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."
Donte Rumph (No. 99) had a career-high 10 tackles in UK's loss at Vanderbilt on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Reporters watched as Donte Rumph hobbled from the locker room for his postgame interview.
Naturally, they asked about the reason behind his limp, wondering whether his status might be affected for Kentucky's final two games.
Rumph smiled at the question, almost as if to suggest the pain wasn't even worth acknowledging.
"Just football," Rumph said.
The bumps and bruises were well-earned on Saturday, as Rumph tallied 10 tackles, including one for loss, in UK's 22-6 defeat at Vanderbilt. Coming up with stops at a rate uncharacteristic for a defensive tackle, Rumph agreed the performance was likely the best of his career.
"I think so, but I don't try to pay attention to stats," Rumph said. "I just try to do my job and just try to pull out a win for my brothers and my teammates."
Rumph may have fallen just short of that victory, but it was not for a lack of trying, particularly on the part of his defensive unit.
UK held the Commodores to 313 yards and just 3.1 yards per carry. Vanderbilt was stuck on nine points entering the fourth quarter and the Commodores' first touchdown came on a short field following one of Jalen Whitlow's four interceptions, while the other was on a fourth-down jump pass with less than a minute left and the outcome all but decided.
Vandy generated most of its offense through star receiver Jordan Matthews, who caught 12 passes for 141 yards. Adding in his 31 rushing yards, Matthews accounted for more than half of the Commodores' total offense.
"Other than that," Stoops said of Matthews' big say, "I thought defense played extremely hard and very well. A lot of good stops."
Rumph was in the middle of more than his fair share of plays, but his presence had something to do with them all. The senior seemed to inspire his teammates from the game's opening drive.
"I try to lead by action," Rumph said. "I'm not really a vocal guy on defense. I just try to lead by actions and just do my job. That's it. And just do my job. Nothing incredible, nothing extraordinary. Just do my job."
Rumph's UK career is nearing its end and his chances at playing in a bowl evaporated with last week's loss to Missouri. That doesn't mean he's about to stop.
His teammates are taking notice.
"I feel like he's fighting hard for us and it's remarkable to see the fight because we don't have anything to play for now but our team," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "These guys come out here each week still playing hard, still going for a win and I salute them for coming out and trying each week. It shows the character we have on this team."
Williamson is included in that group of seniors who are refusing to let the disappointment of a losing season sap their effort. The veterans won't be on the field to reap the benefits of the foundation for the future of UK football they are helping to build, but that doesn't diminish the importance of their role.
"That makes me feel good because those guys, they haven't quit on us," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "They're still playing, doing everything they can to help the team win and just trying to get a W. When you got seniors like that that are going to put that type of effort into it, it makes you feel good."
With just two games left in a Kentucky uniform, Rumph has begun to reflect on his four seasons in Lexington. The mounting losses are increasingly more disappointing, but Saturday is proof that Rumph isn't letting them get to him.
"It's definitely emotional, especially as a senior, knowing there's no looking back," Rumph said. "But, I mean, it's just your motivation. Be competitive in football. You can't just give up because your season's going the way you don't want it to and I can't give up on my teammates. I gotta come out and give my hardest every day."
His team having finally broken through five minutes into the second half on a goal by Caitlin Landis, Lipsitz shouted from the bench, "Intensity."
Not willing to settle for a 1-0 lead in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament opener against Ohio State, he demanded more. Lipsitz wanted the Wildcats to go in for the kill.
"That's what I sensed," Lipsitz said. "That it was the moment and it was time and not to let them off the hook."
In less than three minutes, the Cats delivered.
Following through on her coach's sideline direction, Arin Gilliland created a breakaway chance with a tackle at midfield and raced into the box before calmly slotting a shot far post past the outstretch hands of Buckeye keeper Jillian McVicker.
Gilliland's approach in tallying her team-high 11th goal was but one example of the relentlessness Lipsitz wants his players to show.
"I wanted our forwards to have a mentality where you're just assassins," Lipsitz said. "You just refuse to be stopped and you're just going to go and go and go."
On Friday night, they went and went and went.
Each member of the the attacking trio of Gilliland, Landis and Zoe Swift scored a goal in Kentucky's 3-1 win over Ohio State. They fired 19 shots between the three of them and tallied a pair of assists.
"We literally were probably in each other's head is how I felt," Gilliland said. "Anytime I would look up and want them to be in a certain spot, they were there. And I'm sure they felt the exact same way. It was just this connection we had today in the game and it's a soccer player's dream to have that."
From the opening kickoff, the three forwards were firing on all cylinders, but a goal escaped them during the first half. With 12 shots and five corners in the first half, UK dominated everywhere but the place where it counts: the scoreboard.
In the halftime locker room, Lipsitz was sure to point out to the Cats how well they had played. However, he's not a believer that past opportunities serve as any indication that goals are forthcoming.
"It's not going to come unless we make it come," Lipsitz told his team. "It doesn't just happen. We have to make the decision it's going to happen."
After the way UK practiced this week, Lipsitz had little doubt the Cats would make that decision.
"I'm not one for a lot of coach-speak," Lipsitz said, "so when I got interviewed this week I said, 'Look, this is the best week of training we've had. We're really sharp. We've done the work and we've prepared and we're taking care of details and we're ready.' "
Starting last Monday, Lipsitz organized training sessions leading up to the NCAA Tournament as if UK were preparing for its season opener.
"The beginning of the week, we were just getting at it and it felt like another preseason just going after each other and being physical," Landis said.
Swift -- one of a handful of freshmen playing featured roles on an injury-depleted team -- got some personalized coaching during UK's second training camp.
Lipsitz has pushed Swift all season long and she's responded almost all the time, earning All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors and scoring nine goals, including the one she had Friday. But during UK's second preseason, Lipsitz refined her role and put Swift back in her comfort zone.
"I think he brought me back in so I could feel more confident," Swift said. "But then I know he's just going to bring me back out of my comfort zone. I'm just getting ready for it."
Swift didn't have to wait long for her first NCAA win, but the same can't be said about the UK program. Last year, the Cats won in the tournament for the first time in program history, prompting an emotional postgame press conference for Lipsitz.
This time around, the feeling was different. Winning on Friday was about living up to expectations.
"Our standards are: We're hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament, we've earned it and we win," Lipsitz said. "That's our standard now."
Landis and her fellow seniors have played a central role in building the UK program toward reaching that standard. The Cats have played and hosted in the NCAA Tournament three straight years now and advanced to the second round back-to-back times.
The senior forward was briefly willing to reflect on her time at UK, but she's not ready to start using the past tense just yet. Landis is too busy thinking about a matchup with either No. 2 UCLA or San Diego State next Friday.
"Going at it and getting better, it's a fun experience and I'm going to really miss it," Landis said. "But, yeah, we're not done yet."
Alex Poythress had seven points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in UK's loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As soon as Kentucky unveiled its 2013-14 schedule, fans circled Nov. 15 on their calendars.
Sure, they looked forward to marquee matchups with Michigan State, Louisville and North Carolina, but Sunday's game against Robert Morris was attractive for another reason: revenge.
UK's NIT loss to the Colonials in March came to define a disappointing season, drawing national coverage even with the NCAA Tournament going on. Eager to erase the sting of the defeat and all it came to represent, fans saw a chance to truly turn the page and move on to a much-anticipated season.
Understandable as those feelings may be, the Wildcats don't share them.
"It's just a basketball game," said Jon Hood, who played 15 minutes in RMU's court-storming win. "It's not a revenge thing. It's about us getting better."
When UK (2-1) and Robert Morris (2-1) square off in the Keightley Classic at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, the Rupp Arena setting will be completely different than RMU's Sewall Center. So will Kentucky's personnel.
Robert Morris, however, will post many of the same challenges as last year though the Colonials lost key contributors Velton Jones and Russell Johnson.
"They're still playing just as hard, just as physical as they did," John Calipari said.
This time, however, Calipari believes he has a team better suited to cope with that physicality. He doesn't need to look any further than the box score from Tuesday's loss to Michigan State to figure that out.
"Well, the one thing is when you outrebound a team like Michigan State, you're way tougher than we were a year ago," Calipari said.
Much of that is on the strength of freshman sensation Julius Randle and his classmates, but Alex Poythress's role should not be discounted.
Less than eight months ago, the sophomore forward was telling reporters he needed to return for another year of school. Reflecting on his freshman year after a six-point, two-rebound effort at RMU, Poythress spoke bluntly about how he needed to improve as a player.
Now three games into his sophomore season, he has arguably become UK's steadiest player outside of Randle. In a reserve role, Poythress is averaging 8.7 points and 10.7 rebounds and his stock, in the words of Coach Cal, is "skyrocketing."
"Alex is playing out of his mind," Calipari said.
His coach isn't the only who notices the change.
"He does look like a different guy," Hood said. "He understands what he has to do now. He understands how hard he has to play and how he has to play. Coach has done a great job helping him and we're in practice trying to push him to do that and hold him accountable."
Poythress will now face off against the team that played a role in precipitating his transformation.
Similarly, Willie Cauley-Stein will be playing the team that prompted him to declare the following about his immediate NBA future and that of his teammates.
"Nobody's ready for it," Cauley-Stein said in March. "I don't think anybody's ready for it mentality-wise, body-wise, athletic-wise."
Cauley-Stein surely remembers how he felt when he issued that quote, but neither he nor Poythress have spent much time recalling the sentiment to their younger teammates.
"They haven't talked much about it," Randle said. "We just all want to win, whether we're playing Robert Morris or we're playing Michigan State."
You can be sure Randle means it when he says revenge isn't on his mind because he didn't even watch UK's loss to Robert Morris, which happened just a day before he committed to Kentucky.
"I was out to dinner with my family," Randle said.
Randle is much more concerned about the first loss of his own college career, suffered against Michigan State. In spite of his 27 points and 13 rebounds, the Cats' comeback effort fell short, 78-74, triggering memories of UK's Champions Classic loss from a season ago.
After that defeat against Duke, the Cats expressed optimism that they had fared so well against an experienced opponent. This year's UK team wanted no part of any silver linings.
"Well, this team cried," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way. This team cried."
But as painful as the loss may have been, Calipari believes it will end up being good for his team.
"The only thing that brings about change is a crisis," Calipari said. "In this sport that I coach, it's a loss. You lose, there's a crisis. There's a crisis in the staff, there's a crisis on the team, there's a crisis in the program. We got to change this. And to survive, everybody's got to accept a different role and do things a little differently and go after it, and that's where we are right now."
UK cross country will compete in NCAA Regionals in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
For as much as cross country is an individual sport, at the University of Kentucky, it's all about the team.
The message that Sean Graham and Hakon DeVries, UK's men's and women's cross country coaches, have stressed to the Wildcats is the importance of running and working together. Even with Cally Macumber -- one of three Wildcats to qualify for the NCAA Championships last season and the defending regional champion -- on the roster, it's a team-first attitude.
That will definitely be the case as UK returns to the NCAA Southeast Regional Friday in Charlottesville, Va.
At last week's SEC Championship, that teamwork and preparation throughout the season paid off in the form of a third-place finish for the women and a No. 5 finish from the men. Both were improvements over last year's finish, the first year under head coach Edrick Floreal.
"Throughout the season we try to hammer home the point of working together in races," DeVries said of his women's squad. "I think that element really showed up at SECs. The team worked together well and overcame some adversity. Overall, we're building and this Friday hopefully will be even more of a team effort then it was at SECs two weeks ago."
The key is to run with a teammate, and feed off of each other. Practices and races earlier in the season were vital to determine who runs best with whom. Graham, in his first season in Lexington with the UK men, has seen the growth and improvement this season as he has stressed the team approach since day one.
"It's improved throughout the season and benefited us at SECs," Graham said. "The guys are figuring out who they're compatible with, and how that benefits us as a team. I think it helps that we train with this mentality for the entire season. They have a demeanor of 'how am I doing, how am I competing to help the team be better.' The mentality that they need to work really hard to get the team better has hit home, especially after a good performance at SECs."
With any team sport, there are certain individuals who excel beyond the rest, and cross country is undoubtedly no exception. For Kentucky, the presence of Macumber at the front of the pack is the ultimate distraction for her teammates, not something that destroys that important team philosophy.
With the Wildcats' team-first approach, Macumber's success just helps take the pressure off her teammates and helps them run. It's the perfect scenario for the UK women, especially since all Macumber cares about is the team.
"Cally is all about the team first, she wants to team to make NCAAs so badly, and would trade any individual performance for that," DeVries said. "For her to take some of the spotlight and pressure on herself has been great for the team and allowed them to really develop throughout the year."
Going into the SEC Championships, the goal was to improve off of last season's conference championship performance. With a team-first mindset, it was mission accomplished: two spots higher for the men, one for the women. Now, the focus has been to keep the momentum going. As the Wildcats see the payoff from their training, the last two weeks have come together.
"The last two weeks have been great," DeVries said. "The results of SECs fired up the team even more to get them to realize their full potential as a team. Us as coaches have seen it for a while, but until you have that breakout performance, it really changed the attitude and demeanor of the group."
"It's been really good," Graham added. "It's basically just sharpening. All the real work was done over the summer and early in the season. Now that we've put that work in, the last two weeks have been just getting ready for Friday. Everything's come together well."
Friday in Charlottesville, the Wildcats will look to take everything they've focused on and prepared for to the course. The men's 10,000 meter race begins at noon, ET, while the women leave the starting line at 1:15 p.m. for a six-kilometer race.
The top two teams and top four individuals at each of the nine regional sites will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships to be held in Terre Haute, Ind., on Saturday, Nov. 23. Thirteen teams will also earn at-large bids, to be announced on Saturday, Nov. 16.
Arin Gilliland has 11 goals and nine assists entering UK's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Besides being Kentucky's leading goal scorer and primary offensive threat, Arin Gilliland had a well-established role on the team.
Through tough training sessions, the junior star helped keep UK loose with her goofy personality. As Jon Lipsitz pushed the Wildcats to reach their potential, Gilliland was always there to lighten the mood with a friendly jab at her coach.
"I kind of kept everyone laughing," Gilliland said.
But a few weeks ago, Gilliland -- a First Team All-Southeastern Conference performer -- realized she needed to change.
In UK's final regular-season home match on Oct. 27, Stuart Pope -- the yin to Gilliland's yang -- went down. The team's second-leading scorer, Pope would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that would require reconstructive surgery.
Like Gilliland, Pope had a clearly defined role.
When a stern message needed to be delivered, it was the junior midfielder who spoke up. When the team wasn't as focused at it needed to be, Pope was always there to remind the Cats of their goals and the work it would take to reach them.
In matches, UK would clearly miss Pope's dynamic play in the midfield, but her absence was felt immediately in practice. With their task master gone, the Cats began to flounder.
"We weren't paying attention to the details," Gilliland said. "We weren't doing all the little things that needed to be done that Stuart would get on people about."
With the SEC and NCAA tournaments still ahead, Gilliland decided to put on her serious face.
"When I saw that and Stuart's over on the sideline doing her rehab like she should be and no one was taking initiative, I kind of realized, look, this is going to continue to go on if someone doesn't do anything," Gilliland said.
Gilliland gathered her teammates and told them the role she had filled for most of her three seasons was going to change. With UK's home first-round NCAA Tournament matchup (Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET) with Ohio State (10-6-3, 4-5-2 Big Ten) fast approaching, the Cats (13-6-1, 7-5-0 SEC) have responded.
"I think this week's been our best week of training since preseason," Lipsitz said. "We are just really sharp. We have a better idea of who can play and who can't. It seems like every week we were adjusting to another player being out and I think we know who we are now."
Considering that Pope's injury is only the latest in a string of misfortunes that might have undone a lesser team, it's impressive that UK has even reached this point. It started when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury of her own in the spring and continued when sophomore Courtney Raetzman was lost before conference play, but the Cats never stopped.
"The fact that we've been able to overcome the adversity just proves the depth of this team and the passion and drive that we have to be the best that we can be this year," Gilliland said.
Simply being tabbed to host a first-round NCAA Tournament match for the third straight season is an accomplishment, but it's not one UK is willing to settle for.
Two years ago, the Cats were elated to just make it to the biggest stage in their game. Last year, they were eager to win the first NCAA game in school history. With that memorable extra-time victory in their back pocket, the Cats are ready for more.
"Once you get over the hump and get that first, I think your preparation's very different, I really do," Lipsitz said.
Standing in UK's way is an opponent familiar to Lipsitz.
Before he went on to head-coaching stops at Charlotte and now Kentucky, Lipsitz was an assistant at Ohio State from 2001-04 under Lori Walker, who is in her 17th season leading the Buckeyes.
"I think I know them very well and I think they know us very well," Lipsitz said. "Obviously it's a coaching staff that I deeply respect. I coached at Ohio State with Lori. She's obviously done a tremendous job. Her two assistants (Glen Tourville and Jason Goodson), they're great friends of mine."
Lipsitz mentioned defensive organization, set pieces and finishing as keys to the game, but he won't overload his team with information. The Cats, after all, have been working toward this moment from the preseason's first practice.
"All those little details that get worked on early in the season are about preparing for now," Lipsitz said. "They just keep talking about, 'Take care of the details. You've been coached to do these things, trust this process and we know that we'll be successful.' "
Last Friday, thousands of fans across the country tuned in to Fox Sports South to watch as the men's basketball team opened a highly anticipated 2013-14 campaign.
Later that same evening, thousands more around the Bluegrass watched delayed broadcasts of the games on the UK IMG Network.
In recent years, Kentucky fans have come to rely on those avenues to watch their beloved Wildcats, but beginning next season that will all change.
In August 2014, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference will combine forces to launch the new SEC Network. The network will air SEC content 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games and events from across the SEC's 21 sports annually.
"The SEC Network will be an incredible asset for our conference and for UK Athletics," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It will provide unprecedented exposure for our teams, but we need the Big Blue Nation to help make it a success."
Many UK games currently televised on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports South, UK IMG Network, CSS and SEC TV will likely be available only the new SEC Network. With future games like men's basketball's season opener vs. UNC Asheville and the recent football game against Alabama State likely moving to the new SEC Network beginning in 2014-15, fans need to demand their cable and satellite providers carry it. Considering marquee in-conference matchups in both basketball and football will also be televised on the new network, it becomes even more imperative.
The SEC Network launches in nine months, but so far AT&T U-verse is the only national distributor of the network. As of November, providers like Time Warner, DirecTV and Dish Network have not yet made arrangements to carry the SEC Network, meaning subscribers would miss many live UK events.
That's where the Big Blue Nation comes in.
Fans can visit GetSECNetwork.com to check whether their cable and satellite providers carry the SEC Network and, if they do not, contact them to demand they do. Cable and satellite providers make programming decisions based on customer requests. Fans should also regularly check GetSECNetwork.com for the latest information about the launch of the new SEC Network.
For fans in Lexington that want the new SEC Network, Time Warner subscribers should call 859-514-1400, DirecTV subscribers should call 1-800-347-3288 and DISH Network subscribers should call 1-800-333-3474 to let them know you want the SEC Network. Cable TV subscribers outside Lexington can obtain the phone number to call from GetSECNetwork.com.
Meanwhile, UK Athletics is currently working to prepare for the SEC Network's launch. All live broadcasts -- including the more than 600 that will be streamed live online -- on the SEC Network will have the highest quality production value and maintain a look and feel consistent with ESPN's other networks.
Representatives from the SEC Network have visited all UK Athletics facilities in recent months in advance of the launch. They have found that UK has an advanced technological infrastructure that should make the transition as seamless as possible.
After the launch of the SEC Network next August, more UK events will be televised that ever before. To make sure you can watch, visit GetSECNetwork.com and let your cable and satellite provider know you want access to the SEC Network.
Just when it looked like Coach Cal's impressive streak of top-ranked recruiting classes was coming to an end -- it has to at some point, right? -- Kentucky's head coach put together yet another one of the top signing classes in the country.
Touted as one of top two or three recruiting classes so far, John Calipari announced four players for his 2014 class during the early signing period on Thursday. Trey Lyles (Indianapolis), Karl Towns (Metuchen, N.J.), Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss.) and Tyler Ulis (Chicago Heights, Ill.) have all signed national letters of intent to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, starting in the 2014-15 season.
All four players in the signing class are regarded as consensus top-40 players, and two of them are rated in the major recruiting services' top 15.
"I'm really proud of this group as far as where they are academically, what type of people they are and their basketball ability," Coach Cal said. "All four of these guys are skilled for their position and they have the ability to score. We're happy to announce they will be joining us next fall."
With a handful of the nation's top recruits still undecided and the spring signing period still to go, it remains to be seen whether Calipari will have the top class for a fifth straight season, according to Rivals. But with yet another collection of talented kids, never count Coach Cal out.
Check below for a recap of each player, including a bio blast, quote from Cal and video highlights.
6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward from Indianapolis
Ranked No. 7 overall by ESPN and No. 8 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 1 power forward by Scout and No. 2 by ESPN
Averaged 17.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks as a junior at Indianapolis Arsenal Technical High School
Two-time Indianapolis City Player of the Year (2012-13)
Averaged 20.3 points for Team Canada in the 2013 U19 World Championships
"Just because of Coach Cal's record with players like me, what he's able to do with guys such as myself, and just really getting us to the stage that we want to be at, which is for me the NBA. I want to be an all-star, and he's had a lot of guys that have been able to step up to that stage and become all-stars in the NBA. His overall pitch to me was just perfect. I think it's going to be the best situation for myself."
"DeMarcus Cousins is out there getting 30 and 15, so that's definitely something I want to be. Julius (Randle), he's just a man-child out there. He has a chance of going No. 1. That just gives them extra points for me, guys at my position that (Calipari has) developed and got into the NBA."
"At 6-10, Trey can play both inside and outside. He has the skills to score in both areas. He's seen what some of our former guys are doing in the pros right now and has said he wants to follow in their path. My hope is he's our next beast."
What they're saying about Lyles
"Highly skilled big man understands how to use his strength to create leverage and hold position. Similar to a young Carlos Boozer, not a high flyer but scores with jump hooks and short jumpers. Excellent rebounder who plays physically on both ends." - Eric Bossi, Rivals
"He is terrific around the basket, displaying a variety of post moves and the ability to finish at the rim. He can also face-up and score effectively. He's not an explosive athlete, but he finds ways to make plays and outworks people." - Jeff Borzello, CBS
7-foot, 235-pound forward from Metuchen, N.J.
Ranked No. 6 overall by ESPN and No. 11 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 3 center by Rivals and ESPN and No. 4 by Scout
Averaged 21.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.6 blocks last season for St. Joseph's
New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012-13
Tabbed New Jersey's top player by The Star-Ledger
Led St. Joseph's to back-to-back state championships
Played the last two summers with the Dominican Republic National Team, the first summer under Coach Cal and this past summer under assistant coach Orlando Antigua
"Kentucky is just such a great school. They're just such a powerhouse in basketball and at the same time they're such a great academic school. I just felt that Kentucky was the best choice."
"For me, being with Coach John Calipari on the Dominican team, he never asked about time or about how many shots to take or anything. He just expected me to compete at the highest level every day and just make sure that I played not just for him, not for anyone, but my family and my country. I really respected that a lot out of him."
"Karl, at 7 feet tall, brings great versatility. He can obviously score it inside, but his ability to shoot and handle it like he's a guard will spread defenses out. His growth from his first stint with the Dominican team until now has been unbelievable, and I'm looking forward to working with him on the collegiate level."
What they're saying about Towns
"A personable big man with big skills, Towns has great hands, soft touch and is comfortable using either hand around the rim. He has good ball skills and range on his jumper but sometimes roams the perimeter a bit too much. An above average rebounder when he plays in the lane." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Towns is an outstanding prospect, and his uncanny ability to stretch a defense with his shooting range is remarkable, as he knocks down shots to 22 feet. For a 7-1 player his passing skills are terrific, as he shows floor vision and the unselfishness to hit the open man. At this stage of his young career he might be more productive outside rather than inside. As he develops a paint game and learns how to use his mammoth size, he will reach his potential." -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-5, 185-pound shooting guard out of Moss Point, Miss.
Ranked No. 18 overall by ESPN, No. 30 by Rivals and No. 31 Scout
Rated the No. 3 shooting guard by ESPN and the No. 5 by Scout
2012-13 Mississippi Gatorade State Player of the Year
Averaged 29.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2012-13
"I felt like Kentucky's worst situation would be better than a lot of better situations at other schools." -- via Evan Daniels of Scout.com
"It's a lot of what everyone is doing nowadays. Going in kind of as a package. I want to be around people I'm comfortable with, people I've hung out with and people I keep in contact with. ... It was mainly my decision, but Tyler and I have been talking about going to college together since our first camp, the Elite 100. Right then I was like 'wow' I wanted to play on the same team as Tyler." - via Evan Daniels, Scout.com
"Devin is a scoring machine. At nearly 6-6, he can play three different positions. He's got great range, which should help us spread the floor when he's playing. What I like most about him is his confidence in his ability and his desire to compete with the best."
What they're saying about Booker
"Booker projects as a big shooting guard who can use his size and strength to counter more athletic wings. Very effective as a catch and shoot guy and he's hard to take the ball from because of his size." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Booker, at 6-foot-5, 185 pounds, is a true shooting guard who plays with great confidence on the offensive end. He has a quick trigger and deep shooting range that extends beyond the 3-point arc. Booker also has a smooth midrange pull-up jumper that he can execute going right or left in addition to having the ability to drive to the rim, where he is a crafty finisher in heavy traffic. Booker spots up on the break, comes off screens and knocks down deep jumpers. He will be worth his weight in gold against zone defenses, where he will stretch the defense and be ready to hit perimeter jumpers off the catch. Booker can rebound and start the break too. He has a good basketball IQ and feel for the game. -- Reggie Rankin, ESPN
5-8, 150-pound point guard from Chicago Heights, Ill.
Ranked 29th nationally by Scout and 33rd by both Rivals and ESPN
Tabbed the No. 4 point guard in the country by ESPN and No. 6 by Scout
Averaged 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals as a junior at Marian Catholic High School
Named the Time Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year
Guided his team to a team-record 29 wins last year and the program's first sectional title
Owns his school's single-season and career record for points
"Kentucky is the biggest stage in college basketball. I like how Coach Cal produces point guards and sends guys to the pros and wins games."
"I like Coach Cal. He's straightforward with everything. He just tells you the truth. He says if you're not built for this you can't come here. If you're not ready for the spotlight, the competition, and if you play bad, the criticism, you can't play here."
"Tyler is the ultimate competitor. His heart and his ability to make people better set him apart from his peers. He can score in bunches, and like every point guard I've had, he brings a little something different to the table."
What they're saying about Ulis
"Lacks size but plays the point guard position without fear. A natural leader who has a good feel for when to attack, when to pull back and when to turn into a jump shooter. Will obviously need to add strength but moves feet very well and has quick hands on defense." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Tyler Ulis is an ideal fit at Kentucky because he is a true set-up, pass-first point guard who keeps possession of the ball until he is ready to drop off an assist or score himself. With a tight dribble and vision he can see the game and play at any speed. He is special, specifically, in two ways. First is his competitiveness as he is usually prepared to compete from the tap and fights it out until the end. Second, he can make a jumper out to the arc which means you can't just play him for the drive and fish. Under John Calipari, Kentucky has had the No. 1 class four out of the last five years. With all the talented scorers and big men that Kentucky brings in, Ulis will make each one of them look good, and even though he is small, he will never back down from an opponent or a challenge. " -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
Kara Howard making a diving catch in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In a span of a month, Kentucky softball outfielder Kara Howard experienced her career-high moment and career-low moment. The former earned her a spot on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10, while the latter is one she promises to never let define her.
As the 2013 Kentucky softball team entered the midway stretch of its challenging schedule it prepared to host its first Southeastern Conference series of the season against Mississippi State. After a Friday-night win in game one of the series, the Wildcats and Bulldogs squared off in a doubleheader the next day with Howard getting a start in leftfield in the day's first game.
The game started with Kentucky grabbing an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, but the Bulldogs rallied in the top of the second inning for a run and were threatening for more with a runner at second base and one out when Howard made the play of her career.
Mississippi State's Erin Nesbit hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Howard chased the ball all the way to the warning track and made a backhanded diving catch. A moment later, she jumped up and completed the double play by picking off the runner at second base and ending the inning.
The play later came in at No. 6 in SportsCenter's Top 10 and the video featuring it now has almost 3,000 views on YouTube.
Nearly a month later, Howard, who played in 35 of the team's first 46 games mostly as a defensive replacement, experienced the complete opposite of her ESPN appearance as she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during practice, ending her 2013 season.
For Howard, the pain from the injury itself didn't come close to matching the frustration she dealt with afterwards. The injury and the surgery to follow forced her to watch helplessly as her team put together a historic season, winning more games than any other team in school history and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional.
"I didn't realize how much I loved softball until it happened," Howard said about the injury. "Having to sit out while everyone was simply running and you can't even do that. It was frustrating. But I know I have a few more years and I can work really hard and just make it count and let this injury be kind of a moment that happened, but won't define me."
The answer to whether the injury, which she is still recovering from in preparation for the 2014 season, would define her or not was not as clear this summer as it is now.
Howard, who is the youngest of three sisters, called her dad -- whom she credits for teaching her everything she knows about softball -- immediately after the injury instructing him not to tell anyone else. But not even 10 minutes later, Howard's middle sister, Kaylan, who was in her senior year with the Oregon Ducks softball team, conveniently called to check in and see how things were going. Howard knew her Dad didn't do as he was told, but she was glad.
"On the injury, I told my dad first and told him not to tell anyone. Of course 10 minutes after that phone call, Kaylan called me up and was like, 'How are things going?' I was like, 'Wow," Howard said. "But she kept me smiling and made me laugh the whole time."
That was the least Kaylan and older sister, Kymmy, would do. Howard went home to Riverside, Calif., for the summer to spend time with family and rehab the knee. While there she received the type of motivation and "tough love" she needed to get back on the right track.
"Her (Kaylan) and my other sister (Kymmy) were my doctors this summer," Howard said. "They took me to rehab and made me do stuff. My older sister, Kymmy, hid my crutches and stole my brace because I was babying it. She said, 'You should be walking on your own by now.' "
Howard's relationship with her sisters, especially Kaylan, spans far beyond just the tough love over the summer. When Kaylan received and accepted her scholarship offer from Oregon to play softball, Howard was in the eighth grade and took notice. That is when college softball became a serious thought and an avenue toward a degree for Howard, who admitted before then she was just focused on being a Disney TV star.
"I wanted to do acting and singing," Howard said. "I was in choir, but softball gave me a path to an education so I took it on. I didn't really know much about college softball until I was 14 and under. I played some softball before then but just rec-ball ... As soon as my sister got her scholarship, it kind of clicked, like, I can do something with this. I started to put in more work and at the end of my sophomore year, in the summer, Coach (Rachel) Lawson saw me in Colorado and ever since then I knew I was going to be a Wildcat."
After she enrolled at Kentucky in the fall of 2011, Howard decided she didn't want to go through her career alone and started a pen-pal type, traditional letter-writing communication with Kaylan. In her letters, Howard would ask her older sister, who was an impact player with the Ducks, about the nerves she had before games, what to expect about college life and academics. Howard said her sister always had the answers and to this day they still write letters to each other on a monthly basis.
"Since my freshman year we have written letters to each other," Howard explained. "I started off asking her what to expect my first game and all of that and ever since then it has been what is going on with your life? How is softball? How are classes?
"She pretty much told me that I would get nervous and excited, but to just treat it like another game no different than when I was playing in high school. Once I loosened up I knew what she was talking about and I felt like I had a really good year after that."
Although the two also communicate by more modern means, the letters remind Howard to keep working hard and to never let a setback, minor or major, end her love for softball. As her career-low momentum slips further and further in the past as her knee improves daily, her goal moving forward is clear and familiar.
"First, I want to get back to where I was before my injury," Howard said. "And it's not likely, but I would love to make ESPN again. That is a goal."
Julius Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 78-74 loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CHICAGO -- As soon as the questions about Kentucky's early-season matchup with Michigan State started coming, John Calipari had a line ready.
With the youth of the Wildcats and uncertainty with which they would enter the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Coach Cal narrowed the possible outcomes into two: winning or learning.
There will come a time when the Cats come to realize how much can be taken away from their loss to the Spartans, but that time wasn't in the locker room following the 78-74 defeat.
"You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Calipari said. "That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana (two years ago). So you had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that."
Alex Poythress was ready to start the learning process a few minutes later as he took the podium for UK's postgame press conference.
"We learned a lot about who's fighting and who can keep it going," Poythress said. "When the going gets rough, we just keep going."
The Cats have every reason to take pride in that fact.
The experienced Spartans did to Kentucky what Calipari feared they would, taking advantage as the five freshmen and two sophomores who comprise his rotation acted their age. Within 3:11, the Spartans were up 10-0 on the strength of UK's sloppiness with the ball.
"They had never been in an environment like this, one," Calipari said. "And two, when guys get that, that get into themselves a little bit. It's natural. So now everybody is trying to do their thing and it looks discombobulated and that's what it was and that's what I expected."
UK treaded water for the remainder of the first -- largely thanks James Young, who scored 15 of his 19 before the break -- and trailed 42-30 at the end of the half. It was then Calipari drew up a new game plan on the fly and moved Julius Randle from the perimeter to the post and essentially scrapped his Dribble Drive offense.
"Well, we just said at this point, the only time they're stopping him is when you hold the ball," Calipari said. "So quit holding the ball. Just take it to the lane and ball fake and shoot it over 'em and if you miss it we'll send everybody to the glass. That was our offense: Throw it up and go rebound it."
Randle struggled in the first half, left frustrated by a packed-in Spartan defense as his drives and spin moves were repeatedly thwarted. The second was a different story, as Randle -- whom Calipari termed a "fighter" after the freshman's third double-double in as many games -- scored six points within the first two minutes.
"He's a great player," said Poythress, who was a Calipari-described "beast" with his seven points and 12 rebounds. "When he gets it going we look for him and he just gets it going."
Randle would go on to score 23 of his game-high 27 points -- including two free throws that briefly tied the game at 66 with 4:48 left, to which the Spartans responded with a swift 5-0 run -- after halftime. He drew multiple defenders on every touch, but never relented.
"What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes."
As the final seconds ticked down on the comeback effort, Randle was clearly exhausted. He still managed to score UK's final basket with 42 seconds left to cut Michigan State's lead to two points, but had to excuse himself from postgame interviews due to muscle cramps.
As Randle got treatment on those cramps, Michigan State's last possession was probably running through his mind. Opting not to foul with five seconds differential between shot and game clock, UK forced a Denzel Valentine miss, but Branden Dawson was there on the weak side for an easy put-back to clinch a win and end talk of a 40-0 UK season.
If not for 16 missed free throws in 36 attempts for the Cats, the conversation would likely have continued. The Cats still believe they will be a good foul shooting team, but Calipari says it's time for them to take ownership in that area.
"My hope is I'm the office at night and it's 10:30 and they walked 15 steps across the street to go into the practice facility and I see guys shooting them on their own," Calipari said. "That's my hope. But we'll see because they've gotta take it on."
After the game, Calipari said he had "no idea" how UK was able to stay within four points of a team as talented and experienced as Michigan State shooting 55.6 from the free-throw line and committing 17 turnovers. The answer came in the way the Cats rebounded.
With Randle and Poythress tirelessly attacking the glass, UK outrebounded Michigan State 44-32 and had 24 second-chance points. Considering the Spartans had 66 rebounds in their season opener, that's impressive. Considering the history Izzo's teams have of dominating on the glass, that's borderline unbelievable.
"They beat us in what we do well," Izzo said.
The way these two physical teams traded blows in the United Center, fans and media alike -- though it's only November, as Calipari often repeats -- wondered whether the matchup could be reprised down the road.
"Well, I hope we do because it probably means we'd both be playing in April," Calipari said. "So let's hope we do play. I hate to play friends. I really don't like playing friends, but if it's in April I'm fine playing whoever we're playing at that point."
For UK to reach that point, Calipari knows there's much work ahead. He anticipated his team wouldn't be ready for a stage this big at the tip, but they were much closer when the final buzzer sounded.
"I knew this would get their attention in the first half," Calipari said. "The biggest thing is if you don't do this together you will not win. You'll never be a special team, so you've got to truly do this together and that's both on defense and offense."