Willie Cauley-Stein averaged 8.3 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein emerged from the Joe Craft Center film room, saw the throng of Media Day reporters and turned back into the hallway.
It turns out Cauley-Stein needed to set something down and couldn't put it next to him with that many people surrounding him for an interview. A year ago, the move would have represented Cauley-Stein's apprehension about the idea of being a star.
Then, Cauley-Stein wasn't ready for the spotlight. He preferred to stay in the shadows as a supporting cast member. Let the other talented, more highly touted freshmen take center stage, he thought. He figured, as a lower-ranked, relatively unknown "project," he could come in, figure out his role on his time and blend in.
But that never quite happened.
Cauley-Stein's talent became apparent almost immediately, and with limited depth inside, he was thrust into a role he never truly expected to fill, at least not so soon. The media loved him for his openness and candid comments, and he teased fans with NBA lottery-type potential.
But once Nerlens Noel went down with his season-ending injury, Cauley-Stein not only became an important piece, he became the focal point inside, the big man on campus. Now, a season later, Cauley-Stein admits he not only struggled with being in the spotlight, he wasn't ready for the big time and everything that came with it.
"I didn't want to be a leader," Cauley-Stein said Tuesday and UK Media Day. "I was OK with being in the shadow and just doing me, being able to just do whatever and learn as I go."
Doing him was part of the evolution of Cauley-Stein in year one.
As a new face in a new place, Cauley-Stein was trying to get comfortable in his own skin. Here he was, a 7-foot kid from Kansas who dressed a little differently, acted a little differently, and didn't want to necessarily do and talk basketball all the time.
None of that's changed for Cauley-Stein - he's eclectic as ever, evidenced by his talk on Tuesday about surviving a possible zombie apocalypse (no, seriously) - but now he's more ready than ever to balance what makes him unique with the responsibilities of being a leader, being in the spotlight and everything center stage entails.
"It's fun to me being in the spotlight now that I know how to do it," Cauley-Stein said. "Not knowing how to do it is the worst battle. You've got to try to figure out how you're going to do that and if you're even ready to do it."
Cauley-Stein said he had no idea the effect his role as a basketball player had on this state and its fans when he came to college last year.
"Heard about it," Cauley-Stein said. "Didn't believe it until it actually happened. You definitely have to experience it to believe it. Telling somebody about it, they think you're exaggerating about it, but it's really like how people explain it."
The spotlight includes more than just what happens on the court.
Cauley-Stein said he didn't understand the impact he has on people as a Kentucky basketball player and the significance the program has in the eyes of its fans until going through the Big Blue Madness campout last year.
"Last year, in my opinion, I was like, 'It's just a scrimmage, why is this such a big deal?' " Cauley-Stein said. "And then you go out there and you're signing autographs and taking pictures and just talking to people ... that's when you realize. You see a different side of why they're camping out and why it's such a big deal. It's actually kind of heartwarming. It's kind of inspirational, too, because you don't know what other people are going through unless you really sit down and take a look at why are you camping out for this for a week."
As recently as Monday, Cauley-Stein was reminded of the magnitude of his role. Walking back from lunch, Cauley-Stein said a girl approached him, asked if he would take a picture with her and then started hyperventilating when he agreed.
"I was just like, 'It's OK, I'm just a regular person, I'll take a picture with you,' " Cauley-Stein said. "She was just like, 'Oh my god, I'm your biggest fan .' Like I swear she was about to pass out."
Those moments never bothered Cauley-Stein - he still seems flattered by them - but it was never a position Cauley-Stein truly understood until this year. To him, he was just Willie, a simple kid from Kansas trying to figure out this whole school and basketball thing like any other 18-year-old.
Now he understands he means more than that to a lot of people, and whether or not he's more than just a "regular person," he can either run into the shadows or embrace the spotlight.
Cauley-Stein said he's choosing the latter.
"I was like, 'Dang, I have that big of a toll on somebody.' That's heartwarming to know that by you just acknowledging somebody walking down the street that you can make their day," Cauley-Stein said. "It's kind of cool to have that ability."
UK men's basketball held its annual Media Day on Tuesday. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson have played a combined seven seasons at Kentucky, so they've gotten to know John Calipari well.
They've watched him mold young teams. They've heard "play fast, think slow" more times than they can count. They know what mistakes will throw Coach Cal into fits of rage. But perhaps more than anything else, the two seniors have come to realize that Calipari is constantly searching for new ways to motivate and teach, even though he's more than two decades into his head-coaching career.
That's why neither was surprised as Coach Cal has trotted out a new catchphrase early in preseason practices: Fail fast.
"That's something that I've never heard him say," Hood said.
"He always has new stuff every year," Polson said.
So, what does the latest Calipari-ism mean? Let the man himself fill you in.
"The thing that we're working on right now is failing fast," Calipari said on UK's annual Media Day. "Fail fast. In other words, try things, go, attack, so I can correct and you can figure out what's not going to work and work. We don't have seven months. We've got a brand-new team. Fail fast so we can work and move on, and they've been doing a pretty good job of that."
With a team featuring eight freshmen and two sophomores among 12 scholarship players, Calipari knows mistakes are inevitable. Based on that knowledge, he doesn't want the Wildcats paralyzed by a fear of failure.
"I definitely think that applies to us this year just because there are so many people and he's asking a lot of the freshmen to do things they've never done before," Polson said. "So obviously you're not going to do something and get it your first time. So he just wants to get all the failures out of the way, try to get them uncomfortable and I think that's going to help them in the long run."
But for a group of newcomers accustomed to success, embracing the notion that miscues are OK is not easy.
"You always want to win," Andrew Harrison said. "Failure's not really a good option."
In many ways, that approach has defined the careers of the UK freshmen to this point. They have won at the highest levels due in large part to their refuse-to-fail mentality. Marcus Lee, however, is the exception.
"When I was younger, I failed a lot," Lee said. "My teachers told me you had to fail to succeed. I actually didn't understand that when I was little and I started to understand it, so I knew that the more I failed the more I got to learn how to do it right, which is what we're all learning right now and what we're trying to figure out together."
Though the "fail fast" mantra may be new to Hood and Polson, they understand its meaning as well as Lee does. They intend to help their younger teammates get there too.
"I went 10-13 my senior year (in high school)," Hood said. "I was used to failure. But these freshmen aren't used to it. I'd be surprised if some of them had lost a game in high school unless they played each other. But we've got a bunch of guys that love to compete and love to win. That's what you want to start every team out with."
Coach Cal, asked whether he's been pleasantly surprised by any of his incoming freshmen, named Lee. With his athleticism and energy, the Antioch, Calif., native has been a revelation, even drawing comparisons to Dennis Rodman from his coach.
The other surprise, Calipari, said, has been Derek Willis. In fact, there was one specific play that caught his eye.
"So Derek Willis dunked on both Julius (Randle) and Dakari (Johnson), like both of them," Calipari said.
The two supposed victims aren't so sure.
"It was not (a dunk)," Johnson said. "It was a layup. A hard layup. He did not dunk on us."
What the parties involved do agree on was that Willis drove on Randle, Johnson came to help and the ball ended up in the basket with the rim rattling. Randle, however, doesn't agree that he or Johnson should have to suffer the humiliation of posing with the helmet that dunked-on players have to pose with at UK practices.
"It was a glorified layup," Randle said. "That's exactly what it was. It was a nice layup, but it was a glorified layup. And I made the basket. I blocked it into the rim."
Sensing defensiveness on the subject, Randle and Johnson's teammates were eager to egg on curious reporters.
"It was really a dunk," Andrew Harrison said. "It was top 10, definitely. SportsCenter."
The one person not interested in perpetuating the story was the man responsible for starting the whole thing.
"It's just a play," Willis said. "I just drove and went up and it was really about it. It's really not like that big of a deal. I'm not trying to act like it's something I do all the time, but it's just another play that happens."
Calipari happy with NCAA officiating changes
This summer, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a change to the way controversial block/charge calls are made.
"Under the revised block/charge call in men's basketball, a defensive player is not permitted to move into the path of an offensive player once he has started his upward motion with the ball to attempt a field goal or pass," Greg Johnson wrote on NCAA.com in June. "If the defensive player is not in legal guarding position by this time, it is a blocking foul. "
Coach Cal has been pushing for such a change since before he arrived at Kentucky. He's happy to hear of the news, as well as the NCAA's mandate that hand-check fouls be called more consistently.
"It's going to open the game up," Calipari said. "Here's what a press will be now: If you want to press and hold and bump, you're going to foul out your whole team, but you can track quick and try to steal the ball, but if you don't steal the ball, you've got to run back because, if you bump that driver, it is now a foul."
Calipari is now imparting that to his team.
"You drive the ball and you get your head and shoulders by the guy, and there's contact, where before they could sometimes say, well, the offense created it," Calipari said. "No, the rule states, you get your head and shoulders by the guy and there's contact, that's a foul on the defense. It's the new rules."
Cauley-Stein returns to practice
A little more than two weeks ago, Willie Cauley-Stein suffered a hand injury that kept him out of UK's first few practices. But on Monday, the sophomore 7-footer returned to the floor.
Cauley-Stein is still feeling lingering effects of the laceration -- which required 18 stitches -- but is happy to be back.
"It still hurts quite a bit, but it's not that much of a bother," Cauley-Stein said. "I kind of forget about it when I'm playing until I hit it against something and realize that it still hurts. Other than that, it's not that big of a deal."
John Calipari spoke to reporters at UK's annual Media Day on Tuesday afternoon. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
The question everyone wants to hear answered was being tossed at John Calipari in all different forms.
Just how excited are you for this team compared to where you were a year ago? Does this team have a shot to go 40-0? Should this team be No. 1?
Like a 747 jetting through a rainstorm, Calipari seamlessly deflected the questions.
So, finally, a reporter came out and just said it. He asked, "Independent of experience, is this the most talented team you've had?" (It was as close as anyone was going to get to, "Hey, Coach Cal, is your team every bit as good as everyone is making it out to be?")
And for the first time - and really the only time during his 45-minute Media Day news conference - Calipari was at a loss for words. He paused, thought about saying something, and then paused again.
The silence said it all.
Coach Cal went on to talk about how talented his first Kentucky team was with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the 2012 title team, and even the 2011 Final Four team that no one thought could make a Final Four. But everyone already knew what Calipari was thinking: Yes this team is good, and he knows it.
"I will tell you," Calipari conceded, "this team is deeper than that (2010) team. We have a couple more (players) that we didn't have."
Calipari, understandably, said he would like for the season to play out a little bit before passing judgment on the merits of this group, but he also couldn't disguise his faith in this team. He certainly hasn't been able to in tweets this past week that have raved about the quality of practice, the surprising play of James Young and the attitude of the players.
All together now: "You won't believe this," Calipari said, "I like my team."
But that statement, perhaps, has never been truer than it is now.
There's the No. 1 recruiting class that features six McDonald's All-Americans. There's All-Southeastern Conference returners in Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress, both projected NBA first-round draft picks. There's the veteran leadership of Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson.
Mix those in the fire burning from last year's disappointment and there seems to be a realistic possibility that this Kentucky team could come back stronger than ever. Preseason talk certainly has some of college basketball worried that UK could be starting a wildfire that no one will be able to contain.
"I can't even speak from experience because I've never played a college game," said freshman forward Julius Randle, the anointed leader of the über-talented freshman class. "I just know who we have here. It seems like we have a really good team, but Nov. 8 - I think that's our first game - we'll be able to go out there and see what we're really made of."
If the reports from preseason practice are any indication, this team is championship quality.
For one, Calipari is surprised at how good some of his newcomers are. He didn't realize Marcus Lee was athletic as he's been showing when grabs lob passes above the square (Hood said he could grab a quarter off the top of the backboard if he had to). He didn't know Derek Willis could shoot the ball as well as he has. He knew Young was one of the best players in this freshman class, but he was just as shocked as everyone else when NBA scouts came to practice earlier this week and talked about him more than anyone else.
"Really, everybody on the team is good," Poythress said. "Each and every practice you might have a different best player."
And that's where the potential scariness of this team comes in. There's the depth. The improvement of Hood and Polson. The extra practice time this year. The competition. The motivation to right last year's wrongs.
It all has the makings of a special year. The question is, can talent trump inexperience like it did in 2012, or will inexperience jumble the puzzle pieces? Calipari isn't sure if his 2012 team was the exception to the rule or the start of a new trend.
"We had good players, but more importantly, we were the best team (that year)," he said. "We were the most efficient team in the country. We were the best defensive team in the country. They were a great team. We had really good players, but we were a great team."
Does this have the potential to be a great team?
"I don't know," Calipari said. "We've had 10 practices. Today will be our 11th practice. Could we become that? If we choose to."
Calipari has led five previous teams to No. 1 rankings, but he said it's too early to tell if this one will be worthy of the top preseason ranking it is in the discussion for right now.
"Those players have got to come together," Calipari said. "They've got to share. They've got to be good defensively. They've got to be efficient offensively. And my best teams have been that way. We're not near that yet, but the team has a chance."
If there is a potential pothole that Coach Cal fears this early in the season, it is certainly that inexperience factor. Calipari wonders how his team will fare when it gets up on teams and worries that his young guys will put it in cruise control.
"Will they bury them, or do they go show time?" Calipari said. "Do they let up off the gas? If you ask me right now, that will be our Achilles heel early. We'll let up off the gas. We'll have it going good and then back up because that's what they've done their whole lives, and they're 18 years old."
Calipari said sometimes you've got to get "dinged" to be great, a la the 2012 title team when it lost at Indiana, but that would obviously put the 40-0 talk on the shelf.
The talk of perfection isn't something Coach Cal is shying away from - he repeated on Tuesday that he would like to coach a 40-0 team before he retires - but it's also not an end-all goal.
"We don't talk about it as a team," Calipari said. "I mean, it's not like, 'Oh, we're going 40-0.' We don't. The way we do this is a process. .. You may not go 40-0, but you're doing special things."
And special is all Calipari is focusing on right now.
He may not want to come right out and say it, but all signs point to the makings of something special. His silence showed it, his comments about practice have hinted at it and even his players have noticed it.
"You can tell that he's really positive about this year," Polson said. "He's said we've done a really good job in practice. He does have a little extra step this year. He knows the talent but also the competitiveness. I think it's definitely good."
But nobody can blame Calipari for not wanting to come right out and say how good this team is. The polls may place his team at No. 1 and the individual accolades of his players can back it up, but Calipari wants to give it time before declaring just how good this group is.
After all, it isn't even Big Blue Madness yet.
"Let them get on the court," Calipari said. "We've got tough games early. We've got one of the best schedules in the country. We've got one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. So it will be interesting."
Mark Stoops gave his players an extra day off, adding Monday to the usual Sunday away from practice, following the team's loss to Alabama last Saturday.
Coming off a tough result - with a game against the top-ranked, two-time defending national champions concluding a brutal stretch of four straight games with top-20 opponents - conventional wisdom would dictate the Wildcats were chomping at the bit to get back on the field.
Yet, Kentucky has an open date on Saturday, meaning 12 days will pass before UK faces its next opponent on Thursday, Oct. 24 at Mississippi State. Faced with the prospect of a long and relatively uneventful buildup to the next game, the full practice week got under way on Tuesday, and the afternoon workout started a little slower than the coaches had expected.
Stoops and his staff took matters into their own hands, and injected some energy into the team themselves upon sensing the practice's sluggish start.
"Just an OK practice today," Stoops said. "I thought we were a little bit down here emotionally; physically, still beat up a little bit. Emotionally, maybe down a little bit. So just an average day. I thought we got ahead and started working a little bit on Mississippi State. That was good, get some looks for the coaches, get the players getting a little bit of an early start on Mississippi State, but I think we've still got a little work to do physically and emotionally getting back, getting our energy level back up again.
"Yesterday we came in and watched the tape, and we didn't practice. Today is the first practice out and they're not used to two days off. It just took a little while to get going. The energy wasn't what I would like it to be. We will gear that up as we get going here."
Having to provide energy to their younger players posed a challenge for the coaches, but the UK staff took the obstacle in its stride. After all, UK coaches "attack every day" with the same enthusiasm.
"We just tried to motivate them, try to create the energy out there for them," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Coaching college football can be hard in a lot of ways, but you just keep plugging and just keep coming to work every day. You take the same approach that the players do, that you've got to get better every day as well. You just wake up in the morning and go to work, take it on with the right attitude."
"With ankles I hate to say that because things change with ankles," Stoops said. "People respond differently. I'll give you a little nugget every three or four days on that because that's what I think will be an indicator on that."
Stoops did confirm that while he will only give status updates on Jalen Whitlow's left ankle once every three or four days, the team will go into Mississippi State preparations as if the quarterback will be unavailable, at least for the time being.
"Not much different," Stoops said of Whitlow's status after confirming he thought the sophomore would be out for a few weeks on his weekly radio show Monday. "(With) those types of injuries we will know things about every three days or so. I'll give you a little bit update on it.
"I hate to say that because things change with ankles. People respond differently. I'll give you a little nugget every three or four days on that because that's what I think will be an indicator."
The injury news was a little better on the defensive side of the ball as junior defensive end Alvin "Bud" Dupree returned to practice on Tuesday. While the Preseason All-SEC selection isn't quite back to full-strength, his coordinator was encouraged by the progress of returning to the practice field.
"Bud got some reps, did some things," Eliot said. "He's moving around ... It's good to see him out there at practice, moving around. It's nice to have him out there."
In lieu of an unconventional schedule considering UK's next game is on a Thursday with 12 days between games instead of the traditional six on a normal week - or the typical bye week's 13 - Stoops laid out how his team will approach preparations for a trip to Mississippi State.
"We have to get back and be ready to go. That's our job this week. It's kind of in between a full off week and not. As you know, we play on Thursday so it's a little different than a complete bye week. We will be out here practicing this weekend."
And despite completing the toughest four-game stretch in school history Stoops isn't letting his team think they'll have any easier time next Thursday against another strong Southeastern Conference opponent.
"You watch this league and you go see Mississippi State, there's no drop off there," Stoops said. "That's a big, long, physical, good football team, and they are chomping at the bit to get a win too. For us we just have to worry about ourselves."
Maxwell Smith completed 7-of-16 passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in UK's 48-7 loss to Alabama on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the first time all season, Mark Stoops stepped to the podium for his postgame press conference dissatisfied with his team's effort.
The execution had not always been there, but Stoops had not found himself questioning his team's fight until after Kentucky fell to Alabama, 48-7. Of course, a lot of that had to do with facing a team that has won three of the last four national championships.
"Disappointing night," Stoops said. "I thought we'd compete a little bit harder than that, but give credit to them. Like I said, that's the No. 1 team in the nation for a reason. I was really impressed with them, just like you watch them on tape."
Even as UK played its way to a scoreless tie at the end of the first quarter, Stoops felt like his team was overmatched. The Wildcats forced a pair of Alabama fumbles with the Crimson Tide driving into the red zone, but UK was unable to capitalize.
"They drove it down there, and we'd get the turnover, and they kept us back there, playing great defense," Stoops said. "Even though we got a couple of turnovers, we were still behind the eight ball most of the night and chasing it. It was an uphill climb."
The statistics show just how uphill the climb was. UK (1-5, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) was outgained 668-170, its offense hurt by a sprained ankle suffered by Jalen Whitlow. Maxwell Smith stepped in at quarterback, but was unable to find a rhythm. Smith prepared as well as he could in a backup role in case his number was called, but he faced a tall order.
"It hurt in a sense that Jalen, we gave him a bunch of reps," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We gave him the starter's reps this week and Maxwell didn't get as many as he had been. And then we had a lot of quarterback run game in the game plan, so it took us a couple series to get a plan together because we were going to use the quarterback run game and use some of that as a decoy also."
Between facing a team loaded with future professionals and injuries to a number of key players, UK could make all kinds of excuses. Stoops, however, isn't interested.
"We've got to hold ourselves to a higher standard," Stoops said. "We've got to coach better. We've got to play better. That's not acceptable no matter who we're playing. We know how good Alabama is, but we could do some things better."
Brown feels the same way.
"Our production is unacceptable," Brown said. "Obviously not used to it. We will use this bye week and we will be significantly better."
After an "unacceptable" performance, pursuing improvement is the only rational response.
With a brutal four-game stretch against top-20 teams now in the rearview mirror, UK is halfway through the 2013 season. The Cats have 12 days to prepare for a Thursday-night trip to Mississippi State and take inventory of the progress they've made to this point, which is far from negligible.
Save for a third-quarter touchdown drive -- the first allowed by Alabama in nearly a month -- positives from Saturday night are hard to come by, but that's not the case for the other five games from the first half of the season. The Cats went toe to toe with some of the nation's best teams and refused to back down.
"We got half the season left, so I think you look at it and say, 'Hey, here's what we did. Here's where we're at. Our record's obviously not where we want, but here's where we're at. This is where we have improvement,' " Brown said. "And trust me, we have drastic improvement that needs to be made. And then you treat it like a new season from here on out."
Stoops and Brown may have coached together for less than a season, but you wouldn't know it from the way they echo one another.
"We'll clean up our mistakes, and we will compete for the second half of this season," Stoops said. "I expect our players to bounce back and prepare the right way and play hard."
The record being what it is, concern over the Cats' ability to remain tuned in is reasonable, but UK's senior leader isn't worried.
"I feel like these games are winnable and we can still become bowl eligible," said Avery Williamson, who had a game-high 13 tackles. "We gotta win five games to be bowl eligible and we just gotta really grind and dig and try to get some wins."
For both UK's mental and physical health, the timing of the bye week could be ideal. Injured players have extra time to heal and coaches can hone in on making sure players' psyches are where they need to be.
"We have this bye week like we have been talking about," Smith said. "Guys will get healthy, we are going to keep practicing and keep getting better. Those guys are going to get healthy. We are going to be all right. We are going to come through this thing."
Williamson knows the message he'll be delivering.
"You've just gotta tell yourself that we can win," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "That's the biggest thing. You've gotta tell yourself that we can win. And you can't focus on the negative. We just gotta move on from it."
At one point this offseason while Edrick Floreal was interviewing candidates to take over as men's distance coach, one of the team's top runners - Matt Hillenbrand - was calling his head coach every other day to see how the search was going.
"For a while there I was thinking, 'At least he wasn't calling me every day,' but then I found out the days he wasn't calling me he was talking to women's distance coach Hakon DeVries about the search," Floreal said. "But it shows just how much he cares about our program. You want to have people who are invested in the program.
"I'm glad we hired Coach Sean Graham to work directly with our men's distance runners because now Matt can blow up Graham's phone instead of mine. I admired that Matt takes ownership of our program because we are trying to build something where we talk about our team, not my or your team."
Hillenbrand's hands-on approach very much embodies the commitment Floreal and his staff asked of the team upon arriving in Lexington late in the summer of 2012. Some Wildcats showed results right away, while others, like Hillenbrand, took time to perform up to their abilities.
UK vs. Alabama football game programs are available inside Commonwealth Stadium.
Floreal's team had to buy in. Such was the first message Floreal delivered to the Wildcats upon meeting them. Some just took longer to do so than others.
At the forefront of buying in, and as such experiencing stellar results, was Cally Macumber. The women's distance standout embraced a new training plan under DeVries, she began running times she had never ever considered when setting goals before the season and eventually she won the Southeastern Conference and NCAA Southeast Region Championships before continuing a great year in track.
"Starting out as a freshman in college, who couldn't break five minutes in the mile and couldn't run under 2:17 in the 800, I definitely would not have thought that things would have progressed the way they did," Macumber said. "Going into college you really have no idea what to expect, but each year your standards and goals change and mine definitely changed for the better last year. Coming into last cross country season with an entirely new coaching staff and an entirely new training plan there was an adjustment period. However, once we all got the hang of things I started to feel better and stronger than I ever had - we all did."
Hillenbrand too, saw improved results, but they didn't come as quickly as they did for Macumber. Instead he experienced a great deal of trial and error before seeing the desired results.
"Some people on the team got a grasp of everything and made a quick turnaround and that's really what you want," Floreal said. "With some people it took a little bit. We tried a few things with Matt, including some longer distances and a little bit of steeplechase. Having a guy that will try everything to get to the next level is they type of person you want.
"Later in the season he really turned things around when he decided to showcase how talented he was. He helped the team in numerous ways. It's credit to his work ethic, and his belief in the process."
Hillenbrand was a middle-of-the pack finisher for most of the 2012 cross country season, and those types of results continued into the 2013 indoor track season. All throughout, he was experimenting at different distances while adjusting to a higher-volume training regimen under the new coaching staff.
The work began to pay dividends at the Indoor SEC Championships. In the Mile Final, Hillenbrand surged on the last straightaway of Arkansas' 200-meter track to knock off the defending conference champion from the powerhouse hosts, and claim a photo-finish SEC title. The win was the first in a string of strong results, which culminated in outdoor All-America status. More broadly the win meant a realization that goals which may have seemed impossible when initially proposed by the new coaches months earlier were in fact within grasp.
Hillenbrand's success continued into the outdoor season when he qualified for the NCAA Championships for the first time in his career, where he was named an All-American at 1,600 meters.
Macumber and Hillenbrand have continued to progress into the early stages of the 2013 cross country season. The two are part of a small group of Wildcats that have experienced success in the first year and change under Floreal's leadership.
More is expected from more people. Additional numbers are needed to reach Floreal's ultimate goals for a program which encompasses six sports: men's and women's cross country, men's and women's indoor track and field and men's and women's outdoor track and field.
Floreal's first recruiting class made up of 49 athletes - with 55 individual high school state titles, 17 college All-America honors and 16 college conference titles (from college transfers) divided among the class - says as much.
"I would probably define our team as 'under construction,' " Floreal said. "We spent most of our time developing our top-runners and integrating our freshmen. We continue to test the foundation of the house we have spent the last few months building."
Mike Tyson once said: "Everyone has a plan 'til they get punched in the mouth." The former heavyweight champion's words often hold true in the world of Southeastern Conference soccer.
Jon Lipsitz spends a great deal of time analyzing video with his staff, breaking it down and showing it to the UK women's soccer team as part of devising a game plan.
Still, sometimes the opponent executes its own game plan a little better. They hit you before you can get to them and once you're down you can't recover.
Kentucky's 3-0 home-loss to Arkansas three weeks ago was a notable case of an opponent preventing UK from settling into its ideal style.
Since the loss two Fridays ago, UK has drawn first blood three straight times. Friday's 4-1 victory over Tennessee -- in which the Wildcats scored twice inside the first 15 minutes for the second time in as many matches -- was no exception.
Kentucky scored early and often, figuratively hitting Tennessee in the mouth, and the Lady Volunteers were unable to adjust, let alone recover.
"We had a very tactical week in training," Lipsitz said. "We got way ahead last week on film because there was only one game this week so we could focus a lot more on it, and I thought that helped us a lot. As I have said all year when the coaches get to give the players a game plan and they work so hard to meet that plan we can show how special we can be.
"Tennessee is a great team. We caught them early, and that was obviously the start we were looking for being back home. It's just a lot of hard work. You don't know from day to day if a shot is going to go in or not go in. What we can control is how hard we work. I thought we worked hard tonight."
Lipsitz's plan required some of his defenders to play major roles in attack. After picking up some of Tennessee's tendencies in film study, the UK coach knew he had advantage on the flanks with his wide backs getting forward.
Indeed both Kelly Hubly on the right and Cara Ledman on the left played in forward positions throughout the first half, with a cross from the latter leading to the opening goal.
Lipsitz's plan was certainly aided by having two talented fullbacks, who have spent most of their careers as forwards. As such, they are more skilled than the typical college defender.
Hubly had the second-most goals on the team last season as a freshman, and Ledman is no slouch as an attacking player herself. Lipsitz has described the converted left back as the team's most talented finisher inside the 18-yard box, a bold statement considering she plays on the back line.
"One of the things that is difficult about playing Tennessee is they have great movement between their midfielders and their backs interchanging positions," Lipsitz said. "We actually said what might end up happening is we may have to track their backs into our back line, but then our wide backs would get to take off. We worked a lot this week on our wide backs setting the play instead of our wide forwards. It obviously is an advantage having two forwards at wide back in a game where they get to go forward like they did."
UK went into the Tennessee game with an aggressive plan, but such tactics require a great deal of confidence and fearless attitudes. Such qualities are central to Lipsitz's most trusted on-field leader: Arin Gilliland.
The junior captain certainly repaid her coach's trust as she enjoyed her first-career hat trick, but her third goal was what best exemplified the aggressiveness Lipsitz has be preaching.
After receiving the ball with space in midfield ahead of the rest of her teammates, Gilliland decided to run on the ball straight toward goal. Electing to take on the defenders, she used her speed to get by three Lady Volunteers.
All three defenders attempted to knock Gilliland off the ball, and all three seemed to bounce off as the Lexington product found herself one on one with the goal keeper before she calmly slotted the ball home.
"Jon has talked about being more aggressive and having a fire when attacking," Gilliland said. "He started telling us that before the Vanderbilt game. When I saw three players coming through with all the space behind I thought I would take a touch, run through them because I am either going to get out into space or they will foul me and I'm going to get a penalty kick. I definitely think practicing that definitely worked and I hate to say it, but Jon's practice did work."
With all due respect to the rest of the Wildcats, Gilliland is the team's most talented player. But she's also the hardest worker, and she's always looking to improve. She has certainly improved her physicality in recent months, her second goal showed as much.
"I actually watched a game from last year this week because only preparing for one team allows you a little extra time," Lipsitz said. "I watched in order to evaluate how our individuals were developing. One of the things that was pretty stunning on the film was to see how different Arin is as a complete player than she was a year ago. Her ability to handle physical play without having it get under her skin is a huge part of that."
Gilliland would also reluctantly, but jokingly, admit -- because it would require crediting her coach -- that she was the beneficiary.
Lipsitz's initial tactical decision as UK's second goal came on a glancing header -- which she barely made contact with, redirecting the ball just enough to put the goalkeeper out of position -- from a cross made deep into the box, very close to goal. The Wildcats worked on such balls all week after too many crosses were too far from the goal in weeks past.
Like so many other training-pitch exercises from the previous week, the work paid off.
Even up 4-0 at half, Lipsitz still had helpful hints to give his players. After all, he couldn't let all the knowledge gained from hours spent in the film room go to waste just because his team had scored four times in one half.
"If you looked at Tennessee's stats they have now scored 12 goals in the second half and they've allowed one," Lipsitz said. "We knew they were going to come out in the second half. Obviously they are very well coached. We knew they were going to make adjustments so the key for us was to stay calm. Did we want to give up a goal? Well heck no. Did we want to score more? Absolutely, but the key was to stay calm. We had done the work so we just had to keep possessing the ball. We say all the time the best way to kill a clock is to have the ball."
Such a stat may have seemed miniscule amongst the broader themes of such a lopsided win, but his players' response illustrated the clear lines of communication, which have allowed UK to win 10 of its last 11 games.
Without prompting, Gilliland referenced Lipsitz's halftime message after the game.
"Jon put up a statistic on the board at halftime saying Tennessee has 11 second-half goals, and just one in the first half this season," Gilliland said. "We knew coming into the second half that they were going to be impressive from the start. At first we struggled because they were so aggressive out of the locker room. We got the restart under our belt, got a feel for it and handled it."
And yet, as perfectly as UK executed the game plan on Friday night, scoring four goals in the first half of an SEC game still came as a bit of a surprise.
"Any time we score four goals on a fantastic team of course it's a huge surprise," Lipsitz said. "There's a part of me that expects that because I've seen that in training. There's another part of me that goes, 'Wow, it came out in the game.' You're always surprised when you respect a team so much and you know that they're so good. To be up four goals at half is very surprising, but the other side of that is we didn't do anything today in this game differently than the way we trained this week."
Lipsitz may have been surprised that four goals came with such ease, but careful execution of a game plan allowed UK to land an early knockout blow on Friday.
The Lancaster Aquatics Center has had a new energy about it since May, when Lars Jorgensen took over as the UK swimming and diving program's first new head coach in 22 years.
The UK swimmers, divers and staff members have had plenty to buzz about, and they haven't even had a home meet yet. That all changes on Friday at 5 p.m. ET when the Wildcats will host Ohio State in a dual meet, which will be the team's second competition of the season.
"We're looking forward to Ohio State on Friday," Jorgensen said. "We have a chance to be at home, which is a huge advantage for us. I think both the women and the men are going to be very competitive against Ohio State. We look forward to hearing the fans come out to support the Wildcats on Friday."
The Wildcats will without doubt be up for their first home meet of the 2013-14 campaign, but they will also be hoping some of their excitement rubs off on the Big Blue Nation.
The die-hard swimming and diving fans in the Lexington community always turn up to support the Wildcats at their few home meets. Yet those who don't keep the sport on their radar all the time, especially in Olympic years, could also be in store for a good time at the first of UK's two home meets this season.
Jorgensen and his staff have taken it upon themselves to create a more fan-friendly atmosphere starting on Friday.
The meet will begin the way many sporting events in Kentucky do: with a UK marching band member playing the "Call to the Post." In support of Breast Cancer Awareness the team will be wearing pink swim caps, and all fans who wear pink to the meet will be entered into a raffle to win a prize.
Still, Jorgensen and the rest of UK's swimming and diving program have no illusions. The fact remains that the greatest excitement at any athletics event comes from the competition, and the more competitive the meet is the more entertaining it is.
To that end UK will have a solid nucleus of returning stars with four athletes who qualified for the 2013 NCAA Championships. Chief among them will be senior diver Greg Ferrucci, who became the first ever UK diver to earn First-Team All-America honors on the 1-meter, 3-meter and platform during the same season in 2013.
"Greg Ferrucci is our superstar diver," Jorgensen said. "He was UK Athlete of the Year at the CATSPY Awards among all sports, which is phenomenal. Every time he competes in a dual meet setting he gives the team a great chance to take two of the 16 events. That's a big help."
Ferrucci is off to a great start to his senior season, having won both the 1- and 3-meter competitions in the season-opener at Georgia two weeks ago. Ferrucci and Christa Cabot on the women's side headline the diving teams, which are currently focal points of the program.
"We have a really good diving program," Jorgensen said. "It gives us a chance against the No. 13 Ohio State men's program. Both are outstanding programs, but our diving will be a big difference to me."
It's a testament to Jorgensen's team-first philosophy in a sport, which is at its core very much individual-based, that even when talking about some of most effective contributors he ties it back to how everything fits in with the team.
"It is all about the team in college," Jorgensen said. "To me that's what is fun. It's a lot different than the Olympics, which is all based on individuals making a team. College swimming is all about the team. That's what I love about it. I'm not as concerned about just one particular person, our staff buys into the philosophy of it all adding up as a team."
UK's swimming program is not yet as developed as the diving aspect. The challenge of getting his teams to be more balanced across all disciplines is something Jorgensen is meeting head on, both in developing his current team as well as recruiting potential newcomers.
"We try to get our kids better every day," Jorgensen said. "Every single day is an opportunity for us to get better. If it's 6 a.m. or if it's in the afternoon I love going to practice. Everybody has some things they love about their job, but my favorite thing is practice. I love the opportunity to teach and try to make kids better.
"Recruiting and establishing the base of your team with kids that have good character and work ethic is important. Instilling that across the board is challenging. Once you have that ability you can create a culture where you are able to attract some better recruits."
Jorgensen is just months into a project that will take at least a few years to reach the new head coach's ultimate vision. Still the prospect of helping, and watching, as his team improves is what Jorgensen finds most exciting.
As intriguing as Jorgensen may find the day-to-day grind of swimming and diving training -- a process that takes hours of each day and pushes the human body beyond imaginable limits if it is to yield the results UK's coach has said he desires -- athletes still need benchmarks to keep them encouraged that they're on the right track.
And an early step to reaching those benchmarks will be establishing a home-meet experience that generates a buzz in the local community. People take notice when teams improve, and the UK swimming and diving teams will look to show how much they've done just that on Friday.
Craig Skinner and the Wildcats will travel to face No. 2 Florida on Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Opportunity is a word that comes up frequently with the Kentucky volleyball team.
Every practice is an opportunity to improve. Every weight-lifting session is an opportunity to get stronger. Every match is an opportunity for the Wildcats to test themselves.
Craig Skinner built UK's schedule with that in mind.
"Lipscomb was an opportunity to play in front of a hostile crowd and environment," Skinner said. "Minnesota was an opportunity to play against a top-five team from the Big Ten."
So far this season, UK has taken advantage of those opportunities more often than not. The Cats are 12-3 (4-0 Southeastern Conference), including wins in both those matches mentioned by Skinner. Now, they will face a challenge that combines a road crowd with a top-ranked opponent as UK travels to face No. 2 Florida (15-1, 4-0 SEC) on Friday (6:30 p.m. ET on SportsSouth).
"Florida's the perennial power in the SEC," Skinner said. "It's an opportunity for us to go toe to toe with them and see what we're all made of."
The Gators will surely give the Cats everything they can handle. Florida has won 10 straight matches, losing just one set in the process.
"They're very athletic at every position and physical," Skinner said. "I think they have a couple seniors that have a big desire to be successful. Their middles and right-sides, statistically, are off the charts."
The seniors are setter Taylor Brauneis - who ranks 10th in the nation at 11.62 assists per set - and middle blocker Chloe Mann. Mann also falls into the latter group, averaging 3.46 kills per set while hitting an astounding .527 to rank second nationally. Mann spearheads a Florida attack that also ranks second nationally with a hitting percentage of .349.
A few weeks ago, facing such an offense would have been much more troubling to Skinner. Since then, UK's defense has taken a step forward. The Cats have 41.5 blocks in their four SEC wins, holding opponents to a combined hitting percentage of just .137.
"We're physical in the front row and so we have to force their attackers to make choices," Skinner said. "They can't just have the freedom to do whatever they want. So our block is a big factor in that and channeling their attacks in certain directions and forcing a couple players to beat us and not allowing all five players to go for big numbers."
Skinner is concerned about that because of Florida's remarkable balance. Five different Gators are averaging at least 2.31 kills per set.
"You have to do some specific things with your block," Skinner said. "You have to serve tough to get them out of system so they can't set everybody. If every rotation they can set any one of the hitters they need to or want to, that'll be very difficult for us. But if force their setter to have to set one or two people as opposed to three or four, then we have a good shot."
If things go as planned, Skinner expects a close battle, which could end up favoring Kentucky. The Cats have already played four five-set matches, winning each of their last three, while Florida has played into the fourth set just three times and never gone the distance.
"Being in those kinds of situations helps you," Skinner said. "Our leadership for our seniors and captains, they're very even-keeled and the same all the time. So whether it's the first set or fifth set, I don't worry at all about how we're going to approach it.
"I think it's going to come down to: Can we score points when we need to? Can we finish? Can we force Florida to be a little bit uncomfortable out there? It's a tall task, but something that we're going to have to do to be successful."
Should UK come away with the win, it will be a signature road victory on an already-impressive resume. The Cats will get a boost in the polls and the RPI and grab a leg up on the Gators in what is shaping up to be a tight race at the top of the conference.
But no matter what, there will still be another road match to be played at South Carolina on Sunday. There will still be a month and a half left in the regular season. There will still be plenty of opportunities ahead.
"There are 18 matches in conference," Skinner said. "This is the fifth match and there are a lot of them left. We can't put all of our eggs in one basket. We're going to prepare hard and be ready for Florida and Saturday, win or lose, it's time to focus on South Carolina."
Quarterback Jalen Whitlow leads UK into a Saturday matchup with top-ranked Alabama. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Over the last month, Kentucky has played an unprecedented stretch of difficult games.
First was a matchup with No. 7 Louisville. Two weeks later, the Wildcats had a bye week to prepare for No. 19 Florida. The next Saturday, they would head on the road for a test against No. 13 South Carolina. To finish it off, UK will welcome top-ranked Alabama.
Could there be a more fitting way to cap the first set of four consecutive games against top-20 opponents in school history than by facing the two-time defending national champion?
"Another very tough task playing Alabama, extremely well coached team, very physical, and everything they are built up to be," head coach Mark Stoops said. "They deserve all the credit they have been given for what they have done through the course of this year, and of course with their history.
In evaluating the Crimson Tide (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference), Stoops could not be more impressed. With his defensive background, Stoops has admired Alabama head coach Nick Saban for years and scarcely sees a weakness in his team.
"It's almost a pro attack on both sides of the ball," Stoops said. "They are very efficient and very accurate with the ball, with all the short game stuff. And of course they can run the ball. So they can move the ball. They just, honestly, they'd just as soon do it with what they want to do. If they need to score a bunch of points, they'll score a bunch of points. If they want to run the ball, they'll run the ball. They're very efficient with everything they do, really."
With an Alabama team that does everything well coming to Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2), how then do the Cats approach the task they will face?
"It's just about us and our execution as well," Stoops said. "We're gonna go out there to compete and play. It's about putting one good play out there and then another. We can't get ahead of ourselves. We can control the things we can control, and we can execute better than we have been."
That's what UK has been working on this week.
The Cats are less than a week removed from nearly overcoming a 21-0 deficit at South Carolina. Led by Jalen Whitlow -- who took over full time at quarterback after sharing snaps with Maxwell Smith to start the year -- UK outscored the Gamecocks 28-14 over the final 44:20.
"The biggest thing was that we just didn't give up," linebacker Avery Williamson said. "I just feel like the team, we stuck together and in the second half we put it in our heads that we were going to come back and fight and try to get a victory. We came up short, but we didn't give up. We were that close and I feel like if we could have done the little things right we could have had the game."
Stoops now wants his team to carry that knowledge forward.
"I just hope we continue to understand that we can win these games," Stoops said. "It's not just me up here talking about that. If we truly believe; if we go about our business; if we work the right way; if we prepare the right way and execute and make plays when the game is on the line--We had every opportunity to win that game and that's a very good team, very well coached and we have a lot of respect for them."
Clearly, the same sentiment applies to Alabama.
The Crimson Tide ranks 12th nationally in total defense -- representing the third top-12 defense UK will face during this four-game stretch -- and that includes the 628 yards Alabama gave up in a 49-42 win over Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel.
"They're pretty good," Whitlow said. "Every week we try to find a weakness in the defense and try to exploit it. But Alabama seems to have less because, you know, they're a good football team. They won the last three out of four national championships, so we're just going to keep studying film and keep preparing until Saturday and see what happens."
Just as the Cats agree about the magnitude of the challenge awaiting them on offense, they also know a getting off to a good start will be crucial to taking it on. Unfortunately, UK has had trouble out of the gate as opponents have scored first in all four of the Cats' losses.
"You got to go out there and execute and get off to a better start," Stoops said. "We understand that. I think it's really just about the things we've been preaching, and that's getting off to one good play. Let's have one good play and then try to stack another one on there and then another one."
The Cats are following their coach's lead and will attack the game in chunks, but they can't help but step back and consider the stage they'll be playing on Saturday. UK hasn't taken on a top-ranked team since 2011 and last defeated one in 2007 -- an unforgettable triple-overtime win over LSU.
"It's very exciting," Williamson said. "It's going to be a great challenge. They've got a lot of talent on the team. It's going to be a great chance to go against the best in America."
Freshman Jason Hatcher has some experience in these kinds of games, but from a different perspective. In high school, he played on a Trinity team that won state titles his final three seasons and claimed a national championship in 2011. Hatcher likes the idea of being on the other side now.
"I like being the underdog because nobody's really expecting it," Hatcher said. "When we go out there and we stop teams and we force three-and-outs, that's a great feeling."
UK knows Alabama will be the favorite over any team it faces for a reason and the Cats respect the Crimson Tide a great deal. They won't, however, be in awe when they line up on Saturday.
"They're a team just like us," Williamson said. "They're human, so go out there and play."