Two weeks into the season, Kentucky is one of just three teams with a win over a top-10 opponent.
To go with that victory against then-No. 8 Baylor, the Wildcats have two more home wins and another on the road against a Central Michigan expected to contend for a conference championship.
But for UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
"We are off to a 4-0 start and it's good results for us," Mitchell said, "but we really, really need to get better as a basketball team."
During Thanksgiving week, the ninth-ranked Cats will have ample opportunity to do just that while getting some literal sunshine along the way.
Starting on Thursday, UK will play in the Paradise Jam Island Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Cats left for the U.S. Virgin Islands (forecast 81 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day) early Tuesday morning for a trip where they'll mix basketball and some tourist activities.
First up, UK will face Illinois, off to 4-0 start identical to the Cats', at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. Next is 3-0 Oklahoma (receiving votes in the AP Top 25) on Friday at 6 p.m. with USF (3-1) to close it out on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"Three games against three really quality opponents in three days will be a tough task down in the Virgin Islands," Mitchell said. "It's a great trip; it's a great tournament."
For UK to most effectively capitalize, Mitchell has one thing on his mind above all else.
"From a basketball standpoint right now, we are really needing to improve defensively," Mitchell said. "You can be a good defensive team if you give consistent effort. You're a great defensive team if you give consistent effort along with consistent fundamentals and technique. We are neither one of those right now."
More than anything else, it was the second half of UK's win at Central Michigan that had him thinking that way.
After a solid first half, the Cats built a lead that ballooned to 20 points with 16:13 left. The Chippewas would chip away from there, missing a would-be game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as UK survived, 71-68. CMU shot 44.8 percent from the field in the second half after the Cats held them to 28.6 in the first.
"A lot of energy in the first half, a lot of focus in the first half, a lot of disruption," Mitchell said. "And in the second half, it was very little attention to detail, very little energy defensively."
Mitchell, though he's demanding improvement, isn't concerned. Bumps in the road, especially this early in the season, are to be expected. What the Cats can't do is become satisfied with a little early-season success.
"We can't take the approach of, 'Well, we beat Baylor and we're a highly ranked team and so we just show up and take the floor,' " Mitchell said. "That's not our formula. Our formula is being honest with ourselves, working really hard and having some discipline. I think that the players, once they see the visual evidence, they'll get it corrected."
With that in mind, Mitchell will be looking for a few simple things as he coaches his team this week.
"If we do nothing else, we're just Kentucky tough and Kentucky tenacious and playing together and being the fastest, most disruptive, toughest team we can be in that tournament," Mitchell said. "If we can accomplish those goals, the technique and the positioning and those kind of mistakes will start to work itself out."
Week four in the NBA was highlighted by a heavyweight matchup between two of the most dominant big men the league has to offer. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis squared off on Tuesday night as the Pelicans edged the Kings 106-100.
Even in a losing effort Cousins was still able to battle one of the toughest frontcourts in the NBA as he scored 24 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. Davis had 28 points, nine rebounds, three blocks and two steals in the Pelicans' win.
Both bigs followed up their blockbuster battle with even more dominance later in the week. Cousins was named Western Conference Player of the Week for the second time in his career as he finished out the week with 31 points and 18 rebounds in a road win Sunday against the Timberwolves. Davis posted a career-high 43 points to go along with 14 rebounds in a 106-94 win against former Cat Enes Kanter and the Utah Jazz.
Kanter has solidified his role as a starter and major contributor for the Jazz while averaging 13 points and six rebounds through 11 games this season.
Other week four highlights
Eric Bledsoe has been a model of consistency in his first 14 games under a new contract for the Phoenix Suns. In week four Bledsoe was the focus in leading the Suns to a 4-0 record on the road dating back to last Monday. The former Kentucky guard posted 14 points, six assists, and six rebounds per game during the current win-streak for phoenix.
James Young shined in his D-League stint with the Maine Red Claws. The rookie shooting guard scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds in a winning effort for the Celtics' D-League affiliate. The goal for Young was to use his time in the D-League to work back into game shape after sustaining multiple injuries in the preseason. He is set to rejoin the Celtics this week for their home stand against the Bulls and the Spurs.
Week five TV schedule
Wednesday: Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) @ L.A. Lakers 10:30 p.m. on NBA TV Friday: L.A. Clippers @ Houston (Terrence Jones) 8:00 p.m. on NBA TV Saturday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis, Darius Miller) @ Washington (John Wall) 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Win-or-go-home games are a rarity in college football.
With the way the season is structured, most teams know by the final week of the regular season whether a bowl game is in their future.
Kentucky's December, however, is still very much up in the air.
The Wildcats now face a simple choice: win a game on the road against their archrival or watch their season end one victory shy of bowl eligibility.
Mark Stoops doesn't dispute that it's a source of motivation, though he adds a caveat.
"I think they all know what we're playing for," Stoops said. "They know that. There's no point in hiding from it. But it's not the only message, right?"
The circumstances of UK's regular-season finale are different than any of the first 11 games of 2014, but Stoops isn't about to forsake the focus that he's had all year for a trip to Louisville at noon on Saturday.
"The message is to do what we constantly preach, and that is put the time and effort and focus into our preparation," Stoops said. "It's not just turning it on on game day. We've got to have a great week."
The hope is that UK laid the groundwork for that great week by capitalizing on a much-needed open date. The Cats' bye week began with days off for players on Sunday and Monday, followed by a return to practice on Tuesday.
"It was good just to get out, after a couple days' rest, get out and do some good, competitive work," Stoops said. "Get back to some fundamentals. Do some things that we do through camp where we go good against good, do some one-on-ones."
In the midst of a grueling stretch of eight games in eight weeks - seven coming against league opponents - UK had little choice but to go straight from one game plan to the next. The bye week afforded the Cats the opportunity to think about football, not any specific game.
"You get so enamored with the Xs and Os and assignments that you drift from some of the basics," Stoops said. "We obviously try not to. We constantly have individual in certain things, but it was good to spend more time with that last week."
Once the week of practice was over on Friday, the Cats were given the weekend off. Many players took the opportunity to spend some time at home considering they'll be practicing in Lexington over Thanksgiving this week, while Stoops stayed in town and watched football on Saturday.
"I couldn't get away from it too far," Stoops said. "I didn't watch as much as I normally do though, actually. I got out of the house. Took my boys out of the house for a while."
Stoops made sure to be in front of a television for most of Louisville's 31-28 win at Notre Dame on Saturday. He was impressed.
"Their coach (Bobby Petrino) is doing a great job," Stoops said. "They haven't missed a beat to what they've been doing. They win a bunch of football games, they play extremely hard. They're very well coached, and that's an impressive win. They're playing good football." Stoops wants UK-U of L to go national
Stoops came to Kentucky to build a program. In doing so he hopes to turn UK-U of L into a football rivalry known nationally.
"Well, we're trying to create it to be a bigger and better rivalry," Stoops said. "I think that comes from us having to play better football and winning more games and putting ourselves in a position where we can get this game on a more national scale."
In the meantime, it's a game both sides still want to win badly.
"It's important to the people in this state," Stoops said. "It's important to our fans and our players and coaches. So, you know, I think it's just like most of these games. It's important to a lot of people, and you feel that, and you want to go play well."
Baker out for season with knee injury
Wide receiver Dorian Baker sustained a non-contact injury to his knee in practice last week. He will undergo surgery and will miss the Louisville, as well as a bowl game should UK reach one. The true freshman has appeared in 10 of UK's 11 games this season, making three starts and catching 19 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Also likely to be sidelined for UK's regular-season finale is tackle Kyle Meadows, who is suffering from an ankle injury. Patrick Towles also has an injured ankle, but he played through it against Tennessee and Stoops hopes to have him at full strength for practice on Monday afternoon.
Karl-Anthony Towns had eight points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in UK's 86-28 win over Montana State on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There was another "only at Kentucky" moment on Saturday.
John Calipari took to Twitter to wish a happy birthday to his daughter Megan. The sentiment was nice, but there was a problem.
He was a day early.
Megan quickly replied to tell him of the error. And since Coach Cal has 1.3 million followers, the story was quickly picked up by national outlets, all the way up to "Good Morning America."
"Why does that go all over the world, by the way?" Calipari said, who made light of the mishap by bringing a birthday balloon to his press conference after UK's dominant 86-28 win over Montana State.
Calipari's question was a rhetorical one, mostly because he already knows the answer.
The reason the story blew up the way it did is because of Coach Cal's position at the helm of the most high-profile college basketball program in the country. It's the same reason why fans throughout the country are already tiring of the word "platoon" because of how often it's already been used.
The spotlight, of course, has its perks for Coach Cal and players alike. UK is, as Calipari so often says, the "gold standard" for a reason, but there are drawbacks too.
After the victory over Montana State, in which UK set a shot clock-era record for the fewest points allowed in school history, he coined a new phrase to describe it, adding to his personal pantheon that runs the gamut from ice cream-pooping to Super Bowl-playing to brother-keeping.
"What these kids deal with to be here, to play here, to be a part of this program, they wear a hundred-pound coat," Calipari said.
The burden, Calipari admits, starts with him.
"I am rough on them, I am tough on them, I'm holding them to high standard," Calipari said. "I'm like a hawk. I see everything. I'm coaching them the entire time. They're getting better. It is not an option, you will get better. That's me."
Then you have Kentucky fans, who surely would have made concerned calls to radio shows on Monday had the final margin been much less than the 58-point one they enjoyed on Sunday evening, largest since a 62-point win over Vanderbilt in 2002-03.
"That's another 20 pounds of the coat," Calipari said.
To top it off, there's the media scrutiny that's led to a national debate about whether this UK team could beat the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, not to mention the people surrounding the players who create the "clutter" about which Calipari so often talks.
Contrast that with UK's opponents, whom Calipari says are burden-free next to the Cats.
"The people coming in to play us got windbreakers," Calipari said. "They're loose as a goose. They're just going to go play."
Karl-Anthony Towns, just five games into his UK career, has already noticed.
"Man, windbreakers?" said Towns, who tallied six of UK's 12 blocks to bring his season total to 18. "I don't even think they're wearing anything. They're going to the beach."
Dakari Johnson, who nearly had another double-double with 13 points and eight rebounds in just 17 minutes, is in his second year wearing that heavy coat. He knows there's no taking it off either.
"We're always going to feel that type of pressure because of the expectations and stuff like that," Johnson said. "But I feel like we're a close unit so there's not much pressure to get to us because we're so close together."
That closeness means the Cats can share the burden rather than carry it individually.
"Anytime I need any advice, anytime I need to talk to somebody, it's as easy as calling Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Aaron Harrison, Andrew," Towns said. "I have so many numbers and so much support on my side that this whole being a UK Wildcat basketball player, the pressure really hasn't gotten to me. I've just been having a lot of fun."
With five wins by an average margin of 34.6 points -- the last coming in a game where the Cats held their opponents to 19.7-percent shooting, forced 21 turnovers and had one stretch of 12:37 in which they didn't allow a single point -- it's no surprise Towns has been enjoying himself so much.
Besides, he and his teammates did at least have an idea what they were getting into when they signed to play at UK. It's not like Coach Cal hides the 100-pound coats in the closet during the recruiting process.
"You know, Big Blue Nation is crazy," said Devin Booker, who had his second straight big game with 18 points. "But, you just play through it, it's something you learn. You know, it's a good problem to have. You want to be on this stage, so that's why you come here."
That's lucky, because that coat's not getting any lighter.
"If you're not willing to wear the hundred-pound coat, you don't come here, you can't come here, because it's not changing," Calipari said.
Devin Booker scored 15 points, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, in UK's 89-65 win over Boston University on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Joe Jones used every motivational ploy at his disposal.
He told his Boston University team Kentucky would have trouble sustaining the energy the Wildcats used to blow out Kansas on Tuesday. He showed them the way Buffalo played in building a five-point halftime lead on UK just five days ago.
Jones believed in everything he was saying, but there was one fact he was still resigned to before he took his Terriers into Rupp Arena.
"They have so many guys that are so good, one of them is going to get hot," Jones said.
On Friday night, that someone was Devin Booker.
Booker was the second-half star as UK (4-0) overcame a sluggish first half that saw the Cats manage just a five-point lead. He scored 12 of his 15 points after the break and UK outscored the Terriers 49-30 to register an 89-65 win in front of 22,485 fans at Rupp Arena.
"I finally got to see a shot go in," Booker said. "That's good to see, and most of all I wanted to get other people involved and I feel like we did that. We had a slow start, but in the second half we pulled it together."
Through his first three collegiate games, the sharp-shooting Booker managed just one make in 11 tries from 3-point range. The message delivered to him by everyone from John Calipari, his father, former NBA player Melvin Booker, and teammate Aaron Harrison was the same.
"I had a lot of talk with Coach and my dad," Booker said. "They just said, 'Keep shooting. It's going to fall.' And I came out tonight and it did."
Booker hit 4 of 6 from 3 against Boston and scored five of the first seven points in the 23-8 run UK used to close the game.
"You just gotta keep your confidence," said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 19 points. "That's what being a shooting guard is. No matter how many shots you miss, you gotta keep going because that's what your team needs you to do: score the ball."
In spite of that positional label, Booker did more than just score on Friday. To go with his four rebounds, Booker had seven assists, the most for any Wildcat so far this season.
"Not very often," Booker said when he was asked if he's had many such games, "but it's easy when you have teammates like this."
The teammate on his mind when he said that was Dominique Hawkins, who was on the receiving end of Booker's last assist. Booker, for the fourth time of the night, lobbed a pass over BU's sagging 2-3 zone, but this one appeared out of his hand to be too high for the 6-foot Hawkins.
Hawkins, making his first career start with Alex Poythress day to day due to illness, rose over a defender and slammed home the pass for UK's final points of the night on what was unquestionably the dunk of an early season that's been full of them.
"I don't even know how high I went up for it," Hawkins said. "I'll have to watch the video after this is over.
"That lob was incredible," Booker said. "Seeing it from my view, it was crazy."
Booker, having seen what Hawkins did, will surely be eager to throw more such alley-oops, no matter how he's shooting. In high school, Booker was a prolific scorer who had to put the ball in the basket for his team to win. Now, he's just another star in Coach Cal's constellation.
That means he's learning how contribute when his shot isn't falling.
"It's an adjustment that you have to make from high school to college," Booker said. "And like I said, I feel like it's coming along right now. But like I said, when you have a team like this, if you're not shooting or not scoring you can involve yourself in different ways to contribute to the win."
Booker had most of the ways covered against BU, but he still wasn't immune to constructive criticism from Coach Cal.
With UK going away from its platoons more often in Poythress' absence, Calipari immediately yanked Booker when he failed to throw the ball ahead to Aaron Harrison on a fast break. Similarly, Karl-Anthony Towns had a breakdown defending a pick-and-roll and Trey Lyles had trouble defending smaller opponents on the dribble.
It's all part of the process.
"They're still learning," Calipari said. "They're going to do stuff like that."
But the talent, indisputably, is there. And though Booker is beginning to learn to contribute in multiple ways, when he's doing what he's known for, look out.
"It's nice to see when he makes shots, we become a little bit different," Calipari said.
Kentucky fell to Oakland in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday, 2-0. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As his team's season ended, Johan Cedergren was left feeling both frustration and optimism.
The frustration stemmed from the way Kentucky had finished. The Wildcats' regular season ended a lone result shy of a conference championship. More disappointment would follow in the postseason, with first-round defeats in both the Conference USA and NCAA tournaments.
The optimism was a result of what Cedergren sees ahead for UK. His developing program will return all but one regular contributor from a 2014 squad that had one of the best seasons in school history.
It was those two conflicting feelings that led Cedergren to declare his expectations for the future in no uncertain terms.
"As hard as it is to say right now, I think the future is bright and I will say as firmly as I can that this will not happen again," Cedergren said. "We are not going to go 0-3 for the games that matter."
A 2-0 defeat against Oakland on Thursday night capped that three-game skid to close a 10-6-3 season. Playing without top playmaker Napo Matsoso and leading goal scorer Justin Laird due to a mandatory card suspension and knee injury, respectively, the Wildcats were unable to overcome an experienced Oakland team.
"When it got tough, I thought that they excelled and maybe we have some work to do in terms in the mental toughness and especially when the games little tougher," Cedergren said. "I thought it was a very big stage for some of the younger guys that were asked to carry a bigger role because of injuries and suspensions and I don't think we were up for that."
Or perhaps more appropriately, they weren't up for it yet.
A year ago, the Cats, who fielded a roster featuring 20 freshmen and sophomores, called on the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament to fuel them through a grueling offseason. This time around, they reached the big stage, but will look to use the mistakes that caused them to come up short as fuel to win the next time they reach it.
"Anytime in your life, these are the type of games you want to play in," goalkeeper Callum Irving said. "When they don't live up to your expectations, you can go two ways with them. You can either sulk about it and not let it benefit you or you can use it as fuel"
Irving, who nearly swept end-of-season C-USA awards, will return and wear the captain's armband for UK again next season. Five all-conference honorees will rejoin him in 2015, which will be Cedergren's fourth year at the helm.
"Obviously this is not the way you want to end your season but again like Johan said we have a lot to look forward to in the future, as hard as it is to see right now," Irving said. "We have some great players returning, good recruiting class coming in so I mean right now it is just back to the drawing board, back to work but we will move on from here."
Though the Cats will move on when they reassemble for training in January, they don't plan to forget Thursday night altogether. There's still too much to be gained from it.
"For us it's time as a staff and as a squad to grow and develop and to learn from this," Cedergren said. "But we are not sitting here again next year in the NCAA Tournament."
UK has an open date before a season finale at Louisville next Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree is one of the healthy ones.
Unlike many of his teammates, Dupree doesn't have an injury that's forced him to miss any time. He made it through eight games in eight weeks without a sprained ankle, strained muscle or any other malady Mark Stoops has had to publicly address.
He still felt like he got "hit by a truck" by the time the stretch was over.
"Your body feels horrible after a while," Dupree said. "You wake up in the morning, sometimes you don't want to get out of bed because you feel like you want to sleep it off."
With an open date this weekend, Dupree, at long last, got that chance. Following a loss at Tennessee on Saturday, the Wildcats were given days off on both Sunday and Monday to rest and recover.
"It felt good just to lay down, finally, for a long time and just don't worry about anything for that day," Dupree said.
Not only had Dupree and the Cats played on eight straight Saturdays, they had also faced seven Southeastern Conference opponents over that same time period. To say a break was needed would probably be an understatement.
"You get back in there, like I said, Saturday afternoon or Saturday night when you're done, and Sunday certainly, and it's on," Mark Stoops said. "It's on to the next opponent, and it's a full grind. That gets taxing on everybody. The players, they have to come in here Monday and we have to address the issues from the previous game and then on to the next opponent immediately."
Instead, the Cats get to take a breath before they dive headlong into preparing a matchup with Louisville in both teams' regular-season finale next Saturday. Don't think, however, that they forgot about football altogether. Even though there were no official team activities on Monday, groups of players gathered independently to meet and review film with no coaches present.
"It was some of the leaders on the team wanting to step up and make some changes," senior wide receiver Javess Blue said.
Neal Brown, meanwhile, had a film session of his own.
"We do a lot of evaluation," Brown said. "Like over the last couple of days I've watched every play that we've had. Kind of broke it down to every play by different formations and personnel groupings then kind of identifying some problems that have been consistent and going about fixing some things."
Some break, huh?
"With a bye week, of course there's just a little more time to sit (as a coaching staff) and take it in and look at things and see what we have done good and what we've done poorly and try to put them in a position to be successful," Stoops said. "It's our job to put them in a place that they can succeed."
When UK returned to the practice field on Tuesday, that effort continued.
The first step was to focus on some of the little things that began to escape the Cats toward the end of their stretch of eight straight games and a five-game losing streak. With lots of work on blocking and shedding blocks, pass coverage and getting open and one-on-ones with first-teamers, Dupree feels like it's fall camp all over again.
"We are doing all fundamentals this week," Dupree said. "It seems like we started over."
The results, according to Stoops, have been nothing but positive.
"Guys seem to have a little more energy, a little more pop in their step," Stoops said. "Got a chance to go back and do some things, just camp drills as far as competing and doing some things good against good and fundamentally getting better. So it's been a great time for a bye week for us, and I think, like I said, it's been helpful so far, both with rest, healing up some guys and fundamentally getting better."
Stoops said after the loss at Tennessee that "we didn't have a lot in our tank," but the bye week has given the chance for the Cats to refuel. He said he expects UK to be close to 100 percent for the Louisville game, though offensive tackle Kyle Meadows remains a question mark.
More importantly, Stoops sees a team that continues to be coachable and willing to work. The frustration, of course, is there, which is only natural when you've been stuck a win shy of bowl eligibility for two months.
But the Cats are eager for their final chance to break through.
"We know our shortcomings," Stoops said. "We know we all need to do better. But I see a team that's fun to coach, that care, that want to win, that are putting a lot into it."
UK returns to Rupp Arena on Friday at 7 p.m. ET for a matchup with Boston University. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The talk was out there before, but it's intensified in recent days.
Since the Wildcats' dominance of Kansas in the Champions Classic, more columns about their prospects of going unbeaten have been written than even Kentucky fans care to read. The "can UK beat an NBA team?" debate has been kicked up a notch too, with Eric Bledsoe confidently answering yes and ESPN running a poll on the topic with close to 200,000 votes, 52 percent of which were cast for the Cats.
But inside the Joe Craft Center, the mood is different. For the team that did the dominating, it's still November and the victory over Kansas was just that: one victory.
"We just have to keep working," Andrew Harrison said. "We played really hard. A lot of their shots didn't fall and stuff like that, so we know we still have a lot to improve on. It's just the third game of the season. It really doesn't mean anything."
Well, maybe it does mean something.
As poorly as the Jayhawks may have shot, it's impossible to ignore the work UK did on the defensive end in holding Kansas to 40 points, 11 made field goals and 8-of-41 shooting from 2-point range. At the very least, the Cats saw what their physical gifts can do to an opponent.
"With our length and our athletic ability, there's no reason why we can't be a really good defensive team because of our size," said assistant coach John Robic, filling in for John Calipari at UK's regular media availability before a matchup with Boston University (1-1) Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena. "And size with athleticism equals - it could be a problem for an opponent. And that's what it was."
It was only a problem for Kansas because UK (3-0) made it so, shrugging off the hype surrounding the first big-stage game of the season and playing team defense.
"That was probably the biggest thing: how they were going to react to a high-level game against a very good top-ranked opponent," Robic said. "We obviously played really well, and I thought everybody responded very, very well in that game."
A year ago in a similar environment, the Cats had to climb uphill after Michigan State built a 10-point lead in the Champions Classic. Last season's freshman-laden group could never overcome the deficit, but this year's team had no such start with all its returning experience.
With the likes of Andrew Harrison leading the way, the four freshmen joining UK's two-platoon system were able to blend in, as much as four players as talented as them can blend in anyway.
"It's good because the pressure's not really on them so they can just go out there relaxed and play," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm sure they had fun and they played great."
UK's sophomore point guard has taken an active role in setting the tone for the freshmen so far, both leading by example and by stepping up his vocal presence. After he arrived on campus just before the start of the fall semester, he was unable to quickly command his team as he would have liked. Now, he's confident and comfortable in the role.
"He's just playing more loose and more relaxed," Aaron Harrison said. "He's just having more fun and I think that's the biggest thing."
In spite of that, Andrew Harrison was critical of himself after the Kansas game, taking the blame for a sluggish offensive start that saw UK make just two field goals in the first five-plus minutes.
"It's just better execution in the first half, and that's on me," he said. "I think we were a little tired the first little segment the blue team had or whatever, but it started working out. You get your second wind and I just tried to make sure the freshmen weren't that nervous and stuff like that."
With the Kansas game in the rearview window, Andrew Harrison will shift his focus to making sure those freshmen realizing the work ahead of them, starting with Friday's game against Boston University. The coaching staff will be doing the same.
"Each and every day, we have to get better at what we need to do as a team, whether it's defensively or offensively," Robic said. "And if we do that, we know that we're going to give it our best effort when we go out there, and hopefully tomorrow shows improvement for us."
When Kentucky men's soccer head coach Johan Cedergren and junior goalkeeper Callum Irving spoke during UK's Fall Sports Media Day in August, it was clear that UK's 2013 season fell short of Cedergren's expectations for the program.
The Wildcats finished 2013 with a 7-10-3 record, missing the NCAA Tournament after earning a hosting bid in the big dance in Cedergren's first season in 2012.
"When we were sitting on the team bus coming back from the conference tournament last year, being knocked out of the semifinal and that being the end of the season, we knew we had to go back to the drawing board and figure out a new teaching plan," Cedergren said.
Cedergren worked with his coaching staff and put together a plan. That direction has developed into one of the top seasons in program history in 2014, with the Wildcats riding the historic defensive unit, behind Conference USA Player of the Year Callum Irving, to its sixth all-time NCAA Tournament berth.
"It is really good," Cedergren said. "It is a step in the right direction for us. We talk a lot about our vision and our goals and where we want to be and the long-term vision for us is to be in a Final Four in the next four years or so. With that comes recruiting and developing players."
The Wildcats will host Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Complex, with the game to be broadcast live on the SEC Network +. A win over Oakland would pit UK against national seed Michigan State on Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.
At the core of UK's turnaround has been the development of the sophomore class. With 19 of UK's 25-man roster underclassmen, the Wildcats would not be in the NCAA Tournament if not for the progress of their second-year standouts.
UK's regular starting 11 boasts a bevy of sophomores, including first-team all-league midfielder Napo Matsoso, back-four stalwarts Kaelon Fox, Charlie Reymann, Matt Quick and Jordan Wilson, and midfield threats Ryan Creel and Paul Sime.
Cedergren points directly to the commitment from the sophomore class as a reason for UK's campaign in 2014, along with the development of juniors Kristoffer Tollefsen (three goals) and Bryan Celis (two goals, six assists).
"All that matters to me is the team and if you are not buying in well then I am not interested," Cedergren said. "Those are the guys that are really buying into the system. But they have worked so hard. There was a whole complete mental shift that we had to do as a staff and as players."
Part of the development of its underclassmen came in the form of its leadership and emerging vocal presence on and off the pitch.
"There are a couple of guys that we asked to be leaders, and they were freshmen, it was only their second semester at Kentucky," Cedergren said. "You look at Charlie, Jordan, Kaelon, Quick, (Alex) Bumpus, Napo, I could go on and on but that was a class that we mostly signed three years ago. So we knew what kind of quality we had and it was just a matter of making them understand what it takes to win at the Division-I level, and win a lot. The success that we've had this fall, we started the process that goes back to January and February of this year."
Ranked 24th in the final National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, Kentucky (10-4-5) has been paced by one of the best defenses in the history of the program, riding Irving and UK's dynamic back four to a league-best 0.70 goals-against average.
While Irving, a 6-foot-1 native of Vancouver, British Columbia, has turned in a record-breaking season in between the pipes, Cedergren points to his leadership as a key ingredient to UK's success.
"I just couldn't be more fortunate in terms of what kind of team captain you want to have on your team," Cedergren said. "We talk about being selfless, humble and having a team-first mentality. While all of those things are great, if you don't have the basic ability or talent then it doesn't matter. Cally is the perfect blend."
Irving has saved 63 shots on the year, his 0.70 goals-against average ranks fourth in UK history and his 10 clean sheets is the second most in school annals.
"He is one of the best goalkeepers in the country, but he is also one of the most selfless and humble people I have ever been around," Cedergren said. "For the rest of the guys, they look around at Cally because he is one of the best players we have, and they don't have an excuse because Cally never gives an excuse. Cally always gives 100 percent. When you are starting to look for what kind of captain you are looking for you are looking for someone who leads by example on and off the field. Cally hasn't missed a beat since he was given the captain's arm band."
Going into the season, a question mark was where the Wildcats would find scoring to replace four-year star forward Tyler Riggs, who netted 29 goals and had 10 assists in his career. UK's offense was led by Matsoso, Celis and Tollefsen but senior forward Justin Laird emerged as an athletic target forward at the top of UK's offensive attack.
Laird, a Wright State transfer for the 2013 season, owns six goals and four assists for the Wildcats in his senior season.
"Justin is very humble, very selfless and didn't mind doing the work," Cedergren said. "If you look at how far he has come from the guy who walked onto campus in January two years ago, to the guy who is now one of the best forwards in Conference USA, the evolution and the progress has been tremendous.
"If you look at all the clean sheets and the success that we've had this year, a lot of that has come from the work that Justin has done on defense. Not only is he a good goal scorer who is dangerous around the box, he is also someone who helps us out a lot defensively."
Kentucky will be faced with a stiff test on Thursday in the Horizon League Champion Oakland Golden Grizzlies, a team that has lost just once in its last 13 matches.
Napo Matsoso's 2014 season has firmly implanted him as one of the top young players in college soccer, with the Louisville, Ky., by way of Lesotho native owning five goals and four assists, including a natural hat trick at South Carolina.
"I have never worked with a better No. 10," Cedergren raved. "I have never worked with a better playmaker than Napo. That is a factual statement. Napo is a perfect blend between natural ability and drive and desire. I have had some really special players, the first-ever unanimous (2008) Ivy League Player of the Year in Craig Henderson, who now plays professionally in Norway, he played in the attacking midfield role and he has caps from this year and all that stuff, but Napo is better.
"Some of the things that Napo can do on the ball, very few people can do in college. But at the same time, as soon as we lose the ball and we need someone to track some guy, or make a run through them, Napo has no problem doing the work."
Kentucky's hosting berth is its second in three years under Cedergren, who has paced the Wildcats to a pair of NCAA Tournaments in quicker succession than any other coach in UK history.
"Like I said after the South Carolina (C-USA Tournament) game, hosting a first-round game is not the end all be all," Cedergren said. "It is a step in the right direction but we want to win the game tomorrow and keep playing."
Janee Thompson had a team-best 15 points in UK's 91-62 win over Morehead State on Wednesday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
Even though Kentucky was nine points away from scoring in triple figures Wednesday afternoon, no one player poured in more than 15 points individually.
Only four points separated the Wildcats' leading scorer, Janee Thompson, from its fourth leading scorer, Azia Bishop. In UK's 91-62 win over in-state foe Morehead State, cohesive teamwork was the key to victory.
"We don't just play five people," Thompson said. "Everybody is going to play, and that makes it that much easier for us when we get out on the floor."
Thompson, a 5-foot-7 point guard from Chicago, has accepted an increased leadership role through the first three games of her junior season.
"The position of point guard, it is a positional leadership role," said head coach Matthew Mitchell. "People are looking to you as a point guard to be a leader, and sometimes you get true leadership and sometimes you get positional leadership. (Thompson) is really truly leading and I am very excited about that."
Committing zero turnovers in Wednesday's victory in front of 5,923 fans in Memorial Coliseum, including 1,500 sixth graders there for "Class of 2021 Day," Thompson scored 15 points on perfect 4-for-4 shooting from the free-throw line, but received substantial help from the two remaining thirds of Kentucky's three-headed point guard assault. Senior Jennifer O'Neill recorded 14 points and six rebounds, while sophomore Makayla Epps stuffed the stat sheet with nine points, four rebounds and four assists off the bench.
"Jennifer has an excellent attitude right now," Mitchell said. "So our leadership is doing really great. Even Makayla Epps (has) a great attitude right now. I am happy with that. We need that."
"I think the three of us--myself, (O'Neill), and Epps--have a really good relationship," Thompson said. "(We) are really starting to understand what Coach Mitchell is looking for and what our team needs from us."
From all five positions on the floor, No. 9 Kentucky (3-0) completely dominated its opponent from the Ohio Valley Conference. The Wildcats' starting frontcourt of Bishop and sophomore Kyvin Goodin-Rogers pulled down 11 and nine rebounds, respectively. As a team, UK outrebounded the Eagles 55-35.
"We love going out there and playing hard, and getting rewarded for the hard work we have put in in practice," Thompson said. "We work extremely hard every day, and to be able to see that stuff come out when we play on the floor is great for us."
Thompson's former high school teammate, current sophomore guard Linnae Harper, contributed 13 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes off the UK bench. Along with Bishop, Harper was one of two Cats to log a double-double.
"We aren't going to be the most talented team around, but our intangibles can be really high," said Mitchell. "If we can work together and the sum be greater than the parts, we can really do some things."
After three games over the course of six days, Kentucky has until Saturday to relax and reflect on the season's hot start. The Wildcats will travel to Mount Pleasant, Mich., for 2014-15's first road matchup with the Chippewas of Central Michigan.