At this stage in preseason camp, it is typical for young players to begin to hit the wall with physical and mental fatigue.
After Kentucky had a practice that left room for improvement on Tuesday evening, the coaching staff was eager to see how the team would react for Wednesday's practice.
"We had a good practice," UK defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "It was competitive, enthusiastic -- one of our most enthusiastic practices of training camp, which is good. The guys were flying around, playing fast, and it was encouraging.
"It was in response to yesterday. And sometimes that's the way it goes, you know? Guys have got to bounce back and they got to play better and they got to practice better and they did today."
Stoops echoed Eliot's assessment of the effort level in Wednesday's practice.
"Not bad work," UK head coach Mark Stoops said after coming off the practice field on a steaming Wednesday afternoon. "We're getting to the point where guys are getting very beat up and wore down like you'd expect through two and a half weeks of camp. But we got some good situation work today."
After Stoops tabbed sophomore Patrick Towles the starting quarterback on Monday after a four-way competition for the spot, the announcement dominated the storylines over the last two days.
With Stoops, Eliot and UK's defensive players available to the media on Wednesday, the conversation shifted to the development of Eliot's squad. While Stoops has been dialed into the progress of the secondary, he emphasized that the linebackers were also ready to take that next step in their development.
"We have some (linebackers) that have done some nice things," Stoops said. "We need to be on point there. We can't be hit-and-miss and missing some responsibilities here and there. That's where, like I said earlier in the year, there's always that fine line. As you get into year two, as you get better and better, there's a balance between doing more things or being simpler. The better you are, the less you really have to do, to be honest with you. So, we'll see. We're working our way through that, but I think we have some guys to work with at linebacker. Josh (Forrest) has done a nice job. Ryan Flannigan has been a nice surprise. We've got to continue to get him a lot of reps and get him ready to go."
Kentucky's defensive unit is, as a whole, a more experienced group that will greatly benefit from being in the second year of Stoops and Eliot's system.
"They definitely do," Stoops said about the unit's increased understanding of what the defense is trying to accomplish. "That just comes from experience. Some of those guys are in year two. There are not as many newcomers. They had an offseason to look at things, what we did and did not do well. They had spring practice, so obviously they understand things better."
Over his career as a defensive coordinator, Stoops' teams have had notable improvement in his second year, something he is eager to see translate to his second-edition of the Wildcats.
"Yeah," Stoops said about the defense making a jump in year two. "I think you've always got to increase your talent level. You've got to make the players you have better. And I think we've done that. I think you've got to be able to execute the nuances of the defense. As you always talk about doing more or less, whatever it is, when you do it you got to be able to execute it right. You got to be more on point with what you're doing, and you've just got to play at a higher level. I think we're getting to that point. We're getting better. I don't know how much. We'll see how much of a jump we made. I know we've improved. I know we'll play better. To what extent, we'll see. We got to go prove it."
Just 10 days from the 2014 season lidlifter vs. UT Martin at noon ET on Aug. 30 at Commonwealth Stadium, Stoops is starting to get the squad geared towards preparation for the Skyhawks.
"We've got to get some guys healthy," Stoops said. "There's nothing major. A lot of lingering issues, bumps and bruises like you'd expect. But we've got to get some guys healthy and get them back out here, start our prep here for our first game here soon."
Towles father, Terry, had lost his father when he was 18 years old and was a huge football fan. Towles sent his dad a quick text, "Papa Tommy is partying in heaven." It didn't take Terry long to realize his son was named the starting QB for the Wildcats.
Following Tuesday's practice, Towles had his first opportunity to meet with the media as the new signal caller for Kentucky.
"Relief," Towles said about his reaction to being named starter. "I'm super excited. It's a great opportunity. It's something that I've wanted for my entire life. To have this kind of opportunity is awesome."
Now having two practices under his belt as the starting quarterback, Towles can now focus on his duties without the distraction of a QB competition.
"Good. I felt like I can play free," Towles said about how practice has been the last two days. "During the competition I would make a bad throw, and I'd constantly be like, 'Gosh.' Every throw had to be perfect, but now it's a relief that I can go out and just let it all hang out and play. I felt like I was a senior in high school and I was just able to play and just make plays. And that's a good feeling."
Now the key cog in offensive coordinator Neal Brown's high-tempo offensive attack, Towles must take on a leadership role and set the standard for his unit's performance.
"He's talented enough to run any offense, really," Brown detailed. "He's got a strong arm. He's big. He's 6-4-plus. I think he's 240 pounds-plus. He hit like 19.8 miles per hour yesterday in practice, so he runs well. So our offense, any offense, he's capable of doing well."
The former Kentucky High School Mr. Football out of Highlands in Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles played in five games as a true freshman in 2012. He dazzled Commonwealth Stadium with a sparkling debut, completing 5-of-5 passes for 71 yards and a 32-yard touchdown strike in his first career series in 2012 vs. Mississippi State. Later in the game, Towles suffered an injury that hampered his chance to get on the field as a freshman.
"It's a whole maturation process," Towles said about his first two years on campus. "It goes through ups and downs. Like I said, when I got here, I was an 18-year-old kid. Playing in front of 65,000 people was nuts. It was crazy. Now I've been here for going on my third year in school, and it definitely feel like everything is a lot quicker, sharper and it's easier to make decisions."
Towles then battled with Maxwell Smith and Jalen Whitlow in a preseason competition in 2013, with Smith and Whitlow sharing the position during the season.
"I guess around this time (last year), the race was between me, Jalen (Whitlow) and Maxwell (Smith)," Towles detailed. "(Coach Stoops) brought me in there and was like, 'Hey, you're doing a good job but there's still some stuff you need to work on before you can really make a run at this thing.' I said, 'All right, got it.' So this entire time I went out and fixed everything that he had said."
And go to work he did, dedicating his redshirt season to revamping his fundamentals.
"Just with everything, everything fundamentally," Towles said about his goals for improvement during 2013. "You have to be fundamentally almost perfect to play well in this league, consistently play well, especially against the people that we play against. My feet had to get better. My release had to change. I had to get my head on straight and really go after this thing. That's what I did."
Now the starting quarterback at his home-state school, it would be easy for Towles to bask in the glow of his accomplishment. That is not in his plans.
"This is just the beginning," Towles said. "Right now I'm focused on Tennessee Martin and next Saturday."
Entering day 11 of training camp. Team is working hard. 4 practices over the weekend...yoga, weights, & 1 practice today. #one— Craig Skinner (@UKCoachSkinner) August 18, 2014
On Monday morning, Kentucky second-year head coach Mark Stoops put the question to bed, announcing on his twitter account that sophomore Patrick Towles had won the starting gig over freshmen Drew Barker and Reese Phillips, and junior Maxwell Smith.
"Patrick's done a very good job," Stoops said. "I have a lot of confidence in Patrick. He's worked extremely hard. I said it before that I was proud of his work ethic."
A 6-foot-5, 238-pound native of Ft. Thomas, Ky., Towles is coming off a well-utilized redshirt season in 2013, after seeing action in five games as a true freshman in 2012.
The former Gatorade Kentucky High School Player of the Year out of Highlands High School, Towles played as a true freshman in 2012 after injuries plagued the position. His first drive as a collegiate quarterback dazzled the fan base, going 5-for-5 for 71 yards against Mississippi State, capped by a 32-yard TD pass.
Later in the game vs. the Bulldogs, Towles suffered an injury, hampering what could have been a promising freshman season. He finished 2012 completing 19 of 40 passes for 232 yards, including his TD strike vs. MSU.
Following his freshman season, Towles saw Smith and Jalen Whitlow share the quarterback position in 2013 as UK learned a new, exciting offensive system under Stoops. Towles dedicated himself in the weight room, improving his fundamentals and to the mental side of the game, putting himself in position to compete for the 2014 starting job.
"A lot of people, a year ago when he was told that he was not going to be in the mix, could have put their head down," Stoops detailed on Towles mindset during his redshirt season. "They could have quit, they could have transferred. Or they face it and get improvement. And he worked. And I'm proud of that. I like the fact that he just went to work to get better. That sends a good message to the rest of the team."
"What he did is he really grew up, he matured, became more serious about football, started doing things right off the field," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "And what I mean by that is -- he was always a good kid, I don't mean that -- he made football one of the top priorities in his life. After the givens, he made football a top priority. He went out and got a lot of drill work. We focused on fundamentals, which was really important to him. He went out and got some extra work, and he was productive."
Towles brings a dynamic skill set to the position in Brown's high-tempo offensive attack. As Mr. Football in Kentucky in 2011, Towles led his club to three consecutive state championships, compiling a three-year record of 44-1, including a 38-1 mark as the starting QB. As a senior, Towles completed 171 passes for 3,820 yards with 32 TDs and just one interception.
"Patrick has a big arm," Stoops said. "He's sneaky fast, too, as well. He's maybe not as fleet of foot as some other guys, but in the open field he's really got some pretty good speed. He's a big guy. He's strong. And he can make all the throws. He's improved on his release. He's much quicker getting rid of the ball, and that improves his decision making. That's the biggest area of improvement for him over a year."
After Stoops and the staff broke the news to Towles and the UK quarterbacks on Monday, they were pleased with the reaction of the four QBs in the ensuing practice.
"He was excited," Brown said. "He's worked hard for this. What I told him though: this is just the start. You've got the opportunity, let's see what you do with the opportunity."
"The truth is that he won the job," Stoops said. "He won the job. It was very close, but he ended up being the winner."
Six games. Eight days. Three opponents with rosters comprised of established professionals.
Playing the final leg of their Big Blue Bahamas Tour, the Wildcats finally showed the effects of what ESPN analyst Jay Bilas equated to playing two Southeastern Conference Tournaments back to back.
"We kind of died," Calipari said. "We didn't have it physically."
Through 31 minutes, UK successfully battled through that fatigue. But over the final 8:48, the Cats watched a 59-46 lead disappear little by little. Shots they made over their first five games in the Kendal Isaacs G.L. National Gymnasium in Nassau, Bahamas didn't fall. Loose balls they grabbed before went to the Dominican Republic national team. In the end, the Dominicans avenged a Friday defeat and UK fell 63-62 after shooting 39.7 percent from the field and being outrebounded 38-34.
Jack Michael Martinez made the game-winning basket on a fall-away jumper with 2.6 seconds left. There was still time for last-second heroics like what Aaron Harrison delivered in the NCAA Tournament five months ago, but the Cats couldn't overcome their tired legs with the kind of execution they needed as Karl-Anthony Town's pass to Harrison was deflected away.
"You saw when we had to execute, we weren't able to," Calipari said. "When we had to get ball movement, we don't have enough in. When we needed out-of-bounds plays to score, we don't have anything in."
In other words, UK executed like a team that's only been together for a handful of August practices.
In the final minutes, John Robic -- filling in for Calipari, who watched from the stands for the fifth straight games -- scrapped the two-platoon system in favor of a lineup of Tyler Ulis, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Marcus Lee and Karl Towns. Absent was Alex Poythress, who was on the bench for most of the second half and played only 12 minutes total.
"He was exhausted," Calipari said. "I told him before the game, with the way he played yesterday, play five minutes today. Play 10 minutes today. Don't go out there and not play. Don't hurt your team. Just don't play. We've got other guys that want to play. So he was tired. He just pulled himself, which was fine."
Poythress, showcasing what Robic called a "rebuilt engine" yet again, expended the last of his energy in scoring all six of his points in the first half. He accounted for all but two points as the starting five were outscored 16-8 by the Dominicans in the first half.
Ulis, Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Lee and Towns, however, provided a spark off the bench. After the Dominicans used a 14-3 run to claim a 24-17 lead, the Cats' so-called second unit turned UK's largest deficit of the week into a 36-29 halftime lead when Ulis buried a buzzer-beating runner.
Ulis scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half in leading the second group to a 28-13 margin in its first half minutes, playing the kind of pesky defense and sound offense that has Coach Cal thinking he has two very capable point guards.
"He was good," Calipari said. "He was good. You want him to make every play, but Andrew was terrific. Andrew's game yesterday was unbelievable. I mean, what he did yesterday - so you've got two guys."
And that's just at one position.
The Cats have tantalized their fans with depth on the Big Blue Bahamas Tour, sending waves of talented, athletic players at opponents. Sunday's result shed some additional light on what that depth means as players compete for roles and playing time.
"The lesson I told them that you walk away from (is) there's no birthright to be on that court," Calipari said. "You've got to play with energy and you've got to compete. If you don't, you're not playing. Either your group won't play as much or you won't play as much. It's just how it is.
"So there's no like, 'Well, today I'm not going to play and I'm still getting 20 minutes.' No. 'Well, I'm still getting--' No. You may get five minutes. And then you've got to bring it. This was the first game where we had guys with no competitive spirit, but it's easy to say (that with) six games in eight days. It was a tough run."
A tough run, but an undisputedly good one, even after it ended in defeat.
In planning the trip, Calipari had a different set of goals than most coaches who take teams on foreign tours. Television forced him to compress the schedule and placed some added stress on his team, but Calipari still got what he wanted.
"Most teams are using this for 10 days of practice," Calipari said. "Don't care who they play, don't care if they (win). Well, they don't care if they win or lose until they lose. Then it matters. But we needed it for more. I needed professional-level teams. I needed men. I needed experienced, physical guys that knew how to play."
Those grown men revealed plenty to Calipari about his team. He learned he has a well-conditioned group. He saw his highly touted freshman class is as advertised. But more than anything else, he found out his team is unselfish.
"I think they share the ball," Calipari said. "They've figured out how to share the ball more than any team I've had this early. Where most guys, you got ball stoppers trying to do their thing, trying to figure out who they are, versus move it, get it and make plays for each other. When we do that, we're real good. When we don't do that, we're like everybody else. So this team has picked it up pretty good."
UK got plenty done off the floor too.
Through three dominant performances, the Cats heard the hype and they began to grasp what it would mean. They listened as Bilas warned them against succumbing to the pressure pundits will place on them in picking apart roles and rotations. Most importantly, they were simply around each other.
"Well they got closer together," Calipari said. "There was great time that we could spend talking about different things that we're going to encounter this year, and we had the time to do it. There were some lessons and some different things. But they spent a lot of time together, so it was both spending time, vacation, but we played six games in eight days -- and against grown men, which was a great challenge for us."
With that experience in hand, the Cats have a much more solid grasp on the task facing them when they reconvene for practice this fall with a healthy Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles.
"This was a great run of games and experiences for these young people," Calipari said.