A football season that began regular-season play for the University of Kentucky on a hot, humid Sunday afternoon, Sept. 5, against arch rival Louisville has been more chilly than warm. Kentucky had just one win on the upside Saturday when it hosted Vanderbilt. But on Senior Day, Wildcat Football Faithful celebrated a victory and the final-year players playing for the final time on their homefield at Commonwealth Stadium and C.M. Newton Field, went away as winners.
While the start of the University of Kentucky men's and women's basketball seasons are just around the corner, the UK football team has just one game remaining, a contest on the road in Knoxville against Tennessee on Saturday, Nov. 27.
In a season of more downs than ups, senior quarterback Shane Boyd had his moment in the sun Saturday during the win over Vanderbilt.
Boyd found receiver Glenn Holt in the back of the end zone on a 25-yard strike with less than two minutes remaining to lift Kentucky to a 14-13 win over the visiting Commodores. The win allowed Kentucky to snap losing streaks of seven (overall) and 10 (Southeastern Conference) games. Kentucky (2-8, 1-6 Southeastern Conference) last won on Saturday, Sept. 18 at home against Big Ten foe Indiana.
Wildcat football coach Rich Brooks was happy most for his seniors.
"I'm tickled to death for our seniors," Brooks said. "We needed to stop the SEC skid that we've been on." Kentucky's win over Vanderbilt certainly came in dramatic fashion. The Wildcats overcame a 13-0 deficit en route to the 14-13 triumph.
On a day when seniors were honored, every Wildcat and Kentucky fan had a chance to celebrate.
Boyd finished the day 13-of-23 passing for 80 yards. The Kentucky offense didn't make a turnover for the first time during the 2004 season. Vanderbilt led 7-0 at halftime. Kentucky scored both of its touchdowns in the fourth and final quarter.
Kentucky has waded high water through much of the 2004 college football season. After falling to Louisville in the season-opener, Kentucky had a week to collect itself during an open week. The Cats then rebounded nicely, crushing Indiana 51-32. Following the win over Indiana, Kentucky suffered seven straight losses before getting back in the win column against Vanderbilt.
Trips to Florida and The Swamp, Auburn and Mississippi State were among the seven weeks that followed for the UK grid team. The entire University of Kentucky football team got some much-needed good news just days before taking on Vanderbilt when it was made known that the NCAA had approved wide receiver Tommy Cook's request for a sixth year of eligibility. Cook has been a mainstay on the UK football sidelines throughout the current regular-season, cheering on his Wildcat teammates and even taking on the role of part-time assistant coach. Brooks was equally as excited with the NCAA's decision to give Cook another year of eligibility.
"Obviously, this is a win-win situation for Tommy Cook and the University of Kentucky," Brooks said. "He is an outstanding young man who has graduated and can now work on an advanced degree. He has great leadership qualities as well as playmaking ability. He will be a big boost to the 2005 Kentucky football team." One couldn't blame Brooks, nor his staff, nor returning players and UK football fans for looking ahead to next season. With just one game remaining, Kentucky coaches are no doubt already looking ahead to recruiting trips and off-season workout programs that will involve current football players.
Now, basketball season is here.
The University of Kentucky men's basketball team has the top recruiting class in the nation. Head coach Tubby Smith welcomes in four of the nation's top players as guards Ramel Bradley (6-1, 179, New York, N.Y.), Rajon Rondo (6-1, 171, Louisville) and Joe Crawford (6-4, 210, Detroit) and center Randolph Morris (6-10, 266, Atlanta), all enter the program with chances to make an immediate impact, all the while logging valuable minutes.
Transfer Patrick Sparks is another talented newcomer. After sitting last season out, Sparks enters play in the UK men's basketball program after two standout seasons at Western Kentucky University. Sparks (6-0, 180, Central City) helped to make last season's UK men's basketball team strong by pushing teammates in practice. The former Kentucky high school hoops standout was able to practice with last season's team, but due to NCAA transfer rules was unable to play against opposing teams. Sparks and Rondo worked particularly well with one another during the pre-season. Five seniors are gone from last season's UK men's basketball teamAntwain Barbour, Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch and Matt Heissenbuttel. Daniels, Hawkins and Fitch led the Wildcats in key starting roles last season. Barbour came in off the Wildcat bench and added solid play on both ends of the court. Heissenbuttel didn't see near as much playing time as the other four players, but added support and also pushed teammates during all-important practice sessions.
The UK frontcourt returns Chuck Hayes. Hayes, a candidate this season for the Naismith Trophy presented by Cingular Wireless, averaged 10.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season, playing to seven double-doubles. Kentucky's frontcourt includes an excellent group of seasoned veterans. The group of seasoned vets includes sophomore Sheray Thomas, a player who played over the summer for the Canadian Junior National Team, and seven-footers Lukasz Obrzut (7-1) and Shagari Alleyne (7-3). Sophomore forward Bobby Perry (6-6, 228, Durham) is also back in the mix for the UK men's team.
Thomas underwent surgery in October, but is now back at full strength. Joining Hayes as the only other returning starter is junior guard/forward Kelenna Azubuike. Fans can expect to see Azubuike play both in and out. The versatile third-year player averaged 11.1 points per game during the 2003-04 season and keyed the UK attack during numerous outings. The UK backcourt lost to graduation nearly 27 points per game. Fitch and Hawkins each averaged double figures scoring last season. Fitch averaged 16.2 points per game and Hawkins netted 10.3 per outing. But don't look now, but the youth movement just may be ready to set in. At the least, a new cast of talented characters is preparing to rule in the UK backcourt. Rondo enters the Wildcat hoops program following a stellar prep career that ended with a stay at storied Oak Hill Academy. The former Louisville high school star is a true point guard.
Sparks and Joe Crawford will also be valuable assets in the UK backcourt. Senior Josh Carrier (6-4, 205, Bowling Green) and juniors Brandon Stockton (5-9, 167, Glasgow) and Ravi Moss (6-2, 190, Hopkinsville) have seen playing time before and return to the college game with experience behind them. Fans can expect to see several UK men's players share in the spotlight during the 2004-05 season. This UK team is deep. "I play different combinations," Smith admitted, when asked about using different lineups because of depth. "It's pretty close there as far as the talent level. Each player knows they determine their playing time. If they play well and grade out as the top players in their performances in practices, that's when they'll get a lot of playing time." Smith utilized his team's vast amount of talent in the pre-season, playing several different combinations. Along the way, Smith saw different players step up. In turn, the UK coach saw some things both he and his staff liked. Kentucky dominated during each of its pre-season exhibition games. The Wildcats walloped Northern Kentucky 91-73.
In the win over Northern Kentucky, Azubuike scored a game-high 26 points, leading three UK players in double figures, hitting 11-of-14 from the field and nailing three-of-four three-pointers.
Rondo came in off the UK bench in the win over Northern Kentucky and scored 16 points. Hayes finished with 15 points. Eleven different UK players scored in the first pre-season win.
The Wildcats were just as dominating in a win over Kentucky Wesleyan, the second triumph of the pre-season. Azubuike fired in 15 points to lead Kentucky to a 79-54 win over Kentucky Wesleyan. Hayes added a double-double of 12 points and 10 rebounds. Crawford came in off the bench and netted 12 points. Sparks showed his gritty play. Just a few days after suffering a broken nose, Sparks returned to the Rupp hardwood, in a game situation no less, scoring five points. With pre-season play out of the way, Kentucky now turns its focus to the upcoming season. The Wildcats are scheduled to begin play on Saturday (Nov. 20) at home against Coppin State.
After games against Coppin State, Ball State, Georgia State and Tennessee Tech in the month of November, Smith's team will face some of its toughest competition in the months of December and January. And this is before the Wildcats even get into their SEC schedule. Kentucky is scheduled to go on the road, Tobacco Road, more specifically, Saturday, Dec. 4 and take on North Carolina. After a game against in-state school Morehead State on Dec. 8, Kentucky has back-to-back rivalry games against Indiana (Dec. 11) and Louisville (Dec. 18). After the first conference game of the season against South Carolina at home on Wednesday, Jan. 5, Kentucky will welcome into Rupp Arena, Kansasanother one of the nation's top college basketball programs. To say there's some excitement swirling in and around the UK men's basketball program would be a huge understatement. Smith will be one of the first to acknowledge the tough schedule that lies ahead for his talented team. "We have a very good schedule again this year," Smith said. "We were hoping we would be able to play in the Preseason NIT and then the BCA, but we were unable to. So, we're playing some teams like Coppin State and Ball State that will give us an idea and help measure ourselves." The UK coach also clearly recognizes the talent his team both returns and welcomes in. "We have an exciting group of players as well as new players that have arrived on campus," Smith said, during the UK Men's basketball Media Day. "As a coach, I'm always eager to get started and see how our team comes together. Every time a new year starts there is always anticipation that you hope the new players are going to be as good as advertised. I think some of the freshmen have shown us that they're capable of being major contributors immediately in our program." Kentucky lost a heartbreaker to end last season, falling to Alabama-Birmingham. The Blazers, a No. 9 seed, edged Kentucky 76-75 in the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but UK coaches, players and fans have picked up and moved on. "I don't think about it until someone like you brings up," Smith told a reporter during Media Day when the subject of the loss was brought up. "I got over it and we moved on pretty fast with the recruiting class that we got. It was one when we weren't playing our best game." Smith welcomes back the same coaching staff that graced the sidelines one season agoDavid Hobbs, Scott Rigot and Reggie Hansen. The Kentucky men's basketball team has had plenty of pre-season accolades. Both players and team have received lofty pre-season nods. Hayes and Azubuike were named to the 2005 Preseason All-Southeastern Conference Team. Hayes was named to the first team, while Azubuike took second-team honors. As the two returning starters, Hayes and Azubuike will be looked to for added leadership during the campaign ahead. Kentucky was picked the preseason favorite to win the 2005 SEC men's basketball title in a poll taken at the SEC Media Day event in Birmingham, Ala. UK was picked first on nine of the 18 ballots. Kentucky was picked to win the East while Mississippi State was dubbed the favorite for the top spot in the West. Expectations for the UK men's team are always high. It will be important for this edition of the Wildcatsas was the case with many of the previous editionsto develop team chemistry as it goes. "Our system is based on teamwork and not individualism," Smith said, when talking about his team developing chemistry. "Winning is a by product of giving your best every day in practices and our understand that. It takes some time." Smith is set to enter his 14th year as a head coach, his eighth at the University of Kentucky. In previous stops, Smith coached at Tulsa and Georgia. His winning percentage in seven seasons at Kentucky is an outstanding .792 (191-50). Kentucky finished the 2003-04 season with a 27-5 record. The Wildcats ended SEC play with a 13-3 worksheet. In addition to 13 SEC wins and a conference title, Kentucky scored non-conference victories over Michigan State, Indiana and North Carolina. The UK men's basketball team contends annually. The Wildcats contend for both top honors in the SEC and the NCAA.
University of Kentucky Basketball is an event for so many in Lexington, throughout the state of Kentucky, and other parts of the nation. Kentucky Basketball means so much to so many. It's no secret, UK Basketball fans do bleed blue. It's just hours now before the UK men will hit the floor in a season-opener against Coppin State. Fans clad in Kentucky Blue with True Blue, yet warm hearts, will no doubt await in the first game of what is another promising season of Wildcat Basketball. n