Win-or-go-home games are a rarity in college football.
With the way the season is structured, most teams know by the final week of the regular season whether a bowl game is in their future.
Kentucky's December, however, is still very much up in the air.
The Wildcats now face a simple choice: win a game on the road against their archrival or watch their season end one victory shy of bowl eligibility.
Mark Stoops doesn't dispute that it's a source of motivation, though he adds a caveat.
"I think they all know what we're playing for," Stoops said. "They know that. There's no point in hiding from it. But it's not the only message, right?"
The circumstances of UK's regular-season finale are different than any of the first 11 games of 2014, but Stoops isn't about to forsake the focus that he's had all year for a trip to Louisville at noon on Saturday.
"The message is to do what we constantly preach, and that is put the time and effort and focus into our preparation," Stoops said. "It's not just turning it on on game day. We've got to have a great week."
The hope is that UK laid the groundwork for that great week by capitalizing on a much-needed open date. The Cats' bye week began with days off for players on Sunday and Monday, followed by a return to practice on Tuesday.
"It was good just to get out, after a couple days' rest, get out and do some good, competitive work," Stoops said. "Get back to some fundamentals. Do some things that we do through camp where we go good against good, do some one-on-ones."
In the midst of a grueling stretch of eight games in eight weeks - seven coming against league opponents - UK had little choice but to go straight from one game plan to the next. The bye week afforded the Cats the opportunity to think about football, not any specific game.
"You get so enamored with the Xs and Os and assignments that you drift from some of the basics," Stoops said. "We obviously try not to. We constantly have individual in certain things, but it was good to spend more time with that last week."
Once the week of practice was over on Friday, the Cats were given the weekend off. Many players took the opportunity to spend some time at home considering they'll be practicing in Lexington over Thanksgiving this week, while Stoops stayed in town and watched football on Saturday.
"I couldn't get away from it too far," Stoops said. "I didn't watch as much as I normally do though, actually. I got out of the house. Took my boys out of the house for a while."
Stoops made sure to be in front of a television for most of Louisville's 31-28 win at Notre Dame on Saturday. He was impressed.
"Their coach (Bobby Petrino) is doing a great job," Stoops said. "They haven't missed a beat to what they've been doing. They win a bunch of football games, they play extremely hard. They're very well coached, and that's an impressive win. They're playing good football." Stoops wants UK-U of L to go national
Stoops came to Kentucky to build a program. In doing so he hopes to turn UK-U of L into a football rivalry known nationally.
"Well, we're trying to create it to be a bigger and better rivalry," Stoops said. "I think that comes from us having to play better football and winning more games and putting ourselves in a position where we can get this game on a more national scale."
In the meantime, it's a game both sides still want to win badly.
"It's important to the people in this state," Stoops said. "It's important to our fans and our players and coaches. So, you know, I think it's just like most of these games. It's important to a lot of people, and you feel that, and you want to go play well."
Baker out for season with knee injury
Wide receiver Dorian Baker sustained a non-contact injury to his knee in practice last week. He will undergo surgery and will miss the Louisville, as well as a bowl game should UK reach one. The true freshman has appeared in 10 of UK's 11 games this season, making three starts and catching 19 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.
Also likely to be sidelined for UK's regular-season finale is tackle Kyle Meadows, who is suffering from an ankle injury. Patrick Towles also has an injured ankle, but he played through it against Tennessee and Stoops hopes to have him at full strength for practice on Monday afternoon.
Karl-Anthony Towns had eight points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in UK's 86-28 win over Montana State on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There was another "only at Kentucky" moment on Saturday.
John Calipari took to Twitter to wish a happy birthday to his daughter Megan. The sentiment was nice, but there was a problem.
He was a day early.
Megan quickly replied to tell him of the error. And since Coach Cal has 1.3 million followers, the story was quickly picked up by national outlets, all the way up to "Good Morning America."
"Why does that go all over the world, by the way?" Calipari said, who made light of the mishap by bringing a birthday balloon to his press conference after UK's dominant 86-28 win over Montana State.
Calipari's question was a rhetorical one, mostly because he already knows the answer.
The reason the story blew up the way it did is because of Coach Cal's position at the helm of the most high-profile college basketball program in the country. It's the same reason why fans throughout the country are already tiring of the word "platoon" because of how often it's already been used.
The spotlight, of course, has its perks for Coach Cal and players alike. UK is, as Calipari so often says, the "gold standard" for a reason, but there are drawbacks too.
After the victory over Montana State, in which UK set a shot clock-era record for the fewest points allowed in school history, he coined a new phrase to describe it, adding to his personal pantheon that runs the gamut from ice cream-pooping to Super Bowl-playing to brother-keeping.
"What these kids deal with to be here, to play here, to be a part of this program, they wear a hundred-pound coat," Calipari said.
The burden, Calipari admits, starts with him.
"I am rough on them, I am tough on them, I'm holding them to high standard," Calipari said. "I'm like a hawk. I see everything. I'm coaching them the entire time. They're getting better. It is not an option, you will get better. That's me."
Then you have Kentucky fans, who surely would have made concerned calls to radio shows on Monday had the final margin been much less than the 58-point one they enjoyed on Sunday evening, largest since a 62-point win over Vanderbilt in 2002-03.
"That's another 20 pounds of the coat," Calipari said.
To top it off, there's the media scrutiny that's led to a national debate about whether this UK team could beat the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, not to mention the people surrounding the players who create the "clutter" about which Calipari so often talks.
Contrast that with UK's opponents, whom Calipari says are burden-free next to the Cats.
"The people coming in to play us got windbreakers," Calipari said. "They're loose as a goose. They're just going to go play."
Karl-Anthony Towns, just five games into his UK career, has already noticed.
"Man, windbreakers?" said Towns, who tallied six of UK's 12 blocks to bring his season total to 18. "I don't even think they're wearing anything. They're going to the beach."
Dakari Johnson, who nearly had another double-double with 13 points and eight rebounds in just 17 minutes, is in his second year wearing that heavy coat. He knows there's no taking it off either.
"We're always going to feel that type of pressure because of the expectations and stuff like that," Johnson said. "But I feel like we're a close unit so there's not much pressure to get to us because we're so close together."
That closeness means the Cats can share the burden rather than carry it individually.
"Anytime I need any advice, anytime I need to talk to somebody, it's as easy as calling Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Aaron Harrison, Andrew," Towns said. "I have so many numbers and so much support on my side that this whole being a UK Wildcat basketball player, the pressure really hasn't gotten to me. I've just been having a lot of fun."
With five wins by an average margin of 34.6 points -- the last coming in a game where the Cats held their opponents to 19.7-percent shooting, forced 21 turnovers and had one stretch of 12:37 in which they didn't allow a single point -- it's no surprise Towns has been enjoying himself so much.
Besides, he and his teammates did at least have an idea what they were getting into when they signed to play at UK. It's not like Coach Cal hides the 100-pound coats in the closet during the recruiting process.
"You know, Big Blue Nation is crazy," said Devin Booker, who had his second straight big game with 18 points. "But, you just play through it, it's something you learn. You know, it's a good problem to have. You want to be on this stage, so that's why you come here."
That's lucky, because that coat's not getting any lighter.
"If you're not willing to wear the hundred-pound coat, you don't come here, you can't come here, because it's not changing," Calipari said.
Alex Poythress was a late scratch from UK's win over Boston University on Friday night. According to head coach John Calipari, he'll be out again on Sunday vs. Montana State before his likely return on Tuesday.
.@AlexTheGreat22 is doing a lot better today but we are going to hold him out one more game with an illness.
Devin Booker scored 15 points, making 4 of 6 from 3-point range, in UK's 89-65 win over Boston University on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Joe Jones used every motivational ploy at his disposal.
He told his Boston University team Kentucky would have trouble sustaining the energy the Wildcats used to blow out Kansas on Tuesday. He showed them the way Buffalo played in building a five-point halftime lead on UK just five days ago.
Jones believed in everything he was saying, but there was one fact he was still resigned to before he took his Terriers into Rupp Arena.
"They have so many guys that are so good, one of them is going to get hot," Jones said.
On Friday night, that someone was Devin Booker.
Booker was the second-half star as UK (4-0) overcame a sluggish first half that saw the Cats manage just a five-point lead. He scored 12 of his 15 points after the break and UK outscored the Terriers 49-30 to register an 89-65 win in front of 22,485 fans at Rupp Arena.
"I finally got to see a shot go in," Booker said. "That's good to see, and most of all I wanted to get other people involved and I feel like we did that. We had a slow start, but in the second half we pulled it together."
Through his first three collegiate games, the sharp-shooting Booker managed just one make in 11 tries from 3-point range. The message delivered to him by everyone from John Calipari, his father, former NBA player Melvin Booker, and teammate Aaron Harrison was the same.
"I had a lot of talk with Coach and my dad," Booker said. "They just said, 'Keep shooting. It's going to fall.' And I came out tonight and it did."
Booker hit 4 of 6 from 3 against Boston and scored five of the first seven points in the 23-8 run UK used to close the game.
"You just gotta keep your confidence," said Aaron Harrison, who led UK with 19 points. "That's what being a shooting guard is. No matter how many shots you miss, you gotta keep going because that's what your team needs you to do: score the ball."
In spite of that positional label, Booker did more than just score on Friday. To go with his four rebounds, Booker had seven assists, the most for any Wildcat so far this season.
"Not very often," Booker said when he was asked if he's had many such games, "but it's easy when you have teammates like this."
The teammate on his mind when he said that was Dominique Hawkins, who was on the receiving end of Booker's last assist. Booker, for the fourth time of the night, lobbed a pass over BU's sagging 2-3 zone, but this one appeared out of his hand to be too high for the 6-foot Hawkins.
Hawkins, making his first career start with Alex Poythress day to day due to illness, rose over a defender and slammed home the pass for UK's final points of the night on what was unquestionably the dunk of an early season that's been full of them.
"I don't even know how high I went up for it," Hawkins said. "I'll have to watch the video after this is over.
"That lob was incredible," Booker said. "Seeing it from my view, it was crazy."
Booker, having seen what Hawkins did, will surely be eager to throw more such alley-oops, no matter how he's shooting. In high school, Booker was a prolific scorer who had to put the ball in the basket for his team to win. Now, he's just another star in Coach Cal's constellation.
That means he's learning how contribute when his shot isn't falling.
"It's an adjustment that you have to make from high school to college," Booker said. "And like I said, I feel like it's coming along right now. But like I said, when you have a team like this, if you're not shooting or not scoring you can involve yourself in different ways to contribute to the win."
Booker had most of the ways covered against BU, but he still wasn't immune to constructive criticism from Coach Cal.
With UK going away from its platoons more often in Poythress' absence, Calipari immediately yanked Booker when he failed to throw the ball ahead to Aaron Harrison on a fast break. Similarly, Karl-Anthony Towns had a breakdown defending a pick-and-roll and Trey Lyles had trouble defending smaller opponents on the dribble.
It's all part of the process.
"They're still learning," Calipari said. "They're going to do stuff like that."
But the talent, indisputably, is there. And though Booker is beginning to learn to contribute in multiple ways, when he's doing what he's known for, look out.
"It's nice to see when he makes shots, we become a little bit different," Calipari said.