Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers
Recently in women's basketball Category
Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers
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."
Another Big Blue Madness is in the books.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."