Five former Cats emerged victorious in NFL Week 11, including one UK alumnus who signed to an active NFL roster just last week. Alfonso Smith, a former Kentucky running back who went undrafted in 2010, re-signed with the San Francisco 49ers after falling casualty to the team's final roster cuts in training camp. Smith spent his first four seasons as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.
Cats in the Spotlight Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (7-3) While Cobb failed to reach the end zone for only the second time all season (snapping his six-game TD streak), the fourth-year wide receiver still managed to haul in a season-high 10 catches for 129 yards. The red-hot Packers rolled over the Philadelphia Eagles, 53-20. Jacob Tamme | #84 TE | Denver Broncos (7-3) Like Cobb, Tamme was able to record a season-high number of receptions without scoring a touchdown. The Danville, Ky. native caught four passes for 31 yards in a 22-7 upset loss to the St. Louis Rams. Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-8) Once again, Williamson shined while the Titans were defeated. The rookie linebacker combined for eight tackles (two solo, six assisted) and logged two sacks on Monday Night Football. The Pittsburgh Steelers bested Tennessee by a score of 27-24.
Jennifer O'Neill hit her first and only 3-pointer with 1:17 left in UK's comeback win over Baylor on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Good teams, they just keep on playing.
Good shooters, they just keep on shooting.
When Kentucky found itself down 14 early in the second half against perennial power and top-10 Baylor, the Wildcats refused to go away.
"It was a very, very poor start to the game, and we came back and really played a tough 20 minutes there in the second half, and I'm very proud of them," Matthew Mitchell said.
When Jennifer O'Neill had the ball in her hands having missed her first 10 3-point tries but with a chance to take the biggest shot of the night, she did.
"Really my teammates had a lot of belief in me and told me to keep shooting and fed me the ball," O'Neill said. "So I was going to keep shooting.
Even though she was aware she had missed her first 10 tries from deep, O'Neill followed through on that when she received a pass from Makayla Epps with 1:17 left. With UK having overcome that deficit to claim a one-point lead, O'Neill rose and fired from the right wing.
"I told her, 'I was going to keep feeding you regardless,' " said Epps, who had 12 points and eight rebounds. "She's the best shooter on the team. We don't play here often. We play here one time a year. So shots are going to fall; shots aren't going to fall. I had the utmost belief in her and I knew that once she got hot she was going to hit."
She did, sending an announced crowd of 22,075 into a frenzy and giving UK (2-0) a four-point lead the Cats wouldn't relinquish in a 74-64 win over No. 8/7 Baylor (1-1). In doing so, UK picked up the first top-10 win of the season and completed the 10th-largest comeback in program history with a 50-point second-half outburst.
"That's a great win for us," Mitchell said. "We have a long way to go as a basketball team, but learned a lot tonight, have a lot of room for improvement, but it's great to get into an atmosphere like this."
Whatever UK becomes as a team, O'Neill will play a key role. The senior guard, who finished with 22 points 11 months after dropping a school-record 43 against Baylor, better keep shooting if the Cats' fast-paced offense is going to work.
"They were running back to a packed lane and we were shooting in rhythm wide open 3-point shots, and our offense, we have to shoot that shot, and Jennifer is a great shooter and has been shooting the ball great," Mitchell said " ... I have no idea if she's missed them, made them. I'm just coaching every play, and I was telling her every time out to keep shooting the ball."
O'Neill was 0 for 6 from 3 and 1 of 8 overall in the first half, but she was hardly the only reason UK went into the locker room trailing 34-24.
"I give our team a lot of credit because I'm telling you, it was not good in the first half, as you all could see," Mitchell said. "It was disjointed, there was no rhythm, there was no focus offensively, there was no execution."
Due to that lack of execution, the Cats shot just 30 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers. Linnae Harper was the lone bright spot, scoring nine of her 11 points to help keep UK within striking distance.
"I think in the first half Kentucky beat Kentucky," Epps said.
There would be no repeat performance in the second half, though the Lady Bears scored six of eight points out of the break to take that 14-point lead.
"I think going into the second half Matthew had said enough about what we did in the first half, so we knew what we had to do," O'Neill said. "Yeah, we were aware that we were down, but the game wasn't out of reach."
Climbing their way out of a big hole, the Cats were buoyed by a crowd that never gave in either. Thousands filled Rupp in spite of freezing temperatures and snow and they weren't about to go down without a fight.
"When you are emotionally down," Mitchell said, "when you're playing not well and you're sort of clearly discombobulated, and we, I thought, were lacking energy and emotion there as we were starting to decline in the first half, there's no question for us, once we started playing with some energy and the crowd responds, it pumps you up."
UK will count on its home crowd one last time on Wednesday at 11 a.m. against Morehead State before four games away from Lexington, first at Central Michigan and then for games against Illinois, Oklahoma and South Florida as part of the Paradise Jam Island Tournament.
For all those games, the Cats will look to do what they did on Monday: combine winning and learning.
"Just the way the schedule hits us now, we don't have a lot of practice time, so we've got to make the most of our time here and try to get a little bit better and see if we can win some games while we're still learning," Mitchell said. "But that's why this one is so big and such a great win that will still show up at the end of the season, but we're not a finished product."
Trey Lyles will return to his hometown for UK's Champions Classic matchup with No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday in Indianapolis. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
Kentucky is for a step up in competition on Tuesday.
It's no slight to Grand Canyon or a Buffalo team that outplayed UK for 20 minutes, but Kansas is at a different level.
Entering the test against the Jayhawks, John Calipari sees two ways it can go.
"If we play like we did in the first half last game we will get smashed," Calipari said. "If we play like we did in the second half we have a chance because you have to fight on every possession."
UK got a lesson in exactly that in the aforementioned matchup with Buffalo.
The Cats (2-0) went into the break down 38-33, needing halftime to refocus after a first half in which Coach Cal said they were "disconnected." UK would overcome the slow start with a dominant second half, holding Buffalo to 14 points in four field goals in a 71-52 win.
Ahead of Tuesday's matchup with No. 5 Kansas (1-0) at approximately 9:30 p.m. in Indianapolis, the Cats know what's in store for them if they pull that Jekyll and Hyde act again.
"It is not like they didn't come to play; it was just that the other team came like a pack of hungry dogs," Calipari said. "Well, then you can't just say this is good enough. We are learning that. When we play with great energy and match the other team or go beyond the other team, we are long and athletic. But if they are blowing us out of the water with their energy it is going to look like it did."
Though Kansas doesn't match UK's depth, eight Jayhawks played 16 minutes or more in a season-opening 69-59 win over UC Santa Barbara, three of them freshmen and three sophomores. Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, both juniors, provide the experience for Kansas, while freshman Devonte' Graham came off the bench and led the Jayhawks with 14 points in 26 minutes.
"They are running their stuff," Calipari said. "They are doing a terrific job of doing what they do. I mean, they play a style and they play it well. They are playing hard and pressing and denying. They are pushing up on defense and trapping randomly at times. They are trapping pick and rolls. They are being very, very aggressive."
This marks the fourth edition of the State Farm Champions Classic and the second UK-KU matchup in the event, which Kentucky won 75-65 en route to the 2011-12 national title. Each of the last three years, Coach Cal talked of the Champions Classic game being too early for his young team. This year, he's singing a new tune.
"We are in a little different position than we have been in the past, where we have a brand-new team and trying to get your team together," Calipari said. "This team needs to be challenged to see where we are. This is going to be one of those kinds of games."
The stage, as well as the opponent, will dictate that.
The game will follow a matchup between No. 2 Duke and No. 19 Michigan State in a doubleheader played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the home of the Indiana Pacers. It should come as surprise that both will be broadcast nationally on ESPN.
"It's going to be crazy," Dakari Johnson said on Sunday. "I'm thinking it's going to be a big crowd. But we can't focus on the atmosphere. We have to go out there - it's two teams playing on the court - and we just have to compete."
Doing that will be even more of a challenge for freshmen Trey Lyles, who will be returning to his hometown to play in just the third matchup between ranked teams in college basketball this season and the first between top-five squads. Lyles will also be playing in the same building where he led Arsenal Tech to the first state title in the high school's history.
"It's been on my mind," Lyles said. "It's going to be fun. I get to play in front of family and friends. It's going to be a good time."
Managing emotions will be a challenge for Lyles, who's coming off a game in which he sparked a big second half with five points within a minute after halftime against Buffalo. He'll want to duplicate that effort on Tuesday without overdoing it.
"I just gotta go out there and do whatever is best for the team, playing defense and all that kind of stuff, whatever Coach asks of me," Lyles said. "It's just another game and we gotta approach it that way and approach it with a lot of energy."
UK lacked that energy in last year's Champions Classic, which led to a 10-point deficit within four minutes against Michigan State. The Cats return seven players who saw the floor in that game, but there's still no guarantee that translates.
"We could start out 10-0 the same way and it wasn't 10-0 we were up, it was 10-0 I had to call two timeouts to get it settled down," Calipari said. "I would hope these veterans understand what they are walking into, but teams are going to play like their life depends on it and we have to do the same."
As 2013-14 proved, these things don't happen overnight.
"Last year was, what, March 1 when we answered questions," Calipari said. "It took that long! There were five freshmen. 'Oh, but they're really good. You just roll out the balls. They should just win.' This stuff's hard, man. This stuff is hard. Now, I love it. I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't it any other way for our kids."
Part of Matthew Mitchell probably wouldn't mind waiting a while before taking on the challenge of facing a top-10 team.
A bigger part of him can't wait to welcome Baylor to Lexington.
"It's two of the top-rated teams in the country," Mitchell said. "It's going to be a great way for us to showcase Kentucky basketball. National television, a sold-out Rupp Arena. That's just nothing but a positive opportunity for you there."
UK (1-0) will welcome the Lady Bears (1-0) in the second game of the season for both teams on Monday at 7 p.m. Not only is it UK Hoops' annual Pack the House game in Rupp Arena, but ESPN2 will also be on hand to broadcast the game as part of the seventh annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon. And with still more than 24 hours to tip-off, more than 21,000 fans have already snapped up tickets.
"If everybody that has a ticket shows up tomorrow night, it would be an outstanding atmosphere," Mitchell said. "We appreciate the folks supporting us. It ought to be a great atmosphere for college basketball tomorrow night."
A great atmosphere and, in all likelihood, a great game.
UK is ranked No. 11/10, while perennial power Baylor comes in at No. 8/9. The game will be the first in the country between top-15 women's teams this season, meaning it will be an early measuring stick for both.
"We have a big challenge ahead of us, very tough opponent," Mitchell said. "We have tremendous respect for Baylor. What a great program. They have some really tough players. Well coached and we know it will be a very tough challenge for us tomorrow night, but we're looking forward to taking the floor and seeing what we can do."
Baylor returns three starters from last year's Elite Eight team that UK twice faced. Last December, the Cats came out on top 133-130 in a quadruple-overtime thriller that set an NCAA record for points in a game. Four months later, Baylor eliminated UK in the Sweet 16.
UK won't have to contend with departed All-American Odyssey Sims, but Baylor still has still has Nina Johnson, the reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Davis had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the Lady Bears' 101-60 season-opening win over Oral Roberts.
"I think she is really the glue to that entire basketball team," Mitchell said. "I just think she is a terrific player and it is going to be very important for us to do a good job against her. And try to do everything we can to make sure that she doesn't have a monstrous night. She is an outstanding basketball player and she plays so tough."
Defending Davis might be important, but not as crucial as UK setting the game's tempo. At this early juncture, the Cats are still very much a work in progress in the half-court. For that reason, they have to turn the pace in their favor.
"We must make it a fast-paced game if we want any chance to win right now at this point in the season," Mitchell said. "We have got to get it going up and down."
If UK succeeds in doing that, the big Rupp crowd figures to enjoy it. For those who haven't yet bought tickets, there's another reason to do just that.
"Boy, we'd love to sprint to the finish and get this thing sold out tomorrow night," Mitchell said. "It would be a great thing for us."
Trey Lyles had 12 points, four rebounds and three assists in UK's 71-52 win over Buffalo on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After a lackluster first half, Kentucky trailed Buffalo by five points. The buzz on social media was that the platoon system that's defined the start of the season had met its end.
Even one of his assistants said it.
"Stop," Calipari told him, not revealing the coach's identity. "We're playing the way we play and we're figuring it out."
It was a good thing he stuck to his guns.
Coach Cal opened the second half with his second platoon as he has in two exhibitions and the season opener and the group responded. Riding a shot of energy from Trey Lyles, the Wildcats dominated the second half and moved to 2-0 with a 71-52 win over visiting Buffalo (1-1), allowing just 14 points on 4-of-19 shooting after the break.
Lyles got it started with a 3-pointer from the left wing. Moments later, he intercepted a pass near midcourt and raced to the rim for a thunderous dunk. In a matter of 42 seconds, he had erased that halftime deficit and breathed energy into the Rupp Arena crowd of 22,175.
"I just wanted to go out there and playing with energy in the second half and just try pick the team up, pick the spirits up," Lyles said. "That's what the second platoon was trying to do at the start of the second half."
For the game, Lyles would tie for the team high with 12 points, adding four rebounds, three assists and steal. The 6-foot-10 freshman came to Kentucky with a reputation as a rebounder and adept post scorer, but he's shown off a diverse game after returning from a foot injury that forced him to miss the summer and UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
"He's just learning to play fast, yet be in control," Calipari said. "He is a skilled 6-10, three/four. He can post you; he can make a jump shot. He's a pretty good passer."
Lyles was a power forward by trade before arriving in Lexington, but Kentucky's incredible post depth has moved him into more of a perimeter role. Working with and going up against a veteran teammate every day in practice, Lyles is finding his way.
"It's been an adjustment in practice and stuff like that, but I'm becoming more comfortable with it, me and Alex (Poythress) both," Lyles said. "Coach is really helping us and me and him are helping each other with playing it."
It's players like Dakari Johnson who have bumped Lyles to the three.
Johnson, along with Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns, is one of the Cats standing 6-11 or 7-foot, and he joins Lyles on the second platoon. On Sunday, he also joined Lyles in providing a boost when his team badly needed it.
In spite of the new platoon system, Johnson played 26 minutes. He played more than that just once as a freshman. All the while, Johnson worked tirelessly, something he acknowledges he would not have been capable of before transforming his body this offseason.
"It just feels like while I'm out there I'm not getting tired as fast and I just try to get the crowd hyped and get my teammates hyped up, and that's what we did in the second half," Johnson said.
Johnson had nine points, 12 rebounds, four blocks, three assists and a steal, finishing a made free throw shy of what would have been his second double-double in as many games. He shot 3 of 6 from the charity stripe, leaving just one area for the sophomore to address.
"He fights," Calipari said. "He tries. He runs hard. He's giving everything that's in his body, and that's all you can ask as a coach."
The same can be said for another Wildcat who's pretty much Johnson's polar opposite when it comes to body type. Standing 15 inches shorter than Johnson, Tyler Ulis deftly ran the point, scoring 12 points, dishing six of UK's 17 assists and committing no turnovers.
Devin Booker, meanwhile, scored eight of his 10 points after halftime, meaning UK's top four scorers on Sunday came from the second platoon. That serves as proof that the platoon system is flexible enough to adjust on a game-by-game basis even though Calipari isn't going away from it.
If someone else is not playing well, they're going to be taken out," Calipari said. "If a unit is not playing well, I'll take them out. Every one of these kids had a chance. Now, if I had stuck with those first guys you never would've seen Trey, Devin, and Tyler do what they did. They all three played well today."
That wasn't the case for every Wildcat. Towns, for example, fouled out and scored just three points in 10 minutes of action, while Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 11 points on 3-of-15 shooting and one assist.
Those three figure to be among the players Coach Cal said he will summon for sit-downs before the Cats head to Indianapolis for an early-season marquee matchup with No. 5 Kansas. The conversations will be candid, with Calipari asking them to assess how they played and what they learned from it.
But unlike in prior seasons, the talks won't have as much urgency about them, not with the way Coach Cal's group is built.
"It's a great team for all these guys to just play hard," Calipari said. "Even if you don't play well, we're all right. Someone else will step in and be better the next game. Learn from it."