UK opens NCAA Tournament play at home against SIUE on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's soccer team has been at it for almost three months now. Not only that, the Wildcats had just returned from a weeklong road trip and a 12-hour bus ride at 6:30 a.m.
Naturally, Jon Lipsitz's wife asked him if he was tired.
"Heck yeah," Lipsitz told her. "That's exactly how I want to feel right now."
When the alternative is sitting at home, the choice is clear.
"When you get to the end of the year and everybody's a little worn down, it's the greatest feeling in the world," Lipsitz said. "So many teams are done and here we are, one of the 64 teams playing in the NCAAs and one of the 32 teams hosting."
The Cats are at home, but they're doing anything but sitting this week. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville in a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup at 7:30 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.
"A great challenge for us," Lipsitz said. "I know that they're very excited. First time for them and I remember what that feels like. I know that they'll be sky high when they get here and I think a quick start for us is very important."
UK, a national seed in the tournament for the first time in school history, enters the favorite. The label, an unfamiliar one for a program still growing, is one that might pose a danger of overlooking an SIUE team that has impressed Lipsitz in watching tape. SIUE's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament performance caught Lipsitz's eye in particular, a game in which the Cougars overcame a two-goal deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining to punch their NCAA Tournament tickets in overtime.
"That's a pretty amazing, resilient team to be able to do something like that," Lipsitz said.
Resilient is a word that can be used to describe UK as well.
A little more than a month ago, the Cats were on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in, sporting an RPI of 59 on the heels of four losses in six matches. Since, UK has won eight times in nine matches, only dropping the Southeastern Conference Tournament final against NCAA No. 1 seed Texas A&M.
Combine that with the No. 3 seed and you have a recipe for a team in danger of resting on its laurels and expecting a win to come easily, but the Cats aren't about to fall victim to that, not with senior captains Stuart Pope and Arin Gilliland leading the way.
Within minutes of learning UK's seeding, Pope said it no longer mattered.
"It's interesting being in training with the team because there's been zero discussion of the things that we've accomplished so far," Lipsitz said. "Obviously I'm proud of what we've accomplished over time, the four years with this group, but they haven't mentioned it at all. For them it's one game. We're getting ready for Saturday and for us as a staff it's one game and getting ready for it."
The first step in that preparation was recovering from playing three games in five days at the SEC Tournament, which Lipsitz said "crushes you physically." Accordingly, UK took an off day on Monday and went light on Tuesday.
"We started getting back after it Wednesday and (Thursday) was the first day I saw a change of pace in what they were doing," Lipsitz said. "I saw some pop, as we call it, in their runs. Things started coming together (Thursday)."
That happened with temperatures dropping into the 30s as will be the case on at kickoff on Saturday night. But like with late-season exhaustion, the Cats aren't about to let a little November chill affect them.
"We couldn't care less," Lipsitz said. "Our choice is be out on a cold night, colder than usual this time of year, playing an NCAA game or being done with the season. Yeah, I think we're going to be excited. We're definitely going to be excited."
UK had its normal walkthrough on Thursday, opting to move inside with cold weather in Lexington before the Wildcats go back outside on Friday. Head coach Mark Stoops spoke to the media afterward for the final time before a Saturday matchup with Tennessee, praising his team for the way it has practiced all week. Stoops also gave an injury update on a pair of players, saying Za'Darius Smith (ankle) is expected to play in spite of practicing little this week. Stoops also expects Blake McClain (shoulder) to play after the nickelback practiced all week, but with no contact.
Marcus Lee averaged seven points and seven rebounds in UK's two exhibition wins. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
John Calipari the competitor wants to jump out to a big early and win every game by double digits. John Calipari the realist knows that's not happening.
That's why he's saying things like this.
"We need adversity so bad," Calipari said. "We need to get hit in the mouth as soon as we can."
If you didn't know any better, you might think John Calipari is rooting against his own team.
"We need to be down 10, and let's figure out what we are," Calipari said.
On the eve of Kentucky's season opener, it's just a matter of time before he gets his wish.
UK opens its much-anticipated 2014-15 campaign at 8 p.m. on Friday night against Grand Canyon, a second-year Division-I program led by three-time NBA All Star Dan Majerle. The Wildcats are in the final hours of a unique offseason that's featured some surprise decisions to bypass the NBA Draft, a six-game Big Blue Bahamas tour and intrigue surrounding UK's platoon system.
That's all led to a No. 1 preseason ranking and unmatched hype (at least since last season), neither of which changes the task UK is facing.
"This thing is going to take time and it's going to be a process just like last year's team," Calipari said. "It can be all the hype we want. Won't matter. Gotta do it on the court."
Though there's no doubt doing it on the court in a game that counts is different, it's not as if this UK team is completely untested. There were the aforementioned Bahamas games and, perhaps even more notably, Kentucky's practices.
Talk of UK's roster featuring two teams that might each be ranked in the top 25 has been common all offseason, culminating in Calipari mentor and SMU head coach Larry Brown saying Thursday he believed the Cats' platoons would be No. 1 and No. 2 in the polls. That, like much of what's been said about Kentucky, is likely hyperbole, but the sentiment behind it is significant nonetheless.
With 12 talented players, every time UK gathers at the Joe Craft Center, it's a battle.
"Oh real competitive, you know always going against somebody at your position at all times," Poythress said. "Even in drills it's competitive."
One drill especially.
"We have a drill called the 'Perfect Stop,' " Lee said. "Once Coach Cal calls 'Perfect Stop,' it's probably the best part of practice because we're trying to kill each other. It's probably the most fun, but it's the most work we do during practice."
It's a five-on-five drill in the half-court that Alex Poythress called a "pride thing." The defense's task is simple, though far from easy: prevent the offense from scoring or getting into the lane for the entirety of the 35-second shot clock.
"It's probably the noisiest point of our practice because we're yelling, we're screaming, we're talking because you only have so much time to try to talk with your team to get things done," Lee said.
The drill has been prominently featured in the last few days of practice leading up to the opener, which Coach Cal called "ultra-competitive" after he ratcheted up the heat another couple notches.
"Our wins and losses matter here," Lee said. "We gotta run every time we lose, so it means a lot to win or lose no matter who you're playing right now."
Running is one thing, but it's a little different when permanent tallies go in the win-loss column. The Cats, however, are eager.
For most, season openers come with plenty of butterflies. At Kentucky, the chance to play meaningful games again actually may represent a reprieve.
At long last, talking season is over.
"It's definitely very relaxing knowing that we are finally here at the start of the season," Marcus Lee said. "It's something that we've all been looking forward to since the end of last season. So for it to finally be here is kind of a good feeling."
Matthew Mitchell has spent countless hours with his team over the last five months.
An offseason of conditioning, individual workouts and practices is at its end, giving way to the start of the regular season.
"It's finally here and it's time to play," Mitchell said.
But for all that eagerness, there's also some anxiety. Mitchell might have seen all that preseason preparation leading up to Friday's 7 p.m. season opener against Appalachian State in Memorial Coliseum, but he still doesn't know exactly what to expect from the No. 11/10 Wildcats.
"The biggest thing for me right now is I'm not quite sure what we're going to see tomorrow and as a coach that's a little scary," Mitchell said. "And I'm talking about from our team. I'm not talking about our opponent."
UK Hoops has plenty of experience in the form of seniors Bria Goss, Jennifer O'Neill and Azia Bishop, but this is a new team. Gone are post stars DeNesha Stallworth and Samarie Walker, with three players - Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, Alexis Jennings and Alyssa Rice - who have never played a college game set to step in.
Considering the makeup of his roster, Mitchell has set three simple goals for his team, and it's nothing to do with Southeastern Conference standings or advancing in the NCAA Tournament. He wants UK to be the fastest team in the country, the most defensively disruptive and the toughest. From there, he'll let the results play out.
"They're capable of it," Mitchell said. "They're already showing some great signs in all three areas, but that's what I'd like for them to become."
UK showed more such good signs in its lone exhibition, a 141-63 win over Pikeville. The Cats were dynamic in the open floor, regularly getting out in transition in scoring what would have been a school-record number of points had the game counted.
Though Mitchell praised the speed of players like O'Neill, Bishop and Janee Thompson, it wasn't any of them handling the ball on their own that made UK's pace what it was against Pikeville.
"We don't need to be a big dribbling team," Mitchell said. "To be fast, we need to be a good passing team. The ball needs to move and I think one lesson we've tried to learn as we really broke down taking some steps forward this year, is sometimes when one player dominates the ball with the dribble, it actually slows us down."
UK was also disruptive in the exhibition, forcing 37 turnovers. The Cats also showed signs of toughness against Pikeville, taking charges and effectively transitioning into a half-court offensive game when necessary. However, it's going to take some regular-season tests to truly judge this team.
The Cats won't have to wait long for a handful of those.
Friday's season opener begins a stretch of three games in six days to start the season, a matchup with No. 8/9 Baylor in the middle of it. Mitchell expects to use the results from those three games to identify strengths and weaknesses and tailor practices going forward.
"We've constructed all the practices to be fast, tough and disruptive, so what are you doing well?" Mitchell said. "Sometimes you do things a little bit better than you give your team credit for as a coach. You're a little too critical sometimes, maybe you haven't worked on something that maybe you haven't felt like was going to be really good and it's not. The information we can gain will really, really help us as a team."
In many ways, Mitchell still sees his team as a blank canvas. Friday, he begins the work of trying to paint a masterpiece.
"This team has so much room for growth it's incredible," Mitchell said. "I do know that about us right now: We're going to get much, much better than we are right now. You just have too many young players who are thinking too much right now. And there's no way around it. You have to teach it. You have to give them the information and so if we look like a million bucks this week, we're going to look like $5 million at some time. If we look less than that, we'll increase in value with this team."
UK travels to Neyland Stadium for a matchup with Tennessee at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
The question is inevitable, and Mark Stoops didn't dodge it.
With his team in the midst of a four-game losing streak, Stoops was asked this week about the mental makeup of the Wildcats' mental makeup.
Collectively, do they have what it takes to shake off the losses against a tough opponent? Can they go on the road and punch their tickets to a bowl game?
"It's a fair question," Stoops said. "I don't know. We'll see. We address them today and get with them, we'll see how we respond this week. It will be a challenge, but, heck, just like I said, if you look at it that way, we're 5 5 and with two great opportunities left, again, starting with this one."
This one, of course, is a game Saturday at 4 p.m. ET against rival Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference). According to Stoops, it will be a matchup of similar teams in front of 100,000-plus at Neyland Stadium.
"I think we've shown that as well, very energetic, fun to watch team, team flying around, and then we've been inconsistent," Stoops said. "I think if you ask them they would probably say the same thing, I don't know. But, I see a team that's very, very good, and, again, any compliment to a coach, I see a team that plays hard, a well coached team that plays hard."
UK (5-5, 2-5 SEC) has received similar praise from opposing head coaches this season, but the fact remains that consistency has escaped the Cats, as Stoops said. One week, as was the case at Missouri, it's the defense and special teams carrying the load with the offense lagging behind. The next, like against Georgia, the offense takes a step forward and other two units a couple in the other direction.
"It's a mystery," Stoops said. "It's frustrating because we're inconsistent. To beat good football teams, you have to play good -- or at least as good as you can -- in all phases. We haven't done that lately, and that's what gets frustrating. I'm tired of going back and forth where the offense plays well and then the defense and vice versa and all that. We need to be a complete football team, and we haven't done that."
So, with two games remaining, do the Cats have it in them to turn in the kind of complete performance it will take to topple a good team on the road? Offensive coordinator Neal Brown thinks he knows the answer, but, like Stoops, he cannot say for certain.
"I like the kids we have," Brown said. "I think we got good kids. I think we got quality individuals in our room. But I think that's a quality question until we do it. If we bounce back, then yeah, we know the answer to it. If we go out and have a lackluster performance, then the question's still up in the air. So I want to say yes. I want to believe in my heart yes. But until we do it, I think it's still a question."
Though the answer to that question won't be clear until game day, the Cats have shown positive signs in practice this week.
"The one thing I've seen about our team this whole year, even though we had bad games, Monday, the next Monday practice doesn't really show it," senior Bud Dupree said. "We bounce back real quick and move on to the next (opponent) and we just gotta make sure we go out and play four quarters Saturday."
The Volunteers won't make it easy.
Tennessee had a bye week following its best win of the season on Nov. 1, a 45-42 overtime victory in which the Vols overcame a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit. Leading the way was quarterback Josh Dobbs, who was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week after passing for 301 yards and rushing for 166 in his first start and second appearance of the season.
"He's just playing very well," Stoops said. "Number one, he gives you a great athlete. The run game, the (quarterback) run game is obvious, but he's also throwing the ball exceptionally well. When he led the comeback versus South Carolina, threw some incredible balls in there at the right time and put it in some tight windows and executed very well."
Dobbs is joined in the backfield by freshman running back Jalen Hurd, a 6-foot-3, 227-pounder who rushed for 125 yards against South Carolina. On the outside, UT has five receivers with over 200 yards this season, four of them standing 6-3 or taller.
"There are teams that can run the ball and they have size outside and can throw it, there is no way around it," Stoops said. "We've got to win some one on ones, we can't put two guys on all of them, they'll run it up and down the field until they hit their head on the goalpost so you've got to do what you got to do. You've got to win some one on ones."
Winning individual battles has been a focus in all phases for UK. On offense, the Cats showed progress on that front by running the ball effectively against Georgia and putting up 31 points, including a 24-point second quarter.
"In the second quarter against Georgia we played as good as we have all year," Brown said. "I thought we did some really good things. We've got to figure out a way to get started faster. We kind of had ... a lull there at the first of the game and a lull in the third quarter."
UK can afford no such lulls against Tennessee, a team led by A.J. Johnson. The senior middle linebacker has 96 tackles, tops in the conference whom Stoops called a "war daddy" and Brown said may be the best defensive player in the SEC.
"You look at Tennessee, I think the No. 1 thing that jumps out to me is they're playing really, really hard," Brown said. "I think that's a credit to their coaching staff. They are. They're playing hard, and they play aggressive."
The Cats, considering the opponent, the environment and the stakes, expect to do just the same.
"These are the games that we like," Patrick Towles said. "It doesn't take much for us to get excited about this game."
Temperatures dipped into the 30s for the first time this season for a Kentucky practice on Wednesday, but the Wildcats remained focused on the task at hand.
UK's work in preparing for a trip to rival Tennessee continues.
"We had a good Wednesday practice," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Guys were flying around and staying warm, for the most part, so that's a good thing, and were into it. We're harping on fundamentals, and for the most part we were able to do that today."
The Cats, particularly on defense, are opting to focus on fundamentals rather than wallow after a loss to Georgia last weekend.
"Everybody was disappointed and frustrated from the loss," Eliot said. "But you got no other options in this league. You got to get on to next week, so that was our approach."
As difficult as that seems, that's been no issue for UK. Bud Dupree remains confident the Cats won't let one loss pave the way for another.
"The one thing I've seen about our team this whole year, even though we had bad games, Monday, the next Monday practice doesn't really show it," Dupree said. "We bounce back real quick and move on to the next (opponent) and we just gotta make sure we go out and play four quarters Saturday."
More than anything, playing four quarters means winning the individual battles that have too often gone against UK in recent weeks. Eliot says that's mostly to blame for Kentucky's struggles both defending the run and in forcing turnovers of late.
UK figures to stand a better chance of winning one-on-ones if standouts Za'Darius Smith (ankle) and Blake McClain (shoulder) are available on Saturday. In a bit of good news, both the defensive end and nickelback practiced on Wednesday.
For close to two months now, Kentucky has been on the grind, playing seven games in as many weeks without a bye.
But if you're concerned about the Wildcats starting to drag, particularly in the midst of a four-game losing streak, don't be.
Not this week. Not with a trip to Neyland Stadium to face rival Tennessee looming on Saturday.
"These are the games that we like," quarterback Patrick Towles said. "It doesn't take much for us to get excited about this game so we're excited. We were sharp today. We threw it and caught it well today so we're ready to go."
UK's offense is looking to carry forward a small measure of momentum built in an otherwise disappointing loss to Georgia on Saturday. The Cats started slowly, but offensive coordinator Neal Brown said his group played as well as it has all season in a 24-point second quarter. And in the fourth quarter, UK put together a long scoring drive, though the outcome was decided.
"It's a sign that we are growing," Brown said. "Obviously we're inconsistent, not playing as consistent as we would like, but there were some real positives out of that game."
Perhaps the most notable positive was UK's running game, which rolled up 214 yards against a stout Bulldog defense.
"Sometimes you look at the score and you get lost in what it was, but there were some positives for us," Brown said. "I thought we played improved from where we were at at Missouri. Obviously not pleased with the result at all, but we did make a step last week."
Among the next steps for the UK offense is a faster start.
"At the start of the year we got off to some really good starts and scored points, got up on people early, and then in the last few weeks we have not started well at the beginning of the game," Brown said. "So we've got to figure out -- we'll change some things, how we go about calling the game early and I think that will help."
In their first two games, the Cats scored 28 combined points in the first quarter. Since then, UK has managed just 20 total over the course of eight games, going scoreless even in solid showings against South Carolina and Florida.
"We've just gotta get started a little quicker," Towles said. "I don't know what the deal is with that, but we gotta find it and fix it. And I think we took a step today."
After a lackluster 0-5 collective performance in Week 9, Kentucky's NFL Cats bounced back in a big way with an 8-3 overall record in Week 10. Even in losses, two defensive alumni were able to match season highs in tackles.
Unfortunately, Larry Warford--a 2013 third round pick with the Detroit Lions--suffered a knee injury that could possibly sideline the right guard for several weeks. Regarded as one of the league's top offensive linemen after a stellar rookie season, Warford had not missed a career snap until the injury.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (6-3) Randall Cobb continues to demonstrate that the only time he can't find the end zone is when the Packers aren't playing. In a 55-14 thrashing of the Chicago Bears on national TV, Cobb made four catches for 72 yards and a one-handed TD grab you have to see to believe.
Cobb's 10-touchdown total is tied for third most in the NFL and has found the end zone in six straight games and eight of nine of the season.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Though Avery Williamson's Titans are far from fielding a competitive football team, the rookie linebacker shined in a 21-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Williamson tied his career high of 10 total tackles, including six of the solo variety.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-7) Alongside his teammate Williamson, Woodyard headed a two-way defensive spark for Tennessee. The former first-team All-SEC selection recorded three solo tackles and six assisted ones, tying his season high of nine.