Through more than a week of fall camp, Mark Stoops has talked consistently about how his team has improved in facets.
He's praised the offense for playing at a pace closer to what Neal Brown's offense calls for and the defense for executing more cleanly.
On Wednesday, with UK's first full scrimmage, it was time to put it all to the test at Commonwealth Stadium.
"We really need to just put the ball down and move it," Stoops said. "Obviously there's a fine line there with all the tackling that goes on, but this was a full, live scrimmage over there today. I think we stayed relatively healthy and we got a lot of good work in, and we really needed to do that."
The offense stepped up and had one of its best days Stoops can recall since the new coaching staff's arrival.
"It was nice for them to put it together," Stoops said. "I thought they really did some good things. And that's why we need to do that -- just put it down and go -- so they can put all their play-actions together and their runs and their passes and all those good things. So it was good to see."
Asked which players performed well, Stoops didn't name names before watching tape. That, however, is a positive. It means UK is operating as a team.
"I thought they did a nice job of -- you've heard me say it time and time again -- making the routine plays," Stoops said. "So when we have our play passes or the situations where we have a slant that's open, we catch it and make a first down rather than be second and 10. That's a huge difference."
UK's quarterbacks once again shared time with the first team as they compete for the starting job, a race that is progressing but still very much up in the air. Stoops expects a decision to come "in the next week," but reiterated that he won't name a starter just to name one.
"One of the reasons why we're trying to be very critical of ourselves in making this decision is because it's so important, and when we give that person the reins, we want them to go," Stoops said. "You've heard me say that for a year now. Every time a year ago when we thought we were giving somebody the reins to the quarterback situation, something happened. Maybe they got hurt or maybe they didn't play very good. So we want to make sure we're very precise in our decision-making, and once we give them the keys to the car, we want them to drive it."
As for the defense, the group didn't have its best day of fall camp, but UK still had reason to be encouraged on that side of the ball. Competition is good for everyone.
"In practice, it's not good if you win because they screw up," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "You didn't do anything, right? So a good practice is one where they execute, you execute and then a player makes a play."
Besides, Wednesday will be far from the last time their offense gives a defense fits if Stoops and Brown have their way.
"We're much further along than we were all year last year, but that's the good thing, that's what I told the offense, that's what they can do when they go put that kind of pressure on you," Stoops said. "That's what helps them put some pressure on defenses. You all watch college football and you see some great defenses struggle with tempo because it neutralizes you a little bit because of what you can call and what you can execute."
Neal Brown knows incoming freshmen face a challenge they don't fully understand in adjusting to college football.
That's why he has a saying he repeats often as they make the transition from high school.
"This is what I always tell them, to kind of make it real for you, is I tell them to pick out the best player they played against in their high school career," Brown said. "The very best player. Think about it. Now, that player -- you're going against somebody as good or better every single day in practice. It's just a totally different world for them."
It's a different world that those talented newcomers are beginning to understand.
With UK opening practice to fans and media for the third time in four days, the Wildcat offense struggled through a seven-on-seven period before impressing in red-zone and team drills. Patrick Towles, with it being his day in UK's quarterback rotation, was leading the way most often, but the up-and-down performance had a lot to do with a receiving corps relying heavily on a number of freshmen.
"We're young at wideout," Brown said. "You can see it. There's some times where we make some really good plays. Like Thaddeus Snodgrass and Blake Bone made some really good plays. And there's some times when we're struggling getting off man, and a lot of that has to do with just pad level and understanding it's a little bit different than high school."
With Bone, Snodgrass and Dorian Baker getting plenty of first-team reps with Javess Blue, Jeff Badet and Alexander Montgomery out or limited as they recover from injury, Brown has taken advantage of size the freshmen add in his play-calling. That was clear on the fade pass Towles threw to the 6-foot-5 Bone.
"That's something we didn't have at any point last year," Brown said. "That's something we made a living on at (Texas) Tech. We were long on the outside."
UK's freshmen have also provided a new dimension at running back with the speedy Stanley "Boom" Williams and Mikel Horton, a 230 pounder. The Wildcats are deep at the position, with Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp and Josh Clemons looking strong during camp, but this staff won't be shy about playing youngsters if they deserve.
"We're going to play the best ones," Brown said. "We're going to play the best kids. Stanley is really starting to come on. He's making some -- he made a couple really good runs today. What I told him, what I tried to explain to him, he broke one to the outside, that was against the twos. If it was against the ones, he would have got ran down. So just trying to explain to him, you're not going to outrun everybody. It's better to get a two-yard gain than a five-yard loss. That's something that you just need some experience.
"Mikel Horton did a really good job in our short yardage segment there. He gives us that added dimension."
Marcus Lee had 14 points and seven rebounds in UK's win over Puerto Rico on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - At some point during this Bahamas trip, the Kentucky Wildcats have to come back down to earth, right?
That was the expectation Tuesday as the Cats headed into their third game in three days in the sweltering Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas. Against a collection of Puerto Rico national team reserves thirsty for a little redemption after getting embarrassed by 25 points on Sunday, some letdown was anticipated from UK.
That script looked like it might come to fruition early in Tuesday's game when Kentucky stumbled to a lethargic start, but the deep and athletic Cats - who are doing nothing to temper the mushrooming preseason hype - quickly tore it up.
They just kept skyrocketing to the rim.
It started when Alex Poythress came alive. Then Derek Willis and Marcus Lee started dunking everything. And before anyone could catch their breath, Karl-Anthony Towns was dominating 30-year-old professionals again.
By the time Aaron Harrison drained two 3-pointers from the left wing - one that had a familiar 2014 NCAA Tournament look to it - the Kentucky highlight show was well into production, as was the third consecutive blowout.
"We're having a blast out there," Lee said. "If you see every player while they're out there, sitting on the bench, you'll see them smiling and laughing the whole time. We're just loving our time out here."
How could they not? They've destroyed two teams of professionals over the course of three games in three days by an average margin of 28 points. The latest was Tuesday's 93-57 romp over Puerto Rico, an outcome that was never in doubt after the Cats went on a 16-2 first-half run to take firm control of the game.
"We knew we had a talented bunch and we knew that we had a lot of returning players from last year," said assistant coach John Robic, who filled in as head coach as John Calipari watched and evaluated from the stands for a second straight day. "I think the freshmen have fit in very, very well, especially for the first couple of games ... in a Kentucky uniform. I think our size shows. That's a really big team and that's without Willie (Cauley-Stein) and Trey (Lyles). So I think we have different weapons. And the returning guys have gotten better. And that's big."
Now granted the two teams UK has played in its first three days in the Bahamas haven't been together all that long this summer and were a bit overwhelmed by a UK team that is in better shape and has had more time to jell in recent weeks. But to beat up on two teams made up of professionals - teams Coach Cal thought UK could lose to - on national TV has been a pretty booming statement that has likely shaken the rest of college basketball.
The real test will come Friday, after two off days, when the Cats play the Dominican Republic national team, which features a talent-loaded roster made up of Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez.
"The nice thing is I think we're getting a little bit better every game," Robic said. "Our plan, or Cal's plan of everybody playing equal minutes has stayed true to form, so everybody has played 60 minutes, and it's only off by about 20 seconds here or there. So that's been really good. They've only played a game and a half in three days, so now we have a couple of days off before we do the same thing all over again."
Until then, the Cats will get two days off to enjoy their stay at the Atlantis and reflect on an afternoon of slams that would have made the dunk-happy 2012 national championship Wildcats -- one of whom (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) was in the stands Tuesday - proud.
En route to shooting 62 percent from the field, UK players flushed home 15 of their 38 field goals on Tuesday, several of the jaw-dropping variety. Among the best dunks: a double-clutch slam by Poythress, a one-handed windmill by the 6-11 Towns and any of Lee's gravity-defying alley-oops.
All told, Lee had six dunks, and Poythress, Willis and Towns jammed three apiece.
"It was just one of those things," said Willis, who threw down an alley-oop dunk on pass from Tyler Ulis during the game-defining 16-2 run in the first half and then another one from Dominique Hawkins moments later during a 13-0 run. "Coach Slice (Barry Rohrssen), he's been talking to us about going to the basket, hitting the boards, because they leave us out there, so that's just a thing. When you go to the boards, we're long and big enough to just dunk the ball."
Robic said the dunks tend to be contagious, as was the case Tuesday. They may only count as two points, but the energy a player creates when he rattles the rim spreads to this teammates.
"You see their reaction," Robic said. "It's an exciting play. It's a game-changing play when you get a run of them consecutively by different players, yeah. The neatest thing for us as coaches is to see the players' reaction on the bench when big plays like that are made."
If there was any hope of a Puerto Rico charge in the second half, Lee quickly crushed it when he picked off a pass and dribbled the length of the floor for his easiest flush of the night. Seconds later Ulis found him hanging above the rim again, paving the way for another dominant UK second half.
"It's just confidence," with Lee, Robic said, "and he's been working at it. He's strong. He's probably put on 10 to 15 pounds, 10 to 12 pounds. I think it was just a direct carryover of the NCAA Tournament."
Lee, who celebrated in the postgame press conference over the fact he's finally reached 220 pounds, finished Tuesday's rout with 14 points and seven rebounds after a quiet game Monday.
"I feel bigger," Lee said. "I feel more confident throwing my weight around and guarding bigger player."
Poythress continued to throw his weight around in Tuesday's romp, making 7-of-9 shots from the floor for 15 points and 10 rebounds.
The junior forward, who has drawn rave reviews from three different members of the coaching staff after each game, is averaging 13.7 points and 8.0 rebounds during the Big Blue Bahamas tour. Robic, the latest coach to praise Poythress, likened his improved motor to a "rebuilt engine."
"His confidence has to be through the roof," Robic said of Poythress, who has grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in three games. "He just does things athletically that you cannot teach and you don't see very often. And he's trying to do them more, really without us saying nothing about them. He's playing above the rim by himself a lot of times, and we've been telling him that for three years. It's great to see him smile."
Poythress is far from the only Wildcat grinning from ear to ear on this trip.
The toughest test yet - a date with the Dominicans on Friday that could be that coming-back-to-earth moment that erases those smiles - is still yet to come, but if the purpose of this trip was to learn about this team and see if this amount of depth could work, the Big Blue Bahamas tour has to be considered a raging success so far.
"I honestly didn't know what to expect," Willis admitted. "I didn't know if it was going to be a thing where there's just too many good players and it just falls apart, but we're all really good guys and no one's really selfish. I don't get that vibe from anyone."
Said Robic: "It's a great group of kids that really like each other and were cheering each other on, and that's part of this trip."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 19 points and 10 rebounds in UK's win on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - Hoping to evaluate instead of coach, John Calipari walked from the Kentucky bench, across the court and to the top row at Kendal G.L. Isaacs Gymnasium to watch Monday's exhibition game in the Bahamas.
He had to have liked what he saw.
Kentucky got pushed around early by a veteran team of professionals, fell behind by eight points, and then answered the bell with an impressive 12-0 first-half run from its unit of "backups" and a dominant second-half performance that ultimately led to an 81-58 rout of Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket on Monday.
The Cats, after leading by five at halftime, quickly built their lead to double digits and never looked back. At one point UK led a team that features four players with NBA experience by 29 points.
Not bad for a group that played without its head coach, who sat in the stands Monday to watch and take notes and at one point in the second half operated ESPNU's center-court camera for its national broadcast.
"At the end of the day these kids did it and it had nothing to do with coaching," said assistant Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the game on Monday. "We have a whole bunch of very talented young men who play great together and love each other and they're learning about each other. It makes our job a lot easier."
Their job, from the standpoint of managing expectations, is about to get a whole lot harder if the early performances in the Bahamas keep up.
Kentucky routed a French professional team that was big, athletic and supposedly superior to the Puerto Rican national team reserves UK thwarted by 25 on Sunday. But after failing to match Champagne's physicality in the opening minutes of the game, UK's second unit ripped off 12 straight points midway through the second half and dominated the rest of the way.
The first-half run was highlighted by a pair of 3-pointers from Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins, two reserves last season who are perceived to be at the end of UK's two-platoon rotation.
"That's a big part of what everybody's role is on this team, one through 12, 13 ... is that when you step on that floor, there is no garbage time," Payne said. "So when you're on that floor, you have to play with confidence and you are to play well. If you make mistakes, you're making them with confidence. That's the key."
If UK's supposed end-of-the-rotation guys are keying runs that knock out professional teams, just how good is this group? On a trip that was billed as a study abroad trip - a tour of games that is supposed to help the Cats learn about themselves and learn how to compete - everyone else is quickly learning that this team might be worth the hype.
At the very least, it appears to be much further along at this time of the year than last season's team, which started the year with 40-0 expectations, disappointed in the regular season, but then made the national championship game.
"They're a really big team," said Champagne forward Da'Sean Butler, who was a star on the 2010 West Virginia team that got a firsthand look at one of Calipari's most talented teams at UK and knocked it out of the NCAA Tournament. "I heard (Jay) Bilas had them picked to win (the national title). I might have to jump on the bandwagon. They're a really good team, man."
Butler was impressed with the younger team's ability to respond to an early eight-point deficit, step on a much older team's throat and not let it off the mat.
"They just kept punching," Butler said. "... If they can keep us down like that, I'm pretty sure they can keep some good teams down too."
Payne thought the Cats needed to get punch in the mouth so they and the coaching staff could see how they would respond to adversity. It is, after all, a trip to learn.
"The telling thing was that after they hit us, we made adjustments," Payne said. "We played more physical. We dictated the pace of the game. And we're not just dictating the pace with grown men; you're dictating the pace with grown men that play this game for money. That's a great sign. That should build confidence in them and in each other and individually because that's what it's going to take to win."
Aaron Harrison started the adjustments.
Trailing 20-12, Harrison came up with a steal, got in transition and posterized a challenging defender with a one-hand slam. That dunk paved the way for the second platoon's game-changing run.
"I thought (that play) was pivotal," Payne said. "I thought the biggest part of that was the transition into what are we. Are we going to be a soft defensive team or are we going to be a in-your-face, aggressive, dictate-the-pace, get-in-the-passing-lanes (type team)? We don't care who you are; we're getting after it. And he made that play, which ignited everything for us."
Karl-Anthony Towns took Kentucky's five-point halftime lead and built on it with a dominant second half. The 6-foot-11 freshman forward, drawing on some of his experience with the Dominican Republic national team, went head to head with grown men, some a decade older than him, and recorded a double-double (19 points and 10 rebounds).
Towns experienced mixed results after a good but not great game Sunday in which he roamed the perimeter a bit too much. Towns said he got off to a rough start again Monday, but he got his game on track when he went inside and went to a power game.
"I think that my size sometimes deceives people, but at the end of the day, I have to do what's best for the team, and today, for me, the best thing I could do for the team was give them an inside presence," Towns said.
Payne called Towns' performance on the glass "unbelievable," but he said the coaching staff is not satisfied because of Towns' tendency to want to be a perimeter big man.
"In order for him to be the best player in the country, in order for him to be a professional, in order for him to dominate college basketball, it has to start from the inside-out," Payne said.
Towns could take a page out of Alex Poythress' book, who strung together his second straight solid performance with 16 points and eight rebounds.
"He came back to school to prove to the world I'm one of the best forwards in the country," Payne said of Poythress. "You see his athleticism. (He) is one of the most athletic forwards in the country. Now mentally he has to put together the fight, the determination to go out and prove to people how good he is because some people still question because they see the inconsistencies. Me personally, I think he's going to have a phenomenal year. That's why he's here. That's why he came back."
Kentucky employed a two-platoon system again and wore the French team down in the second half.
"(They're) deep, man," Butler said. "You see us today. You sub out five and your next five is just as strong as your first five, it's good things coming your way. Very good things."
When Calipari returns to the bench and adds Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles to the mix, it will be up to him to figure out if the two rotations are feasible.
"That's why you pay John Calipari a whole bunch of money," Payne said. "He'll figure it out."
Aaron Harrison and Alex Poythress combined for 25 points as UK opened its Big Blue Bahamas tour with a win on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas -- As promised, John Calipari served as a mad scientist
in Kentucky's exhibition opener in the Bahamas, rolling out a
two-platoon system to mix and match lineups and experiment with a
The different looks certainly whetted the
appetite of Big Blue Nation, and some of UK's newest pieces definitely
wowed. But when it came down to it Sunday, it was two Wildcat veterans
who put on the best shows in Kentucky's 74-49 victory over the Puerto
Rico national team reserves, the first of six games in the Bahamas over
the next eight days.
Sophomore guard Aaron Harrison, who provided
the heroics during last season's dramatic national championship game
run, took on a steadier, more balanced role Sunday with a team-high 15
points, while junior forward Alex Poythress put on a stunning display of
athleticism and toughness.
"One of the things he wants to do,"
Calipari said of Harrison," ... was his comments to me, 'I don't ever want
to evaporate on the court. I want to have a presence on the court
whether I'm scoring or not.' Which defensively means, you saw him
pressuring the ball today, going up and playing. You saw him in pick and
rolls. You saw him rebounding the ball. You saw him fighting in there.
That's when you have a presence."
Poythress had the biggest presence in Sunday's game though.
he finished with 10 points, six rebounds and a block, but a few
reporters/UK staff members had him for several more rebounds, a couple
of them of the sky-high variety. Unofficially, it looked like a big step
forward for Poythress heading into an important junior season.
was terrific," Calipari said after the game. "That's as good as he's
played. And again, you have to understand those are older professional
players (he went against)."
Poythress not only showed those
professionals the power of youth with his superior athleticism, he
quieted some doubters who have questioned his position and wondered
where he fits on this deep and talented team. He did so with a couple of
strong offensive rebounds in the first half, an impressive block
against a 6-foot-10, at least 250-pound Puerto Rican center, and a
nearly jaw-dropping alley-oop dunk that Harrison threw about a foot too
"He just does things the normal players can't do," Coach
Cal said. "To be honest, the stuff he does, I can't teach. I wish I
could, but I can't."
That's high praise from a coach who has sent
24 players to the NBA Draft over the last seven years. What separates
Poythress from some of his peers is not only his athleticism, Calipari
said, it's his toughness.
"Not many people are athletic like I am," Poythress said. "I just try to use my God-given abilities."
those God-given abilities are best utilized has been a topic of debate
for the past season or so, especially in this preseason.
Poythress stay at power forward where he's clearly more athletic than
most fours but a bit undersized? Or should he move to the three where he
can dominate opponents with his strength but needs to develop better
ball handling and a more consistent shot?
"Both of them feel
natural to me," Poythress said. "I can play any position. It just was
the lineups we had today, I had to play the four. Coach said he's going
to switch up the lineups, so I'll probably get to play the three some
more games later."
Calipari cautioned anyone from assuming that
Poythress' time at the four Sunday meant that's what he is going
forward. He said he used Poythress at power forward to evenly split up
his two rotations.
"Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist) was exactly the same
thing (as Poythress)," Calipari said. "Consistent shooting, we've got
to work on that. But I tell you, he was aggressive, came up with balls
out of nowhere. ... It's all this process that he's going through. But
where he is physically right now, where he is mentally right now, the
toughness he's shown, you're starting to see it now in games."
- at least for the first game - kept his word on what he's calling a
two-platoon system. He started the Harrison twins with Devin Booker,
Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but the first five split time with the
second rotation of Tyler Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Marcus
Lee and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Other than a first-half substitution
for Towns when he picked up three quick fouls and some last-minute
action for EJ Floreal and Tod Lanter, the two rotations stayed intact
throughout the afternoon and played nearly the exact same minutes.
Outside a shaky start for the second five and a slight lull for the starters in the second half, both groups impressed.
touched the ball and had opportunities to do things," Coach Cal said.
"Loved our ball pressure. Loved the fact that we're passing the ball to
each other and making extra passes. Aggressive. Our ball pressure was
great and we were pushing the ball and attacking. The things that we
worked on we did. Transition defense, we're still not - but, you know,
it's Aug. (10) for God's sakes."
The second five went on a 10-0
run midway through the first half after a Booker 3 and steal, a layup
from Harrison, three straight points from Lee, and a layup by Hawkins.
Puerto Rico briefly regained the lead, but the starters closed the half
strong with a 10-2 run, which featured a slick crossover dribble and pass from Andrew Harrison
(four points, four rebounds and four assists) to Poythress for a dunk.
The players liked the two-platoon system.
was real good because you can go as hard as you can, burn out, play
hard, get steals, press, and then you got another five coming in for you
in a couple minutes, so you know you can go all out," Poythress said.
or not playing two units is even realistic when injured big men Willie
Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles join the rotation remains to be seen.
can do it," Aaron Harrison said. "Not many teams, college or pro, can
say you have 10 guys that can actually be on the floor and compete. So
we're just a special team. I mean, if Coach decides to do it, I think it
wouldn't be a bad thing."
The second half opened the same way
the first ended as the Cats took control of the game. The coaching staff
drew up an alley-oop dunk from Towns to Willis to open the half, and
then Lee scored back-to-back baskets to take firm control.
time 5-9 point guard Ulis settled in and started to wow the crowd with
zippy passes and pestering defense, the Cats had blown the game open.
really pushed the ball and found his teammates, but he also - it wasn't
so much his command of the offense -- he put great pressure on the
ball," Calipari said of Ulis, who finished with a team-high five
assists. "And in the second half, the guy, it's like he's a gnat; all
the sudden you just kind of let him steal one. He had a couple plays
like that. So it's really - it changes the dynamic of our team right
now, because we didn't have that (last year)."
Booker and Lee
scored nine points apiece, Towns had 10, and Johnson finished with six
points and six rebounds to round out the action for the Cats, who return
to Kendal G.L Isaacs National Gymnasium at 1 p.m. ET on Monday to play
Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a professional team from France.
didn't think anybody gave us a bad effort," Calipari said. "I didn't
think anybody did, and that's amazing Aug. (10) and 10 practices (in)."
In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's
basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann
(men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald
(women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton
(rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) --
participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia
sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns
sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note
that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the
views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of
Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Bria Goss writes about the group's final hours in Ethiopia and looks back how a memorable trip changed her forever.
Today is the last day in Ethiopia and I feel like I just got here. I feel like I need to stay longer because there was still more to be done. I knew I had to make the best of the last day!
After breakfast we went to visit kids while they were learning at school. There were so many kids learning their ABCs and learning to count. We completely distracted a class by our entrance. We were so energetic and ready to play with the kids. Some were shy, but most were pretty open. They were first and second graders and for their age, they spoke pretty clear English. I noticed how well they got along with each other. They were very polite and generous to each other and really tried to show the same generosity and politeness to me even though we just met.
They were so eager to show me what they know. I was blown away by their willingness to learn. This was considered to be optional and the kids did not have to be there, but the class was full. There were no seats left open. The kids told me it was because everyone there cherishes school and wants to have a good education. I was in shock. Kids see the school as a way out. They are passionate because it can provide for their families.
There was one little girl that really stuck out to me. Her sassy attitude and outgoing personality is going to lead her to a bright future. She stole the show by showing us her dance moves and spirit. She swung her hips and put her hands in the air as we sang our tune. The girl had skills! I could see her as the next winner on Got Talent!
After the fun time with the kids it was time to go. We went to a market to get some food supplies for the next city we were going to. The market was very busy and muddy. It smelled terrible and people were shoving things in your face to get you to buy their product. There were flies everywhere, which gave me goose bumps! After we got the food we left to the market to go to drop off the food to the widows. They were so thankful for the blessings we brought them. They repeatedly said "May God bless you" and "Thank you, God bless"! This put a smile on my face. I fell in love with serving others! I want to help people with nothing in return. I get the utmost joy when I put smiles on other people's faces.
After passing out the food it was time to pack up and leave. We had about an hour to shower and get our things together and get something to eat. We gathered downstairs to eat and after we all finished, we gave Girma money to get his driver's license. He was thrilled and surprised. We wanted to do this for him because to get his license was very expensive and he had just about given up on his dream of one day being able to drive. Now, he will be able to take his test and get his license. We were happy to help him and be a part of something so special.
We then left for the airport and said our final goodbyes! It was so hard saying goodbye to our new friends. They were a big help and made the trip so much easier. I love how well this team came together and became friends. We weren't ready to leave. We got to the airport around 7 and we board at 9:30. This plane ride was a little different than the first. We were all close now so this made the flight more enjoyable.
Eighteen hours later, we were back in the U.S. The trip was life-changing. I know more than I ever thought I would about Ethiopia and had the chance to experience it firsthand. This trip will stay with me forever. The thing that really sticks to me is that life is not about what you do or don't have. It's about the relationships you build. It's about the friendships you cherish. It's about the people you reach out to. I learned how to give willingly and what that feels like. I learned to put others before myself to lift them up. I am not perfect, but living for God you don't have to be.
It was so good to be in Ethiopia but hearing "Welcome home Mr Sutton" felt too good. Glad I was able to take part in such an amazing trip.
Due to renovations at Commonwealth Stadium, UK football held its annual Fan Day -- normally an evening event complete with fireworks -- in the morning on Saturday.
Combine that with rain in the forecast and Mark Stoops wasn't sure what to expect.
For far from the first time since his arrival in Lexington, Stoops was pleasantly surprised by Kentucky fans when he saw a line wrapping around the outside of the Nutter Fieldhouse.
"I was shocked, because I thought in the morning there would be less people," Stoops said. "But we couldn't come in here at night and didn't want to risk with the rain. So with the weather and being a little cooler going inside, I thought there would be less people. But I was amazed, as usual, and greatly appreciate the support and the kind words."
Stoops, his coaching staff and players signed autographs for more than an hour before making the short walk to Commonwealth Stadium for their first of two practices on Saturday. An estimated 4,000 fans were in attendance for the autograph session. UK will hold three more open practices during fall camp.
"That's the thing, ever since Coach Stoops got hired and I came back here the fans have been great," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "Very, very supportive, standing room. Lots of young kids, which I think is important. ... It was really good for our kids, them to understand what they represent. When they put Kentucky across their chest, what they represent, the people."
The crowd saw plenty of big plays on both sides of the ball, including a number by members of a talented freshman class, in what was close to a full practice. Wide receivers Dorian Baker and T.V. Williams and defensive back Kendall Randolph were among the headliners, while Stanley Williams drew some cheers of "Boom" -- his high school nickname -- from the crowd after a run for a long gain.
"You've got to earn 'Boom' around here," Brown said, smiling. "Stanley, he can play at a different speed. He shows signs. He's still learning. I think we've got to be careful. We don't want to anoint him too early. We're pretty talented at that position. He's got a long way to go as far as learning what to do, but he plays at a different gear."
In spite of those big plays, Stoops said UK had been cleaner in its execution earlier in the week, especially in the passing game, but having a crowd in the building added exactly the kind of dynamic Stoops was hoping for.
"I think we need that," Stoops said. "They need to feel that pressure or whatever you want to say to get out here and perform in this stadium and do well."
Sophomore wide receiver Ryan Timmons agrees.
"It gives the team a lot more energy," Timmons said. "The fans are out here watching so everybody wants to make a name for themselves so everybody goes a lot harder. We like the excitement. Can't wait for three weeks."
Those three weeks before UK takes on UT Martin, however, are important.
"Believe me, this team wants to deliver for this fan base," Stoops said. "They've been so loyal, and just can't thank them enough for their support. I promise you, this was not a finished product here today. We're gonna work hard and get better."
Haley Mills with a new friend in Ethiopia. (UK Athletics)
In late July, nine student-athletes -- Bria Goss (women's basketball), Jared Phillips (track/cross country), Charlie Reymann (men's soccer), Montana Whittle (gymnastics), Danielle Fitzgerald (women's soccer), Katrina Keirns (swimming and diving), John Sutton (rifle), Kirsten Lewis (women's tennis), Haley Mills (women's golf) -- participated in the second of two annual service trips to Ethiopia sponsored by UK Athletics. Over the next week, they will take turns sharing their experiences through a series of blog entries. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Today, Haley Mills writes about some inspiring children the student-athletes met on their last full day in Ethiopia.
We started our day like every other morning on our trip which included an early awaking followed by a delicious breakfast. We loaded up in our Toyota Coaster and dodged through the crazy traffic of Addis Ababa.
We first arrived at a little shop to buy a few souvenirs for loved ones back home. We then ventured on to a boys' home called Hope. The owner used to live on the streets of Addis and he was in and out of jail 32 times. After he turned his life around, he started a home for street boys to try and make a difference and change their lives. We introduced ourselves to all the boys and we were overwhelmed the most with their kindness and love, amidst the adversity.
A few of the boys shared their story and I was inspired as I related it back to my life. They had lost their parents and were left with nothing. They were destined to live sad lives as street children, yet these boys did not give up. They were doing everything they could, going to school, making enough money to live, learning English, all the while wrapped in God's will.
One boy told me his dream was to attend the University of Virginia and study psychology. He then went on to explain that he realized it was an impossible goal to reach. This broke my heart because here I am living his dream at UK. We take so much for granted and the events from today will make me think twice when complaining about something in my life. After we played soccer and football with the kids, we had pizza brought to the home for all of us to share. I was shocked when I saw almost half of the boys raise their hands when asked if this was their first time to ever eat pizza. These children have nothing and the joy in their eyes from a simple slice of pizza is truly inspiring.
Later that day we went to dinner at a place called Cupcake Delight. At first everyone thought we were having cupcakes for dinner and there was confusion on all of their faces. I did not think twice about it but the others were thinking about their "performance athlete diet". The restaurant ended up having a full menu and we all enjoyed a fantastic meal together. This was our last full day in Ethiopia and all of us were getting a little sad. We did not want to leave, especially to get on a 17-hour flight. Altogether it was a great day in Addis Ababa and it is one that I will never forget. Today's events left a huge impact on each and every one of us. The boys from Hope were such an inspiration and made me rethink the way I live.
A rendering of the southwest corner of UK football's planned training facility.
Kicking off Kentucky football's annual Media Day, Mitch Barnhart joked he was the warmup act for Mark Stoops, his staff and players.
Fortunately for UK's athletics director, he had some pretty good material of his own.
Barnhart brought with him draft renderings of the new training facility that will house the entire UK football operation.
"We think we'll finish up schematic design later on this fall, and we'll be able to begin the process and get into the construction process," Barnhart said. "So real excited about that and be able to move forward with that."
When completed in 2016, the new facility will cover between 95,000 and 100,000 square feet off the back side of the Nutter Fieldhouse. It will feature three practice fields, a weight room, offices, meeting rooms, a locker room and much more.
"That will give us an opportunity to do some really, really cool, unique things, tying this whole facility and one stop shop, our players in an area where they can get everything they need for the University of Kentucky football in one area," Barnhart said.
Work will begin on the training center while renovations on Commonwealth Stadium are still ongoing. The designs will complement the look and feel of the renovated stadium, complete with Kentucky limestone.
Barnhart and Russ Pear, UK's senior associate athletics director for facilities and operations, have worked closely with Stoops and his staff on the project since plans were approved in late January by the Board of Trustees. Friday was the first time any renderings were shown publicly.
It will still be a couple years before the team moves into its new facility, but the unveiling adds to the momentum built in the 20 months since Stoops arrived in Lexington.
"That makes us excited as a coaching staff, as a football team," Stoops said. "Our players, our recruits, everybody feels the excitement that's going on right now. There's been a great buy-in from the whole state and certainly from our administration."
One of the practice fields at UK football's planned training facility.
Offensive coordinator Neal Brown with quarterbacks Maxwell Smith, Drew Barker, Reese Phillips and Patrick Towles. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops and Neal Brown didn't miss a chance in spring practice to say that UK would be improved at quarterback this season.
Even so, Brown left the four contenders to start at the position with a simple directive during the summer months: improve even more.
"I really wanted to see from the end of April from the spring game until when we started on Monday, was how much (more) they improved fundamentally because I gave them a lot of different things to work on," Brown said.
A week into fall camp, no decision has been made at quarterback. What is clear, however, is that Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips, Drew Barker and Maxwell Smith completed their offseason assignment.
"The guys have really done a nice job," Stoops said at Media Day. "They're better rounded, and I expect them to go out and play well. I think we have good competition there. They're all doing some good things. They're not perfect, but they're much improved."
Towles, to start with, has continued to speed his release, according to Brown. A combination of mental and fundamental work has been the driving force behind that.
"With making decisions, that comes from just understanding the offense," Towles said. "You know the offense better, you know when people are going to come open, you know where people are at. So then it's easier to get the ball out. And then fundamentally, last year my release was too long, so even if I made a quick decision it still might have taken a little bit for the ball to get there. Now my release is quicker and I have a better understanding of the offense to where I'm on time all the time."
Phillips, praised repeatedly as the most consistent quarterback of the bunch, has upped his arm strength. Like Towles, that's due in large part to a team-wide focus on fundamentals.
"My drops have become a lot faster," Phillips said. "With that, I can use my legs more. I don't have to rely on just using my arm."
Along those same lines, Barker has cut down on the mistakes that plagued him in the spring, when he arrived a semester early after graduating high school in December. Even though Barker reported he led the quarterbacks in touchdown passes during spring practice, he also threw the most interceptions.
"In the spring, I was learning something in the meeting room 15, 20 minutes before practice and then I would go out and have to do it against a live SEC defense," Barker said. "Sometimes, to be honest, I wouldn't know what I was doing. This summer, I really sat down and studied the playbook; tried to learn more about defense, coverages, blitzes, stuff like that; and just make better reads and be more confident in my decisions."
Smith, practicing fully every other day, has been more effective throwing the ball over the middle of the field.
"My mindset is just to come out every single day, work as hard as I can, do everything the coaches ask, help the guys around me, not just these quarterbacks, but everybody else, making sure they know what they're doing and make our team as good as we can be," Smith said.
Though Smith -- the veteran of the group -- is committed to helping his team, don't mistake that for a concession. He's out to win this ongoing battle.
"If I didn't have my eyes on the job, I might as well just call it quits now, in my opinion," Smith said. "Of course I've got my eyes on the job. I'm not the kind of person that's just going to lay down and just hand it over, like 'you guys can take it now.' That's not me. That's not who I am."
Smith is wise not to give in because Stoops says the competition remains "wide open," though that figures to change quickly.
Over the first days of practice, coaches avoided turning the intensity in practice up to the highest level due to a study by High Performance coach Erik Korem that revealed more injuries occurring during finals week. With summer classes now over, that will change with a practice on Friday afternoon and two more on Saturday.
"Now we're going to pick up starting this afternoon and do a lot of good on goods, throw our quarterbacks in a lot of different situations," Brown said. "I hope within the next five or seven days, one of those guys (is) going to stand out."
Each of the four quarterbacks hopes to be the one, but they know getting caught up in that will do them no good.
"Every week is a big week," Towles said. "The spring was the biggest spring of my life. Each practice, the next practice is the most important practice. Each play, the next play is the most important play. So I really can't think about two days from now. I gotta think about today. We've got practice at 3. I'm just worried about that."
Brown has done everything in his power to give the quarterbacks plenty to worry about in practice.
"In the spring, I took this approach," Brown said. "We're going to have fun. We're going to enjoy this. Focus on getting better, you individually getting better. ... Now I'm telling them, hey, we're looking for a guy to win the job. Go win the job. Everything that you do during the course of a practice is getting judged. Yeah, you'd better have fun with it, but understand we are keeping score."
With more third-down work, lots of talk and harder coaching, Brown is trying to simulate the pressure whoever wins the job will face on game day.
"I think it's just the intensity from Coach Brown is a lot higher now than it has ever been," Phillips said. "He's an intense person, but at the same time he kind of knows how to keep us relaxed. Now he's not doing that. He's trying to get in our heads. When we do blitz or team, he tries to put in situations to where it's going to be hard and we have to overcome stuff."
Clearly, Brown has no intention of making it to the season opener on Aug. 30 with no quarterback taking hold of the starting position like last season. Stoops, however, won't make a decision until it's appropriate, regardless what happened a year ago.
"Right now it's just too even," Stoops said. "I've said it before, it would be too reckless just to make a decision because I want to make a decision and not answer those questions. I'm not going to do that. It's not fair to the players. It's not fair to our team. It's not fair to the future of our program."