I will start this post with a shout to the young lady in the picture above, Hayley Minogue, who is killing it on television in Hazard on WYMT. Hayley started here on KSR a few years back as one of our college writers and like a number of similar students over the years, has turned that experience into a job in sports, in her case as a tv reporter. As of now, KSR has seen over 15 of its writers move on to some job in sports (or a full time job here) and that may be one of my favorite parts of the history of this site. Many are, like Hayley, killing it in their new jobs and it makes me very proud to see all of their success.
And with that, here is the latest Behind the Scenes in UK Sports
— With football practice beginning, the #1 overall arching theme is optimism across the board from all around the program. To some extent that is normal but there is no doubt it is different this year. As we have said on here before, the coaching staff had no idea what a difficult job they were undertaking in their first year…after the initial few practices, they were shocked to see the level of fundamentals lacking with the team and they knew the climb was going to be very long. But now for the first time they feel their heads are above water and there is a sense from some that they can really make some noise this year. One person close to the team told me this weekend, “Matt, you never know with the record in this conference, but I think we can be A LOT BETTER (his emphasis not mine) this year than last…and fans will be able to see it.” That makes me very excited.
— When you ask the coaches where the biggest difference will be this season, the answer is the same, the Wide Receivers and Tight Ends will be markedly better. Between Jeff Badet, Garrett Johnson, Alexander Montgomery, Ryan Timmons, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and others, the staff believes they have 7-8 guys who can play in the SEC ready to go right now. The key is going to be to have one or two develop into the stars and leaders of the group. The hope is that Badet and Garrett Johnson end up at the top of that list, but any one of them could emerge depending on how things go. But there is depth and real talent there for the first time since Cobb/Matthews. At Tight End, two players CJ Conrad and Darryl Long (I called him Ronnie Shields on the radio today showcasing again that I am an idiot), are going to have an immediate and important impact. Freddie Maggard said today that the two of them are the best at the position since Jacob Tamme and one coach told me recently that the offense will look exponentially different than last year and a big reason for it will be that position. I expect big things from those guys and their role to increase as the season goes along.
— The Defense is a worry to some as their are still issues at various position. The staff feels good up the middle with Melvin Lewis, Josh Forrest and AJ Stamps, each bringing big time talent and work to their position. But the suspension of Jason Hatcher and injury to Kobie Walker highlights the real issues they have at the outside DE/LB positions and at Corner. UK is bunched up with some good players at the same position (They feel really good about Safety where they think they have big time Depth) but there is concern about the Defense on the edges and the hope is that guys step up in these first few weeks of practice.
— On recruiting, the optimism is high as the 2017 class is trending to be very special. IT is quite early and nothing will matter more than how they play this year. But with Mac Jones and the early Ohio commitments, there is the belief that 2017 can trend to be the best class of the Stoops era. As one person close to the team told me, “we have done this much and haven’t even won yet…if we win, watch out.” I believe that is true.
— Finally, all eyes are on Patrick Towles. The Quarterback has impressed everyone with his mechanics and arm strength, while he has also showcased a better ability making decisions. He will get the chance to throw the long ball and I am told he looks better doing that now than at any time at UK. The issue for him will be decision-making and confidence in key situations or in difficult moments. That was a problem last year and is something that coaches can work on all they want, but it may take game moments to see it in action. I get a sense of cautious optimism about Towles…everyone believes he has what it takes to have a big year. Now its up to him…and for what its work, the raves I am hearing on Drew Barker (whose first year was basically a disaster off the field and a disappointment until Spring practice on it) are quite impressive. People feel his future is really bright and his continued improvement is why Towles is still in a quarterback competition.
— The news isn’t as thorough on basketball but it is still out there. The pickup games are going and the star continues to be Tyler Ulis. Coaches are so pleased with is development as a leader on and off the court and there is a general consensus that this will be his team this year. While Skal and Jamal Murray may have more talent and Alex is a Senior, the leader will be Tyler and it may be a team with the strongest individual personality running the show since Brandon Knight. Ulis has befriended Isaiah Briscoe, ending a worry some had that the two alpha dogs might bump heads due to their nature and playing the same position. Instead they have become best friends and are relishing the opportunity to compete against each other every day in practice and play together in the games. Ulis is going to be special this year and everyone knows it.
— The new guys have generally all been better than coaches had hoped for. Skal Labissiere is taking some time to adjust to the college game and college work (in terms of effort) but people are happy with his progress. He will (like Anthony Davis and Nerlens Noel) probably develop slowly during the season and will initially be a force on defense before offense. I am told his block shot timing is excellent and he can hold his own rebounding. He still needs work on his low post moves and when practice begins in full, expect lots of work with Skal and Kenny Payne. Mychal Mulder has been the most surprising player to enter at UK this year…he is simply better than anyone thought. He was always a good shooter but his athleticism has been a huge revelation. He has dunked on his teammates twice in pickup situations that have led to everyone stopping play to admire (and talk trash) and he is asserting himself more and more. I would not be shocked if he ended up starting. Folks are happy with Charles Matthews and he is where most believed, but I still think he is likely in a reserve role this year, with next year being more of his moment.
— The plan is still to have Isaac Humphries join the team this year if he ends up getting his academic summer work taken care of. He will be a big body and can be a good rebounder. He does however need to do work on his conditioning, etc and that will be something that will take place if he ends up coming. At this point, he is a go for Kentucky if the academic stuff happens…we should find out in the next two weeks.
— I was told by someone close to the program last week that the style UK will have to play this year will be very conducive to Marcus Lee and should play to his strengths. UK is going to have to play at a fast pace, and Lee will have less worries about having to create his own shot and he can attack in the way that he does the best. For Marcus, a big part of everything is desire and work and it will be important that he is ready to compete with Skal every day…a player who can make him better and turn him into a first round pick. If he brings it with him, he can have a huge year.
— The one hushed comment you still hear around Lexington is Jamal Murray and his Canadian national team experience. He was added to the Canadian roster today for FIBA Americas and if he accepts (which he is expected to) for Training camp, he will miss time in Lexington. The bigger question is whether he will (after going through Training Camp) join the team if he makes it (which he may). If he does that, it puts UK in a tough spot…he would come to school for three days, then leave and there is a drop dead date that he must return by and it isn’t clear if FIBA Americas will be done. Some are suggesting that could mean he doesn’t play for the Canadian team…and that probably is the most likely scenario. He also could go down there, play for a few and then return. He could potentially get some kind of waiver to continue to play and then return later than normal due to the special situation. Or he could decide to play and then not come to Lexington at all. The latter is VERY UNLIKELY, but I do think it is still in the back of folks’ minds and it does make everyone want to get clarification of what the schedule will be and Murray’s plans. I expect that Murray goes to Training Camp, plays with the team and then skips the FIBA Americas…but we still don’t know for sure and I think everyone will feel better when we do.
— Finally, I will have more on 2016 recruiting later this week…for now, I will just say this. Kentucky is DEEP with a lot of kids…there are probably 10 guys that UK is in the top 2-3 with. But guessing who will end up on the team is a total crapshoot. I like UK’s chances with Sacha Kileya-Jones and Miles Bridges…but UNC is in on Jones and Michigan State on Bridges. The Cats could end up with virtually anyone and I wouldn’t be shocked. Sit back for another nutty recruiting year…although in this one, I think the Cats get 2-3 guys by Fall Signing Day.
And with that, I Am done…a Periscope coming at 10 or so.