Craig Skinner was visiting with his assistants earlier this week about Kentucky's run of practices leading up to the 2014 season.
There have been up and downs, to be sure, but the coaching staff could find little to complain about in the effort department.
"The coaches kind of said that we really haven't had a day where the concentration and intent to perform wasn't there, and that's fairly unusual because you go so hard for so long and a short period of time that you're bound to have some days where it's not really focused and energetic," Skinner said. "But that hasn't been the case."
If you ask Skinner or the Wildcats themselves, that has a lot to do with a cultural exchange trip to China the team took in May. For two weeks, UK toured the Far East on a journey that combined high-level volleyball, education about the nation they visited and plenty of team bonding.
"It went really well. We played professional teams over there which was even more experience," senior outside hitter Lauren O'Conner said. "It's great that we were able to get experience with the team that we had without the seniors (from the 2013 season) to get even more practice with us and to build the chemistry on the court playing together with a new lineup. So I think it helped out a lot both physically and mentally."
That's especially true on defense.
Given the experience and talent of the opponents they faced in China, the Wildcats learned quickly no points would be given to them. That resulted in some losses, including a 3-0 defeat in their final match with each set being decided after a deuce point, but also a new mentality in practice this August.
"We've talked about how this could be the best defensive team we've had here at Kentucky," Skinner said. "I think part of it is talent, but I think also that it is because all but three of the girls (true freshmen Kaz Brown, Ashley Dusek and Darian Mack) saw firsthand how hard it was to win a rally over there and that you have to work for it."
The Cats won't go up against any teams as veteran as the ones they saw in China, but UK won't get much of a reprieve to start the season or really at any point during the 2014 season. In hosting two tournaments in Memorial Coliseum to start the season, the Cats will go up against three teams that reached last year's NCAA Tournament, including Wichita State in Friday's 6:30 p.m. ET season opener and Elite Eight participant USC next week.
UK will have to do it without Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan, two players honored as All-Americans last season who have since graduated.
"We've had to adapt a little bit, to change our style a little bit and I think our players understand and appreciate that challenge and are certainly embracing it and we're finding new ways," Skinner said. "Now it's just putting all of it to the test when we finally play against outside competition to see if those things have worked."
Even without Billings and Morgan, it's not as if UK is devoid of experience.
The Cats return five of seven starters from last year's team, which reached the tournament for a record ninth season in a row. Leading the way will be O'Conner, senior libero Jackie Napper and setter Morgan Bergren.
"We have a core group of people on the court that are working together," Napper said. "Morgan's a junior, but she's really stepped up to be a leader, as well as other underclassmen and upperclassmen. So together, we all try to figure out what works best with this team, ways to lead others, and ways to bring others on board."
UK's roster features a mix of veterans and players who will look to contribute for the first time, with seven seniors or juniors and five freshmen. Skinner doesn't downplay the importance of experience, but he also doesn't believe it's the most important thing once the ball is served.
"I think in our case, probably the most important thing in all of our athletes is that they're talented and motivated," Skinner said. "So whether they've been here for four years or just beginning, we feel very good about the group of people that we have and now it's about getting on the court Friday and seeing what it's all about for us this year."
At long last, UK's season opener is on the horizon.
After months of work in spring practice, summer conditioning and fall camp, the Wildcats are about to line up across from opponents in different color jerseys. Finally, Mark Stoops' offseason refrain about the progress of his team will be put to the test.
"As I said before throughout this summer, we've improved," Stoops said. "Be interesting to go out there and see how much."
For the first time since 2007, a home crowd will be able to see UK's offseason improvement firsthand in the season opener. The Wildcats will face UT Martin at noon ET on Saturday in Commonwealth Stadium.
"I know our fans are ready to go," Stoops said. "We need to do our part. I know we'll have great support. We need to go out there and start fast and play good football, play with great energy, play with great discipline, make it exciting for the fans."
Opening at home for the first time in seven years and following that with another game in Commonwealth in week two, the Cats have a chance to build some early-season momentum. It's an opportunity Stoops says they can't squander.
"I think it's real important, I do," Stoops said. "I think we need to start fast. We need to go out and play well."
In evaluating that, Stoops will be looking for an accumulation of routine plays, not highlights readymade for SportsCenter.
"We've got to go play well and be consistent," Stoops said. "We're not good enough to make simple mistakes and shoot ourselves in the foot, turn the ball over, things like that obviously."
That's a challenge given how much UK will rely on a number of players who have never been on the field at this level. Seventeen players listed on Kentucky's two-deep depth chart are first-year junior-college transfers or freshmen, including eight true freshmen.
All of them, to this point, have prepared as much as possible in practice and through UK's High Performance program, but there's only so much that can be done.
"Certainly with young guys, some guys are going to go out there for the first time and they're going to exceed our expectations, then some guys will probably have some rough spots here and there, have some mental mistakes, physical mistakes, things like that," Stoops said. "That's why you have to get out there and play. There's no substitution for experience."
As young as this Kentucky team may be, the Wildcats are still in a better spot than they were a year ago. That's why UK won't rely on newcomers quite as much as in 2013.
"We're getting better," Stoops said. "As we get better, it gets harder to beat out some guys for playing time. That's what you want in our program."
Dupree, Smith still drawing raves from Stoops
Stoops isn't normally one to think too far into the future, but he made an exception on Monday.
Asked where he expects senior defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree to go in next spring's NFL Draft, the second-year UK coach didn't hesitate.
"I'd be very shocked if Bud was not a first-round draft pick," Stoops said.
Stoops went on to say that he can envision Dupree going early in the first round if he has the kind of season expected of him. Given Stoops' experience coaching NFL-level talent at Florida State, his opinion has some weight.
"Bud is special," Stoops said. "He has that ability to play standing up. Put his hand in the dirt. He's a pass rusher. He's got instincts. With everybody going to a lot of the 3-4 things, outside backers, versatility, he's a very good player."
Dupree is listed as a strong-side linebacker on the depth chart, but the versatility Stoops appreciates so much will allow him to play plenty at end as well. When he does, he'll line up opposite Za'Darius Smith, who has a professional future of his own.
He and Dupree bypassed the NFL Draft to return for their senior season. Stoops believes they'll improve their draft stock with their decisions, but he knows UK has already benefited from their presence.
"As I said a lot through the offseason, leadership is the first thing that jumps out at you," Stoops said. "But also confidence. Our players see those guys out there, they make plays, are consistent, they're always there. They're great to have."
UT Martin linebacker Bell has UK's attention
With an offseason for UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson to make changes, Stoops knows to expect the unexpected on Saturday.
"They might get out there and try to pressure the heck out of us, or drop," Stoops said. "They've shown both, where they've been conservative and drop eight guys into coverage a bunch, or they can blitz the house and come after you. I imagine we'll see a bit of everything. It will be good for us to see how we prepare and respond to that."
Whatever looks the Skyhawks show, Stoops knows to be on the lookout for Tony Bell. The senior linebacker returns to anchor the UT Martin defense after an All-American season in 2013 in which he tallied 10.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss.
"They have a great defensive player, No. 40, the linebacker, an exceptional player," Stoops said. "He's a really good football player. He can play anywhere in the country. Really like the way he plays." Miller, Cunningham suspended for opener
UK announced on Monday that left tackle Darrian Miller and wide receiver Rashad Cunningham have been suspended for Saturday's season opener for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Both will return for week two.
In Miller's absence, regular right tackle Jordan Swindle will move to the left side and redshirt freshman Kyle Meadows will fill Swindle's spot.
Returning to the lineup after a two-game suspension to close 2013 will be Demarco Robinson. He is listed as a starter at one of four wide receiver spots along with Ryan Timmons, Javess Blue and Joey Herrick. Robinson will also share punt-returning duties with Timmons.
The calendar read Friday, but the action on the field at the Nutter Training Facility said otherwise.
With fall camp nearing its conclusion and UK's season opener in barely a week, the Wildcats shifted their attention to preparing for UT Martin.
"We had a normal what would be a Tuesday of game week this week to get that ironed out, and it was good work," Mark Stoops said. "It was good to wrap it up. Players will be done for the rest of the day, get to relax a little bit and get their feet up underneath them."
A typical Tuesday practice includes some team work along with work for the offense and defense against the opposing scout team. According to UK's offensive coordinator, the Wildcats took well to the shift away from the grind they've become accustomed to this month.
"We had really our first day against the scout team look today and I thought we had really good energy for a hot, muggy day, which was encouraging," Neal Brown said. "I think guys are excited about getting into game prep. Had a kind of a little jog through yesterday, but our focus was good. Made some mistakes but overall thought it was a positive day."
Not only was the day positive, it was also full of news.
On the injury front, Stoops announced that Alex Montgomery (recovery from knee surgery) and Jeff Badet (eye) will miss UK's season opener. Badet is improving after injuring his eye in practice catching tennis balls, but will be out at least the first two weeks of the season. Outside of those two sophomore wide receivers, Stoops expects UK to be at full strength on Aug. 30.
Full strength for the Wildcats includes at least nine freshmen. Stoops said on Friday that defensive tackle Matt Elam, defensive back Kendall Randolph, wide receivers Blake Bone, Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams and running backs Stanley "Boom" Williams and Mikel Horton will all play week one.
Perhaps the biggest surprises in the group are the two running backs, as UK has veterans Braylon Heard, Jojo Kemp and Josh Clemons at their position. Brown, however, in detailing why he expects the Wildcat offense to improve this season, made it clear there will be ample carries to go around.
"The biggest difference is right now on offense, running back is our deepest position," Brown said. "My job is to get the ball to our best players, and right now, several of our top playmakers are at that running back position."
The plan for the remaining freshmen is to redshirt them if circumstances permit. But aware of how quickly things can change, they will all prepare to play, including quarterback Drew Barker.
"I think that would be in his best interest and our best interest," Stoops said of redshirting Barker. "We'll see how that goes. He will prepare to play in a backup role, and if we can save him through the season that's what we'd like to do."
Tyler Ulis led UK with 12 points in a 63-62 loss to the Dominican Republic on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a stretch the likes of which Kentucky will never face again.
Six games. Eight days. Three opponents with rosters comprised of established professionals.
Playing the final leg of their Big Blue Bahamas Tour, the Wildcats finally showed the effects of what ESPN analyst Jay Bilas equated to playing two Southeastern Conference Tournaments back to back.
"We kind of died," Calipari said. "We didn't have it physically."
Through 31 minutes, UK successfully battled through that fatigue. But over the final 8:48, the Cats watched a 59-46 lead disappear little by little. Shots they made over their first five games in the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas didn't fall. Loose balls they grabbed before went to the Dominican Republic national team. In the end, the Dominicans avenged a Friday defeat and UK fell 63-62 after shooting 39.7 percent from the field and being outrebounded 38-34.
Jack Michael Martinez made the game-winning basket on a fall-away jumper with 2.6 seconds left. There was still time for last-second heroics like what Aaron Harrison delivered in the NCAA Tournament five months ago, but the Cats couldn't overcome their tired legs with the kind of execution they needed as Karl-Anthony Town's pass to Harrison was deflected away.
"You saw when we had to execute, we weren't able to," Calipari said. "When we had to get ball movement, we don't have enough in. When we needed out-of-bounds plays to score, we don't have anything in."
In other words, UK executed like a team that's only been together for a handful of August practices.
In the final minutes, John Robic -- filling in for Calipari, who watched from the stands for the fifth straight games -- scrapped the two-platoon system in favor of a lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee and Karl Towns. Absent was Alex Poythress, who was on the bench for most of the second half and played only 12 minutes total.
"He was exhausted," Calipari said. "I told him before the game, with the way he played yesterday, play five minutes today. Play 10 minutes today. Don't go out there and not play. Don't hurt your team. Just don't play. We've got other guys that want to play. So he was tired. He just pulled himself, which was fine."
Poythress, showcasing what Robic called a "rebuilt engine" yet again, expended the last of his energy in scoring all six of his points in the first half. He accounted for all but two points as the starting five were outscored 16-8 by the Dominicans in the first half.
Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Lee and Towns, however, provided a spark off the bench. After the Dominicans used a 14-3 run to claim a 24-17 lead, the Cats' so-called second unit turned UK's largest deficit of the week into a 36-29 halftime lead when Ulis buried a buzzer-beating runner.
Ulis scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half in leading the second group to a 28-13 margin in its first half minutes, playing the kind of pesky defense and sound offense that has Coach Cal thinking he has two very capable point guards.
"He was good," Calipari said. "He was good. You want him to make every play, but Andrew was terrific. Andrew's game yesterday was unbelievable. I mean, what he did yesterday - so you've got two guys."
And that's just at one position.
The Cats have tantalized their fans with depth on the Big Blue Bahamas Tour, sending waves of talented, athletic players at opponents. Sunday's result shed some additional light on what that depth means as players compete for roles and playing time.
"The lesson I told them that you walk away from (is) there's no birthright to be on that court," Calipari said. "You've got to play with energy and you've got to compete. If you don't, you're not playing. Either your group won't play as much or you won't play as much. It's just how it is.
"So there's no like, 'Well, today I'm not going to play and I'm still getting 20 minutes.' No. 'Well, I'm still getting--' No. You may get five minutes. And then you've got to bring it. This was the first game where we had guys with no competitive spirit, but it's easy to say (that with) six games in eight days. It was a tough run."
A tough run, but an undisputedly good one, even after it ended in defeat.
In planning the trip, Calipari had a different set of goals than most coaches who take teams on foreign tours. Television forced him to compress the schedule and placed some added stress on his team, but Calipari still got what he wanted.
"Most teams are using this for 10 days of practice," Calipari said. "Don't care who they play, don't care if they (win). Well, they don't care if they win or lose until they lose. Then it matters. But we needed it for more. I needed professional-level teams. I needed men. I needed experienced, physical guys that knew how to play."
Those grown men revealed plenty to Calipari about his team. He learned he has a well-conditioned group. He saw his highly touted freshman class is as advertised. But more than anything else, he found out his team is unselfish.
"I think they share the ball," Calipari said. "They've figured out how to share the ball more than any team I've had this early. Where most guys, you got ball stoppers trying to do their thing, trying to figure out who they are, versus move it, get it and make plays for each other. When we do that, we're real good. When we don't do that, we're like everybody else. So this team has picked it up pretty good."
UK got plenty done off the floor too.
Through three dominant performances, the Cats heard the hype and they began to grasp what it would mean. They listened as Bilas warned them against succumbing to the pressure pundits will place on them in picking apart roles and rotations. Most importantly, they were simply around each other.
"Well they got closer together," Calipari said. "There was great time that we could spend talking about different things that we're going to encounter this year, and we had the time to do it. There were some lessons and some different things. But they spent a lot of time together, so it was both spending time, vacation, but we played six games in eight days -- and against grown men, which was a great challenge for us."
With that experience in hand, the Cats have a much more solid grasp on the task facing them when they reconvene for practice this fall with a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles.
"This was a great run of games and experiences for these young people," Calipari said.
Tyler Ulis had 12 points, including the game-clinching layup off of a steal, in UK's win on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - The Big Blue Bahamas beatdowns ended in Kentucky's second game against Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, but as far as UK is concerned, everyone went home a winner Saturday.
The fans got a close contest in the Bahamas for the first time in five games, UK got its victory, and on a trip that's supposed to be about learning, John Calipari found out in a 75-71 nail-biting win that his team still has the same heart and the same late-game toughness that defined the Cats during their magical 2014 postseason run.
"We actually needed a test," said assistant coach Barry "Slice" Rohrssen. "This was good for us. We're learning a lot about our team. And maybe as important, they're learning a lot about themselves. This was a game that we needed."
Entrenched in a back-and-forth battle, freshman point guard Tyler Ulis sealed the Cats' fifth victory in five tries with a steal and layup with 1:08 left on the clock.
The diminutive point guard, who gave up at least a few inches and several pounds to Lionel Chalmers, hounded the Champagne point guard as he brought the ball with just over a minute left and Kentucky clinging to a 75-72 lead.
Chalmers appeared to get visibly frustrated when he crossed half court and no foul was called, but Ulis never backed off. Instead of relaxing and resetting, Ulis, like a defensive pest, got on Chalmers' backside, made him dribble to his right, and out went Chalmers' legs.
By the time Chalmers looked up from the court he had just slipped on, Ulis was halfway to the other basket, racing by himself to an easy layup and another UK victory. The play earned a standing ovation from Calipari in the bleachers.
"That's what he does," Rohrssen said. "He wears you down. He's got quick feet and a big heart."
Ulis finished the game with 12 points, three assists and two steals. The quickly emerging fan favorite -- who wasn't available after the game for an interview -- ensured the Cats will finish their study abroad trip in the Bahamas with an opportunity to go undefeated.
"He's going up against somebody that has a lot more games under his belt, but Tyler has a big heart and he made a big play," Rohrssen said.
Rohrssen, who made his head-coaching debut for UK as Calipari continued to watch and evaluate from the stands, made the decision to keep Ulis in the game when he went away from the two-platoon system with only a few minutes left and the Cats leading by just a few points. Ulis stayed in with Marcus Lee when the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson re-entered the game
The gut move by Rohrssen turned out to be the right one.
"I actually didn't want to get voted off the island tonight, you know?" said Rohrssen, who left Pittsburgh for Kentucky in May. "But we thought maybe we'll just go with some experience and some people that have been in some situations like that before. Again, we're finding out about ourselves. We thought that the substitutions that we did make gave us the right lineup and put us in the best position at the end of a close game."
UK found itself in a close game for the first time during its exhibition tour in Nassau, Bahamas. After winning its four previous games by an average of 23.8 points, including a 23-rout of this same Champagne team on Tuesday, the Cats could never pull away in this one.
They led by as many as nine points in the first half and by eight in the second, but the first-division professional team from France was up for the challenge on Saturday and appeared bent on getting a little retribution.
Champagne, which featured a monster game from former Syracuse star Daryl Watkins (20 points) and a solid supporting performance from former LSU forward Tasmin Mitchell (11 points, seven rebounds), actually led 44-43 at halftime. It was the first time UK had trailed at half during the exhibition tour and, quite frankly, the only time during the trip the Cats had fell behind outside the first few minutes of the game.
"When you play somebody again so quickly and the result that we had in the first game, you don't want their pride to beat any arrogance we may have. We needed to guard against that," Rohrssen said. "The team we played today, even though they had the same roster, was actually a different team. Everybody in the building saw that. They've had some more practices, they had a lot more offensive actions and sets than they ran the other day, and they came out with a bit of a chip on their shoulder, which you would expect men - grown men - to do."
Some of it, too, could be attributed to playing five games in seven days. The Cats were slow to get started, turning the ball over four times in the first four minutes. They also allowed Champagne to shoot 73.1 percent in the first half because of eight turnovers and shaky transition defense.
"That is a lot of games in a very short period of time for us, but there's a reason why this trip is set up the way it is," Rohrssen said. "We knew before we got on that plane that we had six games to play, so there aren't going to be any excuses on our part. Excuses are just bricks that build a road to failure. ... We're not laying those bricks down right now."
UK appeared to be taking control of the game when it went on a 9-0 run midway through the first half, but Champagne clawed within two and never let Kentucky get any more than six points ahead the rest of the way as the two teams traded shot for shot.
Ultimately, Kentucky held on thanks to Ulis' big play.
"He stayed yard for yard, foot for foot, inch for inch and disrupted their offense and turned it into a turnover for them and an easy basket for him and a score that we needed at the end," Rohrssen said.
UK got big contributions down the stretch from Aaron Harrison (team-high 15 points), Andrew Harrison (11 points, seven assists) and Devin Booker (10 points). Booker, who entered the game just 6 for 23 from the floor on the trip, hit two of his three 3-point shots Saturday.
"Almost like (riding) a bicycle," Rohrssen said. "You get knocked off the bike and you just got to get back on that bike and start pedaling again. It was good to see him have some more success today, as we go forward and prepare for our final game of this trip tomorrow."
Cauley-Stein, Lyles close to returning
UK big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, who have sat out the entire Bahamas trip while they recover from offseason procedures, are close to getting back on the court.
Cauley-Stein told reporters after Saturday's game that he's one CT scan away from rejoining competition.
"They say I'm cleared now, but they want to check the CT scan to see if everything healed up correctly and everything else," Cauley-Stein said. "But probably in the next week."
Lyles said he's about two weeks behind Cauley-Stein.
"Me as a competitor, it's very hard (not to play)," Lyles said. "But I'm just doing everything in my capability to get back out there as soon as possible. And it's just fun to see everybody coming together as a squad and just thinking that in a couple weeks I'll be out there with them and battle with them."
It doesn't take a medical expert or a physical trainer to figure out they're close to 100 percent.
Both players have been arriving at Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium before their teammates to get some workouts in with some of the coaching staff. Lyles was working on his jumper before Saturday's game and looked to have good lift, while Cauley-Stein has been throwing down dunks during his work with assistant coach Kenny Payne.
"They're probably chomping at the bit to get out there, and not just to be a part of this, but just to - as their career continues and grows -- they want to be out there," Rohrssen said. "And I'm sure there's some anxiousness there. But again, you have to do what's best for the athletes, and right now it's best for them to sit this dance out."
With how well the rest of the team has played so far, the one lingering question that will come from this week in the Bahamas is where Cauley-Stein and Lyles fit in to the two-platoon system.
"All I can do is play as hard as I can and do what I do best and take care of what I can control, and the outcome of that - Coach decides who gets minutes and who doesn't and who comes off the bench and who starts," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein thinks the two-platoon system can continue to work with he and Lyles in the mix.
"It's pretty genius to have, especially when you have three starting lineups you could put in," he said. "It doesn't matter who starts in it, because at the end of the day you're going to get the same amount of minutes and you're going to get the same amount of touches as everybody else. ... If we're going to have energy like that during the season, then you might as well keep it."
Days after the UK offense had one of its best days of Mark Stoops' time in Lexington on Wednesday, the Wildcats returned to Commonwealth Stadium for the second scrimmage of fall camp.
Calling passes on the majority of plays on Saturday, the goal was clear: gauging the progress of UK's air attack.
"I wanted to see where we are with the quarterbacks," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I wanted to see where we are as far as the receivers getting open. We did some good things. We got some growth to make in that area for sure and I think that's going to be a big part of us improving on third downs: being able to protect, throw and catch."
The results, before film review, were mostly positive.
"I thought we improved in predictable pass situations," Stoops said. "That's the best we've looked as far as drop-back passing. So I thought we made some improvement there."
Tight ends Steven Borden and Ronnie Shields each caught touchdowns, according to Brown, while Ryan Timmons, Rashad Cunningham and Dorian Baker impressed in the downfield passing game. Timmons, however, knows consistency is more important than big plays to the offense's development.
"That's what the offense needs to do to make drives and put a lot of continuous plays together to score more points," Timmons said. "I think the offense, we're working a lot to try to make more consistent plays."
UK's contenders to start at quarterback split time as they have throughout fall camp.
"Again, they all did some good things and did some bad things," Stoops said. "So, we'll get in there today and evaluate this film and evaluate the past couple weeks and see where we're at."
Brown, who has been quiet about the quarterbacks since Media Day last week, gave some insight into what he and Stoops will look for in evaluating that film.
"I want to see who manages our tempo," Brown said. "There's a lot of things that go into that as far as getting the signal, getting us going. ... Different quarterbacks operate our offense different as far as how quick they get the signal, communicate it with the O-line and those type of things. I want to see who makes the best decision, especially on crucial downs, third downs. And I want to see who's most accurate."
After Wednesday's scrimmage, Stoops said a decision on a starter would come "in the next week." On Saturday, Stoops said nothing to suggest that timetable has changed, but he also reasserted that he won't make a choice prematurely.
"If we're ready, if we feel like we have a decision after that, then we'll make an announcement," Stoops said. "If we don't, then we'll wait. I'm not going to feel rushed by that. We've got to get it right. I think each quarterback has really shown that they're capable of leading this offense."
The quarterback battle has drawn the spotlight in fall camp, but UK's defense -- the "Bad Boys," as the group has taken to calling itself -- shouldn't be forgotten either. The backups have work to do, but the defensive first team -- led by defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith -- was stout on Saturday.
"I think they just play faster," D.J. Eliot said. "They communicate better. They execute more. And sometimes on the twos, it may be just one person that doesn't execute, but that messes the whole deal up. So if you can get 11 guys doing it right, then you got a chance to be successful."
With two weeks to go before UK's season opener, Stoops feels better about his team's chances at success than he has in 20 months on the job.
"We're much further along," Stoops said. "They've been really good about going about their work and just trying to take care of business each day and get better and be fundamentally better. X's and O's, schematically we're doing a lot of things better. We still have a ways to go, but I like where we're at. I really do. I think we have a good group."
As good as the group is, the Cats could use a break from the grind of fall camp.
"Guys need to get away a little bit," Brown said. "I told them, I said, 'Hey, don't even think about football until I see you tomorrow afternoon.' "
Dakari Johnson had 10 points and 12 rebounds in UK's win over the Dominican Republic on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - This was supposed to the best competition Kentucky would face in the Bahamas, a step up in talent and the stiffest test yet for the loaded Wildcats. After all, it was the Dominican Republic national team, ranked No. 26 in the FIBA world rankings (though those rankings are with NBA veteran Al Horford and current Wildcat Karl-Anthony Towns).
But just like the first two opponents UK played in its previous three games on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, Kentucky took the Dominicans' best shot early in the first half Friday and then ran away with things in the second half.
Platoon after platoon, player after player, wave after wave, the Cats just wore out the professionals and broke them down.
When it was all said and done, despite an entertaining and back-and-forth first 15 minutes and a late comeback attempt, UK wiped another opponent off the floor Friday at the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas.
Former UK assistant coach Orlando Antigua, who was on the other end of Friday's 83-71 Kentucky win as the Dominican Republic national team head coach, was impressed at how far along his former team is.
"They've kept it going from how we ended (last) year," Antigua said. "Obviously the chemistry, the knowing one another, knowing the expectation from the coaches, all those things early on in a season ... they already have. They're on step five instead of step one or two, which is what we had to (start with) the past few years."
For the fourth game in the Bahamas, UK combated professional experience with an overwhelming amount of talent, depth, dunks and Alex Poythress.
The junior forward continued his best string as a college player with arguably his best game yet. In just 20 minutes of action, he posted a game-high-tying 20 points, five rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block.
On a team that's shined from top to bottom, he's shined the brightest.
"That is the reason I came back: I want to prove I'm still one of the best," Poythress said. "I'm just trying to show the world."
Poythress wasted little time in making an impact Friday, scoring six points in the opening five minutes as the Cats took a 14-9 lead. His bucket at the 8:50 mark ignited a 7-0 UK run, but the Dominicans, as expected with a talent-loaded roster that features a much-improved Eloy Vargas, NBA veteran Francisco Garcia, Edgar Sosa and Jack Michael Martinez, hung around early.
When Sosa cut UK's lead to 34-30 on a steal and a layup with 6:20 left in the first half, it appeared everyone was in for the first close game of the week. But Poythress stepped up again.
The catalyst of a 13-6 run at the end of the half, Poythress threw down a dunk and followed it with a 3-pointer to give the Cats a little halftime separation.
"What's different is just his whole mindset," teammate Dakari Johnson said of Poythress. "He's more in attack mode. Whenever he gets it he's looking to attack more and also he's just playing to his strength. He's just increasing on that."
Dakari Johnson was in attack mode as well on Friday.
The Dominicans elected not to double team the 255-pound big man to start the game, and they paid for it dearly. Though he's leaner this season, Johnson still threw his weight around Friday, scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds by the first media timeout.
"I felt like Dakari set the tone," said assistant coach Kenny Payne, who served as UK's head coach for the second time in three games as John Calipari evaluated from the stands. "I thought he did a good job in the post. I thought he played well down there. He's tough to deal with, and if you're not going to trap him, I mean, he's really hard to deal with."
Johnson slowed down as the game wore on, but he still ended up with 10 points and 12 rebounds, his first double-double of the trip. He looks slimmer, more athletic and poised to have a big sophomore campaign.
"It's just been great," Johnson said of the trip so far. "Just the balance and the overall team, everybody contributing and everybody doing their job and playing their roles, it's been really fun for all of us."
Johnson said he's been motivated to step his game up by the superb play of freshman Karl-Anthony Towns. With those two, Marcus Lee and the eventual additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, UK looks to have the most formidable front line in college basketball.
"We've got so many different, legitimate players that it's very difficult to find out, who are you going to take away?" Payne said.
It was Lee's turn to contribute to start the second half.
The dunking specialist started the half with two straight slams, one of which he caught on a lob, cocked back with his right hand and then flushed in the basket with authority. He finished the game with eight points, all on dunks, and his last 10 field goals over the last two games have all been slams.
"His energy is what is important for us," Payne said. "We need his energy. He's an energetic player. That's his personality and that's what he brings to the table."
Lee's back-to-back dunks sparked a 9-0 run to start the second half, all but putting the game out of reach for the Dominicans.
"The first five minutes of the second half, which they've done in every one of their other games, they get that separation," Antigua said. "Then you're swimming upstream after that."
The Dominicans fought upstream in the second half and nearly made a game out of it with an 8-0 run. They got as close as 12 several times with time remaining and then 10 in the final few seconds, but they could never get it back to single digits.
"We did not dictate the pace of the game defensively and they outrebounded us," Payne said. "They only had two bigs, so that says a lot right there. We've been outrebounding teams by 20-plus. ... Some of this could have been attributed to the two days off. They were maybe a bit rusty, but at the end of the day we got the W. They played OK, not great."
And yet, UK won by double digits, beating another professional team - its best competition yet - by double digits. That has to say something.
"I think it says a lot when you're playing grown men opposed to other college kids," Payne said. "The fact that that team was full of NBA players and European players says a lot."
Karl-Anthony Towns is second on the team in points and rebounds through three games of UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASSAU, Bahamas - Karl-Anthony Towns' credentials entering the Big Blue Bahamas trip were pretty good.
He was arguably the gem of the 2014 recruiting class, a top-10 prospect and the newly minted Gatorade Male High School Athlete of the Year. Most NBA analysts have him listed as a top-five pick for the 2015 draft.
That's not to say anyone expected Towns to play like he has thus far in the Bahamas.
The 6-foot-11, 250-pound forward has looked dominant at times against older, professional competition. Highlighted by an 19-point, 10-rebound performance in game two of the exhibition tour against Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a first-division professional team from France, Towns is averaging 13.0 points and 7.7 rebounds in three games in the Bahamas.
Assistant coach John Robic admitted surprise in how far along Towns is at this stage in his career.
"I really didn't know how gifted of a scorer he is," Robic said. "He has to get stronger, but his skill level is really, really high for a young, young man. And he really hasn't shot the ball well, and that's one thing that he can do. But he can score in a variety of ways and he's just going to be a big piece for us."
Coming to Kentucky, Towns was billed as a skilled big man who could shoot, but he hadn't necessarily earned a reputation as a back-to-the-basket, put-a-shoulder-into-the-defender post player.
Analysts can now officially tear up those scouting reports.
Against physical professionals, Towns has mixed it up with the biggest players UK's two opponents have had to offer, even getting into a dust-up with Matt Lopez in Tuesday's game against the Puerto Rico national team reserves.
That was after, in a team film session after the first game, John Calipari criticized Towns for looking for his outside too much. In that first game, though Towns only took two 3-point shots, missing both, he roamed the perimeter too much. Calipari got on him for taking too many treys during warm-ups instead of going inside and working on his strongest part of game.
"He has a tendency to want to be a perimeter big, but 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," assistant coach Kenny Payne said.
Towns got the message and has worked almost exclusively inside the last two games. He's 15 for 21 from 2-point range so far, including three dunks on Tuesday.
"What he brings to this team is super because we need big, long, energetic, skilled guys that can dictate what we're trying to do," Payne said.
Having said all that, Towns said not to sleep on his outside shooting.
"I think that my size sometimes deceives people," Towns said. "I think people don't give me as much credit for the perimeter, but that's just our little advantage that we have." Poythress not letting up
As his head coach sat alongside ESPNU's Kevin Connors and Jay Bilas during a segment of UK's second-half rout of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Alex Poythress continued what he had been doing all week and threw down a dunk.
"Who is that kid?" Calipari exclaimed on air.
It's a good question, Coach. It certainly isn't the same inconsistent player fans have watched play during his first two seasons at Kentucky.
Poythress has always shown signs of brilliance during his two seasons at Kentucky. He's been a highlight machine at times, but the flashes always seemed to burn out just as quickly as they flared up.
Three games definitely isn't big enough of a sample size to draw conclusions about Poythress' consistency issues, but there is something to be said about being the most consistent and most dominant player on a team that has shown few weaknesses from top to bottom so far.
Poythress, who has drawn rave reviews from different members of the coaching staff after each game, drew another shower of compliments from his head coach while he was on ESPNU on Tuesday.
"The best thing he's doing right now, obviously offensive rebounding," said Calipari, who added that he still wants to try Poythress more at the three position. "But defensively he's never played this way. He's never been able to that active, stay in front of his man, block shots, doing the things he's doing right now."
Poythress is leading the team in points (13.7) and rebounds (8.0) in the Bahamas, but his motor, which Robic compared to a rebuilt engine, has been the most impressive.
"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," Robic said. "He's playing above the rim by himself a lot of times, and we've been telling him that for three years."
No cracks yet
If there's a reason above all others for all the Big Blue Nation pandemonium over this team's play in the Bahamas, it's that it's shown relatively few signs of weaknesses. There aren't a lot of cracks.
But, as Bilas said during a talk with the team Wednesday night, fissures will eventually appear. As Bilas told the Cats, cracks will show with every basketball team, and those cracks will be magnified more so at Kentucky than at any other school because of the spotlight on the program.
It will be up to the players to internally filter that noise, or clutter, as Calipari calls it, out.
"What can you stop you from accomplishing what your goals are?" Bilas asked the team. "It's a lack of togetherness. I think you really have to be tough-minded and mentally tough to stay together throughout the course of a difficult season. You have, truthfully, more obstacles that most teams have because of the spotlight that's on you and every camera is on you. Throughout the course of the year, with the coverage now, you're going to be talked about as much, if not more than any team in the country and arguably in team in the last 20 years.
"As your season goes along, there are going to be people like me, in my job ... we're going to talk about how good it can be. Then we're going to talk about how good you are. Then, people are going to get bored with that and we're going to start talking about, how can you beat Kentucky? Then they're going to start talking about, what are their weaknesses? And they're going to start hammering. And instead of what you're really good at it, we will start hammering little things."
Bilas said that consistent hammering will inevitably result in cracks that may exist and even some that may not.
"We're going to be armchair quarterbacks and start talking about your team when the truth is we don't know," Bilas told the players. "We think, and that's fine; we all have opinions. But we don't know. The people who know are in here. Keeping that at the forefront of your mind is a big deal."
Coach Cal, who said on air with ESPNU that he's been pleasantly surprised with the ball movement and admitted that this team could be as deep as he's ever had, echoed Bilas' warning and gave the UK fan base similar advice.
"This could be special," Calipari said on the UK/IMG radio broadcast. "But you know what? They've got to be mentally tough enough to not be sabotaged. And the sabotaging will not come from within; it's going to come from outside. And for our fans, don't buy into it. Don't you buy into it. Don't you buy. Don't talk about it. Understand what they're trying to do. It ain't going to crack me because you people know I'm like - you ain't moving me at all. But don't let it move anybody else." Playing Ulis and Andrew Harrison together
Part of that sabotaging Calipari has alluded to is a storyline the UK coach feels like is already being manufactured in the media: How do two point guards like Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis, both of whom have been highly productive in the Bahamas, play together and co-exist?
Calipari answered that question with another question: Why can't they play together?
"Andrew is so much better than he was a year ago," Calipari said on the radio. "Now, you'll have some people trying to break down the team saying, 'Well, Tyler Ulis, he should ...' That's just because you have an agenda. Andrew Harrison has been playing his butt off. Tyler, think about it, we're always going to have a point guard in like that? And, what if I want to play them together some? It's late in the game and we need another handler and another free throw. Now they're both in there together."
Both point guards have put up similar stats thus far - Harrison is averaging 6.0 points and 5.0 assists in the Bahamas; Ulis 5.0 points and 4.0 assists - but they have different styles.
Harrison is a big guard at 6-6 who can, as Calipari described, "bully" opponents, while Ulis is a jitterbug with a penchant for putting his teammates in the right spot to score the ball.
"He's going to give it to you in a place you can score," Coach Cal said. "You know what your team does? Everybody runs like crazy because you think you're going to get the ball. Andrew is doing the same now."
Next up: the Dominicans
After winning three games in three days by an average of 28.0 points, the Cats are expected to face their stiffest test yet when they play the Dominican Republic national team on Friday at 1 p.m. on the SEC Network.
The Dominicans lost to Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket in an exhibition on Wednesday, but Calipari says the Cats will have their hands full.
"That team is a little different," Calipari said on the radio. "They're really good. It's going to be interesting."
The Dominican Republic matchup features a number of storylines for Kentucky. For one, Calipari coached the team for two seasons. Two, former assistant Orlando Antigua is now the head coach. And then there will be familiar faces on both sides of the ball. Former Wildcat Eloy Vargas plays for the Dominicans, as do former Cardinals Francisco Garcia and Edgar Sosa. Towns is also usually a Dominican team member.
With a step up in competition, Calipari is expected to return to the sideline Friday and resume his head-coaching duties.
"I'm going to take the next one on the chin for the staff."
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."