Cory Weigel wrote earlier on Thursday about Kastine Evans and her charitable work. Evans' primary means of service is through "Shooting at Success," a non-profit organization she founded to mentor children between second and fifth grade. Find out more about it in the video above.
January 2013 Archives
Cory Weigel wrote earlier on Thursday about Kastine Evans and her charitable work. Evans' primary means of service is through "Shooting at Success," a non-profit organization she founded to mentor children between second and fifth grade. Find out more about it in the video above.
John Calipari is calling on the Big Blue Nation once again.
He is among 48 coaches participating in the Infiniti Coaches' Charity Challenge, the winner of which will earn $100,000 for his charity of choice. Coach Cal is competing on behalf of The Calipari Foundation and announced on Thursday exactly what those funds will be used for in the video posted above.
The money will go to starting a program with Kentucky Children's Hospital to retrofit the homes of ailing children to fill their everyday needs, but Calipari needs the help of Kentucky fans to get that done. He is currently trailing in South Region voting and needs to pass three fellow coaches to move to the next round.
Voting is taking place at espn.com/infiniti. After registering for the first time, fans can return and vote for Coach Cal once a day in support of a worthy cause.
That doesn't mean that winning should be deemphasized, but with a more important goal in mind down the road, losing in the regular season isn't quite be-all and end-all for the Kentucky rifle team. The Wildcats, however, have been pretty exceptional up to this point.
UK sure would like a win this weekend though when they host No. 1 ranked West Virginia in the final regular season match.
"It would be a great accomplishment with the team that West Virgina has to beat them," said head coach Harry Mullins. "A win against West Virginia would be huge stepping stone in getting where we want to be at the end of the season."
It's been an ongoing rivalry between these two top programs. West Virginia has a rich history in the sport, claiming 14 national championships, including one that they came back and "stole" from Kentucky in 2009.
Over the last several years, the teams have continued to establish themselves as among the top rifle programs in the country. Currently, West Virginia is the top dog, but it hasn't been that way all season.
The No. 3 Wildcats have already faced one No. 1-ranked opponent this season in TCU. The Horned Frogs, now ranked No. 2 and sandwiched between WVU and UK, have been the Cats' toughest task yet in the 2012-13 season.
In the mid-November match-up, UK and TCU tangled in another one-versus-three matchup with the Horned Frogs handing Kentucky its first and only loss of the season. The Cats shot well, scoring a 4693 that would have been good to beat each of the other nine opponents they've faced so far this season. TCU was fantastic on that day, however, and UK's best score of the season, a 4716, would not have been able to overcome TCU's 4718 final tally.
"They were pretty mad about the loss," said Mullins. "We tried to peak, but we didn't peak. We learned why we didn't peak and therefore hopefully we'll be able to learn from our past performances in order to enhance our present performances."
West Virginia will pose every bit of the challenge that TCU gave the Wildcats in November and then some. Now it's time to see what the Cats have truly learned since their last date with No. 1.
Though the match starts at 8 a.m. ET Saturday, several of the stars in the sport will be on display throughout the afternoon. West Virginia, as evidenced by the No. 1 ranking, has several athletes capable of earning All-America honors this season.
"They've got some very talented people between Maren Prediger, who shoots great air rifle, and Petra Zublasing, who is great in both (air rifle and smallbore)," said Mullins. "Then you add Garrett Spurgeon and Meelis Kiisk and the rest of the squad and they're definitely the team out there that everybody's chasing."
Though the competition is stout this weekend, UK isn't the No. 3 team in the country for nothing and could have a few All-Americans of its own.
The Wildcats boast a duo of shooters who are pretty special in their own right: senior Henri Junghanel and junior Emily Holsopple. Each has championship experience from their national title run in 2010 and lead the Cats as their top two shooters along with freshman Connor Davis.
They also have international experience, as Junghanel, Holsopple and Davis along with Elijah Ellis went to compete in the Bavarian Air Gun Championships in Germany last weekend. Now, for the first time in three weeks, the team will reunite to compete against the nation's best.
The time apart shouldn't be a problem, but if UK ends up losing this weekend on account of a strain in chemistry, the team as a whole is still better off.
"I think the opportunities that were given by the four being gone definitely paid dividends," said Mullins. "We ended up beating Memphis on the second day in Mississippi and came in third at the Withrow Invitational.
"Does it stink that they weren't together? Yes, but I think we prepared the overall group for that. And it probably instilled some confidence in the team as well."
At the end of the day, when the dust settles and the final shots are made, win or lose, Kentucky is focused on a much greater picture. It also likely won't be the last time that UK and WVU are shooting against each other this season.
After this weekend, UK will look forward to the NCAA Qualifier in mid-February followed by the GARC Conference Championships the following week where they will see the Mountaineers yet again. After that, if all goes as planned, Kentucky will be competing for a national championship in the second weekend of March.
Regular-season victories are great, and UK would certainly relish an upset of the Mountaineers on Saturday, but the Wildcats are much more focused on improving this weekend as they prepare for potential postseason glory.
"As long as we're on an upward climb of performance, as long as we keep focusing on performance going forward, I think that our scores will match that focus because we have talented people on our team," said Mullins.
Despite spending the majority of her life as a star athlete, including in high school at Norwich Free Academy and now as a member of the No. 8/7 Kentucky women's basketball team, Evans has always made it a priority to give back to the community and make an impact in children's lives.
In January, Evans started a non-profit after-school program called "Shooting at Success." The organization's focus is a 10-week program that runs on Mondays at two local churches in the Fayette County area. Evans rotates every other week between Broadway Christian Church and Crossroads Christian Church where she teaches groups of 50 kids from low-income households between the grades of second and fifth life lessons on building character.
"I came up with the idea of 'Shooting at Success' by realizing that basketball or sports in any way are a great tool to get through to young kids," Evans said, who has partnered with the Lexington Leadership and Urban Impact to found the program. "It's very fun, but at the same time you can teach them discipline, you can teach them hard work, you can teach them different things that they will learn in the classroom but also on the basketball court. It's a great way to reach out to kids on a common level and just at the same time be able to be important figures in their lives because they are looking forward to something that's coming up in the week and just being able to relay any message that you try to get through in a sport like basketball."
In an effort to build character in the kids, Evans repeatedly references honesty, discipline, sacrifice and opportunity - the four pillars of the UK program instilled by head coach Matthew Mitchell. She even brings in guest speakers to talk to the students about the meaning of each word. What this does is give the children a viewpoint from student-athletes and other college students who have persevered through trying circumstances themselves.
"Being able to talk to these kids at a very young age where they are very vulnerable to different things and situations that are going on in their lives right now may make a difference for them later on in life," Evans said.
Her charitable efforts extend well beyond serving children in the Lexington area.
Last summer, Evans went on a service trip to Ethiopia with seven other female UK student-athletes and members of the athletic department staff. The group spent a week dedicated to serving the citizens of the African nation and Evans returned stateside with a new outlook on life and an inspiration to give back.
What stood out most to Evans from the trip was coming to understand the everyday struggle of the people she served. Even in the face of poverty, the natives always found joy in their lives through faith and a sense of community.
"You see these people who have nearly nothing," Evans said. "They don't have running water, they don't have toilets, they don't have food, they don't have clothes, they don't have any of the basic necessities to life but they still smile every day and they were happy that we were there. You could just see that sense of hope and joy in their heart and that's something that's stronger than any struggle you'll have as long as you have that faith and keep a strong mind and heart."
Evans says she began realizing it was her duty to help the world at a young age; her mom and dad always raised her to look beyond her own existence. Since Evans and her siblings graduated from high school, her father still gives back to their community. For the last three years he has coached a local AAU team comprised of players who have gotten cut from their local high school teams. He makes the two-hour drive to New York every other week to showcase his players' talents against some of the best competition in the state. Since he began the team, nine of his players have gone on to play collegiate basketball.
Evans put her parents' lessons into practice with teammate Samarie Walker last summer, volunteering one day a week to clean rooms at the local Ronald McDonald House, a "home away from home" for seriously ill children and their families. Even with the jam-packed schedule of a student-athlete, Evans has always seemed to find time to lend a helping hand.
When it came time to deciding where she would attend college and play basketball, Evans' decision was an easy one. After getting to know Coach Mitchell, she recognized in him and his program the same beliefs and morals that she learned from a young age.
"Anybody that asks me why I came here, a lot of the decision came down to the coaches and their principles and how they care about you," Evans said. "It's not just about basketball and that's what is going to develop us into great women."
Evans plays a key role for the Wildcats, being primarily the first player off the bench and averaging the most minutes among the reserves. Her character shines through on the court, as Coach Mitchell calls her "the glue that holds the team together."
Evans hopes to bring back the life lessons she learned from Africa and influence the young kids of her "new hometown" of Lexington, where she has spent the last three years of her life. Her intimate involvement with "Shooting at Success" demands hours of her precious time, but will all be made worthwhile by achieving one simple goal.
"One thing I hope that comes out of this is to be able to at least reach one kid," Evans said. "It's going to be real hard to reach all 50 kids, but to at least be able to get one or maybe two that's the best thing to be able to reach out to them and know that somebody else is there looking after them even when they go home. To know me personally and the people through Lexington Leadership and Urban Impact are here to work with them and hopefully they will take different strides than maybe some of their older siblings or parents have taken and become successful within themselves."
Since Gary Henderson took over as pitching coach for the 2004 season and later as the head coach in 2009, it has always seemed like he had a dynamic left-handed pitching talent in his arsenal of arms.
When Corey Littrell came to UK as the Louisville Slugger Kentucky High School Player of the Year in 2011, he earned immediate comparisons to former UK star and current Chicago Cubs southpaw Chris Rusin for his competitiveness, poise and demeanor on the mound. Rusin, 2011 MLB Futures Game participant James Paxton and Andrew Albers, who joined Team Canada in 2013 World Baseball Classic, are among UK's most decorated in a line of effective southpaws.
The product of Louisville Trinity was quickly put into the weekend rotation for the Wildcats as a true freshman and, despite sporting a 6.95 ERA in 2011, had moments of brilliance that showed glimpses of the future.
After spending the offseason focused on improving the strength in his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, Littrell emerged as one of the top pitchers in college baseball as a sophomore, earning second-team All-Southeastern Conference honors as UK's Sunday starter.
The 195-pound lefty went 9-2 in 16 starts in 2012, posted a 2.74 ERA and 87 strikeouts in 98.2 innings. In SEC play, Littrell - who was tabbed a College Baseball Hall of Fame NCAA Pitcher of the Year Award semifinalist - went 6-1 with a 2.93 ERA.
All told, Littrell worked 10 quality starts in his 16 outings, with an eye-popping 9-1 record and a 1.48 ERA in those starts. He finished with the fourth-most wins and the eighth-best ERA in UK single-season history, becoming just the second UK player since 1987 to win nine or more games.
Entering a must-win situation at Mississippi State in the season finale with a win securing the second SEC regular-season championship in program history, Littrell suffered the first blemish on his then 8-0 record. He allowed seven runs - five earned in 4.1 innings - as MSU crushed the title hopes of the Wildcats with a sweep-clinching win.
Littrell rebounded with six innings of two-run ball in the SEC Tournament semifinals against the Bulldogs but suffered a hard-luck 2-1 loss, with the Wildcats venturing back to Lexington having thought it sealed its NCAA Tournament hosting bid with a convincing resume.
UK was shipped to Gary, Ind., for the regional, hosted by B1G Champion Purdue. After a 21-inning loss to No. 25 Kent State in the opener and a loser-bracket win over Valpo, UK turned to Littrell for the elimination-game start against the Boilermakers. Littrell worked into the eighth inning for a depleted UK staff, picking up his ninth win and vaulting UK into the championship round against Kent.
In addition to his second-team All-SEC accolades Littrell was honored as the NCAA's top defensive pitcher, winning the American Baseball Coaches Association Rawlings Gold Glove Trophy. The Wildcats led the SEC in runners picked off and fewest steals allowed, with Littrell pacing the league with seven pickoffs.
"The Gold Glove award was really special," Littrell said. "It is an honor to get the Gold Glove because it is just like the big league trophy. I would say that my ability to pick people off was a big factor and really controlling the running game is a huge part of the game. I really enjoy that aspect of pitching. People can look past that but it is a huge aspect in the game these days and the ability to control the running game can really be a good feeling on the mound."
Following the year, Littrell joined eight other Wildcats in the Cape Cod League, where he struck out 52 in 39 innings to rank sixth in the circuit in strikeouts.
"It was a lot of fun," Littrell said about the CCBL. "It was a great experience getting to play against the best players in the nation. You face a few prospects in each lineup in college but going to the Cape, every player 1-9 in the lineup is that schools best hitter. It was great competitively and it was a good opportunity to learn from different perspectives and different players."
After returning to campus for the fall semester and subsequent practice, Littrell picked up where he left off, showing more consistency, adding strength and a veteran, winning presence on the mound.
"We have some unfinished business, which is one way to look at it," Littrell said about the way 2012 ended. "We really look at it as the college baseball world only got to see a bit of how good we can be. Winning 22 straight games and getting to No. 1 was fun, but we know we have a better team than just being satisfied with that. We have experience, we have pitching, defense and hitting. The sky is the limit and this team knows that. We are kind of mad about what happened last year and that can be fuel to the fire which can be good for us. We are confident as a team that we can compete with anyone in our league or in the country."
As a proven winner in the best conference in college baseball, Littrell now must embrace the expectations that come with his previous success and emerge as a leader for a talent-filled UK pitching staff.
"It is very exciting to me to become more of a leader," Littrell said. "Having the chance to learn from guys like Alex (Meyer) and Luke (Maile) and some of the older guys was a big resource for me. I just want to be a leader for the new guys and take them under my wing and show them what to work on and what is good. There is really no better feeling then having the honor of leading a team."
The guest list was stronger than it had ever been as several fans, donors, season ticket holders, and family members were in attendance for the celebration as the team looked back on yet another successful season and said goodbye one last time to a highly-decorated senior class.
This highlight video was shown to commemorate the season and show off some of the top plays of the year and all of it's great moments at home.
Among the highlights of the evening was guest speaker and former Kentucky volleyball head coach Kathy DeBoer. During her time at UK, she led the Wildcats to their only appearance in the Elite 8, is the last coach to win an SEC Championship (1988), and led UK to their most successful season with a mark of 31-2 in the 1987 season.
After DeBoer's entertaining and thought-provoking address, it was time for the the staff to talk about their team, class by class, and give some of their favorite accounts of the season. Head coach Craig Skinner had the privilege to talk about his well-decorated senior class that was coming off back-to-back Sweet 16s and NCAA Tournament appearances every season as a Wildcat.
From there, the seniors were recognized by their teammates. The ladies shared some of their favorite memories of the seniors and gave their thanks for their leadership and friendship during their time together as teammates and friends.
With the banquet in the rear-view mirror, UK is looking forward to applying the lessons learned from DeBoer at the banquet and their experiences from the 2012 season. They're already back in the gym preparing for the 2013 season with the anticipation of working their very hardest to make sure that 2013 is one of the best years in program history.
On Wednesday afternoon, the NBA released the rosters for its annual Rising Stars Challenge, which is made up of rookie and second-year players.
Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Bobcats will represent UK as rookies in the event. Brandon Knight of the Detroit Pistons will also represent the Big Blue Nation as a "Sophomore" in the exhibition.
This season, former NBA stars Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley will be head coaches for the game, and each will be picking their team from the pool of rookie and sophomore players. The draft will be held on Feb. 7 and fans are encouraged to vote online at NBA.com for the starters in the game, which kicks off All-Star Weekend on Friday, Feb. 15 in Houston.
The "Rookie-Sophomore" game could potentially reunite Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the same team since teaming up to win the 2012 NCAA National Championship for the University of Kentucky. Regardless, at least two former Wildcats will be paired on the same team and potentially all three could be playing together under Barkley or O'Neal.
Here are the rest of the participants for the Rising Stars Challenge:
Anthony Davis (Hornets), Damian Lillard (Blazers), Harrison Barnes (Warriors), Brad Beal (Wizards), Andre Drummond (Pistons), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Bobcats), Alexey Shved (Timberwolves), Dion Waiters (Cavs) and Tyler Zeller (Cavs).
Kyrie Irving (Cavs), Kenneth Faried (Nuggets), Brandon Knight (Pistons), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), Chandler Parsons (Rockets), Klay Thompson (Warriors), Tristan Thompson (Cavaliers), Nikola Vucevic (Magic) and Kemba Walker (Bobcats).
In other words, it's never too early to start talking a little hardball.
While the Kentucky baseball team is preparing to improve on one of its best campaigns in program history that led the Wildcats to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008, MLB.com recognized a pair of former UK aces from seasons past.
On Tuesday, MLB.com released their Top 100 Prospects list for 2013, and two former Wildcats made an appearance. Alex Meyer, a right-handed pitcher who was recently acquired by the Minnesota Twins from the Washington Nationals, showed up as the No. 40 prospect in all of Major League Baseball and was noted as the third-best prospect in the Twins organization. James Paxton came in at No. 61 and the Seattle Mariners' fifth-best prospect.
Meyer, 23, was an anchor of the UK pitching staff in his final season as a Wildcat in 2011 where he posted seven wins (14 starts), a 2.94 ERA, four complete games (two shutouts), 101 innings pitched and 110 strikeouts, which led the SEC.
In 2012, his first season in professional baseball, Meyer split time between Class A Hagerstown and Class A Advanced Potomac in the Washington farm system. Over the entire season, he finished with 139 strikeouts in 129 innings with a 2.86 ERA. He exhibited a 97 mph fastball with a hard slider that can touch 88 mph. As a starter, Meyer is working on a third pitch, a changeup, that's he's been developing in the offseason.
Here is what MLB.com has to say about Meyer:
Scouting Grades* (present/future): Fastball: 6/7 | Slider: 5/6 | Changeup: 4/5 | Control: 4/5 | Overall: 5/6
For much of his amateur career, Meyer intrigued with his plus arm strength, but had trouble always finding the strike zone. He made great strides in that regard during his junior year at Kentucky, pitching himself into the first round and that continued for the most part during his first full season. He took his power repertoire to the Twins organization when the Nationals sent him to Minnesota for Denard Span during the offseason. With his tall, slender frame, Meyer will run into delivery issues, and while that can lead to command problems, he threw strikes more often than not while pitching at two levels. His fastball has a ton of sink and generates groundballs aplenty and he complements it with a big slider that gets swings and misses. His sinking changeup has the chance to be more than usable. All that, if he can maintain his delivery and stay in the strike zone, adds up to the kind of frontline starter the Twins haven't developed in quite some time.
Paxton, a left-handed starter, became the first UK player selected in the first round of the MLB Draft since Joe Blanton back in 2002 by the Oakland Athletics. Like Meyer, Paxton was a highly-successful weekend starter for the Wildcats during his time in Lexington. In his final season at Kentucky in 2009, Paxton struck out 13.22 hitters per nine innings (third in NCAA). He started 13 games going 5-3 with a 5.86 ERA but opted to return for his senior season. After Paxton left the University prior to his senior season, he was picked up by the Seattle Mariners organization in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB June Amateur Draft.
In his first season in the minors, Paxton split time between Class A Clinton and Class AA Jackson. In that 2011 season, Paxton 17 games going 6-3 with a 2.37 ERA. After 10 starts with Clinton with a 3-3 record and a 2.73 ERA, he was promoted mid-season where he found even more success at the Class AA level. In his final seven starts with Jackson that season, Paxton went 3-0 with a sparkling 1.85 ERA striking out 51 batters compared to only 13 walks. He spent the entire 2012 season back in Jackson where he went 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA. After a five-week stay on the disabled lit with a knee injury, Paxton was even better in posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA over his last 11 starts.
Here is what MLB.com has to say about Paxton:
Scouting Grades (present/future): Fastball: 6/6 | Curveball: 5/6 | Changeup: 3/5 | Control: 3/5 | Overall: 5/6
It's hard to argue with what Paxton has been able to do thus far in his Minor League career since taking until March 2011 to sign. The big lefty has struck out 10.6 per nine innings over his two seasons in pro ball. The only question has been whether his command and his changeup would improve enough to be a starter for the long-term. He has a fastball that's easily plus, one he can get up into the upper-90s and sits in the 93-94 mph range with regularity. He adds and subtracts from his power curve which has plenty of break to it. His changeup has improved, giving more hope to his ability to stay in a starting rotation. His long arm path, along with some other issues with his delivery, has led to command problems (4.3 BB/9) and that remains the key to his future. At the very least, that fastball-curve combination are more than enough to be an outstanding short reliever.
Nerlens Noel put a memorable end to that in an 87-74 win over No. 16 Ole Miss.
Noel obliterated the previous record of nine shared by Andre Riddick and Sam Bowie with 12 blocks, five of which came with four fouls and after the Rebels had cut a 17-point Wildcat lead to one with a little more than four minutes left. Even though he missed his lone field-goal attempt and scored just two points, the Cats likely would not have come close to pulling off their biggest win of the season without Noel.
The performance immediately goes down in UK lore, but exactly how special was it? Let's take a look.
Noel in NCAA, SEC record books
Alabama A&M's Mickell Gladness holds the all-time NCAA record for blocks in a single game with 16, accomplishing the feat on Feb. 24, 2007 against Texas Southern. There have been 17 other instances of Division I players blocking 13 or more shots since the statistic became official in 1985-86, but doing it in a major conference game is especially rare. Noel's 12 blocks tie him for the fourth most ever by a player from a BCS conference school against a BCS conference opponent.
14 - Roy Rogers - Alabama (vs. Georgia on Feb. 10, 1996)
14 - Loren Woods - Arizona (vs. Oregon on Feb. 3, 2000)
13 - Kyle Davis - Auburn (vs. Miami on March 14, 2001)
Among NCAA freshmen, there have been only four better shot-blocking performances:
14 - Shawn Bradley - BYU (vs. Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 7, 1990)
13 - Keith Closs - Central Connecticut State (vs. St. Francis (Penn.) on Dec. 21, 1994)
13 - Kyle Davis - Auburn (vs. Miami on March 14, 2001)
13 - Hassan Whiteside - Marshall (vs. UCF on Feb. 27, 2010)
Noel's 12 blocks also tie for the third most ever by a Southeastern Conference player and the second most in a league game behind Rogers.
With his career outing, Noel now has 46 blocks over his last six games and an NCAA-leading 95 on the season. Noel leads the SEC in blocks by 41 over second-place Reginald Buckner of Ole Miss.
Impact on the game
If it's possible, Noel's 12 blocks don't do justice to just how meaningful his presence was.
After he briefly went to the bench with his fourth foul, Ole Miss immediately scored back-to-back baskets. He then returned, but the Rebels continued to attack the interior of the Kentucky defense with Noel fearful of picking up his fifth. Ole Miss scored 10 of its points in the paint during a game-changing 16-0 run, but Noel eventually shook off concern over his fouls. He blocked five shots during UK's game-ending 14-2 run, including a dunk and three layups.
With Noel anchoring the defense, UK held Ole Miss to a season-low 32.9 percent from the field. The Rebels made just 28-of-85 shots, meaning Noel's blocks accounted for 21.1 percent of the opponent's misses with his blocks. That of course doesn't even take into account Noel's intimidation factor.
Moving to something that can be more objectively measured, Noel blocked nine layups, a dunk and two jumpers. He kept nine of his 12 blocks in play and UK gained possession on seven of those. The Cats then scored nine points directly off of Noel blocks, all within nine seconds of his rejection.
That's impressive, but Noel's game-ending stretch merits special attention. After UK's lead was cut to 73-72 with 4:27 remaining, the Rebels had eight possessions. The Cats made seven stops on those possessions, with Noel blocking a shot on five of them. On four of those five blocks, UK recovered the ball, which resulted in six of UK's points during its 14-2 run.
On the season, Noel has kept 79 of his 95 (83.2 percent) blocks in play. UK has gained possession 52 (54.7 percent) times and scored 58 points on those opportunities.
Making the obligatory Davis comparison
Some recruiting analysts billed Noel as a better shot blocker than Anthony Davis. That seemed unthinkable for a long while, but it's starting to make sense now.
Noel has 95 blocks through 20 games. Through 20 games of his record-setting 2011-12, Davis had 93. Noel is currently averaging 4.75 blocks per game, ahead of the 4.65 Davis averaged last year. Davis, however, played in 40 games, the most he could possibly play, and it will be difficult for Noel to reach that point because UK would have to make the SEC Tournament championship game and the national title game.
Regardless, Noel has already flown past Riddick and Melvin Turpin for the second-most blocks in single-season UK history. They previously shared that mark at 83 blocks.
Editor's note: this is the seventh of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy), part five (Zac Zellers), part six (A.J. Reed), part seven (Austin Cousino).Kentucky's junior class came to Lexington with three players who had been named the player of the year in the state: Trevor Gott, Corey Littrell and J.T. Riddle.
Each of the three earned a different Kentucky High School Player of the Year award: Gott the Gatorade version, Littrell the Louisville Slugger Player of the Year and Riddle Kentucky High School Coaches Association Mr. Baseball honors.
Flash forward to their junior season in 2013 and each of the three enters the year able to make a strong case that he is the best player, or one of the best players, in the NCAA at his respective position.
Riddle, a native of Frankfort, has been an everyday starter since forcing the coaching staff to find a positional home for him as a true freshman. In 2011, Riddle saw starts at second base and rightfield and showcased what would become his calling card, dynamic defensive ability with jaw-dropping range, arm strength and instincts.
As a freshman Riddle hit .288 in 50 games and 43 starts, with nine doubles, three homers and 25 RBI. After earning all-star starting honors at shortstop in the Great Lakes League during the 2011 summer, Riddle continued his development into a sophomore campaign.
The 6-foot-3, 185-pound left-handed hitter, started all 63 games at second base in 2012, forming a lock-down defensive duo with shortstop Matt Reida. The pair of middle infielders helped the Wildcats shatter the school record for fielding percentage (.976), with both ranking among the UK all-time leaders in defensive assists at their positions.
"It is really the core of our whole defense, to be good up the middle," Riddle said. "Of course the catching position and then the middle infield and the outfield can have a big impact on the type of defensive team you have. Matt and I have played a whole season up the middle together and are now juniors. Because we have played a lot since our freshman year, we have a lot of experience, know what to expect in the SEC. We have both improved so much over the last two years and this past fall."
At the plate as a junior, Riddle hit .279 with 12 doubles, one triple, five homers and 38 RBI, adding a .260 average in 30 SEC games. He finished with 19 two-out hits, 12 two-out RBI and a .347 on-base percentage.
After the year, Riddle continued to break out on the prospect map as a future top-five round MLB Draft pick. He hit .232 in 38 games in the Cape Cod League for Orleans, with seven doubles, two triples, two homers and 15 RBI. Most impressively, Riddle led the Cape Cod League in defensive assists, despite playing second base every day for the Firebirds.
"It was a great experience for me," Riddle said. "It got me away, really for the first time, away from family and friends. Got to play the game, get to know some new friends up there and enjoy the experience of playing against the best college players in the nation. It really helped me improve and realize where I stand at and that I can play with the best of the best."
Riddle returned to Lexington for the fall semester and focused on adding strength to his projectable frame and helping the team build on its great chemistry from 2012.
"It helps so much because baseball is such a team sport," Riddle said. "If you don't have that chemistry then you aren't going to be successful. Last year, the whole team bonded really good, had great chemistry together and we had the best season in the history of the program. Our chemistry is great right now and it needs to stay like that all the way through June."
He had a great fall practice season and is poised to not only continued his success at the plate and in the field, but emerge as a more vocal leader for a preseason top-10 ranked UK club.
The skinny: As John Calipari often says, it was "gut time" in Oxford, Miss. Kentucky had watched almost all of its once 17-point lead evaporate as Ole Miss charged back with a 16-0 run to make the score 73-72 with just over four minutes remaining. The Wildcats had gone cold after their best offensive stretch of the season and it seemed they might once again miss out on a badly needed quality over the No. 16 Rebels. This time, however, UK wouldn't wilt. Ryan Harrow hit a clutch 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of over six minutes and the Cats hit 9-of-10 free throws after struggling from the line all night to close out an 87-74 win and move to 14-6 overall and 5-2 in Southeastern Conference play.
The difference: Nerlens Noel and his school-record 12 blocks. With 9:52 on the clock and Kentucky enjoying its largest lead at 73-56, Noel picked up his fourth foul, all of which came in the second half. The freshman big man had six blocks to that point and had all but eliminated the Rebels' inside game, but when Noel went to the bench, Ole Miss went into attack mode, scoring back-to-back buckets.
Recognizing the importance of his rim protector, Calipari reinserted Noel, but the Rebels continued to test the interior, capitalizing on Noel's fear of picking up his fifth. But when the UK lead was cut to one, Noel had had enough of being hesitant.
Following a 30-second timeout and Harrow's big 3-pointer, he took his shot-blocking to another level and accomplished something no Wildcat ever has in the process. He blocked five shots in the final 3:35 including two dunk attempts and two layups, giving him a UK single-game record 12 blocks, and he did it all while just one whistle away from spending the rest of the game on the bench.
He didn't make a single shot from the field and scored just two points, but there wasn't a more important player on the floor. Noel now has an astounding 46 blocks over his last six games and 95 on the season. Anthony Davis had 93 blocks through 20 games last year.
Player of the game: Kyle Wiltjer. If not for Wiltjer, Noel's record effort likely would have come in a loss. He helped UK hang around in the first half, scoring 17 points as UK trailed 38-37 at the break. By the 15:59 mark of the second half, he had a career-high 26 points, which ended up being his final total for the evening. Wiltjer made 10-of-19 shots from the field and added seven rebounds, three assists and three steals against no turnovers. He is continuing his emergence as Kentucky's primary offensive threat.
Turning point: Harrow's 3. With the crowd at Tad Smith Coliseum smelling blood and the Rebels in the midst of a run, the ball came to Harrow at the top of the key. He had an opening to shoot, but instead passed off to Wiltjer. He remained in place though and called for the ball back from Wiltjer. When he received it, Harrow didn't hesitate. His 3 triggered a 15-2 game-ending run.
Key stat: Field-goal percentage. There simply aren't many times a team attempts 29 fewer shots than its opponent and wins, but that's exactly what UK did against Ole Miss. Because the Cats attempted 17 more free throws than the Rebels and allowed 26 offensive rebounds, Kentucky had far fewer looks at the basket, but the Cats managed to get by because they shot 28 of 56 (50 percent) from the field and held Ole Miss to 28 of 85 (32.9 percent). Marshall Henderson, the SEC's leading scorer, had 21 points, but was just 5 of 19 from the field, including 2 of 11 from 3.
Unsung heroes: Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. Overshadowed by Wiltjer and Noel, the Cats don't win without the two talented freshmen. Goodwin had a team-high three turnovers, but had an otherwise efficient game with 24 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go with six rebounds and four assists. He also shot 12 of 14 at the free-throw line while his teammates were a combined 11 for 23. Poythress, meanwhile, exploded in the second half after being limited in the first by two quick fouls. He had 12 of his 15 points and six of his seven rebounds after the break.
He said what? "We played slower than we've played all year - which is what we wanted to do - and we scored more points." - Calipari
"I was pleased with Ryan's point-guard play. He had been gone for two weeks, missing in action. He played today." - Calipari on Harrow
"We were being unselfish and most importantly we were getting some good stops and pushing it in transition." - Wiltjer on the stretch during which UK scored 36 points over the first 9:42 of the second half
"What happens is when they make that run, you can't settle for all jumpers. You gotta go in and get fouls. You gotta make a play for your teammates." - Calipari on the Ole Miss run
"It was big for us because they made their run. We got a little riled there, but we regrouped in that timeout. So I'm proud of the guys for stepping up because this is a huge step for us in the right direction." - Wiltjer
"It's good, but our thing is way out ahead of us still." - Calipari on the victory
What this one means: The knock on UK's NCAA Tournament profile has been the lack of a quality win. Now not only do the Cats have a victory over a team ranked in the top 25 of the polls and top 40 of the RPI, they have a road win over such an opponent. With 11 regular-season games left still, there is much work ahead, but UK now has more room for error heading into a Saturday road rematch with a Texas A&M team that won in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12.
Men's basketball: Nerlens Noel
Freshman Nerlens Noel averaged nine points and 10.5 rebounds per game in two SEC games last week. Noel logged a career-high eight blocks in a set-back at Alabama before stretching his streak of six or more blocks in a game to five-straight games with six against LSU. He has now logged 83 blocks on the season which ranks as the second-most in a single-season in UK history. Noel posted 10 points against the Tigers and has reached double-figure scoring in all but one SEC game this season. His 13 rebounds against the Crimson Tide marked a single-game high against league foes this season for the first-year player.
Take a look at the video above to see complete renderings of the UK Soccer Complex, which will be the home for Kentucky's men's and women's teams beginning in the fall of 2013.
According to Smith, officials reported that the initial planning phase for the project is underway. UK will seek final approval for the football upgrades as well as two other campus-related projects In March. (UK President Eli Capilouto and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart are encouraging alumni, fans and others to voice their support by contacting their local legislators.)
After that is done, a design team will begin the work that will include, according to (UK executive vice president for finance and administration Eric) Monday , 16-20 private suites, new home team facilities, 2,000 club seats, concession, restroom and security upgrades, a new team store, press facilities and a full-service kitchen.
"This project is focused on two ideals: to increase our competitiveness as well as fan satisfaction," Monday said.
The project will get underway this calendar year and is to be completed in the fall of 2015 or early spring of 2016, according to the report.
Link: Stadium renovations, timeline given at UK board meeting
For more on this, visit www.BBNunited.com.
Editor's note: this is the seventh of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy), part five (Zac Zellers), part six (A.J. Reed).It is a hard - nearly impossible - thing to step into the Southeastern Conference and contribute as a freshman.
When Austin Cousino opened up his collegiate career as the leadoff hitter and centerfielder at Wofford in the season opener, the Kentucky coaching staff had high expectations for the native of Dublin, Ohio.
After all, Cousino entered his freshman season after earning first-team High School All-America honors by Baseball America at Dublin Coffman and as the MVP of the 2009 IABF World Championship with the 16-U USA National Team.
Cousino served notice that he was not a usual freshman, opening his career with a 14-game hitting streak that included 10 extra-base hits, with five coming in his first four NCAA games. That was all a prelude to a historic season that culminated with consensus freshman All-America honors and becoming the first UK player to ever earn SEC Freshman of the Year accolades.
"He had a tremendous impact," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "He brings a lot of confidence. He brings a lot of production. He is a guy that had a lot of success before he got to us and he had a tremendous freshman year. He maintained that leadoff spot in the lineup for the entire year and for a freshman in our league that is really tough to do."
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound left-handed hitter led UK in nearly every category as the leadoff man and centerfielder for 62 of UK's 63 games. He posted team highs in average (.319), at-bats (260), runs (61), hits (83), doubles (20), triples (two) and steals (15).
Defensively, Cousino dazzled with his range and instincts, leading UK and ranking second in the league with eight outfield assists and shattering the UK record for an outfielder with 142 putouts.
"Our defense really carried us a long ways last year," Cousino said. "This year it will be even better if not tops in the conference. With (Zac) Zellers and Lucas (Witt) out there it gives you three centerfielder types and it gives confidence to the pitchers. And with Riddle and Reida up the middle brings back that strong of a defense it just gives those pitchers confidence to know that even if someone squares them up and hits it hard, they have eight other guys back there that are going to do the job."
UK's defensive unit was paced in 2012 by Cousino and the up-the-middle combination of Matt Reida and J.T. Riddle. The Wildcats shattered nearly every fielding school record, including setting a new program standard with a .976 fielding percentage.
"That helps a lot because when it comes to those 3-2, 4-3, 2-1 kind of games on Friday night in the SEC, it is defense that is going to win the games," Cousino said. "No matter how much pop you have in the lineup, or big-name guys, it really comes down to who can pitch and who can field the ball the best. That is great for our pitchers to step on the mound and have that kind of confidence in the guys behind them."
Cousino's freshman season had historic implications, as he set new freshman school records for hits and runs scored. Overall, he ranked 12th in UK single-season history in hits, 11th in doubles, second in at bats, sixth in starts, and ninth in hit by pitches (13).
"'Cousi' is a special player," UK starting pitcher Corey Littrell said. "He is a guy that you want to have around and have on your team. He is gifted but he also has that swagger. He knows he is good. But it isn't ever the type of confidence that gets on anyone's nerves, he is the type of guy that everyone loves and wants to be around. He is a great leader for us at the top of the lineup with his bat and his speed. In 2012, a lot of people didn't realize how good 'Cousi' was and now having a year under his belt he is going to be ever better."
Following the year, Cousino became just the third UK player to ever earn a spot on the USA Collegiate National Team, joining the 22-man roster managed by Tennessee head coach Dave Serrano. Cousino led the star-laden team in hitting with a .351 mark, pacing the club to a bronze medal in Honkbal Week in the Netherlands.
"It helped me a lot personally to play against the great players from other programs," Cousino said of his Team USA experience. "You face a lot of great pitching in the SEC and when you go play summer ball, whether with Team USA or somewhere else, you are playing against other great players from conferences around the country. It was neat to see how you measured up and meet new players and coaches."
He starred during a trip to Cuba, including a 3-for-4 game in an extra-inning thriller against the host nation.
"Cuba was really fun, not just playing but experiencing the different culture of being outside of Lexington or outside my hometown or the country," Cousino said. "It was really cool to see how much the fans and the people there just love the sport of baseball. It was really eye-opening to playing against some of the best baseball players in the world. The history of Cuba baseball was just really cool."
Not a bad calendar year for an 18-year old freshman playing in the nation's best conference.
As he enters his sophomore year, Cousino is a preseason All-America honoree with the ability to once again spark a prolific UK offensive attack at the top of the lineup and dazzle with his skills in centerfield.
"There is a lot of stuff that we left out on the table: a regional, hosting a regional, winning a regional, winning our conference," Cousino said. "We were ranked highly most of the season but we need to bring that into this year. We now know what to expect. With this staff, the returners and the new players, we know what this season entails, through the SEC, into the SEC Tournament and into the NCAA Tournament. We can use that knowledge as a standard of where we stand. Last year was the first year that every single one of us had been to a regional so it was a nice bar for where we stand. This year we can take it that much further."
When we put that question to former UK and NFL star Marty Moore, he didn't hesitate in his response.
"San Fran. The way (quarterback Colin) Kaepernick is going and their defense, I just feel like they're going to win. Coming back from 17 down to win a game, they've shown a lot of resiliency. I really like their team right now," Moore said in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. (Moore and other former NFL players from Kentucky are hosting a charity Super Bowl event this weekend and details will follow at the bottom of this post).
Moore played in two Super Bowls for the New England Patriots and they won the second one over St. Louis in 2002. At Kentucky, Moore set tackling records and helped lead the Wildcats to the 1993 Peach Bowl.
And given his experience on that side of the ball, you're probably not surprised to learn that he gives UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart a thumbs up for going in search of defensive-minded head coach to lead the program in a new direction.
"We've had this offensive mindset for a decade or more and in the SEC, you have to play defense. You have to be a defensive-minded guy to try and stop some of these teams. To be able to win games at the end, we have to play defense," Moore said. "If you recruit an athletic defensive kid, you can always find a spot for him on offense. Just being able to scheme and do things that will keep us in games, I think that's going to be something we haven't had in a long time at Kentucky. I'm looking forward to seeing some of the changes he makes with the personnel that we have to make us competitive in the fall."
Stoops is off to a great start in upgrading the recruiting efforts at UK and Moore knows that is where the turnaround in his alma mater's gridiron fortunes will start.
"I like the fact that there are a couple of former players on the staff. We gotta win back the state and bringing in the former players helps in that regard. Getting the in-state recruits is key and having the ties (to Florida, Ohio, etc), that helps as well," he noted. "It's a different kind of recruiting philosophy. Change was needed and I'm looking forward to seeing how spring practice goes."
Moore helping host Super Bowl watch party for charity
How would you like to watch the 49ers-Ravens matchup in the Super Bowl alongside guys who played in the big game?
That's what the seventh annual "Party with the Pros" event at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Lexington is all about. Moore and other former NFL players who suited up for college programs here in Kentucky will be there to mingle with fans, as well as raise money for a good cause. Proceeds will support Visually Impaired Preschool Services.
"It's a fun, nice event and you can enjoy the night and don't have anything to clean up," Moore said, adding that kids may not remember these guys from their playing days but they can still enjoy hearing their stories. "There's a lot of Super Bowl rings that float around there. The kids really enjoy it. We're old-timers but we wear our jerseys and tell war stories and I think it's a fun event that supports a great cause."
Tickets are $45 for adults, $25 for children and can be purchased at the door on Sunday. To get more information, check out partywiththeprosky.com.
The Rebels have won blowouts both at home and on the road. They have won in shootouts and low scoring battles alike. They have even won in overtime after hitting a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation that is among the season's most memorable shots to date.
However, there is a common thread throughout such a disparate set of six games: At no point did Andy Kennedy's team ever cease to believe it would find a way to come out on top.
To John Calipari, that feels familiar.
"They are the kind of team that I've coached historically, which is doesn't matter what the score is, we're ballin', we're doing this together and if I'm not playing well I'll do something else to help this team win," Calipari said. "Cause that's the whole mindset: It's not about me, it's about us."
Riding that mentality, Ole Miss has become the story of the SEC.
The Rebels are out to a 17-2 start to the season to go with their 6-0 record in conference play. After a pair of hard-fought victories last week over Tennessee and Auburn, the Rebels - winners of nine straight - have moved to No. 16 in both polls released on Monday.
"They're good," Calipari said. "They're a really good team. They're top 15. They may even be better than that."
The combination of that, Kentucky's uneven play and the site of the game will put the Wildcats (13-6, 4-2 SEC) in an unusual underdog role when they take on the Rebels at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday. It will give the Cats a chance to pick up an elusive win over a ranked opponent with few more opportunities in the offing. Nonetheless, UK point guard Ryan Harrow believes the favorite label puts more pressure on the home-standing Rebels.
"It's big for us, but I think it's bigger for them because they're the ones that's supposed to win," Harrow said. "If we come out there and beat them, it'll be a good thing for us. We've just got to be ready to play and be physical."
The leading man for Ole Miss in terms of both on-court play and the season's narrative is Marshall Henderson. The 6-foot-2 junior guard is in his first season as a Rebel after spending a year each at Utah, Texas Tech and South Plains Junior College. He is the SEC's leading scorer at 19.2 points per game and has drawn national headlines for his willingness (and ability) to take (and make) any shot, anytime and telling opponents and fans all about it when he does.
"He's going to take 13 3s," Calipari said. "Whether you're on him, you're not on him, he's taking 13 3s. I love his energy and excitement about playing, he loves the game."
Five different times this season, Henderson has indeed attempted at least 13 3-pointers, including in each of his last two outings. On average, he attempts 10.9 shots from beyond the arc per game, second in the nation, and he makes 3.9 of them, third nationally.
"You can't let him touch the ball," Harrow said. "If a person drives and you're guarding him, you can't leave him. You've just got to be on him so he doesn't get those shots off. If he's going to shoot it from anywhere, you've just got to be up on him so you try to make him drive or make the shot more difficult."
A little more than two weeks ago, UK faced a player who took a bunch of the kinds of contested shots Henderson will surely attempt on Tuesday. Of course, Elston Turner made almost all of them en route to a 40-point performance and a Texas A&M win. Then, it was Archie Goodwin who was tasked with chasing Turner for most of the afternoon, which makes him the most logical candidate to do the same with Henderson, who has a reputation for tireless movement away from the ball.
Henderson may have scored 26 points or more on six occasions this season, but the biggest mistake the Cats can likely make is to concern themselves with stopping him at the cost of ignoring his talented and experienced teammates. Three of the Rebels' other four starters are seniors, including post players Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner.
"If you pay too much attention to (Henderson), all of a sudden two big guys get 20 and 20 and then you got no chance of beating them," Calipari said.
Holloway is the only player in the conference averaging a double-double (14.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game) while Buckner averages 9.9 points and ranks behind only Nerlens Noel in the SEC with 53 blocked shots.
"Henderson's not the only player on their team," Alex Poythress said. "They've got other pieces that help them go so we just gotta play a good game and play defense."
Coach Cal stopped well short of calling the matchup a "must-win" for the Cats as some NCAA bubble prognosticators have, but the challenge of taking on a physical Ole Miss team with an emotional edge is just what he wants for his team.
At some point, Henderson will knock down an NBA-range 3-pointer with a hand in his face - it's nearly inevitable. The sellout crowd will erupt and Henderson will waste no time talking about it with whomever he just victimized. By no means does he want things to escalate past the animated trash talk that comes with heated competition, but Coach Cal wants his Cats to respond.
"Be mad," Calipari said. "And if he talks to you, talk back to him. I mean, just be mad. Compete, fight, battle, toughness, swagger. It's hard to have a swagger when you're ducking and you're running. You gotta dig your heels in. That's why I'm saying all this stuff is good for our team. If we're going to get it, it's competing in games like this and learning and growing."
Cauley-Stein making trip, but unlikely to play
For the first time since undergoing a minor procedure on a knee condition he's dealt with since junior high school, Willie Cauley-Stein will make a road trip with his team. Cauley-Stein has missed three straight games while recovering and Calipari said on Monday the freshman big man is now running. His status for the game itself, however, is up in the air.
"I would guess doubtful for Tuesday, questionable, I don't know," Calipari said. "He'll probably try to convince me he's ready so we'll see."
On the upcoming week ...
"We're playing one of the hottest teams in the country, and when you watch them on tape, man, they're men. They play physical. Everybody's accepted how they're going to play. They let (Marshall) Henderson take shots. This kid's got a green light and he'll go on a streak of baskets. He's tough. And then the other team we play (Texas A&M on Saturday) already beat us at home, so we've got a tough week ahead of us."
On the difficulties of playing a Thursday-Saturday-Tuesday setup (note, Ole Miss, not UK is going through the three-games-in-six-days setup this week) ...
"Well, we lost when we did it. I can't remember, but it's hard, and especially with young guys. For us - if you've got a veteran crew, they understand that they've got to get rest, got to take care of themselves, got to sub yourselves in games. You can't stay out there tired. Young kids just don't get it. 'I want to stay on the court.' So we struggled some with it. It's a hard challenge."
On Willie Cauley-Stein's status ...
"He's been going really hard. He will travel with us to Mississippi. I don't know if he'll play. Probably doubtful. But he'll be on the court today some. Whether he'll go a practice, I don't know, but he will travel with us."
On whether the recovery has taken longer than expected ...
"No, no. It's about what we thought."
On what's changed for Ole Miss this year ...
"They're older. They don't seem to be rattled. I mean, a bunch of the games I've watched, even if the other team comes at them and gets leads, they don't get rattled. And if they get you down, they try to keep you down. And then Henderson gives them a different flavor, that he can go on a roll and whatever the score of the game, he can make three straight shots. But they had guys last year. I've watched our game with them last year and they were good last year. We were really good. They were really good. We didn't get away from them until one stretch in the second half. In that stretch, we went up, and the rest of the game - other than that four-minute stretch it was an even game last year. So they're a veteran team, everybody's back, got a couple additions that make them better. I think Andy's doing a great job of coaching, really keeping them into here's how we've got to play to win. And they're doing it."
Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy
"Quick turn. We had the Thursday-Saturday-Tuesday. We're looking forward to having an opportunity to host what is inarguably the most storied program in college basketball and defending national champion Kentucky, albeit on a quick turn. Our guys are excited about the opportunity."
On keeping Marshall Henderson from going over the top...
"We've had a number of conversations with Marshall, and I know it's difficult for people that just see him in brief periods to completely get him. But I think the passion is coming from a good place. Obviously we want to make sure that it does not affect his focus or the team's focus. The guys understand he's about team first, and they accept him for what he brings to our program. He's a a guy that loves basketball and plays with an edge. I think he's been readily open with the fact that if he didn't play with that edge, he wouldn't be a guy that could lead the SEC in scoring. As his coach, I'm probably more concerned with his shot selection than maybe him popping him shirt here and there. But he's a work in progress, as is our team. He's a kid that's been put in a situation where there's a lot of attention drawn to him from the minute he walks in the building, and I think for the most part he's handled it well."
On if he expected Henderson to be the type of player he has been so far...
"I did. I was counting on him. It was important that he was. We needed a guy that can do what he does, and that's make perimeter shots. Based on his ability to stretch the defense, it allows us to do some other things as it relates to spacing behind him. And I think our team's getting better at making adjustments to how teams are trying to guard him. He is a guy that you have to game plan around because of his ability to make shots from 25-30 feet - and he's got a crazy enough coach that lets him shoot 'em."
On Marshall's postgame antics at Auburn...
"Obviously I didn't see it when it occurred. There's a lot going on when the game ends. We're just trying to survive the game like you do in any road contest in the SEC and get off the floor. So, I didn't see it when it actually occurred. Obviously it was brought to my attention after the game. He did it really right in front of our radio people, so I had some boots on the ground so to speak that could tell me fact from fiction. There's a lot of folklore going around. I would have preferred him not doing it but again, he's caught up in the emotion of a highly-charged game, a one-possession game, in front of a sell-out crowd. It was a very physical, hard-fought game between two good teams. We're trying to make sure he channels it towards his teammates and towards us as opposed to the opposing fans."
On the resiliency of his team...
"I like the fact that our guys are finding ways to win in a variety of ways, whether it be, you know, having to go out and score 90 points like we did at Thompson Bowling Arena of find a way to come up with some key defense stops down the stretch, which enabled us to squeak it out at Auburn. I'm just proud of the guys being resilient and being tough-minded and having a belief that we're going to win. We've had challenges both at home and on the road throughout the course of our league schedule up to this point, and every time out, I've never one time had the sense that our guys felt like we were going to lose. They always believe they're going to win. We help each other. We're growing as a team and to me, that's the most encouraging thing."
On what Nerlens Noel brings to UK...
"Incredible, incredible talent at the basket. He's averaging over six blocks a game in league play and that is mind-boggling. Obviously, last year they had a very, very special player at the basket in Anthony Davis and Anthony Davis was probably a little bit bigger, and I'm not sure that he was the presence that Noel is at the basket defensively. He completely changes the game, plays with a lot of confidence, and you can see, a lot like Davis last year, as the season is getting further along, the kid is growing leaps and bounds offensively as well."
On what type of challenge Noel presents to Murphy...
"You know, Murph, it comes down to honestly, we've talked about this, when he is not making foul shots. And he's really done a good job prior to the last two games of being a better foul shooter in league play. He was close to 70 percent, which for him, as you know, is cause for celebration. He's missed a couple early and it takes away some of his aggression. I thought Auburn did a great job of not allowing any of our guys to drive the lane. They were really packed in there. They didn't get extended on anybody except Marshall, and the result, Murph had to pick his spots, but you know, a guy who is averaging 15 (points) and 11 (rebounds) has been very productive for us and we need that to continue."
On the UK game being a chance to make a statement ...
"Here, we're always going to keep the hunter mentality. We really haven't done anything. I appreciate the fact that our guys are finding ways and we're getting better and obviously with that comes more attention being paid to our team. For us, it's just about trying to take advantage of opportunities. It's the reason that we've been on the outside looking in for more times than I'd like to remember because we just have not taken advantage of the opportunities that this league presents. Tuesday night, again, you've got Kentucky in your building, the most storied program in all of college basketball. Our guys will be excited about that. Now hopefully we play well."
On Nerlens Noel and how to minimize his intimidation factor...
"A lot of is I've got two seniors, one of them a fifth-year senior Murphy Holloway. We've been through this. These guys have played from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kentucky just seems to always have a guy in there that's very, very good. Nerlens Noel defensively is as good as there is in college basketball. Our guys every day in practice probably go against the second-best shot blocker in the SEC in Reginald Buckner, so we get accustomed to playing how we play. Our guys I know will excited about the challenge that Noel brings."
On the edge of having experience in the frontcourt with Holloway and Buckner...
"I've always told our guys that experience doesn't help you unless you play experienced. If you're making the same mistakes that first-year or second-year guys are, what's the advantage of being a senior? And I think our guys have learned some things over the course of a hundred-plus games in an SEC uniform and as a result you hope that they're more consistent. And I think, you've followed our team, if you look at the numbers that Reg and Murphy have been able to produce and the way in which they've done that, I think they are playing to their experience and that's what's helped us."
How much more consistent has Buckner been this season?
"I think for instance in the last game, if you look at him statistically against Auburn, it certainly was not his best night. He got in foul trouble early; he finishes with two points and four rebounds. He picked up his fourth foul with about 12 minutes to go in the game and because of his knee situation and I sit him for too long and he gets stiff, I just chose to ride with him and say, 'Let's go.' If it's another minute or another two minutes, whatever, let's get out of him what we can. He ended up finishing the game for us. He gives us a presence at the basket. Rob Chubb, who I think is a very, very good low-post scorer, does not score a field goal and a lot of that is based on Reg and his experience learning how to play with fouls, learning how to help us even though statistically it was not his best game."
On Nerlens Noel and how to minimize his intimidation factor...
"A lot of is I've got two seniors, one of them a fifth-year senior Murphy Holloway. We've been through this. These guys have played from DeMarcus Cousins to Anthony Davis to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Kentucky just seems to always have a guy in there that's very, very good. Nerlens Noel defensively is as good as there is in college basketball. Our guys every day in practice probably go against the second-best shot blocker in the SEC in Reginald Buckner, so we get accustomed to playing how we play. Our guys I know will excited about the challenge that Noel brings."
On the edge of having experience in the frontcourt with Holloway and Buckner...
"I've always told our guys that experience doesn't help you unless you play experienced. If you're making the same mistakes that first-year or second-year guys are, what's the advantage of being a senior? And I think our guys have learned some things over the course of a hundred-plus games in an SEC uniform and as a result you hope that they're more consistent. And I think, you've followed our team, if you look at the numbers that Reg and Murphy have been able to produce and the way in which they've done that, I think they are playing to their experience and that's what's helped us."
How much more consistent has Buckner been this season?
"I think for instance in the last game, if you look at him statistically against Auburn, it certainly was not his best night. He got in foul trouble early; he finishes with two points and four rebounds. He picked up his fourth foul with about 12 minutes to go in the game and because of his knee situation and I sit him for too long and he gets stiff, I just chose to ride with him and say, 'Let's go.' If it's another minute or another two minutes, whatever, let's get out of him what we can. He ended up finishing the game for us. He gives us a presence at the basket. Rob Chubb, who I think is a very, very good low-post scorer, does not score a field goal and a lot of that is based on Reg and his experience learning how to play with fouls, learning how to help us even though statistically it was not his best game."
Editor's note: this is the sixth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy), part five (Zac Zellers).With NCAA schools limited to 11.7 scholarships for its 35-man roster, head coaches have to get creative to find impact talent on their roster. That puts finding legitimate two-way players highly important to building a successful program.
Kentucky's talent-laced roster is boasted by sophomore left-handed pitcher and first baseman A.J. Reed, who became the first UK player to ever earn consensus freshman All-America honors.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pound southpaw had a dominating season as a freshman, immediately stepping into the deep UK pitching staff as one of the best arms on the team.
After belting a grand slam in his first collegiate at bat at Cliff Hagan Stadium, Reed quickly became a middle-of-the-order presence in the batting order. After making a midweek start against Wright State, Reed became the first player in program history to start on the mound and hit No. 4 in the batting order.
Being one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference is challenging enough but being one of the top hitters and pitchers in the best league in America comes with some unique challenges.
"Just like anything in sports, it is going to be a challenge," Reed said of playing both ways. "Because I have been doing it for so long, I know how to separate the two and I may not be as good as I will next year or in years to come but I think right now I have a good idea about how to manage my time to make sure I spend enough time with each one to optimize my skill level."
The 2011 Indiana High School Player of the Year, Reed was a 25th round pick out of Terre Haute South by the New York Mets, before deciding to attend Kentucky. It did not take long for the UK coaching staff to realize the kind of force Reed could be on the mound and at the plate, comparing him favorably to Florida two-way All-American Brian Johnson.
As a freshman Reed hit .300 with nine doubles, four homers and ranked second on the team with 43 RBI. On the mound, he went 5-3 with a 2.52 ERA in 53.2 innings, walking only nine and striking out 51. Reed earned a spot as a semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award, given to the nation's top dual-threat player. He also earned All-SEC Freshman Team honors as the DH and at first base.
He led UK in hitting against SEC opponents, batting .324 against the nation's best league and served notice to the under-educated SEC baseball fan with his appearance in the SEC Tournament opener vs. Ole Miss. Reed faced off with Ole Miss All-America righty Bobby Wahl in his first start against a league foe, tossing 5.2 shutout innings and going 4-for-4 as the clean-up hitter with the game-winning solo home off Wahl.
His heroics in Hoover, Ala., as the SEC Tournament was just the beginning for Reed, who would turn in a staggering outing in the opener of the NCAA Tournament in perilous Gary, Ind., against No. 25 Kent State. After playing the first nine innings as the DH, Reed shifted to first base after a pinch runner was used in the bottom of the ninth inning for slugger Luke Maile. He played the next three innings at first base while closer Trevor Gott worked a career-long four innings. Despite coach Gary Henderson's desire to use Reed as UK's fourth starter in the tournament, Reed got the call to take over for Gott in the 13th inning.
His outing was surreal, as Reed carved through the Kent State lineup with his fastball and slider with the weight of the season on his shoulders. He put on a competitive show on the bump, while also hitting at No. 5 in the order. After a single with no outs in the 18th inning, Reed had the chance to score the walk-off run on Michael Williams double off the wall. While rounding third, Reed was visibly halted by cramps in his calves, getting tagged out just before winning the game at the plate.
"Pitching wise, I thought it was the coolest thing I have ever done," Reed said about the 21-inning game. "Being out there in the 17th and 18th inning and just thinking about if this game was ever going to end. Even though we lost the game it was a great experience to know that our team can battle for that long. I was having a blast with it; I was out there smiling the whole time. It was just a lot of fun for me and the guys."
After UK's NCAA Tournament run ended in Gary, Reed became one of a NCAA leading nine UK players to travel to the Cape Cod League or join Team USA. Reed had a dominating summer on the mound in the Cape, ranking third in the circuit with a 2.32 ERA in eight starts and 42.2 innings.
"I really enjoyed the baseball. Playing against all the best players from around the country, playing with the guys on my team - we had some really incredible hitters on our team," Reed said about the Cape Cod League experience. "Some guys that I was glad I was playing with and not against this summer. It was just a great experience to go out there and see how my talents compared to other players and see some players from schools that we didn't get to play against in the season. I was just really grateful for the opportunity."
After his dominating summer, Reed picked up where he left off in the fall, becoming a consistent force on the mound and leading the Wildcats in homers with an improved all-fields approach. His improvement has not been limited to on the field, as Reed has taken an increased leadership role as one of the talented veterans on a UK team that earns repeated praise for its chemistry.
"We went through a program before the 2012 season started to build our team chemistry," Reed said. "Honestly we were a close team before that. It was unbelievable how close we all are. No one has any problems with each other. We all just want what was best for each other and the team."
Fans, however, don't get to see Goodwin every day in practice. They don't get to see that he spends as much or more time in the practice gym than anyone on the team. They don't understand that "He is his own worst critic," in the words of Coach Cal.
For that reason, Calipari wrote a post on CoachCal.com trying to explain that and asking the Big Blue Nation to remain steadfast in supporting Goodwin.
It's hard for me to get upset with a player who absolutely wanted to play for me and Kentucky, and who has a focus to get better. Does he get overwhelmed sometimes by being a player here? Yeah, he's a freshman at the University of Kentucky. Wouldn't you be?
At the end of the day, he cares about his teammates and he's frustrated he's not picking things up quicker. Old habits are hard to break, but he's doing everything he can to break them, so let's get behind him.
I am totally with him and you should be too. Our fans should be there to help encourage him knowing how hard he works, how invested he is and how much he's there for his teammates.
Coach Cal makes it clear that he believes Goodwin's work with pay off and more performances like the one he turned in against Auburn are in the offing. In the meantime, fans should be patient.
Link: Hard work will pay off; Archie will be fine
He has been known to keep players out of his in-game rotation based on lackluster effort in practice, which put Azia Bishop's role in Kentucky's game against LSU on Sunday in peril. Still wearing a splint after breaking a bone in her left hand three weeks ago, Bishop admitted freely that the last two days were not her best in the gym.
"I just wasn't mentally focused and not going hard and giving a lot of effort," Bishop said.
Mitchell agreed with the assessment, but added a little flare in his description of Bishop in practice.
"It just has been a disaster the last few days," Mitchell said.
Still, Mitchell decided to give Bishop a chance on game day. On a few occasions last season, she turned in solid contributions on the heels of poor practices, most notably in a win over Duke in Rupp Arena when she had 12 points and 11 rebounds.
"I've had a couple rough two practices and Coach got on me a lot, told me that I needed to come out and play hard," Bishop said.
Everything she had not done in practice, Bishop did in Sunday's game. In just 20 minutes, she tallied a career-high 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting. She was on the floor for the final 9:10, playing a major role as Kentucky (19-2, 7-1 Southeastern Conference) got back in the win column with a 73-60 victory over LSU (12-8, 3-4 SEC).
"I did not expect that kind of performance, but I am happy that we got it," Mitchell said.
Until the waning moments of the first half, there was little reason to think it was coming. Bishop had just three points as the clocked ticked under a minute before she grabbed a steal with 47 seconds that looked like might spark her afternoon. Instead, she missed a wide-open layup on the ensuing fast break.
At that point, Mitchell may have thought it time to close the book on any hopes of getting a meaningful contribution from the talented sophomore forward/center, but Bishop quickly reasserted herself. Seconds later, after LSU had tied the score at 26-all with a basket, the ball came to Bishop at the top of the key. Without hesitation, she took and drilled a 3-pointer that would give UK a lead it would never relinquish.
"I knew I had to get it back and I was open so I took it," Bishop said. "It gave me some confidence."
She scored on a put-back seconds later to give the Wildcats the 31-26 advantage they would take to the locker room.
"I think she was a big spark," Jennifer O'Neill said. "Especially when they were in the zone, she was open a lot. She was able to flash and be a presence and just turn around and shoot."
Bishop wasn't the only Cat to make a surprising impact. Janee Thompson has had struggles similar to Bishop in practice and the freshman point guard was also on the floor in the clutch. She had eight points and three assists in 18 minutes, the most she has played since a blowout win over Alcorn State on Dec. 28. For the first time all season, Mitchell extensively used a lineup featuring two point guards in an effort to combat LSU's zone defense.
"You don't get a lot of opportunity against LSU," Mitchell said. "And when you do, you have to punch a gap, you have to shoot a shot, you have to make a pass and she is a very talented basketball player in that regard. She can make plays."
Bishop, however, was the big story. No one has ever questioned the talent of the 6-foot-3 former McDonald's All-American, but consistency has always been the enemy.
"I think with Azia sometimes, her mentality's a bit fragile and she gets caught up in things that aren't important and worried about different things instead of just kind of taking it one practice at a time, one practice segment at a time," Mitchell said. "She just gets out of sorts and the injury with the splint, she worried about, 'Can I catch?' instead of just catching the ball and playing."
Any lingering doubts about her health were assuaged by her big game, but it also only served to reinforce Mitchell's frustration with the way she has practiced of late. He's of course happy about her helping carry UK to victory, but he is already thinking about how to coax similar performances out of her on the practice floor during the Cats' week off before a game next Sunday against Georgia.
"We will celebrate this victory and her good performance today," Mitchell said. "It just puts her in a tough spot now because we all see what she can do. She just has to come back and try to become a dependable player for us. If she does, it transforms our basketball team."
Rupp Arena was anything but comfortable in the closing minutes on Saturday, but John Calipari simply had to take Alex Poythress out with one second on the clock. He had to recognize what the freshman forward had just done.
"I was so proud of Alex," Calipari said. "I can't begin to tell you."
Poythress had just delivered the best performance of his college career. UK (13-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) needed every bit of it to escape with a 75-70 win over LSU (10-7, 1-5 SEC). He was good from the opening tip, but it was the way Poythress finished that made his effort so special.
The visiting Tigers, even as UK led by double digits much of the afternoon, weren't going away. The Wildcats were up 11 with less than seven minutes remaining before LSU rallied furiously, trimming the Kentucky lead to 66-63 with 3:17 left. But there was Poythress, a player who has maddened fans and coaches alike by teasing with his incredible talent only to fade into the background for long stretches.
"I'm telling you, without him, we don't win," Calipari said.
Poythress scored five points in the waning minutes, all on free throws. He grabbed a steal that killed 32 crucial seconds and had arguably the game's two biggest rebounds in posting his first career double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
"That's Alex at his best - he was a beast," said Archie Goodwin, who had 15 points of his own. "And he played so efficient. It's hard for us to lose when he plays like that, 20 and 12."
The first of his late-game boards was off of a Kyle Wiltjer miss. With the lead sitting at a tenuous three points, he came up with the loose ball under the basket and was fouled. The second rebound was the final one of the game. After Coach Cal wisely ordered his players to foul leading by three with 3.1 seconds left, Anthony Hickey missed the front end of a one-and-one and Poythress was there. He was fouled immediately and calmly sank both attempts at the line to finally remove all doubt.
There have been many instances this season when Coach Cal has removed Poythress from games under unpleasant circumstances, but this was quite the opposite. With the game in hand, Poythress came to the bench with fans giving him a standing ovation. When he got to the sideline, Calipari wrapped Poythress in a bear hug.
Spectators who haven't followed this Kentucky team all season likely saw the moment as a coach embracing a player who carried his team to a single victory. But almost everyone in Rupp in this day knew it was about much more. Calipari has spent this entire season trying to tap into Poythress's vast potential, trying to coax some measure of fire out of the normally stoic Poythress. It was indeed just one game, but never has Poythress played at such high level for such an extended amount of time.
"He is basically in his mind, been tortured to play harder, to compete," Calipari said. "In other words, it's like torture what we're doing to him, just making him run, making him do individuals, pushing him, and for him to go out and make those free throws and come up with those balls and do the things that he did to help us win the game."
Never has Poythress shown so much emotion on the court either.
"And he smiled," Calipari said. "That's the first time he smiled all year, as he walked off the court, he smiled."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, because there were plenty of other times in this game when a grin crossed his face. Even so, Poythress's smile as he checked out for the final time stuck out.
"It was fun today so, you know, I had to smile," Poythress said.
More than in any of his dozens of interviews this season, Poythress used the word "fun" after his big game against LSU. The topic has become a popular one as fans and media tried to interpret his body language. Some even began to question whether he enjoyed playing.
"People shouldn't wonder that," Poythress said. "I love playing basketball. It's my favorite sport. I've been playing it since I was a little young pup, so I love the sport."
He insists that the entire season, with all its ups and downs and Calipari riding him all along, has been enjoyable. That doesn't mean playing as well as he did on Saturday didn't make it a little more so.
"He's getting it," Calipari said. "All these kids are different. They are not machines. They have all been brought up different. They have all been coached different. They are all different, and our job is to help each one of them reach their potential and challenge them."
So, where does this game leave Poythress in his own unique developmental path?
"It's just a process," Poythress said. "We're just trying to work on it and I'm trying to do my best every game."
That's all Coach Cal is asking.
"You talk about success being a peace of mind knowing you've done your best," Calipari said. "Today he can walk out of there knowing he did his best."
Editor's note: this is the fifth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Part one (Trevor Gott), part two (Walter Wijas), part three (Matt Reida), part four (Jerad Grundy).Toughness is what defines Kentucky senior outfielder Zac Zellers.
The six-foot, 185-pounder is consistently praised by the UK coaching staff for the tough presence he brings to the batter's box, the bases and in the field.
"Baseball is all about respect," Zellers said. "Anything you have to do on the field to gain the respect of your teammates and your opponents give you an edge. There is nothing more I would like to do then be the dirtiest player on the field every time I leave. And when I leave the field I don't want anyone to question whether I gave it my all. I don't want anyone to question whether that guy took that game off. I am not a very vocal leader; I try to lead by example. Growing up that is just how all my previous coaches and my dad always taught me. Toughness is something you can't teach."
As a transfer from Heartland Community College in 2012 - along with southpaw Jerad Grundy - Zellers became the first right-handed hitter to win UK's annual quality at-bat (known as a QUAB by UK's team) title in the Gary Henderson era. Since Henderson and hitting coach Brian Green took over in offensive attack in 2009, only lefty swingers have won the quality at-bat title (Chris Bisson - 2009, Lance Ray - 2010, Chad Wright - 2011).
Kentucky hitters are graded in games and scrimmages on its ability to work a quality at bat. Hitters can get quality at bats through many ways; including working the count, advancing runners, making hard contact and getting hit by pitches.
That is where Zellers' toughness starts to check in. He was plunked by a conference-leading 21 pitches to rank second in UK history.
"Getting hit by a pitch does more for the team then it does for yourself," Zellers said. "That is about respect, that people know you aren't going to move. If a couple of guys do it, it makes the pitchers think, it makes the pitching staff think."
The ability to get hit by pitches helped spur his .456 on-base percentage, which ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference.
"It is all about making hard contact, putting together good at-bats and making sure that you are doing all you can to put your team in the best position to win," Zellers said.
Overall in his first year in Lexington, Zellers was a major weapon for the potent UK lineup. He enters this season having established a reputation as a hard-nosed player with a relentless competitive nature and desire to succeed.
Zellers earned the starting nod in the season opener in rightfield at Wofford, going 1-for-3 in his UK debut. He put his mark on the UK outfield competition with an outstanding week against Buffalo in late February.
The St. Louis, Mo., native was named SEC Player of the Week after destroying UB pitching during the three-game sweep, going 6-for-9 with five RBI, a double, triple and two homers. After UK centerfielder Austin Cousino sat out the finale with a minor injury, Zellers started at leadoff and in center in place of the dynamic freshman talent.
As a junior, Zellers hit .311 with 12 doubles, one triple, five homers and 19 RBI, stealing 7-of-10 bases.
Defensively, Zellers dazzled with his ability to eat up ground and reactions to balls in the corner-outfield posts. He consistently made extra-base saving grabs of line-drives peppering the gaps and flew around the outfield with the same tough mentality that he displayed at the dish.
With Zellers, Cousino and junior talent Lucas Witt returning in 2013, the Wildcats are primed to once again boast one of the NCAA's top outfield units.
"Having all us out there makes it harder for teams to get a double into the gap and stretch a single into a double," Zellers said.
"There aren't a lot of balls hit out there that 'Cousi', Witt and I can't get to. Having the experience we have together, we all know each other's strengths. We are each all able to lay out and make the diving plays and make the routine plays. It makes our pitchers feel good because they know any ball hit in the air should be caught."
He quickly developed a reputation as a hitter that could get scorching hot at the plate and carry a lineup, collecting a four-hit game in a win over Marshall and driving in four wins in a three-hit outing vs. Dayton early in the year.
It was his weekend against No. 1 LSU that helped spark the Wildcats to a historic series win over the Tigers with UK ranked as high as No. 2 in the weekly polls. Zellers collected six hits in the series with a double and a homer in the rubber match, also drawing a walk in the decisive tilt.
As the UK lineup cooled down the stretch while playing in monstrous ballparks against Murray State in Paducah, Mississippi State and Regions Park in the SEC Tournament, Zellers continued his tough on-base approach but waited for another red-hot moment.
That came as UK played one of the most epic games in NCAA Tournament history, the 21-inning opener vs. No. 25 Kent State. Zellers, who earned all-tournament honors, went 5-for-7 in the contest with two doubles, two walks and a hit by pitch, stealing a base and coming painstakingly close to a walk-off blast with one of his doubles into the unforgiving outfield of US Steel Yard.
"I was battling my swing a bit before the postseason," Zellers said. "I worked hard with coach (Brian) Green before the SEC Tournament and in between the SEC Tournament for the regional. was glad I was able to get on base and help the team win some games."
As one of three seniors on a preseason top-10-ranked UK club, Zellers will be asked to take on a leadership role, a task he embraces.
"It is something that I look forward too," Zellers said. "After the conclusion of last year, to have the opportunity to come back and be a senior is an honor. We have a lot of veteran players back from the starting nine and pitching wise, which makes being a leader easier because those guys have been through it."
"I think yesterday's practice a lot of urgency was shown," Mays said on Friday. "It was one of the first practices we've had since I've been here where it was as hard as we went and we showed a lot of enthusiasm."
Going against his habits from past years, John Calipari ran his team through "a little bit rougher" of a gym session with more scrimmaging. The fact that his Wildcats responded in both voice and action was of course a positive, but Coach Cal knows his team too well to make any pronouncements about what it means.
"The ability to go in the game and have a competitive spirit and battle, that's what this will all come back to," Calipari said. "Do you want it worse than the other guy? Do you want the ball worse than he does? Do you want to stop him from scoring worse than he wants to score on you? Then that's been lost in all this, and that's what I'm trying to get through to these guys."
In other words, the Cats need to make sure that effort translates when they host LSU at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"That was a good sign, but I hope guys are realizing that it has to be turned around and we don't have much time to keep saying the same things," Mays said.
Mays, a graduate student, came to Kentucky for his final year of collegiate eligibility because he wanted to compete at the highest level. More than any of his younger teammates, Mays understood the unpredictability of a college basketball season, but even he could not have foreseen a 12-6 start.
It's by no means strange be discussing UK's NCAA Tournament resume in late January, but with Calipari in town, that talk has typically been in reference to the Cats' chances for a No. 1 seed. Now, the conversation is about the dreaded bubble. Players aren't overly concerned about that at this point, but they can't help but catch wind of it.
"I haven't heard much, but it's a thought in the back of your head," Mays said. "I don't think we've really won a marquee game and every big game that we had we kind of choked it (away). As an older guy, it's in the back of my head."
Calipari, however, wants just one thing on his team's mind.
"All we have to worry about is getting better," Calipari said. "If we don't change, we don't have to worry about that. If we change, we don't have to worry about all that."
Even so, players hearing talk about their postseason lives being at stake could end up serving Coach Cal's purpose by getting their attention. Kyle Wiltjer is a perfect example of the power of a little outside motivation.
Less than two weeks ago, the sophomore was in the midst of a two-game stretch that saw him score just two points in 33 combined minutes against Vanderbilt and Texas A&M. To make things worse, his coach spoke at length about Wiltjer's poor defense following the Vandy game.
Now, Wiltjer has led UK in scoring three straight games. He has become a focal point of the offense, averaging 16.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, and improving defensively in the process. In practice this week, Calipari asked Wiltjer the reason for the improvement in front of his teammates.
" 'Cause I was mad at how I was playing and I was embarrassed,' " Calipari said, recalling Wiltjer's answer.
The results of that realization first showed in practice and in games not long after.
"I think I've been more vocal in practice," Wiltjer said. "(I've been) kind of just pushing myself harder than I thought I could push myself, if that makes sense. Kind of just pushing through it and trying to lead the guys in practice and then almost practicing harder than I would in a game just to make it easier."
It's still too soon to tell, but Thursday's practice could be an early sign that the Cats have come to view the results they've gotten on the floor as unacceptable and decided to do something about it.
"It was the most talk I've heard in practice since I've been here," Mays said. "Guys were getting after each other and I do think everyone's tired of the same thing. We're tired of Coach taking the blame and it's really not his fault. He doing what he's supposed to do; it's about us not doing what we're supposed to do."
Calipari hoping Big Blue Nation joins Coaches vs. Cancer fight
This weekend, more than 4,000 coaches throughout the country will turn in their loafers in favor of sneakers as part of the fight against cancer. Calipari is serving as a national spokesman for the annual Coaches vs. Cancer suits and sneakers weekend. The cause is an important one to Calipari, as he lost both his mother and his two grandmothers to cancer, and he hopes Kentucky fans will stand with him and his colleagues.
The Big Blue Nation (is) charitable, compassionate, spiritual," Calipari said. "They are so many good things. I think that's why they asked me to (be a spokesman), to engage the Big Blue Nation. And I think it's something that is good."
By donating $5 to Coaches vs. Cancer by texting the word "COACH" to 20222 or donating online any time between Jan. 25 and April 9, fans will make themselves eligible for various basketball-themed prizes. They include the chance to be there as Coach Cal talks to his team before the first official practice of the 2013-14 season at Big Blue Madness, a VIP trip to the 2013 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic and signed gear by other top coaches.
As his team prepared to put that streak on the line at South Carolina, Matthew Mitchell knew how the Gamecocks would attack. They were going to be tough, they were going to be physical and, just like any of UK's previous 17 outings, it was about responding.
Unfortunately, they were unable to answer the bell effectively enough and the Cats lost for the first time in two months, 55-50.
"It was just physical contact on every play," Mitchell said. "We have no control over that. That is totally out of our hands on how the rules are administered in the game, so we have to do a better job of adjusting to that."
When the Cats got bumped, their reaction was to wonder why there was no whistle.
"That was the most disappointing thing for me," Mitchell said. "Just the look in our eye last night was not one that says, 'Hey I'm going to get determined and respond.' "
With a game against LSU (12-7, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) coming up on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, No. 5/4 UK (18-2, 6-1 SEC) won't have to wait long for another chance to respond under similar circumstances. The Tigers twice defeated the Cats last season - 61-51 in the regular season and 72-61 in the conference tournament - using a rugged style UK couldn't overcome.
"They were really, really physical and tough games," Mitchell said. "A lot of contact in both games and we didn't do a great job then."
The Tigers lost four of their top five scorers from last season's NCAA Tournament team, but have actually increased their scoring average by more than nine more points per game in 2012-13. Forward Theresa Plaisance - the SEC's top scorer - leads the way at 18.3 points per game, up from her 4.5 average from last season, to go with her 7.9 rebounding average.
"They are well-balanced and can score a lot and are capable of putting points on the scoreboard," Mitchell said. "I think they're a really good SEC team with good athletes, good players, very well-coached so it will be another tough one Sunday afternoon in Memorial Coliseum."
It might be tough, but it's a challenge Mitchell is glad his team will have to take on.
"I think we'll do better and I think last night can be real valuable for us if we can adjust and make sure that we learn the lesson that needs to be learned from that tough loss," Mitchell said.
That's certainly a different tune from the one he was singing after the defeat.
"It was a bad, bad mood," Mitchell said. "I was in a terrible mood coming back. We were not happy to lose. The team has done such a great job. We had not tasted defeat in a long time, so it was not a happy occasion."
On the flight back to Lexington, Mitchell made sure to impart to his team how he felt. But no matter how he disappointed he may have been, he wouldn't allow himself to succumb to emotion and undo everything his team has accomplished.
"You have to react appropriately and the players have done a real good job for a long, long stretch this season and so I don't think this is anytime for drastic measures like that," Mitchell said. "I just think the sense of urgency from the players needs to be, let's learn a lesson from a really, really physical, tough game and if we're in that position again, which I hope that we're not, but if we are we have to really respond differently than we did last night."
That change was immediate and implemented on the spot. When he first met with his team, the message was clear.
"The first team meeting we had with Coach Floreal he basically said everyone needs to improve or you're going to be gone," said junior thrower Isiah Kent. "I think that kind of hit home with some people. I know for the throwers squad, as soon as we heard that, we knew we had to get going."
One of the most important carryovers from Floreal's staff was throws coach Andrew Ninow, who spent four seasons coaching with him at Stanford.
Ninow, one of bright young minds in the sport, was a key hire for Kentucky as he was taking over an already established stable of talent. The throwers at Kentucky had two All-American throwers before Ninow ever arrived on campus in Andrew Evans and Raymond Dykstra.
Early on this season, however, it's been Kent and his training partner Bradley Szypka that have been making waves for the UK throwers. Ninow might have something to do with that.
"I came out the first meet this year and threw a personal record in the shot put," said Kent. "I have to give all the credit to (Ninow). He knows what works for me."
UK currently has two throwers in the top 17 in the nation in the indoor shot put. Kent sits currently No. 17 at 59-02.75 and is chasing Szypka who is knocking on the door of the top10 at No. 11 with a throw of 60-03.00. After strong 2011-12 seasons, both are reaping the benefits of the new throwing program. It's been a complete overhaul in philosophy for the throwers and the results are already showing as UK track and field prepares to host the Rod McCravy Memorial Meet on Friday and Saturday.
"I'm throwing farther," said redshirt freshman Beckie Famurewa. "Not as far as I'd like, I'm obviously never happy, but I know I have the potential in me. I'm a lot more positive about my throwing now, so that's a good thing."
The biggest change in Kentucky's training regiment has been a shift from the weight room back to the track. While there is still a strong emphasis on weight training, Ninow believes that the key to quality throws is increasing the "volume" of throws, or the amount, each day.
"We do lift hard and we're aggressive in the weight room, but our focus is more on the throwing and the movement and a lot, a lot of throwing," said Ninow. "So we probably double the amount of movements they do each day. I think that's my big philosophy because they're more comfortable with what they do."
Ninow's throwers at Stanford had an impressive track record. During his time there, he coached five conference champions and five top-10 and three top-three NCAA finishers. His outside-the-box training philosophies have played a big part in those performances.
Though he's quick to give credit to his former coach at UCLA, Art Venegas, for most of the basics of his coaching and lifting philosophies, he's made several tweaks of his own.
At UCLA, athletes focused heavy on mechanics of the throwing motion with sophisticated movement and drills. But there, they put great energy into high-intensity, low-volume throwing while undergoing high-intensity weight training. He's also added speed training.
"I feel like we're athletes now," said Kent. "We're not just weight-room strong. We can go do a whole variety of things. The increase in volume was big because obviously if you want to get better at what you do, you need to do it more."
When he got to Stanford as a coach, he started tailoring that system to best fit his athletes. With such high academic standards at Stanford, only a few athletes each season could even qualify to compete. In other words, Ninow didn't so much pick his prospective student-athletes. They picked Stanford. That's where the real work began.
"It forces you as a coach to be more creative," said Ninow. "Through that creative process I just kind of liked what I saw. So I've just kind of built on it."
That's why Floreal felt it was important to bring Ninow along with him to the Bluegrass.
"Andrew is a student of the sport," Floreal said. "He eats, drinks and breaths throws. That's his passion."
The transition from Stanford, a place where Floreal and his staff flourished, was a process. For Ninow, it was nearly seamless. It was an important opportunity for him and his wife to start a family with a lower cost of living. While dealing with the obvious culture shock of his new environment, Ninow quickly got to work with his new group of athletes.
Luckily for him, he had arguably the strongest unit of the UK program when he arrived.
"For me, it wasn't as much of a challenge," said Ninow. "I came with some great athletes. I think the throwers are definitely the most productive and talented squad right now. It was an easy transition because they work so hard and they are just very talented and hard-working people.
Instead of having to start from scratch with each of the athletes, Ninow got to focus on the finer details of his craft. With the returning crop of throwers already throwing at a high level, it was his responsibility to elevate them to the next level. Some of those finer details include throwing different weight implements, how many throws each athlete makes every day and their weight lifting program.
"With them, it's more about adding some paint, a little decor and some lawn and you can get going, so it's a little easier," said Ninow, using an apt metaphor for a group of coaches who have had to find new homes in Lexington.
The Kentucky throwers have maintained a high performance level while facing adversity over the last two seasons. This season marks the third straight season that UK will have a new throws coach.
For Famurewa, she was recruited by one coach. She had a different coach when she finally got to UK. Now she and the rest of the throwers have a modicum of stability with Ninow in the fold.
"The change has been nice," said Famurewa. "I like it personally, but I don't know. I was just a freshman, so last year I didn't know any better. This year, I'm more like, 'OK, the change is out of the way. I'm ready to throw.' That's all that really mattered to me."
Floreal, Ninow and the rest of the staff's new philosophy has their athletes thinking big.
Famurewa and Kent each expressed their desire to make the NCAA championships. Kent went on to say he has his eyes set on joining Evans and Dykstra as All-Americans. With the way things are looking for the throwers so far, those seem more like than just hopes and dreams.
"I think the strength in any program is in who gets to nationals," said Ninow. "Getting people to the 'Big Dance' so to speak, that's what you shoot for. For them, it's about getting to those marks.
"It's getting to nationals and getting an opportunity to do something on the national stage for the team. That's the highest level for us collegiately and that's where I want them to be to at the very least experience it and maybe get a few points and put up an All-American on that wall."
Editor's note: this is the fourth of a 10-part Kentucky baseball preseason feature, leading up to UK's preseason media day on Feb. 4. Ranked as high as No. 8 in the preseason, Kentucky will open up its 2013 season in Spartanburg, S.C., vs. UNC-Asheville on Feb. 15. Read part one, on UK junior righty Trevor Gott, here, part two on senior righty Walter Wijas here, and part three on shortstop Matt Reida here.A lot of factors went into Kentucky left-handed pitcher Jerad Grundy's decision to return for his senior season after the Minnesota Twins selected him in the 26th round of the 2012 MLB Draft.
The chance to get closer to his college degree and a second season to prove himself in the nation's best conference as he moved up draft boards played a factor in his decision.
But it was the opportunity to return to a talent-laden Kentucky roster in 2013 that convinced Grundy that he needed to spend the 2013 season completing his college career.
"I have a lot of pride in playing for the University of Kentucky," Grundy said. "The comradererie that we have as a team and all the talent coming back that we have this year creates a tremendous opportunity. We have a lot of wins, a lot of innings and a lot of hits coming back this year and that is huge in the SEC. When I weighed all the options and I am looking at the team we are going to have in 2013, it is hard to not want to be a part of that."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder was picked for the third time in his career in the MLB Draft after a strong 2012 season at UK, his first year in Lexington. He opened his collegiate career in 2010 at Miami (Fla.) as one of the more highly recruited high school prospects in the nation, choosing the Hurricanes over the Wildcats.
After serving as a midweek starter and middle reliever in Miami as a freshman, Grundy transferred to Heartland Community College, where he had a solid 12-start season with a 7-3 record and 70 strikeouts in 62 innings.
After being recruited to Kentucky for a second time, Grundy had a tremendous season as the Saturday starter during a historic 2012 campaign.
He made 16 starts with a 6-3 record and a 3.78 ERA in his debut season for UK, tossing 85.2 innings, allowing 79 hits and 36 walks, striking out 63. The Wildcats posted a 12-4 record overall when Grundy took the mound as the starter.
Grundy's already good numbers were even more impressive without a four-start stretch in the middle of the year, during which he was limited to shorter outings as he refined his mechanics. Without that period, Grundy had a 6-2 record and a 2.41 ERA in 12 starts.
He found his form when it mattered the most, posting a 2.88 ERA over his final seven starts, including a breakout pair of starts in the postseason.
Grundy picked up wins over No. 21 Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and Valparaiso in an NCAA Tournament elimination game, sporting a 1.50 ERA in the two-start span.
"My game started to really get better as the season went along," Grundy said. "Coming into the postseason, and even late in the year, we weren't playing as well as we needed too. When the team started to slump like that, we need the older guys to step in and have the type of outings I did in the postseason to try and break the ice a little bit and get the team on a roll."
After the 2012 season and his selection by the Twins in the draft, Grundy ventured to the prestigious Cape Cod League, where he was one of an NCAA-leading nine UK players in either the CCBL or with the USA Collegiate National Team.
"The representation that we had in the summer in the Cape was huge for our program," Grundy said. "We had nine guys out there that were developing their games against the nation's premier competition."
Grundy was good for the Orleans Firebirds in seven games and five starts, owning a 1-2 record with a 4.45 ERA. He tossed 30.1 innings, walking only nine and allowing 27 hits, striking out 32. Grundy had a dominating start on June 24 against Wareham, tossing five one-hit innings in a shutout win.
"For me, I had a lot of fun," Grundy said about the Cape. "It was great to work on some specifics of my game and to not have quite the pressure of playing in the SEC. It is a little more laid-back in summer ball and you have the ability to sit back and make some adjustments and work on some things."
Now as one of three senior leaders on the UK roster, along with former Heartland CC teammate Zac Zellers and righty reliever Walter Wijas, Grundy will be expected to shoulder part of the leadership load for the preseason top-10 ranked Wildcats.
"Being a leader on a staff that is so talented is humbling and is a real honor," Grundy said. "As a senior, I have a lot more college games under my belt then the freshmen or the sophomores. I was an underclassman too so I know what it is like to too look up to a senior and see how they lead the team. That is why we are going to be so good this year. We have a lot of seniors and juniors that have good heads on their shoulders and work hard. They show the way to do it for the freshmen and sophomores. That is going to be great for the program when the time will come for them to be the upperclassmen on the staff."
Sam Bowie, who set the single-season mark in 1981 when he blocked 80 shots for UK, says shot-blocking skill is not the only similarity between Noel and Davis.
"When you talk about Anthony Davis, he is a unique kid because it is very unusual to find a kid that is as talented and as respectful as he is. He came across to me every time that I met him, he would always say 'Mr. Bowie' and I would say that my name is Sam. He never knew that he was a superstar and he never knew that he was a franchise player. He played every play like he was trying to make the team and when you get that kind of combination, with the talent and the skill level that he has, it's a gift - because many times the superstar knows he is the superstar and realizes that he doesn't have to work as hard as the others because he realizes that he is going to get all the minutes and all the time that he wants," Bowie observed in an interview on "The Leach Report" radio show. "Anthony, that was his biggest asset. He thought he was just another guy on the roster and then this kid Nerlens, I watch him game after game and I am almost going to put him (Noel) in the same category.
"It's not really fair to put him in the same category as Anthony, but I put him in the same category in the sense that he is the first one on the floor for loose balls. He does all the things that a normal superstar does not do and he is as happy and as elated after a ballgame when he scores nine points, seven rebounds and four blocks. He doesn't have to have numbers to dominate a ballgame and I think that is one thing Cal would agree with me, that both those kids are made out of the same mold."
And Bowie sees John Calipari being cut from the same cloth as the coaches who had the best understanding of what the UK program and Big Blue Nation is all about.
"I had never met Calipari personally prior to him being hired by the University of Kentucky. I had been to basketball functions and been in banquet halls and things of that nature around him but to actually meet him, I had never done that. One day, I got a phone call from him and he said he wanted to meet me and he wanted to sit down and talk. His whole deal is this - and it's real simple, he means this and it's not propaganda - he would tell me, 'Bowie, this program will go on regardless if there is another Sam Bowie and this program will be strong regardless if I am the head coach here,' " Bowie said. "He has really embraced the past without naming names and I am sure the public knows where I am going with this situation, but in the past that always hasn't been the case where former players, former coaches still felt like they were a part of the program and with Calipari, he is the first to tell you that he is the blessed one that the university has hired him and not what he gives the university but what the university gives him."
Halftime lead streak ends at Alabama
When Kentucky lost at Alabama on Tuesday after leading at halftime, a long streak came to an end.
The Wildcats had won 53 consecutive games in which they took a lead into the second half, stretching back to a February 1, 2011 loss at Ole Miss.
LSU's press a test
Taking care of the basketball will be a key for the Cats in tomorrow's game against LSU.
First-year coach Johnny Jones' press is generating more than 10 steals per game, which ranks fourth in the nation. In their win over Texas A&M Wednesday night, the Tigers had 19 steals (eight of those by Christian County High School product Anthony Hickey).
And LSU is tied with Missouri for the SEC in offensive rebounds per game, at almost 15.
After each individual performance, gymnasts are judged and awarded a score. And that's that. On to the next event.
The UK gymnastics team has had some incredible individual athletes over the years, most notably Jenny Hansen, who holds program records for high scores in each individual event.
Junior all-around performer Audrey Harrison etched her name into the record books last weekend at Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic when she became just the 12th Wildcat to record a 9.9 on the uneven bars.
That 9.9 score, however, was crucial for Kentucky against No. 9 Arkansas. Harrison, currently Kentucky's lone all-around performer, anchored the uneven bars as the sixth and final gymnast to compete for UK. The preceding gymnasts had difficulties in their routines.
Arkansas had already scored a 48.350 after having a few mistakes of its own. After a misstep from Kayla Sienkowski, Kayla Hartley, Shelby Hilton and Alexis Gross each came to the rescue with solid performances and needed one more strong effort from their all-around ace. On each event, the top five scores are counted toward the overall meet total. With good scores from Hartley, Hilton and Gross to go with Sara Shipley's 9.8 to open the event, Harrison could erase her Sienkowski's slipup.
Harrison, as she's done all season, came through in the clutch.
She breezed through her routine nearly flawlessly. She could feel that something special was in the making. She made the final release into her dismount and stuck the landing.
While it was a special performance for Harrison, it was a momentum builder for the team. She had just helped Kentucky clinch its second event of the night after winning vault. But most importantly, she picked up her teammates when they needed her most.
"She hit that 9.9 bar routine like we needed and she finishes up events that we need her to step up on," said sophomore Alexis Gross of Harrison. "After (Sienkowski) fell, I had a bit of a rocky bar routine, and she went out there and hit that 9.9, and that stuff shows how mentally strong our juniors are."
On some of Kentucky's less successful teams in the past, athletes may have been more concerned about individual success during team struggles. This year's team puts the collective unit first and worries about personal success only with the intent of improving the team.
That's what Kentucky's early-season success has been all about. The team has been far from flawless, as head coach Tim Garrison is waiting for UK's breakthrough performance when the Wildcats put an entire meet together, but they have done a fantastic job of picking up the pieces for one another when things go awry.
They have been doing that since the first meet of the season when they traveled to California-Berkeley. When the normally sure-footed sophomore Shannon Mitchell fell off the beam, her teammates came to the rescue to cancel out her score.
"Shannon never falls on beam," said Gross. "Most of us looked at it and said, 'OK, now we have to step up for her.' When I made my routine, I told her, 'This one's for you.' "
And the Wildcats have been picking each other up ever since.
"From day one, you learn that," said Gross. "Five scores count, so if someone falls, everyone needs to pick up the slack as a team.
"It's not about individuals anymore when you get to college. It's about getting the best score for the team. It's just something that's ingrained in your brain."
While each individual event may only be performed by one athlete, the pressure of earning a perfect score is lifted when dependable and talented teammates surround one another other like they do for this team. And they never really know who it's going to be from week-to-week because, in reality, it could be and has been anyone.
Though Mitchell fell in the first meet at California-Berkeley, her performances against Arkansas left some of the best impressions of the night.
Mitchell stuck a high-score of 9.825 on the beam last Friday in her specialty event. She then turned around and gave a career performance on the floor with another 9.825 that led to her being awarded two team awards by Garrison for outstanding performances in each event.
"It was a lot of fun," said Mitchell. "I love showing my routine off on floor. On beam, I knew I just had to get up there and be confident."
Oh, and Mitchell is a walk-on.
Mitchell is a part of one Kentucky's greatest strengths that allows UK to be so versatile yet selective. It's been UK's strength in numbers that has allowed it to get off to its best start in program history.
"We have a lot more depth than last year," said Mitchell. "We know that if someone goes down, which we hope doesn't happen, we know that we have the seventh spot to step up and be strong."
This team, this collection of individuals, is a tight-knit group that performs for each of its members. The Cats perform and compete for the betterment of this UK gymnastics team. And you just never know where or when you're going to get a key contribution in the lineup.
That's mostly because it is hard to pick from a pool of 12. Garrison is using 12 different gymnasts in his lineup. Arkansas, by comparison, only used 10 on Friday night.
"It's all about you coming here and you do the best you can," said Garrison. "You win the job and it's yours. They're made aware of it very, very early. As a matter of fact, they're made aware of it in the recruiting process."
Scholarship or walk-on. Freshman or junior (UK has no seniors, which makes this team's start all the more impressive). If you're one of the six best in the gym, you're going to perform in that event no matter who you are.
Kentucky currently has 10 scholarship athletes. Garrison carries five walk-ons. Currently, three of those walk-ons hold a total of five lineup spots.
Perhaps the best example of Garrison's philosophy was displayed against Arkansas when freshman Marissa Beucler made her collegiate debut on beam. A January enrollee, Beucler had just been ruled eligible the day before the meet. When Friday rolled around, it was Beucler on the beam delivering a 9.825, which tied her with Mitchell for the team's high score in the event.
It was an impressive debut for an athlete who was facing the bright lights for the first time in her collegiate career.
"Down there on the floor with all these people watching, the first time after everything she's dealt with, she hit her set when she had to," said Garrison. "I think she's going to work her way into more lineups. There's no doubt about that."
As the competition builds in practice to earn spots in Kentucky's seemingly stacked lineup, some will see their roles increase, while others will see them diminish.
Gross, who was often an all-around performer last season due to small numbers and team needs, has focused mostly on beam and uneven bars this season. Now she is needed in a different capacity.
Though she continues to strive to be an all-around performer again someday, Gross, not to mention the rest of the team, is on board with letting the best six compete as long as the team keeps improving and winning.
"To be honest, that's the greatest thing," said Gross. "Last year, we had a smaller team. I did all-around and stuff like that was necessary to pick up the slack. This year, we can put our best six out there and I know that those are the best six people in each event."
Offensive guard Larry Warford will play in the Senior Bowl - the premier pre-draft event - in Mobile, Ala., which the NFL Network will air live at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. Scouts will be watching the game closely, but have been watching practices this week even more intently as the nation's best seniors go head-to-head.
Warford came in with a solid reputation, but has impressed almost anyone who has seen him this week. Here are a few links to stories that mention his play:
Scout's notebook: Turning attention to South team (Bryan Broaddus, DallasCowboys.com)
My scout's crush on Kentucky guard Larry Warford continued today and grew a little strong after I watched him live during this afternoon's practice. He's just such a big man that moves so well for his size that you can't help but like what he can do as a player. There were several times where rushers tried to take him down the middle and he would just sit or anchor down, not allowing them to go anywhere. There were times where the tackle blocked down inside and he quickly pulled to his right getting around the corner. He was good on the backside when he had to make the cut off block getting his head front side keeping the defender from the play. For his size, he moves well, very light on his feet and able to mirror and adjust with ease. Only had one time where he lunged and became overextended and lost his contact and base which hurt him. Had this thought that he might have been there in the second round when the Cowboys selected if they went defensive line in the first round. Think he is one of those guys that might go earlier in the second because of the position he plays. The way he plays on tape is showing in these practices.
Pauline's Day 1 stock report (Tony Pauline, PhiladelphiaEagles.com)
Larry Warford/G/Kentucky: Warford was a blocker who was not to be beat on Monday. He was dominant all day and controlled opponents in drills as well as scrimmage. Once Warford got his hands on a defender it was game over. He's a big, strong lineman with a wide body and the type of prospect who will be sought out by a power running offense.
SEC players dominate South roster (Mark Inabinett, AL.com)
Kentucky guard Larry Warford (6-3, 343 pounds): A massive guard, Warford, despite the Wildcats' 2-10 record, still made an impression during the 2012 season. He was selected to the All-SEC second team and the AP All-American third team. Warford started the final 37 games of his collegiate career.
Who's standing out at Senior Bowl practices? (Mike Herndon, AL.com)
On the offensive line, guards Larry Warford of Kentucky and Brian Winters of Kent State and tackles Eric Fisher of Central Michigan and Lane Johnson of Oklahoma have been impressive in one-on-ones.
The consensus on Warford this point seems to be that he is a likely second-round pick with an outside chance at sneaking into the first round. ESPN.com's Mel Kiper ranks Warford as the No. 3 guard prospect in a "flat-out loaded class."
Defense wins championships, which is a good thing because Kentucky boasts one of the NCAA's best defensive units.
In his first year as the everyday shortstop in 2012, Matt Reida helped direct a defensive attack that shattered the school-record with a .976 fielding percentage.
Known as a slick-fielding shortstop with a speedy, line-drive approach at the plate, Reida started all 63 games as a sophomore while hitting No. 9 in the order.
The Russiaville, Ind., native won the starting gig after a heated battle with J.T. Riddle for to replace Taylor Black before the 2012 season. Reida was viewed as the consistent, rangy shortstop with an ability to dominate the average play, while Riddle was a tremendous asset at second base with his arm strength and knack for making a spectacular play.
"Pitchers have a lot of confidence in our defense," Reida said. "They know that if they give up a hit and then can get a ball on the ground it is going to be two outs, especially with J.T. and I up the middle. There aren't many balls that go up the middle that we don't turn or have a chance to turn a double play on. It gives pitchers a lot of confidence. When the middle infield is making play after play up the middle, it gives everyone a lot of confidence."
The combination of Reida and Riddle up the middle for the Wildcats formed a dynamic duo. Reida fielded .958 with 13 errors in his 63 starts, with his 195 assists ranking as the third-most in UK single-season history. Riddle meanwhile sported a .974 fielding mark with eight errors in his 63 starts at second base, totaling 129 assists.
"J.T. and I really have a lot of fun playing together," Reida said. "It could just as easy be me at second base and J.T. at shortstop. As far as our range, J.T. makes every play at second base, and I am pretty consistent at shortstop. There aren't too many guys that are together that make more plays than J.T. and I. We have been playing together for a while and we trust each other. We feel like we are as good as anyone in the country.
The two middle-infield standouts combined to turn 36 double plays on the year, ranking among the Southeastern Conference leaders.
"After the summer, it was pretty obvious that guys just don't turn double plays at second base like J.T. does," Reida said. "He can do that better than anyone else can and we are lucky to get to play with him."
Reida got to see Riddle perform from a different perspective during the summer, as he joined eight of his teammates in the prestigious Cape Cod League for the Harwich Mariners. With nine UK players in the Cape or with the USA Collegiate National Team, the Wildcats tied for the NCAA lead.
"All nine guys really proved themselves over the summer and obviously 'Cousi' led Team USA in hitting," Reida said. "Nationally everyone saw that Kentucky had a really good year and then we all had really good summers. That showed the country that Kentucky baseball wasn't a one-year thing. We have really good players here. All of our guys did a really good job as the summer went in proving that we belong."
While playing shortstop every day during the summer, Reida ranked third in the CCBL in defensive assists, with Riddle leading the circuit.
"The Cape Cod was awesome," Reida said. "For me it was about proving that I belong. I didn't get a contract up there until after a regional, so it was for me about proving that I belong to play with those guys, the best talent in the country. Every day you are facing the best. In other summer leagues, you might face a midweek pitcher every other day but in the Cape it is a Friday-night guy every game. It is tough. It taught me to play with those guys and be competitive at that level."
Named to the Brooks Wallace Award Watch List, given to the nation's best shortstop, Reida was a weapon for UK in resparking the offensive attack in the nine-hole as a sophomore. He hit .239 in 213 at bats, with 31 runs, eight doubles, one triple, two homers, 22 RBI and four steals.
After collecting two, two-out RBI as a freshman in his 40 games and 27 starts, Reida carved out a reputation as a two-out hitter in 2012. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound left-handed hitter drove in 12 two-out runs and charted 23 two-out hits as a sophomore.
"It goes back to playing with an approach and a plan going into each at bat," Reida said. "As long as you stay in the process and stay just about winning, that is all that matters. You aren't worried about your last at-bats or anything else, as long as you stay in the moment and force guys to make mistakes you can take advantage of that moment. We took advantage last year in a lot of situations and capitalized on them."
One of Reida's big knocks came as the second-ranked Wildcats hosted No. 1 LSU in a late April tilt with conference-title implications. In the series rubber match on Sunday, with the game-tying run on second base in the sixth inning and LSU lefty specialist Chris Cotton on the mound, Reida spanked a double down the rightfield line to tie the game and set up Cousino's game-winning RBI double.
Reida is often described as a hard-nosed, feisty competitor who lays it all on the line in each game. Now as a veteran and a two-year starter, Reida is tasked with helping maintain a strong team chemistry from UK's memorable 2012 season.
"Team chemistry, especially in college sports, is a huge factor," Reida said. "Obviously our basketball team talks about being your brother's keeper, and it goes the same way for us. As long as you can trust the guy next to you it is always going to push you to get better. For the freshmen infielders, if they look at J.T. and I, and we are each the hardest workers, they are just going to understand that is what they have to do and that is what they are a part of. If your team chemistry is tight and everyone is working hard, it only strengthens your weakest link and brings everyone together."
The Wildcats, however, haven't seen anyone the likes of South Carolina, not in terms of Mitchell's word of the day at his customary pre-game press conference.
"We've played some tough teams, but I'm telling you: I just have an unbelievable amount of respect for their program and how they play," Mitchell said. "I don't know that there's anybody tougher than they are."
In fact, Mitchell doesn't think No. 5/4 UK (18-1, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) will face another opponent quite like the one the Cats will face on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in Columbia, S.C., other than when the Gamecocks visit Lexington for a rematch in mid-February.
"I really think that we will have to play extremely tough against them to have success in the game and I can't think of anybody I'd compare them to," Mitchell said.
Mitchell believes the Gamecocks have taken on the personality of their coach, Dawn Staley, and it begins on defense. No. 18/14 South Carolina (16-3, 4-2 SEC) ranks first in the SEC in both points allowed (47.6 per game) and field-goal percentage defense (34.3). The Gamecocks have held their opponents under 50 points in 15 of 19 games this season and allowed 60 points or more just once.
"I think that this is really becoming one of the most hotly contested rivalries in our conference," Mitchell said. "We play South Carolina twice every year and, as you go back and review the history of these games over the last five or six years, it's two teams that really, really play hard and get after each other."
Mitchell and Staley are each in their sixth seasons leading their two programs, during which time UK holds a 7-3 series advantage. Six of the matchups have been decided by single digits, including the last three. Over that three-game stretch, UK is averaging 60.0 points per game, but never have the Cats brought an offense so dynamic into a matchup with South Carolina.
UK is scoring nearly 80 points per game on the season and has tallied 100- and 97-point outings in its last two SEC games. Mitchell has tweaked his offense to get the most out of post players DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, but most of UK's offensive growth can be attributed simply to having good players all over the place.
"More times than not you have five players on the court that can score," Mitchell said. "I was looking at last year's game (against South Carolina) and we were getting some open shots, but the people who were getting them weren't making them. We're just making more shots this year."
But as it has been established, UK hasn't done any of its scoring this season against South Carolina's defense.
"It'll be a great test," Mitchell said. "I don't know what it will do as far as us figuring out where our offense is. I think we'll have to play well offensively and really place a high value on toughness plays in this game."
No one will be tested more sternly on Thursday than Jennifer O'Neill.
The sophomore has undergone a tremendous evolution over the last month, becoming UK's catalyst at point guard. Since a scoreless outing against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 21, she has scored in double figures in seven of eight games, averaging 13.9 points and 4.4 assists.
Mitchell has regularly praised O'Neill of late for the way she pushes the tempo. The impact of that has never been clearer than on Tuesday as UK prepared for South Carolina.
"She had to leave practice yesterday early for class and our practice was different in that 20 minutes that she had to leave early," Mitchell said. "And it wasn't a bad practice; it was just different. That's a real compliment to Jennifer."
Against a South Carolina team that thrives in the half-court, generating opportunities for herself and her teammates before the defense is set could be particularly valuable.
"I think that Jennifer's role in this game and in every game in the league is very important because I think that she is doing something that I don't see any other guard right now doing as consistently as she is," Mitchell said. "She's really in attack mode whether our opponent misses or makes the shot."
With Kentucky and South Carolina matching up, there will likely be many more misses than makes. The Cats trail only South Carolina in the SEC in scoring defense at 51.8 points per game and their opponents are shooting 37.2 percent from the field.
Missed shots, of course, lead to rebounds, which is where this game could be decided. In that area, South Carolina leads all SEC teams in rebounding margin at +11.6 and has outrebounded conference opponents alone by 7.8 per game.
"That is a staggering number in this league," Mitchell said.
The good news for the Cats is they aren't too bad on the glass themselves. Overall, UK is second in the SEC in rebounding margin at +6.9 and actually has actually been better than South Carolina in conference games with a +8.0 margin.
Replicating that success on the glass won't be easy. But like anything else against South Carolina, it will have to start with toughness.
"Coach Staley I think is one of the toughest coaches to prepare for," Mitchell said. "Her teams are really hard to prepare for because they're going to play so incredibly tough. This will be a real test for us."
KSRcollege.com's Ben Ward stopped by earlier this week to discuss the upcoming season with UK head coach Brian Craig. With the addition of European transfer Ben Stow, Craig has high hopes for the 2013 campaign.
"I feel like with the addition of Ben Stow in the lineup we got a lot more firepower and you know what, I'm not saying we are the odds on favorite [to win the SEC title], but we could do it. Beyond that I feel like this team is capable of making a run deep into the postseason," UK head coach Brian Craig told me yesterday morning. I like the sound of that, don't you?Link: Future Bright for Golf Cats
This March, Mashburn - whose No. 24 jersey is in the rafters at Rupp Arena - will be recognized for his greatness once again.
At the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Mashburn will represent UK among the 2013 Allstate® SEC Basketball Legends. Mashburn will be introduced at halftime of UK's first game in the tournament, which will take place March 13-16.
"The Allstate® SEC Basketball Legends Program allows us to honor our past and show everyone why the SEC is one of the nation's premier basketball conferences," said SEC Commissioner Mike Slive.
Mashburn was a two-time All-American during his UK career and helped lead the school to the Final Four in 1993, its first trip there since 1983. He left after his junior season for the NBA and was drafted fourth overall. He would go on to a successful 11-year professional career and was named an NBA All-Star in 2003.
Other members of the 15th class of SEC Basketball Legends are: Wimp Sanderson, Alabama; Jerry Carlton, Arkansas; Ronnie Battle, Auburn; Bill Koss, Florida; Tim Bassett, Georgia; Geert Hammink, LSU; Rahim Lockhart, Ole Miss; Horatio Webster, Mississippi State; Norm Stewart, Missouri; Eddie Fogler, South Carolina; Len Kosmalski, Tennessee; John Beasley, Texas A&M; Mike Rhoades, Vanderbilt.
While Kentucky rolled to a historic 2012 season, head coach Gary Henderson continually praised his record-breaking bullpen for not only its talents and versatility, but its ability to be completely devoid of selfishness.
A key member of the unselfish relief corps was right-hander Walter Wijas, who enters his senior season in 2013.
"Sometimes having a group of guys that are unselfish is the most important a part of a winning team," Wijas said.
A native of Elk Grove Village, Ill., Wijas has been a member of the Wildcat bullpen since his freshman season in 2010. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder has appeared in 54 games in his career, with a 5-0 record and a 4.54 ERA. He has tossed 81.1 innings in his career, walking 27 and striking out 66. As a junior in 2012, Wijas appeared in 20 games in relief, allowing 22 hits in 21 innings with seven walks and 17 strikeouts.
Wijas has always been a factor for Henderson's bullpen, appearing in 14 games as a freshman and 20 games as both a junior and senior. He even had an impromptu start as a freshman against eventual SEC Champion Florida when standout righty Alex Meyer was a late scratch with what turned out to be mononucleosis.
He worked three perfect innings against the Gators to put the Wildcats in position to win the game.
"The one thing I remember most was when I was warming up, (then-senior) Marcus Nidiffer was catching me and he told me that I had nothing to worry about, to just follow his lead and relax," Wijas said. "That is what I did, it helped me a lot."
Now Wijas, as one of three seniors on the roster, is vaulted into a position of leadership for another talent-laden UK bullpen.
"It is a great opportunity to be a leader," Wijas said. "It is great to be around Hendu (coach Gary Henderson) and him having trust in me to be a leader of the staff. It puts faith in me and gives me confidence."
He has benefited from the leadership of previous Kentucky veterans like Meyer, Taylor Rogers, Alex Phillips, Nick Kennedy and Matt Little.
"The most important thing I learned is you need to be confident and you need to attack the game," Wijas said. "If you let it attack you it is going to put you in the ground. Even when it is not going well you have to be confident and stay in your routine. You have to have the mental makeup to realize when something is going downhill to have the ability to create some positive self-talk and work out of the slump."
Wijas is coming off the most successful period of his career during the summer in the Cape Cod League. He joined the Hyannis Mets and starred in a middle-relief role, posting a 1-0 record and a 0.91 ERA in 19.2 innings. Wijas picked up a save and allowed only one run in his 16 outings.
"I was given a great opportunity to play in the Cape and I took advantage of it right away," Wijas said. "My first outing I threw well and it got me a little confidence that carried me through the summer. The summer was just what I needed to boost my confidence and boost everything I needed to be successful."
He was one of eight Wildcats in the Cape and nine UK players in either the CCBL or with the USA Collegiate National Team, which ranked tied for the NCAA lead with LSU and Louisville.
"It was fantastic for the program, to get the UK name out," Wijas said. "It lets recruits know that UK is the best of the best. We were successful there. It wasn't like we were just placed there; we were some of the best in the Cape too. That kind of speaks to the SEC as well, something great to be a part of."
Wijas looks to pace another versatile and experienced Kentucky bullpen in 2013, as UK will be anchored by the return of single-season saves record holder Trevor Gott, a junior right-hander. UK will boast a quality mix of lefties and righties, including talented right-handed sophomores Chandler Shepherd and Taylor Martin and sophomore southpaw Jeff Boehm. Freshmen lefties Ryne Combs and Dylan Dwyer also are poised to make an immediate impact on the UK pitching staff, which once again looks to have three southpaws in the weekend rotation.
"We are one of the few pitching staffs in the nation that have an equal amount of lefties and righties," Wijas said. "A lot of the teams I know of and the guys I talk to have just a couple of lefties. It is great for us because we can dominate a game any way we want. We have so much freedom up and down the staff. It is great that we have confidence in everyone that we can get the job done."
The skinny: Following a solid first half that saw Kentucky build a 33-24 lead, the Wildcats went cold after halftime in a 59-55 road loss to Alabama. UK (12-6, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) was held without a field goal for almost eight minutes to begin the second half and didn't score another until the 8:18 mark as Alabama went on a 19-6 run. Even so, Julius Mays' 3-pointer - one of four he hit on the night en route to a 14-point performance - brought UK to within one point. The Cats would close to within one point three more times over the closing minutes, but couldn't get over the hump. When the referees said a Rodney Cooper missed free throw went out of bounds with 24 seconds left and the Crimson Tide up by four, the outcome was all but sealed and John Calipari fell to 71-2 when his UK teams have held opponents to 63 points or fewer.
The difference: Half-court execution. Running the offense primarily through Kyle Wiltjer in the first half, UK looked on the way to a third straight win. In the second half, Alabama scrapped its full-court pressure and the Cats stagnated. UK shot just 8 of 27 (29.6 percent) from the field after halftime and didn't score a basket in the half-court until that aforementioned Mays 3 with a little more than eight minutes to play. In the closing minutes, John Calipari went back to Wiltjer - who finished with 14 points and seven rebounds - and he delivered a basket and set up another with a miss that Nerlens Noel dunked home.
Player of the game: Nick Jacobs. After UK dominated the glass in the first half, Alabama head coach Anthony Grant used Jacobs much more frequently. He responded by scoring 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, adjusting well to Noel's presence and even capitalizing on it. Jacobs had three offensive rebounds including a crucial put-back of an Andrew Steele miss off the backboard that Noel tried in vain to swat.
Turning point: Another poor second-half start will get headlines, but it was the way UK finished the first half that set the stage for it. UK extended its lead to 33-22 when Jarrod Polson hit Archie Goodwin for a layup with 3:34 to go before halftime, but missed on the chance to extend that lead with three empty possessions. The last one was particularly painful as Coach Cal called timeout with 43 seconds on the clock. Out of the break, Mays fired an ill-advised 3 with time to spare on the shot clock.
Key stat: Turnovers. In a relatively slow-paced game like this one, possessions are at a premium. UK gave away six of them against Alabama by committing 13 turnovers and forcing just seven. Many of the Cats' miscues were unforced, especially in the first half, as the Crimson Tide racked up 10 steals, most by any UK opponent this season.
Unsung hero: Noel. It's basically become a nightly occurrence, the talented freshman flirting with a triple-double. Against Alabama, he shot just 4 of 9 from the field, but racked up 13 rebounds and career-high-tying seven blocks to go with his eight points. Over his last four games, he has 27 blocks. The most blocks Anthony Davis had over a four-game stretch during his record-setting 2011-12 season was 26.
He said what?: "You've gotta give Alabama credit. They fought and had great confidence and they played to win. We played not to lose, which young guys do on the road at times." - Calipari
"Julius did what he could do, but our guard play was not near their guard play." - Calipari
"I came up off my feet. I wasn't disciplined. I should have stayed on my feet and stayed disciplined. I definitely owed that to my team." - Noel on leaving his feet early to contest shots in the closing minutes
"It's disappointing. We definitely were coming off of a good game so we wanted to keep making improvements and we let ourselves down. I guess we just gotta work that much harder, get back to Lexington and listen to Coach and keep trying to get better." - Wiltjer
"This is a team that's growing and getting better. We showed signs and now we took a step back. Hard place to play." - Calipari
What this one means: UK's schedule isn't lacking for games against quality opponents, but the Cats' resume could certainly use a few wins over NCAA Tournament-caliber teams. Tuesday night was a missed opportunity on that front. The Crimson Tide were ranked in the top 60 of the latest RPI and the Cats would have gotten their first victory over such an opponent had they come away with the win. Instead, UK will have to regroup and look for a few of them in the final 13 games of conference play.
It was the bottom of the 11th inning of the NCAA Regional opening-round game with No. 25 Kent State.
Kentucky and the Golden Flashes were locked in a magnificent, surreal 5-5 game that was pushing the boundaries of believable and teetering on the edge of fiction.
UK closer Trevor Gott strolled from the on-deck circle to the batter's box, tugged on a batting helmet, adjusted his gloves and peered down the barrel of a bat.
These were all things that Gott - who enters the 2013 season as one of the nation's premier relievers - had not done since winning Gatorade Player of the Year honors in 2010 at Tates Creek High School.
The native of Lexington, Ky., took over in relief of Alex Phillips to start extra innings against Kent with the Wildcats desperately needing quick outs in a quest to win it in the bottom half. He retired the side in the top of the 10th and 11th, before he was told to grab a bat and helmet and get ready to bunt Thomas McCarthy over to second base.
McCarthy laced a line drive to the rightfielder for the first out and Gott looked back into the dugout to see if he was still to take his unprecedented spot in the now disheveled batter's box.
"Of course, I had a vision in my head of a walk-off home run in a ballpark where no one could hit home runs," Gott said.
The six-foot right-hander did foul off the first pitch he saw on a line to the backstop but fanned on the next two pitches for the second out.
"But, I hadn't seen live pitching in over two years so it didn't go how I expected," Gott said.
He did turn in a career outing on the mound as the Wildcats fought to win the game against a feisty Golden Flashes squad that would capture the nation's attention as a Cinderella advancing to Omaha. Gott worked a career-long four innings, allowing just two hits and one walk, striking out a career-best six.
"Every inning I pitched I thought in the bottom half of the inning we were about to win it," Gott said. "That was tough coming in and thinking that we were going to win it and then go back out. I thought everyone did a great job staying concentrated. A.J. (Reed) of course went nine innings which was really impressive. It is just tough to do that for anybody to play 21 innings."
Regardless of how the season ended, Kentucky had a record-breaking season and its closer also etched his name throughout the UK history books. While earning spots on the USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award Player of the Year Watch List and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Stopper of the Year Award Watch List, Gott set the UK single-season record with nine saves.
He appeared in 23 games and charted a 3-0 record with a 2.16 ERA. Gott tossed 25 innings and allowed only 17 hits and seven walks, striking out 38 and limiting opponents to a .189 average. He was especially dominant against Southeastern Conference foes, working the first five innings of the year against league opponents without allowing a hit.
Gott's performance as a sophomore helped set the tone for a dynamic UK bullpen that shattered the school record with 22 saves.
"It is everything," Gott said about the importance of a good bullpen. "Corey (Littrell), A.J. (Reed), Chandler (Shepherd), (Jerad) Grundy - really whoever we start out there - we trust that they will give us a chance to come in in the seventh or eighth and shut it down for us. Last year we were 40-0 when leading after the seventh inning, which kind of speaks for itself. It is big for a starter to be able to know that they can give us five, six, seven innings and know they are going to get a win if they come out of the game with the lead. That is big for the defense too because they know that when someone comes in they are going to pretty much shut it down and they don't have to put up big runs in the late innings."
Throughout the record-breaking year of 2012, head coach Gary Henderson praised the unselfishness of the UK pitching staff. He repeatedly expressed pride in Gott and other members of the talented staff who had a constant ability to put the needs of the team above their own, creating a special team atmosphere.
"Everyone wants to go out and play as much as they possibly can but when it comes down to it, everyone just wants to win, at least in our program," Gott said. "That is just how a team has to be. You can't have a bunch of people on their own who want to shine because that is not how it works and is not how it works here."
Now entering his junior season as one of the top relievers in the nation, Gott is primed to help the program build on its 2012 campaign, with the majority of that help slated to come from the mound.
Men's basketball: Nerlens Noel
Freshman Nerlens Noel helped lead the Wildcats to two wins in league play this week with an average of 11 points, 9 rebounds and 6.5 blocks per game. He has reached double-figure scoring every SEC game this season and has pulled down at least seven rebounds in all four contests. Noel has notched six or more rebounds in every game this season. He's swatted three or more opponent attempts in five-straight outings and has six or more in the last three games - including reaching a career-high seven in a win at Auburn. Noel is the only player standing 6-5 or taller that ranks in the top-30 in blocks, steals and rebounds in the nation. He moved into fifth all-time in UK freshman record books with 69 blocks on the season and is one shy of cracking the single-season top-10 in school history. His 44 steals ranks seventh highest total in a single-season in first-year player records at UK.
Men's basketball: Kyle Wiltjer
Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer led the Wildcats to a pair of SEC victories this week scoring 17 points in each victory. The 17 points are a career-high within league competition and he had never scored in double-figures in consecutive SEC games in his career until this week. He has made at least one 3-point attempt in all but three games this season and has knocked down multi 3s on eight occasions. His five assists in a dominating win over Auburn matched a career-high. His .522 field goal clip ranked as the highest on the team this week for players with more than 20 field goal attempts.
With his Wildcats days removed from one of their best performances of the season at Auburn and he himself having blocked 20 shots in his last three games, Noel is once again starting to garner some deserved buzz.
For example, Noel reentered CBSSports.com's Freshman of the Year rankings on Tuesday. Here's what Jeff Borzello had to say about him.
5. Nerlens Noel -- Kentucky
Ht: 6-10 Wt: 228
Season Stats: 10.8 PPG, 9.2 RPG, 4.1 BPG, 2.6 SPG
Comment: After disappearing from the rankings since the early part of the season, Noel is back in the mix. He's been one of the best defensive players in the country, ranking near the nation's leaders in blocks and steals. Moreover, he's beginning to play much better in SEC play -- averaging 12.5 points, 9.0 boards, 5.8 blocks and 2.5 steals in his last four games. He shot 20-for-29 in that span.
Link: Noel returns to CBSSports.com's top freshman rankings
After Kentucky overcame a rowdy crowd and that improved Auburn team with a 22-point road win, I asked John Calipari about that quote and how it applied to his young team.
"Exactly what we're talking about," Calipari answered in the postgame interview on the UK-IMG radio network. "I said (to my staff) prior to the game, 'I don't want to coach as much in this game. I want the players to make calls. We're going to let them know what we want run but I want them talking to each other more. I want to do less.' It becomes grueling as a coach when you're coaching effort and you're coaching every bounce of the ball. I'm not going to do it. One, it doesn't work over the long haul. At some point, this has got to be their team and they've got to run with it. I think we're getting closer but we've got another tough one (at Alabama)."
This was one of the Wildcats' most complete performances of the season, as they out-shot and out-rebounded Auburn.
"We just needed to start seeing the fruits of the labor," Calipari noted. "You got to start having some hope that we're going to be fine."
And if the Wildcats can continue their improvement on the defensive end of the court, they might be better than "fine."
SI.com's Luke Winn posted an article this week about the relationship of defensive efficiency stats to postseason success. Looking back over the past decade of those numbers, Winn notes that "only five teams ranked worse than 25th in defensive efficiency have made the Final Four and only two of those were outside the top 50 (VCU in '11 and Marquette in '03)."
Given that kenpom.com currently ranks UK 20th in DE, albeit against a softer schedule than last year, it bodes well for the current Cats to peak in March, provided we see the same kind of passion to guard opponents that we saw at Auburn (which will be coupled with the shot-blocking prowess of Nerlens Noel).
"They're not as far along as I thought they would be. Defensively, I don't see them fighting every possession like that team did last year but I saw signs of it when I watched the tape of Auburn game," observed ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes on Monday's "Leach Report" radio show. "As a coach, you either fix the problem or you accept the problem and he (Calipari) is not going to accept the problem. The only way they have a chance to make a run in March is to become a really, really good defensive team - and the pieces are there."
Dykes noted that Noel probably leads the nation in combined blocks and steals and is capable of being the engine that drives aBig Blue resurgence.
"I think that's who Kentucky builds its team around. I think he's got a motor and a toughness and a mean streak about him that this team needs. To me, he's the one guy that consistently shows it and it needs to be infectious. He needs to be the leader of this team and let everybody else feed off him," said Dykes.
"I think they showed some fight and some toughness (at Auburn). Not 40 minutes but I saw more of it than I did in the Tennessee win," he continued. "They're far from a finished product. They still give up too many straight-line drives and guys get to the rim on them. I think the key versus Alabama is to not turn the ball over. They can really pressure you. One thing Alabama doesn't have is size inside and Kentucky can take advantage of that. I think there's a lot of pressure on Alabama's perimeter game to come through."
Do players understand their roles? Are they embracing them? How close are they to prioritizing the success of the team above all else?
At no point this season has Coach Cal been closer to being able to answer those questions with an across the board "yes" than after Kentucky's 75-53 win at Auburn on Saturday. The Wildcats delivered the "whomping" Calipari said he wasn't sure they were capable of, and something else happened along the way.
"They're starting to do it (buy in) and they had fun doing it," Calipari said on Monday. "Like they enjoyed playing and they bounced and jumped and they chest bumped each other. We've been waiting all year for it."
With their lead growing, their shots falling and the defensive stops mounting, smiles began to spread across the faces of almost every player. Simple high-fives turned into elaborate celebrations and the Cats seemed a more cohesive unit than ever before.
"When you're hitting shots, it's a lot easier to have fun than when you're missing shots or they're going on a run," junior guard Jarrod Polson said. "I think just the fact that we were kind of pounding them in the second half was what made it a lot of fun for us."
Calipari believes it to be much more complicated than that though. It's easy for a player to get excited after a big dunk of his own, but Coach Cal wants the Cats to be emotionally in-tune with the game no matter how they are playing as individuals.
"When you're concerned about how you're playing and you miss two shots, it's hard to chest bump somebody," Calipari said. "If you're more about the other guys on the team, none of that matters."
That thought process is a reflection of an overarching principle Calipari is trying to pass on to his players. It's human nature to define oneself by results and results alone, but that's not what Coach Cal believes the Cats should be doing.
"I'm trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go," Calipari said. "You're not going to be judged just by that. You're going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness."
In trying to shift his young team's mindset, Calipari is hoping to reach the point where he doesn't have to spend all his time coaching intensity. In the second half at Auburn, he wasn't too far away from that.
"When you're up 16 and 18 and you're finishing people off, what do you do? Just scream to scream?" Calipari said. "They're doing everything you want them to do, so you just coach the game. How about this? They're diving for loose balls, they're going for rebounds, they're talking to one another. Well Cal, you didn't have to do as much. Duh. Duh!"
Players came to find they enjoyed the (relatively) reserved Coach Cal.
"Obviously you yell less when you're up 20," Nerlens Noel said. "It's a good feeling not having him yelling at some players. That's definitely going to push us to have a 20-, 30-point lead more often."
The Cats (12-5, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) will be looking to build another such margin when they travel to Alabama (11-6, 3-1 SEC) for a game at 9 p.m. ET on Tuesday, but it won't be easy. Anthony Grant once again has a very solid defensive team, one that has won three conference games in a row.
"This is a really physically grind-it, bump you, grab you kind of team," Calipari said. "If you're not ready for 50-50 balls and that you're going to be in a war on the court for 40 minutes, you got to relish it. That's what you want, but if you don't want that then it's an issue."
UK's guards, in particular, are in for a test. Alabama often uses a four-guard lineup featuring Trevor Releford and Trevor Lacey, meaning the tone for this one will be set on the perimeter.
"This is a guard's game," Calipari said. "This is going to be guards going at one another."
For the Cats to succeed in that kind of game, Ryan Harrow will need to be effective at the point. The redshirt sophomore struggled in the first half at Auburn, scoring two points on 1-of-5 shooting and committing three turnovers. In perhaps the best example of his evolution this season, he responded in the second half by scoring 10 points and dishing five assists.
"Ryan Harrow in the first half played casual, and it showed," Calipari said. "Everybody, including me, wanted to see, 'OK, what do you have in you kid? What are you going to do in the second half?' He came out and he played aggressive, he played tough, played through bumps."
In the end, that's all Calipari is really asking for. No matter how much the Cats buy in, there will likely be losses down the road, but that's not how Calipari believes anyone will judge them.
"They're not going to say, 'He won 97 games and he lost four ...' " Calipari said. "Believe me, 20 years from now, they're going to say, 'Are you a competitor or not? Were you a battler? Man did he play hard. This kid really made great decisions.' That's how you define yourself and trying to get them more on process and less on results because we're so young."
- Following its most complete victory of the season within SEC action, the Wildcats conclude its two-game road swing through the Heart of Dixie at Alabama on Tuesday.
- Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer turned in another 17-point performance, while classmate Ryan Harrow reached double figures for the eighth straight game and dished out a UK career-high eight assists in the win. Freshman Nerlens Noel continued his imposing defensive prowess with a career-high seven blocks to couple with 10 points and nine rebounds.
- Alabama enters the matchup following a one-point victory over Texas A&M on Saturday. The Anthony Grant-led Crimson Tide are 11-6 overall on the season and own a 3-1 record within SEC play.
- No. 5 Kentucky improved to 18-1 overall, 6-0 in the SEC with commanding wins over Mississippi State and Auburn last week in Memorial Coliseum. The Cats are now riding a school-record 33-game home winning streak and the nation's longest overall winning streak at 17.
- The 100-47 win over Mississippi State was the largest margin of victory over an SEC opponent in school history. Junior center DeNesha Stallworth led four players in double digits with a UK career-high 25 points in just 24 minutes of action. Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies followed with 21 points. UK forced 25 turnovers and won the rebounding battle 46-20.
- In UK's "We Back Pat" game vs. Auburn, defense was again the name of the game. The Wildcats held the Tigers to just 21 first half points, taking a 51-21 lead at the break. Mathies led the way with 16 points in the opening stanza. She went on to notch her second straight 20-point game with a season-high 24 points on a near perfect shooting night. Mathies hit 8-of-9 from the field, including 5-of-6 from the 3-point line and 3-of-4 from the charity stripe.
- The No. 14 University of Kentucky gymnastics team defeated No. 9 Arkansas in convincing fashion in front of more than 5,600 fans inside Memorial Coliseum on Friday.
- The Wildcats took the meet 195.5-193.075 while winning every team and individual event.
- The Wildcats continued the unprecedented start to the season as Friday's win gave the program back-to-back SEC wins for the first time ever. All four wins this season have come against higher-ranked opponents.
- Kentucky is off to the best start in school history as the Wildcats have never before topped 195 in all three meets to begin the season.
- Audrey Harrison stole the Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic show winning the individual all-around competition for the second consecutive week. The Knoxville, Tenn., native's season high 39.275 was highlighted by her 9.9 to anchor on uneven bars with a score, which ties for her career high.
- Harrison won individual titles on bars and floor exercise (9.85). The junior now has four event titles this year and 11 all-time.
- Kentucky knocked off two top-15 teams over the weekend in Oxford, Miss., defeating No. 11 Ole Miss (4670 - 4611) on Saturday and No. 10 Memphis (4646 - 4598) on Sunday.
- Senior Heather Greathouse led the Wildcats in their win over Ole Miss, shooting an 1176 aggregate score. Freshman Connor Davis delivered a 594 in air rifle.
- Senior Ed Ryznar had a strong showing in Kentucky's win over Memphis, shooting a 574 in smallbore and 588 in air rifle.
- Sophomore Cody Manning recorded a new personal best aggregate score of 1162 in Sunday's match with Memphis.
- The Kentucky men's tennis team got off to a 2-0 start to the 2013 season with two 7-0 wins over Northern Kentucky and Morehead State.
- The pair of wins were the first in the head coaching career of Cedric Kauffmann.
- No. 15 Tom Jomby and No. 94 Anthony Rossi each earned singles wins on Sunday, while Jomby and Kevin Lai went 2-0 on the day in doubles.
- UK next takes to the court on Wednesday at No. 22 Indiana in Bloomington for the Wildcats first of 15 matches versus ranked teams in 2013.
- The Kentucky women's tennis team opened the 2013 season with two dominating wins, defeating Morehead State 7-0 and Belmont 6-1 on Saturday.
- Freshman Nadia Ravita opened her collegiate career with two singles wins in the No. 1 spot and two doubles wins paired with junior Caitlin McGraw in the No. 1 doubles slot.
- Sophomore Stephanie Fox failed to drop a set in two singles wins on Saturday, taking both contests 6-0, 6-0.
Tuesday, Jan. 22
Men's basketball at Alabama - 9:00 p.m.
Wednesday, Jan. 23
Men's tennis at Indiana - 2:00 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 24
Women's basketball at South Carolina - 7:00 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 25
Track and field hosts Rod McCravy Memorial - 10:00 a.m.
Men's tennis hosts Michigan State - 1:00 p.m.
Gymnastics at Alabama - 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Jan. 26
Track and field hosts Rod McCravy Memorial - 10:00 a.m.
Swimming and diving host Louisville - 12:30 p.m.
Men's basketball hosts LSU - 4:00 p.m.
Men's tennis hosts Texas/South Carolina
Sunday, Jan. 27
Women's basketball hosts LSU - 3:00 p.m.
Before we get to that, congratulations are in order for A'dia Mathies and Nerlens Noel. Mathies was named SEC Women's Player of the Week after she averaged 22.5 points while shooting 60 percent from the field in a pair of wins that lifted UK's conference record to 6-0. Noel, meanwhile, became the fourth UK men's basketball freshman to be named SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 11.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 6.5 blocks in victories over Tennessee and at Auburn.
Moving on, here are Coach Cal's comments from Monday morning's teleconference as well as select quotes from the coaches of UK's two opponents this week.
On this week's games ...
"Well, we've got to go to Alabama. We leave today to go down and the tapes that I've watched, they really defend and their guard play is as good as anybody in the country right now. Both guys are scoring the ball. (Trevor) Releford's really scoring the ball of late and Trevor (Lacey) can shoot it with anybody. They still have (Andrew) Steele. Their guard play is why they're 3-1 in our league. Defensively, they're playing very physical. They're doing some good things to scramble up the game in the press and running people at the ball and doing some great stuff. They're a terrific team."
On Willie Cauley-Stein's status and whether he will travel to Alabama ...
"Don't know yet. He was there with us this morning and I don't know if he'll practice. If I don't think he can help us, we'll probably leave him home, but if he can go then he'll be with us. But we haven't even practiced today so I don't know."
On Alex Poythress's progress ...
"Look, here's a freshman, probably averaging 13 or 14 (points), eight rebounds and doing some pretty good stuff, but we need more. Sustaining effort is the only issue with Alex and he increased that about 20, 25 percent last game. Now we're just trying to build off of it. But it has nothing to do with Alex the player. It's just a competitive spirit, that sustaining effort and all those things. But he has gotten better and better and better and that's all we ask. I've done this a long time and every one of the kids that you coach, they were brought up in different environments, they were coached by different kind of players and people. Some of them are advanced in some areas and not advanced in others. Some of them are really skilled and some are not. Some are in unbelievable shape and can very much push through every pain and comfort level. Others can't push through anything. And our job - and I feel this every year - is to help reach each of these kids. Alex is no different than Marcus Camby when I coached him. Marcus that first year, it was tough to get him to push through pain, it was tough to get him to sustain effort and he played 19 minutes a game and played him every minute we could. We're trying to do the same with Alex right now, but he's making great strides."
On Nerlens Noel emerging as a tone setter for his team ...
"He is, but I was really pleased with (Archie Goodwin's) play. When I tell you that, his shot selection was really good. He played and drove to make his teammates better instead of trying to shoot the ball. And then defensively, he took some pride in his defense. Now you have an attacking player who's taking pride in his defense versus a player who's taking bad shots and an unenthusiastic defender. So I was just as pleased with Archie. Archie had 12 points trying to score about half as much as he's being trying to score and he scored two or three points less than his average and that's because he missed free throws. So what I say is you can do less and score more if you're efficient and you're playing for your team. He's learning that."
On whether players have now bought in ...
"First of all, let me say when I say buy in, it starts with individual players, that each individual player has to accept his role and has to play the way the team needs him to play. That's the first buy-in. That's been the hard one for us. The second buy-in becomes we have to be in tune with each other and on the same page and we have to buy in how our team must play for us to win and have the best chance to win. Those are the two buy-ins all coaches go through. The second part of that is getting them to play. Coaches, if we have to coach emotion and intensity and effort, you're not really coaching basketball. And so trying to get them to understand if you do that, I don't have to be on every play. And so they're starting to do it and they had fun doing it. Like they enjoyed playing and they bounced and jumped and they chest bumped each other. We've been waiting all year for it. But see, when you're concerned about how you're playing and you miss two shots, it's hard to chest bump somebody. If you're more about the other guys on the team, none of that matters. I'm trying to convince them that the wins and losses, they come and go. You're not going to be judged just by that. You're going to be judged by your effort, your fight, your scrappiness. At the end of your career, that's what they're going to look at. Did you have it or not? They're not going to say, 'He won 97 games and he lost four ...' Believe me, 20 years from now, they're going to say, 'Are you a competitor or not? Were you a battler? Man did he play hard. This kid really made great decisions.' That's how you define yourself and trying to get them more on process and less on results because we're so young. And then I'll just say this and I hate to keep hitting on it, but what we're doing's not been done where you're trying to take on veteran college teams with all freshmen. It's just never been done. And it takes time to get teams together and I have to be even more patient than I've been with this team."
On it being different at Kentucky because players come in knowing they will go pro soon ...
"It's not the case. We don't recruit kids and tell 'em that. Obviously if kids have an opportunity to leave after one year, that's fine. But what the point is to come in here knowing this is not for everybody. This is the ultimate challenge in basketball to play here. We had a 3.1 grade-point average the last term. The last two years we had a 3.0, 3.0 grade-point average. We graduated seven players in the last three years, so it's not just come in and come out. Now, you might have guys that believe that or think that, but that's just a smaller picture. The reason you come here is to be prepared to reach your dreams, be challenged and know every game you play is someone's Super Bowl, every game you play is sold out, at home and on the road. If you don't want that, this is not where you go. And then at the end of the year, kids make decisions on what they want to do. My job is to prepare them as best I can to get them better, to help them understand what it means to be part of a team and what it means to sacrifice for each other."
Alabama head coach Anthony Grant
On the upcoming game against Kentucky ...
"We're looking forward to a challenging week, obviously with Kentucky coming in tomorrow. I'm really impressed with seeing them on film. They're an explosive offensive team, very talented and a diverse defensive team, so it'll be a great challenge for our guys."
On how Trevor Lacey has been playing ...
"Trevor Lacey, as sophomore, has the benefit of a year and a half of experience in college basketball. I think he has really kind of understood what he needs to do for our team as the season has progressed. I think he's playing really good basketball for us. The other day he led us in scoring, rebounding, assists, just about every category. He did a great job and obviously a big-time shot at the end of the game to give us a one-point lead and come up with a deflection that led to a steal as well. I think with every game, I think he's getting more and more comfortable in terms of what we've demanded of him.
On what makes Kentucky explosive ...
"In terms of Kentucky, you look at it and they've got five guys averaging double-figure points for them, which is impressive. Their field-goal percentage is outstanding. They've got a good combination of inside-out in terms of their ability to score the basketball. Terrific in transition. Unselfish team. So I think they've got a lot of good pieces from an offensive standpoint."
On Alabama's four-guard lineup against Kentucky's size ...
"For most of the games that we play in conference play we're undersized, so I think for us it's just about making sure that we bring a competitiveness to the court to try to match the size and the speed and the physicality they can put on the court as well. Every game brings different challenge. I think looking at it on film, what stands out about them is they seem to have great team speed, explosive offensively. Defensively, they've got some game-changers in terms of the way Noel can block shots. He's one of the nation's leaders in steals and blocked shots. And then the other guys on the floor from a defensive standpoint really give you a speed that not a lot of teams can come at you with."
On the intangibles that Andrew Steele gives Alabama ...
"Andrew, I think for our team, he's a coach on the floor, so to speak. He does a great job of making sure our guys stay in the moment whether things are going really good or things are going really bad, and understanding what we've got to do and moving on to the next play, and that's what you want to see out of your veterans. He's our only senior. He's a fifth-year guy, and obviously having him in the rotation, I think, changes our team. I made this comment, from the time he was able to get healthy enough to get back to practice, he impacted our team from day one, and I think it's been the same thing in games. He's always going to do the little things in terms of screening, communicating defensively, that rotation that needs to be made. He understands that he's going to make that, and I think his effort is contagious and I think it helps the other guys understand what will be required to give us a chance to be successful."
LSU head coach Johnny Jones
On how his team has played in league play and his memories of Rupp Arena from his playing and coaching career at LSU and Alabama ...
"It's been tough for us lately here in league play. We haven't shot the ball particularly well and of the things we've been challenged with is we've had a couple of really bad turnover games that's a little bit uncharacteristic of our team. One of the things that we have done well I guess that's a bright spot is our press has continued to improve and has gotten better and has created turnovers for some easy scoring opportunities for our team. The other thing is Johnny O'Bryant, who's been hampered a little bit through the season, is continuing to improve and get better. And I'm hopeful that will allow our team to continue to improve.
"Rupp Arena, I spent a lot of years going up there and playing in Lexington. It's probably one of the greatest college atmospheres that's out there. The fan support is really second to none and they create an environment that's conducive for allowing their team to have a great deal of success there."
"It just unfortunate," said Thompson. "It's just one of those things that happen. Just disappointed, but I'm very proud of our effort. I thought we executed well."
Clearly, the Wildcats' ceiling was high, but it may not have been clear exactly how high until Sunday afternoon.
Hosting Auburn, the Cats built a nine-point lead through the opening nine minutes. They had played reasonably well, but nothing like what would come next during a stretch of basketball that may have been UK's best of the season.
"I thought the players hustled and the more plays they made, the more aggressive they would get and it fueled their confidence," Mitchell said. "It was a very impressive defensive display there during that run."
Over 7:16, Kentucky went on a 24-2 run. The Cats made 8 of 16 from the field and hit 6-of-7 free throws. Even more notably, UK held Auburn to 1 of 8 shooting from the field and forced nine turnovers. Kentucky (18-1, 6-0 SEC) went from having a single-digit lead to being up by 31 points en route to a dominant 97-53 victory over Auburn (13-6, 2-4 SEC) that gave the Cats their 17th win in a row.
"It felt great," Mathies said. "We just knew that if we kept putting the pressure on and just trying to run them as much as we could, we felt like we had more depth and we could sub somebody out and we felt like they couldn't."
Mathies scored eight points during the extended burst, accounting for a third of her season-high 24. The senior guard tied her career high with five 3-pointers and didn't miss a shot until early in the second half. She made 8-of-9 attempts from the field on the game and was 3 of 4 from the foul line.
"I'm just out there playing and luckily the shots went in," Mathies said. "My teammates did a great job of setting me up."
Her big afternoon was clearly more than just luck. She is shooting 42.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2012-13, almost five percent better than a career high she set as a junior. With 43 3-pointers, she's also just nine away from setting a career high with half the SEC schedule and postseason play still on the horizon.
"I think she's playing with tremendous control right now and confidence," Mitchell said. "If you leave her open right now at the 3-point stripe, you are paying dearly because she's shooting the ball so well."
As well as Mathies and her teammates played during that first-half run, the second half was not without its tests. UK built its lead to as large as 39 points within a few minutes of halftime, but Auburn stormed back to within 74-50 with 7:23 left after Hasina Muhammad scored her fourth basket in less than two minutes.
"It's hard when you're up 30 at halftime," Mitchell said. "It takes tremendous discipline to come back out and be focused. We are trying to hold ourselves to high standards. We're not trying to look at the scoreboard; we're trying to play the best that we can because that's what we've committed to doing."
It didn't take long for the Cats to get back to an effort that made them look like a team that will contend for a Final Four berth come NCAA Tournament time. It wasn't quite the 24-2 burst of the first half, but UK closed the game on a 23-3 run.
"This team continues to build trust and they continue to show up and play hard," Mitchell said. "Maybe we could have played less hard today and won, but that's not the goal for us. The goal is for us to play our best."
The skinny: After a close home victory over Tennessee on Tuesday, John Calipari delivered a challenge to his team, saying the Wildcats wouldn't be "whomping on" opponents as his teams have in past seasons. On Saturday in Auburn, Ala., UK proved him wrong. After sputtering out of the gates, the Cats trailed Auburn 6-4 with just over 11 minutes left in the first half. They hit just two of their first 14 shots, including 0 for 7 from 3 and appeared destined to for another tight one, as predicted by Coach Cal. From that point forward, the Cats dominated. UK (12-5, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) scored 71 points over the final 31:02 en route to a 75-53 victory over Auburn (8-9, 2-2 SEC). Kentucky shot 68.3 percent from the field over that stretch and 5 of 8 (62.5 percent) from 3. The Tigers, meanwhile, were held to 23 of 66 from the field, including 0 of 15 from beyond the arc for the game, the first time a UK opponent has failed to make a 3 since Mississippi State went 0 for 19 on Feb. 10, 2001. Kyle Wiltjer (17 points) was one of five UK players to score double figures.
The difference: Fun and cohesion. At no point this season have the Cats seemed to enjoy playing with one another more than on Saturday night. Players shared the ball willingly, crashed the boards together and were all smiles for much of the night.
Player of the game: Wiltjer. For the second straight game, Wiltjer scored 17 points and, for the second straight game, Wiltjer looked like UK's best offensive player. He dropped in three 3s and added four rebounds, but it was his passing that turned heads. With Nerlens Noel on the bench due to two first-half fouls and Willie Cauley-Stein back in Lexington recovering from a knee injury, it was up to Wiltjer and Alex Poythress to man the post for much of the second half. Operating out of the high post, Wiltjer fed Poythress on the baseline repeatedly, leading to dunks and free-throw opportunities. For the game, Wiltjer finished with five assists, tying a career high.
Turning point: Poor second-half starts have been a problem all season, which was cause for concern when UK took a 30-25 lead into halftime. Against Auburn, the Cats put those struggled behind them by stretching the lead to 16 points by the under-12 media timeout. After scoring two points on 1-of-5 shooting and committing three turnovers in the first half, it was Ryan Harrow who led the charge. He scored three straight UK baskets at one point and had eight points during the 23-12 spurt that gave the Cats a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish. On the night, Harrow had 12 points, eight assists and five rebounds.
Key stat: Rebounding. With Cauley-Stein unavailable, you couldn't help but worry about how a shorthanded UK frontcourt would handle itself on the glass. At least on Saturday, those concerns were proven to be unfounded, even with Noel limited to 11 first-half minutes. UK outrebounded Auburn 43-30, its largest margin in SEC play this season. Noel played just 25 minutes, but led the way with nine rebounds to go with his 10 points and seven blocks.
Unsung hero: Archie Goodwin. Playing a team-high 35 minutes, the dynamic freshman had one of his most efficient games as a Wildcat. He took just seven shots, but made five and a pair of free throws to give him 12 points along with a career-high-tying three steals and just two turnovers. Just as importantly, he crashed the glass hard in grabbing seven rebounds.
He said what?: "Neither one of us could (make a shot) for a while. I thought we gutted it out and then there was great execution when they made a mini-run at us." - Calipari
"He's playing better and he wants it. He's playing more aggressive. There's no tentativeness to his game and that's how I want him to play." - Calipari on Wiltjer
"When we started playing good and going down the stretch, we just kind of huddled together and said that we needed to start burying teams because in the past we've played around with them." - Wiltjer on responding to Calipari's comments about UK not being able to "whomp on" opponents
"I'd like to get to the point where I'm not coaching effort. We're getting closer hopefully." - Calipari
"We're trying to get our guys bought in. And this was a good step for us." - Calipari
What this one means: It's only one game in a long season, but Saturday night was a big step forward for a team that is still learning about itself. The Cats took on a team that had played well of late, built a lead and didn't blink down the stretch. Coach Cal expressed doubts about whether his team could maintain its focus long enough to bury an opponent, but UK proved itself able in a tough road environment at Auburn. The Cats will return to Lexington for a day-and-a-half before flying back down for another away game in Alabama against the Crimson Tide on Tuesday night.
With last weekend's victory over No. 13 Auburn and Friday night's win over No. 9 Arkansas, Kentucky won back-to-back Southeastern Conference dual meets for the first time in the history of UK gymnastics.
The historic win came in Kentucky's home opener, Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic. The night started with an elaborate flame show and the Wildcats remained hot throughout the competition defeating the Razorbacks, 195.500-193.075.
"I think any time you can get a win, especially back-to-back wins in the SEC, you don't take it for granted," said Garrison. "They're hard to come by in this conference. It's the toughest gymnastics conference in the country."
Despite competing in the aforementioned "toughest conference in the country," UK is now 3-0 in against conference opponents and is continuing on a record pace for the program. However, Kentucky was far from perfect Friday night.
The Wildcats got off to a very slow start in the meet in front a jam-packed Memorial Coliseum on the vault, but Kenzie Hedges and Holly Cunningham put up two huge performances to save the event, scoring 9.8 and 9.825 respectively to close out the vault with a team score of 48.75.
The momentum picked up from there.
As UK shifted to the uneven bars, the Wildcats grabbed a stranglehold of the meet that they would not relinquish.
Kayla Sienkowski got things started with a strong 9.8 to lead off the uneven bars, but things got dicey when Shannon Mitchell broke her routine and finished with a 9.1. The team rallied behind her and put up solid scores. When it became Audrey Harrison's turn on the bars, she was prepared to deliver the most special performance of the night.
"When I'm going through my routine, I get kind of excited as I'm doing it," said Harrison. "It felt really great. It's one of my favorite feelings hitting a routine, so I was really excited."
The routine earned her a career- and season-high-tying 9.9 for the event as she stuck the landing. It was the jolt that Kentucky needed that carried UK the rest of the way as UK had beaten Arkansas each of the first two events.
From there, the Cats put up their best event score of the evening on the beam, earning a 49.0 that was highlighted by Shannon Mitchell and Marissa Beucler's 9.825 scores that they posted back-to-back.
The 9.825 for Mitchell was a career best on the beam. For Beucler, Friday night was the first meet that she had competed in all season. It was a great start out of the gate for freshman in her lone event of the competition.
The Wildcats had a comfortable lead heading into the floor event with a chance to clinch the meet. Mitchell followed up her beam performance with the second-best floor performance of the night, earning a career-high 9.825. And as she had done all evening, Harrison followed Mitchell with the best score in the floor event with a season-high 9.85.
With both teams completing their final events, Kentucky had defeated Arkansas on the beam, 49.0-48.675 while also taking the floor event, 195.5-144.4. The wins in the last two events capped off a sweep of all four events over the-ninth ranked team in the country.
Harrison walked away with the all-around individual victory scoring 39.275. She knew that she had performed well on the evening, but even she didn't expect the final result.
"It was exciting because I didn't add up my scores or anything," said Harrison. "It was surprising but really exciting too."
Harrison's performance was much welcomed as she stepped up in the clutch while some of her other teammates made mistakes along the way. Her steady performance helped carry the Cats to the signature victory.
"Audrey doesn't have too many events that are just big and flashy," said Garrison. "She's getting pretty flashy on bars, which is great to see because she's had it in her and now it's finally coming out.
"She's just steady on the other events. She just goes out there and does her stuff. She's cute, she smiles, the crowd loves her, and we'll take it every time."
Kentucky did not set a record for its highest score Friday night. In fact, it was only their second-highest meet score of the season. But it was an important performance nonetheless. Garrison knows, however, that there is still plenty of room for improvement.
"We could have done a lot of things better," said Garrison. "Are we happy? Yes. But as I keep saying, this team is better than we're performing right now. We have a ways to go, but I feel that we're going to get there."
Garrison has made sure to continue to hammer away the fact that his team just needs to worry about itself and everything else will fall into place. Despite some errors, UK was resilient and stuck to the game plan only to later make history once again.
"We don't set out to break those records," said Garrison. "We set out to do well and get better every week. That's what we're doing and I think the records are a product of that instead of the flipside."
The only caveat is that those four Europe-bound shooters, four of the best shooters on the team, will miss this Sunday's match against Memphis.
Henri Junghanel will compete for his native Germany in the Bavarian Championships while Emily Holsopple, Connor Davis and Elijah Ellis will suit up for the United States.
It's a major honor to have four different shooters represent the University of Kentucky at the international level.
"It's great for the team," said Junghanel. "I've been on the international circuits for awhile now, but that's an awesome experience athletics-wise, but also generally. To be in Munich, it's a really interesting place, and it will be great for everybody."
It will be the first time Ellis will have competed internationally. In fact, it will be the first time he'll ever even have left the country. But for the other three shooters, they each have experience in that event. Even so, more competition at such a high level can only help down the road.
"That intensity level," said Davis. "In the international competition, a good score over there is a lot better than over here. If you're lower here, it's not as good over there. Just bringing that intensity from the international level home really helps."
Junghanel will not get to compete at all this weekend, missing both the Ole Miss and Memphis matches to head home early to train in Austria. The other three will leave immediately after their conference match with Ole Miss.
But the biggest opportunity for the UK rifle team will happen on the range in Oxford, Miss., when the Wildcats face Memphis without four of the best they have to offer.
"It's a great opportunity for them to embrace the opportunity of it's my time, and it's my time right now," said head coach Harry Mullins. "Now, for some of them to step into the team spotlight, that's what the basis of our program is for them to eventually move into that."
Whoever earns the right to fill those spots will have big shoes to fill. Junghanel leads the team in smallbore (588.9) and air rifle (593.0). Holsopple is second in the smallbore (584.9) while Davis is second in air rifle (591.3). But whoever ends up taking their place will have earned that opportunity.
"We don't want that to happen by default or attrition," said Mullins. "We want it to happen by hard work. I'm not looking for them to give me the scores that Henri, Connor and Emily give, but the effort that they bring every match."
While those four are off competing in Germany, their thoughts will still be with their Kentucky team back in the United States. However, they are all confident that those they leave behind can more than pick up the slack and earn a win without them this weekend.
"I have great faith in them that they will step up and perform very well," said Holsopple. "It's very important, but I think with the depth we have on our team that should be no problem."
When those four shooters get home, Kentucky will face the No. 2 team in the country and rival West Virginia. UK came out hot after the break and shot a 4,705 in its first competition back against Alaska-Fairbanks.
Kentucky will continue to look to improve on that opening score of the New Year this weekend, but that will especially be case when they face the Mountaineers at full strength. Though the Wildcats are looking to go toe-to-toe with one of the best teams in the country, from here on out, they are focused on what they need to do each day to get better.
"I think there's still plenty of room for improvement," said Holsopple. "That 4,700 mark is a good mark, but we still have more than enough potential to exceed that and get to 4,720 and maybe even 4,730."
As the season wears on with aspirations of postseason success ahead, Kentucky is doing its best to focus on the task at hand every day. Whether it's practice, matches this weekend in Mississippi or an international meet in Germany. It's the only way the Cats will cash in on all the opportunities coming their way.
"There's still space for improvement, but it's important to know that's something we can build on," said Junghanel of their victory over Alaska-Fairbanks. "We don't have to be No. 1 right now. It's good, everything's fine as long as you're No. 1 in the end."
This season has been another story. Ryan Harrow missed games early in the season due to illness. Jon Hood has missed more than a month with a sickness of his own.
On Friday, Coach Cal announced the latest news on the injury front: Willie Cauley-Stein aggravated a left knee injury that dates back to his days in junior high school and underwent a minor procedure to address it on Thursday. Even though he's fresh off of three years of avoiding the injury bug, Calipari has been around long enough to know that these kinds of things happen.
"We're one short for a short while," Calipari said. "Thank God it was nothing major. You get dings and bruises in this thing. You get hit, kicked, bumped, come down wrong on an ankle. I mean there's all kind of stuff that happens in this game."
Cauley-Stein has been bothered by the injury in recent weeks and Calipari said there had been times in games Cauley-Stein needed to come out because of it. Nonetheless, Cauley-Stein could have played through it as he had for years, but that's not the path Calipari or the training staff wanted to take.
"Nothing major, but it was an old thing he just never did anything about," Calipari said. "And let me say this: We didn't have to do anything. It could've been, 'You're fine. Put the knee sleeve on and go.' But as you know, that's not how we operate here. If I err, I'm going to err on the side of the kid."
Calipari gave no specific timetable for Cauley-Stein's return, but said UK (11-5, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) is preparing for Saturday's 9 p.m. ET game at Auburn (8-8, 2-1 SEC) "presuming" the freshman forward will not be available. Cauley-Stein has started each of UK's last five games and has played fewer than 20 minutes just once over the last seven, so his potential absence would leave a hole in the rotation.
"We're a pretty deep team so I feel like we're confident with or without him," Kyle Wiltjer said. "Of course we want him to be on the court at all times, so hopefully he's OK. Hopefully we can just keep getting better with or without him."
If Cauley-Stein does indeed miss time, Wiltjer will be a player called on to step up. The sophomore forward scored just two points in 33 combined minutes in UK's first two SEC games, but was a key cog in Tuesday's win over Tennessee. He played 26 minutes against the Volunteers, his most since Dec. 4 against Samford, scoring a team-leading 17 points and grabbing five rebounds.
The performance may have been a departure from recent ones and a surprise to outsiders, but Coach Cal saw hints that it may be coming.
"He's stepped up on the practice stuff," Calipari said. "He's gotten in the gym and done extra. He's becoming more aggressive and talking more in practice. Right now, he's the most vocal player we have. When you do that, you build your own self-esteem and self-confidence."
The clearest sign of Wiltjer's growing confidence came against Tennessee when he called for the ball on back-to-back trips down the floor. He scored four points in a row on a pair of plays that have been installed specifically for Wiltjer, likely the most polished offensive player UK has.
"It kind of just frees me and gets me some open looks early on in the game," Wiltjer said. "My teammates find me the ball so it really just helps me get it going."
Alex Poythress, another player whose role figures to expand with Cauley-Stein sidelined, will be looking to make similar strides. With Cauley-Stein becoming a starter, Poythress has slid over to the three position in UK's big lineup. After he came off the bench against Louisville and played just 15 minutes, Calipari has been working with Poythress individually and the freshman has averaged 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in the four games since.
"His growth is going to be step by step," Calipari said. "There's not going to be (big) movement 'til next month. Everything with Alex will be step by step. And they're baby steps right now. That's OK. That's where he is."
If Calipari had his choice, Poythress's baby steps with Cauley-Stein out would be on the glass. Cauley-Stein is averaging 7.0 rebounds a game dating back to the beginning of December, meaning Nerlens Noel will need some help on the boards from Poythress, particularly if he plays more at the four. Should Poythress play more as a big man, that could create an opportunity for Hood to join the rotation. The junior returned to practice on Thursday after a long battle with upper respiratory illness.
Without Cauley-Stein, UK's rotation will lack a long, gifted athlete in the short term. The goal, however, remains the same.
"I got a great call from a coaching friend of mine last night saying, 'Look, you're so close to it. Your team - individual players and your team - is getting better. Just keep on the path,' " Calipari said. "That's all we're going to do. I'm not worried about any other team in the country. All I'm worried about is my team getting better."
What has been talked about far less frequently has been the Wildcats' passing balance.
Through 18 games, nine players have racked up double-digit assists, matching last year's 35-game total. As you might expect, UK's point guard - Jennifer O'Neill, leads the way with 44, but she's trailed closely by DeNesha Stallworth (41) and A'dia Mathies (38), the team's two leading scorers.
"I think it speaks to how they feel about each other and how our mentality as a team is right now," Mitchell said. "I just don't sense that they really care about anything more than winning. I don't think they care a whole lot about who is doing what."
The Cats may not care who's responsible on any given night, but UK is averaging 14.2 assists per game, the highest total of the Mitchell era by a wide margin. Already in 2012-13, eight different players have led the team in assists in at least one game as UK (17-1, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) prepares to put a 16-game winning streak on the line against Auburn (13-5, 2-3 SEC) on Sunday at 2 p.m. in Memorial Coliseum.
"I just think it speaks to the chemistry they have created," Mitchell said. "I they care a lot about each other, they are in there playing hard for each other and I don't think they are real worried about statistics."
That unselfishness extends well beyond a simple willingness to pass the ball. With talent at every position, opponents have to choose which Cat to try to limit on offense. As a result, roles change on a nightly basis and usually seamlessly.
Perhaps the best example is Bria Goss.
The guard was named SEC Freshman of the Year last season, finishing as just one of two Wildcats to average double figures in scoring. This year, she has seen her averages dip in points, shot attempts, assists and rebounds, but her importance has only grown.
"I think her value for our team is off the charts," Mitchell said.
She may not be relied on to score as often due to the emergence of Stallworth, O'Neill and Samarie Walker, but don't let the statistics fool you. She is a better player than a year ago and it begins on defense. In fact, UK's defense begins with her.
"She starts our defense against every opponent, no matter who they have, she is the person that gets it all started for us and we identify ourselves with tenacious defense," Mitchell said. "She is the most tenacious right now and so her role is invaluable, her contributions are invaluable and we wouldn't be close to the team we are now without her."
With her tenacity in guarding opposing point guards, Goss has come to exemplify an honor Mitchell has begun giving out after each game. To the players who best show the ferocity and aggressiveness he calls for, Mitchell gives the "Junkyard Dog Award." The award is emblazoned with the Junkyard Dog himself - a favorite professional wrestler of Mitchell - and inspired by real-life junkyard dogs.
"If you're stealing some parts off a car to put some change in your pocket, the junkyard dog does not allow that," Mitchell said. "The junkyard dog is going to tear your tail up if you get in there."
Goss was one of three players recognized for her efforts during the Missouri game and is likely to be a candidate every game the rest of the season.
"I just want to play the roles that I'm given on the team," Goss said. "If it's a night where I need to be the junkyard dog to their point guard, then that's what I need to do. It's not always easy."
Accepting that has been an adjustment for the former McDonald's All-American though.
"It definitely has just because in high school and even some last year I was more of a go-to person," Goss said. "Like I said, I gotta play the role that I need to on the team. If that's being able to shut down their point guard and getting other people open looks then that's what's gonna happen."
However, it's not as if Goss's scoring has evaporated. She is third on the team at 9.3 points and 7.9 shots per game. She has scored in double figures 10 times in 18 outings and Mitchell believes there's one simple way she can put even more points on the board.
"She is altering too many shots in and around the basket and we are talking to her about it and trying to work her way through it," Mitchell said. "She missed one last night that she missed. Nobody made her miss it."
Goss can also benefit from the talent around her. Mathies and Stallworth each rank in the top 10 in scoring in the SEC, which means Goss usually won't be the top priority on any opponent's scouting report.
"She may be down on the list, and that's good for Kentucky because she would be a player if you overlook her, she is going to burn you," Mitchell said. "We are in a good spot right now with our roster and our players and if you overlook Bria Goss, that probably isn't going to be very good for you."
As UK prepares to start its season on Sunday, Kauffmann is in a different position. No longer is he a player getting ready for one singles and one doubles match or an assistant coach working behind the scenes to prepare his team.
This time, it's Kauffmann coming up with practice plans. It's Kauffmann making the final decisions on the lineup. For the first time, it's Kauffmann serving as head coach.
He conceded that it does feel different, but he isn't allowing the scope of his task to get the better of him. Kauffmann knows that the only way to replace a legend like Dennis Emery is by focusing on the present.
"My only concern right now is Northern Kentucky and after the match is over I'll take the next match," Kauffmann said. "I think I would feel a little bit more pressure if I looked at it as the whole season, but I can only take it one day at a time."
UK, ranked No. 9 in the preseason, will welcome Northern Kentucky at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday and Morehead State at 5 p.m. The doubleheader is the start of an indoor season that will call on the Wildcats to play five matches in less than a week, the team's first action in more than two months since the fall season ended. With matches against top-25 opponents looming, Kauffmann will be looking for focus above all else as it begins the season at the Boone Tennis Center.
"I know they always come out for big matches, if we're playing a top-five team, a top-10 team. What we've done well in the past is keep that intensity whether we're playing a top-five, top-10, top-50, top-80 team," Kauffmann said. "What I'm looking for in the guys that play this weekend is their intensity and the level of play they're going to be at no matter what's across the net."
If practice is any indication, that shouldn't be a problem.
"We're working hard. We just had three great days of practice on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday," Kauffmann said. "We did some boring stuff, we call it 'meat and potatoes,' and they just responded really well and they're helping each other go through the tough practices."
Even so, it's impossible to guarantee anything having lost Eric Quigley and Alex Musialek off last year's Southeastern Conference championship team. The two departed players are among the most decorated in school history and served as the emotional center of the team.
Now, the only senior on the roster is Anthony Rossi, ranked 94th nationally in singles. Like his coach, he is stepping into a new role. He'll be called on to lead more than in the past, something that shouldn't be too much to ask considering his relationship with the coach who recruited him and with whom he shares a French background.
"We talk a lot and we get along pretty well," Rossi said. "We share the same values and we have pretty much the same vision on the court and off the court."
In fact, Kauffmann is so sure of how much the senior captain cares about the success of his team that he is cautioning Rossi against shouldering too much of a burden.
"I think sometimes he maybe puts too much pressure on himself to carry the load of the team and take care of everybody," Kauffmann said. "I told him, 'Listen, you've got one doubles, one singles. That's one-and-a-half points, take care of those.' "
The good news for Rossi is that he knows he doesn't have to do it alone.
"I'm not the only leader on the team. I think we have some great leaders and I'm not the only one," Rossi said, citing juniors Tom Jomby, Alejandro Gomez, Panav Jha and Maks Gold.
Rossi was limited at times during the fall due to injury, but is now healthy. Kauffmann knows it will take some time to get in the swing of things, but he couldn't be more confident about how good Rossi will be when he does.
"I know he's going to put pressure on himself through the beginning of the season, but once he gets his groove I think he'll be just fine," Kauffmann said. "He's one of the best players in the country. I know it. He knows it. He just has to feel it on the court and it's coming."
Even when Rossi does reach that point and is winning his one-and-a-half points a match regularly, the rest of the team will be responsible for the other two-and-a-half needed to win. This weekend's doubleheader will be a chance for some trial and error when it comes to the UK lineup, but no matter how it shakes out, the newcomers are going to be called on.
Five of the 12 players on the roster are in their first college season: freshmen Kevin Lai, Juan Pablo Murra, Beck Pennington and Michael Binder and sophomore Brett Johnson. It remains to be seen just how much of a role they play, but they will need to produce for the Cats to fulfill their expectations.
During the fall, the newest Cats flashed plenty of potential. More importantly, they demonstrated humility and the ability to listen.
"Whatever the upperclassmen told them to do, they did. Whatever the coaching staff told them to do, they did," Kauffmann said. "I'm as proud with this freshman class as any since I've been here. They do whatever they can to get better, so I'm expecting some big things."
Demanding big things might be more like it.
"I tell my freshmen the fall for them was their freshman year," Kauffmann said. "Now they should be acting like sophomores. I don't want to talk about freshman mistakes again."
Kauffmann is asking his newcomers to go from willing listeners to active participants. Rossi and his fellow upperclassmen might have been part of it for longer, but Kauffmann is telling the youngest Cats that they must take ownership of their program too. Within a couple years, it will be those players responsible for leading and sustaining the momentum of a very successful past for the men's tennis program, with Kauffmann's guidance of course.
"We've created, Coach Emery and I, in the last couple years a good culture," Kauffmann said. "We still have that. The only way that goes away is if I don't do a good job recruiting or if I don't do a good job with my practices and my guys."
Fast forward to 2013, and Drada is just looking to get his team back into a competitive realm in the Southeastern Conference.
Drada had known nothing but success for his program after spending four years as a UK assistant and reaching five consecutive Sweet 16s. However, after his first four seasons, the program suffered a stretch of setbacks
"It was basically three injuries we had in 2009 and 2010, and they were career-ending injuries," said Drada. "Usually you have one of those every five years, but to have three in a year and a half is just devastating, especially when the players were top of the line."
With the struggles came some transfers out of the program. Drada and his staff were faced with the challenge of bringing in young talent to fill some holes in the program. It's been a gradual rebuilding process up to this point.
The top players lost to injury or transfer were upperclassmen and players that were expected to be leaders to show the younger players the ropes. With them gone, the freshmen and sophomores were placed in the tough position to figure things out on their own at practice and during competition.
This season, Drada is stressing to his team to give "100 percent effort 100 percent of the time." In fact, that's been the Wildcats' motto this season both on and off the court. Teaching freshmen to give that type of effort is a lot more difficult when there aren't others to show them the way.
"When you are a young freshman, you learn by example," said Drada. "You learn from your upperclassmen doing it. When there aren't a lot of upperclassmen doing it, then it's harder than when the majority is. At one point, we had five freshmen, so it was very tough to make that transition."
This season, however, two freshmen could be the key to this season's success. Kirsten Lewis and Nadia Ravita are expected to make a big impact in the starting lineup. Ravita is the highest nationally ranked player on the team at No. 78 joining 117th-ranked junior Caitlin McGraw as the only ranked Wildcats this season. It's the first time that Kentucky has had two ranked players in the lineup since 2006.
That season, Kentucky reached the SEC Tournament final.
Though the freshmen have been impressive in their brief time at Kentucky and performed well in the fall, it remains to be seen just how effective they will be when it comes to team competition.
"I'm just very interested in seeing how our freshmen are going to be able to compete at a different venue," said Drada. "All they've competed in is individual tournaments, so I'm interested to see how they handle that pressure."
Their first challenge comes this weekend in a Saturday doubleheader at the Boone Tennis Center when UK hosts Morehead State and Belmont. But there will be several more difficult challenges, not only for the freshmen, but the collective team down the road.
The SEC boasts six top-25 teams, including three top-10 squads. It has seen the competition level continue to rise year after year. Kentucky's biggest challenge is keeping up with the times while trying to stay competitive in the conference.
Last season, UK only managed one victory in the SEC. The Wildcats were competitive in several of those matches, but time after time they had trouble sealing the deal in the end. Drada's goal is to be at least a .500 team in the conference and go from there.
"We're going to start with that," said Drada. "More than that, I want my players to compete on every court. If they do that, they are capable of beating 70 to 80 percent of the players they play against. But it has to be pure competition every day that they go out there."
Drada has learned more about himself in defeat than he ever had in victory. He has learned more about himself as a person. It's made him better.
"The beautiful thing is that it has allowed me to learn a lot of things about coaching, adversity and having to come back," said Drada. "What I know is that has given me a better understanding of being in the top of the nation and having a high ranking."
Now, Drada feels that he's rebuilt his program with the type of people and competitors that he knows can make a difference for this team. Slowly but surely, Drada hopes to turn the page on the last three years to restore his program to where it was during his first four years on the job.
"The good thing now is that I know exactly what I want and what I do not want," said Drada. "We keep looking for the players that we want to bring into this team and the players who have a better affinity to meet the standards we try to reach each day. We're hoping that by following these standards, 10 years from now they are going to be better at whatever they are doing at that time."
Drada knows that because this program has had plenty of success in the last decade - success that he's helped produce and seen with his own eyes - Kentucky can reach that level again. He knows the Cats have all the tools they need to win at their disposal.
Now, it's time to put it all together and win some matches. Kentucky feels that it's better at every position than it was heading into 2012. The Cats will get an early indication if that's the case this Saturday. Either way, Drada is confident in the future of his program.
"As the level of the SEC has risen, it's tough to maintain that standard, but I know we're going to get there," said Drada. "We're doing really well. Now we know exactly what we need and what we want for this program.
"We're doing a great job in recruiting and it's going to show in the years to follow."
There are times when recruiting is a face-to-face game but offensive coordinator Neal Brown says other means of contacting prospects are a big part of the job.
"It's all about relating to the kids and there's not a whole of phone communication. It's more Twitter and Facebook. You've got to communicate your message through those media, through videos or pictures," Brown said on "The Leach Report" radio show. "You've got to communicate your message in a variety of ways to get it through and they have a short attention span, so you better grab them within the first 30 seconds or so. It's still about relationships and getting them on campus. I think we have the top city in the SEC, our campus is beautiful and the fan support is off the charts. It's our job to engage them (prospects) early, relate to them on their level and I think we can get that done."
Auburn finding shooting touch
I don't know what exactly Santa Claus delivered to the Auburn basketball team but it had something to do with their collective shooting eye.
At Christmas, the Tigers were 5-6, having just lost at home to Winthrop. Since, Tony Barbee's club has won three of five games with the only losses coming against Illinois (by two in Chicago) and at Arkansas (in double overtime).
During that five-game stretch, an Auburn team shooting 43.5 percent from the field for the season has hit 48 percent or better in three of those games and has been 50 percent or better in each of the last two. And the Tigers are averaging eight three-pointers per game over this five-game stretch versus an average of six per game in the previous 11 outings.
Twice in the last five games (and three times for the season), Auburn has made 11 3s in a single game.
UK a second-half team on the glass
Kentucky had one of its better rebounding performances in the win over a physical Tennessee team, after having been out-boarded in the previous two games.
But there's one rebounding stat that trended the Cats' way for a long time now.
Maryland is the only team to out-rebound UK in the second half of a game.
And here's a stat that speaks to the importance of starting fast: UK is 11-0 this season when leading at halftime and finished with a 32-0 mark in that department last year.
The last time the Cats lost a game in which they led at halftime was on February 1, 2011, when a 35-34 lead turned into a last-second loss at Ole Miss. That's a streak of 51 consecutive games.
Ford on Oklahoma State point guard
One item that didn't make it into our story on former Cat Travis Ford's reflections on the 1993 Final Four team was his assessment of Marcus Smart.
The rookie point guard has been universally praised for his play through the first half of the season and Ford says he is a "special player."
"He is kind of a throwback, an old school player. His greatness comes from playing hard and making everyone around him a better player. He is all about winning, that is all he cares about. He doesn't care about how many points he scores or things like that, he just cares about winning. Every drill we do, he wants to be the best at. He wants his team to win," Ford continued. "He leads us in so many different categories - steals, assists, rebounding and he can score the basketball. He is a special player, there is not many that come along and can affect the game in so many areas and he plays point guard for us at six-four, so he is a big presence for a point guard but his attitude and work ethic is unmatched."
Led by head coach Jomo Thompson, the cheerleaders brought the title back home to Lexington in 2012 after seeing their bid for a four-peat undone by Alabama in 2011. This year, the Wildcats will be looking to extend their latest streak to two championships. UK has won 19 of the 28 UCA national championships dating back to 1985 and 15 in the last 18 season, an unprecedented level of dominance for a program steeped in tradition.
The UK dance team will be at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., competing in both the hip hop and pom dance categories. The event begins on Friday, but the UK cheer and dance teams will not perform until Saturday.
According to the schedule published by the UCA, the Division IA pom and hip hop dance semifinals will take place at 8:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., respectively. The cheerleaders will compete at 6 p.m. on Saturday in the Division IA semifinals. Finals for all three competitions are on Sunday.
Make sure you follow @UKAthleticsNews on Twitter for updates as results come in, particularly beginning at about 7:30 p.m. when results are announced and stay tuned for a story here on Cat Scratches late on Sunday evening. If you are interested in finding other ways to follow along, check out this page on the UCA website.
The Cats allowed for no such last-minute drama on Thursday night against Mississippi State.
"We're really pleased tonight to get a victory and certainly proud of our players," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "They worked really hard and played real hard and it was a good night for us."
A good night indeed.
No. 5 Kentucky (17-1, 5-0) dominated in all facets against the Bulldogs (8-10, 0-5 SEC) en route to a 100-47 win, UK's largest margin of victory in SEC play ever. DeNesha Stallworth and A'dia Mathies led the way for the Cats, tallying 25 and 21 points respectively and nearly combining to outscore the visitors on their own.
The night was particularly gratifying for Stallworth, who had a season-high scoring performance with her father Chris in attendance. He made the trek from Stallworth's hometown of Richmond, Calif., delighting his daughter - a self-proclaimed "daddy's girl" - after playing a central role in her ultimate decision to transfer to Kentucky.
"I'm just very excited for him to be here and for me to do good really means a lot," Stallworth said.
Stallworth, however, was far from the UK player to excel. Bria Goss (13 points) and Kastine Evans (12) joined her and Mathies in double figures as the Cats shot 50 percent (37 of 74) from the field and topped the century mark for the second time this season. UK scored 35 of its points off 26 offensive rebounds while dominating the glass to the tune of a 46-20 margin.
"I think we just jumped pretty high today," Mathies said with a smile. "We just got it done. We were attacking the boards relentlessly tonight and we just played a good game."
Mitchell believes the reason UK ended up playing such a good game was because the Cats didn't assume it would happen. A look at the SEC standings and the teams' rosters would have led anyone to conclude Kentucky had an advantage going in and the Cats weren't isolated from that fact.
"We thought that we had clearly an advantage tonight in the game from size and speed and athleticism," Mitchell said. "I just tell them simple things like this: The only was anybody's going to know that is if you go do it."
The path to executing began with a little homework.
"The thing I loved more than probably anything was the way they prepared," Mitchell said. "They were really sharp preparing for this game. And we were 4-0 coming in and Mississippi State was 0-4 and I didn't detect that that was really a factor in their preparation."
In the early going, the Bulldogs played like they hadn't paid any attention to the teams' records either. With 9:10 left in the first half, a Kendra Grant and-one cut UK's lead to five points. The Cats didn't bat an eye.
"We know we're going to get everybody's best shot the first four minutes or the first couple four-minute segments of every game. ... We felt like if we just continued to keep playing great defense and keep doing the things we should have been doing, we'd eventually break the lead open," Mathies said.
With a 43-9 burst that closed the first half and spanned the first 4:48 of the first half, the Cats did just that. Once the outcome was well in hand, UK didn't relent as it built the lead over the final 15-plus minutes even as the starters sat out the final five minutes.
"That's the thing that's impressed me most about this team lately is they're just hustling," Mitchell said. "They're really hustling and it sounds very simple and it is simple, but it's not easy to do."
The No. 14-ranked UK gymnastics team is on a historic pace. Kentucky's season opening score of 195.125 at California-Berkeley was the highest season-opening score in program history. The Wildcats took down the No. 13 and No. 19 teams in the country that weekend.
Last weekend, Kentucky did something it had not done since 1999. Facing Southeastern Conference foe Auburn for the second consecutive weekend, UK ran its record to 2-0 against the Tigers for the season and picked up their first SEC road win since the 1999 season.
Just two meets in with their third slated for Friday night's Excite Night at the Kentucky Classic and Kentucky is already rewriting program record books.
The athletes are enjoying it every step of the way. Breaking records and snapping streaks are not what the Cats set out for, but when they do, they embrace their success. Typically, however, they simply just go out and take care of business. What happens as a result is all gravy.
"We don't really factor in the history," said junior Kayla Hartley. "Really, we just do what we do. If we keep doing that, we're going to keep breaking more records."
Hartley is one of four juniors, the veterans on a team with no competing seniors and 11 sophomores and freshmen. On the floor, she's been one of the shining stars of the first two meets. She earned a career-high in the floor exercise at Cal-Berkeley with a 9.9. She performed another career-high routine on the uneven bars with a 9.75.
As she and her teammates continue to put up career numbers, the confidence, in both themselves and in one another, continues to grow.
"It's really exciting," said Hartley. "For me personally, just knowing where that hard work is coming from and it's paying off. Just to see the other girls achieve their goals and to see all their hard work during the preseason and in summer and everything to come together has been great."
The career-high numbers were bound to come. Kentucky boasts a youthful team with little experience. Even the juniors, who have spent two seasons competing in college, are finally getting comfortable with performing at an SEC level.
While Kentucky has seen its ranking jump from preseason No. 25 up 11 spots to No. 14, there is still plenty of room for improvement. That may not have been the case for past UK gymnastics teams, but this one is shooting for the stars.
"Even though we've been doing so well, I feel like we can do much better than we have been doing," said junior Audrey Harrison. "I'm excited for the rest of the season because I think we'll get even higher scores at every meet."
Harrison has seen that happen so far in each of the first two meets, specifically at Auburn when she earned a 39.2 to win the all-around competition with a 9.775 on the uneven bars, 9.8 on both the vault and balance beam, and a 9.85 on floor exercise.
Last year, in head coach Tim Garrison's first season, the team didn't know what to expect as the athletes and coaches were still working to learn more about each other. Last season, Kentucky hoped to do well. This season, doing well is an expectation.
"We were expecting to do well or even better than what we did because we practice so hard," said Harrison. "We do a lot of pressure sets in the gym so we know we can hit, so we expect to hit at the meets."
Performing under pressure was particularly hard last season considering UK's youth. Still a young team this season, the Cats have much more experience under their belts.
That experience, particularly considering schedule that Kentucky faces going up against the elite teams the SEC has to offer, has helped UK become what it is today. While Garrison and his staff try their best to replicate the pressure and simulate a competitive atmosphere, nothing can match the experience gained by performing where the lights shine the brightest.
"It's the experience of competing in front of the crowds and the fans and all the nerves that come with competing," said Hartley. "We can simulate it in the gym, but once you get out on the main floor, it's still different. Also, experience with knowing that you can do it inside the practice gym and taking it out onto the competition floor as well."
The practice sessions have certainly helped though. Both Hartley and Harrison harped on the fact that this team came into the season more prepared than in any in the past. Summer and preseason workouts with purpose and precision have led to results. But it's also been the competitive nature of the workouts that have brought out the best in one another.
With the depth as great as it's been in the UK gymnastics program in some time, the competitive spirit shows up not only on the day of the meet, but also in the practice gym. With starting lineup spots up for grabs, everyone is giving their best efforts, and it's making the team that much better.
"The competition within each other is developing big time," said Hartley. "I've noticed it this year so much more than any year that I've been here. You can tell that people want the lineup spots this year and we're fighting for them."
As Kentucky continues to progress through the early stages of its 2013 schedule, it will need to continue to build on what they bring each week. Garrison has made it a point of emphasis for his team to be as consistent as possible to pick up some of the tenths of points he thinks his team is leaving out on the floor.
Kentucky has the chance to take down another ranked opponent Friday night when the Cats welcome SEC opponent and No. 9 ranked Arkansas to Lexington, Ky. In seasons past Hartley may have looked at Arkansas and been overwhelmed by her completion. These days the emphasis on Kentucky.
"I just take care of what I need to do," said Hartley. "I don't really pay attention to who I'm competing against. I just do what I need to do and do it for the team and hope for the best."
Kentucky continues to look ahead to where they can go without spending much time on what they've done in the past. Though the Cats need to understand the mistakes they've made in their first two meets, their main focus is on how to correct them in the future. With a great emphasis on consistency, the Wildcats feel like they still have room to grow.
"We just have to keep doing what we're doing and not give away any tenths by sticking landings and tight knees," said Harrison. "Just keep doing that and we'll get better every meet."
Two seasons and two NIT trips later, Mitchell realized he needed to change the game. He turned to a fast-paced, high-pressure brand of basketball before the 2009-10 season and his inventiveness paid off.
Three seasons, three NCAA Tournament trips and two Elite Eight bids later, Mitchell changed the game again, though not nearly so drastically. The Wildcats are taking a step back toward the traditional.
"For so many years what we had was really four guards and an undersized post, so this is much closer to maybe what I started out envisioning when I first got in Kentucky," Mitchell said.
Out to a 16-1 start and in the midst of a school-record 15-game winning streak heading into a Thursday matchup with Mississippi State at 7 p.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats' success is largely due to DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker. At 6-foot-3 and 6-1, respectively, Stallworth and Walker have combined to form a post duo the likes of which UK has never had during the Mitchell era.
"This is the first time we've really used two posts consistently throughout the whole year," A'dia Mathies said. "Eventually by this time or way before, we would have had me, Kastine (Evans) or Maegan (Conwright) or somebody at the four position making it a quicker game."
Instead, the two transfers are playing a combined 50.2 minutes per game and 56.3 in UK's four Southeastern Conference wins, but it's not as if Stallworth and Walker are plodding oafs. They are more than capable of functioning in a full-court game, which is good because Mitchell is by no means turning away from "40 minutes of dread."
"We still have that dimension of athleticism with Samarie and DeNesha that is not as traditional as maybe some of the teams we have had here in the past," Mitchell said. "It is closer, but I still like our ability to disrupt other teams and you really need mobile post players that can get out on the floor and defend and they can truly do that in my mind."
The difference this year is that the Cats don't have to rely on the shock associated with going up against their pressure defense to win games. UK is forcing 25.5 turnovers per game this year - 1.3 fewer than last season - but allowing just 52.1 points per game - 7.4 fewer than 2011-12. Last season, Kentucky's opponents committed fewer than 20 turnovers in a game just six times and the Cats lost two of their seven games when it happened. This season, it's happened in three of UK's last four games, but the Cats have won all three.
Mitchell is calling for his team to trap in the full court less often this season because he has never had so much faith in the Cats' ability to contest shots and rebound.
"I think this is what Coach was looking for every year, we just couldn't do it because he didn't as feel as comfortable having other people on the court," Mathies said. "Now that he does and people are stepping up this year, this is our identity."
UK is holding its opponents to 36.7-percent shooting from the field, a marked improvement from 41.1 percent last season. Moreover, UK is blocking 5.2 shots a game after averaging just 3.7 last year. On the glass, Kentucky has an average margin of +5.7, more than double last season's average of +2.8.
"We are still very good defensively as far as disrupting you and applying pressure and making it tough on you to score," Mitchell said. "We just used to have to turn you over a million times and shoot a bunch of layups to win."
Though that led to unprecedented success over the last three seasons, Mitchell also said it played a role in UK's inability to advance past the Elite Eight against Oklahoma in 2010 and Connecticut in 2012. In those two games, the Cats forced just 39 turnovers and scored 10 fast-break points combined.
"What we found as we progressed deeper into the season was that we would run into teams that could handle the pressure and could put some pressure on you," Mitchell said. "Then it became a situation on who could score."
Fielding the most efficient and diverse offense of his UK tenure, Mitchell is hoping the Cats can break through that Elite-Eight wall.
"I think that hopefully we are built a little bit better for a deeper run because this group is very talented offensively," Mitchell said.
Mathies believes a defense that can adapt to a more traditional game while maintaining elements of pressure will help with that too.
"It's a whole different dynamic," she said. "We're doing less trapping actually, but we incorporate more defensive schemes, which I think will be very effective down the road. We can't play one style of ball and expect to win. You gotta be very versatile and I think that we're doing that. We're able to compete with different styles of play and different players and how they play."
If you haven't already, join head coach Mark Stoops in the movement by following @BBNunited on Twitter.
The spring game is set for Saturday, April 13 at 7:00 p.m. Let's pack CWS for the first of many times in 2013. #WeAreUK-- Mark Stoops (@UKCoachStoops) January 16, 2013
The event will serve as the centerpiece of UK's spring practice schedule as well as the first chance for fans to get a glimpse of Stoops first Wildcat team. Further plans won't be announced until later and some kept secret until the day of, but this year's spring game figures to be one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory.
Fans will also have the chance to make April 13 a Big Blue Saturday as both the softball and baseball teams are in action at home that day. Softball will take on Florida at 1 p.m., while the baseball team will face Tennessee at 2 p.m.
Having no won no fewer than 29 games in any of those seasons, reached three Final Fours and won a national championship, Calipari's expected - much like UK fans - to do much the same with his latest squad, though it was his most inexperienced to date.
It's taken a couple months, but he's reached a point of peace with the fact that this team is different.
"In the last seven, eight years, I have coached teams that have absolutely whomped on people," Calipari said after a 75-65 victory over Tennessee. "And this ain't one of 'em."
Without realizing it, Calipari forgot how to coach something other than a juggernaut. It may have taken a little longer than he would have liked, but Coach Cal is beginning to remember.
"Every game we are going to be in is going to be a dogfight, and instead of going crazy about it, how about just accept it, right, and coach that way?" Calipari said.
For the fourth time in five outings, the Wildcats found themselves mired in a close game in crunch time on Tuesday, and that's what caused it all to sink in for Calipari. Against Louisville, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, breakdowns and lapses in concentration plagued Kentucky, leading to runs for the opponent, two coming in the final minutes and leading to losses.
On Tuesday, Coach Cal accepted the inevitability of such moments, opting instead to try to lead his team through them.
"I can't imagine this team being up 20 on anybody, because you get up 12, 15, someone will try to steal a ball; they will foul; they will leave their feet," Calipari said.
Sure enough, the Cats were poised to put away the Volunteers after a Nerlens Noel and-one gave them an eight-point lead with 14:33 to play. Kyle Wiltjer then came up with a block and rebound to create a fast-break opportunity for Archie Goodwin. He raced down the floor before leaving his feet to pass to Julius Mays in the corner for an open 3. Mays drilled the shot, but it was nullified by a charging call on Goodwin, the exact kind of mistake Calipari has come to view as inevitable.
"We have been working on him to jump, stop; jump stop," Calipari said. "So he goes driving down the lane, left his feet and threw a wide open pass to the corner. ... But we work every day on jump stops, so there are things that, you know, these guys are growing with."
Of course, Tennessee capitalized, eventually taking a 54-53 lead with just over seven minutes to play. Yet again it was, in Calipari's words, "gut time." This time, however, the Cats didn't wilt.
Just as he tried in vain to do against A&M, Noel sparked his team. With UK trailing for the first time since late in the first half, he hit the first of two free throws before dunking home his own miss. On his way down the court, he showed the kind of fire that makes him perhaps the best candidate to step into his team's leadership void.
"I'm definitely being more vocal with my team, making sure we're on our Ps and Qs and making sure we're together," Noel said.
Leadership is a work in progress for Noel, but he's all the way there in terms of posting unique statistical lines. He did it again against a bruising Vol frontcourt with his 12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, four steals and two assists while helping to force UT forward Jarnell Stokes to foul out in just 15 minutes of playing time.
"He's a tremendous player and when he's at his best, we're at our best," Wiltjer said. "If he just keeps it up, we're going to be a great team."
The lone columns that remained unfilled in Noel's line score on Tuesday were 3-pointers made and attempted. That's where Wiltjer and Mays came in.
After Noel had inspired the Cats and the Rupp crowd, it was UK's two best outside threats that put UK firmly in control. Mays drilled a pair of 3s in less than a minute - accounting for six of his nine points - to give Kentucky a six-point lead with just over four minutes left.
After Jordan McRae, who led all scorers with 23 points, cut the lead to four heading to the final media timeout, Wiltjer then did something he's never done before.
"You know what's great about Kyle, for the first time since he's been here, he told me to run a play for him, which I absolutely did," Calipari said.
Wiltjer responded by beating his man for a driving layup. His confidence buoyed, he called for the ball once more, drilling a long 2-pointer. From that point forward, UK would lead by no fewer than six points.
"The last couple days we've been running some new plays and they were for me for getting shots," said Wiltjer, who scored a game-high 17 points and hit a pair of 3s. "I knew we had put them in so I just looked over and called it and we ran it."
Calipari installed those plays for exactly those kinds of high-leverage situations because he expects the next two months of Southeastern Conference play to bring plenty more close games. He told his team in the postgame locker room that he's come to grips with the new reality that UK isn't going to be a team that racks up blow out wins.
His players agree, but only to a certain extent.
"We can kind of use that as motivation because we want to be a team that can whomp down on people," Wiltjer said. "There's some things holding us back and we break down, but we're still early in the season. We're a young team so if we just keep improving I think we can."
That's exactly what Coach Cal wants to hear.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress
Freshman center Nerlens Noel
It had only been five years since the last Final Four trip when probation hit the UK program in 1989. At that point, no one knew how long it might take to get Kentucky's program back to its customary elite level.As it turned out, not nearly as long as many thought.
Fueled by "The Unforgettables," the '92 Cats came within one infamous Christian Laettner shot of returning to college basketball's promised land. But a year later, they took the next step.
Oklahoma State coach and Madisonville, Ky., native Travis Ford was the point guard for that club and I recently asked him if the players on the team at that time were able to realize how much that season meant to the UK fan base.
"Yes, we did," Ford acknowledged. "We felt the expectations and excitement around the basketball team and it was not easy to live up to expectations but I think that team really did it. We made it to the Final Four with the record we had and only losing four games that season and winning the SEC and things like that it was an exciting year for everybody.
"It's been a long time. It was a lot of fun games and a lot hard work, but a lot of fond memories, a lot of great memories and great teammates," he added. "It was an absolutely enjoyable year. We had a really good team, a lot of big games and us making it to the Final Four is always a dream of any college basketball player."
An 11-0 start sparked those high expectations and it included an 88-68 rout of rival Louisville in a matchup of teams ranked in the top 10. The Cats' leader, Jamal Mashburn, was sensational, scoring 27 points and grabbing seven rebounds in 31 minutes at Freedom Hall.
A dose of "Memorial Magic" handed the Wildcats their first setback (101-86) on January 13 at Vanderbilt but they responded with six straight wins, before a seven-point loss at Arkansas - at a time when the Hogs were battling UK for the title of the SEC's best.
The only other loss on the way to the Final Four came at Tennessee in late February, on an unusual four-point play. But the Cats got a healthy dose of payback in the SEC Tournament with a 101-40 rout at Rupp Arena.
From there, UK's closest call was in the next SEC Tourney game, an 11-point revenge win over Arkansas. In the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, UK won by margins of 44, 21, 34 and 25 and took the role of favorite into the Final Four at the New Orleans Superdome.
Michigan, in year two of the "Fab Five," edged Kentucky in overtime 81-78 - a game which saw the Cats lose starting guard Dale Brown to second-half injury and Mashburn to fouls. I will always believe Kentucky would have won the title if not for those unfortunate breaks and as you might expect, Ford agrees.
"We have talked about that often. There were two things that happened. Dale Brown was off to his best game of his career and was diving for a loose ball and ran his shoulder into one of the media tables and he was out of the game while he was having an incredible game. Then, obviously when Jamal fouled out, that made it tough for the rest of us but if he hadn't fouled out, I think it would have been a completely different story," Ford said.
What does he remember most about that season?
"I think the first thing that stands out is that as a team, we all got along extremely well. We were close and when your best player is Jamal Mashburn and your hardest working player is the nicest guy on the team and everyone loved him, that really stands out," Ford noted. "Coming out of the SEC Tournament, winning the SEC Tournament and then going into the NCAA and how well we were playing going into the Final Four and the margin of victory, it really stands out."
Ford recalled how hard head coach Rick Pitino pushed them to reach their goals and how good it felt to get there. Those lessons helped shape the kind of coach Ford became.
"There is a lot of things that I was taught by Coach Pitino that I still use today. First and foremost is how hard I coach at it and how hard my assistant coaches go at it," Ford said. "I try and tell my players, what I put them through, I have been through it and more playing for Coach Pitino."
Ford's current Oklahoma State team stands at 11-3 and was ranked in the top 25 for much of the first two months of the season.
"It is not how you start, it is how you finish. And we have extremely tough teams in the Big 12. We have some really, really good basketball teams in this league and some tough places to play," said Ford. "We play six guys and three freshmen in our top six, so we are a relatively young basketball team but we play hard, play great defense but still have a lot of room for improvement."
"I hate zone," Calipari said. "I hate it."
His opinion might stem from a notion he conceived as a player and young assistant about how basketball should be played, but he has plenty of evidence to back it up too. Playing man-to-man almost exclusively, Calipari-coached teams have had more than their fair share of success.
"We've won a lot of games, a lot of league championships, a lot of league tournament championships, a lot of NCAA games playing man. ... I know that's the best way to do it," Calipari said.
There aren't many things Coach Cal is more certain of than the superiority of man defense, but one of them is causing him to consider going against one of his core beliefs.
"But I also know, more than anything else, I want this team to have a chance to win," Calipari said. "So I've got to look at everything...and be honest about it and not worry about me because it's not about me. This is about this team."
In Kentucky's home loss to Texas A&M on Saturday, the Wildcats spent extended time in an attacking zone defense. The move was prompted in part by the play of Elston Turner, the Aggie who lit up the Cats for 40 points. Coach Cal had tried having Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin and even Willie Cauley-Stein guard Turner, but nothing worked.
In past years, the answer would have been simple. If a perimeter player like Turner caught fire against last year's team, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist raised his hand and asked for the assignment. Two seasons ago, it was DeAndre Liggins. The year before it was any one of Liggins, John Wall or Eric Bledsoe. This season, no such defensive stopper has emerged.
"When a team gets on a run, if you don't have a guy that just says, 'Let me guard him,' that's a difference," Calipari said.
Coach Cal mentioned Archie Goodwin first when he was asked about who could become that kind of stopper, and Goodwin certainly tried on Saturday. After Turner had poured in 25 first-half points, Goodwin drew the assignment to begin the second. For 10 minutes, Goodwin held him in check. Turner hit just two free throws during the stretch, missing both of his field-goal attempts. Unfortunately, that's when fatigue kicked in and Turner scored 15 points over the final 9:35.
"He should have been out and I left him in there trying to finish out the game," Calipari said. "The last five minutes, we're up four and he just dies on screens and gets beat and he couldn't sustain it. Well he shouldn't have been in the game that long. That's not his fault, that's my fault."
Zone could help combat that.
"The zone we're playing is a real active one, trying to just get them to run around and be probably more active than they would be if they were playing man-to-man," Calipari said.
According to Calipari, the Cats have practiced zone over the last two weeks more than all of his past teams combined. However, there's no way of knowing whether UK (10-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) will play the zone extensively when Tennessee (8-6, 0-2 SEC) comes to town for a matchup at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
One thing that is a given though is that Calipari will be looking for something closer to complete "buy in" from his team. That was Coach Cal's catchphrase of choice on Monday and it means he wants the Cats to first understand their roles, then commit to them fully.
"It may not be the way you want to play and most likely is not the way you've ever played, but the only way you can really trust each other is you know what everybody is doing," Calipari said. "I'm on the basketball court and I know what the other four guys are doing because they've bought in to how we're playing as a team."
It's only that way that the Cats can avoid the crippling runs that have felled them in their five losses this season. UK's highly touted freshmen didn't expect to lose that many games all season, let alone two games into conference play. So, has that led to a newfound sense of urgency among the players?
"There should be," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We'll find out today. We didn't have a contact practice (Sunday). I feel like guys were focused in the film session though. But there should definitely be more sense of urgency."
If Cauley-Stein is right, the Texas A&M loss might just be the "crisis" that Coach Cal always talks about UK needing in order "bring about change." But then again, it may not be. UK is fighting habits formed over years, and that process takes time. Calipari, though, has been through this before and he has an idea of what the finished product will look like.
"If it isn't happening, if you don't change, if you don't recognize and then begin to change, there's not going to be a change on the court," Calipari said. "You just keep getting beat. Again, my vision is there's no one late in the season that's going to want to play this team - if we get it right."
Whether that theoretical version of the Cats plays zone, not even Calipari knows.
• Kentucky dropped its first SEC home opener in the John Calipari era to the hot-shooting Texas A&M Aggies behind a 40-point effort from Elston Turner on Saturday.
• UK freshman Nerlens Noel had his best game in the blue and white with 15 points, 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals. He's the first player in the NCAA to put up those numbers in a single game since 1996-97.
• Sophomore Ryan Harrow scored in double-figures in the sixth-straight game with 14 points, while freshman Archie Goodwin led the squad with 17 points.
• No. 6/6 Kentucky improved to 16-1 overall, 4-0 in the SEC and increased its school-record winning streak to 15 after hard-fought wins over the league's newest members No. 20/21 Texas A&M (65-52) and Missouri (69-43) last week.
• Against the Aggies, the Wildcats rallied from a six-point half time deficit, using its tenacious defense along with the hot shooting of reigning SEC Player of the Year A'dia Mathies and redshirt sophomore point guard Jennifer O'Neill. Mathies hit three of her four 3-pointers in the second half for 11 of her season-high 23 points, while O'Neill added 15 points and a career-high eight assists in the win.
• The Cats traveled to Missouri for the first time in program history on Sunday and again, it was their pressure defense that sealed the victory and snapped the Tigers' 11-game home winning streak. The Tigers, who came into the game leading the nation in 3-pointers made per game with 9.9, were limited to a season-low two 3-pointers. UK also held Missouri's Morgan Eye, the nation's leading 3-point shooter, to just six points and zero treys for the first time this season.
• The University of Kentucky gymnastics team performed solidly on all four events to gather an overall team score of 195.525, in a win at Auburn on Friday night.
• The win was Kentucky's first SEC road victory in a dual meet since 1999, and the first SEC season-opening win since 2008.
• The Wildcats are off to the best start in school history as they've compiled two straight scores more than 195 to begin a season for the first time ever.
• Junior Audrey Harrison posted a 39.2 to win her first career SEC dual all-around competition, and her fifth career all-around title.
• Overall, Kentucky earned 13 season or career-high scores in the meet.
• The Kentucky rifle team won its first match of the spring Sunday with a 4705 - 4687 victory over No. 4 Alaska-Fairbanks.
• Senior Henri Junghänel led the Wildcats with an aggregate score of 1184, delivering a 590 in smallbore to go along with a 594 in air rifle.
• The Wildcats had a strong showing across the board in air rifle with all six shooters breaking the 590 barrier.
Track and field
• Bradley Szypka, Cally Macumber and Darryl Bradshaw dazzled the home crowd in Nutter Field House as all three took event titles on Saturday at the Kentucky Invitational, the Wildcats' first home meet of the season.
• Szypka won the shot put for the second consecutive meet with a personal record of 18:36m/60-03.0, which came on his final throw. The mark gave him the No. 4 shot put in the nation this season as of Saturday evening.
• Macumber won the mile in PR time of 4:42.30, as she pulled away from the field, which included two unattached runners who competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials at 800 meters.
• The cross country All-American's time - in her first run of the indoor season - currently ranks as second-fastest mile in the country this season.
• Bradshaw won the men's 60-meter hurdles in 8:07, while Brandon Bagley took fifth in the event with a time of 8.24.
• Kadeem Kushimo also turned in a PR time of 47.85 in the 400m, which was the best run by a collegiate competitor in the event. The sophomore finished second overall.
Tuesday, Jan. 15
Men's basketball hosts Tennessee - 7:00 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 17
Women's basketball hosts Mississippi State - 7:00 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 18
Track and field at New Mexico Cherry & Silver (Alburquerque, N.M.) - 6:00 p.m.
Gymnastics hosts Arkansas - 7:00 p.m. (Excite Night)
Saturday, Jan. 19
Women's tennis hosts Morehead State - 10:00 a.m.
Track and field at New Mexico Cherry & Silver (Alburquerque, N.M.) - 11:00 a.m.
Women's tennis hosts Belmont - 6:00 p.m.
Men's basketball at Auburn - 9:00 p.m.
Rifle vs. Memphis (Oxford, Miss.)
Sunday, Jan. 20
Men's tennis hosts Northern Kentucky - 11:00 a.m.
Women's basketball hosts Auburn - 2:00 p.m.
Men's tennis hosts Morehead State - 5:00 p.m.
Men's golf at Alumni Match (Palm Beach, Fla.)
Rifle at Ole Miss
Check out what he had to say about his team needing to buy in to what he's selling, as well as a few quotes from UT's head coach.
Opening thoughts ...
"We're playing a Tennessee team that's dropped a couple, but when you watch them play, their perimeter play, obviously they got some guards back. (Jordan) McCrae is really, really talented. Obviously (Jarnell) Stokes is a beast, the player that can score on you inside. I would imagine they're coming in here hyped up and it's going to be a really hard game for us."
On if there will ever be an undefeated team again in college basketball ...
"Yeah, I hope so, and I hope it's us. But it's a very difficult thing. One, you have to have a talented team. Two, you have to have some veterans on that team. And three, they have to be a mentally tough team that's really in tune with each other. In other words, they all have to buy in. That team I had last year, when Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist take your fourth- and fifth-most shots, they bought in to how you have to play to win. That's a difficult thing. Having the most talent, having a few veterans, having them totally tuned in where they've all bought in, that's the challenge. And then you have to have a little luck. You have to have a ball bounce your way here and there. The last few years, if you asked me, there was a North Carolina team that had a chance, maybe a Syracuse team. We had a couple teams that had a chance to do it. I've had a couple opportunities to have teams - a team at Memphis, a team at Massachusetts and a team here - that had a chance, but very difficult."
On next year's team possibly going undefeated ...
"Ha, I'm worried about today's practice. You're talking about next year. Let me just tell you with our team. A good friend of mine, Mike Gottfried was here. Mike's a football coach and a football analyst, and he said the one thing your team (is doing), they're trying, they want to please you and all that, you're coaching them, but there's a little lack of trust, and basically that comes back to buying in. And the trust is between each other where you (don't) take chances, you don't come down and really execute because you're looking at each other and there's not enough trust to really figure out, and all come together and everybody do their job, and no breakdowns the last three minutes. That's what we don't have and that's the challenge I have with this team is to get us to that point where we all buy in, both feet it. Now let's trust each other so we can finish off these games."
On the mood at Rupp coming off a rare loss ...
"I don't know. It's still going to come down to two teams playing, who plays better on that given day. Our fans have been great. The crowd, the game with Texas A&M, our fans, since I've been here, other than maybe a North Carolina game or a Louisville game, something crazy, one versus two, something like that, our crowd with Texas A&M was outstanding. As a matter of fact, our fans gave the (Elston) Turner a kid an ovation when they took him out of the game. It's not the arena. It will be our team. What is the frame of mind of our team? Are we beginning to buy in to how we have to play to finish off people? We've give up runs of 16-1, 16-0, 13-0. From Maryland to Duke, we've done it over and over, and that's what we've got to address, which we've been addressing, but we're not totally bought in yet."
On how to address the recent rebounding problems against Tennessee's frontline ...
"We're going to have trouble. That's one of the issues we'll talk about and deal with. You've got today's practice to get ready for it. We've got to check out better. Some of it is you've just got to be tougher. You're going to have to be more physical because those guys get after it."
On whether it's frustrating that not everyone has bought in by mid-January ...
"Sure, sure. And the only thing that brings about a change is crisis. Now I'm hoping that (the crisis) is Texas A&M, but it may not be. We maybe need to get hit on the chin three or four more times before they look at each other and say it's not working this way. You can tell a young man that this is how you have to play for us to win, and he may look at that and say that's not how I want to play. He'll nod his head yes, 'OK, I'll do it, I'll do it,' but in the crunch of the game he doesn't do it, which, it costs you There's no one here - I've got great kids and they want to please me and they are looking for affirmation, there's no question, but it's the point of totally buying in to how you have to play. I see DeAndre Liggins last night, 11 points, nine rebounds and guards the player that he has to show out. Well, you know and I know that he bought in here. He bought in that he was going to be the stopper versus I've got to be the point guard and have the ball and do all the shooting and all that. It took three years now, but when he changed, it changed his life. You look at Josh Harrellson. When he changed and bought in, it changed his life. But it takes time. Josh Harrellson almost got thrown off the team before he bought in. So we've got some guys here, they're good kids, but part of buying in means change how you play, and you've got to play harder and compete more and you've got to do it full possessions. They've never done that, so it's what we're going through. But again, that's part of the growth of a young team and a young team like we have."
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin
On this week's games ...
"Obviously lost a tough one to a talented Alabama team. They played well down the stretch, made the plays to win the game. This week, of course Kentucky speaks for itself. Talented across the board, good length on the block, perimeter guys that are quick, athletic and can score the ball. We have to do a really good job of keeping them off the glass, making their shot attempts tough, boxing out, making them work for possessions and not allow those guys to get out in transition and make easy plays."
On Kentucky's defense ...
"I think you start first and foremost with (Nerlens) Noel, the way he blocks shots and also (Willie Cauley-Stein). You got two guys 6-11, 7-feet tall but also mobile, can switch out on different guys. They alter shots, they get rebounds, they can move in ball screens so you gotta keep those guys where they're moving constantly. You can't allow those guys to sit around the rim and make plays and block a lot of shots and make you alter shots. So you gotta get those guys out of their comfort zone. And I think even with their guards, they're quick and athletic. You gotta move that ball and then attack the rim. I don't think you can come down one pass and then go inside when their defense is set because they're tough to beat that way."
On how Tennessee is playing defensively in the last week or two ...
"Not bad. I didn't think we played well at all in the Memphis and Ole Miss game. I think we got back to form against Alabama. They scored quite a few points in the second half and they shot a good percentage in the second half. We had some minor breakdowns there, but I thought after the Alabama game that was the old Tennessee team I was used to seeing from an effort standpoint and competing and we just came up short. And then we had a good practice (Sunday) for about an hour. So it's just a case of playing defense the way we're capable but also being able to put points on the board."
On whether the slippage against Memphis and Ole Miss is just part of a long season ...
"I would imagine sometimes things happen but I think in those two cases ... In the Memphis game, I think the transition defense we didn't do a very good job and I think late in the game Memphis guys made good individual plays to win the game. I thought in the Ole Miss game we just didn't play well as a team. I mean sometimes you just don't have it. I don't think we played well even out of the gates."
ESPN's SportsCenter commercials are some of the funniest around. Now, former Kentucky star Rajon Rondo and the Wildcat mascot are starring in one. Watch it above.
Saturday afternoon, Stoops had an opportunity to talk to the media about everything going on in the football world, ranging from the recent announcement of improvements to Commonwealth Stadium to the recruiting trail. Here is a rundown of Saturday's topics of conversation...
Improvements coming to Commonwealth Stadium
This past Thursday, the Kentucky football program got some very exciting news when Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky legislators announced support for the University of Kentucky to begin several new projects on the UK campus. The plan included a $110-million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium and improvements to the Nutter Training Facility.
"It's exciting," said Stoops. "It is going to have a great impact on our program. It is an exciting time for all of the Big Blue Nation. It's an exciting time for the fans, for the students and for our players. It shows the commitment that we have here to the football program and to the fans. It is going to be an exciting time."
When it comes down to brass tacks, the most important aspect of the news is that it will give Kentucky a chance to compete with some of the other elite programs in the Southeastern Conference in terms of bringing in top talent. The only chance Stoops has of restoring the winning tradition of Kentucky football is if he is able to attract good football players to commit to his plan and his vision.
"I just think anything you do, it's for the players," said Stoops. "Much is placed on the emphasis on recruiting but that's what helps you, is the players being comfortable and the players having a great facility.
"As you know, in all of our sports, our athletes are here and with us a great deal of time. We spend a great deal of time in our complex (Nutter) so I think it's most important for our players to feel comfortable, to have them in a comfortable environment, with their locker room and just a facility where they can spend some time and feel good."
The facilities were a topic of conversation between Stoops and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart during the hiring process. Though it was not his primary concern, Stoops and Barnhart talked about the vision for this program to get an idea of the direction and commitment he would receive if he took the position.
"We are serious about football and the administration is serious about football," Stoops said. "It is a tremendous commitment by a lot of people to make it happen. I think it will have a great impact."
Final coaching staff slots filled
Stoops hit the ground running when he was named head coach back on Dec. 2. He put much of his coaching staff together at warp speed, but there were two final spots open for a few weeks as Stoops looked for the best fits for his staff.
On Saturday, Derrick Ansley and Tommy Mainord were announced as the final two coaches to help round out Stoops' staff. Ansley was tabbed as cornerbacks coach after a one-year stint with Tennessee. The former Troy defensive back also spent time as a graduate assistant with Alabama.
Stoops could not say enough good things about Ansley on Saturday after meeting with him multiple times. Each time Stoops came away impressed and felt that he good bring something new and special to the table.
"The addition of Derrick, coach of our cornerbacks, was a great addition," said Stoops. "I felt like he was a guy that could bring something new to myself and (defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot) and brings something new to the defensive package. So, very impressed with him, both in technique and in scheme."
On the other side of the ball, Mainord will be in charge of the wide receivers, an important position for the Wildcats in the future. Stoops has been preaching the importance of finding playmakers at the wide receiver position in his first month of the job, and Mainord will be key in that development. His familiarity with offensive coordinator Neal Brown at Texas Tech made the hire a "no-brainer."
Stoops and the coordinators obviously had a plan as to what type of people they wanted to fill those positions, but at the end of the day, they wanted the very best people available to join them on their staff. While the staff is relatively young, age wasn't particularly a factor. It was all about finding the perfect fit.
"Best people. It really is," said Stoops. "I said, I think in the last presser, it was important for me to find hungry people, whatever age they were. I think you have to find that blend with experience and some young, up-and-coming guys that have a little attitude about them and that are excited to be here and ready to work the way we are going to work."
Stoops finds early success in recruiting
Brand new head coaches face a tough road ahead of them when it comes to recruiting. Not only do they have the challenge of meeting and identifying new players on the landscape, but they have to quickly play catch-up and build relationships on the go. Stoops and staff have done a bang-up job in their limited time in Lexington.
Early on, they identified some of the top junior-college talent in the nation and got two early signees. But Saturday afternoon was their biggest recruiting day yet as they had several prospective Wildcats in Lexington, including taking in a game at Rupp Arena. Early on, it seems the response from recruits has been very positive.
"Things are going well," said Stoops. "We have a big group here today. It's been a great response, and I have been very excited about the way recruiting is going and I feel very good about putting this class together."
One place where the coaches are very comfortable and confident in with regards to recruiting is the state of Ohio. Stoops, an Ohio native, sees the Buckeye State as a recruiting hotbed and place Kentucky must tap in to in order to get the program moving in the right direction. They've hit that area hard already, and they will continue to while also paying attention to the other surrounding states and the state of Kentucky.
"I think it's very important for us to get into Ohio, as you know, obviously Southern Ohio being very, very close," said Stoops. "With my ties to Northeastern Ohio, and really all through Ohio, it's going to be very important to us. There's tremendous football being played in Ohio and so we want to treat that as home base.
"We're going to work Ohio hard along with Kentucky and really anything within a close proximity to UK."
Stoops wants to do things the right way
Not every player is a perfect fit at his respective program. Stoops determined that was the case for two young men - Marcus Caffey and Jonathan Reed - who violated team rules earlier this week and they were dismissed from the team. That part of the job is never easy, but Stoops wanted to send the message that under him things would be done the right way.
"We're going to do things right," said Stoops. "We're going to give every player the right opportunity and be fair to each and every player on our team."
Stoops emphasized Saturday that his program is for and about the players, and they he wanted to give them the chance to correct their mistakes and do right, but if they don't meet the high standards of the program, they will need to find another place to go to school and play football.
"I'll treat those players like I would expect one of my sons to be treated," said Stoops. "We'll be very fair with them but there will be some guidelines and if they don't meet, them they won't be here."
UK had battled back from a deficit that reached nine points early in the second half and Rupp Arena was rocking unlike it had at any point so far this season. Perhaps excited by the environment and eager to make a play, the young Wildcats turned gamblers, going for steals and blocks when the situation demanded a more conservative approach.
"When you're in that game and it's four minutes to go and it's crunch time, it's gut time, you don't take chances," John Calipari said.
Especially not against the Aggies on Saturday afternoon.
Texas A&M made the Cats play, going on an 18-2 run to make the game's 13 lead changes a distant memory. Unsurprisingly, it was Turner who did the bulk of the damage. He dished an assist and scored eight of his 40 points during the game-breaking spurt that sent Kentucky to an 83-71 defeat.
"We just tried to contain him and make him take tough shots," said Archie Goodwin, who led UK with 17 points. "He was just on and got going early and so we tried all we can do. In the second half, we slowed him down a little bit, but I guess it still wasn't enough for us to get a win."
Turner made 14-of-19 field-goal attempts and 6 of 10 from 3 to become just third UK opponent in Rupp history to score 40 or more points. His scoring output ties Derrick Miller for the fourth-largest scoring output in a Kentucky game in the storied past of the 36-year-old venue.
"I was just going with the flow, didn't really play attention to who was guarding me or what they were trying to do," Turner said. "I was really just trying to get our team going and we had the confidence that we could beat this team. My teammates did a great job looking for me and I was able to hit some shots."
Once his fellow Aggies got him the ball, there wasn't much more they needed to do than sit back and watch. With the way Turner was raining jumpers over defenders' outstretched arms, there were times the Cats may as well have done the same.
"I'm gonna be real, I just stepped back and watched the show like everybody else did," Texas A&M guard Fabyon Harris said.
Turner - who boosted his scoring average from 15.5 points to 17.1 with his career day - made a heroic Nerlens Noel performance little more than an afterthought. Noel scored 15 points on just six field-goal attempts, posting 11 rebounds, seven blocks, six assists and four steals in the process and even inspiring brief talk of a quadruple-double.
"He was the main reason that we stayed in the game," Goodwin said. "With his effort on defense and offense, guys couldn't hold him in the post and we should have done a better job of getting him the ball more and more than we did. He should have been the focal point of our offense tonight. On defense he gave us his all and we really depended on him tonight and he really stepped up."
There was no questioning Noel's effort in his 39 minutes. Point guard Ryan Harrow too spent just one minute on the bench in scoring 11 of his 14 points after halftime and delivered energy from start to finish. The same goes for Goodwin.
"I know I was playing with energy," Harrow said. "Archie was playing with energy. Nerlens was playing with energy. The guys that don't have as much energy as us, they just have to buy into it. We all have to have that type of energy."
The Cats now sit at 10-5 on the season and 1-1 in Southeastern Conference play, meaning they will have to heed Harrow's advice in short order to avoid being thrust into conversation about the NCAA Tournament bubble. Goodwin, however, sees that talk as premature.
"This is just our second conference game," Goodwin said. "We still have the likes of Missouri and Florida to play and we still have a lot of room for growth. I think we'll make the adjustments we need to by the time the tournament comes around."
Coach Cal is obviously going to be taking an active role in making sure that happens, but Noel believes it's high time the Cats take ownership of their own fate.
"Cal's done enough for us," Noel said. "It's about time we take the responsibility for things. We've been doing pretty good but we just got to kick it up a notch and keep listening to Coach. He's definitely pointing us in the right direction, but there's a time that us as players got to take responsibility, and I feel that time is now."
The opponent? No. 4 Alaska-Fairbanks. That's not exactly the ideal way to ease back into the competitive ring. Yet, the first match out of the holiday break has usually spelled success for Harry Mullins and his team.
"After you take a break and go and compete, we've typically seen some success just coming right out of the chute," said Mullins. "During our training camp during the break, we don't have a lot of the other time commitments that athletes typically have to deal with."
Kentucky, the No. 3 team in the collegiate rifle rankings, is hoping that it can get back to where it was before the break. Though the loss to TCU was disappointing, the Wildcats still shot 4693 as a team. Most teams in the country would be ecstatic with that type of effort.
Mullins and his athletes, two years removed from a national championship, know that there are points to be had and there's more effort to be exerted on the range. In order for that to happen, the shooters must give of themselves to their teammates. Mullins instituted several team-building exercises during their training time over the winter break. He's seen his team begin to jell off the range with hopes of that translating to more success on it. It's going to take teamwork.
"Teamwork in the sense of everybody not necessarily everybody maxing out on their performance, but not leaving easy points out there on the board," said Mullins. "We don't want to sit there and bank on two or three people shooting high-590s and then others coming in in the 580s. We'd much rather stay in the mid to low 590s across the board."
The intensity died down a bit after the disappointment of their first loss of the season at the hands of TCU, but as training camp picked up and the date with Alaska-Fairbanks drew near, the intensity has picked back up as Mullins has introduced some self-manufactured pressure into the range.
With another meeting of top-five shooting teams in the country set for Sunday in Murray, the quantity and the quality of the athletes on the range should be enough to send the intensity through the roof. Not to mention the fact that UK and Alaska-Fairbanks have become rivals over the years with each having their fair share of success.
"We've taken our licks on the chin against Alaska many years," said Mullins. "We've been fortunate to be on the other side of that the last few years, but Alaska's a quality program. It's going to be very close, and we're going to have to work hard to get it to fall in our favor."
What will add to that intensity is the pressure they'll experience of performing against another top-5 opponent. That pressure will likely be there as Kentucky makes its way down the homestretch to the postseason.
"Having the pressure put on them, because every match from here on out is going to be pressure-ridden because we're trying to prepare them for the NCAAs," said Mullins.
The pressure and intensity is key because Kentucky is going to have to learn how to deal with and overcome adversity in order to be properly seasoned for the road ahead. That's why Mullins doesn't hesitate to schedule teams like TCU and Alaska-Fairbanks.
Mullins is simply looking for the best way to motivate his shooters to be ready when the postseason comes.
"The holidays are nice, but we try to put the schedule together so that most, if not all, matches from here on out have a postseason intensity," said Mullins. "We've put some parameters on the team and requirements on things they have to do and cut down the travel squad just to increase the intensity on the range."
On Sunday, Mullins will get to see if all of that preparation pays off and if the Cats are on the right track for postseason success.
Alex Poythress made two big free throws. Kyle Wiltjer hit a crucial midrange jumper even though he had not scored to that point. Archie Goodwin had a pair of important assists even though he played a team-high 37 minutes.
The Wildcats showed some grit in pulling out a 60-58 road victory, but given the circumstances, it's difficult to focus on that part of their performance.
"There were plays that we made to gut it out, but we just gotta get better than where we are," Calipari said.
UK led by 16 points with less than 14 minutes left and had played a reasonably solid game to that point. Then, however, the Commodores began to hit some 3-pointers and went to a 2-3 zone that perplexed the Wildcats.