Demarco Robinson - 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 - is UK's leading returning receiver. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
Competition, according to every coach in America, is a good thing on the practice field.
It brings the best out of everyone involved and, when game day comes, assures that everyone will have worked for their spots.
For Kentucky's wide receivers at spring practice, competition is no issue. On any given day, there's no guessing which of the targets on the outside will look the best.
UK's coaches don't want to see the competition stop, but they'd like to see that latter trend end soon.
"We have a lot of guys kind of clumped together right now," wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord said. "I'm still looking for that guy to sort of take ownership of the position and say, 'Hey, this is mine.' "
Through 10 practices of spring ball, the player who has come the closest to grabbing hold of a starting position and not letting go is Demarco Robinson. The junior is UK's leading returning receiver with 28 catches for 297 yards in 2012 and has drawn the most consistent praise from Mark Stoops and the rest of the UK coaching staff. But even he is being asked to raise his game.
"Demarco, he needs to be a big-time player for us," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "This football team needs him to be a playmaker. And he's never been asked to be in that role, so it's a little bit different."
Robinson has never produced at the college level in that way, but Brown wouldn't be asking if he didn't believe Robinson could do it.
"He's a talented guy," Brown said. "He can run. He can stick his foot in the ground. He can get open. He understands the passing game."
For the rest of the receiving corps, understanding remains an obstacle.
In discussing the installation of Brown's fast-paced attack, the quarterbacks are the ones most often referred to as facing a significant learning curve. But as the weeks of spring practice wear on, it's becoming clear just how much is required of the wide outs.
In his post-practice comments, Stoops has singled out dropped passes as an issue among the wide receivers. As physical a problem as that may seem, its root is very much mental in the estimation of Mainord.
"A lot of it is head-spinning," Mainord said. "That's a lot of our guys. They're heads are spinning still. Maybe they're not grasping the offense as well; maybe they're not playing as fast as they need to play."
The coaches are doing everything they can on the practice field to address that, but they are very much limited by the NCAA rulebook. As much as Mainord and Brown would like to be on the practice field and in the film room with their players for hours on end, they are only allotted limited time. For that reason, it's on a young group of receivers that lacks a single senior to make up for that.
"You can't do it in the time we're allotted by the NCAA," Mainord said. "A lot of these guys gotta get in here and put some time into it on their own, get in there and study on their own on the computer. Everybody's a little bit independent, everybody's got different issues."
Mainord and Brown - who coached together at Texas Tech for the last three seasons - are giving their pupils the tools they need, starting with software that allows for detailed viewing of film of the Red Raider attack, one of the nation's most prolific over the last three years.
"They've got to be mature enough to get up there and do it," Mainord said. "They've got to get up there and do it on their own and say, 'Hey this is what I want to do and I want to be this great.' And some of them are doing that. Some of those guys are doing that; it just hasn't clicked yet. They'll get there."
In five starts last season, Daryl Collins showed flashes of the kind of skillset needed to excel in this new offense. He admits it hasn't been an easy transition, but now has an idea of the level of detail Brown is asking Collins and his teammates to grasp.
"Learning frontside and backside (routes) what you gotta do," Collins said. "You can't just know the frontside and on the backside because you'll mess up and you'll hear it from Coach Brown."
Along with DeMarcus Sweat, A.J. Legree and Rashad Cunningham, Collins is one of four sophomores looking to emerge in the new offense. The youth of the unit makes the growing pains understandable, but it hasn't diminished excitement over what they group will be able to do on opening day.
"We're very eager to get started," Collins said. "I can't wait for the first game to show out the new offense. They say it's the Air Raid, so that's pretty much what we're going to do: put the ball in the air."
True as that sentiment may be, it also ignores an aspect of Brown's offense that often goes unrecognized. Playing wide receiver at UK these days is about a lot more than running and catching and running some more.
"We ask them to block," Brown said. "We're asking these guys to be physical blockers. That's the thing that I was probably most proud of our guys last year at Texas Tech: Our wide outs, they punished people. If you watched us play or you talked to the people we played against, that's one of the first things they're going to talk about, how physical our receivers (were)."
According to Brown, UK's wide receivers and tight ends are "not even close" to where they need to be in terms of physical play. The coaches are demanding the Wildcats be much more willing to embrace the yeoman's work when it comes to blocking, and the same goes for pass catching.
"We need steady. ... We need guys to make routine plays," Brown said. "If they make a great one every once and awhile, that's fine, but I want guys that when the ball is thrown to them they catch it."
Audrey Harrison and her teammates will look to advance to the NCAA Championships with a top-two finish at the Morgantown regional. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After the Kentucky gymnastics team suffered a setback to its historical season with an eighth-place finish at the Southeastern Conference Championships, head coach Tim Garrison hasn't done very much coaching.
Yes, that sounds alarming. No, it's not as bad as it sounds. It, in all likelihood, is the best thing for UK gymnastics right now.
"I've done less coaching since that meet than I have at any point in the season prior to that, which is great," said Garrison of practice since SECs. "If I'm doing less coaching, that means they're doing more on their own. So I love that."
The Wildcats have responded, even if it's just in the practice gym. They've taken ownership of what happened in Little Rock, Ark., that day and have tried to get back to their old ways.
Confidence heading into the championships was at an all-time high for the Wildcat gymnasts, but the environment and the big stage may have been more of a factor than they had expected.
"I just think it just kind of fell apart a little bit," said junior Kayla Hartley. "I think nerves has a lot to do with is and going up on platform and not being used to it and not really knowing what to expect and how to adjust to being in that big of arena."
Kentucky wasn't sharp in warm-ups, and it showed in its first event. From there, it all kind of snowballed. A team that's been so used to getting off to solid starts for the majority of the season saw the opposite effect take place last weekend.
That led to Kentucky's second-lowest point total of the season as UK finished in eighth place with a 194.6, a surprising and disappointing performance.
"I was pretty surprised because we've been doing so awesome and going 196 four times in a row," said junior Audrey Harrison. "We were expecting to do it again, so it was surprising."
Kentucky would have loved to put up a huge score at SECs heading into the regional selections. It would have boosted its regional qualifying score as well as given Kentucky a full head of steam heading into NCAAs. Though the Wildcats couldn't accomplish those goals, there is still one big goal out there, one that they've had their sights set on from the beginning of the season: Nationals.
Kentucky was selected as the No. 4 seed for the Morgantown, W. Va., regional which is set for 6 p.m. ET Saturday on the campus of West Virginia. They will join top-seeded Michigan, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Illinois, No. 5 West Virginia, and No. 6 North Carolina.
Saturday evening, Kentucky looks to be one of the top two teams in the regional advancing to Los Angeles, Calif., for the NCAA Championships, even if no one else does.
"We're not expected to make it. Other people aren't expecting us to make it," Garrison said. "But we're expecting to be the spoiler. That's what we're trying to do. That's kind of where we are."
The regional provides another chance, and UK's last chance, to prove to everyone how far this team has come. But the Wildcats have to get back to being themselves in order for that to take place.
"I feel like there is a chip on our shoulder," said Hartley. "We just really want to go out there. SECs was a mess-up. This is our do-over and this is what we're going to do, and we're just going to do what we do. We're not going to put on any extra pressure on ourselves because of that chip. We're just going to do what we do."
Garrison has noticed the chip as well.
"I think they have a bad taste in their mouth," said Garrison. "I feel like we went into SECs and they did not even close to what they are capable of or what they expected to do. They came out of it fired up and ready to go and I've noticed it in practice."
Harrison believes her team just had a really tough day at the championships. Hartley thought the environment and format of the event may have played a role. Garrison felt the slow start derailed the Wildcats for the rest of the day.
Whatever the cause, there's much to be learned from that experience going forward.
Garrison wasted no time in trying to figure out what happened that night, so he cancelled the team's dinner reservations, had the food ordered to go and held an impromptu team meeting in his hotel room. Just as shaken as the athletes were, Garrison asked the team what had happened.
"I just threw it to them and said, 'You guys tell me what happened. It was just as strange for me as it was for you. What happened?' " said Garrison. "There were a lot of good things that came out of it. One, they were upset. Not pouty upset, but mad upset, which is great. The leaders were especially upset.
"I think some good things came out of it. I don't want to dwell on this, but I don't want to forget about it either. If you want to use it as fire, great. If you want to use it as motivation, fine, that's awesome."
However the Cats have used the experience from the SECs, it appears to at least be working in practice, which is essential as UK looks to make one final run at nationals. But unlike the SECs, the Wildcats are looking to get back to who they are, not where or who they are doing it against.
"It means a lot because we all really want to make nationals really bad," said Harrison. "It does mean a lot to us, but I think we've just got to stay calm and confident going into it. Maybe not build it up as the most important thing, but just do what we do in practice and then we'll do great."
Matthew Mitchell looks on as his team falls to Connecticut in the Elite Eight Monday night. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The Wildcats have been on a meteoric rise through the women's basketball ranks over the last four seasons, but they haven't yet reached the top tier of elite teams. For the second consecutive season, Kentucky's season came to a halt at the hands of one of those elite squads in the Elite Eight: Geno Auriemma's Connecticut Huskies.
For the second straight season UK has been unable to get over a pretty sizable hump.
Kentucky has made no secret to the public about its desire to win Southeastern Conference championships and reach Final Fours. After UK took care of an SEC title in 2012, the main focus shifted to making a larger splash on the national scene.
This season, the Final Four was a goal, if not the primary goal, from the outset. Players spoke openly about their desire to reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four, much like the men's team exactly a year ago. After Monday night's loss, UK has now reached three Elite Eights in the last four years, but has zero Final Four appearances to show for it.
Monday's loss prompted the question as to whether or not Mitchell believed that his program would ever be able to get over that hump. His response was emphatic.
"I think if anybody starts to think this is not going to happen, they will not be inside our program," said Mitchell. "Because it is going to happen."
If Kentucky continues reaching Elite Eights, Mitchell is right; it is bound to happen. It's only a matter of time.
For comparison's sake, it took Auriemma six seasons at Connecticut to reach his first Final Four, but he had never reached an Elite Eight prior to the 1990-91 Final Four season. Mitchell already has three Elite Eight appearances to his name in his six seasons at Kentucky.
Still, Kentucky seeks to reach its first Final Four in program history. Mitchell knows that he's developed a devoted fan base, one that longs to see him reach his goals. He also knows those fans are just as disappointed as they are for not having realized them this season.
That won't keep UK from taking another swing at it next year and for many years to come.
"I don't think we're going to get discouraged," Mitchell said. "Maybe people outside the program to see a result like tonight (will be). ... I know our fans wanted us to perform better. I know our players did, too."
Kentucky is at the doorstep and knocking. Just a few years ago, not long before Mitchell got to Kentucky, such a thought seemed impossible. The women's program was merely a middle-of-the-road SEC squad with little chance of ever chasing down a program like Tennessee. Today, the Wildcats are reaching the SEC Tournament final, competing for and winning regular-season crowns and making waves in the national landscape of the sport.
This program has come a long way. The program still has a long way to go.
Much is still left to be achieved, and Mitchell plans on seeing that through.
Thanks to the efforts of a player like A'dia Mathies - to this date, Mitchell's greatest recruit at Kentucky - the UK program has been able to flourish to the point that it's not a surprise when the Wildcats sign a player of Mathies' caliber.
Kentucky has a couple of top-notch recruits joining them next season to help reload the roster when Mathies and fellow senior Brittany Henderson depart from the program. It won't be easy to fill that void, but a greater influx of talent year after year shouldn't put the Wildcats too far off from contending for more SEC titles and that elusive Final Four.
It didn't happen last year. It didn't happen this year. It may not happen next year. But Kentucky won't stop trying. The Cats have come too far to be disappointed with their results. Is there disappointment? Sure. A losing coach and team should be disappointed after a loss if they are truly competitors. However, this is much more to be proud of than not.
So while the question remains, "when will Kentucky reach the Final Four?" The answer isn't a matter of if, but when.
True freshman Kyle Cody allowed just two earned runs in 6.1 innings in UK's 5-4 win at Louisville on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky., -- For the first time since at least 2002, archrivals Kentucky and Louisville were set to meet as top-10 teams. Based on the environment at Jim Patterson Stadium, the matchup would be a big one.
But as fans of UK baseball know, the priority is Southeastern Conference play. The priority is the weekend. For that reason, Wildcat aces A.J. Reed, Jerad Grundy and Cory Littrell rested their arms and Gary Henderson turned to Kyle Cody.
It was a stage the likes of which Cody - a native of Chippewa Falls, Wis. - has never seen, let alone played on.
"This is the most people I've ever pitched in front of before," Cody said. "Coming from a small town, I've never been to a stadium this big before."
Based on the way he performed, Cody will be looking forward to another such chance.
He didn't factor in the decision, but the result would have been much different if not for Cody's quality start. Had he not stepped up with the UK pitching staff depleted by injury and illness, the No. 7 Cats (22-6) don't get anywhere close to posting a 5-4 extra-inning win over No. 9 Louisville (22-6) after Kyle Barrett's sacrifice fly in the top of the 10th to score J.T. Riddle against hard-throwing U of L closer Nick Burdi.
"I'm really proud of our kids," Henderson said. "I thought we brought it all night. I thought it was a really well-competed game on both sides. A lot of good pitching. Tough to get a hit tonight."
Cody figured prominently into that.
He had flashed his potential in his first seven outings - with his fastball sitting in the mid-90s and an impressive curve - but he had also had his share of freshman moments. Maybe all he needed was a taste of the battle of the Bluegrass.
Whatever the case, Cody grew up on Tuesday night, though there was a moment when it appeared the opposite might happen. Louisville scored an unearned run in the first when Zac Zellers misplayed a ball in left field and it all nearly fell apart two innings later.
Cody hit back-to-back batters to begin the third, then had back-to-back balks to score a run and move a runner to third with no outs. After a sacrifice fly by Ty Young, Louisville had a 3-2 lead.
"An absolute disaster there at the beginning of the third inning and we just flat out handed them two runs," Henderson said. "I was really interested in keeping him in the game at the point. I wanted to get him through that."
In response, Cody turned in his best extended stretch of his young career. He allowed just three base runners over his final 3.1 innings to finish with a line of 6.1 innings pitched - the longest outing of his career - and three runs (two earned), four hits and one walk allowed.
"I had to calm myself down before the game," Cody said. "The main thing when I was on the mound: I had to breathe. That was the biggest thing. When you start getting base runners on, you just gotta breathe and relax and throw the ball where you want it."
Cody didn't find out until the night before the game he would be making the start. Henderson didn't spend much time talking to his freshman starter about what to expect and Cody took his coach's cue. He didn't treat Tuesday night like anything more than a regular start.
"I just took it one stage at a time," Cody said. "I tried to get good rest. Coming up to the game, I tried not to think about it too much and then I just tried to do my normal routine before every start."
Cody's ultimate aim is to pitch his way into a role in the postseason and Henderson has been trying to develop trust in his young arms. But after a step forward on Tuesday, Cody and Henderson have a start on April 16 at Cliff Hagan Stadium against these same Cardinals on their minds.
"This is my first time playing these guys, but it was a lot of fun," Cody said. "I've never had such a strong rivalry between two teams. I like the competition. It was a lot of fun. It was good to get a win."
Vince Marrow is in his first season coaching tight ends at Kentucky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
When Vince Marrow arrived at Kentucky to coach tight ends, he wasn't sure what to expect.
He knew the position he was taking over had multiple veterans with playing experience, but how they would fit in with the new offensive scheme being installed by Mark Stoops and Neal Brown remained to be seen.
Eight practices into the spring, much of that mystery is gone.
"The surprise to me is Jordan Aumiller," Marrow said. "He looks like a guy that you can really line up with and do some things with. He's a big 6(-foot-)5, 6-6 guy that can run with soft hands."
After seeing his playing time dwindle since an impressive freshman season, Aumiller - a senior - began the spring playing on the third string. Now, he's played his way onto the first string.
And Aumiller isn't the only one who has impressed.
"(Aumiller) and Tyler Robinson (who has dropped 15 pounds this offseason) were supposed to just be blockers," Marrow said. "Those guys have established themselves as some good pass-receiving tight ends."
UK's tight ends combined for just 18 catches for 165 yards last season, but the arrival of a new offense meant that production was likely to increase significantly. After all, Texas Tech's top tight end in 2012 - Jace Amaro - caught 25 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns in just seven games. However, it's not as if UK's tight ends will be completely eschewing their roles in the running game.
"I evaluate my guys like I was coaching pro guys," Marrow said. "I want a guy that can do both. You want to start off making him a blocker, but in this offense you want a guy who can catch."
The need for UK's tight ends to be threats in the passing lane has only grown this spring as it's become clear just how much work the wide receivers have ahead of them. For that reason and the nature of Brown's offense, a few players listed as tight ends are playing hybrid roles in practice. Returning junior Ronnie Shields and junior-college transfer Steven Borden have the size and versatility needed to create matchup problems no matter where they line up. Senior Anthony Kendrick could do the same when he returns from injury.
"Ronnie Shields has done a good job," Brown said. "We are playing him a little more standing up. Steven Borden has done a nice job. He has a good skillset that will match well with what we want to do."
Borden was the first player of the Stoops era to commit to UK, so it makes sense that he fits so well in Brown's system. The Waxahachie, Texas native has played anywhere from tight end to the slot to fullback, but the two seasons he spent at Kilgore College helped him prepare for that.
"At my last junior college, I moved around a bunch too," Borden said. "So I knew in this offense the tight end and slot receivers can be similar sometimes. I knew coming in there was a chance I was going to be flopping around a little bit. I didn't know I was going to be in at fullback."
Considering he's only just learning a brand new offense, moving around so much has put a lot on Borden's plate this spring. He doesn't mind.
"I like it," Borden said. "I like being challenged."
Borden hasn't even played a Division I down yet, but he might already be the most high-profile tight end on UK's roster. His visit to campus and eventual commitment generated interest among fans because of his father and namesake, Steve Borden. Borden is better known as his professional wrestling persona - Sting.
"I always tell people he's been a wrestler since I was born, so I don't know anything different," Borden said. "To me, I feel like I had a fairly normal childhood. He came and watched me play football and went to school, did things that pretty much every other kid does. I don't know anything different."
For many offspring in the wrestling community, it becomes a family business, but not for the UK tight end. Borden has always been encouraged to make his own name.
"For me, I want to do my own thing," Borden said. "I'm proud of my dad and I think he supports me in what I do."
What Borden is doing now is going to school and competing for playing time at tight end. Along with quarterback, Brown said the position was the most crowded on the offense. The good news, however, is that there's nothing in the rulebook that says only one can play at a time.
"We are going to figure out - and I am in the process and it might take until we get into fall camp a week or two in - but we have to figure out who we are, who are our best 11 and then who are next best skill guys are," Brown said. "It is a work in progress. Right now, I would say, you may see one or more of those guys on the field a lot."
A'dia Mathies finishes her career with 2,014 points, second most in school history. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kentucky women's basketball will never be the same. It may get better, or it might get worse, but Matthew Mitchell's UK team will never again have A'dia Mathies.
The No. 2 seeded Wildcats fell to the top-seeded Connecticut Huskies in the Elite Eight Monday night, 83-53, in a game that never really went as planned.
It certainly wasn't the way that Matthew Mitchell hoped to see his senior and the two-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year walk off the court for the final time.
"I just hate we performed the way we did tonight and sent her out this way," said Mitchell of Mathies. "I have to make sure that the contribution that she made and the tremendous impact she made doesn't get lost on a real tough 40 minutes for us."
The contributions are countless.
Mathies was the 2013 AP SEC Player of the Year and Co-Player of the Year as voted by the coaches as the first player to earn the honor in back-to-back seasons in the conference since 2006. She is the first UK basketball player (men or women) to accumulate 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, 300 steals and 300 assists in a career. She is the program's all-time leader in steals with 317. She ranks in the top 10 on 13 different UK career lists.
Her arrival at Kentucky marked the beginning of a monumental turnaround of the program. After being picked last in the SEC before her freshman season, the Wildcats have gone 111-30 (.730), including a 64-3 mark at home, during her time wearing UK blue. She helped lead the Wildcats to their first SEC regular-season championships in 30 years, advanced to the Wildcats to a school-record four consecutive NCAA Tournaments, and along with fellow senior Brittany Henderson is part of the winningest class in program history.
Those are just the highlights. The list goes on much longer.
To make a long story short, Kentucky is not the Kentucky of today without her.
"Just for Kentucky women's basketball, we have an opportunity to be disappointed on a night like tonight," said Mitchell of Mathies. "Not too very long ago we wouldn't even have had a chance to be in a game like this. The disappointment is great and we're really, really upset to have played this way and to have been beaten this way, but A'dia's been a major factor in the resurgence of our program, so we're grateful to her."
Mitchell's gratitude to Mathies can probably never properly be fully expressed.
Since Mathies came to Kentucky, Mitchell has seen his program rise to national prominence as UK reached three Elite Eights in Mathies' four years. During that time, Mitchell has received a contract extension that has brought great financial security to him and his family and great support to his program.
Mathies has deeply affected Mitchell's life and his program for years to come.
"Being able to coach her clearly changed my wife Jenna's and my life," said Mitchell. "We've been real successful at Kentucky from the standpoint of having some stability and having a chance coach there, and you only get to do that if you win games. A'dia's helped us win a bunch of games, so I'm grateful to her."
Mathies fought hard to fight back emotion, and as usual, being the tough competitor that she is, she was stone-faced after her last game as a Wildcat. Though the loss and the taste of defeat was fresh in her mind, she still was able to sense her pride in all that she's been able to accomplish while wearing the Blue and White.
She also knows that she helped change the program into a better place than when she first arrived.
"I feel like it's been a great turnaround," said Mathies. "I'm glad that I can leave here and look back that Kentucky is a national powerhouse now. You know, we've got McDonald's All-Americans coming in left and right and just great people who care about you. I'm just glad that I came here and I'm glad that I didn't go anywhere else."
Mathies didn't go down quietly in her final game, although she saw fewer minutes than she would have liked. Early foul trouble gave her fewer opportunities on the floor and limited her ability to be aggressive on the offensive end. Yet she rallied to finish with 14 points - 11 after halftime - to lead her team as she has done so many times throughout her career.
Now, Mathies looks forward to a career in the WNBA where she will likely be a first-round draft pick. Whatever she chooses to do for the rest of her life, Mitchell just wants her to be happy.
"I hope she has much success like my hope is for everyone," said Mitchell. "I hope she's very successful in whatever she chooses to do, and at some point all of these players will not be able to play basketball and it be very meaningful in their lives as far as how they are defined as basketball players. A lot of times, we look at these kids as what their value is as a player.
"I hope she has a very good career as long as she wants to play basketball, but I really hope she's benefited from her time at Kentucky. I hope she is able to have a really successful life in whatever she chooses to do."
The night was tough all the way around on Monday, and there wasn't much success to be found. Mitchell said the UConn whipped Kentucky in every way imaginable in the Elite Eight, and the score suggests that was true. He also said that he wouldn't let one loss define his program and that going forward the future is still bright, though the Cats will have to fill a major void.
"We will not be deterred because of one tough, tough game that we played tonight and didn't do well in," said Mitchell. "We will march forward and we have some good kids right now and we'll keep working at it and keep showing up. I believe at some point it will happen, or I don't need to be sitting up here if I don't."
But Mathies never will again.
She finishes her career with 2,014 points, giving her the second most in program history. She is just the second player in the history of the program to reach the 2,000-point plateau. But in terms of impact on Kentucky women's basketball and the team that she'll walk away from with her head held high, her contributions are second to none.
Kyle Wiltjer and Willie Cauley-Stein will both return to UK next season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In 2012-13, Kentucky had arguable as little depth as any season during the John Calipari era, and there is no argument about the Wildcats of last year being his least experienced team to date. Those two areas created challenges all year.
It's already clear those two areas won't present nearly the same problems in 2013-14.
On Monday, Willie Cauley-Stein and Kyle Wiltjer announced they will return next season. Their decisions mean that Coach Cal will have two players who started games the previous year and played meaningful minutes all season, something he lacked as the Cats missed the NCAA Tournament just weeks ago.
"I'm excited that Willie and Kyle have decided to return for next season," Calipari said. "When we talk about a players-first program, our goal is for each player to reach his dreams. Willie and Kyle believe it is in their best interest to return to Kentucky next season to achieve those dreams, and I fully support their decisions."
Cauley-Stein impressed in his first season and was named to the All-Southeastern Conference freshman team after averaging 8.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and blocking 57 shots. He started 14 games, most of which came after a season-ending injury to frontcourt mate Nerlens Noel. Wiltjer was named SEC Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13, averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore.
In discussing their decisions, Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer expressed similar sentiments and a common theme was a desire to pursue a title.
"I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm also excited for the opportunity to try and win a national championship."
Wiltjer was a part of UK's championship team in 2011-12, averaging 5.0 points in 11.6 minutes of reserve duty, so he has an idea of the work it takes to win at the highest level. He also remembers the veteran presence provided by Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, who all played in the Final Four the previous season. Just like when UK won number eight, the nation's top-ranked recruiting class will join the team in the offseason.
"I'm so excited about the possibilities of next season," Wiltjer said. "I
love Coach Cal and the staff, the University of Kentucky and the Big
Blue Nation. After talking with Coach and the staff, I understand what I
need to do. I want to be a part of another championship. This summer
I'm going to work the hardest I've ever worked to come back next season
better and stronger to help my team fight for number nine."
With Cauley-Stein and Wiltjer, UK already returns 17.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 44.5 minutes per game (adjusted for the four games Cauley-Stein missed due to injury). Last season, UK returned just 5.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 15.0 minutes per game.
Not returning next year will be freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who opted to enter the NBA Draft. He has not yet hired an agent.
"This is something I've dreamed about my entire life and I feel like the opportunity is there for me to play at the next level," Goodwin said. "I will stay in Lexington to finish my schoolwork this semester before continuing to pursue my dream. I've loved my time at UK and want to thank Coach Cal, the staff and my teammates for helping me get where I am. I especially want to thank the Big Blue Nation for all their support."
Excluded from Monday's announcement were Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson. According to a release from UK, additional announcements about remaining players will be made at a later date.
Kentucky looks to advance to its first Final Four in an Elite Eight rematch with Connecticut on Monday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It would already be an intriguing matchup for Kentucky, the Bridgeport Regional's No. 2 seed, to face the region's No. 1 seed Connecticut in the Huskies' home state.
Kentucky just defeated the fifth all-time leading scorer in women's college basketball history in Delaware's Elena Delle Donne while snapping the Blue Hens' 27-game win streak. Meanwhile, Geno Auriemma's UConn squad just dismantled Maryland 76-50 in its regional semifinal.
A one vs. two matchup in the Elite Eight is about as exciting as it gets when it comes down to the top teams in the regional battling for the right to earn a Final Four berth.
For Connecticut, it would be its sixth straight trip to a national semifinal. For the Wildcats, it would be the first in program history.
Intriguing enough... but it gets better.
Samarie Walker, a junior forward for the Wildcats who transferred from Connecticut to be closer to home and play for Matthew Mitchell at Kentucky, will get a chance to compete against her former program.
Jam-packed with storylines, this matchup has one more important one that just might pique your interest: This is the second straight season that UConn and UK have tangled in a regional final as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds.
Mind blown? Hopefully not because you'll need to tune into this one Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN as Kentucky looks to accomplish something the Huskies have made seem routine. Since the beginning of the season, Mitchell and his team have been focused on taking the necessary steps to making this a Final Four-caliber team by adopting their "40 Minutes" mantra which has led to program record 30 victories.
Ironically, and as fate would have it, all that stands between Kentucky and that goal is another 40 minutes of basketball. And UConn. Again.
Understanding that much could be learned from last year's matchup with the Huskies even before Kentucky learned its NCAA fate, Mitchell showed his team game film from last year's Elite Eight game. He showed the Cats two crucial four-minute clips where the game got away. He didn't want to see that that same type of collapse happen again.
"It was a three-point game coming out of the under-16 media (timeout) in the second half, and they really went on a big run," said Mitchell. "When you go back and look at that film, they did a lot of good things, but the thing they did better than us during that eight-minute period was to rebound."
Mitchell said that Connecticut also played with a much greater competitive spirit in the second half, which allowed the Huskies to pull away when Kentucky had pushed the Huskies to the brink in the first half.
While Kentucky seeks its first Final Four appearance and sees Monday as a great opportunity, the players still look back to last season's game as one that got away.
"We watched (the tape) as a team and it was more so a missed opportunity," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "We were there in the first half. A mental lapse and like a couple four-minute segments where it wasn't like they just poured on points. It was little by little.
"We believe that if we stay focused that can definitely happen this year."
The Wildcats have been focused on Kentucky, and that's exactly what Mitchell wants. While they will prepare for Connecticut just like every other team they've met so far in the NCAA Tournament, UK needs to continue to do what's brought it this far. Kentucky's 40-minute style has helped the Cats wear down teams and outlast them.
At this point, even though Kentucky's next opponent is Connecticut, Mitchell just wants his team to be its best self.
"I think the opponent in the NCAA Tournament for us has been for us to try to play our best," said Mitchell. "That's who we've been trying to measure it against.
"Now, our opponent is outstanding and excellent and you should be playing someone like that to go to the Final Four. I think anybody we would play in this round was going to be really good and have our respect."
With last season's experience in their back pocket, the Wildcats feel more prepared this time around with a stronger supporting cast.
"We got very close. Last year is last year, but we realize we have another opportunity to take it to the next level," said Mathies. "We got great players in addition to our team last year such as DeNesha Stallworth, Janee Thompson and Jelleah Sidney. We're just looking forward to playing the game tomorrow."
And Jennifer O'Neill - who sat out last season while recovering from a foot injury - has taken over the role of starting point guard to help solidify Kentucky's dynamic back court along with Mathies.
Though Kentucky is completely confident in its ability to beat the Huskies and finally "punch through" to the Final Four, to borrow a phrase from Mitchell maybe not everyone else is. Maybe not everyone else ever cares.
The networks and media have made a big deal covering Kentucky's last opponent Delaware because of Delle Donne's success over the past four years. After the game, much of the discussion was about her career and the game that she played.
After Connecticut's win, the discussion shifted to the Huskies moving on to yet another Elite Eight for the opportunity to advance to yet another Final Four. Very little was Kentucky mentioned the major media outlets.
But for Kentucky, that's just fine with them. It's been that way most of the season.
"I think we are under the radar," said O'Neill. "I think a lot of people don't expect us to beat UConn. I was watching ESPN and they weren't really talking about us or anything like that, but that's fine. We don't mind playing under the radar because we know what we're capable of. We know that if we come out to play and play our best that it's hard to for people to stay with us and stop us."
Kentucky is battle-tested as well. Already this season Kentucky has faced No. 1 Baylor and four other teams that reached the Sweet 16. So when Connecticut brings its style of play, one similar to the one that the Wildcats use themselves, they should be well prepared.
"Because of the way that we play, that's something that we face during practice as well," said O'Neill. "You talk about them putting pressure on people, but we play the same way. We play with a lot of ball pressure and are in the passing lanes. I don't really think it's going to be a challenge because it's something we face every day in practice. A lot of us have grown as players because of the way that we practice."
A while back, Kentucky may not have been ready to handle this pressure and the atmosphere they will see at Webster Bank Arena in front of roughly 8,000 UConn fans. Mitchell has no doubt that Monday his team will be ready, not scared, to take Kentucky to the next step.
"We just keep showing up. We keep having these experiences," said Mitchell. "If scared is in our team's mind, it's not happening tomorrow. I don't think that's where we are at all. I think this team has competed well against some really tough teams. If our team's lacking confidence, then that's just been a failure on my part to get us ready for this point in time.
"I don't think that's really as big of an issue as maybe it would have been four years ago and so I think we're making progress in the area of feeling like we belong and we're a team that has a chance to punch through to the Final Four."
Kentucky celebrates its 69-62 Sweet 16 win over Delaware. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Of the 69 points that Kentucky used to defeat Delaware in the Sweet 16, 69-62, none were bigger than the three Kastine Evans provided with 2:21 left.
With the Wildcats clinging to a two-point lead after Delaware had fought all the way back from 16 points down, UK head coach Matthew Mitchell called a play to try and get the ball in the hands of star senior A'dia Mathies' somewhere near the basket. It was well-defended, and the player guarding Evans doubled down on Mathies leaving Evans wide open at the top of the key.
As Evans broke free off the stagger screen, only two things went through her mind.
"I just had to catch and shoot and then after that, I just got back on defense because there was still plenty of time on the clock," said Evans. "We had to keep playing still only up by five."
The basket provided Kentucky with a huge lift, but it also served as the final haymaker that spelled the end of Delaware's comeback bid.
"I thought Kastine hit the biggest shot of the game in that 3-pointer," said Delaware head coach Tina Martin. "That really, to be honest with you, broke our back from the standpoint of giving them enough cushion at the end of the game that that were able to sustain it and finish the game off."
Though it was only a five-point lead, it felt like much more after Elena Delle Donne had willed her Blue Hens into a one-possession game at 62-60. It was a shot that not only hurt Delaware's chances, but gave UK a much-needed boost to overcome the late Delaware rally.
Evans had struggled throughout most of the game finding her shot. She was just 2 for 8 from the field with five points before the big shot, but her assistant coaches continued to will her on from the bench to give her confidence the rest of the way.
When she hit it, not one person on the Kentucky bench was surprised.
"When Kastine came off the stagger at the top, I thought, 'I've seen this before,' " said Mitchell. "I felt really good about it because she's unbelievable in those moments. She's made so many of those in her three years, so I was not for one second surprised."
Though the play was designed for Mathies, she was glad that it was her teammate Evans taking the shot in a clutch situation.
"Kastine makes big plays. She hustles every second that she's out on the court," said Mathies. "You can just tell how confident she is in herself. We're glad that she made that 3 and took the 3."
While Evans was huge in that moment, Mathies came up big all day long along with fellow guard Jennifer O'Neill. Mathies become the fifth player in program history to reach the 2,000-point plateau with her 16 points, adding nine rebounds.
Mathies got most of her buckets in the interior and in transition, but O'Neill was getting her buckets on the perimeter. She knocked down four 3-pointers in the game on her way to a team-high 19 points.
The win, however, took a total team effort. Going up against a player like Delle Donne, the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year who averaged 25.9 points per game going into Saturday's matchup, it was going to take a collective effort to get the job done.
Throughout the course of the game, Samarie Walker, DeNesha Stallworth, Jelleah Sidney, Azia Bishop and for even Mathies for a few possessions could be found guarding the Blue Hens' do-it-all forward.
The task was made even more difficult as Stallworth picked up two early fouls and found herself in foul trouble throughout the entire game, pressing Sidney and Brittany Henderson into important minutes. While Delle Donne led all scorers with 33 points, she was just 11 for 23 from the field and turned the ball over five times after averaging less than one per game for the entire season.
"She's a great player, so we just wanted to keep fresh bodies on her," said Mathies. "Just getting her out of her comfort zones and just trying to put as much pressure on her because we know as she goes, her team goes. We did a great job, I feel like, of just making her shoot tough shots and not just getting easy baskets."
With Stallworth out of the game so early, the pressure of guarding Delle Donne and providing an offensive post presence shifted to Walker. It was tough to see her teammate on the bench, but Walker knew it was up to her to carry the load.
"I was a little heartbroken because that's like my other half on the court," said Walker of Stallworth. "I definitely felt I had to step up on defense and get some rebounds."
Walker committed just one foul in 34 minutes while scoring eight points and grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds while making life difficult for Delle Donne on both ends of the floor.
The Wildcats struggled mightily to grab rebounds in the second half, affording the Blue Hens the opportunity to get back into the game. Early in the second half, Delaware outrebounded the Wildcats 14-0 as the Hens tore into the lead.
Mitchell could be spotted on the sideline displaying his disgust with his team as Delaware outscrapped his Wildcats. In timeouts, he stressed the importance of rebounding to his players. The light bulb finally went off late in the second half, and just in time.
After Evans' big shot, Delaware had multiple opportunities to cut the lead back to one possession. They had three offensive rebounds in one sequence before Mathies pulled down consecutive defensive rebounds. She would then go to the line, hit both free throws, and put the game out of reach.
It wasn't easy, but Kentucky did just enough to pull out the win and overcome Delaware's best. That's all Mitchell could as for of his team as they head back to their second straight Elite Eight date with No. 1 seed Connecticut on Monday at 7:30 p.m. ET.
"You want to win. You want to keep going," said Mitchell. "I just thought we did a pretty good job of finally at the end getting some pretty important boards that were hard to get. It was really tough though because you want it so bad. I really credit the players for doing what was necessary to get the victory."
A.J. Reed got a no decision after throwing 8.1 innings of one-run ball on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
A.J. Reed has a lot on his plate.
Just a sophomore, Reed has batted third or fourth in every Kentucky game this season. And oh yeah, he starts on the mound every Friday night in the nation's best conference.
"It's not easy, but I try to deal with it the best that I can," Reed said.
It's safe to say Reed is handling it all just fine.
Through 25 games, Reed is leading the Wildcats in home runs (six), runs batted in (28) and slugging percentage (.611). In six starts on the mound, Reed has an earned-run average of 2.57.
"I just kind of try to separate," Reed said. "When I'm pitching up there on the mound, that's all I think about. When I'm at the plate, that's what I'm thinking about."
On Friday night against Georgia, he had to put that balancing act to the test once again and once again he succeeded. Reed tossed 8.1 innings of one-run ball, allowing just six hits and striking out four. After retiring the first batter of the ninth inning on his 113th pitch, Reed gave way to closer Trevor Gott. For the first time this season and first since his first chance of 2012, Gott blew the save opportunity, costing Reed his third victory of the season.
Fortunately for the Cats, Gott prevented the go-ahead run from scoring in the ninth and 10th innings. In the bottom of the 10th, UK (21-5, 6-2 SEC) won its fourth game in a row when Max Kuhn walked with the bases loaded against Georgia closer Jared Walsh. It was the second time in less than a week the Cats won in walk-off fashion and the third they had won in a game they scored four runs or fewer.
"You have to win games like that because you're going to play them," head coach Gary Henderson said. "You're going to play low-scoring games."
A workhorse like Reed gives UK a good chance at winning more of those kinds of games.
With Reed's pitch count sitting at 97 through seven innings, Henderson opted to send the 6-foot-4, 245-pound lefthander out for another inning. And with a lefty due up for Georgia in the top of the ninth, Henderson asked Reed for one more out. He delivered.
"The debate's probably going on up there in the press box," Henderson said of his decision to leave Reed in the game. "There wasn't too much debate going on in the dugout."
Reed has a theory about why Henderson has so much faith in him, why his coach has sent him out for another inning with his pitch count hovering around triple digits each of his last two starts.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the regional game from last year," Reed said. "I went nine innings in relief, so that kind of proved to him that I could do a good job throwing in the later innings."
In that game against Kent State, Reed battled through cramps and exhaustion to pitch nine frames in extra innings, allowing just two runs. Even though it came in a losing effort, Reed believes he earned his coach's trust.
"I just have a lot of faith in him, as I do a lot of our kids," Henderson said. "We've got good kids, good players."
It's that same faith that leads Henderson to pencil Reed in the No. 3 spot even when he's on the mound. Other coaches might opt to allow other two-way players to focus solely on pitching, but Henderson believes Reed can handle both.
The statistics prove him right.
Entering Friday, Reed was batting 13-for-26 (.500) with 12 RBI, two home runs, a triple and a double in games he's pitched. Those gaudy numbers have come in spite of a realization on Reed's part of how vital his work on the mound is.
"I don't want to say in the games that I pitch I'm more focused on pitching, because I'm not, but it's more important at the time," Reed said.
Reed singled and reached on a hit by pitch in five plate appearances on Friday.
Pretty much the only skill missing from Reed's repertoire is speed. He's one of just two UK regulars without a stolen base. That doesn't mean he's not going to lay it all on the line on the base paths, even when he's pitching.
"I'm not very fast anyway, so I'm not going to be legging out anything in the hole or something like that," Reed said. "But I'm going to give it my all all the time. I'm going to be giving a hundred percent, but it may not be very fast."