Tyler Ulis will play in his hometown of Chicago when UK faces UCLA on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and UCLA have long been parallel programs.
There have been occasional run-ins, namely the 1975 national championship game and a spat of meetings in the 1990s and 2000s, but the two teams with the most national championships in the history of the game have had separate existences.
For the next three years, that's changing.
UK and UCLA will have their first of three December matchups in as many seasons this weekend, starting a relationship John Calipari believes will be mutually beneficial.
"We want a tie to programs like that," Coach Cal said. "That's what we want."
The first game comes in the inaugural CBS Sports Classic at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, capping a doubleheader kicked off by North Carolina and Ohio State at Chicago's United Center. The next two matchups will be at Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena, respectively, but the first one is the focus for now.
"It's going to be a great experience to play against them, and being able to play at a neutral site is going to be fun," Trey Lyles said. "Hopefully we go out there and get the win."
UK (11-0), of course, enters the game with an unblemished record and a No. 1 ranking, while UCLA (8-3) is out of the polls in spite of winning four of its last five games. The Bruins are led by second-year head coach Steve Alford, with whom Calipari shares a close relationship.
"I've known him for years and years," Calipari said. "We've become close, but I knew him when he was at Southwest Missouri State. ... He and I have been close. When he went to Iowa, I think we played. They beat us when I was at Memphis, one of my first years. But he's a terrific coach, just a great guy."
Calipari and Alford will match wits on Saturday, but the two have very different teams.
Kentucky has suffocating depth and the platoon system, ranking second in the nation in bench minutes and featuring no player playing more than 24.5 minutes per game. Willie Cauley-Stein is the closest thing the Cats have to a traditional statistical standout, posting team bests of 10.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on a group perhaps most noteworthy for its balance.
UCLA, on the other hand, relies heavily on a capable starting five. Each Bruin starter is averaging double digits in points and four are playing at least 31 minutes per game, led by Bryce Alford. Alford, his head coach's middle child, is averaging 18 points and 6.7 assists in 34.9 minutes per game.
"He's one of those guys -- and there's not many in the country -- that can take over a game and change the complexion of a game within a minute and a half," Calipari said. "And the reason is he can pull up from anywhere, he makes free throws, he can get you in foul trouble, his three off the bounce, off the catch, very, very skilled and a great passer."
Alford has good options when he does pass, including freshman forward Kevon Looney, who is averaging a double-double with 13.9 points and 10.9 rebounds to establish himself as a potential top-10 pick. Senior guard Norman Powell, meanwhile, is averaging 17.4 points and shooting 46.7 percent from 3-point range.
"He's like a scoring machine," Calipari said. "He's got some physique to him, he can get to the rim, he can make threes. He and Bryce in the backcourt have complemented each other."
The question, however, is how the Bruins will handle that UK depth.
The Cats have overwhelmed so far this season, winning all 11 of their games by double digits largely thanks to their ability to wear down the opposition with waves of depth.
"That's the whole idea of the platoon system is to try to bring in fresh bodies and wear the other team down," said Tyler Ulis, who will return to his hometown for the UCLA game. "I feel like every game we're coming in with the same attitude to try to attack them and get after it."
Lyles, meanwhile, has heard the talk of UK sprinting past UCLA thanks to that depth, but he knows the on-paper advantage grants them nothing.
"That may be true, but they have guys who can make plays and score the ball and do other things," Lyles said. "We're not going to look down on them because of that. We're going to accept the challenge and go out there and play to the best of our ability and play as a team."
Ultimately, UK is more concerned with maximizing its own potential than in playing any blue-blood matchup like Saturday's or engaging in the best-team-since-when hype that's already swirling.
"I think all of us let it go in one ear and out the other, because it really doesn't matter if we don't go out there and perform, so we need to go out there and play to the best of our abilities, and play as a team and continue to win," Lyles said. "So once the season is said and done, they can say that then."
Former Wildcat John Conner scored his first NFL receiving touchdown on Sunday. (UK Athletics)
While injuries plagued former Wildcats and current Denver Bronco teammates Jacob Tamme (whose ribs kept him out of Sunday's win over the San Diego Chargers) and Danny Trevathan (who left the game in the second half with a dislocated kneecap, forcing him to miss the remainder of the season), injuries to San Francisco 49er running backs Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde freed up some playing time for UK alumnus Alfonso Smith. Smith registered his first four carries of the season, rushing for six yards in the 49ers' 17-7 loss to the Seattle Seahawks. Smith's teammate, former Kentucky wide receiver Stevie Johnson, sat out the game due to an injured knee.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (10-4) In the Packers' 21-13 road loss to the Buffalo Bills, Cobb made seven catches for 96 yards. The former Kentucky quarterback-turned-wide-receiver also had three rushing attempts for 15 yards on the ground.
John Conner | #38 FB | New York Jets (3-11) While the Jets emerged victorious for only the third time all season, Conner found added reason to celebrate after making the first touchdown catch of his NFL career. "The Terminator's" TD score came by way of a nine-yard pass from Geno Smith. New York defeated the Tennessee Titans, 16-11.
Ricky Lumpkin | #93 DT | Oakland Raiders (2-12) In the Raiders' 31-13 road loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Lumpkin recorded the first sack of his NFL career. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound defensive lineman totaled five tackles (four solo, one assisted) on the day. Tim Masthay | #8 P | Green Bay Packers (10-4) Masthay tied a season-high with six punts in Green Bay's loss at Buffalo. The former First Team All-SEC performer averaged 42.8 yards per punt, with Sunday's long coming in at 63 yards.
The Wildcats celebrate their win over North Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When you're at Kentucky and you start threatening records that have stood for more than a half-century, you're doing some good things.
The Wildcats, if they beat UCLA by 10 or more points on Saturday, would become the first team in school history to defeat its first 12 opponents by double digits. With a win over North Carolina last weekend, UK matched the record of 11 straight double-digit wins to start the 1946-47 season.
With that, UK ranks first in the nation in scoring margin, beating opponents by an average of 28.2 points per game. Unsurprisingly, the Wildcats have only strengthened their grip on the top spot in both major polls, claiming 29 of 31 first-place votes in the coaches' poll and all 65 in the AP Top 25. No team since Duke in 2010-11 has been a unanimous No. 1 in the AP poll at this point in the season.
Computer rankings tell a similar story of UK's dominance.
The Cats are ranked No. 1 according to all but seven of 41 major college basketball ranking systems compiled by masseyratings.com as of Sunday, topping the RPI, the Sagarin Ratings and 32 others.
UK is also No. 1 Ken Pomeroy's ratings with a Pythagorean win percentage (expected win percentage against an average Division-I team based on offensive and defensive efficiency) of .9719. That's the second-highest Pythagorean win percentage in the 14-year history of Pomeroy's rankings, trailing 2007-08 Kansas' .9753. The Cats are also third nationally in offensive efficiency and second in defensive efficiency, making them the first team since that same Kansas squad to be in the top three of both.
Of course it's early, but UK has only climbed in Pomeroy's rankings so far this season. If the Cats keep up their pace, they could be in line to make some history on that front.
That's also the case when it comes to the Basketball Power Index. ESPN released its first BPI ratings of the season on Tuesday and the Cats are No. 1 by a wide margin. With a BPI of 96.0, UK is well ahead of No. 2 Virginia at 92.9. For perspective, the highest BPI in the four-year history of the rating system was 2011-12 Kentucky at 92.4. That team, as you might remember, was pretty good.
Perhaps most amazing when it comes to the BPI is UK's consistency. The Cats are dead last among 351 teams nationally in variance, meaning their performance level so far this season has changed less from game to game than any other team in America.
Computer ratings don't do it for you? How about raw stats? Here are all the major categories in which UK ranks in the top 20 nationally according to NCAA.com and kenpom.com.
Azia Bishop had a double-double in UK's 71-55 win over Belmont on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A minute and 56 seconds into Kentucky's game against Belmont, Matthew Mitchell turned to his bench and sent five new players into the game.
For a brief moment, Belmont's Cameron Newbauer thought he might have been coaching in Rupp Arena instead of Memorial Coliseum.
"I thought you guys were starting to be like the men. Blue and White or something," Newbauer said, referencing John Calipari's platoon system. "I looked at the bench and I said, 'Have he and Cal been hanging out?' "
Mitchell and Calipari do speak often, but that wasn't the reason for UK's line-change substitution so early in Sunday's game. Mitchell was simply unwilling to accept what he was seeing from his team.
"That was not my plan at the start of the game," Mitchell said. "I just was very disappointed with how our first unit came out and played."
And so in came the second unit in a game tied at the time, 3-3. The effort the second wave of Wildcats gave wasn't perfect, but it was enough to propel No. 8 UK (10-1) to a 71-55 win over Belmont (2-7). In fact, it was one player - Azia Bishop - who largely responsible for the improved energy.
Bishop, coming off the bench for the second game in a row after making eight starts to begin the season, did it all for UK. She had season highs in points (15), rebounds (12), blocks (four) and steals (three).
"Before the game, (assistant) Coach (Adeniyi) Amadou told me I just needed to come in and work ahead and attack the board and just give it my all," Bishop said. "I think doing that, it produced what I had today."
Returning to the reserve role she filled in her first three seasons in Lexington may have had something to do with it too.
"If you think about, she's done it for three years, come off the bench," Mitchell said. "We just need production from her and I loved her fight today. I thought she had some really great moments of fight. And really there for the first portion of the game, at the time she was the only one."
"Starting, it really doesn't affect me like that, but just coming off the bench is more comfortable for me just because I get to see the flow of the game and know what I have to come in and do," Bishop said. "And I think that's given me the extra push and the extra oomph to go out there and play harder."
Bishop's numbers, in Mitchell's mind, were great, but it's her effort that matters most. That effort shows up in three areas.
The first, says Mitchell, is on the offensive glass. On Sunday, Bishop tied for the team high with five offensive rebounds.
The next is on defense, where Mitchell says Bishop must be focused and in a stance for her and her team to be at their best. She was against Belmont, and those seven combined blocks and steals prove it.
Last, Mitchell wants Bishop running the floor. Her speed has the ability to change the game by creating transition opportunities and, just as importantly, affecting the opponent. Bishop sprinted constantly against the Bruins, helping the Cats turn a three-point lead with less than 15 minutes left into a 16-point win.
"I thought Belmont did a great job, but you saw it started to wear them down," Mitchell said.
Whether Bishop continues to come off the bench or returns to the starting lineup, she's going to need to duplicate that going forward. Over the next month, UK will face bruising frontcourts against the likes of No. 13 Duke and top-ranked South Carolina.
The Cats won't be outmuscling those teams, but they can outrun them with Bishop pacing them.
"We can't just go toe to toe," Mitchell said. "We've gotta get the thing going up and down and that one for Azia, just running the floor and making people run back and making people expend energy to get back and guard us, it's very important."
Willie Cauley-Stein had 15 points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks in UK's 84-70 win over North Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has had future No. 1 overall picks. He's even had a player, Anthony Davis, whom he called spider-man.
But for all the talent Coach Cal has had in five-plus seasons at Kentucky, he's never had a player who inspired a name-based adverb as Willie Cauley-Stein did with his performance against North Carolina.
"Willie Cauley was really--he was Willie good today," Calipari said.
Cauley-Stein, for the second time in as many top-25 matchups for Kentucky in the last eight days, was the best player on the floor as the top-ranked Wildcats (11-0) took down the No. 18 Tar Heels, 84-70.
"I was just playing," said Cauley-Stein, who had 15 points, six rebounds, four steals and two blocks.
That might be what makes Cauley-Stein so scary, that it didn't take any sort of extraordinary effort to do what he did in his 28 minutes.
As always, he ran the floor and created opportunities for himself and his teammates with his rare blend of size and speed. He of course threw down a few of his patented lobs, soaring higher than he had seemingly any business doing. Per usual, he was a defensive terror, short-circuiting North Carolina opportunities with his ability to guard every position, athleticism and quick hands.
"To be 7-foot and run like that and be able to jump like that is incredible," said Devin Booker, who tied Cauley-Stein with a team-high 15 points, including three made 3-pointers.
It's when those things collide that it becomes clear exactly how good Cauley-Stein has become as a junior. One 37-second stretch late in the second half perhaps best illustrates that fact.
UK was leading by a relatively comfortable 12-point margin with 5:19 left, but the Tar Heels were still within shouting distance with preseason All-American Marcus Paige burying 3s left and right. Cauley-Stein, however, put an end to any designs the Tar Heels may have had on a comeback.
First, he rose and dunked a lob from Trey Lyles that seemed destined to go out of bounds. Moments later, he flew down the court as Lyles snared a defensive rebound, received a pass and threw down an emphatic one-handed slam for one of Tyler Ulis' eight assists. To finish it off, he got around his man in the post, deflected a J.P. Tokoto pass, dove on the floor to complete the steal and called timeout.
In the course of three possessions, Cauley-Stein sent a sellout Rupp Arena crowd of 24,406 into a frenzy, demoralized Carolina and all but sealed UK's 11th straight double-digit win to start the season, only the second time in school history and first since 1946-47 such a start has happened.
"He affects the game in every way," UNC's Roy Williams said. "He blocks shots, gets steals, gets follow-dunks, and gets dunks from guard penetration throwing it up around the rim, he goes and gets it, but he is a complete player. If you look at it, he affected the game drastically and only took nine shots."
Cauley-Stein's do-it-all effort came in UK's first game without Alex Poythress, whose season ended Thursday due to a torn ACL suffered in practice. Poythress is his best friend on the team, but Cauley-Stein had to put his classmate, suite mate and former roommate's pain out of his mind.
"At the end of the day you just have to clear it out," Cauley-Stein said. "Once you step in between the lines you can't be thinking about anything else but the game plan and what you have to do for the team to win."
But whenever Cauley-Stein came to the bench, his first move was to give a handshake or hug to Poythress, who attended Saturday's game on crutches. Poythress began the game sitting at the table along the baseline, but couldn't stay away from his teammates and moved to the bench to be with them.
"It was just big he got to come out," Cauley-Stein said. "I didn't know if he'd be able to come out. The fact that he got out of bed and came to support us is big to us. It's good that he's still smiling and likes to be with us. That's the most important part about it."
Cauley-Stein, even in dealing with an injury to his teammate, is showing maturity and perspective he hasn't always had. With that, he's beginning to come close to fully realizing his otherworldly potential.
"Knowing that there's a role I have on the team," Cauley-Stein said. "Last year I didn't really need to have a role. Just roam around and block shots. This year it's clear I have a role I have to uphold. That type of leadership role, too, is big to me. Having that is really what's keeping me going."
More concerned about his team than himself, Cauley-Stein is flourishing.
"You're talking about a junior, you're talking about a guy that's played against some of the best players in the country, and he's a veteran, he's coming into his own, he's figuring out who he is as a person, as a player," Calipari said. "He's doing it."
The numbers prove it.
Over his last five games, Cauley-Stein is averaging 13.6 points on 59.1-percent shooting. To go with that, he's grabbing 7.8 rebounds, snagging 2.6 steals and blocking 1.6 shots, all while garnering praise from NBA Draft experts as a potential high-lottery selection.
Even so, he sees bigger things in his future.
"I feel like I haven't even begun to peak," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm just climbing. Like, if I want to, I could do something that's really never been done in history, and that's the way I look at it. If I really want to be the best player in the country, all I have to do is work at it."
Alexis Jennings had 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks in UK's win over Middle Tennessee on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The ball came to Alexis Jennings outside the arc.
The 6-foot-2 freshman had already scored four straight points for Kentucky by then and she didn't hesitate when she received the pass from Makayla Epps.
Watching Jennings set up to take the shot, Jennifer O'Neill, concerned over how Matthew Mitchell might react if it didn't go in, wasn't so sure.
"I'm glad she hit it because if she didn't he wouldn't have been too happy," O'Neill said, laughing.
Jennings, however, would calmly sink the shot. And as it turns out, Mitchell couldn't have been happier with the development.
"I was so happy that 3 went in because I'm hoping that gives her some confidence," Mitchell said.
Jennings would follow the 3 with two more made free throws, meaning she closed the first half on a personal 9-1 run. Thanks to her, UK turned a tenuous seven-point lead on visiting Middle Tennessee into a comfortable 41-26 margin heading into the halftime locker room on the way to a 78-62 win. The No. 8 Wildcats won their fifth straight game to move to 9-1 on the season.
"I'm proud of our players and we just need to stay humble and hungry and keep getting better," said Mitchell, who won his 100th career game in Memorial Coliseum on Friday night. "This was a great win for us tonight."
No player showed more improvement than Jennings. Coming in, the Madison, Ala., native had scored just 14 points after a 10-point performance in her college debut. But against the Blue Raiders, she scored a career-high 11.
"It's been real rough for me right now about being in the post and finishing all my moves," Jennings said, "but tonight I just focused and I just played really hard and everything that we did in practice just came together and I was able to contribute today."
She contributed in more ways than just scoring too.
Jennings checked in at the 12:20 mark of the first half, at which point UK led just 16-14. She would play all but two minutes to close the half, grabbing six rebounds and three on the offensive end.
"I was so pleased because it was a very close game and I thought her energy on the offensive glass really kind of started a big spurt for us that we were able to get distance in between us and Middle Tennessee State," Mitchell said. "Very good half for Alexis. We just need to keep plugging and working and she has to keep a great attitude and keep getting better. But she can help us."
Jennings came to Kentucky a highly touted post prospect and has shown glimpses of her potential, but never quite so much as Friday night.
"Well, that's what I think she can be," Mitchell said. "I think she can be that kind of player. She's practicing OK; we just need to keep working with her. But she showed you tonight some things that she can do."
Jennings chalked up her big night to improved self-belief she brought to the game. After it paid off - and she buried the second 3-pointer or her college career - that only figures to grow.
"I just played," Jennings said. "I had confidence tonight and I think that's what carried over into my play today."
Alex Poythress will miss the remainder of the 2014-15 season with a torn ACL. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein was clearly in pain.
Speaking in measured tones, the normally colorful 7-foot junior struggled to come to grips with the torn ACL his suite mate, former roommate and best friend on the team, Alex Poythress, had suffered less than 24 hours prior.
It just didn't seem fair.
"I mean, he's just that older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the good brother that's always doing the right stuff, got his grades right, and like it's just crazy. Like why's this got to happen to a dude who just does everything right and definitely doesn't deserve to go down with an injury like this?"
Even right after it happened, it didn't quite seem real.
Scrimmaging during a normal Thursday practice, Poythress -- averaging 5.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in 20.3 minutes per game this season -- raced ahead for an open layup, but landed awkwardly on his left leg. He screamed in pain, but walked reasonably well and experienced less swelling than normal for a serious knee injury. An MRI, however, revealed the damage and John Calipari summoned the Wildcats for a late-night team meeting.
"Guys cried," Calipari said.
"It was honestly like somebody in your family died," Cauley-Stein said.
Poythress, though his season is over, is very much alive. Maintaining perspective is difficult so soon after news so devastating, but it's necessary.
"When I saw Alex last night, I said to him exactly what I said to Nerlens (Noel): 'You're fine. If this is something crazy, you have insurance and you're a millionaire,' " Calipari said on CoachCal.com. "You have even more time than Nerlens had to prepare yourself for the draft if that's what you choose to do. You can also come back. You're going to have your degree in May and you can start on a master's degree for your last year.' Alex is nearly a straight-A student and one of the greatest kids that I've ever coached."
Cauley-Stein, broken up as he was about the news, understands that perspective better than most.
Just last March, an ankle injury ended Cauley-Stein's season in the Sweet 16, relegating him to the sidelines as UK made its incredible run to the national championship game.
"I know for me, I understand how he's feeling, like you get hurt like that it feels like everything's just coming down on you, especially in basketball (where) you've got stuff you're trying to accomplish here, not only me and him together, but us as a whole team," Cauley-Stein said. "Just to have that kind of just end and not knowing what's going to come next is the worst part."
Through that uncertainty, the Cats will be offering any support their fallen teammate needs, whether that's in the form of space to spend time with family, watching TV together, playing video games or whatever else.
"I'm just being here for him, stepping in, (seeing) if he's good, do you need anything, and then kind of just letting him chill," Cauley-Stein said. "A lot of it, you do want to be alone at first, and then once you start feeling really good where you can start moving again, that's when you want people around you."
At this point, it's unknown whether Poythress will be in attendance when No. 1 UK (10-0) faces No. 21 North Carolina (6-2) in a game that has taken somewhat of a backseat. The show, as they say, must go on, as difficult as that may be.
"I mean, this is all part of it," Calipari said. "Things happen that you have to deal with and you have to respond to. Next man up and all that, and it's all great coach speak. The reality of it is the fear and the anxiety and all the other stuff that Alex has and we have for him, it's just it zaps you."
How UK will respond emotionally less than 48 hours after Poythress' injury is an unknown, and that doesn't even capture Poythress' impact on the court.
"Nobody can make the plays that he makes," Cauley-Stein said. "He's a freak athlete. (He) does special things you can't replace. So now we've just got to figure out how to play differently. That's going to be the biggest thing is how we're going play now, what lineups are we going to use if we still use the platoon system, and if we do, just make it work."
Speculation, as Cauley-Stein suggested, has immediately shifted to whether Calipari will stick to the platoon system. Could he simply plug Derek Willis into Poythress' spot on the first platoon with Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker likely to return to the rotation after practicing Thursday? Will he keep the platoons but mix them up? Might he abandon them altogether?
Since his primary focus to this point has been the mental state of Poythress and the team at large, Coach Cal simply doesn't know yet.
"We'll figure some stuff out in practice," Calipari said. "See what we look at. We're just practicing and I'll watch and I'll get a feel for it. I also don't want to throw guys to the wolves. I don't want to do that to them. That's not fair. But we'll figure that out."
There's only so much of that can be done in practice.
"Some of this is going to be just throwing -- at some point, 'All right, let's try this lineup, see how they work,' " Calipari said. "I've got to be willing to do it. There's going to be some ups and downs. We'll probably get dinged some. I hope not Saturday, but it could be Saturday."
It could be Saturday because the Tar Heels come to town playing good basketball. With preseason All-American Marcus Paige leading the way, Coach Cal expects North Carolina to present a major challenge.
"This is going to be a terrific basketball game," Calipari said. "They should be 8-0. The game they lost to Butler, they had every chance to win it. And the game they lost to Iowa, they had the game and Iowa made a couple plays down the stretch and beat them. But, they easily could be 8-0. This could be again another top-10 team we're playing with a different bounce of the ball."
Once the ball begins bouncing on Saturday, the Cats will try to put aside everything they've dealt with in the previous two days.
Well, almost everything. They're not about to forget their brother.
"It's just play," Cauley-Stein said. "Play hard. Everything else will--the Xs and Os will take care of itself. Everybody's just gotta play hard and play for him. For the rest of the time, that's what the motive is now. We're trying to do this with him and still have him a part of it."
Throughout the year, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the the 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Next up is redshirt freshman Alyssa Bertoni, a native of Frederick, Md. As preseason practice concluded last week, Bertoni talks about the changes she has seen from the team this fall, compared to her first season and how the expectations and goals of the team are different.
A full archive of all the gymnast's "In Their Own Words" entries can be found here.
This season has really gotten off to a great start. We had our last practice of the preseason on Sunday, and in my opinion, this year's fall practice was much different from last year. We went in to fall practice in September with high hopes and expectations for our program, which really transformed the way we worked in the gym as a team.
As Montana mentioned last month, we've done a lot of things together outside the gym, including team bonding and community service projects, which have made us a much closer group.
From going bowling to running 5Ks to visiting children's hospitals and participating in community events, we all became a lot closer. It really helped us come together not just as teammates but as a true family.
Working in the community definitely brought a positive atmosphere to the team as well as our community. It is so great to give back, because they have provided us with so many opportunities and experiences that will last a lifetime. I felt like this really helped us in the gym because we all got to know each other more than we ever have. This really made an impact on how well we did in the preseason because we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses and used this to gain confidence in our skills and perform better.
Training in the gym this fall, I felt like we all looked better and were more prepared than last year. As a program, we know we are on the rise and with this year's preseason, we can sense that we are going to be a stronger, more reliable team than ever before. Everyone looks more confident and more determined in their gymnastics.
Each of us has a goal to get to the national championship. In the fall, all of us listed our goals, so we could make that dream a reality. I am more confident than ever that every class has brought something new to the table and we are ready to show off what we have been working towards.
We ended the season last year on a high note by sending one of our teammates to nationals in Audrey Harrison. This year, each of us wants to work until we make it to nationals and succeed as a team. We really have had positive atmosphere throughout the entire fall. The seniors make it easy to come and talk to them if we are having problems or struggling. The coaches are also open to discussion and encourage us to ask questions if things do not make sense or if we need extra help. It's a really positive environment to be around every day.
I'm extremely excited to see where our gymnastics takes us this year. As a team we are prepared for every outcome and have worked incredibly hard to take this program to the next level. I can't wait to see what this year has in store for us as we kick off the season in Washington on Jan. 12, 2015!
Matthew Mitchell seemingly has two teams on his hands.
There's the one that makes him say things like this: "This group is just not naturally competitive."
And then the one that makes him say this two sentences later: "But, they clearly are competitive because when they get into the situation that's sort of desperate, they come out swinging and lock in and get going."
The two Kentuckys have combined for an 8-1 record to start the 2014-15 season, including a pair of wins over top-10 reams, but not without causing their coach a serious dose of stress.
The Wildcats, lacking "competitive fire" out of the gates on multiple occasions, have fallen behind by 14 points against No. 8 Baylor, nine points against Oklahoma and USF and 16 at No. 7 Louisville. But each time, they've managed to claw their way back from seemingly dire circumstances to win.
Mitchell, thankful as he is that UK has had the fortitude to pull it off each time, wants the habit to end.
"I just think they understand that there is an immediate threat and so they respond," Mitchell said. "When there is 17 minutes left in the first half, they think, 'Hey, maybe we have time to respond,' and I'm just saying that that's not a sustainable course of action. We can't be the team that we want to be with that kind of attitude."
Since the latest slow start that set up a big comeback - UK's fourth straight win over rival U of L - the Cats have gone to work trying to shift that attitude. To that end, Mitchell has structured practices leading up to a matchup with Middle Tennessee (4-2) at 9 p.m. ET on Friday to be as competitive as possible from the outset.
"You've got to get them to a spot where it's ultra-competitive and see who is ready to roll and who is not and try to make sure that we are practicing with a sense of urgency so that hopefully we can start the game with a great sense of urgency and maintain that," Mitchell said.
To that end, Mitchell is considering tweaking his starting five of Janee Thompson, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kyvin Goodin-Rogers and Azia Bishop that he has used in all nine games this season.
"We won't just stay with it to stay with it because that's how we've started," Mitchell said. "It's very much a situation to where right now every minute is up for grabs in a competitive situation in practice and if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, it's on you because we are being very clear on what needs to be happening in practice."
It would be one thing for Mitchell to hold his team to such a high standard if the Cats hadn't shown they can play that way, but they obviously have. Their No. 8 national ranking and No. 1 RPI proves that. Now it's about evening out the effort.
"We know what we are capable of doing," Mitchell said. "We know we can play some good basketball. We also know that when we are not focused, we can play some bad basketball, so just trying to get that consistent mentality of attacking and being aggressive and being tough and being competitive. That's what we have tried to do in practice."
Middle Tennessee will offer the next test on that front, and it won't be an easy one. The Blue Raiders have played among the nation's most difficult schedules and have won their last two games against Clemson and Xavier by a combined 63 points.
"It's going to be a very tough game," Mitchell said. "It always is with Middle Tennessee. They're a very good team, always tough and always able to score the basketball and well-coached. Coach (Rick) Insell does a great job with Middle Tennessee State and this is another good team. It's a huge challenge for us tomorrow night."
Derek Willis scored five points in UK's win over Columbia on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
When two sets of five-man platoons aren't enough, it pays to be the 12th man (in terms of minutes played) on the No. 1 team in America. For Derek Willis and the rest of the Kentucky Wildcats, opportunities are only what are made of them.
"I'm just trying to take advantage of my opportunity," said Willis. "Devin (Booker) and Tyler (Ulis) are out, so I was called to step up. I'm just out there playing."
With Booker and Ulis -- who together compose the backcourt of Kentucky's White Platoon -- sidelined by injury, Willis was counted on for important minutes down the stretch of Wednesday's tight matchup with Columbia University. The Cats won the game 56-46, while Willis shined in the process.
"Derek was really good today," said head coach John Calipari. "I thought Derek was outstanding."
As a result of the self-sacrificial, all-for-one mentality that Calipari has instilled in his 12-deep rotation, what's reflected in the box score may not accurately represent the impact of each Kentucky player. Willis' five points (on 2 of 2 free-throw shooting and a made 3) and one offensive rebound came in only nine minutes on the floor. In a dismal shooting performance as a team, only two Wildcats scored in double figures. Without Willis' noteworthy performance, the Cats' undefeated record may have been in jeopardy.
"If my opportunity comes up," said Willis, "I'm just going to play my game and just help the team."
Though Willis' first two years in Lexington have been spent mostly learning from the sideline, the 6-foot-9 Mt. Washington, Ky. native continues to prepare for each game with a starter's mentality.
"You go from playing your whole life, starting your whole life, and now you're on probably one of the most unbelievable teams ever made," Willis said. "If you have that mentality of whenever my opportunity comes up, you just take advantage of it and you're always ready."
Like most major collegiate athletes, Willis admits aspirations of one day playing at the next level. With more performances like his on Wednesday, stat sheets will start to matter a lot less than the Wildcats' win total.
"If you can play basketball, (NBA executives) know you can score," Willis said. "So they're looking at defense and rebounding, and all the intangibles that a lot of players don't do, or don't really recognize."
Thanks to Kentucky's crowed roster of nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willis has already tasted the effects of playing alongside top-to-bottom talent.
"The dudes in the NBA that don't play, they're still working out an hour before (the game)," said Willis. "Then, after the game, they put another hour in."
With No. 21 North Carolina on the horizon and Ulis and Booker's uncertain status, Willis may not have seen the last fruits of his labor.
"If Devin can't play and Tyler does play (Saturday versus UNC), then Derek will be the two on that team," Calipari said of UK's second rotation. "He'll be the other player."
The Wildcats and Tar Heels will square off Saturday at noon at Rupp Arena. The game will be televised on CBS. Carolina won last season's contest 82-77 in Chapel Hill, and lead the all-time series 23-13. However, Calipari is 3-2 versus North Carolina since taking over at Kentucky.