Matthew Mitchell has spent countless hours with his team over the last five months.
An offseason of conditioning, individual workouts and practices is at its end, giving way to the start of the regular season.
"It's finally here and it's time to play," Mitchell said.
But for all that eagerness, there's also some anxiety. Mitchell might have seen all that preseason preparation leading up to Friday's 7 p.m. season opener against Appalachian State in Memorial Coliseum, but he still doesn't know exactly what to expect from the No. 11/10 Wildcats.
"The biggest thing for me right now is I'm not quite sure what we're going to see tomorrow and as a coach that's a little scary," Mitchell said. "And I'm talking about from our team. I'm not talking about our opponent."
UK Hoops has plenty of experience in the form of seniors Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill and Azia Bishop, but this is a new team. Gone are post stars DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, with three players - Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice - who have never played a college game set to step in.
Considering the makeup of his roster, Mitchell has set three simple goals for his team, and it's nothing to do with Southeastern Conference standings or advancing in the NCAA Tournament. He wants UK to be the fastest team in the country, the most defensively disruptive and the toughest. From there, he'll let the results play out.
"They're capable of it," Mitchell said. "They're already showing some great signs in all three areas, but that's what I'd like for them to become."
UK showed more such good signs in its lone exhibition, a 141-63 win over Pikeville. The Cats were dynamic in the open floor, regularly getting out in transition in scoring what would have been a school-record number of points had the game counted.
Though Mitchell praised the speed of players like O'Neill, Bishop and Janee Thompson, it wasn't any of them handling the ball on their own that made UK's pace what it was against Pikeville.
"We don't need to be a big dribbling team," Mitchell said. "To be fast, we need to be a good passing team. The ball needs to move and I think one lesson we've tried to learn as we really broke down taking some steps forward this year, is sometimes when one player dominates the ball with the dribble, it actually slows us down."
UK was also disruptive in the exhibition, forcing 37 turnovers. The Cats also showed signs of toughness against Pikeville, taking charges and effectively transitioning into a half-court offensive game when necessary. However, it's going to take some regular-season tests to truly judge this team.
The Cats won't have to wait long for a handful of those.
Friday's season opener begins a stretch of three games in six days to start the season, a matchup with No. 8/9 Baylor in the middle of it. Mitchell expects to use the results from those three games to identify strengths and weaknesses and tailor practices going forward.
"We've constructed all the practices to be fast, tough and disruptive, so what are you doing well?" Mitchell said. "Sometimes you do things a little bit better than you give your team credit for as a coach. You're a little too critical sometimes, maybe you haven't worked on something that maybe you haven't felt like was going to be really good and it's not. The information we can gain will really, really help us as a team."
In many ways, Mitchell still sees his team as a blank canvas. Friday, he begins the work of trying to paint a masterpiece.
"This team has so much room for growth it's incredible," Mitchell said. "I do know that about us right now: We're going to get much, much better than we are right now. You just have too many young players who are thinking too much right now. And there's no way around it. You have to teach it. You have to give them the information and so if we look like a million bucks this week, we're going to look like $5 million at some time. If we look less than that, we'll increase in value with this team."
Even as spoke of high hopes for the season, Matthew Mitchell was quick to point out it would take time for Kentucky to round into offensive form.
For that reason, he was unsure what to expect as the Wildcats played their lone exhibition vs. Pikeville.
"To be honest with you, I was a little concerned what it might look like offensively if it got into a half-court game," Mitchell said.
Fortunately for UK, that rarely happened on Thursday night.
UK Hoops raced paced visiting Pikeville both on the floor and on the scoreboard, 141-63. The Cats shot 56-of-89 (62.9 percent) from the field in putting together an offensive night that would have eclipsed the school record for points in a game had it been a regular-season affair.
"I was just happy to see them run. No matter who the opponent is--I hope Pikeville has a great season, but we just really weren't concerned with the opponent," Mitchell said. "We were just trying to run tonight and I thought they did that really well."
Though the final box score showed just 18 fast-break points, the Cats continually sprinted past the Bears, scoring 52 points off 37 turnovers. Jennifer O'Neill and Alexis Jennings led eight players scoring in double figures with 20 points apiece.
"I think we have potential to be like we were today," O'Neill said. "But the thing that got us into the one hundreds was the fact that everybody was running the floor."
The most impressive statistical performance, however, belonged to Makayla Epps. The sophomore flirted with a triple-double, posting 18 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.
"Honestly, I was completely unaware until I came off the bench and (assistant) Coach Adeniyi (Amadou) was like, 'Oh, two more rebounds,' " Epps said. "And I was like, 'Wow, I've never even been close to 10 rebounds.' Ever, like in my life."
Mitchell, however, was more concerned with the way Epps looked than her stat line.
"I don't even really look at the numbers, just the way she moved out there," Mitchell said.
On that front, Epps is unmistakably a different player than the one who had an up-and-down freshman season.
"That is easy to spot, which is a compliment to her because that shows you hard she's worked," Mitchell said. "She's worked really hard and she just looked super."
Epps, like her teammates, has room for growth though, but that's to be expected with the regular season still eight days away from starting with a Nov. 14 matchup with Appalachian State.
"I thought the players did what they were charged to do tonight," Mitchell said. "We really tried to talk about energy and effort and playing hard. We are a long, long away from being a finished product, but we have worked very hard on our effort and conditioning and running the floor."
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."
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."
Continuing the tradition of an event unique to Kentucky basketball, it was a night of fireworks, dancing, dunks and even a pop-star impersonation by Matthew Mitchell. But more than anything else, Big Blue Madness was a celebration of a new season, and the capacity crowd in Rupp Arena enjoyed every second.
Let's relive the top five moments from Big Blue Madness 2014. 5. "The story isn't over"
After UK Hoops had its introductions and on-court action and the 20-time national champion Kentucky cheerleading team turned in an impressive routine, it was the men's team's turn. Before any of the Wildcats made an in-person appearance, the team's new intro was shown on the two massive video boards installed on the baseline stage.
Aaron Harrison's prediction of "It's going to be a great story" from after a loss at South Carolina last season came over the speakers. The words came to define UK's magical run through the NCAA Tournament during which the Cats proved all their doubters wrong.
Harrison then came into view and walked toward the camera. Turning a phrase, the clutch sophomore shooting guard said exactly what UK fans wanted to hear: "Our story isn't over."
4. Drake introduces Coach Cal
After the Harrison twins were the final players to have their names called, there was one more introduction to be done before John Calipari appeared. Drawing possibly the loudest cheer in a night full of them, rapper Drake came on stage.
Lint roller in hand, Drake addressed his fellow UK fans and introduced Coach Cal.
"This is family to me," Drake said. "This is a real thing to me, you know, and tonight I want to introduce a man who is definitely one of the most important people in my life. Despite his busy schedule, he always takes the time to check in with me through the highs and the lows. He's the godfather for us that bleed blue."
Drake would then suit up in a practice uniform and go through the layup line with the team.
3. The basketball
Although Big Blue Madness has become more of a spectacle than anything else, it technically remains the first open practice opportunity for UK's two basketball teams. And so, there was actually some basketball played.
UK Hoops was without three players and needed a substitute male player to play a five-on-five scrimmage, but the Cats look poised to be among the nation's best yet again. Jennifer O'Neill was dynamic as a scorer, while McDonald's All-American Alyssa Rice seemed more than capable of playing immediately in the post.
On the men's side, the Cats were as competitive as you'd expect in both three-on-three and five-on-five scrimmages. Andrew Harrison played much like the point guard that led UK to the national championship game, while Tyler Ulis did nothing to hurt his fan-favorite status. There were thunderous dunks aplenty from the likes of Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, while Dominique Hawkins showed renewed confidence in his outside shot.
The final three minutes of the five-on-five scrimmage were particularly heated, as players on both sides turned up the intensity. White would close out a 42-36 win before Coach Cal closed the night.
"This is going to be a process," Calipari said. "We're trying things that have never been tried before, but this is a talented group of great young men representing you."
2. Mitchell one-ups himself ... again
Mitchell had exhausted nearly all his dancing options in recent years, culminating in routines in which he channeled MC Hammer, Britney Spears and James Brown. The only thing left for him to do, apparently, was sing.
Doing his own unique take on a few Bruno Mars hits, Mitchell serenaded the crowd in a way only he can. He likely won't be quitting his day job anytime soon, but the performance was impressive. See for yourself.
1. Cal drops the mic
Abandoning the state of the program address he delivered last year, Coach Cal cued the tape from his speech at Big Blue Madness 2009, his first as head coach. When the clip was over, Calipari was fittingly brief.
"Enough talking, let's ball," Calipari said, dropping the microphone and closing the book on the offseason.