Towles father, Terry, had lost his father when he was 18 years old and was a huge football fan. Towles sent his dad a quick text, "Papa Tommy is partying in heaven." It didn't take Terry long to realize his son was named the starting QB for the Wildcats.
Following Tuesday's practice, Towles had his first opportunity to meet with the media as the new signal caller for Kentucky.
"Relief," Towles said about his reaction to being named starter. "I'm super excited. It's a great opportunity. It's something that I've wanted for my entire life. To have this kind of opportunity is awesome."
Now having two practices under his belt as the starting quarterback, Towles can now focus on his duties without the distraction of a QB competition.
"Good. I felt like I can play free," Towles said about how practice has been the last two days. "During the competition I would make a bad throw, and I'd constantly be like, 'Gosh.' Every throw had to be perfect, but now it's a relief that I can go out and just let it all hang out and play. I felt like I was a senior in high school and I was just able to play and just make plays. And that's a good feeling."
Now the key cog in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's high-tempo offensive attack, Towles must take on a leadership role and set the standard for his unit's performance.
"He's talented enough to run any offense, really," Brown detailed. "He's got a strong arm. He's big. He's 6-4-plus. I think he's 240 pounds-plus. He hit like 19.8 miles per hour yesterday in practice, so he runs well. So our offense, any offense, he's capable of doing well."
The former Kentucky High School Mr. Football out of Highlands in Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles played in five games as a true freshman in 2012. He dazzled Commonwealth Stadium with a sparkling debut, completing 5-of-5 passes for 71 yards and a 32-yard touchdown strike in his first career series in 2012 vs. Mississippi State. Later in the game, Towles suffered an injury that hampered his chance to get on the field as a freshman.
"It's a whole maturation process," Towles said about his first two years on campus. "It goes through ups and downs. Like I said, when I got here, I was an 18-year-old kid. Playing in front of 65,000 people was nuts. It was crazy. Now I've been here for going on my third year in school, and it definitely feel like everything is a lot quicker, sharper and it's easier to make decisions."
Towles then battled with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow in a preseason competition in 2013, with Smith and Whitlow sharing the position during the season.
"I guess around this time (last year), the race was between me, Jalen (Whitlow) and Maxwell (Smith)," Towles detailed. "(Coach Stoops) brought me in there and was like, 'Hey, you're doing a good job but there's still some stuff you need to work on before you can really make a run at this thing.' I said, 'All right, got it.' So this entire time I went out and fixed everything that he had said."
And go to work he did, dedicating his redshirt season to revamping his fundamentals.
"Just with everything, everything fundamentally," Towles said about his goals for improvement during 2013. "You have to be fundamentally almost perfect to play well in this league, consistently play well, especially against the people that we play against. My feet had to get better. My release had to change. I had to get my head on straight and really go after this thing. That's what I did."
Now the starting quarterback at his home-state school, it would be easy for Towles to bask in the glow of his accomplishment. That is not in his plans.
"This is just the beginning," Towles said. "Right now I'm focused on Tennessee Martin and next Saturday."
Entering day 11 of training camp. Team is working hard. 4 practices over the weekend...yoga, weights, & 1 practice today. #one— Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) August 18, 2014
On Monday morning, Kentucky second-year head coach Mark Stoops put the question to bed, announcing on his twitter account that sophomore Patrick Towles had won the starting gig over freshmen Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, and junior Maxwell Smith.
"Patrick's done a very good job," Stoops said. "I have a lot of confidence in Patrick. He's worked extremely hard. I said it before that I was proud of his work ethic."
A 6-foot-5, 238-pound native of Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles is coming off a well-utilized redshirt season in 2013, after seeing action in five games as a true freshman in 2012.
The former Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year out of Highlands High School, Towles played as a true freshman in 2012 after injuries plagued the position. His first drive as a collegiate quarterback dazzled the fan base, going 5-for-5 for 71 yards against Mississippi State, capped by a 32-yard TD pass.
Later in the game vs. the Bulldogs, Towles suffered an injury, hampering what could have been a promising freshman season. He finished 2012 completing 19 of 40 passes for 232 yards, including his TD strike vs. MSU.
Following his freshman season, Towles saw Smith and Jalen Whitlow share the quarterback position in 2013 as UK learned a new, exciting offensive system under Stoops. Towles dedicated himself in the weight room, improving his fundamentals and to the mental side of the game, putting himself in position to compete for the 2014 starting job.
"A lot of people, a year ago when he was told that he was not going to be in the mix, could have put their head down," Stoops detailed on Towles mindset during his redshirt season. "They could have quit, they could have transferred. Or they face it and get improvement. And he worked. And I'm proud of that. I like the fact that he just went to work to get better. That sends a good message to the rest of the team."
"What he did is he really grew up, he matured, became more serious about football, started doing things right off the field," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "And what I mean by that is -- he was always a good kid, I don't mean that -- he made football one of the top priorities in his life. After the givens, he made football a top priority. He went out and got a lot of drill work. We focused on fundamentals, which was really important to him. He went out and got some extra work, and he was productive."
Towles brings a dynamic skill set to the position in Brown's high-tempo offensive attack. As Mr. Football in Kentucky in 2011, Towles led his club to three consecutive state championships, compiling a three-year record of 44-1, including a 38-1 mark as the starting QB. As a senior, Towles completed 171 passes for 3,820 yards with 32 TDs and just one interception.
"Patrick has a big arm," Stoops said. "He's sneaky fast, too, as well. He's maybe not as fleet of foot as some other guys, but in the open field he's really got some pretty good speed. He's a big guy. He's strong. And he can make all the throws. He's improved on his release. He's much quicker getting rid of the ball, and that improves his decision making. That's the biggest area of improvement for him over a year."
After Stoops and the staff broke the news to Towles and the UK quarterbacks on Monday, they were pleased with the reaction of the four QBs in the ensuing practice.
"He was excited," Brown said. "He's worked hard for this. What I told him though: this is just the start. You've got the opportunity, let's see what you do with the opportunity."
"The truth is that he won the job," Stoops said. "He won the job. It was very close, but he ended up being the winner."
Six games. Eight days. Three opponents with rosters comprised of established professionals.
Playing the final leg of their Big Blue Bahamas Tour, the Wildcats finally showed the effects of what ESPN analyst Jay Bilas equated to playing two Southeastern Conference Tournaments back to back.
"We kind of died," Calipari said. "We didn't have it physically."
Through 31 minutes, UK successfully battled through that fatigue. But over the final 8:48, the Cats watched a 59-46 lead disappear little by little. Shots they made over their first five games in the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas didn't fall. Loose balls they grabbed before went to the Dominican Republic national team. In the end, the Dominicans avenged a Friday defeat and UK fell 63-62 after shooting 39.7 percent from the field and being outrebounded 38-34.
Jack Michael Martinez made the game-winning basket on a fall-away jumper with 2.6 seconds left. There was still time for last-second heroics like what Aaron Harrison delivered in the NCAA Tournament five months ago, but the Cats couldn't overcome their tired legs with the kind of execution they needed as Karl-Anthony Town's pass to Harrison was deflected away.
"You saw when we had to execute, we weren't able to," Calipari said. "When we had to get ball movement, we don't have enough in. When we needed out-of-bounds plays to score, we don't have anything in."
In other words, UK executed like a team that's only been together for a handful of August practices.
In the final minutes, John Robic -- filling in for Calipari, who watched from the stands for the fifth straight games -- scrapped the two-platoon system in favor of a lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee and Karl Towns. Absent was Alex Poythress, who was on the bench for most of the second half and played only 12 minutes total.
"He was exhausted," Calipari said. "I told him before the game, with the way he played yesterday, play five minutes today. Play 10 minutes today. Don't go out there and not play. Don't hurt your team. Just don't play. We've got other guys that want to play. So he was tired. He just pulled himself, which was fine."
Poythress, showcasing what Robic called a "rebuilt engine" yet again, expended the last of his energy in scoring all six of his points in the first half. He accounted for all but two points as the starting five were outscored 16-8 by the Dominicans in the first half.
Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Lee and Towns, however, provided a spark off the bench. After the Dominicans used a 14-3 run to claim a 24-17 lead, the Cats' so-called second unit turned UK's largest deficit of the week into a 36-29 halftime lead when Ulis buried a buzzer-beating runner.
Ulis scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half in leading the second group to a 28-13 margin in its first half minutes, playing the kind of pesky defense and sound offense that has Coach Cal thinking he has two very capable point guards.
"He was good," Calipari said. "He was good. You want him to make every play, but Andrew was terrific. Andrew's game yesterday was unbelievable. I mean, what he did yesterday - so you've got two guys."
And that's just at one position.
The Cats have tantalized their fans with depth on the Big Blue Bahamas Tour, sending waves of talented, athletic players at opponents. Sunday's result shed some additional light on what that depth means as players compete for roles and playing time.
"The lesson I told them that you walk away from (is) there's no birthright to be on that court," Calipari said. "You've got to play with energy and you've got to compete. If you don't, you're not playing. Either your group won't play as much or you won't play as much. It's just how it is.
"So there's no like, 'Well, today I'm not going to play and I'm still getting 20 minutes.' No. 'Well, I'm still getting--' No. You may get five minutes. And then you've got to bring it. This was the first game where we had guys with no competitive spirit, but it's easy to say (that with) six games in eight days. It was a tough run."
A tough run, but an undisputedly good one, even after it ended in defeat.
In planning the trip, Calipari had a different set of goals than most coaches who take teams on foreign tours. Television forced him to compress the schedule and placed some added stress on his team, but Calipari still got what he wanted.
"Most teams are using this for 10 days of practice," Calipari said. "Don't care who they play, don't care if they (win). Well, they don't care if they win or lose until they lose. Then it matters. But we needed it for more. I needed professional-level teams. I needed men. I needed experienced, physical guys that knew how to play."
Those grown men revealed plenty to Calipari about his team. He learned he has a well-conditioned group. He saw his highly touted freshman class is as advertised. But more than anything else, he found out his team is unselfish.
"I think they share the ball," Calipari said. "They've figured out how to share the ball more than any team I've had this early. Where most guys, you got ball stoppers trying to do their thing, trying to figure out who they are, versus move it, get it and make plays for each other. When we do that, we're real good. When we don't do that, we're like everybody else. So this team has picked it up pretty good."
UK got plenty done off the floor too.
Through three dominant performances, the Cats heard the hype and they began to grasp what it would mean. They listened as Bilas warned them against succumbing to the pressure pundits will place on them in picking apart roles and rotations. Most importantly, they were simply around each other.
"Well they got closer together," Calipari said. "There was great time that we could spend talking about different things that we're going to encounter this year, and we had the time to do it. There were some lessons and some different things. But they spent a lot of time together, so it was both spending time, vacation, but we played six games in eight days -- and against grown men, which was a great challenge for us."
With that experience in hand, the Cats have a much more solid grasp on the task facing them when they reconvene for practice this fall with a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles.
"This was a great run of games and experiences for these young people," Calipari said.
@UKCoachSkinner thanks for the great day. Really enjoyed watching the practice again. Hopefully you will make this an annual.-- stan schofer (@cthefuture) August 17, 2014
The fans got a close contest in the Bahamas for the first time in five games, UK got its victory, and on a trip that's supposed to be about learning, John Calipari found out in a 75-71 nail-biting win that his team still has the same heart and the same late-game toughness that defined the Cats during their magical 2014 postseason run.
"We actually needed a test," said assistant coach Barry "Slice" Rohrssen. "This was good for us. We're learning a lot about our team. And maybe as important, they're learning a lot about themselves. This was a game that we needed."
Entrenched in a back-and-forth battle, freshman point guard Tyler Ulis sealed the Cats' fifth victory in five tries with a steal and layup with 1:08 left on the clock.
The diminutive point guard, who gave up at least a few inches and several pounds to Lionel Chalmers, hounded the Champagne point guard as he brought the ball with just over a minute left and Kentucky clinging to a 75-72 lead.
Chalmers appeared to get visibly frustrated when he crossed half court and no foul was called, but Ulis never backed off. Instead of relaxing and resetting, Ulis, like a defensive pest, got on Chalmers' backside, made him dribble to his right, and out went Chalmers' legs.
By the time Chalmers looked up from the court he had just slipped on, Ulis was halfway to the other basket, racing by himself to an easy layup and another UK victory. The play earned a standing ovation from Calipari in the bleachers.
"That's what he does," Rohrssen said. "He wears you down. He's got quick feet and a big heart."
Ulis finished the game with 12 points, three assists and two steals. The quickly emerging fan favorite -- who wasn't available after the game for an interview -- ensured the Cats will finish their study abroad trip in the Bahamas with an opportunity to go undefeated.
"He's going up against somebody that has a lot more games under his belt, but Tyler has a big heart and he made a big play," Rohrssen said.
Rohrssen, who made his head-coaching debut for UK as Calipari continued to watch and evaluate from the stands, made the decision to keep Ulis in the game when he went away from the two-platoon system with only a few minutes left and the Cats leading by just a few points. Ulis stayed in with Marcus Lee when the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson re-entered the game
The gut move by Rohrssen turned out to be the right one.
"I actually didn't want to get voted off the island tonight, you know?" said Rohrssen, who left Pittsburgh for Kentucky in May. "But we thought maybe we'll just go with some experience and some people that have been in some situations like that before. Again, we're finding out about ourselves. We thought that the substitutions that we did make gave us the right lineup and put us in the best position at the end of a close game."
UK found itself in a close game for the first time during its exhibition tour in Nassau, Bahamas. After winning its four previous games by an average of 23.8 points, including a 23-rout of this same Champagne team on Tuesday, the Cats could never pull away in this one.
They led by as many as nine points in the first half and by eight in the second, but the first-division professional team from France was up for the challenge on Saturday and appeared bent on getting a little retribution.
Champagne, which featured a monster game from former Syracuse star Daryl Watkins (20 points) and a solid supporting performance from former LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell (11 points, seven rebounds), actually led 44-43 at halftime. It was the first time UK had trailed at half during the exhibition tour and, quite frankly, the only time during the trip the Cats had fell behind outside the first few minutes of the game.
"When you play somebody again so quickly and the result that we had in the first game, you don't want their pride to beat any arrogance we may have. We needed to guard against that," Rohrssen said. "The team we played today, even though they had the same roster, was actually a different team. Everybody in the building saw that. They've had some more practices, they had a lot more offensive actions and sets than they ran the other day, and they came out with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, which you would expect men - grown men - to do."
Some of it, too, could be attributed to playing five games in seven days. The Cats were slow to get started, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes. They also allowed Champagne to shoot 73.1 percent in the first half because of eight turnovers and shaky transition defense.
"That is a lot of games in a very short period of time for us, but there's a reason why this trip is set up the way it is," Rohrssen said. "We knew before we got on that plane that we had six games to play, so there aren't going to be any excuses on our part. Excuses are just bricks that build a road to failure. ... We're not laying those bricks down right now."
UK appeared to be taking control of the game when it went on a 9-0 run midway through the first half, but Champagne clawed within two and never let Kentucky get any more than six points ahead the rest of the way as the two teams traded shot for shot.
Ultimately, Kentucky held on thanks to Ulis' big play.
"He stayed yard for yard, foot for foot, inch for inch and disrupted their offense and turned it into a turnover for them and an easy basket for him and a score that we needed at the end," Rohrssen said.
UK got big contributions down the stretch from Aaron Harrison (team-high 15 points), Andrew Harrison (11 points, seven assists) and Devin Booker (10 points). Booker, who entered the game just 6 for 23 from the floor on the trip, hit two of his three 3-point shots Saturday.
"Almost like (riding) a bicycle," Rohrssen said. "You get knocked off the bike and you just got to get back on that bike and start pedaling again. It was good to see him have some more success today, as we go forward and prepare for our final game of this trip tomorrow."
Cauley-Stein, Lyles close to returning
UK big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who have sat out the entire Bahamas trip while they recover from offseason procedures, are close to getting back on the court.
Cauley-Stein told reporters after Saturday's game that he's one CT scan away from rejoining competition.
"They say I'm cleared now, but they want to check the CT scan to see if everything healed up correctly and everything else," Cauley-Stein said. "But probably in the next week."
Lyles said he's about two weeks behind Cauley-Stein.
"Me as a competitor, it's very hard (not to play)," Lyles said. "But I'm just doing everything in my capability to get back out there as soon as possible. And it's just fun to see everybody coming together as a squad and just thinking that in a couple weeks I'll be out there with them and battle with them."
It doesn't take a medical expert or a physical trainer to figure out they're close to 100 percent.
Both players have been arriving at Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium before their teammates to get some workouts in with some of the coaching staff. Lyles was working on his jumper before Saturday's game and looked to have good lift, while Cauley-Stein has been throwing down dunks during his work with assistant coach Kenny Payne.
"They're probably chomping at the bit to get out there, and not just to be a part of this, but just to - as their career continues and grows -- they want to be out there," Rohrssen said. "And I'm sure there's some anxiousness there. But again, you have to do what's best for the athletes, and right now it's best for them to sit this dance out."
With how well the rest of the team has played so far, the one lingering question that will come from this week in the Bahamas is where Cauley-Stein and Lyles fit in to the two-platoon system.
"All I can do is play as hard as I can and do what I do best and take care of what I can control, and the outcome of that - Coach decides who gets minutes and who doesn't and who comes off the bench and who starts," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein thinks the two-platoon system can continue to work with he and Lyles in the mix.
"It's pretty genius to have, especially when you have three starting lineups you could put in," he said. "It doesn't matter who starts in it, because at the end of the day you're going to get the same amount of minutes and you're going to get the same amount of touches as everybody else. ... If we're going to have energy like that during the season, then you might as well keep it."