Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
Rachel Lawson and Kara Dill will lead the UK softball team into the Tempe Super Regional this weekend vs. Arizona State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It might be happening for the second time in three years, but Rachel Lawson isn't taking Kentucky's Super Regional berth for granted. She knows that even the best programs in the country are fortunate to be among the last 16 teams standing.
Be that as it may, this weekend is just another rung on UK's ladder to a place college softball's elite.
"To be in supers is special in the sport of softball and our ultimate goal is to go to the World Series," Lawson said.
As No. 12 UK (41-19) prepares for a three-game series with fifth-seeded Arizona State (48-10) that will begin Saturday at 10 p.m. ET, the experience of losing to California in a super regional in 2011 is fresh in Lawson's mind. In fact, she's been thinking about it all season as she tried to lead UK to its first-ever Women's College World Series.
Lawson, however, has a young team with five freshman starters. Among this year's regular contributors, only Kara Dill, Alice O'Brien and Emily Jolly saw significant time in the NCAA Tournament two years ago.
"Me personally, yes, as a coach (she is approaching super regionals differently). We have prepared completely different than we did two years ago in terms of pitch selection and stuff like that, but that started in the fall," Lawson said. "But for our team, only a couple of these players were on that team and only a couple of starters."
Dill was one of them. She had five hits as UK upset Michigan to win that regional in 2011, but the Cats were a national seed and favored to reach this point this year.
"I think our team this year is better and there are more people that can do a more variety of things," Dill said. "We have more depth and are stronger as a team."
She has clear proof of that depth too.
On March 15, Dill sustained a hand injury against LSU. For the remainder of the regular season, the Cats would have to get the job done without their leading hitter from each of the past two years. Freshman Christian Stokes filled in at shortstop and UK finished 19-12 without Dill in the starting lineup.
She healed in time to return for the postseason, but if the Cats hadn't been able to hold it together in the senior's absence, she would never have gotten the chance.
"I couldn't ask for any more from them. If they wouldn't have made it this far I wouldn't have finished out the year," Dill said. "This is everything to us right now. They are incredible."
Stokes is still playing shortstop, but Dill - now at designated player - took over her customary role as UK's lead-off batter for the NCAA Tournament opener vs. Marshall. She promptly turned in two hits and a run batted in in four at-bats, providing stability at a lineup spot that had been in a state of flux since Dill's injury.
"She's an exceptional player," Lawson said after that game, a 2-1 win over Marshall. "She's also a captain, she's very steady, she's smart, she's everything you want in a student-athlete. So to get her back is cool. ... It makes me happy to know that she's going to be able to finish on a high note."
After the Cats won a regional the first time they ever hosted one, it's now just a matter of how high the finishing note will be for Dill and UK.
"This is the best time of the year and if I could pick anytime to get back out there and play it would be this time," Dill said. "The team got us here and that is all I could have asked of them."
Junior Kayla Parker set a PR and was .03 seconds off the school record in the 100-meter hurdles at the SEC Championships. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As the Kentucky track and field team travels to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to compete at the NCAA East Regional, the Wildcats will look to improve on their Southeastern Conference Championships performance and send as many athletes to nationals as they can.
That's head coach Edrick Floreal's motto anyhow. The former Olympian (1988 and 1992), and 2012 U.S. Olympic Team jumps coach has tried to hammer home to his athletes that they can only compete to the best of their ability.
UK has a talented group of individuals, but it's the same team that finished near the bottom of the SEC Championships in 2012.
The Wildcats have grown immensely under Floreal. Kentucky finished seventh in both the men's and women's competitions at this year's SEC Championships, which was a major improvement from the previous season's results. UK may not have the caliber of athletes Floreal eventually wants across the board, but he is certainly getting every ounce of athletic ability out of his team in the meantime.
"I want them to step back up and do what they are capable of doing and if you do that and if that's not good enough then you have to get back to work and get better," Floreal said. "That's my expectation, that we are going to do what we think we can do and let the rest of the SEC and the region sort themselves out. If we do what we are capable of doing you can't really be disappointed with that."
The Cats met their head coach's goal of finishing in the top half of the conference with their seventh-place finishes at SECs. However, Floreal feels UK left a lot of points out on the table and could have finished even higher.
Despite battling the injury bug and some mental errors, Kentucky had a shot at finishing in the top five according to Floreal. Senior All-American hurdler Keith Hayes was a near guarantee to finish in the top three of his events before straining his hamstring in his first competition. UK's talented 4 x 100-meter relay team of Morganne Phillips, Tamyah Pipkin, Kayla Parker and Keilah Tyson was projected to score highly before being disqualified for passing the baton illegally.
"I felt like in several instances, we didn't do what we are capable of doing and that's where some of the frustrations are because we feel like we're so much better of a team and we want to prove that," Floreal said. "You have to earn your stripes like everybody else, especially in this conference. We are getting better, we're getting older, we're getting more mature and we will be able to handle difficult situations a little bit better."
Kentucky received several good performances from individuals who have provided them all year. Junior Chelsea Oswald took home the 10,000- and 5,000-meter titles, while Andrew Evans, Raymond Dykstra and Matt Hillenbrand finished second in their respective events.
Those Cats have proven all year that they are ahead of the rest of the conference and Floreal expects them to compete hard and finish near the top of the field every time out. He admits he may take it for granted, but it's the borderline athletes with whom Floreal is working to get them to buy in and have the kind of breakthrough performances that really give him satisfaction as a coach.
Parker is one athlete who has bought into the system since day one and is now reaping the benefits of her hard work. The junior finished fourth in the 100-meter hurdles final with a personal record time of 13.19 seconds, just 0.03 off the school record.
"Kayla is a role model and a team captain to make sure everyone buys in and has great leadership not just worrying about herself but worrying about everyone else," Floreal said. "You need people in there who are going to score 20 points and be leaders and you need people in there that are going to keep everyone in line and also be leaders. There are different leaders that you need to have a successful team."
UK will send 27 athletes to regionals this weekend (14 men and 13 women). While Floreal has searched for unique ways to motivate his team all season, his message for this weekend was simple and to the point.
"This weekend is more so advancing to the NCAA and less about a team competition," Floreal said. "Each individual has to take care of their own business. You can be first or you can be 12th it's the same thing. Just be top 12, let's move on and we'll do it again in two weeks at nationals."
Jerad Grundy will start for Kentucky in the first of the SEC Tournament against Ole Miss on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Gary Henderson doesn't think anything even needs to be said.
His team already knows it has a lot of work ahead to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row. Henderson agrees with the experts that the Wildcats (30-24, 11-19 Southeastern Conference) need a "significant run" in this week's conference tournament to make their case.
That doesn't mean he will dramatically alter his approach or the message he delivers to his team.
"We'll go about it the same way we always do," Henderson said.
What that means is the only thing Henderson wants the Cats thinking about is their SEC Tournament opener on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m. ET against sixth-seeded Ole Miss (36-20, 15-15 SEC). The first round - which features teams seeded fifth through 12th - is single-elimination, so UK needs a victory in the "breakfast game" (borrow a phrase from Rebel head coach Mike Bianco) just to keep playing.
"We need to win tomorrow morning and then we can worry about what we're doing on Wednesday," Henderson said. "And as opposed to sitting down and telling them that we gotta bite off four wins or five wins or whatever it is, I won't do that."
Coming off two losses in three games over the weekend at Missouri, UK will call on Jerad Grundy (6-5, 4.75 ERA) to start Tuesday. The senior lefthander is 1-0 with a 1.64 ERA in two starts since moving to a midweek role.
"Grundy is a great kid and a very good competitor, but he ran into a rough four-game stretch there in the middle so we took him off of the Saturday games and put him on the Tuesday games," Henderson said. "And he was able to relax and get back to his old self that he'd been for a year and half."
Grundy has made a start against Ole Miss each of the last two seasons, struggling to an 0-2 record with a 13.06 ERA. To improve, Henderson is looking only for Grundy to do the simple things.
"What we've seen is the ability to throw strikes at the knees and command his two secondary pitches, work ahead in the count - the absolute basics that allow you to be successful," Henderson said. "He's pitched much, much better the last two or three times out than he had the previous four."
Ole Miss has not yet named a starting pitcher, but UK is likely to be familiar with whomever Bianco tabs to take the mound. The Cats have faced the Rebels seven times over the last two seasons, taking two games in two three-game sets and winning their SEC Tournament opener over Ole Miss last season, 2-0.
"I would think that there's plenty of familiarity between the Rebels and the Wildcats as many times as we've played in the last two years," Henderson said.
Familiarity or no familiarity, the task remains the same from this game on for the Wildcats as they play with the season on the line.
"We need to play well, we need to pitch well," Henderson said. "All the coaching cliches that are absolutely true, we need to do those tomorrow morning and when that's over we'll worry about (Wednesday)."
UK defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday to clinch a berth in a Super Regional for the second time in three seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After Kentucky defeated Virginia Tech on Sunday, Rachel Lawson showed a side or herself rarely seen, particularly by her team. Fielding questions, Lawson was overcome by emotion.
UK had just fulfilled Lawson's goal of clinching a second Super Regional trip in three seasons in its brand-new venue. Sitting in the back of the room was the stadium's namesake, the man who helped bring Lawson to Lexington and build the program to what it's become: John Cropp.
Given the circumstances, it's difficult to blame her for struggling to compose herself.
"I always yell at everybody, and they don't see me like this," Lawson said. "It's the only time."
In Lawson's sixth season, the progress of the Kentucky program is remarkable, as is the resulting list of accomplishments: the first five NCAA Tournament berths in school history, two Super Regional berths in three years, state-of-the-art venue, a school-record 41 wins in 2013.
Just a couple hours prior, the circumstances - and the audience - were quite different.
After taking the first two games of the regional on Friday and Saturday, UK found that its season was on the brink following a game one loss to the Hokies. Virginia Tech had just blanked the Cats, 2-0, forcing a winner-take-all showdown approximately 45 minutes later, and Lawson wasn't particularly happy with the way her team hit or played defense.
"It was the exact opposite of the one I gave (that was) all sentimental about John Cropp and our athletic department," Lawson said of her between-game message. "That's why I hate that this one's on camera. I'd rather the other one be on camera."
No one outside the locker room got to see Lawson's speech, but the fans in John Cropp Stadium got to see the results. Even though the Cats managed just one run, they were much more effective in attacking the outside pitches Virginia Tech consistently threw.
In the field, UK was nothing short of amazing. The Cats did not commit an error, turned a pair of double plays in the game and made three plays that could all be candidates for the SportsCenter Top 10.
First was a diving catch by left fielder Ginny Carroll in foul territory for the final out of the bottom of the first. Two innings later, Sylver Samuel robbed Betty Rose of extra bases with a jumping grab against the wall in center. But perhaps the best and most important of the afternoon was by Christian Stokes.
After Tech led off the fourth inning with a single, the freshman shortstop sprinted into shallow left field, dove and caught what appeared to be a sure single by Courtney Liddle. The Hokies would go on to load the bases with two outs in the inning even after Stokes' play.
"I thought Christian Stokes play, when she dove and got the play behind her, that was big," Lawson said. "Because in game one we didn't make that catch, and that's why they ran off two runs. So the fact that she made that catch and really stepped up today on her birthday was really cool."
UK pitchers Lauren Cumbess and Kelsey Nunley were the beneficiaries of all the defensive help.
After Nunley had pitched the first 22 innings of the weekend, Lawson turned to Cumbess to start the elimination game. The junior didn't allow a run in 3.2 innings of work.
"I was ready," Cumbess said. "I wanted to do whatever it took to help our team win. So to give Kelsey that little break, that's what we needed for the win."
In Lawson's mind, starting Cumbess was about a lot more than giving Nunley a few innings of rest.
"Actually when I was preparing for Virginia Tech prior to the weekend, I actually thought Lauren was the exact matchup for them because she has such a good drop ball," Lawson said. "I think Virginia Tech is a great hitting team, and I wanted to keep the ball in the infield."
Though Cumbess was effective, Lawson had to turn to her star freshman in the game's biggest spot. When Virginia Tech loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth, Nunley emerged from the dugout and needed only a few warm-up pitches to coax a pop out for the third out, ending the threat.
"I was just thinking that we need an out," Nunley said. "That's all that matters."
Nunley finished the game, picking up the win to move to 27-9 and lowering her earned-run average to 1.97, second-lowest in single-season UK history. But without Cumbess, Nunley may not have been able to get the job done.
Not only did Cumbess deliver the game-winning hit - a fifth-inning infield single to score Sylver Samuel - but she also gave her fellow pitcher frequent advice after moving over to first base.
"I have to say that Lauren really encourages me," Nunley said. "She helps me just stay positive all the time and also gives me little triggers to get past batters."
In the sixth inning, Nunley seemed to begin to lose her rhythm. She allowed a pair of hits and a walk as her control faltered, a possible sign of fatigue. Cumbess, however, noticed another cause and ran to the dugout to request a towel. Nunley was simply having trouble gripping the ball as the temperature rose.
"This is the first time we've played in hot weather," Lawson said.
UK's equipment staff better make sure to replenish the towels, because the Cats could be playing in more hot weather next weekend. Kentucky will play the winner of No. 5 seed Arizona State and Georgia with the Sun Devils needing just one win in two games.
"I'm going to watch it," Cumbess said. "I bet everybody else will too. We were all out here last night seeing who we were going to play. Most of us stayed the entire extra-inning game between Marshall and Virginia Tech. So we're going to be excited to see who we play and I think it's anybody's game. Both teams are really good."
Kelsey Nunley allowed two runs - both unearned - on one hit in UK's 6-2 win over Virginia Tech on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kelsey Nunley is nervous every game she plays. She admitted as much after she pitched UK to victory in her first-career NCAA Tournament start on Friday.
Even so, she had little trouble dealing with the uneasiness against Marshall. Nunley tossed eight innings - allowing just one run - without once stepping into the circle with a lead.
After she pitched into extra innings with her back against the wall the night before, Nunley's teammates gave her and her nerves a reprieve on Saturday, pounding out seven hits and two home runs against Virginia Tech.
"I'm more confident in myself when we have runs," Nunley said. "That helps."
Nunley looked the part.
The freshman tossed her second complete game in less than 24 hours, carrying UK to a 6-2 victory over Virginia Tech at John Cropp Stadium. With the win - a school-record-tying 40th of the year - the Wildcats move into Sunday's final in the Lexington Regional. UK will face Notre Dame, Virginia Tech or Marshall at 1 p.m. ET with a chance to advance to a second Super Regional in three years with a win.
It's close to a lock that Nunley (26-8) will toe the rubber in that game. Considering she has allowed just one earned run on seven hits and three walks against 10 strikeouts in 15 innings of work on Friday and Saturday, it certainly makes sense for Rachel Lawson to ride her workhorse.
"We've been using and I feel confident with both Kelsey and (Lauren) Cumbess going in there and then Katie Henderson's given us some really good innings," Lawson said. "But with that said, Kelsey's won so many games for us it would be nice to see her finish the tournament tomorrow."
If not for a play in the second inning that was initially called an error but eventually changed to a hit, Nunley would enter Sunday looking for her second no-hitter in a row.
Nunley started the frame with a 2-0 lead after Lauren Cumbess hit a two-run first-inning home run, but walked the lead-off batter. The next at-bat resulted in a tapper back to the pitcher that Nunley charged. As she reached for the ball, she tweaked her left ankle and could not make the play, committing an error.
If not for the fact that Nunley is from a small town called Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., and played basketball and volleyball growing up, Lawson would likely have been much more concerned about her star pitcher when she came up lame.
"The one good thing about having a country girl on your team is their parents usually just strap 'em up," Lawson said. "They don't have athletic trainers out there or anything, so they don't know any different. They just get back out there."
That's exactly what Nunley did, taking one warm-up pitch to test the ankle beforehand.
She retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout before hitting Kiara Ota with a pitch to load the bases with two outs. Nunley then coaxed a grounder to shortstop that looked like would end the inning, but the hard-hit ball took a big hop that Christian Stokes could not corral. After a scoring change, the play would cost Nunley a no-hitter.
"One hit, we won," Nunley said. "It doesn't matter."
Nunley is thinking much more about the way UK's ascendant offense performed.
After the Wildcats were handcuffed in a loss to South Carolina in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Lawson made it clear to her hitters that they would need to improve for UK to advance in the postseason. After pounding out 10 hits against Marshall star Andi Williamson on Friday and showing some power against three different Virginia Tech pitchers, the Cats have proven the were listening.
"I think we came out knowing that this is our time, this our stadium and we have to make sure that we own it," said Krystal Smith.
Entering the matchup with Virginia Tech, the UK second baseman had not homered in a month and a day. But on Saturday, Smith counted a two-run home run among her two hits. The blast landed on top of the batting cage over the fence in left field and provided Kentucky's final 6-2 margin.
"We've been practicing all week on the pitches that we were going to be expecting to see," Smith said. "So I think I went up there with a lot of confidence in my swing."
Confidence is a word that comes up a lot in talking to the Cats right now. If they can sustain it, UK could make a lot more noise in this NCAA Tournament.
"The fact that we came out and hit the ball hard against such a good pitcher and then today to be able to have so many different looks and to hit a couple home runs, hit the ball hard, do that is really encouraging as we move forward," Lawson said.
Kentucky will host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history at John Cropp Stadium this weekend. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
This weekend, the University of Kentucky softball team will get back in action as the Wildcats host their first NCAA Regional in school history. UK earned the No. 12 national seed in the tournament and will square off with Marshall on Friday evening at approximately 7:30 p.m. ET at John Cropp Stadium. No. 2 seed Notre Dame and No. 3 seed Virginia Tech will kick off the four-team regional at 5:00 p.m. on Friday.
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."
Kevin Lai (left) and Tom Jomby (right) will look to get UK off to a strong start in doubles Thursday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Classes are out for summer, but the Kentucky men's tennis team has continued schooling its opponents thus far in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats have outclassed both Western Michigan and Virginia Tech en route to yet another Sweet 16, the first under first-year head coach Cedric Kauffmann.
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."
The 2013-14 season will be John Calipari's fifth as Kentucky head coach. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing of John Calipari's Wednesday press conference was a bit strange.
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."
English transfer Ben Stow and UK look to break through at NCAA Regionals in Fayetteville, Ark., this week. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Expectations were high for Ben Stow when crossed the Atlantic Ocean to join the Kentucky men's golf team. The former No. 2 ranked player according to the European Ranking System and a native of Salisbury, England, Stow was perceived as the missing link in Kentucky's lineup.
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."