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."
Julius Randle had 23 points and 16 rebounds in UK's 93-63 win over NKU on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The question was completely fair.
Two dominant regular-season games in, Julius Randle was asked whether he could have imagined a better start to his collegiate career.
After posting a second straight double-double in a 93-63 win over Northern Kentucky on Sunday, Randle smiled and took a moment to decide how to answer.
"If you say so," Randle said.
For anyone not wearing his No. 30 jersey or his coach's loafers, the answer would surely be a resounding no. To say anything else after he posted 22 points and 14 rebounds against the Norse to follow a 23-point, 16-rebound effort in the season opener would be crazy, right?
Could he have expected something more than scoring the most points through two games of any UK freshman under John Calipari, breaking John Wall's previous record of 40? Could he have thought he could do better becoming the first freshman since Michael Beasley six years ago to 20-point, 10-rebound games in each of his first two games?
To get this straight, Randle is averaging 22.5 points and 15.0 rebounds through two games. He's shooting 60 percent from the field and nearly 80 percent from the free-throw line. He also offers the following appraisal of his performance to date.
"I'm still missing a lot of opportunities," Randle said. "A lot of balls I should come up with. I think I missed like four free throws today (he shot 10 for 14), so I'm still leaving a lot out there. I've just gotta learn from it and improve."
Randle has always had a reputation for demanding the best of himself, but his pursuit of perfection has been cranked up a notch since he put on Kentucky blue. That surely has something to do with Calipari.
"He should be averaging 20 rebounds a game right now I would say," Coach Cal said.
At one point during the first half when Randle was on the bench for a breather, Alex Poythress grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it back in, causing Calipari to turn and say something to his star freshman.
"He was just challenging me saying that's gotta be me on the offensive glass like that," Randle said. "I've gotta accept the challenge and keep going."
It's both a sign of how well Poythress is playing -- he had nine points and seven rebounds in just 20 minutes -- and of how good Calipari believes Randle can be that he would issue such a challenge. If Randle is able to do what Coach Cal believes he can, the college basketball world better watch out because he's pretty good already.
"He's playing very well," said Andrew Harrison, who scored 13 points. "I knew how good he was. He's a hard worker too. There's nothing he can be but good."
Harrison has never experienced playing college basketball without Randle, but Willie Cauley-Stein has. The perspective of playing his freshman year with no presence like the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Calipari-described "alpha beast" alongside him in the post makes Cauley-Stein realize how fortunate UK is to have Randle.
"It's fun," said the 7-foot sophomore who had seven points and 11 rebounds on Sunday. "If all else fails, you can just throw him the ball and he's going to make something happen. He's a great teammate to have on your team because you know he's always going to make a play. He's pretty good."
The only time on Sunday NKU was able to slow Randle was when he took an inadvertent poke to the eye during the first half. The play sent him to the bench less than three minutes into the game, but not for long.
"I couldn't see for a little bit, but I'm good now," Randle said.
Always asking for more, Calipari even used Randle's brief exit as a teachable moment.
"He stops out there," Calipari said, referencing Randle's unwillingness to leave the game regardless how tired he may be, "and he finally took himself out for the first time this season. He took himself out. The only way he came out was the guy almost poked his eye out, so had he to come out. You can't play at the pace we play and stay in there for 15 minutes. You just can't do it."
If Randle weren't the way he is, he might view Calipari's coaching as nitpicking. Instead, he understands his coach is only trying to make him better.
With that in mind, Randle is going to strive to meet those high standards even though he knows Coach Cal will only raise the bar if he reaches them.
"I'll try to (get 20 rebounds)," Randle said. "But if I get 20, he's going to ask for 25. I'm just out there trying my best and trying to get better."
Kentucky fell to Missouri on Saturday afternoon, 48-17. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops' passion was on display during Kentucky's 48-17 loss to Missouri on Saturday.
The first-year head coach prowled the sideline, letting officials and players alike know when something displeased him, and in no uncertain terms. In the halftime locker room, he delivered remarks that were, by all accounts, quite spirited.
Considering his successful background at Florida State and UK's 2-7 record, frustration is understandable on the part of Stoops. But don't even consider interpreting a little fire as a sign that it's all getting to Stoops.
He knew what he signed up for and is undeterred.
"I'm going to go back to work and stick to the things that I feel are necessary to help build this program," Stoops said. "I may get frustrated, but I'm not discouraged."
The frustration doesn't stop with Stoops.
It extends to defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who watched as Missouri's big, physical wide receivers took advantage of their matchups with smaller UK defensive backs. Former top-ranked recruit Dorial Green-Beckham was the headliner -- catching four of Maty Mauk's five touchdown passes -- but he wasn't the only factor.
"Sometimes they make the plays and you don't make them," Eliot said. "Whether that's talent or whether that's just not finishing, it's tough."
You can also count offensive coordinator Neal Brown among the ranks of the frustrated.
UK, after a stand by its defense, marched down the field on its first drive for a field goal and a 3-0 lead. Following a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, the Wildcats were positioned to put the ninth-ranked Tigers on their heels when they took over just 45 yards away from the end zone.
Instead, UK gave up a second-down sack and punted.
"Where we are as a program, we've gotta capitalize on those things," Brown said.
The players are feeling it too, including quarterback Jalen Whitlow, but they also echo Stoops' sentiment that they aren't backing down.
"I'm not discouraged, because I know what we did wrong," Whitlow said. "It's always good to know what you didn't do wrong or what you didn't do right. So I'm not discouraged by any means. We've just gotta be better."
As coaches delivered their impassioned halftime calls down 28-3 to show some of that improvement, Whitlow listened. When UK came out of the locker room, he proved that he's not one to yield.
"I was proud of Jalen," Brown said. "I thought he came and answered the bell. We challenged the group at halftime and he came out and showed some leadership."
Still playing through pain due to a banged-up shoulder and ankle, Whitlow led scoring drives on two of UK's three third-quarter possessions. On the game, he carried 24 times for 44 yards -- including the 41 yards lost on seven sacks -- and a touchdown and completed 17-of-27 passes for 225 yards in spite of being in visible discomfort for much of the afternoon.
"I'm just putting it all on the line," Whitlow said. "Whatever, the team needs, I'm going to try to fulfill that role."
At this point, UK needs leadership more than anything else out of the sophomore. His play in cutting Missouri's lead to 35-17 late in the third quarter was a dramatic example of just that.
"This group is hungry," Brown said. "On offense, we are starving for somebody to take the reins. I thought he showed some toughness today and I hope that carries over."
Stoops noticed the same thing.
"You could tell he was hurting, and again, I think he's learning to compete," he said. "I thought he did some good things, and he led our team good."
Early in the season, Whitlow and Maxwell Smith split time, even within individual series. Eventually, the staff decided to move past the two-quarterback system and turn to Whitlow. Injuries briefly undid those efforts, but Whitlow is now trying to make up for lost time and become more than just a leader by example.
"It's always good for the quarterback to be a leader," Whitlow said. "Working on becoming more vocal. Guys see that I lead and try to do everything right, but I'm just day by day trying to get better at being more vocal."
No matter how vocal Whitlow becomes as he settles in at quarterback, he won't replace Stoops as the primary voice of Kentucky football. Over the coming days, that voice will be singing a familiar tune, but one that remains powerful.
"It's hard, but you've just got to go back to work, and you've got to stick to what I preach all the time, and that's getting better," Stoops said. "I've got to get these guys up. We've got to get them mentally prepared to practice on Monday and to prepare, and to go out there and compete and try to win a game. That's what I'm going to do."
Alex Poythress posted his second-career double-double in UK's season-opening 89-57 win over UNC Asheville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On the eve of a season opener against UNC Asheville, John Calipari was asked whether James Young would play after sustaining a minor ankle sprain in Kentucky's final exhibition.
Calipari told the curious reporter he didn't know yet (Young would indeed play) and did what he often does, going off on a seemingly unrelated tangent. The topic, in this case, was Alex Poythress.
"Alex has been really good," Calipari said. "He's narrowed his game and he's trying to play harder and he's not caving in and stopping."
Fans got a taste of what Calipari was talking about as Poythress scored 10 points in that final exhibition to bounce back from a disappointing performance against Transylvania. But even so, "narrowing his game" seemed like one of those signature Coach Cal phrases whose meaning wouldn't become clear until later.
In this case, it took less than 24 hours for Poythress to put on display exactly what his coach was talking about.
Honing on his strengths, avoiding his weaknesses and bringing the kind of consistent energy that often escaped him as a freshman, Poythress tallied his second-career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds.
"I thought he was terrific," Calipari said of Poythress.
After the 89-57 win, Calipari tweaked his original word choice about Poythress's second-year evolution slightly to "defining his game" and gave a bit more insight into what that means.
"I'm not a playmaker, that's not how I'm going to play, and I'm going to go after every ball and dunk every ball, and he's playing to his strengths, trying to be the best version of him," Calipari said.
Playing on a team that lacked depth and the star power of Julius Randle -- who had 23 points and 15 rebounds in his collegiate debut -- Poythress felt pressure to produce in all facets. When the Wildcats weren't playing well, it was easy to fall in the trap of trying to force plays.
Now surrounded by the likes of Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison and an improved Willie Cauley-Stein, Poythress feels no need to do anything outside his wheelhouse.
"It's easy because we're really deep this year," Poythress said. "We've got a lot of guys this year, so it's easy to find your role within the game."
Though it may be easier for the Wildcats to identify their roles, getting on the floor to actually fulfill them is much more of a challenge. Last season, Calipari couldn't afford not to have Poythress on the floor. Now, Marcus Lee, Dakari Johnson and Jon Hood are waiting in the wings if he's not playing the way his coach demands.
"You've just gotta be ready whenever you get your opportunity," Poythress said. "You never know when it's gonna be. It might be quick, it might late. You've just gotta come out and be ready, give off great energy and compete out there."
For just the third time in his career, Poythress came off the bench on Friday night. Within two minutes, it was clear he had come ready to play. Poythress corralled a miss by Johnson, missed a shot of his own inside, rebounded again and finally scored on a layup.
Marcus Lee -- who thrived in a reserve role himself by scoring 17 points in 15 minutes -- said that kind of energy is contagious.
"It's kind of like catching fire, where everybody is just getting pumped and everybody is always ready," Lee said. "So when Alex is going in and getting all of those rebounds, he's got the whole bench excited. We knew it was going to be a great game just by him getting all of those rebounds all of a sudden which I absolutely loved."
Poythress continued his assault on the glass, grabbing six offensive rebounds and scoring eight of his 10 points directly off of them in just 21 minutes.
"I'm just trying to play to my game really," Poythress said. "That's attacking the rim, getting rebounds, everything like that."
Poythress doesn't mind his new reserve role and actually says he benefits from starting on the bench. A 4.0 student, Poythress did what he's used to doing for the 2:19 he waited to check in.
"You know how the game's being played, how the refs are calling fouls," Poythress said. "You can analyze the game better and when you get in you'll know what to do."
Poythress gave UK a significant boost off the bench against UNC Asheville, but his presence could prove even more crucial as the season wears on.
The new emphasis on eliminating physical play was easily observed on Friday, as officials whistled the two teams for a combined 52 fouls. The Cats coped with some minor foul issues in the game, but there will come a time when multiple starters are shackled to the bench due to fouls.
Calipari didn't build his roster thinking about the way games would be officiated this season, but having the depth to be able to bring a projected first-round pick like Poythress off the bench is a major asset.
"I'm happy that we're deep because it is going to play a part, no question about it," Calipari said.
John Calipari and the Wildcats take on UNC Asheville in their season opener on Friday at 7 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For close to 24 hours a day, John Calipari is going nonstop. Bouncing from meetings to practice to recruiting calls, the Kentucky head coach hardly has a chance to breathe.
There is an exception.
Recently, one of his assistants found out about it too. Orlando Antigua, coping with the responsibilities of being a head coach for the first time, called Coach Cal to tell him where he found he got his best thinking done when everything else was spinning around him.
"So Orlando hit me this summer and said, 'You won't believe this: I'm in the shower thinking of stuff' getting ready for the Dominican (National Team tournament)," Calipari recalled. "I said, 'Yeah, when you get all these thoughts, they gotta come out somewhere.' "
Calipari found himself in that familiar mode on Thursday morning. A day removed from a practice that left him upset -- though it wasn't as bad on second review -- he reworked his entire plan for the afternoon in his thinking zone of choice.
"So a practice plan I had set last night, when I woke up this morning and thought about it, I walked in and changed it," Calipari said. "Tore that one up and did another one. I don't know if I've ever done that before."
Coaching the nation's preseason No. 1 team, Calipari has found that himself searching for every possible means to inspire the Wildcats to reach their vast potential. But on the eve of a season opener against UNC Asheville in Rupp Arena, he's having to remind himself that the Cats will ultimately be measured by what they do in March, not on Friday at 7 p.m. ET.
"Look, I was thinking about it today, I was driving over here and I starting doing 'November, December, January, February, I've got four months to get this thing right,' " Calipari said. "Four months. And if I try to do it in two weeks, I'm going to cheat the kids and drive myself crazy."
Coach Cal believes that starts with identifying a rotation.
In both of UK's exhibitions, all 11 healthy scholarship players saw the floor. Each one is talented enough and likely deserving of playing time, but Calipari learned in 2009-10 -- with an assist from the late John Wooden -- that a team can't play at its best in his system with a rotation that deep.
"We need to get a group of seven guys -- maybe eight but more likely seven -- playing together and let them play," Calipari said. "That's the main thing we gotta do."
Calipari won't (or can't) say who fits in the group right now, only that it must include two point guards and other players capable of playing multiple positions, but he has one in mind for Friday's game. By no means, however, is it set in stone.
"We're going to start seven, having a group of seven, and then: Is that the right seven? Does that change? Add or subtract?" Calipari said. "There's foul trouble, there's injuries, but we have a nice grouping of players that we have enough guys that we can start narrowing in."
Andrew Harrison is all but certain to be part of that group regardless.
The freshman point guard missed UK's two exhibitions with a knee contusion, but returned to practice on Wednesday. Harrison's presence could go a long way toward addressing some of the issues that Calipari noticed during his absence.
"It's like you're playing your football game and your wide receiver is your quarterback," Calipari said. "Now you're quarterback comes back and you're like, 'OK, now guys are in the right spots.' "
In this case, Aaron Harrison was the wide receiver trying to play quarterback. As identical as he may be to his twin brother, the elder of the two Harrisons is more comfortable on the wing. That was apparent when Calipari moved him back to his traditional shooting-guard spot against Montevallo.
Andrew Harrison, however, has been a point guard since a young age.
"He's a floor general," Jon Hood said. "You guys will see: He can play. He's really good."
The situation reminds Hood, a redshirt senior, of one that the team he played on his freshman year faced. The 2009-10 Wildcats, like this year's edition, had the nation's consensus top freshman point guard, but John Wall had to miss two games early.
"You couldn't judge my freshman year team because John (Wall) missed the first exhibition game and you didn't know how good we were going to be once we were all healthy and once we were all on the court," Hood said. "It's the same with this team. We just have to all get healthy and all get on the same page and we'll go from there."
Hood has been a part of the process of building a team out of a collection of talented, young parts four times now, so he's practiced in the art of patience when it comes to such matters.
Calipari is too, even if it takes an occasional shower brainstorm to remember.
"I've got four months," Calipari said. "To help this team put them in a position of how they're going to play offensively and defensively to do something special. It's just we are what we are right now."
Matthew Mitchell leads UK into two road games in New York to open the 2013-14 season this weekend. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Rarely one to sing his own praises, Matthew Mitchell admits he didn't have a grand plan for his team's season-opening schedule.
With so many considerations at play -- from multi-year contracts to venue and opponent availability -- simply coming up with dates on which Kentucky can face the teams it wants to was difficult enough.
But now that Mitchell sees how the schedule has come together -- with a two-game season-opening road swing, including the Wildcats' 2013-14 debut at perennial NCAA Tournament team Marist -- he realizes it all ended up working out well.
"I think there is tremendous benefit by starting the season with a team that we feel like can be very good and can be challenged the opening night," Mitchell said. "We could be here in Memorial Coliseum and playing a team that is not of the quality or caliber of Marist and not be nearly as challenged."
With a matchup against the Red Foxes, who are receiving votes in both major polls, looming on Friday at 7 p.m. ET in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., preparation for the No. 7/8 Wildcats has had an added edge.
"Practices have been different and the sense of urgency to get prepared has been different, which are all good things," Mitchell said. "If we don't talk to each other and if we don't play with tremendous defensive fundamentals and if we don't really have a sharp mental focus then it will be trouble."
Over the past four seasons, UK has won its season openers by an average of 36 points and three of the four games were played in the comforts of home. Duplicating that feat against a Brian Giorgis-coached Marist team that was down single digits late in the second half against UK last season won't be easy.
The change, though certainly a challenge, is welcome.
"We're fortunate to play such a great team at the beginning of the season," junior guard Bria Goss said. "Marist is very fundamentally sound. It will be a very good test to see where we are at early in season."
UK's first test came in its lone exhibition against Eckerd College last Sunday. The Cats won comfortably, 83-35, but the visitors did Kentucky a favor by effectively using backdoor cuts against Mitchell's signature high-pressure defense.
"Eckerd gave us a real gift from that standpoint," Mitchell said. "That's what our focus has been, trying to really focus on our defensive fundamentals. Marist is such a good motion offense team and you don't know exactly what they're going to do."
After Marist, UK will stay in the Empire State ahead of a game at Wagner on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. The Cats will also take advantage of a free Saturday in one of the world's greatest cities.
"We get to spend a little time in New York City on Saturday and that'll be good for our players from that region," Mitchell said.
UK's Jelleah Sidney and Jennifer O'Neill are both from the Big Apple, while Bernisha Pinkett (Washington, D.C.) and Kastine Evans (Salem, Conn.) are from the Northeast as well and will have family in town to watch them.
The sightseeing and visits with family will be nice, but this weekend is a business trip for UK Hoops, one that Mitchell hopes will pay dividends both immediately and in the future.
"It's a great, great thing to go to Marist and have to prepare for all that, so I think it will do nothing but benefit our team down the road," Mitchell said. "I'm excited about the opportunity and we'll have to play well to win."
Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a day of watching film, Mark Stoops publicly kicks off game week at his Monday press conference.
There, he begins his question-answer-session with the media with some comments reflecting on Kentucky's last game before talking in general about his team's upcoming opponent.
He always has good things to say, but he was uniquely effusive in his praise of Missouri.
"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."
As Stoops' words suggest, what differentiates eighth-ranked Missouri (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is its strength in all facets of the game. The Tigers control of their own destiny in the SEC East and are an overtime loss away from an unbeaten record not because of smoke and mirrors, but because they are sound across the board.
On offense, Missouri's receiving corps is what stands out, and quite literally. The Tigers top three receivers are Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and the trio has combined for 1,681 yards receiving. They also look they should be in town to play in Rupp Arena instead of Commonwealth Stadium, standing 6-foot-5, 6-4 and 6-6, respectively.
"I can't remember playing a group bigger than this," said Stoops, whose career began as a secondary coach.
Safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto took it a step further, calling the Tigers "as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached again." None of the five Wildcats listed on UK's depth chart at cornerback is taller than 6-0, but the group will have to find a way to match the physicality of the Tigers both in the passing game and in shedding blocks.
"You gotta eat your Wheaties and bring your A game," Peveto said.
The rest of the UK defense should load up before Saturday's noon ET kickoff (ESPNU) too, because Stoops sees an offense that's just as physical in the trenches.
"They run the ball on everybody," Stoops said. "And you see them really throwing guys around in the run game and creating big seams."
Missouri is averaging 237.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, numbers that have hardly suffered with athletic quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury the last three games. Franklin is slated for a possible return on Saturday, but the Cats won't alter their approach much whether they're facing him or backup Maty Mauk.
"They're both very good quarterbacks," Stoops said. "Their offense basically stays the same."
That cannot be said of the UK offense.
With Jalen Whitlow returning to a starting role after battling ankle and shoulder injuries, the Wildcat attack found another gear against Alabama State. With an added dimension in the running game and Whitlow's progression as a passer, the Cats look to sustain that offensive momentum.
"I thought Jalen did a nice job making some plays with his feet," Stoops said. "I thought he did a nice job throwing it at times. There were a few throws that stuck out to me during the game that we know he missed. But after watching the tape, really thought he did a good job of hitting some guys as well. Got to continue to work our passing game and improve in that area. But to score 48 points was good to see."
Duplicating that feat against Missouri won't be easy.
The Tigers are fourth in the league in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in turnovers forced by a wide margin. That all starts up front.
"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run. They have the fastest D-line that we've played and they play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."
Michael Sam headlines the group, leading the SEC with 10 sacks.
To combat that pass rush and avoid the interceptions that have so frequently befallen Missouri opponents (the Tigers have 17 picks on the season), UK will rely on a combination of Whitlow's athleticism, quick throws and a variety of protection schemes.
"We've got to get the ball out of our hands fast," Brown said. "I think he understands. I mean, we've got to do some things in our protection: We've got to get some backs, we've got to get some tight ends, do some things like that to help our guys out."
Once Whitlow gets rid of the ball, he'll be relying on his receivers to make plays. Unfortunately for the Cats, Whitlow will almost certainly be without two of his top targets -- Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery -- due to injury. That means UK's "next-man-up" mentality will be put to the test.
"I think Demarco Robinson is a guy that's finally healthy, and we need him to step up and make some plays," Brown said. "We need A.J. Legree to step up. Some of the guys that have been here, they've got to step up and produce."
Against Alabama State, Robinson showed some the play-making ability that excited his coaches throughout the spring and summer with four catches for 44 yards. As Brown mentioned, an ankle injury has limited his explosiveness but Robinson is now finally at full speed.
"I have to play a bigger role this week," Robinson said. "I have to make more plays than I've been making in the past. I feel like it's a bigger responsibility."
Responsibility, however, isn't the first thing Stoops wants his team feeling heading into the weekend. Facing a team as good as Missouri affords the Cats a chance to measure their continued improvement against elite competition, and he wants them to embrace that.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."