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."
UK will host Alabama State for Homecoming at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops sees signs.
Whether it's an impressive defensive stop or a methodical drive, he can't miss the progress Kentucky has made seven games into the season. With each passing week -- save for a blip against Alabama, the nation's top-ranked team -- UK gets closer to putting together a total team effort, but wins continue to elude the Wildcats.
"I think we all see us resembling a good football team from time to time, but that's not going to cut it and win you a lot of games in the SEC," Stoops said. "You've got to be good top to bottom, and you've got to be good in critical situations."
Looking at the offensive side of the ball alone, Neal Brown sees the same thing.
"You know, I think we've had bits and pieces of success along the way," Brown said. "We just haven't been able to sustain it. That's the thing that's been frustrating is, we've done some really good things."
With a reprieve from the SEC grind awaiting them on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET for Homecoming vs. Alabama State (CSS), the Cats are looking to string together four quarters of "really good things." More importantly, they're looking to string together four quarters that will end in a victory.
"We gotta take advantage of each one that we can get," senior linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So this week the focus is like it has been all year: come out and try to get a win."
The Cats knew as soon as the schedule came out that the five-game stretch they just wrapped up would be tough, and it proved to be just that. UK went winless against Louisville and four conference foes, so the Cats are without a victory since Miami (Ohio) came to town on Sept. 7.
UK, however, has been consistently competitive. Only against Alabama were the Cats completely out of contention in the second half and UK's last two road games against South Carolina and Mississippi State came down to the final possession.
"I think if you've noticed us as a program each week, no matter who we're playing, I think we gave ourselves a real chance to go out there and compete and win that game, and that's what we're looking for," Stoops said. "The preparation, the effort, and go out and play and give yourself a chance to win. We're never going to concede anything."
Nor will Alabama State concede anything.
The Hornets, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, are winners of six straight. They have scored at least 31 points each of those victories and figure to come to Lexington confident and ready to play.
"They should be feeling good about themselves," Stoops said.
On offense, Alabama State averages 261.8 rushing yards per game and 5.4 per carry. The Hornets have two runners with at least 740 yards through eight games and a sound passing offense to go with them.
"I think they're a very good football team, very well-coached team," Stoops said. "I think they're really solid in all phases of the game. I think offensively they do a really nice job of trying to keep you off balance. They run the ball very well. But again, they've got great balance."
For all that balance, running back Isaiah Crowell still sticks out. The junior ran for 850 yards as a freshman at Georgia in 2011 before transferring to Alabama State. In less than two full seasons there, he has 27 touchdowns.
"They do have some talented guys," Williamson said. "Isaiah Crowell, he's a real good running back. He was there my sophomore year at Georgia, so I remember him. But he's a real good player so really gotta tackle him well. He's fast and he's a good kid."
Defensively, Alabama State is defined by its aggressiveness. The Hornets have 80 tackles for loss and 38 sacks by 16 different players.
"They will zero blitz probably more than a lot of people we play, so we've got to be prepared for that," Brown said. "The quarterbacks have got to be ready to get the ball out of their hands."
Sophomore Jalen Whitlow will get the call at quarterback on Saturday after being limited to second-half spot duty last week with an ankle injury. He added the AC joint in his non-throwing shoulder to his list of ailing body parts against Mississippi State, but will play.
"It will just be trying to play through pain," Whitlow said. "It hurts. I'm not going to lie. It hurts a little bit. But I'm just going to try to play through it."
Whitlow was one of a handful of Cats who did just that last week. Bud Dupree, coping with a strained pectoral muscle, was the headliner after he tallied 13 tackles and a sack while playing through pain.
"Everyone appreciates it when you go out there and play," Dupree said. "Guys with casts on, everyone appreciates those guys too. Guys playing through nicks and bruises, it just means a lot to the team and to the coaches that they know you're going out there and playing for them and not just only for yourself."
Stoops started this week by talking extensively about the toughness it takes to play through the bumps inevitable during the course of a college football season. With yet another chance at a win ahead this weekend, he wants his team to take another step ahead in that area, as well as others.
"I think we're learning as we go and getting tougher and getting tougher mentally, and we need to keep on progressing," Stoops said.
If officials call games the way they are being directed to -- most notably by calling hand-checks and giving the benefit of the doubt to drivers -- Calipari knows college basketball is going to change drastically this season.
After Kentucky's first chance to play in front of a crowd in game-like scenario at Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage, it seems the Cats could thrive under the new guidelines.
"I like the fact that we defended without fouling," Calipari said. "The officials came up, and especially the SEC official (John Hampton), and told me that this is the best I've seen. You've got your hands up, your body in. We don't try to foul anyway. That's not how we play."
In the Blue team's 99-71 victory, referees called just 20 fouls. Eleven players were on the floor for 25 minutes or more, but only Dakari Johnson was whistled for more than three fouls. Nine of those players who played major minutes committed two fouls or fewer.
As a point of reference, the 20 fouls were the fewest called in a Blue-White Scrimmage under Calipari, tying the 2009 mark when officials still called the game more liberally. Thirty-one fouls were called in 2012, 27 in 2011 and 32 in 2010.
"I like the fact that we did not foul, and we're driving on every possession, folks," Calipari said. "It's not like we're running patterns. We're driving. So in that game, if that was a 40-minute game there were about 60, 80 drive attempts, and to have 20 fouls between your teams is pretty incredible."
It's not happenstance either.
Calipari has been coaching to the new guidelines since the first practice of the fall and the Cats are already accustomed to having real referees on the floor.
"We do that when we scrimmage," Calipari said. "We'll come in and we'll bring officials. We try to get college officials to do our scrimmages, and then the whole time they're calling--every time a hand goes down they call it. They call a foul. If you stop a guy from cutting where he wants to go, they call a foul."
Having already played a season at the college level, Willie Cauley-Stein has had to adjust to the changes. That work began in practice, but he said the scrimmage was somewhat of a light-bulb moment.
"We're trying to work on not fouling so you just kind of put your hands up," Cauley-Stein said. "With the people we got, everybody can score so it's just bucket after bucket after bucket. But to see them in a live setting, I get it now. It makes more sense."
But as many weapons as were on display Tuesday -- nine Cats scored in double figures -- Calipari couldn't help but be encouraged by his team's defense. UK's guards, and even Cauley-Stein at times, pressured in the backcourt much of the time, contributing to the 38 combined turnovers.
"I like picking up the ball, Dominique (Hawkins) picking up the ball, Aaron and Andrew (Harrison) picking up the ball and then playing off that," Calipari said.
The Cats had 27 steals, including 16 by the Blue team that featured many of UK's projected starters. With no player under 6-foot-6 on the floor for most of the night, the length and athleticism of the Blue team proved to be quite disruptive.
"We defended a lot better today, but we've got a lot of stuff we've got to work on," Julius Randle said. "It's just the beginning of the season. We've got to keep getting better, get better defensively, and we'll get there."
Leading the way on defense (as well as offense) was James Young, who was a terror in both passing lanes and defending on the ball. He tallied seven steals in victimizing the smaller guards on the White team and showed the form that led Coach Cal to mention him as a potential defensive stopper.
"I definitely wasn't a defender in high school," Young said. "Ever since I got here they've been on me about my defense and how it wasn't so good. I've just been trying to work as hard as I can like everybody else has been. I guess it just showed tonight that we can all play defense."
For both Young and the team as a whole, much work still lies ahead. Team defense is still coming along and Johnson's play in the post before Calipari began calling for double teams showed UK remains susceptible to a solid back-to-the basket scorer.
By no means, however, should that worry UK fans. The Cats have been working intensively on defense for all of a week and a half.
"If we're going to be what we want to be, we've got to be a better defensive team, and I'm starting to zero in on defense," Calipari said. "I'm telling you, from the 18th until this date, we've just started defense."
Willie Cauley-Stein blocks a Derek Willis dunk attempt during Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The record-setting 15,035 fans who attended Tuesday's Blue-White Scrimmage entered Rupp Arena buzzing about Julius Randle. They couldn't wait to watch the Harrison twins, Andrew and Aaron. They were eager to see what all the James Young hype was about.
But as they left the building, just as many were talking about the two-handed dunk freshman walk-on EJ Floreal threw down on Randle in the second half.
The same went for the Wildcats themselves, who immediately reacted with smiles and plenty of friendly jabs at the all-world freshman forward that don't figure to stop anytime soon.
"E.J. put a helmet on him, so that will be a picture in the hallway," John Calipari said, referencing UK's tradition of making dunked-on Cats pose for a picture in a football helmet.
"That was crazy," Young said. "Nobody expected it. For EJ to do that, I think it was mind-blowing."
Randle has been on the giving end of a number of those kinds of dunks, and was on a couple of them en route to a 21-point, eight-rebound performance in leading the Blue team to a 99-71 victory. But turnabout, especially in the eyes of his teammates, is fair play.
"That's exactly what 'Drew said," Randle said. "He said basically karma. He said, 'It's about time the tables turned on you.' "
With this team, table-turning is a regular occurrence.
Derek Willis might have the misfortune of guarding Randle most days, but the Kentucky native "with no conscience whatsoever," according to his coach, won't hesitate to pull up for a 3 in Randle's face on the other end of the floor. He did on Tuesday, matching Randle point for point with 21 on five made deep balls.
Jarrod Polson and Dominique Hawkins might be victimized from time to time by the physicality and size of their opposites on the Blue team, the Harrison twins, but they won't back down either.
The result is a team with talent at every spot.
"It just means everybody can play," said Young, who poured in a game-high 25 points to go with seven steals. "Coach Cal did a great job recruiting everybody and everybody can play. Coming from the bench and the starters, our whole team can play."
On the heels of a season in which a lack of depth had a lot to do with a disappointing NIT finish, Calipari set out to build a team that would have no such issues. He ended up with an eight-player freshman class many already talk about as among the best all time to go with four experienced scholarship returnees.
Now he has an entirely new set of problems, but it's one he hardly minds having to deal with.
"We've got to figure out how we're going to do this," Calipari said. "We've got to have a little plan about it, and then everybody has got to buy into what we're doing and their roles on the team."
The 12 players who saw double-figure minutes during the Blue-White Scrimmage all, to borrow a phrase from Calipari, "belong." All seemed more than capable of playing a significant role on a team that advances deep into March.
"When you looked at what we did, you kind of got a picture of while you've got this guy, this guy, that guy, but what about Derek Willis?" Calipari said, wheels seeming to turn. "Where does he fit in here? I mean, and then you look at, well, what about Marcus Lee; he's pretty good too, now. And then you look at Dominique and say, wow, I'm not going to play 11 guys. So there's a little bit of a dogfight."
Calipari is already beginning to figure out the best way to coach his way through that dogfight, and it begins with letting it play out it game-like scenarios. The Cats have already scrimmaged more than any team Calipari has had, but now he'll begin throwing some wrenches at his team.
The idea behind it all is to define winning and losing and, just as importantly, the consequences that follow.
"So I may give one unit a 12-point lead, and we're playing for real," Calipari said. "Now, you're down 12, do you want to win or lose? You're up 12, do you want to win or lose? What are you doing? Whoever loses runs. We're going to do that from here on in. I need that competitive spirit."
Competitiveness may define UK's practices, but it's tempered by a quickly developing closeness. The Cats may go head to head daily with eventual playing time on the line, but malice is completely absent.
"Most people think we're just a selfish team, but that's not it at all," Young said. "We look for other people before we can score ourselves. Coach Cal really drills that into us and we've just been working on it every day."
That was plain to see on Tuesday night.
Young attempted a scrimmage-high 16 shots, but seven of his teammates joined him in taking 10 or more shots. All told, nine Cats scored in double figures.
"It's just saying that we're coming together as a family," said Aaron Harrison, who had 19 points and six assists in spending extended time at point guard as Andrew sat out the second half with a knee contusion. "If you're around guys so much, you get to know how they play and stuff. So we just want to win and we just feed each other on each other's strong suits and we're starting to mesh."
That bond will be tested as UK begins to face actual opponents, which will happen for the first time on Friday in an exhibition vs. Transylvania.
Calipari has said throughout the preseason that he has a team full of players capable of going off on any given night. He reiterated that following the Blue-Shite Scrimmage, saying as many as eight Cats could put up 30-point games. With that kind of talent, each player will have games in which he takes a backseat as a teammate fills it up. How the Cats cope with that will go a long way toward determining their success.
"They really like each other, but we've got a whole season," Calipari said. "We've got to get dinged up a little bit. Like I said, you can't compare how you're playing to somebody else. Just be the best version of yourself."