I think we all got intoxicated, including me, about everything that was written and said about this team," Calipari said. "I kept telling you, 'We're not that good.' I'm looking, 'Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe we're better than I think.' Uh-uh."
As has been the case, coming to the realization that they aren't what everyone said they would be right now does not preclude the Cats from living up to the billing eventually. If they are to do that, the coming weeks will be crucial.
"We're sliding into Camp Cal time," Calipari said. "No classes, no timeframe, no four hours, 20 hours a week, none of that. It's like three practices a day. Do nice conditioning in the morning. Do practice in the afternoon. Come back in the evening and walk through and do some shooting and other things."
Tim Couch was at helm of some of the most productive offenses in Kentucky football history. But when Mitch Barnhart reached out to "The Deuce" for counsel on the search for the Cats' next football coach, the UK Athletics Director found an ally in the desire to find a coach who had expertise on the defensive side of the ball.
"When I was here, we put up a lot of points but we had a tough time stopping people. In this conference, you have to be able to stop people. If you look at the jobs that are open in the SEC, those are the four worst defenses in the conference," Couch noted on "The Leach Report" radio show yesterday.
Couch, however, is still an "Air Raid" proponent. And he remembers that Stoops' older brother Bob plucked offensive coordinator Mike Leach off the UK staff in 1998 when Stoops landed the head coaching job at Oklahoma. Another Stoops brother, Mike, followed that script when he landed the head coaching job at Arizona and he hired Sonny Dykes (another one-time Mumme assistant) to run his offense. Clearly, the Stoops brothers realized the need to marry their defensive acumen with an aggressive, attacking, high-scoring offense style and Mark Stoops plans to look for that kind of offensive coordinator.
"It's been proven that it's a good fit, that kind of offense with the defensive schemes that coach Stoops has and his brothers have," Couch said. "At Oklahoma, they're still running that type of offense that Coach Leach brought in there years ago and they've been successful with it for a long time. I think that would be a great combination for us at Kentucky. The thing I love about that offense is that it gives you a chance every week (to compete against more talented teams). They're running the same thing at Texas A&M right now, so it's been proven to succeed in this league."
Like other Kentucky football fans, Couch really liked the idea that Stoops made the first move on the UK job, calling Barnhart to express interest in the position before Barnhart had called him.
"That was huge for me," Couch acknowledged. "When I came into this thing, I thought we would have to sell a lot of coaches on this program. But it was the exact opposite. And it was certainly exciting to hear the passion and the vision for this program."
And Stoops came into his meetings with Barnhart, Couch and other UK officials with a clear outline of his plan for elevating the Wildcats' program.
"I think he has a nice recruiting plan, number one. His ties to Youngstown, Ohio; that (the state of Ohio) is an area we can hit harder. And his plan on defense, switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3 and simplifying things (is good). He had a plan for everything - how they were going to train and eat, the discipline - just everything we had a question about, Mark had the perfect answer," explained Couch. "He's been preparing for this for a long time and he's ready."
Stoops inherits a UK program that won only two games this season but Couch doesn't discount the chance for a quick turnaround in the Cats' gridiron fortunes.
"We were the worst offense in the country in my freshmen year and Hal Mumme and Mike Leach came in, we switched schemes and we were the best offense in the country with the same players. I think it can be an improvement. I'm not saying we're going to win seven or eight games our first year but I think there will be improvement and I think in year two, year three and year four, we'll see steady improvement," Couch said. "I hope everyone is patient because this is a rebuilding process but I think there will be some improvement in year one."
John Calipari and his Wildcats will take on Samford on 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's just not in John Calipari's nature to hold marathon practices. He has made it known in his Kentucky tenure that he much prefers shorter sessions, leaving his players ample opportunity to work individually and as a group outside of organized team time.
That philosophy, obviously, worked just fine. UK advanced to an Elite Eight and a Final Four before winning the national championship last season.
"You'll have coaches do those four-hour practices, early-morning workouts," Calipari said. "I just think you beat kids down by doing that, but some teams need it."
Having watched his team lose two games in a row and fall out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time during his time in Lexington, Coach Cal is thinking this bunch of Wildcats might fall in that "some teams" category.
"And this team - Alex (Poythress) and really all of them - you gotta understand nothing's given to you," Calipari said. "You gotta earn it. But you gotta fall in love with the gym. Even when you're not in practice, you love wanting to go over there...Last year, they were in the gym all the time. This year, they haven't been in there one day. Well, it's kind of showing."
If the Cats aren't going to do it on their own, Calipari is going to make them.
UK held two practices on Sunday, just a day after the Cats had lost their first home game in more than three years to Baylor on Sunday. Willie Cauley-Stein reported it was the hardest day of practice since arriving on campus this summer.
"It was tough," Cauley-Stein said. "We did a lot of running and a lot of holding each other accountable. If somebody made a mistake, we ran as a whole team."
Archie Goodwin admitted he was a little sore on Monday.
"Practice has been a lot more competitive and intense, but it's something we should have been doing from the beginning," Goodwin said. "I can see it's going to help us out in the long run."
Goodwin can say that with confidence because of how closely he's followed his coach since Calipari was at Memphis. He knows all of Coach Cal's teams have traits in common, traits that his most recent squad haven't yet shown.
"I would just say they're a lot more competitive than we are right now," Goodwin said. "They had a lot more toughness and were more of a team than we are."
If the way Goodwin saw his teammates responded in the gym on Sunday is any indication, those things are merely below the surface waiting to be drawn out.
"It's something that we have," Goodwin said. "That was evident (Sunday) in practice. It's something we have to bring out of ourselves and just continue to do it on a daily basis."
Calipari is taking an extremely active role in that process.
Coach Cal invoked the name of Josh Harrellson in the way he is motivating his team. Harrellson spent most of his first two seasons at UKK on the bench before finding his way into Calipari's doghouse at the beginning of his senior year. After spending more time on the treadmill that he would care to remember, Harrellson became a starter, a consistent contributor and eventually an NBA draft pick. The hope is the current Cats follow the same trajectory.
Of course, the incident that triggered that whole process was an infamous tweet in the wake of Harrellson's 26-rebound performance in the Blue-White Scrimmage. He publically lamented the lack of praise he received from Calipari and was penalized by being forced to delete his Twitter account.
It isn't a disciplinary measure, but a few of this year's Cats are voluntarily following Harrellson's anti-social media lead. Since the loss to Baylor, Julius Mays, Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein have all deleted their Twitter accounts.
Even before a flood of negative comments from fans after the back-to-back losses, Cauley-Stein had been thinking about doing it, offering that "nothing good" came of it. In fact, Cauley-Stein wants to avoid public opinion altogether, even when fans have nice things to say.
"I don't really want to look at the positives anymore either," Cauley-Stein said. "I just want to play out here with my teammates and do what Coach tells us to do every day and get better and get this thing back on track."
The first test of that bunker mentality will come on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET against Samford. For Calipari, it will be another chance to learn about his team and how he needs to coach it.
"Like I told you, I'm still learning about the team and what it needs, what it needs from me, what we've got to instill in it," Calipari said. "It's going to be time. I told Coach (Joe B.) Hall - this was about two weeks ago - I said it may be February until we figure this out."
It may take a while, but Coach Cal is confident he has a team that will stick it out with him.
"I've got a great group of kids," Calipari said. "I really do. They're young and they're not as skilled as you'd like them to be, but they're going to do what we ask them to do."
MEN'S BASKETBALL - The Kentucky basketball team will play its final midweek contest in the month of December when the Blue and White takes on Samford on Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET. Kentucky and Samford met for the first time a season ago with the Wildcats earning an 82-50 win. - Freshman Archie Goodwin has logged four or more assists in four consecutive games including five against Baylor on Saturday. Classmate Alex Poythress leads the Southeastern Conference hitting .672 percent of his shots, while fellow freshman Nerlens Noel leads the league with 2.9 blocks per game. - Samford enters the matchup owning a 2-7 overall record which includes a pair of losses to ranked foes in Louisville and Memphis.
VOLLEYBALL - The Kentucky volleyball team advanced to its second straight Sweet 16 following wins over East Tennessee State and Ohio State in the opening rounds of the NCAA Tournament. With back-to-back appearances in the round of 16, UK is one of just eight schools to achieve the feat. It's the first time in the Craig Skinner era that UK has won two matches in the tournament in consecutive years and the first time in program history since the 1987-88 seasons. - Senior Ashley Frazier's 12 kills on .500 hitting sparked a 3-0 sweep of ETSU on Friday. Then it was a spectacular display of defensive fortitude that halted the high-octane attack of Ohio State. UK charted 11.5 blocks and picked up 55 digs to fluster the Buckeyes into a .213 hitting clip and no more than 14 kills in a set following the opening frame en route to a 3-1 win. - Junior Alexandra Morgan had seven blocks in the win, and senior Stephanie Klefot logged 18 digs to lead the way vs. OSU. Sophomore Lauren O'Conner paced three attackers in double-figures with a team-high 16 kills, while junior Whitney Billings notched her 17th double-double of the season with 10 kills and 12 digs in the winning effort. - Kentucky will move on to face No. 1 seed Penn State on Friday at 5 p.m. in the West Lafeytte Regional. It is the second-consecutive season UK will face the top overall seed in the tournament. WOMEN'S BASKETBALL - Kentucky improved to 6-1 with wins over Miami (Ohio) and No. 6/7 Louisville last week. Against the RedHawks, junior Bernisha Pinkett had a career day as she came off the bench to record her first career double-double. She set personal-bests with 21 points and 10 rebounds, while equaling her career-high with five assists. She became the first Wildcat to post a 20-point and 10-rebound game since Victoria Dunlap (22 pts/11 rbs) vs. Vanderbilt on March 5, 2011. - Sunday's matchup at Louisville pitted two of the nation's top two teams as No. 9/8 UK traveled to No. 6/7 Louisville. It marked the first meeting with both teams ranked in the top 10 nationally, and it turned out to be quite the barnburner. - Trailing by 14 points with 15:08 to play in the game, the Wildcats clawed back and charted one of the biggest comebacks in the Matthew Mitchell era. Led by junior DeNesha Stallworth's game-high 14 points, the Cats outscored the Cards 18-6 in the final 10 minutes, but the most valuable player of the game turned out to be one of the most unlikely players. - Freshman point guard Janee Thompson, who did not see action in the first half and who was averaging just 5.2 points coming into the game, came off the bench to hit three straight critical free throws down the stretch and nail the go-ahead 3-pointer with 8.5 seconds to play. She ended with 13 points in just 16 minutes of action, giving the Cats their first win over the Cards on the road since 1999 and their first win over a top-10 foe on the road since defeating No. 8 Western Kentucky in Bowling Green, Ky., in 1991.
SWIMMING & DIVING - The Kentucky diving team competed at the Miami Open last weekend in Oxford, Ohio in a field that included the Guangdong Provincial diving team from China. - Junior diver Greg Ferrucci picked up a third-place score of 386.0 while senior John Fox earned a 322.4, good for fifth place in the 1-meter. Freshman Rebecca Hamperian earned a fifth-place score of 275.35. Sophomore Sarah Chewning earned sixth place with a final tally of 271.05 in the 3-meter. - Sophomore Christa Cabot earned a career high score of 301.95 to take second place in the women's 1-meter. Junior Corey Cowger earned an NCAA Zone qualifying score of 326.45 on the 3-meter board.
Mark Stoops was introduced as UK head coach at a press conference Sunday with Mitch Barnhart and Eli Capilouto. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Looking around Nutter Field House as Mark Stoops was introduced as head coach, the importance of the Kentucky football program to both the university and athletic department it represents was unmistakable.
It was a celebration of UK football's bright future and it featured all the pomp and circumstance to be expected of such an event, but the press conference featured plenty of substance to go along with the bells and whistles.
Stoops laid out his vision for the program, while Mitch Barnhart detailed why he believed the new coach can get the job done. Sitting beside both was UK President Eli Capilouto with an important message of his own.
"With Coach Stoops joining the Big Blue Nation, we are demonstrating our commitment to football and our student athletes," Capilouto said. "We are committed to the long term in football."
The long term, of course, means maintaining and improving its facilities. Capilouto has put into place a plan designed to rebuild the entire UK campus. Football is a part of that plan.
"We are committed to investing in its success, which will ensure the financial success of the most comprehensive athletics program in the SEC, an athletics program that commits millions of dollars a year to academic scholarships and university programs," Capilouto said.
According to both Capilouto and Barnhart, more specifics will be announced in the near future.
"We've been working in concert with the university on facility plans on a lot of fronts," Barnhart said. "Dr. Capilouto and the trustees have been tremendous about working through all those details. Obviously as Dr. Capilouto referred to in his remarks, there are pieces of that that will have to appear at the legislative level. We want to do it in concert with what is best for the university."
That complete conversation, however, is for another day.
"Today underscores that commitment to student athletes and to our university," Capilouto said. "We are building upon a strong foundation and investing in long-term success in our football program. That success, in turn, means so much to the rest of our athletic program and to our university."
Ohio, Florida figure prominently in Stoops' recruiting plans
During the 40 minutes he spent in front of the Kentucky media for the first time, Stoops said some variation of the word "recruit" 11 times. Clearly, he understands how important attracting talent to Lexington will be in his success.
"We have to go out and recruit," Stoops said. "You have to recruit each and every day, each and every year, to keep on building your program."
Stoops is an Ohio native and has spent 21 of his 45 years living in the state. He has spent another seven years coaching in talent-rich Florida. For Barnhart, Stoops' ties to the two areas are major positives as he takes over. Stoops says Ohio and Florida will figure prominently in his plans.
"We're going to recruit Ohio very hard," Stoops said. "I have strong ties in Ohio. There's very good football players in Ohio. We'll work through the Carolinas, Florida, and Georgia a little bit."
UK's location dictates that he must go out of state to pursue SEC-level talent. But even though the Commonwealth might not produce as many players as other states, Stoops is adamant about recruiting Kentucky's top players to stay at home for college.
"It's our job to get out and work hard and to recruit and keep the great ones home, to take any player that could help us win, take them and develop them, mold them to be winning players for us," Stoops said. "I understand that, that there's not as many in this state as others, but there are some good ones, and it's our job to keep them home." A look at Stoops' contract
This week, Stoops signed a five-year contract that expires Dec. 31, 2017. It will pay him approximately $11 million over the life of the deal with a base annual salary of $400,000 and media and endorsement income that climbs from $1.6 million the first year of the contract to $2 million the last.
Stoops will also have the opportunity to earn incentive compensation in the following ways:
$100,000 each season UK wins five or more conference games
$100,000 for each SEC win after UK's first of the season
$100,000 for any season in which UK finishes first or tied for first in the SEC East
$200,000 for any season in which UK wins the SEC title or plays in the Bowl Championship Series or its successor
$200,000 for winning a national championship
$50,000 for reaching a non-BCS bowl if bowl revenue is less than $2 million
$125,000 for reaching a non-BCS bowl if bowl revenue exceeds $2 million
$25,000 for each year the team GPA is 2.75 or better
$25,000 for each year UK achieves a minimum Academic Progress Rate of 950
$50,000 for each year in which Stoops wins SEC Coach of the Year award
$75,000 for each year in which Stoops is named National Coach of the Year
Stoops not coaching FSU bowl game
With Florida State winning the ACC championship, the Seminoles will face Northern Illinois in the Orange Bowl.
Stoops, however, will not be serving as his former school's defensive coordinator in the game. He dealt last week with trying to balance priorities and he doesn't want to attempt that again.
"I just think there's too much work to be done," Stoops said. "It's hard to be in two places at one time. This week alone was extremely challenging. We agreed on Monday evening, so it was a very long and stressful week for myself. To try to go through that again, I don't think it's right for either side." Leaving won't be easy for Stoops, especially considering the clear affection between he and his players. Because of that, he is considering returning to Tallahassee, Fla., to assist in preparations.
"If I can go back and help around the dead time when the recruiting ends, there's some dead time, I may try to go back and help a little bit with game planning," Stoops said.
Make no mistake though, his new job comes first.
"I'm here," Stoops said. "I'm working for you now. I'm a part of the Big Blue Nation. That's where I want to be."
Janee Thompson's 3-pointer with less than 10 seconds left lifted UK to a 48-47 road victory over No. 7 Louisville on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For a little less than 30 minutes, Kentucky's annual rivalry matchup with Louisville was going according to the script it has followed in recent seasons.
The home-standing team - in this case, the Cardinals - had a comfortable lead. Leading 41-30 with just 10:07 to play, U of L seemed well on the way to what would be the fifth double-digit victory for the hosts in as many years.
The Wildcats, however, had other ideas.
"I was really pleased that our players, when it was not going well for us, that they just stayed at it and played a full 40 minutes," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.
UK closed the game on an 18-6 run to post a 48-47 victory on Sunday in the KFC Yum! Center. The Cats turned a deficit that once reached 14 points into an unlikely road win, the first for UK in Louisville since 1999.
UK's hero on Sunday night was just unlikely as the outcome.
Junior DeNesha Stallworth helped the Cats remain within striking distance even as they struggled with turnovers and rebounding. Stallworth led all scorers with 14 points in her first UK-U of L game after transferring from California, but it was a true freshman who didn't play a second in the first half who became the story.
Janee Thompson scored 10 points of her 13 points during that aforementioned 18-6 run, providing shot-making and steady point-guard play in a game that featured 48 total turnovers.
She also saved her best for last. With her team trailing by four, she extended a UK possession with an offensive rebound before drawing a foul on a 3-point attempt. She stepped to the free throw and calmly sank three free throws to make it a one-point game with 50 seconds left.
Louisville's Bria Smith would hit one-of-two free throws on the ensuing possession, giving UK the ball with 38 seconds left trailing by two. As the shot clock ticked down, the ball found its way into Thompson's hands at the top of the key. With little going on offense, Thompson created space with the dribble, stepped back and shot from just outside the 3-point arc.
"I looked at the clock and there wasn't a lot of time left and I couldn't think of a play to run so I was pretty much trying to create my own shot," Thompson said.
The shot was perfect, giving UK a 48-47 lead with eight seconds left.
Needing just two points to send the Cats to a crushing defeat, Smith drove for U of L. Seeming to have a clean look close to the basket, she shot. Sophomore Azia Bishop blocked the shot, the clock expired and UK celebrated on its archrival's home floor.
"That was as big as the 3," Mitchell said of Bishop's block. "Obviously the 3 gave us the lead, but Smith had gotten to the bucket a couple times there at the end and we hadn't done a very good job."
As big as the top-10 road win was for the Cats, the significance of Thompson's emergence could loom even larger. She arrived at UK as one of the nation's most highly touted point guards, but spent most of the first five games of her college career playing off the ball.
She scored in double digits in each of last two games, which Mitchell said helped build up her confidence. Armed with that confidence, Thompson played point guard in UK's most pressure-packed game of the season, stabilizing a position that has been in a state of flux much of the year. If she can maintain that level of play, the Cats' prospects appear much brighter.
Former star quarterback Tim Couch assisted Mitch Barnhart in the search process that culminated in the hiring of Mark Stoops. (Michael Reaves, UK Athletics)
When University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart was faced with finding the next head football coach at the University of Kentucky, he knew he couldn't do it alone. He enlisted several members of his support staff in the Kentucky athletic department. That group included senior staffers DeWayne Peevy, Marc Hill and John Cropp.
Another assistant in the coaching search was not an employee of the University of Kentucky. But his association with the Kentucky football program is just as important when it came to finding the next man to lead the Kentucky football team into Commonwealth Stadium. Former Kentucky quarterback and No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft Tim Couch was asked to be a part of the coaching search from the beginning, and his opinion was highly regarded.
"I had several of my staff that helped me through this process and a great friend of the program in Tim Couch," said Barnhart Sunday afternoon. "I'd like to thank him for that."
Couch was present Sunday at the Nutter Field House as Kentucky introduced the head coach that Couch personally wanted and helped find in former Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops.
"I had a chance to visit with Tim on the phone a few times," said Stoops. "He was involved in one of the interviews. I understand the impact that Tim has on this university. Again, I want to lean on Tim and visit with him about some ideas because he's been around football."
Couch was a key cog in a high-powered attack that helped Kentucky become one of the best offenses in the country. He was part of the "Air Raid" offense under head coach Hal Mumme and took over as the starting quarterback his sophomore season. He broke several school and conference records during his time as a Wildcat, and in his junior season, he threw for 38 touchdowns and 4,611 passing yards before declaring he would forgo he senior season to enter the NFL Draft.
The former NFLer and current college football analyst was looking for something much different in the next head coach at Kentucky, however. Couch knew that this program would need to take a defense-first approach if they wanted to have success in the Southeastern Conference.
"He has a great reputation around the country of being one of the best defensive minds in all of college football," said Couch. "I know one thing at Kentucky we've always struggled with is stopping people in this conference, so we continued the process and it turned out he was a great fit for us."
What impressed Couch about Stoops was his authentic enthusiasm and excitement for the direction of the program, a program that Couch clearly still cares very much about. After participating in one of Stoops' interviews with Barnhart, Couch could tell that this was the place that Stoops truly wanted to be.
"I think number one that's what we all wanted here was a coach who wanted to be here at Kentucky, a coach had a vision for our program and the direction it wanted to go and what we all saw for our program," said Couch. "And he fit the bill perfectly."
That vision is a similar one that Stoops, Couch, and the rest of the search committee shared. Kentucky was looking for a defensive-minded head football with great recruiting connections as well as person capable of putting together a talented coaching staff.
Couch also was looking for a guy who could come in and help restore the physicality of the football team. Over the last few seasons, Couch noticed that this Kentucky program had lost a bit of its physicality and toughness, which may have contributed to their struggles on the field. Playing in one of, if not the most physical conferences, restoring that toughness was a critical quality that the new football coach must have.
It sounds like Couch thinks Kentucky found that guy.
"I just think this program over the last few years has gotten away from being a physical football team," said Couch. "I really believe that. I think that's one thing that also sold me on Mark was his defensive background and his ability to come back and put toughness into this program."
Now Stoops has the difficult task of rebuilding the program after a two-season bowl drought and trying to make a winner out of a 2-10 football team.
It can happen. Couch has seen it with his own eyes. When he arrived as a freshman from Hyden, Ky., he split time at the quarterback position. The team struggled mightily. But in his sophomore season, once he took over the role full time, the offense and the team flourished.
Couch thinks it can happen again, but it's not going to be easy.
"It's a 2-10 football team in the toughest conference in America, but I am saying that it can turn around," said Couch. "You get guys in the right system, you put them in a position to make plays, and you get them in the right mismatches on the football field, and that's what coaching's all about."
The man who wore No. 2 during his time as a Wildcat mentioned how much he likes the young talent on this team at the skill positions, particularly at wide receiver and quarterback. With a new head coach and an entirely new staff, the returning players will have the responsibility and opportunity to make a new impression.
"It's a fresh start for everyone on the team," said Couch. "I think it's a chance to prove yourself all over again. Whatever perception the old staff had of you, whether that be good or bad, you have to prove yourself coming in."
Couch did what Barnhart asked of him, offering friendly advice and help to Barnhart and the search committee. Now that Couch's services in the coaching search are no longer required, he hopes to be able to offer his help to the new head coach directly, however he sees fit.
"I just think he wants to use me as a resource here," said Couch. "I care a great deal about this program. I've been a Kentucky kid. I've cared about this program since I was a little boy and that's the reason I chose to come play ball here.
"In any direction or any way he wants me to help this program going forward, whether it be talking to the team, being around the team more, or anything like that, getting alumni back together, making it stronger, I'm willing to help in any way."
Mark Stoops was introduced as Kentucky's head football coach on Sunday. (Hunter Wilson, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops had never been to Lexington. He had certainly heard about it, but he had never experienced firsthand the passion of Kentucky fans.
On Sunday, he got an up close and personal look.
Making his way through a crowd numbering in the hundreds of current and former players, cheerleaders, band members, boosters and athletic department staff, Stoops strode to an elaborate podium erected in the middle of the Nutter Field House. With a big screen and a floor-to-ceiling banner behind him, Stoops succinctly summed up his thoughts on it all.
"So this is what the Big Blue Nation is all about right here, huh?" Stoops said.
Capping a whirlwind week during which he agreed to become UK's next head football coach while helping Florida State prepare for a conference championship game as defensive coordinator, Stoops flew to Kentucky from Tallahassee, Fla., for his official introduction. Flanked by Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and President Eli Capilouto, Stoops spoke at length about his background and his philosophy.
"You'll get to know me as we go forward," Stoops said. "But, you know, it's all about recruiting, developing the players that you have, developing them as total people. That's what I'm all about, doing things right. I'm very much of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I have a plan. We have a vision."
In fact, that vision is the primary reason Stoops landed a five-year contract as head coach that will pay him a base of roughly $11 million with incentives. When Barnhart and Stoops talked at length for the first time about the position on Nov. 10, Stoops provided exceptional detail in spelling out his plan for Kentucky football. In other words, Stoops conducted himself like a man whose 20-plus-year coaching career had been building to this opportunity.
"I've been impressed with what he's had to say and how he's going about it," Barnhart said. "He's very thoughtful. It's clear this guy is 45 years old and he's been around it his entire life and he's thinking about it all the time. This is something he's been waiting for and he's been working toward his entire career."
And it was just any head coaching job he was working toward; it was this one specifically.
"I cannot tell you how excited I am to be your football coach," Stoops said. "I'm highly motivated to build this program to national prominence. There will be no magic wands to getting this done. We're going to do it with very much of a blue-collar mentality. We'll work every day, be accountable to what we do."
Throughout the more than 40 minutes he sat answering questions in his suit and tie and Kentucky hat, Stoops exuded enthusiasm. If you ask Barnhart, that trait extends well into Stoops' everyday dealings. That's good to know because there was little about Sunday's press conference disguised as a pep rally that could be termed "everyday."
"He and I text back and forth a lot and there wasn't a time where his energy didn't come through, even in a text message," Barnhart said.
Stoops had his first chance to share some of that zeal with a few members of his new team immediately after his press conference, shaking hands with the current players who had made their way to the event. First thing on Monday morning, Stoops will meet with the entire team for a more detailed introduction.
"I'm going to tell them to look forward to it," Stoops said. "A lot of coaches take these positions and try to scare them, tell them how hard it's going to be. It's going to be hard. There's no way around that. We're going to work hard, train hard, do things right. They're going to be accountable and dependable."
Inevitably, he will be telling players some hard truths about what will be demanded of them. Along with that, Stoops will make sure to let them know fun will be had.
"I'm going to enjoy coaching them," Stoops said. "They're going to enjoy playing for us. They're going to enjoy being a part of this Kentucky family. They're going to hold their heads high walking around this campus."
Stoops' now-former players are surely doing just that on Florida State's campus right now. On Saturday night, the Seminoles won the Atlantic Coast Conference title over Georgia Tech, 21-15. In celebration of the victory, Stoops was showered with Gatorade by his defensive pupils after they held the Yellow Jackets' potent triple-option rushing attack to more than 100 yards below their season average.
For Barnhart, the performance reinforced a belief he carried throughout his search for Joker Phillips' replacement, a belief that defense must be a priority for Kentucky to compete at a high level in the Southeastern Conference.
"At the end of the day, I wanted us to be better defensively so we didn't have to be so perfect on offense and that was really, really important to us," Barnhart said. "That was where I started."
With that in mind, Stoops - who has engineered dramatic defensive turnarounds at both Arizona and Florida State as a coordinator - was a logical candidate. Each of the past two seasons, the Seminoles have ranked among the best units in the country after allowing more than 30 points a game in 2009, the year before Stoops arrived.
"We'll be very defined in what we do now defensively moving forward," Stoops said. "We'll play with four down (linemen), 4-3 personnel. Of course, we'll be very multiple from there. But, again, I have a very clear vision of what we want to do defensively. Our players will know after the first spring exactly who we are and what we're all about."
Stoops went on to say he has targeted a single candidate to be his defensive coordinator, meaning a major priority in his first week on the job will be finding his offensive coordinator. Since his background as a player at Iowa and as a coach is on defense, he realizes how important the hire is.
"I'm planning on going out and interviewing a few offensive coordinators here real soon," Stoops said. "I've been in conversations. I feel real good about the prospects for the offensive coordinator."
He may not yet know who his coordinator will be or the details of his scheme, but does know UK will field an offense that will be able to throw the football.
"We're going to have an offense that you guys are going to enjoy," Stoops said. "I promise you that."
As for how success will be defined, neither Barnhart nor Stoops were shy about stating their goals.
"To play in the SEC Championship game," Stoops said. "And to win it."
Doing that is one of the few ways it's possible to imagine Kentucky supporters being more excited about Stoops being their head coach that they were on this day. Over the next nine months, Stoops, his staff and his players will work toward that end. When they emerge and play their first home game on Sept. 7, 2013, Stoops is hoping for a crowd with energy similar to the one that packed Nutter on Sunday.
"The one thing that I ask you to do: I ask the Big Blue Nation to fill Commonwealth Stadium each and every week next year," Stoops said.
UK Sports Video is along for the ride as Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and other staff members fly to Tallahassee, Fla., to pick up new head football coach Mark Stoops and bring him to Lexington for his introductory press conference. This page will be updated throughout the day with the latest videos from the trip.
Mark Stoops will be officially introduced as Kentucky head football coach on Sunday. He will take to a podium at the Nutter Field House alongside UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and President Eli Capilouto in the press conference at 3 p.m., but the event is closed to the public.
That doesn't mean the Big Blue Nation will not be able to participate. Fans are invited to welcome Stoops at two different times and locations on Sunday.
At 12:30 p.m. ET at the R.J. Corman Airplane Hangar in Nicholasville.
At 2:45 p.m. outside the Nutter Field House next to Gate 1 of Commonwealth Stadium.
After Stoops enters Nutter for his press conference, fans are invited to proceed into Commonwealth and watch the comments of Stoops, Barnhart and Capilouto on the video boards. Former and current UK football players will be able to attend the press conference.
For those unable to participate in either opportunity to welcome Stoops, you can watch the press conference live at 3 p.m. in the following ways:
UK IMG Network (check back later for local affiliates airing the broadcast)
Kentucky defeated Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Sweet 16. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky volleyball team accomplished a feat that it had not managed since the 1987-88 seasons when they defeated Ohio State Saturday night, 3-1. Dating back to the 1988 season, UK had never reached the Sweet 16 in consecutive seasons.
Until Saturday night.
After Kentucky reached the round of 16 last season, hosting a regional for the first time the Craig Skinner era and facing No. 1 seed Texas, Kentucky will be heading back to its second straight regional. The Wildcats will be faced with an equally tough opponent, as they will be matched up with this season's No. 1 seeded Penn State. But this time, UK won't have the luxury of playing in front of their home crowd.
The Big Blue Nation came out in full force in the first two rounds, and without them, Kentucky may have been in trouble.
"(The crowd) kind of helped us through with that second game and without them I don't know if we would have came back and won," said senior libero Stephanie Klefot. "You hear that "Go Big Blue" chant and you get chills and it gives you that momentum to go out there and kick their butt."
The crowd's energy mixed with team's emotion will send Klefot to the third Sweet 16 of her illustrious four-year career. That level of success is no longer just a privilege, but rather has become the expectation of Skinner's program.
"We set lofty goals at the beginning of the year," said Skinner. "I think as a program, that's what we want to be and what we want to do. The Sweet 16 is the next step."
But before Kentucky could ever think about heading to the West Lafayette, Ind. Regional, the Wildcats would have to go through the high-octane offense of Ohio State. By the looks of things in the first set, it looked like it might be a Big Ten Sweet 16 reunion.
The Buckeyes steamrolled Kentucky in the first set, 25-18. Outside hitter Kaitlyn Leary was a force offensively, and UK had no answers for her eight kills. After a 19-kill performance Friday night against Notre Dame, it looked like the Wildcats would be in for a long night much like the Fighting Irish suffered at the hands of OSU's outside hitters.
Kentucky struggled to execute the game plan that Skinner and his staff had laid out for them early on.
"We knew they were going to get a lot of swings," said Skinner. "We were trying to get our block position to slow them down and we weren't in the right spots. They made some great swings."
Set two was a crucial one for both teams. It looked like Kentucky was going to handily take the second frame to even things up at the break as the Cats jumped out to a 9-5 lead. Then Klefot went to the serving line and turned up the heat with a couple of aces to make it 13-8. A stuff block by the Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan combination made it 14-8, and before the Buckeyes knew it, they faced a six-point deficit.
The deficit didn't last long and the Buckeyes answered the bell. Before UK could blink, OSU had regained the lead at 21-20. Ohio State's six-point run put them at a comfortable 23-20 advantage. But the visitors got a bit too comfortable and it not only cost them the set, but potentially the match.
"It was rough because we had been rolling through that set and we were feeling pretty good," said Ohio State outside hitter Emily Danks. "It was just that moment of let up that they took control of the game."
Kentucky would not be denied facing a three-point deficit. Kentucky pulled to within one at 23-22, but OSU answered on a kill by outside hitter Mari Hole. Now Kentucky was faced with another OSU set point at 24-22.
Enter Whitney Billings.
Billings pulled the Wildcats once more to within one to keep hope alive with a kill at 24-23. Then she really changed the landscape of the set with some dynamite serving to get the Buckeyes out of rhythm. A Christine Hartmann and Morgan block tied it up at 24. Then Billings put the finishing touches on the set to complete the comeback with consecutive aces to give Kentucky the 26-24 victory to go into the locker room with a 1-1 tie.
When both teams came out for set three, it looked like there would be another entertaining and nail-biting set. The Wildcats built an early 5-2 lead off of a couple of Lauren O'Conner kills. Then Ohio State reeled off three in a row to tie it up at five. But Kentucky would take off shortly thereafter with a 6-2 run and never looked back.
The Cats continued to build on the momentum they had gained after an improbable second-set comeback, and OSU seemed to be defeated by Kentucky's physicality and tough serving attack.
"Really they won the serve and pass game," said Ohio State head coach Geoff Carlston. "Whoever won that was going to win the match and they did. Especially at the end of the second set and they kept it going in the third and fourth set and we didn't respond very well but I thought that was a little bit of a reaction of them finding a groove serving."
Kentucky would finish the night with a season-high-tying of 10 aces.
The Wildcats had really turned up the pressure defensively as well as continuing their hard, and well-placed serves. Kentucky would build a 23-15 lead before Billings put the exclamation point on the set with a thunderous kill down the line to give UK set point. Senior Ashley Frazier went to the line, pumped in a sharp serve that was overpassed to the Kentucky side of the net, and O'Conner used one of her team-high 16 kills to clean it up and give UK the 25-15 third set victory.
Ohio State and Kentucky played it extremely close through the opening stages of set four. Each team battled back and forth through the 7-6 mark with UK grabbing the edge. Neither team had held a lead bigger than one point. But OSU blinked first as Ohio State's Mari Hole, who finished with a team-high 16 kills, made a critical error to give UK the 8-6 advantage.
The Wildcats ran with it.
Kentucky had went on a 7-0 run to make it 11-6, and after OSU put another point on the board, UK went on a 8-2 run thanks to a long serving run by Klefot in the middle of the set. Her run gave UK the lead and Billings' run pushed Kentucky to a 15-8 margin, eventually turning into a 17-10 lead.
"I think we practice so much on our serving and we try to go back there and be aggressive and it is a lot harder to do when you are in a big game," said Klefot. "Craig (Skinner) told me to go back there and take a deep breath before you serve and that helps when you focus on a certain spot on the court then we normally get more aces."
Klefot would finish with a monster night, earning 18 digs, five aces and three assists. The five aces were a career high for the senior in her final match at Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky would go on to finish off the Buckeyes by a final tally of 25-18 when senior setter Christine Hartmann topped of a huge night of her own with her fifth kill to go along with 42 assists, leading her team to a .278 hitting clip.
"I'm glad we are ending this home court with a win," said Hartmann. "Last year we left with a loss and it was a great loss but we learned from it. It is definitely an expectation for this program from here on out."
The task certainly gets tougher for Kentucky now, as UK heads to West Lafayette on Dec. 7 to face the No. 1 seed in Penn State. Ohio State, conference members of the Big Ten along with PSU, has faced the Nittany Lions multiple times this season with unfavorable results. The Buckeyes fell to Penn State twice this year, each ending in sweeps.
"I don't think anyone matches up real well against Penn State to be honest with you," said Carlston. "I think Kentucky is pretty physical but Penn State is a different animal right now.
"I think Kentucky if they get in a groove and they serve like they did against us that gives them a chance I think. It's going to be a good match, two real physical teams."
The Cats know what's ahead of them, however. They've seen the same situation play out in front of them. No matter whom they play, regardless of the seed or name on the jersey, Kentucky will be ready to play Friday night. Once again, back in the Sweet 16.
"It's an opportunity," said Skinner of facing Penn State. "Our team typically rises to the challenge of whoever's in front of us. We typically play better against better teams.
"We trust what we do, and consider each point as the most important point of the season. Like I said before the tournament, I like this team and can't wait to go into a match with them."
Archie Goodwin had 17 points as UK's 55-game home winning streak ended in a 64-55 loss to Baylor on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Simply because of how long it had been since it happened, no one really knew how to act as it became more evident Kentucky was going to lose at home.
For most of Saturday afternoon's game, the fans in Rupp Arena couldn't help but think their Wildcats would find a way. It was a reasonable opinion, as they had 55 games and more than three years of evidence to back it up.
As the minutes ticked away and visiting Baylor maintained a lead, the UK faithful and the team they were supporting battled. But in the end, the Bears held on for a 64-55 victory to end the nation's longest home winning streak.
Even though Willie Cauley-Stein had been a part of just three games of the streak, his emotions matched those of the 24,192 fans who streamed to the exits as soon it was over.
"I feel pretty shook up," Cauley-Stein said. "It's a lot to handle, I guess."
That's exactly what John Calipari wants his team feeling after losing for the second time in three days. Falling to 4-3 delivers a message that Coach Cal has been trying to send from the first day of practice, one he took the opportunity to reinforce in the postgame locker room.
"I told them after, we are not a very good team and we don't have very good players right now," Calipari said. "Each individual player, you think about how you played, you're not very good right now."
It may have taken longer than Calipari wanted, but that message has finally sunk in. For all the talk about not comparing this year's team to the one that cut down the nets in New Orleans eight months ago, there was a tiny voice in the players' heads telling them the opposite. That voice is now silent.
"Personally, I think we needed this because coming in here, we have probably the best fan base supporting all of our wins and the national championship," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like we came in here thinking that we were that team, but we're not that team."
That doesn't mean it's time for doom and gloom. It's hardly an insult to say the 2012-13 Cats aren't the 2011-12 bunch, one of the best in recent college basketball history. With that notion now having been accepted, the Cats can go about the business of doing all Coach Cal has ever wanted them to do: Be the best version of themselves.
"I still like my team," said Calipari, repeating one of his favorite refrains. "And I said, we can do what we want with this. We can be special, or we can be what we are right now, sitting in locker rooms after L's."
If the Cats are looking for where to assign blame for this loss, they need not look any further than the way they shot the ball against Baylor's long zone defense. UK shot just 29.6 percent from the field and 4 for 22 (18.2 percent) from 3-point range. Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress combined for 30 points on 11-for-21 shooting, but the rest of the team made just 10 of 50 of its field-goal attempts. The result was a paltry 0.733 points per possession, the lowest of any game during the Calipari era.
"That's just how the cookie crumbles sometimes," Goodwin said. "Everybody has off nights. No one's perfect, no one's going to make every shot and no one's going to do good every game. Everybody's going to have that one game that they're going to be in a slump."
Somehow, the Cats were in it in spite of their struggles from the field, cutting Baylor's to five points or fewer on multiple occasions. In the end, the Cats just couldn't string together enough stops and scores to overcome Baylor's lead.
"The greatest thing, we had a chance to win the game," Calipari said. "But we are still trying to teach them how to finish games, and they don't know."
Closing out games is just one of many areas these Cats will be looking to improve on during an ongoing five-game home stand the "Camp Cal" that will follow final exams in a couple weeks. Calipari and his players may now know their team isn't very good right now, but they are also confident it can be. Calipari has a proven track record of molding his youth-laden teams into contenders by March, but if it happens this year, he's not going to take full credit.
"His team will be better by the end of the year," said Calipari, spelling out what experts will say in the wake of the loss. "Why? Because I've got a magic wand? No. Because the players decide they are going to do this and they are going to get better. Every one of my teams have made that commitment. This team has not right now. I believe they will, but they haven't."
While that process plays itself out, more underwhelming performances and potentially even more losses in Rupp could be in store. Fans showed no signs of wavering in their support of the Cats on Saturday and players hope that continues.
"They basically have no choice," Goodwin said. "They can be as impatient as they want to, but at the same time if they're really for us they'll understand and work with us through the process."