The annual campout for Big Blue Madness tickets just won't stop getting bigger.
A year after the 2013 edition obliterated the previous record, Tent City grew to an unprecedented size on Friday. At the final count of 2014 -- as control cards were being distributed at 2 p.m. -- approximately 770 tents had surrounded Memorial Coliseum in hopes of securing tickets to the highly anticipated madness event, topping the previous record mark of 755.
Though campers are finished moving in, the party goes on. Friday night at the madness campout is typically the most festive of the week the Mother Nature appears wiling to cooperate with a perfect weather forecast.
We'll have more from the campout this evening, so stay tuned.
Karl-Anthony Towns and his UK teammates handed out pizza to eager fans on Thursday night at the Big Blue Madness campout. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
Since 1950, 201 Avenue of Champions has served as the home of Memorial Coliseum. This week, though, thousands of UK fans have made the address their own temporary home as they anxiously await the ticket distribution for Big Blue Madness.
Tickets will be made available to the public Saturday, Sept. 20 at 7 a.m. at the Memorial Coliseum ticket office and online at Ticketmaster.com. But for the fans that have been living out of the estimated 770 tents -- an all-time record -- lining north campus sidewalks, the pecking order has already been determined.
At 5 a.m. on Wednesday it was a frantic pursuit for the finest camping spots that the University of Kentucky has to offer.
Shane Johnson of Seymour, Ind., who is a first-time Big Blue Madness camper, illustrates the scene as something far more than chaotic.
"It was like seeing as a crowd of people running hysterically from a tornado," Johnson said.
Like Johnson, Many Cats fans arrived days in advance as they lined Avenue of Champions, Rose Street and Lexington Avenue. The daily grind of life outdoors may take some getting used to, but it is all worth it in the end for the hottest free ticket of the year among the Big Blue Nation.
Rick Osborne, who made the trip from Harlan County, said his family has multiple spots in line.
"This is a family event for us," Osborne said. "But you certainly could not get an experience like this with all the other fans without camping out. Don't get me wrong, there are hardships that come with it, but it's too good of a time to not come out here."
And getting to spend a week with the 2014-15 Kentucky men's and women's basketball teams making consistent appearances has to be at least worth the price of admission, right?
"It is really nice to just be around them," Johnson said. "Seeing them go to and from class and having them stop by to spend a little time with us fans, it's great. We get to see them on the court once the season starts, but this is a different experience getting a small look at their lifestyle."
Fans will get a glimpse of what will likely be the preseason No. 1 team in college basketball on Oct. 17 at 7:00 p.m. A month from the annual open practice at Rupp Arena, they're already buzzing.
"After seeing them in the Bahamas last month, my expectations are very high," said Scott Mattingly of Lebanon, Ky. "I knew they weren't going to go 40-0 last year. But this year is different, and I think everyone - all the experts - is scared to give them that same hype. So I'm just excited to see it all play out."
The Cats amassed a 5-1 record during an eight-day span on their Big Blue Bahamas tour against teams from around the world that were made up of primarily professional talent.
So, there is not much the UK faithful does not have to be excited about, and that was once again demonstrated this week.
Look no further than the record-breaking crowd at the annual campout.
These people use their vacation days to take as much as a week away from work. They sleep in tents crammed beside complete strangers. But they all have one thing in common: love for Kentucky basketball.
"There is no other fan base like it. It's special," Mattingly said. "Now that we are all settled in out here, we have all come together to support our team."
Lauren O'Conner had 14 kills and six digs in UK's win over Lipscomb on Thursday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Connor Link, UK Athletics
After a sloppy set of opening play to begin Thursday's match with Lipscomb, the Wildcats quickly found themselves staring at a 1-0 deficit on the Memorial Coliseum scoreboard.
Once the set ended and the Kentucky players made their way to the team huddle, senior Lauren O'Conner knew something had to change.
"(The huddle) was a little intense, but we just wanted to focus on the next game," O'Conner said. "This season we've really been focusing on next point, next play, so I've been really excited about that. This match, forget about the last (set), take care of what we need to do, and handle business."
After Lipscomb claimed the first set 25-21, No. 15 Kentucky slammed its foot on the gas and never looked back. The Wildcats woke up and won the next three sets, and none by fewer than eight points.
"Individually, we all stepped it up another level, and we had to focus on some of the players that were going off, like the pin hitters," O'Conner said. "I think we did a good job the rest of the game of putting up better blocks and playing better defense."
Defense, as she and her Kentucky teammates promptly realized, ultimately proved to be the turning point. Lipscomb cruised to victory in the first set by way of a .519 hitting percentage, but finished the next three sets at .047, -.029, and .088, respectively. UK head coach Craig Skinner attributes the opening set loss simply to his team's prolonged period of adjustment.
"Well, Lipscomb is a good team," Skinner said. "We knew that coming in, and they hit .500 in set one. That is partly on us, but partly them. They run a style that is hard to catch up to. It took us a set."
After falling to the Lady Bisons in the first set, Skinner knew the Cats had to make immediate alterations if they wanted to avoid being on the wrong side of an upset.
"We were blocking the wrong shots on their outside hitters, and we had to make an adjustment on that," Skinner said. "We were allowing their middles to score on good passes. Our middles were not jumping with them. But, we had to change the tempo with our serve. We had to drop in some short balls and stuff like that to slow down the rhythm, and that really worked tonight."
On offense, O'Conner led the way. The outside hitter finished the evening with 14 kills, just four shy of her career high, hitting .444 in the process.
"She is a very experienced player, and has a high IQ of the game," Skinner said. "When her offense is going, she is a real threat, and (she) helps balance our attack along all three thirds of the net. She did a great job of that tonight."
O'Conner, typical of a senior leader, was quick to deflect praise to her teammates and the way they bounced back from a forgettable start.
"Morgan (Bergren) put up really good sets and once the second, third, and fourth set came our defense overall got better, which allowed her to be able to position the ball better so everyone allowed me to get the kills that I did," O'Conner said.
With an open date coming on Saturday, Kentucky has no immediate opponent to prepare for.
Instead, the Wildcats are working to improve.
"We had a good practice," D.J. Eliot said on Wednesday. "Harping on fundamentals. Everybody's getting reps and a lot of the younger players got reps all this week and we're just focusing on us, focusing on us getting better and harping on the little things."
For Eliot's defense, that starts against the run.
UK allowed 237 rushing yards - 156 by big back Matt Jones - in a triple-overtime loss to Florida on Saturday. The Gators gained 4.7 yards per carry, often relying on a straightforward game the Cats know they have to be able to stop.
"For us, it was defending the power run game and how quick we read it, how quick we triggered and how physical we were at the point of attack," Eliot said.
If it wasn't Jones doing the damage for Florida, it was typically wide receiver Demarcus Robinson making UK pay in the passing game. He piled up 15 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns in a dominant performance, but Eliot saw plenty the Cats could have done about it on film.
"The longest pass he caught went off our cornerback's shoulder pads," Eliot said. "So it was a lot of stuff that we could have prevented, you know what I mean? It was really a lot of stuff that we could prevent. Give him credit. He's an excellent player and they executed some good plays, but what we need to improve on is our assignments and our technique in coverage."
Though there was room for improvement, it's not as if there weren't positives. Florida managed only 20 points before overtime against a UK defense that still hasn't allowed a first-half touchdown.
"Ultimately on defense, you gotta keep them out of the end zone," Eliot said. "You can give up yards and you can not play perfect, but you gotta keep them out of the end zone. And so we've been able to do that this season and in that game during regulation."
Perhaps the best example was on Florida's first drive of the fourth quarter.
Following a Patrick Towles interception, the Gators got the ball on their own 15. They methodically moved the ball downfield, eventually having a first and 10 at the UK 25 and seeming poised to score what would have been a back-breaking touchdown to build on a 20-17 lead.
Instead, the Cats stopped Jones for two three-yard gains and forced a Jeff Driskel incompletion and a field-goal attempt. The Gators would miss and UK would force overtime.
"To do that, you've gotta be good in situations and situations are third-down defense, the red-zone defense, the two-minute defense and those are the things that you have to be successful at - their turnovers - the things you have to be successful at to play good defense and to play good scoring defense," Eliot said.