Jojo Kemp carried 17 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns in UK's upset of South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Understandably, Jojo Kemp was tired.
On a potential game-tying fourth quarter drive against South Carolina, Kemp was carrying the load for Kentucky but he needed a break. He signaled as much to the sideline, but the Wildcats couldn't afford not to have him in the game.
And on the very next play, Kemp unleashed his longest run of the night.
"He put the team on his back," Stoops said. "He was trying to come out of the game once. I said, 'That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out.' And he did."
After that 43-yard run out of the Wildcat formation, Kemp stayed down on the left sideline. Completely exhausted, he finally got up and limped off after cheers of "Jojo, Jojo!" rang through Commonwealth Stadium. He needed only a one-play break before reentering and scoring from five yards out to tie the game.
"I ain't gonna lie, I was gassed," Kemp said. "But I had to lay it on the line for my team. We've been working so hard and I've been wanting to show the fans what our hard work has been doing so far and it finally paid off."
It paid off in the form of a 45-38 victory, one that sent UK (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) to a second consecutive SEC win. Star defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown, snaring a pass fellow senior Mike Douglas batted into the air and returning it six yards.
"Bud is a heck of an athlete," Kemp said. "Bud, he's great. He's a great leader and we kind of did this for the seniors tonight."
The seniors may have been the inspiration, but it was a sophomore who carried the heaviest load.
Kentucky, having already overcome a 14-0 first-half deficit to take a 24-17 lead, found itself trailing 38-24 when Mike Davis sprinted 26 yards for a touchdown with 11:45 left. It was at that point that most teams would turn to the pass to make a comeback, but the Cats went the other direction.
"I really liked what we were doing coming into the game," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought we were right on schedule with our plan and I knew if we just stayed with it. ... I knew if we just stayed the course I felt like we were playing well enough up front that we could get back in the game."
Brown would call on Patrick Towles - who played a solid game, completing 20-of-29 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown - to throw just one pass as the Cats mounted a furious rally. In fact, Towles was split out wide more often than not in the formation that's come to known as the "WildKemp."
"I'll take it," Towles said. "I probably didn't expect that we'd do it that much, but if it's productive why go away from it?"
Productive might be an understatement.
Kemp ran 17 times for a career-high 131 yards to go with three touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, he piled up 116 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
"I felt like at the end of the game if we got in it we could get rolling," Brown said. "I thought the fourth quarter having success on first down was huge for us. I really felt like we had enough time to stay in it and we did. Jojo did a great job. He's going to get a lot of the credit, but we blocked really well up front."
Kemp doesn't disagree.
"My o-line, they were out there hungry, fighting for every yard I got," Kemp said. "So I gotta give the praise to my o-line."
The Wildcat formation has become a mainstay of the UK offense over the last two weeks. Against Vanderbilt, the Cats used it to salt away a win. Against South Carolina, it was the means to a thrilling comeback.
"What happens is you bring the motion, so you gotta defend the motion because that's two of our better players, whether it was Javess (Blue) or (Ryan) Timmons coming in, you gotta defend the sweep," Brown said. "And then all the motion, the defenders gotta move, can't play it downhill as much. And Jojo's got a really good feel for it. You have to be patient."
Brown has been patient in his Wildcat play-calling as well, keeping an ace of a trick play up his sleeve until the first drive of the second half.
In the first, UK scored both its touchdowns off Wildcat looks, first with Kemp and later on a 38-yard burst by Braylon Heard. The trap set, Brown called for an end around to Blue off the Wildcat and reverse to Towles. Timmons wide open by 25 yards, Towles threw deep for a 48-yard touchdown.
"That was the first trick play I think we've hit it right since I've been here," Brown said. "We used to hit those all the time at Tech and Troy. So that was fun. It was a big play in the game. You talk about--that place was loud. When we hit that and Timmons scored, this place was electric."
It was even more electric after Kemp's final three carries of the night.
After Dupree's interception return, the UK defense came up with yet another stop when Ashely Lowery picked off a Dylan Thompson pass. Needing just one first down to kill the final 1:31, Brown unsurprisingly called Kemp's number.
With some help from a South Carolina offsides penalty, the Cats picked up that first down with three carries by Kemp. When the official measurement revealed that Kemp had reached the line to gain, it touched off a raucous field-rushing situation.
"I gave a lot (of high-fives), but I was just trying to get my breathing," Kemp said. "I was gassed."
He had enough energy to make a short walk in the postgame locker room when his coach summoned him.
"Jojo, so proud of Jojo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball. Because just sheer determination that he had."
College football is an emotional game and Mark Stoops is an emotional guy.
Anyone who has seen him yell at an official after a bad call -- and seen his facial expressions in said tirades -- can attest to that.
And still he'd never experienced as a head coach the emotional ups and downs, and ultimately highs, that he did in Saturday's 45-38 comeback win over South Carolina.
"It's hard to describe how much pride you feel for the team, just for everybody in our organization," Stoops said. "You know to fight back through that adversity. To start down 14 points, and be down 14 in the fourth ... it just felt uphill the whole game. Felt frustrating."
But who could blame the UK coach, who after not winning a Southeastern Conference game during his debut season last year now has won two in a row, and has his team very much in the thick of the race for the SEC East title, for getting a bit overwhelmed after the game?
The manner in which Stoops' team won, coming back from not one, but two 14-point deficits, including that score line in the fourth quarter would be enough to overwhelm just about anyone.
"It's really hard to put into words," Stoops said. "I think just I feel very proud of the whole group and all the work that we put in. And it was emotional. I felt overwhelmed at times when I was on that field. It happened so quick.
"I was frustrated a lot of the night. But just very grateful, I think, is the thing that comes to mind and appreciate the guys in that locker room."
And so after celebrating on-field postgame with thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation, talking to his team and giving away the game ball to a current player for the first time in his career, Stoops soaked in just how much Saturday's win meant.
He apparently enjoyed the moment so much that he didn't want it to end. So he actually extended his press conference to two extra questions because he was "enjoying it too much."
Perhaps adding just a measure of the feel-good factor to the win was who was standing across from him on the opposite sideline. The relationship between the Stoops and Spurrier families has been well-documented as Mark's brother Bob -- now the head coach at Oklahoma -- was the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier on the staffs that built Florida into one of the nation's premier programs in the 1990s.
The frustration Stoops spoke so much about postgame was in many ways attributable to Spurrier's coaching prowess.
"Coach Spurrier, I have so much respect for offensively, and he went to some--not different things, because he's run all those sets before, but he featured them and kept us out and kept us really off balance," Stoops said. "And it was very frustrating. That's why he's a Hall of Fame coach and won an awful lot of football games."
But the gravity of the moment was not lost on Stoops, and it moved him enough to engage in a time-tested football tradition, which the second-year coach had never engaged in before tonight. Perhaps he never had a big enough win to do it, or perhaps he had never had a player deserving enough of the honor.
But Jojo Kemp's three-touchdown, 131-yard game, which also included a big third-down conversion with barely a minute remaining, was worthy.
"JoJo , (I'm) so proud of JoJo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball.
"Because just sheer determination that he had. He put the team on his back. He was trying to come out of the game once. I said: That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out. And he did.
Morgan Bergren had 48 assists and six kills in UK's four-set win over Alabama on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Through two sets, UK was in control.
In a matchup of two teams that had won a combined 15 matches in a row, the Wildcats charged to a 2-0 lead over Alabama. Kentucky, however, hit a lull in the third set and the Crimson Tide took advantage.
After that, it was all about the Cats getting back to what had staked them to a lead to begin with.
"I think we just had to pick up our intensity and trust what we do and stay aggressive," setter Morgan Bergren said. "That's one thing we talked about in the locker room before the game, is just constant aggression on them. I think we lost that a little bit in the third game and finally got it back in the fourth game."
On the strength of that aggressiveness, No. 13 UK (13-2, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) got the win in its conference home opener. The Cats extended their winning streak to seven with the victory and ended a nine-game streak for the Tide (14-3, 2-1 SEC).
"I expected a match comparable to sets three and four the whole night," head coach Craig Skinner said. "We ran away with it in set two but I didn't think that was normal in a situation like that. Just physically we earned our points. Alabama didn't give them to us and that's probably the most pleasing thing so far tonight."
Most of the time, when the Cats did earn their points in a four-set win, Bergren was in the middle of it.
The junior assisted on 48 of UK's 98 points, adding six kills to boot. She was at her best when it mattered most, leading the Cats after Alabama appeared poised to force a decisive fifth set by taking a 19-15 lead in the fourth.
"She did a nice job," Skinner said. "She I think lost her way a little bit in set three and then really found her groove in set four. That's pretty important under pressure who you go to and who you find to get swings. She did a great job."
Bergren's favorite target on Friday night was Shelby Workman, who totaled 19 kills and hit .459. Lauren O'Conner added 15 kills and Anni Thomasson 10, statistics indicative of the way Bergren spreads the ball around.
"I'm comfortable setting anyone," Bergren said. "I feel like all of our attackers carry a strong presence and anyone is available to go to at any time. Tonight Shelby was really good for us and picked us up and used the block really well to her advantage."
Bergren is in her second season as UK's full-time starter at setter, but the offense she's running this season looks much different than it did in 2013. The Cats, as you'd expect, have had to adjust to life without All-Americans Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan.
"Early on I think I was a little bit hesitant running the middle and they've proven day in and day out in practice that they're up and they're ready and they're ready to go expecting the ball," Bergren said.
With Bergren looking more comfortable by the match, UK is playing its best volleyball of the season early in SEC play.
"I think you really start to understand how important good setting is," Skinner said. "We're averaging more kills per set than we have in three years. A lot of that has to do with your setter and good decision-making and getting one-on-ones. She's very good at what she does."
Entering a tough test against No. 21 Texas A&M at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Bergren sees one more area a confident UK team needs to address.
"Right now everything feels good," Bergren said. "Every now and then we hit that little lull in either game two or game three and that's something we have to improve on and not get too comfortable and relaxed and let the other teams come back on us. Other than that, I don't think we have any doubts going into any of the matches."
Alex Poythress starred for Kentucky on the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are Kentucky basketball's odd couple.
Poythress is the quiet one. With the media, he's polite but reserved. On the court, he lets his game do the talking.
Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, will never be mistaken for shy. From his candid, often off-the-wall answers in interviews to his tweets all the way down to his clothes, his personality comes through.
The contrast might make the two juniors seem unlikely to share a bond, but you won't find two players on the team closer than Poythress and Cauley-Stein. In fact, it's their differences that bring them together.
"He's more outgoing, talking, doing a lot of stuff," Poythress said. "I'm more laidback, chill. That's probably why we get along."
They get along so well that when John Calipari learned Cauley-Stein would bypass the NBA Draft, he immediately figured Poythress would do the same.
The word "brother" comes up often when Cauley-Stein and Poythress talk about one another. The two suitemates also agree that their ages (Cauley-Stein is the elder by 19 days) belie the true nature of their relationship.
"Even though he's younger than me, he's like the older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm the kind of dude that wants to go outside and see everybody and always on the move, and he's always the dude that's like, I'm going to stay in the room and watch a movie and do grown-people stuff and I'm always trying to experience all the fun stuff."
For all his "grown-people stuff" off the court, Poythress has taken his time blossoming as a player on it. Given his personality, that makes some sense.
Through two college seasons, Poythress has alternated in equal measure between showing flashes of his ability to dominate and a propensity to fade into the background. There have been games like his 20-point outburst against Duke as a freshman and outings like the one just two weeks later at Notre Dame when he attempted just one shot.
It should come as no surprise that Poythress' longest sustained stretch of consistent play coincided with UK's run to the national championship game. Even still, Poythress was but a supporting cast member, providing a versatile defensive presence, rebounding and the occasional jaw-dropping play.
Once the run was over, he had a decision to make. In spite of what Coach Cal may have thought after Cauley-Stein announced his return, Poythress made the call on his own.
"I talked to the coaches, talked to my mom, talked to my dad, my sisters and my family and I just weighed my options," Poythress said. "I feel like I made the right decision to come back."
Based on early returns, Poythress appears poised to prove himself right.
Showing off what assistant John Robic called a "rebuilt engine," Poythress averaged 11.8 points - tops on the team - and 5.7 rebounds on a six-game Bahamas tour. The raw numbers aren't far off from his production through his first two seasons, but he posted them playing just 18.8 minutes per game on UK's starting platoon.
Anyone who has spent much time watching Poythress during his UK career doesn't need to look at any numbers to know the player on the floor this August was different.
"I was coming with the mindset that I'm playing good these games," Poythress said. "Coming in with that mindset, I'm going at people, making a statement really."
Physically, Poythress is still the imposing 6-foot-8, nearly 240-pound specimen he's always been. He still wears No. 22 on his jersey and a stoic expression on his face too. Inside is where Poythress has changed.
"Probably mentally," Poythress said. "Just being more focused. Mentally, being more prepared. I've been here two years. I know what to expect. Just going in and make sure I do it."
The scary thing for UK's opponents this season is Calipari still sees room for improvement. He knows the platoon system presents some unique challenges he'll have to navigate with Poythress to make sure his growth continues, but the progress the Clarksville, Tenn., has made so far is indisputable.
"He may be a guy that needs more minutes just to get more comfortable playing because, you know, that's the biggest thing with him is the comfort level in his game," Calipari said. "But, you know ... there are things he has to be able to do to be special. Because he has, you know, he's just getting so much better. ... I can't even believe he's the same player."
His evolution as a player has been accompanied by growth as a leader. Poythress is the first to admit that getting in the face of a younger teammate doesn't come naturally to him, but he also knows he'll be called on to do just that given his experience playing on one team that was bounced in the first round of the NIT and another that came up a win shy of a title.
"You can be the most laidback person off the court, but on the court you gotta speak up, you gotta be more vocal," Poythress said. "I'm doing a better job of that."
Coach Cal has had players who were able to do that the moment they arrived on campus. For even those who can't, it's still the assumption that true freshmen should be able to dominate on the court from day one.
Poythress is a reminder of how unfair that expectation is and that deviating from the one-and-done path doesn't signal failure.
"I'm a junior now," Poythress said. "It just takes people different times. Ain't nothing wrong with that. There's a lot of great players in the pros that played in college for three years. You're not really trying to worry about that. You're just trying to do what you can, however long it takes you. Just trying to take baby steps, really."
On the heels of a "really good" Wednesday, UK continued its new game-week habit of holding a lighter practice on Thursday.
With a matchup with South Carolina just two days away, the Wildcats had another productive day.
"Guys were sharp, so looking forward to Saturday," Stoops said. "Guys are locked in and ready to go, so we're anticipating a big day."
A big day and a big blackout crowd.
UK will play its first home night game of the season on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. With the buzz surrounding the Wildcats and their 3-1 start, the biggest crowd in the Stoops era is expected.
"I'm excited," Stoops said. "I'm looking forward to the atmosphere Saturday, absolutely. Like I've said many times, we appreciate the support we've been getting. We're trying to do our part and build a program that everybody's proud of and we're looking forward to getting some of that home-field advantage, absolutely."
It's Stoops' hope that Cats can use that home-field advantage to avoid the slow start that befell them last season against the Gamecocks. UK fell behind 21-0 in the game before rallying and nearly pulling off the upset in a 35-28 road loss.
"As I said earlier in the week, last year -- we really didn't fare so well last year down there," Stoops said. "They started extremely fast. We have to do a better job at home of trying to withstand that. I think everybody would like to have a fast start, so we've got to be ready to go, that's for sure."
As big as the game may be, Stoops isn't thinking much about the talk of UK making waves in the Southeastern Conference East division race with a win.
"It's truly one game," Stoops said. "It's another game, it's the next game. If you take care of your business then we can have that conversation as we move forward. But we're a long way from there. We're still taking it one day at a time, one game at a time. Like I said, I think we're excited and guys are ready to play and really had a pretty good week of practice. So we're just worried about our preparation and how we go out and execute and how we go play."
On the injury front, Stoops expects Zach West and Cole Mosier to be available for the game after missing last week. However, wide receivers Jeff Badet and Alex Montgomery will not play.
Andrew and Aaron Harrison will anchor the UK backcourt in their sophomore season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alone they may have faltered. Together they were strengthened.
For as long as they can remember - really since they day they were born - the Harrison twins have been there for each other, by each other's side through everything they've done. They rose through the basketball ranks together, blossomed into young men together and decided to go to the same college together.
They've done everything you'd expect twins to do -- as one.
But their relationship last year came in handy when they faced the most difficult year of their lives.
As the point guard and floor general of the team, Andrew Harrison probably took more heat than Aaron did last season when Kentucky failed to meet regular-season expectations, but both felt the brunt of UK's struggles and - fairly or unfairly - took the blame when there was plenty of it to go around.
"We struggled," Andrew Harrison said in preseason interview last month. "It was tough, but at the same time it makes you a man."
The Harrison twins arrived on campus last year heralded as saviors following the highly disappointing 2012-13 NIT season. Their tough-minded approach and distaste for losing were supposed to be two key character traits that wouldn't let recent history repeat itself.
In everyone's mind, the twins wouldn't tolerate anything like what happened the season. As a sign read in Rupp Arena during the 2013 NCAA Tournament that UK wasn't included in, "Keep calm, the twins are coming."
The underlying message of the sign was loaded with expectations. What no fan wanted to realize is even the twins weren't ready to carry the burden of redemption.
Part of it was because they still had some growing up to do and part of it was they were freshmen. But overlooked in all of UK's regular-season struggles a season ago was just how significant the twins' absence during summer workouts was to the team's overall development.
John Calipari didn't want to make a big deal out of it at the time - and what coach would when you're trying to build confidence in your team - but it stunted the growth of the twins and the Wildcats.
"Killed them," Calipari said. "Killed them. And what it killed was their conditioning. It took them until the middle of January to really--think about the play--couldn't run back, didn't want to keep playing so they'd do a body language thing. And then they'd look, is anybody watching? Because they were trying to stop. ... It was a killer for them."
By midseason, people were calling them busts. They were slip-sliding down NBA Draft boards faster than a bobsled on ice.
"Andrew was really criticized last year," Aaron Harrison said. "I think one of the most criticized players in the country, so we just had to stick together."
Easier said than done.
Among the biggest criticisms the Harrison twins' faced was their body language. When things went south or something didn't go their way, they were prone to react negatively with scowls on their faces and noticeable defeat in their shoulders. They let one play affect the next, and sometimes it was contagious to their teammates.
That criticism of the Harrison twins, Calipari will tell you, was fair.
What wasn't fair was the association it connected them to. Just because they were reacting negatively on the court, some people began to question their character. Unfairly, some people labeled them as bad kids.
"I feel like people just put that out there before," Andrew Harrison said. "All you can do is prove them wrong and just play basketball. You can't really focus on what other people say about you."
But truth be told, who wouldn't be bothered by that? Under the strict guidance of their parents, the Harrisons were brought up with impeccable manners that belied the bad-boy rumors.
The Harrison twins. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Soft spoken as they can be, you would be hard-pressed to have a conversation with them without hearing "yes sir" or "yes ma'am" a half-dozen times.
"It's my parents," Andrew Harrison said of their manners. "They instilled it in me. I can't help it. Sometimes people say, 'Don't do that,' but I can't help it. I have to say it to everybody."
Knowing that side of his twin guards and hearing some of the stuff he heard from outsiders last year irked Calipari.
"What happens with some of you guys," Coach Cal said, "is you have an opinion and then you've got to prove that opinion right, so you'll never change. 'Here's my opinion.' Well, are you not watching? Hmm. 'That's my opinion. I'm not watching. I'm not. Then let me tell you why it's right.' So those two have been hit with that some. Like, what are you watching? How can you say that? 'Well, 'cause it's what I said six months ago and I'm sticking with it. That's my story.' But the good news for them is hopefully they're comfortable and they know we have your back."
They had each other's backs as well.
"We both had some low points last year and we kept each other going," Aaron Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison said their relationship was not only crucial to their eventual success last season, it strengthened and even changed their relationship with one another.
"It changed just because of the pressure and the microscope you're under when you go to Kentucky," Andrew Harrison said. "Now that you're used to it, you can relax and play."
Leaning on one another during the difficult times helped them amend the narrative of last season and their outlook going forward. They hung in long enough to see their season turn around in the postseason.
Both flourished during UK's NCAA Tournament run. Aaron Harrison obviously stole the headlines with the game-winning shots, but Andrew's turnaround was just as dramatic. Calipari instituted what he called a "tweak" in Andrew Harrison's game, and suddenly he became a different point guard in March.
"Most point guards, if you're a freshman point guard, you come in with two juniors, a senior and a freshman. He was trying to come in and play with all freshmen that didn't know any more than he did," Aaron Harrison said of his brother's responsibilities. "So it was really tough. I mean, it's not really fair, but everything's not fair."
It's worth noting that most of Calipari's previous point guards had to go through similar growing pains before finding their stride.
"I've always said the point guard for Coach Cal is the hardest to play," said walk-on Brian Long, who seen and watched a lot of solid point-guard play during his three-plus seasons at UK. "I think (Andrew Harrison) coming back for his sophomore year, I think he can take off."
Of course, Andrew Harrison wouldn't have been able to keep the development going without his brother's timely shots, the magnitude of which Aaron didn't come to grips with until several weeks after. Only now does he realize that he'll forever be a part of UK lore for what he did during that run in March.
"You sit back and you think about all that and you think about hitting the big shot like that in a big game, it's really unreal," Aaron Harrison said. "The shots are cool and all, but we were celebrating because we had another game to play. We didn't win the last one, so, I mean, it's not really the way we wanted to finish it. I mean, yeah, I still have some good memories about the shots that I made, but if we would've won our last game it wouldn't have even compared to that feeling."
Now, after the way the two played in the postseason and the way they built off the momentum during the Big Blue Bahamas tour, the Harrisons' stock is on the rise again.
In Nassau, they seemed to carry themselves in a different manner, as if this is their team. The slimmed-down twins looked more comfortable, more confident and better equipped to lead.
"I feel like I'm one of the leaders on this team and I can definitely lead this team in the right direction," Andrew Harrison said. "I have some experience and stuff like that, so I feel like the guys can listen to me. I know what they're going through and I see stuff on the court that I can help them out with."
Andrew Harrison's teammates notice a different vibe with him this year.
"It's crazy what one year can do for someone," sophomore Derek Willis said. "Definitely he's gotten better. He's more vocal. There's just so many little things that people don't notice that he does. When he's bringing the ball up it's not, 'I'm bringing the ball up.' It's running up, then stopping, then getting into our set. He's leading."
Ironically, given how they leaned on each other last year, Calipari would like to see a little bit of separation of the two going forward. The way he sees it, if they are going to make individual careers for themselves in the NBA, they will have to show NBA personnel that they can do it without one other's help.
"I told those two (for pickup games), 'Don't always play with each other. Play opposite,' " Coach Cal said. "You don't want to be labeled that you have to be on the same team. You've had guys like that before. It hurts them."
Calipari was just as surprised as everyone else when the Harrison twins decided to come back for their sophomore seasons - he learned of the news while he was sitting on a plane and getting ready to head out of town - but now that they're back, he's not ready to settle for the progress they made at the end of last year.
He believes they can and will get even better.
"They're still growing right now," Calipari said. "You still have to coach them and guide them. They, you know, they still have some habits that they flow back to when it gets crazy and nutty. But I'm just - they're great kids. They're both great kids. They're both, you know, in the best shape right now they've been in, but I'm telling them it's not good enough. They've got to get to another level."
UK will face South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Seemingly each week, a new team has moved into the driver's seat in the Southeastern Conference East division.
A month into the season, six teams are within a game of first-place Missouri, which won its first and only league game of the season this past weekend.
The team that ends up representing the East in the SEC Championship Game is anyone's guess, but Kentucky has an opportunity to put itself in the thick of the race with a win this weekend.
That fact led to inevitable questions to players about the quick transition from back-to-back winless SEC seasons to being a victory away from contender status.
Patrick Towles, however, doesn't quite see things that way.
"I feel like we're right in the middle of the SEC race right now," Towles said.
The confidence reflected in Towles' words has overtaken the UK program in Mark Stoops' second season. The Wildcats (3-1, 1-1 SEC) will carry that belief into a matchup with South Carolina (3-2, 2-2 SEC) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday for which fans are being asked to participate in a blackout.
"We're trying to win a football game," Towles said. "We want to win every football game we play. Every time we chalk it up over there, no matter where it is, we expect to win."
In spite of that expectation, the Cats understand the challenge awaiting them.
South Carolina opened the season in the top 10 before dropping its season opener against Texas A&M, 52-28. The Gamecocks, playing the nation's fifth-toughest schedule to date according to the Sagarin Ratings, then rebounded with wins over East Carolina, then-No. 6 Georgia and Vanderbilt before squandering a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in a loss to Missouri over the weekend.
"I know Coach (Steve) Spurrier and their staff, they've been unhappy with inconsistent play at times, but that's us as well," Stoops said. "They certainly looked dynamic on both sides of the ball. Certain games in particular, you look at the Georgia game and how good they played. So, I'm sure they're mad and ready to improve on all sides, just like we are."
Mad as they may be about the loss, the Gamecocks were outstanding defensively against Missouri. South Carolina allowed just 280 yards, 119 of which came on the Tigers' two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter. That's a far cry from the 680 yards Texas A&M racked up against South Carolina, a difference that can be explained in part by the three true freshmen on the Gamecocks' depth chart at cornerback.
"I think they simplified," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said, explaining South Carolina's improvement. "They cut down on the things they were doing. And I think they're tackling a lot better. They're playing a lot better fundamentally. ... So I think early in the season, that A&M game was much more of an aberration than anything. Because they've come back. If you look, I don't know of any defense in the country that's played the kind of offenses they've played this early in the season."
At times, UK's offense has played at a similar level to South Carolina's past opponents. At other times, the Cats have not, namely in the second half of a win over Vanderbilt on Saturday. Towles has taken a brunt of the criticism in the loss for his three fumbles and interception returned for a touchdown, but Brown says that's a little unfair.
"I think it's important that we've got to keep improving," Brown said. "Did some good things against Vandy, but I think much has been made about Patrick. If he plays bad and completes 23 of 30 every game, then we'll be all right."
UK is going to need Towles at his sharpest against South Carolina, however, and he's acutely aware of that fact.
"They're always tough," Towles said. "Every week is going to be a tough one for us. They're good up front, got a kind of inexperienced secondary but still talented. No matter who runs out there, they're going to be a talented player. We've got to be ready for them."
In spite of South Carolina's defensive talent, offense has always been Spurrier's calling card. The Gamecocks have piled up an average of 421.6 yards and 5.9 yards per play this season behind first-year starting quarterback Dylan Thompson (1,359 yards passing and 12 touchdowns) and star running back Mike Davis (80 carries for 368 yards).
"Coach Spurrier has had a lot of success and he has a lot of experience, and he's an excellent coach," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "And he will get you. So you've got to be on your Ps and Qs and you got to have your guys ready to play, because he knows how to get you and he's an excellent football coach. We're gonna have our (work) cut out for us this weekend."
UK's defense has been up to the task this season. After allowing just 139 yards and eight first downs in a win over Vanderbilt, the Cats rank 25th nationally in total defense, continuing a trend of second-year improvement under Stoops at all of his coaching stops.
"A big part of it is just fundamentally playing better," Stoops said. "That's what I've always prided myself on is teaching the guys how to play. ... We're far from where we want to be, but we are drastically improved on fundamentally how to play football. I think we need to continue to work on that."
Spurrier has taken notice of that improvement, whether it's on defense or otherwise.
"Kentucky Wildcats are a pretty good team," Spurrier said. "They don't look like some of their teams 10, 15 years ago. They are very fast, athletic. I think their defense is actually nationally ranked in all categories. They're a good-looking team. They play tough, smart, well-coached, and will certainly be a good challenge as we go into Commonwealth Stadium to play Kentucky this year."
The respect goes both ways.
"Coach Spurrier and South Carolina have won an awful lot of football games the past couple years and have a very good football team again this year, so we'll have our hands full," Stoops said. "We're excited to play. It'll be a great atmosphere in Commonwealth this weekend, and so our kids are up for the challenge and it's been a good week of preparation so far."
Over the next two days, we'll post a transcript of John Calipari's
preseason media roundtable in three parts. To close it out, Coach Cal discusses Tyler Ulis, Trey Lyles, what he's looking for out of Willie Cauley-Stein and more. Has Derek improved his defense enough? "Yeah, but they're going at him. Who was he guarding yesterday? He and Marcus Lee I think were guarding each other yesterday. But he's, you know--the one thing I told him, all of them: You are responsible for you. You know I'm not throwing you under the bus. You know I'm going to love you. You know I'm going to develop you. You know we're going to help you be the best version of you. But you are responsible for you. Some of you guys need to come in here and shoot free throws. You've got the gun, you've got managers, make 200 a day. You are responsible for you. If you don't make free throws and you're shooting them at a 45-percent clip, you ain't playing the--you can't ever be what you want to be. And you control that. Get in here. So that's the kind of stuff. And I told them, I don't want to coach them until October. I'll look in right now. We got two hours a week, I'll use 25 minutes of it watching them play pick-up if I want. But short of that, I'm going to be gone for the next two week starting tomorrow. So, you know, I haven't--they were at my house and I had an individual meeting with them when we met at my house and that's it. I told them, 'I'll start coaching you in October.' What we did in October, I was with them enough. And so now--it hasn't changed. The Bahamas stuff helped us and scared every recruit. I mean, how many seniors are out there? (None) Say that again. (None) Really? So what do you think the other coach is saying? (What if they all come back?) Yeah. You say they're all leaving, but they all came back last year. You got guys that--and the way I talk, I'm not going to lie to them. I mean, stuff's hard here. It's no joke. This is a man's decision. So you'll have guys that, you know, 'I'm not going to do Kentucky.' It's good for us. It's like, I'd rather learn it now than have a kid come here and know he's not good enough because then we gotta deal with that."
John, what did you think of the story that we heard in the Bahamas about Tyler standing up to DeMarcus Cousins and insisting that he wanted the call DeMarcus insisting that he would not get the call? "I didn't see it, but I can imagine it happened with DeMarcus. But, you know, when I met with Isaiah Thomas to try to talk--I wanted him to tell me what I needed to do because I've never really coached a guy this small. I said, 'To be in the NBA at this size' - Isaiah's like a beast - 'did you lift?' 'No, this is my dad?' So some of that Tyler's going to have to do. He gained 10 pounds this summer. Well, now you've gotta gain another 10, 15 pounds. You're just gonna have to. But the other part, he said your advantage is in the backcourt in all cases. So you pick up, you make it bothersome for people anywhere you can. You figure out how you're going to have to personally play pick-and-roll. And he said from 15 feet and in it's your disadvantage. I said, 'Well how many of you guys get posted.' He said there is not a single post-up point guard in the NBA. So you don't have to worry about that. Think about that. In the old days, we would post up the point guard. We would say that point guard can't guard--no one does it anymore. And then he said, 'A guy's gonna come at you and score or do something and when he turns around he's gonna know you're still there, that you haven't moved.' Basically what he was saying is you're going to get in a situation like that with DeMarcus and he's gotta know you ain't budging. Ain't budging. So some of the stuff that I need to teach, he's already kind of done. But I told him when he came here: 'If you don't plan on being an NBA player, don't come here. I don't want to see it. You're not coming here. And don't let me hear all these people say, well, he finally got a four-year point guard.' I don't want to hear that crap either. So I think that's when he said, 'Well I'm coming then.' Because that he wants."
Is this Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas you're talking to or current Isaiah Thomas? "Current one that's tiny that I saw get 35 against John Wall that I said let's go to dinner because I need to talk to you."
What have you seen from Trey Lyles? I was talking to Willie earlier and Willie went on and on about Trey plays the game. "Yeah, it's just, we don't know yet. He's gotta come back and see where everything is. I'm watching him do the individual stuff where there's no contact and stuff and he's, you know, he's a tough kid. He's a skilled player. It'll be interesting. It makes us even bigger. But you need size but people gotta make shots. So what we were able to do now, again, Dominique made some, Derek made some. Now do you replace and can those make some or do others have to make more? Which is fine. You don't have to have five guys out there that all can make shots. It's nice if you do, but you can't have just one. I think teams will go back, they'll run into the lane like they did my first year and they're going to play a zone. They'll run back, they'll shoot it and how many guys will they send to the glass? Maybe one, and that guy better be close or he's running his butt back. And then they're going to play a 2-3 zone or whatever zone they play. That's what I would think." When you think back to the spring and all these decisions being made and they start trickling out, what are you thinking one by one when they decide to come back and how much that changed your initial plans? "We don't make plans until they're done, until that draft stuff's over. So we don't know what we're looking at. I don't waste time. I don't get any stress over it because I don't know. The one that was really fast was Willie. And after the game, that next morning, I went in and congratulated him on a great year. I said, 'Two years ago, no one knew who you were. Kansas didn't even recruit you.' Bill Self said, I saw him play and he had two points and I'm thinking why is Kentucky recruiting him? And two years later you're in the top-15 picks. I want to tell you I'm proud of you. I remember going to your high school the first time. Remember what I saw you doing?' 'You saw me playing kickball.' 'And the second time I saw you?' 'I don't know.' 'You were playing tennis. So I didn't even know if you liked basketball. Now you're this.' The next day, he came back and he said, 'Can I meet with you?' I said sure. He said, 'I want to come back.' I went, 'What? Why do you want to come back?' He told me and I said OK. Which then I thought Alex would come back because he and Alex were really close. I didn't think the twins would come back. The only reason Dakari explored--when I grabbed Dakari I said, 'Do you want me to look into your NBA stuff.' He said no. I said OK. I asked Marcus Lee. He said no. I said OK. But when I was getting feedback a couple of the teams threw Dakari's name in. And so I told him, 'You may want to reevaluate and get with your mom.' Kendrick Perkins has done pretty good in the NBA and he's still playing and he was the 29th pick in the draft. Now I think emotionally and every other way he wasn't ready, but if someone's going to draft you you gotta think about it. So that is how it played out. And then with the twins, I thought they would be encouraged to leave. That's just what I thought they would be. And then the more I kept hearing, I was hearing, you know what, I don't think they want to go. So they came in and we had a five-minute meeting. I told them, 'If you come back, it's going to be difficult. Here's what they're saying. That will be cured, but you're going to have to work. If you leave, I'll help you get in the first round. Do whatever I can to make that happen.' They came back, 'We're staying.' I was on a plane going somewhere and they called and said, 'We're staying.' I can't remember where I was going."
How much did it hurt the twins' development to arrive late last season? "Killed them. Killed them. And what it killed was their conditioning. So it took them until the middle of January to really--think about the play--couldn't run back, didn't want to keep playing so they'd do a body language thing. And then they'd look, is anybody watching? Because they were trying to stop. I mean, you play at the pace and all that stuff. It was a killer for them. And by the end of the year you saw and now you're starting to see again where their weight is down. But I told them, I want you even to be in better shape than you are. And then playing the way we're playing I think's going to help both of them. I think they'll both--when people see they're athletic. People are saying, 'Well, they're not real athletic.' Compared to what, me? What are you talking about? I mean, literally touching the top of the square and running so fast and then you'd say, well, why don't they run like that and jump like that all the time? It's hard. You gotta be in great shape to do that. Or you just go at your pace and you jump like you want. So that's the stuff that they're cracking. And they're both--I'm just telling you--they're great kids. They're not a bit, nothing--yes, sir. No, sir. Nothing."
What did Devin Booker do to make you more comfortable to put him on that first team in the Bahamas? "That was just based on trying to balance the teams. That's the only reason I did it. I can't remember, I could have had Derek Willis there and put him on the other group but then I thought that group would be too small. So you would have had (Booker, Hawkins and Ulis in the backcourt). Too small. That's what I did." What does Booker bring to this team? Is he just a shooter? "No, he's--no. He's a basketball player. He settled a little bit too much for jumpers. He didn't dominate as much as he could have but he was trying to feel it out. And we got tired at the end. The guys went with--it never ended. I'm glad we did it. It was the best thing we've done and guys learned about themselves. We learned about each other. We were able to do stuff. Think about me trying to two-platoon without having that. I mean, it would have been near impossible. And I tell you that because the clutter that they're going to hear, all the outside stuff that's basically trying to slow us down and slow down and convince them that you can't do it, it's hard now because they saw it. You know, and for someone to say 'you're getting screwed' and this and this, he's looking like, 'He's got my back. It's better for me. If I had to play 32 minutes you'd see all the stuff I can't do.' "
Speaking of which, Tyler Ulis vows that he can dunk a basketball. "No. There's no way. Not what I saw."
Is it safe to call Willie a free spirit and is there any challenge in that with him? What's that dynamic been like with him? "The only thing with Willie is he's gotta stay in our circle. Like, you can have the clutter in the circle up here and you can be down here or over here or over there, but you gotta be in the circle. You can't be outside the circle. You can never lead the circle from outside the circle. You gotta be in this and they all gotta know that you're in here with us. If you try to separate yourself as a player from the pack, you can never serve them, you can never lead them. They don't want to hear it. They think you're about yourself. So being a free spirit and how he is, he's a good kid. He's just gotta make sure he's inside this circle of what we're doing because if we're to be really special - what Jay (Bilas) talked about - someone has gotta be that player. I'll give you an example: We had a lot of good players last year. When we played Connecticut, who was the best player on the court? (Shabazz Napier) And that's why they won. When we played Kansas in that final game, who was the best player on the court? (Anthony Davis) My guy. And we won. I'm just telling--so now, on this team, when we play in that kind of game, are they going to have a player better than we have? And so who would that be? Can it be Willie? I mean, if you watched the other day you'd say, 'Holy jeez.' He's more comfortable, he's more confident, but he's gotta be in the circle. You can't be that guy from outside. You've gotta be in the trenches with them."
Is it safe to say that you've got more good players than you've had here but maybe not that one transcendent guy? "Well, but then here's the problem: When you start talking John Wall and Anthony Davis and even DeMarcus (Cousins), you're talking about--look at them. So now you're trying to compare these guys to those guys. It's not fair. What it is: Do you have someone that's better than everybody else in the country? I don't care if it's better than I've had in 2012. I just need to know he's better than anybody in 2014-15."
Do you? "I don't know because I can't even tell you names of other players right now who came back. I don't even know."
The clutter will say you can't develop that one player because there's only 20 minutes a game with the platoons. "Yeah, maybe. We'll see. You can say it and then you try to prove it right when you say it." You gave EJ Floreal a scholarship. Talk about that decision and him as a kid on your team. "It's always fun when you scholarship walk-ons. And I've done it here just about every year I've been here and how appreciative their family is and how appreciative the young man is. And EJ really did a good job, especially at the end of the year when I needed him to really guard our guards like they were going to be guarded in games. And he really, athletically--his skillset is not up to these guys, but his athleticism is. So he can go in and guard and rebound and do stuff. He just doesn't have the skillset that they have. And the other thing is they all like him. He's part of our team."
Through eight years as head coach in Lexington, Mathew Mitchell has built an identity for the UK hoops program. The Wildcats under Mitchell are known for their stingy, full-court pressure defense and fast-break offense.
The formula has by any measure paid dividends over the better part of the last decade as the Wildcats have advanced to three Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s in the last five years.
Not only has the program's identity resulted in strong results on the court, but the Wildcats are now able to recruit some of the best players in the country because Mitchell's aggressive style has become attractive to prospects looking to play an exciting brand of basketball.
Such was the case with freshman center Alyssa Rice.
"A big reason why I decided to come to Kentucky was the style of play," Rice said. "I came from a high school that was really defense-oriented. I've always felt I was a stronger defensive player and it came more natural to me. Kentucky playing the defense they play and being more up-tempo is definitely one of the things that drew me to Kentucky."
The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, native was a McDonald's All-American as a senior, and rated as the 20th-best high school senior in America in 2014, as evidence of her prowess as a playmaker near the basket.
"Alyssa possesses all of the qualities we desire in a post player." Mitchell said. "Her incredible combination of size and speed make her a perfect fit for Kentucky. She is clearly one of the top post players in the 2014 class.
"Her versatility makes her very difficult to defend. Alyssa is a great ball handler, a great shooter and a tough finisher around the basket. Her ability to run the floor will be very valuable to our program. Alyssa has a tremendous work ethic and I am confident that her Kentucky career will be filled with success."
And all the qualities Mitchell outlined about Rice were what she herself said were her strong suits.
"I would describe myself as hard-working, fast-paced, defense-oriented and a versatile player," Rice said. "Rather than playing just with my back to the basket all the time -- like a lot of post players do -- I like to be able to take it off the dribble as well and I'm trying to expand my outside range just so I can score in a variety of ways."
Rice might be expected to contribute right away as UK will be looking to replace the production of two front-line starters from a year ago: DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker.
The makeup of UK's roster down low gives Rice an opportunity to contribute right away. She might be buoyed by the fact that current teammates the likes of Linnae Harper and Bria Goss saw plenty of time in their debut campaigns.
"Especially since we lost a lot of seniors last year and definitely at the post position there is a wide open gap in the post," Rice said. "I'm just trying to work hard and there's going to be a definite need for post presences. All of the posts have just been working hard to try and do our best because many people look at the post right now as a weakness for our team this year so we've just been doing our part for the team."
Karl-Anthony Towns averaged 11.0 points and 6.5 rebounds on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
March Madness gets all the attention, but April is the most important month on the Kentucky basketball calendar.
For starters, UK has played into April in three of the last four seasons, twice advancing to the national championship game and once winning the whole thing. To cap it off, April is when underclassmen make their NBA Draft decisions.
The early-entry deadline has become a celebration of sorts at UK, a time for fans to look back on a successful season and wish the best to the players who made it happen as they move on to the next level.
This year, April went a little differently.
A week after the Wildcats came up a win shy of a title, Willie Cauley-Stein surprised everyone - including his coach - and announced he would return for his junior season. Four days later, Marcus Lee followed suit. The next week, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and the Harrison twins all decided they would come back, too.
That customary April celebration quickly turned into anticipation for the season to come. John Calipari, meanwhile, knew his job had changed.
"Did we plan on five guys leaving after our first year? No." Calipari said. "So all of a sudden it changed the whole direction of the program. Now all of a sudden we had guys come back that I thought would never come back. Well, now we've got to make it work."
Sharing in Coach Cal's surprise were Trey Lyles, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis, the four members of UK's latest highly rated recruiting class.
"I was surprised at first because I definitely thought a lot of people were gone," Booker said in a preseason interview in August. "But I'm glad that they did come back and that was their decision ultimately and I'm here to support them and it's the best for us now. We are all competing and all getting better."
Just like UK fans, the four newcomers watched from a distance as six players elected to return and address some unfinished business.
"When all the guys decided to come back, I was happy because all that's going to do for us young guys is help us out because we've got experience now," Lyles said. "Them being able to talk to us about going to the championship and the fans and how Coach Cal is and how everything else is going to be, it's just really good experience and all it's going to do is just help us."
Past Calipari classes have borne the full weight of inevitable preseason expectations at UK. John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins knew they would have to shoulder a heavy load for the 2009-10 team to succeed. The same was true for the likes of Brandon Knight, Anthony Davis, Nerlens Noel and Julius Randle each of the next four seasons.
For this group, the pressure is a little less intense.
"They're probably able to play looser because they know it's not going to be on them. It's pretty good to know that--how about five freshmen, anybody returning had a great experience in the NIT at Robert Morris?" Calipari said, revisiting the challenge last year's freshmen faced. "Now all of a sudden you've got a team full of guys that played in the championship game and now you're coming back and watching and learning. If you can compete with them, you start building your own confidence. This guy, I can compete with this guy. It's a good thing."
Brian Long - who is watching a freshman class make the transition to college for the fourth time - agrees.
"I think it helps the team and the freshmen," Long said. "You don't have so much of a workload on your back coming in. You can kind - I don't want to say ease into it - but you can kind of feel into it and learn from the guys who came back and hopefully get a good feel right away and then just take off and understand your role better."
After what happened last season, that probably sounds good to Andrew Harrison. The point guard, though he didn't arrive on campus until August, had no choice but to step into a starting role on day one. When things didn't go according to plan, he was subject to scrutiny, unfair as that might have been.
A year later, he wants his freshman successors to have a different experience.
"I feel like they're playing pressure free," Andrew Harrison said. "I want to make sure they feel that way all the time. I feel like it's fun. They just fill in."
Filling in is something the four newcomers appear poised to do quite effectively.
With the six players who bypassed the NBA Draft and fellow returnees Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, UK's roster had few holes on paper. The four freshmen, at least on paper, seem to address those still left.
Devin Booker. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Start with Booker, the 6-foot-6 guard from Grand Rapids, Mich.
James Young's departure took away the player who hit the most 3-pointers on a team that struggled at times to hit from the outside, at least prior to NCAA Tournament play. The Cats needed a shooter capable of stretching the floor and Booker, who averaged 30.9 points for Moss Point in Mississippi as a senior and once scored 54 points in a game as a sophomore, fits the bill.
Booker started all six games of the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August alongside the Harrison twins in the backcourt. He shot just 11 of 32 (34.4 percent) from the field - though he did hit 6 of 14 (42.9 percent) from 3-point range - but that's not much cause for concern for the consensus top-30 player.
"It wasn't a great look," Booker said. "I couldn't make a shot, but overall it was a great time. Shooters go through slumps, but I have confidence in my jumper so that is the least of my worries."
For all the talk about his shooting stroke, be careful not to cast Booker as a one-dimensional player. Booker - the son of Melvin Booker, former Big Eight Player of the Year at Missouri and longtime professional - is what Calipari often calls a "Basketball Benny" in spite of the way he played in the Bahamas.
"He's a basketball player," Calipari said. "He settled a little bit too much for jumpers. He didn't dominate as much as he could have but he was trying to feel it out."
Towns, on the other hand, had plenty of dominant moments.
The Piscataway, N.J., native and Gatorade High School Player of the Year averaged 11 points and 6.5 rebounds in the Bahamas, both second on the team. He flashed all facets of a diverse skillset that already has the 6-11 forward in the top five on most 2015 draft boards. He's not the same kind of athlete as Willie Cauley-Stein or the kind of imposing physical presence as Dakari Johnson, but Towns brings a new dimension with his length, touch around the basket and shooting stroke that extends past the 3-point line.
Now that Cauley-Stein has returned from injury, Towns is alternating between battling two very different big men in practice. Already, he's found how beneficial that competition can be.
"Come on, look who we have," Towns said. "Every day I know going in the gym in every practice we're going to get better. No matter what happens, we're going to get better and we're going to compete. And that's the best thing. It makes the games so much easier and it makes our skills so much better."
Tyler Ulis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ulis is in a similar situation.
The 5-9 point guard goes toe to toe every day with Andrew Harrison, a player with nine inches, more than 50 pounds and 40 games of college experience on him. It's a challenge he hasn't shied away from.
"I just try in practice to help him by pressuring the ball, picking him up full court being a pest so he can get used to playing with smaller guards," Ulis said.
Ulis' defensive pest abilities were on display in the Bahamas, where he had eight steals - including a game-clinching swipe and layup in one of the games - and many more forced turnovers. Seemingly the only thing that slowed him down were a couple hard screens his teammates failed to call out, but even those never kept him down for more than a moment.
"As a small guard, I have to get up under people," Ulis said, "force people to handle the ball, pressure them, make quick decisions and just try to use my size to my advantage."
As well as the Harrison twins played in the postseason last year, on-ball pressure was never their forte. Ulis also gives UK a talented second option at point guard after Coach Cal mostly used wing players like Aaron Harrison and Doron Lamb in spot backup duty in recent years.
While Ulis was busy establishing himself as a fan favorite in the Bahamas, Lyles was forced to sit as he recovered from a foot injury. Lyles was a consensus five-star prospect coming out of Indianapolis, but he is a relative unknown to fans because he missed the preseason tour.
When he does make his debut, Lyles won't look to make an impression with highlight-reel plays. Asked which player he models his game after, the 6-10 Lyles named none other than Tim Duncan.
"Just fundamentally sound," Lyles said, describing his game. "Play hard. Score. Rebound. Team-first player. I just do whatever the coach wants me to do."
Now that he is back from injury and practicing with the team, it remains to be seen what exactly will be asked of him. Lyles and Cauley-Stein's absence left 10 healthy scholarship players for Coach Cal's two platoons in the Bahamas, and the system worked well enough that the experiment seems likely to at least last into early in the regular season.
"It's never been done before where the players have benefited," Calipari said. "It's been done where the program's benefited and the coaches benefited, but it's never been done before where players benefited. That's the challenge that we'll have. I think that if you can get two groups that are balanced yet good enough, we can do it. We have some time. We have to see."
The four freshmen, facing a different kind of challenge than any Calipari recruiting class at Kentucky, are ready to fit in however they're asked.
"I think that we're just prepared to do whatever Coach Cal wants from us," Lyles said. "If he wants us to take over, then we gotta do it or we gotta step behind. If he wants us to fill in the blank spots, then that's what we'll do."