LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart believes the program's overall success offsets this year's falloff by its two high-profile sports — one of which he acknowledges will be expected to rebound better than the other.
A year after winning their eighth NCAA basketball title, the Wildcats missed the tournament altogether and were upset by Robert Morris in the first round of the second-tier NIT. Their disappointment followed the football team's 2-10 season, resulting in the Nov. 4 firing of coach Joker Phillips after three years and the hiring of first-time head coach Mark Stoops to rebuild the program.
Barnhart believes both sports will improve but views the performance of several others as signs of an athletic department continuing to move in the right direction on and off the field.
"It's been an interesting year in that we've had some things to celebrate, and that's been fun," Barnhart said in an interview with the Associated Press. "Fans look at three or four sports, first and foremost, and it's interesting that while we might not have had the success that we've wanted or been used to, excitement for those sports is at an all-time high."
It's hard to imagine popularity of men's basketball being higher after leading the nation in attendance for the 17th time in 18 years despite a 21-12 finish. Barnhart's assessment had more to do with the record nearly 51,000 that came out for the Blue-White spring football scrimmage, more than the Wildcats drew for Southeastern Conference home games against No. 6 South Carolina and No. 20 Mississippi State last season.
That kind of attendance said a lot about fans' hopes that Stoops can return the program to respectability after an 0-8 SEC showing. Injuries and inexperience left the team near the bottom of several conference rankings and resulted in Kentucky's worst finish since 2005 (3-8) — not to mention, many empty seats at Commonwealth Stadium.
At Stoops' introduction on Dec. 2, the former Florida State defensive coordinator quickly declared that Wildcats fans would have something to cheer about even as they try to contend in an ultra-competitive league that has won the past seven national championships. While it will take time for Kentucky's young quarterbacks to execute offensive coordinator Neal Brown's pass-oriented 'Air Raid' scheme, the prospect of more wide-open play has resulted in 4,000 more than season ticket holders than 2012.
Spectators can eventually look forward to a planned $110 million stadium renovation expected to be completed by 2015. Until then, Stoops is intent on providing them an exciting on-field product.
"We're not here to play close to play close to anybody," said Stoops, who lifted FSU's defense from a No. 108 ranking in 2009 to second nationally last season. "We're here to compete to win, and there's no excuse not to.
"Maybe that resonates with the fans, but that's my mentality."
There's no mistaking the fierce mindset men's basketball coach John Calipari seeks from the nation's No. 1 recruiting class after their predecessors fell short of meeting high expectations last season.
Kentucky's rookie quartet of Nerlens Noel, guard Archie Goodwin, center Willie Cauley-Stein and forward Alex Poythress showed flashes of potential, though not always simultaneously or consistently. Having no returning starter also hampered efforts to find leadership and chemistry.
The Wildcats subsequently struggled all season for an NCAA tournament bid, a quest that was severely damaged when the 6-foot-10 Noel, Kentucky's best player and the nation's leading shot blocker, suffered a season-ending knee injury at Florida in February. A 4-5 finish followed and Kentucky was denied the chance to defend its championship before Robert Morris' 59-57 victory snatched hopes for an NIT consolation prize.
Nerlens and Goodwin are in next week's NBA draft, but Cauley-Stein, Poythress and junior forward Kyle Wilter return. They will be counted on to improve as well as groom eight ballyhooed newcomers including six McDonald's All-Americans, ratcheting up talk within Blue Nation of another title run.
"Obviously, we didn't finish like we wanted to, but recruiting is very good and fans are excited," Barnhart said. "We got some of the key members of the team coming back, and coupled with the new guys, there's a chance to be a really exciting year going forward."
Advancing to their first Final Four is the goal for Kentucky's women, who finished their most successful season and reached their third Elite Eight in four years before losing to eventual national champion Connecticut. Runners-up to Tennessee during the regular season and Texas A&M in the SEC championship, the Wildcats (30-6) set a school record for wins with eight coming against top-25 opponents.
Kentucky offsets the loss of two-time SEC player of the year A'dia Mathies with the return of four starters and the arrival of a top-five recruiting class including McDonald's All-Americans Linnae Harper and Makayla Epps, a consensus choice as Kentucky's Miss Basketball.
"As competitive as (coach) Matthew Mitchell is, I know he's anxious to break through that one spot and we're close on a lot of fronts," Barnhart said.
The same can be said for other Wildcat sports.
Kentucky softball (41-21) reached its second NCAA super regional in three years, set a school mark for victories and tied its highest final ranking (12th) in the USA Softball Top 25 poll. Playing in a new $9.5 million facility this season no doubt helped.
Volleyball reached the NCAA round of 16 in consecutive years for the first time since 1987-88.
Andrew Evans' bronze medal in the discus helped men's track earn its best finish (18th) since 2010 at the NCAA championships. Evans, Raymond Dykstra (javelin) and hurdler Keith Hayes were first-teamers of eight Wildcats named All-Americans.
All 22 programs surpassed the cut score on the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate report, and 15 exceeded the national average for public schools. That big-picture success explains why Barnhart isn't fretting about stumbles from the school's main revenue sports, which happen from time to time.
But in changing football coaches, his expectations might be higher than his fan base.
"When you have 22 programs, you have some highs and some lows, some things that you wanted to do really, really well and some things that you want to do better," he said. "Sometimes, we take it for granted because we've been steady the last few years in consistent growth. But clearly, the sports that gather the most attention, rightly or wrongly, are ones we've got to get better in."