As the Kentucky men's soccer team enters the 2014 season, one of its biggest unanswered questions is who will replace some of the team's departed scoring.
With the graduation of leading scorers Tyler Riggs and Brad Doliner, Kentucky must replace 64-percent of its goals from a year ago. One of the players tasked with picking up the scoring load is senior forward Justin Laird.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laird is UK's leading returning scorer after pacing the team with six assists in his first season in Lexington.
The Wright State transfer played in 17 games and made seven starts, finishing with one goal on 22 shots, with his golden goal in overtime vs. Old Dominion in the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals lifting UK to the semis.
Now entering his final season with the Wildcats, Laird will be counted on as a forward in UK head coach Johan Cedergren's attacking system, a role that requires a physical presence up top as a primary distributor.
"It has been difficult for me, especially since I am the type of player that just likes to run and not really body up guys," Laird said about adapting to the system. "I like to be facing goal, not getting the ball with my back to it, but it has been a change for me. At the same time, with the changes of the coaching staff, I have a lot more clarity of what needs to be done and I feel like I have been adapting to that role real well. I think they get more pleased with me in that role, day-by-day."
A star at Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, Laird began his collegiate career at Wright State.
During his debut season at Wright State, Laird totaled team-highs in points (15) and goals (seven), earning a spot on the Horizon League Newcomer Team.
"I learned that D1 soccer is going to be a lot of work," Laird said about lessons learned at Wright State. "It is going to be a complete grind. Coming to Lexington it really just shows me how blessed we are to have the things that we have and have the coaching staff that we have. It just helped my momentum going forward and helped me learn about what soccer can do for a campus, and we have big things in store here."
After earning a starting spot at forward in UK's first exhibition tune-up of the year at Northern Kentucky, Laird came off the bench to play the final 45 minutes in UK's final exhibition against Georgia State. Upon entering vs. GSU, Laird's impact was immediately felt, as UK picked up the offensive intensity and attacking mindset.
"I feel way more comfortable around campus," Laird said. "I need to be more of a leader out there. I hope that I am a guy that players can look to with questions, on and off the field. I feel like I have a good relationship with this campus right now."
One benefit to Laird and UK's offensive attack in the preseason has been the daily battles with UK's stout defensive unit. With junior Callum Irving, "one of the top three goalkeepers in the country," according to Cedergren, and three starters returning on the back four, UK's defense will be a strength in 2014.
"It is hard," Laird said about facing the UK defense in training. "It is the best four that I have ever played against. In practice it is really hard to get goals on them. Their formation is set and skill wise they are almost unbeatable. It is definitely a struggle when you have to face them up in practice."
Laird has learned a lot over his time at Kentucky and has been struck by the commitment from the UK support staff in building a first-class operation.
"It all starts with the department," Laird said. "UK facilities and everything we have, we are super spoiled and super blessed. I learned that this is a place with big goals and we have the facilities to reflect and reach those goals. We can go big places with this team."
The Wildcats will open their 2014 season against Laird's former squad, Wright State, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then return home for its first game at the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday, hosting Belmont at 5 p.m.
"Goals for the team are to get to a final four this year. We are going to have to have a lot of leadership and a lot of people step up. But at the same time, it is possible. Individually, my goal is to have 10 or more goals."
It was Kentucky's habit a season ago to hold one final full practice on Thursday of game week before a lighter practice on Friday.
Mark Stoops is flipping the script in his second season.
"We're actually changing things up this year," Stoops said. "We're going very light and minimal on Thursdays. We're going to go fast on Fridays. It's a little different changeup."
The thinking is that the new schedule will allow the Wildcats to be at their best on game day. By the time Saturday rolled around a season ago, players had gone 48 hours without going full speed. By moving the recovery day earlier in the week and a more intense practice later, Stoops anticipates the Cats will be primed to play fast against UT Martin this weekend.
Though the move is a departure, it's not unprecedented. Stoops cited Oregon as one of a handful of college teams to make the change.
"There's plenty of other schools who have done this and so we did a little study in the offseason and looked at it and it's just another part of the plan to play faster," Stoops said.
With the nervous energy around the Nutter Training Center these days with the season opener so close at hand, players aren't likely to mind the chance to fly around on Friday.
"Just anxious to get going," Stoops said. "I think the players are anxious. Just seems like the summer went extremely fast, but this week seems a little bit slow. We're ready to get out there and tee it up and get playing."
Patrick Towles will make his college starting debut in UK's season opener on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Last Monday, Mark Stoops summoned Patrick Towles into his office.
After briefly letting Towles hang out to dry, the second-year head coach told the Fort Thomas, Ky., native he had won Kentucky's long-running quarterback battle.
Considering Towles had spent most of his football-playing life working toward the moment, the celebration that followed was more short-lived than you might expect.
"Obviously I got the nod, I'm excited about that," Towles said. "It's what I've always wanted, but that's over with now. I've gotta worry about playing Tennessee Martin on Saturday."
Once he was named the starter, Towles went from competition to preparation for UK's season opener at noon ET on Saturday. The transition has been relatively seamless, mostly because Towles hasn't really changed his approach. In the huddle, he's the same guy.
Of course there's some extra adrenaline flowing, but he's still managing to stay on an even keel.
"It's hard, but I'm excited," Towles said. "You know that you have to get prepared for the game and you can't be all excited and your mind going everywhere and 25 different places during practice or else you're not going to get anything productive done."
Adopting that mentality, Towles following the lead of his head coach.
"I think just try to stay as normal as possible," Mark Stoops said. "He doesn't need to put any more undue pressure on himself. The whole team needs to play well. I expect that he will be a little bit antsy, I'm sure, like you said. But he's just got to calm down and stay within himself and operate the offense."
Though Towles will certainly have the most eyes on him come Saturday, he really isn't much different than most of his teammates. The Wildcats a team full of players who must fill roles for the team to succeed, regardless whether they're the Southeastern Conference's active sack leader like Bud Dupree or a true freshman like Blake Bone, Stanley "Boom" Williams or Matt Elam.
"We've improved," Stoops said. "Our football team has worked hard. We'll see where we're at. I know we're going to play better. It will be good to see these young guys get out there and play, see how we've improved, see the veterans, guys like Bud and (Za'Darius Smith), see them come out and see how much they've improved."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand. With eight true freshmen, six redshirt freshmen and three first-year junior-college transfers on the two-deep depth chart, Stoops knows UK can't afford to squander the opportunity to get off to a quick start.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Neal Brown is thinking the same thing.
After implementing his version of the Air Raid last season through fits and starts, the second-year offensive coordinator says the Cats are already ahead of where they were a season ago in terms of tempo. UK is far from a finished product, but Brown believes fans will see his group has made significant strides.
"I want to make sure that we're not playing so fast that we're hurting ourselves, you know?" Brown said. "But we're in a position now, going into our second fall, that we're able to play really fast when we need to. And there's going to be some times in this game where we'll play at a really quick pace -- faster than we ever executed last year."
UK's offense will contend with a UT Martin defense led by All-American linebacker Tony Bell. Bell led the Ohio Valley Conference with 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for less.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays. Like I said, I think they're a well-coached team. They're very multiple on both sides of the ball, can do a lot of things."
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows better than to try to predict what he'll see from the Skyhawks on Saturday. It's a good thing, then, that his primary objective for Saturday is all about his own team.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously. We want to be very consistent. We want to pick up our tempo offensively and continue to grow and move the ball like we want to move the ball.
"Defensively, again, be more consistent. We need to get more turnovers. We certainly need to get more interceptions."
As a freshman, Kentucky utilized Kaelon Fox in just about every position on the field except goalkeeper.
Now, entering his sophomore season, UK head coach Johan Cedergren is hoping that a firm positional role for Fox will help the standout from Louisville's St. Xavier High School.
A 6-foot-2, 155-pounder, Fox is firmly entrenched as a center back, alongside 6-foot-3 sophomore Jordan Wilson. The duo helps the Wildcats boast the potential for a dynamic defensive squad, with outside back Charlie Reymann also in his second year as an everyday starter.
As a freshman, Fox started eight games and played in 19 of UK's 20 games, totaling two goals and one assist, firing 29 shots. He saw starts on the backline, in the midfield and as an attacking player.
"I learned that college soccer is a difficult game," Fox said. "Coming in as a true defender and having to play forward, midfield and some defense last year, it gave me more knowledge how certain players move on and off the ball, how forwards move on and off the ball. It gave me more of an insight into how to properly defend those attacking players. It developed me more as a center back."
Fox netted his first career goal at Xavier, before adding a tally in UK's win over Florida Atlantic. He also added an assist vs. IPFW and had at least four shots in four games, including a six-shot effort vs. South Carolina.
After spending the spring playing on the backline with Wilson and Reymann, the three have formed a solid chemistry. With UK sophomore Alex Bumpus suffering a season-ending injury in the offseason, it means that the backline will feature a new face at the outside back position opposite Reymann.
"It is really good to have chemistry between your backline, because if you don't things can break down and that is not what you want from your back four and your keeper. Jordan, Charlie and I, the chemistry between us on and off the field is great. It just comes down to having each other's back on the field. When Jordan or Charlie steps up in the attack, we have the ability to cover for them. If someone gets beat off the ball, having their back there. I know Jordan and Charlie have my back. It is a great comfort feeling knowing we are there for each other."
With the backline supported by three veteran starters and a goalkeeper that Cedergren considers "one of the three best goalkeepers in the country" in Callum Irving, Kentucky will be anchored by its defending unit.
"Johan tells us that defense wins championships," Fox said. "That is a true statement. Having chemistry on the backline is great. Jordan, Charlie and I played the whole spring together on the backline which helped us with the chemistry. The defense that we have this year can be really great. We just have to keep building on it game after game."
While his defense will be a strength on the 2014 roster, Cedergren is going to count on Fox and Wilson to provide some scoring threats on set pieces with their size, physicality and athleticism.
"It is going to be pretty important," Fox said about the backline coming up on set pieces. "Johan wants our center backs to get four or five set-piece goals. We need to get our goals-per game up a little bit."
Kentucky opens its 2014 season Friday at 7 p.m. at Wright State. The Wildcats will debut the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday with a twinbill with the women's soccer program, with UK taking on Belmont at 5 p.m.
If the Wildcats are nervous as the final days pass before Kentucky's season opener against UT Martin, it isn't showing in practice.
It was another day of productive work for UK on Wednesday.
"We had a good practice today," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were into it, focused, getting better fundamentally and ready to play."
Ready to play and mostly healthy. Outside of wide receivers Jeff Badet (eye) and Alexander Montgomery (recovery from knee surgery), UK is expected to be at full strength at noon ET on Saturday.
"We're right where we thought we'd be," Eliot said. "Everybody's ready to go. Everybody's geared up and ready for the game and we won't miss a beat."
That includes star senior Bud Dupree, who made it through fall camp even though he was prevented from doing his favorite thing: hitting the quarterback.
"It's horrible having the quarterbacks in red jerseys and having to stop on a play, stop before you can get to them and stopping on offensive linemen sometimes," Dupree said. "Sometimes you want to go through the linemen and just hit them but you know you can't."
The Southeastern Conference's active sack leader only has to wait three more days before getting a shot at an opposing quarterback, and he'll do it both standing and with his hand in the dirt. Dupree will play defensive end opposite Za'Darius Smith in UK's 4-3 set and linebacker when the Cats go 3-4.
"The 3-4 is great for showing athleticism and keeping as many good guys on the field as you can, as well as having big edge setters too," Dupree said.
In the starting 3-4 look, UK will play with tackles Melvin Lewis and Mike Douglas and Smith along the line. Dupree and sophomore Jason Hatcher will play outside linebacker. Hatcher hasn't gotten the attention of some of his teammates in camp with Dupree and Smith returning, but the coaches know they have to find ways to get him on the field.
"He's had a great camp," Eliot said. "Jason's gotten better every day. There's always a big jump from Year 1 to Year 2 and we've seen it with him. He's a better athlete. He's a better player. He understands the game better. And we're very pleased with his progress."
Josh Forrest and another player will complete the front seven in the 3-4 at the two inside linebacker spots. As for who will start with Forrest, a decision has not been made between junior-college transfer Ryan Flannigan and Khalid Henderson. Henderson, a junior, has experience on his side, but Flannigan is competing.
"He's right where I expected him to be," Eliot said. "He has transitioned well. He's picking up the defense. He's physically right where he needs to be. He's right on track."
Bryan Celis. Photo by Photo by Britney Howard, UK Athletics
By Brent Ingram
Kentucky's 2014 men's soccer team features four upperclassmen on a youthful roster with high hopes for the upcoming season.
Because of the nature of the roster, those four upperclassmen will be counted on to shoulder a large share of the leadership burden.
Among them is junior midfielder Bryan Celis, a talented product of Houston's Mayde Creek High School.
Celis enters his junior season after starring in the midfield for the Wildcats the last two seasons. Celis is coming off a sophomore campaign that was limited to 12 starts due to injury. Despite missing time, Celis totaled three assists, including a pass that set up on the game-winning goal in the season opener vs. Georgia State.
A 5-foot-8, 159 pounder, Celis stepped right into the UK lineup as a freshman in 2012, helping pace the Wildcats back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Celis played in all 21 games in his collegiate debut, with 11 starts as an attacking midfielder and forward. Celis finished with a goal and four assists. His four assists ranked second on the club.
"Coming in my freshman year I didn't know what to expect," Celis said. "I didn't know much about college soccer so it was all basically new to me. Now that I've spent three years here, I've learned a lot, how to manage my time with school and soccer, what to expect on and off the field, being a leader, being one of the older guys, and having to teach the young guns how things are done around here."
Celis joined the UK roster after a standout prep career in Houston. He saw time on the US U-17, U-15 and U-14 national teams, while TopDrawerSoccer.com ranked him as the 75th-best player in the class. He also saw time with the Dallas Texans in the US Soccer Development Academy.
"We all come from different backgrounds and different playing styles," Celis said. "Johan (Cedergren) really looks up to players the come from MLS academy teams. Me being one of them, he knows that I know the right things to do on and off the field. He believes that I can be a huge leader in the team and he wants me to teach the other guys how to overcome some of the obstacles that they are going to face and tell them to keep working hard and always being there for them and helping them play at 100 percent."
An obvious strength of the Kentucky squad entering 2014 is its defense, which is led by preseason All-Conference USA goalkeeper Callum Irving. Irving will help anchor the backline, along with talented returning starters Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Kaelon Fox.
"Having Callum back this year is going to be a great help to us," Celis said. "Cally has been with the Vancouver Whitecaps training all summer. Having Jordan, Fox and Cally back there is going to be a good help this year just because we all played together last year. We are a little bit more familiar with each other and our strengths and weaknesses. And same in the midfield with Kristoffer (Tollefsen), we all know how we play, we all know our strengths and we try to play towards our strengths so we are not exposed and vulnerable against teams."
As Kentucky gets ready for the 2014 season, one dominant storyline is the debut season of the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.
"We are really excited," Celis said about opening up the new stadium. "I am sure I am speaking for everybody, we got the help through Mitch Barnhart and others who were kind enough to donate money to the stadium. New team, new training facilities, everything has us excited to get back to the season and start playing again. That is pretty much what we came here to do, is play soccer."
Kentucky opens its 2014 season on Friday at Wright State at 7 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then debut the Bell Complex on Sunday at 5 p.m. vs. Belmont.
Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.
There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.
"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."
If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.
"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."
That's especially true on defense.
Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.
"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."
The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.
UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.
"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."
Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.
The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.
"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."
UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.
"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."
At long last, UK's season opener is on the horizon.
After months of work in spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp, the Wildcats are about to line up across from opponents in different color jerseys. Finally, Mark Stoops' offseason refrain about the progress of his team will be put to the test.
"As I said before throughout this summer, we've improved," Stoops said. "Be interesting to go out there and see how much."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand in the season opener. The Wildcats will face UT Martin at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Opening at home for the first time in seven years and following that with another game in Commonwealth in week two, the Cats have a chance to build some early-season momentum. It's an opportunity Stoops says they can't squander.
"I think it's real important, I do," Stoops said. "I think we need to start fast. We need to go out and play well."
In evaluating that, Stoops will be looking for an accumulation of routine plays, not highlights readymade for SportsCenter.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously."
That's a challenge given how much UK will rely on a number of players who have never been on the field at this level. Seventeen players listed on Kentucky's two-deep depth chart are first-year junior-college transfers or freshmen, including eight true freshmen.
All of them, to this point, have prepared as much as possible in practice and through UK's High Performance program, but there's only so much that can be done.
"Certainly with young guys, some guys are going to go out there for the first time and they're going to exceed our expectations, then some guys will probably have some rough spots here and there, have some mental mistakes, physical mistakes, things like that," Stoops said. "That's why you have to get out there and play. There's no substitution for experience."
As young as this Kentucky team may be, the Wildcats are still in a better spot than they were a year ago. That's why UK won't rely on newcomers quite as much as in 2013.
"We're getting better," Stoops said. "As we get better, it gets harder to beat out some guys for playing time. That's what you want in our program."
Dupree, Smith still drawing raves from Stoops
Stoops isn't normally one to think too far into the future, but he made an exception on Monday.
Asked where he expects senior defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree to go in next spring's NFL Draft, the second-year UK coach didn't hesitate.
"I'd be very shocked if Bud was not a first-round draft pick," Stoops said.
Stoops went on to say that he can envision Dupree going early in the first round if he has the kind of season expected of him. Given Stoops' experience coaching NFL-level talent at Florida State, his opinion has some weight.
"Bud is special," Stoops said. "He has that ability to play standing up. Put his hand in the dirt. He's a pass rusher. He's got instincts. With everybody going to a lot of the 3-4 things, outside backers, versatility, he's a very good player."
Dupree is listed as a strong-side linebacker on the depth chart, but the versatility Stoops appreciates so much will allow him to play plenty at end as well. When he does, he'll line up opposite Za'Darius Smith, who has a professional future of his own.
He and Dupree bypassed the NFL Draft to return for their senior season. Stoops believes they'll improve their draft stock with their decisions, but he knows UK has already benefited from their presence.
"As I said a lot through the offseason, leadership is the first thing that jumps out at you," Stoops said. "But also confidence. Our players see those guys out there, they make plays, are consistent, they're always there. They're great to have."
UT Martin linebacker Bell has UK's attention
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows to expect the unexpected on Saturday.
"They might get out there and try to pressure the heck out of us, or drop," Stoops said. "They've shown both, where they've been conservative and drop eight guys into coverage a bunch, or they can blitz the house and come after you. I imagine we'll see a bit of everything. It will be good for us to see how we prepare and respond to that."
Whatever looks the Skyhawks show, Stoops knows to be on the lookout for Tony Bell. The senior linebacker returns to anchor the UT Martin defense after an All-American season in 2013 in which he tallied 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays." Miller, Cunningham suspended for opener
UK announced on Monday that left tackle Darrian Miller and wide receiver Rashad Cunningham have been suspended for Saturday's season opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Both will return for week two.
In Miller's absence, regular right tackle Jordan Swindle will move to the left side and redshirt freshman Kyle Meadows will fill Swindle's spot.
Returning to the lineup after a two-game suspension to close 2013 will be Demarco Robinson. He is listed as a starter at one of four wide receiver spots along with Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue and Joey Herrick. Robinson will also share punt-returning duties with Timmons.
The calendar read Friday, but the action on the field at the Nutter Training Facility said otherwise.
With fall camp nearing its conclusion and UK's season opener in barely a week, the Wildcats shifted their attention to preparing for UT Martin.
"We had a normal what would be a Tuesday of game week this week to get that ironed out, and it was good work," Mark Stoops said. "It was good to wrap it up. Players will be done for the rest of the day, get to relax a little bit and get their feet up underneath them."
A typical Tuesday practice includes some team work along with work for the offense and defense against the opposing scout team. According to UK's offensive coordinator, the Wildcats took well to the shift away from the grind they've become accustomed to this month.
"We had really our first day against the scout team look today and I thought we had really good energy for a hot, muggy day, which was encouraging," Neal Brown said. "I think guys are excited about getting into game prep. Had a kind of a little jog through yesterday, but our focus was good. Made some mistakes but overall thought it was a positive day."
Not only was the day positive, it was also full of news.
On the injury front, Stoops announced that Alex Montgomery (recovery from knee surgery) and Jeff Badet (eye) will miss UK's season opener. Badet is improving after injuring his eye in practice catching tennis balls, but will be out at least the first two weeks of the season. Outside of those two sophomore wide receivers, Stoops expects UK to be at full strength on Aug. 30.
Full strength for the Wildcats includes at least nine freshmen. Stoops said on Friday that defensive tackle Matt Elam, defensive back Kendall Randolph, wide receivers Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams and running backs Stanley "Boom" Williams and Mikel Horton will all play week one.
Perhaps the biggest surprises in the group are the two running backs, as UK has veterans Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp and Josh Clemons at their position. Brown, however, in detailing why he expects the Wildcat offense to improve this season, made it clear there will be ample carries to go around.
"The biggest difference is right now on offense, running back is our deepest position," Brown said. "My job is to get the ball to our best players, and right now, several of our top playmakers are at that running back position."
The plan for the remaining freshmen is to redshirt them if circumstances permit. But aware of how quickly things can change, they will all prepare to play, including quarterback Drew Barker.
"I think that would be in his best interest and our best interest," Stoops said of redshirting Barker. "We'll see how that goes. He will prepare to play in a backup role, and if we can save him through the season that's what we'd like to do."
Tyler Ulis led UK with 12 points in a 63-62 loss to the Dominican Republic on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a stretch the likes of which Kentucky will never face again.
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.