Head coach Matthew Mitchell
Senior DeNesha Stallworth
Senior DeNesha Stallworth
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Head coach Matthew Mitchell
Senior DeNesha Stallworth
It's time to stop doubting Kentucky fans.
As of 9:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday - just four-and-a-half hours into the campout and nearly 72 hours from Saturday's ticket distribution - approximately 650 tents had encircled Memorial Coliseum, setting an all-time record. Last year's campout held the record previously with 595 tents, but did not top the 2011 record until Friday afternoon.
Somewhere, John Calipari is saying, "You people are crazy."
The mood around "Tent City" on Wednesday morning was calm, as campers had been up since the wee hours to be ready for the official setup time of 5 a.m. As the days pass, the atmosphere figures to become more festive, particularly as fans await the visits from various UK teams that have become tradition.
Although there are many familiar faces, the annual event has grown each year and demand for tickets to UK's first open men's and women's basketball practice opportunity is at an all-time high in 2013. During last year's record-setting campout, 425 tents had been set up on the first morning of the campout, more than 200 fewer than this year. More than 70 tents have already been set up across the street from Memorial on Stoll Field. In previous years, only a few tents had been erected on Stoll Field by this time.
Even though the record has already fallen, we will continue to continue to count tents to see just how high the bar is set for future campouts. Stay tuned for the next tent count late Wednesday afternoon.
In the meantime, catch up on the campout by checking out Chet White's photo gallery from Wednesday morning and the video below.
The mantra can be interpreted in so many different ways and applied to so many different people, and that's why Mitchell was so easily sold on embracing it. But with his team's season opener fast approaching, Mitchell is honing in one meaning.
"For me it's just making sure that we are not living in the past, not resting on our laurels and that we're moving on to the next play, the next practice, the next game and not ever being satisfied with where we are," Mitchell said. "Just moving forward."
With all UK Hoops has accomplished in recent seasons, reflecting on past accomplishments is an easy trap to fall into.
Mitchell has led the program to unprecedented heights, including three trips to the Elite Eight in four seasons and a Southeastern Conference championship in 2011-12. When he arrived, competing at the highest level on the national stage was only a vision in his mind's eye. It's now become an annual reality.
Even now, as Mitchell surveys the practice floor at the Joe Craft Center, he can't help but be struck by the progress that has been made. UK's on-floor success has translated into recruiting, as seven of the 13 Wildcats on this year's roster are former McDonald's All-Americans.
"I just always try to make sure that I am mindful of our progress," Mitchell said. "That keeps me in a real state of gratitude. It keeps me in a state of humility because there's been so many players that have chosen to come here that have impacted our success that had a lot of different options. I'm just so grateful that we've ended up with the roster we have."
Missing from that roster is all-time great A'dia Mathies, who finished her remarkable UK career as the second-leading scorer in school history. Mitchell will tell you there is no such thing as a next Mathies, but the way the Cats respond to her absence will go a long way toward defining this season.
There is no way to predict how that will play out, but Mitchell is excited to see what's ahead.
"I think it's one of the real opportunities we have to challenge ourselves as a program and as a team and as a coaching staff, to figure out how are we going to move forward," Mitchell said. "I think that has to happen in a real natural way and a real organic process. We'll see who emerges.
"Is it one person that takes over A'dia's role or do we get it in a little bit different ways? I don't know the answer to those questions but it sure is part of the challenge and it sure is part of the fun of building a team."
Mathies was never a very vocal presence, but her steadiness on the court in both games and practice was central to UK's success as an example to her teammates. But in terms of taking up the leadership slack, Mitchell sees a team that's ahead of schedule.
"I've been really happy with how the players have worked in that area," Mitchell said. "The first thing you have to have is a lot of trust among the players. You have to have people that will lead and you have to have people that will take direction and move forward in a positive way."
Taking up that mantle have been two players - a senior and a junior - who have been key contributors in the past, but are now emerging as veteran presences.
"I think Kastine Evans and Bria Goss have really stepped forward in vocal leadership positions and trying to really lead by not only example but also in verbal ways and trying to get things organized and trying to take leadership roles," Mitchell said.
Leadership, however, is often a collective effort for the best teams. Each of the five players in UK's senior class of Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker, Bernisha Pinkett and Samantha Drake will play a role. And Stallworth - the All-SEC post player who has a strong case as the most talented player on a stacked roster - is showing a bit of Mathies's knack for leading by example.
"We were watching film this morning and DeNesha Stallworth was showing leadership by how she was going about her business on the court," Mitchell said of a mid-September workout. "She was not cutting corners, she was not resting on her talent. She was doing the little things right and that's leadership in some form. You need everybody to embrace that."
For UK to reach its vast potential, Stallworth and her fellow post players will need to bring that kind of effort daily.
Spurred by the presence of versatile transfers Stallworth and Walker, 2012-13 was somewhat of a transitional season for UK's 40 minutes of dread style of play. In past seasons, Mitchell opted to use four perimeter players and just one post player to field the quickest possible team. But last year, he most often employed a more traditional two-post look.
Stallworth and Walker thrived, averaging a combined 21.2 points, 14.1 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. They were also far from the only contributors, and Azia Bishop, Drake and Jelleah Sidney will all compete for minutes again this season.
"We have some talent in the post and that's a comforting fact," Mitchell said. "We also have some room to grow in the post. I think Samarie and DeNesha can be better than they were last year. I know that Azia and Samantha and Jelleah, I know all three of those players can play better than they did last year."
If the group develops as Mitchell believes it can, the Cats could be elite in the interior.
"I think we've got a lot depth in the post," Mitchell said. "We're blessed with that, but depth does not matter unless everybody develops themselves to their maximum potential. Now if we do that, we'll be one of the toughest post units in the country."
In order for those post players to thrive, they will rely heavily on Jennifer O'Neill, who grabbed hold of the point-guard position a season ago. O'Neill offers a combination of speed, passing and scoring at the position that applies constant pressure to opposing defenses and Mitchell sees even bigger things in store from the redshirt junior.
"I'm really, really happy with how she looks right now and how hard she's practicing and playing," Mitchell said. "I have very high hopes for Jennifer O'Neill that this is going to be a better season from her than last season."
Not long ago, O'Neill was a true freshman trying to compete for playing time while adjusting to the college game and UK's unique style of play. Now, the next generation of Wildcat stars is going through that process.
Linnae Harper, Makayla Epps and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers make up an incoming class that ranked fifth in the nation according to espnW HoopGurlz. The credentials of the trio are beyond question, so building confidence isn't something Mitchell has to spend much time worrying about.
"What we just focus on with the freshman is you are talented. Everybody knows that," Mitchell said. "So now let's focus on how you prepare every day. How you come in and your preparation time is so valuable to you so you have to take advantage of every practice. You have to get up to speed with the pace of how we do things. If they'll just focus on that, their talent will emerge and you'll see major contributions from the freshman class."
Like the classes that came before them, the freshmen are thinking about making the Final Four. Three times in four seasons, UK has fallen just a win shy of breaking through to women's basketball's biggest stage, most recently in a loss to Connecticut in April.
The defeat certainly stung and Mitchell is clear that there are lessons to be learned from it even today, but he isn't thinking about it regularly or using it frequently to motivate his team. He's only worried about what's next.
"This team will never have another chance to come together and be our best," Mitchell said. "We really have a sense of urgency for the time being now. And so I'm not looking back on that game and using it to spur this particular team on."
Mitchell's message in the immediate aftermath of the UConn loss, however, still resonates today. Asked whether he believed his program would finally get over the hump and reach the Final Four after falling short again, Mitchell said without hesitation that it's a matter of when, not if.
In other words, Mitchell believes what's next for UK Hoops is even better than what's in the past.
"We've had success with the principles of our program, so we feel really good about who we are and who we're always trying to be," Mitchell said. "And then we have some talented players and some talented staff members. I just have a real deep belief in our people. With those solid principles, I think you're bound to have that success. That's where my source of belief comes from and I just am very optimistic about the future of our basketball program."
She led Whitney Young High School in Chicago team to four consecutive city championships, including a state title in 2012 with a spotless 34-0 record. Last season alone she was a McDonald's All-American, a finalist for both the Naismith and McDonald's National High School Player of the Year awards and was named Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year.
Harper - the highest-rated UK Hoops signee ever - might be accustomed to winning and she might know how it feels to receive awards, but wearing her country's colors and having a gold medal placed around her neck will never get old.
"It's a different feeling than winning the state championship or winning a big award," Harper said. "It's totally different because it's not just your state and it's not just your city; it's your entire country."
Harper got to experience just that on Sunday.
Playing at the U19 World Championship in Lithuania, Harper helped lead the United States to a 61-28 victory over France in the gold-medal game, tallying six points, three rebounds, two steals and an assist. With Harper averaging 8.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.0 steals, the U.S. completed a 9-0 charge through the tournament.
"I think I was pretty consistent overall," Harper said. "My one thing was trying to the little things. Everybody on the team can score, everybody can play defense, but it's the little things that separate you."
That's something Harper knows from plenty of international experience. The gold medal she brought home this week is her third, as she played at both the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championship and 2011 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. The latest team, however, was exceptional.
"One thing about our team: We had a lot of depth," Harper said. "All 12 players are very versatile, can play multiple positions when needed. This was a special team, very talented from point guard all the way to the post. I think each player had a specific role and played their part and that's how we ended up winning the gold."
The team was comprised of six current collegians, three players bound for college and three high schoolers. The competition, as you might expect, was as fierce in practice as it ever was in games.
"Everybody wants to win and they're very intense," Harper said. "It helped me a lot playing with some of the players who are in college."
UConn's Breanna Stewart followed up on her Final Four Most Outstanding Player performance in the spring by leading the U.S. in scoring en route to MVP honors. College stars Bashaara Graves (Tennessee) and Alexis Jones (Duke) were also on the team, generating some inevitable trash talk.
"Here and there we would all make little comments, but it was all fun," Harper said. "We all knew that we're going to be competing against each other this year and when we were down there we were strictly U.S.A."
Even though Harper's focus was primarily on the gold medal, that didn't stop her from keeping up with her soon-to-be Kentucky teammates and coaches, including friend and former high-school teammate Janee Thompson, who is entering her sophomore season at UK. Playing on the national team kept her from coming on campus for the summer, but Harper doesn't think she'll have any trouble catching on when she arrives in Lexington on Aug. 24.
"They're all pretty cool," Harper said. "They keep me updated on what's going on in the summer, so I'm not really that behind."
Anything she may have missed in terms of conditioning or bonding with her new team will likely be more than made up for by competing against and playing with some of the best young players in the world.
Though she hasn't witnessed it firsthand just yet, Harper knows how different college is from high school and believes learning to play a role on a talented national team is experience that will pay off.
"In high school, you carry the team and you have players help you," Harper said. "With U.S.A., you have 11 other players that can help and are on the same level. I think on Kentucky, it will be the same way. But of course it will be a different concept because I'll be with my main team."
Harper still has to wait a little more than three weeks before joining her new team and admits to having some "jitters" about moving on to college. Her first priority will be making the adjustment to her new surroundings, but she has an ambitious goal in mind too.
"Eventually, one of my main goals is to become SEC Freshman of the Year," Harper said. "But that takes time over months. I'm not really focused on that right now. I'm focused on getting myself ready so I can be an asset to the team."
On Wednesday, UK announced on Twitter that Big Blue Madness - the annual event that tips off the men's and women's basketball seasons - will be on Oct. 18. This year, it won't be the first practice of the fall because of the NCAA's extended practice schedule, but it will still be the same show fans have come to expect.
Those hoping to attend will be able to obtain tickets on Saturday, Oct. 5 at 7 a.m. ET at the Memorial Coliseum ticket windows or online at UKathletics.com or Ticketmaster.com. Fans wishing to pick up tickets in person can begin lining up at 7 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Oct. 2. Tickets will be free, but a small service fee will be applied to online tickets.
Additional information about Madness 2013 - including parking, broadcast and start times - will be announced at a later date.
Like the rest of the country, Mark Stoops and Mitch Barnhart have kept close tabs on this week's tragic events in Oklahoma. The UK head coach and athletics director shared compassion for the victims of Monday's destructive tornado.
They also share personal ties to the area. Barnhart and Stoops each have family who lives within a few miles of Moore, Okla.: Barnhart's brother Eric, Stoops' brothers Bob and Mike and the families of all three.
Driven by sympathy and familiarity with the area and people affected, Stoops and Barnhart have decided to do something to help.
"I have kept a close eye on the tragic events in Oklahoma this week," Barnhart said. "My heart goes out to all those affected. My brother Eric lives three miles from where the tornado hit, so the devastation has hit close to home for me even though he is safe."
"I am so thankful my family and friends are alright after the storms in Oklahoma," Stoops said. "However, we are heartbroken for those affected by this tragedy."
Stoops, Barnhart and women's basketball coach Matthew Mitchell will all donate to the American Red Cross's tornado relief efforts. John Calipari announced his foundation will donate to the cause earlier this week as well.
Now, the leaders of UK Athletics want Kentucky fans to join in.
"We hope the Big Blue Nation will once again show its giving spirit," Stoops said. "There's only so much any of us can do on our own, but we make a real impact together."
Those wishing to donate after may call 859-253-1331 or 1-800-REDCROSS. Fans can also donate money online at RedCross.org or by texting "REDCROSS" to 90999 (the text will automatically donate $10). In person donations can be made in-person at Fayette Mall (corner of Nicholasville Road and Reynolds Road) on Thursday, May 23 and Friday, May 24 from 3:00 p.m. ET to 7:00 p.m.
No matter how you donate, tweet with the hash tag #BBNcares to show that UK fans stand with the Oklahoma tornado victims.
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