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Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops


It was a family reunion of sorts at the Nutter Training Facility on Wednesday, as Mark Stoops was joined on the practice field by brothers Mark and Mike.

Oklahoma -- where Bob and Mike serve as head coach and defensive coordinator respectively -- wrapped up spring practice earlier this month, so two of Mark's three older brothers took the opportunity to pay a visit to Lexington.

"We're going to go watch film and all that right now and everything," Mark Stoops said. "They came in last night and talked some football with us. It was good to have them."

Of course the Stoops brothers will spend some time catching up and enjoying themselves, but media watching the first half of practice on Wednesday saw firsthand that Mark Stoops will be calling on his brothers' expertise.

"That's what there here for," Mark Stoops said. "I mean, they're not here just for fun. You know, we've got to put them to work. ... We talk about ideas, ways to do things, different change ups, how they may play a certain formation or a certain adjustment. So it's good to have them here. I'm definitely going to utilize them while they're here to go watch some film of this practice and some previous spring practices and get some work done."

Bob Stoops even traded his normal crimson and cream for a UK pullover.

"They like to support us," Mark Stoops said. "He's proud to wear it. I'm sure he'll take that home with him."

Stoops reported the Wildcats had another "good, physical practice" with his brothers and John Calipari watching, including a period of solid work on short-yardage situations. UK continues to plug along through the final week of spring, battling through a number of injuries on both sides of the ball.

"It just happens," Stoops said. "That's the way it is. Some of them were through the winter with surgeries and some of them were dinged up in practice. The good news is, I think there's nothing major -- knock on wood -- nothing that's gonna keep guys out for the year. So we should be at 100 percent if we don't have anything new happen."

The latest injury is to sophomore wide receiver Jeff Badet, who broke his fibula on Monday. Stoops called the injury a clean break, meaning no surgery will be needed. Badet is expected to miss two-to-three months but heal in time for fall camp.

"He was alone," Stoops said. "It was a good play-action pass; he was wide-open. He kind of got underthrown and just a freaky accident."

Badet's injury is another short-term blow to UK's wide receiver depth, as is A.J. Legree's decision to transfer, which Stoops announced on Wednesday. As a result, Stoops is considering ways to minimize injury risk at Saturday's Spring Game while also still putting on a show for fans.

"It looks like I'm gonna split it up ones against everybody else," Stoops said. "So the only thing it'll change as far as the fans and things like that -- and most people do it -- you're gonna speed up the game somehow. We can't afford to take a whole boatload of reps. We're just thin. So we'll iron out all the details and tell you, but it'll be very similar to last year. Some type of abbreviated schedule."

D.J. Eliot on UK's Wednesday practice



It was never going to be a pitchers' duel on Tuesday night at Cliff Hagan Stadium.

With the nation's top offense in town and a brisk wind blowing out to left field, Kentucky would have to put up some crooked numbers to take down Tennessee Tech.

"You could tell in BP the wind was blowing out pretty good to all fields, really," Matt Reida said. "Both teams in BP, you could really tell it was going to be an offensive night. It was going to be a challenge for the pitchers."

It certainly was, as No. 17 UK (27-14) won a 15-13 slugfest.

"I am a guy that's in tune with which way the wind's blowing when we're playing," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "So, yes, I knew which way the wind was blowing and I knew we had a chance for this. I wouldn't have dreamed it would be quite like this."

Looking to sustain the momentum built last week in three road wins in four tries, UK turned to its offense to get the job done after facing a 7-1 deficit. Rather than fall into the trap of swinging for the fences, the Cats kept their disciplined approach and the runs followed.

"I thought we stayed very positive in the dugout," Henderson said. "I thought we stayed very patient in the box. A couple of times it got tight where we really needed a hit to get back into it and we got it."

UK chipped away with three in the bottom of the fourth, using three walks, two hits and a hit-by-pitch. The Cats would then pull to within one in the fifth with a two-run shot by JaVon Shelby. In the sixth, UK took its first lead with five runs an evening that featured 31 hits and 10 home runs.

"A great win by us," Henderson said. "Not a great game to watch, but a great win by our kids."

In the middle of everything was Reida.

The senior shortstop entered Tuesday night mired in an 0-for-11 slump, his batting average falling to .207 in the process. The lefty found his stroke early, doubling to left in the second inning, but it was his patience that got UK's rally started.

He walked to lead off the fourth and fifth innings, coming around to score both times. In a spot where pressing for extra bases would have understandable, Reida stayed within himself.

"They were throwing a lot of off speed to all of our guys," Reida said. "So it's tough to be patient, but we have such a good offense any type of lead for another team isn't a big concern for us, especially early."

If triggering the UK offense wasn't enough, Reida was rewarded in the sixth. With the bases loaded, Reida smoked his second double over the head over Tech centerfielder Jake Rowland to score the game-tying and go-ahead runs. An inning later, he added his first home run in 348 at-bats -- a stretch that dates back to his sophomore season -- on a solo shot.

"We always kind of give Matt a hard time about hitting home runs because he thinks he's a big power hitter," said a smiling A.J. Reed, the nation's leading home-run hitter. "So we were happy for him to get one. Finally he can back up a little bit of what he says."

The homer gave UK a 12-8 lead, but by no means was it safe. Tennessee Tech scored four in the top of the eighth to tie it on two-run blasts by Zach Stephens and Dylan Bosheers.

The Cats would answer in the bottom of the inning as Micheal Thomas hit a two-run homer. Later, Reida would add an important insurance run on a single to finish off his 4-for-4, four-RBI night before Kyle Cody closed it out with his fifth save.

"It's funny; baseball's a crazy game," Reida said. "Two days ago I feel lost and today everything coming off my bat's dropping.

"It's just a back-and-forth game. You try to stay positive and keep grinding away and the game will reward you."

Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was more than a year ago now that Julius Randle committed to Kentucky.

Just a few months later, he arrived on campus and began practicing with his teammates. Big Blue Madness, a tumultuous regular season and a magical NCAA Tournament were next on the docket.

As Randle sat at a podium announcing his decision to declare for the NBA Draft on Tuesday, he couldn't help but wonder where the time went.

"This season, this year, the more I think about it, it just went by fast," Randle said. "I'm definitely going to miss it. Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart. Growing up as a kid, it's always been my dream to play in the NBA, and there's no better opportunity for me to achieve that goal than now."

When Randle came to UK, he put thoughts of playing professionally on hold. Instead, he focused on building bonds with his team and playing for college basketball's ultimate prize.

The Wildcats came up one win short of the latter goal, but succeeded wildly when it came to the former. That's why Randle was able to make the decision to leave Lexington with his head held high.

"I know I came one game short of winning a national championship - we did as a team - but everything we went through this year is just an experience that I'll never forget," Randle said. "That alone was enough, kept me at peace to leave."

Short of beating Connecticut, Randle couldn't have accomplished much more in his short time as a Wildcat.

The 6-foot-9 forward arrived with a five-star pedigree and delivered. He was a dominant force from the beginning of the season onward in spite of facing double and triple teams after a 27-point, 13-rebound performance against Michigan State. Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds, garnering Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors in the process.

"I would say my one year here was fantastic because (John Calipari) goes into your home when he recruits you and he says, 'It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done,' " Randle said. " 'You're going to work the hardest you ever did.' You say OK, but you may not believe it. But once you're in the fire, what he said is true."

After surviving the fire, Randle moves on to the next challenge. He's the No. 5 prospect on Chad Ford's Big Board and the No. 4 overall pick in Draft Express's 2014 mock draft. No matter where he lands, Coach Cal sees a bright future ahead.

"I truly believe that Julius will be an even better pro than a college player," Calipari said in a release. "He was Shaq'd (Shaquille O'Neal) all year - in every way. I really appreciate all that he did for this program and how he represented all of us throughout the entire year. I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level."

While Calipari watches his former pupil in the NBA, Randle will be watching his former coach's team next season.

He had no insight to offer about the pending stay-or-leave decisions of Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but Randle had plenty of good things to say about next year's team.

"I mean, we have so much talent," Randle said. "Willie (Cauley-Stein) coming back. We have Marcus (Lee). He was huge in the tournament. All the incoming guys. We have so much talent coming in next year. We're definitely going to make another run."

The use of first person is particularly telling because Randle isn't about to stop being a Wildcat even though he won't wear the uniform next year. With that in mind, he had some advice to pass on to his UK brethren, who figure to shoulder some of the same expectations Randle and last year's Cats had to cope with.

"I think that's why I was able deal with the criticism myself, because I never really fed into or really read anything or believed anything," Randle said. "I just tried to stay in my own little circle or little bubble and focused on the team and that's all I really cared about. As long as you're invested into the team, that's your total focus, investing into being a student-athlete then you won't really won't waver too much from the criticism or expectations."

As I rode with our men's basketball team from the airport to the celebration of a remarkable NCAA Tournament run, I was reminded of the deep ties we share with our fans. I saw the blue you wore and the pride on your faces and couldn't help but think about how important the Big Blue Nation is to all we do.

It's a fact we have never forgotten, but it bears repeating: None of this is possible without you, the fans. Without you, none of us -- student-athletes, coaches, staff -- would be here.

With that in mind, I am asking everyone involved with UK Athletics to make a renewed commitment to our fans. We will honor those deep ties by making sure you have great experiences when you invest time and money to support your Wildcats. We are going to put you, the Big Blue Nation, first.

Three core concepts will guide this effort:

1.    We will compete for championships and make our fans proud.

I am incredibly proud of the work our Wildcats have done to make Kentucky as strong overall as it has ever been, culminating in the first top-25 finish in national all-sports standings in school history. For them to do it while also excelling in both the classroom and the community is even more impressive.

Now, just as I am asking my staff to take the fan experience to the next level, I am challenging student-athletes and coaches to build on that solid foundation and work to be the best department in the country and to continue to do it the right way. That's what the Big Blue Nation deserves.

We all share in this.

As a department, it is our job to give our teams the resources they need to compete for championships. With new and under-construction facilities across campus, I believe we are doing this. In all those venues, I ask you to help us create the best possible home-field advantage for all of our teams. I have seen and heard our fans be the difference in more games than I can count. We need you now more than ever.

2.    We will provide a first-class game-day experience.

We know your experience on game day begins well before you enter the stadium. It starts when you are making plans to attend a game, continues when you are parking your car and doesn't end until the moment you arrive at home. For that reason, we will be intentional and transparent in all we do, from our ticketing process to enhancing the action on the field with music, audio and video.

No matter the venue, we want to create an atmosphere that tells fans they are at a Kentucky event. We will strive to create memories for fans, not only through the action on the field but also through one-on-one interactions with each and every one of you.

3.    We will create a shared family atmosphere.

From children experiencing their first UK event to students supporting their school to fans who have been attending games for decades, we will create an atmosphere everyone can share. In doing this, we will ask fans to take an ownership role in the game-day experience by observing good sportsmanship, interacting positively with fellow fans and helping to take care of our facilities.

We have the best fans in the world and that will shine through in all we do. We truly appreciate you, the members of the Big Blue Nation. We will demonstrate this appreciation by connecting you to Kentucky like never before, using technology to supplement the game-day experience before, during and after events.

Though we will strive to be on the cutting edge, we will never forget where we come from. We share an incredibly special history and tradition and will always honor what it means to wear a Kentucky uniform.

Guided by these concepts, I formed a Fan Experience Committee with staff members from event management, marketing, ticketing and communications as we began the new year. We are meeting regularly to assess all aspects of our fan experience, but we need your help.

We want to know how we can best serve you. We want to know what we can do to give you the game-day experience you deserve. We are already investigating and refining on our own, but we need your input.

What can we do better? What are we already doing well? What have you seen at other sporting events that we should implement?

No suggestion is too big and none too small. From concessions to promotions to music selection, we want to know what matters to you. We are going to use every outlet available to us to listen to your feedback.


We are looking forward to hearing from you. Through our fan experience committee, we are taking a hard look at everything we do and your feedback will play an important role in this process.

We hope you notice improvements at the next UK event you attend, but BBN First is only just beginning.  

'Til the Battle Is Won,
Mitch Barnhart


Post-practice interview with Stoops


UK began the final week of spring on Monday, holding its 12th practice.

With just five days before the Blue/White Scrimmage on April 26, head coach Mark Stoops continues to like his team's direction.

"I think we're improving, competing," Stoops said. "Had a good third-down period today. So overall, we're still grinding it out, getting better and better each day. I like where we're going."

The only exception is on the injury front.

"Just getting some guys nicked up, and that's starting to bother me," Stoops said. "Nothing major -- I don't think anything major. Just guys that are going to be nicked up and maybe miss this last part of spring practice here."

That's frustrating to Stoops for a couple reasons, first because the improving Wildcats can use all the work they can get.

"We just need it," Stoops said. "You know, we have the spring, we have time to get guys back, but you're trying to find that good balance where you're getting good work in and competing as hard as we can, with staying healthy just so we can have good practices."

Stoops also has the fans in mind when he considers the Cats' bumps and bruises because of the upcoming Spring Game.

"A lot of it's for the fans," Stoops said. "And you want to get out there and put a good product on the field and have some fun. But we need to see where we're at."

UK's already thin receiving corps has been hit hard, the latest blow coming as sophomore Jeff Badet twisted an ankle on Monday. The Cats have been without Javess Blue and Alexander Montgomery throughout the spring, while Ryan Timmons, Thaddeus Snodgrass and Joey Herrick are contending with minor injuries.

"We're banged up a little bit at wideout," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Well, we're thin. Our numbers aren't where they should be. We've got to get -- we need more scholarship wideouts, we need more walk-on wideouts. We've got help coming. ... I think we're probably a year away from getting this thing, from a numbers standpoint, where it needs to be. We were grossly thin getting here, then we had some injuries this spring that definitely haven't helped."

The depth at receiver has added a wrinkle to the ongoing competition at quarterback between Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker. Brown has had to adjust on the fly to get them the work they need.

"That's why we were out here doing some extra work with me and (graduate assistant) Tyler (Sargent) catching the ball," Brown said. "Just because we don't have enough -- the quarterbacks aren't getting enough work right now, so we've got to build it in pre-practice and post-practice stuff to make sure they're getting enough reps of the stuff we're going to run."

Brown on Monday practice



Nikki Sagermann's sixth-inning home run lifted UK to a 4-3 victory over Arkansas on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Nikki Sagermann's sixth-inning home run lifted UK to a 4-3 victory over Arkansas on Friday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Rachel Lawson has gotten to know Nikki Sagermann well over the last two years.

So well, in fact, that Lawson can usually tell when her sophomore third baseman is primed for a good night.

"If she's comfortable and she's balanced and she's seeing the ball, you know you're going to get a good performance out of her through the entire game," Lawson said. "So I felt great about her from the get-go."

But through her first two at-bats against Arkansas on Friday night, Sagermann had only a walk and a hard-hit lineout to show for her coach's belief. Still, when she stepped to the plate to lead off the sixth inning in a 3-3 game, Sagermann was confident.

"I was seeing the ball really well and she got behind in the count," Sagermann said. "So I knew she had to come with something fat and I just jumped on it."

Ahead in the count, Sagermann capitalized, driving a 2-0 offering from Arkansas starter Sydney Wright over the fence in right center and propelling No. 8 UK (37-8, 11-5 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 win.

"She's just seeing the ball really well," Lawson said. "She's locked in, she's playing good team softball and it's coming a lot easier to her right now. Nikki's a great player for us and that's what she does well. Hopefully she'll keep it going."

Sagermann sustained the momentum she built last Sunday, when she hit two home runs in UK's sweep-clinching win at Ole Miss. The second of her homers came in the 10th inning, starting a seven-run rally.

Her three home runs in two games -- and back-to-back game winners -- are making her slow start to 2014 a distant memory. At the start of SEC play, Sagermann was batting .184 with just one home run. Now, she has nine homers, it batting .270 and has RBI in 11 of her last 15 games.

"It could be seeing more pitches because at the beginning of the year it's been a while since we've seen live pitching," Sagermann said. "But honestly I don't like thinking of the beginning of the season because obviously they're not great memories. I like to remember the good ones."

Lawson still remembers the slow start, but she's glad Sagermann has it going now.

"I hope she doesn't make it a habit over the next two years," Lawson said, "but what's important is once SEC play started, she's done a great job for us. She's a gamer, she really understands pitchers, she understands the game, she understands how to be a hitter and I think she's one of the better hitters in the league."

Starting the game similarly to the way Sagermann started her season, UK fell behind Arkansas 3-0 due to some sloppy defense and quiet bats. The Cats, however, capitalized on two Razorback errors to score three runs in the bottom of the fifth.

"What I liked is we put ourselves in a hole early with our poor defensive plays, but the team was able to stay focused, stay in the game," Lawson said.

Helping the cause was sophomore Kelsey Nunley, who excelled in an unfamiliar Friday-night bullpen role. Nunley (18-4) replaced Meagan Prince to start the fourth inning, pitching four shutout innings and allowing just one hit.

"She was throwing the ball hard," Lawson said. "She had command of all of her pitches. She looked good and you could tell. Arkansas is a great hitting team. They average seven runs a game. So the fact that she could come in here and shut them out really says a lot about her performance."

Nunley's performance kept UK in it until the sixth inning, when Sagermann stepped in fairly certain something good was about to happen.

"I just can tell when I'm seeing it and when I'm not," Sagermann said.


Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's frontcourt seems to get longer and deeper by the day.

Days after Willie Cauley-Stein decided to come back for his junior season, Marcus Lee followed suit. The 6-foot-9 forward will bypass the NBA Draft and return to UK for his sophomore year, UK announced.

"I've really enjoyed my college experience and I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Lee said in a release. "Playing in the Final Four was such an amazing feeling, but I want to come back and help win that final game this year."

Lee averaged just 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds, battling an illness that dropped 15 pounds from his already slender 215-pound frame, but reminded everyone of his talent after Cauley-Stein went down with a left ankle injury in the Sweet 16. The athletic Antioch, Calif., native and McDonald's All-American had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the Elite Eight against Michigan, including four memorable put-back dunks in the first half.

On the strength of that performance and his potential, Chad Ford told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal Lee would have been drafted had he entered his name.

"I'm excited for Marcus and think he's barely scratched the surface of what he's capable of," head coach John Calipari said.  "In addition to his athleticism and the energy level he brings, the experience he gained in the NCAA Tournament this year will be immeasurable for us next season."

Lee would go on to play key minutes in the Final Four, scoring four points and blocking a shot in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.

With Lee officially in the fold, UK's post play for 2014-15 projects to be even stronger. With draft decisions from Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress -- as well as guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison -- still on the way, Coach Cal already has forwards Cauley-Stein, Lee and Derek Willis to work with. In addition, five-star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles have already signed letters of intent.


Welcome to UK Gymnastics Championship Central. Follow this page for daily all-access updates on the UK gymnastics team during its postseason competition. Videos, photos, news, commentary and more from team headquarters at the SEC Championships, NCAA Regionals and NCAA Championships, can all be found right here.

Additional updates on the Wildcats can be found on social media. Fans can follow the team on Twitter at @UKGymnastics, like them on Facebook at Facebook.com/UKGymnastics and on Instagram at Instagram.com/UKgymnastics.

Friday, April 18, 2014
NCAA Championships Recap | 7:30 p.m. CT
A complete recap, results, video and more from Audrey Harrison's performance on beam in the NCAA Championships first session can be found here. Harrison finished in a tie for 18th with a 9.800. The score is tied for sixth-highest NCAA score in UK history on the event.

In session one, Oklahoma, Georgia and LSU advanced to tomorrow's Super Six team finals. The second session of the NCAA Championships semifinals is underway, with host-Alabama, Florida, Nebraska, Penn State, UCLA and Utah.

Harrison Ties for 18th with UK's Sixth-Best Score in NCAA History | 4:40 p.m. CT

Senior Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on beam to finish tied for 18th among 45 competitors in session 1 of the national championships. The score is tied for the sixth-highest on beam at the NCAA Championships in program history. Only Jenny Hansen, who won eight national titles as a Wildcat, has recorded a higher score.

Complete results can be found here, and we caught up with Audrey after the competition, and that video can be found here or below. Audrey, the coaches and staff are heading to dinner now, before tonight's second session. We'll have much more from Birmingham towards the beginning of the second session, at 8 p.m. ET.


Harrison Scores a 9.800 | 3:15 p.m. CT

Audrey Harrison scored a 9.800 on balance beam. She currently is tied for 11th, shy of advancing to Sunday's individual finals. Through four rotations, a 9.900 is needed to place in the top four and advance.

Underway at the NCAA Championships | 1:05 p.m. CT

The teams, along with UK's Audrey Harrison, have been introduced, and we are about to get underway in the first session of the NCAA Championships. Fans can watch the full competition here on NCAA.com, or follow along with live results. Harrison will compete on beam with Georgia, in the fourth of six rotations.


NCAA Championships Meet Day is Here | 7:45 a.m. CT

The wait for Audrey Harrison and UK is almost over, the NCAA Championships begin today. The competition begins at 2 p.m. ET, and Harrison will compete in the fourth rotation on beam. Notes, stats, historical records and more are all available in the preview and meet notes on UKathletics.com. Harrison will be the first Wildcat since 2010 to compete at the national championship meet and the 10th UK gymnast in program history. She is the fourth to qualify on an individual event and the first on beam.

gym gameday NCAA semi 2014-tweet.jpg

Thursday, April 17, 2014
NCAA Championships Notes | 4:20 p.m. CT
Notes for the NCAA Championships, which include info on UK's qualifier Audrey Harrison, Kentucky's NCAA Championships history, a recap of the 2014 season and more are available here and by clicking on the first page of the notes, below.

NCAA Championships Notes

Championship Practice About to Begin | 1 p.m. CT

The practice session is wrapping up, and UK senior Audrey Harrison had a good practice on balance beam, her event at tomorrow's NCAA Championships semifinal. She will be in the same rotation as Georgia, so the practice also gave Audrey the opportunity to meet their team. We are heading to lunch now downtown, before having the rest of the afternoon and evening off.

Championship Practice About to Begin | 11:15 a.m. CT

The first NCAA Championships practice session, which includes UK senior Audrey Harrison, is about to begin here at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham. It is familiar territory for Harrison and UK coaches and staff, after the SEC Championships were held in the same venue nearly a month ago.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014
NCAA Banquet | 8:50 p.m. CT
We just returned to the hotel after a great banquet in downtown Birmingham with the rest of the teams at this year's championships. The dinner had a great view of the city, and we were able to enjoy the end of a beautiful day outside, mingling with everyone before dinner. After dinner, American Idol winner Taylor Hicks, a Birmingham native, performed. It was a great event to kick off a fun next few days here with the nation's best collegiate gymnasts.


Off to Birmingham | 11:45 a.m. ET

We are officially on the road to Birmingham, Ala., for the 2014 NCAA Gymnastics Championships. The travel party includes senior Audrey Harrison, head coach Tim Garrison, assistant coach Mary McDaniel, trainer Jake Smith and myself, Charlie Healy, the team's media relations director. The drive is expected to take about six and a half hours, and upon arrival in Birmingham, we will all go to the NCAA Championship banquet, with the other teams and individuals competing this weekend. Assistant coach Chuck Dickerson, along with many of Audrey's teammates, will join us on Friday.

Barker_FacebookTwitter1.jpg Drew Barker was only a junior in high school, but he had a pretty good idea how the recruiting process would play out.

Even though the Burlington, Ky., native was listening to his home state school's pitch from new head coach Mark Stoops, Barker figured he would end up elsewhere.

On April 13, 2013, Barker reached a "turning point."

"I remember going into the spring game last year and I was pretty sure South Carolina was my leader and Tennessee and Kentucky were kind of behind," Barker said. "And then I went to the spring game and I saw over 50,000 people there and just the atmosphere."

The rest, as they say, is history.

Less than a month after his visit for the annual Blue/White Spring Game -- attended by a record 50,831 fans -- Barker announced his commitment. Kentucky had its prized quarterback prospect and the momentum Stoops and his staff were building with their work on the class of 2014 went from snowball to avalanche.

"It was really eye-opening to me and all the recruits that were there because I know the majority of the recruits that were there ended up committing to us," Barker said. "So I think that had a big impact on not only myself, but everybody else that went."

Count Mikel Horton in that group as well.

The four-star running back out of West Chester, Ohio, was on the verge of committing and coming to the spring game pushed him over the edge. He gave his pledge exactly a week later.

"The atmosphere was ridiculous," Horton said. "Having that amount of fans there and especially there with my family and friends to show them that this is where I'm going to be playing and this is where I'm going to be scoring my touchdowns and getting long runs and helping out the team. It was a very humbling, life-changing experience for me as far as football. It made me appreciate it more."

For Horton, there was no substitute for getting a sneak preview of game day in Commonwealth Stadium.

"Oh man, just the college atmosphere," Horton said. "The fireworks, the screaming and the hitting and everything. I was shocked and wanted to be a part of that so much."

Dorian Hendrix had a unique perspective on the day of the spring game. Having committed three weeks prior, the linebacker from Huber Heights, Ohio, was playing recruiter, trying to convince his fellow visitors to join him at UK.

"That was actually a really important day," Hendrix said. "There were a lot of guys there who are committed to us now who weren't committed at the time. They came and they saw that same energy, that same excitement and that made them want to be a part of this whole thing. I talked to some guys and got them on board and that was a good day for UK."

In the two months after the spring game, Stoops secured 12 new commitments. All told, 20 of the 28 players who eventually signed with Kentucky attended the spring game.

"Just everything from the Cat Walk to being on the field before the game, we were sitting there, everybody's talking, like, 'Man, this is awesome,' " Barker said. "If they're doing this coming off a 2-10 season, imagine if we all come here and get a recruiting class to join everybody else who is here and start winning, imagine the support that would then come.' We were just talking about that and we thought it would be really big and that was definitely a big turning point for myself and my recruitment."

A year later, Barker, Horton and Hendrix will again be at the spring game on April 26 at 3:30 p.m. ET, but this time as players. The trio is among seven midyear enrollees who arrived on campus in January.

"I'm really looking forward to actually being on the field as a player with that kind of atmosphere," Barker said. "So it's definitely going to be awesome and I'm just blessed to have the opportunity to come in here early and have that opportunity to get on there before an actual game."

Due to construction, Commonwealth's capacity will be reduced to around 40,000, meaning last year's record attendance won't be threatened and UK is unlikely to rank in the top six nationally in attendance again. Nonetheless, a packed house would be a big deal for the players who will be uniform and those who could be a year from now.

"It's huge," Hendrix said. "It's huge for recruitment. It's huge for us. It lets us know that this community and this school are supporting us. It's huge for recruitment. You got guys coming from down south and everywhere across the country coming to see this game and they see 40,000 in the stands, it's important."

Horton, asked of the impact fans can have by attending the spring game, had an even more direct message for the Big Blue Nation.

"Why not get a ticket?" Horton said. "I'm not going to boast on UK. I'm not going to tell people something that they've heard and it has not changed, but we're a different team. And that's coming from my soul. That's coming from deep in and I wouldn't lie to the fans. We're a different team. The mentality, the physicality here is totally different.

"For this spring game, you need to get a ticket because you're going to see something different."

Tickets for UK's annual Blue/White Spring Game are available now online at Ticketmaster.com, by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000 and in person at Ticketmaster outlets in Kentucky. Tickets are free, but there is a minimal service charge attached.

By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Part one

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.

Below is part two. You can read part one here.

4. Humble pie at LSU

After losing at North Carolina, Kentucky reeled off eight wins in nine games, rising to No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25. A trip to Baton Rouge, La., would bring the team and its fans crashing back to earth.

Led by Johnny O'Bryant's 29 points - on 12-of-20 shooting -- and nine rebounds, the Tigers flat-out dismantled the Cats in nearly every aspect of the game. LSU outshot UK 50.8 to 43.8 percent; the Tigers had 11 turnovers to UK's 13; LSU had 15 assists to UK's eight; LSU had 11 steals to UK's six; and the Tigers recorded 11 blocks to UK's four.

Freshman stud Jordan Mickey terrorized the Cats with his athleticism, scoring 14 points to go along with six rebounds and five blocks, and Christian County product Anthony Hickey had his way at the point guard spot, dishing out six dimes versus zero turnovers.

The Tigers maintained a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half, stretching the lead to as many as 15 points on two occasions. Only a late-game letup by the Tigers allowed UK to make the final score respectable to those who didn't watch the carnage.

"We weren't ready for the physical part of the game," Calipari said after the 87-82 loss. "We weren't ready for the energy of the game and the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball from the beginning of the game to the end. That is why they won the game."

Even though clearly upset with his team, Coach Cal wanted everyone to know that his squad was not finished growing.

"This team is in progress; it is all about the process," Cal said.  "The process we are at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it tonight."

But panic was beginning to set in among the fan base that the disappointing 2012-13 season was about to repeat itself.

5. Spiraling out of control

After the uninspiring effort at LSU, the Wildcats won seven-of-eight games, including solid wins against a good Ole Miss team, an impressive road victory over Missouri and the overtime triumph against LSU. All appeared to be defining moments - at the very least, turning points - in the season, but as is often the case with a team chock full of rookies, the good times didn't last.

Arkansas paid a visit to Rupp Arena on Feb. 27 and showed the Cats what it means to play defense, as the Razorbacks held UK to 26 made field goals on 76 shots (34.2 percent). Additionally, the Hogs forced 18 UK turnovers, and while committing 20 miscues themselves, Arkansas capitalized on the Cats' mistakes by outscoring UK 21-17 in points off turnovers.

The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In victory, Arkansas connected on 16-16 free throws, while the Cats struggled from the stripe making only 12-22 attempts. Midway through the first half, as if to affirm its terrible shooting night, UK missed eight consecutive shots, allowing the Razorbacks to build an-11 point lead.

UK battled back, though, and the tightly contested contest, which went into overtime, saw the Cats lead 57-52 with 4:43 left in regulation. But from that point forward, including the overtime period, the Hogs outscored the Cats 19-10 on their way to a 71-67 Rupp Arena win (Arkansas' first victory in Rupp since February of 1994).

"They beat us to loose balls," Coach Cal lamented after the game. "We missed 10 one-foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered. We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts (and) not executing. At one point I sat down and I would not speak to them. What are we running? 'I already told you in the timeout.'"

Kentucky's trip to South Carolina a few days later revealed a Big Blue ship quickly taking on water.

The Gamecocks came into the game sporting a 10-18 record, reason enough for Kentucky fans to believe their Cats would right the seemingly sinking ship, thwarting disaster. But UK did not respond to the bump and grind play of Carolina, instead the Wildcats sunk deeper into the abyss by once again failing to find the net with anything resembling consistency.

Making only 26.9 percent of its shots from the floor during a physical contest that was so frustrating that the Cats' coach was tossed from the ballgame, UK fell behind 51-39 with 10:23 remaining.

UK's huge 46-28 rebounding advantage could not offset the unfortunate shooting night the Wildcats experienced, and after a Randle 3-point play made the score 68-67 Carolina with 21 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks made their free throws and pulled out an improbably 72-67 shocker.

In coming back from 16 points down with 10:11 remaining, the Wildcats displayed a willingness to battle. But putting themselves in that position in the first place was Cal's cause for concern.

"After the game I told them how proud I was that they fought and got back in the game and gave themselves a chance to win," Calipari said. "But I said, 'You have to play the whole game that way.' Now, what happened early: The game was called like the old way. It was very physical -- body-checking, hip-checking -- and we thought that was an excuse to miss shots. You've got to know how the game is being called and play that way."

The setback dropped the preseason No. 1 team in the land to No. 25 in the AP poll. And yet, Aaron Harrison said after the game that Kentucky would still write "a great story."

As well all know now, that was the defining quote of the season. It seemed so unlikely at the time, but it somehow came true.

6. Starting fresh

After the late-season losses to Arkansas, South Carolina and a disastrous game in Gainesville, Fla., against Florida, Kentucky fans were not expecting much good to come out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats were in a historic free-fall, certain to land with a disappointing thud.

But running onto the Georgia Dome floor from the locker room, the Wildcats possessed a bounce in their step unseen for at least a couple of months. Was it "The Tweak" Coach Cal had talked about earlier that week? Was it just the fresh start of a new season?

Whatever the case, the energy the players exuded was palpable, as the team seemed bound together by an electrified tether.

The free-flowing Wildcat mojo was replaced with an "uh oh" once the game began, as the Tigers shot out to a 22-14 lead after seven minutes of action. This game, though, would be the beginning of something special as the Cats rode the hot hand of Young and his 17 first-half points to a 28-10 run, eventually taking a 42-32 halftime lead.

The second half, though, would test the Cats -- again.

Cutting the lead to 52-49 on an Andre Stringer layup with 11:56 left in the game, LSU was poised to break the Cats' back once again. But this time, UK responded in rousing fashion.

Over the last 12 minutes of the contest, Kentucky's freshman crushed the Tigers 35-18 on its way to a resounding, confidence-building 85-67 victory.

The Cats, at least for one game, put it all together, as Andrew Harrison dished eight assists (thanks to the tweak, which Coach Cal said was to encourage UK's point guard to look to pass more often), Randle posted a double-double with 17 points and 16 boards, and Young led the squad with 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists.

"We've been through adversity all season," Randle said after the game. "It was kind of time for us to grow up, man up and just fight through that adversity."

Apparently simplifying the UK offense, Cal seemingly took the pressure off of his players.

"We didn't run as many plays because we had to get easy baskets," Young said. "(We're) just playing basketball, something we should have been doing for a while, and something we're going to do from here on out."

The Cats had the set the stage for a postseason to remember.

Check back next for the final defining moments of the 2013-14 season.

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
  • Griffin: What's the name of the song that this video starts playing when describing Cal getting ejected and Aaron talking about read more
  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
  • Sandy Spears: I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything read more
  • BJ Rassam: The Cats came so close to winning another NCAA basketball championship. read more
  • chattyone: Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, read more
  • clint bailes: Such a great season! You guys fought hard til the end. Loved watchin the season! Can't wait til next season. read more
  • Andrea Boyd: you guys are AMAZING! as individuals and as a team. thank you for your tremendous playing and work and attitudes. read more
  • laura n: What an honor and privledge to watch all of you grow into incredible young men. Never enjoyed a season more. read more
  • Amy Carnes: Very proud of you cats you have really grow as a team .You proved all the doubters wrong. And have read more