For all of the tradition between Kentucky and North Carolina, are you surprised to know that Saturday's game at Rupp Arena will mark the first time since 1995 that the two programs will square off when both are ranked in the top five in the nation?
That matchup came in 1995, in the South Regional final in Birmingham. Another came in the 1977 East Regional final and the only number one-versus-number two showdown occurred in December, 1981 at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Only one of the four top five showdowns came on a home court and that happened at Memorial Coliseum on December 7, 1968. The common denominator is that the Tar Heels won all four games, by margins ranging from seven to 13 points.
If Kentucky ends that trend on Saturday, it might well be one of the top five moments in this series for Big Blue fans. For now, here's my take on how that list would look:
#5/ Kentucky 93, #6 UNC 76 in December, 2000
North Carolina had won six straight in the series and the sixth-ranked Tar Heels were a solid favorite to make it seven against the unranked Cats.
But led by Marquis Estill's first career double-double, Kentucky went into the Dean Dome and demolished UNC 93-76. It was Carolina's second-worst defeat on its latest home court and it re-established UK's credentials nationally after a slow start to the season.
By year's end, Kentucky was one of the hottest teams in the country and played its way into a number two seed before getting upset in the Sweet 16 by Southern Cal.
#4/ Kentucky 100, UNC 80 in December, 1963
This marked Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp's only win over Dean Smith, the year after Smith's Tar Heels had beaten the Wildcats in the first-ever meeting between the coaching legend and the rising star who would become an icon, too.
Cotton Nash scored 23 points and grabbed nine rebounds as UK routed UNC 100-80 at Memorial Coliseum. Future NBA star Billy Cunningham led all scorers with 32 points in defeat--a mark that still stands as the most points scored by a Tar Heel against Kentucky.
#3/ Kentucky 68, UNC 66 in December, 2009
This was the game that made the first definitive statement about John Calipari's revival of the UK program.
A crowd of 24, 968 (11 short of the record that was set a few weeks later v. Louisville) watched the Wildcats race out to a 43-28 halftime lead. The surge was fueled by freshman point guard John Wall, the North Carolina native who took control of the game early with his speed.
Wall cramped up in the second half but junior leader Patrick Patterson provided the settling influence to help the young Cats hold off a UNC rally for a 68-66 win. Patterson led Kentucky with 19 points and seven rebounds while Wall contributed 16 points and seven assists, enabling UK to end a five-game winning streak in the series by the Tar Heels.
#2/ Kentucky 90, North Carolina 78 in December, 1974
This one gets the number spot on my list because to me, this game solidified Joe B. Hall's seat as head coach on the Kentucky bench.
Two days after the Cats were blown out by 24 at Indiana, they fell behind early at Freedom Hall to the Tar Heels. Hall benched the starters--a move that would use four years later in an NCAA first-round game, to key UK's title run. When he put them back in the game, senior Jimmy Dan Conner caught fire.
Conner finished the night with his best game as a Wildcat, 15 of 21 from the field en route to 35 points as the Cats won going away. Buoyed by that performance, Kentucky would eventually make it to the national championship game, falling to UCLA in John Wooden's final game.
#1/ Kentucky 76, North Carolina 69 in March, 2011
The young Wildcats threw the NCAA Tournament brackets into disarray with their upset of top-seed Ohio State but they needed to beat North Carolina to reach the program's first Final Four in 13 years.
Kentucky gained the upper hand midway through the second half but rookie star Harrison Barnes led a Carolina resurrgence. With the game on the line in the final minute, Deandre Liggins swished a three-pointer from the corner in front of the Kentucky bench to deliver the knockout blow.
Brandon Knight led the scoring for UK with 22 as Kentucky won its first Elite Eight matchup with the Tar Heels in three tries and it was on to Houston.
That was the response from ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low, when asked about the chances of UK linebacker Danny Trevathan making first-team All-SEC this season.
"It's really hard. Look at the linebakcers in this league. Jarvis Jones, Donte Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, John Bostic, Chris Mavre. But I could not, in good conscience, leave Danny off," Low told "The Leach Report" show on Wednesday. "I would hope he would get All-America mantion but it's rarre for kids to make those lists when they're on losing football teams.
"He's one of those guys, if you're playing on the sandlot or in the Super Bowl, he's always going to play the same way and that's what I admire about Danny. He's been so consistent and he makes big plays and he raises the level of all the people around him," Low continued. "I know the record is not what Kentucky fans wanted but they've got something special in Danny Trevathan."
With all of the attention directed toward Trevathan, his fellow senior inside linebacker, Ronnie Sneed, tends to get overlooked. And that's just fine with him.
"I'm not in in for the recognition. What helps me feel good and helps me sleep at night is when our defense plays good. I was able to get the guys the calls and it worked out really good and we played them tough," Sneed said.
Another impressive freshman class for John Calipari--so what else is new.
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer wasted no time in demonstrating that they are as good as advertised. And you can bet that does not surprise ESPN.com's longtime hoops recruiting analyst, Dave Telep.
"Anthony Davis made one of the greatest first impressions that I have ever seen anyone make. I think Anthony Davis has an unbelievable high ceiling and a desire to get there. Its almost more important. Excellent blocker, good ball skills and this is an impact player by all accounts. Anthony Davis has been on the rise for a year now and he is fantastic," Telep told "The Leach Report" radio show earlier this fall.
"Michael (Kidd) Gilchrist--warrior, loves to play, hates to lose, gets after it. Teague, fast. He is like the road runner. I have a three-year old son that watches the road runner and he is a lot like the road runner. Very, very quick and ahead of where his brother was and his brother was a mid-first round pick by the Atlanta Hawks," Telep continued. "I think Wiltjer is a rainbow shooting power forward who can be a 50-50 guy in the perimeter and someone who challenged himself by going to Kentucky without ever taking a visit there. He wants to be good and will have a good career."
Limiting big plays will be a key to Kentucky's chances of beating Tennessee this Saturday.
In only six games, UT quarterback Tyler Bray has completed 42 passes for a gain of 15 or more yards. In 11 games, both Kentucky QB's have only 31 such plays.
When Kentucky last beat Tennessee--way back in 1984--it scored on its opening drive and never trailed again, on the way to a 17-12 victory.
But this UK team has yet to score an offensive touchdown in the first quarter since last year's game at Tennessee. Reversing that trend might also go a long way toward reversing the trend in the UK-UT series.
Between 1976 and 1984, Kentucky defeated Tennessee on the gridiron four times. Those were the good ol' days.
Saturday, the Wildcats will try for the 27th time since '84 to beat the Vols and put a positive note on a disappointing season, which has seen that streak of consecutive bowl trips end at five.
"It hit me pretty hard after the game," senior Stuart Hines said of that realization setting in. "After a couple of days, you start looking forward to what you have left. Playing Tennessee, Senior Day and having a chance to end this streak."
Tennessee is still alive for postseason play but it must beat UK to qualify. But Knoxville News-Sentinel beat writer Mike Griffith says there's another reason the stakes are high for the Vols in this matchup.
"In my first interview with coach Dooley, I told him 'your biggest game of the year is against Kentucky'. That's a game Tennessee always wins and if you beat Kentucky, then people will believe that Tennessee football hasn't fallen on that bad a times,"Griffith told "The Leach Report" radio show this summer. "As tough as things have been, it's still football at Tennessee. There's quite a comparison to Kentucky basketball when you talk about fan interest and passion."
Tennessee players don't want to get the label of being the team that lets the Kentucky streak come to an end, so the Vols carry extra motivation into this game, just like the UK players have a strong desire to be the squad that ends it.
"It is a big deal," said Vols' radio voice Bob Kessling this week. "And it's a big deal to coach Dooley because he wants to be bowl-eligible. He thinks this is a big game because you want to have some momentum going into next year."
Tennessee caught a break last week when quarterback Tyler Bray was able to return ahead of schedule from a broken thumb. Bray gave UT a spark late season and his big-play ability was perhaps the key difference in the Vols' win over the Cats in Knoxville.
Bray threw two interceptions last week against Vandy, including one at the goalline that was returned for a touchdown, but he also made enough clutch throws to get the Vols the victory.
"I thought he really looked rusty. He made a couple of throws that were just very un-Tyler Bray-like," Kessling observed.
UT is relying more than ever on it passing game as the Vols rank dead last in the SEC in rushing offense--a stat very unlike Tennessee football historically.
Vol fans might not agree but getting back to another bowl game would be a nice achievement for a UT team that had the league's toughest schedule, drawing LSU and Arkansas in the rotation with the West. Along with permanent opponent Alabama, that meant Tennessee had to play the top three teams in the current BCS rankings while a team like Georgia, by the luck of the draw, avoided all three.
"This team, because of inexperience and the lack of depth, that was just a killer. They had a five-game stretch where they didn't score a touchdown in the second half," said Kessling, noting the defense was hit especially hard by personnel losses. "They lost Janzen Jackson, who was the eraser guy back there. They've struggled defensively. They play two true freshmen linebackers and they play two (more) in the secondary. They're bound to mistakes and they have. It's just a depth issue. The second half, they've just worn down."
Kentucky, meanwhile, is left to lament losses in games like Louisville and Mississippi State, when a few plays here or there could have swung the outcome the other way and had the Cats playing for a bowl bid this week, too.
"It's hard to say," replied Hines, when asked what went wrong this season. "I felt like this team had a lot of potential. The talent is there--what we're lacking is execution. We're right on the egdge a lot of times. We've got 10 guys doing the right time and one guy messing up. But that's the definition of bad football. You got to have everybody doing their job."
The national media got an upclose look at John Calipari's talent-laden Kentucky team Tuesday night in the 75-65 win over Kansas in Madison Square Garden. They're gushing about UK's talent but the coach is tempering that enthusiasm for now.
"Talent doesn't win. Great 'teams' win," Calipari said on his postgame radio show on the UK-IMG sports network. "If you want to win them all, be a talented team that becomes a great 'team'. Last year's team (did that). Low turnovers, created shots for each other, absolutely ground it out defensively and offensively. Not as talented as this team, but we're not a 'team' yet. We're seven parts trying to get their own. We've got to convince them that they've got to do this together and everybody has to do their job."
Both Calipari and Kansas coach Bill Self come out of the Larry Brown coaching tree, with Calipari having first worked for Brown at KU in the mid 80's.
What are the common traits among the Larry Brown disciples?
"I hope one of the things he taught you is to really care about your team," said Calipari. "You have to have a feeling for your players. If you care about them, they'll always fight like crazy for you. They don't care about what you know until they know you care and I think that's probably the biggest message that we got (from coach Brown)."
Kentucky's games in Connecticut this weekend are part of the annual Hall of Fame Tipoff Classic and last week, the organizers got all of the coaches together for a media teleconference. And the moderator noted to Calipari that the coaches were voicing a shared respect for each other through their comments.
"We all know how hard a job we have. How expectations, in a lot of cases, are beyond the resources or opportunities those coaches have. And we may have young kids we're trying to get together or the players' aspirations are bigger than the team's aspirations. And we're all battling a media, a lot of them are agenda-driven. And you have the social networks now and anybody can say anything," Calipari explained. "If a coach doesn't have respect for another coach, it's beyond me."
Calipari has said the key element early for his team is simply playing hard. If they'll do that, they can have success while they're trying to grasp the various concepts he's teaching them on offense and defense.
And from listening to freshman Anthony Davis, that won't be a problem.
"We love playing," he said of this four-man freshman class. "We come out everday and tell each other 'we're finally here. We wanted to be here so let's go here and play aggressive'. We're always screaming and hugging each other and giving each other high five's. We're excited to be here."
Georgia's run defense ranks fourth nationally, allowing only 87 yards per game, but finding a way to have success on the ground is surely the key to any chance of a Kentucky upset tomorrow.
First, it would shorten the game and keep the Dogs' high-powered offense off the field. Secondly, in the Mark Richt era, Georgia has a losing record (14-16) when the opponent has a 100-yard rusher. And you know Hiram, GA native Coshik Williams will be motivated to be at his best in his home state.
A Georgia high school product, Moe Williams, holds the record for the most rushing yards for a Kentucky runner against the Dogs (159 yards in 1993). Williams is one of only three UK runners to go over 100 yards against Georgia.
Winning the turnover battle is always a key for Kentucky but that's easier said that done against this team. Georgia is plus-9 for the season but UGA has committed 12 turnovers in the last four games. And their defense has not surrendered a single point after a turnover in the last five games.
If they give a comeback player-of-the-year award for the Kentucky football team this season, senior wideout Matt Roark has to be one of the favorites to win it.
Saturday, he returns to his home state of Georgia, to play at the University of Georgia's famed Sanford Stadium, as the second-leading receiver for the Kentucky Wildcats. But back in September, the odds on ever seeing the phrase "second-leading receiver" seemed like a longshot.
"Strong kid, mentally strong," said Roark's position coach, Tee Martin. "He had some tough times early on, being a quarterback moved to another position. Then, first couple of years not playing a lot. Then, your senior year, we need to depend on you and you get off to a bad start. We sat him for a game, to see how much he wanted it. We always said we're going to need him and now he's playing the way he hoped he would play this year."
After repeated drops in the passing game, Roark may have lost some confidence but he didn't let it affect the rest of this game. Head coach Joker Phillips took notice of how hard Roark still played in various special teams roles. Then, when freshman quarterback Maxwell Smith had his breakout games against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, utilizing some of the crossing routes that UK had not been calling previously, Roark started to get open and make plays, catching 13 balls in those two games.
"I haven't changed anything physically, it's just focusing more. I did everything I could do. I don't even think about assignments or things like that anymore. I just play," Roark said.
"It just feels good to be a player on the team that is stepping up and playing good for the team. Everyone is congratulating me and all that stuff, but it feels good to be one of the main guys now," he added.
Did he ever lose his sense of self-confidence?
"It was tough. I have always been real hard on myself but it feels like I have done the necessary things to overcome the hard times that I have had. I did get down a little bit but I didn't get too down to think that I would not overcome it," answered Roark, adding the fact that his coaches kept the faith bouyed his spirits.
"They just kept throwing me in. I would mess up and they kept throwing me in the game and then, they would take me out for that game but then the next week starts a new week and they would start me from scratch and let me do it all over again and try to prove them right," he said.
Martin had a history with Roark, having coached him in high school ball in Acworth, GA, just outside of Atlanta. And Martin thinks that connection helped him get Roark through those tough times earlier this fall.
"I think so, because he knew it was a tough love deal. I'm going to kick and scream and do whatever I have to do to get to him. In high school, he was my quarterback and I had to handle him a little differently. He knows that I care about him and at the end of the day, I'm trying to get him to do his best for the team. I'm like that with all my guys," said Martin. "I care about my guys and I'm going to stand behind them. As their coach, I have to help them and not criticize them. I have to be the one giving them confidence when they don't have confidence. When they're going through tough times, you feel it, too."
"It helped me that I knew him so well," noted Roark. "I knew what kind of guy he was and what kind of guy he would be when I got here, so I prepared myself for that and it worked out well because he came in here exactly how I expected he would and he was tough on us but at the same time he was real cool with us. He will joke around with us but then, don't mess around with him because he will get real tough."
Long before he emerged as a playmaker in the passing game, Roark was making good things happen on special teams, whether it be making tackles or blocking kicks.
"I really enjoy special teams. It was the most fulfilling part for me here until recently. I take a lot of pride because it takes a lot of character because a lot of people don't think it's important or hard to buy in on special teams scheme, but that shows a lot of toughness and a lot of other things," Roark said.
And he has tied the school record for blocking kicks.
"It's a technique. Other than my length and ability to jump, I just count to 'two Mississippi' and jump because I know where the ball needs to be," he continued. "Another technique is to have a D-lineman in front of me, I get real close and I expect him to drive the O-lineman back so I scoot up gradually as they are pushing so I can get closer to that ball."
And now he returns home to play against the school that did not offer a scholarship.
"I know a lot of people who go to Georgia, and they will probably be at the game, so I hope I have a big game so they can see it, but I was never bitter towards Georgia for not offering me," Roark said. "I was never a big fan or anything because I never really got into it."
Kentucky has not committed a turnover in the past two games--something that had not been done since a three-game stretch to start last season. And the last time it happened in back-to-back SEC games was the contests against South Carolina and Auburn in 2009.
And Vandy quarterback Jordan Rodgers has not thrown an interception in his last two games.
Which rookie quarterback will blink tomorrow--if either will?
"One thing Max does not lack is confidence, which is a good thing. I don't think he's cocky but he is confident."
That's UK offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' assessment of freshman Max Smith's personality as a quarterback. Smith is the kind of QB who doesn't let a mistake affect the next play but Sanders also knows that Smith has some mistakes from which he needs to learn. One example is to make the opponent pay when you have the right play called against their defensive scheme.
"You gotta keep throwing it and taking your shots. If we had really been on our game, we'd have had 35 points in the first half," Sanders said after the game. "You can't miss those plays. (I told him) 'if you're going to be the type of quarterback you want to be and I want you to be, we can't let those oportunities get away from us'. You only get so many opportunities in a game and you got to take advantage of them."
Kentucky is a huge favorite to win its season opener tonight against Marist but game two next Tuesday night in New York will have the Cats facing a challenge expected to be considerably tougher in Kansas.
But ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes says Bill Self's team should be a notch or two below the level at which KU has played the past couple of seasons.
"They are a different team. Kansas will step back a little bit from where they have been," Dykes said on "The Leach Report" radio show recently. "They don't have the talent, or pros they have had in the past. With that said, they will still be terrific. They will be well-coached.
"It may look different than other Kansas teams. They will have to rely on their defense and fight for loose balls. It's built around Taylor and Robinson. If those two guys have great years, Kansas will be good," he added. "If those two guys have good years, Kansas will have a good year."
Dykes got a chance to see Kentucky in person last month when he covered Big Blue Madness for ESPNU. And he thinks the Wildcats' defense could be a key component to getting their offense clicking.
"When you are built to defend like they are, obviously you want to get turnovers, block shots and go. They need to score in transition and get the ball on the defeinsive end on the floor and turn turnovers into points. That is one way to score," Dykes observed. "I think this is a team that Anthony Davis can shoot, Kyle Wiltjer can shoot, Terrence Jones can shoot and they need to allow those guys to get around the perimeter and have a threat to shoot. Those are two components Kentucky will use all year long. How to dribble drive, set screens - Calipari will figure that out. He has a lot of things to work with."
And Dykes left with a very strong impression of the Cats' four-man freshman class.
"Teague is the next point guard in line going back to Calipari's days in Memphis. He doesn't come in with the accolades the others had coming in but he is going to do pretty good. He is really good defensively, and might be as good as Calipari has had as a freshman point guard," said Dykes. "Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a warrior. He is a classic 6'7 guy who wants to be great. He knows that he is best at attacking the basket and can rebound, play hard, a loose ball-getter, he can defend multiple positions. Kyle Wiltjer, . that kid is skilled. He can shoot and pass and has a feel for the game. Anthony Davis is a combination of being 6'10 and explosive and quick. That guy is special"
If not for his recovery from an ankle injury, Patrick Patterson would have been at Rupp Arena last month, to be a part of the Big Blue All-Stars in their matchup with some notable UK villains.
Many high school stars come to college with one foot already out the door to the NBA, but Patterson relished his time in Lexington as a Wildcat.
"(I loved) every minute of it. Staying after the games with the fans and signing autographs, helping out in the community, just being a true Kentucky basketball player. I had a tremendous time being there. It was the time of my like and I feel like whoever goes there should cherish every moment and do what I did," Patterson said, "help the community, do what you can and play hard on the court."
And if Patterson had any advice for UK's latest freshman class, it would be that they should enjoy the ride.
"Take it all in. Do as much as you can. Hang out with the fans as much as you can. Be a part of the Big Blue community. Go to as many athletic events as you can and get your face out there and have fun with it," Patterson said on "The Leach Report" radio show last week. "You only go this one time. College doesn't last that long and it goes by fast. If I could tell them anything, it would be have fun, work extremely hard and enjoy every second of it."
Patterson spent part of his first NBA season with the Houston Rockets in the developmental league but once he returned to the league, he quicky earned a spot in the rotation. Patterson finished the season averaging six points and four rebounds in about 17 minutes per game. But year two is on hold because of the NBA labor dispute.
"It's extremely frustrating for all of us in the NBA. We all love basketball and want to be out there playing but unfortunately we cant do that right now, so we are all staying ready and staying prepared and waiting for that phone call that says NBA season is underway again," Patterson explained, adding that his recovery from ankle surgery to clean up some old bone spurs is going well.
"Pretty much last year, I showcased my ability to shoot the ball around the perimeter, so this year I want to focus on posting up and getting the ball on the block like I did my sophomore year at Kentucky," Patterson continued. "I need to work a lot on my face-up game on the block and be able to score a good amount of points with my back to the basket and run in transition and build up my stamina."
For Patterson, the chance to play for John Calipari in his final season at UK provided a significant benefit.
"Coach Cal helped me a tremendous amount with my ballhandling, my footwork and ability to play around the perimeter. I am extremely thankful for what coach Cal has taught me and allowed me to do at Kentucky with that system in the Dribble Drive offense," Patterson explained. "I think Coach Cal was a tremendous help and a reach on why I was picked number 14."
Once Patterson got to Houston, another Kentucky connection paid dividends as former UK star Chuck Hayes proved to be a valuable mentor.
"Having Chuck there was great. I looked up to Chuck and he was like a mentor to me. He helped me out everyday, kept me positive, kept me straight and I felt like I could continue playing at this level with how he was talking to me and giving me advice and like I said, looking out for me," Patterson said. "I was thankful Chuck was on the Rockets while I was there and hopefully the lockout ends so he can re-sign a contract and keep playing with us."
Like most NBA players, Patterson says the biggest negative about the league is the travel. He says there was some insignificant hazing, like having to carry bags for other players and he added that there were a few moments where he found himself playing against someone he had idolized years earlier.
"Seeing Kobe Bryant for the first time. I remember having three posters of him in my room growing up and Shaq O'Neal, when I got to stand next to him and see how big and wide and tall he was," Patterson recalled. "I got that little kid feeling when I stepped on the court and played against players I had posters of and looked up to."
Patterson has kept in touch with his former UK teammates like Darius Miller, a player for whom Patterson has high expectations for the upcoming season.
"I spoke with Darius and he is enjoying himself. He feels like this will be a great year for himself but especially for Kentucky," said Patterson. "Darius has improved every year at Kentucky. I feel like this year will be an exceptional year for him. He can jump out of the gym and has improved a tremendous amount. He will be a leader, him and Terrence Jones and (they) will bring Kentucky a championship. I know myself and the rest of my family and friends look forward to what he (Miller) can do this year."
Kentucky's players talked about John Calipari stressing defense in the practices leading up to Wednesday's exhibition game against Translyvania. Yes, the coach wants to see improvement, but it's not like this situation is unexpected. Calipari structures his practices early in a campaign to that offense gets the most emphasis at the start.
"The reason I want the offense to be ahead of the defense is I want them to feel good about playing and be excited about coming to practice. We're a long team and we should eventually be a good defensive team and a good rebounding team but right now, we're not," he said Monday on "The Leach Report" radio show.
In last week's Blue-White game, Calipari did an in-game interview with the UK radio network in which he noted that freshman point guard Marquis Teague wasn't seeing what the coach was seeing out on the court. Calipari says what he's talking about is "pace of play," or to put it more simply, when to say "go" and when to say "whoa." Calipari gives his point guards lots of freedom so this again is an example of a work in progress.
"One, he (Teague) is recognizing defenses better than any of my other point guards at this stage. He picks up the weakside defender better than any of them--at this stage," Calipari noted. "The pace of the game is what he's got to learn. They've got five people back there, so there's no reason to rush. That court is open, there's a reason to rush. Brandon (Knight), when he figured that out last year, took his game to another level and took our team to another level."
With a season under his belt, Terrence Jones already has a keener understanding of how Calipari wants him to play. And it showed in his offseason preparation.
"On any running that we do, he's first. Last year, he was last. If you bumped him, he avoided it. Now, he's creating it. He couldn't get to the right hand (last year). Now, you play him (that way), he's going to dunk it. He's changed his habits, he's changed his body, he's changing his skill set, so the result has changed," said Calipari, adding that he thinks Jones watched the NBA draft and came away with a better feel for how he needed to improve.
With the wealth of talent of this team, one thing Calipari is doing in practices is mixing up the combinations. He said he put Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on the second team in Sunday's practice and the results were eye-catching.
"I've switched other guys over there and the first group killed the second group," he said, but this team, Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist led the second unit to a win over the "first team" in a scrimmage.
Danny Trevathan had one of the best games ever for a Kentucky linebacker last week, but it didn't get the recognition it deserved because the Wildcats came up short against Mississippi State.
Trevathan had 17 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
"He's as fine a linebacker as I've ever been around," co-defensive coordinator Rick Minter said after the game. "Hard-playing guy, runs relentlessly, good tackler when he gets there. He's got tremendous awareness and feel, as evidenced by the interception right before the half. He's as good as they come. Winning and losing matters to him. He's our beacon and our guys go as he goes. Couldn't be more proud of what he's done."
UK center Matt Smith remembers what it felt like to be thrust into the spotlight unexpectedly. And that's why he was so impressed with how freshman quarterback Max Smith played last week in relief of the injured Morgan Newton.
"It's tough when you step into the light like that. I remember my first time ever playing, against Miami of Ohio, when Marcus Davis went down (with an injury in 2009)," Smith said. "You really don't have time to think and you just have to go in and do what you know."
Smith knows that the QB Smith doesn't have the experience of Newton in recognizing defensive alignments but the rookie from California doesn't let any uncertainty show in the huddle.
"He's always real poised in the huddle. When he makes his calls, he's real assertiveness," Smith said. "If he was back there doubting himself, it would make it iffy for us but if he makes it (a call) wrong, he makes it with confidence."
Kentucky was victimized by big plays last week in its loss to Mississippi State but perhaps the Cats will get to return the favor tomorrow.
Ole Miss' defense ranks 95th in the nation (according to cfbstats.com) in allowing plays of 20 or more yards with 40 of them.
Kentucky fans are eagerly awaiting word from Joker Phillips on who will start at quarterback for the Wildcats in Saturday's game against Ole Miss. But when Vito "Babe" Parilli was playing at the University of Kentucky, there was no doubt about who the best QB was.
Parilli returns to his alma mater this weekend as part of a statewide tour to promote his new book, "Kentucky Babe," that he wrote along with former Lexington Herald-Leader columnist Dick Burdette. It chronicles Parilli's career at UK playing for legendary coach Bear Bryant (including a national championship) plus Parilli's long run as a player and coach in professional football (did you know that Parilli was Joe Namath's backup for the Jets in the famous Super Bowl III game?).
"I waited a long time because I didn't feel like doing anything like that, but I found the right writer to write the book," noting that Burdette was working for the Lexington paper when Parilli played here. "We kind of connected and things went pretty good.
"This book, we try to make it more of a human interest story. I told Dick, I don't want to make it about myself all the time, when I was at UK I got enough of that, but we just tried to cover my childhood and my parents, people who I associate with and all the coaches - the one and only Bear Bryant- and he is in there quite a bit," Parilli said during an apperance on "The Leach Report" radio show this week.
Bryant's teams were always known for their rugged defense and punishing running attacks, but with Parilli, the Bear took to the air, to capitalize on the talents of his signal-caller. Parilli had UK's first 300-yard passing game in 1950 and it would be more than 30 years before there was another one.
That was an era when quarterbacks called most of the plays during a game, based on the gameplan the coaches had prepared for them. But Parilli said he had a keen sense of how Bryant thought about the offense and it came from their daily one-hour sessions of playing a football board game.
"The thing I can remember is that I probably spent more time with him than his wife did. We played a game everyday for three years play calling and strategy. I did this everyday for three years when I started. He never called a play (for me) but I knew what he wanted. You would say he had me brainwashed. He had me knowing the down and distance, what play he wanted and what play to call," recalled Parilli.
"We played a simulated game on a little board. We had a spinner and rolled the dice. If I had to kick, he would get the ball and he would call a play and I would give him, 'you got three yards. It's second and seven'. I would give him 25 seconds to get the play off and that paid off quite a bit," he added, "because I was never called for delay of game in 20 years of football."
Parilli came out of that quarterback cradle of western Pennsylvania and he ended up at UK because he accompanied a more highly-recruited high school teammate, Skippy Doyle, on a recruiting trip to Lexington.
Parilli was one of the three Kentucky players (Lou Michaels and Tim Couch being the others) to finish in the top 10 for a Heisman Trophy. Parilli was third in the 1951 balloting after finishing fourth the previous year. And he's one of five former Wildcats enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Parilli is quick to point out that his individual success was the result of being part of a great "team."
"Well, to me they always say 'who has been the best quarterback'. And I say, 'who has the best supporting cast'. You take Tom Brady - a great quarterback - but he gets the time to throw the football. There are a lot of great quarterbacks that were never with the right team. I remember playing with Paul Brown with the Cleveland Browns and he would tell me about a quarterback that played for the old Baltimore team and they had never won a game, and he classified him as the best that had ever played and no one had ever heard of him," said Parilli.
"You have 12 men working together and the number one factor is the defense. If the defense gets the ball back for you, then you don't have to play catch up football. There were teams where you had to do that. You may score 28, 30 points and lose the game," he continued. "I go back to UK and when we won the Sugar Bowl and we won because of our defense. I remember in the book, it says we were playing Oklahoma and they were the number one team and we had them at 13-0 at halftime and Bear came to me and said 'don't throw the ball the entire second half'. We will take care of them on defense and I thought he was crazy because they averaged 30-something points a game but, they got seven points in the second half and we beat them."
Parilli says Bryant was not a coach to focus on individual stars.
"In today's game in football, or any sport, you always have a super hero or superstar. Well, we didn't have one of those. We had a team. If I didn't have the defense I had at UK, I would not have been near as productive as I was. We were a team and not individual," Parilli said.
After his playing days ended, Parilli got into coaching and his first job was working with quarterbacks for the Pittsburgh Steelers. One of his pupils was a young QB out of Louisiana Tech named Terry Bradshaw.
"There are some interesting stories about Terry and what we had to go through to have him understand the game because he had raw talent. I had played 16 years and then went into coaching, so that was my first coaching job and that was a good one because I was there when the play the 'Immaculate Reception' happened and I think I called that play from the press box," he said. "It didn't work out how we called it but that was in the book. That was one of the more challenging jobs and probably one of the most enjoyable jobs I had."
Parilli and author Dick Burdette will be signing copies of "Kentucky Babe" at Commonwealth Stadium prior to Saturday's UK-Ole Miss game. Parilli also has book signings this week slated for Thursday (Big Blue Country in Louisville), Friday (Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington) and Sunday (Lexington Public Library). Parilli will also sign books on November 11 at Casanova restaurant in Lexington and participate in the November 12 Kentucky Book Fair at the Frankfort Civic Center.
"You don't compete, you're going to get embarrassed out here. I feel like we're going to be a better team because of it."
That assessment comes from senior Darius Miller, who says coach Calipari's praise of Terrence Jones' work ethic on the practice floor is not an exaggeration.
"T Jones is extremely focused. You could see it in the way he prepares himself for practice and how he trains," Miller said.
Two years ago, the UK men's basketball team broke out black uniforms for a game honoring the late Mr. Wildcat, Bill Keightley. And later that year, coach Billy Gillispie brought them out for an SEC Tournament matchup with top-seeded LSU as a motivational ploy.
Miller remembers how excited the players were so he completely understands the buzz about the new black uni's for the football team this week.
"We really enjoy it, just mixing it up and getting a new look," he said. "Hopefully we get a chance to do something like that, too."
It wasn't anything fancy that got UK's offensive line playing better.
"Just trying to focus on our assignments and improving our technique," said senior left guard Stuart Hines after practice Tuesday. "We've been trying to stay positive. Now, we're just trying to keep the momentum going."
And Hines admitted that it felt good for him and his O-line mates to hear positive reviews.
"Obviously there are still things we need to clean up," he acknowledged, "but it was nice to get a little bit of praise."
It's obvious that the loss of all of the big play guys from last year's football team has taken a significant toll on this season's offense. But here's numerical verification:
Kentucky ranks 118th in the nation in plays of 10 or more yards with only 58 of them. Last season, with Randall Cobb, Derrick Locke, et al, Kentucky ranked 30th with 198 (according to cfbstats.com)
"The yardage kinda snuck up on me. I didn't know I had that many," said Coshik Williams of his career-best 148 rushing yards last Saturday in the win over Jacksonville State.
And Williams made sure to take care of the guys who took care of him.
"After every play, I tried to congratulate guys becuase they did really good," he said of the offensive line. "I feel like they've got their confidence back."
How did a young man from Hiram, GA end up being a walk-on player at the University of Kentucky?
"Trevard, he told me to give them a tape," Williams said of former UK star Trevard Lindley, himself a product of Hiram. "He gave it to coach Joker and he (Joker) to me to come up. It's alwasy tough sitting on the bench. But you just have to be patient and humble and when your chance comes, be ready to go. When guys go down, somebody has to step up."