UK held its first scrimmage of the Mark Stoops era on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
As an assistant, Mark Stoops was accustomed to getting his hands dirty. Having led defenses for the last nine seasons, Stoops knew where he was going to be on the practice field.
"I'm usually as a defensive coordinator, right in the middle of it," Stoops said. "I like being right in the middle of the huddle and in the middle of the play."
But for Stoops, the last five months have been a series of reminders of just how different his life is now having taken over as Kentucky head coach. On Friday, as UK held its first scrimmage, Stoops got another such reminder.
"In a critical situation today, a third down where the offense was about to get a first down and dropped it, I'm mad at the offense," Stoops said. "Normally, I'd be mad (at the defense) because they were open."
Rather than focusing on just one side of the ball, Stoops has shifted his priorities. He now must take a broader view. He now must think about all phases of the game and how they fit together. Nearly halfway through spring practice, Stoops sees a situation that would please his former defense-oriented self.
"Just like you would expect, the defense is further along," Stoops said. "If the defense just gets lined up right and makes them execute, the offense... It's always a little bit harder for them to get started."
Running approximately 140 plays in a morning session outside at the Nutter Training Facility, Stoops saw a UK defense that consistently had the upper hand over an offensive group still very much in a learning mode as Neal Brown installs his system.
"The defense got some takeaways and got some big stops," Stoops said. "I think that's probably the best thing of the day. Offensively, they moved the ball, did some good things at times. Critical turnovers, penalties, things like that. Just typical things you would expect for the first time out."
As has been the case throughout the spring, tempo defined much of the action. Defensive and offensive players alike are adjusting to the speed with which they're being asked to play.
"For only doing it for half a spring, we're doing well," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "But we're not where we need to be to handle that tempo. We had guys that weren't lined up at times and those were free plays for the offense if you don't get lined up."
Though spread offenses haven't permeated the Southeastern Conference quite like in other leagues, having to defend this UK attack - which cornerback Cody Quinn has dubbed "NASCAR" - is the best preparation the defense could ask for. Not only are the Cats having to learn a new base 4-3 defense on the fly, they're also having to do it with minimal time to think.
"That's pretty fast what they were doing and a lot of teams in the SEC aren't going to go as fast as that," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "So when we go against the different teams, other fast-paced spread teams, it'll be a lot easier and we'll be in a lot better shape than the other defense."
As for the offense, Brown sees a unit that is quickly taking to the pace of the new system, though mistakes - most notably in the form of dropped passes and fumbles - are inevitable.
"I was really pleased with our tempo. I thought we moved around pretty fast," Brown said. "Our operations were good, had very few penalties. Ball security, not where it needed to be. And it's the first time we tackled, so not surprised by that."
At quarterback, contenders Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow rotated with the first and second teams, while freshman Reese Phillips worked with the third team. Brown refrained from talking in depth about how the quarterbacks performed, opting to save his evaluations for after the spring. Even then, there's a good chance Stoops and Brown will not name a starter until fall camp.
Because of that, it's difficult to predict how UK's offense will look. Each of the three potential starters has different strengths, strengths Brown will be looking to accentuate as he adds nuance. The same goes for every position on the field.
"We'll give a little different presentation with whoever wins the job," Brown said. "I'm just trying to figure out what our best personnel is, who our best 11 are, and then once I figure out who our best 11 are, who is our next best skill guys? Then let's kind of form the package around them."
If the first two weeks of spring are any indication, it's likely running back Raymond Sanders will be included in that group. The 5-foot-8 senior has taken immediately to the new system, showing himself to be a good runner, consistent pass catcher and capable blocker.
"I knew it was an offense that would definitely get me in space and let me challenge some guys in space and set up some blocks in space," Sanders said. "Looking for a lot of home runs this year. The line is doing a great job. The wide receivers are on the outside blocking. I was very excited to find out it was going to open up some things."
The scrimmage was closed to reporters, but they heard plenty about an on-field encounter between Sanders and Williamson, UK's top tackler from a season ago.
"He's a handful back there," Williamson said. "He got me one time today, shook me up a little bit."
On a stretch run play, Sanders was carrying the ball and Williamson shot through the gap and came barreling toward him. Sanders used a stutter step move to evade the tackle and Williamson went to the ground.
"I had to do something, so he wouldn't run through me," Sanders said. "Avery is a great player, so I knew all the rest of the scrimmage he was going to be after me. I just had to keep running and keep making sure I tried to make him miss."
Sanders said Williamson got him back with a good hit, but it was "not as clean as I got him."
That back-and-forth is exactly what Stoops wants more of this spring: good football players fulfilling their assignments getting after one another. Sometimes the defense will come out on top and other times it will be the offense.
"We have a long way to go," Stoops said. "We're getting a better sense of urgency each and every day. Offensively, I like the positions the coaches are putting them in. I like the tempo and things. Defensively, the same things. We're coaching them hard. I like what we're doing."
Rumph undergoing shoulder surgery Friday, expected back in fall
The Cats were dealt a blow this week as Donte Rumph went down on Monday with a potentially significant injury. On Friday, Stoops revealed that the injury is to the senior defensive tackle's shoulder and that Rumph would undergo surgery to repair the damage on Friday afternoon. In a bit of good news, Rumph is expected to make a full recovery and return to the team for fall camp.
Matthew Mitchell goes through the game plan at UK's first practice at the Bridgeport Regional host site. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- No one in the country plays the same style of basketball as the Kentucky women's basketball team. That comes with advantages and disadvantages.
When preparing for Sweet 16 opponent No. 6 seed Delware (32-3) and the Colonial Athletic Association's Player of the Year, Elena Delle Donne, the Wildcats know their primary concern.
It's not Delle Donne.
While Kentucky undoubtedly has watched hours of tape on Delaware since the Wildcats advanced past Dayton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Tuesday, it can only show them so much. The Cats can't prepare for how Delaware will handle a team like them, specifically because there isn't another team like Kentucky.
"We're going to go out there and play the way we play regardless, but as far as scouting against who they've played that they plays like us, I haven't seen it yet," said sophomore guard Jennifer O'Neill. "We mostly scout them on their stuff."
That's why Mitchell has demanded Kentucky not change anything in this tournament. With so little time to prepare in between games, it's impossible to thoroughly scout each individual team. So Mitchell tells his team to focus on itself and for players to be the best versions of themselves that they can be.
That should be more than enough to win.
"We really just want to focus on us and how we can play at our best," said sophomore guard Bria Goss. "As far as wrinkles, nothing too specific, just doing what we do that got us here is the main focus.
"Of course Elena Delle Donne is a great player, but one player shouldn't be able to beat our team, so we have to go into the game with the mindset and mentality of what we can do as Kentucky."
That's easier said than done.
While Kentucky has been able use its "40 Minutes" style of play to its advantage all season long, the intensity and energy that Mitchell demands out of his players isn't easy to endure day in and day out. A lot of players might want to play basketball at Kentucky because of its success, but it's not for everyone.
"Some of our workouts aren't easy either, like the way we play," said O'Neill. "It's tough. I won't lie and say it's easy. Not everybody can play like this. That's why he recruits the players he recruits, so that we can come out and play the way he wants us to play."
Despite the demands that come along with playing in-your-face defense for a full 40 minutes, Kentucky players have grown accustomed to the rigors and the daily grind. It's part of the gig. It's also what sets them apart from other programs across the country.
"It's not the easiest, but we do take pride in it because if you think the men's and the women's side, who else does our style of play, which is all up in your face all 40 minutes?" said Goss. "There's not another team in the nation that does that."
The Wildcats have developed a sense of pride in their identity and unique style. As they advance deeper and deeper into the tournament, they see the fruits of their labor as the hard work continues to pay off.
That labor starts all the way back in the summer months as UK prepares their bodies for everyday stress that comes with playing Mitchell's style. The motivation that keeps them going in the summer months are moments like this weekend and beyond.
"Knowing that it's going to pay off at this point in the season," said O'Neill of how UK stays focused during summer workouts. "Just having goals like going to the Final Four and winning the national championship, knowing what you want to do beforehand so that you have motivation going into those workouts."
Now, those moments are rapidly approaching, and to be able to advance, Kentucky is going to have to continue to be the team it has been all season long. That will be no easy task when it comes to the Blue Hens.
Mitchell says he's looking to force 25 turnovers and score 25 points off of those Delaware miscues. He wants his team to score one point per turnover forced. So far, that's been the M.O. of his team. In Kentucky's 34 contests, they've forced 816 turnovers while scoring 851 points off takeaways.
Kentucky will have the tough task of creating those opportunities against a team that averages just 11.7 turnovers per game - third fewest in the nation. Meanwhile, Kentucky has forced opponents into 24 turnovers per game going into Saturday's Sweet 16 matchup with the second-best turnover margin in the country (+8.5).
Something's got to give.
"We're going to try to change that the best we can," said Mitchell. "The thing that you have to try to figure out is that we've maybe played more teams like them then they've played teams like us is what you hope is an advantage here. It will be interesting."
Delaware has been able to take care of the ball all season long for two reasons. The first is that the Blue Hens haven't faced many teams like Kentucky that rely defensive intensity and turnovers to win. The second is that they have one of the most versatile players in the nation in Delle Donne.
When the Blue Hens fine themselves in trouble against pressure, what do they do?
"They throw it to Delle Donne a lot," said a laughing Mitchell.
Delle Donne has the ability to help break the press and also catch, turn and shoot to alleviate defensive pressure. That will be Kentucky's toughest test Saturday as Delle Donne brings in her 25-points-per-game average to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Conn.
Yes, Delle Donne is likely to be the difference in the game if Delaware is to prevail over Kentucky in the Sweet 16, but Mitchell isn't looking to change anything now. He's going to stick with his guns and dance with the girls who brought him this far for the third time in four seasons.
"Just because of his faith and belief in us," said Goss. "He has the opportunity to coach a great team with a lot of talent. Talent doesn't always get you far, but our work ethic might get us to that next level, so that's really what he wants us to focus on."
UK held its sixth practice of the spring on Wednesday at Nutter Field House. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On Wednesday, Mark Stoops opened football practice to the media for the first time this spring. Dozens of members of the press roamed the track at the Nutter Field House as Kentucky held a practice of a little more than two hours.
Eventually, Stoops said he wants to open practice to the general public. Before then, here are a few of my observations from Wednesday to tide you over.
Without question, what sticks out above all else from the new staff's practices is pace. Whether it's during positional drills, 7-on-7 or 11-on-11, there is minimal time to rest between reps. For example, when a play is over during 11-on-11, there is a flurry activity as both the offense and defense line up. Seconds later, a new play is underway.
Just as no practice time is wasted, neither is any space on the practice field. Due to weather, UK has had to work inside for all but one practice so far this spring, but efficiency means this isn't much of a problem. As an example, during one eight-minute practice segment, I noticed the offensive line working in one end zone. From the 50-yard line in, quarterbacks, running backs, tight ends and wide receivers were passing and catching. On the other half of the field, the defensive line, linebackers and secondary split the field equally with special teamers working in the other end zone.
That efficiency goes for splitting up reps as well. Since there is still no depth chart in place, players rotate in and out frequently in all drills. As for the quarterbacks, they are always working. Even in 11-on-11 with just one quarterback getting actual snaps, the other four are shadowing his movements. And in many pass-and-catch drills, all five are dropping back and throwing at the same time as receivers run routes all over the field.
From players to managers to coaches, no one on the field leaves without breaking a sweat. Managers have to be on their toes and hustling as they collect balls, otherwise they will get run over. Coaches, meanwhile, are constantly in motion and lead their positional groups in running to their next station between drills.
On the subject of the coaches, they set the tone for it all. They are constantly enthusiastic and in the middle of the action. In 7-on-7 and route-running drills, you can often find Stoops standing where the offensive linemen would normally be. As for offensive coordinator Neal Brown, I could have spent the entire practice watching him alone. He doesn't rest for a second during practice, whether he's signaling in a play, shouting instruction, correcting mistakes or offering praise. The same goes for every staff member.
With Stoops serving as a head coach for the first time of his career, I was curious to see where he would spend most of his time coaching. Watching him, it's clear his background is on the defensive side - and with defensive backs specifically. He's leaving Brown and the assistants to do their jobs and handle the offense, but he's not ignoring that side of the ball. Far from it in fact. You can see the wheels turning as he absorbs the schemes and sets of UK's new offense and it won't be long before he's completely up to speed.
The most common words I head from coaches were "Finish!" and "Get upfield!" The new staff is trying to teach the Wildcats the importance of every last rep and anything other than maximum effort until each play is blown dead is unacceptable. As for the "Get upfield!" command, yards after catch are of the utmost importance in this new offense, which is why that's a constant refrain.
I said earlier that the first thing I noticed was the pace of the practice, but I'm realizing that's not true. The first thing I actually noticed was the music. During warm-ups and positional drills, speakers are constantly blaring hip-hop. The coaches want players to be energetic and have fun, and this is a way to help that along.
On to a few more specific observations, Za'Darius Smith is one large human being. At 6-foot-6, 257 pounds, he looks the part of a Southeastern Conference defensive end. Lining up at right end, Smith was opposite left tackle Darrian Miller for much of the morning and it was quite a battle. It's difficult for pass rushers to stand out when quarterbacks are wearing red jerseys, but Smith still managed to do just that on a few occasions. On one play, recognizing he was not going to be able to get to Maxwell Smith, he saw a running back flaring off into the flat and found his way into the passing lane. While maintaining contact with Miller, he jumped and effortlessly knocked the ball out of the air. If Smith and Bud Dupree continue to develop, UK's pass rush could be a strength.
At linebacker and as you might expect, Avery Williamson was the most consistent performer. He drew consistent praise from defensive coordinator/linebackers coach D.J. Eliot, with one exception. In positional drills early in practice, the linebackers had to serve as blockers and ball carriers against one another as they rotated. Williamson had a bit of trouble with this, leading Eliot to say something along the lines of "You're the worst cut blocker I've ever seen." It's a good thing playing linebacker doesn't require much blocking.
In writing about UK's running backs earlier in the week, I passed along the note that the backs would be responsible for calling protections at the line. On Wednesday, I got to see that process in action. It's a bit strange to see Raymond Sanders and the other backs pointing and shouting pre-snap instructions, but they seem to be getting the hang of it.
I spent a lot of my time focused on the quarterbacks and it's plain to see why coaches still call it an open competition between Smith, Patrick Towles and Whitlow. They are all still finding their way in the offense, but also showing off their respective strengths. Smith seems most comfortable in the offense with his experience and his ability to get the ball out so quickly. Towles looks the part and has a big arm, which he used to hit Demarco Robinson on a deep touchdown pass. Whitlow, in spite of his reputation as a runner, was throwing a beautiful ball on Wednesday. It's going to be interesting to see how this battle plays out.
It's evident that Brown is taking a hard look at the quarterback run game early this spring. When Whitlow and even Towles were in, the read option was a constant threat. I also noticed a quarterback power play that was used once or twice when the 6-foot-5, 234-pound Towles was in.
Speaking of power, don't let what you've heard about Brown's offense fool you: UK is going to be running downhill often. There were plenty of physical runs from Wildcat running backs.
In terms of formations, UK worked primarily out of shotgun and pistol sets with a lot of pre-snap action and even some jet-sweep type plays.
Next up for the Cats is the first scrimmage of the spring. Stay tuned for a report on Friday.
Battling illness, A'dia Mathies tied a career high with 34 points to lead UK to a second-round victory over Dayton. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
After senior guard A'dia Mathies played a distinctly un-Mathies-like game in the opening round, she seemed back to full strength Tuesday night with a career-high tying 34 points to come to her teammates rescue.
She was far from it.
While it wasn't quite Michael Jordan's legendary "Flu Game," Mathies was positively Jordan-esque at times against Dayton on Tuesday.
"Tonight was very surprising. It was a very surprising game," said Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell. "We referenced 'His Airness' before the game."
Little did he know.
As staff member after staff member and then player after player seemed to come into contact with a stomach virus in Queens over the last few days, it finally struck the hardest at the most inopportune of times. Several Wildcats were limited in the afternoon's shoot-around with several players feeling the effects of a common sickness.
No one knew what to expect come game time.
"It was not a good day as a coach. A lot of uncertainty in the day," said Mitchell. "Very, very low energy at practice and it did not seem like people were feeling great."
Azia Bishop wasn't on the floor for introductions. Kastine Evans quickly asked for a breather early into the first half and Samarie Walker delayed the game momentarily as she tried to find the nearest trash can.
Mathies wasn't feeling her best either, and her body language during shoot-around and before the game suggested she was headed for another rough NCAA Tournament game.
Instead, Mathies and her teammates pushed on to defeat Dayton 84-70 and advance to yet another Sweet 16 in the Bridgeport, Conn., Regional.
Though Kentucky was at less-than-full strength and seemed the Cats would not have the energy that Mitchell had hoped for, their play from tipoff would suggest otherwise. After Mitchell implored his team to come out with high energy and defensive intensity after their first-round win over Navy, the Wildcats were quick to answer the bell.
Within the first few moments of the game, Evans needed a breather. Enter sophomore Bria Goss, who had gone from starter to reserve earlier in the season. Goss filled in admirably and provided instant energy to a physically limited lineup. She was active, aggressive and tough, giving UK the boost it needed.
Mitchell had a feeling that she would be instrumental to UK's success.
"We're really fortunate because we still had Bria and Bernisha (Pinkett) who could pick the ball up and pressure it all the way down the court," said Mitchell. "If I had only had one, I would have thought about changing the game plan."
Goss gave Kentucky six points in 16 huge first-half minutes. With her teammates responding, it was full speed ahead.
Dayton ball-handlers had two or three Wildcats in their face at all times as the Cats trapped and pressured the ball into 14 first-half turnovers, including seven steals. Those turnovers led to UK taking 16 more shots in the first half than the Flyers as Kentucky shot it at a 45.9-percent (17-of-37) clip.
Mathies was the driving force behind the UK offense in the first half, scoring 15 points in the first 20 minutes to pace UK who had lost DeNesha Stallworth in the post to foul trouble. But it actually took the senior standout awhile to get going. Through the first 10 minutes of the game, Mathies managed six points. She would score nine in the final 10 minutes of the half to reach the 15-point plateau to lead all scorers at the break.
In Kentucky's win over Navy on Sunday, it was UK's quick start in the second half that sparked UK to a 20-point victory. With the Cats leading by nine at the half, Dayton quickly cut into that lead in less than two minutes into the second half to make the deficit four at 50-46.
It was Dayton who came out the aggressor early in the second half as the Flyers looked to fight their way back into the game. There was also a feeling that UK had lost its adrenaline surge and the illness was starting to catch up across the board.
Mathies took her first-round performance pretty hard. She was quiet after the game and was visibly frustrated by her efforts despite the victory. Scoring just five points in the game, UK was able to overcome her difficulties.
On Tuesday night, it was Mathies playing both redeemer and heroine on the hardwood.
"I know that I'm a big part of this team," said Mathies. "I knew that I had to go out and have a great game. Everyone was telling me that, 'You're going to have a big game,' especially with how it was last game. I just went out there and played as hard as I could."
Possession after possession, Mathies would come down the floor and if she saw an opening, she was in the type of groove that she was going to take any shot Dayton would give her. And that shot, 76 percent of the time, would fall through the hoop.
Mathies was a staggering 13 of 17 from the field, including a career-best 6 of 7 from 3-point land. It was also the most field goals that she had ever made in a game in her career.
But In a game Kentucky really controlled most of the way, Dayton was able to scratch back to within two of the Wildcats.
That's when Mathies did her best Air Jordan impression.
She wreaked havoc on defense and came up with a huge steal with the possession ending on a nice mid-range jumper that she sank with ease. On the following possession, Jennifer O'Neill found a cutting Mathies under the basket and she deftly finished a reverse layup to push the lead back to six. To close things out, Mathies would hit half of her 3-pointers in the final 11:33. UK never led by less than eight points as the Cats cruised to a 14-point victory.
Mathies' 34 points were good to tie her career-high output and outdo her best NCAA Tournament performance which came on a 32-point performance her freshman campaign. As the Cats advance to a third Sweet 16 in four years, even Mitchell can hardly process what he just witnessed from his superstar player.
"She just felt terrible. I mean she really felt bad," said Mitchell. "It was a definite Michael Jordan-esque performance. It was an unbelievable performance."
Former Wildcat Chad Scott returned to Lexington this offseason to serve as running backs coach on Mark Stoops' UK staff. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Within a day or two each of practice this spring, offensive coordinator Neal Brown takes to Twitter. After reviewing film, Brown tells his 13,000-plus followers which of his players performed well.
His reasons for the exercise in transparency are twofold. First, he wants to keep fans up to date since Kentucky's first five practices have been closed to the public. Second, it's for the players. He wants those who are performing well to receive recognition and those who are not to strive for it.
Thus far, he's named between four and eight players each day and will almost certainly do the same at some point on Tuesday. When he does, you can rest assured that at least a one of two of UK's running backs will be on the list.
Whereas other positions on the offensive side of the ball lack experience and depth, the UK backfield is flush with both. Because of that, the backs are shouldering more than their fair share of the load as Brown looks to revitalize the Wildcat attack.
Led by their new coach, the UK running backs don't mind.
"I like it," running backs coach Chad Scott said. "Give us pressure. We like it. We'll respond, I promise you."
That doesn't mean Scott's unit isn't a work in progress though.
Just as it has for every other positional group, the installation of Brown's offense has presented challenges. The responsibilities and priorities in UK's quick-strike attack are radically different than anything the running backs have ever dealt with before, which has caused plenty of fits and starts, even for the veterans.
"Really the experience, it's gonna come in handy in the latter part of spring ball and going into the season, but now the offense is totally different," Scott said. "Even these guys that are experienced, it's an adjustment period for them."
Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George combined for nearly 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground last season. With all the football they've played at the Southeastern Conference level and their pass-catching ability, the two seniors were expected to stand out early. That's proven to be the case a third of the way through spring practice, particularly for Sanders.
"Raymond Sanders has looked the best so far," Brown said. "He's changed his body. Really pleased with how he's handled himself. He's matured, and he's done well not only rushing the football, but in the passing game. He's well ahead of the rest of them in blitz protection."
In spite of his 5-foot-8 frame and the fact that he is listed as at least 13 pounds lighter than any of his fellow backs, Sanders has emerged as the most consistent blocker of the bunch, a key role in Brown's pass-happy scheme. In fact, that might be the biggest area of adjustment. UK's backs are responsible for making protection calls at the line of scrimmage, which requires smarts and, just as importantly, a willingness to speak up.
"We make the protection calls, which is something totally different," Scott said. "Now we're asking them to be communicating more and communicate loudly and it's something that's totally different them."
Different as it may be, Sanders is doing his best.
"I make mistakes just like everyone else, but I try to limit my mistakes and make sure I have everyone else going as far as running backs," Sanders said. "I just try to pick guys up and execute and make sure I'm doing the right things on the field."
Outside of blocking ability, Scott says the most important attributes of a running back in this system are "lateral agility and quickness" - words the former UK running back used more than once in speaking to the media on Monday. Sanders certainly fits the bill.
"I think he has it all," Scott said. "I think he's really the total package. I think he's done a great job taking care of his body to put himself in position to be as good as we need him to be."
"I definitely feel like this offense is a great fit for me," Sanders said. "Catching out of the backfield, speed sweeps, there's a lot of different things that coaches are integrating that can get me in space and get me in alleys where I can hit the seam or make some moves on guys."
As good as Sanders has looked early, his emergence shouldn't discourage any of the other running backs. George, sophomores Josh Clemons (who has returned to practice after redshirting last season with a meniscus injury) and Dyshawn Mobley and redshirt freshman Justin Taylor are all getting roughly an equal share of practice reps.
Brown's offense may have a reputation for throwing the ball, but anyone who minimizes the supposed impact a running back can have hasn't watched closely enough.
"You might think, 'Hey, how do they fit within our offense?' " Scott said. "It's a spread offense, but it's a downhill run game. We still, in all our run game, we try to find a way to get our shoulders squared and run downhill."
Take last season at Texas Tech for example. Three Red Raiders rushed for at least 450 yards, led by Kenny Williams, who received All-Big 12 Honorable Mention honors after racking up 824 yards.
Williams' strong 2012 also serves to dispel another notion about UK's new offense: that big backs have no place in it. Williams is listed at 5-foot-9, 219 pounds, which suggests that heftier Wildcat backs George, Clemons, Mobley and Taylor can excel, provided they can move.
"That's something that even the bigger guys, when we first came in, the bigger guys kind of struggled with, kind of muttering under their breath, 'Man, we're not going to fit. They're looking for a smaller guy,' " Scott said. "We're not. We're looking for guys that have got great lateral agility and quickness."
Scott believes all of his backs have that kind of ability, even though it might not come as naturally as it does for a player like Sanders. He says the key for them will be spending time away from practice honing their craft. And in turn, that will be the key to the unit as a whole fulfilling expectations.
"We like the pressure," Scott said. "It is pressure, but it's a good problem to have. It's a good kind of pressure. Just respond to it. Prepare yourself well and respond to the opportunity when it comes."
Matthew Mitchell talks at Monday's practice as UK prepares for its second-round matchup with Dayton in the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
When Kentucky and Dayton square off in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament on Monday night, it won't be the first time that they've gone toe-to-toe in the last calendar year. But it has been since October that these two teams scrimmaged, so it might take awhile for them to recognize one another.
As most teams do in the preseason, Kentucky held a closed scrimmage with the Dayton Flyers as they have over the last few seasons. Due to the proximity of the schools and the relationship between UK head coach Matthew Mitchell and UD coach Jim Jabir, the teams have developed a friendly rivalry that takes place before the real games get underway.
"We don't play each other in the regular season and we're in different leagues, so we can really be open with each other in the process of playing and it's been really good work for us," Mitchell said at Monday's press conference. "Jim's been really good about setting up situations and going through different things. They're very competitive and we're very competitive, so I think for both teams it's been a good development for us."
As fate would have it, both teams were shipped from the Midwest to the East Coast with the opportunity to reconvene in Queens, N.Y., for the NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky seemed to be in for a bit of a scare after one half of play had the Cats trailing by a point to 15th-seeded Navy. A reinvigorated Wildcat squad led by a collective defensive clinic helped UK hold Navy to 15 points in the second half to carry Kentucky to a 20-point first-round victory, its largest margin of victory in an NCAA Tournament game.
Dayton, a No. 7 seed, was in for quite a battle as well, facing host and No. 10 seed St. John's. It was a back and forth affair as Dayton seemed to have control, but with the crowd at its back, the Red Storm forced overtime. Dayton would ultimately prevail after an additional overtime period to pull off the 96-90 double-overtime victory.
Mitchell doesn't believe that the extra wear and tear on Dayton should be an issue for the Flyers after getting a day of rest on Monday. However, he does feel that much like his team showed in the second half against Navy, Kentucky needs to come out with great energy and intensity to get the win Tuesday night.
"I don't know that yesterday's game will have anything to do with that," said Mitchell. "I think that we need to really be tenacious on defense because they're such a good team. We played early (Sunday) and I think they'll have plenty of time to recover. People have a funny way of getting ready to play this time of year so I don't think that the double overtime is going to impact it and I think we need to focus us."
Just like Mitchell doesn't expect Sunday's Dayton game to affect Tuesday's outcome, senior guard and Southeastern Conference Player of the Year A'dia Mathies knows her performance from Sunday won't affect her attitude heading into the second round.
Mathies, for the first time in her collegiate career - and maybe for the first time in her life - played a game without making a field goal. Though she did not make much of an impact offensively, she was still a factor defensively in UK's 20-point route of the Midshipmen.
"She made some great defensive plays yesterday," said Mitchell. "We went back and watched the film and she made a few defensive plays that I don't think anybody could have made. I think she did some good things there. She got some loose balls. Shots didn't fall for her, but she'll play better tomorrow."
Mathies has similar expectations, though she's more than willing to do whatever it takes for her team to win.
"I feel like that's how I am with any game," said Mathies. "It might not show up in the stat sheet with getting 12 steals or 15 boards, but I feel like if you play aggressive and do the little things, that should help and that's what I'm going to focus on."
That's what Mitchell is looking for out of his team: to focus on Kentucky and not worry so much about its opponent. If the Wildcats continue to play their brand of basketball, the rest should take care of itself.
That's also why Mitchell doesn't put too much stock in his team's preseason meeting with the Flyers. While those around the program say that the scrimmage was close and competitive, the two teams on that day likely have completely different identities than way back in October.
"I think it would be a mistake for either team to take very much from the scrimmage. It was real, real early and we didn't have a lot of things in," said Mitchell. "It's a long, long time ago and I don't know how much you can put in that especially at that stage of the season."
At that point in the season, UK has yet to implement its offense or its press. That scrimmage is usually a way for Mitchell and his staff to gauge where they are defensively.
Fast forward from October late March, and the Cats have a pretty good grasp on just how tough they are defensively. They will look to use that as their major weapon against Dayton Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena and any other opponents they may face along the way if they continue to advance in the NCAA Tournament.
"I think with any game we just want to keep the pressure on and wear them down," said Mathies. "Just knowing that they've got 10 extra minutes on their legs and that could potentially help us on the long run, I really think we need to put a focus on that and take them out of the comfort zone. I think we're the best team at doing that, so just playing aggressive and playing hard and I think that should help us in the end."
Jennifer O'Neill's big second half in her return home to New York sent Kentucky past Navy and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell believed the two weeks between games was good for his team.
He was right and he was wrong, depending on what half of basketball you watched Sunday afternoon in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament first-round game with Navy.
The Wildcats looked rusty and a bit out of sorts after the layoff. Though Mitchell was encouraged by his team's effort and energy in practice over the past two weeks, no one was sure what to expect when the team finally got back on the floor. It didn't take long to find out how much the time off would affect the team.
Navy came out and gave UK its best shot from the tip and caught the Wildcats off guard. Kentucky was out of rhythm and struggled putting the ball in the basket for much of the first 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Navy was getting exactly what it wanted.
The Midshipmen were overmatched athletically, and they knew that coming in. They wanted to slow the game down, move the ball, exploit Kentucky's trapping on defense, and shoot a lot of 3s. In the first half, those were falling and the Wildcats were staggering.
Kentucky did not look like Kentucky. They were rusty.
"I thought we were really off-balanced and rushing around the rim," said Mitchell. "Where the rust might come through is we're a very rhythm-oriented team defensively and we were just a step or two late on some rotations. I thought we were giving some good effort in traps, but late on rotations."
Navy knocked down five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game and completely grabbed the momentum, eventually building a seven-point lead with 6:29 left to go in the first half. But Kentucky relied on its full-court pressure defensively to scrap back. Kentucky had a chance to head into the locker room with the lead, eventually grabbing a one-point advantage, but Navy's April Bernal hit a jumper with 36 seconds left to give the Midshipmen a 26-25 lead at intermission.
When the Wildcats came out for the second half, they came out a different team, or a more familiar one that Mitchell had been accustomed to seeing for 27 wins this season.
Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper and her players noted that UK played a brand of basketball that they had never seen before, when in reality, Kentucky was just getting back to its old ways.
The second half started out with a readjusted Jennifer O'Neill who decided to start imposing her will. After trying to let the game come to her for the first half, she began attacking and asserting herself on both ends of the floor.
O'Neill blitzed Navy with a personal seven-point run in the first minute and 13 seconds and before Navy could blink, a one-point advantage turned into a four-point deficit. While the offensive outburst was impressive, the key to it may have been a purely defensive spark.
"The run was sparked by Jennifer O'Neill's defensive intensity," said Mitchell. "She scored a bunch of points and assisted on some points, but I really thought it was her defensive intensity coming out of the break."
Kentucky's team defense turned up a notch as well in the second half.
The Cats forced Navy into 14 second-half turnovers including four steals by O'Neill in the half alone. Without her decision to come out and impact the game, the Wildcats may not have ever gotten on a roll.
"I do feel like I am changing the game because my teammates start going," said O'Neill. "Coming into the media timeout, Coach Mitchell ran out to me and he was telling me, 'Now we are playing like this because you are playing defense and you are being intense on defense.' "
O'Neill finished with a big day in her homecoming in New York, scoring 12 points with four assists to go along with five steals. While she set the tone defensively and was a necessary sparkplug for the Cats, DeNesha Stallworth was steady throughout in the post.
The UK center worked well in tandem with post mate Samarie Walker. Kentucky's size coupled with its athleticism made it hard for Navy to contain the Wildcats on the block.
Stallworth scored nine points in each half to finish with a game-high 18 points to earn a double-double in her first NCAA Tournament game as a Wildcat. With Kentucky struggling to get anything going offensively through the first 20 minutes of action, it was the work done in the post that helped weather the storm.
"I felt like we were just a little rusty," said Stallworth. "We haven't played in a couple of weeks. I think we played hard, tried to stay focused and not let that bring us down. That was the adversity that we did face. The team did a great job just keeping our heads up and knowing the game is 40 minutes."
Though the first-half performance was unsettling, at no point was there a sense of panic. Due to Kentucky's recent success and another great run in the Southeastern Conference this season, the Wildcats are going to get their opponent's best night in and night out. What Mitchell can always rely on his team's defensive pressure to get UK back on track when the offense isn't flowing.
"There was no panic in the first half because we were pretty clear on what we needed to do to get a different result," said Mitchell. "I knew that if we could get some sharpness to our defense, I felt like we could do what we did in the second half. There was no panic.
"I was just more so trying to get us to settle down offensively. Just really hurrying, poor shot selection from the standpoint of just in a hurry and not letting it come to us and getting better rhythm."
Once Kentucky imposed its will on the defensive end, that was it for Navy. The Midshipmen could never get back into an offensive rhythm themselves in the second half managing just 15 points in the final 20 minutes. UK held Navy to 23.8 percent (5 of 21) from the field in the second half and hit the boards hard to outrebound Navy 43-30.
After Navy hit five 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Mids were just barely able to match that point total in the entire second half as they managed just one 3-pointer for the rest of the contest (6 of 22).
Kentucky will try to continue to apply that pressure in the second round, which could be an even greater advantage on Monday. The Wildcats will face Dayton, who defeated St. John's 96-90 in double overtime. With that extra mileage and energy spent to advance, Kentucky will likely look to exploit the Flyers to take advantage of additional wear and tear from a hard-fought overtime battle.
The Wildcats will take on the Flyers at 7 p.m. ET Tuesdat night back at Carnesecca Arena broadcast on ESPN2 as Kentucky looks to continue its quest for a Final Four berth.
"I had a lot of family and friends here, but the game wasn't big because of them," said O'Neill. "The game was big because it's the NCAA Tournament and we have a goal of making it to New Orleans. That what made this game big."
Austin Cousino and Corey Littrell celebrate after UK's doubleheader sweep of Mississippi State on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
If you had watched Austin Cousino swing the bat at all this week, you wouldn't have thought he would have much cause for confidence.
As he strode to the plate with the bases loaded the bottom of the ninth inning, Cousino had just one hit in his previous 16 at-bats. The potential game-winning run stood on third base with star Mississippi State closer Jonathan Holder looking to preserve a 3-3 tie in the series rubber match.
But if you have watched Cousino at all during his Kentucky career, you would have known he would step into the box with all the confidence in the world. That's just who he is.
"I just wiped away what happened early in the game," Cousino said. "I knew that if I could get up, I could get him in."
As has been the case more often than not over his two seasons as a Wildcat, Cousino's confidence was proven to be justified.
On a 1-0 count, Cousino laced a single down the first-base line to score Kyle Barrett - the true freshman who reached on a double to lead off the inning - and send No. 8 UK (18-5, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) to a 4-3 victory and a doubleheader sweep of the visiting and 14-ranked Bulldogs (21-5, 2-4 SEC).
"I think Austin's a really good player," head coach Gary Henderson said. "I think good players rise to the moment most of the time."
Cousino arrived on campus an assured player, but that's been reinforced by the group that surrounds him. He might be the best example of a Wildcat who never lacks for self-belief, but he's not the only one.
"You try to have that king of team, and sometimes it's easier said than done," Henderson said. "They certainly hear that a lot from me. It doesn't do you a lot of good to be disappointed for very long."
That was on display Saturday.
The Cats had lost each of their last two games before the doubleheader, including an 8-4 decision on the previous night. Friday's defeat also marked UK's fifth in its last six meetings with Mississippi State, which might have led another team to wonder whether the Bulldogs had its number. With Henderson leading the way, the Cats had no such thoughts on their way to a second series win in as many SEC weekends.
"We have that mojo, we have that feel to our club coming from last year and just bringing that culture to this year," Cousino said. "We fully expect to win every time out."
With starting pitchers like the ones UK trotted out on Saturday, that's a reasonable expectation.
Jerad Grundy started the opener, and he will admit it: His approach changes based on the outcome of Kentucky's Friday-night game. Other pitchers might insist their focus remains the same no matter what, but as UK's Saturday starter, Grundy feels just a little different when the Wildcats lose before he takes the mound.
"You're kind of back against the wall when you lose Friday night because you don't want to lose a series and be fighting to not get swept on Sunday," Grundy said.
The senior lefthander dazzled in eight-plus innings, allowing just two runs on six hits to pitch UK to a 3-2 win. Grundy faced the Bulldogs twice last season, striking out nine over six innings the second time around in the SEC Tournament. Armed with that experience, Grundy attacked Mississippi State hitters to the tune of 10 strikeouts.
"I saw a real aggressive approach, and they were kind of like that last year," Grundy said. "I kind of pitched backwards throwing my off-speed stuff early and try to get some free swings and going to my fastball later."
In his more than two decades as a pitching coach and now a head coach, Henderson has seen more than his fair share of impressive pitching performances. Because of that, he knows how special outings like Grundy's are.
"That effort today was about as good as you ever see in college baseball," Henderson said.
No one will describe Corey Littrell's seven innings in the nightcap in any such terms, but he was effective nonetheless. Starting for the 10th time in a series-deciding game over the last two seasons, Littrell overcame six walks and two third-inning errors before giving way to Walter Wijas. Littrell gave up three runs (one earned) and now has a 1.85 earned-run average in those rubber-match starts.
"I was a little wild early and then the defense made errors, but the biggest thing for me was knowing that I've been in that situation before," Littrell said. "I know I can find it at any moment."
Even during a sophomore season that earned his second-team All-SEC honors, Littrell may not have been able to battle through seven innings, but 2013 is another story. Littrell has lasted at least seven innings in each of his last four starts, a trend that spreads to each of UK's three weekend starters. In 18 combined starts, A.J. Reed, Grundy and Littrell have lasted an average of nearly six-and-a-third innings. Last season, UK's weekend starters averaged a little more than five-and-two-thirds innings per start. They have also lasted six innings or longer 13 times, seven innings or longer eight times.
Part of that is driven by a slightly less deep UK bullpen, but a lot of it has to do with who Henderson is starting on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"We're a little bit stronger in that area I think, just physically stronger," Henderson said.
With that durability, the Cats have even more cause for confidence.
"We know that we're not going to win every game," Littrell said. "We're going to lose again because it's baseball, but we're confident and we know that if we play the way we know how, we'll come out successful."
Kentucky head coach Matthew Mitchell led practice on Saturday at Carnesecca Arena in preparation for UK's first-round game against Navy. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
It will have been exactly two weeks since the Kentucky women's basketball team played an actual game when the Wildcats tip off against Navy in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday.
Kentucky's last game, a forgettable loss to Texas A&M in the Southeastern Conference Tournament Championship, occurred on March 10 in Duluth, Ga. After the loss, head coach Matthew Mitchell gave his players three full days away from basketball to let them clear their minds and refocus on a new goal.
"We are ready to go out there and get a win," said senior guard A'dia Mathies. "The ultimate goal is to go to the Final Four so, just to have that goal, it'll be very achievable. We're just excited to play."
The previous goal that UK had focused on heading into the season was winning the SEC regular-season crown for the second season in a row. After falling just short, the Wildcats regrouped and set their sights on the tournament title. There, Kentucky came one win short of reaching that mark yet again.
Now UK, a team who has reached the Elite Eight twice in the last three years, is looking to take that next step and reach New Orleans, the site of this year's Final Four. That achievement would likely trump any SEC aspirations the Wildcats had going into the season.
"I think we tried to refocus and get our minds right to know that we have another opportunity, our last opportunity to try to win another championship," said junior forward DeNesha Stallworth. "I think all our minds are straight, just taking 40 minutes at a time and one game at a time."
While some teams may struggle to regain rhythm during a two-week layoff, the time off has served as an important developmental period for Mitchell's squad. After some much needed time recharging the batteries, the Kentucky players came back to practice rejuvenated and ready to work towards their next goal.
"What's been so great about this time is that we had a really good team heading into the SEC Tournament and then we had some time to get better," said Mitchell. "So from our practices we have certainly seen more aggressive play in the post and playing physically with poise. That's been a really good result from the practice time."
Mitchell's been quick to make sure that he doesn't dismiss Navy as a formidable opponent for UK's first-round game. However, a two seed has never fallen to a 15 in the history of the Women's NCAA Tournament. But whether it's Navy or Baylor, Kentucky is focused on itself and playing its own game rather than the opponent.
The Midshipmen (21-11) were the winners of the 2013 Patriot League Tournament and earned the automatic bid to this year's Big Dance. That achievement in its own right is something that Kentucky was unable to accomplish on its way to its school-record fourth straight NCAA Tournament bid.
For Kentucky to reach that ultimate goal of a Final Four appearance, it all starts with taking care of business in the first round beginning Sunday at 12:05 p.m. ET at Carnesecca Arena in Queens, N.Y.
"They spread the floor and they have the capability to make threes at all four positions," said Mitchell. "But for us, we need to focus on what we do well. We need this to be a fast-paced game and try and speed Navy the best we can. It's a big challenge for us and we really need to do everything we can to be as close to our identity to defeat Navy tomorrow."
Though the focus is ultimately on Navy, Mitchell is perfectly fine with his players looking somewhat ahead to goals further down the road. After all, the only way Kentucky can win a national championship is by winning a regional championship.
"We're very focused on our region and trying to advance through it and win four games," Mitchell said. "I am really happy to hear them say that. That's what we want to do. We want to beat Navy tomorrow. We have to beat Navy tomorrow to get to the Final Four. I think that is exactly where our minds need to be.
"I told them last night they have a great chance to beat Navy tomorrow and when we do that, we'll have a good chance on Tuesday night against whoever that may be. We just need to keep trying to understand where we're headed right now, and I have no problem with their goal being the Final Four."
A Final Four appearance could be the crowning achievement that Mathies has been searching for in her senior campaign. Mathies made it clear that her aspirations and expectations were to win an SEC Tournament title this season. As the career of the most decorated Wildcats in program history, Mathies is looking to see just how long she can extend her run with plenty of basketball left to be played.
"This will be the last time I'm playing for Kentucky," said Mathies, "But it's still a long season. If you go all the way, you're playing for another three weeks. I'm just focused on winning one game at a time and you know we already have our goal. I think if we just stick to that, we should be playing for a long time. When it's done, it's done. I can't think about that right now."
One thing is for sure: Kentucky is happy to finally get out of SEC play.
After finishing the regular season with five out of its last seven games on the road and three straight days of play in the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats should be well tested for their opponent Sunday afternoon. If the Wildcats continue to bring that rediscovered energy and enthusiasm that they've brought to the practice setting over the last two weeks, expect to see Kentucky in the Bridgeport Regional as UK looks to execute its way to its final goal.
Bud Dupree had 91 tackles, 12.5 for loss and 6.5 sacks as a sophomore in 2012. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Bud Dupree knows all about the history Mark Stoops and D.J. Eliot have with defensive ends.
He doesn't need to be told about what Bjoern Werner and Cornelius Carradine did the last two years at Florida State. He's keenly aware of the 44.5 sacks they combined to register in 2011 and 2012 and where the pair stands in the latest NFL Draft projections.
Needless to say, he likes what he's seen.
"My eyes light up when I see that," Dupree said. "Hopefully they have two first-round picks this year."
The 6-foot-4, 254-pound junior has spent the first three practices of the spring at the same defensive-end spot where Werner and Carradine starred the last two seasons. It's early, but the coaches like Dupree just as much he likes his coaches' track record.
"Bud Dupree is extremely athletic for his size," Eliot said after practice on Friday, UK's first in pads. "I think he's got a chance to be a very good defensive end. Fundamentally right now, he's not where he needs to be, but he's working on it every day."
Dupree spent most of his freshman season at defensive end in UK's hybrid front. As a sophomore, he moved primarily to linebacker, totaling 91 tackles, 12.5 for loss and a team-best 6.5 sacks. His versatility is forcing Stoops and Eliot into a decision on where he will play in a new 4-3 base scheme.
He is listed at defensive end only in UK's spring guide and has worked there exclusively thus far. Dupree, though, isn't sure just yet whether end is where he will play in the fall. So long as he's in position go after the quarterback, Dupree doesn't much care.
"Whichever, I don't care," Dupree said when asked of his preference between end and linebacker. "I want to have sacks though."
Considering FSU's defensive ends combined for 26.5 sacks last year and the linebackers had just three, end seems to be his likely landing spot. Dupree's performance so far this spring only serves to strengthen that idea.
In three practices, Dupree and his fellow linemen have been the standouts on UK's defense. The linebackers and backs have shown flashes, but the line under Jimmy Brumbaugh - with ends Za'Darius Smith and Farrington Huguenin and tackles Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson - has been impossible to ignore.
"I think the defensive line is doing a really good job," Eliot said. "They've got some veteran players up there, so they have some guys that are used to game action. So far, they have caught my eye."
As experienced as many of those players may be, Smith has a leg up even though he's never played a down at the Division I level. The 6-foot-6, 257 pounder played last season at East Mississippi Community College, the same junior college where Brumbaugh coached last season.
"Za'Darius is doing a nice job," Stoops said. "I noticed him a few times out there, had some nice plays today. He's doing good, and he's ahead. He knows Coach Brumbaugh's techniques and how we want to play fundamentally defensively, so he's doing a nice job."
Dupree went so far as to call Smith a coach on the field.
"Z, he's a very physical guy," Dupree said. "He knows a lot more than we do because he was with Coach Brumbaugh already at JUCO. He's ahead, he's the line leader and just calling the drills and he's showing us things Coach Brumbaugh taught him."
What Eliot hopes, though, is that it won't take the others long to catch up. Florida State succeeded with a defensive system that relied on simplicity to put players in a position to make plays. Eliot wants players to eventually know their roles so well it's not even necessary to think on the field.
"I hope as a coach that my scheme is never hard for the players, so I hope that's accurate (that the scheme is simple)," Eliot said. "I think our guys are picking it up pretty quick. Our philosophy is we want to be multiple, but we want to be simple for the players."
Dupree isn't completely up to speed just yet, but he understands what Eliot is talking about.
"It's very simple," Dupree said. "We've got a lot of schemes, but it all pretty much flows in the same category. We just know what to do when we line up and not think too much."
Eventually, Dupree wants to reach the point where the only thing on his mind during passing plays is to get the quarterback. If he can do that, Dupree can picture himself and his teammates shaking hands with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just like Werner and Carradine will in a little more than a month.
"Maybe that will be me and Z in the future," Dupree said. "And Farrington also."