In search of a sixth win, Kentucky hit the practice field on Wednesday in preparation for a trip to face Missouri this weekend.
On another productive day, the focus was clear for the Wildcats.
"We're really harping on fundamentals," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "We're pushing the kids to the limit and they're responding well to that, getting ready for Missouri."
Fundamentals, for Eliot's defense, start in the running game. Last weekend, UK allowed 326 rushing yards to top-ranked Mississippi State, many coming after initial contact.
"Give them credit," Eliot said. "They have some very good runners: quarterback, tailbacks, wide receivers. They're all big. But I think that we could have played a lot better fundamentally. Tackling being the biggest thing. The players saw that too so we've really harped on that this week."
That began in the film room, where a long run with numerous broken tackles by running back Josh Robinson was a featured attraction after making the rounds online over the weekend.
"It was embarrassing just to watch how people were missing tackles," senior Bud Dupree said. "People had him wrapped up. There's no excuse for missing that many tackles."
Embarrassing as it may have been, Eliot called the play and others like it "a good learning opportunity" in the coaches' continuing quest to hammer home the importance of fundamentals. It's a message the Cats have heard all season long and even before.
"They say fundamentals every day," Dupree said. "All the meetings, just showing us fundamental things that we could do better. Showing you if your shoestrings aren't tied the right way, you need to tie them the fundamental way."
Tying shoelaces, however, hasn't been the primary emphasis in practice so much as not going for the forced fumble on first contact and flocking to the football.
"You gotta get a good swarm, swarm of guys to the ball," Eliot said. "When the first guy hits him and wraps him up, if he doesn't bring him down there's somebody else to bring him down."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 18 points and nine rebounds at Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
In his opening statement following Monday night's Blue-White Scrimmage, UK head coach John Calipari said he would have liked to see a few guys play with a little more confidence.
But for freshman power forward Karl-Anthony Towns, confidence has never been an issue.
The 6-foot-11 forward from Piscataway, N.J., brings a rare skill set to a team with more McDonald's All-Americans than many current NBA rosters. On the offensive end Towns sees the floor exceptionally well for a player of his size, he can space the floor by shooting the ball consistently out to 24 feet, and he has developed more post moves than the average 18-year-old hoops star.
Developing these traits on the basketball court comes with the utmost level of confidence and swagger, which is obvious - even to the average fan of the game - as soon as he laces up his size-20 sneakers and takes the court. But Towns, along with a few of his teammates, failed to come out with the type of competitiveness and tenacity the coaching staff was hoping for.
"He fumbled balls today," Calipari said. "There were some one-handed catches, some rebounds he didn't bring in. Plays like that, you know, those are plays that are easily made. Go make those."
Calipari watched the majority of the action as a spectator seated at the end of the scorer's table with his wife, and newly appointed special assistant Tony Barbee. As he grew noticeably more distressed throughout the first half, Cal could not help but intervene during the under-eight media timeout.
He marched over to the blue team's bench, only to have a one-way discussion with his prized freshman big man. When the horn sounded, Towns came out of the timeout with an entirely different mindset.
"When the game started out, it was different," Towns said. "You're playing for the first time this year in front of all these people, and it's very competitive. So we've got to change the gears. You could see when people started to get a little touchy, and some people started getting scored on, it became competitive because we were trying to win. So once that mindset kicked in, we really turned it up a notch."
Towns finished the scrimmage with totals of 20 points and 13 rebounds while knocking down all six of his free-throw attempts.
The Big Blue Nation was spoiled on Monday night in Rupp Arena with the absurd matchups on display, but it was the only real glimpse fans will see this season of the one-on-one battle between Towns and sophomore center Dakari Johnson that takes place each day behind the closed doors of the Joe Craft training facility.
Johnson is every bit of 7-feet tall and 255 pounds. With his bruising style around the basket, Towns awarded Johnson with a nickname of his own: "The bear," he joked after taking numerous blows from Johnson throughout the scrimmage.
"He's a lovable bear, but not on the court," Towns said. "He's competitive and he comes hard every day. So he makes you have to bring your A-game every day too, but I enjoy it because it makes me a better player. It allows me to use my body more."
Even with the undeniable star power Towns brings to this 2014-15 Kentucky team, it's hard to look past the glow on his face when he starts to rave about his teammates. And with a team that is capable of going 12 deep into the rotation if necessary, there is plenty of praise to go around, especially with the depth on the interior.
"You've got three 7-footers. You've got Marcus Lee. You've got everybody around the rim," Towns said. "You really have to challenge yourself to even have the courage to go inside against all of us. But we make that a focal point as the big men that we protect the rim at all cost. And we make sure that the guards know that we have their back."
With such a loaded roster, especially in the frontcourt, it is typical for an incoming freshman to take a back seat to some of the veteran guys, but not Towns. His confidence in his own ability has him taking a much different approach to his first season as a Wildcat. He is focused on using this year as the ultimate learning experience.
"For us to have this opportunity to play at the University of Kentucky with so many great big guys, you're talking about the best in the whole nation in one gym all the time," Towns said. "Being able to learn from Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Poythress, Trey Lyles, you're talking about a lot of different styles that you get to look at every day and try to utilize and implement their skills into your game too."
For those who know Towns, they will tell you he only wants to be great. When he committed to the Wildcats in December 2012, Towns announced his goal of becoming one of the all-time greats in the history of Kentucky's program. Obviously that is no easy task, but it is clear that the freshman big man is primed and ready for the spotlight.
Towns will begin to carve out his legacy on Sunday, Nov. 2, as the Cats take on Pikeville in their first exhibition at 7 p.m. ET in Rupp Arena.
Dakari Johnson had 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks at Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
For most teams, competitive is the last word one might use to describe a preseason intrasquad scrimmage.
But, as the record nine McDonald's All-Americans and 10 projected NBA Draft picks indicate, most teams aren't Kentucky.
"You know we have a lot of competitive guys on this team," said sophomore Dakari Johnson. "When you put us out on the court, we are going to compete against each other."
Instead of first- and second-string rotations, Kentucky features two "platoons" of talented lineups. Instead of six or seven players earning the lion's share of playing time, the Wildcats boast 12 athletes with a chance to see the floor this season. For reasons like these, the annual Blue-White Scrimmage was no different than the countless high-intensity practices that took place prior: competitive.
"It's just the beginning of the season," said Johnson. "We still have a lot of things to work on and get better at. We started off as a bunch of competitive guys, and that's a good start."
In a talent pool laden with NBA potential, Johnson was able to stand out among his peers Monday night. The 7-foot Brooklyn native finished with 13 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, two steals, and two blocks while logging minutes for both the Blue and White squads. Ironically enough, his teammates are some of the steepest competition Johnson is expected to face all season.
"Just knowing that you're going to come out with four other guys that have the same competitive spirit, know how to play, and are talented as you," Johnson said, "it's just going to be great."
Johnson spent most of his time battling on the low block with freshman big man Karl-Anthony Towns.
"(Guarding Johnson is) very difficult," Towns said. "He's a bear down there. He's a bruiser."
After declining the opportunity for a possible first-round selection in last June's NBA Draft, Johnson spent the summer improving his conditioning and basketball skill set in order to help the Wildcats reach the pinnacle this year of which they fell just short last season.
"I feel much lighter," Johnson said. "That's the main focus. The bigs have to run the floor, because when you play with point guards like Tyler (Ulis) and Andrew (Harrison), they'll get you the baskets if you run the floor."
Throughout the scrimmage, Johnson wowed fans with plays that he simply was not able to make a season ago.
"I feel like I'm moving way better than last year," Johnson said. "Just getting the weight off me helped me a lot. Not getting tired so fast has really helped me, too."
Head coach John Calipari echoed the 19-year-old's sentiment.
"He's playing with great energy," said Calipari. "I mean, he's going after every ball. He has a fight and a fire in him."
Though the Blue team defeated the White by an official score of 94-66, the scoreboard was reset to 0-0 with 11:36 remaining in the second half. It was during this time that Johnson left the White team and traded places with Towns, who was originally on the Blue. Johnson's new ensemble won the second contest, 29-22.
Even while encouraging spirited competition every day in practice, Calipari has instilled in his players that the ultimate team goal is for each student-athlete to improve as an individual.
"I enjoy (facing Johnson) every day because it makes me a better player," Towns said. "Playing against Dakari, (I) get to utilize some things and implement some things that he does so well on the post into my game. It can definitely change my game."
Johnson, who averaged 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds and started 18 games for last season's national runner-up team, looks to make the most of Calipari's in-and-out two-platoon system every time he's on the floor.
"Every time I step on the court, I just want to play my hardest and just compete out there," Johnson said. "That's what (Monday) was."
"We've got to challenge each other every day to be the best human beings we can be, and the best basketball players we can be," Towns said. "Having Dakari around makes the job very challenging, but it makes it very deserving, very loving, and just very fun. (We're) fortunate to have him around and on the team."
Kyvin Goodin-Rogers heard the doctors saying how serious her condition was.
But lying in a hospital bed with her mother and Matthew Mitchell nearby, it had not quite sunk in. She was still thinking she'd be at practice the next day.
"Coach, he was there beside me, and I was like, 'Coach, I'll be there tomorrow,' and the doctor was like, 'No, you're not going to be playing,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
Last October, Goodin-Rogers, a 6-foot-1 forward, was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and would need to go on blood-thinning medicine for the next several months to ensure her long-term health. Though that was the only reasonable decision, it meant her first season as a Kentucky player had ended before it began.
"Our doctors and the family decided to put her on blood thinners, which was the protocol that would try to guarantee her recovery and make sure that she didn't have any more problems or another one didn't occur, and so the moment she went on the blood thinners, her season was done," Mitchell said. "That was a tough day certainly for her."
It didn't stop being trying either, and Goodin-Rogers wasn't the only one affected.
Her new UK teammates had gotten to know her as a person and player over the summer and in fall practices and all of a sudden she was relegated to watching from the sideline. For Makayla Epps, who played with Goodin-Rogers at Marion County High School, it was particularly difficult.
"It put both of us down really bad," Epps said. "That's like my best friend. I've been with her for seven years and when I found that out it was real heartfelt for me. Like, I almost got real emotional about it. But we tried to keep her positive about it and all of that."
With the support of her teammates and coaches, Goodin-Rogers made the best of a bad situation.
"It was an eye-opening thing. Over the year I actually got more mentally tough about it. I took it more in a positive way than a negative way because everything happens for a reason."
It would have been easy for Goodin-Rogers to get down, especially when she learned a blood clot is a career-threatening condition for some high-level athletes, but she refused to think in those terms.
"No, never," Goodin-Rogers said, asked on UK Hoops media day whether she ever thought she'd played for the last time. "I knew I would play no matter what."
A year later, she's proven herself right.
Goodin-Rogers, a sophomore who will be eligible to apply for a medical redshirt, is poised to contribute when the Wildcats open the regular season on Nov. 14 against Appalachian State.
"Kyvin Goodin-Rogers has just bounced back from a very difficult freshman year with her health problems, and she looks really good right now and looks like a player we're going to be able to count on," Mitchell said.
Goodin-Rogers began building that confidence when she was officially cleared on April 28 after a battery of tests. Hours later, she was on the floor with her teammates playing in the most gratifying scrimmage of her life.
"It meant a lot because once you start going a few trips, I was like, 'Yeah, I still have this. I haven't lost anything,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
If you ask Epps, Goodin-Rogers has actually gained something. In a preseason scrimmage last weekend, Epps saw a player even better than the one rated a four-star prospect in high school.
"The kid hasn't played in a year and I was on the court with her and I love seeing her out there with me," Epps said. "And then when I was on the bench watching her, she was just going like she played last year. I was like, 'That's crazy. Like, you're amazing.' But she's back and I think she's better than she's ever been. Sitting out a year, that's just crazy. I can't wait to be out there with her for real."
After the scrimmage, there was one final hurdle for Goodin-Rogers to clear this week. She had to get through practice on the one-year anniversary of the day she reported chest pains to senior athletic trainer Courtney Jones.
"Yesterday, I was like, 'If I get past this day, I'm good. I'm going to play this season no matter what,' " Goodin-Rogers said.
That day behind her, Goodin-Rogers has moved her focus solely to preparing for the season. She's a potentially important piece for a UK frontcourt that lost stars DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker to graduation, laying the burden on the shoulders of seniors Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney, freshmen Alexis Rice and Alyssa Rice and Goodin-Rogers.
"We just need to keep working hard because we know how to play the game," Goodin-Rogers said. "It's just another game, another practice. We just gotta be mentally tough and prepared and know our positions."
Goodin-Rogers is a contender to start, but she's not overly concerned with that.
"I just want to be there for the team, do my part, do what I have to do, do my role to win games and do better," Goodin-Rogers said.
That's the perspective of a player who knows how much of a gift playing basketball is.
"I take every position more seriously than I ever have in my life," Goodin-Rogers said. "I'm just grateful to be back on the court and show what I have and (can) do, what I can for my teammates."
One of the major focuses for Kentucky offensive coordinator Neal Brown heading into the week was improving the running game.
After the Wildcats opened the year with at least 230 rushing yards in three of their first five games, Kentucky has faced stout defensive efforts from its last two foes, at LSU and vs. No. 1 Mississippi State last week.
In those games, the Tigers limited UK to 71 rushing yards and the Bulldogs held UK to 103 yards on the ground.
"Well, I think it's two-fold," Brown said, pinpointing the obstacles in running the football the last two weeks. "I think, No. 1, let's not -- I think I said this after the game too -- let's not take away from those guys. I mean, they're good. You know what I mean? 91, Preston Smith is a really good player, a guy that will make a solid living in the NFL. The two d-tackles are really big. They really rotate four in there. So they gave us some issues, but we had some technique. We leaned, and when you lean good players are going to put their hands inside and go around you. We didn't do a good job getting depth, and our communication was off a little bit. So, we can play better. Our guys are disappointed in how they played up front, and we had a good practice, maybe our best practice in probably a couple weeks up front, today. So, (offensive line) Coach (John) Schlarman will get those guys straight."
When Brown met with the media following Tuesday's practice, he emphasized improving the rushing attack before the Wildcats travel to Missouri for a 4 p.m. ET kickoff on the SEC Network on Saturday.
"Well, first of all, I've got to give them more opportunities," Brown said about getting the running back's involved. "When we get those opportunities, we've got to run through some tackles. And we've got to hold onto the ball. Running back is a lot like a guy that shoots a lot in basketball: you can't just go out there and give a shooter a couple shots. You've got to get him open, and we've got to do the same thing. We've got to feed the running backs and get them in a rhythm."
Kentucky (6-2, 2-3 SEC) boasts a strong stable of running options, including junior Braylon Heard - who has started seven of eight games in 2014 - sophomore Jojo Kemp, and freshmen Mikel Horton and Stanley "Boom" Williams. Kemp leads UK with 314 yards and four TDs, with Heard charting 299 yards, Williams - who missed last week due to injury - contributing 222 yards and the bruising Horton totaling 201 yards.
"Well, it helps us," Brown said about potentially getting Williams back on the field Saturday. "I mean, he's one of our better players. And he will play as long as he doesn't have anything that sets him back this week. He'll play. Excited to get him back. He's a guy that we can get in space. I think he's eager to get back on the field. I don't think he played his best game against LSU. He realizes that, and he'll add a spark to us for sure."
UK sophomore quarterback Patrick Towles has also been a dual-threat option for Brown, leading the team with 90 carries, running for 174 yards, and equaling Kemp for the team lead with four TDs.
"Early in the game it does." Brown said about getting Towles settled into the game with an early rush and contact. "Yeah, it does, really. When he has success early in games and when he does get in the flow, whether running or pass, high-percentage pass, I he does get going."
Brown's unit faces another stiff road test on Saturday with Mizzou, the defending Southeastern Conference Eastern Division Champions.
"Missouri is playing with a lot of confidence," Brown said. "Two really good years in a row. They're playing their best football right now, starting to gain some momentum on offense. They've played good defense all the time. Got a lot of respect for their DC, Coach (Dave) Steckel. Does a good job consistently -- they do a good job evaluating talent, very similar to Mississippi State."
Missouri (6-2, 3-1 SEC) ranks second in the SEC in total defense (310 ypg) and third in scoring defense (20.2) in conference games. Last week, Missouri held Vanderbilt to just 240 yards of offense in a 24-14 win, after limiting Florida to 283 yards in a 42-13 win in Gainesville.
"We've got another stiff test this week with their front," Brown said. "They're going to move a lot. They twist, they don't sit still. They do a good job of speed rushing, and they're defense is built on making negative plays. They've got some linebackers that have got a lot of tackles, solid tacklers, and they've got safeties that have experience. Little bit of youth at corner, similar to what we are at wideout. But again, a tremendous challenge. Tough place to go up and play, but our guys will be ready and like I said, we need to put it all together this week."
With only three former Cats picking up wins in the NFL's Week 8, seven UK alumni went home with losses. Nevertheless, a familiar face was able to extend his league-leading touchdown total, while one young player achieved a career milestone.
Another former Wildcat--Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay--saw no action on the field in his team's historic thrashing at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Neither team recorded a single punt, marking the Packers' second such performance in four weeks, and only the third of its kind in NFL history.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (5-3) Despite his team's 44-23 loss in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Randall Cobb came away with five catches for 126 yards and a 70-yard touchdown grab. Cobb's ninth touchdown of the season moved him into a tie for first place among all NFL receivers.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-6) Juxtaposing his team's bumbling two-win 2014 campaign, Avery Williamson has continued to put together a sensational rookie season in terms of personal performance. The 6-foot-1 Tennessee native recorded a career-high 10 tackles and his first professional sack in the Titans' 30-16 loss to the Houston Texans.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-6) Playing alongside Williamson on the Titans defense, Woodyard assisted in two tackles and logged four more of his own. Woodyard has combined for 49 total tackles on the season.
As a college basketball player, Jennifer O'Neill has just about done it all.
Three Sweet 16s. Two Elite-Eights. A Southeastern Conference title. A 43 points on national TV in a football stadium. The list goes on and on.
But for the UK guard, plenty remains to be done. And she's put in a lot of time and effort to reach new heights in her last season at UK.
A player of O'Neill's stature -- having among other stellar credentials wowed a national audience with that school-record scoring performance in AT&T Stadium last season -- could be forgiven for lacking motivation. Yet given the work the senior has been putting in building up to the 2014-15 season, inspiration doesn't seem to be in short supply.
The fire that burns inside O'Neill is unique to her.
"So much motivates me," O'Neill said. "Definitely my mom, who set the bar high. My family, I want to be an example to my younger siblings and cousins. I read a quote that said, 'Work hard in silence and let your success speak for itself.'
"That's my mindset. I'm not worried about what people have to say about me, what people think about me. If I know what I'm doing, and I know I'm doing the right thing then I have nothing to worry about."
For her part O'Neill has always put in plenty of time in pursuit of improvement, but four years into her journey as a college basketball player, she has a more effective and efficient practice routine.
"When I first got here I was really out of shape, so I worked on my fitness and nutrition," O'Neill said. "I started taking it seriously and understanding when I was able to eat certain things at what time. Not counting calories, but really watching what I ate, when I ate it, at the time I ate it and stuff like that.
"Now I really work on my mechanics. Little things I could do to get better. As far as footwork, making sure how my follow-through goes so my wrist isn't twisted to the side. I'm constantly working with the coaches as much as possible. I get as many shots up as I can. Really that's it, just my mechanics and technique is what I'm working on right now."
As a player O'Neill can always work on her game, but as a senior expected to play substantial minutes, she could also be called on to assume a leadership role.
The role of veteran leader is a bit novel to O'Neill, but it's one she has already started growing into.
"I talk a lot more now," O'Neill said. "Sometimes I get quiet and I don't even realize it until Matthew (Mitchell) says things or my teammates say something. I'm definitely talking a lot more than I ever have since I've been here.
"I'm trying to lead by example by really showing my teammates what they need to do in order to get better. It's something I didn't do my freshman year."
While O'Neill may not have initially been comfortable showing the way to her teammates, some of the UK Hoops newcomers have taken notice of O'Neill's influence early this year.
"Players like Jennifer O'Neill have taken me under their wing," freshman Alexis Jennings said. "She's made me feel like I'm sisters with everyone on the team already. She's been here a while, and I can count on her to give it to me straight. Every practice she encourages me."
Indeed O'Neill's embrace of a role as a mentor was likely outside her comfort zone, but it's indicative of the attitude she's taken on since arriving at UK.
"I've grown up a lot; I've learned a lot," O'Neill said. "I've been exposed to a lot of knowledge from coaches. They have just passed their knowledge down to me and just showed me what I needed to do. How I need to improve."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns battle for a loose ball at Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari moved to the opposite of the court for most of Monday's Blue-White Scrimmage, taking a seat next to his wife and leaving his assistants to do the work on the bench.
He couldn't help but interject on occasion, but he spent most of his time watching his two platoons go head to head.
It was in those moments as an observer that he realized just how unique a coaching challenge he's created for himself. The thing is, he's created the same challenge for his peers.
"The issues I'm going to have, the other coach is going to have, too," Calipari said.
Given the opportunity, any opposing coaches who happened to tune in to UK's annual preseason scrimmage surely would trade places with Coach Cal.
Kentucky's unmatched depth was on display, with seven players scoring in double figures. Devin Booker led the way with 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting, while Andrew Harrison had 19 for the Blue team, which came away with a 94-66 victory.
Though the final score wasn't close, this edition of the Blue-White Scrimmage was a departure from years past.
"I think we all could see that we were all really competing hard at each other and acting like it was a Louisville-Kentucky game, but it was against each other," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who impressed with 18 points and nine rebounds. "We really went hard at each other, but we had a lot of fun. I definitely had fun. I really enjoyed today and I just can't wait to play with the other team on our team."
"The other team on our team." That serves to illustrate what the Cats will try to do when they're all wearing the same color uniform.
For the better part of three months now, Coach Cal has been preparing his team to play the two-platoon system. Nonetheless, he can't be sure from games on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour, practices or the scrimmage exactly what it's going to be like to coach the system when he doesn't have free rein to reset the score with 11:30 remaining as he did on Monday.
"I don't know," Calipari said. "We're going to find out. We haven't done it yet. Today we just played a bunch of guys."
Slightly more thought went into it than that.
The Blue team -- before Cal switched up the squads -- was comprised of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Towns. White's starters were Tyler Ulis, Booker, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Dakari Johnson. Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins split time between the two teams.
"You want to have a point guard on each group," Calipari said. "You want to have some size on each group. And how do they fit together?"
Experience is also a consideration.
"I'll probably try some different combos," Calipari said. "I kind of like two freshmen on a team, three vets on a team. It gives it some balance."
With all the thought Calipari is putting into the composition of the two platoons, the players are steering clear of concerning themselves with who belongs on which team. They're just playing.
"The combinations we don't worry about," Towns said. "We just worry about going out there and doing everything we need to do to get a W. That's not our job. Our job is to go out there and execute the plan Coach Calipari gives us."
The plan is clear, though the particulars are still a work in progress. There's no manual for what UK is about to try.
"We're just going to see what happens," Calipari said. "I mean, I'm committed to it. It's the best thing for these players. Now we got to make it the best thing for our team."