Winning five of six to open 2014, confidence was never a concern for Mark Stoops.
After Kentucky's only blowout loss of the season at LSU on Saturday, Stoops knows he needs to think about his team's psyche for the first time.
"You worry about it and we need to address it, because, you know, you're going to go through ups and downs, you're going to lose some games," Stoops said. "When you self-inflict against a good team--and I'm not taking anything away from LSU because they flat beat us across the board, but when you make a lot of mistakes, you can have a tendency to lose confidence."
The mistakes, in a 41-3 defeat, were plentiful.
They started on special teams, where a series of errors played a role in all 27 of LSU's first-half points. The Tigers scored on four offensive possessions before halftime and they started, on average, at the UK 42.8-yard line due to three long returns, a personal foul and a squib kick recovered by LSU. The other seven points came on a punt returned for a touchdown.
"There's mistakes that can and will be corrected," Stoops said. "We've all made our mistakes this year, offensively, defensively, special teams. Again, they're magnified against a very talented team on the road, and when you open the game that way, it doesn't set the tone. That's not what you want. So they're magnified but they're things that can and will be fixed."
The miscues on special teams served to nullify a defensive effort by UK that Stoops says was better than the box score may suggest. LSU piled up 303 rushing yards, but the Tigers needed 51 carries to do it and did much of their damage once the outcome was well in hand.
After reviewing the film from Saturday, Stoops was able to see that.
"I don't think we were physically dominated on the field and, again, you just look at, hey, they ran the ball for 300 yards, you're not generally going to win a lot of games when teams run for 300 yards," Stoops said. "We know that's not acceptable but there are a lot of good, physical plays in there by our defensive guys."
UK (5-2, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) will carry that awareness into an important week of practice leading up to a home matchup against Mississippi State (6-0, 3-0 SEC). To compete with the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Cats can't afford to let their confidence slip in the least.
"I told you, other times, speaking to you and to our team, we've gotten beyond the belief, then it's about execution and doing things and then we go out and don't do it very well," Stoops said. "So now we got to make sure they don't slip back and start doubting, and it goes back to preparation and work and controlling the things we can control."
Stoops has a measure of control over that confidence, but he also knows predicting how the LSU loss will affect his team is an inexact science. Even so, he has a pretty clear idea how the Cats will react.
"I think because we got whooped and had because we made some mental mistakes, sometimes that can shake somebody's confidence, and we'll see how they respond," Stoops said. "I have no reason to believe that, though. I have a good feel we'll bounce back and prepare well and play well."
Stoops impressed by MSU, Prescott
Mississippi State might not have been at the top of the polls when the season began, but Stoops isn't altogether surprised to see they are now.
The Bulldogs belong.
"They're a very talented football team," Stoops said. "You could tell they had a lot of confidence coming into the season just by the way they carried themselves at SEC Media, just listening to them with their quarterback and leadership."
Mississippi State boasts three wins over top-10 teams, all coming in the three weeks before a . The Bulldogs are last in the league in total defense, but much of that has to do with the big leads they've built in every game they've played this season. Along those same lines, Mississippi State ranks second in the conference in both interceptions and sacks.
On offense, the Bulldogs lead the SEC in total yards behind leading Heisman contender Dak Prescott.
"They're playing red hot and it starts with their quarterback," Stoops said. "He's as talented of a guy as there is in the country. He can run it, he can throw it. He's making great decisions and their offense puts stress on you."
Freshman Stanley "Boom" Williams suffered an undisclosed head injury during the loss at LSU on Saturday. He returned to Lexington with the team and is now recovering, though Stoops had no timetable on his return.
"Things look better, not cleared to play yet, obviously," Stoops said. "I'll wait until the doctors tell me he can get on the field but, I think, yeah, things are looking better. When he will be cleared to practice or play I have no idea."
Williams took to Twitter on Sunday, a welcome development after the running back stayed on the ground for a number of minutes after taking a big hit on a kick return in Baton Rouge, La.
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
UK fell 41-3 at LSU on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Mark Stoops knew his team would face its toughest test to date in Tiger Stadium.
For the first time this season, the Wildcats were unable to answer the bell and a blowout loss was the result. Stoops' appraisal of what had just happened was simple.
"There's not a whole heck of a lot to say," Stoops said. "They really took it to us from the opening kickoff return all the way through the game."
The opening kickoff return went 49 yards and gave the ball to the Tigers at the UK 29 following a facemask penalty, the first of a series of special-teams miscues that plagued the Cats in the first half. By the time halftime came, Kentucky trailed 27-3 in spite of being outgained just 184-135.
"Just got outplayed," Stoops said of special teams. "We got outplayed. We've been solid all year to this point and did not play good enough in this game. Give them credit. That's a good bunch, and they physically played better than us."
In the second half, the Tigers would again exert their will physically, this time in the ground game. Behind 127 yards and two touchdowns by Terrence Magee, LSU (6-2, 2-2 SEC) gained 303 rushing yards in a 41-3 win that dropped UK to 5-2 (2-2 Southeastern Conference).
"This is a physical football team," Stoops said. "That's what we'd like to look like some day. They're extremely long, very physical."
Against that physicality, UK could never muster any consistent offensive production. The athletic Tigers sacked Patrick Towles twice and held him to 19-of-36 passing and 146 yards, a season low. The Cats had even less luck running the ball, gaining 71 yards on 27 carries.
"You get humbled really quick in this league," Towles said. "We were kind of riding high and we kind of got punched in the gut, which happens."
On the heels of the humbling, the Cats will have no choice but to pick themselves up quickly with the next test facing them. Top-ranked Mississippi State, coming off a bye week, comes to Lexington next Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. ET showdown in Commonwealth Stadium.
"Well, we gotta go back to work," Stoops said. "We gotta go back to work, and we'll see how we respond. We'll see how resilient we are and how tough we are. I have no reason to believe that we won't respond and go prepare and play well."
Stoops didn't hide his disappointment on Saturday night.
In UK's lone previous loss, the Cats absorbed punch after punch at Florida and were within a play of winning on the road. Two weeks ago, a blowout seemed a possibility as South Carolina built an early 14-0 lead, but Kentucky responded. That kind of fight suggested this team was past the kind of lopsided defeat the Cats suffered at the hands of LSU, but that wasn't the case.
Nonetheless, UK's next step is just the same as it would have been had the Cats pulled the upset.
"We will not let one game define us," Stoops said. "We did not play well. They had a lot to do with that. We'll get back to work this week and see what we can do to improve."
Continuing the tradition of an event unique to Kentucky basketball, it was a night of fireworks, dancing, dunks and even a pop-star impersonation by Matthew Mitchell. But more than anything else, Big Blue Madness was a celebration of a new season, and the capacity crowd in Rupp Arena enjoyed every second.
Let's relive the top five moments from Big Blue Madness 2014. 5. "The story isn't over"
After UK Hoops had its introductions and on-court action and the 20-time national champion Kentucky cheerleading team turned in an impressive routine, it was the men's team's turn. Before any of the Wildcats made an in-person appearance, the team's new intro was shown on the two massive video boards installed on the baseline stage.
Aaron Harrison's prediction of "It's going to be a great story" from after a loss at South Carolina last season came over the speakers. The words came to define UK's magical run through the NCAA Tournament during which the Cats proved all their doubters wrong.
Harrison then came into view and walked toward the camera. Turning a phrase, the clutch sophomore shooting guard said exactly what UK fans wanted to hear: "Our story isn't over."
4. Drake introduces Coach Cal
After the Harrison twins were the final players to have their names called, there was one more introduction to be done before John Calipari appeared. Drawing possibly the loudest cheer in a night full of them, rapper Drake came on stage.
Lint roller in hand, Drake addressed his fellow UK fans and introduced Coach Cal.
"This is family to me," Drake said. "This is a real thing to me, you know, and tonight I want to introduce a man who is definitely one of the most important people in my life. Despite his busy schedule, he always takes the time to check in with me through the highs and the lows. He's the godfather for us that bleed blue."
Drake would then suit up in a practice uniform and go through the layup line with the team.
3. The basketball
Although Big Blue Madness has become more of a spectacle than anything else, it technically remains the first open practice opportunity for UK's two basketball teams. And so, there was actually some basketball played.
UK Hoops was without three players and needed a substitute male player to play a five-on-five scrimmage, but the Cats look poised to be among the nation's best yet again. Jennifer O'Neill was dynamic as a scorer, while McDonald's All-American Alyssa Rice seemed more than capable of playing immediately in the post.
On the men's side, the Cats were as competitive as you'd expect in both three-on-three and five-on-five scrimmages. Andrew Harrison played much like the point guard that led UK to the national championship game, while Tyler Ulis did nothing to hurt his fan-favorite status. There were thunderous dunks aplenty from the likes of Alex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, while Dominique Hawkins showed renewed confidence in his outside shot.
The final three minutes of the five-on-five scrimmage were particularly heated, as players on both sides turned up the intensity. White would close out a 42-36 win before Coach Cal closed the night.
"This is going to be a process," Calipari said. "We're trying things that have never been tried before, but this is a talented group of great young men representing you."
2. Mitchell one-ups himself ... again
Mitchell had exhausted nearly all his dancing options in recent years, culminating in routines in which he channeled MC Hammer, Britney Spears and James Brown. The only thing left for him to do, apparently, was sing.
Doing his own unique take on a few Bruno Mars hits, Mitchell serenaded the crowd in a way only he can. He likely won't be quitting his day job anytime soon, but the performance was impressive. See for yourself.
1. Cal drops the mic
Abandoning the state of the program address he delivered last year, Coach Cal cued the tape from his speech at Big Blue Madness 2009, his first as head coach. When the clip was over, Calipari was fittingly brief.
"Enough talking, let's ball," Calipari said, dropping the microphone and closing the book on the offseason.
Thousands of fans camped out waiting to claim their tickets for Big Blue Madness, and the wait for one of Kentucky basketball's signature events is finally almost over.
As the final hours tick away, fans aren't the only ones excited.
"You know it's crazy because I've been to Big Blue Madness twice so far and for two years you keep seeing yourself on the stage, but you're not up there yet," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I'm just going to be really juiced up; I'm really happy to be up on that stage for the first time actually being introduced instead of just being a recruit."
It has been a tradition since 1982 for Madness to set the tone for the season. It gives all of the fans an opportunity to see the players have fun and show off their personalities, and this is a unique set of young men.
"I'm super excited because I've been waiting my turn to step on that stage and be able to dance and get everyone hyped," Towns said. "I'm just glad that tonight I will finally be introduced as a Kentucky Wildcat. I'm trying to get my moves together to do something special but I've never been no choreographer, but I'm trying."
Every year Big Blue Madness, which begins at 7 p.m. at Rupp Arena on Friday, is filled with surprises and a lot of dance moves put together by the players. The 2014 edition will be no different.
"I'm very excited, I still don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I'll probably go over some dance moves before I walk out there," Dakari Johnson said. "I told the freshmen if they are going to dance, then commit to it, because you don't want to go out there in front of all of the fans and suck. It's all about having a lot of fun and showing the fans a good time."
Most of the players want fans to be surprised for the dances they have prepared, while others are just excited to be in the moment and see all of the fans rooting them on.
"I think I might just freestyle," Marcus Lee said. "Some people just get into it like, ah, I'm not going to do anything. And then they see the lights and their like, alright, I've got to do something. So that's kind of what I saw happen with Dakari. I think he's going to prep a little more this year."
The players have been working extremely hard and growing as a team to make this an unforgettable season. For Willie Cauley-Stein, Madness takes on special meaning this year since he was unable to play on UK's Big Blue Bahamas tour.
"The season is here, and being hurt and being able to come back and see all of the fans is a good feeling," Cauley-Stein said. "Once you see all of the fans going crazy that's when you know it's time to get going again, and that's the most exciting part about having Big Blue Madness."
Among the 23,000-plus fans in attendance will be plenty of the players' family and friends, including a big group supporting the Harrison twins. That might draw a dance out of UK's normally reserved point guard.
"I hope everyone has a good time," Andrew Harrison said. "It's going to be a fun atmosphere and a lot of entertainment. I'm a simple guy but I may do a little something."
For fans unable to make it to Rupp Arena, Big Blue Madness can be seen live on ESPN3. Madness will also be featured as part of ESPNU's whip-around coverage and a one-hour replay of the two-hour event will air on the SEC Network at 11 p.m.
Throughout the fall, each UK gymnast will share her thoughts about the upcoming 2015 season, what it's like being a Division I student-athlete at Kentucky and what makes being a Wildcat so special. Please note that these posts are the student-athletes' personal reactions and the views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Kentucky or UK Athletics.
Next up is junior Amy Roemmele, a native of White Lake, Mich. Roemmele talks about the annual conditioning test to begin each season. One of three gymnasts to post a perfect score on the test this fall, Roemmele talks about the advantages of the conditioning test and how it has helped get the team prepared for fall practice.
A full archive of all the gymnast's "In Their Own Words" entries can be found here.
As Kayla mentioned in the last edition of "In Our Own Words," the start of the new school year is kicked off by the annual conditioning test. This test not only challenges our physical abilities, but also our mental toughness. It is a combination of total body strength exercises to determine who is physically fit enough to begin official training. The more physically fit you are, the more successful you will be when the season comes around. This year's conditioning test was different than last year's in both exercises and difficultly level.
At the end of the 2014 competitive season, Tim told us what this year's test would entail. Because it was so different than in the past, we took a pre-test over the span of two days to determine exactly where each of us stood. Based on those results, each gymnast knew exactly what she needed to work on for the next three months. It was also determined that everyone had to score a 60% or higher to pass the test when given at the beginning of this year.
It was very nice to have everyone on campus over the summer, including the four new freshmen. This was a great opportunity for everyone to train for the conditioning test the same way and together, as a team. We had voluntary gymnastics practice along with weights and cardio run by our strength and conditioning coach, Ryan DeVriant. Our weights program was designed specifically for exercises on the conditioning test. I believe this is the most important aspect in preparation for the new year. We get to know each other a little better and the freshman are able to get accustomed to the college lifestyle at a more relaxed pace. After the summer session of classes ended, we had about three weeks to prepare on our own.
Finally, the end of August rolled around and it was time to show exactly what we worked for. Again, the test was divided into two days. It was great to see how much each of us progressed from the pre-test in the spring, and even more rewarding to have a 100% pass rate and three perfect scores!
Personally, I think the conditioning test is a great way to kick off the year. It helps get everyone in the right mindset and also sets the tone in the gym for the upcoming season. It is very exciting to see how supportive everyone is of each other and how badly each person wants to be successful. Each year, the conditioning test brings out the best in us as teammates.
UK held its annual Media Day on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For outsiders, intrigue surrounds the two-platoon system John Calipari plans to use this year.
Which players will play together? Will regular-season opponents be as overwhelmed by UK's depth as its Big Blue Bahamas opponents? Will the Wildcats be able to stay together through the inevitable clutter that the season will bring?
For those inside Kentucky basketball's circle, as Coach Cal calls it, the feeling isn't all that different.
"It's just going to be interesting," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It's going to be interesting to see how Cal pieces everything together and how -- once games start flowing -- how our intensity level's going to be once we start platooning."
Nearly two weeks into practicing full time, the intensity is there.
"The practices should be what they are, which is they're competitive," Calipari said. "There are no easy baskets. You're not getting layups."
As for the Cal piecing it together thing, there's a longer way to go on the eve of Big Blue Madness.
In the Bahamas, the Cats used two five-man units for four-minute stretches and deviated only in the case of blowouts and a couple close-and-late scenarios. Absent, however, were junior Willie Cauley-Stein and Trey Lyles, two of the more talented players on a roster full of them.
Cauley-Stein and Lyles, two months later, are back, giving Calipari two more options but also two more mouths to feed. The fact that they're both big men and they join an already crowded frontcourt featuring Karl-Anthony Towns, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress complicates matters even more.
Consequently, Coach Cal is doing some experimenting.
"I'm still not convinced of what the groups will look like," Calipari said. "Yesterday or two days ago I changed the group a little bit and I didn't like them. I went back. We may change some big guys and switch them on different teams to see what that looks like, because at the end of the day I'm coaching two teams."
UK's annual Media Day on Thursday was the first time Calipari put the job he's facing in those terms, but it makes sense.
Following the lead of his coaching mentors and the legendary John Wooden, Coach Cal has long espoused the notion that the best teams feature shorter rotations.
His track record backs that up.
On his three Final Four teams at UK, never have more than seven players averaged double-digit minutes. On the national title team, six players carried the load, with each playing at least 26.1 minutes per game.
Now set to try to achieve the same kind of success using a completely different style, Calipari is joking he needs another raise five months after signing a new contract.
"The best teams that I've coached, I've coached six guys, whether it's (UMass), Memphis or here," Calipari said. "Now that being said, I'm doing it twice now. In other words, I'm coaching these guys together, and I'm coaching two different teams I've asked to be paid twice. I'm not sure they'll do that, but if I've got to coach two teams, then I think it's fair -- a fair question anyway."
Calipari was struck by the idea for the platoon system when he learned Andrew and Aaron Harrison would both wait on the NBA Draft. Realizing he had a roster with 12 players who would likely start for almost any other team in the country, he had to devise a plan that would fit his players-first mantra.
Seeking to find a balance between playing so many guys and developing the kind of chemistry he believes is necessary to win at the highest level, he trotted out the platoons to great effect in the Bahamas. They worked, so they live on with less than a month before the Cats open the regular season against Grand Canyon on Nov. 14.
But as committed as he is to making a new system work, Calipari isn't chaining himself to his brainchild.
"This isn't communism, so if one group deserves to play a little bit more, they will," Calipari said. "It's not communism. If two guys separate themselves and need to get more minutes because you all look and say that kid is so good, he needs more minutes, it's not communism, they'll get more minutes."
To keep the socioeconomic analogy going, Calipari's players believe introducing some free-market concepts into the platoon system is a must.
"That's important because as a team we have to understand that if a guy's playing good he should be out there," Tyler Ulis said. "So if Andrew's in but it's my turn to rotate in, if he's playing good I should understand that he needs to be in the game at that point."
Calipari also opened the possibility of adjusting situationally.
"At the end of the game if they're fouling, it would probably be pretty smart to have five good foul shooters in," Calipari said. "And you won't believe this, I'll probably do that."
Short of those things, it's full steam ahead with the platoons. Calipari expects change as the season wears on, but for now the Cats are committed to doing whatever is asked of them.
"I think that everybody's ego is checked," Lyles said. "Everybody believes in each other and we're all happy for each other. Whatever Coach wants from us, I think that we're going to be able to do that."
Even more importantly, the players understand how the system can benefit them individually and the team as a whole.
"It won't be a problem because the outcome of the bigger picture of it," Cauley-Stein said. "The way that we can play with guys getting fewer minutes is going to make you look better, for one. And two, the intensity of the game is going to be crazy. When people watch us play and they see how fast everybody is and how quick we get the ball up the floor and how hard we play on defense, that sets the tone. People are going to look at that and just be amazed by that."
In spite of all that potential, Calipari is already hearing the "clutter" that will fly at his team all season on the recruiting trail. Over the noise, he also hears an opportunity calling him to prove the doubters wrong, have his watershed moment and do right by his players in an unprecedented way.
"Why would you go there?" Calipari said. "These guys aren't leaving. Here, oh, what if you only play 20 minutes? It's OK. It's less pressure. It's not on me. It's on us. I can be a great teammate. I can improve my skills, and they all got drafted and they all won, and then -- so it's an issue now if this works. I'm on a mission to make this work for each of these kids."
John Calipari at UK's annual Media Day on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
All the talk last year was 40-0.
Could Kentucky win them all? Could the 2013-14 group become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated? What would be the biggest challenge in UK's pursuit of perfection?
Silly Cats -- they never stood a chance.
Kentucky, as we all know now, would fold in the first half of last season under such overwhelming expectations. Supremely talented but characteristically naïve for young guys, the freshman-dominated team lost early and unexpectedly often during spots of last season.
Technically speaking, the Cats never fully embraced the idea of going 40-0, but they sure as heck didn't downplay the talk either. In hindsight, the older, wiser players admitted at Thursday's Media Day that they drank the Kool-Aid.
"We focused on we've got to win the national championship instead of taking it one game at a time," Andrew Harrison said. "We overlooked some teams. We didn't focus on every practice, every drill and every possession at practice. We paid for it."
They're hell-bent on making sure history doesn't repeat itself this season.
One year since the 40-0 talk hit a tipping point at last season's Media Day, there was no talk of historic achievements, no tiptoeing around the possibility of perfection, not even a whisper from the head coach who has admitted that he would one day like to go 40-0 - just because, he says, people say it can't be done.
With a team that probably has a better shot than last year's group did of going undefeated because of the increase in depth, experience and talent, not a single player talked about 40-0 on Thursday other than to downright squash the talk.
"We're not going to get caught up in the 40-0 talk again like we did last year," Dakari Johnson said.
Said fellow sophomore Dominique Hawkins: "We're definitely not saying 40-0 because of last year, what happened. We just feel like we need to compete and play our best. Like Coach Cal said, we're going to take it one game at a time."
Ah, the old "one game at a time" talk. But perhaps there's actually substance in the old sports cliché with these Wildcats.
See, last season, as Hawkins explained, they got caught up in the big picture of the expectations. They heard the talk of the 40-0 and they enjoyed it. They wanted to make history and certainly had the talent to do so.
"Coming in freshman year, we probably thought it was going to be easier than we thought," Hawkins said.
The problem was, in looking so far down the road, they forgot all the pit-stops along the way. Before they knew it, they weren't even halfway down the road with a couple of flat tires and a leaky transmission.
Fortunately for UK, the engine was still running at season's end.
"I'd never been through starting five freshmen," Calipari said Thursday. "I don't know of many people (who have). So there were things that we went through that it took time."
The Cats say youth had every bit to do with buying into the hype last year.
"It's hard transitioning from high school where no one's really saying much about you or you have a bad days and it's just like, it's just a bad day, it doesn't really matter," sophomore Marcus Lee said. "But in college, you have a bad day, it's blown up. You hear it for three days. And then you have that from that game to the next game to try to change your mindset. It's just something you learn by doing it."
Calipari calls it the process, something he swears by doing this year despite the allure of the final product.
"You cannot skip steps," he said Thursday.
Keep in mind, less than two hours earlier his team had just received the official stamp of preseason hype when it was voted the No. 1 team in the first USA Today Coaches' Poll of the year.
And yet Calipari was more interested in talking about losses this time around than how his team will avoid them.
"Is this going to be easy? No," he said. "How about this? Will there be bumps in the road? Oh yeah. We probably, in all likelihood, are going to lose a couple games. ... I have to be patient, too, and understand that's going to be part of the process."
The process stuff is nothing new from Calipari, but it fell on deaf (and freshman) ears last season.
"As players, we're young and we don't really understand sometimes the stuff that he's trying to tell us to get in our minds," Hawkins said. "When he said it over and over, that's what helped us realize that we needed to do that."
Only then, when the season was at its last stop, did the players fully understand what their head coach was talking about. Fortunately for them, it wasn't too late.
"Now we realize that since we played last year that every game is going to be someone's Super Bowl when they play against us," Hawkins said.
The difference this year is the Cats now know that from the outset.
"We've learned not to think about the season as a whole and just to think game by game and day by day, just to get better," Lee said. "We're more prepared because we're a year older, college wise, and we kind of know what to expect. We know how to get through tough times better. It's easier to deal with it ... when half the team already knows how to deal with it."
The only expectations this Kentucky group is concerned with are its own.
"The only expectations I have, again, making this work for all these kids," Calipari said. "If we do that, they'll drag this where it's supposed to go."
On Thursday, Mark Stoops spoke with the media for the final time before Kentucky's trip to LSU.
Following a light practice, Stoops sounded like a coach confident his team is prepared to turn in its best effort on Saturday.
"Good practice today, putting the finishing touches on a pretty good week of work so far," Stoops said. "Guys are excited. We'll have a run-through tomorrow, but so far so good. Been a good week. Guys have worked hard. Energy's high. So we expect to go down there and play well."
No matter how ready the Wildcats may be, beating the Tigers won't be easy. LSU is a young group, but Les Miles' team is talented.
"We'll be prepared," Stoops said. "It's still a challenge. It's obviously a very big challenge. They're not only physical, they're skilled and they know what they're doing. They put pressure on you."
The 100,000-plus in Tiger Stadium at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday will do the same. UK is two days away from facing its second road test of the season and handled the first at Florida well. Nonetheless, Stoops knows the Cats will need to respond when things go awry in Death Valley.
"(Noise) really didn't affect us much the last time we were at that type of environment," Stoops said. "Let's hope it's the same. I think it's certainly not uncommon to see some problems when you're in a hostile environment, so if we get a few, we've just got to be able to overcome them."
Patrick Towles threw for 369 yards at Florida, UK's lone road game so far in 2014. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
They call it Death Valley for a reason.
Tiger Stadium, no matter who you ask, is among the most difficult places to play in college football. When LSU plays at night, winning becomes becomes an even tougher proposition for visitors.
On Saturday, Kentucky will face exactly that challenge.
But the sense of dread opponents are supposed to have ahead of a trip to Baton Rouge, La., it's not there for the Wildcats.
"I'm excited about getting down there and really just chalking it up and seeing where we're at," quarterback Patrick Towles. "They're a really good football team. I'm excited for the environment. I'm sure it's going to be packed."
It's not a lack of respect for Tiger Stadium or the crowd of 100,000-plus expected to pack it for a 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff on the SEC Network that's prompting that excitement. The Cats (5-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) don't see weakness in LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC), a team coming off a win at Florida, either.
The attitude is all about viewing challenges as opportunities. That starts at the top.
"I love the atmosphere. I've been down there before," said head coach Mark Stoops, who lost 45-3 at LSU in 2006 as Arizona defensive coordinator. "They are passionate fans, and it's a hostile environment, and that's why we play. That's why we coach. We want to continue to win games to put ourselves in position to play in big games."
UK-LSU will have an unmistakably big-game feel.
The Cats, winners of three straight and two in a row in conference, are in the thick of the SEC East race. LSU, meanwhile, is a young team still setting its sights on winning the treacherous SEC West. The Tigers have lost twice, but to Mississippi State and Auburn, teams currently ranked No. 1 and No. 6 in the AP Top 25.
Les Miles' team is as athletic as ever, particularly on defense.
"They're inexperienced at certain positions, but very talented," Stoops said. "They're extremely talented in the secondary. You know, that's something that I noticed right away in watching them. Just have great appreciation for the way they cover people. They're big and long and athletic, and obviously very well coached with Coach (John) Chavis being around forever, doing a great job."
Of the 13 players listed on LSU's depth chart at cornerback and safety, only one is shorter than 6 feet. Sophomore corner Rashard Robinson is the tallest of the bunch at 6-3, but the whole group - which Neal Brown called the most talented UK has played - will present problems.
"We've got to be able to stick our releases and we must keep their hands off of us," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "And we've got to take into effect that they're a little bit longer than the average guy we're going against."
UK will have its hands full closer to the line of scrimmage as well. Brown likened 6-6 defensive end Danielle Hunter to Florida star Dante Fowler and called Kwon Alexander the best linebacker UK will have faced.
"Athletic, long and fast," Towles said of the LSU defense. "A lot like Florida and how they were. I mean, they're tough. I mean, they're good everywhere, so it's going to be a challenge for us."
It's a challenge the likes of which Towles has responded to before. The sophomore's high-school reputation for playing his best when it matters most has followed him to college, with Towles turning in a 369-yard effort through the air at Florida in UK's lone loss and showing few ill effects from the most hostile atmosphere he's faced to date.
"We always got to answer the bell when it calls," Towles said. "The Florida game it called. Whenever it does, you've got to answer. That's how really we've been all year. When somebody throws a shot at you, you've got to throw one back. That's kind of been the big difference between this year and years past. Yeah, I mean, if I'm going to have to make a play there's no doubt in my mind I'm going to make the play."
Towles' production this season has fluctuated based on what his team has needed. He had a big statistical day at Florida, making multiple downfield throws, but played it closer to the vest in wins over South Carolina and Ohio.
The dynamic has prompted the "game-manager" label to be thrown around this week. Towles didn't cringe when the phrase came up and Stoops actually called it a positive, but both head coach and quarterback know Towles going to have to come up big at LSU.
"I know he's going to have to throw the ball well for us to win some games," Stoops said. "And this week it's not going to be easy, and he has to be more than a manager in this game. His talent has to show and he's gotta play confident and he's gotta throw the ball and he's gotta play aggressive."
The same is true for UK's defense.
The Cats, after a rough start against ULM, bounced back and pitched a shutout over the final 45 minutes. UK allowed just 77 yards on 40 carries, shoring up a run defense that struggled against South Carolina and Florida. LSU gets it done differently than the Gamecocks and Gators, but no less effectively, especially with the emergence of true freshman Leonard Fournette.
"LSU is almost exclusively a pro-style offense," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said. "Florida and South Carolina, they did a lot of different things and different looks, and LSU is a pro-style offense, so you mainly see pro-style runs. You see an I backfield. You see the quarterback under center. You see power. You see iso plays, where the fullback's (isolating) up on the linebackers."
At quarterback, LSU has rotated between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Miles named Jennings the starter this week, but that hasn't affected UK's preparation a great deal.
"Both are very athletic," Eliot said. "You got to keep them contained. If they get out, they can get some yards. Strong arms. So there's not really much difference between the two."
Believe it or not, the atmosphere the Cats will walk into on Saturday hasn't affected their preparation much either. They feel like they're ready for it.
"The game plan we've got, it really carries and it works everywhere," Towles said. "For the really good teams, that loudness is not a distraction. Really, for me, I love playing on the road because it really helps me focus better. If I got a lot of people yelling, I know that, 'Hey, I gotta really focus right now.' So I like it. I hope they get as loud as they can."