Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin are both participating in the NBA Draft Combine this week in Chicago. On Thursday, Draft Express posted a video interview with Noel - the potential No. 1 overall pick. Watch it below.
Kentucky (38-18) played a tough non-conference schedule to go along with its difficult Southeastern Conference slate of games. To put in perspective how competitive the league is, the SEC had a NCAA-record 11 teams make the field of 64.
After wrapping up the regular season and SEC Tournament last weekend, the Wildcats are ecstatic to get the postseason underway and be rewarded for a year of hard work.
"It's huge for us, we've never hosted a regional and we have never been a national seed here at UK," junior Lauren Cumbess said. "It's great for the program and we have worked really hard for it so it's exciting."
For UK, it's a shot at redemption after being ousted in the first round of the SEC Tournament by South Carolina last Wednesday. The Wildcats had high hopes going into the weekend as they were hosting their first conference tourney in school history.
Kentucky came out a little slow and found itself in a hole, trailing the Gamecocks, 6-1. UK made an attempted rally in the seventh but the deficit was too much to overcome in a 6-3 defeat. The Wildcats didn't swing the bats well and freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley wasn't as dominant as she had been in the second half of the season. Having five freshman starters playing for the first time on a postseason stage didn't help matters.
The result didn't go in the Cats' favor, but UK has a rare chance to make up for the loss and give the Big Blue Nation a more deserving performance.
"I think they were shocked," Lawson said. "Last week was the first time we had played in that setting here so I think that was a great experience for our younger kids and I don't think they knew what to expect. I think they understood and I think they were very disappointed in their performance last week and they are looking for another opportunity to prove that they are one of the best teams in the country."
UK has had all week to prepare for the regional this weekend and players can go through several mood changes in a week's time. Coming off the loss to USC, one might think the Wildcats are questioning themselves, but Cumbess in confident that's no issue.
"We were all real excited when we found out we were going to host," Cumbess said. "Practice has been really upbeat and everybody is trying to get better and improve the little things each day. Everybody has been in a really good mood and we are having fun. We play our best when we are having fun."
The Lexington Regional is regarded as one of the toughest regions in the country. Marshall, the Conference USA Tournament champion, is no slouch as the No. 4 seed. The Thundering Herd gave the Cats all they could handle back on April 4 in Lexington in a game UK would rally to win, 4-3, on a walk-off hit from junior Ginny Carroll. It starts in the circle for Marshall, where senior Andi Williamson (32-16) has a 2.01 earned-run average with an astonishing 344 strikeouts in 296 innings pitched.
If UK is fortunate enough to get past Marshall, the Cats will face the winner of Notre Dame and Virginia Tech. The Fighting Irish are making their 18th NCAA appearance and enter the game having won 17 of 20 games. Virginia Tech is also an experienced bunch that is playing in its sixth NCAA Tournament and second straight.
With such a tough region, it's going to be very important for Kentucky to play as few games as possible this weekend by staying in the winner's bracket of the double-elimination tournament.
"It's crucial to come out strong," Lawson said. "Certainly teams can come from behind, that has definitely happened before, but anytime you can stay in the winner's bracket, that means your pitchers are fresh and that keeps the crowd coming back and that's more of a confidence booster."
Senior Kara Dill has played sparingly for Kentucky due to a broken hand, but has seen at bats in the last two games, delivering a pinch hit against Alabama and filling in as designated player vs. South Carolina. Dill, who has been UK's leading hitter over the last couple of seasons, batted in the eight-hole against the Gamecocks and Lawson says with more repetitions this week she is considering inserting her back into the top of the order, which would help jumpstart Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats' want to make a different impression on their fans this time around and as the host and the favorite of the regional, their goal is to make it to super regionals. The recipe for success for the Cats is simple.
"We are going to have to do a good job offensively and we are going to have to attack good pitches," Lawson said. "We have to execute, put the ball in play, hit behind runners, bunt and do all those things you need to do because every pitcher is good. Then I think we have to have a strong showing on the mound by both Nunley and Cumbess. I think in order for us to go further it has to start with those two things."
With the spring semester in the rear view mirror, Kauffmann's players have been able to put their sole focus on the game of tennis and making a deep run into the postseason.
"I think they're a little bit more relaxed. They're done with their exams," said Kauffmann. "We had an excellent semester in the classroom (men's tennis scholarship student athletes combined for a 3.12 grade-point average). It was kind of a busy spring with both tennis and school, so I think they're a little bit more relaxed and a little bit more smiles, but we have a tough task ahead."
That tough task goes by the name of a familiar heated rival: Duke.
The UK vs. Duke rivalry is always a heated matchup on the hardwood and this Sweet 16 matchup between No. 8 Kentucky and No. 9 Duke at 8 p.m. ET on Thursday in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., should live up to those standards.
The Blue Devils, perceived as one of the nation's top teams in the preseason, have won 18 matches this year in which they did not surrender a point to their opponents. The Wildcats, by comparison, have only managed eight such victories, although they play the Southeastern Conference, a tennis powerhouse.
"They're a very, very talented team," said Kauffmann. "I think at the beginning of the year they were kind of projected to be a top-three, top-four team. I think of all the matches they've played, 16 or 17 have not gotten a point off them. It's going to be a tough match."
Kauffmann says the key will be taking the first point up for grabs in doubles. From there, it will make the task of bringing Duke down and advancing to the Elite Eight much easier. So far in the NCAA Tournament, that's been the first part of UK's lesson plan
In each of the first two rounds, Kentucky has jumped out to a quick one-point advantage with doubles victories thanks to the play of duos Tom Jomby and Kevin Lai; Beck Pennington and Ryuji Hirooka; and Anthony Rossi and Juan Pablo Murra. Each tandem has been instrumental in either the first or second rounds in helping UK achieve the doubles point.
"I think it's good because we won the doubles in both, so we have a little bit of momentum," said Kauffmann. "Only one player lost and Beck (Pennington) was hurt, so nobody in the singles round lost a match. If we had anyone playing in the lineup that had lost two matches, it might hurt us a little bit just because there may be doubts, but everyone is playing pretty good."
Most importantly, Kentucky's No. 1 and No. 2 players in Rossi and Jomby have answered the bell in the first two rounds. Rossi battled WMU's No. 1 in a match that was eventually abandoned when junior Grant Roberts clinched the first-round match on the court beside Rossi. He then went on to dominate Virginia Tech's No. 1 player, making quick work in straight sets. Jomby has overwhelmed each of his opponents playing No. 2.
The Wildcats' one-two punch will give them a chance against anyone they play in this tournament.
"They have one of the best No. 1s in the country, but on our end we have one of the best No. 1s in the country," said Kauffmann. "We believe in Rossi. We believe our one-two punch can play with anyone in the country like I said in the first couple rounds."
As UK advances deeper and deeper into the tournament, the pressure will mount. That's OK according to Kauffmann because they've been preparing for pressure moments like this all season.
"I hope it mounts a little bit because I think they understand it's the end of the year and if we lose, we're going to go home," said Kauffmann. "We try to put pressure on every match through the year through the fall and the spring.
"I hope because we've done that, there's not going to be a big gap in the difference of pressure between September, January, until now. I hope there's a small jump, but not a big jump. If it was a big jump, I'd tell you my guys will play really tight. We kind of stress that every match."
Kentucky doesn't expect to be able to roll over its opponent Thursday night. While the Cats have been able to put strong matches together and win 4-0 and 4-1, Kauffmann is still looking for his team to play strong across the board for all seven points. Going up against an opponent like Duke, there would be no better time than now for his team to put together a complete match.
"We've got to be ready and we've got to play seven points," said Kauffmann. "If we're only going to play four or five points against a team like Duke then we're not going to get through."
For that to happen, it's all going to come down to just how much his freshmen gained from their first two matches in the NCAA Tournament and their first collegiate season. With three freshmen in the starting lineup, it's going to be up to them if Kentucky is going to maximize its potential.
"I think our youngsters have gone through the first and second rounds and know what it's about," said Kauffmann. "I'm still waiting for our seven points to be played and I hope it comes Thursday."
The true key for success will come down to if Kentucky continues to play its brand of tennis. The Wildcats have done that so far in the tournament, and it will be crucial for UK to continue to impose its will on its opponents the rest of the way.
When the Wildcats take the court against Duke, they'll look to play the role of professor and let the summer schooling continue.
"If we're playing our game, we're going to be fine and have a chance to win," said Kauffmann. "If we're playing someone else's game, it's going to be very tough. We're going to have to execute our game plan that we have given them for their game."
It had been nearly two months since the end of the 2012-13 season, so there wasn't a lot to talk about on that front. Kentucky's underclassmen made their NBA Draft decisions well over a month ago, so those stories were a bit stale. As for Coach Cal's latest top-rated recruiting class, they all signed nearly four weeks ago and won't arrive on campus for another two or three.
Nonetheless, dozens of reporters packed the Memorial Coliseum media room to hear what Coach Cal had to say on a mid-May morning in a scene that would likely only happen in the Bluegrass.
"I don't even know what this is," said an amazed and unsurprised Calipari.
In effect, it was a mini-media day. Calipari was previewing a season of sorts similar to what he'll do during the real thing in about five months, but there weren't any games or even Big Blue Madness to discuss just yet. Instead, the summer - during which the Wildcats will lay the foundation for the team they'll become - was a primary topic of conversation.
The first step will be for Calipari to determine exactly how he will handle the Cats when they return to/arrive in Lexington in June. With that in mind, Coach Cal is taking the entire basketball staff on a retreat beginning next Monday.
"We're going to have a two-day retreat and what we're primarily going to be doing is (figuring out), 'What do each of these kids need from us?' " Calipari said. "Because every one of these kids we're bringing in need to be coached and they need something from us."
Molding his coaching strategy to each of his players will be a particular challenge this season, if only due to simple arithmetic. With eight newcomers and five returnees on scholarship, Calipari will have the deepest team of his UK tenure. That means the message of unselfishness he delivers every year will be even more important.
"More than any team I've had, shared sacrifice is going to matter in this group," Calipari said. "And they knew that coming here. I told every one of them, 'If you want to shoot 30 balls a game, you don't come here. If you want to be the only guy that's playing - the one guy that everybody's talking about - you wouldn't come here.' "
As well as every Cat might understand that in theory, putting into practice is another matter entirely.
"To bring that many together, really going to be a challenge," Calipari said. "The galvanizing part of this will start this summer."
That's why Coach Cal is so committed to pursuing every means to that end, even if he has to do things differently than he's used to.
"We have some other things that we're going to do as a team that I have not done in the past that I think will help this team come together," Calipari said. "Some of it is we will watch some movies together of some teams coming together, of what they had to do to sacrifice for each other."
Movies aside, he didn't reveal many details about his plans just yet, but you can rest assured they are informed in part by this past year. Calipari made sure to point out there were elements of UK's NIT season he is proud of, including one thing he believes could pay dividends in 2013-14.
"It's not just 'Did they get better?' It's 'Did they learn about themselves?' " Calipari said. "Because sometimes you learn about yourself in a season - Are you ready? Marquis Teague - and you change it in the season. Sometimes you can't. You're just too young.
"They learn about themselves in a season, know that this isn't going to work, they change and they get better. So part of last season was the beginnings of success for the coming year."
Calipari also did his share of learning during a trying year. He's not about to abandon his players-first philosophy, but Coach Cal has also come to understand shielding players too much can do harm.
"What you learn is you can't protect the players," Calipari said. "You can't protect them from competition. You bring in your group, and the guys that understand competition, that brings out the best. They strive and they get better."
He didn't say the exact phrase as he so often does, but it's clear Coach Cal "likes his team" once more. That begins with the personality he expects it to have.
He was asked on Wednesday about UK's signees saying at the McDonald's All-American Game - where six future Wildcats played - there would be fights at practices next season and Calipari said he likes that mentality, so long as those fights are forgotten outside the Joe Craft Center gym.
"It will drag us to where we're trying to go," Calipari said. "I'm going to tell you: Two years ago we did not have a bad practice. Not one. So that led us to building a swagger and a confidence level that we knew we could win every game we play, we just, let's be at our best and if we weren't and someone got us, fine, next game."
The first reason Calipari cited for his national title team's consistent practice habits was the presence of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Now, Coach Cal believes he has at least a couple players - Julius Randle, to name one - who will bring similar effort and a willingness to demand it out of their teammates.
"When you don't have that alpha male at all, you have to do things to try to lead yourself as a coach, and your team can never have the type of success you want," Calipari said. "You try to figure out who that could be or who could step up. A lot of times they are who they are in that regard - those guys who will step up and hold and push the group and not be afraid. That's what you're looking for when you have a good team."
Because he sees that potential, Calipari isn't exactly running away and hiding from the 40-0 buzz surrounding his team. He won't be talking about an undefeated record directly to his team, but the fact that the notion and is out there doesn't scare him even though UK's first loss won't destroy all hope of a successful season.
"Pressure brings out the best," Calipari said. " 'You're going to be fired if you don't get this done. You're not going to make it if you don't get this.' It wakes you up earlier in the morning. I don't mind a little pressure. I've had it my whole career. I've had a gun to my head for 20-something years, and you know what? I'm at my best when the gun is to my head versus where I can kick back and I'm not as good. And you know what? Players are the same."
Those expectations, though lofty and perhaps unrealistic, are yet to be realized, and the transition from links-style golf in Europe to the American game has taken longer than expected.
While Stow hoped to hit the ground running after being able to train with his teammates in the fall season, he believed his game would translate in the U.S. with a little bit of tweaking. What he found was that he was perhaps a bit overzealous in his outlook.
"It has been a little difficult because you have to hit the ball so much higher over here and chipping on the different grass you have over here is very different," said Stow. "Certainly the first three or four tournaments I played I wasn't ready for the change."
Stow says that the physical conditions of the courses have been the hardest to get used to. The differences in grass have forced him to adjust his game and change his overall approach. In England, there are harder fairways that allow low, line-drive tee shots to roll. In the rough, "meadow" grass allows for easier chipping situations around the green.
Each of those factors has played a role in keeping Stow from being the player he's used to being.
The physical game of golf hasn't been the only hindrance to Stow's success, however.
After spending a great deal of his career with swing coach Gordon Brand, Jr., Stow separated himself from his greatest golf influence. Not only that, but Brand took time off and was completely off the grid for Stow as he experienced his struggles in America.
Stow had to take this challenge on by himself.
"I was one of the best players in Europe," said Stow. "But when I came over here, I kept finishing 20th and 15th and stuff, it kind of made me step back and think, 'What am I doing differently and what do I need to improve on?' I think that process took me longer than it would have if I was at home because of the fact that I didn't have instant correspondence with my coach.
"Overall, I think it's been a really good learning experience for me because every golfer goes through a period when they're struggling and it really shows your character on how you come out on the other side of it."
After experiencing so much success as an individual on the European circuit, Stow was in for a brand-new experience at Kentucky playing golf as a member of a team for the first time in his life.
Having always focused on himself, playing for others and not having the sole attention of the coaches has been as big of a challenge as any he's faced during his time in the States. Add to that the additional amount of pressure he felt to produce and be make the instant impact his coaches and teammates were hoping for, it's no wonder why things haven't gone as planned for the English native.
"I've never played team golf like they do in the States, so that was very different," said Stow. "The fact that the coach structures everything around the team rather than the individual and everything is set up for the team. Kind of at the end of the day, you look at how the team did and not how you did. It was different.
"I did feel a little pressure to help the team along because I played very well in qualifying when I first got here and I've got pretty good world rankings, so I expected to play well."
While there were outside expectations, Stow's confidence and internal expectations were just as high when, in reality, producing under such conditions wouldn't be easy.
"For the first couple of months I was here, I thought I was going to go out and shoot 65 every time I went out, when realistically no one does that in the world," said Stow. "I'm not going to say it's been easy because it's been tough. Who likes playing bad? But I'm glad I've been through it and I definitely feel like I'm out the other side of it now because even when I'm playing badly I'm making pretty good scores."
With an NCAA Regional ahead, Stow believes he's finally ready to be the contributor this team needs him to be. He's learned from his mistakes and still managed to earn several top-20 finishes along the way. He has altered his game and is starting to understand American-style golf more than at any point during his time in the country.
Though he and his teammates have not delivered on the hopes and expectations they set for themselves at the beginning on the spring, there is still one last opportunity to make their mark when they head to Fayetteville, Ark., for regional play beginning Thursday.
"We always thought that we'd get it going and start playing better, but we never really did," said Stow. "I think since postseason, some guys have shot really well. Some of the guys have put some really good rounds together. We've spent a lot of time together, which kind of brought the team to easing up a bit. I think the morale of the team is definitely up since the end of the regular season, but I think there's still room to work on that."
Some strong early results out of the gate tomorrow could go a long way in helping the Wildcats reach their goal of Nationals with a strong finish at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville. With morale trending upward and Stow finally feeling ready to be the player he knows he can be, the NCAA Regional serves as the last chance for Stow and Co. to realize their preseason expectations when they tee off Thursday at 9 a.m. ET.
"I would just say to them, 'Guys, we need to do the easy stuff well. We need to do the simple stuff well,' " said Stow. "We have got the ability to play great golf on this UK golf team. We've got the ability, we just need to go out there and believe in ourselves and do the simple things well. At the end of the week, add them up, and I'm sure we'll be at the top of the leader board."
After leading throughout in its home finale, UK surrendered two runs in the top of the inning as No. 15 Indiana took a 3-2 lead. But before the Cats could even ask themselves the question of whether they would respond, Micheal Thomas led off the home half by putting a charge into an 0-1 pitch.
"Micheal came up and ran that ball out of the yard and got everybody excited," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "Now you're tied, you've got the right part of the lineup coming up."
Thomas drove Luke Harrison's pitch over the wall in left field, changing the dynamic all over again. Matt Reida singled next and Zach Storm bunted him to second. Leadoff man Kyle Barrett followed with a walk before Zac Zellers flew out, setting up A.J. Reed - who had already homered on the evening - for a two-out at-bat with a pair of runners on.
Reed delivered a single and the go-ahead run. An inning later, Reida added an insurance run with a single that scored Austin Cousino, giving the Cats a 5-3 lead that would be more than enough for their star closer. Trevor Gott struck out two of the three batters he faced en route to his 12th save and UK (29-22) picked up an important win with just three regular-season games remaining.
"This was definitely a huge game for us for our regional purposes," Reed said. "Them being 15th in the country, that win on paper looks really good for us. So I think this really increases our chances of getting into a regional and we gotta go take care of business in Missouri."
Reed opined that UK needs two wins in Columbia, Mo., to ensure its place in the NCAA Tournament while some experts say a sweep is needed, but the Cats aren't spending an inordinate amount of time thinking about all that.
"Our coaches try not to talk about it a lot because they want us to just go out there and relax," Reed said. "But we know what we need to do so we just do our best to go out here and take care of business."
A victory over a team leading the Big Ten is certainly a plus for a team looking to solidify its tourney resume, but the confidence built through earning it could be even more important.
Indiana came in ranked seventh nationally in earned-run average, but the Cats pounded out 10 hits and those two home runs. The performance comes on the heels of a weekend during which UK didn't pick up a win, but did pound out a pair of double-digit hit games.
"We started off really well at the beginning of the year and then when conference started we kind started dropping off a little bit and then we faced the two best pitching staffs in the country two weeks in a row with Arkansas and Vandy," Reed said. "We outhit the expectations of those two pitching staffs. So we're putting really good at-bats together, I think our hitters are starting to get confidence and it should be a really good weekend for us in Missouri."
The confidence is translating into a better approach at the plate.
"It's aggressive," Henderson said. "You guys see it. The body language is different. The presence is different."
That goes for the pitcher who started for UK on Tuesday as well.
For the second Tuesday in a row, Jerad Grundy excelled as UK's midweek starter. The win escaped him, but he allowed just one run over six innings and Henderson said the senior lefthander was in "complete control" outside of a Dustin DeMuth home run.
"It was huge for my confidence tonight to come out and have success again the second week in a row," Grundy said.
In all likelihood, Grundy will be an observer only this weekend in anticipation of next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. But if his teammates can replicate the approach they all took on Tuesday, it will serve them well against Missouri.
"The only thing I told them is they need to go down there with the expectation that they need to take the wins," Henderson said. "You can't go down hoping. I don't know that we've done a lot of hoping this year. We certainly haven't played up to our expectations at times, but we need to go down with the right attitude."