After another hard-fought loss, Mark Stoops had yet another opportunity to pick out silver linings.
He could have cited Kentucky's unwillingness to give in after facing a 14-point second-quarter deficit. He could have talked about the way UK played in front of a pro-Mississippi State crowd and had the ball with a chance to score a game-winning touchdown in the final minute.
Stoops, like anyone else who has watched these Wildcats, has seen his team improve, but that's not what was on his mind in the wake of a 28-22 defeat.
"We need to execute better, that's the bottom line," Stoops said. "We have our opportunities, I think. Our team is going to work. Our team needs to improve. We all need to do a better job starting with me and that's the way it is and we'll do that. We're not gonna hesitate. We're gonna go back to work and we've gotta execute when the game's on the line and we're gonna do that."
UK will go back to work with the idea of capitalizing on opportunities the next time a game is on the line, and that's not isolated to the game's final drive when Maxwell Smith's fourth-down pass from the MSU 29 fell incomplete. In fact, it begins all the back in the first quarter.
"Started too slow again," Stoops said. "We tried to combat that all week. We talked about it. We needed to come out strong and execute in the first half on both sides of the ball. Didn't do that. They did."
After UK's game-opening drive stalled, the Bulldogs took possession. On third-and-6, the UK pass rush seemed to have Dak Prescott in its crosshairs for a sack, but he escaped and hit Malcolm Johnson for a 60-yard touchdown.
Mississippi State would go on to gain 291 of its 447 yards in the first half to claim a 21-10 lead, though UK's defense would improve after halftime behind Bud Dupree. The junior defensive end returned to the lineup after missing the Alabama game with a strained pectoral muscle to tally 13 tackles and a sack.
"They do a nice job," Stoops said. "They keep you off balance. Give them credit. They kept us off balance. We didn't do a good enough job in the first half. That's too many yards. They converted too many yards and too many big plays and I thought in the second half we did a better job, were a little more aggressive and made some plays when we needed to."
With that improved second-half defense, UK closed to within 21-19 late in the third quarter after scoring nine points in 1:07 on a safety and a 14-yard touchdown run by Jojo Kemp -- the freshman's first.
Sensing an opportunity, Stoops dialed up an onside kick that Joe Mansour placed perfectly into the waiting hands of Javess Blue. The play, however, was eventually nullified when Daron Blaylock was determined to be offsides.
Once again, Stoops refused to make excuses. He has experienced a great deal of success in his coaching career, so he knows those kinds of miscues represent the razor-thin margin between victory and defeat.
"I thought we had good momentum," Stoops said. "We had the lob set up and it was perfectly executed and somebody on the back side that had nothing to do with the play was evidently four or six inches offsides. So that's the difference. We did not do what we needed to do and that's disappointing."
That disappointment and lack of execution leaves UK with a 1-6 record, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference play. Just as he answered questions from the media with a sense of accountability, he did the same in addressing his players in the postgame locker room.
"We're gonna to look it dead in the face," Stoops said. "It is what it is and it's not OK. We're all gonna coach better. They're gonna play better. We're gonna address these issues and we're gonna get better and we're going to keep on fighting and that's it. End of story."
Kentucky junior guard Tod Lanter. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Throughout the 2013-14 season, UKathletics.com and CoachCal.com will be here to serve as your primary source for Kentucky basketball coverage. From feature stories to game coverage, video and more, we pride ourselves on being your one-stop shop for all things UK basketball. However, nobody can paint the picture quite like the people who create the artwork. Throughout the 2013-14 year, the players who make the stories will share in writing a season-long blog to share with the Big Blue Nation their experiences, their thoughts and how the year develops in their own eyes. This week Tod Lanter shares his thoughts about Big Blue Madness and bonding with his teammates with the Big Blue Nation. By Tod Lanter (Follow on Twitter)
What's going on, Big Blue Nation? Glad to get this opportunity to talk to you.
Since Big Blue Madness is fresh in everyone's mind, let's start with that. Although I was on the team last year, this was my first Big Blue Madness experience as a part of the team (more on that later). Growing up here, I had been to a couple as a fan, so it was obviously a special experience for me to actually be a part of it.
The build-up for it was pretty crazy. As all of you know, a lot of people were talking about what dances we were going to do, but we didn't know who was going to do what until we took the stage. The guys were joking around all week saying, "I should do this," but really they were just trying to see what everybody's reaction was to make sure it was good. The exception was Jarrod because he was the first guy who was going to be introduced and we wanted the lead person to do something different and get things started off right.
Honestly, we had no clue what to expect. The first time we saw the setup was Thursday night during our walkthrough. That was actually the first time we found out about those warm-ups with the lights on them. I was the first one to see them because my locker is at that first corner. I turned around and I was like, "Look at these sweat suits. Are those lights?" Right after that, one of the guys from our marketing department walked in and said, "Make sure your battery packs are working." He told us they would control the lighting and they would light up as we were coming up the lift and on to the stage. It was kind of relieving to us to wear those and see the setup because we didn't have to do much to make the whole thing exciting. (A big shout-out to the people in the marketing department for that because it was really exciting and made things easier for us.)
Anyway, when the night actually came, I thought I would be a lot more nervous then I was. I remember Jarrod telling us how he was still nervous even though he'd been through it three years already. He was the first to go, so it was understandable, but as I was standing there, I was expecting my hands to start sweating but it never happened. Julius was really nervous, but it was weird for me. I felt more excited than nervous when it came time to take the stage, and I'm glad I did. Otherwise, I don't know that I would have danced.
I still didn't know if I was going to dance until I went up the lift and finally got up there. Once I did, I decided to go with it. You know how they say when you're young, if they can't see you then they think you can't see them? That's how I felt. I couldn't see anybody's face because it was so dark out there. At that point, I was like, "I'm going to do it." My dance was alright, but I've got to give Jarrod and Sam some credit. I didn't get to see Jarrod's live since I was the fifth one up the lift, but Sam's was pretty awesome.
Looking back, it all happened so fast for me. We did all that preparation for it and were excited about it all week, but before I knew it we were in the locker room taking a picture with John Wall and Anthony Davis and it was all over. I guess that's because we were having fun. Hearing my name called and rising up to see all those cheering faces is something I dreamed about for a long time. It was something I'll never forget.
It was also extra special for me because of my dad. He was actually part of the first Big Blue Madness here, when they held it in Memorial. I obviously wasn't there for that one, but he said they just announced the players and they ran out onto the floor. Now it's evolved into this spectacle where we've got light-up warm-ups with a rising floor and smoke coming out of everything. It's crazy.
It's exciting for him to see me get to go through this because he told me when I was growing up and working in the gym late at night that nothing comes easy without hard work. He said, "If I could take my experiences and hand them over to you, I'd do it, but that work that gets you there is what makes it so sweet." The fact that I'm getting to experience it and do it on a whole 'nother level than he ever did with this team is just an unbelievable gift.
One of the things I'm really enjoying about this year is just knowing what to do and what to expect. At this point last year, my head was kind of spinning. I was cleared to play the day of Madness last year, and my first practice was that next morning with another practice in the afternoon. Two days earlier I wasn't even a part of the team and all of a sudden I'm in two-a-days and eating lunch at Coach Cal's house that afternoon during our break.
I can remember my first practice last year. I specifically remember Coach calling "Two Circle" and thinking, I have no idea what that is. I think it was JP who told him, "Coach he doesn't know that play. He wasn't there for that play." I'm usually pretty good at remembering things by doing them, but I'd only done them a few days last year by the time I was playing in the Blue-White Scrimmage. I was sitting in the locker room before the scrimmage trying to remember where the ball went for certain plays and where I was supposed to screen. I was over-thinking everything.
This year I'm a lot more comfortable. I know the plays better than just about anybody outside of Hoody, Jarrod, Alex and Willie because I was in there last year and played just about every position at some point in practice. I'm definitely looking forward to getting out there this year for the Blue-White Scrimmage and feeling comfortable with how to execute everything we've been working on.
One of my favorite things about this team is just how close we all are. Everybody got here in the middle of the summer and we went to a movie like six hours after meeting everyone for the first time. It was just like a random group of strangers at the time who had just met, but we all felt so comfortable with each other. And it doesn't matter who it is or what our role is on the team, we're all friends. Like the other day, Brian, Julius, Andrew and I all went out and ate together. We don't have a certain group of teammates that just hang out. We've literally done all kinds of different stuff with different kinds of people, and I think that's important.
The better relationships you build with your teammates off the court, the more you're going to be able to trust them on the court and mesh well with each other. The more that we can build those types of relationships, the more we can trust each other. Cal always says he wants to be able to hand the reins over to the team at some point during the season and run ourselves. A team that he trusts enough to be able to do that needs to start with trusting in ourselves, so that bonding stuff is important.
Things like going to the hockey and volleyball games together, going bowling and out to eat, it matters. We're having fun together. I know Marcus told you guys about the hockey game a few weeks back when we dropped the puck at center ice. Yes, I did almost fall. The first thing they told me was not to fall, but you don't realize how slick it is until you start sliding. I played it off with a move to act like I had it under control. (On a side note, I want to encourage everyone to go support them on Fridays at midnight. They're a lot of fun to watch).
It's things like that remind me we're just a bunch of kids getting to do something really special here. Before I got here last year, I didn't realize that all these guys I grew up looking up to and idolizing are kids just like me. Now that I get to be a part of this, I realize that we're all just a bunch of college-aged kids who enjoy the same things like everyone else. I strive to be a good influence for people who look up to me like I did to those players back then. I'm grateful for the opportunity
Alright, I've got to get out of here. I enjoyed sharing some thoughts with everyone. You stay classy, BBN.
Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback on Thursday at Mississippi State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The timing was close to ideal.
Of course Kentucky would have liked to have gotten back on the field immediately to wash away the taste of defeat, but bye weeks are built into the long college football season for a reason. The Wildcats, with 12 days between games against Alabama and Mississippi State, took full advantage of theirs.
"I think the bye came at a good time," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We were a little banged-up coming out of that Alabama game for sure. It was really a culmination of four consecutive tough weeks."
UK's injury report was seemingly interminable after the loss Alabama, but it's now much more manageable. Just as importantly, the Cats have had a chance to get their minds right after four straight games against top-20 opponents.
"I think having a chance to recoup physically and mentally I think should help us going into this game," head coach Mark Stoops said. "I think our preparation has been very good. I feel like the team is in a good place right now. I feel like we're getting our legs back up underneath us."
UK will need to be focused, because the Cats are in for a challenge the likes of which they haven't seen.
To begin with, they'll be playing a Southeastern Conference game on a day other than Saturday for the first time since 2007. The bye week preceding UK's 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday matchup with Mississippi State (3-3, 0-2 SEC) allowed the coaches to move the team's practice schedule ahead by two days to make preparations as close to normal as possible, but the game still represents a change in routine.
"There will be some subtle changes in there because Saturday morning they're up usually watching football if we're playing a Saturday-night game or in between meetings, and now they'll be sitting there watching soap operas, I guess," Stoops joked.
With only soap operas on television on Thursday, apparently, many viewers figure to tune in for UK's primetime appearance.
"It is nice to get the national exposure," Stoops said. "It's certainly nice to play a Thursday night game because I think a lot of people watch that game, so hopefully we'll go out and represent us the right way and play tough and play the way we're capable of. I anticipate that we will."
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, will be looking to do the same.
Like Kentucky, Mississippi State will be after its first SEC win and will rely on a solid ground game. Quarterback Dak Prescott leads the way with 457 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground.
"Anytime you got the quarterback involved with the run and they're physical, it makes you add numbers," Stoops said. "We have to be very disciplined with all the different option that they do and all the quarterback run game and then you gotta get them on the ground. And then of course when you commit numbers, you gotta play the play-action. That's the big thing."
Mississippi State relies on pace heavily to move the ball, so the experience the UK defense has going against Brown's offense in practice will be an asset.
"That's what Coach has been telling us a lot, so we really gotta make sure we're getting the calls in fast and make sure we're getting lined up fast and we gotta read our keys fast as well because they're going to try to gas us," linebacker Avery Williamson said.
On offense, UK will look to get back on track after Alabama shut down the UK attack. Maxwell Smith will start at quarterback, though Jalen Whitlow -- who sprained an ankle agains the Crimson Tide -- will be available in a yet-to-be-determined capacity.
"What I'm doing is, we've got a package in for him, and I probably won't be able to tell until later in the week how much of it we're gonna use, or how much we'll be able to use," Brown said. "If he keeps progressing then I think he'll be fine on Thursday."
Regardless who takes the snaps, UK will have to contend with an imposing State defense.
"The first thing I see when I see State's defense is how big they are," Smith said. "They got tons of length, huge d-line, the biggest linebackers that we'll probably see all season long. They're really big and they're really physical."
The UK offense will also have to cope with Mississippi State's most famous game-day tradition. As they did before a trip to South Carolina, coaches pumped in noise at practice this week, but there's no simulating the cowbells of Davis Wade Stadium.
"If I hear the word cowbell, I think Mississippi State and I think loud and annoying," Smith said. "I'm pretty sure that's why they do it."
If the last time UK went on the road is any indication, the Cats aren't likely to wilt in the face of a little noise, as foreign as the noise may be.
"I don't feel like we've laid down all year," Williamson said. "I feel like we've just given up certain plays and then played good at times. I definitely feel like we've been continuing to fight. If we keep that mentality, we can still win some games in the second half of the season."
Matthew Mitchell interacts with a fan at the Big Blue Madness campout. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell normally has no issue coming up with answers to questions lobbed at him by reporters, but he was stopped in his tracks as he made the rounds at Southeastern Conference Media Days.
"I was down in Birmingham last week, and the league, we were doing some different things for media day," Mitchell said on Tuesday, "and we were doing some promotional work to promote women's basketball and doing one of these commercials, and the league asked me to describe myself in one word."
Searching for a response, Mitchell began thinking of how the important people in his life would describe him. Naturally, his wife came to mind first.
"So I started thinking, how would Jenna describe me in one word, and I thought about that for a second and I quickly moved on because I didn't want to use that," Mitchell said to laughs.
His players were next, and he joked that words like "crazy," "nuts" and "not that smart" would likely be first on their lists. Again, not what he was looking for.
Finally, Mitchell came up with an answer of his own.
"I landed on grateful," Mitchell said, "and I would describe myself this morning as very, very grateful to have a seventh opportunity to coach the Kentucky Wildcats."
Mitchell has accomplished things that no head coach in UK Hoops history has, but he credits others for his success. Above all, he's thankful to God. He appreciates the athletics department administration for hiring him and now supporting his program. He'll never forget the players who helped him build UK into a perennial contender.
"Players like Carly Morrow and Victoria Dunlap and Lydia Watkins and Amani Franklin, A'dia Mathies, those kind of kids that came in here and really did things not their own way, but they embraced the Kentucky way, which is honesty, hard work and discipline," Mitchell said. "Really grateful to them, and we find ourselves with this '13 '14 team in a great position to have an outstanding season, and so we would not have been able to do that with all the efforts of the people that have come before this team."
Those players also helped pave the way for UK's successful bid to host the First and Second Rounds of the NCAA Tournament in March, which is another reason for Mitchell to be grateful.
"You just don't write on a piece of paper we want to have the first and second round and you get it," Mitchell said. "A lot of people did a lot of hard work to get that done, and it is an incredible advantage."
UK has advanced to the Elite Eight in three of the last four seasons in spite of never enjoying that advantage. Of course, it's on the Wildcats to earn an NCAA Tournament berth, but the idea of playing two postseason games in Memorial Coliseum -- where UK has a 62-3 record over the last four seasons --is exciting to Mitchell and his players alike.
"I think the urgency would be 10 times more," junior guard Bria Goss said. "We know what it means to us, the fans know what it means to them and the way we play in front of our fans is so important. So just for them to be able to be there for us during those times is going to be beneficial."
On the day the news about the NCAA Tournament came down, Mitchell was otherwise occupied. His wife gave birth to the couple's second daughter early in the morning on Oct. 9, giving Mitchell yet another reason to step back and count his blessings.
"We had a little baby, Pressly Blue, six pounds, 12 ounces, future shooting guard here at Kentucky if they don't fire me before then," Mitchell said. "She is doing well. Jenna is doing well. Our family is just so blessed. We thank God for that, as well. Things are really good." Flexibility -- literally -- the key to Mitchell's Madness dance
Mitchell outdid himself once again at Big Blue Madness, channeling The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, before dancing to Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time."
Other than the wig he wore for the opening act, there was one particularly jaw-dropping moment from the performance that Mitchell addressed on Tuesday.
"The real issue, I think, just the elephant in the room, is everyone wants to know how did I do the split and how did I get to that position at 42 years old, and let me tell you, it was not easy to do," Mitchell said.
Just a few weeks ago, the move would have been impossible.
"So on October 1, I could barely just get into the position stationary," Mitchell said. "I was sitting on the floor and I was like, there's no way I can get this done."
With the help of UK dance team coach and choreographer Dawn Walters, Mitchell went to work.
"So over the next 17 days you see the results," Mitchell said. "I did the work, I stretched out, and we really -- the video before the dance would have been -- we could have sold that. I danced for about 45 minutes back in the dressing room to try to get my muscles loosened up to get the split, so we did the split, and that's really all that had to happen in the dance was the split."
With the splits behind him, Mitchell can rest again, at least until next October. Cats adjusting to early-morning practice
Habitually nocturnal media members had an early wakeup call on Tuesday, as Media Day activities began at 8 a.m. ET to account for UK's new morning practice schedule.
The change from afternoons to mornings was made to allow some of UK's five seniors to take classes needed for graduation and Mitchell hasn't noticed any issues coming along with it.
"They get started about 7:40 each morning," Mitchell said. "We huddle up and circle up and then get going after that. There's a lot of folks in the world going to work a lot earlier than that, so it's not all that tough. And the players have just handled it great."
The Cats have plenty of experience with hard work in the morning. In fact, in-season practices offer somewhat of a reprieve considering UK's summer schedule.
"They're up even earlier in the summer," Mitchell said. "It's unbelievable what our players do when they choose to come in and go through the voluntary workouts during the summer. They're up before 6 every morning training."
UK Hoops is in the midst of preparations for the 2013-14 season, which begins Nov. 8. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Take a quick look around the practice floor and you'll see seven former McDonald's All-Americans, multiple players with professional futures ahead of them and depth both inside and out.
Incredibly, that's the case in both the men's and women's gyms at the Joe Craft Center.
John Calipari might be the one with the reputation as the nation's top recruiter, but Matthew Mitchell is right on his friend and colleague's heels in terms of attracting blue-chip recruits. Year by year, as UK Hoops has ascended the ranks in the women's game, Mitchell has added to his team's pool of talent.
Entering the 2013-14 season, Mitchell -- at least on paper -- has his most gifted team to date.
"You know, what I love about our entire team is the talent level," Mitchell said at UK's Media Day on Tuesday, "and I don't know where we would land on the most talented team in the country, but we have a very, very talented team, and they are all mobile and agile and athletic."
In the post, UK returns starters Samarie Walker and DeNesha Stallworth, who emerged as one of the top duos in the Southeastern Conference a season ago, to go with Azia Bishop, Samantha Drake and Jelleah Sidney. On the perimeter, Jennifer O'Neill, Bria Goss, Kastine Evans, Bernisha Pinkett and Janee Thompson give Mitchell one of the deepest groups anywhere.
And that doesn't even include the highest-ranked recruiting class in school history.
Mitchell adds freshmen Linnae Harper, Makalya Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers to the mix. Harper -- a 5-foot-8 guard from Chicago -- is the top-ranked recruit in UK Hoops history and was joined at the McDonald's All-American Game by Epps, the daughter of former Wildcat national champion Anthony.
"Our freshmen have been doing a great job," Stallworth said. "They've been improving daily and that's what we're looking for."
On a team with such an established veteran presence, newcomers as highly touted as UK's might fall victim to distress over immediate playing time, but not these three. They know featured roles are up for grabs in Mitchell's signature fast-paced style and, more importantly, they are putting team goals ahead of any individual concerns.
"Last night we had our tip off celebration with our booster club, and we talked to her and she addressed the crowd, and she said she's just here to help and she wants to win championships," Mitchell said of Epps. "So just a very humble attitude for a player of that caliber is exciting for a coach to see."
That kind of humility is a necessity for any UK freshman, particularly given the change in mentality required to play in Mitchell's 40 minutes of dread defense.
"Well, I have found this: They don't teach much defense at the McDonald's game," Mitchell said with a smile. "They're not working very hard on the defensive end of the floor, so some of the McDonald's All-Americans have a bit of an adjustment period when they get to Kentucky from that respect."
Sixteen practices in, Harper feels like she's on the right path.
"I really think it is all mental," Harper said. "It's really about the fundamentals of basketball. Just sticking to it and doing the little things and taking it step by step daily and putting all the pieces together and becoming a great team."
With that goal in mind, Mitchell has actually tweaked preseason preparations this season.
After an offseason of "self-evaluation" following a third Elite Eight loss in four seasons, Mitchell has put an unprecedented emphasis on offense. UK managed just 62 points per game on 31.6-percent shooting in the three season-ending defeats and the Cats are addressing that as they seek to break through to the Final Four.
"I just think that we need to make sure as coaches we give them enough opportunity to get to a spot where they, under pressure at the most important time, can execute," Mitchell said.
After a summer and fall of work, Mitchell sees a team that is "much further ahead" than it was this time a season ago on offense. The fact that players are taking their coach's cue away from formal team activities is helping matters as well.
"To begin with, we've all gotten in the gym a lot more," Goss said. "We'll see each other in the gym all throughout the day, sometimes even late at night ... whereas I didn't really see that my first two years."
UK, however, is targeting offensive improvement without its top scorer from a season ago. A'dia Mathies graduated in May and has gone on to a WNBA career, meaning the Cats no longer have the player they turned to when things broke down.
Mitchell says it's too early to tell whether one individual will emerge as a go-to player in her place, but he has an idea of who he'd like to end up taking over that mantle.
"From a coaching standpoint (getting) the ball to get to DeNesha Stallworth would be at the top of any list right now," Mitchell said. "I would want the ball in her hands just from a physical standpoint. She can make plays. I have a lot of confidence in a lot of the players, but I think DeNesha is probably the most gifted and talented offensive player that we have."
Stallworth, a preseason All-SEC selection, had a strong first season at UK after transferring from Cal, but Mitchell expects even more from the 6-3 forward in 2013-14.
"I think she ought to be one of the top 10 or 12 players in the country," Mitchell said. "I think she should be an All-American. I think she could work herself into the position of being a top-five draft choice."
Clearly, Mitchell has no shortage of belief in Stallworth. Now, she's working to follow suit.
"It makes you feel good and it makes you just realize, 'Hey, you can do it. If your coach believes in you, why can't you believe in yourself,' " Stallworth said. "I definitely appreciate him saying that and I'm definitely going to work hard to accomplish that goal."
The goals Mitchell has in mind for Stallworth mirror those he has for his team as a whole. There's no questioning the talent of Stallworth or her Kentucky team. Because of that, it won't take any kind of superhuman effort for them to accomplish what they want to accomplish.
"What we're focusing on this year is real, real simple concept," Mitchell said. "It's not going to be easy, but it's real simple. We just want to try to be our very best, and we talk about that virtually every day. If we can become our best, we can have a terrific season here at Kentucky."
Mark Stoops will lead Kentucky into a Thursday game at Mississippi State this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The last time Kentucky hit the road, the Wildcats found themselves trailing 21-0 early in the second quarter after a game-opening blitz by South Carolina. UK would steady the ship and nearly rally to victory, but the slow start ended up being too much to overcome.
A few weeks later -- as his team prepares for a trip to Mississippi State -- head coach Mark Stoops knows UK will need to be ready for an opponent looking to put UK in a similar hole.
"I think it's no secret any time you're playing a team that's struggled a little bit like we have, that's what they're going to say, they're going to want to get off to a fast start and put a dagger in us early," Stoops said. "We have to go out and offset that and play and execute well to start the game."
Mississippi State has scored 142 of its 183 points in the first half so far this season, outscoring opponents by 73 points before halftime and being outscored by 28 after the break.
Stoops also said he expects Mississippi State to try to involve its home crowd in Davis Wade Stadium early, one that has a reputation for affecting opponents with its unique form of ambient noise.
"The cowbells is going to be new to me," Stoops said, referring to Bulldog fans' traditional noisemakers.
Also new to the Cats will be the Thursday-night kickoff. UK hasn't played a Southeastern Conference game on a Thursday since 2007 and Stoops is already pondering game-day routine.
"There will be some subtle changes in there because Saturday morning they're up usually watching football if we're playing a Saturday night game or in between meetings, and now they'll be sitting there watching soap operas, I guess," Stoops said, drawing laughs at his Monday press conference. "I think we'll try to get them up and have a few more meetings and not as much dead time."
Though players' television-viewing habits may be a consideration, Stoops is much more concerned about a Mississippi State team (3-3, 0-2 SEC) also looking for its first conference win.
"You see a physical team, a team that can create the quarterback run game, put you in a bind with the quarterback run game and still be physical, throw the ball off of that, the play actions off of that," Stoops said. "It'll be a real challenge."
Stoops talks Madness, dancing
Friday was a holiday of sorts for the Big Blue Nation, as UK's men's and women's basketball teams held their annual Big Blue Madness event. Stoops, however, was holed up at the Nutter Training Facility preparing for Mississippi State.
"I had some work to do, but I would have enjoyed being there myself," Stoops said. "I'd like to see Matthew Mitchell do his dance and all that."
As a follow-up, Stoops was asked whether he himself would dance if he knew it would help his recruiting efforts. He gave a progressively more honest answer.
"I probably would," Stoops said. "In fact I know I would. I probably have. I'm just not as talented as Matthew, so I can't do it for everybody to see."
On a more serious note, Stoops does take notice of the passion of Kentucky fans when he sees a night like Madness. It also makes him even more steadfast in his belief in UK football's bright future.
"I think when our recruits come on campus and our players are on campus and they see the success of all of these programs and the way they go about their business, I definitely think it helps," Stoops said. I think we feel an obligation to live up to those standards, and we're working to get there, and we embrace that. We want to be at the level of some of these programs, and we're working hard to get there."
Whitlow returns to practice
Soon after Jalen Whitlow sustained a sprained ankle in UK's loss to Alabama, Stoops said he did not expect the sophomore quarterback to be available for the Mississippi State game.
After Whitlow practiced on both Sunday and Monday, there is more hope.
"He was out there practicing," Stoops said. "Max (Smith) was getting most of the starting reps but he was out there working, and we'll see how it goes the next couple days."
Smith was listed as the starter on UK's updated depth chart on Monday with Whitlow listed as the backup. Stoops said Whitlow "has improved" and will practice again on Tuesday and no decision on a starter has yet been made.
"We'll see how it plays out here today and tomorrow," Stoops said.
John Calipari delivers his state-of-the-program speech at Big Blue Madness. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Below is a complete transcript of the speech John Calipari delivered at Big Blue Madness on Friday night.
How about this?
This is an incredible night to celebrate the things that make our program great ... that make the Commonwealth of Kentucky's basketball program the best in the country.
You are part of that program, the Big Blue Nation ... The sixth man of Kentucky basketball.
You lined up early ... before there WAS a line ... for a limited number of tickets to a practice ... A PRACTICE ...
Have I told you that you people are crazy?
24,000 strong tonight behind our players, but the Big Blue Nation extends far beyond the hallowed halls of college basketball's greatest arena.
It's a nation that stretches across 120 counties in Kentucky, all 50 states and to every country in the world.
We are borderless. We are everywhere. No corner is left untouched by the blue mist.
Four years ago when we started on this journey together, I shared with you a vision for this program: The gold standard of college athletics.
Two years ago, we talked about the Kentucky Effect, as we re-defined college basketball and more importantly the lives of the players in this program.
Tonight, we build on that legacy ... that tradition.
As I've told our players many times, our program isn't for everybody.
Take a look around. This is it. Every night we play, 24,000 pack the house that Rupp built. You can feel the sound in your soul.
To play here, they have to want this.
This is the preeminent stage for college basketball. This is the place where nothing is given to you and everything is earned.
You have to be tough, not just physically, but mentally. You have to wake up ready to beat your best time, to practice your hardest each and every day.
Our biggest opponent? Ourselves. At Kentucky, we are competing against ourselves every day. We can't let the strain and spotlight of this program affect you.
We are the place to help you achieve your dreams. We don't just play college basketball, we ARE college basketball. As you know, we are everyone's Super Bowl.
They need to be prepared not just to play against great players, but to play alongside great players. Look at this group we have here today.
You are your brother's keeper. If you want to succeed at Kentucky, you will succeed as a team. You play more for your teammates than yourself. If you want 30 shots a game, this isn't the place for you.
The first two draft picks in the 2012 NBA draft - Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - were the fourth and fifth-leading shot takers on their team. They played for their team, their family, and not for themselves. That sacrifice became success ...(PAUSE) our eighth national championship.
Our players learn as a family, practice as a family and play as a family so they can win as a family. We are a players-first program. If you want to be developed as an NBA player, if you want to be developed as a person of character, you come here.
I'm proud of what we've accomplished on the court, two Final Fours, a national championship, 17 NBA Draft picks over the last four years, including 13 first-round picks, but I'm just as proud of the guys who have earned degrees.
I'm proud that we have graduated 10 of our last 10 players who have been here at least three years. I'm proud that some of our players have gone to the NBA AND earned a degree, like Darius Miller, who is in the crowd with us tonight. I'm proud that we've had a 3.0 grade-point average the last three years, including a 3.4 GPA last spring. I'm proud that John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins each donated 1 million dollars to charity the second they signed their max deals. Think about that.
We teach more than just basketball here. We teach character on the court and off. This is a place where our players prepare not just for a career, but for the rest of their lives.
This program teaches players about life ... about the next step. We are teaching them to be men of integrity and honor. Men of character on and off the court.
We call it the Success Rate ... and I'm proud of that. Let me make this very clear: A player's success here is not optional.
But you have to want it. You have to want your education. You must have a love of learning. You must put service before self to truly succeed here.
Last year, we learned some very important lessons.
We were humbled. I was humbled.
Tonight, we put into action what we learned as we strengthen our program and take the first step on a new journey.
The competition will be fierce, the road will be difficult. Every team we play will be more experienced than us. But if we become one unit, play with one heartbeat and a love for each another, we will be unbreakable ...
My role, and that of my staff, is to serve the players. Inspire them to reach higher than they thought possible ... To mentor them ... To build exceptional men and respected sons of the Commonwealth ...
... And, most of all, to help them reach their dreams as they help us reach ours.
With these players, these fans, and this coaching staff, we will build on the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.
Thank you, Big Blue Nation, for the privilege of representing you to the world and for helping us be the standard bearer in college basketball.
John Wall's namesake move helped start the start the trend of dancing at Big Blue Madness in 2009. (UK Athletics)
Big Blue Madness organizers go to great lengths to make sure plans for Kentucky's first open men's and women's basketball practice stay quiet, and rightfully so.
Fans -- though tickets are free -- spend days camped out for tickets to the event and surprise is part of the fun.
In 2013, with Madness anticipation at an all-time high, players are following suit when it comes to the dance moves they'll break out when introduced to the capacity crowd.
"We've all talked about what we want to do and I have everything picked out but it's a surprise," freshman guard Dominique Hawkins said.
Hawkins has had 18 years to think about his big moment. The Richmond, Ky., native grew up hoping he would get a chance to walk -- and dance -- across the Madness stage. On Friday night, he'll get it.
"I know it's going to be wild, the place will be packed and the fans will be going crazy," Hawkins said. "Growing up I wanted to be that person that everybody was screaming about when they come out in Rupp Arena. Now I'm actually going to get to do it. It's insane. I can't wait."
Three years ago, fellow Bluegrass native Jarrod Polson was in Hawkins' shoes as a first timer. Now a senior, Polson will be participating in Madness for the fourth time, but it's far from old hat.
The fan favorite said on Tuesday his "wheels are turning" about his dance and has an idea what he'll do, but he's not telling either.
"That'll ruin the fun," Polson said.
Not everyone has finalized their dancing plans yet, however.
"I'm not really a dancer, so I don't know what I'm going to do to be honest," Andrew Harrison said. "But I'm just looking forward to it. A little nervous, but I'm excited at the same time."
Nervousness is natural for UK's newcomers given the magnitude of Madness. Members of UK's top-ranked recruiting class are just two weeks removed from seeing the anticipation for Madness firsthand as fans lined up for tickets in record numbers. Now that they'll be directly involved for the first time, they're eager to see what's in store even though many were on campus for visits during the 2012 event.
"I asked some of the other players," forward Julius Randle said. "I was like, 'Do we practice or do we go out there a couple days before and see what we're going to do?' They're like, 'No, it's pretty much a surprise for you too.' I don't know what to expect. I've already seen how crazy these people are when they camped out and stuff, so I don't know what to expect."
One thing Randle can expect is another show-stopping dance by Matthew Mitchell after the women's head coach's idea for a "The Lion King"-inspired Madness introduction was nixed by his wife, Jenna, who gave birth to the couple's second daughter last week.
"This year, I was thinking, maybe we would try to have a live birth out there on the main floor -- all right -- and offer up the child to the Big Blue Nation," Mitchell joked. "I think that would be an outstanding way to usher in the season."
Instead, Mitchell will try to once again one-up his own moves. Over the last three seasons, Mitchell has done The Dougie and channeled both MC Hammer and Michael Jackson.
"You're stuck with me dancing again this year," Mitchell said.
James Young answers questions at Kentucky's annual Media Day on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The NBA scouts lining the wall of the Joe Craft Center probably had a feeling they would leave Lexington wowed by a couple of players.
Julius Randle was probably one of them. Willie Cauley-Stein, likely. The Harrison twins probably intrigued them. And in all likelihood, Marcus Lee made their jaws drop a couple of times.
But the guy they talked about the most, the one that left them wowed when they boarded their planes and headed home, wasn't who most people think it would be.
"Everybody that walks in the building, the guy that they're saying is the standout is James Young - like every day," John Calipari said Tuesday at UK Media Day. "We've had NBA scouts in here every day. They're all speaking about him."
It wasn't as if Young wasn't one of the gems in this year's top-ranked recruiting class. Ranked No. 11 overall by Rivals.com, Young signed with UK with a reputation as a great shooter, a top-level athlete and an explosive driver.
What Calipari and everyone else are finding out is those superlatives are just scratching the surface.
"I never got the opportunity to play against James except at a camp or whatever, but I've seen his growth and development," said freshman teammate Julius Randle. "He's gotten bigger. He's gotten taller, faster, stronger. He could always really shoot the ball, but now he's learning how to attack. His game is really evolving."
Randle was labeled a month ago by Calipari as being the "alpha beast" of the team, a role many predict he will still assume once the season starts, but Coach Cal said Tuesday that Young has been just as good, according to the scouts.
"I just listen to it and try not to think about it as much," Young said. "I keep trying to go day by day and make myself even better than they think I am. I'm trying to shock everybody."
Young has certainly shocked his teammates and coaches with a number of things.
There's his ability to absorb contact and get to the rim: "In transition, he's kind of like Michael Kidd(-Gilchrist)," Coach Cal said. "If he's out ahead, you throw him the ball (and) something good will happen."
He has a better-than-advertised shooting touch: "You can't leave him open," Alex Poythress said. "He hits all of his shots."
And his speed is second to none on this team: "No one knows how fast he is," Jarrod Polson said. "I think he's definitely probably the fastest person on the team. He can fly up and down the court if you get it to him."
But what's taken Calipari by surprise more than anything else is Young's potential to be a lockdown defender. At 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, he has the ability to shut down two guards and wings on the college level.
"He has really long arms," Polson said. "He's 6-7 right now and he's quick. That's really the perfect build. He kind of reminds me of DeAndre (Liggins)."
Liggins didn't buy in to being a defensive stopper until midway through his second year at UK, but once he did, he was one of the best defenders in the country. Like Liggins, Young is still getting accustomed to giving the type of energy it takes to defend on the college level, but the pieces are there.
"He's so long, he's so quick," Hood said, "you just have to make him want to do that all the time. That's what every freshmen that's ever come through here (has had to deal with). You have to make them want to do something all the time."
In due time, Young could become the next great defender. In the meantime, he seems to be doing enough right to catch the attention of NBA scouts.
"I've just been doing me actually, just going hard in practice," Young said. "People I guess didn't think I was going to come out and show my talent but that's what I came here to do." Defensively dominant?
For all the talk about the Dribble Drive Motion Offense, Calipari's best teams have all shared a different staple: defense.
From his 2008 national runner-up team at Memphis to the 2010 Kentucky squad and the 2012 national champions, they've all been terrific at locking down when they need to, blocking shots and holding the opposition to a paltry field-goal percentage.
With more size, more athletes and perhaps more depth than he has ever had, does Coach Cal think this has a chance to be one of his best defensive teams ever?
"I don't know," Calipari said. "You don't have an Anthony (Davis) even though we have some good shot blockers. And I don't know if we have a Michael Kidd because Michael had the combination of toughness, mental toughness and length to do it - and athleticism. So that ended up making that team the best defensive team in the country."
Even without Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist, Calipari said this team has the makings of a dominant defensive team because the guards are bigger than ever (see the Harrison twins and Young). And though there may not be a Davis on this team, Marcus Lee terrorized high school players last year with a 6.9 blocked shots average.
The hesitation by Calipari to call it a great defensive team is because he hasn't worked with his players on defense yet.
Where some teams and coaches like to institute defense first, Calipari prefers to go over the Dribble Drive to start the season because it forces the players to learn how to guard the driver anyway - what he calls the hardest thing to teach in the game - while schooling the offense.
"There's all kinds of ways of doing this job. ... We just do it the other way," Calipari said. "That doesn't mean it's the right way, but you want to establish that. We've always become a pretty good defensive team, but we've done nothing. Haven't done pick-and-roll defense, post defensive, playing the screen."
If this team is indeed in the mold of those other great teams, the defense will come in time.
The players determine their playing time
If there are potential traps for this Kentucky team, some people will tell you it's one of UK's greatest strengths: depth.
With so many players, with so much talent, how will Calipari find enough minutes for everybody? How will he manage egos?
Apparently he won't.
"They're in control," Coach Cal said.
Calipari dismissed the notion put forth by a reporter at UK Media Day that he held the strings to this team and would ultimately be the one who decides who dances and who sits the bench.
"They earn it," Coach Cal said. "No one's promised anything here. You're going to have to earn minutes."
Calipari said he doesn't have the luxury of some of those Dean Smith-coached North Carolina teams that would substitute five guys at a time - the "bomb squad," he termed it - because of youth and inexperience.
Instead, he'll preach that playing time and shots aren't what this team and the players' futures will ultimately being judged on. As he's noted before, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist took the fourth- and fifth-most shots on that 2012 title team and still went one and two, respectively, in the NBA Draft.
"Go rebound, defend, run the floor, make baskets," Calipari said. "Do the things that help us win and make you look good. You just have to explain it."
Calipari does that early in the recruiting process and makes sure his players understand that a players-first program doesn't mean it's all about one player doing what he wants.
"As long as you're about them, they'll listen," Coach Cal said. "They trust you, they'll play hard. You're not getting as many minutes because of this and this, but we've got your back. You're fine. You're going to be good. That's a challenge when you have a good, full team."
Rich Brooks was recognized in Commonwealth Stadium during the Oct. 12, UK vs. Alabama game. Photo by Barry Westerman, UK Athletics
A familiar face roamed the halls of the Kentucky football building earlier this week. Former head coach Rich Brooks was offering up just the prescription the Wildcats need at the moment: inspiration.
After four straight games against top-20 teams capped by last Saturday's 48-7 loss to top-ranked Alabama, a downtrodden mood overtaking the Nutter Football Training Center might be understandable.
Even though the Wildcats have just navigated through the toughest four-game stretch in school history, they still play in the Southeastern Conference, and as such face a second-half schedule which features next week's trip to what head coach Mark Stoops considers an underrated Mississippi State team, undefeated No. 14 Missouri, No. 15 Georgia and a Tennessee team which took Georgia to overtime in its last game.
But Stoops would never allow his players, coaches or even support staff to give up, let alone become discouraged.
"I was very honest with you after the game: I was frustrated and down, but we don't have any time for that," Stoops said. "Come Sunday morning, after a win or a loss, you've got to be ready to go. That's where the consistency comes in. That's what we ask of these players, and that's what each of us coaches have to do each and every day. So coaches need reminded of that from time to time. But for the most part, our coaches have been very consistent."
By no means do any of Stoops' words fall upon disinterested ears on the UK campus. Still, when Stoops' statements are reiterated by a UK legend who has successfully undertaken many of the challenges facing the current UK football team, such remarks take on added weight.
The former coach was in town for the Alabama game, and he received a rousing Commonwealth Stadium ovation upon being introduced on the field between the first and second quarters. Brooks made the rounds to all his old Lexington stomping grounds during his time in town, but his time around the football team seems to have made the most lasting impression.
The former UK coach met with the current man at the helm of the program, the two hit it off and Brooks described some past experiences leading UK to help encourage the current group of Wildcats.
"I talked to Coach Brooks yesterday for a good while," Stoops said on Tuesday. "I really enjoyed it. That's the second time we got a chance to sit down and talk, and I love visiting with him and have a lot of respect for Coach Brooks and what he's done, and I want him to feel welcome and be around here. He came to practice today and I asked him to talk to the team for a little bit, and it was great. It was a great message."
As it turns out, the current 1-5 Wildcats are in a position similar to a team from relatively early in Brooks' tenure. In 2006, with Kentucky looking to be on track for a fourth losing seasons in a row a 49-0 loss to LSU made the Cats 3-4 on the year.
Brooks saw fit to tell the story of how those Wildcats picked themselves off the mat, and bounced back to salvage the season after a disappointing first half was capped by a big loss to a SEC power.
"I just think they need to know there are better things in the future, and that they're improving," Brooks said of his address to the players. "The improvement they've shown even since the start of the year fundamentally and competitively hasn't shown up in the won-loss column, but it could happen at any time."
Perhaps Brooks' words could spur somewhat of a reprisal in UK history.
The 2006 Wildcats had a bye off the big loss before traveling to Mississippi State, much like the 2013 edition of the team does now. Kentucky beat Mississippi State 34-31, and went on to win four straight and five of its last six games, which included a memorable win over Clemson in the Music City Bowl.
Brooks' message made an impression on UK coaches and players alike.
"I thought that was a good message," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I think we're probably in a little bit different situation as far as where we're at (with the) youth of our team. But I think obviously we got handily beat like they did and we've got an opportunity to bounce back and go down to Starkville and have a chance to turn our season around."
Senior members of the team like Mister Cobble and Avery Williamson, who are quite familiar with Brooks considering he was head coach when their recruitment process began, were also moved by the striking similarities between the two teams' plot.
"He reinforced the motivation not to give up on the season just because the first half didn't go the way it should have gone," Williamson, who leads the SEC in tackles, said. "We just have to keep grinding, and as leaders we have to keep the guys motivated. We need a confidence booster to keep everybody going because we still have a long six games to go."
For his part, Brooks very much enjoyed the ovation received from the Big Blue Nation during Saturday's game, and he, like much of the Big Blue Nation is excited about the program's direction under Stoops.
"It was nice to be recognized," Brooks said. "I'm hopeful that the program can get back and compete at the upper level of the SEC where they can be able to knock off teams like we were fortunate enough to do during my last three-year period there.
"I think (Stoops) is truly a professional. He and his staff are doing a good job of coaching fundamentals. They seem to be off to a great recruiting year for the incoming season so I think they will get the play-makers that they need to compete moving forward."
Brooks' comments were in line with what Stoops has been preaching to his team of late, and the message he will continue to hammer home over the next few days. While the UK coaching legend's speech to the team certainly provided much-needed positive reinforcement, Stoops knows his team's goals are only attainable through hard work.
Just ask Brooks, hard work was how the 2006 team achieved its success.
"That was good to hear, but I'm not getting that far ahead of myself; I'm worried about one," Stoops said of Brooks' story about the 2006 season. "I would just like to get one, but it was good to hear that. And I think that's where he started turning the program. It just clicked and it turned and they had some good success from there. So it was good to hear those stories and just visit with him."