Willie Cauley-Stein (left) and Alex Poythress will help incoming freshmen ease into life as a UK basketball player next season. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Becoming a champion is arguably the toughest achievement in sports. A championship is every team's ultimate goal each and every season.
"We got big expectations next year," said Alex Poythress, who opted to return to UK for his sophomore season earlier this month. "We just want to come prepared every day because the expectations next year, the goal is a championship, nothing less, nothing more."
Living up to the hype of a ranking or reputation is also no easy task, especially when that hype reads, "No. 1 recruiting class and likely to repeat as national champions."
The 2012-13 Kentucky basketball team had those expectations - fair or unfair - and failed to live up to the billing.
On the surface, it appeared Kentucky had all the ingredients it would need for another stellar season. The top recruiting class in the country, for the fourth consecutive season, was arriving at UK, Kyle Wiltjer was returning for his sophomore season off a national championship freshman season, and Ryan Harrow and Julius Mays would provide veteran leadership as transfers
But games aren't played on paper and the season failed to deliver a third Final Four in as many seasons.
With admittedly "bad tastes" left in their mouths after the way their freshman season ended, Willie Cauley-Stein and Poythress decided to return, realizing they needed more time to mature and had unfinished business to tend to.
Freshman year was difficult for each of them, but countless lessons were learned along the way.
"I already feel different," said Cauley-Stein. "Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened. I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do."
"It prepares you mentally," said Poythress. "We should be mentally prepared for everything because really when you're losing, that's when you figure out what people are made of and stuff like that. It should just help us mentally."
Kentucky lacked a true leader last season to help prepare the freshmen for the difficulties they were bound to face. The Wildcats had only one senior, Mays, who had never played on the stage that is UK basketball. They didn't have a Darius Miller or a Terrence Jones or Doron Lamb.
They will this year.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," said Cauley-Stein. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
After experiencing a full season of life as a Kentucky basketball player, Cauley-Stein and Poythress have each seen what it takes. They've gone through the tough times, the worst season head coach John Calipari has endured in his tenure at Kentucky.
With that experience, they want to change that and make sure that never happens again.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," said Poythress. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Once again, next season, Kentucky looks awfully good on paper. With multiple key components returning for another season, and UK bringing in arguably the most heralded recruiting class in the history of the game, the Wildcats are considered a lock to contend for their ninth national championship and second in three seasons.
While Cauley-Stein says his decision to come back to Kentucky was "easy," he has seen that living up to the hype and expectations is not.
"The hype with these guys coming; they're freshmen," said Cauley-Stein. "They're going to have to do the same thing we've gone through, plus it's going to be harder next year anyway. That's the way I'm thinking about it. They're going to have to go through the same thing freshmen year we did, and it's tough. It's a tough road to go down."
Both Cauley-Stein and Poythress acknowledged how tough their freshman seasons were, and with the caliber of talent on the way, they expect it be even more difficult next season. That's a challenge they're willing to accept as it will likely lead to more competitive practices and improvement for their respective games.
Nothing will be given to them. Nothing will be easy.
"The hype is different because we have more guys coming in," said Cauley-Stein. "But it's going to be harder because we have 10 potential first-round picks coming back and going to be here playing against each other every day.
"Coach doesn't want the same thing to happen that we did this year for next year, so he's going to change a bunch of things so that doesn't happen. Intensity is going to pick up. The level of how we're going to play is going to go up tremendously."
That has to start from the beginning. From now until the freshmen get here, the returning players must focus on improving and transforming themselves. When the freshmen finally arrive, then it's time for the returners to show them the ropes.
From that point on, it's time to go to work.
"I think the biggest thing I took from all that is you got to know from the get-go that it's real," said Cauley-Stein. "We started off really good and went in those couple games where we lost those two games in a row (Notre Dame and Baylor) and it was like, 'Wow, we're really not as good as we thought we were.
"And that's the biggest thing. Every game you play is hype. It's a Super Bowl for everyone. I think that's the biggest thing for the freshmen coming in is that you have no time to relax when you step in between those lines. It's all business when you step in there."
Cauley-Stein believes that, after speaking with Coach Cal during their post-season meeting, it's up to him to become that leader they lacked last season and to bring next year's team together as early as possible.
"Cal always harps to you about coming together and, the way we were going, we were coming together right when the tournament was happening," said Cauley-Stein. "I think this year (it will start) way earlier, like way in the summer: having team meetings or going out to eat and doing goofy stuff together. I think that's what's really going to bring you together. That's one of my big things I'm going to go into the summer with."
If they don't come together, then just like last season, potential may never become a reality.
"The potential is exactly that. We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it," said Cauley-Stein. "If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart addresses student-athletes, coaches and staff at the 2013 CATSPY Awards. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mitch Barnhart spends a lot of time thinking about what he will say at the CATSPY Awards. After all, it was he who brought the annual celebration to UK Athletics and each year he serves as the keynote speaker before the student-athletes, coaches and staff assembled in Memorial Coliseum.
But this year, UK's athletics director had to do some last-minute scrambling. This year, Barnhart received some news that altered the message he wanted to send.
On Friday, Barnhart learned that former Oregon State linebacker Tevita Moala had lost his battle with cancer at age 37. Moala played college football more than a decade ago at a school thousands of miles from Lexington, which would seem to make his passing sad, but far removed from UK.
Barnhart sees things a different way.
"He's touched our program at UK and you would never know it," Barnhart said.
You see, Moala made a play during the 1999 season and its effects are still being felt today. On Nov. 6 against California, he snatched up a fumbled snap and sprinted 24 yards for a touchdown, clinching a 17-7 win and Oregon State's first winning season in 29 seasons and first bowl berth in 34. The next year, Oregon State would play in the Rose Bowl.
"He had an electric smile and an incredible passion for the game," Barnhart said. "Had he not made that play, Oregon State does not build its program, allowing us to do things we'd never done before at that university and affording me the opportunity to come to Kentucky with many others in this room, coaches and staff."
Barnhart would have been touched by the death of a young man he came to know regardless, but it was the symmetry between Moala's memorable play and the CATSPYs that made him change his speech at the 11th hour.
"Tonight, we're celebrating moments like that and trying to figure out how we can create more," Barnhart said.
It's that duality that makes the CATSPYs unique.
The event draws inspiration from the ESPYs and entertainment award shows like the Grammys, Oscars and Emmys. But those others are all about recognizing achievement from the preceding year, while the CATSPYs are as much about inspiring future achievement.
That's why motivating addresses from women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell, volleyball coach Craig Skinner and gymnastics coach Tim Garrison were interspersed with emotional award presentations by women's soccer head coach Jon Lipsitz to star sophomore Arin Gilliland (Blue Heart Award) and Joe B. Hall to long-time athletic trainer Walt McCombs (Lifetime Achievement Award).
That's why Barnhart took to the podium before the night's most prestigious individual awards - Mr. and Miss Wildcat - were given to Luis Orta and Chelsea Oswald of UK cross country and track and field.
Barnhart touched on a few themes, including leadership, tough love, sacrifice, emotion, training, passion and legacy, but he closed with a word that didn't seem on its face to fit with the rest: almost. His message was that almost is not good enough.
When he came to UK from Oregon State in 2002 with memories of Tevita Moala fresh in his mind, almost would have been a significant improvement for many of the school's 22 varsity sports. Since then, UK Athletics has made remarkable strides, winning national championships and positioning itself for a record finish in Directors Cup standings in 2012-13. That merits recognition, and that's why Barnhart believes the CATSPYs are so important.
But the days of setting improvement as the goal are gone. UK Athletics is aiming much, much higher.
"We've done a lot of great things in the last year and over the last decade," Barnhart said. "That's now just the foundation. We're on a new journey and much more is expected."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress elected to return for their sophomore seasons earlier this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a week or so of the season's conclusion, John Calipari meets with each of his players individually. In the meetings, Coach Cal gives advice about the future and directs his players on how they need to improve.
Given the frequency with which his players are selected in the NBA Draft, the meetings are a source of intrigue. That was particularly true this year with so many players facing difficult decisions about whether to stay or leave.
But anyone who wanted to be a fly on the wall when Willie Cauley-Stein stepped into Calipari's office would have been disappointed. The meeting was short and the message simple.
"I could leave this year, go late first round or come back next year and have an opportunity to go really early," Cauley-Stein said.
Then again, that's probably exactly what any UK fan would have wanted to hear: The skilled 7-footer would be returning for his sophomore season. Cauley-Stein had seen where he was projected in the draft and he decided he could do better.
"I heard a wide variety of things, which kind of that's what set me off," Cauley-Stein said. "I heard anywhere from eight to 10, 15 to 20, 22 to 25. That's the whole dang scale. That's everywhere. I didn't feel real comfortable taking a chance on it and landing somewhere that I'm not going to be good at or ending up hurting myself and coming back and helping."
Just like his meeting with Calipari, Cauley-Stein's decision was an easy one and a quick one. For Alex Poythress, it was a bit of a different story. Poythress talked at length about what to do with his family and UK's assistant coaches, in addition to Coach Cal.
"It was a long process," Poythress said. "You just want to make sure your heart is all in it, make sure you made the right decision, and I feel like I did."
The decision he settled on ended up being the same. Cauley-Stein and Poythress believed they could improve their draft stock with another season, but reducing the choice to that one factor is a vast oversimplification.
At the top of that list of reasons is a little unfinished business.
"You don't want next year to end like this year," Poythress said. "It shouldn't happen with the guys coming and the people returning. We're going to have that much of a fire burning in our belly."
Though it's been more than a month, neither Poythress nor Cauley-Stein need any reminding of the way UK's season ended with back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt and Robert Morris in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and NIT, respectively.
"It just left a bad taste in your mouth," Cauley-Stein said. "I feel like something's empty and I want to fill it. Next year, we're going to have a great opportunity to do that."
Cauley-Stein's optimism, of course, is based in large part on the unprecedented volume and quantity of talent coming to Lexington next season. In terms of recruiting rankings, Calipari has signed his most highly regarded class to date, an eight-member group that features six five-star prospects and the top point guard, shooting guard and power forward in the class according to Rivals.
"It's going to be a nice roster," Poythress said. "The competition at practice is going to be very good. You're going to have to go hard every day."
Cauley-Stein arrived at UK an unheralded prospect - at least relative to the standards of the Calipari era at Kentucky - but contributed immediately and even dominated at times as the year wore on. Intense matchups with a potential No. 1 overall pick in practice for the first three-and-a-half months should not be overlooked as a reason for that.
"I think honestly for me that's going to be the best thing to come out of next year is you're going against pros every day," Cauley-Stein said. "This year it was like that until Nerlens (Noel) got hurt, and then we were going against Brian Long. ... You're not getting better. You're going to dominate practice and get into a game and struggle. Next year, it's going to be a lot different."
Though practices will undoubtedly be different, Cauley-Stein is quick to caution that it's in the Cats' hands whether things change in games.
This time a year ago, Cauley-Stein and Poythress were members of a recruiting class generating more than its fair share of championship talk. UK entered last season ranked No. 3 and is likely to be ranked in the same range in 2013-14. Having gone through what he just did, Cauley-Stein knows how insignificant hype can be.
"The potential is exactly that," Cauley-Stein said. "We had the potential this year and didn't capitalize on it. We could easily be, you know, we had the best recruiting class coming in and not do anything with it. It's that simple. If you don't come together and do things right, then you're just a bunch of talented kids that didn't get anything accomplished."
Cauley-Stein also realizes it's up to him and his teammates to write the script for next year.
"It's different if you make it different," Cauley-Stein said. "It could easily be the same where you come in here and you don't work as hard. But the thing is I don't think Cal's going to let that happen and us guys coming back's not going to let that happen just because how we finished, you can't leave off there."
After that ignominious end, Cauley-Stein has already noticed in himself reason to believe things will be different.
"Once the season ended it was kind of like my whole mentality changed instantly - which I wish it would have changed before the tournament happened," Cauley-Stein said. "I kind of got like a dominating mindset going into this next year. I want to be the best in everything I do. ... This time I want come in here and do it. I don't want to try to do it."
That mentality sounds a lot like that of a leader, and it's no coincidence. Other than the concise advice he gave to Cauley-Stein about coming back, Calipari told his big man he needed to step up in the leadership department. Heeding that advice, Cauley-Stein wants to do what Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb did for Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the likes of Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison.
"I think that's exactly what we missed this year is a guy that played a lot minutes as a freshman (and) decided to come back and take on the role of a leader," Cauley-Stein said. "We didn't have that this year. Kyle was that kind of guy, but he still didn't play big minutes his freshman year. This year, we've got three guys (Cauley-Stein, Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer) - including (Jarrod Polson) - that were playing almost thirty minutes a game. That coming back is going to help tremendously."
The UK track and field program held a Senior Day celebration on Saturday at the Heart of Bluegrass Classic. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For the first time since 1996, the Kentucky track and field program hosted an outdoor meet as the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. In more ways than one, it was a special day for the program. Not only did it give UK a chance to showcase its world-class facility, but it also provided a chance to honor its seniors as a special ceremony was held toward the end of the day.
UK had great performances by several athletes, highlighted by junior distance runner Cally Macumber, who broke the school-record mile time, and senior Keith Hayes, who claimed victories in four different competitions.
Head coach Edrick Floreal told his seniors earlier in the week to compete in one event and then rest up so they could be in the action while still enjoying the Senior Day celebration. However, Hayes took a different approach, attempting to race in as many heats as possible because he plainly and simply wanted to run.
"I told him if you need me to run the 4 by 800, I'll run the 4 X 800; if you need me to run the mile, I'll run the mile," Hayes said. "I just wanted to run just to be out because everybody doesn't see what we do on a day-to-day basis. They see results here and results there but we got the opportunity to put on a performance."
The Wildcats put on a show for the fans Saturday, winning several competitions. Although Floreal wanted his Cats to come out and perform well, Saturday was less about how they competed and more about a way to show appreciation to the crowd and alumni.
"The point today was less about performance, more about putting on a good show for the crowd," head coach Edrick Floreal said. "We also wanted the alumni to be part of this after 17 years without an outdoor track meet. It was more of a thank you.
One of Floreal's goals for the coming years is to bring the high school state meet to UK. There were 37 high schools competing against each other on Saturday and the commissioner and assistant commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association in attendance to boot.
"I think the meet belongs here at UK," Floreal said. "I think with a facility like that, you have to highlight it. I think having the high schools participate and perform here gave them a sense it's a fast track and they can do well here."
As the day continued and the races starting winding down, a Senior Day celebration took place to honor the student-athletes who have dedicated themselves to the program.
Seniors had their names called and were accompanied by either family members or their respective coaches as they had their list of accolades read off by the public address announcer. After the festivities concluded, there were two more competitions left. The men's and women's 4 by 400-meter races were saved for last as the seniors anchored each.
"Student-athletes have other places they can go to it's not like they are forced to come here. They can go somewhere else and they are great athletes," Floreal said. "If they are going to come here the least we can do is to give them a meaningful thank you to really highlight what they have done and that was my goal."
UK baseball visited Fort Jackson on Friday before its series with South Carolina this weekend.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Usually on the day of night games in the Southeastern Conference, visiting teams spend the day wasting time at the hotel, eating pregame meals and preparing for the daunting challenge of winning a league series opener on the road.
Not so on Friday for the 17th-ranked Kentucky baseball team, which faces off with No. 14 South Carolina at Carolina Stadium this weekend.
The Wildcats had a different Friday, spending the morning at Fort Jackson, the United States Army's main production center for Basic Combat Training under the command of Brigadier General Bryan T. Roberts.
UK's club was invited to visit Fort Jackson during the week leading up to the trip to Columbia. UK jumped at the chance to break from its routine and show its student-athletes the training ground for America's heroes.
UK head coach Gary Henderson, assistant coach Keith Vorhoff, support staff and a dozen Wildcats boarded the bus and ventured down the road to Fort Jackson.
"This was a tremendous opportunity to get some of our group out to see a special place at Fort Jackson," Henderson said. "The men and women that serve in our armed forces are heroes and we were honored to have been welcomed on a visit. The chance to see what our soldiers go through on a daily basis to prepare them to fight for our freedom is an eye-opening experience. We can't thank General Roberts, Captain Meyer and the soldiers who were able to visit with us enough; they make us all proud to live in this great nation."
After a chance to meet with General Roberts, the Wildcats were given a personal tour of the recently renovated Fort Jackson museum where they were given a glimpse into the fort's history dating back to its inception in 1917.
Among the Wildcats on the trip was redshirt junior catcher Micheal Thomas. The Elizabethtown, Ky., native is a child of the military just 20 minutes from historic Fort Knox.
"It is cool to see what the men and women who serve our country have to go through to get ready to go to Afghanistan and other places for war," Thomas said. "It was an eye-opening experience for me and the guys, to see what guys our age actually have to go through."
Thomas, who has been a fixture behind the plate in 2013 after spending the previous four years behind standout catchers Marcus Nidiffer, Luke Maile and Michael Williams, was touched by the personal invite to the historic military base.
"It is really cool. Most of my family has been in the army," Thomas said. "Both of my parents were in the Navy so it was a little different for me. I got to see some of the other aspects of what my family has gone through from generation to generation. Being one of the first in my family to not join the military right out of high school was kind of cool to see what they went through, how they lived their lives and what has led them to be the kind of people they are today."
After the tour of the sparkling new museum, the Wildcats ventured across the base to an indoor shooting range, equipped with electronic sensors and screens to replicate battle scenarios. Henderson and the Wildcats were instructed on loading and re-loading their high powered, automatic weapons, before beginning the training scenarios.
"This was a great opportunity to come out and see just how the army life is," UK senior right-hander Walter Wijas said. "I had never had this experience, I had never shot a gun before and it was just a great experience to learn how it is and see how difficult it is for our soldiers to live here and fight for our country."
The Wildcats went through several battle simulations scenarios on the range, while lying in the prone and kneeling positions. The players had to think on their feet in a battle simulation, deciding on the fly about potential threats and civilians.
After the visit to historic Fort Jackson, the Wildcats returned to Columbia with a new perspective thanks to an experience much more meaningful than an afternoon spent in a hotel room.
"To see this just makes me respect our soldiers even more then I already do," Wijas said. "To see what they go through on a daily basis, it makes me feel for the work to do, it really makes us feel grateful that we have the life we do. The chance to play baseball everyday has been given to us by the brave soldiers in our military."
UK will showcase its new outdoor track at the Heart of Bluegrass Classic on Saturday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
In what has been a year of milestones for the Kentucky track and field program, perhaps the biggest step forward will come Saturday when UK hosts its first outdoor meet in more than a decade: the Heart of the Bluegrass Classic.
Kentucky opened its state of the art Outdoor Track and Field Facility last fall, and Saturday's meet serves as a celebration befitting of such a spectacular venue.
The meet will also mark Senior Day, as UK's departing student-athletes will be honored on the new track as they compete in front a home crowd outdoors for the first time in their careers.
"I think this is more so for the fans and the university," Floreal said. "This is more for our kids and their parents to see them compete on the UK facility for the first time in a long time. Having a meet that's not as competitive will be even more fun because they can win more events. It's more so a feel-good type thing and less about trying to break records."
It will be a nice gesture for the seniors who have spent a lot of time at UK training and working hard every day for the program. There should be a good crowd at the UK Track Complex with family members making their way to Lexington to be a part of the event and support their favorite Wildcats.
The day is going to be focused on the seniors and Floreal is going to do the best he can to send them out in style and possibly let some anchor a relay or two.
"Our seniors haven't really been recognized," Floreal said. "If you don't play basketball at your university it's kind of hard to recognize your seniors. I think having a home meet gives us a chance to do that."
Along with the 10 universities participating in the track meet on Saturday, a total of 37 high schools will be attending for their own competition as well.
Floreal and the athletic department have worked hard over the last few months to make sure this weekend's meet is run as a world-class event.
Unlike a lot facilities around the state, Kentucky's track provides it all in one place for the fans. You don't have to leave the track area to go watch the field events and Floreal sees this as an opportunity to showcase every aspect of the sport. He wants Saturday to be a top-notch event, which will serve as a showcase which will hopefully lead to the state high school meet returning to Lexington.
"I think there is a responsibility in having the best looking track in the state that you put events on," Floreal said. "I want to host a state meet as soon as possible because I think it belongs here. I just think having a state meet is a big statement for us and I want to get that back here as soon as possible."
The Cats are coming off one of their best weekends of the season when they teamed up with Louisville at the "Kentuckiana" Border Battle. UK and U of L defeated Indiana and Notre Dame 101-99 in the women's competition and 103-97 in the men's.
Kentucky's effort was impressive, but the successful meet was perhaps more important because UK was able to turn the heads of rival competition for the first time in a long time.
The Wildcats seemed to jell and show the other schools that this was a different unit from the start of the meet all the way through the final races of the afternoon.
The hard work and new training methods implemented by the first-year head coach and his staff have been evident from the cross country season through indoor track and field in spurts. Even with the Wildcats' early success, the Border Battle Meet was the first total team performance turned in by the Wildcats since Floreal arrived in Lexington.
One change for Kentucky this season has been beginning every meet with a show of team unity. At the Border Battle the Wildcats took a team lap before the meet started, followed by a team cheer of "Go Cats."
More importantly, once the meet got underway, the Wildcats raised plenty of eyebrows.
"A couple coaches came by and said, 'I don't know what you are doing but oh my goodness these are not the same kids. They act like they belong and act like they should be beating us,' " Floreal said. "It was pleasant to see that people are noticing that we are different. Not that we are doing it for them but it's nice to see that this is working."
The track has served as an important new asset for Kentucky through training and competing in outdoor events. Floreal - in another basketball reference - compared preparing for an outdoor meet in an indoor facility to practicing free throws on a nine-foot rim instead of the regulation 10 feet.
The turns are a lot tighter inside as opposed to outside and athletes can get the feel of where the start and finish lines are. The UK track is going to match what the Cats will see at the SEC Championships at Missouri in a few weeks.
It gives the team a sense of calm heading into a major competition, instead of arriving at an outdoor event in disbelief as might have been the case in the past.
"I think the performances we've gotten so far outdoors have reflected on the fact that the kids go to an outdoor track meet and they don't have to be in shock," Floreal said. "It can be calmness like, 'This is normal. I have been doing this outdoors the last three weeks and here it is same outdoor track just different color.' "
The women's golf team heads to Birmingham, Ala., this weekend for the SEC Championship. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Golda Borst took over the Kentucky women's golf program, the Wildcats were 77th in the country in the polls. Today, the Wildcats sit at 32nd.
Things have changed a lot since Borst took the job three seasons ago, and while she's striving to mold UK into a perennial Southeastern Conference contender, this team, in particular its four seniors (Ashleigh Albrecht, Betsie Johnson, Heather Lott and Megan Moir), have much to be proud of.
"We have a group of girls that are very proud of this program and how far we have come," said Borst. "When the freshmen came in, they made sure that they knew that and how far we'd come. They have been really clear in where we want to go."
On the flip side, Borst has brought in two talented freshmen with Cylia Damerau and Sarah Harris having earned spots in the lineup this spring. It hasn't always been smooth sailing as the youngsters learn the ropes and make their mistakes, but every day out on the course with the upperclassmen has contributed to their development.
Borst said it was very important for this crop of freshmen to have this season with the seniors to not only learn what life is like as a collegiate golfer at Kentucky, but what this program was all about to help steer them in the right direction.
The Wildcats, after an up-and-down start to the spring on the heels of a successful fall, appear to finally be hitting their stride, and just at the right time.
UK is riding the momentum of a fifth-place finish at Oxford, Miss., in the M&F Bank Rebel Intercollegiate in which Kentucky bested four other SEC squads. It's been a long time coming, but the tournament in Oxford provided the Cats with exactly what they needed headed into postseason play.
"I must say, the golf course there is pretty similar to what we play at home," said Borst. "It was pretty open off the tee. You still had to play good approach shots and have a good short game, but it was a really good course to get our confidence back up."
It wasn't just about playing better and fixing mechanical flaws. Kentucky had to change its mindset to get to this point. While the Cats wanted to do well for each other, the pressure of performing well for one another was proving to be just too much to deal with.
Things had to change.
"We had to do something different. What we were doing wasn't working," Borst said.
Instead of hoping things would get better, Borst made her team have a players-only meeting to talk about changes that needed to be made.
Borst challenged her team and said, "This is your team. You chose the University of Kentucky. How far do you want to take us?"
So the team sat down, talked and decided that instead of working on team goals, they would focus more on an individual approach and worry about themselves and know that in the end, their collective scores would afford the team greater success . Kentucky's finish in Oxford would suggest that the Wildcats are headed in the right direction. Now, they have their sights set on the SEC Championship this weekend with a goal to improve on their finishes in each of the last two seasons when they finished in 10th in 2011 and ninth in 2012.
"With the team that we have, I think a realistic goal is top seven," said Borst. "Looking at the team, looking at the stats, looking where they are and how we're doing, looking at the two freshmen that we have that are strong, I really think that's a realistic goal. Then, it's individually what do you need to do to prepare for this week?"
If Kentucky needs one area of improvement on the course, it's in the short game. The athletes have done a fine job of driving the ball and putting themselves in favorable situations, but they haven't been able to deliver with their wedges and putters in clutch situations for much of the spring.
"At the end of the day, you have to hit the ball closer and take advantage of the opportunities that you have," said Borst.
While the weather hasn't always cooperated this spring in Lexington for the Cats to get out and work on their short game, it's a mental block more than physical that's keeping UK from executing.
"When I took this job I strongly believed we had the facilities that we need to be the best team in the country," said Borst. "I don't think that the weather is that big of a deal. Is it a disadvantage? Yes, a little bit. But if you prepare the best way you can and you're mentally ready, you can go play just as well as a team down south. You just have to be ready for it and adjust quickly."
The last week of practice leading into the SEC Championship in Birmingham, Ala., has been encouraging as the short game appears to be sharpening in practice rounds.
"We've worked a ton on our wedges," said Borst. "We're starting to make those strides the last couple weeks and I'm really excited about that."
And taking down four different SEC opponents heading into championship play?
"I think that was, again, great for their confidence," Borst said. "Is it going to be tough to beat them again at SECs? Yeah, because they are great teams. They do have some girls that are more experienced in bigger and better events than us, but it gave our team a little bit of a taste of what that felt like and that they can do it."
This weekend, Kentucky has a chance to take this program even further. It will be the seniors' last opportunity to compete at the SEC Championship, but the first for the UK freshmen. It will be an experience that could benefit not only the present, but the future of this program for years to come.
"I want to build upon (the current culture), but also change it to win the championship," Borst said. "There always that glass ceiling and Kentucky's never been there, so that's what we're working for and I think it's good for the freshmen to be with these seniors and now try to move it forward and do great things."
This year's recruiting class was already regarded as the best in 2013. Now, with three more highly talented signees, John Calipari and Kentucky may have pieced together the greatest recruiting class of all time.
Kentucky announced the additions of Julius Randle (Plano, Texas), Dakari Johnson (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Dominique Hawkins (Richmond, Ky.) on Wednesday. Randle, Johnson and Hawkins join fall signees Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, James Young, Marcus Lee and Derek Willis, forming what many are calling the greatest recruiting class ever.
"I think it could be the best class of all time in terms of offensive efficiency," ESPN analyst Paul Biancardi said after Randle's verbal commitment on March 20. "This class can score the basketball. They can shoot the 3-point shot. They can beat you off the drive. They score the basketball from their respective position as well as any class that John Calipari has had at Kentucky. ... This class is going to need some help, but as this class stands alone, it could be the best of all time."
The proof is in the numbers: six McDonald's All-Americans. Kentucky's top two high school players. Six consensus five-star athletes. Seven top-150 Rivals signees. A combined 36 stars in the Rivals ratings system.
It all adds up to the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- Coach Cal's fifth straight, according to Rivals -- and one collective commitment to return UK to the top of college basketball next season.
"The thing I like most about this group is its competitive spirit and its will to win," Calipari said. "These guys are All-Americans and award winners, but more importantly they're world champions, national champions and state champions. They know what it takes to win. The size and talent of the group will allow us to have tough, hard-nosed practices which will carry over to the games. I'm excited for the opportunity to coach this group."
"The final straw that came to me was the system, and I felt like the system at Kentucky was a great system. They have a lot of great players there going in there so you're going to have to battle, but I think like they did the year before with that team being a unit. I play USA Basketball with a lot of great players so I think I'll adjust well. I think it's the best fit for me. That's where it was in my heart or I wouldn't be at Kentucky."
"To be able to battle with those guys every day in practice is only going to make me better, help me prepare for the next level. Playing with great players with a plus for me; it wasn't a negative at all."
"Julius is another hard-working player who is a great student and person along with being a dominator on the court. He has that will to win that the players I've had who have become special have all had. That motor will be important to our success next year. Julius has the skill set to be an inside-outside guy for us. He has the ability to put it on the floor and beat guys off the dribble, but he's also got the toughness, size and ability to score against bigger defenders. At the end of the day, he's a true leader whose personal drive is off the charts."
What they're saying about Randle
"He dominates the game with his physicality. He's explosive, strong and powerful at the rim. His body, it's ready for the college game right now. And he's best in the paint by scoring and rebounding. He can dominate the action. When you think about Julius Randle, you think about a dynamic athlete. The bottom line is this: His versatility, skill level and athletic ability are uncommon for a player his size. Once his game gets in motion, it's hard to stop or contain him. He creates fouls and finishes at the rim. He's going to impact the college game next season." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
"I've seen Julius since he's been probably a ninth, 10th grader, and the thing that jumps out is his ability, his physical size. I think Paul hit it on the head (with the) Wayman Tisdale (comparison). He's got a little bit more perimeter game. He can handle the ball. He can shoot the jump shot. And the thing I like about him is his maturity." - Matt Doherty, ESPN
6-10, 265-pound center from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Ranked No. 9 overall by Rivals, No. 11 by ESPN and No. 18 by Scout
Consensus No. 1 center
Led Montverde (Fla.) Academy to the 2013 National High School Invitational title
Named MVP of the 2013 National High School Invitational
Member of the 2012 USA Basketball U17 World Championship Team
Finished with 12 points and five rebounds in the McDonald's All-American Game
Chosen for the Jordan Brand Classic
Posted eight points, four rebounds, two assists and one block in Jordan Brand Classic
"I just want to win a national championship. I want to win a high school championship, then a college championship and hopefully an NBA championship."
"(The coaches) were just honest people from the get-go. They told me that this wasn't the place to come if I were selfish, if I wanted the ball all the time or I didn't want to work hard. But I want to work hard, I want to get pushed. I want the pressure on me because that makes me a better player."
"Dakari's improvement over the last year and a half has been phenomenal. His ability to be a true low-post threat adds an important piece to what our team will really need. He's patient when he gets the ball on the block and has a great understanding for how to use his size for a kid his age. Dakari is a great student and a great kid. He's won a high school championship, a world championship with Team USA, and he said he wants to win a national championship with us and an NBA championship. That statement says a lot about the type of winner he is."
What they're saying about Johnson
"Johnson is a true center and will be the low-post anchor for the Wildcats right from the start. He has tremendous size, hands and work ethic and is an excellent rebounder on both ends of the floor. Johnson has worked extremely hard to mold his body into excellent shape, and it has really helped him become more productive and consistent." - Reggie Rankin, ESPN
"Dakari Johnson (is) a true low-post center. He'll give the Wildcats a physical presence on the glass, blocking shots and scoring in the low post. Offensively he's just scratching the surface of his ability." - Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-1, 170-pound guard from Richmond, Ky.
Ranked a three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout and ESPN
Named Kentucky's Mr. Basketball
Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year
Led Madison Central High School to the Kentucky state championship
Named MVP of Kentucky's Sweet Sixteen tournament
Averaged 26.8 points and 8.8 rebounds during the Sweet Sixteen
Scored 29 points against UK signees Andrew and Aaron Harrison on Dec. 1
Averaged 20.9 points during his senior season
Joins Derek Willis as the second signee from Kentucky in the 2013 class
" I was basically shocked once they offered because they do nothing but get the best players. I know I'm a good player but I wasn't expecting it, but I guess I am a great player now that Kentucky offered me. It's amazing."
Nobody's guaranteed a spot. You've just got to come in and compete and that's what you do at every school. Nobody gets a spot just because they're an All-American. You've just got to come to compete."
"I kept hearing about Dominique from Marquis Estill and my good friend Dr. Robert Palmer. When I watched him play, lead his team, and play with a will to win and fight, I was totally sold. At the Sweet Sixteen, he made sure he got his teammates involved and was always happy with their success, but when it was time to take over the game - when it was winning time - everyone in the building knew they were going to play through Dominique, which they did, and they won. The last UK player who was named Kentucky Mr. Basketball and won a state title in the same year was Darius Miller. He went to two Final Fours, won a national title and is now playing in the NBA. My hope is Dominique will be on the same path."
What they're saying about Hawkins
"He's a very good athlete. He's a guy who I think could turn into a really good defender. Offensively I think his strength lies in his ability to hit midrange shots. Areas for improvement would be becoming more consistent with his long-range jump shot. What I like about him is his how hard he plays, his toughness and his athleticism." - Evan Daniels, Scout (from Courier-Journal)
Head coach Brian Craig (right) looks for his team to find their strokes at the SEC Championships this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It has been a season full of this, that and the other for the Kentucky men's golf team. Not once has head coach Brian Craig seen his team put together a full tournament in which it completely fulfills the potential that each individual has within him.
That feeling can be awfully burdensome while trying to win golf tournaments and make a successful run in the postseason. There is also a positive perspective to consider, and that's the attitude that Craig has chosen when looking forward to this week's Southeastern Conference Championships.
"I feel like we're ready to play well. We've just kind of tread water this spring," said Craig. "We're in good shape for the postseason. I feel like our best golf is in front of us. We just haven't been able to get all the guys playing well at the same time, so maybe this will be the week."
This team is certainly capable of winning and playing well. They did so multiple times during the fall season and added one of the top European amateur players to the lineup this spring in junior transfer Ben Stow.
The spring weather has been unseasonably unkind in the Lexington area with cooler temperatures, rain and snow, and unkempt golf courses that have hindered the development of the Kentucky golfers. Less time out on the course means less repetitions and experience to prepare for tournaments during the season.
Craig and his team refuse to use the conditions as an excuse, but it's a fact. With better weather finally on the way in the Bluegrass state, UK is looking for their swings to come around much like the warmer temperatures and heat up at the right time.
"The weather's finally breaking, so we can get on grass a little bit more around town here, which should help," Craig said. "It's just a matter of time, but it would be fun to see it happen this week."
Where Kentucky golfers have struggled most is with themselves. The field isn't too tough, and the UK players are plenty talented. If anything, they are trying too hard to find their desired level of success.
Craig wants his guys to stop trying to be Superman out on the golf course and make smart, calculated shots instead of going for the home run on every swing. If everyone buys into that, the results will come.
"Everything that's costing us and holding us back is unforced errors. It's things that are pretty simple, pretty basic, under our control," said Craig. "We're putting good pressure on the golf course to shoot low scores - that's the mark of a good team - but we've had a lot of errors that have been real basic."
After building a solid foundation in the fall, it's possible that expectations for the spring may have gotten the best of the UK golfers. Mounting pressure of living up to the successes of the fall season may have contributed to Kentucky's struggles so far. Stow was looked at as a difference-maker in the lineup, and maybe it was too much to ask so soon.
So Craig has been working individually with his athletes, whether on the course or in private one-on-one sessions trying to get his players to play within themselves and to play together, rather than trying to do everything on their own. While expectations can be good, he doesn't want them to outweigh the enjoyment of playing golf.
"I think that's one of the challenges Cody (Martin) had. We talked about that," said Craig. "He's just got to focus on what he can control. I think Ben's done that. We've talked about that too where he just has to settle down and focus on the process of playing golf and not be burdened by any kind of expectations."
Craig also made sure to let his players know that golf isn't like other sports. Hustling will not cure a golfer's ailments on the course.
"You don't grit and bear and it makes it better. It actually makes it worse," said Craig. "It's not football. It's not basketball. You don't hustle harder and it makes it better.
"It's a whole different deal, a whole different mentality of being able to let it go and relax, be confident, trust. That was you can swing freely and confidently."
Despite the struggles, Craig is still confident in his team. His team is confident as well. If anything, their confidence may have played a small role in their inconsistent play this season.
"I don't think for one minute that this team doesn't believe in itself," said Craig. "If anything, we might be a little overzealous in that category in not choosing the right strategies on the golf course because you feel like you can hit that shot or you should be doing this, when actually you shouldn't be. If anything, we go that route, as opposed to being able to dial it back a little bit."
That's why Craig continues to feel excited about his team's chances headed into SEC and NCAA Regional play. The effort, will, and desire to win are there. They are playing well enough to win, so now, they just need to put it all together at the right time.
"It's not like we're out there scraping around trying to get it done," Craig said. "We're playing well, we just haven't scored nearly as well as we've played.
"Normally when that happens, it's just a matter of time. That's why I'm encouraged."
A'dia Mathies is moving to the WNBA after scoring 2,014 points during her four-year UK career. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As she proved throughout her four-year Kentucky career, there just isn't much that rattles A'dia Mathies.
Her facial expression - no matter the circumstances - hardly changed and Matthew Mitchell said he could never quite get a handle on what she was thinking.
But as the WNBA Draft moved into the latter half of the first round, Mathies admits that her normally imperturbable pulse quickened a bit.
"I think I was excited so much I was just sitting on the couch and once they got up into the seven, eight, nine area, my heart started beating fast when every single pick was called," Mathies said.
Watching Monday night's draft at her grandmother's house in her hometown of Louisville, Ky., Mathies still wasn't showing much emotion as she waited to hear her name called. But when the Los Angeles Sparks took her with the 10th overall pick, the same could not be said about most of her family.
"My mom started jumping around," Mathies said. "I haven't seen her jump around like that in a while so I know she was excited."
Not only had Mathies become the highest draft pick in UK Hoops history, but she would be joining an organization that has won two WNBA titles in the league's 17-year history and moving to the hometown of someone she has looked up to for a long time.
"Pretty much everybody who thinks about the WNBA they automatically think of the Sparks," Mathies said. "Just to be going there and my brother lives in L.A. and being with him and I miss him and I'm just very excited right now."
Johnny Mathies is a few years older than his sister and played basketball at Creighton from 2003-06. A'dia says she grew up trying to be her own player, but that her older brother was the person she most looked up to.
"He knows basketball and he gives me pointers all the time, especially when I was playing at UK and things I need to work on and I think that's really going to help me out a lot," Mathies said. "He's going to support me so I know I have somebody I can trust and I think it's going to be really beneficial to have him there."
Also already helping Mathies in her transition to the professional ranks is Ukari Figgs, UK's assistant athletics director for women's basketball. Figgs played five years in the WNBA, including three with the Sparks, so she has a good idea of what's in store for the second-leading scorer in Kentucky women's basketball history.
"She has just been giving me the basics right now like getting an agent and really helping me out with the draft experience since she has been through it," Mathies said. "We will talk more about it as far as what it's like to play out there and being a WNBA player. We have been working out a little bit and we are just going to take it step by step over the next couple of weeks."
Mathies will take any help she can get right now because of how much she has on her plate. She is slated to graduate with a degree in psychology in early May and will head west immediately after for training camp. The Sparks play their first regular-season game on May 26.
"Right now (her head is) on cloud nine, but I'm going to come down very soon," Mathies said. "Just stay grounded and humbled. I had a great workout today with the team and Coach Figgs. ... It's real great to see how everything is coming together and I'm just trying to stay focused and do everything right and try to be the best that I can."
That's really no big change for Mathies.
Just as she'll enter the WNBA intending to do nothing but make the most out of her ability, Mathies came to UK four years looking to be the best version of herself. By doing that, Mathies became unquestionably one of the best players in the history of her soon-to-be alma mater, helping to bring the program to national prominence in the process.
"It's very humbling to see somebody like me to actually get that accomplished and just doing the things that I've done here," Mathies said. "When I first came here, I never would have imagined I would be top in this and doing this and even getting drafted this high. The work that we put in as a team and individually I think it's definitely paid off and I'm just happy and humbled that it actually happened and it's a great time in my life and I'm very excited."