Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 win over Alabama State last weekend. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
After a day of watching film, Mark Stoops publicly kicks off game week at his Monday press conference.
There, he begins his question-answer-session with the media with some comments reflecting on Kentucky's last game before talking in general about his team's upcoming opponent.
He always has good things to say, but he was uniquely effusive in his praise of Missouri.
"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."
As Stoops' words suggest, what differentiates eighth-ranked Missouri (8-1, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) is its strength in all facets of the game. The Tigers control of their own destiny in the SEC East and are an overtime loss away from an unbeaten record not because of smoke and mirrors, but because they are sound across the board.
On offense, Missouri's receiving corps is what stands out, and quite literally. The Tigers top three receivers are Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and the trio has combined for 1,681 yards receiving. They also look they should be in town to play in Rupp Arena instead of Commonwealth Stadium, standing 6-foot-5, 6-4 and 6-6, respectively.
"I can't remember playing a group bigger than this," said Stoops, whose career began as a secondary coach.
Safeties coach Bradley Dale Peveto took it a step further, calling the Tigers "as good a group of receivers as I've ever coached again." None of the five Wildcats listed on UK's depth chart at cornerback is taller than 6-0, but the group will have to find a way to match the physicality of the Tigers both in the passing game and in shedding blocks.
"You gotta eat your Wheaties and bring your A game," Peveto said.
The rest of the UK defense should load up before Saturday's noon ET kickoff (ESPNU) too, because Stoops sees an offense that's just as physical in the trenches.
"They run the ball on everybody," Stoops said. "And you see them really throwing guys around in the run game and creating big seams."
Missouri is averaging 237.2 yards per game and 5.6 yards per carry on the ground, numbers that have hardly suffered with athletic quarterback James Franklin sidelined with a shoulder injury the last three games. Franklin is slated for a possible return on Saturday, but the Cats won't alter their approach much whether they're facing him or backup Maty Mauk.
"They're both very good quarterbacks," Stoops said. "Their offense basically stays the same."
That cannot be said of the UK offense.
With Jalen Whitlow returning to a starting role after battling ankle and shoulder injuries, the Wildcat attack found another gear against Alabama State. With an added dimension in the running game and Whitlow's progression as a passer, the Cats look to sustain that offensive momentum.
"I thought Jalen did a nice job making some plays with his feet," Stoops said. "I thought he did a nice job throwing it at times. There were a few throws that stuck out to me during the game that we know he missed. But after watching the tape, really thought he did a good job of hitting some guys as well. Got to continue to work our passing game and improve in that area. But to score 48 points was good to see."
Duplicating that feat against Missouri won't be easy.
The Tigers are fourth in the league in scoring defense, third in rushing defense and first in turnovers forced by a wide margin. That all starts up front.
"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run. They have the fastest D-line that we've played and they play super hard and they chase the ball probably better than anybody we've played."
Michael Sam headlines the group, leading the SEC with 10 sacks.
To combat that pass rush and avoid the interceptions that have so frequently befallen Missouri opponents (the Tigers have 17 picks on the season), UK will rely on a combination of Whitlow's athleticism, quick throws and a variety of protection schemes.
"We've got to get the ball out of our hands fast," Brown said. "I think he understands. I mean, we've got to do some things in our protection: We've got to get some backs, we've got to get some tight ends, do some things like that to help our guys out."
Once Whitlow gets rid of the ball, he'll be relying on his receivers to make plays. Unfortunately for the Cats, Whitlow will almost certainly be without two of his top targets -- Ryan Timmons and Alex Montgomery -- due to injury. That means UK's "next-man-up" mentality will be put to the test.
"I think Demarco Robinson is a guy that's finally healthy, and we need him to step up and make some plays," Brown said. "We need A.J. Legree to step up. Some of the guys that have been here, they've got to step up and produce."
Against Alabama State, Robinson showed some the play-making ability that excited his coaches throughout the spring and summer with four catches for 44 yards. As Brown mentioned, an ankle injury has limited his explosiveness but Robinson is now finally at full speed.
"I have to play a bigger role this week," Robinson said. "I have to make more plays than I've been making in the past. I feel like it's a bigger responsibility."
Responsibility, however, isn't the first thing Stoops wants his team feeling heading into the weekend. Facing a team as good as Missouri affords the Cats a chance to measure their continued improvement against elite competition, and he wants them to embrace that.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."
Rain came to Lexington on Wednesday afternoon, but the Kentucky football team stayed outside for its third practice of the week.
Though the forecast is clear for UK's game on Saturday against Missouri, Mark Stoops is always happy to see how his team responds in less-than-ideal conditions.
"Sloppy day out there," Stoops said. "Messy day. So it was good to get some sloppy ball out there, so it was good to get some wet ball, some work in the rain. Got our work done and feel good about where we're at and our preparations and just moving forward."
It was a test for the passing game as Jalen Whitlow works with a receiving corps significantly hampered by injury. After productive work on the first days of the week, the Wildcats once again took step forward on Wednesday.
"I think we're getting better," Stoops said. "I thought Jalen had a very good day yesterday and seemed to have a good day today. Javess (Blue) is fresh. He looked good. Demarco (Robinson), (Jeff) Badet -- all those guys are getting better. We need to use our tight ends a little bit more and get them some balls."
Missouri, however, will present an even stiffer challenge than any weather. The Tigers lead the Southeastern Conference in turnover margin and feature what offensive coordinator Neal Brown calls the fastest defensive line UK will have faced all season.
"The first thing that jumps off the film when you're watching Missouri is their defensive line," Brown said. "They go two or three deep at each position. They can really run."
Considering Missouri's talent on both sides of the ball, it stands to reason that the UK coaches would once again look to special teams for an edge. In Stoops and special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto's first season, Wildcat specialists have created a number of big plays -- including a punt block last week and a memorable fake field goal for a touchdown against Florida -- while also being solid overall.
"It tells me a lot about a team," Stoops said. "That's kind of the heart of your team. There's a lot of guys on there that are really doing a good job and being very unselfish, and I think Coach Peveto's done a great job of coaching them up."
Considering the plays UK has already called -- Stoops and Peveto work together to make such decisions -- on special teams, opponents are becoming aware of the Cats' reputation for special-teams trickery and adjusting.
"It's just like I said in some other games, we had some things called and they jump out into a safe look and took it away," Stoops said. "That can help you in some areas, but certainly they could catch you. If you try to run some sort of fake or a trick play, they could catch you and it could hurt you."
Don't expect UK to stop trying though. A former defensive coordinator, Stoops may seem buttoned-down and conservative, but he's not afraid to gamble -- as long as the odds are right.
"Some of that stuff isn't as low-percentage as you might think," Stoops said. "So if we feel that something's there and there's a different percentage of converting it, then I'm all for it."
EJ Floreal is in his first season as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week, EJ Floreal writes about his Blue-White Scrimmage dunk that had everyone buzzing, accepting the challenge of playing at UK and learning one of his teammates is a distant relative.
I know I'm still hearing about it, so I have to start out talking about that dunk in the Blue-White Scrimmage. If you watched it, I actually stuttered. I was kind of nervous to back-cut because I thought that maybe Willie would make a good move and then I'd just be in the way, but I went and back-cut. He threw me the ball and by that time I was just thinking, "I'm going to dunk it at Rupp."
When I went up, I didn't know who was in front of me. I actually thought it was Dominique or something so I was like, "I'll be fine." But when I landed, it kind of seemed like everyone breathed in and then exhaled. Usually I scream after a dunk but I couldn't scream. I was just in shock when I saw it was Julius and Aaron was over there, eyes wide open. Alex couldn't believe it. KP (assistant coach Kenny Payne) looked right at me and he was just smiling. Hoody went crazy.
I've dunked on some people, but no one that big, not like a 6-9, 250-pound dude. I didn't expect that at all. When I came to the ground, I didn't know if I should mug or flex or something, so I just looked shocked. Just watching the video and seeing people's reactions on the court and on the sidelines and even the fans, you could just tell that everyone was really shocked.
After the game, we all talked to Julius about it except for me. I kept my mouth shut because I knew he would come back at me the first opportunity he got. Andrew was giving him the most. He was talking so much. He kept telling me, "You should be going crazy. Stop trying to act all humble." I kept saying, "It's just a play, it's just a play." They were all looking at Julius like, "Rise and shine, Ju." He kept smiling. He couldn't really do anything because it did happen, but he just smiled and shook his head a lot.
Just in the locker room, KP and the other coaches were giving him a lot of stuff because him and Coach Payne are really close. Coach Payne was just like, "How does it feel to be on the other end?" Julius brought up when Coach Payne got dunked on by Rex Chapman way back when. They kept going back and forth. Cal actually acknowledged it in the postgame meetings. He was just talking, saying, "You've been doing really well, you're going to get more opportunities. You've just got to wait your time." That was good to hear because I've been working hard.
I came here because I wanted to be challenged and so far that's what I'm getting. Something that I am really excited about doing every day is the one-on-ones before practice. If you watch, I don't back down from any of them. I've gone against Julius, Aaron, James, Marcus, Dakari, Willie and I haven't backed down against any of them. I go out there and compete and I've won a couple. Any opportunity they give me in practice, I try to make the most of it. Even in a game, like you saw when I got in against Transy, I immediately got a steal and got a bucket.
I need to talk about that play too, because I've heard a lot about it. I got the steal and I knew right when I got it, "I'm going to dunk, I'm going to dunk, I'm going to dunk." I tried to take off really hard so I could completely fly, but I guess I stepped wrong. I just stepped in a hole. I couldn't extend to dunk it, so I just had to lay it up and get the two points.
My phone was blowing up and everyone was just like, "Why didn't you dunk it? I know you could have dunked it. You could have freaked it, top 10. What were you doing?" I talked to Tod and I was like, "Should I make a public service announcement?" I asked Marcus too. They were like, "Just do it for the fun of it."
My knee buckled on the fast break or else I think everyone knows I woulda dunked that....if I culd of had that one back...still fun tho !
I made a general public statement of what happened on Twitter and then people started responding that we would rather have two points than a mistake anyway. It was all fun. I wish I could have dunked it. That would have been cool, my first dunk in a game uni, but I got the two points so I'm not really that worried. Hopefully I get another chance soon.
I'm excited for the regular season to get started on Friday, but at the same time it's kind of hard just knowing that I won't get as many opportunities with the better competition we play. But I'm excited. Even if I'm on the bench, I want to learn everything I can. Especially that Michigan State game, being able to watch Andrew and Aaron go at it with Keith Appling and Gary Harris and seeing our bigs battle, just gaining experience from everything. I'm excited just to be able to be a part of this and learn everything. Not many people get the opportunity to be around this many great elite players and this many great coaches, so I'm just trying to take advantage of it.
I came here to improve, so any chance I get that's what I'm doing, whether it's working out with Julius and Coach Payne or Dakari and Coach Payne or just by myself shooting with one of the managers. If I don't have like a night class or a lot of homework to do, I'll try to get in the gym and just work on stuff that I really have to work on. I try to get workouts from the coaches to do by myself. I try to have a manager come and do it with me.
Away from basketball, I think a lot of people know me and James are close. Something people don't know that I haven't really said yet because I don't think a lot of people would believe it is James is actually my distant cousin. People always thought we were related because my grandma's maiden name is Young, so we just looked it up last week and we happened to be distant cousins. It's a long, long way, but it's still pretty cool. It's a small world. I guess that might be a reason why we're so close and share so many interests. We kind of hit it off from the start.
When he first came for media training, we were talking and bonding and laughing. Right after that I went to his room and we started playing video games, and ever since that we've been really close with each other. He might be my cousin, but James is terrible at the NBA game we play. I beat him three times in a row and then he wanted to play soccer and hockey games and he beat me, but nobody plays those games. So congrats to James. I'd have to say Dominique is the best at the basketball game because he's the smartest player. He just exploits your weaknesses.
It's been fun hanging out with all the guys, but me, Tod and Marcus, us three are really close. We've actually been to Tod's house to eat dinner, and we go to the movies too. We always like to be around each other. We'll always be joking around. We gave ourselves a nickname but I'm not going to say what the nickname is.
I guess I'm close with Marcus because of the Cali bond. I knew him before, not really as well as now, but we knew of each other. We played each other a couple times. We always go out and get food or we'll go watch movies. He won't go watch scary movies with me, which sucks because I love scary movies, but we'll go see like comedies and cartoon, kid-ish movies because everyone else thinks they're too grown to watch those.
Anyway, I can't wait for the season to start. I'm really excited. I hope I can dunk on some more people like Julius. Just kidding with you, Julius.
Aaron Harrison had 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds and no turnovers in UK's 95-72 win over Montevallo on Monday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's never been any question about the importance of the point guard in John Calipari's system, but Aaron Harrison has been getting a crash course in what playing the position is all about over the last week.
With his brother Andrew recovering from a bone bruise in his knee, duties at the point fell primarily to the elder of the two twins in practice and Kentucky's first exhibition. Through that process, Aaron Harrison has gained a newfound appreciation for his brother's role.
"Playing the point guard, (Calipari) definitely says something to the point guard every play," Harrison said. "He tells you to attack and you have to get every other player involved, so it's really difficult when you're not used to it."
That magnitude of that adjustment was on display against Transylvania, as Harrison managed just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting to go with his two assists. Sensing Harrison's unease at the unfamiliar position, Coach Cal inserted Jarrod Polson into the starting lineup, shifting Harrison back to two-guard.
Harrison flourished in his return to shooting guard.
"It was really relaxing," Harrison said. "I got to run the floor a lot more. I'm not worried about getting the ball up the court, but playing point guard is a learning experience. I just feel more comfortable running the wing right now."
Harrison scored just 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting in UK's 95-72 win over Montevallo in Rupp Arena in its final exhibition, but added seven assists and six rebounds against zero turnovers. He made cameo appearances at the one -- much like he will once his brother returns -- but spent the majority of his time off the ball.
Ironically, moving back to the wing brought the point guard out of the 6-foot-6 freshman, both on the floor and in his postgame comments.
"I mean, the guys finished the balls that I threw to them," Harrison said. "They weren't really tough passes. They were probably tougher shots to make than passes, but I guess they made me look good in the stat sheet."
Even so, UK's offense ran far from seamlessly without its full-time floor general. The Wildcats committed 16 turnovers and had just 14 total assists, though they shot 36 of 62 (58.1 percent) from the field.
"It's like, OK, we're playing without our quarterback," Calipari said. "Now, the good news is his backup looks just like him. But he's not him."
Calipari's words underscore the fact that, regardless of Andrew Harrison's health, Aaron Harrison will be called on to spell his brother. For that reason, having to step up in the short term will likely benefit both Harrison and the Cats down the road.
"I'm starting to get the feel of getting the other players involved and making sure I'm still attacking but getting other players involved," Harrison said. "And that's the biggest deal for me: balancing those two out."
With a more effective Harrison, UK turned in a markedly better performance than in its first exhibition after an exhausting two-day "break" between games.
"We beat them up pretty good this weekend," Calipari said. "They had a lot of practice this weekend, and so I got to their legs a little bit. But that's fine. I thought we played better than we did last game, and that's all I'm asking."
The Cats will ultimately be measured by how they play in March and April, not November, but the games start counting on Friday when UK takes on UNC Asheville. That injects a bit of urgency into UK's development.
"The biggest thing I can tell you is we've got a long way to go, but we've made strides," Calipari said. "We're not a good team right now. We've got a nice collection of guys, but we're not a good team."
Calipari didn't say it, but it's difficult for that collection of talent to mesh without that player who will ultimately lead it. The hope is that Andrew Harrison will return to practice on Wednesday following an off day and be on the floor for the season opener.
"Andrew knows what to do and we all know Andrew knows what to do," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great player. Just like I said before, I have much more respect for what he does on the court playing point guard and we're all excited to have him back really."
It's getting to the point where Mark Stoops doesn't even have to look at the schedule.
For the fifth time in seven games, Kentucky will face a ranked opponent with No. 8 Missouri coming to Lexington. The grind of the Southeastern Conference has been unrelenting in Stoops' first season, but the Wildcats aren't growing weary of it.
In fact, it's why they're all here.
"It's definitely a great opportunity for us," Stoops said. "We've got a great team coming in here, playing at home, at noon on a Saturday. It should be a beautiful afternoon and we're excited about it definitely."
The fact that the Cats (2-6, 0-4 SEC) are eager for another chance to prove themselves doesn't make the challenge facing them any easier.
A season ago, the Tigers struggled to a 5-7 record in their first year as members of a new conference. Now much healthier, Missouri controls its own destiny in the SEC race and is a fourth-quarter South Carolina comeback away from a perfect record through nine games.
After a day of watching film on the Tigers, Stoops knows it's no fluke.
"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," Stoops said. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them."
The Tigers rank fourth the SEC in scoring defense (20.6 points per game) and third in rushing defense (109.4 yards per game).
All of Missouri's wins have come by two touchdowns or more, so opponents have had to turn to the pass in an effort to overcome deficits. The Tigers have capitalized, intercepting a league-high 17 passes en route to a plus-15 turnover margin.
"I think they are active," Stoops said. "A lot of it has to do with their front four and a lot of it has to do with they're scoring a boatload of points. So any time you're scoring over 40 points a game, the teams have got to get desperate at times and start throwing the ball around."
Perhaps no team in the SEC is better equipped to deal with the Tigers in that area than UK. The Cats haven't committed a turnover in their last four games and have just six giveaways on the season.
"They have been very conscious of that," Stoops said. "I think we do a good job of coaching ball security. The quarterbacks have done a nice job of protecting the ball. That's a big key." Whitlow with plenty of room for improvement
The UK coaching staff has been waiting all season for a quarterback to step up and grab hold of the position. Injuries and inconsistency have prevented that from happening, at least until last weekend's win against Alabama State.
Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory, becoming the first Wildcat quarterback to run and pass for two touchdowns since 2004. Stoops, however, left the game thinking about a handful of throws the sophomore missed.
"He needs to get a feel, get better, get reps and playing time," Stoops said. "He did that. I thought he made some nice throws, but he just short-armed or guided it or tried to be too accurate and aim it. Whatever the reason, he just missed a few."
A few miscues are understandable, particularly given how green Whitlow still is as a thrower. He has made 12 collegiate starts now, but wasn't a full-time quarterback in high school. That's not always easy for a demanding coach like Stoops to remember.
"You do have to remind yourself that he's going to get better," Stoops said. "After watching the tape, I really thought he did some good things. He made some nice throws. He's going to get better and better."
Montgomery out for season; Timmons doubtful for Missouri
UK lost three receivers during the Alabama State win and will likely be without two of them this weekend against Missouri.
Ryan Timmons sprained his ankle late in the game, while Alexander Montgomery hurt his knee celebrating a second-quarter touchdown. Test results confirmed Stoops' postgame fears, as Montgomery will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL.
When the team reconvenes on Monday, Stoops said he will address the way the Cats celebrate in the wake of the injury.
"We're not going to overdo it, but I'm going to definitely talk to them about relaxing a little bit with the jumping and chest-bumping and all that stuff," Stoops said.
Unfortunately, the Cats will be without Montgomery, his 6-foot-2 frame and his 137 yards receiving regardless. Javess Blue, however, should recover in time from an eye injury he suffered during warm-ups to play. Beyond Blue -- the team's leading receiver -- UK will need others to emerge for a thin receiving corps.
"I thought Jeff Badet played his best game," Stoops said. "That was good to see. Demarco (Robinson), we need to continue to get him healthy and get him back in the fold doing some good things. A.J. (Legree) is doing some better things as well, so that's a good sign.
Mobley turning heads with special-teams play
Dyshawn Mobley hasn't played a down of defense this season, but he has 10 tackles through eight games.
The sophomore running back has turned into a force on special teams, delivering forceful blows in kickoff coverage. He had tackles on three of UK's eight kickoffs against Alabama State, including a bone-crunching third-quarter stop of Jarrett Neely.
With his background as a defensive coordinator, Stoops sees a play like that one and wonders what Mobley would like on the other side of the ball.
"I would love to have him on defense, but that's the basically the message," Stoops said. "He's going to get the ball or he's going to come play defense."
It seems Neal Brown wants to hold on to his bruising back, because Mobley carried a season-high eight times for 36 yards against Alabama State.
Twelve different Wildcats scored in UK's 83-35 exhibition win over Eckerd College on Sunday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Entering the 2013-14 season, the biggest question about this Kentucky team was how it would replace the production of A'dia Mathies.
Would a single player emerge in a featured role? Would UK's post players step up and fill the void? Could the Wildcats break through to the Final Four without Mathies, the second-leading scorer in school history?
After UK's lone exhibition -- an 83-35 win over Eckerd College -- the answers remain unclear. But in the end, these Cats believe the biggest challenge facing them this season could eventually turn into their greatest strength, provided they approach it the right way.
"I think that difference between the past teams and this year's team is honestly we don't have a star player on the team this year, whereas the past few years we had A'dia," Samarie Walker said, viewing a perceived negative as a positive.
Throughout her career, Mathies served as a safety blanket for Matthew Mitchell's teams. When plays broke down, Mathies stepped up. When UK needed a basket in a crucial moment, the ball went to Mathies.
This season, the Cats plan to share those burdens equally. They think they will be all the better for it.
"I think any given day or night, anybody can have a good game, a great game." said Walker, who had 12 points and six rebounds.
Against Eckerd, 12 Wildcats saw the floor. They all played at least nine minutes and registered at least two rebounds as UK charged to a 55-35 edge on the glass.
"That was one of the main focuses of the game was rebounding, especially offensive rebounding," Walker said. "And I think this team is definitely tough. This is one of the most competitive teams I've ever been on and I think that's definitely something we focus on in practice and it's something we want to focus on for the whole season."
UK's competitiveness was on display from the opening tip, as the Cats held Eckerd without a point until the 9:18 mark of the first half. Kentucky would go on to force 41 turnovers on the afternoon, hardly a surprise to any of the 2,314 fans in Memorial Coliseum accustomed to such dominant defensive displays.
"I thought they worked extremely hard and played really hard," Mitchell said. "It was not the prettiest game that we have ever played here or probably end up playing this season, but I thought they gave great effort."
The game was far from a work of art because of UK's struggles in the half-court. In spite of repeated good looks at the basket, the Cats shot just 30 for 81 (37.0 percent) from the field and 4 of 27 from 3-point range.
"It was a tough shooting day and everybody can see that it was not out best shooting day," Mitchell said. "We have shot the ball really well in the preseason so it is not something that I am too terribly concerned about and really we have practiced in Memorial yesterday and this morning and that is my fault."
Mitchell and the Cats believe the shooting will come around, which is why they were more encouraged than anything else following the exhibition win. UK has balance, competitiveness and, in spite of the absence of a star, a world of potential as it prepares to start the season on the road at Marist on Nov. 8.
"When our whole team contributes, we're a situation, we're a problem," said DeNesha Stallworth, UK's leading scorer with 17 points. "It's tough to beat us."
Jalen Whitlow accounted for four touchdowns in UK's 48-14 victory over Alabama State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Jalen Whitlow spent all week preparing to play through pain, but he practiced hoping the adrenaline of game day would cast out any thoughts of his bumps and bruises.
Two plays into Kentucky's Homecoming matchup with Alabama State, Whitlow got his wish.
Rolling to his right, Whitlow saw the first receiver in his read progression was well covered. With open field ahead, he tucked and ran. Eighty-eight yards and a touchdown later, he had the second-longest run in school history and longest ever in Commonwealth Stadium.
All of a sudden, his ailing ankle and shoulder were the last things on his mind.
"It's like magic," Whitlow said. "You don't even think about it anymore."
Whitlow's longest personal run "since little league" staked UK to a 7-0 lead and set the tone for a dominating 48-14 victory. The Wildcats (2-6, 0-4 Southeastern Conference) took down Alabama State for their first win since Sept. 7, touching off a locker-room celebration almost two months in the making.
"It's good to get that victory," Mark Stoops said. "It's been a while. So any time you get a win, you have to appreciate it. And our players have worked hard and we've been fighting and clawing and scratching trying to get a win, so it was good to get a victory tonight."
Whitlow played a leading role well past that second play from scrimmage.
Stoops challenged the sophomore early in the week, saying his team needed him to step up and grab hold of the quarterback position even though he's far from completely healthy. In doing just that, Whitlow showed why his coaches see him as the signal caller who gives the Cats their best chance to win.
"I thought he stepped up and accepted that and wanted to go out there and play the whole game if need be," Stoops said. "I felt like he pulled it down and ran around and created and made some plays when we needed him, so that was good to see."
Even though Whitlow was called on to run much less frequently as UK's lead ballooned to as large as 48-7 in the third quarter, he ran for a career-high 111 yards and two touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown said it was the best he had looked in the ground game, but Whitlow was solid as a passer as well.
He completed 15-of-25 passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Whitlow was particularly effective on downfield throws, including a 38-yard strike to Steven Borden for UK's final touchdown of the evening.
Now, his coaches will look for Whitlow to improve in his mental game.
"His reads and his progressions and there were some things out there and some plays out there, and they were in his progression," Stoops said. "Those are things we have to get better at. That's why we're not throwing the ball as well as we can right now."
UK was also limited in the passing game by three injuries to key receivers.
The first came in warm-ups. Javess Blue throwing a ball around with teammates, as is custom, took an errant pass in the eye. It swelled immediately, rendering UK's leading receiver unable to see out of it.
"Then I popped him in the other eye; he couldn't see out of that one," Stoops joked. "So he had two black eyes."
Alexander Montgomery was the next to go down, and it happened in equally unconventional fashion. After he caught a six-yard touchdown pass, the freshman jumped to celebrate with two teammates. He was knocked off balance, landed awkwardly and went to the ground clutching his left knee.
"Hopefully, it's not serious, but I'm afraid it may be because he's been solid all year and getting better for a young guy," Stoops said. "To get that touchdown, we've got to learn to celebrate better."
Ryan Timmons -- after returning from an earlier shoulder injury -- sustained a sprained ankle on one of the final plays his coaches planned to use him.
Outside of severely limiting UK's depth at receiver, the rash of injuries would seem to pose a danger to the psyche of a very young group. Brown was happy to see the wide outs soldier on.
"That probably would affect that receiver group a little bit," Brown said. "When Javess gets hurt in the pregame and then Alex goes out early, those guys are kind of like, 'What's next?' But you gotta move on, next man up, take advantage of the opportunities."
Demarco Robinson certainly fit that bill on Saturday night.
The junior has been limited due to injury for much of the season, but has returned to a featured role as a receiver/punt returner. Against Alabama State, three of his four catches came on conversions of third or fourth downs and he was in the right place on two loose balls.
He scored UK's second touchdown after Raymond Sanders fumbled the ball in the end zone, pouncing when it appeared the Hornets may seize the momentum in a tie game. Later, he recovered a punt that bounced off the back Josh Forrest and ran for 18 yards.
Robinson, however, is more concerned with what the win will mean for his team's confidence.
"I think it feels good," Robinson said. "A lot of guys should have their confidence up. A lot of people played well tonight. We're just going to come into Missouri trying to do the same thing."
Characteristically, Stoops is already thinking about what UK must do to improve with the Tigers -- yet another top-10 opponent -- set to come to Lexington next Saturday at noon ET.
"Still have a lot of work to do," Stoops said. "We all know that and can see that, but I was pretty pleased with their effort and preparation and going out there and taking care of business."
John Calipari gives instructions during UK's 76-42 exhibition win over Transylvania. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Brian Lane came up with his scouting report in unconventional fashion.
The Transylvania head coach, preparing for his team's exhibition against Kentucky, hooked his computer up to the big screen in the conference room and got ready to study.
It wasn't film of UK's Blue-White Scrimmage that he had queued up. Instead, it was a live stream of a John Calipari press conference.
"When you all were at press conference," Lane told the media assembled for his interviews after UK's 76-42 win over Transy, "I was over in my conference room with my computer and him on the big screen listening to him and he was giving me the scouting report that I knew I was getting ready."
Facing a supremely talented team with size, athleticism and depth, Lane knew his only option was to make life as hard as possible for the Wildcats. The visiting Pioneers did just that in staying within single digits of the nation's preseason No. 1 team for the much of the second half by burying six 3-pointers and playing a compressed zone defense.
As frustrating as it may have been, it was just what Coach Cal knew his team needed.
"Brian did exactly what we wanted Transy to do: played really hard, spread the court, kept coming at us, made 3s, sagged on defense, and were physical," Calipari said.
The game plan is one many UK opponents figure to use the rest of the season. Few teams, if any, will be able to match the Cats player for player, so they will instead try to take Kentucky away from its strengths.
On Friday night, the Cats allowed it to happen. The only reason why was they didn't play with the urgency Calipari expects of them.
"The biggest thing that's learned is energy and effort trumps talent," Calipari said. "It just does. It always has, it always will."
Even the members of UK's nine-member freshman class have been around long enough to see the angry side of Coach Cal, but he was particularly vocal in the halftime locker room.
"He got on us a lot because a lot of people, all of us really, our energy level wasn't up," said Dakari Johnson, who had nine points and eight rebounds in just 17 minutes. "I think at the start of the second half our energy level picked up. We've just got to keep that energy level throughout the whole game."
UK rode that wave of energy to a 23-4 run to open the second half and held Transy to 4-of-24 (16.7 percent) shooting over the final 20 minutes.
"I mean, we just pressured the ball more and we just played harder," said Julius Randle, who tallied a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds on just nine shots. "And when we got the rebound we just pushed it and we were kind of able to break open that lead, but we should have been like that from the beginning of the game."
But even the second half was not without its blips.
After Marcus Lee -- who provided a burst of energy in his nine second-half minutes -- hit a short jumper extend UK's lead to 64-34, Calipari inserted Randle, Johnson, Aaron Harrison, Alex Poythress and James Young. Transylvania promptly scored six unanswered and Calipari called timeout to make a five-for-five substitution to bring back in Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dominique Hawkins, Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson.
In his four years at Kentucky, Calipari hasn't often used line-change-style substitutions, but he's not afraid to do it now that he has the bodies.
"If we get that kind of effort, that's exactly what will happen," Calipari said. "They'll all come out."
Within 35 seconds, Cauley-Stein came up with a steal and passed ahead to Hawkins, who fed Hood for an alley-oop that was the highlight of the evening.
The takeaway is clear: The bench is once again Calipari's ally, and he won't be bashful about using it.
"That's a pretty firm message," Randle said. "It's true because we have so many players that came here to win and if you're not trying to win basketball games and compete and play hard then you don't deserve to be on the court."
Though he may have been among the five players replaced in the aforementioned timeout substitution, Randle doesn't need the bench as a motivation. He delivered a handful of plays that made Calipari's comparison of the freshman forward's motor to that of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seem not so farfetched.
In fact, he plans to take it upon himself to reinforce what his coach is trying to teach.
"A lot of the stuff I gotta do is by action," Randle said. "I kind of lead by example, but I've gonna have to be more vocal with our guys and just kind of get on guys when they're slacking because we can't afford that. The season's next week, so we can't afford stuff like that."
That's spoken like a player who has completely bought in to what Calipari is saying.
"He's not going to get onto us about something that's unfair to us," Randle said. "Everything he's talking about is fair and he's getting onto us for the right reasons: because he wants the best for us."
The idea is for the Cats to take Randle's lead and flip the old energy-beating-talent adage on its head and combine the two sides of it. That starts with two practices each on Saturday and Sunday before UK's final exhibition on Monday against Montevallo.
"Now, talent that trumps the energy and effort, and they do both, like they come out, then you dominate play," Calipari said.
Randle believes it's just a matter of time.
"It's hard," Randle said. "It's tough. Mentally you gotta fight it, but we're all mentally tough to fight that type of stuff. It's first time we've been asked to play like this. We'll outgrow it and all of us will step up."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers will miss the 2013-14 season after being diagnosed with a blood clot this week. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was coming down the stretch of her first preseason as a college basketball player. In practice, the talent of the highly touted freshman forward was on display and she had just begun making a strong case for immediate playing time.
But just a week before UK's exhibition against Eckerd, Goodin-Rogers experienced chest pains. After reporting her symptoms to Senior Athletic Trainer Courtney Jones, she was taken to the Albert B. Chandler Hospital and diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism in her lungs.
Just like that, she went from looking forward to her collegiate debut to having her freshman season cut short before it even really began.
"You can imagine coming to play at Kentucky has been something she's been looking forward to doing for so long, and to work so hard during the summer and work harder than you've ever worked before, then you get right here to the beginning of the season and it's taken away from you," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "It's a very difficult set of circumstances for her."
As trying as the situation may be, Mitchell is grateful it wasn't any worse.
"I think in the end, for her, it's great that she communicated with our training staff and medical staff, so we could identify a serious problem," Mitchell said. "We'll work real hard with her to find a positive way out of this and we certainly believe there is a positive outcome."
Goodin-Rogers immediately began undergoing blood-thinning treatments to address the blood clot, a process that is expected to last several months. For that reason, she will not play this season. She will, however, continue to take classes and spend plenty of time around the team.
"I think we can expect a range of emotions here early on," Mitchell said. "She's trying to have a really positive attitude through this very difficult situation."
Exhibition offers opportunity to test style with new officiating guidelines
Asked by a reporter what he wanted to see out of his team in UK's lone exhibition against Eckerd College at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Mitchell gave an answer anyone who has watched his program in recent seasons would expect.
"I want us to play 40 minutes of really up-tempo basketball," Mitchell said.
In other words, he wants to see the "40 minutes of dread" style of play that has come to define UK Hoops in practice.
"I want our point guards, and really all our players, to really push the ball on offense and try to get as many layups as we can and put a lot of pressure on Eckerd in transition," Mitchell said. "I'd love to see that and I want to see us play tenacious defense without fouling."
Mitchell's mention of defending without fouling is a timely one, because the NCAA-mandated officiating guidelines regarding physical play that have been such a hot topic with the men's game extend to the women as well.
Considering UK's reliance on full-court pressure, Mitchell will be keeping a close watch on the way Sunday's game is called.
"Those kinds of things, you are anxious to see called and what adjustments you have to make," Mitchell said. "We've been working really hard on playing defense with our feet and being fundamentally sound in our position and technique."
Preseason rankings show difficulty of UK's schedule
On Friday, the Associated Press released its preseason poll and the Wildcats check in at No. 7, one spot ahead of their No. 8 ranking in the coaches' poll.
UK's ranking will be put to the test early and often this season. The Cats will face eight teams ranked in the preseason AP top 25: No. 2 Duke, No. 4 Tennessee, No. 5 Louisville, No. 10 Baylor, No. 15 LSU, No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 22 South Carolina and No. 24 Georgia.
Kentucky's December schedule will particularly trying, as the Cats will take on three top-10 teams -- Duke, U of L and Baylor -- along with DePaul, who is receiving votes, from Dec. 1-22.
Derek Willis buried five 3-pointers en route to a 21-point performance at the Blue-White Scrimmage on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
For more than a month, John Calipari has been running his Kentucky team through a complete practice schedule.
During that time, the Wildcats have become intimately familiar with one another. They've had more than their share of intense battles, culminating with Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage.
The process has been fun and beneficial, but the Cats are ready for the practice-only period to be over. They're ready to see some colors other than Blue and White.
"We've been playing together now for 22 practices, so I think they're just about ready to put it out there against somebody else," Calipari said.
It isn't just that the Cats are tired of beating up one another either. With 12 talented scholarship players on the roster, practices and scrimmages have been ultra-competitive and physical, but that's exactly what this group wants.
The reason why the idea of taking on Transylvania in UK's first exhibition at 7 p.m. ET on Friday is so enticing is that the Cats are eager to see what it looks like when all that talent is on one side.
Instead of doing battle with Willie Cauley-Stein in the post and chasing him up and down the floor, Dakari Johnson will be checking in for him or even playing alongside him. Instead of Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins dogging Andrew and Aaron Harrison every minute, they'll be giving them breathers.
"It's going to be scary," Dakari Johnson said. "We go up against each other and you're going up against guys as the same talent level as you and when you mix us all together, I'm just looking forward to seeing how it looks."
Not even Johnson's coach is sure what it will look like.
At the Blue-White Scrimmage, fans got a taste of all the lineup options Coach Cal has to choose from. Calipari has been gathering as much information and measuring players in competitive scenarios as possible and the exhibition is another opportunity to see how the Cats look with the lights on.
"We'll see," Calipari said. "We're still trying to evaluate who's in that top six, seven, eight, who is it? We get another look. The scrimmage kind of put out one thing, well let's see it against somebody else and see how our guys do."
Most of the big names impressed in the scrimmage, but it was a freshman without a five-star rating who was the revelation. Derek Willis poured in 21 points, including five made 3s, in spite of being matched up with preseason Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Julius Randle for much of the evening.
"Practice, it definitely carried over into the game and I was just shooting well," Willis said. "It was a scrimmage, but I felt like I showed people what I could do and I had fun."
Willis includes Calipari in that group of people he may have surprised.
"I think Cal's expectations definitely changed for me," Willis said. "He didn't know how good I was."
Just as importantly, Calipari says Willis didn't have a complete grasp of his own talent.
"He didn't know how good he was," Calipari said. "He's playing in the best shape he's ever been in; he's more physical than he's ever been. He's driving balls through bumps, which I'd never seen him do."
Willis has come a long way from pickup games this summer when he was forced to ride the bench as former Wildcats now in the NBA paraded through Lexington.
"There wasn't a lot of space to play," Willis said. "So coming around practice time and stuff, I was getting to play more and I was getting to blend in and feel myself out. It ended up working well and I'm playing real well with the guys."
So well, in fact, that Willis is making a major push for playing time.
Just seven months removed from a season during which UK had no bench to speak of, Calipari is finding himself wondering how he can even work his way to down to his customary seven- or eight-man rotation. That's a challenge, but one that figures to only help the Cats.
"The great news is, everybody's challenged," Calipari said. "You have guys playing really well, where now all of a sudden I'm in my office at 10:30 (p.m.), and I hear, 'Thump, thump, thump.' The guy playing against that guy now, he's in the gym saying, 'I've got to get some extra work in, this guy's really playing well.' "
Cats sound off on No. 1 ranking
Johnson heard the news from reporters as he fielded questions about UK's exhibition vs. Transylvania: The Cats will open the season at the nation's No. 1 team in both major polls.
"I didn't know that," Johnson said. "It's a blessing to be ranked No. 1, but it just says we have a (target) on our back now. We really have to stay focused. That's not the main thing we're focused on is being No. 1. We're just trying to be the best team we can be."
Willis had gotten word before he stepped into the media horde, but his reaction was much the same.
"It's a great thing," Willis said. "Being No. 1 is a great achievement so far, but we have a lot of work to do."
Considering how heavily UK will rely on its highly regarded eight-man freshman class, shouldering the burden of a top ranking is a natural concern. But this is Kentucky, after all. Pressure is just part of the deal.
"I feel like even before the season we had a lot of pressure," Willis said. "There was a lot of talk about 40-0 and all that stuff. We've ignored that. We're just continuing to work every day and work on ourselves. We're not worried about what the media is saying right now."
Andrew Harrison's knee creating opportunity for others
Asked about the knee injury that kept Andrew Harrison out of the second half of the Blue-White Scrimmage, Coach Cal said he was not sure yet whether the freshman point guard will play on Friday.
UPDATE: Calipari tweeted after practice on Thursday that Andrew Harrison will miss the Transylvania game, saying Alex Poythress -- who "had a great practice," according to Coach Cal -- will start in his place.
The injury is a bone bruise, which means the only remedy is time off. As a result, his twin brother Aaron has had to step in at point guard in practice, which Calipari believes will only help the long-term prospects of the team.
"And right now it's good because Aaron's playing point," Calipari said. "It's giving us a chance to look at James Young playing both the two and the three. Now it gives us a chance to maybe put other guys at the three, try Julius at the three."
This kind of situation is exactly why Coach Cal built this roster the way he did. A short-term injury last year would have - and often did -- cripple the Cats in practice to the point where there were times UK couldn't even go five-on-five.
Now, it's just next man up.
"We kind of got a good kind of mix," Calipari said. "But right now with him being out, one guy's misery is another guy's blessing, another guy's opportunity, and that's what's happened for us."