For close to two months now, Kentucky has been on the grind, playing seven games in as many weeks without a bye.
But if you're concerned about the Wildcats starting to drag, particularly in the midst of a four-game losing streak, don't be.
Not this week. Not with a trip to Neyland Stadium to face rival Tennessee looming on Saturday.
"These are the games that we like," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It doesn't take much for us to get excited about this game so we're excited. We were sharp today. We threw it and caught it well today so we're ready to go."
UK's offense is looking to carry forward a small measure of momentum built in an otherwise disappointing loss to Georgia on Saturday. The Cats started slowly, but offensive coordinator Neal Brown said his group played as well as it has all season in a 24-point second quarter. And in the fourth quarter, UK put together a long scoring drive, though the outcome was decided.
"It's a sign that we are growing," Brown said. "Obviously we're inconsistent, not playing as consistent as we would like, but there were some real positives out of that game."
Perhaps the most notable positive was UK's running game, which rolled up 214 yards against a stout Bulldog defense.
"Sometimes you look at the score and you get lost in what it was, but there were some positives for us," Brown said. "I thought we played improved from where we were at at Missouri. Obviously not pleased with the result at all, but we did make a step last week."
Among the next steps for the UK offense is a faster start.
"At the start of the year we got off to some really good starts and scored points, got up on people early, and then in the last few weeks we have not started well at the beginning of the game," Brown said. "So we've got to figure out -- we'll change some things, how we go about calling the game early and I think that will help."
In their first two games, the Cats scored 28 combined points in the first quarter. Since then, UK has managed just 20 total over the course of eight games, going scoreless even in solid showings against South Carolina and Florida.
"We've just gotta get started a little quicker," Towles said. "I don't know what the deal is with that, but we gotta find it and fix it. And I think we took a step today."
After a lackluster 0-5 collective performance in Week 9, Kentucky's NFL Cats bounced back in a big way with an 8-3 overall record in Week 10. Even in losses, two defensive alumni were able to match season highs in tackles.
Unfortunately, Larry Warford--a 2013 third round pick with the Detroit Lions--suffered a knee injury that could possibly sideline the right guard for several weeks. Regarded as one of the league's top offensive linemen after a stellar rookie season, Warford had not missed a career snap until the injury.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (6-3) Randall Cobb continues to demonstrate that the only time he can't find the end zone is when the Packers aren't playing. In a 55-14 thrashing of the Chicago Bears on national TV, Cobb made four catches for 72 yards and a one-handed TD grab you have to see to believe.
Cobb's 10-touchdown total is tied for third most in the NFL and has found the end zone in six straight games and eight of nine of the season.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Though Avery Williamson's Titans are far from fielding a competitive football team, the rookie linebacker shined in a 21-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Williamson tied his career high of 10 total tackles, including six of the solo variety.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Alongside his teammate Williamson, Woodyard headed a two-way defensive spark for Tennessee. The former first-team All-SEC selection recorded three solo tackles and six assisted ones, tying his season high of nine.
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics All stats through games on Nov. 9
Former Wildcat Brandon Knight is now his fourth NBA season and second with the Milwaukee Bucks. To this point in his career he has made a name for himself for his ability to score the ball from the point-guard position.
All jokes aside, Knight is off to a great start as the lead guard for a young Bucks team. He has scored in double digits in all seven games this season, but that comes as no surprise.
Knight is also leading all point guards with 45 total rebounds on the season, as well as averaging 7.3 assists per game.
In their last outing on Saturday the Bucks delivered the previously unbeaten Grizzlies their first loss of the season as Knight hit a game-winning and-one layup and converted on the free throw to give his team a 93-92 edge with just 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
Tayshaun Prince logged 27 minutes in the game for Memphis. The veteran registered eight points, two rebounds and two steals in the losing effort.
Anthony Davis, who is being pegged by experts as the future of the league, hit a game winner of his own in week two. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams drew up an isolation play for the All-Star forward in the closing seconds against the 2014 world champion San Antonio Spurs.
Davis caught the ball on the free-throw line, faced up, took two dribbles and used his length and quickness to get all the way to the rim with two dribbles. The basket gave him 27 points for the game and sealed a 100-99 win over the Spurs.
The former No. 1 pick is ranked fifth in the league in scoring (24.4), first in rebounding (12.8) and first in blocks (4.4), sparking early-season MVP conversations.
Another former Kentucky big man who entered in talks for postseason awards is Nerlens Noel, who was atop the Rookie Ladder after week one. Noel missed both games over the weekend as he went down with a sprained ankle Wednesday against Orlando.
The 76ers went 0-2 in his absence and currently hold a league worst 0-7 record on the season. But with Noel set to return to action on Thursday, and with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams joining the team for the first time this season, it will be interesting to see if Philly can make any noise on their upcoming three-game road trip.
As for other Cats who are dealing with injuries, Jodie Meeks has been sidelined for the first seven games of the season for his struggling Pistons squad.
Detroit fully expects Meeks to be inserted into the starting lineup at the shooting guard position upon his return, but he's still about five weeks away from being cleared to play as he recovers from what the team diagnosed as a stress reaction in his back.
Also, Celtics rookie James Young has only seen action in one game in the opening weeks of the season. Young has been battling a hamstring injury dating back to the preseason, and he will miss the upcoming two-game road trip for Boston due to an undisclosed illness in his family.
Week two TV schedule
Tuesday: Orlando @ Toronto (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Minnesota 10:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: Chicago (Nazr Mohammad) @ Toronto 8:00 p.m. on TNT Sunday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Oklahoma City 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Aaron Harrison had a team-best 17 points in UK's exhibition win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
With a pair of exhibitions out of the way, Kentucky has now improved to 53-4 all time in the preseason. The immediate reaction to that record is how does an elite program like Kentucky lose four tune-up games?
Well, it's not always smooth sailing to start the season. For this year's Wildcats, though, it has been nothing but an incredible display of offensive efficiency and domination on the defensive end of the floor.
In their most recent outing the Cats defeated Georgetown College 121-52, controlling every facet of the game. And after being routed by a margin of 69 points, it was all positive feedback from the opposition.
"I knew they were good coming into this game, but sitting out there watching it in front of their eyes, on the sideline, honestly I don't see how they're going to get beat this year," Georgetown head coach Chris Briggs said following Sunday night's game in Rupp Arena.
Sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison led the way in the scoring column with 17 points for the Cats, but that was just a minor detail in what was one of the more impressive box scores you will come across in college basketball this season.
Seven Kentucky players scored in double figures, although no player saw more than 19 minutes of action. The team compiled a field-goal percentage of .639 and shot 44 percent from long range, good for 1.46 points per possession.
"On a good shooting night like tonight it's really tough to guard us because we can spread the floor and we have good drivers," Aaron Harrison said. "And obviously we have great big men and great size."
The guard play for Kentucky is sure to be much improved from a season ago with the Harrison twins in command in their second year, while also adding sharp-shooting freshman Devin Booker and tenacious point guard Tyler Ulis to the mix in the second platoon. But what has this team unanimously ranked No. 1 in college basketball preseason polls is the unbelievable depth and size in the frontcourt.
The bigs for Kentucky were dominant in their second and final exhibition. They were relentless on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 54-26 while tallying 23 second-chance points.
The Cats threw down 19 dunks, which made up over half of the team's 64 points in the paint. Kentucky's seven frontcourt players shot a combined 32 of 43, adding up to an amazing 74.4 percent from the field.
Fourteen different Wildcats recorded at least one assist in the game. It's rare to even see 14 different players check into a basketball game.
Many of the baskets came in the transition game as a result of big guys making the extra effort to run the floor, a point of emphasis in the early stages of the season.
"If that big guy runs, you run right there and try to throw him the ball to reward our bigs for running," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Think about it, every time we're on there, it's either Dakari flying, Willie flying, Karl(-Anthony Towns) flying, Marcus Lee flying. Your bigs better fly. And you better be playing more than two bigs. You better be playing four or five bigs."
Unfortunately for the cross-town foe, Georgetown lacked the size and depth necessary to match up. And with seven interchangeable big men for Kentucky, it was clear how worn down the Tigers were in the final eight minutes of the second half when the game turned into a highlight reel.
There are few teams around the country who even have the manpower to avoid this problem if they face the Cats this season, which begins for UK on Friday at 8 p.m. against Grand Canyon.
With all the positives that can be pulled from Kentucky's first two appearances against other competition it is easy to rave about all the possibilities of the season ahead. But Calipari asks the Big Blue Nation to take a step back and brace themselves for a few inevitable hardships along the way, in spite of what Briggs had to say.
"We're going to hit some bumps in the road," Calipari said. "There's going to be games that playing this many is going to be hard. You know why? Because I'm expecting 10 guys to play well every night out and that's not going to happen."
Jon Lipsitz isn't a coach who avoids NCAA Tournament talk with his team. His ultimate goals for Kentucky lie in the postseason and he's not afraid to let the Wildcats know.
A little more than a month ago, he proved it.
UK had just lost for the fourth time in six matches, dropping its RPI to 59th. After a defeat at Texas A&M on Oct. 5, Lipsitz told the Cats all about how their postseason lives were on the line.
"We handed it out to the team and we said, 'Look, we need to make it clear: We're not in the NCAA Tournament,' " Lipsitz said. " 'And we're not even on the bubble.' "
That was the beginning of a Tuesday tradition for the UK women's soccer program. Lipsitz would print sheets with Kentucky's RPI and upcoming opponents each week and distribute them to his team. In his office, he's kept the sheets to track the Cats' progress, all with one thing in mind.
"Our goal from that moment on was to get seeded," Lipsitz said. "It's something that hasn't happened."
On Monday, it did.
Gathered in the team lounge at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the Cats watched as they received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a program first. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville (13-6-1, 8-2-0 Ohio Valley Conference) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, marking the fourth straight season the Cats have hosted in the first round.
"I don't think any of us in this room were surprised that we got seeded," Stuart Pope said. "We've all been in here the last month and we've seen the change that's happened to our team."
That change, in large part, has been inspired by Pope and her fellow senior captain, Arin Gilliland. Charged with leading a team that relies on many young players, Pope and Gilliland have taken it upon themselves to reinforce and amplify their coach's message.
"We've only got three seniors and everyone else is underclassmen," said Gilliland, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. "So we're a young team. The fact that we had the mental toughness to come back and approach everything and say, 'We're going do this. We're going to make the NCAAs,' says a lot about who they are at a team and who they're going to continue to be."
That's spoken like a player who thinks every day about the legacy her senior class will leave behind. Gilliland, the best player in the history of the program by almost any measure, has been a centerpiece in UK's ascendance these last four years.
In her freshman season, UK returned to the tournament for the first time in 2006. A year later, the Cats won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game. In 2013, Gilliland became the third All-American in school history. Now, the national seed.
"We're doing things every year that haven't been done before," Gilliland said. "That's kind of something we like to do. What have we not done yet that can be done in this program? I think that's something we're leaving with the classes below us."
But before the seniors leave the program in the capable hands of their younger teams, there's work to be done. With two wins UK would reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, but UK's only concern at this point is SIU Edwardsville.
"We always prepare for success and we'll be prepare for each match, but we will not even look at film or discuss film on anyone other than our Saturday opponent," Lipsitz said. "That's all that matters to us."
UK has won first-round NCAA matches each of the last two seasons, but the Cats enter the tournament differently than they ever have. For starters, they'll be carrying the label of favorite that comes with that No. 3 seed.
"It's great that we're seeded, but seeds don't mean anything in the NCAA," Pope said. "You have to come out ready like you're playing the No. 1 seed, like you're the underdog. Because if you don't, if you come in expecting to win, someone's going to catch someone. And we're not going to let that be us."
The other reason why this NCAA appearance is different has everything to do with Pope's "we're-not-going-to-let-that-be-us" confidence.
After that loss to Texas A&M, UK reeled off eight straight wins, including two in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to set up a finals rematch with the Aggies in Orange Beach, Ala. The Cats would lose 1-0 on Sunday, but they did so going toe to toe with an A&M team that received a No. 1 seed on Monday.
"Before the bus pulled away from Orange Beach, I got on the bus and I said to the team, 'I am more confident in our ability today than I was before the game,' " Lipsitz said. "We lost the game and all congratulations to Texas A&M, but the way we played told me that we're ready and told me that we're playing our best soccer at the end of the year and I think that's a big difference from the past."
It also doesn't hurt that UK will play in the friendly confines of the Bell Soccer Complex, a beautiful new facility that opened this season.
"There's something different, a different feeling, about being on your home field, something that's comfortable about that," Gilliland said. "It lets you really just be in your element and I know everyone's going to rise up and do what they need to do."
In short, Gilliland couldn't think of a better place to start her final NCAA Tournament run.
"We want to go as far as we can in this NCAA Tournament and I think we've got a great setup to do so," Gilliland said. "We're going to continue to lead our team the best way we know how."
Mark Stoops knows nothing about the last three weeks of the regular season will be easy.
Ending a four-game losing streak and getting that sixth win will be tough. Doing it on the road against either Kentucky's two biggest rivals will be even more difficult.
But as Stoops sees it, there are two ways to approach what the Wildcats have in front of them.
"It will be a challenge, but, heck, just like I said, if you look at it that way, we're 5-5 and with two great opportunities left, again, starting with this one," Stoops said.
This one, of course, is a trip to face Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) with another to Louisville two weeks later. Before UK (5-5, 2-5 SEC) heads to Rocky Top, though, there's work to be done.
After a 63-31 loss to Georgia on Saturday, Stoops told reporters he was considering going against his custom and tossing the tape of the disappointing defeat and moving on. A day and a half later, he had decided he can't go quite that far.
"As coaches we can never do that," Stoops said. "We have to look at the things we do good and the things we did bad and move forward and push to improve. We will continue to look at those things and our players will look at pieces of it. The accountability piece has to be there. We'll watch some of it but we'll move on pretty quick."
UK's performance against Georgia came on the heels of a week in which Stoops minced no words in telling his team its effort against Missouri was unacceptable, starting with a Monday team meeting Bud Dupree called "ugly." Stoops will now look to find the right tone with his players, calling it the "million-dollar question."
"You guys know the approach I took last week, obviously it didn't work so that's my problem as a head coach and you can't continue to do the same thing over and over again and get the same results, that's for sure," Stoops said. "Maybe we're not to the point where we can - I better be careful of my words - not to the point where you can push 'em through that wall.
"We've got to do the very best we can and find the right mental approach, put them in the right position with coaching and continue to push and move forward."
In his second season as a head coach, Stoops has experienced a roller coaster of sorts with the way his defense and offense have played. Against Missouri, the defense kept the Cats in the game while the offense sputtered. Against Georgia, the offense dug out of a deep first-quarter hole before succumbing in the second half, the defense unable to stop the Bulldogs.
"We've been inconsistent that way," Stoops said. "It's been the offense playing well and the defense playing well and trading off. We have not put it all together. Of course we're not a complete team yet, but we're still striving to get there and put it all together and play a complete game."
In spite of all that, UK still has more wins this season than the previous two combined. Stoops and his staff continue to recruit at a high level, but work remains before the Cats are able to go toe to toe with the SEC's elite. Stoops reminds himself of that fact from time to time, that his long-term plan is still in place, but never at the cost of overlooking the here and now.
"You know I'm quite disappointed whenever we lose, no matter who we are playing and that's the situation it is," Stoops said. "That's the mentality our team has to have as well. They're not perfect but we're going to give it everything we have this week."
Injury update: Z. Smith expected to play Saturday
In the second half of Saturday's loss to Georgia, senior defensive end Za'Darius Smith limped off with an ankle injury. According to Stoops, the injury is not a high-ankle sprain and Smith "should be back" for the Tennessee game this weekend.
Stoops also said he is "hopeful" that defensive tackle Regie Meant and nickelback Blake McClain - both with shoulder injuries - will play, while tight end Steven Borden is still "iffy" with an undisclosed injury.
Finally, wide receivers Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet have not yet played this season due to injury. Stoops said on Monday that he considered playing Montgomery a few weeks ago as he neared 100 percent, but decided against it for the sake of the player. Badet, meanwhile, is practicing but not as close to Montgomery to being able to play. Both are redshirt candidates if they do not play in UK's final two games.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks in UK's win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
To say Chris Briggs showered Kentucky with praise would be an understatement. It was more like a downpour.
The Wildcats had just dismantled Briggs' Georgetown College team in an exhibition, and he couldn't help but express his wonder.
"We had the same problems that the rest of the country probably will have the rest of this year," Briggs said. "Those guys are unreal. I told the guys in the locker room, they could have beaten some NBA teams tonight, there's no question in my mind."
There were no NBA teams in Rupp Arena on Sunday night, so the Cats had to settle for a 121-52 win over perennial NAIA power Georgetown. UK was every bit as dominant as it was in its first exhibition win over Pikeville, with Aaron Harrison leading seven double-figure scorers with 17 points. Harrison shot 5 of 7 from 3-point range and the Cats 12 of 27 as a team.
The Cats shot 46 of 72 (63.9 percent) from the field and had 32 assists, rendering Georgetown's short-lived 2-0 lead to start game a distant memory. UK's defense stifled the Tigers to the tune of 27.9-percent shooting, nine blocks and nine steals.
"We played really well," Harrison said. "We came out a little slow, but we picked it up and got going. It was fun."
The 21,490 fans in attendance surely agreed, what with the dunk show Willie Cauley-Stein highlighted with a hand-behind-the-head pose for two of his 12 points. Of course, Cauley-Stein channeling Hall of Famer Karl Malone wasn't the last time the NBA would be invoked.
Briggs, even though he felt a little guilty adding fuel to UK's hype machine, even went on to say he had a hard time imagining how the Cats will lose this season. A season removed from 40-0 expectations defining his team before an NCAA Tournament run, John Calipari made sure to distance himself from the talk.
"Coach, did you do that to me?" Calipari said. "So he also said we're going to have 40 wins and win by 25, right? No, this will be a process. We're going to hit some bumps in the road."
Though the ride was smooth on Sunday, the Cats don't need to be told the regular season - which begins on Friday against Grand Canyon - will bring challenges.
"We know that the opponent is a little small and at some point we're going to play against bigger people and bigger size," Dakari Johnson said. "But we do have 12 people that can play at that high level, so I think it's for our benefit."
Few players are benefiting from UK's two-platoon system more than Johnson.
The sophomore had 12 points and 10 rebounds, needing just 17 minutes to tally a double-double. Even though he's in the best shape of his life after adopting a new training regimen and diet in the offseason and his playing time is limited to four-minute spurts, Johnson is still finding ways to tire himself out on the court.
That's the idea.
"He was exhausted in the last time out," Calipari said. "He grabbed his shorts was breathing so hard. I told the guys, 'Look at him, that's what you all should feel like walking off this court.' A friend of mine watched our game last week and said, 'As soon as your guys realize they can play even harder than they're playing it becomes scary. It becomes scary.' "
The platoon system might mean the Cats won't put up the same gaudy individual numbers they otherwise would, but they're having no trouble adjusting to this point.
"Not anybody in the country has as many guys that deserve to play and can play at a high level like us," Johnson said. "It's just--once the other team gets fatigued, it's tough. And once we keep on getting fresh and keep on going in, we can have a lot of fun with it."
They already seem to be having plenty of fun, evidenced by the fact that they spend a bulk of their time on the bench not sitting at all.
"The team, we're just together," Johnson said. "We like to have fun and we just cheer on our teammates. If they make a great play, we're going to let them know that they made a great play. It just feels like--on the court and off the court, we're more together."
That togetherness, Coach Cal says, is why he's comfortable trying something few coaches ever have in using the platoon system.
"I just went on TV and I said the only reason this will work is because the players are allowing it to work," Calipari said. "And that means you've got kids with high character. You have kids who care about one another, that trust each other. Basically trust what we're doing here that we got their back."
That trust will be tested throughout the season, as well as the system Coach Cal is using. He said on Sunday he would evaluate the platoons after 10 or 12 games, stating plainly that the approach is not set in stone.
"They're going to be a game or two we're going to lose and you're going to look at me and say what, and I'm going to say it's about these kids, I'll figure it out, I'm not doing it yet," Calipari said. "And this is going to play out. It may be a tweak. It may be more than that. We'll figure it out."
The players know they have work ahead of them too, but that doesn't mean they're not confident.
"We're just a really good team and a lot of talent," Harrison said. "I think if we continue to work together and play together, I think we can do really well this year."
Stanley "Boom" Williams rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown in UK's 63-31 loss to Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For Mark Stoops, every game, including losses, provides teachable moments.
His custom is to watch video with his staff on Sunday and reconvene with his team on Monday to begin the learning process, no matter what the film shows.
He's considering making an exception after Kentucky's defeat on Saturday.
"I'm not much on throwing things out, but I may have to throw this one out," Stoops said.
It was a 63-31 loss at the hands of Georgia that gave Stoops pause. The Wildcats (5-5, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) didn't force a Bulldog punt all afternoon in allowing 559 yards, only preventing Georgia (7-2, 5-2 SEC) from scoring thanks to a fumbled kickoff and the ends of both halves.
"I don't want to keep on going on and on, but when I say I'm embarrassed, I'm embarrassed," Stoops said, restating for the final time a sentiment that came up often in his postgame press conference. "We didn't play good, and I'll sit here and accept that, and it is what it is."
It all started with the opening kickoff, taken 90 yards for the first of two return touchdowns by Georgia's Isaiah McKenzie.
"That's just kind of how the day went," Stoops said. "It's hard to have an explanation for that. It started with a terrible kick and some guys not doing their job. You play a very good football team and they make you pay like that, it kind of takes the air out of the stadium right from the start."
More air left the stadium as Georgia scored twice more before the end of the first quarter to take a 21-0 lead. The Cats would battle back by halftime, scoring 24 points on their next four drives to make it 35-24 at the break, but the outcome was all but sealed when Patrick Towles' pass tipped off Ryan Timmons' hand for a Corey Moore interception.
"I really felt like we had a chance coming out of the half if we could have--what, were we down 10, 11 or something like that - if we could have done something positive, put some points on the board," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I don't know at the end of the day if we were good enough to win it, but it wouldn't have turned out like this."
In spite of some offensive strides (UK had 214 rushing yards, including 100 by true freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams), 22 Wildcats had their Senior Day spoiled and the 60,152 fans in attendance saw a loss in the final game played in Commonwealth Stadium before the completion of a $120 million renovation. Included in that group is star defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree.
"It was embarrassing," Dupree said. "We gotta watch film. We really don't know what happened. Just not executing calls and not playing with a lot of effort. Just different things that we gotta fix. But you can't point any fingers. We just gotta go on to the next game."
Even though he called Saturday's game "not acceptable," Stoops agrees that moving on is UK's only reasonable course of action.
"We'll look at all the things we could do better," Stoops said. "But the fact of the matter is we're a .500 football team with two big games left, starting with Tennessee, and we'll see."
The other game, of course, is a season finale at Louisville, meaning UK will play its final two games on the road against its two biggest rivals. In doing so, the Cats have a clear motivation.
"Just try to get win No. 6," Dupree said. "We got two more games to win No. 6, to go to a bowl game. We're still going to end up having a good season, be over .500 and it's just up to us if we want it or not."
UK might be in the midst of a four-game losing streak against four bowl-bound SEC teams, but the Cats haven't backed off in their preparation to this point. Stoops doesn't expect that to change.
"Our guys, they've had a good attitude in practice," Stoops said. "They've worked. They've given me no indication throughout the week. This team was better than us and played much better than us and took it to us. They had a lot to do with it. I think we'll see. This will be a test of our character here this week. We'll see how we respond and dig down and how we come back and play."
Fortunately, the Cats have proven performance to call on as they look to bounce back. UK has won a pair of conference games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt and played well in two more against Mississippi State and Florida.
"We know what it takes to win," Towles said. "We've done it. We just have to do it more consistently. I have all the faith in the world in these seniors, these guys."
One of those seniors, defensive tackle Mike Douglas, was asked whether the veterans will call any players-only meetings or do anything special to rally their younger teammates. The time for that, he said, has passed.
It's time, simply put, to do.
"There comes a point in time where there are no more words that can be said it's all about action, you either put up or shut up," Douglas said. "... Now we are at a point where we need to come out and be focused and come out and know the mission at hand. Thank God that we still have two games to prove that we are better than we have shown."
After losing the second set of Friday's match to Georgia, allowing the Bulldogs to tie the Wildcats 1-1, No. 17 Kentucky headed to the locker room in desperate need of adjustment.
By the time the ball was served to begin set three, they did just that.
"I feel like as a team, the first and second game were one mentality," said senior Lauren O'Conner. "We came in at the break and just changed everything."
Allowing four team blocks from UGA to UK's zero in set two, Kentucky flipped the script in the third set and blocked four Georgia shots without giving up one of their own. The Cats' hitting percentage rose from a dreary .239 to a dominating .480, while the Dogs' attack dropped all the way down to .156 in set three.
"We challenged our team to be better defensively in sets three and four," said head coach Craig Skinner. "Obviously, our defense and blocking were a big difference in those sets. I'm just proud of the mentality we had to close out the match."
After a 25-16 win in set three, Kentucky (21-4, 10-2 SEC) cruised to a 25-13 victory in the fourth and final set. O'Conner proved to be the offensive catalyst the Cats needed, posting 21 kills by herself, just one shy of her career high, and not a single error.
"I feel like (the adjustment in the third set) just helped me step up even more, because my team was just fighting," said O'Conner. "I wanted to step up and make the plays so we could come out on top."
O'Conner, one of only three seniors on the Kentucky roster, has been playing some of the best volleyball of her career just as it comes to an end. With only three home games remaining before the NCAA Tournament, the Taylor Mill, Ky. native's playing days are glaringly numbered.
"(O'Conner) is playing with a ton of confidence," said Skinner. "She knows what shot to hit at the right time, and sees the block and the court really well."
Earning All-SEC Freshman team honors in 2011, O'Conner saw action in 97 of 98 matches--recording 67 total starts--during her first three seasons in Lexington. Fast-forward through her illustrious career to 2014, and O'Conner still finds a way to impress her coach with each passing game.
"Before, she had a cross-court shot, and now she has every shot in the book," said Skinner. "Her cross-court off-speed is doing a really nice job."
Looking ahead to Sunday's match with the defending SEC champion Missouri Tigers, O'Conner chooses not to revel in her spectacular 21-kill performance or her .512 hitting percentage.
"Just take it as any other game," said O'Conner. "(I) just try to do the best that I can on that night, and (take) the opportunities that are given to me."
No. 17 Kentucky will face Mizzou (15-12, 6-6 SEC) Sunday at noon at Memorial Coliseum. The match will be televised live on ESPN's SEC Network.
On top of being a respected coach and recruiter, Rohrssen has famously dabbled as an actor, starring alongside the likes of Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey.
Nonetheless, one subject escaped him in school.
"You know, for some people, even like myself, chemistry was the hardest subject," Rohrssen said.
The same is true, though not in quite so literal a sense, for the Kentucky basketball team. The Wildcats, set for the second of two exhibitions on Sunday at 7 p.m. against Georgetown (Ky.), are still in the process of figuring out exactly how they fit together.
John Calipari knows UK, at least to start the season, will operate in a two-platoon system. Last Sunday, the Cats dominated Pikeville by sharing time in two groups, the first featuring Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns and the second Tyler Ulis, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson.
Whether those platoons remain the same is still a question mark.
"It's Friday now and we've still got two more days and maybe three more practices to go before that," Rohrssen said. "So it could change; it could be the same."
In that victory over Pikeville, all 10 members of the two platoons played at least 16 minutes, and none more than 20. The system calls for that kind of balance on paper, but the coaching staff doesn't expect for it to play out that way when the season heats up.
"It's still to be determined," Rohrssen said. "I think Cal might've spoken to you guys already; he said it's not communism. That was kind of his phrase about it, where those that will produce are going to get more time or find themselves with the opportunity for more time."
Taking on the in-state Tigers, boasting a 3-0 record and a No. 8 ranking in NAIA Division I, will arm UK with 40 minutes more of data to evaluate the platoons. Just as importantly, it's another chance to adjust to the game-day routine.
"One of the things that's nice about college basketball is you get a chance to get out there, simulate game days, go through a shootaround or a walk-through in the morning the day of a game, have your pregame meal with your team, just to get in a rhythm and get comfortable, and especially for the new guys," Rohrssen said. "... So it's good to get some of those exhibitions under your belt, and this will be another step towards our improvement." Booker getting better
Devin Booker. (Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)
Though he showcased his talent at points, Devin Booker was relatively quiet during UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
The 6-foot-6 guard averaged just 5.2 points and shot 34.4 percent from the field, but Rohrssen pinpointed Booker as the freshman who has improved the most since.
"Well, one guy that's really improving rapidly and on a day-to-day basis is Devin Booker," Rohrssen said. "He's really made some very good strides since he's been here on campus, like most of the freshmen."
Those strides were apparent last Sunday, as Booker scored 16 points and had three assists in 16 minutes of UK's exhibition win over Pikeville, leading the second platoon in scoring in the process. Booker did his damage in a variety ways, showing the dead-eye shooting for which he's known in hitting 2-of-4 3-pointers, but also running the floor and scoring at the rim.
"He's just finding things a bit more comfortably now, getting up and down the court a lot quicker, using some of his athleticism," Rohrssen said. "He moves well without the basketball. He's releasing his shot a lot quicker."
Rohrssen talks recruiting
When he first committed to using the two-platoon system in the preseason, Coach Cal said it could represent a "watershed moment" should it work as planned.
By making it work, he said UK could change the face of college basketball just like in 2010 when five Wildcats were drafted in the first round by proving so many talented players could coexist and succeed both as a team and individually.
But for now, UK is sticking to a more familiar script on the trail.
"Recruiting, these guys have been very receptive," Rohrssen said. "It's nice to be ranked No. 1 in the polls. It's a nice way to have a conversation, go into somebody's home."
Pitching the platoons, according to Rohrssen, is premature. Could UK have a similarly constructed roster with 12 players deserving of time next season? Sure. Is it a guarantee? No.
"I mean, that's to unfold next season," Rohrssen said. "If we're talking about this season, Kentucky is very well received no matter where you go and who you speak with it. It's nice to have that royal blue UK on your chest when you're walking into a high school or a home."