The 2014-15 Kentucky women's basketball team. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Leading UK Hoops in its ascendance to among the best programs in women's college basketball, Matthew Mitchell has coached some truly elite players.
In recent seasons, Victoria Dunlap, A'dia Mathies and DeNesha Stallworth have been capable of carrying Kentucky to wins and they often have. Thanks in large part to them, Mitchell's teams have made four Sweet 16 trips in five seasons.
This year, UK's roster looks a little different.
"I think that we don't have a real definite superstar that's going to carry us," Mitchell said.
Based on that fact, Mitchell collaborated with his coaching and marketing staff to shape the theme for 2014-15. They settled on "Our Season," and the meaning behind it is simple.
UK might not have a superstar capable of taking over on any given night, but the Cats do have a collection of talent that can carry them to the same heights as in previous years. In fact, they believe they can sail even higher if they live out the mantra.
"We're really going to have to do it together," Mitchell said. "The players are going to have to take great ownership in their team and really become a group."
Mitchell and the Cats took a first step toward doing that by participating in an exercise of self-reflection.
"What can you really become?" Mitchell said. "What limitations does the team have? What limitations do I have as a coach? What can I do well as a coach? What can the team do well?"
Through that exercise, Mitchell, his staff and players identified three superlatives the Cats need to work toward.
First, Mitchell believes UK can be the most defensively disruptive team in the country. Based on his background coaching his "40 minutes of dread" style, his opinion has some weight.
Next, Mitchell sees potential for Kentucky to be the fastest team in the country. Considering UK returns all but one major contributor from a dynamic backcourt of a season ago - including point guards Janee Thompson, Jennifer O'Neill and Makayla Epps, a trio that can even play together - that seems a possibility.
Last, Mitchell wants his team to be the toughest group in the nation. With indefatigable senior guard Bria Goss leading the way, it would be unwise to discount the Cats on that front.
"I believe those are all reachable goals for us," Mitchell said. "Now, where does that land us? I don't know."
The destination might be unclear, but the path is not.
"I think that when you focus on those things, then your practice has to look like that every day," Mitchell said. "You've got to have tough practices, you've got to have fast-paced practices, you have to spend the time to be disruptive on defense."
Even though Big Blue Madness - historically the first practice of the season - isn't until Friday, the Cats have been at work since Oct. 5. What Mitchell is asking in demanding his team become the most disruptive, fastest and toughest in the game isn't easy, but the Cats are responding to the challenge so far.
"It's real, real difficult to be your best," Mitchell said. "It's real difficult. Most people are just kind of getting by, and most people are just sort of existing and doing enough to get whatever done and is required. So, we're trying to go above that. The thing that I continue to tell them is that we're not asking you to do anything you can't do. You're capable."
Fitting right in so far is UK's highly touted freshman class of guard Jaycee Coe and post players Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice. The same is true of gifted sophomores Epps, Linnae Harper and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, though Goodin-Rogers fits in more with that freshman group since she sat out last season while recovering from a pulmonary embolism.
"Last year's freshmen to the sophomores this year are miles ahead of where they were," Mitchell said. "The freshmen this year, from a work standpoint, are miles ahead of where the freshmen were last year. That young core that we have that we're depending on, there have been some real signs of optimism."
When the freshmen face inevitable lapses, Goss will be there. She has been a consistent positive presence in topping the 1,000-point mark through her first three seasons at UK, but her leadership figures to be even more valuable now that she's one of four seniors on the team.
"She's very vocal, very committed, great example of what we want our players to be from a character standpoint," Mitchell said. "She's really shooting the ball well, shooting the ball great right now. I think she'll be a big key to us."
As important as Goss may be, UK's success isn't all about her or any single coach or player. The Cats are calling 2014-15 "Our Season" for good reason.
"I just think that they have great, great promise and ability to be a great team," Mitchell said. "But they're going to have to do it together."
Alexis Jennings has big shoes to fill in more ways than one.
Yes, UK Hoops is looking to replace departed post plaers DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker -- two of the most productive players in program history.
But the 6-foot-2 true freshman forward has been following in hallowed footsteps her entire life.
Her mother, Tracy McCall, is a former professional basketball player and one of the best players in the history of the University of North Alabama.
Jennings hasn't shrunk from her strong basketball heritage. She's seemed to take on every challenge she's faced in the game in excelled so far in her career.
To date, she has lived up to, if not exceeded, the expectations one might have of a player from such a distinguished pedigree.
"My mom has always motivated me to be the best player I can be," Jennings said. "She's been there. She's in the Hall of Fame at UNA, where she did great things. I see myself as following on her path."
Jennings was rated the ninth best high-school post player in the nation and the No. 64 overall prospect class of 2014 by ESPN.
She was named 6A State Player of the Year and the 2013-14 Gatorade Girls Basketball Player of the Year in Alabama after she led Sparkman High School to the state championship, averaging 22.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 3.9 blocks and 3.2 steals with an 81-percent free-throw shooting percentage.
So perhaps the challenge of stepping in and contributing at a perennially elite team right away isn't that daunting for Jennings.
"I want to come in right away and make an impact," Jennings said. "I will have a role to fill, and I want to do that to the best of my ability."
Jennings chose UK largely because the team's style of play seemed to fit her game.
"Alexis is an extremely versatile post player who possesses all of the characteristics we look for at Kentucky," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "She is strong, athletic and skilled. Her ability to run the floor was attractive to us.
"Alexis has 3-point shooting range which will stretch the defense and she can also put the ball on the floor and get to the basket to score. She is hard-nosed and tough on the defensive end and she will be very effective in full-court press situations. I am thrilled Alexis chose Kentucky. She will be a significant player here."
When asked to describe her style, Jennings seemed to agree with her coach.
She made it a point to mention her ability to run the floor, but asserted that her post game was her strongest asset.
"I'm a versatile player," Jennings said. "I like to run, and I think I'm more effective in the open floor. I think I'm very strong down low and I can step back and shoot the 3."
So Jennings' game seems to fit Mitchell's up-tempo, pressure defense-based playing style, but she chose for Kentucky for reasons bigger than just basketball.
"I came here because it's a family-oriented program," Jennings said. "And its been evident since we started practicing. Players like Jennifer O'Neill have taken me under their wing. 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."
So far things seem to have gone smoothly for Jennings, but bigger stages and bigger challenges await.
In terms of stage it won't get much bigger than Friday's Big Blue Madness.
Through eight years as head coach in Lexington, Mathew Mitchell has built an identity for the UK hoops program. The Wildcats under Mitchell are known for their stingy, full-court pressure defense and fast-break offense.
The formula has by any measure paid dividends over the better part of the last decade as the Wildcats have advanced to three Elite Eights and four Sweet 16s in the last five years.
Not only has the program's identity resulted in strong results on the court, but the Wildcats are now able to recruit some of the best players in the country because Mitchell's aggressive style has become attractive to prospects looking to play an exciting brand of basketball.
Such was the case with freshman center Alyssa Rice.
"A big reason why I decided to come to Kentucky was the style of play," Rice said. "I came from a high school that was really defense-oriented. I've always felt I was a stronger defensive player and it came more natural to me. Kentucky playing the defense they play and being more up-tempo is definitely one of the things that drew me to Kentucky."
The Reynoldsburg, Ohio, native was a McDonald's All-American as a senior, and rated as the 20th-best high school senior in America in 2014, as evidence of her prowess as a playmaker near the basket.
"Alyssa possesses all of the qualities we desire in a post player." Mitchell said. "Her incredible combination of size and speed make her a perfect fit for Kentucky. She is clearly one of the top post players in the 2014 class.
"Her versatility makes her very difficult to defend. Alyssa is a great ball handler, a great shooter and a tough finisher around the basket. Her ability to run the floor will be very valuable to our program. Alyssa has a tremendous work ethic and I am confident that her Kentucky career will be filled with success."
And all the qualities Mitchell outlined about Rice were what she herself said were her strong suits.
"I would describe myself as hard-working, fast-paced, defense-oriented and a versatile player," Rice said. "Rather than playing just with my back to the basket all the time -- like a lot of post players do -- I like to be able to take it off the dribble as well and I'm trying to expand my outside range just so I can score in a variety of ways."
Rice might be expected to contribute right away as UK will be looking to replace the production of two front-line starters from a year ago: DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker.
The makeup of UK's roster down low gives Rice an opportunity to contribute right away. She might be buoyed by the fact that current teammates the likes of Linnae Harper and Bria Goss saw plenty of time in their debut campaigns.
"Especially since we lost a lot of seniors last year and definitely at the post position there is a wide open gap in the post," Rice said. "I'm just trying to work hard and there's going to be a definite need for post presences. All of the posts have just been working hard to try and do our best because many people look at the post right now as a weakness for our team this year so we've just been doing our part for the team."
A lack of energy has never been a problem for John Calipari.
Even coping with the unique demands of coaching at Kentucky, Calipari is always ready and raring to go for the next practice, the next recruiting visit, the next event. But with the start of the 2014-15 season approaching, something has Coach Cal even more fired up than usual.
This two-platoon thing you've heard so much about? It's really happening.
"I'm doing things I've never done as a coach," Calipari said. "And I'll be honest with you, can you tell I'm excited about it? Like, this has got me stirred."
Calipari's excitement was plain to see and hear on Monday as he spoke at the annual Wildcat Tipoff Luncheon hosted by the Greater Louisville UK Alumni Club, where he was joined by UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell.
Coach Cal didn't speak at length about how the two-platoon system will work - there will be plenty of time for that when games begin - but he did reveal his reasoning for it. In short, it's the next step in the evolution of his players-first philosophy.
"If it's not about those guys, we're playing eight of these guys and those other two or three, you're out," Calipari said. "But if we're about them and all of them, this is the only way you can do it. Well, it's never been done before. Well, it's going to be done now."
Breaking new ground, however, will bring growing pains. Coach Cal is ready for them and he did his best to prepare the more than 1,000 in attendance on Monday.
"We have a chance of being really good, but we're doing it a different way," Calipari said. "What we do early may be at the expense of winning some games making sure we're figuring this out. And if that happens, I'm telling you, I'll be fine with it. You won't, but I will be fine with it."
Ultimately, the people who matter most to the success of the two-platoon system are the players, not the fans or even Calipari. Fortunately, Coach Cal has some recent past experience to call on in guiding them through the challenge, different as this one may be.
"How in the world do you get McDonald's All-Americans to sacrifice and play for each other?" Calipari said. "And how do you get them to do that as freshmen? Would you say you'd like to know? Because I'm asking it everywhere. They trust we have their back and their best interest so they will share and they will sacrifice for each other because we have their back, we have their best interest."
Calipari confirmed UK will start the season using the platoon system in the same way as on the Big Blue Bahamas tour, but he knows he'll need to be ready to change on the fly.
"What happens at the end of the season if it's not quite happening the way that we want?" Calipari said. "We can make adjustments. Doc Rivers told me, 'What if one of the guys needs a few more minutes a half? You're going to have to give it to them, Cal.' I said, 'I know that.' So if two guys are playing a little bit better, we'll give them a little bit more minutes."
Calipari spoke first on Monday, a departure from tradition in past years at the event. With a recruit in town, he had to get back to Lexington in short order, a fact Mitchell used to playfully jab his good friend.
"Cal stole one of my oldest tricks in the book, about recruiting," Mitchell said. "The recruiting trick. Gotta leave, gotta leave. Got a big recruit coming."
Once Mitchell moved on from making the sellout crowd laugh, he expressed similar optimism about his own team.
"This season, I think we have a great opportunity to have a good team," Mitchell said. "... I think we can land in a really, really great spot and I'm excited to see what comes of this team and this 2014-15 edition."
The annual campout for Big Blue Madness tickets just won't stop getting bigger.
A year after the 2013 edition obliterated the previous record, Tent City grew to an unprecedented size on Friday. At the final count of 2014 -- as control cards were being distributed at 2 p.m. -- approximately 770 tents had surrounded Memorial Coliseum in hopes of securing tickets to the highly anticipated madness event, topping the previous record mark of 755.
Though campers are finished moving in, the party goes on. Friday night at the madness campout is typically the most festive of the week the Mother Nature appears wiling to cooperate with a perfect weather forecast.
We'll have more from the campout this evening, so stay tuned.
Karl-Anthony Towns and his UK teammates handed out pizza to eager fans on Thursday night at the Big Blue Madness campout. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Since 1950, 201 Avenue of Champions has served as the home of Memorial Coliseum. This week, though, thousands of UK fans have made the address their own temporary home as they anxiously await the ticket distribution for Big Blue Madness.
Tickets will be made available to the public Saturday, Sept. 20 at 7 a.m. at the Memorial Coliseum ticket office and online at Ticketmaster.com. But for the fans that have been living out of the estimated 770 tents -- an all-time record -- lining north campus sidewalks, the pecking order has already been determined.
At 5 a.m. on Wednesday it was a frantic pursuit for the finest camping spots that the University of Kentucky has to offer.
Shane Johnson of Seymour, Ind., who is a first-time Big Blue Madness camper, illustrates the scene as something far more than chaotic.
"It was like seeing as a crowd of people running hysterically from a tornado," Johnson said.
Like Johnson, Many Cats fans arrived days in advance as they lined Avenue of Champions, Rose Street and Lexington Avenue. The daily grind of life outdoors may take some getting used to, but it is all worth it in the end for the hottest free ticket of the year among the Big Blue Nation.
Rick Osborne, who made the trip from Harlan County, said his family has multiple spots in line.
"This is a family event for us," Osborne said. "But you certainly could not get an experience like this with all the other fans without camping out. Don't get me wrong, there are hardships that come with it, but it's too good of a time to not come out here."
And getting to spend a week with the 2014-15 Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams making consistent appearances has to be at least worth the price of admission, right?
"It is really nice to just be around them," Johnson said. "Seeing them go to and from class and having them stop by to spend a little time with us fans, it's great. We get to see them on the court once the season starts, but this is a different experience getting a small look at their lifestyle."
Fans will get a glimpse of what will likely be the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball on Oct. 17 at 7:00 p.m. A month from the annual open practice at Rupp Arena, they're already buzzing.
"After seeing them in the Bahamas last month, my expectations are very high," said Scott Mattingly of Lebanon, Ky. "I knew they weren't going to go 40-0 last year. But this year is different, and I think everyone - all the experts - is scared to give them that same hype. So I'm just excited to see it all play out."
The Cats amassed a 5-1 record during an eight-day span on their Big Blue Bahamas tour against teams from around the world that were made up of primarily professional talent.
So, there is not much the UK faithful does not have to be excited about, and that was once again demonstrated this week.
Look no further than the record-breaking crowd at the annual campout.
These people use their vacation days to take as much as a week away from work. They sleep in tents crammed beside complete strangers. But they all have one thing in common: love for Kentucky basketball.
"There is no other fan base like it. It's special," Mattingly said. "Now that we are all settled in out here, we have all come together to support our team."
Not even 12 hours into the annual campout for Big Blue Madness tickets, approximately 680 tents have popped up around Memorial Coliseum.
The 3:30 p.m. Wednesday count is up about 30 from this morning and 10 behind the pace of last year's record-setting campout. The majority of the new tents are on Stoll Field. That's also where most new campers will set up before our next count on Thursday morning. Last year, more than 60 new tents were set up on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning.
More is in store leading up to Saturday morning's ticket distribution, but UK fans were treated to visits by John Calipari and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on Thursday.
Fans wait to set up tents at the 2014 Big Blue Madness campout on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The record is in danger yet again.
The annual campout for tickets to Big Blue Madness began at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. Just four-and-a-half hours later, approximately 650 tents had surrounded Memorial Coliseum. The 9:30 a.m. count matches last year's record-setting pace exactly. The final tent count for the 2013 was 755.
Tent City was mostly calm during the Wednesday count, with many campers getting some much-needed rest after an early-morning wake-up call. That figures to change in the coming days with a pleasant weather forecast and visits in store from a number of UK teams and coaches. The first will be from John Calipari, who will tour the campout at 1 p.m. on Wednesday to give away dozens of Tempur-Pedic pillows and a mattress to one lucky fan.
Those who were awake were eager to talk. Passing through the annual campout with pen and paper, it doesn't long for fans to figure out I'm counting tents, which always leads to a conversation. I typically end the conversation by telling fans to have a good day. One response to that, in particular, struck me.
"Can't beat this day," a fan said.
The Big Blue Madness campout, truly, has taken on a life of its own.