Kentucky was facing off against Kansas in the opener of the 2014 NCAA Louisville Regional.
With a potential matchup against a lefty-laden Louisville lineup in the second round and a right-handed dominant Kansas squad, UK head coach Gary Henderson turned to his sophomore standout righty, Kyle Cody, to make his first NCAA Tournament start.
Henderson and the Wildcats had the utmost confidence in Cody, who just nine days earlier had handcuffed the Southeastern Conference Champion Florida Gators to two runs over 5.1 innings in a win in the SEC Tournament.
Things did not go the way Cody pictured them when he laid down to go to sleep the night before.
One of the top arms in college baseball, Cody was rated as the seventh-best sophomore in the nation in the preseason by Baseball America. He certainly had the stuff, makeup and experience to fire a gem and set up the Wildcats for a winner's bracket matchup.
After a seven-pitch walk to open the game, Cody misfired on his throw to first base on a sacrifice bunt attempt, scoring a run and putting himself in an early jam. An RBI sacrifice bunt scored the second run and an RBI double put the Wildcats in a 3-0 hole. Henderson turned to the bullpen in the must-win situation, ending his outing.
"That motivated me more in summer ball. It helped me get going up there," Cody said. "I feel like that has just carried on into this year. All the success I had up there (in summer ball), that feeling has just carried on as I came back here. Just made me want to become a better player and made me look forward to this year even more. I just can't wait to get back on the mound and try to get back to that spot. And prove that we can win a regional and move on."
The memory of suffering the loss in the NCAA Tournament lidlifter was not something Cody could easily erase. He went to work at it however, venturing to the prestigious Cape Cod League for a summer baseball experience that helped him erase the memories of the regional start.
Cody had a great summer, earning the starting pitching honor for the Western Division in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, with his UK teammate Kyle Barrett starting in centerfield for the Eastern Division.
A 6-foot-7, 245-pounder, Cody finished his summer with a 2.72 ERA, tossing 36.1 innings with just 11 walks and 34 strikeouts. He ranked eighth in strikeouts and 10th in ERA in the CCBL.
"It helped me a lot to face the talented hitters that you face in the Cape," Cody said. "Facing really good hitters and being able to throw to all types of hitters. It wouldn't really help me if I went somewhere in the summer and didn't face real competition. It really helped me a lot because it allowed me to work on my off-speed pitches and secondary stuff, which got a whole lot better up there. The coaching was phenomenal. Jim Lawler, my pitching coach, was really good. He helped me with some mechanical things and some mental things and just calmed me down a lot. It was an overall good experience for me this summer."
Cody, who has a 3.18 ERA in his two-year SEC career, enters his junior season ranked in the preseason as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. He is also a Baseball America third-team preseason All-America selection.
"I think there's two things: one, he has to stay healthy and two is get aggressive," Henderson detailed. "You know, ownership, maturity, responsibility to daily performance. He's done a really good job of maturing as an individual. He works really hard, he cares. He's improved his body, he's a lot stronger, he's healthy right now, I think. He's a pivotal part of the team, there's no question about that. He's a guy who's in a gene pool, a skill level that's capable of going out and winning baseball games. Maybe not by himself but, boy, [he's capable of] putting you in a good position through seven innings. He's a talented kid."
Cody's relationship with Henderson has also grown over three years and the duo now has a unique trust and reliance on each other.
"(Henderson) has a lot more trust in me, now that I've been here for three years," Cody said. "My freshman year he was always dialed in to tell me what to do, and giving me clues, and now he is looking towards me to tell him what is going on. I feel like he has more trust in me and I've learned a lot from him in return. Our communication is really good and we work really well together."
Not only will Cody be expected to be a physical leader of the deep UK pitching staff, he will be tasked in a leadership role.
"That is a different spot for me right now compared to last year," Cody said. "I wasn't looked at as a leader last year because there were some guys ahead of me and I was still trying to learn. Now that most of them are gone it is a little different when some younger guys ask questions about what is going to happen or what happens next. It's little different but I kind of enjoy it. It gives you a good feeling to help out someone younger who is trying to get to where I'm at right now. It just gives me a good feeling about what the future holds for them and how it can only help us and the program."
Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 77-43 win over South Carolina on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
His team might be unbeaten and top-ranked, but that's not stopping John Calipari from pushing every button he can think of to get the most out of the Wildcats.
Even if it means changing long-standing coaching habits.
"Normal case, we back up off practice this time of the year," Calipari said. "Well, we went back Thursday to an hour of scrimmage and then they got after each other and I even scrimmaged them 15 minutes Friday, which I never do. "
By its historically high standards, Kentucky had lost a bit of an edge in recent weeks, especially on defense. Opponents had scored a point per possession in the previous four games entering a rematch with South Carolina after managing to do so just twice in the season's first 20 games.
"We got a good group of players that need to go after - they don't want to do drills," Calipari said. "They look at me and say, 'Stop the drills, let's play.' "
Of course, the Cats had held on to their unbeaten record in the process, but Coach Cal was out to recapture that edge.
"They argue, fight, foul, grab, and whoever loses has to run," Calipari said. "If I forget to tell them to run, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, White's got to run.' And then I got to make them run and then we--so they don't--if they beat somebody they're making that other team run. They're really competitive."
So competitive, in fact, that they can't even agree which group has the upper hand.
"Well, my squad hasn't been losing as much," Dakari Johnson said, laughing.
"We usually win - I'm just joking," Andrew Harrison said. "They're fun matchups. You have to compete or you're going to lose. No one wants to lose."
South Carolina saw that mentality up close and in person on Saturday in Rupp Arena.
UK scored the first basket of the game 17 seconds in and never looked back. The Cats (25-0, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) were dominant on both ends of the floor in a 77-43 victory. UK held South Carolina (12-12, 3-9 SEC) to 23.6-percent shooting and 0.694 points per possession and shot 50 percent from the field.
"We played well," Calipari said. "Offensively we were really good, which created a pretty big gap. But I thought we defended, we played with great energy, we needed to play a game like this."
Perhaps most impressively, UK outrebounded South Carolina, 45-21, just three weeks removed from the Gamecocks winning the battle on the glass against the Cats, 40-28. Kentucky had just three offensive rebounds in that first matchup, but 15 this time to South Carolina's nine defensive rebounds.
Those scrimmages had something to do with that.
"During practices we play physical against each other," said Johnson, who had 10 points and 13 rebounds. "We started scrimmaging against each other again. So we're really going at each other. I think it brought our competitiveness back out."
The competitiveness back, the Cats regained the form of some of their earlier dominant performances and tied the school record for the best start in school history set in 1953-54. Taking a break from his laser-like focus on improvement and best positioning his team for the postseason, Coach Cal talked briefly to his team about the achievement.
"We're all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein) and you played an unbelievable schedule," Calipari said. "One of the best nonconference schedules in the country and you're one of the best leagues in the country."
Cauley-Stein, who had a team-high 14 points to go with seven rebounds, fully understands the magnitude of what he and his teammates have done.
"It's just like special, for real," he said. "We don't really think about it as a whole, you just kind of take it day by day, work on stuff that you did wrong, and I mean the outcome is going to be the outcome, like you just prepare for it. But, like, I think it's just special to me because I came from one of the worst teams on Kentucky's history to now one of the top teams on Kentucky's history. I mean, it's just kind of cool to see the evolution of what was going on."
The evolution, however, isn't over.
"We can do something bigger," Cauley-Stein said. "We have the chance to do something way bigger than just tying it."
The last time Kentucky faced Tennessee, UK sophomore Makayla Epps led the way in scoring for both teams, but failed to convert one of Kentucky's several potential game-winning field goal attempts as time expired.
As the Wildcats (16-5, 5-3 SEC) prepare for Sunday's matchup in Knoxville almost two weeks later, the narrative is slightly different.
Once again, Epps is fresh off a career night in which she not only led all scorers, but also found the ball in her hands in the contest's closing seconds. This time, however, with the game on the line, she would not be denied the victory.
"I'm pretty sure after last night, a lot of teams are going to key in on me more, if they weren't already," said Epps. "Last night's performance was crazy."
On Thursday, Epps scored a career-high 42 points in Kentucky's 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13 Mississippi State. Epps sank the game-winning jumper with 0.6 seconds remaining, converting 15 of UK's 18 points in extra time.
"Literally, maybe 100 times a game, (head coach Matthew Mitchell) will say, 'They can't guard you, Epps. They can't guard you, Epps. When are you going to understand they can't guard you?'" Epps said. "Sometimes when I'm scoring in sync, I'm like, 'Maybe Coach is right, they can't guard me.'"
Since losing to Tennessee 73-72 at Memorial Coliseum on January 29, No. 10 Kentucky has rattled off three straight wins over No. 21 Georgia, Vanderbilt, and No. 13 MSU. Epps leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring, with 17.3 points per game in league play.
"I'm a small-town kid from Marion County, Kentucky. Nobody expects people like me, from small places, to do anything big." said Epps. "I'm just here and happy to play."
The last time Mitchell's Wildcats visited Thompson-Boling Arena, UK emerged victorious for the first time in school history. The sixth-ranked Lady Vols, winners of eight national championships since 1987, lead the all-time series 51-10.
"Tough game ahead on Sunday," Mitchell said. "It'll be tough. It'll be a big crowd and not many will be for us. I'll be happy for (last year's road victory) to be a benefit, but it won't be something where I'm saying, 'We won last year, so mark it down this year.' That's not my approach."
The Cats will travel to Tennessee (21-3, 11-0 SEC) Sunday for a 3 p.m. nationally televised matchup on ESPN2.
"As it stands now, Tennessee is a No. 1 seed, so they're a great team and it was a tough game here," said Mitchell. "A lot of work between now and Sunday afternoon at 3. We need to put our nose to the grindstone and see if we can go down there and compete."
Peevy's initial reaction was to literally search the plane for Lyles, who had inspired continual speculation in recent weeks with an illness that had kept him out of action since Jan. 29.
"And when he did that, I knew 'Uh-oh. This is gonna be absolutely outrageous,' " Calipari said. "And we had people camped out at the hotel. We had people camped out as we got off the bus."
Once the confusion was overcome, the tweet went out. More than 2,000 retweets and a #WhereIsTrey hashtag later, Coach Cal had a national story on his hands.
"That blew up kinda big," said Lyles, who even threw up the hood on his sweatshirt upon arrival in Louisiana to keep the ruse alive. "My mentions on Twitter wouldn't go away, so a lot of people were interested in it, getting into it. I thought it was funny. Coach was trying to have a nice little joke going there. I thought it was pretty funny. Coach had a good sense of humor with that and he played it out well."
For once, conversation turned away from top-ranked UK's pursuit of perfection. For Calipari, it was mission accomplished.
"I was on a plane and I'm thinking, 'Our fans are going nutty,' " Calipari said. " 'They got to loosen up a little bit. This isn't life or death. It's not March.' "
The Big Blue Nation was his primary target audience, but #WhereIsTrey also served to remind Calipari's team that it's still the regular season.
"I wanted them to understand, and I keep telling them, 'What's the worst?' " Calipari said. "I'll say it this time: We lose this game we're 22-1, 23, whatever it is. What's it matter? Just go play. Let's try to get better."
UK, of course, would win anyway by overcoming a late six-point deficit at LSU. With the victory, the Cats carry a 24-0 (11-0 Southeastern Conference) record into a rematch with South Carolina (12-11, 3-8 SEC) at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday.
Lyles, of course, will be available again after returning to score four points and grab three rebounds in 18 minutes at LSU.
"I just had strep throat, wasn't feeling good for a few days," said Lyles, who is "feeling 100 percent." "Coach and them just wanted to keep me away from the guys so they wouldn't come down with anything."
In Lyles' absence, UK was outrebounded twice in three outings after losing the rebounding battle in just three of 19 games previously. Devin Booker sees Lyles helping to change that.
"Rebounding," Booker said. "He brings that to the team every time. He attacks the offensive glass and defensive rebounds. He's like a 6(-foot-)10 3-man. That helps a lot."
Lyles also adds depth, though that also requires an adjustment on the part of his teammates.
"Guys got to be willing to sacrifice three minutes or two minutes," Calipari said. "There are times where we got to go at him, which may take a shot away from some other guys, but what does it matter? At the end of the day, either you can play or you can't play. Reality. Either you're an efficient player or you're not. They don't need to see you for 40 minutes. That's all ego stuff."
Considering they've been checking their egos all season, that shouldn't be much of a problem.
Kentucky begins life after AJ Reed on Friday at 12 p.m. vs. Ball State (UK Athletics)
The 2014 season for the Kentucky baseball team was a historic one.
Not only did the Wildcats advance to their eighth all-time NCAA Tournament, but folks in Lexington and around the country were treated to one of the most extraordinary accomplishments in the sport.
Two-way star AJ Reed swept the national player of the year awards while pacing the nation's most explosive offense. UK led all major conference schools in runs scored while Reed powered a NCAA-best 23 homers, also leading the Southeastern Conference in pitching wins, in one of the most remarkable individual seasons in college baseball history.
"You don't replace AJ with one guy," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And clearly we are going to have a different team offensively. You know we were old and strong last year. We had several kids who were physical. We will have a different club. You can win a lot of different ways in baseball which is one of the great things about it. It is pretty safe to say that we are not going to lead the league in home runs or have the home run leader in the program this year and that's fine."
The 2015 UK roster will look quite different than the physical lineup employed a year ago. Gone are Reed and fellow sluggers Austin Cousino, Max Kuhn and Micheal Thomas. UK will be built through speed, defense and pitching depth in Henderson's seventh season at the helm - with his previous six years the most successful in program history.
"Well we're going to run well," Henderson said. "I don't know how that's going to translate into stolen bases yet but we're going to have a group of people they can get from home to first quickly."
Kentucky returns first-team All-SEC outfielder Ka'ai Tom, who narrowly missed the league batting crown in conference play with a .373 average. In addition, UK boasts the return of 2013 Freshman All-SEC selections Kyle Barrett and Greg Fettes, and 2014 Freshman All-SEC second baseman JaVon Shelby.
UK's lineup will be anchored by fifth-year senior Thomas Bernal, who will transition to third base to accommodate freshman first baseman Evan White. Bernal, who hit .475 on SEC Friday nights last year, is a preseason All-SEC selection at the hot corner by Perfect Game.
On the mound, UK's history of talented arms continues as junior right-hander Kyle Cody enters the season as the 17th-best prospect available for the 2015 MLB Draft. A 6-foot-7, 245-pound product of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Cody is coming off an all-star summer in the prestigious Cape Cod League. UK also returns southpaw Dylan Dwyer and right-hander Andrew Nelson, a duo that helped fill UK's weekend rotation a year ago. UK will be boosted by junior transfer Dustin Beggs, who has been tabbed to make UK's opening-day start.
"I love the beginning of the season every year and our kids do as well," Henderson said. "I'm really fortunate for the people that I get to work with on a daily basis. We're really eager to get this thing started."
Makayla Epps scored 42 points, including the buzzer beater, in UK's 92-90 win over Mississippi State in double overtime. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
From the final play to the whole 50-minute game to her 42-point performance in it, Makayla Epps didn't need to say much more to describe what had just happened.
"Crazy," Epps said. "Complete craziness."
Epps, however, was talking only about the final possession that led to the buzzer-beating shot she used to send No. 10 Kentucky (19-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference) to a thrilling 92-90 double-overtime win over No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-4, 8-4 SEC).
The play started when the Wildcats took possession following a Breanna Richardson basket with 35 seconds left. Matthew Mitchell didn't call timeout, instead opting to tell Epps to run the clock down and attack as the shot clock neared zero.
"I just thought it was kind of silly to have it in anybody else's hands but hers there at the end, no matter if four were guarding her," Mitchell said.
Epps would get a good first look, but missed a short jumper. Somehow, Jelleah Sidney came away with the offensive rebound in a mad scrum as the clock reached five seconds remaining.
"I feel like all 12 of my teammates crashed the glass on that one," Epps said.
"I can't wait to watch it again," Mitchell said. "It was a really incredible play."
From there, Sidney could do little else but fire the ball back into the fray.
"Jelleah Sidney, sometimes she has the tendency to throw the ball really hard at us," Epps said. "And she threw it really hard and it was bouncing off faces and noses and ears. And then I looked up and it was right there. 'Go get it, Epps!' "
Epps got it, and put the ball on the glass and through the basket with 0.6 seconds on the clock.
"And then Epps, we'd missed so many, and that one was as tough as any one that you'll ever shoot and we make that one," Mitchell said. "So go figure. Who knows? I can't figure all this stuff out. I don't know how we're winning all these games."
Epps has a lot to do with it, especially on this night.
Her buzzer beater brought her career high in scoring to 42 points, just one point shy of the school-record 43 Jennifer O'Neill scored in five overtimes against Baylor last season. She made 18-of-30 field goals and added six rebounds and five assists for good measure to outduel Bulldog star Victoria Vivians, who had 39 points of her own.
"Especially at the level we're at in the SEC, that's not common," Epps said. "That's not something you see every month or every week or (anything) like that."
With Epps leading the way - including scoring UK's final eight points in double overtime - the Cats weathered multiple furious Mississippi State rallies. Kentucky built and lost double-digit leads on four different occasions and the Bulldogs tied the game in the final seconds of regulation on a basket by Moran William.
"I was glad she scored 42 and not 39," Mitchell said. "We needed those extra three points that she had. So that was incredible. We didn't look like we could win any other way tonight."
Epps is now seven games into her run as UK's full-time point guard in place of the injured Janee Thompson. She's now averaging 21 points in those games and the Cats have won five of them, two against ranked opponents.
"I'm hoping that after every game she's proud of me and that she's happy I'm out here handling my business as she would if she was out there with us," Epps said. "At the end of the day, it's all for Janee. Regardless if I'm playing, Bria's (Goss) playing good, the team's playing good, in the back of our minds we're all thinking about Janee."
Just like all baseball-playing youth growing up in Hawaii, Kentucky junior outfielder Ka'ai Tom admired the exploits of MLB star outfielder Shane Victorino.
And for good reason.
Victorino has carved out a distinguished big league career, winning the 2013 World Series title with the Boston Red Sox.
"It's pretty big knowing how successful he has been, especially when he went to the World Series a few years in a row with the Phillies," Tom said about Victorino. "Being from Hawaii just shows that I can do it as well. He is a big example to all players from Hawaii, not just me in general, that even though we may be far away from the mainland we can still have the same opportunities."
Tom, a native of Kaneohe, Hawaii, is a very similar player to Victorino. A 5-foot-9 hitter with surprising pop for his size and great wheels, Tom is an above-average defender in the outfield and has the ability to impact the game with a line-drive approach at the plate.
A junior left-handed hitter, Tom earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in his debut season with the Wildcats in 2014. He narrowly missed the SEC batting crown for league games, batting .373 in conference play with 21 RBI.
Overall, Tom hit .328 as a sophomore, with 13 doubles, three homers, 41 RBI and 14 steals.
"Last year I was still transitioning in from junior college," Tom said. "I was still learning how to play baseball. There was a lot of knowledge I needed about how I could be better by hitting to all fields. Being a part of that club we had last year, (Austin) Cousino, (Max) Kuhn, MT (Micheal Thomas) and AJ (Reed), we had a lot of pop. Just following that and having them as mentors really helped me throughout the season."
Tom showed a disciplined approach and a discerning eye at the plate, sporting a .414 on-base percentage and 22-18 walk-strikeout ratio.
"I always like to be fastball aggressive," Tom said. "If there is a pitch early in the count that is in the zone I like to swing. I like to clear my mind in between at-bats and know what the pitcher is doing before I get into the box. Having a good mindset helps me generate good at-bats."
A year after hitting before and behind Reed in the lineup as he swept every national player of the year award, Tom will face a different challenge in 2015.
"This year, we have a lot of team speed," Tom said. "We can utilize the hit-and-runs. We can execute on the bunts. We can put a lot more pressure on the pitching staff. Even though it is great to have the home run hitting team we had. But this year, we have some real speed. We have Kyle Barrett, Connor Heady and me, a few guys with great speed. Having a different team than last year can really put pressure on the pitching staff."
Now as a proven performer in the league's best conference, Tom is seeking to improve upon a stellar season.
Makayla Epps stepped into a full-time role as Kentucky's point guard in mid-January.
At the time - as Epps replaced injured junior Janee Thompson - Matthew Mitchell said she could develop into one of the best point guards in the Southeastern Conference.
Almost exactly a month later, that's exactly what's happened.
"I think Epps is really, really good," Mitchell said. "And so when you have a point guard that's near the top of the league, that helps everybody. That helps everybody, especially a scoring point guard."
In six games since Thompson went down, Epps is averaging 17.5 points , 4.7 rebounds and three assists. She has led No. 10 UK (18-5, 7-3 SEC) to wins in four of the games, including an 82-68 win over Vanderbilt on Sunday in which she posted 18 points.
Entering a tough Thursday matchup with No. 13/15 Mississippi State (23-3, 8-3 SEC), Epps is getting better by the day.
"I think when you're a player like Makayla, it's just constant attention to detail, which will lead to continuous improvement," Mitchell said.
For Epps, the little things go well beyond the physical. The sophomore who has played four positions is figuring out the intricacies that accompany the role she's settled into.
"Makayla Epps is starting to go and grab people off the floor and get people in the huddle like a point guard needs to," Mitchell said. "And I really complimented her on that yesterday."
Epps earned praise again from Mitchell during a defensive drill in practice on Tuesday. He said she was "working as hard as a human being could work.
"If she'll do that, it'll be hard to find a better player than her around because she can do everything that you need her to do to be a good player offensively and defensively," Mitchell said.
Mitchell, however, doesn't want Epps to settle for merely being good. He believes she has too much natural talent for that.
"She's one of these players that when she has her mind right and mindset doing the little things, she's a fantastic player," Mitchell said. "So once you get to that point, you just have to learn the mental discipline to keep striving for your best. And that's what, to me, what separates the good ones from the great ones."
No matter what she does, Mitchell sees a bright future for Epps in both the short and long term. If she accepts the challenge to make the small changes she's starting to make permanent, the sky is the limit.
"Let's just say if she just incrementally better just from being here and through experience, it'd be hard to find a lot better player than her," Mitchell said. "She'll be fine and she can help us win some games. But if she'll really do what we're asking her to do, she'll be a 10-year pro and be one of the best players that's ever played here."
Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 116, Oklahoma City Thunder: 113 After falling to the Thunder 102-91 in New Orleans on February 4, the Pels were seeking revenge when they traveled to the Sooner State a short two days later. Not only did Davis pour in 41 points and grab 10 rebounds in the rematch, but the 6-foot-10 former collegiate national player of the year nailed his first 3-point field goal of the season, by way of a game-winning 30-foot double-clutch jumper over Kevin Durant at the buzzer.
Not a bad day for Anthony Davis:
• Makes his 1st 3-pt FG of season
• Hits 1st career buzzer-beater
• Beats Thunder pic.twitter.com/GwRnwzVSMw
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (29-23) Over three games in the first week of February, Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 6.0 assists and 5.3 rebounds per contest. Though the Suns dropped two straight to the Memphis Grizzlies and Portland Trail Blazers, respectively, Phoenix ended the week on a high note with a 100-93 victory over the Utah Jazz.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (17-32) Despite three consecutive losses by the woeful Kings, Cousins still managed to produce 25.3 PPG and 10.7 RPG weekly averages. The Mobile, Ala. native also made his mark on the defensive end of the floor, averaging 2.7 blocks (1.0 greater than his season average) through the week's three contests. Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (27-24) Besides his memorable 41-point, 10-rebound performance in his second game with OKC in one week, Davis recorded 29 points and 13 rebounds in NOLA's streak-snapping win over the Atlanta Hawks, as well as 23 points and eight rebounds in the loss to the Thunder. However, in the Pelicans' 107-72 loss to the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, Davis sprained his shoulder during the fall from a successful slam dunk. "The Brow's" injury status is day-to-day.
Enes Kanter | #0 C | Utah Jazz (18-33) Kanter recorded two double-doubles in four starting efforts for the youthful Utah Jazz. Scoring at least 16 points in every game but one, the 22-year-old Turkish big man also averaged 9.0 RPG on the week. The Jazz lost three straight before emerging triumphant over Cousins' Kings on February 7.
Brandon Knight | #11 PG | Milwaukee Bucks (28-23) After missing February 2 with a sore quadriceps muscle, Knight nearly completed his first career triple-double, with 24 points (on 4 of 7 shooting from downtown and 6 of 6 from the free throw stripe), eight assists and seven rebounds in a 113-105 win over the Los Angeles Lakers two days later. Following a 12-point, 11-assist performance in a Feb. 6 defeat at the hands of the Houston Rockets, Knight bounced back with 26 points in the Bucks' 96-93 victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (32-20) Through four games last week, Wall averaged 18.0 PPG and 9.8 APG, despite only one Washington win. Wall recorded two double-doubles (16 points, 10 assists and 15 points, 13 assists), and flirted with a triple-double (24 points, nine assists, seven rebounds). After three straight losses, the Wiz defeated the Brooklyn Nets 114-77 on February 7.
As Kentucky prepared for its 2014 season, there was one unanswered question that kept coming up in the preseason.
Who would replace UK record-setting reliever Trevor Gott at the back end of a ballgame?
UK had some solid options, including right-handed split-finger change-up artist Zach Strecker, power righties Zack Brown, Kyle Cody and Spencer Jack, and strike-throwing lefty Logan Salow.
Replacing Gott as UK's go-to reliever would be no easy task. Gott had shattered UK's season record in saves twice in his three-year career, also rewriting the career saves mark.
While UK never operated with a designated closer in 2014 the way it did when Gott was throwing bullets out of the bullpen, Cody, Jack and Salow formed a nice trio of relief aces.
A native of Los Angeles, Jack opened his career with nine consecutive outings that were scoreless and worked 14.1 straight innings to finish his junior season without allowing an earned run.
Overall, Jack had a 4-1 record, a 1.16 ERA and four saves in a team-leading 26 games. The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder worked 38.2 innings, allowing just 28 hits and eight walks, striking out 31.
Jack started his collegiate career in 2012 for Jacksonville University, before transferring to Glendale Community College for his sophomore season, owning a 2.16 ERA in 16 games.
Despite showcasing his strike-throwing, competitive demeanor, Jack was not satisfied with his first few outings. After working 1.1 innings to secure UK's series-evening win at Alabama, he gave up a 10th inning walk-off hours later in the nightcap of a doubleheader.
"You have to take the success and downfall in stride," Jack said about his mentality after the Alabama homer. "You have to take it one day after another. You can't get too high or too low, you just have to focus on your plan. That first SEC weekend at Alabama is a prime example. I got us out of that jam in the first game and we won and I'm on cloud nine. Then I came in that night and got the walk-off of me and we had a long bus ride home and I was feeling terrible. I was on the edge. Did I belong here? One game I was getting us the win and the next game I'm giving up the series."
Jack's defining moment in the first half of the season was when UK turned to him with a runner on third, one out in the top of the ninth inning of a rubber match with No. 1 South Carolina. Jack tossed five pitches to get a swinging strikeout and set up a left-on-left matchup for Salow to get the save.
"There were a couple," Jack said about defining moments as a junior. "The first one that comes to mind was coming in against South Carolina and getting that strikeout was big for me. I felt like I got a lot better towards the end of the year. My bullpens started to get better I started to figure things out. When we got to Tennessee, I felt really strong. I knew I just needed to handle myself and not worry about where the ball goes when it leaves my hand, understand my mechanics and my plan."
He picked up saves vs. Florida, Auburn and Missouri, and earned praise for a save in a win over Tennessee Tech when the wind at Cliff Hagan Stadium was blowing hard to leftfield. He added shutout frames in extra innings at Murray State, before making his biggest outing of the year vs. No. 17 Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament.
"When we faced Mississippi State, that was obviously one of the best games I've ever played in, let alone pitched in," Jack said.
Jack fired four shutout innings vs. the Bulldogs, working around two errors and setting the stage for UK's dramatic walk-off win in the 12th inning.
The next week, Jack picked up his fourth save with a shutout frame in the NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas, helping UK to an elimination game win and a berth in the regional final.
After resting during the summer and battling through a back injury that forced a cortisone shot halfway through the season and nearly two weeks off, Jack enters his senior season healthy for the first time in two years.
"The biggest thing now is I'm healthy this year, so gosh that makes all the difference," Jack said. "I'm getting better every day and I'm healthy. Mentally I am a little more relaxed. I was on the attack a lot last year and was at points too much on the attack. At some time you have to take a deep breath and relax, be even keel and understand that it is a long season and not to take certain points of the year to hard or too well. More relaxed, understand what I need to do and I'm healthy."
His stuff has also improved over the offseason and preseason, with Jack incorporating a new off-speed offering that will help him combat left-handed hitters.
"I'm got a better handle with my third pitch, a change-up," Jack said. "Early on last year there was a big difficulty for me handling left-handed hitters. I know Hendo would bring me in when there were a lot of righties coming in and if there was a lefty coming up he might go lefty matchup. Now that I am handling my changeup better and can work my fastball to both sides of the plate it is a different story.
"I'm more relaxed. I understand that we are playing two seasons. I didn't really get that last year. You are really playing two seasons, you have some time to figure stuff out and when SEC play comes you have to have your stuff ready."