Willie Cauley-Stein recently underwent surgery on an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final three games of UK's tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Riding around campus the last couple of days on a motorized cart, it's obvious the injury to Willie Cauley-Stein's left ankle was more than just a sprain.
John Calipari said as much Thursday during a press conference for his new book, "Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out," when he confirmed that Cauley-Stein went under the knife recently to fix the injury.
"He did have surgery," Calipari said. "The best doctor in the world to do it, kind of like we did with Nerlens (Noel)."
Calipari expects Cauley-Stein to be off the motorized cart and back in the gym in a "couple months."
"He'll be fine," Coach Cal said.
As for who did the surgery and what exactly the injury was that knocked Cauley-Stein out for most of the last four games of the NCAA Tournament, Calipari wasn't disclosing that information Thursday.
"They got knee guys, they got ankle guys, they got shoulder people, they got elbow people. (The doctor who did the surgery) was with the best that there is in the world to have the thing done," Coach Cal said. "And it was a procedure that is done a lot."
Whether it was the ankle injury that would prevent him from working out for NBA teams, falling a win short of a national championship, or tasting a Final Four but not being able to play in it, Cauley-Stein shocked a lot of people earlier in the week when he announced he was returning for his junior season at Kentucky.
Among the surprised was his college head coach.
"Raise your hand if you were stunned that he said he was coming back," Calipari said as he raised his own hand.
Calipari said he never talked to Cauley-Stein about coming back to school. He said their only conversation was about the first time he visited Cauley-Stein at his high school and how amazing it was that a kid who was involved in just about every sport but basketball could now be a first-round pick after just two years.
"Can you imagine?" Coach Cal said. "And that was our talk."
It was Cauley-Stein who approached Calipari about returning.
"He basically said, 'You know, Coach, I'm in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I'm gonna be really close to my degree. I still have to grow as a player. And we left something on the table there that I'd like to try and get.' That's a good answer for me if you want to come back," Calipari said.
Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.
Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.
Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.
With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.
Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.
But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.
So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.
Here's part one:
1. Measuring up to Michigan State
The season began with Wildcat victories over overmatched UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but the contest fans and pundits alike pointed to as an early test of UK's painfully young squad was a tilt with the experienced, talented and supremely well-coached Michigan State Spartans.
The preseason No. 2 team in the nation (the Spartans received only three fewer preseason Top 25 Associated Press votes than the Cats), Sparty sported experience, size and a willingness to "get physical" with their opponents.
Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's youth, though, responded to MSU's physical nature and battled the veteran Spartans for the full 40 minutes in Chicago's United Center (big-time Big 10 territory). Down 44-32 at the half, Coach Cal implored his team to keep fighting.
"I told them at half, 'Dudes, you're down six baskets. That's amazing. You should be down 20, 22 points right now. Now the question will be do you want to try to win the game,' " Calipari said. "And they did."
Showing all-important heart, the Wildcats battled through the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second half, finding themselves down 59-46 with 11:33 left in the game, but UK rallied down the stretch, belying its youth and inexperience.
Julius Randle, continuing his season-opening streak of double-doubles, responded to MSU's size with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while James Young tossed in 19. Both players' performances gave UK fans reason to believe in blue even though UK's rally came up short in the 78-74 loss.
Along with the Cats misfiring on 16 of 36 free throws, it was the upperclassman guard duo of Keith Appling (22 points) and Gary Harris (20 points) who doomed the Cats with their heady, steady play.
After the tight contest, Coach Cal uttered what would become a familiar refrain.
"The biggest thing is, if you don't do this together, you will not win, you'll never be a special team," Calipari said. "So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."
2. Reality checks to Baylor and UNC
After reeling off five straight victories, the Cats embarked on a made-for-TV event as No. 11 Kentucky traveled to Arlington, Texas to take on the No. 20 Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys (and host of the 2014 Final Four).
In a game that was delayed for more than an hour because of the UK women's team's four-overtime victory over the Baylor Lady Bears, the Wildcats came out of the locker room ready to battle. And battle UK did ... for about 26 minutes of game time.
Leading 48-39 with 14:06 left in the contest, UK's youthful squad became complacent while Baylor ratcheted up its intensity, holding the Cats to 35.0 percent second-half shooting. Over the final 14 minutes of action, the Bears had Kentucky on its heels, outscoring UK 28-14 while pulling off the upset.
"I would hope they'd have more fight to win the game," Coach Cal said after the game. "They didn't. Baylor had way more fight than we had."
Although UK connected on 8 of 17 trey attempts and Randle posted 16 points and eight rebounds, Baylor turned the tables on Kentucky in the paint, netting 38 points in the lane compared to 26 for the much bigger Wildcats.
It was UK's ability to overcome adversity, though, which had Cal's ire up after the game.
"As soon as this thing got rough, and the first two raindrops hit - it's like a front-running team," said Coach Cal, who was so frustrated after the game that he left the news conference the first time a reporter asked one of the players a question. "The raindrops hit, we stop fighting. We start looking for excuses and heads are down. That's what we are right now."
After a nice bounce-back win over Boise State in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the enigmatic North Carolina Tar Heels.
Kentucky, playing like the young team it was, committed 17 turnovers, giving UNC a 22-13 advantage in points off turnovers for the game. Once again, making matters worse, Kentucky went cold from the charity stripe, making only 29 of 43 free throws. UK's big men were thoroughly outplayed by their Tar Heel counterparts, being outscored by a 49-24 margin and allowing North Carolina to connect on 48.2 percent of its shots.
Calipari lamented his team's concern for personal statistics over team accomplishments after the 82-77 setback, a loss which put UK's record at 8-3 and a No. 19 AP ranking.
"We're not a good team because our emotion is based on individual play instead of our team play," Coach Cal said. "I'm going to keep coaching them. We're going to keep getting better. We're going to try to point things out. But it doesn't matter how bad I want them to get it, they gotta want it. They gotta want to get this. They gotta want to understand this."
3. A much-needed win over an archrival
In what is always the highlight of the regular-season schedule for UK fans, the Cats and Cards hooked up in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28 with more than pride on the line.
Neither team's résumé had what could be considered a marquee win, and with UK dropping like an anchor down the polls after losing to Baylor and UNC, even the most ardent of the Wildcat faithful were in need of a boost up the ladder of confidence.
What Kentucky did in the greatest rivalry game the sport has to offer is what it had failed to do in its three losses: finish the game strong.
With Randle playing only 21 minutes due to cramps (but dominating the opening half with 17 points) and missing the entire final 11 minutes of the game, Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison stepped up their games, particularly in the final nine minutes.
With the scored tied at 53 and 8:45 remaining, Kentucky ended the game by outscoring U of L 20-13, with the UK guard trio accounting for 17 of UK's 20 points.
"This team is becoming a good team," Calipari said."We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."
Coach Cal also credited the team's tough schedule as preparing his squad for a game of this magnitude.
"One of the things I told them prior to the game, what prepared us for this game was playing Michigan State, playing Providence, playing Boise (State), playing Baylor, playing North Carolina on the road, playing Belmont," Calipari said. "That prepared us for this game. And so as much as I hate to say, every game I'm coaching is like a war, this team needed that."
Jalen Whitlow announced his decision to transfer on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown knew the conversation wouldn't be easy.
They had decided to narrow their options at quarterback to Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. The next step was to tell Jalen Whitlow.
"When you decide you want to coach, that's not something they go over," Brown said after practice on Wednesday. "It's never fun. It's not something that I enjoy. It's really one of the worst aspects."
The discussion happened in two parts on Tuesday afternoon and later in the evening. Stoops and Brown approached it the best way they knew how.
"I told him I cared about him, which I do," Brown said. "I want him to do what he thinks is best for him with regard to our team. But I also want to be up front and honest with him."
Honesty, in this case, came in telling Whitlow he was the odd man out at quarterback, but also explaining there would be an opportunity to play wide receiver at UK, if he chose to. Whitlow -- who started eight games in 2013 and accounted for more than 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns -- decided transferring was the best course of action.
"We were in a situation where, once we told him where we're working it out with quarterback, and asked him to play another position (and) if he'd be open to that, he decided that it'd be in his best interest to go somewhere else and play QB," Stoops said. "That's where his heart is. That's what he wants to do. I understand that."
Both the coaches and Whitlow, of course, are disappointed in the result. Stoops and Brown would have loved to have an athlete as dynamic as Whitlow at wide out, while Whitlow wanted to win the quarterback job.
That doesn't mean there are hard feelings on either side.
"I appreciate the University of Kentucky and what the coaching staff and administration have done for me," Whitlow said in a release announcing he will transfer after finishing the spring semester. "I also thank the community and the fan support I have received here. I wish the coaches and my teammates the best of luck."
The same goes for everyone involved with the UK program.
"I appreciate his contributions, I really do," Brown said. "Last year was a tough year. It wouldn't have mattered who played quarterback. It was going to be a difficult season and he weathered some things, some adversity so I'm proud of him for that."
Now, UK moves on.
Stoops and Brown both cited consistency throwing the football as the reason they have narrowed the contenders at quarterback. Last season, Whitlow gave UK the best chance to win. With the way Towles and Phillips have improved, the addition of Barker, the talented freshman, and Maxwell Smith recovering from an injury, that's changed.
"This is not a negative on Jalen," Brown said. "The other three guys are performing well. I feel good about where we're at with the quarterback position. Now we gotta go do it with the lights on, but Saturday, in a scrimmage or game atmosphere, that was the best that any quarterbacks have looked since I've been here for a calendar year."
In that scrimmage, Towles and Barker were particularly impressive.
Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made an offseason commitment to refining his mechanics. The results showed as he made a number of throws that showed why he was so highly touted when he arrived in Lexington.
"He has made tremendous strides," Brown said. "Now he's got a long way to go, Patrick does. He's still making some decisions that aren't correct and making some negative plays, but he's got tremendously better, there's no question."
Barker, meanwhile, is hardly looking like a player who went home to Burlington, Ky., a few weeks ago to attend his high school prom and has only 10 practices under his belt in UK's no-huddle attack after playing a different system at Conner High School.
"I'm not surprised because he had big talent," Brown said. "What I am excited about is the maturity that he's shown. He's shown great maturity through this. We've thrown a lot at him. It's tough."
Brown called the competition "fluid," while Stoops said UK is still "working through" the process of settling on a quarterback.
"It's hard to get four and five guys reps," Stoops said. "Listen: I want to move on. I want there to be a clear-cut winner or a starter, or at least one and two, so we can start narrowing down reps."
The first step was cutting it down to three.
"That's why we made the decision," Brown said. "We gotta get it down to a manageable number. We're hoping to do that going into fall camp. I think that was part of the issues we had last year, is we let it drag out too far we didn't get enough quality reps for Jalen or Max."
Logan Salow picked up the win against Louisville, tossing 3.2 shutout innings. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Gary Henderson stepped into a horde of media members waiting to talk about UK's season sweep of Louisville.
First, he was asked to reflect on the importance of the midweek win. Naturally, the next question about his two freshman hurlers, Logan Salow and Zack Brown.
Henderson had to look to the scoreboard before he could get into his answer.
"That's six and--what is it, five? No, six innings of freshman pitching," Henderson said. "That's significant on the road, there's question about that.
Not just six innings, but six innings of shutout ball as No. 19 UK (24-13) took down archrival and ninth-ranked Louisville (27-9), 4-2, on Tuesday.
"It's a game we want to win every year, just like they do," Henderson said. "It's a rivalry game. It's not more important than a league game. I get that every year, twice a year. ... It's always good win a tight game on the road because it gives your kids confidence going forward."
No one's confidence will benefit more than Salow and Brown's.
Salow had an idea he was going to be appearing against Louisville, given how shorthanded the Wildcats are in the bullpen at present, but it happened earlier than expected.
Starter Ryne Combs departed after allowing the first four Cardinals to reach in the bottom of the third, the last of which via run-scoring walk. The score then tied at 1-all and Louisville threatening to take command, Henderson turned to Salow with a simple directive to pound the strike zone.
He did just that.
"All Logan did was throw strikes and that was it and that's all we needed to do," Henderson said. "We needed to throw strikes and if we did that we were going to play enough defense behind it to make it work."
Salow, picking up the win in just the 14th appearance of his young career, admitted he felt some pressure to eat innings given the circumstances.
"But not too much because I know the guys behind me are going to do a great job playing defense," Salow said. "I know we are going to score runs when I get in the dugout. There is a little pressure, but not as much as you'd think."
Salow showed no signs of that pressure, needing just two batters to retire the side on a fielder's choice and a strikeout-caught stealing double play.
UK down just 2-1 when it could have been much worse, the Cats quickly retook the lead by taking advantage of a couple Cardinal miscues with Ka'ai Tom RBI grounder that was misplayed and a walk by JaVon Shelby that scored the go-ahead and game-winning run.
From there, Salow went to work. He lasted a career-long 3.2 innings, allowing five hits and no walks. He struck out three and 36 of his 63 pitches were strikes.
He departed with two outs in the bottom of the sixth, giving way to Brown with runners on first and second. After issuing a walk to Logan Taylor, Brown coaxed a Sutton Whiting foul out down the left-field line.
Combined, Brown and Salow stranded five Cardinals in scoring position for the game.
"That's baseball for you," catcher Micheal Thomas said. "It's a situation you want to be in and a situation you want to succeed in, which they both did very well tonight. For them two to come out here and pitch the way they did, it's a huge step forward for our bullpen."
Brown has been making his share of steps in the right direction of late, with his third consecutive scoreless appearance coming on Tuesday before Kyle Cody replaced him in the ninth and finished off the save.
"Zack Brown is getting better, I've mentioned that a couple of times," Henderson said.
It isn't some complex mechanical fix driving that improvement either.
"I think just a mindset," Brown said. "Just coming in and being confident and thinking that I'm going to succeed. And that's exactly what I've done."
Given the quality of the opponent, Tuesday felt like the kind of game that will be played in June. Salow and Brown, if they pitch the way they did against U of L, will be very valuable if UK reaches that point, but the Cats aren't thinking that way just yet.
"I think we are right where we want to be," Thomas said. "I don't think we want to get too far ahead of ourselves at this point in the season. ... We definitely have some areas we can tighten up and get better, but for the most part I think we are doing a good job of getting better every day."
Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Minutes after Kentucky's national championship game loss, Willie Cauley-Stein spelled out the decision in front of him.
Long thought to likely choose to pursue a lifelong dream and become a first-round NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein gave fans pause when he spoke of the pull to return.
This, clearly, was a person who loved playing basketball at UK.
"It's the best thing," Cauley-Stein said on April 7. "It's the best thing that's probably ever happened to me, is coming to Kentucky. That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star."
If Cauley-Stein felt like a rock star before, he probably feels like a Beatle on Monday night after he tweeted the news that he will come back for his junior season.
"I'm proud to say I'm coming back for my junior year," Cauley-Stein said. "I still have an empty spot to fulfill and in no rush to leave the best fans in the USA!
ESPN's Chad Ford had him pegged as the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft before news of his decision broke, but Cauley-Stein wasn't ready to leave Lexington. Between his academics and the chance to make another special NCAA Tournament run, there was too much pulling him back.
"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree," Cauley-Stein said in a release. "Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year, while playing in front of the best fans in the nation."
Prior to an injury in a Sweet 16 win over Louisville that relegated him to a cheerleading role, Cauley-Stein was averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. The 106 blocks the 7-footer totaled as a sophomore are the second most in single-season UK history. He will need 103 blocks in 2014-15 to become the leading shot blocker in school history.
"I'm happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family," head coach John Calipari said. "Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards."
In the short term, Cauley-Stein's return assures UK of having one of the nation's most imposing frontcourts yet again.
Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee have not yet formally announced their draft intentions, but UK will have no trouble fielding forwards and centers regardless. Derek Willis is set to return for his sophomore season, while 7-footer Karl Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles give Coach Cal another pair of gifted incoming freshmen. Both are consensus five-star players in the class of 2014.
UK continued spring practice on Monday, building on a solid Saturday scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Two days removed from a scrimmage he called UK's best day so far this spring, Mark Stoops was singing much the same tune after a Monday practice moved inside due to rain.
The Wildcats, according to Stoops, didn't let the momentum built on Saturday go to waste.
"It was good to get out there today and put another good practice together," Stoops said. "I thought Saturday, like I said, that was one of our better days. I felt like we backed it up with a pretty good day today. We're starting to move forward, get a little bit better in each phase of the game."
Stoops didn't get into details, but his evaluation of the scrimmage was no different after viewing tape.
"I just felt like it was just better football," Stoops said. "As the head coach, you're not just worried about one side, one position group or anything like that and obviously I just felt like there was more quality football being played."
This time a year ago, it was tape from Kentucky's annual Blue-White Spring Game Stoops and his staff were watching. Now, UK still has two weeks of spring practice left. That delayed schedule is no accident.
"We went into spring ball late so we could really have some to lift and put on some weight and get stronger," Stoops said. "I feel like that's paying off."
Benefiting from a long winter in UK's High Performance program, the Wildcats entered the spring bigger, stronger and faster. Stoops has known that all along, but he got a reminder of his team's progress from a special practice guest on Monday.
Defensive line guru Pete Jenkins -- a former assistant with the Philadelphia Eagles, LSU and USC -- is continuing an annual spring tradition of observing Stoops' team and came away impressed by the difference between the team he watched Monday and the one he saw a year ago.
"Sometimes when you see it every day you want to make those steps faster, but he noticed it and told me it's a much different team, better-looking team, looks like we're more physical and all that," Stoops said. "So it's good to hear that from somebody that spends a lot of time going to a lot of spring practices and been around the block."
The positive feedback is nice, but the real reason Jenkins -- who also coached UK assistant Jimmy Brumbaugh at Auburn -- is spending time in Lexington is to be a resource as Stoops and defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot look to develop the same kind of dominant line play Florida State had.
"It's something we take great pride in," Stoops said. "It's something we did at Florida State. The better you play up front, the better you're going to be. It starts up there. I think Coach Brumbaugh does a great job of developing those guys. We got a long way to go with some young guys, but that's key for us."
The road may be long, but Stoops believes the Cats are on the right track.
"We're battling," Stoops said. "We're getting better. We've got a few young guys in there with Regie (Meant) getting better. But Mike Douglas is battling, doing a good job and Melvin's (Lewis) getting better, so we're improving."
Of course, the bookends of UK's defensive line are ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith. Both continue to draw rave reviews for their play and leadership, but even the two seniors who bypassed the NFL Draft have room for growth.
"I think with Bud it's his versatility, and making sure he's getting enough quality reps to continue to progress with his hand in the dirt as a great D-linemen, and then being able to get him some snaps on his feet and doing some other things and being versatile with Bud," Stoops said. "That's a matter of keep on getting reps there. With Z, you can never get enough reps. You're always getting better."
Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In a perfect world for UK baseball, Chandler Shepherd would have made his regular weekend start. He would have avoided the forearm laceration that sidelined him on Saturday and Dylan Dwyer would have started on Tuesday against Morehead State.
Instead, Dwyer was pressed into action.
The circumstances under which Dwyer made his first-career Southeastern Conference start may not have been ideal, but he made the best of the situation.
"What you really hope when a kid gets an opportunity, whether it's playing defense in the ninth inning, a pinch hit or his first start in SEC play, is that he maximizes it and forces you to give him more opportunity," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And that's what you hope and that's what he did."
With UK on a two-game losing streak and in need of a Saturday-night win to even a crucial league series with Missouri, Dwyer stepped up. He tossed 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk against a Tiger lineup that touched up the Wildcats for eight runs just a day earlier.
"I was just planning on attacking," said Dwyer, who found out Wednesday he would be making his SEC starting debut. "My approach was to go in there and attack, keep the ball low and let them hit on the ground, let my defense work for me."
Behind Dwyer, UK (23-12, 7-7 SEC) topped Missouri (16-17, 5-9 SEC), 12-0. Five different Cats had two RBI, led by A.J. Reed, who got the scoring going with a two-run home run -- his NCAA-leading 14th of the season -- in the fifth. Reed now has homers in five straight SEC games, making him the first player in the modern era of UK baseball to accomplish the feat.
"Especially in our conference, guys are going to come at you and it's just a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it," Reed said. "Like I said, right now I'm doing a pretty good job of that and not missing those pitches."
Reed narrowly missed out on a second home run, with his sky-scraping seventh-inning fly ball losing steam at the warning track.
"It's pretty impressive," Henderson said. "He's seeing it good right now, taking good swings and even when he swings and misses and chases a pitch he doesn't get out of his game, it doesn't speed up on him and he's at a good spot right now."
The final score would have been even more lopsided had Reed's fly ball left Cliff Hagan Stadium, but don't be fooled into thinking Dwyer (4-1, coasted through his outing with a big lead. He traded scoreless frames with Missouri's John Miles through the first four innings, with UK not breaking the 0-0 tie until Reed's blast in the bottom of the fifth.
"You lose Friday night and you don't score until the fifth, there it is," Henderson said. "And that's what it is and, yeah, he did (pitch in some high-stress situations). Got out of a couple of jams where they could have scored first, but didn't and really proud of him. Solid effort. He's growing up."
Dwyer sustained the momentum built in his last start, when he overcame early struggles to pick up the win as the Cats topped rival Louisville on April 1.
"The U of L start, I learned what I did wrong and I knew I had to come in here this time and fix it," Dwyer said. "I thought I came out well, kept the ball down and let my defense back me up. There was a bunch of great plays."
The best of those plays came from Austin Cousino, who fired a strike from center field on a single by Dylan Kelly to throw out Logan Pearson and preserve the shutout and UK's 3-0 lead. The play, which ended the sixth inning, drew the most emotional reaction of the game from Dwyer.
"That's the biggest play of the night right there," Dwyer said. "After we put up a three-spot and then he guns them out, we put up a zero right there and all the momentum goes to us and that just kills their momentum."
Any remaining momentum in the Missouri dugout was eliminated by a nine-run bottom of the sixth when Max Kuhn delivered one of his four hits and the Cats capitalized on three Tiger errors.
The crowd enjoyed the offensive explosion, but Dwyer's night will likely prove much more significant. The left-handed sophomore is exactly the kind of arm the 12th-ranked Cats will need to advance in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, which means his budding confidence is likely to pay dividends down the road.
"Having these starts like this is definitely good for experience and getting me ready for the postseason because that time is going to be time to have four starters ready," Dwyer said.
UK is within striking distance of first place in the SEC in spite of operating at less than full strength at the mound. In addition to Shepherd's injury, key reliever Kyle Cody is battling forearm tightness and has not yet pitched this weekend.
If the Cats can get Shepherd and Cody back and healthy and Dwyer pitching like he did on Saturday, they could be playing into June.
"Those are the things that are going to allow us to keep winning and do well once we get to the postseason," Henderson said.
Mark Stoops didn't leave the scrimmage -- UK's second of the spring -- thinking one side of the ball had the better of the action and wondering what had gone wrong with the other.
Instead, Stoops came away believing neither the offense nor defense had won the tug-of-war in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.
"That's why it's hard for me, because if one side does well I'm disappointed in the other," Stoops said. "But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better."
That kind of give-and-take is exactly what Stoops is looking for. As a result, UK had its best overall day of the spring, representing a vast improvement from last Saturday's scrimmage. Stoops opted to cancel Friday's practice to focus on preparation for Saturday and the Wildcats took advantage.
"That's maybe why I was a little frustrated (after the last scrimmage): looked a little bit sloppy," Stoops said. "But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage."
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was even more positive in his evaluation,
"Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere - the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we've executed," Brown said. "What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year."
Naturally, much of that has to do with quarterback play.
Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are splitting time as the battle for the starting position continues with Maxwell Smith recovering from a shoulder injury. Stoops does not yet have a timetable for making a decision, but Brown did say he wants to get it done sooner than a season ago.
The important thing right now is Brown knows UK will be improved at quarterback in 2014, no matter who wins the job.
"The thing I'm pleased about is they're all much, much better," Brown said. "We're better. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."
Barker -- the highly touted midyear enrollee -- is the lone signal caller who was not on campus last year, but there were moments when he could have fooled Brown.
"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have known he was a high school senior," Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."
Barker was hardly the only one of the four to impress. Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made a handful of throws that drew praise from both Stoops and Brown while Whitlow and Phillips each had their moments as UK's offense did not commit a turnover.
"I think all of them stood out," sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said. "That's gonna be the coaches' call. They got a handful, I can tell you that, because to me all of them looked great. All of them was competing, completing passes. Just the whole group of guys looked good today."
It helps that the quarterbacks are surrounded by a group of talented running backs and a receiving corps improving by the day in spite of battling some bumps and bruises.
"The young guys did some good things," Stoops said. "Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn't come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good. I think (Ryan) Timmons. Timmons is always -- he's been solid."
The offense had only to contend with the defense's base packages. Installing wrinkles is for later.
"We weren't trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.
As expected, senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith shined. Beyond his two building blocks, Eliot saw one fresh face and two more familiar ones stand out.
"A.J. Stamps, again, did some good things," Eliot said. "I was pleased with some his effort. And Jason Hatcher did some good things. I was pleased with some of the things he did. I saw some good plays by J.D. Harmon just initially. And after we watch the film we'll be able be more detailed on that."
Stamps, a junior-college transfer, appears poised to contribute immediately in the secondary in spending most of his time at safety after playing corner at East Mississippi Community College.
"A.J. Stamps is making a pretty good impact on our defense, giving us a better balanced look," linebacker Khalid Henderson said. "A more versatile safety back there."
Harmon, meanwhile, has added important depth at cornerback after sitting out last season and Hatcher is taking steps forward in his first college spring after playing as a freshman in 2013.
"You know, at any sport, any position, it's hard to come in and play as a freshman," Eliot said. "And so now we're seeing a big jump in Jason because he's a sophomore and I'm really liking the progress that he's making. He's grown up, not only on the football field, but in any natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore he's done that as well."
With those individual performances and the way UK continues to come together as a team in mind, Stoops has plenty of reason for optimism.
"We feel better," Stoops said. "At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we're running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you're getting ones, twos and threes. Already in the spring, you're already a little bit thin if you don't have your whole group here. So it's sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We're definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We're getting there, getting better."
UK currently ranks second among all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, trailing only No. 6 Florida, and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state, with Louisville coming in at No. 20.
Looking ahead, UK appears to have a good chance of maintaining its current ranking or even improving on it. UK will add points from gymnastics' finish at NCAA Regionals when standings are tabulated on April 24 and potentially even more as spring sports play out.
The women's outdoor track and field team currently checks in at No. 5 in the polls after finishing ninth at NCAA Indoor Championships, while the men are No. 24. Baseball, softball and men's tennis are all ranked in the top 15, while women's tennis is No. 28 and both golf teams are in contention for NCAA berths.
If those teams perform as well as expected, UK could be in line to meet Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 of Directors' Cup standings by the year 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK has won 11 of the 15 conference or national titles needed to meet Barnhart's goal and has reached his threshold of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in three straight semesters.
It's also worth mentioning that UK is faring well in Capitol One Cup standings, tying for seventh in men's standings with 41 points and coming in 37th in women's standings.
All in all, 2013-14 is shaping up to be a year to remember for UK Athletics.
The Kentucky softball team tallied a 9-1 win over Wright State and a 10-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in a mid-week series that served many purposes in the midst of a grueling SEC slate.
The Wildcats easily could have overlooked the two games, sandwiched between a home series against Texas A&M and a three-game set at Ole Miss. Instead, they turned in back-to-back run-rule efforts to keep the momentum going from one conference series to the next.
"It says a lot about our team's focus," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We had a certain game plan going into the two games, and each player went out there and did their job and executed what we were trying to do, so it really says a lot about their focus and their ability to keep working towards going deep in the postseason."
Kentucky had won four of its last five heading into Tuesday's game, and the focus never wavered.
UK scored 19 runs and allowed 29 base runners in eight total innings at the plate. In the circle, three Wildcat hurlers allowed one run, six hits and notched 12 strikeouts in 10 total innings.
Aside from earning a pair of wins to boost their record to 33-8, Rachel Lawson was happy to see the Wildcats work on improving parts of their game.
"I think we were working on hitting certain pitches, instead of taking them, and I think that was good," Lawson said. "Each girl knew what her job was, what her role was, and she was able to execute, so that was great. It was also nice to put some players into positions that I believe they are going to play this weekend, which they didn't get to do last weekend, just to make them a little bit more comfortable."
Another benefit of the two-game set was getting a number of underclassmen valuable playing experience. In Wednesday's contest, freshman Breanne Ray launched her first career home run.
"It was awesome," Ray said about getting the opportunity to play today. "When Coach Lawson told me I was in the lineup, I was extra excited for today. I just wanted to show my team that I had it in me."
Ray certainly had it in her to lead off the third inning. A shot to right center was the outfielder's first home run as a Wildcat and just her second career hit.
"I couldn't stop smiling, to be honest," Ray said. "I was so happy. Then all my teammates were there to greet me, and they made me feel even better."
"She is a great hitter and we're expecting great things from her in the future," Lawson said. "The fact that she was able to sit on her pitch and drive it over the wall says a lot about how mature she is mentally. I just love how she was able to take advantage of the opportunity."
The Wildcats, now winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, look to keep the momentum going on the road when they travel to Ole Miss for a three-game set April 11-13.