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."
Rain came to Lexington on Wednesday afternoon, but the Kentucky football team stayed outside for its third practice of the week.
Though the forecast is clear for UK's game on Saturday against Missouri, Mark Stoops is always happy to see how his team responds in less-than-ideal conditions.
"Sloppy day out there," Stoops said. "Messy day. So it was good to get some sloppy ball out there, so it was good to get some wet ball, some work in the rain. Got our work done and feel good about where we're at and our preparations and just moving forward."
It was a test for the passing game as Jalen Whitlow works with a receiving corps significantly hampered by injury. After productive work on the first days of the week, the Wildcats once again took step forward on Wednesday.
"I think we're getting better," Stoops said. "I thought Jalen had a very good day yesterday and seemed to have a good day today. Javess (Blue) is fresh. He looked good. Demarco (Robinson), (Jeff) Badet -- all those guys are getting better. We need to use our tight ends a little bit more and get them some balls."
Missouri, however, will present an even stiffer challenge than any weather. The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin and feature what offensive coordinator Neal Brown calls the fastest defensive line UK will have faced all season.
"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run."
Considering Missouri's talent on both sides of the ball, it stands to reason that the UK coaches would once again look to special teams for an edge. In Stoops and special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto's first season, Wildcat specialists have created a number of big plays -- including a punt block last week and a memorable fake field goal for a touchdown against Florida -- while also being solid overall.
"It tells me a lot about a team," Stoops said. "That's kind of the heart of your team. There's a lot of guys on there that are really doing a good job and being very unselfish, and I think Coach Peveto's done a great job of coaching them up."
Considering the plays UK has already called -- Stoops and Peveto work together to make such decisions -- on special teams, opponents are becoming aware of the Cats' reputation for special-teams trickery and adjusting.
"It's just like I said in some other games, we had some things called and they jump out into a safe look and took it away," Stoops said. "That can help you in some areas, but certainly they could catch you. If you try to run some sort of fake or a trick play, they could catch you and it could hurt you."
Don't expect UK to stop trying though. A former defensive coordinator, Stoops may seem buttoned-down and conservative, but he's not afraid to gamble -- as long as the odds are right.
"Some of that stuff isn't as low-percentage as you might think," Stoops said. "So if we feel that something's there and there's a different percentage of converting it, then I'm all for it."
EJ Floreal is in his first season as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week, EJ Floreal writes about his Blue-White Scrimmage dunk that had everyone buzzing, accepting the challenge of playing at UK and learning one of his teammates is a distant relative.
I know I'm still hearing about it, so I have to start out talking about that dunk in the Blue-White Scrimmage. If you watched it, I actually stuttered. I was kind of nervous to back-cut because I thought that maybe Willie would make a good move and then I'd just be in the way, but I went and back-cut. He threw me the ball and by that time I was just thinking, "I'm going to dunk it at Rupp."
When I went up, I didn't know who was in front of me. I actually thought it was Dominique or something so I was like, "I'll be fine." But when I landed, it kind of seemed like everyone breathed in and then exhaled. Usually I scream after a dunk but I couldn't scream. I was just in shock when I saw it was Julius and Aaron was over there, eyes wide open. Alex couldn't believe it. KP (assistant coach Kenny Payne) looked right at me and he was just smiling. Hoody went crazy.
I've dunked on some people, but no one that big, not like a 6-9, 250-pound dude. I didn't expect that at all. When I came to the ground, I didn't know if I should mug or flex or something, so I just looked shocked. Just watching the video and seeing people's reactions on the court and on the sidelines and even the fans, you could just tell that everyone was really shocked.
After the game, we all talked to Julius about it except for me. I kept my mouth shut because I knew he would come back at me the first opportunity he got. Andrew was giving him the most. He was talking so much. He kept telling me, "You should be going crazy. Stop trying to act all humble." I kept saying, "It's just a play, it's just a play." They were all looking at Julius like, "Rise and shine, Ju." He kept smiling. He couldn't really do anything because it did happen, but he just smiled and shook his head a lot.
Just in the locker room, KP and the other coaches were giving him a lot of stuff because him and Coach Payne are really close. Coach Payne was just like, "How does it feel to be on the other end?" Julius brought up when Coach Payne got dunked on by Rex Chapman way back when. They kept going back and forth. Cal actually acknowledged it in the postgame meetings. He was just talking, saying, "You've been doing really well, you're going to get more opportunities. You've just got to wait your time." That was good to hear because I've been working hard.
I came here because I wanted to be challenged and so far that's what I'm getting. Something that I am really excited about doing every day is the one-on-ones before practice. If you watch, I don't back down from any of them. I've gone against Julius, Aaron, James, Marcus, Dakari, Willie and I haven't backed down against any of them. I go out there and compete and I've won a couple. Any opportunity they give me in practice, I try to make the most of it. Even in a game, like you saw when I got in against Transy, I immediately got a steal and got a bucket.
I need to talk about that play too, because I've heard a lot about it. I got the steal and I knew right when I got it, "I'm going to dunk, I'm going to dunk, I'm going to dunk." I tried to take off really hard so I could completely fly, but I guess I stepped wrong. I just stepped in a hole. I couldn't extend to dunk it, so I just had to lay it up and get the two points.
My phone was blowing up and everyone was just like, "Why didn't you dunk it? I know you could have dunked it. You could have freaked it, top 10. What were you doing?" I talked to Tod and I was like, "Should I make a public service announcement?" I asked Marcus too. They were like, "Just do it for the fun of it."
My knee buckled on the fast break or else I think everyone knows I woulda dunked that....if I culd of had that one back...still fun tho !
I made a general public statement of what happened on Twitter and then people started responding that we would rather have two points than a mistake anyway. It was all fun. I wish I could have dunked it. That would have been cool, my first dunk in a game uni, but I got the two points so I'm not really that worried. Hopefully I get another chance soon.
I'm excited for the regular season to get started on Friday, but at the same time it's kind of hard just knowing that I won't get as many opportunities with the better competition we play. But I'm excited. Even if I'm on the bench, I want to learn everything I can. Especially that Michigan State game, being able to watch Andrew and Aaron go at it with Keith Appling and Gary Harris and seeing our bigs battle, just gaining experience from everything. I'm excited just to be able to be a part of this and learn everything. Not many people get the opportunity to be around this many great elite players and this many great coaches, so I'm just trying to take advantage of it.
I came here to improve, so any chance I get that's what I'm doing, whether it's working out with Julius and Coach Payne or Dakari and Coach Payne or just by myself shooting with one of the managers. If I don't have like a night class or a lot of homework to do, I'll try to get in the gym and just work on stuff that I really have to work on. I try to get workouts from the coaches to do by myself. I try to have a manager come and do it with me.
Away from basketball, I think a lot of people know me and James are close. Something people don't know that I haven't really said yet because I don't think a lot of people would believe it is James is actually my distant cousin. People always thought we were related because my grandma's maiden name is Young, so we just looked it up last week and we happened to be distant cousins. It's a long, long way, but it's still pretty cool. It's a small world. I guess that might be a reason why we're so close and share so many interests. We kind of hit it off from the start.
When he first came for media training, we were talking and bonding and laughing. Right after that I went to his room and we started playing video games, and ever since that we've been really close with each other. He might be my cousin, but James is terrible at the NBA game we play. I beat him three times in a row and then he wanted to play soccer and hockey games and he beat me, but nobody plays those games. So congrats to James. I'd have to say Dominique is the best at the basketball game because he's the smartest player. He just exploits your weaknesses.
It's been fun hanging out with all the guys, but me, Tod and Marcus, us three are really close. We've actually been to Tod's house to eat dinner, and we go to the movies too. We always like to be around each other. We'll always be joking around. We gave ourselves a nickname but I'm not going to say what the nickname is.
I guess I'm close with Marcus because of the Cali bond. I knew him before, not really as well as now, but we knew of each other. We played each other a couple times. We always go out and get food or we'll go watch movies. He won't go watch scary movies with me, which sucks because I love scary movies, but we'll go see like comedies and cartoon, kid-ish movies because everyone else thinks they're too grown to watch those.
Anyway, I can't wait for the season to start. I'm really excited. I hope I can dunk on some more people like Julius. Just kidding with you, Julius.
Aaron Harrison had 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and no turnovers in UK's 95-72 win over Montevallo on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's never been any question about the importance of the point guard in John Calipari's system, but Aaron Harrison has been getting a crash course in what playing the position is all about over the last week.
With his brother Andrew recovering from a bone bruise in his knee, duties at the point fell primarily to the elder of the two twins in practice and Kentucky's first exhibition. Through that process, Aaron Harrison has gained a newfound appreciation for his brother's role.
"Playing the point guard, (Calipari) definitely says something to the point guard every play," Harrison said. "He tells you to attack and you have to get every other player involved, so it's really difficult when you're not used to it."
That magnitude of that adjustment was on display against Transylvania, as Harrison managed just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting to go with his two assists. Sensing Harrison's unease at the unfamiliar position, Coach Cal inserted Jarrod Polson into the starting lineup, shifting Harrison back to two-guard.
Harrison flourished in his return to shooting guard.
"It was really relaxing," Harrison said. "I got to run the floor a lot more. I'm not worried about getting the ball up the court, but playing point guard is a learning experience. I just feel more comfortable running the wing right now."
Harrison scored just 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting in UK's 95-72 win over Montevallo in Rupp Arena in its final exhibition, but added seven assists and six rebounds against zero turnovers. He made cameo appearances at the one -- much like he will once his brother returns -- but spent the majority of his time off the ball.
Ironically, moving back to the wing brought the point guard out of the 6-foot-6 freshman, both on the floor and in his postgame comments.
"I mean, the guys finished the balls that I threw to them," Harrison said. "They weren't really tough passes. They were probably tougher shots to make than passes, but I guess they made me look good in the stat sheet."
Even so, UK's offense ran far from seamlessly without its full-time floor general. The Wildcats committed 16 turnovers and had just 14 total assists, though they shot 36 of 62 (58.1 percent) from the field.
"It's like, OK, we're playing without our quarterback," Calipari said. "Now, the good news is his backup looks just like him. But he's not him."
Calipari's words underscore the fact that, regardless of Andrew Harrison's health, Aaron Harrison will be called on to spell his brother. For that reason, having to step up in the short term will likely benefit both Harrison and the Cats down the road.
"I'm starting to get the feel of getting the other players involved and making sure I'm still attacking but getting other players involved," Harrison said. "And that's the biggest deal for me: balancing those two out."
With a more effective Harrison, UK turned in a markedly better performance than in its first exhibition after an exhausting two-day "break" between games.
"We beat them up pretty good this weekend," Calipari said. "They had a lot of practice this weekend, and so I got to their legs a little bit. But that's fine. I thought we played better than we did last game, and that's all I'm asking."
The Cats will ultimately be measured by how they play in March and April, not November, but the games start counting on Friday when UK takes on UNC Asheville. That injects a bit of urgency into UK's development.
"The biggest thing I can tell you is we've got a long way to go, but we've made strides," Calipari said. "We're not a good team right now. We've got a nice collection of guys, but we're not a good team."
Calipari didn't say it, but it's difficult for that collection of talent to mesh without that player who will ultimately lead it. The hope is that Andrew Harrison will return to practice on Wednesday following an off day and be on the floor for the season opener.
"Andrew knows what to do and we all know Andrew knows what to do," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great player. Just like I said before, I have much more respect for what he does on the court playing point guard and we're all excited to have him back really."
It's getting to the point where Mark Stoops doesn't even have to look at the schedule.
For the fifth time in seven games, Kentucky will face a ranked opponent with No. 8 Missouri coming to Lexington. The grind of the Southeastern Conference has been unrelenting in Stoops' first season, but the Wildcats aren't growing weary of it.
In fact, it's why they're all here.
"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."
The fact that the Cats (2-6, 0-4 SEC) are eager for another chance to prove themselves doesn't make the challenge facing them any easier.
A season ago, the Tigers struggled to a 5-7 record in their first year as members of a new conference. Now much healthier, Missouri controls its own destiny in the SEC race and is a fourth-quarter South Carolina comeback away from a perfect record through nine games.
After a day of watching film on the Tigers, Stoops knows it's no fluke.
"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."
The Tigers rank fourth the SEC in scoring defense (20.6 points per game) and third in rushing defense (109.4 yards per game).
All of Missouri's wins have come by two touchdowns or more, so opponents have had to turn to the pass in an effort to overcome deficits. The Tigers have capitalized, intercepting a league-high 17 passes en route to a plus-15 turnover margin.
"I think they are active," Stoops said. "A lot of it has to do with their front four and a lot of it has to do with they're scoring a boatload of points. So any time you're scoring over 40 points a game, the teams have got to get desperate at times and start throwing the ball around."
Perhaps no team in the SEC is better equipped to deal with the Tigers in that area than UK. The Cats haven't committed a turnover in their last four games and have just six giveaways on the season.
"They have been very conscious of that," Stoops said. "I think we do a good job of coaching ball security. The quarterbacks have done a nice job of protecting the ball. That's a big key." Whitlow with plenty of room for improvement
The UK coaching staff has been waiting all season for a quarterback to step up and grab hold of the position. Injuries and inconsistency have prevented that from happening, at least until last weekend's win against Alabama State.
Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory, becoming the first Wildcat quarterback to run and pass for two touchdowns since 2004. Stoops, however, left the game thinking about a handful of throws the sophomore missed.
"He needs to get a feel, get better, get reps and playing time," Stoops said. "He did that. I thought he made some nice throws, but he just short-armed or guided it or tried to be too accurate and aim it. Whatever the reason, he just missed a few."
A few miscues are understandable, particularly given how green Whitlow still is as a thrower. He has made 12 collegiate starts now, but wasn't a full-time quarterback in high school. That's not always easy for a demanding coach like Stoops to remember.
"You do have to remind yourself that he's going to get better," Stoops said. "After watching the tape, I really thought he did some good things. He made some nice throws. He's going to get better and better."
Montgomery out for season; Timmons doubtful for Missouri
UK lost three receivers during the Alabama State win and will likely be without two of them this weekend against Missouri.
Ryan Timmons sprained his ankle late in the game, while Alexander Montgomery hurt his knee celebrating a second-quarter touchdown. Test results confirmed Stoops' postgame fears, as Montgomery will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
When the team reconvenes on Monday, Stoops said he will address the way the Cats celebrate in the wake of the injury.
"We're not going to overdo it, but I'm going to definitely talk to them about relaxing a little bit with the jumping and chest-bumping and all that stuff," Stoops said.
Unfortunately, the Cats will be without Montgomery, his 6-foot-2 frame and his 137 yards receiving regardless. Javess Blue, however, should recover in time from an eye injury he suffered during warm-ups to play. Beyond Blue -- the team's leading receiver -- UK will need others to emerge for a thin receiving corps.
"I thought Jeff Badet played his best game," Stoops said. "That was good to see. Demarco (Robinson), we need to continue to get him healthy and get him back in the fold doing some good things. A.J. (Legree) is doing some better things as well, so that's a good sign.
Mobley turning heads with special-teams play
Dyshawn Mobley hasn't played a down of defense this season, but he has 10 tackles through eight games.
The sophomore running back has turned into a force on special teams, delivering forceful blows in kickoff coverage. He had tackles on three of UK's eight kickoffs against Alabama State, including a bone-crunching third-quarter stop of Jarrett Neely.
With his background as a defensive coordinator, Stoops sees a play like that one and wonders what Mobley would like on the other side of the ball.
"I would love to have him on defense, but that's the basically the message," Stoops said. "He's going to get the ball or he's going to come play defense."
It seems Neal Brown wants to hold on to his bruising back, because Mobley carried a season-high eight times for 36 yards against Alabama State.
Twelve different Wildcats scored in UK's 83-35 exhibition win over Eckerd College on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Entering the 2013-14 season, the biggest question about this Kentucky team was how it would replace the production of A'dia Mathies.
Would a single player emerge in a featured role? Would UK's post players step up and fill the void? Could the Wildcats break through to the Final Four without Mathies, the second-leading scorer in school history?
After UK's lone exhibition -- an 83-35 win over Eckerd College -- the answers remain unclear. But in the end, these Cats believe the biggest challenge facing them this season could eventually turn into their greatest strength, provided they approach it the right way.
"I think that difference between the past teams and this year's team is honestly we don't have a star player on the team this year, whereas the past few years we had A'dia," Samarie Walker said, viewing a perceived negative as a positive.
Throughout her career, Mathies served as a safety blanket for Matthew Mitchell's teams. When plays broke down, Mathies stepped up. When UK needed a basket in a crucial moment, the ball went to Mathies.
This season, the Cats plan to share those burdens equally. They think they will be all the better for it.
"I think any given day or night, anybody can have a good game, a great game." said Walker, who had 12 points and six rebounds.
Against Eckerd, 12 Wildcats saw the floor. They all played at least nine minutes and registered at least two rebounds as UK charged to a 55-35 edge on the glass.
"That was one of the main focuses of the game was rebounding, especially offensive rebounding," Walker said. "And I think this team is definitely tough. This is one of the most competitive teams I've ever been on and I think that's definitely something we focus on in practice and it's something we want to focus on for the whole season."
UK's competitiveness was on display from the opening tip, as the Cats held Eckerd without a point until the 9:18 mark of the first half. Kentucky would go on to force 41 turnovers on the afternoon, hardly a surprise to any of the 2,314 fans in Memorial Coliseum accustomed to such dominant defensive displays.
"I thought they worked extremely hard and played really hard," Mitchell said. "It was not the prettiest game that we have ever played here or probably end up playing this season, but I thought they gave great effort."
The game was far from a work of art because of UK's struggles in the half-court. In spite of repeated good looks at the basket, the Cats shot just 30 for 81 (37.0 percent) from the field and 4 of 27 from 3-point range.
"It was a tough shooting day and everybody can see that it was not out best shooting day," Mitchell said. "We have shot the ball really well in the preseason so it is not something that I am too terribly concerned about and really we have practiced in Memorial yesterday and this morning and that is my fault."
Mitchell and the Cats believe the shooting will come around, which is why they were more encouraged than anything else following the exhibition win. UK has balance, competitiveness and, in spite of the absence of a star, a world of potential as it prepares to start the season on the road at Marist on Nov. 8.
"When our whole team contributes, we're a situation, we're a problem," said DeNesha Stallworth, UK's leading scorer with 17 points. "It's tough to beat us."