After putting Kentucky basketball players through eight weeks of grueling summer workouts, strength and conditioning coach Rob Harris thought he had identified the team’s emotional leaders. Juniors Keion Brooks and Jacob Toppin, to no one’s great surprise as returning contributors, set the tone almost every day. There was a palpable “never again” energy about the way they worked in the aftermath of a historically bad year for the program. But then late one night last week at Kroger Field, Harris sprung his final test of the offseason, and another leader emerged. As he broke down their bodies to challenge their minds, provoking a fight-or-flight dilemma that demanded a response, Harris loved what he saw.

They’d already run the football stadium’s stairs until their lungs and legs burned. They’d already performed farmer’s walks with heavy dumbbells until their forearms and hamstrings cramped. That was just the warm-up. Then Harris ordered them to bear crawl the length of the field — and back. He wanted the weary Wildcats to cover 200 yards of steamy turf on just the palms of their hands and tips of their toes, kicking up rubber pellets into sweat-soaked faces with every stride. It wasn’t so much a physical evaluation, because collapse was inevitable, as it was an assessment of their mental capacity to get back up and keep going. Turns out, the exercise can reveal even more than that.

Davidson transfer Kellan Grady was among the first to finish, but then he did something that really got everyone’s attention. He returned to the field and assumed the position alongside teammates who were struggling to get through it. He barked out words of affirmation as he bear-crawled the final yards with them.

“I saw a side of Kellan that I had never seen before; he became that encourager, that voice that reminds the guys we can do this,” Harris says. “And that’s a contagious attitude. Next thing you know, everybody else started to finish their crawl and then go help their teammates finish too. You look around and realize it has turned into something a lot more powerful than just, ‘I can complete this workout.’ It turned into pulling your brother through with you, and everybody just kind of coming together for the first time to be one unit. It was actually really dope to see.”

That moment also crystalized for Harris exactly what the Wildcats missed last summer, when COVID-19 restrictions disrupted everything about their normal offseason schedule. They got a late start, could not condition together as a team, could not share meals or socialize together between workouts, and every time a player so much as had contact with an infected person, he was held out of training for 10 days. “So many hiccups,” Harris says. He doesn’t want to use that as an excuse for Kentucky’s stunning 1-6 start and abysmal 9-16 finish — every program in college basketball faced similar challenges, after all — but having nine new players, six of them freshmen, compounded the problem. How do you build a team when most of your preparation is done in isolation?