The Kentucky rifle team arrived in Alaska on Thursday. (Will Kindred, UK Athletics)
On Thursday, the top-ranked Kentucky rifle team departed for Fairbanks, Ala., where the Wildcats will compete in two No. 1 vs. No. 2 matches with Alaska-Fairbanks on Saturday and Sunday. To help the Big Blue Nation keep up with their trip, student-athletes from the team will take turns blogging about their voyage. First up is junior Cody Manning.
By Cody Manning
The day started early; it seems like any time we fly somewhere we always leave at the earliest of hours. I set three alarms to make sure I got up on time, got up at 4 a.m. ET, was able to take a quick shower, get a banana and race out the door. Some of my teammates picked me up, we got to the range and from there we loaded up on the bus and headed to the airport. That's where our journey began. Probably the most extreme trek I've done since I've been on the team.
This is my first time to Alaska and to take part in any of kind of travel is always great because we have such a fun team. The trips are great opportunities for us to bond and come together as a team.
Flying out of Lexington is pretty typical for us so we've got that whole process down. Of course I managed to complicate it by leaving my duffle bag at security. Everyone made sure I didn't live that one down. The flight to Atlanta was pretty simple. Afterwards we had just enough time to grab a snack and board our first long flight from Atlanta to Seattle.
That second flight was long and we had to find stuff to do to keep occupied. I spent a majority of my time watching a movie with Connor (Davis). We watched "World War Z" with Brad Pitt.
It was my first time in the Seattle airport. Most airports tend to get meshed together in your memory but I'll definitely remember the task of getting to our next gate today in Seattle. We had to change terminal trains four or five times before finally getting to our terminal and I know I wouldn't have ever figured it out if I wasn't with the team.
Finally getting on that last plane for that last four-hour plane trip to Fairbanks, at that point it became a little more real that I was actually going to Alaska. It's pretty neat to look out your window and see the window starting to freeze up on the outside and see snow-covered ground below.
The last stint was probably the toughest because I had already watched my movie, I had already done the homework that I wanted to accomplish and then those last two hours on the trip were brutal. I had already slept and I was excited and just wanted to land.
In Alaska, we got down into the baggage claim, I added another layer, putting an extra sweater thinking that was going to be it, I'm not going to be cold. It's going to be negative-23 degrees but I'm going to warm. Then me and Connor step outside and it hits my face and It's just brutal. That weather just doesn't exist in Kentucky.
To illustrate how cold it is, the cars need to be plugged in to stay warm when parked, something I have never heard of.
Dinner, like any other team meal, was an experience; it's always a good time. Everyone was real tired after dinner because we've been up since 4 a.m., and now as I'm writing this it's around midnight back home. We're trying to stay awake to avoid jet lag. We're going to get ready for tomorrow which is going to be some time for us to just unwind and get acclimated to Alaska before we head into what we're really here for: our matches Saturday and Sunday.
In regards to tomorrow, we don't know exactly what's on the schedule but I'm looking forward to it. There have been talks of curling, going to see the trans-Alaska pipeline or maybe go dog sledding. All the typical Alaskan adventures that you would hear of, typical Alaskan things that are atypical to Kentuckians. I look forward to it, I'm excited.
Being in Alaska is awesome, it's something that I would have never gotten to do if I wasn't on the rifle team and I think that's just one more benefit of being a student-athlete at Kentucky.
Jarrod Polson is in his senior season as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week, Jarrod Polson writes about the first road trip of the season, enjoying his final year at Kentucky and what his next step could be.
I'm happy to be doing this and get a chance to talk about my last year here at Kentucky. It's been a fun ride so far and I'm really happy to see what this season is going to turn out like. I hope we go out with a bang.
Team-wise, I think we're doing pretty good so far. I think we've been improving every day, and that's the biggest goal here is just not to worry about who we're playing but improving ourselves every day. With the big first test against Michigan State, I think we showed a lot of perseverance. We could have lost by 30 that game with the start we had, but I think that definitely proved how competitive our guys are and how much they want to win no matter what.
Even though we lost that game, I think that may have helped us a lot, kind of like the Indiana game did to us in my sophomore year. It was kind of just a wake-up call to realize that everyone is going to give us their best game every night. We always have to be ready.
I wouldn't say our new guys were nervous, but when Michigan State went on that big 10-0 run at the beginning, you could kind of see them like, oh wow, this is big time and something they had never been a part of before. I think that's definitely going to help them because that's how the tournament games are going to be in the SEC and in the NCAA Tournament. I think just having that in the back of their minds and finally getting through that game and actually coming back at the end and having a chance to win shows them that they're going to have to play hard. Knowing now that we have the fight and will to do it, I think it will prove to be an important game for us.
The Michigan State game was also our first time on the road this year. I've been through it a lot, but it was the freshmen's first time flying on the plane with us and seeing how we do things. We don't really get to do too many extracurricular activities when we're on the road; we pretty much just stay in the hotel and get focused for the game. At the same time, it puts everyone together. I think it's definitely a good bonding experience going on the plane rides together and just being in different cities together and being with each other for a 48-hour period non-stop. I really enjoy the road a lot. I think a lot of the players do just because it kind of lets us get away and we get to play.
For me, the trip to Chicago was cool because it was my first time in the United Center. Seeing Michael Jordan's retired jersey and stuff in the rafters, I think everyone was just kind of like, wow. I know some of them played in the McDonald's All-American Game so they had been in there before, but for me, I didn't even realize it until we went in there. I was just kind of like, oh yeah, this is where Michael Jordan played. This is where the Chicago Bulls made their legacy.
It's kind of crazy how many games we have played already. I feel like we usually don't play half the games that we've already played in November. But we're enjoying it. We enjoy playing. If we could play every day I think we would choose that over practicing. Honestly, sometimes it feels like a game is less tiring than a practice. It's fun for us to get started right off the bat and keep playing game after game after game, plus I think it's good for the freshmen because they're just getting g a ton of experience. I think it's a win-win situation for us.
Off the court, I think we're a really close team. Curfew has kind of helped with that. We're all in by 11 or midnight every night. A lot of us are still awake at that point so we're bringing out the pool table and stuff like that, just hanging out with one another. Actually me, Jon and Dominique just brought out the ping pong table the night after our game. I think I'm the best, but I've only played Jon and Dominique so far and it's really the first time we've played it this year. I'm not much of a pool shark, but Hoody is pretty good at pool. Alex is alright. Actually, not really.
In all seriousness, even though we would prefer not to have curfew, it's actually making us closer. We have to hang out. It's not like we don't want to hang out anyways because we love each other off the court, but we're getting closer because of it and we're having fun.
If we get to go home for Thanksgiving, I'll probably take a couple of the guys home with me since so many of them don't live close to here and won't have anywhere to go. Coach has had us over for dinner at his house in the past, but I think it would be fun to bring some of the guys home, and I know my family would be welcome to that. I haven't been home in a while, so just getting back to see my family and all my relatives would be really exciting for me.
When I think back to stuff like that and how we do things every year, it kind of hits me how fast this is all flying by for me. A lot of people told me that would happen, but I didn't really believe them at the time. I guess in one sense it feels like freshman year was a long time ago, but at the same time I've been in college for four years and it seems like a flash. I can remember back when I was a freshman, I could barely do one drill without messing up. For me personally, my development has gotten a lot better with basketball. Really, just with everything I feel like I've grown up a lot. I've been around the block. I'm really used to it now and it's normal for me. At the same time, I just want to enjoy my senior year.
Jon came up with this idea before our first game of calling our senior year our farewell tour. It pretty much just means no matter what happens this season, we're not going to get discouraged and we're just going to try to enjoy it as much as we can. We can't control playing time or anything like that, so we're just going to take everything in and work as hard as we can like we have for the last three years and try to enjoy everything that comes with this last season because this is it for us.
Jon and I have talked a little bit about possibly going overseas once our careers are over here. We don't really know about how to go about trying to do that, but it would be awesome if we have that opportunity. Obviously it would be totally different. It would be a huge commitment that we would have to make. A lot of people are good enough to go over there but they just choose not to because it's so different. We're going to have to look at that and weigh the pros and cons of each thing. I think as the season goes on, we're probably going to get a better feel for if we can even go over there and where we would go and stuff like that, but we're still in the beginning processes of that.
At the same time, it's not like a do-or-die thing for me. That's not been my main goal in life, to play professional overseas basketball, but I'm just trying to keep my options open. The good thing about me and Jon is that I do think we have a lot of opportunities whether it's going overseas or getting a job over here. We're excited for it just to enter a new chapter in our lives.
As we enter the final few chapters here, I think I'm looking forward to the tournament run the most. That's definitely the most exciting part of the season for the fans and for us. We get to go to class for like two days a week and then the rest of the week we're at whatever site we're at and just practicing. It just seems like everyone is watching college basketball during that time and that's what I think is most exciting. When I was a kid in March, I would just glue my eyes to the television watching every tournament game I could find. Just being a part of it is still a cool experience for me. I can't wait for it again.
Until then, we've got a lot of practice between now and then. I've got to head to one now so I'll catch you all later. Happy Thanksgiving!
When people think about Kentucky's "40 minutes of dread" style of play, defense is the first thing that comes to mind.
That was certainly the case on Thursday night, as Greg Brown lamented the way the Wildcats "mentally drain" opponents with their pressure after his Lipscomb team committed 32 turnovers in Memorial Coliseum.
But there's a side of UK's signature style that is ignored at times. The Cats don't only apply constant pressure with the way they hound their opponents; they also do it with the way they constantly push the ball.
"Well that's just the goal for us is to put 40 minutes of pressure on you and not just defensive pressure," Mitchell said. "I think the offensive push and the push on misses and makes us hard to deal with."
Sure, UK scored 40 points off Lipscomb's 32 turnovers. Of course, the Cats made the Bisons pay for their mistakes in a 116-49 victory on Thursday.
This Kentucky team, however, doesn't need a traditional fast-break opportunity to get out and run. Every new possession is a chance for a quick basket, whether it comes from a live-ball takeaway, a defensive rebound or even an opponent's basket.
After Thursday's offensive explosion -- which fell just five points shy of the school record for points in a game of 121 -- UK (5-0) is averaging 97.2 points, including 102.8 over its last four games. Against Lipscomb, the Cats had an astounding 92 offensive possessions. For the sake of comparison, the fastest-paced men's college team averaged just 73.2 possessions per game a season ago.
On average, UK's possessions lasted just 12 seconds, with the Cats often shooting before the 10 seconds women's teams now have to cross midcourt. That all begins with Kentucky's two-headed point-guard monster of Janee Thompson and Jennifer O'Neill.
Mitchell opted before the season to split minutes between the two equally, and they have responded. On Thursday, they combined for 27 points and six assists. On the season, they are averaging 20.0 points, 7.4 assists and 3.4 steals as a tandem.
"I'm just really proud of Jennifer and Janee for understanding that that's real, that the goal of that is real," Mitchell said. "It's not to placate one or the other or play mind games so one's not upset."
Mitchell restated his goal after the Lipscomb win that he wants Thompson and O'Neill to, together, become the top point guard in country. Thompson smiled as if to suggest she's heard that a few times before when asked about it postgame, but it's a challenge she's accepting.
"He knows that either one of us could be on the court at any time and he trusts the both of us equally," Thompson said. "So we just try to do our best and give Coach Mitchell whatever it is he's looking for when one of us is on the floor."
The two have come to complement each other well on the court, but that starts well before tip-off.
"I think that starts off the court," Thompson said. "Me and Jennifer have a really good relationship and then that just transfers onto the court."
That's not just idle talk or a quote that sounds good in a press conference either.
"They're really trying to come together," Mitchell said. "I saw them today at pregame meal sitting beside each other. Walked over to CATS (UK's tutoring center), I was driving back after pregame meal, they're walking, they're together."
Together, Thompson and O'Neill are guiding an offense that is clicking on all cylinders. The Cats dished out 22 assists against Lipscomb, marking the fourth straight game they have topped the 20-assist mark.
"That's almost unheard of," said Bria Goss, UK's leading scorer with 18 points. "I've never heard anything like that before, but that just kind of shows you where we are as a team right now."
Goss was one of eight Wildcats to score in double figures, something that had never before happened in school history.
"All of the players are working hard and have put our team in a good position," Mitchell said. "We need to stay very humble, work very hard and stay hungry in practice every day. When we do that we will have a lot of opportunities to win some big games this year and play well."
Courtney Raetzman rises for a header vs. Ohio State
Four minutes rarely amounts to much in the lives of the 18-22-year olds who make up the teams remaining in the NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament, but in 2013 that amount of time served as a blessing in disguise for Kentucky.
The Wildcats became a group of walking wounded late in the regular season due to the piling up of injury upon injury. Come last Friday's first-round game, the Wildcats had to recall a player who was thought to be out for the season: Courtney Raetzman.
In fact the UK staff had applied to officially end her season so as to grant her an entire additional season of eligibility due to injury hardship, but NCAA rules denied the request.
The technicality? She had played four minutes too many to qualify for a medical redshirt.
Those four minutes may have seemed trivial if not cruel earlier this season, but as it turned out they were key in allowing the Wildcats to advance to Friday's 10:30 p.m. ET second-round matchup at UCLA.
Raetzman was a revelation in UK's first-round victory over Ohio State.
Her performance was all-the-more impressive given she was wearing what looked to be an extremely restrictive brace, apparently to protect against reinjury.
"We've got a gutsy kid in Courtney Raetzman that was back," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "I mean, Courtney has been out since the seventh game of the year. She actually played four minutes too much for us to be able to look at redshirting her this year, so everything that she did was, I'm going to find a way back, I'm going to find a way, I'm going to get back on the field.
"And a week ago, she wasn't even really going full-go in training. Just two days ago, she was finally cleared to train, tackle, do everything. For that kid to come back in and play like that, it's unbelievable."
The impact of Raetzman's play cannot be overstated, and her return helped UK in tactical terms, but the comeback also was also helpful in ways less quantifiable. When a player works that hard and gets back onto the pitch so quickly and so effectively, teammates apparently take a great deal of inspiration.
"Anytime you get a player back on the field from injury, it's great," All-SEC forward Arin Gilliland said. "We're a family here and being able to have someone on the field that really makes a difference once again is a great feeling and it brings so much energy back to the field and it gets everyone excited."
The team's excitement at Raetzman's return translated into goals galore and a win, but similar stories have been widespread across the team in 2013. Such unexpected stories of perseverance seem necessary for a team like UK, which has lost so much talent because of injury to be able to make it as far as UK has.
Caitlin Landis's 2013 journey is yet another example of a player who spent part of the season on the periphery of Lipsitz's first choice lineup only to play a pivotal role once the NCAA Tournament came around.
Landis, a senior, began the season by losing a starting place which she had held for much of her career, but like many other Wildcats, injuries to others forced her back into heavy playing time.
Apparently the adversity brought out a new level in Landis's game, which was on full display when the forward opened the scoring in the 3-1 win over Ohio State.
"The way she sees the field and her ability to play other players in now is something she didn't have before," Lipsitz said earlier this season. "She was not starting early in the year, and we made some adjustments ... She has put a stranglehold on it ever since. I hope she feels like I was totally wrong when I wasn't starting her early.
"I hope she looks at me every day and thinks, 'You are an idiot,' because I want my players to want to be on the field and think they deserve to be. She was ready when her number was called and she's been ready ever since."
And then there's the case of Ashley VanLandingham, whose season has in many ways been best exemplified by not even four minutes, but only a matter of seconds.
The senior captain started the trend of UK women's soccer players suffering untimely injuries as she was declared out for the season with a knee problem last spring.
Nonetheless she was named a team captain, and served this season as UK's loudest player offering support from the sidelines during games and as one of the Wildcats' most influential leaders.
VanLandingham's symbolic minutes came on senior day, when she started the game with the opening kickoff being played out of bounds before she showed her rehab progress by jogging off for an immediate substitute. The move was a nice in-game touch of ceremony, which served as a sort of reward for a player who had given so much to the program.
"I had recruited Ashley to go to Charlotte when I was coach there as she is from North Carolina," Lipsitz said. "What a leap of faith on her part to come play here at Kentucky. That's special, but as much fun as it was to watch her on the field her progression as a leader this year despite not playing is the most special thing of all."
The senior captain's one minute of play this season had almost no direct impact on the events, which transpired on the field during UK's game that day or any other wins. Yet, just like Raetzman's return or Landis' ability to be a team-first player while on the bench, the ceremonial start represented off-field work, which helped UK in ways less visible but still important.
Kentucky will play at Georgia at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A longtime defensive backs coach, Mark Stoops watched the way Georgia lost against Auburn and winced.
With the Tigers facing a one-point deficit and a fourth-and-18, quarterback Nick Marshall tossed a desperation heave over the middle of the field. Two Bulldog defenders converged and Josh Harvey-Clemons got a hand on the pass, but it deflected ahead to Ricardo Louis' for a game-winning 73-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds left.
Stoops knows how the Bulldog staff coached its players to defend that situation, but also that predicting how anyone will react in the heat of the moment is impossible.
"Sometimes players' instincts take over," Stoops said. "They had two guys that are trying to make a play, with great effort, and it's unfortunate for them. But I know they talk about it and we talk about you have to knock it down right there."
The loss was the latest in the latest of a string of misfortunes for Georgia (6-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference). The Bulldogs opened the season ranked No. 5 but lost at Clemson in week one before climbing back to No. 7 in early October.
It was then that injuries -- particularly at wide receiver and running back -- befell the Bulldogs, who have lost three of five games in spite of holding fourth-quarter leads in each defeat. Never, however, has Georgia packed it in, not even down 20 in the fourth quarter on the road against a top-10 Auburn team.
The same will surely be true when Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) travels to Athens, Ga., for a game on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET.
"That's what I was so impressed with," Stoops said. "You know, kind of a fluke play to lose it, but to see them battle back, we had a chance to watch it on the way back (from UK's game in Nashville on Saturday). It was on the bus, we had satellite and were actually watching that game and just watching it live and then watching it on film."
That never-say-day attitude, in Stoops' opinion, begins with Georgia's quarterback and senior leader. Aaron Murray's name is all over the SEC's passing record books, as he now occupies the top spot in touchdown passes, total offense, passing yards and completions.
"He just knows where to go with the ball at all times and is a great leader and on top of that, he's got a very strong arm and a very accurate passer," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "I'd say the biggest thing about him is he's just so intelligent with how to handle the game."
Murray's leadership through adversity is what most impresses Stoops.
He has managed to throw for 2,892 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2013 with many of his top weapons sidelined, including 415 yards against Auburn. Nine Bulldogs have at least 10 receptions on the season, including leading receiver Chris Conley (32 catches for 442 yards), who returned against Auburn after missing two games with a sprained ankle.
Also back in the lineup is sophomore running back Todd Gurley, who has 704 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in just seven games played and two starts. His presence is a game changer.
"(Defending a balanced offense) is always hard, so you've got to make sure that your defense is made where you're making the right call at the right time, you know," Eliot said. "If I want to stop the run, I've got to have a run called. If I want to stop the pass, I've got to have a pass called. That makes it very difficult."
Particularly in the passing game, UK's challenge against Georgia will be much different than the one it faced at Vanderbilt. The Commodores relied heavily on Jordan Matthews -- who caught 12 passes for 141 yards -- but Murray figures to spread the wealth.
The Wildcat secondary is still in search of its first interception of the season -- a statistic that both befuddles and maddens Stoops -- and now UK will look to get it against one of the best quarterbacks the SEC has seen.
"It's right there sometimes and just hasn't gone our way it seems like," Eliot said. "But it will. It will. We keep putting them in position, those kids keep fighting hard, we'll start making our side of the plays."
Georgia has made more than its share of plays on defense, particularly behind a stout defensive line. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in sacks with 28 and have hurried the opposing quarterback an incredible 93 times. For the sake of comparison, Georgia has given up just 12 sacks and 18 quarterback hurries.
"It's going to be tough," offensive guard Kevin Mitchell said. "Fortunately we're not too banged up. Hopefully we're all going to be playing. Every week we go against good D-lines."
Mitchell has contended with a variety of maladies this season, ranging from a bruised knee to regular stingers to an ankle injury to balky AC joints, but has refused to let any of them affect his senior season for too long.
That kind of mentality has become more and more common as Stoops' first season in Lexington has worn on. The losses may be tough to take, but the Cats -- much like their opponent this weekend -- have refused to wilt.
"I think you're starting to see more accountability on this team as guys understand us and start understanding that whether it's off the field or little things, it all matters," Stoops said. "And I think we're starting to get some leadership."
Azia Bishop had 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks in UK's win over Central Michigan on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Earlier this week, Matthew Mitchell announced that senior Samantha Drake will miss the season after suffering a torn ACL and meniscus in Kentucky's win over Central Michigan on Sunday.
Drake -- who will apply for a medical redshirt -- is now in the beginning stages an arduous recovery process that is expected to last seven to eight months.
Mitchell hopes Drake can return in time for the 2014-15 season. If her early approach to the injury is any indication, there's a good chance she will.
"I have been really proud of Samantha, she has responded with a very positive attitude and that is what she needs," Mitchell said. "The only thing we can do now is prepare every day to get herself into a position to get back on that court. It won't be this season, but she can get back on the court next season."
Drake is now the second Wildcat lost for the year, joining freshman Kyvin Goodin-Rogers. Goodin-Rogers was diagnosed with a blood clot before the season and recently returned to limited non-contact workouts, but is still being treated with blood-thinning medication.
"You never know why these things happen, but you have to learn the lesson that is there and you only do that by positive attitude and moving forward in a positive way," Mitchell said. "Both of those kids are doing that and I am proud of the team because they are rallying around them and helping them a lot. It is a good atmosphere from that standpoint."
Drake and Goodin-Rogers are around the team as much as possible while they sit out, but the fact remains that UK has games to play without them, starting on Thursday in Memorial Coliseum against Lipscomb.
The Wildcats began the season counting depth in the post as a strength, but are now down to starters DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker and reserves Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney. Stallworth and Walker have played up to expectations thus far, while Bishop has put together arguably her most extended stretch of solid play of her career, making the blow to UK's depth easier to absorb.
"We are fortunate that Azia is playing well, but we had six post players that can play and had talent and could really go," Mitchell said. "Now, we have four that can play and that is a good situation to be in as well."
Playing 15 minutes a game, Bishop has been one of UK's most productive players on a per-minute basis. She is averaging 7.8 points and 6.8 rebounds and has tallied 20 points, 21 rebounds and six blocks over her last two games.
The 6-foot-3 Bishop has had more than her share of moments during which her talent has been on full display, but never before has she been so well-positioned to turn potential into consistent production.
"This has been some sustained progress and that is where we need to be and where we have to stay with Azia," Mitchell said. "We have to keep her progressing. She seems to be in a great spot mentally and emotionally and those are key to you being able to go out and really turn loose and let your physical gifts shine."
Even if Bishop does become the player Mitchell knows she can be on a nightly basis, he knows there will come a time when foul trouble or other circumstances will force him to turn to a backup plan. Fortunately for the Cats, Mitchell has plenty of experience coaching a smaller lineup. UK began its run of success under Mitchell primarily playing four-guard lineups and he won't be afraid to turn to them again this year.
He already has a couple players in mind he believes can play out of position in a pinch.
"We've had a lot of success in the past here with some four-guard lineups and so I think Makayla (Epps) and Kastine (Evans) need to get comfortable with knowing the post position," Mitchell said.
Epps and Evans may be just 5-foot-10 and 5-8, respectively, but they each have a skillset that will allow them to succeed in a more post-oriented role.
"Makayla's strength can help her on defense," Mitchell said. "Get lower and be stronger and maybe keep a taller player away from the basket. She's very athletic, can jump and is very strong on the boards. Kastine's very, very sharp and knows all the plays and plays really hard."
A senior, Evans has proven her willingness to so whatever is asked of her time and time again, from starting to coming off the bench to playing the perimeter to playing the post. Mitchell has been around long enough to understand how precious that kind of team-first mentality is. That's why he was so thankful to see the same thing in Epps even though she's a highly touted freshman when he approached her on Wednesday about stepping into the post.
"Makayla was just very excited about whatever she can do to help the team, whether it's point guard or playing in the post and two or the three. That's a very rare talent, a very rare player, but it's more rare to have a kid with an attitude like she has, that I'll just do whatever you want me to do."
James Young scored 26 points on 8-of-14 shooting in UK's 105-76 win on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Before the season, John Calipari said he had as many as eight players capable of scoring 25 points on any given night.
Five games in, the Wildcats are well on their way to proving him right.
"Our whole team can score," James Young said. "If we all have open shots, we just tell them to take it because we can all score or get to the basket. If a guy has a hot hand for the night, we just try to get them the ball as much as we can."
Tuesday night was Young's, as the freshman guard became the third Kentucky player to reach the mark. He poured in 26 points in UK's 105-76 win over Texas-Arlington in Rupp Arena, following in the footsteps of teammates Julius Randle -- who had his fifth straight double-double with 22 points and 10 rebounds -- and Aaron Harrison in breaking Coach Cal's 25-point barrier.
"When you're 8 for 14 the way he played," Calipari said. "He had three assists, no (turnovers), played pretty good."
It took a little coaching from Calipari to make it happen.
Through his first four games, Young -- whom Coach Cal regularly calls the nation's best shooter -- had shot just 35.5 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range. Watching the tape from UK's win over Robert Morris on Sunday, Calipari noticed Young's problems were primarily mechanical.
He observed that Young was leaning back on his shot and not setting his feet, so Calipari summoned him into his office on Monday.
"You lean your shoulders back because your legs aren't under you and you're trying to get a little more oomph on your shot, and when you do that, you're basically fading away," Calipari said. "You're not going to be an aggressive consistent shooter on fade-away shots."
Unaccustomed to missing so regularly, Young applied his coach's advice willingly and immediately.
"I was frustrated," Young said. "I usually make shots, so when Coach Cal showed me that, I was just mind-blown. We easily fixed it."
Young would score 15 points on Tuesday before he missed a shot, rendering his struggles a distant memory. On the night, he made 5-of-10 3-pointers and 5-of-7 free throws.
"When I saw that most of the mechanics was right and just doing what Coach Cal told me to, I knew it was going to be a good night shooting," Young said.
To ensure that continues, Calipari is challenging Young. Even though shooting has always come naturally to the lefty, Young needs to hone his craft, says Coach Cal.
"He's one of those ones that you've got to love to get into the gym more," Calipari said. "Just get in there and shoot. You're 12 steps, you walk across the street."
But even if he does that, Young knows he won't be hitting shots every night. For that reason, he knows he needs to learn to respond better to misses. He's valuable to this Kentucky team in too many ways to disappear entirely because of a brick or two.
"I tend to put my head down a lot when I miss shots so he's just been getting on me and just saying let the shot go and keep moving on," Young said. "There will be more shots. I just listen to him and try not to put my head down and just keep moving on with the game."
And even if he did become the first shooter to ever avoid the occasional off night, Young is surrounded by too much talent to expect to be the featured scorer every time out.
"I can't score as much because we have a lot of people that can score," Young said. "If it's somebody's night, we just try to get them the ball as much as we can and I guess tonight was my night. They tried to get me the ball as much as they can and I just tried staying with my normal form and just getting some open shots I was hitting."
Young is one of three players to lead Kentucky in shot attempts through three games, and more will surely join the club in the coming weeks and months.
"We got too many guys that have that kind of talent so you know that some games you're feeling it you're going to get 10 or 12 (shots) and some games you're going to get four," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who posted a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. "That's just how it is here."
Though he's a native of Youngstown, Ohio, Mark Stoops has grown accustomed to mild winters. He's made coaching stops at Houston, Miami, Arizona and Florida State since 2000.
Now at Kentucky, Stoops is once again becoming acclimated to cold November practices. On Tuesday, UK practiced in the coldest temperatures of the year.
"Pretty decent practice," Stoops said. "Little bit cool out there today, but the energy was up. Guys were moving around, bouncing around good, so overall fairly pleased with the practice."
Headed to Athens, Ga., (Saturday forecast: 62 degrees and rainy) this weekend for a game against Georgia, Stoops won't need to bundle up this weekend, but the Cats will have to prepare for a Bulldog offense that has rolled up 856 yards passing over its last two games. That starts with star senior quarterback Aaron Murray.
"They're very good and very efficient," Stoops said. "They have a lot of balance in their offense, and so when they need to throw it -- like you saw at the end of that game last week -- they can throw it as good as anybody, really. I think they have a really good group of receivers, good tight ends. They like hitting the back (Todd Gurley) and checking it down to him as well. But Murray's just a very special quarterback."
A young secondary is in for a test, particularly with junior corner Nate Willis unlikely to travel. It's a group that is without an interception this season -- UK's lone pick was by linebacker Josh Forrest -- a fact not lost on Stoops. His background is as a defensive backs coach, so he's having to balance between using the lack of interceptions as motivation and preserving confidence.
"There's a line," Stoops said. "There's definitely a line between beating them down and getting them to, you know. It'd be good to cover them and knock the ball down sometimes as well, honestly."
Over the Cats' last two games, they've dealt with Dorial Green-Beckham of Missouri and Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, two players sure to play on Sundays. Georgia, only now recovering from a rash of injuries at skill positions, might not have that kind of top-end talent, but will still be a test.
"We'll have our hands full each and every week in this league, but we're improving and we'll be out there ready to play," Stoops said.
Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Saturday matchup at Georgia. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was plain to see that Mark Stoops was frustrated after Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt on Saturday. He saw many of the mistakes and missed opportunities that had plagued the Wildcats in their previous close losses and was growing tired of the feeling.
But by Monday, Stoops had come to realize that his team isn't the same one that dropped tough road games at South Carolina and Mississippi State.
"I think you're starting to see more accountability on this team as guys understand us and start understanding that whether it's off the field or little things, it all matters," Stoops said on Monday, "and I think we're starting to get some leadership."
That leadership translated on the field, as Stoops was more pleased with his team's overall effort than he has been at any point this season, in spite of the 22-6 final score.
"I thought last week was as good as we've played all year with that mentality, a toughness and a desire and a hunger across the board to go out and win," Stoops said.
The Cats were particularly sound on defense, holding the dangerous Commodores to 313 yards of total offense, the fewest for a UK opponent in Southeastern Conference play this season. Vandy's first touchdown of the game came on a short field following an interception and the only other on a fourth-down jump pass with less than a minute left.
"Defensively definitely our best outing since we've been here," Stoops said. "I thought we really did some good things and played well."
UK didn't execute quite as well offensively, but it wasn't for a lack of trying.
"I thought we played very hard," Stoops said. "On either side of the ball, and in special teams, we're not always the smartest and we don't always execute everything perfectly, but I thought for a team effort, that was as good an effort and the attitude was right and the fight was right, and that's something that I'm proud of and happy to see."
Stoops feels Bulldogs' pain after Auburn loss
Georgia played in arguably the game of the season over the weekend, falling in heartbreaking fashion at Auburn.
The Bulldogs mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback, rallying from a 20-point deficit to take a 38-37 lead in the final minutes behind start quarterback Aaron Murray. Georgia was a play away from sealing the upset on the next drive, but Nick Marshall's downfield heave on fourth-and-18 deflected off the hands of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and to Ricardo Louis for a game-winning touchdown that will be on highlight reels for years to come.
"You know, that was an extremely tough loss," Stoops said. "I mean, unbelievable to see the way they battled back and to take that lead and to have an opportunity to win. That's what I was so impressed with."
In a bus on the way home from Nashville, the Cats watched the crazy finish.
"Unbelievable effort by that team, and you see the leadership with Murray and the talent around him to come back and take that lead and really--I'm sure they're sitting there kicking themselves, should have won," Stoops said.
That sympathy, however, only extends so far as UK prepares to travel to Athens, Ga., for a game at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday.
"It'll be another great challenge for us, a team that's led by a terrific quarterback, fantastic running back (Todd Gurley)," Stoops said. "They're a big, physical, athletic team across the board. It'll be a good challenge, and looking forward to getting out there and playing again." Recruiting signs still positive
Since Stoops and his coaching staff arrived nearly a year, they have made waves on the recruiting trail.
It started with a 2013 signing class that was the highest-rated ever for Kentucky according to Rivals.com and has continued in 2014. Due to NCAA rules, Stoops can't comment specifically on unsigned prospects, but he continues to be pleased with the way UK's message is being received on the trail.
"I feel very good about the way things are going in '14 and off to a good start in '15," Stoops said. "You know, makes me very optimistic about the future. I think we're recruiting some great leaders, some great young men that will help our program."
But even if those two classes come together as Stoops believes they will, the work isn't done. In his words, "It takes time."
"So I think you see our freshman class this year being very good," Stoops said. "I think you know the '14 class is going to be a very good class. It's going to be a great class. And I anticipate those guys having a good impact on our program.
"Then you let them grow up a little bit and you let them get another year older and you bring in another good class on top of that, possibly a couple (junior-college) guys here and there, and you start putting together a very good team."
In talking at length about years to come, Stoops caught himself. He refuses to sacrifice the present for UK football's far-off future.
"I like our locker room," Stoops said. "We're improving. We're going to improve it next year, and we're going to improve it the year after that. We're building. We're going to win, and I can't tell you when, but I hope it's this week."
Update on 'banged-up' Cats
Like any team in mid-November, Kentucky is far from full strength entering this weekend's game.
TraVaughn Paschal is doubtful and Khalid Henderson will play in his place at weak-side linebacker. Cornerback Nate Willis is also doubtful, so UK will start Cody Quinn and Fred Tiller at the two corner spots.
The Vandy game was a tough one for the UK offensive line, as both Kevin Mitchell and Darrian Miller exited with injuries. Stoops, however, anticipates that both will be available. The same goes for wide receiver Ryan Timmons, who was limited to "four or five plays" by ankle injury.
Dominique Hawkins played 18 minutes in UK's 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari doesn't have to worry about pushing Dominique Hawkins in practice.
In fact, there are times when he even has to pull back on the reins with the freshman guard.
"The kid works so hard," Calipari said. "His heart rate is--I have to stop him because I'm afraid he's going to fall out."
Hawkins came to Kentucky as the final piece of a top-ranked recruiting class and the least-heralded of the eight Wildcat freshmen, leading most to assume the Richmond, Ky., native's future as a regular contributor was likely a year or more down the road. But just weeks into the season, Hawkins' tireless effort has become impossible to ignore.
He earned first-half playing time against Michigan State, holding his own in a 1-2 matchup. In the days that followed, Calipari said Hawkins' role would expand further.
In an 87-49 win over Robert Morris on Sunday, it was clear why.
"Coach Cal puts me in there to turn up on defense, give more energy," Hawkins said. "I know my role. What I'm supposed to do is put pressure on the ball and get our defense going. I'm doing great right now, I feel like, and Coach has been telling me to continue with the hard work that I'm doing."
A look at the final box score from the Wildcats' supposed revenge victory over the Colonials -- who ended UK's season a year ago in the NIT -- and Hawkins doesn't seem to have been a major factor. He scored four points -- the first of his college career -- and had three assists, a block, a steal and a rebound, but his impact went far beyond statistics.
Hawkins checked in at the 17:05 mark provided an instant shock of energy. Taking over the responsibility of hounding the opposing point guard even though he plays the wing on offense, Hawkins spearheaded the UK defense for all of his 18 minutes, often in a press that Calipari turned to extensively for the first time.
"Well, today when I was in I was putting a lot of pressure," Hawkins said. "Everybody sees me working hard and it's going to rub on everybody else and they're going to want to work harder. When everybody works hard, we're able to put a lot of pressure on the ball, get turnovers."
Given Hawkins' presence, it should come as little surprise the Cats turned in their best defensive performance of the season.
Robert Morris managed just 0.662 points per possession after averaging 1.165 in its first three games, shooting 23.2 percent from the field. UK forced 14 turnovers -- double the seven Michigan State committed on Tuesday -- and had 16 fast-break points after managing just two in the loss.
Hawkins had something to do with all of that.
"He just goes up and he adds energy to the game," Calipari said. "You saw how hard he runs the court so we could throw to him, so we could throw lobs, so we could throw to the post."
If the increased minutes weren't proof enough, Calipari said postgame that he is confident turning to Hawkins. His teammates, though many of them didn't know of Hawkins until he arrived this summer, have come to feel the same way.
"We all know how good Dominique is," said Aaron Harrison, who poured in a game-high 28 points. "Especially people that are from Kentucky, how he carried his team to the state championship and all that by himself. In practice he's definitely a force to be reckoned with, he's really strong, one of the most athletic guys on the team and he makes me a lot better too."
Playing on the White team in practice, Hawkins most often matchup up with Harrison, qualifying the elder of the two Harrison twins to speak on the experience of facing off against the 6-footer. Hawkins might be at a disadvantage on the practice floor when it comes to size and stars given by recruiting services, but he never backs down.
"Whoever I'm guarding, I'm pushing them and making sure they're going hard. If I'm not going hard on defense, then I'm not pushing myself," Hawkins said. "I'm pushing myself and when I'm pushing myself it's helping everybody else on the court."
In doing so, he's earned the respect of his coach and fellow Cats, as well as minutes.
Though it may come as a surprise to some he has carved out a niche so early on a team regarded by many as the most talented in the nation, Hawkins always believed he would play his way onto the floor.
"I envisioned myself playing a little bit," Hawkins said. "Not a ton, not starting, but I knew I was going to be able to find my role. Whatever my role is, I was going to just play it well."
The role, however, is a significant departure from the one to which he was accustomed in high school.
As Harrison noted, Hawkins was the featured player on a Madison Central team that won the Boys' Sweet Sixteen in Rupp Arena last spring. He averaged 20.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.8 steals during the tournament in catching Calipari's eye and earning an offer to attend the school he had always cheered on as a fan.
It's been an adjustment to move into a supporting role, but one he's happy to make.
"Without the ball, it does feel really weird because in high school I had it almost every time," Hawkins said. "But I like how I play with this team and it's my role not to have the ball as much. If we're able to win, I'm fine with it."