With the NBA a week into the 2014-15 season, several former Wildcats have dominated national headlines throughout the league.
First, Julius Randle entered his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers in the most disturbing fashion imaginable. After logging just 14 minutes of play in the season opener against Houston Randle went down with a broken tibia in his right leg.
Randle's injury will leave him out of action for the remainder of his rookie season. But after being selected as the seventh overall pick in last June's draft the power forward is expected to play a significant role in rebuilding the Lakers back up to a championship level franchise.
Randle being carted off the court on opening night stole the attention away from what was a very strong outing from Terrence Jones, who has now solidified himself in a starting role for the Houston Rockets next to All-Star center Dwight Howard. Jones posted 16 points and 13 rebounds against the Lakers and has shown no signs of slowing down through week one.
Jones has been the answer for what was a failed experiment last season in Houston when the Rockets attempted to play Howard and 7-foot center Omer Asik side-by-side in the frontcourt. This offseason Asik decided to go elsewhere and he ended up in New Orleans where he combined with All-Star forward Anthony Davis on opening night for 40 points, 34 rebounds and 14 blocks as the Pelicans defeated the Magic 101-84.
Davis came into the season with sky-high expectations and after a near triple-double in game one, and a 30 and 15 outing in game two, the 6-10 star is more than living up to his No. 3 player ranking by ESPN.
Another ultra-talented big man having his way in the Western Conference is fifth-year pro DeMarcus Cousins. The Kings have been mediocre at best during the first three years of his career, but after winning a gold medal this summer in the FIBA World Championships in Spain with Team USA, Cousins - now 24 years old - seems more than ready to change the culture in Sac-town.
The Kings' week one schedule was arguably the most difficult in the entire league as they faced off against three Western Conference playoff teams from a year ago, recording a 2-1 record in those games. Most recently Sacramento began a two-game road trip on Sunday with a gritty win over heated rival the Clippers at Staples Center. It was a statement game for the 6-11 center as he finished with 34 points, 17 rebounds and five assists. If Boogie can combine consistent contributions like this with his goal of just five technical fouls this whole season, it will be impossible to keep him out of the All-Star game in April.
Two former Cats who are considered to be locks to represent the eastern conference in the All-Star game are point guards Rajon Rondo and John Wall.
Rondo's availability for the season opener was in question all entire offseason after suffering a hand injury, but the Celtics' floor general has not missed a beat in his first two outings. Averaging just shy of a triple-double after the first week, Rondo is among the league leaders for point guards in several statistical categories, a feat that is not likely to change as the season advances.
John Wall has posted a double-double in each of the Wizards' first three games. That sort of production will almost certainly continue as Wall carries the load for his young team during the first several weeks of the season without backcourt running mate Bradley Beal. Washington is looking to build on last season's playoff run and Wall will be the centerpiece for whatever success the Wizkids enjoy in 2014-15.
Wall's former Kentucky teammate Eric Bledsoe was a hot topic this offseason as experts debated whether or not he was worth the max contract he desired. In the end, Bledsoe was able to reach a five-year deal worth $70 million. Now in his fifth year in the league, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound guard has set out to shake off the injury woes that have defined his career to this point and drag his team in Phoenix to a playoff appearance in the West for the first time since 2010.
Entering the 2014-15 NBA season, Kentucky has 19 ex-players on 16 different rosters. Cat Scratches will provide a unique inside look at former UK fan favorites, as well as a detailed TV schedule and updated statistics as the season moves along.
Stats through games on Sunday, Nov. 2)
Rajon Rondo, Boston - 8.5 PPG, 10 APG, 8.5 RPG, 2 SPG James Young, Boston - Earned a DNP in season opener, scored six points in six minutes in game two Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte - 11.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG in three starts Nazr Mohammed, Chicago - DNP for the Bulls in week one Jodie Meeks, Detroit - Out 8 weeks with a back injury Terrence Jones, Houston - 16.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG Julius Randle, LA Lakers - scored two points in 14 minutes off the bench before sustaining a season-ending leg injury on opening night Tayshaun Prince, Memphis - 4 PPG, 2 RPG in 18 minutes per game Brandon Knight, Milwaukee - 19.7 PPG, 9 APG, 6.7 RPG Anthony Davis, New Orleans - 28.5 PPG, 16 RPG, 6 BPG, 2.5 SPG Darius Miller, New Orleans - DNP for the Pelicans in week one Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia - 7.3 PPG, 8.3 RPG, 2.3 BPG in three starts Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix - 12.7 PPG, 6.7 APG, 6.3 RPG Archie Goodwin, Phoenix - 2.5 PPG, 1.5 APG in 10 minutes per game DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento - 23.7 PPG, 12.3 RPG Patrick Patterson, Toronto - 4 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.7 APG in 21 minutes per game Chuck Hayes, Toronto - grabbed three rebounds in 12 minutes in his only appearance in week one Enes Kanter, Utah - 8 PPG, 3.7 RPG in three games as a starter John Wall, Washington - 21.7 PPG, 11 APG, 4.7 RPG, 3 SPG in more than 37 minutes per game
Week two TV schedule
This week's nationally televised games featuring former UK players:
Tuesday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Miami 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: Indiana @ Washington (John Wall) 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: San Antonio @ Houston (Terrence Jones) 8:00 p.m. on TNT Friday: Memphis (Tayshaun Prince) @ Oklahoma City 8:00 p.m. on ESPN Saturday: New Orleans (Anthony Davis, Darius Miller) @ San Antonio 8:30 p.m. on NBA TV Sunday: Philadelphia (Nerlens Noel) @ Toronto (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Shelby Workman had 10 kills in UK's sweep of Morehead State on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
A scheduling quirk made for a strange week for the Kentucky volleyball team.
The Wildcats, accustomed to having matches on Fridays and Saturdays, spent their weekend practicing instead of playing following a sweep of rival Tennessee on Wednesday.
"Pretty unusual, actually," head coach Craig Skinner said. "It's kind of weird going through a weekend without playing a match."
For that reason, UK scheduled a match with in-state foe Morehead State on Monday to bridge the gap between the Tennessee win and the Cats' return to Southeastern Conference play on Friday against Georgia. Kentucky came in the heavy favorite and performed accordingly in a sweep.
"When on paper you should win a match it's hard to always be focused the entire way," Skinner said. "For us to--I don't think we had any hitting errors in set three. ... For us to be able to do that and sustain it through three sets I think is good."
After a competitive first set, the Cats were dominant. UK outscored the visitors 50-26 in the final two sets behind an efficient offensive effort. The Cats hit a season-high .449 as a team in reaching the 20-win plateau for the seventh time in eight seasons and fourth in a row.
"I guess I don't think a whole lot about it, but it's the next win," Skinner said. "As we go down the stretch, I think some matches down the road are more important, Georgia obviously being the first one this weekend (in the) middle of a home stretch, which is nice to kind of get some confidence, get some training in."
UK used Monday's match as a training ground of sorts, testing out a new scheme with its two middle blockers, playing 13 total players and getting some important work for Shelby Workman.
"We were able to try some different things," Skinner said. "We've been trying to smooth some things out with Shelby and trying to get some people some playing time in different scenarios. We were able to do that and rest a couple people that have been banged up a little bit. So it was nice to be able to take care of business."
Workman responded, hitting .444 and tallying 10 kills. She trailed only Lauren O'Conner, who followed back-to-back 19-kill performances with an efficient 11-kill effort. O'Conner, it seems, is intent on making the final weeks of her decorated UK career count.
"She's just a veteran leader," Skinner said. "She's confident hitting any shot. She's just really proving herself right now as a true (No. 1 left-side hitter), someone that can carry the offensive load when you need it, which relieves some stress off your setter and also relieves some stress of your other hitters. She's playing well and playing with a lot of confidence."
Almost two years into his Kentucky tenure, Mark Stoops has become famous for his fire.
That passion, one of the driving forces behind the progress of the UK program, is most often seen on the sideline on Saturday, but this week it made an earlier appearance.
Stoops, at his regular Monday press conference, minced no words in evaluating his team's performance in a loss over the weekend and spoke in no uncertain terms about what the Wildcats need to do over the final month of the regular season.
The gathered media, noting his frustration, wondered what Stoops would be like when he met with his team later in the day.
"You can stand out in the street and you'll hear," Stoops said.
Stoops isn't angry for the sake of being angry either. He sees a UK team that has fallen to 5-4 (2-4 Southeastern Conference) but still has every opportunity to address the discipline issues that plagued the Cats in a deflating 20-10 loss at Missouri.
"I feel like our players and our coaches, starting with me, we have a choice in that matter," Stoops said. "We either choose to be disciplined or we choose to be undisciplined. We either choose to be a trained football team and us as a coaching staff need to train them."
To Stoops, that all comes down to details.
"If you're supposed to run a six-step out, run it six, not eight," Stoops said. "If you're supposed to follow the guard on a run play, follow the guard, not just run anywhere you want to run. That's what I mean by 'untrained.' It's creating those habits and training to play when you're under pressure. When we're under pressure, our habits come right to the surface and they're bad habits."
In the midst of three straight losses, the mood around UK football is much different than it was after a 5-1 start that generated talk of the Cats contending for the SEC Eastern Division crown. But just as things weren't as good as they seemed three weeks ago, they aren't as bad as they seem right now.
"We just need to be better," Stoops said. "We're inconsistent. The wheels aren't falling off; we barely had them on."
UK, in other words, is still very much in development mode.
"We've got to scratch and claw and fight and dig down for everything that we get," Stoops said. "To think that you're going to go out there and hope that they happen, we're mistaken. I constantly talk about that. We cannot wait for our moment. We've got to train to go take it and make our moment."
The Cats have three chances left to make their moment in the regular season, starting with a Senior Day matchup against No. 17 Georgia at noon ET on Saturday. The Bulldogs (6-2, 4-2 SEC) suffered a 38-20 defeat at the hands of Florida over the weekend, but remain a major challenge for any opponent.
"They bring a very good football team," Stoops said. "I think they bring a power running team that we know has hurt us in the past as well. They can run the heck out of the football. They're very talented. They can throw it. They're very balanced. They're playing great defense."
Georgia is the only team to rank in the top four in the SEC in both scoring offense and scoring defense, relying on a ground attack that averages 265.9 yards and a rushing defense that allows just 105.1 yards per game.
"Georgia is going to present a real problem to us because, first of all, they're not going to give you anything," Stoops said. "They're one of those aggressive defenses. They're very well coached. They're not going to give you anything easy. So you've got to go earn your yards. You have to win your one-on-ones."
In the wake of an offensive performance that saw the Cats gain just 258 yards, schemes and play calls have been popular topics, but not as much for Stoops. Of course the UK staff will work hard to craft a game plan that will position the Cats for success, but that's not the priority this week.
"There's no magical little scheme or anything like that," Stoops said. "You got to win. You got to block some people, get open, throw good footballs."
Depth chart update: Williams the new starter at running back
Following a game in which he accounted for 97 of UK's 258 yards from scrimmage, true freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams has moved by himself to the top of the depth chart at running back. Braylon Heard, Mikel Horton and Jojo Kemp follow him.
At wide receiver, there are numerous changes. Garrett Johnson is now listed as a starter at one of the four spots, along with Demarco Robinson, Javess Blue and Ryan Timmons. Joey Herrick has moved into a backup role behind Timmons, while T.V. Williams and Rashad Cunningham are no longer listed.
At quarterback, Drew Barker is no longer listed as a backup. Stoops confirmed on Monday the reason for that is it's too late in the season for the true freshman to burn his redshirt.
In the secondary, Fred Tiller and Blake McClain are still starters at cornerback and nickelback, respectively, in spite of suffering injuries at Missouri. Stoops said both are expected to be "fine" for Saturday.
Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points in UK's exhibition win over Pikeville on Sunday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
More than once, John Calipari has commented publicly that Kentucky was in for a reprieve when the season finally came.
With all the talent on the floor in practice and the reduced workload on the Wildcats playing in a two-platoon system, Coach Cal said games would be easier.
With one exhibition in the books, he might be right.
"When Coach says the practices are way harder than the games, it's true," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You really felt it tonight. Like, I feel like I was fresh all the time."
Cauley-Stein and the Cats looked it too.
With no player on the floor for more than 20 minutes and 10 playing at least 16, Kentucky overwhelmed NAIA foe Pikeville in a 116-68 victory in front of 21,036 at Rupp Arena on Sunday night. Karl-Anthony Towns led UK with 22 points on 10-of-11 shooting in just 18 minutes and the Cats racked up 29 assists and shot 65.3 percent as a team.
"We played really well," Towns said. "The team did a really good job. I'm really happy with the assist totals, really. It shows we're moving the ball. Such a talented team, you don't expect a lot like that. We did a great job as a team. We ran the floor, we contested a lot of shots, but we have a lot of things we need to work on. That's what we're going to start back on tomorrow."
The performance led Pikeville head coach Kelly Wells to declare UK "the most talented team in the country" and potentially the most talented in program history, but the visiting Bears hung around in the early going. When K.K. Simmons buried a jumper at the 14:04 mark for two of his game-high 28 points, Pikeville pulled to within 22-18.
Against this Kentucky team, with its mass substitutions every four-to-five minutes, it simply wasn't sustainable. By the end of the first half, UK led 67-40 on the strength of a 21-0 run.
"What you saw is Pikeville came out of the gate and they were flying, and then each sub I made, each time by the third sub and then the fourth sub, all of a sudden you see them missing eight straight shots," Calipari said. "They were making every shot for a while. We left them open and they made it. And that's the whole point of what we're trying to do. Play fast, don't be in a hurry, though we're playing fast."
Fast may be an understatement.
Running off of turnovers generated in both the press and half-court, missed shots and even makes, the Cats scored 26 of their 36 fast-break points in the first half. On the strength of all those easy baskets, UK scored 1.523 points per possession and took, on average, just 8.88 seconds attempt its first shot.
Cauley-Stein has been through everything from a first-round NIT loss to a trip to the national championship game, but he's never seen anything quite like this.
"Way faster, just because the platoon system you can play up and down and you don't have to worry about getting extremely tired or slowing the ball down and playing a half-court game," said Cauley-Stein, who had 10 points and six rebounds. "Now you've got five in, five out every four or five minutes that you can just run and run and run. You just wear people down."
Sunday's exhibition was played with an experimental 30-second shot clock, but UK rarely needed those extra five seconds. The game featured 80 total possessions, nearly 14 more than last year's national average and three more than UK's 2013-14 season high.
"If we can score quick, we will," Calipari said. "If not, let's create a good shot."
Good shots were all UK got, especially in the first half. The Cats shot a blistering 27 of 33 (81.8 percent) from the field in the first 20 minutes.
"They don't ever settle," Wells said. "They don't settle. I've never been a part of a team where we gave up 80 percent field goals in the first half. They don't settle for anything but dunks and layups. You and I make a conventional bounce pass and chest pass and every time they're throwing lobs and we look like middle-school kids out there at times because they're just so big."
Among UK's historically tall frontcourt, Dakari Johnson (13 points), Poythress (12 points) and Trey Lyles (10 points) joined Towns and Cauley-Stein in double figures. The Cats also held a 49-25 rebounding edge and outscored Pikeville in second-chance points by a margin of 35-15.
Devin Booker (16 points on 6-of-9 shooting) was the only UK guard to crack double figures, but Andrew Harrison may have been the most valuable player. The sophomore point guard scored five points on just two field-goal tries, but piled up nine assists against zero turnovers in a performance Coach Cal called "ridiculous."
"Andrew was excellent," Towns said. "He was really taking control of the game as a floor general. He's improved so much since last year. I think everyone can tell the difference in his game from last year to this year. He's a true leader on the court too."
Harrison is setting the tone for a UK team embracing a new platoon system. The result of that system, even though its original purpose is to allow 12 players deserving of playing time to see the floor, is a faster style of play that figures to fluster even the most talented opponents.
"Having a platoon system really makes us--allows us, actually, to expend more energy at given times and then regain a lot more quicker," Towns said. "I feel bad for the players last year having to regain all the energy back in about a minute timeout. This time they get to maybe rest for five-and-a-half, five minutes and really get their legs right back under them."
So, what does UK, which has a week off before a second exhibition next Sunday against Georgetown (Ky.), do for an encore to a lightning-quick debut?
"For us, we still have to push the tempo a little more," Towns said. "I think it was a little too slow. I think we would like it a lot faster, but that's a good start."
Seeking to fill a football head-coaching vacancy nearly two years ago, Mitch Barnhart did his due diligence.
He met with candidates and evaluated many more. He called references and solicited the help of Tim Couch, the quarterback and former No. 1 overall pick who was there for some of Kentucky's best years. For more than three weeks, Barnhart worked behind the scenes to find the right man for the job.
Through it all there was one coach who stuck out, and it was his plan that differentiated Mark Stoops.
Then the defensive coordinator at Florida State, Stoops met with Barnhart and presented his blueprint for success at UK at a meeting in Atlanta. It covered everything from recruiting to an innovative High Performance program and the detail was incredible, such that it almost seemed too good to be true.
Twenty-three months later, it's become clear that Stoops' plan was no fairytale.
"He has followed that to a t," Barnhart said. "Everything he said he was going to do, he has done, and it's on schedule and on task."
For executing his ambitious plan, Stoops was rewarded on Friday with a contract extension that will keep him at Kentucky through the end of the 2019 season, adding another year to a deal that was first extended in May.
Exciting news, #BBN. We've agreed to a contract extension with @UKCoachStoops that will keep him here through the 2019 season. #Yahtzee
The new contract bumps Stoops' average base salary to $3.575 million. The deal also includes a $250,000 incentive for each win beginning with the seventh win each season, as well as incentives for postseason appearances, winning the Southeastern Conference or national championship and team academic performance. New deals for UK's assistant coaches are also forthcoming.
"Mark is guiding our program in the direction we all want it to go and we are proud to reward that," Barnhart said in a release announcing the news. "I was confident Mark was right for this job when I hired him, but he has exceeded my expectations. From leading a group of young men, to recruiting, to fundraising, to becoming an important part of the Lexington community, Mark has embraced and excelled in all facets of being Kentucky football head coach."
In doing so, Stoops led a renaissance of the UK program. Immediately, Stoops made waves on the recruiting trail and awoke a fan base hungry for football success. The wins didn't come as quickly, as the Wildcats managed just a 2-10 season in his first year.
This season, however, has been another story. UK is 5-3 entering a trip to Missouri for a game at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday, exceeding its win total from the previous two years combined. The Cats also have a pair of SEC wins after going nearly three years without one.
"I am excited about the progress our team has shown on the field, but this is as much about the next five years as it is the last one and a half," Barnhart said. "As I've said before, I believe we can compete at the highest level in the toughest conference. Mark is the coach to take us there."
Stoops' work at UK has already caused some national pundits and fans to connect his name to jobs that aren't even open yet. The contract extension curtailed some of that talk, but this was always about something deeper than that.
"This is about our relationship, and I don't ever want it -- I think people, when you start worrying about other folks, that's when you get distracted," Barnhart said. "And Mark is really good about not worrying about other people, and I want to make sure we don't get all hung up on worrying about other people."
It was Barnhart who initiated the talks and Stoops was receptive, mostly because he is "not interested in going anywhere."
"I want to show my commitment," Stoops said. "If you know anything about myself, about my family, past history -- whether it be with my brothers and different people -- loyalty's a pretty big thing with us."
Loyalty, when it comes to Stoops and UK, is a two-way street.
Since that initial meeting in Atlanta, Stoops and Barnhart have built a strong working relationship that's the foundation for that loyalty.
"Fairness is what I think Mark is really all about, and I love that," Barnhart said. "And I love the fact that I feel like he wants to for a good job for the University of Kentucky for all the right reasons. He's a solid, obviously, really solid, great football coach. I really love what he's doing with our football program, but more than that, he's just a great person."
"I just felt like it was always very easy conversations with myself and with Mitch, and I think we're both the type of people (that) what we say is what we mean," Stoops said. "I just felt very comfortable, and that's part of having any kind of success is just having good instincts on people and what you believe."
Relying on that shared relationship, Stoops and Barnhart have gone to work.
Beyond the results on the field and on the recruiting trail, UK's football facilities are being addressed in a big way. Stoops has helped pave the way for a $120 million stadium renovation that will be completed before next season and a new $45 million practice facility project that will break ground in January.
"Mark has energized our fan base, exhibited by the crowds we've been having at Commonwealth Stadium and the response we're getting in the seat reallocation process as we build into our new stadium for next year," Barnhart said. "That's exciting for us. He's been extremely helpful to our program in the fundraising area as we build our new football training center. We break ground on that in January. He's done a tremendous job in the fund-raising area as well and I'm appreciative of that."
As exciting as the future of Kentucky football is with the facility upgrades and his new contract, Stoops was a bit ill-at-ease standing at the podium on Friday. With a bus waiting outside to take him and the team to the airport for a flight to Columbia, Mo., as soon as his time with gathered media was done, it's understandable that his mind may have been elsewhere.
"Looking forward to getting on this plane and going to Missouri and trying to get this win," Stoops said.
Arin Gilliland and her fellow seniors won their home regular-season finale against Alabama on Thursday, 2-1. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Arin Gilliland has battled through indescribable adversity in her four years as a Wildcat to cement herself as the best player in the history of the Kentucky women's soccer program.
With all that in mind, Gilliland deserved a winning sendoff.
But 13 minutes into a Senior Night match against Alabama, UK yielded a tying goal.
"We gave up the goal on my mistake," Gilliland said.
As disappointed as she was in herself, allowing the goal only served to turn her final regular-season home match into more of a fairytale finish. In the 86th minute, Cara Ledman's corner kick found Kaitlin Miller, who headed the ball for a goal and a 2-1 victory for No. 24/18 UK (13-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference).
"My team backed me up and they picked the team up and they got another one," said Gilliland, whose run toward goal forced the corner kick. "They found a way. Those are the kind of games that I live for, when my team finds a way to win in a tough situation. That's why this win is so special to me."
Making it even more special is the fact that UK almost certainly would have lost this game had it been played six weeks ago.
"It wasn't an aesthetically pleasing game, but sometimes you gotta find a way to grind it out," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "These are the exact wins earlier in the year that were losses. We just didn't grind out the difficult ones and I think that's part of our big change."
Before the "big change," UK had lost four times in six matches. The Cats entered the season with high hopes, but were all of a sudden perilously perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Since then, UK has won six matches in a row to secure the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament and make a strong case for a national seed in the big dance.
For that reason, Senior Night was hardly a farewell for this class of Gilliland, Stuart Pope, Emma Brown and Maddie Lockridge.
"It feels great, but I'm not sending them off," Lipsitz said. "We've got a lot more to do."
That starts in next week's conference tournament at 3:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday against an opponent to be determined.
As decorated the winningest class in school history is, these seniors have never won a game in the SEC Tournament. Gilliland is going to do everything in her power to change that.
"I never give for-sures, but I'm going to give everything I have and I know my team is going to do the same because they have a completely different attitude this year," Gilliland said. "They have this aggression about them. They have this really tough mentality and they want to win."
Lipsitz credits Gilliland and her fellow seniors for creating that toughness.
"What I right now love about this group is when things were hard we buckled down and we found a way," Lipsitz said. "That's what our program's about and that's the legacy these four are leaving us."
The Kentucky football team took advantage of a beautiful fall day in Lexington, working outside on the Tim Couch Practice Fields on Thursday. The Wildcats are putting the finishing touches on preparations for a trip to Missouri.
"It's been a good week of practice so far," Mark Stoops said. "We had a good Thursday today. Guys are excited and look sharp in practice, so anxious to get on that plane tomorrow."
UK is in search of its first road win since the 2010 season opener against Louisville, and Stoops said getting the next one will be a "milestone" for his program. For that reason, the plane ride to and from Columbia, Mo., has been a subject in his messages to the team.
"Let's get on the plane to go there with a strong mindset and let's be joyous on that return," Stoops said. "We talk about it over and over: Nobody's going to give you anything. You got to go earn it. You got to prepare. And you got to go play well. So that's our mindset and hopefully we'll be able to do that."
Kentucky has lost road games this season, playing well in a loss at Florida and getting blown out at LSU. Stoops won't alter UK's travel plans in an effort to reverse the trend, but the Cats did switch up their early-week routine.
"I just thought, again, to break the monotony, we came in Sunday and knocked out the film," Stoops said. "I gave them Monday off. Just to have that day off Monday, they were good Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, so hopefully that'll carry."
Missouri is 6-2 (3-1 Southeastern Conference) on the season and presents yet another stiff test for Kentucky. The Tigers, however, have lost at home to Indiana and Georgia and both times the opponent committed no turnovers and allowed no big plays on special teams. UK will look to follow a similar roadmap.
"We have talked about it -- you've heard me talk about that -- that we haven't played a complete game yet," Stoops said. "And we need to do that to go win on the road against a quality opponent. So I think turnovers are always a big part of that, and special teams is always a big part of that. So hopefully we'll be solid in those areas. We worked really hard on special teams."
The Cats' special teams will get a boost this week with the expected return of Stanley "Boom" Williams. The running back is UK's most dangerous kick returner, but missed last week with a concussion.
"He's looked good," Stoops said. "Should be pretty fresh. Any time you get some time off and then come back, could help that way."
In search of a sixth win, Kentucky hit the practice field on Wednesday in preparation for a trip to face Missouri this weekend.
On another productive day, the focus was clear for the Wildcats.
"We're really harping on fundamentals," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We're pushing the kids to the limit and they're responding well to that, getting ready for Missouri."
Fundamentals, for Eliot's defense, start in the running game. Last weekend, UK allowed 326 rushing yards to top-ranked Mississippi State, many coming after initial contact.
"Give them credit," Eliot said. "They have some very good runners: quarterback, tailbacks, wide receivers. They're all big. But I think that we could have played a lot better fundamentally. Tackling being the biggest thing. The players saw that too so we've really harped on that this week."
That began in the film room, where a long run with numerous broken tackles by running back Josh Robinson was a featured attraction after making the rounds online over the weekend.
"It was embarrassing just to watch how people were missing tackles," senior Bud Dupree said. "People had him wrapped up. There's no excuse for missing that many tackles."
Embarrassing as it may have been, Eliot called the play and others like it "a good learning opportunity" in the coaches' continuing quest to hammer home the importance of fundamentals. It's a message the Cats have heard all season long and even before.
"They say fundamentals every day," Dupree said. "All the meetings, just showing us fundamental things that we could do better. Showing you if your shoestrings aren't tied the right way, you need to tie them the fundamental way."
Tying shoelaces, however, hasn't been the primary emphasis in practice so much as not going for the forced fumble on first contact and flocking to the football.
"You gotta get a good swarm, swarm of guys to the ball," Eliot said. "When the first guy hits him and wraps him up, if he doesn't bring him down there's somebody else to bring him down."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 18 points and nine rebounds at Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
In his opening statement following Monday night's Blue-White Scrimmage, UK head coach John Calipari said he would have liked to see a few guys play with a little more confidence.
But for freshman power forward Karl-Anthony Towns, confidence has never been an issue.
The 6-foot-11 forward from Piscataway, N.J., brings a rare skill set to a team with more McDonald's All-Americans than many current NBA rosters. On the offensive end Towns sees the floor exceptionally well for a player of his size, he can space the floor by shooting the ball consistently out to 24 feet, and he has developed more post moves than the average 18-year-old hoops star.
Developing these traits on the basketball court comes with the utmost level of confidence and swagger, which is obvious - even to the average fan of the game - as soon as he laces up his size-20 sneakers and takes the court. But Towns, along with a few of his teammates, failed to come out with the type of competitiveness and tenacity the coaching staff was hoping for.
"He fumbled balls today," Calipari said. "There were some one-handed catches, some rebounds he didn't bring in. Plays like that, you know, those are plays that are easily made. Go make those."
Calipari watched the majority of the action as a spectator seated at the end of the scorer's table with his wife, and newly appointed special assistant Tony Barbee. As he grew noticeably more distressed throughout the first half, Cal could not help but intervene during the under-eight media timeout.
He marched over to the blue team's bench, only to have a one-way discussion with his prized freshman big man. When the horn sounded, Towns came out of the timeout with an entirely different mindset.
"When the game started out, it was different," Towns said. "You're playing for the first time this year in front of all these people, and it's very competitive. So we've got to change the gears. You could see when people started to get a little touchy, and some people started getting scored on, it became competitive because we were trying to win. So once that mindset kicked in, we really turned it up a notch."
Towns finished the scrimmage with totals of 20 points and 13 rebounds while knocking down all six of his free-throw attempts.
The Big Blue Nation was spoiled on Monday night in Rupp Arena with the absurd matchups on display, but it was the only real glimpse fans will see this season of the one-on-one battle between Towns and sophomore center Dakari Johnson that takes place each day behind the closed doors of the Joe Craft training facility.
Johnson is every bit of 7-feet tall and 255 pounds. With his bruising style around the basket, Towns awarded Johnson with a nickname of his own: "The bear," he joked after taking numerous blows from Johnson throughout the scrimmage.
"He's a lovable bear, but not on the court," Towns said. "He's competitive and he comes hard every day. So he makes you have to bring your A-game every day too, but I enjoy it because it makes me a better player. It allows me to use my body more."
Even with the undeniable star power Towns brings to this 2014-15 Kentucky team, it's hard to look past the glow on his face when he starts to rave about his teammates. And with a team that is capable of going 12 deep into the rotation if necessary, there is plenty of praise to go around, especially with the depth on the interior.
"You've got three 7-footers. You've got Marcus Lee. You've got everybody around the rim," Towns said. "You really have to challenge yourself to even have the courage to go inside against all of us. But we make that a focal point as the big men that we protect the rim at all cost. And we make sure that the guards know that we have their back."
With such a loaded roster, especially in the frontcourt, it is typical for an incoming freshman to take a back seat to some of the veteran guys, but not Towns. His confidence in his own ability has him taking a much different approach to his first season as a Wildcat. He is focused on using this year as the ultimate learning experience.
"For us to have this opportunity to play at the University of Kentucky with so many great big guys, you're talking about the best in the whole nation in one gym all the time," Towns said. "Being able to learn from Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, you're talking about a lot of different styles that you get to look at every day and try to utilize and implement their skills into your game too."
For those who know Towns, they will tell you he only wants to be great. When he committed to the Wildcats in December 2012, Towns announced his goal of becoming one of the all-time greats in the history of Kentucky's program. Obviously that is no easy task, but it is clear that the freshman big man is primed and ready for the spotlight.
Towns will begin to carve out his legacy on Sunday, Nov. 2, as the Cats take on Pikeville in their first exhibition at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
Dakari Johnson had 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks at Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
For most teams, competitive is the last word one might use to describe a preseason intrasquad scrimmage.
But, as the record nine McDonald's All-Americans and 10 projected NBA Draft picks indicate, most teams aren't Kentucky.
"You know we have a lot of competitive guys on this team," said sophomore Dakari Johnson. "When you put us out on the court, we are going to compete against each other."
Instead of first- and second-string rotations, Kentucky features two "platoons" of talented lineups. Instead of six or seven players earning the lion's share of playing time, the Wildcats boast 12 athletes with a chance to see the floor this season. For reasons like these, the annual Blue-White Scrimmage was no different than the countless high-intensity practices that took place prior: competitive.
"It's just the beginning of the season," said Johnson. "We still have a lot of things to work on and get better at. We started off as a bunch of competitive guys, and that's a good start."
In a talent pool laden with NBA potential, Johnson was able to stand out among his peers Monday night. The 7-foot Brooklyn native finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks while logging minutes for both the Blue and White squads. Ironically enough, his teammates are some of the steepest competition Johnson is expected to face all season.
"Just knowing that you're going to come out with four other guys that have the same competitive spirit, know how to play, and are talented as you," Johnson said, "it's just going to be great."
Johnson spent most of his time battling on the low block with freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
"(Guarding Johnson is) very difficult," Towns said. "He's a bear down there. He's a bruiser."
After declining the opportunity for a possible first-round selection in last June's NBA Draft, Johnson spent the summer improving his conditioning and basketball skill set in order to help the Wildcats reach the pinnacle this year of which they fell just short last season.
"I feel much lighter," Johnson said. "That's the main focus. The bigs have to run the floor, because when you play with point guards like Tyler (Ulis) and Andrew (Harrison), they'll get you the baskets if you run the floor."
Throughout the scrimmage, Johnson wowed fans with plays that he simply was not able to make a season ago.
"I feel like I'm moving way better than last year," Johnson said. "Just getting the weight off me helped me a lot. Not getting tired so fast has really helped me, too."
Head coach John Calipari echoed the 19-year-old's sentiment.
"He's playing with great energy," said Calipari. "I mean, he's going after every ball. He has a fight and a fire in him."
Though the Blue team defeated the White by an official score of 94-66, the scoreboard was reset to 0-0 with 11:36 remaining in the second half. It was during this time that Johnson left the White team and traded places with Towns, who was originally on the Blue. Johnson's new ensemble won the second contest, 29-22.
Even while encouraging spirited competition every day in practice, Calipari has instilled in his players that the ultimate team goal is for each student-athlete to improve as an individual.
"I enjoy (facing Johnson) every day because it makes me a better player," Towns said. "Playing against Dakari, (I) get to utilize some things and implement some things that he does so well on the post into my game. It can definitely change my game."
Johnson, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds and started 18 games for last season's national runner-up team, looks to make the most of Calipari's in-and-out two-platoon system every time he's on the floor.
"Every time I step on the court, I just want to play my hardest and just compete out there," Johnson said. "That's what (Monday) was."
"We've got to challenge each other every day to be the best human beings we can be, and the best basketball players we can be," Towns said. "Having Dakari around makes the job very challenging, but it makes it very deserving, very loving, and just very fun. (We're) fortunate to have him around and on the team."