UK cross country will compete in NCAA Regionals in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday. (Jake Most, UK Athletics)
For as much as cross country is an individual sport, at the University of Kentucky, it's all about the team.
The message that Sean Graham and Hakon DeVries, UK's men's and women's cross country coaches, have stressed to the Wildcats is the importance of running and working together. Even with Cally Macumber -- one of three Wildcats to qualify for the NCAA Championships last season and the defending regional champion -- on the roster, it's a team-first attitude.
That will definitely be the case as UK returns to the NCAA Southeast Regional Friday in Charlottesville, Va.
At last week's SEC Championship, that teamwork and preparation throughout the season paid off in the form of a third-place finish for the women and a No. 5 finish from the men. Both were improvements over last year's finish, the first year under head coach Edrick Floreal.
"Throughout the season we try to hammer home the point of working together in races," DeVries said of his women's squad. "I think that element really showed up at SECs. The team worked together well and overcame some adversity. Overall, we're building and this Friday hopefully will be even more of a team effort then it was at SECs two weeks ago."
The key is to run with a teammate, and feed off of each other. Practices and races earlier in the season were vital to determine who runs best with whom. Graham, in his first season in Lexington with the UK men, has seen the growth and improvement this season as he has stressed the team approach since day one.
"It's improved throughout the season and benefited us at SECs," Graham said. "The guys are figuring out who they're compatible with, and how that benefits us as a team. I think it helps that we train with this mentality for the entire season. They have a demeanor of 'how am I doing, how am I competing to help the team be better.' The mentality that they need to work really hard to get the team better has hit home, especially after a good performance at SECs."
With any team sport, there are certain individuals who excel beyond the rest, and cross country is undoubtedly no exception. For Kentucky, the presence of Macumber at the front of the pack is the ultimate distraction for her teammates, not something that destroys that important team philosophy.
With the Wildcats' team-first approach, Macumber's success just helps take the pressure off her teammates and helps them run. It's the perfect scenario for the UK women, especially since all Macumber cares about is the team.
"Cally is all about the team first, she wants to team to make NCAAs so badly, and would trade any individual performance for that," DeVries said. "For her to take some of the spotlight and pressure on herself has been great for the team and allowed them to really develop throughout the year."
Going into the SEC Championships, the goal was to improve off of last season's conference championship performance. With a team-first mindset, it was mission accomplished: two spots higher for the men, one for the women. Now, the focus has been to keep the momentum going. As the Wildcats see the payoff from their training, the last two weeks have come together.
"The last two weeks have been great," DeVries said. "The results of SECs fired up the team even more to get them to realize their full potential as a team. Us as coaches have seen it for a while, but until you have that breakout performance, it really changed the attitude and demeanor of the group."
"It's been really good," Graham added. "It's basically just sharpening. All the real work was done over the summer and early in the season. Now that we've put that work in, the last two weeks have been just getting ready for Friday. Everything's come together well."
Friday in Charlottesville, the Wildcats will look to take everything they've focused on and prepared for to the course. The men's 10,000 meter race begins at noon, ET, while the women leave the starting line at 1:15 p.m. for a six-kilometer race.
The top two teams and top four individuals at each of the nine regional sites will automatically advance to the NCAA Championships to be held in Terre Haute, Ind., on Saturday, Nov. 23. Thirteen teams will also earn at-large bids, to be announced on Saturday, Nov. 16.
Arin Gilliland has 11 goals and nine assists entering UK's first-round NCAA Tournament matchup with Ohio State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Besides being Kentucky's leading goal scorer and primary offensive threat, Arin Gilliland had a well-established role on the team.
Through tough training sessions, the junior star helped keep UK loose with her goofy personality. As Jon Lipsitz pushed the Wildcats to reach their potential, Gilliland was always there to lighten the mood with a friendly jab at her coach.
"I kind of kept everyone laughing," Gilliland said.
But a few weeks ago, Gilliland -- a First Team All-Southeastern Conference performer -- realized she needed to change.
In UK's final regular-season home match on Oct. 27, Stuart Pope -- the yin to Gilliland's yang -- went down. The team's second-leading scorer, Pope would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury that would require reconstructive surgery.
Like Gilliland, Pope had a clearly defined role.
When a stern message needed to be delivered, it was the junior midfielder who spoke up. When the team wasn't as focused at it needed to be, Pope was always there to remind the Cats of their goals and the work it would take to reach them.
In matches, UK would clearly miss Pope's dynamic play in the midfield, but her absence was felt immediately in practice. With their task master gone, the Cats began to flounder.
"We weren't paying attention to the details," Gilliland said. "We weren't doing all the little things that needed to be done that Stuart would get on people about."
With the SEC and NCAA tournaments still ahead, Gilliland decided to put on her serious face.
"When I saw that and Stuart's over on the sideline doing her rehab like she should be and no one was taking initiative, I kind of realized, look, this is going to continue to go on if someone doesn't do anything," Gilliland said.
Gilliland gathered her teammates and told them the role she had filled for most of her three seasons was going to change. With UK's home first-round NCAA Tournament matchup (Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET) with Ohio State (10-6-3, 4-5-2 Big Ten) fast approaching, the Cats (13-6-1, 7-5-0 SEC) have responded.
"I think this week's been our best week of training since preseason," Lipsitz said. "We are just really sharp. We have a better idea of who can play and who can't. It seems like every week we were adjusting to another player being out and I think we know who we are now."
Considering that Pope's injury is only the latest in a string of misfortunes that might have undone a lesser team, it's impressive that UK has even reached this point. It started when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury of her own in the spring and continued when sophomore Courtney Raetzman was lost before conference play, but the Cats never stopped.
"The fact that we've been able to overcome the adversity just proves the depth of this team and the passion and drive that we have to be the best that we can be this year," Gilliland said.
Simply being tabbed to host a first-round NCAA Tournament match for the third straight season is an accomplishment, but it's not one UK is willing to settle for.
Two years ago, the Cats were elated to just make it to the biggest stage in their game. Last year, they were eager to win the first NCAA game in school history. With that memorable extra-time victory in their back pocket, the Cats are ready for more.
"Once you get over the hump and get that first, I think your preparation's very different, I really do," Lipsitz said.
Standing in UK's way is an opponent familiar to Lipsitz.
Before he went on to head-coaching stops at Charlotte and now Kentucky, Lipsitz was an assistant at Ohio State from 2001-04 under Lori Walker, who is in her 17th season leading the Buckeyes.
"I think I know them very well and I think they know us very well," Lipsitz said. "Obviously it's a coaching staff that I deeply respect. I coached at Ohio State with Lori. She's obviously done a tremendous job. Her two assistants (Glen Tourville and Jason Goodson), they're great friends of mine."
Lipsitz mentioned defensive organization, set pieces and finishing as keys to the game, but he won't overload his team with information. The Cats, after all, have been working toward this moment from the preseason's first practice.
"All those little details that get worked on early in the season are about preparing for now," Lipsitz said. "They just keep talking about, 'Take care of the details. You've been coached to do these things, trust this process and we know that we'll be successful.' "
Last Friday, thousands of fans across the country tuned in to Fox Sports South to watch as the men's basketball team opened a highly anticipated 2013-14 campaign.
Later that same evening, thousands more around the Bluegrass watched delayed broadcasts of the games on the UK IMG Network.
In recent years, Kentucky fans have come to rely on those avenues to watch their beloved Wildcats, but beginning next season that will all change.
In August 2014, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference will combine forces to launch the new SEC Network. The network will air SEC content 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including 45 SEC football games, more than 100 men's basketball games, 60 women's basketball games, 75 baseball games and events from across the SEC's 21 sports annually.
"The SEC Network will be an incredible asset for our conference and for UK Athletics," UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It will provide unprecedented exposure for our teams, but we need the Big Blue Nation to help make it a success."
Many UK games currently televised on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, Fox Sports South, UK IMG Network, CSS and SEC TV will likely be available only the new SEC Network. With future games like men's basketball's season opener vs. UNC Asheville and the recent football game against Alabama State likely moving to the new SEC Network beginning in 2014-15, fans need to demand their cable and satellite providers carry it. Considering marquee in-conference matchups in both basketball and football will also be televised on the new network, it becomes even more imperative.
The SEC Network launches in nine months, but so far AT&T U-verse is the only national distributor of the network. As of November, providers like Time Warner, DirecTV and Dish Network have not yet made arrangements to carry the SEC Network, meaning subscribers would miss many live UK events.
That's where the Big Blue Nation comes in.
Fans can visit GetSECNetwork.com to check whether their cable and satellite providers carry the SEC Network and, if they do not, contact them to demand they do. Cable and satellite providers make programming decisions based on customer requests. Fans should also regularly check GetSECNetwork.com for the latest information about the launch of the new SEC Network.
For fans in Lexington that want the new SEC Network, Time Warner subscribers should call 859-514-1400, DirecTV subscribers should call 1-800-347-3288 and DISH Network subscribers should call 1-800-333-3474 to let them know you want the SEC Network. Cable TV subscribers outside Lexington can obtain the phone number to call from GetSECNetwork.com.
Meanwhile, UK Athletics is currently working to prepare for the SEC Network's launch. All live broadcasts -- including the more than 600 that will be streamed live online -- on the SEC Network will have the highest quality production value and maintain a look and feel consistent with ESPN's other networks.
Representatives from the SEC Network have visited all UK Athletics facilities in recent months in advance of the launch. They have found that UK has an advanced technological infrastructure that should make the transition as seamless as possible.
After the launch of the SEC Network next August, more UK events will be televised that ever before. To make sure you can watch, visit GetSECNetwork.com and let your cable and satellite provider know you want access to the SEC Network.
Just when it looked like Coach Cal's impressive streak of top-ranked recruiting classes was coming to an end -- it has to at some point, right? -- Kentucky's head coach put together yet another one of the top signing classes in the country.
Touted as one of top two or three recruiting classes so far, John Calipari announced four players for his 2014 class during the early signing period on Thursday. Trey Lyles (Indianapolis), Karl Towns (Metuchen, N.J.), Devin Booker (Moss Point, Miss.) and Tyler Ulis (Chicago Heights, Ill.) have all signed national letters of intent to play basketball at the University of Kentucky, starting in the 2014-15 season.
All four players in the signing class are regarded as consensus top-40 players, and two of them are rated in the major recruiting services' top 15.
"I'm really proud of this group as far as where they are academically, what type of people they are and their basketball ability," Coach Cal said. "All four of these guys are skilled for their position and they have the ability to score. We're happy to announce they will be joining us next fall."
With a handful of the nation's top recruits still undecided and the spring signing period still to go, it remains to be seen whether Calipari will have the top class for a fifth straight season, according to Rivals. But with yet another collection of talented kids, never count Coach Cal out.
Check below for a recap of each player, including a bio blast, quote from Cal and video highlights.
6-foot-10, 245-pound power forward from Indianapolis
Ranked No. 7 overall by ESPN and No. 8 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 1 power forward by Scout and No. 2 by ESPN
Averaged 17.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 3.7 assists and 1.3 blocks as a junior at Indianapolis Arsenal Technical High School
Two-time Indianapolis City Player of the Year (2012-13)
Averaged 20.3 points for Team Canada in the 2013 U19 World Championships
"Just because of Coach Cal's record with players like me, what he's able to do with guys such as myself, and just really getting us to the stage that we want to be at, which is for me the NBA. I want to be an all-star, and he's had a lot of guys that have been able to step up to that stage and become all-stars in the NBA. His overall pitch to me was just perfect. I think it's going to be the best situation for myself."
"DeMarcus Cousins is out there getting 30 and 15, so that's definitely something I want to be. Julius (Randle), he's just a man-child out there. He has a chance of going No. 1. That just gives them extra points for me, guys at my position that (Calipari has) developed and got into the NBA."
"At 6-10, Trey can play both inside and outside. He has the skills to score in both areas. He's seen what some of our former guys are doing in the pros right now and has said he wants to follow in their path. My hope is he's our next beast."
What they're saying about Lyles
"Highly skilled big man understands how to use his strength to create leverage and hold position. Similar to a young Carlos Boozer, not a high flyer but scores with jump hooks and short jumpers. Excellent rebounder who plays physically on both ends." - Eric Bossi, Rivals
"He is terrific around the basket, displaying a variety of post moves and the ability to finish at the rim. He can also face-up and score effectively. He's not an explosive athlete, but he finds ways to make plays and outworks people." - Jeff Borzello, CBS
7-foot, 235-pound forward from Metuchen, N.J.
Ranked No. 6 overall by ESPN and No. 11 by Rivals and Scout
Tabbed No. 3 center by Rivals and ESPN and No. 4 by Scout
Averaged 21.3 points, 14.3 rebounds and 5.6 blocks last season for St. Joseph's
New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year in 2012-13
Tabbed New Jersey's top player by The Star-Ledger
Led St. Joseph's to back-to-back state championships
Played the last two summers with the Dominican Republic National Team, the first summer under Coach Cal and this past summer under assistant coach Orlando Antigua
"Kentucky is just such a great school. They're just such a powerhouse in basketball and at the same time they're such a great academic school. I just felt that Kentucky was the best choice."
"For me, being with Coach John Calipari on the Dominican team, he never asked about time or about how many shots to take or anything. He just expected me to compete at the highest level every day and just make sure that I played not just for him, not for anyone, but my family and my country. I really respected that a lot out of him."
"Karl, at 7 feet tall, brings great versatility. He can obviously score it inside, but his ability to shoot and handle it like he's a guard will spread defenses out. His growth from his first stint with the Dominican team until now has been unbelievable, and I'm looking forward to working with him on the collegiate level."
What they're saying about Towns
"A personable big man with big skills, Towns has great hands, soft touch and is comfortable using either hand around the rim. He has good ball skills and range on his jumper but sometimes roams the perimeter a bit too much. An above average rebounder when he plays in the lane." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Towns is an outstanding prospect, and his uncanny ability to stretch a defense with his shooting range is remarkable, as he knocks down shots to 22 feet. For a 7-1 player his passing skills are terrific, as he shows floor vision and the unselfishness to hit the open man. At this stage of his young career he might be more productive outside rather than inside. As he develops a paint game and learns how to use his mammoth size, he will reach his potential." -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
6-5, 185-pound shooting guard out of Moss Point, Miss.
Ranked No. 18 overall by ESPN, No. 30 by Rivals and No. 31 Scout
Rated the No. 3 shooting guard by ESPN and the No. 5 by Scout
2012-13 Mississippi Gatorade State Player of the Year
Averaged 29.7 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists in 2012-13
"I felt like Kentucky's worst situation would be better than a lot of better situations at other schools." -- via Evan Daniels of Scout.com
"It's a lot of what everyone is doing nowadays. Going in kind of as a package. I want to be around people I'm comfortable with, people I've hung out with and people I keep in contact with. ... It was mainly my decision, but Tyler and I have been talking about going to college together since our first camp, the Elite 100. Right then I was like 'wow' I wanted to play on the same team as Tyler." - via Evan Daniels, Scout.com
"Devin is a scoring machine. At nearly 6-6, he can play three different positions. He's got great range, which should help us spread the floor when he's playing. What I like most about him is his confidence in his ability and his desire to compete with the best."
What they're saying about Booker
"Booker projects as a big shooting guard who can use his size and strength to counter more athletic wings. Very effective as a catch and shoot guy and he's hard to take the ball from because of his size." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Booker, at 6-foot-5, 185 pounds, is a true shooting guard who plays with great confidence on the offensive end. He has a quick trigger and deep shooting range that extends beyond the 3-point arc. Booker also has a smooth midrange pull-up jumper that he can execute going right or left in addition to having the ability to drive to the rim, where he is a crafty finisher in heavy traffic. Booker spots up on the break, comes off screens and knocks down deep jumpers. He will be worth his weight in gold against zone defenses, where he will stretch the defense and be ready to hit perimeter jumpers off the catch. Booker can rebound and start the break too. He has a good basketball IQ and feel for the game. -- Reggie Rankin, ESPN
5-8, 150-pound point guard from Chicago Heights, Ill.
Ranked 29th nationally by Scout and 33rd by both Rivals and ESPN
Tabbed the No. 4 point guard in the country by ESPN and No. 6 by Scout
Averaged 21.9 points, 4.8 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.8 steals as a junior at Marian Catholic High School
Named the Time Illinois Boys Basketball Player of the Year
Guided his team to a team-record 29 wins last year and the program's first sectional title
Owns his school's single-season and career record for points
"Kentucky is the biggest stage in college basketball. I like how Coach Cal produces point guards and sends guys to the pros and wins games."
"I like Coach Cal. He's straightforward with everything. He just tells you the truth. He says if you're not built for this you can't come here. If you're not ready for the spotlight, the competition, and if you play bad, the criticism, you can't play here."
"Tyler is the ultimate competitor. His heart and his ability to make people better set him apart from his peers. He can score in bunches, and like every point guard I've had, he brings a little something different to the table."
What they're saying about Ulis
"Lacks size but plays the point guard position without fear. A natural leader who has a good feel for when to attack, when to pull back and when to turn into a jump shooter. Will obviously need to add strength but moves feet very well and has quick hands on defense." -- Eric Bossi, Rivals
"Tyler Ulis is an ideal fit at Kentucky because he is a true set-up, pass-first point guard who keeps possession of the ball until he is ready to drop off an assist or score himself. With a tight dribble and vision he can see the game and play at any speed. He is special, specifically, in two ways. First is his competitiveness as he is usually prepared to compete from the tap and fights it out until the end. Second, he can make a jumper out to the arc which means you can't just play him for the drive and fish. Under John Calipari, Kentucky has had the No. 1 class four out of the last five years. With all the talented scorers and big men that Kentucky brings in, Ulis will make each one of them look good, and even though he is small, he will never back down from an opponent or a challenge. " -- Paul Biancardi, ESPN
Kara Howard making a diving catch in Kentucky's win over Mississippi State last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In a span of a month, Kentucky softball outfielder Kara Howard experienced her career-high moment and career-low moment. The former earned her a spot on ESPN's SportsCenter Top 10, while the latter is one she promises to never let define her.
As the 2013 Kentucky softball team entered the midway stretch of its challenging schedule it prepared to host its first Southeastern Conference series of the season against Mississippi State. After a Friday-night win in game one of the series, the Wildcats and Bulldogs squared off in a doubleheader the next day with Howard getting a start in leftfield in the day's first game.
The game started with Kentucky grabbing an early 2-0 lead in the first inning, but the Bulldogs rallied in the top of the second inning for a run and were threatening for more with a runner at second base and one out when Howard made the play of her career.
Mississippi State's Erin Nesbit hit a high fly ball down the leftfield line. Howard chased the ball all the way to the warning track and made a backhanded diving catch. A moment later, she jumped up and completed the double play by picking off the runner at second base and ending the inning.
The play later came in at No. 6 in SportsCenter's Top 10 and the video featuring it now has almost 3,000 views on YouTube.
Nearly a month later, Howard, who played in 35 of the team's first 46 games mostly as a defensive replacement, experienced the complete opposite of her ESPN appearance as she tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee during practice, ending her 2013 season.
For Howard, the pain from the injury itself didn't come close to matching the frustration she dealt with afterwards. The injury and the surgery to follow forced her to watch helplessly as her team put together a historic season, winning more games than any other team in school history and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional.
"I didn't realize how much I loved softball until it happened," Howard said about the injury. "Having to sit out while everyone was simply running and you can't even do that. It was frustrating. But I know I have a few more years and I can work really hard and just make it count and let this injury be kind of a moment that happened, but won't define me."
The answer to whether the injury, which she is still recovering from in preparation for the 2014 season, would define her or not was not as clear this summer as it is now.
Howard, who is the youngest of three sisters, called her dad -- whom she credits for teaching her everything she knows about softball -- immediately after the injury instructing him not to tell anyone else. But not even 10 minutes later, Howard's middle sister, Kaylan, who was in her senior year with the Oregon Ducks softball team, conveniently called to check in and see how things were going. Howard knew her Dad didn't do as he was told, but she was glad.
"On the injury, I told my dad first and told him not to tell anyone. Of course 10 minutes after that phone call, Kaylan called me up and was like, 'How are things going?' I was like, 'Wow," Howard said. "But she kept me smiling and made me laugh the whole time."
That was the least Kaylan and older sister, Kymmy, would do. Howard went home to Riverside, Calif., for the summer to spend time with family and rehab the knee. While there she received the type of motivation and "tough love" she needed to get back on the right track.
"Her (Kaylan) and my other sister (Kymmy) were my doctors this summer," Howard said. "They took me to rehab and made me do stuff. My older sister, Kymmy, hid my crutches and stole my brace because I was babying it. She said, 'You should be walking on your own by now.' "
Howard's relationship with her sisters, especially Kaylan, spans far beyond just the tough love over the summer. When Kaylan received and accepted her scholarship offer from Oregon to play softball, Howard was in the eighth grade and took notice. That is when college softball became a serious thought and an avenue toward a degree for Howard, who admitted before then she was just focused on being a Disney TV star.
"I wanted to do acting and singing," Howard said. "I was in choir, but softball gave me a path to an education so I took it on. I didn't really know much about college softball until I was 14 and under. I played some softball before then but just rec-ball ... As soon as my sister got her scholarship, it kind of clicked, like, I can do something with this. I started to put in more work and at the end of my sophomore year, in the summer, Coach (Rachel) Lawson saw me in Colorado and ever since then I knew I was going to be a Wildcat."
After she enrolled at Kentucky in the fall of 2011, Howard decided she didn't want to go through her career alone and started a pen-pal type, traditional letter-writing communication with Kaylan. In her letters, Howard would ask her older sister, who was an impact player with the Ducks, about the nerves she had before games, what to expect about college life and academics. Howard said her sister always had the answers and to this day they still write letters to each other on a monthly basis.
"Since my freshman year we have written letters to each other," Howard explained. "I started off asking her what to expect my first game and all of that and ever since then it has been what is going on with your life? How is softball? How are classes?
"She pretty much told me that I would get nervous and excited, but to just treat it like another game no different than when I was playing in high school. Once I loosened up I knew what she was talking about and I felt like I had a really good year after that."
Although the two also communicate by more modern means, the letters remind Howard to keep working hard and to never let a setback, minor or major, end her love for softball. As her career-low momentum slips further and further in the past as her knee improves daily, her goal moving forward is clear and familiar.
"First, I want to get back to where I was before my injury," Howard said. "And it's not likely, but I would love to make ESPN again. That is a goal."
Julius Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds in UK's 78-74 loss to Michigan State on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CHICAGO -- As soon as the questions about Kentucky's early-season matchup with Michigan State started coming, John Calipari had a line ready.
With the youth of the Wildcats and uncertainty with which they would enter the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup, Coach Cal narrowed the possible outcomes into two: winning or learning.
There will come a time when the Cats come to realize how much can be taken away from their loss to the Spartans, but that time wasn't in the locker room following the 78-74 defeat.
"You had guys crying in there, which is a good thing," Calipari said. "That was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist after Indiana (two years ago). So you had kids crying in there, and I want it to hurt like that."
Alex Poythress was ready to start the learning process a few minutes later as he took the podium for UK's postgame press conference.
"We learned a lot about who's fighting and who can keep it going," Poythress said. "When the going gets rough, we just keep going."
The Cats have every reason to take pride in that fact.
The experienced Spartans did to Kentucky what Calipari feared they would, taking advantage as the five freshmen and two sophomores who comprise his rotation acted their age. Within 3:11, the Spartans were up 10-0 on the strength of UK's sloppiness with the ball.
"They had never been in an environment like this, one," Calipari said. "And two, when guys get that, that get into themselves a little bit. It's natural. So now everybody is trying to do their thing and it looks discombobulated and that's what it was and that's what I expected."
UK treaded water for the remainder of the first -- largely thanks James Young, who scored 15 of his 19 before the break -- and trailed 42-30 at the end of the half. It was then Calipari drew up a new game plan on the fly and moved Julius Randle from the perimeter to the post and essentially scrapped his Dribble Drive offense.
"Well, we just said at this point, the only time they're stopping him is when you hold the ball," Calipari said. "So quit holding the ball. Just take it to the lane and ball fake and shoot it over 'em and if you miss it we'll send everybody to the glass. That was our offense: Throw it up and go rebound it."
Randle struggled in the first half, left frustrated by a packed-in Spartan defense as his drives and spin moves were repeatedly thwarted. The second was a different story, as Randle -- whom Calipari termed a "fighter" after the freshman's third double-double in as many games -- scored six points within the first two minutes.
"He's a great player," said Poythress, who was a Calipari-described "beast" with his seven points and 12 rebounds. "When he gets it going we look for him and he just gets it going."
Randle would go on to score 23 of his game-high 27 points -- including two free throws that briefly tied the game at 66 with 4:48 left, to which the Spartans responded with a swift 5-0 run -- after halftime. He drew multiple defenders on every touch, but never relented.
"What I loved about him, he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "For a freshman, that speaks volumes."
As the final seconds ticked down on the comeback effort, Randle was clearly exhausted. He still managed to score UK's final basket with 42 seconds left to cut Michigan State's lead to two points, but had to excuse himself from postgame interviews due to muscle cramps.
As Randle got treatment on those cramps, Michigan State's last possession was probably running through his mind. Opting not to foul with five seconds differential between shot and game clock, UK forced a Denzel Valentine miss, but Branden Dawson was there on the weak side for an easy put-back to clinch a win and end talk of a 40-0 UK season.
If not for 16 missed free throws in 36 attempts for the Cats, the conversation would likely have continued. The Cats still believe they will be a good foul shooting team, but Calipari says it's time for them to take ownership in that area.
"My hope is I'm the office at night and it's 10:30 and they walked 15 steps across the street to go into the practice facility and I see guys shooting them on their own," Calipari said. "That's my hope. But we'll see because they've gotta take it on."
After the game, Calipari said he had "no idea" how UK was able to stay within four points of a team as talented and experienced as Michigan State shooting 55.6 from the free-throw line and committing 17 turnovers. The answer came in the way the Cats rebounded.
With Randle and Poythress tirelessly attacking the glass, UK outrebounded Michigan State 44-32 and had 24 second-chance points. Considering the Spartans had 66 rebounds in their season opener, that's impressive. Considering the history Izzo's teams have of dominating on the glass, that's borderline unbelievable.
"They beat us in what we do well," Izzo said.
The way these two physical teams traded blows in the United Center, fans and media alike -- though it's only November, as Calipari often repeats -- wondered whether the matchup could be reprised down the road.
"Well, I hope we do because it probably means we'd both be playing in April," Calipari said. "So let's hope we do play. I hate to play friends. I really don't like playing friends, but if it's in April I'm fine playing whoever we're playing at that point."
For UK to reach that point, Calipari knows there's much work ahead. He anticipated his team wouldn't be ready for a stage this big at the tip, but they were much closer when the final buzzer sounded.
"I knew this would get their attention in the first half," Calipari said. "The biggest thing is if you don't do this together you will not win. You'll never be a special team, so you've got to truly do this together and that's both on defense and offense."
Winter came a bit early to Lexington as the UK campus woke up to a layer of snow for the first time this fall semester on Tuesday. The Wildcats elected to hold the day's football practice inside Nutter Field House.
Some of the newest Wildcats, who hail from warmer parts of the country, were seeing snow for the first time. Mark Stoops, himself a product of Northern Ohio, was happy to give his Florida-native freshmen some tips when it comes to adjusting to cold weather.
"They have been fine so far," Stoops said. "It hasn't been too cold yet. I heard (freshman running back) Jojo (Kemp) say that (he saw snow for the first time). We have to go out and help them get some sweatshirts and coats I guess, but they are getting acclimated.
"I have been out of (cold climates) for a while. Blood thins out pretty quick, but I get used to it in a hurry. That's no problem."
Regarding the actual content of Tuesday's practice, Stoops was pleased with the team's performance as the staff continues to implement the game plan for Saturday's Vanderbilt matchup.
"We wrapped up a pretty good practice, got some work done on a Tuesday," Stoops said. "Spirits were good. We got the game plan going. Overall it was a pretty good practice, so (I'm) pleased."
The praise for junior linebacker TraVaughn Paschal continued to roll in after he made a career-best three tackles for loss against Missouri. The coaching staff shed light on the circumstances which may have allowed the veteran to excel last Saturday.
"He played one of his better games," Stoops said of Paschal. "He definitely played his best game, since we (the coaching staff) have been here, last Saturday and it was good to see. Again it was a little bit different package in how we used him. I think that suits his ability. We are getting used to him now."
Paschal, who started the season as a defensive end before moving to inside linebacker, spent much of the game vs. Missouri as an outside linebacker and the results indicated he was more comfortable on the edge.
Paschal's versatility can only help in the UK coaches' future game planning.
"We wanted to use him there (at outside linebacker) for that opponent, but we may use him in the future there," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "He is very versatile."
Stoops also shed light on the team's defensive play-calling process. UK deploys multiple signal callers on the sideline, each with a different purpose, to send in the defensive call to the players on the field.
"There is a decoy, but we usually try to wait a while after the offense has (its) signal in and then we signal ours defensively," Stoops said. "We don't have to huddle up or anything. Everybody should look to the sideline and get the signal."
Looking back toward the Vanderbilt match up, the Wildcats will kick off at what Stoops considers the ideal time to start a Saturday road game.
"On the road I prefer to go early than to go in the middle of the night when you get home," Stoops said. "That just puts you behind for the next week when you wait around all day for the game to start. On the road I do prefer to go in the (early kickoff)."
Given all the adversity the UK women's soccer team has faced in recent weeks and months, Jon Lipsitz and the Wildcats aren't taking much for granted these days.
So the Cats expressed a great deal of appreciation when they learned they will host the first round of the NCAA Tournament vs. Ohio State on Friday.
"If you would have told me before the season started, the injuries that we would have had in the spring, over the summer and during the season, and we would be sitting in this spot, I would have told you that there is absolutely no way," Lipsitz said. "I am so proud of this group. When I look at the list of programs around the country with tremendous support and fantastic support that were not selected, I think that says so much about the work that we have done."
The Wildcats have endured multiple injuries to key players throughout the year. The run of bad luck seemed to start when senior captain Ashley VanLandingham went out with a season-ending knee injury in the spring. Since then, it has seemed as though as soon as one player stepped forward to pick up slack for a sidelined contributor another key Wildcat has gone down.
"You have a group of young women here that have fought through everything," Lipsitz said. "Whenever anything went wrong we came back and played another game. Then something else would go wrong and we would come back and just keep playing the games. I would have been stunned before the season to ever have imagined us having gone through what we have, and still be selected to the NCAA Tournament."
And the surreal feel of Monday's NCAA Tournament bid announcement was not limited to the UK coach. For UK's veteran nucleus, the thought of a third straight appearance on college soccer's biggest stage could only be considered a dream when the Cats arrived in Lexington.
"As seniors, we didn't have any hope of making the NCAA Tournament during our freshman year," goalie Kayla King said. "We were lucky to go to the SEC Tournament. Now to be a senior and to have the privilege to be on a great team that has made the NCAA Tournament the last three years is difficult to describe. The NCAA Tournament doesn't really compare to anything else, and to host is huge."
Yet as exciting and momentous as Monday's announcement was, Lipsitz and his team are not satisfied with just making it. They are, in fact, so unsatisfied that they've been training with an eye on the upcoming game for more than a week already.
"I said to the team about 10 days ago that it's two weeks of preseason to get ready for what is now this upcoming Friday night," Lipsitz said. "Even the training sessions we have had since we have gotten back from the SEC Tournament have been fantastic. Yesterday was one of the most intense training sessions we have had.
"We have gone back to the basics. We have gone back to preaching what we have to do to be successful. We started talking about a two-week preseason instead of suddenly finding out on Monday who we play, and from there trying to prepare. This way we have already been preparing. We have been getting ready for this moment, and we will play our best because of that."
The Wildcats preparations will continue, now with specific considerations for Ohio State, but UK will also enter Friday night with the experience from the program's first NCAA Tournament victory last season.
The Wildcats will be hoping it will pay dividends come Friday.
"Everything we take is experience," Lipsitz said. "We will rely on that. We will rely on our senior leadership more than anything to get us ready. Every single thing we have gone through in five years helps us all get ready. You don't have experience in the NCAAs until you are there.
"It's one of those things that is so difficult. How do you get experience without being there? The answer is you don't. We learned so much from playing Washington State two years ago. Tying that game and losing on penalty kicks really left a bad taste in our mouths. We all wanted to be the first last year. We wanted to win the first game for UK in the NCAA Tournament."
Lipsitz and his players continue to look back on the 2012 NCAA Tournament win as a stepping stone for the program, but they have also spoken all season about wanting to continue moving forward.
"Now it's not about being the first," Lipsitz said. "It's about achieving to the best of our ability. I think that comes from experience."
UK will face Michigan State on Tuesday in Chicago in a matchup of the nation's two top-ranked teams. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In spite of its ranking, John Calipari insists his team is at a disadvantage playing a game like this so early in the season.
For the first time in five years, the nation's two top-ranked teams will meet. The lights will be bright for Tuesday's matchup between No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Michigan State and it's a stage for which Coach Cal is not sure his team is ready.
But as much as Coach Cal might like to have a little more time to prepare his young team for such a tough opponent, he knows there are positives that come with playing in the Champions Classic so early.
"The thing in a game like this for this team: Questions are answered," Calipari said.
The one question about UK that needs no answering is whether the Wildcats are talented. With potential lottery picks up and down the Kentucky roster, that's clear and was made even clearer in UK's two exhibition wins.
On Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Chicago's United Center, more open-ended debates will be settled.
"So then the question's about how we play together, how hard we play, how we deal with adversity, how we deal with prosperity," Calipari said. "Questions will be answered tomorrow. You're playing against a well-coached team -- Tommy (Izzo) does a great job -- and a veteran team."
Calipari counts six freshmen and two sophomores among his eight-man rotation, while five upperclassmen played 10 minutes or more in Michigan State's dominant 98-56 season-opening win over McNeese State.
Leading the way are senior guard Keith Appling and classmate Adreian Payne, a 6-foot-10, 245-pound center. Gary Harris is just a sophomore, but the preseason Big 10 Player of the Year posted 20 points and 10 rebounds in the Spartans' opener.
"They're a terrific 3-point shooting team," Calipari said. "They've got big people. Their front line is as big as ours. You got to guard them. They run their stuff. They run their little back screens and they run their curl cuts and they get the ball from one side (to the other). Their pick-and-rolls are really effective, and their guards shoot it. So you can't go under pick-and-rolls. They'll come up shooting. We got a challenge on our hands."
It's a challenge the Wildcats are eager to take on.
They've heard all about the dynamic of youth vs. experience, including from their own coach, and are ready to prove it's just talk.
"I'm not buying into it," said Julius Randle, the reigning Southeastern Conference Player of the Week. "We're playing the same game. Two great coaches. We have guys on our team with experience too and I'm not buying into the lack of experience. At the end of the day, it's going to be a war."
In preparation for that battle, Calipari isn't asking his team to memorize Michigan State's playbook and personnel. In fact, he only gave the Cats about 10 minutes of video of the Spartans to watch on their team-issued tablets.
"I'm concerned about us," Calipari said. "I've watched enough tape."
Keeping it simple, he believes, is the best way he knows to position his team to pull off a victory in the early season's marquee game.
"Whatever we have in, which isn't much, just do well with what we have," Calipari said. "And let's worry about us, knowing that you're gonna have to guard. You have to run back, first, and then you have to guard them."
Against this Michigan State team, transition play will likely be of particular importance. While the Spartans generated much of their offense in the half-court through big man Derrick Nicks last year, they now look to run at every juncture and scored 40 fast-break points in their opener.
"They fly up and down the court," Calipari said. "And the guys that are out ahead can make plays."
With such a stern test ahead, Coach Cal sees two possible outcomes for his team.
"We win or we learn," Calipari said. "That's what this game will be. We win or we learn. What I think is we don't play hard enough."
The Cats, on the other hand, don't see why they can't do both, viewing their coach's talk about the early-season matchup being "unfair" as a challenge to his young team.
"I think we can win and I think we can learn about how good we can be," Randle said.
That also happens to be Calipari's ideal outcome.
"My hope is we play great, that you watch us and say, 'Man, (after) 30 practices, for them to play that way, wow," Calipari said. " 'They played hard, they played as a unit. Eh, they break down but they scrambled; they didn't stop playing, they had a great presence, great spirit about 'em.' And then we move on."
He's also prepared for the alternative, but the Cats will go back to work just the same.
"If that's a loss -- I'd like it to be a win, but if it's a loss and I get that from this team -- it's the building point that we go from," Calipari said.
Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday for a 12:21 p.m. ET matchup with the Commodores. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knows Kentucky has improved since day one.
Given the roles he's played in defensive turnarounds at Arizona and Florida State, he knows how to judge a team beyond its win-loss record.
The fact remains, however, that UK sits at 2-7. Nonetheless, he knows what he sees on tape, even after a 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.
"What I take some salvation in is when I turn on that film and see good, sound football, and I see that from 80 percent, and I know that's not good enough to the common fan," Stoops said. "But I see us coaching and putting into position and see the players executing and playing hard. I see some good plays, and I know there is progress being made, even though that's difficult to see on the scoreboard and all that."
As true as all that may be, Stoops wants to win as badly as anyone else, and right now.
"I'll go back and I look at everything we're doing and we all do," Stoops said. "We're very critical of ourselves and we know we can do things better, that's for sure."
More specifically, he wants to hone in on those 20-percent plays that he believes is getting Kentucky beat as UK prepares for a road trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday at 12:21 p.m. ET. That starts with focusing on the positive.
"But I saw a good percentage of plays that were good football plays," Stoops said. "And that we have to build on, that we have to learn to play a hundred percent of those plays as best we can. Then we have an opportunity to beat a top-10 team. Until then, we have no chance to beat a top-10 team."
Vandy may not be a top-10 team like Missouri, but Stoops has seen enough to know the Commodores will take advantage of any mistakes UK should make. They did just that on Saturday, forcing four turnovers to take down Florida on the road in spite of gaining just 183 yards of total offense.
"They're good in all areas," Stoops said. "They're a team that just plays very hard, plays very smart. They capitalize on your mistakes, so it will be another good opportunity for us, a big challenge for us to go down there and win."
For UK's seniors, those opportunities are quickly running out. Though reaching a bowl officially became impossible with the loss to Missouri, Stoops like the mentality of his veterans.
"There's not a guy in that group that's going to lay down," Stoops said. "I think they'll work extremely hard and help turn the page in this program. I think they take pride in that and wanting to help being a part of turning it around and building for the future."
Those seniors will obviously continue to play major roles, but Stoops will also be thinking about that future in the coming weeks. Fourteen newcomers -- including eight true freshmen -- have already played for UK and Stoops anticipates involving the youngsters even more down the stretch.
"We have to continue to build our program and develop our young guys," Stoops said.
Stoops named cornerback Jaleel Hytchye and defensive end Jason Hatcher specifically in that group, but even the players the coaching staff intends to redshirt are included.
"We need to know exactly where they're at and where they're going to be in the spring and just to continue to work with those guys," Stoops said.
It won't ever come at the cost of preparing to win immediately, but Stoops is keeps his overarching vision for Kentucky football in mind at all times. Throughout the course of his first year on the job, that hasn't changed.
"I've never said since day one that I was going to come in here and change it overnight," Stoops said. "I promised to work extremely hard, and the players will work extremely hard to build this program the right way to get better. That's what we're going to continue to do."