December 2013 Archives
Former Kentucky baseball star Alex Meyer is currently a standout in the Minnesota Twins minor league system, ranking as the 32nd best prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com, but it is his offseason job that is garnering some unique national attention.
A 6-foot-9, 230-pound right-handed pitcher, Meyer is spending his offseason in hometown Greensburg, Ind., working as a substitute teacher.
As a former first-round draft pick after an All-Southeastern Conference season in 2011, Meyer - who makes $63 a day as a substitute teacher - signed as a junior for a reported seven-figure bonus.
- The 18th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats defeated in-state rival and No. 4 rated Louisville by a 73-66 score in the lone competition of the week for the Cats. With the win, UK has won 17 consecutive home games and is 76-2 in Rupp Arena under John Calipari.
- UK limited Louisville to 39.7 percent shooting from the field and improves to 8-0 on the year when keeping opponents under 40.0 percent shooting.
- Freshmen James Young and Andrew Harrison led UK with 18 points apiece, and classmate Julius Randle added 17 first half points. Young contributed a team-high 10 rebounds for his first career double-double, while also leading the team with a career-best four assists. Harrison's 18 points marked a career-best with 11 of those tallies coming after halftime.
- UK is open this week before opening up Southeastern Conference action on Jan. 8 with a home contest vs. Mississippi State at 8 p.m. ET.
- Kentucky returned home from a short holiday break to defeat Grambling State in commanding fashion, 109-46, on Sunday. The Wildcats completed nonconference play at 12-1, just the seventh one-loss nonconference season in 40 years of varsity play.
- Six players netted double figures, led by junior Bria Goss who dropped in a career-high 23 points to go along with a season-high eight rebounds in just 24 minutes of action. Freshman Linnae Harper scored 15 points and grabbed a career-high tying seven rebounds, while sophomore Janee Thompson added 13 points. Seniors Kastine Evans and Samarie Walker followed with 11 points apiece and freshman Makayla Epps charted a career-high 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting with a career-high seven rebounds.
- It marked the fifth time this season UK has scored 100 or more points and the 60-19 halftime lead was the largest in school history. UK has now won nine straight in Memorial and 44 consecutive games in Memorial vs. nonconference opponents.
- The Wildcats begin SEC play on the road Thursday when they travel to Tuscaloosa, Ala., to meet the Crimson Tide. Game time is now 2 p.m. CT/3 p.m. ET.
Thursday, Jan. 2
Women's Basketball at Alabama - 3 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 3
Swimming & Diving at Georgia Diving Invitational - All Day
Saturday, Jan. 4
Swimming & Diving at Georgia Diving Invitational - All Day
Sunday, Jan. 5
Swimming & Diving at Georgia Diving Invitational - All Day
Women's Basketball vs. Florida - 3 p.m.
The life of a freshman under Matthew Mitchell is not always easy.
The demands placed on newcomers in terms of effort and execution, particularly on the defensive end, make playing a major role from day one very difficult at Kentucky.
It didn't happen immediately for Linnae Harper, but the Chicago native is getting there 13 games into her collegiate career.
"I definitely think it took a lot of work, transitioning from high school to college," Harper said. "The speed is really different, but I'm now starting to get in my groove."
In a nonconference finale -- a 109-46 blowout win over Grambling State (3-8) -- Harper had 15 points and seven rebounds for No. 6/6 UK (12-1). After she scored in double figures just three times in her first nine games, the former McDonald's All-American has done so in three of her last four outings to boost her scoring average to 7.7 points per game.
The ability has always been there -- Harper, after all, is the highest-rated recruit in UK Hoops history -- but she is only now figuring out how to push through inevitable miscues.
"Really I think my mentality, just coming from high school to college and making a mistake and holding your head down," Harper said. "But I think each day in practice and the games and just having more experience is helping me with that. If I make mistake, just to know to push through it."
Harper's emergence has coincided with the absence of DeNesha Stallworth, who is targeting a return in the next two weeks. An injury to the star senior forward cut UK's rotation down to 10 players and opened up an opportunity for additional playing time. Harper, as well as fellow freshman Makayla Epps, has capitalized.
"We've had some injuries on this team and I think Makayla and Linnae have really stepped up," said Bria Goss, who posted a career-high 23 points against Grambling State.
Epps joined Harper in double figures with 10 points and added seven rebounds, showcasing the bright future, in both the short and long term, of UK Hoops as the Wildcats enter Southeastern Conference play next Thursday at Alabama.
"I think both of them have so much ability, so much talent and that's why we're so optimistic about their future here and so glad they're here," Mitchell said. "They're going to be really good players."
Neither Harper nor Epps, however, is hiding from the fact that there is a great deal of work ahead. That may be daunting, but it's also reason to be encouraged.
"I think that there's still a lot of room for improvement, although they're both doing so well right now," Goss said. "I think that just tells you where the team is. I'm really excited to see where they can be and where they will be. They're both very competitive and that's what we need on the court every day."
Randle looked like the best player on the floor in the opening 20 minutes. Behind the star forward, UK took a 41-36 halftime lead and appeared on the way to the resume- and confidence-building win it so badly needed.
Then Randle started to hobble around. Coping with cramps, he went back to the locker room. Knowing Randle's importance, his coach encouraged UK's medical staff to be aggressive in treatment.
"They gave him like three bags of IV and the doc was squeezing it in to try to get him in, because I was saying, 'Get him back,' " Calipari said.
Randle, however, had exerted too much energy in that first half. Twice he checked back in, but neither time Randle could stay on the floor for any more than 64 seconds. When he came out for the final time with 11:01 left, UK had seen its lead disappear and trailed 52-51.
The Wildcats would have to finish the job without their leading scorer and rebounder.
"It always hurts you when you lose a great player," Andrew Harrison said. "At the same, we all knew we had to bring it. That just means we all had to step it up a little bit."
The formula that No. 18 UK had used to build a lead on No. 6/4 Louisville would have to change. No longer could the Cats throw the ball to Randle -- who needed just eight shots to score 17 first-half points -- and let him go to work.
"The guards had to step up a little more," James Young said. "We tried to drive the hole as much as we could. Coach told us to penetrate a little more and that's what we did."
Young and the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron, all played at least 15 minutes in the second half. Carrying the offensive load, they combined to score all but five of UK's points after halftime. The perimeter trio wasn't about to let this opportunity slip by.
"We wanted to win this," said Young, who had his first-career double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds. "This was a big game for us. ... So we just wanted to come out and prove to everybody that we're a good team and we're starting to mature a little bit."
Consider that point proven.
With a combination of lockdown defense and timely baskets, UK (10-3) outscored visiting Louisville (11-2) 22-14 without Randle. With a season-high crowd of 24,396 loudly behind them from tip to buzzer, the Cats took down the Cardinals for the fifth time in six games with Coach Cal at the helm, 73-66.
"I feel like we took some punches with Julius going down and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "It just showed our resilience and that we can do anything."
During that game-ending run, Young and the Harrisons scored all but two of UK's points. The only exception was a dunk by Alex Poythress with 1:44 left that gave the Cats a relatively secure 71-61 lead.
Delivering the perfect wrap-around pass off of a drive to set it up was Andrew Harrison.
"How about the pass he makes to Alex?" Calipari said. "He could have tried to shoot that."
In the not-so-distant past, the freshman point guard very well may have tried to do just that.
In fact, Andrew Harrison had one of his more forgettable college games just a week ago. He scored seven points in 20 foul-hampered minutes against Belmont and his backup, Jarrod Polson, was the story after he helped ignite a comeback with his energy.
There would be no repeat, as Andrew Harrison went toe to toe with one of the best backcourts in the country. Facing Russ Smith and Chris Jones, Andrew Harrison had a career-high 18 points.
"They're great players, Jones and Russ Smith. Smith is so quick, and Jones is too," Andrew Harrison said. "It wasn't a personal challenge. I just tried to win it for my team."
Harrison steadied the UK offense throughout against Louisville's swarming pressure, committing just three turnovers even though the ball was in his hands for much of his 34 minutes. As a team, Kentucky committed just 11 turnovers and forced 13 against the team that entered Saturday with the nation's top turnover margin.
"He grew up a lot," Poythress said. "I'm proud of Andrew, stepping up to the plate and making big plays down the stretch."
After that Belmont game, Calipari restated that his goal is for Andrew Harrison to become the nation's top point guard. The road is long, but this was a step in the right direction.
"He didn't want to lose this game like we said in the beginning," Young said. "This was a really big game for him and he stepped up. He had Russ guarding him, which is a good defender, and he knew he had to step up his game and that's what he did."
With their point guard leading the way and Randle returning to his regular form for a full game, the Cats believe a lot more in store.
"It's just us starting to come together as a team, being more mature," Young said. "You're going to see it a lot more now. We're becoming closer as a team and as a family."
If ever these Kentucky Wildcats were going to take the next step in their evolution, it was now, in the heart of another classic Dream Game matchup, with the game teetering back and forth.
No. 18/18 UK, in search of its first win over a top-25 opponent this season, got the marquee victory it's been looking for and maybe quite a bit more in a thrilling 73-66 victory over its archrival, No. 6/4 Louisville, on Saturday in front of a season-high 24,396 boisterous fans at Rupp Arena.
"We grew up today," John Calipari said.
They grew up together.
A day earlier, Coach Cal said his players would have to look like a team to overcome the defending national champions' relentless pressure. He told his team the same thing in the pregame meeting, ditching his normal basketball-centered keys for three all-encompassing lessons instead.
On the whiteboard, Calipari wrote: Look like a team. Play like a team. Fight like a team.
"There was no, let's guard your pick and roll," Coach Cal said. "Let's do it, just the team."
Perhaps for the first time this season, the Cats (10-3) did all three.
"Big game for us," said freshman guard James Young, who was named the game's most valuable player by the Bluegrass Sports Commission after recording his first career double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds). "We wanted to come out and show everybody that we're a good team and we're starting to mature a little bit. That's what we did."
It took an injury to their best player to bring out the best in Kentucky.
Julius Randle looked unstoppable during the first half, scoring 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting, providing the Cats with a 41-36 lead. Louisville's Chris Jones kept the Cardinals close with a 15 first-half points, but UK dominated the glass in the first 20 minutes (25-14), broke U of L's pressure and answered an 8-0 Cardinal run to start the game.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly in a crazed, raucous atmosphere at Rupp Arena until Randle came up limping minutes into the second half. The freshman forward, who had already reached double-figure scoring for the 13th consecutive game, left the floor and headed to the locker room to get treatment for the cramping.
Randle re-entered the game twice over the next several minutes, but both times, unable to hardly move, he had to take himself out.
"They gave him like three bags of IV and the doc was squeezing it in to try to get him in because I was saying, 'Get him back,' " Calipari said.
Randle never came back, and when he left the floor for good at the 11:01 mark and Louisville regained the lead, the Cats' chances at a much-needed quality win appeared to be slipping away.
"I didn't even recognize he wasn't there," Coach Cal said. "I just coached the game. We have enough guys."
Instead of wilting, the rest of the guys answered with a game-defining - perhaps season-defining - 15-5 run. UK led 66-56 at that point with 5:21 left in the game, and outside of several nerve-wracking misses at the free-throw line in the final moments, the Cats never looked back.
"I feel like we took some punches with Julius going down and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "It just showed our resilience and that we can do anything."
Harrison, who has been criticized at times this season for his inconsistent play and poor body language, was at his best when UK needed him the most in the second half. As U of L slowed the tempo down and Randle sat back in the locker room, Harrison steadied the offense and came up with arguably the game's best play, a sweet spin move off the baseline for an old-fashioned 3-point play and a 58-53 lead.
The freshman point guard scored 11 second-half points as momentum was swinging, giving him a career-high 18 points.
"That's just showing how much heart this team has," Harrison said. "I know we get criticized a lot for being young and body language and stuff like that, but we knew we would win this game. Going against a great team like Louisville, we knew we had to bring it."
Alex Poythress played a huge role off the bench in filling in for Randle. The sophomore forward scored seven points and grabbed five rebounds while providing the exclamation point with a two-hand dunk with 1:41 to play.
"Alex was unbelievable, but he's been doing it in practice," Coach Cal said. "He's never been like this. And I thought he was great."
No surprise, the dunk materialized because of a baseline pass from Harrison.
"He could have tried to shoot that," Calipari said. "That dunk basically put it to 10 and kind of put it out of reach."
Harrison turned the ball over just three times against arguably the nation's best defensive team. As a whole, the Cats committed just 11 turnovers and held a plus-two turnover margin against the Cardinals', who entered the matchup with the nation's top turnover margin.
Calipari said his team's whole focus in practice this week was avoiding U of L's runs by hanging on to the ball.
"If you cannot negate the press and they are getting steals and dunks and 3s and all that, you are not going to beat them," Coach Cal said. "They are going to beat you by 25. That's what we tried to do, and I thought the guys did a pretty good job of it."
Young, who hit all three of UK's 3-pointers, called the victory a turning point for the young and learning Kentucky group.
"From here on out, we're going to be a really good team and we're just going to fight the whole game and not take quarters off and plays off and just keep fighting," Young said.
To guard against complacency, Calipari said his players will get no break during a long, 10-day stretch without any games. The Cats will be up at 6 p.m. Sunday for the start of Camp Cal.
The way Calipari sees it, the growth of this team has only just begun.
"This team is becoming a good team," said Calipari, who improved to 5-1 against Louisville as UK's head coach. "We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."
Two years later, what was once a rare feat has become the norm.
For the third consecutive semester, UK Athletics posted a cumulative GPA better than 3.0. UK's competing scholarship student-athletes combined for a fall 2013 GPA of 3.088. It is the second-highest mark of the Barnhart era, trailing only the spring semester of 2013. UK began its streak of three consecutive semesters with a GPA of better than 3.0 with a 3.030 in fall 2012.
"Reaching a 3.0 GPA as a department is now expected, but that doesn't make it any less of an accomplishment," Barnhart said. "I am proud of the way our student-athletes have sustained their success in the classroom and even prouder of the way they have embraced academics as an important part of the UK experience."
**SEE BELOW FOR COMPLETE GRADE INFORMATION BY SPORT**
Sixteen of UK's 20 teams had GPAs of 3.0 or better, led by women's tennis at 3.727. Women's cross country (3.608), softball (3.608) and women's swimming and diving (3.533) joined women's tennis in exceeding 3.5. Leading all Wildcat men's teams was men's tennis at 3.443.
Of the 12 teams that competed in regular-season play during the fall, 10 had GPAs of better than 3.0. That includes the men's basketball team at 3.038, marking the fourth straight semester in which John Calipari's program has had a GPA better than 3.0.
"Thanks to the work of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, I believe we are moving in the right direction in all facets of our program," Barnhart said. "We are coming off our first top-25 Directors' Cup finish ever last year and we are still out to prove strong athletics and academics can go together."
DeMarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Archie Goodwin all starred in their Dream Game debuts. Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague and Nerlens Noel, on other hand, had quiet games as they learned the intensity of the intra-state showdown firsthand.
Another group of youngsters will be going through that process again on Saturday in Rupp Arena, but there's one freshman who already has a good idea what he's getting into.
"It's a rivalry team that usually Kentucky fans don't like at all," Dominique Hawkins said of the Cardinals. "And this win's probably one of the biggest wins just for a regular-season game."
Hawkins, a Richmond, Ky., native, knows what he's talking about because he grew up a UK fan. While he was home for Christmas, his mother reminded him of a UK-U of L game during his youth that gives some insight into the emotion woven into the fabric of the rivalry.
"My mom just told me that I was crying one game," Hawkins said. "I can't really remember, but I think I was really little when I was crying that game."
The freshman guard spent much of his childhood dreaming of wearing Kentucky blue against the Cardinals, but as recently as this spring it seemed unlikely he would ever get that chance. After playing his way into a scholarship offer at the Sweet Sixteen in March, Hawkins is living a Bluegrass dream.
"It's hard to describe what it really means to me because as a kid growing up in Kentucky you want to be able to play for Kentucky and play against Louisville and hopefully beat them," Hawkins said. "It just means a lot to me."
Hawkins has tried to tell his teammates about the rivalry and so has Willie Cauley-Stein, who made his first-career start a season ago in Coach Cal's only loss to U of L during his UK tenure. Cauley-Stein, however, knows there's only so much that can be said.
"This year is different because when you're a freshman coming in, you don't have the rivalry because really you don't really know about Kentucky or Louisville," Cauley-Stein said. "You're stuck between five different schools that you're thinking about going to so until you've been here for a year or you've lived in the state, you don't know about the rivalry."
Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young and Marcus Lee never have, so they're in for a sort of baptism by fire at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Turnovers, rebounding potential keys
Louisville enters the annual rivalry showdown ranked highly in both major polls, but the Cardinals are No. 1 by a fairly wide margin according to Ken Pomeroy's advanced statistical rankings.
The biggest reason? Turnovers.
U of L is second nationally in both offensive and defensive turnover rate and is the only team to rank in the top 25 in both categories. The Cardinals force turnovers on 26.7 percent of their defensive possessions while giving the ball away on offense just 13.2 percent of the time.
The result is lots of extra possessions and lots of extra shots for an already efficient U of L offense. The Cardinals average nearly 10 more field-goal attempts per game than their opponents.
UK, meanwhile, has been inconsistent taking care of the ball. The Cats have committed turnovers on 18.8 percent of their offensive possessions and have committed 17 or more turnovers in four games already this season, including in defeats against Michigan State and North Carolina.
The Cats have made up for their turnovers by creating extra opportunities by crashing the offensive glass. UK leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 45.7. U of L is ninth at 41.5.
"They pose a lot of problems for us," Rick Pitino said. "One is they're the tallest team in America and in size certainly. We have a thin front court in terms of numbers and we're not overly big, so their size is going to pose problems for us."
The two teams are also nearly identical in defensive rebounding percentage, meaning the team that exerts its will on the glass will gain a significant edge.
"Big," said Calipari when he was asked of the importance of rebounding. "They're a good offensive rebounding team and so are we. That will be one of those battles."
Calipari, Pitino keeping UK-U of L in perspective
Calipari has coached in more than his fair share of hyped regular-season games, but Memphis-Tennessee stands out.
During the 2007-08 season, No. 2 Tennessee took down Coach Cal's No. 1 Memphis team on the road in front of a sellout crowd and the largest television audience in ESPN history.
"It came down, and the game was so high powered, I can't begin to tell you how fast and how aggressive," Calipari said, "and we had a lead, they made a shot, we missed a shot, they made a shot, late at the buzzer, we missed a shot, they won."
The win propelled the Volunteers to their first-ever No. 1 ranking, but Tennessee lost three times in its final nine games and saw its season end in the Sweet 16. Memphis, on the other hand, wouldn't drop another decision until the national championship game.
All that's to say that final judgment won't be passed on UK or U of L until later, no matter the outcome.
"I coached eight years at Kentucky and I'm going on 13 (at Louisville), so I've seen 21 contests," Pitino said. "There's only been one big game for me and that was when they took our national championship away two years ago (in the Final Four)."
Of course fans from the winning side will enjoy bragging rights and neither Calipari nor Pitino is dismissing that. They're just looking at the bigger picture.
"This is just a very big game on your schedule, and it should be enjoyed," Pitino said. "I know the players enjoy it, but it's much more important for the fans than it is for the players."
Comparing UNC losses
From youth vs. inexperience to size vs. quickness, much has been made of the differences between Kentucky and Louisville.
The teams, however, have one thing in common: losses to North Carolina.
UK fell 82-77 on the road in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Dec. 14, while U of L suffered its only defeat against the Tar Heels at a neutral site on Nov. 24, 93-84.
Taking stock of the two games, both were fast-paced (78 possessions for UNC-U of L, 74 for UK-UNC) and the Tar Heels were efficient offensively both times, scoring 1.19 points per possession against U of L and 1.11 against UK. Both games were foul-heavy as well, with at least 50 combined fouls and 63 combined free throws in each.
The primary difference, as you might expect, came in turnovers and rebounding. UK held a 44-32 rebounding edge against UNC, but committed 17 turnovers to the Tar Heels 9. U of L was outrebounded 40-35 but was even in turnovers, 14-14.
The two teams could enter the matchup without a win and without any relevancy on the national landscape and the arena would still be sold-out and the game would still be televised across the nation.
"This is the one game everybody in Kentucky looks forward to," sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. "This is the one game they circle on their calendar."
This year the importance takes on new meaning for the Kentucky Wildcats, who enter the annual Dream Game matchup ranked 18th in both polls but lacking what many people, including John Calipari, would call a marquee win.
"This schedule that we've played is top-heavy to this point and there are games that we won that are good wins for us, but they're not a team that's in the top five or top 10," Calipari said Friday.
Enter Louisville, the defending national champions, which will walk into Rupp Arena on Saturday (4 p.m. ET on CBS) with an 11-1 record and a No. 4 ranking in the USA Today Coaches' Poll and a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25.
Opportunities like Saturday were rife on UK's early-season schedule, but they're not so prevalent on the Cats' (9-3) Southeastern Conference slate. After Louisville, only two of UK's remaining opponents - No. 13/14 Florida and No. 25/25 Missouri - reside in either of the major polls at the moment.
"How many opportunities we have at games like that, how many are we going to have from here on in?" Calipari wondered out loud Friday. "Just not that many opportunities."
Hence, the heightened stakes for Saturday's showdown in Rupp Arena.
To this point, Kentucky has been good but not the great team it was billed to be when it was tabbed the preseason No. 1 team in the country. UK boasts decent wins over Providence (10-2), Boise State (8-3, RPI rank of 36) and Belmont (defeated North Carolina), but the Cats are 0-3 against teams ranked in the top 25.
Those three losses to nationally ranked Michigan State, Baylor and North Carolina came by a combined 14 points and away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.
"They're all top-10 teams," Coach Cal said. "It's pretty hard to beat those guys. And obviously we're not -- three minutes to go in all those games, it's a one-point game and we were right there -- we're not ready to win those games yet. This team in February is not going to be what it is right now. Guys will get it."
The problem is there may be few opportunities at that point in the season to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, though Calipari said it's too early to think about things like that.
"It's only a big game if we win," said Coach Cal, who is 4-1 against Louisville since becoming the Kentucky head coach. "If not, it was the next game, move on."
Louisville isn't necessarily swimming in signature wins either -- of the Cardinals' 11 wins, just three are against the top 100 -- but Louisville won't suffer from a perception of quality-less wins because of its returning national championship experience.
"We're both going to have quality wins before March," Rick Pitino said. "We know it's a big game, so we're not concerning ourselves with quality win because we're going to have some before March. We don't know what a quality win is yet. Kentucky, I consider Belmont a quality win, and I think they've played three very difficult teams."
To the national pundits, a win for Kentucky over a quality opponent like Louisville would go a long way toward restoring the preseason faith in this still talent-rich team. More importantly for the Wildcats, it would prove to themselves they've still got the pieces to be a special team.
"It's important to me because it's a big game for us and we gotta prove that we can take on top teams," Hawkins said. "We haven't beat a ranked team, and so it would be a great improvement for us if we can win this game."
Asked if their desire to prove themselves in a game like Saturday's was a reflection of internal doubts of their preseason merits, Poythress said no.
"We just want to play like we've got a chip on our shoulder, to say we're still here, we're still a great team," Poythress said.
To prove they are a great team, Calipari said the Cats will have to "look like a team."
"The winning will take care of itself if we look more like a team, if we play with more energy, and when adversity hits, we respond to it in a positive way," he said.
Louisville is so good because it has some of those defining qualities, Calipari said. The Cardinals know what their roles are and accept them. Some players shoot more than others for Louisville, other guys do the rebounding and the dirty work, but collectively, Calipari said the Cards are all on the same page.
"The guy on our team who does his role better than anyone else is Dominique," Coach Cal said. "What his team needs him to do, he does. And so we're trying now to get everybody else to understand: Do you know what you have to do to help our team become better?"
A team effort will certainly go a long ways against one of the nation's top defenses. With Pitino's signature full-court press and stingy zone, Louisville leads the nation in turnover margin at plus-9.4 a game.
The turnovers lead to easy baskets for an offense that doesn't need any help. With a cast of Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and Chane Behanan, the Cards rank No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
"They play in fourth and fifth gear," Calipari said. "Here they come, so if you stop at any point, it's like, 'Oh my gosh, you stopped playing.' It is really evident. ... If they see weakness, if they see blood, they're coming."
Kentucky has shown more weaknesses than many thought it would at this point in the season, but Saturday's game offers a chance to press the reset button, if you will. Win or lose, the Cats' season-long goals will remain in front of them, but there's no game like a rivalry game to prove one's self.
"We'll see where we are against a top opponent," Calipari said. "We'll see, and we'll figure out from there where we gotta go. Are we farther along than we thought? Maybe. Are we behind where we thought? Maybe. When you're talking about a team like this, it' more or less the progress and you just take steps along the way."
On Sunday, UK Hoops will have a shot at exactly that.
"It'll be important for us to practice well to get ready for Grambling State to see if we can close out," Mitchell said. "If we are able to earn a victory it will really be a great nonconference season for us."
The No. 6 Wildcats (11-1) will play host to Grambling State (3-7) on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET in their final tune-up before Southeastern Conference play. The opponent might not have the name recognition of Louisville or Baylor -- both of which UK has defeated this month -- but the Cats will have to be ready.
"Grambling State is a very quick, athletic team," Mitchell said. "They really like to push the ball in transition, so that will be a challenge for us to sharpen up our transition defense that we had some breakdowns in, in the last game, so we're going to be working hard on that."
Grambling State uses a deep rotation, but guard Joanna Miller is on the floor most all the time. The senior is averaging a team-high 18.2 points and 36.6 minutes, while senior forward Victoya Ricks is averaging 11.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
The Cats, however, are focused on themselves more than anyone else.
UK is entering a vital portion of its schedule during the semester break. The Cats returned to campus after a short break for Christmas and now will be focusing on basketball and basketball alone until classes resume.
Mitchell reported on Friday that his team posted a cumulative grade-point average of 3.1, the result of hours of work during the fall semester. They'll get back to it in the classroom on Jan. 15 but until then the Cats will look to make strides on the floor in the additional time they will spend together.
"... I think what will really tell the tale for us in conference will be how good can we practice over the next couple weeks because we need to make up some ground defensively and we need to sharpen up our press," Mitchell said. "We're going to work really hard on that today."
UK will devote individual practices to work on both ends of the floor, also spending plenty of time working on free throws. The Cats are shooting just 66.6 percent from the line through 12 games, including 21 for 48 over their lost two outings.
Against Duke in particular, missed free throws were costly. UK missed 11 of its 19 attempts in a game that was ultimately decided by just eight points.
"You're not going to beat a team of Duke's caliber shooting 8 for 19 many times," Mitchell said. "You may shoot poorly, it happens; you can win games shooting poorly sometimes, but over the course of the season we need to shoot free throws better."
Mitchell was sure to say he believes his team is capable of shooting well from the line and his solution to recent woes is simple.
"This morning they're lifting right now and then we'll go right into the gym and have a free-throw session," Mitchell said. "It's nothing but holding them accountable."
He will do that by setting goals.
For example, the Cats were called on to him 80 percent from the line on Friday morning. If they fell short, they would have to shoot more free throws following evening practice. The ultimate goal is to shoot 78 percent as a team in games.
"We're just trying to get reps, mental focus, and mental preparation," Mitchell said.
Even as he was running to first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors during a banner senior season, the Hopkinsville, Ky., native only ever had one thing on his mind.
"I didn't get to start until my senior year, but everything I did was always bigger than me as far as thinking about all my teammates who put in the same time I put in," Pinner said.
It wasn't until his final season as a Wildcat that Pinner moved into a featured role, and he excelled. In 2002, he rolled up 1,414 yards -- second most in a single season in UK history. He topped 100 yards in seven of his 12 games, totaling 13 rushing touchdowns and adding 37 catches for 264 yards.
In spite of all that, Pinner was surprised by a phone call he received not long after the season ended.
It was an agent exploring the possibility of representing the bruising running back and he began the conversation by asking Pinner about where he expected to be drafted. Since he hadn't heard anything, Pinner threw out "fifth or sixth round."
"He laughed at me," Pinner said.
The agent explained that Pinner, in fact, was projected to go in the second round. A broken ankle sustained during the preparation process hurt his stock, but Pinner was still taken in the fourth round of the 2003 NFL Draft by the Detroit Lions.
"It just didn't hit me," Pinner said. "I was having a great year and I was having fun doing what I was doing and the NFL was just a blessing that came from making it bigger than myself and working hard."
Pinner would go on to a five-year professional career with three teams, far exceeding his own expectations for where football would take him. He only ever wanted to help his team win games and fulfill his famiy's vision of receiving a college degree.
In that memorable senior season, he did the former. Last week, he took care of the latter as well by graduating.
"It was something that I wanted to keep my word to my mom and grandma that I was going to do it."
Pinner said. "And to myself."
Pinner returned to Lexington over the summer to restart work toward a degree in media art studies.
Pinner admits that all the changes on campus made adjusting to life as a college student challenging, but the people -- many of whom were around more than a decade ago during his playing days -- made it feel like home.
"I don't think many people can say that they can leave a place and they still treat you like family," Pinner said. "From athletics to academics, the professors, everybody is a close-knit family and that is blessing."
With that support system in place, Pinner completed his coursework this fall and graduated in December.
"It's an overwhelming feeling," Pinner said. "It's a humbling experience because I knew realistically I couldn't do it all by myself. This is not only for me, but also the people who helped me get to this point."
He isn't exactly sure what he will do with his degree, but his immediate plan is to continue his work mentoring children through the NFL's Play 60 program and an author. He published his first children's book -- "Willville" -- earlier this year.
"It's a book about encouraging kids to believe in themselves and chase their dreams," Pinner said.
Similarly, Pinner hopes his graduation can serve as motivation for others working toward their diplomas, continuing what he believes has always been his reason for being.
"I think my whole purpose was just to inspire people," Pinner said.
He certainly did that during his UK career, persevering even as he was labeled as a blocking back in Hal Mumme's pass-happy attack. When Guy Morriss took over in 2001, Pinner almost gave up, telling his new coach of his intent to transfer.
"Coach Morriss said, 'If you stay here we are going to run the ball and run this offense around you,' " Pinner said. "I was shocked. I didn't believe it."
Pinner couldn't help but believe it when he became the main weapon for one of UK football's best teams in recent memory. With Pinner carrying the load and standouts like Jared Lorenzen, Derek Abney and Dewayne Robertson surrounding him, the Cats went 7-5 after managing just two wins the season prior.
Perhaps somewhat unjustly, the 2002 is best remembered for being ineligible for postseason play and for falling victim to the "Bluegrass Miracle" against LSU. But Pinner and his teammates -- many of whom he still calls close friends -- recall their three SEC wins and three defeats that came by a touchdown or less.
"It was bigger than us," Pinner said. "It was bigger than the individual. Everybody was just for team. When you make things bigger than yourself, good things will happen."
Now that he is a fan, Pinner can draw on his experience as a player as he gets ready to watch Mark Stoops' second season from his home in Lawrenceville, Ga.
"You are playing against top-notch competition every week and I know and have been there with Coach Morriss and those guys when we went 2-9 his first year," Pinner said. "Everybody has to buy into the system and once they buy into the system and what the coaches are saying there is going to be a big difference."
Busy with classes, Pinner didn't spend a lot of time around the Nutter Training Facility, but he did meet much of Stoops' staff and knows of the work the group is doing on the recruiting trail. Based on all he has seen, Pinner looks forward to seeing what's ahead.
"I think next year that is going to be a huge difference," Pinner said. "They are going to be reacting and playing and he is going to bring in more guys that are buying into what he is doing which is going to add to the guys who are there and who are buying into what he is doing. I am excited to see the future of UK football."
Degree in hand, Pinner feels the same way about his own future.
"It makes me a little bit more marketable, I can say that," Pinner said. "But I'm interested to see what the future holds with it."
Congratulations to the following 30 current and former student-athletes who received their degrees in December: Jessica Stiles (women's tennis); James Jasis and Katie Fretts (rifle); Cassie Ransdell, Kirsten Robinson and Alyssa Telang (women's soccer); Caitlin Satkowiak (gymnastics); Cameron Wilder (men's soccer); Jerad Grundy, Walt Wijas and Chris Bisson (baseball); Tripp Crosthwaite and Travis Green (men's swimming and diving); Kelcy Perry (women's swimming); Ashlee Rose and Ashleigh Albrecht (women's golf); Anthony Rossi and Matt Davis (men's tennis); Cally Macumber (track and field); Jordan Aumiller, Max Godby, Mister Cobble, Jonathan George, Patrick Ligon, Kory Brown, Tristian Johnson and Artose Pinner (football); Chase Parker (men's golf); Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan (volleyball).
This weekend, 47,930 fans packed Rupp Arena over the course of two days to watch Kentucky's men's and women's basketball teams. See what it looked like in the time-lapse video above.
But on Sunday, Mitchell had coaching to do, so he didn't want to let his mind wander.
In the final moments before UK's matchup with No. 2 Duke neared, Mitchell couldn't help himself.
"I really tried to put it out of my mind, but I couldn't help it there right before tipoff," Mitchell said. "It was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude to see where it had started and where it's culminated. We need more days like this."
The day was the first of its kind in Kentucky women's basketball history.
UK announced on Friday that the game was a sellout -- the first ever for a women's game in Rupp -- but not even that fact could have foretold what the atmosphere would be like. A record 23,706 fans filled Rupp, the fifth most to ever watch a regular-season women's game.
"It was a great crowd, a super crowd for women's basketball and I think that's really important to have those," Duke head coach JoAnne P. McCallie said. "So we were thrilled to be here. Last time we came, there wasn't that crowd. There was a big crowd, but there wasn't that crowd."
The crowd was there every step of the way as UK tried to battle back from a Duke lead that grew to as large as 14 points early in the second half. Tricia Liston scored 29 points, coming up with seemingly every big basket the Blue Devils needed to stymie UK's various runs.
The Cats (11-1) cut the deficit to four points with 6:07 left on a pair of Janee Thompson free throws -- two of her team-high 12 points -- but the Blue Devils (12-1) had the answers in a 69-61 victory.
"Just giving credit to Duke, they played a really strong game," Bria Goss said.
UK, meanwhile, was left ruing 11 missed free throws in 19 attempts, as well the numerous points Duke scored in transition after beating pressure. The Cats, facing a substantial size disadvantage, knew they would need to speed the pace, but found themselves unable to do it consistently enough.
"You need to score so you can get them sped up," Mitchell said. "I think you saw the few times we were able to really get the speed where we needed it we could affect them."
UK managed just 25-of-75 (33.3 percent) shooting against Duke's confounding zone defense, a significant departure from the first 11 games of nonconference play when the Cats averaged 96.2 points. Kentucky played without 6-foot-3 star DeNesha Stallworth -- who is recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery -- but Mitchell wasn't overly interested in playing the what-if game.
"You can talk about that all you want to," Mitchell said. "It's not anything that--We won't know unless we play them again and DeNesha is in the game. So it's just not valuable in my mind to talk about it."
What is valuable to talk about is what the Cats can take from the defeat, because there's plenty of that.
"We learned that we've got some things to work on," Thompson said. "We just gotta be ready to play. I don't think we were as sharp and as focused as we needed to be today."
As disappointing as that may be, it doesn't erase all UK has accomplished so far this season.
Playing one of the toughest December schedules in the nation, the Cats sit at 11-1 with victories over a pair of top-10 opponents in Louisville and Baylor and three more road wins over teams that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago.
"I don't want to beat ourselves up too much," Mitchell said. "We lost to a good team. They're a really excellent basketball team. But, gosh, I sure wanted to reward that great crowd with a victory. I think they know what our program is about. I think they know what our kids are about and how hard we'll work."
Sunday is the last time those fans will see UK play in Rupp this season, but they still have nine more opportunities to pack the Cats' real house: Memorial Coliseum.
"We're just blessed to be able to have the fan support that we do," Goss said. "We are so thankful that it was a sellout game we really appreciate people coming out. Hopefully we opened up some hearts today to where they can come back to Memorial and see us play there."
Thankfully for Polson and his Kentucky team, he was ready anyway.
When the senior point guard checked in with nine minutes left in the first half and UK facing its largest deficit against Belmont at 25-14, Polson was thinking about delivering only one thing.
"Energy," Polson said.
With that approach, Polson completely changed the game with starter Andrew Harrison out due to two first-half fouls. In 90 seconds, UK cut Belmont's lead to six. By the end of the half -- with Polson playing every second -- the Wildcats closed to within two.
"I think we were down 10 or 11 when I got in and the crowd was kind of dead and they were hitting shots," Polson said. "So I just tried to push the ball and stuff like that and that's what Coach Cal wanted me to do. I feel like I did pretty good with that."
After halftime, Polson continued to play and play well as Harrison picked up his third and eventually fourth fouls. With Polson in an expanded role, No. 19/21 UK (9-3) surged past Belmont (8-5) to head into a short Christmas break with a 93-80 victory.
"I was really proud of Jarrod, and you say, what did Jarrod add to the game?" Calipari said. "... What did he add to the game? Energy. Energy, nothing else."
Surrounded by talented teammates, Polson didn't try to take advantage of his playing time by making highlight-reel plays. He took only two shots, scored only three points and had only one assist, but fans and teammates left Rupp Arena talking about Polson anyway.
"I think he's been here for four years so he knows what Coach wants," said Julius Randle, who scored a career-high 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. "He was just able to come in and bring in a big boost to us."
Outside of last season when he emerged as a steady option off the bench, Polson's primary role has been as a practice player, which makes games like Saturday's all the more rewarding.
"Mainly in practice, you guys don't see it, but I'm playing the backup point guard," Polson said. "So I'm running all the other plays against the first team. Just being able to play today with the team and getting a lot of minutes like I did was really fun for me."
But make no mistake, Polson isn't expecting to play 21 minutes every night from now on, and he's fine with that. He knows UK's ceiling is highest with Harrison at point guard and he's happy to help in the freshman's continued development.
"Obviously he's a really talented player and I've been here for a while now so I know exactly what Cal's wanting as far as pushing the ball," Polson said. "Anything I can do to help Andrew I try to do."
Polson did plenty for Harrison just by playing on Saturday.
"I sat (Harrison) next to me so I could talk him through what Jarrod was doing because he can do everything Jarrod can do to another level, but he's not," Calipari said.
He has unenviable task of trying to shadow Harrison every day in practice, so Polson knows that's true.
"He's just really talented and he's really a hard worker," Polson said. "I don't know, I feel like he's been playing pretty well. I think some people have been on him a little bit, but he's still learning and obviously has a lot of talent and I think he's going to be really good by the end of the season."
Harrison has had his moments when that talent has shone through, most recently last weekend against North Carolina in a 17-point, seven-assist, six-rebound performance. But he isn't there yet.
"I'm just going to keep working with him because at the end of the day, I want Andrew to be the best point guard in the country," Calipari said. "I don't want there to be any question. Right now most games he's not the best point guard on the court. We've just got to get it changed. He has the talent, he has the ability, he has the mindset, I've just got to keep working with him."
Whether it's in games or only on the practice floor, Calipari will be relying on Polson to help too.
The last two seasons, UK has impressive crowds for its annual "Pack the House" game in Rupp Arena. Nearly 33,000 combined fans were in attendance, but Rupp wasn't completely full for either.
So when it does happen at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday, the meaning won't be lost on Mitchell. That's why he'll be thinking about the three people who laid the foundation for what women's basketball has become at Kentucky: former UK President Dr. Lee Todd, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and former head coach Mickie DeMoss.
"When that happens, and we think it'll happen this Sunday, my mind will be on those three people who have meant so much to this program and who really sacrificed a whole lot and worked really hard so a day like Sunday could happen," Mitchell said. "We're real excited about that part of it."
Mitchell credits that trio for putting the muscle behind the effort to resurrect UK Hoops. Under their leadership, unprecedented support was given to the program in the form of facilities and marketing.
But as important as those investments were and continue to be, Mitchell knows Sunday would not be possible if not for the players getting it done on the floor.
"You can put up all the billboards you want to and run all the promotions you want to, you need to have something on the floor that people can connect with and want to come watch," Mitchell said. "We've been very fortunate to have players that would pay that price over the last five years and make this possible."
Never has UK had a group of players easier to connect with than this one. The No. 5/6 Cats have tied a school record with an 11-0 start to the 2013-14 season, overcoming adversity every step of the way.
"I think that we are a pretty close team," Mitchell said. "I think the girls really care about each other in a way that makes it important for everybody to succeed. And that's extremely valuable, I think, for our team."
Two players (Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Samantha Drake) have already been lost to the season to injury, while star senior DeNesha Stallworth is in the middle of a three-to-four week absence after arthroscopic knee surgery. Another -- Makayla Epps -- played an important role in UK's win over ETSU on Sunday mere hours after walking away from a serious car accident.
All the while, the Cats have been undeterred. They continue to fly up and down the floor, scoring points at a record rate (96.2 per game) and dispatching every opponent that comes calling.
In December alone, UK boasts a win over archrival Louisville, then ranked in the top five, and another over No. 9 Baylor in a quadruple-overtime thriller that captured the imagination of fans and set an all-time record for most points in a women's college basketball game. Less than a week later, UK overcame revenge-minded DePaul -- the team the Cats blew out in last year's "Pack the House" game -- on the road in a victory Mitchell considers even more impressive.
"I thought the DePaul game to me was one of the best wins we've had here ever," Mitchell said.
A victory over Duke would surely join that conversation as well.
The Blue Devils enter Sunday's matchup with a record of 11-1 and the only loss coming against top-ranked UConn. A perennial title contender, Duke is outscoring its opponents by nearly 25 points per game and shooting better than 51 percent from the field.
"Duke has an outstanding team, outstanding players," Mitchell said. "They are extremely dynamic both offensively and defensively, so we'll be tested every way imaginable."
Five players average double figures for Duke, led by Tricia Liston at 16.5 points. The senior guard is a good representative for the challenge UK will face in that the senior guard stands 6-foot-1. Of the eight Blue Devils playing 10 minutes or more per game, all but three are 6-foot or taller.
"They are big and they are bigger than we are," Mitchell said. "It will be a battle of wills there and we will have to make it an up-tempo, fast game. We can't let them impose their will on us and run their stuff and get the ball where they want to get it because they have some really outstanding players."
For the Cats to succeed in ratcheting up the pace, they will need a better effort than they showed in their last outing. UK's dynamic offense stagnated in a 24-point second half.
"It was just a total lack of aggressiveness and totally out of character for this team and it just wasn't a great effort and it just was not where we needed to do," Mitchell said. "We watched it yesterday, some examples of it. And the first half was really aggressive. The first half was real similar to what we've been doing all season and the second half just decision-making went way down, effort went down."
In practice this week, with players balancing preparation for Duke and final exams, UK has gone to work addressing that. Knowing his team and seeing the work the Cats have put in, Mitchell isn't overly concerned the problem will arise again.
"We're trying to explain to them how important their aggressiveness is, and if you're not aggressive against Duke it won't be good," Mitchell said. "We really have to push the tempo. The point guard needs to make a good decision every time down the court."
If point guards Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill can live up to that as they have most of the season, UK could be in position to add yet another signature win to a resume full of them.
Kentucky's ultimate goals can't be realized until March, but Sunday offers a chance to take another step in the right direction.
"We just have to stay more in-tuned to the process right now," Mitchell said. "The way you get a No. 1 seed is you win games. We have a great schedule. We have a great non-conference schedule and great conference schedule and if we win enough games it will happen."
Coach Cal's first four teams -- all composed largely by freshmen -- began the season ranked in the top 10, but not No. 1 like this year. They were all tabbed as Final Four contenders, but they were never talked about as having a chance to go 40-0.
More than a month into the 2013-14 season, that talk continues to define the Wildcats. Measured against otherworldly expectations, UK's 8-3 start is a disappointment. And when you began at the top, a No. 19/21 ranking doesn't look so good.
From the very beginning, the Cats have been the hunted, taking on teams eager to knock them off their pedestal. But after their most recent defeat at North Carolina, they have turned that on its head.
"Coming into this season, people tried to put us up there with the greatest team ever or whatever, but now we have a chip on our shoulder," Andrew Harrison said. "Now we have a reason to play hard. We have stuff to prove, so that's what we're going to try to go do."
Willie Cauley-Stein senses it too. Even as the Cats have balanced finals week, practice and preparation for a Saturday matchup with Belmont (noon ET, ESPNU), things have felt different.
"The last couple days of practice there's been a sense of urgency that's changed the feel of the way this team is starting to act," Cauley-Stein said.
That practice trend is a reflection of what Coach Cal has been telling his team (and his Twitter followers).
"Look, at the end of the day -- and my message to them is simple today -- you can't change how we started," Calipari's said. "Not changing. You can change how you approach the end. And that's how you'll be remembered."
The message, considering the ways in which UK needs to improve as a team, has more than one meaning.
In each of Kentucky's three losses -- which came by a combined 14 points -- the Cats were in position to win in the final minutes, but were unable to finish the job.
"Right now we don't know how to close out the last five minutes of a game," Cauley-Stein said. "That happens with young guys. It was the same with us last year. Hopefully it just comes and it starts clicking for us."
The fact that UK been close against three ranked teams offers a chance for the Cats to tell themselves they aren't as far from realizing their potential as some might believe. Cauley-Stein, however, isn't biting.
"It's a big problem that has to be solved," Cauley-Stein said. "There's no sugar-coating it. We were ranked too, so you gotta be able to--When it comes down to it you gotta be able to finish out a game."
It's an issue Cauley-Stein remembers dealing with a season ago, and the same goes for Calipari dating all the way back to 2009-10. Coach Cal is attacking it by getting everyone on the same page about UK's strengths and weaknesses and the plan that grows out of those, for both individuals and the team as a whole.
"Really narrow in to what you do and what you absolutely don't do," Calipari said. "And we've got to be clear on it. I think, again, I mentioned this: more organized offensively, because their instincts are, right now, for them. Not us, their instincts."
UK's crunch-time execution could be put to the test immediately, as Belmont (8-4) will come into Rupp Arena with a three-year streak of NCAA Tournament appearances and a win over North Carolina under its belt. Though the Bruins have been without senior guard Reece Chamberlain and will likely be again on Saturday, Calipari has all the respect in the world for Rick Byrd's team and program.
"What he's done at Belmont to take that program from where it is, it's never been done," Calipari said. "And then to have success everywhere he's taken the program, never been done before. And he's been through the wards. He's played all the great teams. He's not coming in here, and his team won't come in here thinking anything less than 'Let's try to beat these guys.' "
As dangerous as Belmont -- led in scoring by senior J.J. Mann at 17.7 points per game -- the Cats will continue to keep their focus more on themselves than anyone else.
"We just have to go in there and play as hard as we can," Harrison said. "We can't really worry about the opponent. We have to worry about us. All we can do is practice hard and play as hard we can to get better every day."
That's not an easy process. Calipari, as he has been all season, was quick to remind reporters he doesn't have selfish players, but he is fighting a lifetime of habits.
"What we ask them to do is really hard," Calipari said. "It's easier to play the way they play."
Calipari will occasionally fall victim to moments when forgets he's coaching a team of 18- and 19-year-olds and want to find the finish line faster than he knows is possible. But in the end, he always remembers patience.
"I want them to be better right now," Calipari said. "But it's gonna be a process, and we all got to live with it - and me especially - that it's not always on my timetable or our fans or the media when the light will go on. But I have all the confidence in the world it will at some point. I keep saying, our persistence vs. their resistance. And just understand, I'm not changing."
Cauley-Stein can attest to that.
"I feel like it's going to change real quick because we got no choice," he said. "Cal's going to get it out of us either way, so we can either fight it and we can miserable and it's still going to get done, just in a longer time, or accept the fact that we're wrong and learn and build off of it."
A prolific high-school passer and adept runner, the Burlington, Ky., native projects as UK's quarterback of the future. But as good as Barker could be down the road, he's already proven invaluable as the lynchpin of Mark Stoops' first full class.
"He's played a critical role in this," Stoops said. "He really has, just with first of all with his commitment to us early in the process. And he did that to help solidify the rest of his class and help us recruit the rest of his class, and he's done that."
As soon as he chose UK over South Carolina -- and really even before that -- Barker went about the business of building relationships with classmates throughout the country who were considering joining him in Lexington. Many followed him and Kentucky is positioned to reel in its best class ever come Signing Day.
On Wednesday, Stoops praised the personality of the group, comparing camaraderie that has already been built to a brotherhood. That has a lot to do with Barker.
"It just shows he's just a very mature young man and he's got great leadership skills and obviously those are important qualities when you're looking at a quarterback," Stoops said.
Those qualities and more will position Barker to compete for playing time this spring. The 6-foot-3, 217-pounder graduated from high school in December and will enroll in classes in January.
"Drew, you know, coming in at mid-year is different than a regular high-school kid coming in obviously, coming in, in the fall," Stoops said. "So he's going to go through offseason conditioning. Again, going through spring ball."
Due to the staggered practice schedule, Stoops says the spring is a better time to learn than fall camp. Instead of the daily grind of practice after practice, Barker will typically have off days during which he can process all the information being thrown at him.
"I think that's very big, and I think it's big at quarterback," Stoops said. "So, I'm excited to get him in here and get him rolling. I expect him to come in from day one and compete for the starting job, and that's why we recruited him."
When spring practice does begin in a few months, the competition will begin between Barker and returners Maxwell Smith, Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips.
"I think any of us who have been around football would like to walk in here and say, 'Yeah, that's my guy,' " Stoops said. "We're not in that position, and that's the way it is. We'll go back to the drawing boards and open it up in spring. We've got some new additions, and we'll see where that takes us."
Stoops not slowing down in second year
Stoops has hardly had time to breathe since he was named head coach.
In his first months, he moved his family, hired a staff and rushed to put together a recruiting class. As soon as that was done, it was time for spring practice. After playing catchup and laying the foundation for the 2014 class over the summer, fall camp and his first season began.
That's exactly the way he wants it.
"So I've been going 100 miles an hour for a year now, and now this is the first week you can really decompress and put your feet on the ground and I'm pretty bummed out about that to be honest with you," Stoops said. "I'd rather keep going."
Even so, Stoops admits it's nice to have settled in.
"Obviously the comfort level is much greater, it's much more comfortable this year than it was at this time last year," Stoops said. "I was just trying to find my way around town this time last year."
Now officially in his second calendar year in Lexington, he's still finding plenty of ways to keep busy. He's also just as excited about the future as he was last December.
"Wrapping up 2013, obviously disappointed in the wins and losses, but very pleased and thought we made progress in a lot of areas," Stoops said. "We are excited about recruiting and the offseason and moving forward with wrapping up this recruiting class and moving forward with the program. Some good things are happening right now with the renovations getting started and all those good things."
Dupree, Smith return to solidify pass rush
"This past week, probably two of our biggest splashes in recruiting really came from Bud and Za'Darius with both of those guys announcing they were coming back," Stoops said.
The two defensive ends announced they will bypass the NFL Draft and return for their senior years. Dupree and Smith were UK's second- and third-leading tacklers in 2013, combining for 120 tackles -- 16 of which came for loss -- and 13 sacks.
"That was big for us and very important for our defense and team and leadership to have those guys return," Stoops said. "I am excited for them and to help them improve their stock in the draft the following year."
Stoops proud as FSU prepares for title game
All year, Stoops has watched as his former colleagues and players at Florida State have put together a dream 2013 season.
"Very happy for Florida State," Stoops said. "Very proud of those guys. I have an awful lot of good friends down there, and just love the way they play."
The No. 1 Seminoles are in the midst of preparations for the BCS National Championship, where they will take on No. 2 Auburn. As much as Stoops might like to see the Southeastern Conference extend its title streak to eight, he has to root for FSU.
"I'm sorry, I've got to go against the SEC on this one," Stoops said. "I've got too many close relationships with the people there and certainly the players there. I wish them the best of luck."
It wasn't as chaotic as National Signing Day will be in February, but Mark Stoops was a busy man on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
With mid-year junior-college transfers able to sign, Stoops and his staff were hoping to add two players to Kentucky's 2014 class and they wouldn't rest until those faxes came through.
"Believe me, we were working all night last night," Stoops said at a noon ET press conference. "This deal, one of these deals didn't get closed until about an hour ago. We were working all the way through."
The work ultimately paid off, as defensive tackle Cory "C.J." Johnson and cornerback A.J. Stamps put pen to paper and signed with Kentucky.
"Cory and A.J. were outstanding players on the junior-college level and will help us address needs at their positions," Stoops said. "They will be able to enroll in January, go through our winter high-performance program and participate in spring practice."
In discussing the pair -- as well as a number of other offseason topics -- Stoops confirmed that it was Stamps who kept the coaches up the night before. He also joked that the 6-foot, 190-pounder will be in for some additional running when he and Johnson enroll in January after the last-minute stress he caused.
"We've felt good about it for a while, but you know it's never over until it's over," Stoops said. "Then the last 48 hours some things turned, and it's always a hard-fought battle when you're going after players of this caliber."
Stamps -- a teammate of UK defensive end Za'Darius Smith in 2012 -- arrived at East Mississippi Community College as a wide receiver after he caught 77 passes for 1,289 yards and 19 touchdowns as a senior at Vicksburg (Miss.) High School. But before the 2013 season, he converted to corner and thrived.
Stamps registered 51 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four interceptions and nine pass breakups in leading the Lions to the 2013 national championship. Because of his late emergence, Stamps isn't listed in many recruiting databases, but the other finalist for his services says everything about the kind of player he is. Stamps chose Kentucky over Ohio State, citing relationships with coaches and players, the city of Lexington and UK's fan support.
Stoops admits it's a thrill to win that kind of battle.
"We want the best players," Stoops said. "We know that's the lifeline of our program, is recruiting. Very encouraged because I feel like we really try to do things right and cross every T and dot every I and don't leave any stone unturned. We try to go about our business the right way, and after that you let the chips fall where they may."
Johnson has an impressive offer sheet of his own. Rated a four-star prospect by Rivals.com and the No. 31 junior-college player by ESPN.com, he picked Kentucky over Miami (Fla.) and Texas Tech. Johnson attended ASA College in Brooklyn, N.Y., and led the Junior College Athletic Association's top scoring defense with 49 tackles to go with 15 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.
"Cory comes from a very successful junior college, won a lot of games," Stoops said. "He is a very active, productive player. The fact that he led his team in tackles as a defensive lineman is very impressive. I look forward to adding a big, strong lineman to help at tackle."
Both Johnson and Stamps project to compete for immediate playing time, particularly after going through offseason workouts and practice next semester.
"I'm confident these guys will come in and help us," Stoops said. "That's why we recruited them."
With UK losing starters Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, Johnson would appear to have a good opportunity to do just that at defensive tackle. Stoops praised his size, suggesting he is even bigger than the 6-3, 275 pounds at which he's currently listed. Stamps, meanwhile, adds a veteran presence to a corner position lacking that a season ago.
Johnson and Stamps become the sixth and seventh official members of UK's highly rated 2014 class. They join the following high-school mid-year enrollees: quarterback Drew Barker (Burlington, Ky.), linebacker Dorian Hendrix (Huber Heights, Ohio), running back Mikel Horton (West Chester, Ohio), wide receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass (Springfield, Ohio) and wide receiver T.V. Williams (McKinney, Texas).
Much of that class was together in Lexington last weekend, including the two most recent signees.
"The weekend was fantastic, really, this past weekend, and really a good portion of how this 2014 class is coming together is one of the most unique recruiting experiences I've been a part of," Stoops said.
Stoops is unable to get into specifics since the majority of the players remain unsigned, but he sees a personality developing in his first full recruiting class.
"I think if you look at some of the characteristics of this class that we're bringing in, obviously they're great and very talented football players, but they're great leaders," Stoops said. "I think they're very humble kids."
Growing out of that is a collective pride that makes the class feel like a team even before its members have arrived on campus.
"When they're on campus amongst themselves, they interact with each other in a way that they've known each other for years," Stoops said. "They feel like they're almost brothers, and that's coming from them and their quotes and different things. But I think that's why it's unique: because they just feel a very strong bond with one another and they feel a very strong bond with Kentucky and with our fans and with our people here and all the staff and all that."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Dec. 15:
Men's basketball: Willie Cauley-Stein
- Averaged 5.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and seven blocked shots this week
- The nine blocks rank as the second-most in a single-game for UK and matches a career-high for the sophomore
- Pulled down 12 rebounds vs. North Carolina ...one shy of a career high
- Has three or more blocked shots in five-straight games
- The three steals marked a team-high for the weekend.
Men's basketball: James Young
- Reached double-figure scoring in the opening half vs. Boise State
- Hit a team-high six 3-pointers for the weekend
- Has hit at least one 3-pointer in all but one game this season
- Was UK's leading scorer in the win over Boise State
- Has hit more 3-pointers than any other UK player
- The nine re bounds vs. Boise State is a career high ... first guard to come one rebound shy of a career double-double this season.
This summer, 11 UK student-athletes went on a service trip to Ethiopia. In the video above, they reflect on the ways their time in Africa is still affecting their lives.
For more on the trip, check out the following Cat Scratches stories from this summer.
Jarrod Polson, Stephanie Fox moved on day one
Angelica Whaley, Brett Johnson on relationships built
Liz Breed, Emma Brown recharge on Friday
Tiara Phipps on a stirring example of strength
Maclin Simpson describes final day before return home
Polson reflects on experience
Kevin Mitchell embracing experience
Jonathan George, Cats visit local prisons
Avery Williamson thinking about the people as trip ends
Video: Williamson, George, Mitchell on Ethiopia service trip
Home from Ethiopia, Wildcats already thinking about returning
Jon Lipsitz is asking for a little help from the Big Blue Nation to decide the top moment of the 2013 women's soccer season. Watch the video above, pick a moment and tweet it with the hash tag #UKWSTopMoment to cast your vote.
He emphasized the importance of training and conditioning. He talked of confidence and raising his student-athletes' expectations for their own performance.
Though he knew nothing would happen overnight, Garrison still had a clear picture of what the future would hold.
"Success breeds motivation," Garrison said in April 2011. "Once you get a little success going, you start to get wins against some SEC teams that we are going to be seeing. That's how you take those steps."
Two seasons in, what Garrison foresaw is beginning to come to pass.
The Wildcats are fresh off a 2013 season that, by almost any measure, was the best in school history. UK posted a record Regional Qualifying Score of 196.06 and knocked off three conference opponents for the first time ever.
Nearly every gymnast from that record-setting team returns in 2014, creating a sort of cycle of success.
"You can call it motivation, you can call it whatever you want, but I think what it is is they expect to do well now," Garrison said on Friday. "So they're motivated because they want to do well. In order to do well, they've got to work hard."
As UK prepares for its season-opening Excite Night meet on Jan. 10, the Cats aren't out to duplicate what they did a year ago. They want much, much more.
For example, Kentucky is ranked No. 21 in the GymInfo preseason coaches' poll. It matches UK's final 2013 ranking and is the highest preseason ranking in school history, but Garrison's reaction to it is not what you might expect.
"We were disappointed with that," he said.
It's not that Garrison isn't pleased with the progress his team has made. He is. He knows the work it's taken to reach this point because he's been there every step of the way.
What his words reflect is a steadfast refusal to accept the status quo, even when the status quo is UK's best ever. Even as the Cats set a school record with a 196.775 to cap off their first ever streak of four consecutive meets scoring a 196 or better, Garrison saw even more potential for immediate growth.
"For me, I look at where we could be and the things that we gave away and the things that we need to correct," Garrison said. "It's always about improving and I think our team has taken that on also."
Fully embracing that attitude is a senior class that will be called on to set the tone for the team.
In Garrison's first two seasons, UK had to cobble together leadership from unlikely sources. But now, with Audrey Harrison, Holly Cunningham, Kayla Sienkowski and Kayla Hartley (a redshirt junior) having established themselves as consistent performers, Garrison will look to his seniors.
"They've just grown up a lot," Garrison said. "They've grown up and matured, which is something we were looking for. I don't think they knew what was up and down when we first got here. Now they know what to expect and they can help others with that perspective they've gained."
Harrison will be called on to be UK's top overall performer once again. As a junior, she led the SEC in all-around titles. Cunningham will look to post big scores on beam and vault and Garrison believes she could score a perfect 10 on the latter. Sienkowski will be asked to provide a steady presence on beam and floor, while Hartley will compete on bars, vault and -- most importantly -- floor, where she will be UK's anchor.
The leadership of the group was put to the test last week by some preseason adversity, when UK learned that All-SEC performer Alexis Gross had been lost for the season to a torn elbow ligament. When Garrison told the team the news last Thursday, he got exactly the response he wanted.
"We talk about that, but they already accept it," Garrison said. "They didn't, any of them, seem like they were devastated by it. Obviously we feel bad for Alexis first, we feel bad for the team second, but we're going to get through it."
Gross's absence will hurt depth, but it has not changed expectations.
As Garrison continues to recruit, UK will incorporate more and more difficulty into its routines. For now, it's about consistency.
"This year, we're looking for clean and consistent," Garrison said. "Hopefully what fans are going to see is us hitting every routine with rare exception, sticking landings and just executing very, very well."
That doesn't mean fans won't be in for plenty of entertainment in Memorial Coliseum this winter.
On floor, Garrison is pleased with UK's enhanced choreography and music. His belief was further reinforced at the team's Blue/White Intrasquad meet, when a judge came away with a similar feeling.
And once again, UK will face one of the nation's best schedules. The Cats will play host to four ranked teams in 2014, including top-ranked and defending national champion Florida. In addition, UK will take on No. 2 Alabama, No. 3 Oklahoma, No. 5 LSU, No. 8 Georgia and No. 10 Nebraska away from home.
"We're just gluttons for punishment, basically," Garrison said. "We ask for it."
It all begins at home against No. 15 Penn State, West Virginia and Ball State.
"The nice thing about starting this year in a quad meet is the fact there's a lot to watch for the people that are going to be in the stands," Garrison said. "That's going to be a fun environment just to have gymnastics going on everywhere."
Last season, UK fell to Penn State in posting that school record and saw West Virginia at NCAA Regionals, meaning Excite Night will present an immediate test.
That's the idea.
"We go against tough competition, but at the end of the year we're going to be that much tougher," Garrison said. "Nothing's going to surprise us. We should go into the SEC Championship and say, 'Alright, here we go. This is just another one.' "
- Kentucky went 1-1 on the week with a home victory against Boise State before dropping an 82-77 loss at No. 18/21 North Carolina.
- Both Harrisons logged 17 or more points, with Andrew Harrison logging a career-best six assists. Freshman James Young had a game-high 21 points in a win over Boise State earlier in the week. Young has hit multiple 3-pointers in four-straight games.
- Kentucky will take a week off from competition for finals week. UK wraps up with 2013 calendar year with Belmont on Saturday and Louisville on the following Saturday.
- No. 5/6 Kentucky improved to 11-0 with wins over DePaul (96-85) and East Tennessee State (73-56) last week. The 11-0 start ties the school record for the best start to a season, set in 2009-10. The 11-game winning streak also ties the second-longest winning streak in school history.
- The Wildcats took a hard-fought 96-85 win over the Blue Demons in Chicago on Thursday. Playing without All-SEC forward DeNesha Stallworth due to a knee injury, UK had to overcome an 11-point first-half deficit. Thanks in large part to the gritty play of freshmen Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps, the Wildcats defeated DePaul 96-85, ending their nonconference road schedule undefeated. Harper netted a career-high 18 points in her homecoming, 12 coming in the decisive second half.
- Epps added a career-high 10 points and six rebounds in just 15 minutes of action. Also in double digits was senior Kastine Evans with 14, senior Samarie Walker with 13 and a team-high eight rebounds, and junior Jennifer O'Neill with 12 points. The Wildcats shot a season-high 55.9 percent from the field, their highest shooting performance since hitting a 57.1 percent clip vs. Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 1, 2009.
- Against East Tennessee State, Harper once again came off the bench to spark the Wildcats. She netted all 10 of her points in the first half, hitting 5-of-6 attempts. She was one of three Wildcats in double figures as Walker and Janee Thompson led with 12 points apiece in the 73-56 win. After a week-long break for finals, the Wildcats will return to action on Sunday, Dec. 22 vs. No. 2 Duke in Rupp Arena for their annual "Pack the House" game.
Track and field
- Kentucky won six events at the indoor track and field season-beginning Hoosier Open on Friday inside Indiana's Gladstein Fieldhouse.
- Kayla Parker ran the nation's fastest 60-meter hurdles time, setting the school record 8.24 seconds to win the event for the second straight year.
- Junior transfer Kendra Harrison won two events, the 60m and 300m.
- Brad Szypka won the Hoosier Open shot put for the second year running as his top throw, 18.82m/61'9", fell just half and inch short of his PR.
- Keffri Neal won the 1,000m for the second-consecutive year, with nearly a three-second personal-best time, 2:22.82.
- Terence Boyd won the long jump, with an indoor-best jump 7.29m/23'11".
- Justin Kretchmer made a nice debut as the freshman won the high jump with a top clearance 2.10m/6'10.75".
- UK's next competition will be the home opening Kentucky Invitational inside Nutter Field House on January 17, 2014.
Tuesday, Dec. 17
Swimming & Diving at USA Diving Winter National Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)
Wednesday, Dec. 18
Swimming & Diving at USA Diving Winter National Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)
Saturday, Dec. 21
Swimming & Diving at USA Diving Winter National Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)
Men's Basketball vs. Belmont - 12 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 22
Women's Basketball vs. No. 2 Duke - 3 p.m.
Averaging 98.5 points entering a game on Sunday, Kentucky had grown accustomed to relying on its offense. The Wildcats had allowed 215 points in their last two games, but had beaten both Baylor and DePaul, serving as further reinforcement.
Against East Tennessee State, however, it was a different story.
"I thought East Tennessee State played really, really hard and obviously caused us some problems today and competed tough," Matthew Mitchell said. "We had to win it with our defense today and that is something that has been different for us from previous games."
UK appeared poised to threaten triple digits on the scoreboard once again after a 49-point first half, but the Cats went cold over the final 20 minutes. Kentucky shot just 8 of 25 (32.0 percent) from the field in its lowest-scoring half of the season, but still won 73-56 to tie a school record with an 11-0 start to the 2013-14 season.
"I think you need to give a lot of credit to East Tennessee State I think they played hard and came in with a lot of fire today," Mitchell said. "It was a different situation for our team to be in, probably made them a little uncomfortable."
Even through those offense struggles, ETSU managed to trim UK's 20-point halftime lead by only three. For the game, the Lady Buccaneers shot 36.5 percent and managed just 0.709 points per possession.
"I am glad we were able to tighten up there in the second half and really shut them down for a long period of time," Mitchell said. "That was a big difference in the game."
It was somewhat of a throwback for Kentucky, which ascended the ranks of women's college basketball largely on the strength of defense. So in some ways, Sunday served as a reminder of just how important that end of the floor is.
"Defense is always important to us," said Samarie Walker, who tied for the team high with 12 points. "That's one of our main focuses on this team. I wouldn't say our offense wasn't really working today. We just weren't playing that hard, in my opinion. But defense is always good to fall back on when we aren't doing as well as we'd like to on offense."
Walker, at least in part, attributes that subpar offensive effort to the brutal December schedule UK has faced. It began with a home win over then-No. 4 Louisville. Next, UK traveled to Dallas and Chicago within the span of a week before turning around and hosting ETSU three days later.
Now, UK has some time to rest. The Cats have a week off before hosting No. 2 Duke in Rupp Arena next Sunday, though they will have to contend with finals in between. UK won't practice on Monday or Tuesday, meaning the Cats will take the next two days to study and clear their minds.
"Coach talked about that today, just moving forward," Walker said. "Once we come back to practice on Wednesday, kind of learn from it and then let it go and move on and focus on our next game."
Epps 'blessed' to play after car accident
UK has dealt with injuries and adversity all season, but no moment has been scarier for the Cats than the one Makayla Epps faced on Saturday evening.
Driving back from a funeral on the Bluegrass Parkway, Epps lost control of her car. Her vehicle flipped several times and the freshman was taken to the hospital, but she walked away with only a neck sprain.
And less than 24 hours later, she suited up and played against ETSU.
"I didn't see this one coming at all," Epps said. "I didn't think I was going to get to play today. Real grateful to get out there with my teammates and be able to contribute, as always."
Epps provided an immediate boost of energy when she checked in at the 13:20 mark, scoring all eight of her points in the first half and hitting a pair of 3s.
"I was proud of her to be able to come back and being able to play," Mitchell said. "We needed her out there today. She made some great hustle plays and those were at a premium today because we had a hard time getting the crowd going."
Epps, in spite of the traumatic experience, considers herself "blessed" to be healthy and playing.
"I'm here, that's the best thing," Epps said.
The skinny: Kentucky went on the road for the first time this season, falling to North Carolina in a raucous Dean Smith Center, 82-77. The Wildcats (8-3) fell victim to major first-half foul trouble, but managed to stay within three points of the Tar Heels at the break. Out of halftime, UK attacked the basket relentlessly using pick-and-rolls, taking a 46-44 lead with less than 14 minutes left. UNC (8-2), however, had an answer and seized control with a 10-2 run. The Cats would battle, but couldn't overcome mistakes even though Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 37 points.
The difference: Half-court offense. UK had its moments -- particularly from the Harrison twins and James Young -- but never found a consistent offensive rhythm. Julius Randle (11 points on 3-of-9 shooting) struggled to get involved and committed four turnovers. The Tar Heels scored 22 points off Wildcat miscues, shot 57.7 percent in the second half and sealed the win with a pair of rebounds of their own missed free throws in the final minute.
Player of the game: James Michael McAdoo. When leading scorer Marcus Paige struggled in a two-point first half, the junior forward stepped up. He scored 11 points before halftime on just three shots, hitting 9-of-13 free throws and drawing many of UK's 15 fouls. Paige would score 22 in the final 20 minutes, but it's McAdoo's steadiness that made him so valuable. He finished with 20 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Turning point: UNC's 10-2 run. After the Cats grabbed a short-lived lead at 46-44, the Tar Heels forced back-to-back turnovers and scored on five consecutive possessions to reclaim control. Nate Britt had a pair of jumpers to key the spurt and Desmond Huber capped it off with a tip-in of a Brice Johnson miss.
Key stat: 17 turnovers. UNC's pressure and fronting of Randle in the post caused plenty of problems, but many of UK's miscues were unforced. Poor passes and lapses in concentration played the Cats from start to finish, rendering their 44-32 rebounding edge meaningless.
Unsung heroes: Harrison twins. It will be overlooked because of the loss, but Andrew and Aaron Harrison turned in their best combined game. Andrew was on the floor for all but three minutes and 17 points, seven assists and six rebounds. His four turnovers and 10-of-17 free-throw shooting hurt, but if not for his play-making and penetration the game would not have been close. Aaron, meanwhile, got off to a quick start, scoring five points in the opening minutes before picking up his second foul and heading to the bench. He once again came out firing in the second half and finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting.
What this one means: The Cats missed out on an opportunity for a marquee nonconference win and displayed many of the same problems that cost them in losses to Michigan State and Baylor. Though UK never gave in, but it's clear John Calipari still has a great deal of work ahead in leading his team to fulfill its vast potential. The good news on that front is there is still time. UK will take final exams next week, then go through "Camp Cal," a time during which all practice restrictions are lifted. Historically, that's been when Calipari's teams have shown the most improvement.
Video: Calipari's postgame interview
"Think about the players that have gone through there and the players that have gone through here," Calipari said. "You think about from Frank Maguire, Dean Smith on, from Adolph Rupp on, it's craziness. This why you coach and this is why you play, to play in games like this."
The numbers say it all.
Between the two titans, there are 4,215 combined wins and 13 NCAA championships. UK is the all-time winningest program in the history of the sport, UNC third. When it comes to college basketball, it's hard to even have a conversation without including Kentucky and Carolina's two shades of blue.
For that reason, Calipari feels no need to spend any time crafting a special pregame message for his team.
"It's Carolina-Kentucky," Calipari said. "What do I got to do? I need a Knute Rockne speech? It's Carolina-Kentucky."
Even though the stage is big and the Wildcats young, Calipari believes his team has relevant experience heading into a road trip to Chapel Hill, N.C., namely UK's games against Michigan State in Chicago and Baylor in Dallas.
North Carolina, however, will present a unique set of challenges on Saturday (5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The No. 18/21 Tar Heels (6-2) have been a source of intrigue all season. Missing top players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald due to suspension, UNC has still managed two of the most impressive wins by any team this season, taking down Louisville on a neutral court and then-No. 1 Michigan State on the road. On the other end of the spectrum, the Heels have dropped decisions to Belmont and UAB.
Though experts have been flummoxed by Carolina, No. 11/10 UK (8-2) knows what to expect.
"They're going to compete no matter who they're playing," Julius Randle said. "They've had some missteps but they're a great team, a great ball club and have a great coach, so regardless who they're playing they're going to compete."
Calipari is even clearer about that.
"Do you expect anything other than the best game they've played all year?" Calipari said. "We're gonna face North Carolina at their best. So we have to be at our best."
When Kentucky has been at its best, the Cats have capitalized on their size and punished opponents on the glass. UNC, however, is one of a handful of teams capable of coming close to matching Kentucky inch for inch and pound for pound in the post.
"Look, their frontline players are as good as any we'll play, and that's what's given us trouble," Calipari said.
Kentucky ranks fourth in the nation in effective height according to kenpom.com, North Carolina 15th. The Tar Heels' frontcourt rotation of James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James runs 6-foot-9, 6-9, 6-9 and 6-10. Meeks and James weigh in at 290 and 280 pounds, respectively.
UNC's top offensive threat, however, is on the outside. Marcus Paige, who has shifted away from point guard in Hairston and Strickland's absence, is averaging 18.8 points and is the only Tar Heel who has attempted more than 8 3-pointers this season.
"It's a good challenge, a good challenge for both of us," Randle said. "Each team has a lot of weapons. It's just going to come down to who wants it the most at the end."
He can't say what will happen in the final minutes, but Coach Cal knows how much UNC wants it right now.
"You're going down there and they want you bad," Calipari said. "It's a white out. They're honoring Coach (Dean) Smith, which I think is outstanding. They're pull out all the stops, and you know what? It's what my team needs. Let's go see where we are. But I'm excited to coach in it. This is why you coach: games like this."
Randle, UK's top scorer and rebounder, feels the same way, particularly considering this will be his first opportunity to play in a true road environment in college.
"I'm looking forward it," Randle said. "I kind of love having that feeling of just us, everybody against us."
Calipari likes hearing about Randle's enthusiasm, though he knows it must be tempered.
"We need to have a team full of guys excited that way," Calipari said. "Now, that also leads to too hyped: fouling and doing stuff and out of control."
Randle is fairly confident he'll be able to handle himself just fine. The last time he played in in front of a hostile crowd was in the semifinals of the Texas state tournament on March 2 against John Paul II High School.
"It was a big rival that thought they were going to win the state championship, but it didn't happen," Randle said.
So, how did the star freshman play in his second-to-last game as a high schooler?
"I had 40," Randle said, omitting the 15 rebounds he snagged.
By Julius Randle (Follow on Twitter)
What's up, Big Blue Nation? I've done this kind of thing before for USA Today back in high school, so I'm glad to be doing it again.
We've had a lot going on lately, so I'll start by talking about our trip to New York to play Providence. I enjoyed it a lot. My first time there was last year for the Jordan game but we didn't get to spend a lot of time in the city. I told my mom we have to come back on vacation or something one day, so to be able to go back there and have a day to walk around the city and enjoy it was a cool and neat experience.
Since we flew up there a day early, we had a little bit on that Saturday to ourselves to explore the city. We walked around to a couple stores. We all wanted to shop but we're college kids so we don't really have money like that. We just walked around the city with each other and that was just a neat experience in itself. It was kind of like team bonding.
We got to do some sightseeing while we were there too with Coach Cal guiding the tour from the front of our bus. I'm pretty sure he's been to New York a lot and has a lot of experience with it, so it's kind of cool to get the tour from him even when there were so many buildings. That's Coach Cal for you.
One of the landmarks he pointed out was the 9/11 Memorial and the World Trade Center, which was pretty eye-opening for all of us. I remember exactly where I was on Sept. 11. We didn't hear about it much at school, but I remember coming home and watching the news with my mom. I was only 6 at the time, so I just thought somebody had lost control of the planes and they had crashed into the building. I didn't really know what was going on. But I do remember exactly the day and where I was.
I think the big thing with Coach Cal is he's not just trying to make us basketball players. He's trying to make us mature and make us better people and better men. He's not only going to show us the basketball aspect of life. He's going to show us everything. He's a well-rounded person, so he's definitely helping us out.
Once we got ready to play Providence, the Barclays Center kind of had a different feel from the Jordan game, but it was still pretty cool just to play in a New York atmosphere in Brooklyn and to play in that new arena. We saw Marcus' picture from the Jordan game in the hallway and got the win too, so it was a good night.
I keep getting asked about the ice storm in my hometown last week, so let me just tell you, that was not normal. Dallas in the summer had about 20-something days of 100-plus degrees, so that's not normal. It will snow every year, but that was terrible. I don't know what that was. That's what kind of made me feel like, "I know I'm home, but am I back home?"
What did make it feel like home was getting to see all my family. The place where we were staying was a 45-minute drive without the ice from my house because Dallas is so spread out it's ridiculous, but a lot of my immediate family and my god-family and my mom, they stayed at the hotel. I got to spend a lot of time with my mom and hang out with all of them. After the game, I got to see them a lot. So it was pretty fun even though the ice kind of ruined the mood a little bit.
It was fun making that trip with the women's team, but four overtimes? Oh my goodness. They showed a lot of heart and I was happy that they won, but I wish it would have ended a lot sooner. At the end of regulation, we went out there and I was all excited to play in front of my family. Then it's overtime. Then we go back into the locker room. Then we go back out and Baylor hits a 3. Finally I just decided to put on my headphones and wait until someone told me it was over because I thought I might be bad luck.
Pregame for Baylor was a lot different from what we're used to, but I still thought you might be interested to hear how I get ready for a normal game. We have a pregame shoot-around five or six hours before the game and then we eat a pregame meal together four hours before the game.
Depending on whether it's a home game, I go to the team chapel. That's just something that's important to me that I spend time hearing God's Word before I go out and play. Then we get there at least two hours before the game. It's my time to listen to my music, warm up, get a good stretch in, meet with Coach twice before the game and then go out and play.
Back to Baylor, losing made the trip home feel a lot longer. At least I had my mom there, but it was tough to know that we lost a game that clearly we had no business losing. The good thing is we knew what the problem was. We know we didn't play hard enough. We know we didn't defend well enough. We didn't run the offense how we were supposed to. We didn't run the floor and get easy baskets. We know that they, at the end of the day, just played harder than us and that's just totally unacceptable.
We were just ready to attack practice the next day and get better from that. If we didn't know why we lost, then it would have sat on me a lot more. But we had the answers to why we lost right after and went back to work.
If we would have had a week after we lost, that would have sucked because I'm ready to play constantly, constantly, constantly. Having that Boise game pretty much right after and then Coach challenging me to play harder definitely was a big help.
It was good being back in Lexington because there's no better place than playing in Rupp, but I also love going on the road and having that feeling of everybody against you. Playing North Carolina this weekend especially, we're the two of winningest programs in the country. The greatest player of all time played there. Hall of Fame coach in Roy Williams, who constantly gets great players.
They're a great team and ultimately as a competitor you just look forward to that challenge. I can't wait to actually get there, get ready to play. I love big games like this and I think big games like this bring the best out of me.
You guys have gotten to know me pretty well as a basketball player, but I'm super laidback and a lot different off the court than I am on the court. I like to shop, eat and I don't really like doing much. If I'm away from the basketball floor, I like to recuperate, rest and hang out with my friends and teammates. I don't really like going out, running wild and stuff like that.
With practice, games, school and finals coming up soon, I haven't gotten much time to rest, so getting a break for the holidays will be nice. I hope everyone has a good Christmas and a great New Year's too.
In October, freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was lost for the season due to a blood clot. Less than a month later, Samantha Drake went down for the year with a knee injury.
The latest Wildcat to be sidelined is DeNesha Stallworth, who underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a loose body in her left knee.
"Not the kind of news you want to hear, but we are glad it was nothing serious," Matthew Mitchell said.
Stallworth -- a Naismith Trophy watch list selection -- is expected to miss three-to-four weeks. She was evaluated on Monday after experiencing persistent swelling following UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Friday night and had successful surgery on Wednesday.
"Certainly when you lose someone like DeNesha everybody has to rally and really come together and work hard and pick up the slack that's created by her absence," Mitchell said. "I think that our team is certainly capable of doing that and I think they will want to do that."
Stallworth's temporary absence leaves UK with just three healthy players listed as forwards or centers on the roster. Azia Bishop -- who is averaging 6.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in 17.0 minutes of reserve duty -- is one of them and will slide into a starting role alongside Samarie Walker.
"You add another eight minutes to her and we are hoping to see those numbers go up with extra time on the floor," Mitchell said. "Now she will have to get that done. I think she is playing probably her best basketball since she has been at Kentucky."
With Stallworth out, Mitchell reports Bishop had two solid days of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, positioning the junior to take a step forward in her development.
"It is good for Azia because you fast forward a year from now, we are certainly going to need her to be in a featured role in the post," Mitchell said. "It is all good and very good that she can have this opportunity."
Jelleah Sidney also will see her role expand, while freshman Makayla Epps will shift full time to the 4 position after previously splitting time between the post and the perimeter. Though certainly not ideal, the athleticism of Sidney and Epps can impact the way the Cats play in a positive way.
"Jelleah is so active in the press and does such a good job in the press," Mitchell said. "I think we can play a little bit more up-tempo defensively and turn up the pressure a little bit. Then Makayla, being able to focus on one position for the next four weeks can really help her progress."
And in a pinch, Mitchell won't hesitate to go to a four-guard lineup with Stallworth out.
In that memorable win against Baylor, Mitchell went to that look for extended stretches, often with both halves of his two-headed point-guard monster playing together. Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill combined for 63 points in 65 minutes of the 133-130 victory.
"No matter who has the ball they're a real, real threat to go to the basket or get into the paint and make the defense shrink and guard the paint and then whoever's out there and has the ball kicked to them can make 3s," Mitchell said. "They're a lethal combination when they are on the court together."
That lethal combination has gotten plenty of attention following the Baylor win, UK's second in a row over a top-10 opponent, as has Mitchell's program as a whole.
"It's been so nice around town because the game against Baylor was so exciting and people around town are complimenting us, but we're almost a week removed from it and people are still talking about it," Mitchell said. "As a player and as a coach you have to move forward and understand what's real. It's real that we won that game, but it's over and done with."
With the Baylor victory in in the rearview window, the Cats are shifting their thoughts to a tough road test at DePaul on Thursday (7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1). The Blue Demons (4-2) are averaging more than 85 points a game and have reached 11 straight NCAA Tournaments under head coach Doug Bruno.
"It's a high-octane offense and they can really spread the floor," Mitchell said. "They can get five players out on the perimeter and put stress on your defense, especially a defense like ours that likes to put pressure on a team and tries to get out in passing lanes."
DePaul is the latest in a string of challenging December opponents for Kentucky, but the first UK will have to face without Stallworth. Losing the senior forward is a blow, but not one the Cats can't absorb.
"It's like I told our team, I think we're as well-equipped to handle it as anybody because we've had some kids who have sacrificed to come here that maybe don't play as many minutes that they might at other places, but they are very good very players," Mitchell said. "We have 10 really good players available for us tomorrow night at DePaul."
And due to the relatively short-term nature of Stallworth's injury, her absence could end up benefitting Kentucky down the road.
"I think any time you have to focus and do a better job and sort of raise your level of play, I think it gives you an opportunity to be better and stronger when she comes back," Mitchell said. "I do think you have to believe that if you are going to remain positive and move forward positively."
With a 6-foot-6 point guard in Andrew Harrison and a fleet-footed 7-footer in Willie Cauley-Stein manning the five, he knew there would be times the Wildcats could switch everything.
But as enticing as the possibility was, the concept was completely foreign to the players who would be executing it.
"Once I got here I wasn't really familiar with it because I was just used to face-guarding the guy all the time," James Young said. "So it took us some time to get used to it but we're getting better at it."
That improvement was on display as No. 11/10 UK (8-2) stifled Boise State -- previously the nation's second-highest scoring team -- in a 70-55 victory in Rupp Arena. Playing primarily a four-guard lineup, the Broncos (8-1) shot just 22 of 69 (31.9 percent) from the field on Tuesday night, including 22.9 percent in the second half.
"You've got Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein switching," said Boise State's Anthony Drmic. "They can still defend the guards."
More often than not, Cauley-Stein's defense resulted in blocked shots or, at the very least, altered ones. With nine swats on Tuesday to go with six points and seven rebounds, the sophomore upped his season total to 43.
"He was able to switch out on guards and play them," Calipari said. "They couldn't score on him. That's a problem. When you're a guard, you drive right around them. The nine blocks, it's incredible what he did."
Cauley-Stein now has 28 blocks in his last four games to bring him to within one of Anthony Davis's record-setting 2012 pace through 10 games. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein didn't block his 43rd shot until February.
"I just know what I have to do now," said Cauley-Stein, who fielded as many questions about his newly bleached blonde hair as the win over Boise State. "Last year I was in between on what I was trying to do and this year just try to play around and block every shot I can or at least contest it."
As capable as Cauley-Stein may be of blocking shots and switching into smaller matchups, doing it is another matter. In fact, it's nearly impossible without the communication that was lacking as recently as Friday night in a loss to Baylor.
"There's a lot of things that happened from last game from the pick-and-rolls and stuff to just the communication, talking and breakdowns," said Randle, who had a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds. "We talked a lot better on the floor. We still had some breakdowns, but we got better."
According to the Cats, that has a lot to do with the little things that were so emphasized in practice on Sunday and Monday.
Coach Cal noticed in the Baylor defeat that his team was missing out on simple stuff like huddling before free-attempts and high-fiving teammates when they came to the bench, so they went to work.
"You notice we huddled," Calipari said. "How about this one? We touched each other. In the huddles we talked to one another. You may have noticed when a guy came out of the game, they all stood up, except one time they didn't. I jumped the bench."
Simple -- and maybe even silly -- as it may sound, those things matter.
"You touch and talk," Calipari said. "That's how you start becoming a team and coming together. Again, you can't be into your own thing. It's stuff that we have to teach."
It's not happening overnight or even in a pattern as steady as he may like, but the Cats are learning.
"It definitely is helping us," said Young, who had 21 points and a career-best nine rebounds. "Before we really didn't do it so I feel like we were kind of separated. But it's just bonding us more."
Nine days ago, the Cats were signing a similarly positive tune. They had just dispatched a solid Providence team on a neutral court and believed they were making significant strides. But last Friday, that progress was erased along with UK's nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes to go against Baylor.
Now, UK looks to put an end to that two-steps-forward, one-step-back dance with a trip to No. 18/21 North Carolina.
"I think we took a big step back from the Baylor game so we just back where we was at before that," Cauley-Stein said. "Now we just gotta make sure this next game that we keep it up and guard like that again and start from there and keep on building on little things until it becomes perfection."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Dec. 8:
Men's basketball: Julius Randle
- Scored a team-high 16 points and has reached double-figures in all nine games this season
- Led the team in rebounds with eight, and has led the team in rebounding in every game this year
- Knocked down 6-of-8 free throws ... Has hit 61 on the year, a total that already ranks 24th in program history for a first-year player
- Dished out a career-high four assists
- Registered a block in his fourth game of the season
- Kentucky dropped a neutral-site contest to 20th ranked Baylor on Friday night by a 67-62 margin.
- Freshman Julius Randle led the squad with 16 points for his ninth-straight double-figure scoring effort. He also snagged a team-best eight rebounds. Freshmen guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison both dished out career-bests with six assists. Aaron Harrison logged 15 points and reached double-figures in the opening half for the third straight game. Freshman James Young knocked down a quartet of 3-pointers and has hit multiple 3's in five games this season.
- UK continues its tough stretch in the month of December with a home date vs. undefeated Boise State on Tuesday, before traveling to top-20 ranked North Carolina on Saturday for its first true road test of the season.
- No. 7 Kentucky improved to 9-0 on the season after defeating No. 9 Baylor in one of the most epic games in college basketball history. Playing in a double-header with the UK men's team in the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, the Wildcats defeated the Lady Bears in a four overtime thriller, 133-130.
- The 263 combined points set a new NCAA record, besting the previous high for a Division I women's game of 252 points in SMU's 127-125 win over TCU, also in four overtimes, on Jan. 25, 1997. The Wildcats also won consecutive games against top-10 teams for the first time in school history and set school records for points (133), free-throws made (49) and free-throws attempted (66).
- Junior point guard Jennifer O'Neill came off the bench to net a school-record 43 points on 14-of-31 shooting, netting 33 in the second half and overtime periods. Sophomore point guard Janee Thompson added a career-high 20 points, while senior forward DeNesha Stallworth charted 16 points, nine rebounds and a game-high four steals. Senior guard Kastine Evans and junior guard Bria Goss scored 14 and 13 points, respectively and senior forward Samarie Walker grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds in the game.
- The Cats travel to the Windy City on Thursday to face DePaul at 7 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.
- The 17th-ranked Kentucky volleyball began the weekend with a 3-0 sweep of Duquesne in the NCAA Tournament's first round before a 3-1 loss to No. 20 Michigan State in the second round of the tournament.
- The Wildcats, who made the NCAA Tournament for a school-record ninth consecutive year, finished the season with a 22-9 record, marking the third straight 20-win season for UK. Kentucky's visit to the second round in 2013 marks the first time in program history UK has won at least one NCAA game in three straight years.
- In the win over Duquesne, senior Whitney Billings, led UK with a match-high 18 kills on .406 hitting to go along with eight digs and two service aces. Freshman Anni Thomasson also reached double digits with 12 kills and three digs, while junior libero Jackie Napper recorded 11 digs. Billings added 18 kills with 13 digs for her 43rd career double-double against Michigan State, while junior Lauren O'Conner added seven kills.
- Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum will play host to the NCAA Regionals this weekend. Michigan State and Penn State will open the tournament on Dec. 13 at 5 p.m. ET, with Stanford and Minnesota facing off at 7 p.m. The regional championship is slated for 4 p.m. on Dec 14, with the winner advancing to the Final Four in Seattle. UK is one of four sites selected for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight matchups and this marks the second time in three seasons Memorial Coliseum will host this premier volleyball event. Tickets are available now at UKathletics.com/tickets.
Tuesday, Dec. 10
Men's Basketball vs. Boise State - 9 p.m.
Thursday, Dec. 12
Women's Basketball at DePaul - 7 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 13
Track and Field at Hoosier Open - TBA (Bloomington, Ind.)
Saturday, Dec. 14
Men's Basketball at North Carolina - 5:15 p.m.
Track and Field at Hoosier Open - TBA (Bloomington, Ind.)
Sunday, Dec. 15
Women's Basketball vs. ETSU - 2 p.m.
As recently as a few weeks ago, John Calipari has called his own scheduling habits into practice.
He did it both before and after Kentucky lost to Michigan State, saying the second game of the season was too early to be playing a team the caliber of the Spartans.
One game into a slate of challenging December games, Calipari isn't about to do it again, not even after the Wildcats fell to Baylor on Friday night.
"This is why we did this," Calipari said. "We knew it was gonna be hard. We knew we'd lose games. We knew."
Fans may have thought otherwise, getting wrapped up in the hype surrounding a recruiting class billed by many as the best ever before any of its members even set foot on campus, but not Calipari.
"That's not what I was thinking," Calipari said. "I knew coming to this point, they were gonna have to find each other, or we're not going to be as good as everybody thinks or I think we should be. Until they find each other, until they understand they are absolutely locked arm-in-arm with each other."
When he made the schedule, Calipari's belief was that playing five potential NCAA Tournament teams -- Baylor, Boise State, North Carolina, Belmont and Louisville -- in as many games would force the Cats to realize just how much they need each other. He still feels the same way, but Calipari isn't relying solely on games to do his work for him.
Late in the Baylor game -- when No. 11/10 UK (7-2) gave up a nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes left -- Calipari noticed the Cats were having trouble heeding his instructions to huddle before a free-throw attempt. So on Sunday, he taught them how.
"Well, how could you not know how to huddle?" Calipari said. " 'Because I never played that way. If we got fouled, I was thinking my thoughts and he was thinking his thoughts and he's thinking his thoughts.' This is all new."
The same goes for something as basic as when a player comes to the bench.
"How 'bout this: Guy comes out of the game," Calipari said. "Everybody gets up and touches the guy. Isn't that like we all played? You touch the guy, and 'Hey, you're good.' We sit and, 'Come here and touch me.' There's just things that, to become a good team, they don't know yet."
When you consider the Cats need teaching on things so rudimentary, it's less surprising their development through nine games has come in fits and starts.
"Look, the way we do it is really hard," Calipari said. "The way they've always played has been really easy. Now, which way do you want to do it? The real hard way or the easy way and every chance you can revert back to see if it still works you do? It's just how it is coaching young teams."
That young team had an additional curveball thrown at it this weekend by delay-filled travel to and from Texas. On the way there, the team's flight was delayed by more than three hours. On the way home, the Cats didn't make it back to Lexington until nearly 11 p.m. ET on Saturday due to an ice storm.
"It felt like it was a week. It was honestly terrible," E.J. Floreal said. "Just being stuck there, it was so cold. I didn't even know it snowed in Dallas or anything. It was something for me. It was awful."
The following afternoon, the Cats took the practice floor in the Joe Craft Center to address some of the issues that plagued them against Baylor. In an intense two-hour-plus session, they focused on defense, rebounding and, afterward, free-throw shooting.
"We don't have enough time to teach these guys everything they don't know or we'd have seven-hour practices," Calipari said. "So we have to narrow into what's really important for us as a team. And we can't even really worry about the next game; we gotta worry about us."
That's not easy to do considering the strength of UK's next opponent. Boise State is a perfect 8-0 and is the nation's second-leading scoring team at 91.9 points per game heading into Tuesday's 9 p.m. ET matchup in Rupp Arena.
"They shoot 3s at a high clip," Calipari said. "They run the dribble-drive better than we ran it. They spread the court with four guards. They have four guards. So somebody is going to guard a guard that's not used to guarding a guard. That's just how it is."
The Broncos -- an NCAA Tournament team a season ago -- shoot 41.3 percent from 3-point range and are led in scoring by Anthony Drmic, who is averaging 20.4 points per game.
"They're pretty good, like Coach said, and we just gotta play hard," James Young said. "We just gotta out-tough them, muscle them a little bit. We have a height advantage, so if we use all our height I feel like we'll be good."
The Cats have never been short on confidence heading into games -- particularly on defense -- but that's changed at times this year when the opponent lands a haymaker.
"You're real confident until the first shot to your nose, your eye, your chin and your ear," Calipari said. "You're not so confident anymore."
As Calipari often says, confidence is built through repeated, sustained performance. The first step toward that is by taking it seriously.
"When you take great pride in your defense and your rebounding, you have confidence," Calipari said. "You know, 'We're fine. They can make a couple crazy shots. We're fine.' We haven't built that yet. And we're just trying to get them to understand: That's the only way you build it. They've never needed it before because, 'I'm just going to do my thing and I'll be fine.' Now you have to change. So these are all habits they have to change."
It's now becoming clearer exactly what fans can expect to see on the network.
SEC Commissioner Mike Slive and ESPN's Senior Vice President Justin Connolly held a joint press conference on Friday at the Georgia Dome before the league's football championship game, making several announcements about the network.
Headlining the press conference was the announcement that the SEC will kick off the 2014 football season on the network with a Thursday-night doubleheader. It will mark the first time ever that the college football year will begin on a conference network.
"In a span of two days or three days, we'll have five football games on the SEC Network, and then a triple-header every Saturday thereafter," Slive said. "Our goal is to get somewhere close to 45 football games on the network each fall."
Joining the previously announced Texas A&M-South Carolina game, Temple and Vanderbilt will face off on Aug. 28 to get the 2014 season rolling. UK won't play in the opening doubleheader, but you can be sure the Wildcats will play on the SEC Network multiple times in Mark Stoops' second season.
For that reason, it remains important that UK fans make their voices heard in calling for their cable and satellite providers to carry the SEC Network. AT&T U-verse remains the only national distributor signed on the carry the SEC Network, with providers like Time Warner, DirecTV and Dish Network still not on board.
Fans can visit GetSECNetwork.com to check whether their cable and satellite providers carry the SEC Network and, if they do not, contact them to demand they do. Cable and satellite providers make programming decisions based on customer requests. Fans should also regularly check GetSECNetwork.com for the latest information about the launch of the new SEC Network.
For fans in Lexington that want the new SEC Network, Time Warner subscribers should call 859-514-1400, DirecTV subscribers should call 1-800-347-3288 and DISH Network subscribers should call 1-800-333-3474 to let them know you want the SEC Network. Cable TV subscribers outside Lexington can obtain the phone number to call from GetSECNetwork.com.
Beyond the live events that will air on the SEC Network, Slive and Connolly announced two exciting shows that will be shown regularly.
First is a two-hour traveling Saturday pregame show called SEC Nation that will be hosted by Joe Tessitore. A sort of SEC-centric version of ESPN's popular College GameDay, SEC Nation will travel to an SEC campus each week, starting with stops in Columbia, S.C., for South Carolina-Texas A&M on Aug. 28 and Auburn, Ala., for Auburn-Arkansas on Aug. 30.
"The thing that's unique about the SEC, as all of you know is what the pregame experience is, and we want to take people into that," said ESPN's Stephanie Druley. "We want people at home to feel like I've been there even though I haven't. Because there is nothing like it."
Additionally, the SEC Storied documentary series that began in 2011 will expand on the SEC Network. Ten original features will be produced next year to celebrate the rich tradition of the nation's best conference.
"We'll go from four to ten a year, and we'll debut six of the ten on the network, and we'll debut the other four on ESPNU, and then move it over to the network," Slive said. "So that rounds out, at least for me, the storytelling. You know, it celebrates great games, great athletes and great moments."
With approximately 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games and events from 21 more SEC sports set to air, more such moments will surely be airing live on the SEC Network. Visit GetSECNetwork.com to make sure you can see them.
Coming to grips with the fact that Kentucky's season had just ended, Craig Skinner wasn't thinking about himself. He knows he'll have more chances to lead his program to where he believes it will go.
That's why his mind was on those players whose road ends here.
"The hardest part for me is when you have a group of seniors that deserves to keep playing," Skinner said. "The effort that's put in and how hard these guys work, it's tough to swallow when you don't come out on the winning end of a match like this."
Making its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance under Skinner, UK lost to Michigan State in the second round on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum. In a competitive match from start to finish, the No. 15-seeded Wildcats dropped the first and came back to win the second before falling in four sets.
"You have to give Michigan State credit because they killed the ball at an extremely high rate in sets three and four and that was the difference," Skinner said.
For a brief moment, it appeared the Spartans might run away with a sweep. The Cats were down 15-12 in the second already behind 1-0 on the match when a likely suspect -- and one of the players for whom Skinner felt so bad -- emerged.
Senior Whitney Billings, as she has done so often throughout her decorated career, stepped up. Executing the game plan to perfection, Billings served UK to a 7-0 run and an eventual second-set win.
"I think we got them out of system with the short serve and so we kept going with it," said Billings, who had 18 kills, 13 digs, two assists, two blocks and an ace in her final game in a UK uniform.
Though certainly disappointed in the ultimate result, Skinner couldn't find a bit of fault in the way UK competed on Sunday.
"The effort was there the entire match," Skinner said. "They competed hard and you can't ask for more than that. You just hope that you execute better so you can score the points."
That's particularly true for the senior class of Billings, Alexandra Morgan, Jessi Greenberg and Desirre' Wilkerson.
"They've been committed since day one, but you really saw a sense of pride and urgency for the program in the last half of this season," Skinner said. "Nothing's ever given to you and at this point in the game it really starts to hit home that it's not given to you so you gotta go for it. All these guys went for it."
Joining them were the Wildcat underclassmen, who found themselves playing for their veteran teammates as much as themselves in the final moments.
"I just didn't want it to be the last game for the seniors," said Jackie Napper, who had 21 digs. "They have fought hard since they've been here. Whitney and Zan for five years, Dez for two and Jessi for four. I didn't want it to be their last game."
The loss will not erase all the quartet's accomplishment and certainly not Billings'. The Helena, Ala., native leaves UK as one of three three-time first-team All-Southeastern Conference honorees in school history and the only player in the 25-point scoring era with 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs.
"When I first got here, I didn't really know where my spot was going to be in Kentucky volleyball," Billings said. "But as the years went on, I kind of found my spot on the team as a leader and stuff. It's where I am now."
With the loss still so fresh in her mind, Billings will surely have clearer thoughts about her UK legacy in the coming weeks and months. Nonetheless, she's happy with what she's done.
"I felt like I have my team everything I could when I needed to," Billings said. "And I know they looked up to me. I know there were some times that I didn't come up for them, but most of the times I did."
Returning plenty of talent among the 11 players who will be back next season and adding two highly regarded signees, the future is bright for UK.
"From here, the returners have to figure out a way to get better and go beyond this point," Skinner said.
When the Cats do go the next level, they won't do it without the departing seniors, not completely.
"A piece of them will always be here with us," Skinner said.
Craig Skinner stressed starting strong to the Kentucky volleyball team all week.
The Wildcats lost their regular-season finale to highly ranked Florida in five sets, largely due to a poor start, losing the first two sets before UK could even come up for air. Given the circumstances of the last outing, Skinner knew what to focus on in the practices leading up to the NCAA Tournament.
Yet coming off two straight losses -- albeit against the Southeastern Conference's top two teams -- few would have blamed UK for taking some time to hit its stride on Saturday given the losing streak, the pressure of hosting a first-round NCAA Tournament match and the 10-day layoff since its last match.
But Skinner's emphasis on maintaining focus from the first serve through the final kill of each set paid off in UK's straight-set win over Duquesne on Saturday evening.
While the Wildcats seemed to come out of the gates firing, so did the Dukes. In fact, Duquesne took the match's first multi-point lead at 10-8. Still Skinner was happy with his team's start to the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
"I was actually really happy (with) how aggressive we came out in set one," Skinner said. "You never know how you're going to come out so I thought we did a nice job being aggressive. We made a couple of errors but that's fine.
"We want to be aggressive and you have to play like that in the tournament ... (Duquesne) came out with purpose to win the match and they did a nice job of forcing us to be a little bit more intelligent with some of the things we did. Our defense picked up. (Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan) did a really nice job of following the game plan and hitting smart shots."
Indeed Skinner was pleased with how UK weathered Duquesne's blistering start, and as the first set entered its latter stages UK hit its stride.
Trailing 14-15 at a media timeout, UK then won four straight points. While Duquesne threw in some runs of its own down the first-set stretch, UK never looked back in winning the opening period 25-23 and dominating the next two en route toward advancing to Sunday's second-round matchup with Michigan State (4 p.m. ET).
"There's a lot of adrenaline, a lot of things going through your mind when you start the NCAA Tournament and I'm very pleased with how we got after it," Skinner said. "You can't really prepare for what the other team is going to do and how they're going to respond to the situation and it was neck and neck all the way through point 15 and I felt like our demeanor was the exact same in the first set as it was at the very end of the last set. That's important, and obviously very important against a very good Michigan State team tomorrow night."
Billings was a big reason UK was able to pull away midway through the first stanza and stay ahead from there. The first-team All-SEC selection had four kills and four assists in the first set and finished with a match-high 18, just two away from her season high for a three-set affair.
It comes as little surprise that in her post-match comments Billings emphasized the team's aggressive start, as all the Wildcats were clearly keyed in on starting strong given Skinner's talking points all week.
"We just realized that we had to get it going," Billings said of UK's run midway into the first set. "At some point in the game we have to just push on the gas and just go. So, we just kept going for it, like I said. We gained momentum at the end."
The senior stepped up to start her final postseason campaign. Billings' coach took notice of her leadership by example.
"Whitney has been fantastic the last two weeks," Skinner said. "Her demeanor and her competitive fire have been impressive to see as a coach and whether she's playing fantastic, okay, or not okay, she's the same and that's what you want out of a senior leader. (She is) someone that is driven and so she's done an impressive job and you really have to focus a lot on her to stop her.
"We'll expect that. Physically, she's always had the ability. Mentally, she is on a different level right now."
Both teams enter Sunday with fresh legs
While playing matches in back-to-back days in the non-conference season is common for SEC teams, once conference play begins most teams shift to a schedule of Friday and Sunday outings.
Thus the NCAA Tournament sub-regional format of matches in back-to-back days provides a challenge teams have not seen in the past few months.
Still, both teams had a relatively short Saturday as each earned a straight-set win.
Skinner previews matchup of similar styles
After focusing on NCAA Tournament prep for the past 10 days -- with an extra day thrown in as the first-round matches were postponed from Friday to Saturday due to inclement weather in the Lexington Area -- Skinner could finally turn his attention to a team other than Duquesne following Saturday's win.
Looking ahead to Michigan State, Skinner revealed that the two teams do a lot of things in similar fashion.
"Two very physical teams," Skinner said. "Two teams that kill the ball at a high percentage. Two teams with experience playing against very good competition so it's going to be a great matchup and it's going to be important for us to come out aggressively like we did tonight.
"I don't think Michigan State is a team that's going to give you a whole lot. You're going to have to earn your points, whether you're siding out or with your blocking defense after you serve. So, high-level match right here in the Coliseum and I know our kids can't wait to play again. It seems like we've been preparing for the first round for about six days but hopefully weather will let us play tomorrow."
The top-10 matchup between Kentucky and Baylor lasted an astounding four overtimes, seemingly taking on a will of its own to delay the second half of a men's and women's doubleheader as long as possible.
Wrapped up intently in every one of the 60 minutes the Wildcats and Lady Bears played on Friday night in massive AT&T Stadium, O'Neill thought it lasted even longer than it did.
"I thought it was more overtimes than four, to be honest," O'Neill said. "I thought we were going to break the Syracuse record (of six overtimes against Connecticut in 2009)."
That record was about the only one that didn't fall in a game that's a massive early favorite to be the best of the year in women's college basketball.
O'Neill scored a school-record 43 points, joining all-time great Valerie Still as the only Wildcat to score 40 or more in a UK Hoops uniform. Given that she didn't know how many overtimes the game lasted, it should come as no surprise she didn't realize she had scored so many until taking a peek at the postgame box score.
"I didn't even know I had that many points, honestly," O'Neill said.
Her coach didn't either.
"You just had to make plays tonight and Jennifer was really, really hot," Matthew Mitchell said. "I do such a bad job; I don't realize what's going on in the game sometimes. I didn't realize she had 43. I knew she was doing a good job and we were trying to get her the ball, but it's an amazing performance. We needed all of them."
No. 5/6 Kentucky (9-0) needed all of them because Baylor star Odyssey Sims was matching O'Neill shot for shot and then some. Sims poured in 47 points, living up to every ounce of the pregame praise lumped on her by Mitchell, who called Sims "the best singular talent" in the country.
Even though she had 13 points and six rebounds of her own and often had the unenviable task of tailing Sims, Bria Goss couldn't help but marvel at the back and forth between the two top scorers.
"It just really makes me excited for women's basketball in general and for more people to get involved with women's basketball," Goss said. "I think, after today, we might have some bandwagoners or just more people in general watching women's basketball."
Sims played much of the evening saddled with foul trouble and finally picked up her fifth late in the first overtime period.
"I don't know that they have a meter that could measure my happiness when she got out of the game," Mitchell said. "The happy meter was broken at that point in time because we pride ourselves on being a pretty good defensive team that gets after and we just couldn't stop her."
Happy as he may have been, the Lady Bears weren't about to back down without Sims.
Imani Wright hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of that first overtime to prolong the proceedings. In the third extra session, No. 9 Baylor (8-1) seemed poised to take control when it grabbed a five-point lead. And in the final overtime, another potential game-tying 3 by Alexis Prince rattled out, finally giving UK its first back-to-back wins over top-10 teams in school history.
"The game was so long, you had time to play bad and you had time to play good," Mitchell said.
Though 10 players fouled out -- including seven for Baylor and six of the game's 10 starters -- there was much more good than bad. Impressive talent inside and out was on display and the result was an offensive explosion the likes of which the women's game has never seen.
"It's hard to put into words this game," Mitchell said. "It was a heck of a game."
UK and Baylor set an all-time NCAA record by scoring 263 combined points. The Cats topped the century mark for the fourth time in six games, breaking the single-game school record for most points in the process.
"Hopefully people see that we have a high level of skill and a high level of athleticism," Mitchell said. "I thought that was a real -- if you weren't coaching in it -- watching it was a real entertaining game tonight."
The talk of what UK-Baylor could do for the profile of women's college basketball is a testament to how good the game was, but Mitchell's more immediate concern is about his team. Barely a year removed from being dismantled by the Lady Bears in Waco, Texas, UK went toe-to-toe with the two-time national champions and came away with the win.
"I think we have a better team than we had last season and I'm really proud of the players," Mitchell said. "They worked extremely hard. They've practiced extremely hard for a long time. You could see the results of that just in their conditioning."
That conditioning translated directly into confidence. Other teams might deflated heading to the sideline with the score tied following yet another five minutes of overtime having elapsed, but not these Wildcats.
"We're in such good condition, every time we went into another overtime we were excited," Goss said. "Like, we get a whole 'nother five minutes. We do this. We're waking up four days a week 6 a.m. in the summer. This is what we train for. I think every time we walked over to the bench we just had this positive attitude."
That positivity turned into downright elation when the score finally went final. Since the preseason, the Cats have talked about this team being special. Getting the job done where there was every excuse not to is perhaps the clearest sign yet that they are ready to make that much more than idle chatter.
"Once the horn went off and we were going to the locker room, it was just like a big relief," said Goss, voice hoarse from reveling in the victory. "Like, this is the team, this is the year."
And here are highlights, including a bunch of Jennifer O'Neill's school-record 43 points in UK's 133-130 win.
In the life of college volleyball players, it doesn't get much busier than early December.
Like normal students, they have the end of the fall semester and approaching final exams to think about. Unlike normal students, their seasons are on the line.
For No. 15 Kentucky, the NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday against Duquense. With a week and a half since their last match, the Wildcats attacked their time off by honing their focus.
"We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now," senior Alexandra Morgan said.
Those distractions come in many different forms.
"It's us-or-them time of year," UK head coach Craig Skinner said. "There are so many things going with school, finals coming up, a lot of people wanting to come to matches that haven't been there yet, all kinds of social life and whatever it may be."
Skinner is asking his team to tune those things out for the next couple weeks.
"For us to eliminate those things so we can focus on getting our schoolwork done and then focusing on volleyball is very important and I'm glad Zan has taken that to heart," Craig Skinner said. "And I think all our team is just based on what our concentration level's been like at practice. I think they're very serious about performing well and they like competing with each other. That's a big part of it."
When he addressed the media on Wednesday, Skinner reported his team had had three strong days of practice in preparation for what he initially thought would be a Friday match. Mother Nature, however, had other ideas and inclement weather moved this weekend's matches back a day.
For a less experienced team, that delay might be a problem. The Cats, though, are well-accustomed to playing in win-or-go-home situations.
"You just can't create the atmosphere, a little extra pressure being in the NCAA Tournament," Skinner said. "It's us or them moving on after each match."
Skinner is counting on that past experience, but knows it offers know guarantees.
"Does that translate into wins and losses? I'm not sure about that," Skinner said. "At least there's a sense of comfort. I've done this before. I have an understanding of what's at stake and how hard I need to play for my team."
Cementing that understanding for the Cats were the three matches they played to close out the regular season. Facing Texas A&M, Missouri and Florida, UK took on three tournament teams, two of which earned top-five overall seeds. The Cats beat A&M, but dropped back-to-back matches to No. 4 Missouri and No. 5 Florida to close the season.
The kind of competition UK went up against in those matches will be an asset as the Cats move on to what's next.
"It's a heightened level of concentration," Skinner said. "You have to be engaged for every single point because against good teams it's going to be back and forth a lot. You're not going to get runs of points. You're not going to score three, four, five points at a time very easily unless teams make mistakes."
The Florida match, in particular, offered plenty of teaching moments.
UK was blitzed in the first set, losing 25-11, revealing the importance of a strong start. To that end, Skinner changed around practice.
"We did a time drill (Tuesday) where all of a sudden they're on the clock and they have to perform within five minutes and execute," Skinner said. "We weren't very good at it to begin with, but then understood and got better as practice went on. So doing some things in practice where they're on the clock and have to perform within a certain amount of time I think was beneficial to us."
If not for that slow start against Florida, UK very likely would have upended the highly ranked Gators. The Cats narrowly lost set two before winning in three and four to force a decisive fifth.
"The way we played in sets two, three and four against a top team in the country, that's the level we need to perform at," Skinner said.
Duquense (20-9) doesn't boast the same lofty ranking as Florida, but Skinner still wants to see that kind of volleyball against the Dukes at 5 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"They're team made up of kids that have come from a lot of good club programs, so they're experienced and they have three attackers very capable of putting the ball away," Skinner said. "We have to be very prepared in each particular rotation and understand which attacker is the one that's getting the most balls."
Whoever is across the net and whatever round the Cats are playing in this NCAA Tournament, Skinner expects to see an aggressive team.
"We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here," Skinner said. "We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
On Friday, Dec. 6, the University of Kentucky and Baylor University will square off in a Men's and Women's doubleheader at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, Texas. To celebrate the games, Nike has outfitted the Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams and Baylor's women's team in commemorative uniforms and footwear. The 80,000 capicity stadium will be retrofitted for basketball, but fans will notice some Texas "bling" embellishments on the court.
All three teams will take the court wearing Nike Hyper Elite uniforms - the brand's most advanced system of dress and lightest basketball uniform ever produced. The specially designed Hyper Elite uniforms for this match-up will feature silver chrome lettering on the jersey and short for Kentucky and gold chrome lettering for Baylor. The Kentucky men's uniform will also feature eight stars on the back of the neck to celebrate their eight National Championships.
In addition, both teams will be outfitted in custom NIKEiD footwear. The University of Kentucky men's team will have the option of wearing the LEBRON 11, KD VI, or the LEBRON Zoom Soldier. The Kentucky and Baylor women's teams will have the option of wearing the KD VI or the Zoom Hyperdunk.
The two teams will play in a doubleheader against Baylor on Friday night in AT&T Stadium -- the home of the Dallas Cowboys -- turning an idea hatched by John Calipari two years ago into reality.
"He just called me one day a couple years back and had the idea and it went from there," Matthew Mitchell said.
Knowing Coach Cal could have put the event together with only the men's teams, Mitchell said it took him "about 15 seconds" to agree to participate.
"In college basketball what our men's program has done over more than a century is created a brand that is recognizable as any sports brand in the world," Mitchell said. "I just have thought you are silly if you don't try to do everything you can to be a part of that. Cal is just so supportive and so creative and thinks about things like this."
That attitude has come natural to Calipari ever since his arrival in Lexington in 2009. Whether it's tweeting support for the women's soccer team in the NCAA Tournament, offering advice to Mark Stoops about working at UK or putting together this unique doubleheader, Coach Cal is willing to do most anything to help his university.
To say thanks for that support, each UK Hoops player penned a hand-written note to Calipari on Tuesday. He appreciated it, but it wasn't necessary.
"This is not just about the basketball program; it's about this athletic department," Calipari said. "It's about a lot of athletes from all the different sports and anywhere we can come together and help each other is good."
Now, the women will go about the business of taking advantage of the opportunity Calipari helped create for them.
The Wildcats will take on Baylor at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday in a matchup of unbeaten and top-10 teams. Even though the capacity of AT&T Stadium will be limited by the court configuration, it figures to be the biggest crowd most of the Cats will have ever played in front of.
"It's going to be a lot of people there, but we just know we have to play Kentucky basketball to get the job done," said DeNesha Stallworth.
Getting the job done against the Bears won't be easy. Baylor is averaging 96.5 points per game and has won its seven games by an average of 45.5 points.
"They are a top-10 team and they have won two national championships and have been consistently good for over a decade now," Mitchell said. "They are one of the really fine women's basketball programs in the country."
For four years, a matchup with Baylor meant a matchup with Brittney Griner. The 6-foot-8 center, however, went on to the WNBA this offseason.
"Life continues after Brittney Griner and they are alive and well, I can promise you that," Mitchell said.
Her departure leaves the task of leading the Bears in the capable hands of point guard Odyssey Sims. As UK prepared for a game at Baylor last season, Mitchell went out of his way to praise Sims, even as questions about Griner flooded in. It's now easy to see why.
"Odyssey Sims is probably the best singular talent that I've seen in the country this year," Mitchell said. "She is really, really amazing. There are some other really talented players, but she is putting up monstrous numbers right now and they found a way to increase their scoring average."
Sims is averaging a staggering 27.3 points, shooting better than 50 percent from the field, nearly 80 percent from the line and almost 40 percent from 3-point range. The senior had 18 points and six assists against UK last season, when Baylor was dominant in an 85-51 victory in both teams' second game of the 2012-13 season.
Stallworth admits retribution will be on her mind "a little bit" come Friday, but not overwhelmingly so.
"We're both two totally different teams from last year, so it's just going to be a new battle and a new challenge and we're definitely looking forward to it," Stallworth said.
She came to the University of Kentucky to pursue one of those passions and stumbled on the other. A three-day eventing competitor and member of a national-championship Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Riding Team while in college, Brown graduated in 1991.
As she went on to a career as a registered nurse and married Dr. Stuart Brown, Christine stayed involved with horses as both an equestrian and breeder. At the same time, she developed close ties with UK Athletics as an ardent fan and supporter, particularly of the women's basketball program.
That's why, after Christine passed away following a riding accident at the Browns' home in July, Stuart wanted to pay tribute to his wife's legacy in a way that combined the two things for which she cared so deeply.
The Brown home is a picturesque property near Versailles, Ky.
There, Stuart -- an equine practitioner at the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute -- operated a commercial thoroughbred breeding enterprise with Christine. But every once in a while, Stuart and Christine would pick out a special horse to hold onto.
Patinka was one of those.
The filly -- now 3 years old -- was sired by Exchange Rate to mare Untarnished, but her journey was a complicated one from the very beginning.
"I had to resuscitate the foal at the delivery," Stuart said. "Many times those foals don't survive, but this foal ended up being hospitalized at my hospital."
Patinka went into a coma for three days, experiencing a reduced supply of oxygen to the brain. As is the case with many such hypoxic brain injuries, recovery was difficult. Christine -- formerly an equine neonatal ICU nurse -- was there every step of the way.
"That's what my wife would do a lot of before she went to college and became an RN," Stuart said. "She was a part of that process with this foal."
That process included re-teaching Patinka to stand, nurse and recognize her mother. Less than a month later, she had to have abdominal surgery to remove an internal abscess. By the time she was healthy, the Browns couldn't think to do anything else but keep and race Patinka for themselves.
"You have a very special bond with those particular individuals that you've put that much time and effort into," Stuart said.
'She was just in'
Christine was a regular at both men's and women's basketball games, but UK Hoops held a special place in her heart.
She always enjoyed the Wildcats' fast-paced style of play, but it was the relationships she built with coaches, staff and players that turned her fandom into fervor.
"She really enjoyed watching them play because she could be so close and she felt like she was part of it," Stuart said. "She'd be mad if somebody wouldn't stand up for the fight song."
Christine also loved sharing her passion. When she didn't go with Stuart, she would often invite family and friends to attend games with her. There were, however, certain requirements attached to the invitation.
"If you were coming to the game, you were in or don't come with her," Stuart said. "If you talk too much during the game or you weren't paying enough attention to the game, you might not get asked back. She was all about being social, but you better be in for the team."
Because Christine certainly was.
"She was in," Stuart said. "She was just in. And I thought that was a legacy thing, so to speak."
Picking a trainer
Once the Browns had decided they would keep ownership of Patinka, their next task was to select a trainer. Since she had always been Christine's horse, Stuart left that to his wife.
"She picked out Graham Motion as a trainer because she had listened to Graham talk about training horses and the process of bringing them along and she had looked at how patient he was," Stuart said.
Patience would be important because of Patinka's medical history and size. Now standing at between 16.2-16.3 hands, she was always a big horse. That meant she would need to be brought along slowly to allow time for development.
But even in handpicking Motion, Christine thought actually convincing him to take on Patinka was a longshot. Motion, after all, trained 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and the Browns owned just one horse at the time.
Stuart, however, knew he had relationships that could help make it happen. He had consulted over the phone with Motion on a few cases in years past and the two had mutual acquaintances. Not long after mentioning the possibility to his contacts, Motion called Stuart directly to tell him was willing to train Patinka.
When he received the call, Stuart's answer was an obvious yes, but with a caveat.
"I said, 'Well, I appreciate you calling and I'm glad to know that you would be able to take her, but that's really only part of the story,' Stuart said. " 'If you really want to train this filly, I really need you to call Christine because she's really a part of this whole thing.' "
Motion agreed and Stuart texted his wife's number to him. Later that afternoon, Motion made the call.
"I hear the door open and she comes bounding out the steps of our house and she says, 'You'll never guess who called me,' " Stuart said.
Making the connection
On the day before Thanksgiving, Stuart was in Memorial Coliseum and he happened upon a familiar face.
"When I came for the Bradley game, I didn't have anybody to use my floor seats that day," Stuart said. "So I walked in and there's this lady who runs the cash register at the track kitchen at Keeneland. She brought her daughter to the game."
Stuart offered his floor tickets to the mother and daughter.
"She saw me Tuesday morning and she came running out from behind the register and gave me this hug," Stuart said. "They had this marvelous time."
It was in that moment that something clicked for Stuart.
Earlier in November, UK staff members approached him about an idea to promote UK Hoops' annual "Pack the House" game vs. Duke on Dec. 22 in Rupp Arena by giving away part ownership of a thoroughbred for a year. He had already committed to buying group tickets for others to use and was well-connected in horse-racing circles, so he was a natural candidate to help.
At first, he racked his brain trying to come up with an owner and horse that would be the right fit. Then he thought of Patinka. Those thoughts inevitably turned to Christine.
By offering 10 percent of his winnings for the 2014 calendar year, Stuart would be able to combine Christine's love of horses and of UK. He would be able to honor her by helping the women's basketball team she loved and exposing someone who likely would never have gotten the chance to experience life as a horse owner, which she so cherished.
Just like he did at that Bradley game, Stuart will give someone an experience that will never be forgotten.
'Nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at the same time'
While wearing the same purple and black colors Christine wore as an equestrian, Patinka has raced five times in her career, winning once. She will rest at home in Lexington for the next 60-90 days before returning to train with Motion in Fair Hill, Md.
"It's kind of nerve-wracking and exhilarating all at the same time," Brown said.
There are no guarantees in horse racing, but Stuart is optimistic the next year will be a big one for Patinka.
He remembers well the feeling of Patinka's win at Delaware Park, when she ran a long race on turf for the first time. She sprinted to the lead and held off a late charge to win the mile-and-70-yard race in 1:37.17.
"That's just an incredible feeling, to have them fulfill a destiny, so to speak, in terms of being that competitive and run that strong a race," Stuart said. "You're going to the winner's circle to get your picture taken and they're broadcasting your name over the loud PA system and your phone's blowing up from people who are back home watching the race."
That's a feeling Brown hopes to share with whoever wins the random drawing at Rupp in less than three weeks, but he's confident the winner will have an experience to remember regardless. The winner will be invited to travel to at least one of Patinka's races during the year with expenses paid, as well as visit the amiable filly at Stuart's home.
"She's very, very tractable," Stuart said. "She's got a great personality, which of course she's had a lot of developmentally, behaviorally since she was born."
That has everything to do with Christine.
"That was a big deal of my wife's: that every foal she raised had to be trusting of people," Stuart said. "Because no matter what happened to them, wherever they ended up, whether they were successful racehorses or they were just riding horses for somebody, they had to get the right foundation so they could do whatever because they'd have a good life."
Find out more about the special horse-racing experience one lucky fan will win at UK Hoops' "Pack the House" game here.
But even for UK, this is unique.
On Friday night, Kentucky will play a women's and men's doubleheader against Baylor in AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys.
"I never expected to be playing in a stadium that big and that's that well known," Dominique Hawkins said. "It's just going to be amazing to play there."
On the men's side, Kentucky and Baylor come in ranked third and 20th, respectively, in the AP poll. As for the women, UK is No. 5 and Baylor No. 9. The men will play a half-hour after the women's game, which will tip off at 7:30 p.m. ET.
"We aren't going to have 80,000 there but my hope is that because of the games that are being played there, everybody is ranked, it's going to be a terrific environment," John Calipari said. "I haven't been in the building but everybody tells me it's just ridiculous. They are moving the court to one side but the court will be raised, so it will be like that kind of environment."
What Coach Cal means is that he wants to simulate an NCAA Tournament atmosphere as closely as possible, which has been an M.O. of his in scheduling in recent years. AT&T Stadium will play host to the Final Four, so the Cats will be stashing away the memories of what it's like to shoot in a building so cavernous.
Julius Randle hasn't played there, but he has at least been inside.
"I went to a game last year in that arena and it was kind of funny, the dome and everything," Randle said. "It seemed like a really fun environment."
Making it more fun for Randle will all the family and friends in attendance to support him. For the first time since the start of the fall semester, the Dallas, Texas, native will be returning to his home state.
"I would say it's a dream of mine just to be able to come back to my home state and be able to play in front of family and friends and fans in the city too, so I'm looking forward to it," Randle said.
Eight players on the Bears' roster are from the Lone Star State, which means Randle will see some familiar faces wearing Baylor jerseys as well.
"I know some of those guys just because of AAU basketball and high school playing against them," Randle said. "I'm very familiar with their guys. They're a really good team. They can shoot the ball and have some long, athletic bigs."
That length is what stands out to Coach Cal, and the Bears (7-1) use it to mix disruptive zone and man defenses.
"Their zone is very effective, my feel is they will play us 95 percent zone and they play it different ways," Calipari said. "They are like us in that they are so long that you are not getting the looks that you think you will get."
Though the zone will pose problems, Coach Cal doesn't necessarily mind seeing it. Eight games in, Kentucky has already grown accustomed to seeing non-man looks.
"The good news is just about every team has played a zone and the one thing I want to tell you is there is a cohesiveness to playing this game," Calipari said. "Against man to man, we don't seem to be as cohesive as we do against zone."
The zone, according to Calipari, forces the Cats to play together. Against man, the temptation for his talented group of youngsters is to rely too heavily on their individual gifts.
"You can't just try to make a play, you have to pass the ball, pass the ball, move it inside, kick it out, drive it, and all of a sudden we become a cohesive team," Calipari said.
Assuming the Bears play zone, that means Randle is likely to have to cope with multiple defenders at all times, like he has ever since his 27-point, 14-rebound explosion against Michigan State. He says it would be "like Christmas" if opponents tried to play him one-on-one, but he isn't holding his breath.
In high school he received the same attention from opposing defenses, but Randle was able to use his size and strength to get the job done on his own anyway. Now, he's being forced to adjust to playing against bigger defenders.
"It's a different challenge," Randle said. "It's nothing I can't handle. Luckily for me I have teammates who can help plays and guys who are capable of doing a lot of different things. You have to kind of pick and choose what you want to do."
Randle, always one to put pressure on himself, is learning patience.
"The one thing I said was quit trying to be perfect," Calipari said. "He is acting like he should make every play, just stop and play harder than the other guy. Just worry about that, don't worry about anything else. He's doing fine, he's doing fine."
Given that he's averaging 18.1 points and 12.6 rebounds and has double-doubles in all but one outing, "fine" might be an understatement.
Back in October, John Wall and Anthony Davis returned to Rupp Arena for a preseason game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. While in town, they attended Big Blue Madness and got a chance to interact with UK fans once again. In the video above, Wizards Magazine tags along with Wall.
For eight straight seasons, Kentucky has led the nation in men's basketball attendance. In each of those seasons, an average of at least 22,000 packed Rupp Arena.
So how do UK officials determine the announced attendance for any given game?
It starts with the number of tickets distributed for each game, which includes season tickets, student tickets and single-game tickets. That number -- calculated around halftime - for the last six years has been then communicated to DeWayne Peevy, UK's deputy director of athletics and men's basketball administrator.
Working in conjunction with the primary media contact, Associate Director of Media Relations John Hayden, and event manager, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Event Operations and Championships Kevin Saal, Peevy estimates attendance by combining the amount of tickets distributed with the more than 1,000 credentialed attendees at each game. That number includes players, coaches, band members, cheerleaders, dance team members, staff, media and workers.
No NCAA guidelines are in place for calculating attendance, but most of UK's peers use tickets distributed when determining estimated attendance.
Playing a very limited role in UK's process is the actual amount of tickets scanned at entry.
The primary reason for scanning at entry is to ensure event security and that each patron has a valid ticket for the game, but many attendees are not counted in this process. Rupp Arena officials also use scan counts to determine when fans arrive for the purposes of stocking concessions and staffing the venue.
Because scan counts do not provide an accurate picture of how many are actually in attendance, UK does not record these counts from past games.
To provide an example, let's inspect how UK arrived at the estimated attendance for its last home game vs. Eastern Michigan. For that game, there were 21,721 total season, student and single-game tickets distributed. Adding in an estimated 1,000 credentialed attendees in Rupp, the attendance was announced as 22,721.
- Kentucky went 2-0 on the week with a win over Eastern Michigan at home before traveling to Brooklyn and claiming a 79-65 win over Providence.
- Sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein led the way with an average of 15 points, eight rebounds and an astounding eight blocks per game. He swatted nine shots vs. the Friars which is a total that ranks as the second-highest output in a single game in school history.
- Freshman Aaron Harrison had a team-high 22 points vs. Eastern Michigan and followed that with 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting vs. Providence. Freshman Julius Randle tied Jim Andrews' record of seven-straight double-doubles to open the season with one vs. Eastern Michigan before it was snapped against Providence. He logged 12 points and eight boards against the Friars and his reached double-digit scoring in every game this season. Freshman James Young poured in a team-best 18 points in the win over Providence.
- UK will return to action with a doubleheader with its women's programs at AT&T stadium on Friday, Dec. 6 vs. Baylor. It marks the second-straight opponent in the month of December vs. a team with two or few losses and either receiving votes or ranked in the Associated Press' top-25 poll.
- No. 7 Kentucky improved to 8-0 with wins over Bradley and No. 4/3 Louisville. In the Bradley game, UK used a 25-0 run midway through the first half and would lead by as many as 42 points in the second half, defeating the Braves 117-77.
- The 117 points were the most in the Matthew Mitchell Era and the second-most in school history. Six Wildcats finished in double digits led by senior Samarie Walker's career-high 22 points and 14 rebounds. Senior DeNesha Stallworth added her second double-double of the season with 13 points and 10 boards.
- In the 50th "Battle of the Bluegrass"game vs. No. 4/3 Louisville in Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats came out flat in the first half, shooting just 31 percent and trailing by as many as 14 points. However, UK stormed out of the gate in the second half, using a 24-9 spurt and its signature pressure defense to take over the game and win, 69-64. Stallworth, who had just one point and two defensive rebounds in the first half, netted 15 second-half points and grabbed six rebounds, four of them offensive, to aid in the comeback. Point guard Jennifer O'Neill also hit a key jumper with two minutes to play, helping UK seal its 16th straight win over the Cardinals in Memorial Coliseum. It marked UK's first regular-season win over a top-five team since defeating top-ranked Tennessee in 2006 and the first in Memorial Coliseum since upsetting No. 5 Auburn in 2000.
- The Wildcats hit the road for their next matchup with a top-10 opponent when they travel to Dallas to meet No. 9 Baylor in the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium. The game is the first in a double-header with the nationally-ranked UK men's basketball team vs. Baylor.
- The Kentucky football team concluded its 2013 season with a 27-14 loss to Tennessee on Saturday at Commonwealth Stadium.
- Offensively, Kentucky had 393 yards of total offense, which was its best offensive output in a Southeastern Conference game this season. UK threw for 254 yards, the second-most yards through the air this season, while sophomore running back Dyshawn Mobley rushed a career-high 17 times for a career-best 143 yards.
- The UK defense recovered a fumble in the game, its 12th fumble recovery this season, ranking tops in the SEC. Senior linebacker Avery Williamson had six tackles in the game, ending the season with 102 tackles and concluding his career with 196 total tackles.
- The 17th-ranked Kentucky volleyball team closed the regular season with a 3-2 (11-25, 26-28, 25-22, 25-18, 10-15) loss Wednesday to No. 6 Florida. The Wildcats rallied from a 2-0 deficit to force a decisive fifth frame, but fell just shy of completing the upset at Memorial Coliseum.
- Senior Whitney Billings led the Wildcats with 20 kills in addition to 18 digs for the 12th double-double outing of the season and 42nd of her career. Freshman Anni Thomasson added 16 kills and nine digs, while sophomore setter Morgan Bergren also recorded a double-double with 50 assists and a career-high 13 digs. Junior libero Jackie Napper led the Wildcats with 20 digs.
- UK earned its school-record ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament bid with the No. 15 national seed. Kentucky hosts Duquesne Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET at Memorial Coliseum. The winner of that contest plays the winner of the Michigan State-Ohio matchup in the NCAA Second Round for a spot in the Lexington Regional. UK owns a 14-14 record all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday, Dec. 5
Swimming & Diving at USA Winter Nationals - All Day (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Friday, Dec. 6
Women's Basketball at Baylor - 7:30 p.m. (Arlington, Texas)
Volleyball vs. Duquesne - 7:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament)
Men's Basketball at Baylor - 10 p.m. (Arlington, Texas)
Swimming & Diving at USA Winter Nationals - All Day (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Saturday, Dec. 7
Swimming & Diving at USA Winter Nationals - All Day (Knoxville, Tenn.)
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Dec. 1:
Men's basketball: Willie Cauley-Stein
- Julius Randle is first freshman and just the fourth Wildcat in program history and the first since Jim Andrews in 1971-72 to open the season with five-straight double-double efforts.
- He's the first UK player to have five-straight games with double-figure rebounding since Anthony Davis to conclude the 2012 season.
- Has scored 20 or more points in four of five games this season.
- Randle's 68 rebounds is the most for any UK freshman in the John Calipari era, besting Terrence Jones' 51. Randle is just two points shy of matching Jones' scoring output through the first five games with 104 points.
- Dished out four assists against UT Arlington and that number is a season-high.
- The two blocks ranks as a season-high.
Men's basketball: Aaron Harrison
- Led the team with 18.5 points per game in two UK wins this week.
- Notched 22 points and a career-high seven rebounds in win over Eastern Michigan.
- Logged 15 points and added a career-high four assists vs. Providence.
- Scored in double-digits by halftime of both games.
- Connected on a career-high seven field goals for a .778 percentage vs. Providence.
- Has hit a 3-pointer in four-straight outings.
- Sunk a career-high nine free throws vs. Eastern Michigan.
As they gathered on Sunday night to watch the Selection Show together, the Wildcats had advanced to eight consecutive NCAA Tournaments. In two of the previous three years, they earned the right to host the first and second rounds.
That doesn't make accomplishing both feats yet again any less rewarding.
"Our kids played really hard this year and we had a great schedule. We had a lot of good wins throughout the year," Skinner said. "To be in a position to be on your home court the first and second rounds, to host the first and second round, is a great feeling."
UK (21-8) was tabbed the No. 15 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, meaning the Cats will once again play their first- and second-round matches in the friendly confines of Memorial Coliseum. Alexandra Morgan remembers well playing NCAA matches at home in previous years and the advantage it provides.
"It's so much fun," said Morgan, who was named to the All-Southeastern Conference first team on Monday. "Our fans are always amazing at our games, but I felt like the in the tournament they were louder, there were more people there just because it is the national tournament and our season's ending."
Kentucky will open its postseason run on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET against Duquense (20-9). The Dukes won the Atlantic 10 for the first time this season and enter the tournament having won 13 of their last 14 matches.
"You've just gotta think about the first round, and Duquesne is that team," Skinner said. "They won their league and had a great season."
By the time the Cats take the floor later this week, they will have waited nine days since their last match. UK took days off on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving and returned to the practice floor for two solid days of work over the weekend.
"We've been working really hard in our past two practices," Morgan said. "We've gotten a lot better and we just need to stay focused on volleyball and getting better as opposed to worrying about other distractions that we could be going through right now."
With the fall semester coming to a close, the Cats will have to balance preparing for finals with volleyball. They aren't particularly worried.
"I don't think that's going to be tough for us," Morgan said. "This is a really strong team, we're a competitive team and we're really good at focusing on volleyball and that's going to get us pretty far, I think."
UK enters the tournament having lost two straight, but that's somewhat misleading considering the level of competition faced in those matches. The defeats came against Missouri and Florida, teams seeded fourth and fifth overall in the NCAA Tournament. Add in a win over Texas A&M, another tournament team, in the third-to-last match and you have an end-of-season stretch that figures to have the Cats ready for what's next.
"You can't ask for a better schedule to end the year to prepare you for the NCAA Tournament and our next match," Skinner said. "I'm very excited about how it ended in terms of who we played."
The final result didn't end up being what UK wanted, but the fight the Cats showed in a five-set defeat against Florida is certainly encouraging. The Gators were dominant in the first set and came back in the second to steal a 2-0 lead, but Kentucky didn't fold. Quite the opposite in fact, as UK won the third and fourth before falling in five.
"It's very good to know that, if we start out poorly, that we can finish a lot stronger," Morgan said. "The Florida game was very disappointing, but seeing how hard we fought in the second and third game and the other games just gives me a lot of hope."
Skinner hopes to take even more than hope away from the loss. First, it's a lesson in the importance of starting fast against top competition. Second, it's a lesson in how good the Cats can be when they're clicking.
"We took from sets two, three, four how Kentucky volleyball plays at its highest level," Skinner said. "If we play like that, we can match up with anybody. But it's a matter of doing that and we have to figure it out this week in practice and get the ball rolling on Friday night and hopefully give us a chance to take the next step forward in the tournament."
The next step forward is the second round -- where UK would face the winner of Michigan State and Ohio. After that, Kentucky is looking at an opportunity stay home again for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. Lexington was tabbed as a regional host three seasons ago and the Cats have been thinking about playing in that regional ever since.
"We were really excited about that and that's one of our goals we set out in the beginning of the season," Morgan said. "We want to be playing in that regional and we have all plans to be playing in that."
Skinner is all about preparing one match at a time, but he also doesn't mind if his players glean a little extra motivation from the prospect of playing in the regional.
"Of course we aren't going to look past Duquense and that matchup, but sure there's motivation to get there," Skinner said. "You would think that every team that has the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament is motivated to advance. We're not here to participate, to be in the tournament just to be here. We're here to get the next opportunity to play."
All-session tickets for the first and second round go on sale Monday at 9 a.m. ET and can be purchased at the UK Ticket Office, online at UKathletics.com/tickets or by calling the ticket office at (800) 928-2287 or (859) 257-1818. All-session tickets are $12 for reserved seats at Memorial Coliseum. Adult general admission tickets (13+) are $10, while seniors (65+) and UK students can purchase all-session tickets for $6 and youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets cost $4. Single-session tickets, which are $8 for reserved seats and $7 for adult general admission seats and $5 for seniors/UK students and $4 for youth, go on sale Friday at 9 a.m.
DeNesha Stallworth had just turned in a one-point, two-rebound first half, missing all six of her shots as Kentucky fell behind on its home floor, 36-27.
There are times in practices and games when Mitchell uses softer, more measured motivational tactics with Stallworth, but this wasn't one of them. Not with UK's archrival in town for a matchup of top-10 teams.
"DeNesha Stallworth did not have a good first half," Mitchell said. "And so, we had a very pointed conversation at halftime about her first half."
Stallworth allowed a few early misses from short range to derail her and she entered the locker unsure exactly what was going on in her own mind. Mitchell's frank talk crystallized that for her.
"He basically just told me that I'm not playing how I could be playing and just play relaxed and stop being so selfish," Stallworth said. "And I was being a little selfish, just not helping my team. So I just took that personal and tried to contribute more to my team, whether that's rebounding or scoring points or doing the little things that matter."
In the second half, she did all of the above.
Stallworth played 17 minutes as UK rallied from a deficit that grew to as large as 14 points. She scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting and grabbed six rebounds and the No. 7 Wildcats moved to 8-0 with an early-season signature win over No. 3/4 Louisville, 69-64.
"To her credit, she turned it around and we certainly would not have won without her big second half," Mitchell said. "She is a really good player and I am glad we can learn a lesson out of a win instead of having to learn it through the pain of defeat."
Stallworth isn't the only player who has lessons to learn even though UK defeated a top-five opponent at home for the first time since 2000 on Sunday afternoon. She also wasn't the only player who heard from Mitchell at the break.
"We kind of got punched in the mouth in the first half and when Matthew came in and started, you know, basically yelling at us and telling us what we needed to do and what we weren't doing, it just made us want to play and show him we came here to play, we're ready to compete and we didn't work this hard to get where we're at to just give up a game like this," said Jennifer O'Neill, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half.
The focus for the Cats was simple in the second half: It was all about defense and rebounding.
Louisville built its first half lead on the strength of a 23-13 rebounding edge. The Cardinals scored nine second-chance points to UK's zero in the first 20 minutes, using those extra opportunities to shoot 50 percent from the field.
"It was definitely frustrating knowing that a lot of their points were from the o-boards and from free throws," Stallworth said. "We knew if just limited those two things and just boxed out and got those rebounds, it would be tougher for them to score."
In the second half, Stallworth was proven right.
UK outrebounded U of L 26-21 and immediately began cutting into the nine-point halftime deficit. The Cardinals would hold the lead until the 10:54 mark, but it was then that Bernisha Pinkett hit the first of her two 3-pointers to give UK its first lead since the opening minutes. Seventy-two seconds later, she hit another to put the Cats up 51-45.
"This was not my first year being in a big game," Pinkett said. "I knew when I got in, whatever he needed me to do I had to be ready; whether it was getting a stop on defense, getting a rebound, or making a 3. It so happened to be me being down and ready for the kick out for the 3. I was just saying when I get this ball, put your elbow in, knock it down and get back on defense.
U of L would answer with two 3s by Shoni Schimmel to tie it, but the sellout crowd of 7,963 in Memorial Coliseum wasn't about to let UK lose from there.
"A terrific game today and a terrific atmosphere, we really appreciate all the fans that came out," Mitchell said. "... Really, really appreciate our fans for coming out and making it a sellout and for providing such a great atmosphere for women's college basketball."
Benefitting from that electric atmosphere, UK beat Louisville for the 16th straight time in Memorial and third consecutive overall.
"It's really, really cool," Pinkett said. "That's just one team that, whenever it's time to play them, we get super, super fired up and it was just one of those nights we weren't going to let them come in our house and win."
Not only did they play the same position, but the two defensive tackles also shared a longer-than-expected journey from signing with Kentucky to finally arriving on campus. Once they gained eligibility the same offseason, that link turned into an unbreakable bond.
They became roommates and, by the description of both, brothers over their four years in Lexington, which made it fitting that they would share the final moments of their careers.
Cobble and Rumph walked into the room for their last postgame interviews arm in arm before sitting down in adjacent chairs. They weren't about to be separated.
"The best way to do it is just hanging with my brother and that's how I'm doing it," Cobble said. "That's why I'm here."
The time would have been a little sweeter had UK managed to take down Tennessee in its season finale, but a 27-14 loss undid that ambition. In spite of 13 tackles and 1.5 for loss between the two, the Wildcats couldn't overcome the Volunteers in finishing the season 2-10.
"It was an emotional game," Cobble said. "Being here five years with my ups and downs and the relationships and the bonds I made, especially with Donte. Just after the game, I told him, I stopped him and was like, 'Keep your head up. Let's just stand of the field and just enjoy it one last time.' "
Mark Stoops, as he has after each defeat during his first season, rued opportunities missed on Saturday night as he fielded questions. But in spite of his disappointment and self-critique, he couldn't overlook the contributions of Cobble, Rumph and the other 17 Wildcats who played in Commonwealth Stadium for the last time.
"It's always difficult, probably most difficult for the seniors that come in with a coaching change: A bunch of new coaches, new schemes, new everything, and I thought those guys really handled themselves well," Stoops said. "You know, really continued to fight and tried to lead us through the end of the year, so I appreciate those guys."
Leading every step of the way for this UK team was Avery Williamson, the linebacker who closed his illustrious career just four tackles shy of 300.
"He's one of the best I've been around," Stoops said. "I love him. He's just a great person and very good football player. He cares. He's a good leader. He's going to be very successful in life."
Even though they only spent a season together, Stoops and Williamson built a relationship marked by mutual respect.
"Remarkable coach," Williamson said. "He knows what he's doing and he's a great coach, aggressive guy and he gets what he wants. He demanded perfection out of me. I wasn't perfect, but he made me into a great player and he's a great person to be around, on and off the field."
Williamson took it upon himself to Stoops' staunchest ally in this season of transition, reinforcing his coach's process-oriented approach at every turn. For that reason, he won't stop being part of the rebuilding effort going on at Kentucky even though he won't play another game in blue.
"I feel like I left my leadership and the way I play," Williamson said. "Guys are going to see that on film and I feel like I instilled the leadership qualities in a lot of guys in here. They really look up to me and I'm glad of that and I'm really hoping it's going to carry over. I know it's going to carry over and these coaches are going to make it carry over. I feel like I laid the foundation for this program. It's going to get better."
With recruiting, offseason workouts and self-evaluation, that begins immediately.
"We know that we are laying a foundation in our program and everybody in that locker room knows that we are going to get back to work here real soon, like Monday, and be ready to go and push forward for the future," Stoops said.
Williamson, Cobble and Rumph will go back to work themselves, but with a different objective in mind. All three have aspirations to play in the NFL.
"I've really got a good chance," Williamson said.
"That's a dream that I want to pursue," Rumph said. "Hopefully I get picked up and, hey, I'm just looking to play any role. I just want to be a part of it. I'm going to work my butt off and I'm going to try my best to represent the Big Blue Nation and represent Kentucky as a school, as a university 'cause Kentucky has turned me into the man I am today."
Said Cobble: "Hopefully, by the blessing of God, I get picked up as well, go to a team somewhere with Donte or somewhere I at least go against Donte because he's always going to be my brother."
Together or not, the three standout seniors and a handful of their classmates will have opportunities to continue their careers, but the realization that their time as Wildcats is done is beginning to set in.
"It was definitely tough knowing that I wasn't going to be on that field in pads anymore," Williamson said. "It still hasn't even hit me, the fact that I won't be playing for them anymore. It's tough, but I'll always bleed blue and I'll always be a part of Kentucky. I'll be back to support those guys."