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.
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics All stats through games on Nov. 9
Former Wildcat Brandon Knight is now his fourth NBA season and second with the Milwaukee Bucks. To this point in his career he has made a name for himself for his ability to score the ball from the point-guard position.
All jokes aside, Knight is off to a great start as the lead guard for a young Bucks team. He has scored in double digits in all seven games this season, but that comes as no surprise.
Knight is also leading all point guards with 45 total rebounds on the season, as well as averaging 7.3 assists per game.
In their last outing on Saturday the Bucks delivered the previously unbeaten Grizzlies their first loss of the season as Knight hit a game-winning and-one layup and converted on the free throw to give his team a 93-92 edge with just 1.1 seconds remaining on the clock.
Tayshaun Prince logged 27 minutes in the game for Memphis. The veteran registered eight points, two rebounds and two steals in the losing effort.
Anthony Davis, who is being pegged by experts as the future of the league, hit a game winner of his own in week two. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams drew up an isolation play for the All-Star forward in the closing seconds against the 2014 world champion San Antonio Spurs.
Davis caught the ball on the free-throw line, faced up, took two dribbles and used his length and quickness to get all the way to the rim with two dribbles. The basket gave him 27 points for the game and sealed a 100-99 win over the Spurs.
The former No. 1 pick is ranked fifth in the league in scoring (24.4), first in rebounding (12.8) and first in blocks (4.4), sparking early-season MVP conversations.
Another former Kentucky big man who entered in talks for postseason awards is Nerlens Noel, who was atop the Rookie Ladder after week one. Noel missed both games over the weekend as he went down with a sprained ankle Wednesday against Orlando.
The 76ers went 0-2 in his absence and currently hold a league worst 0-7 record on the season. But with Noel set to return to action on Thursday, and with reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams joining the team for the first time this season, it will be interesting to see if Philly can make any noise on their upcoming three-game road trip.
As for other Cats who are dealing with injuries, Jodie Meeks has been sidelined for the first seven games of the season for his struggling Pistons squad.
Detroit fully expects Meeks to be inserted into the starting lineup at the shooting guard position upon his return, but he's still about five weeks away from being cleared to play as he recovers from what the team diagnosed as a stress reaction in his back.
Also, Celtics rookie James Young has only seen action in one game in the opening weeks of the season. Young has been battling a hamstring injury dating back to the preseason, and he will miss the upcoming two-game road trip for Boston due to an undisclosed illness in his family.
Week two TV schedule
Tuesday: Orlando @ Toronto (Chuck Hayes, Patrick Patterson) 7:30 p.m. on NBA TV Wednesday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Minnesota 10:00 p.m. on ESPN Thursday: Chicago (Nazr Mohammad) @ Toronto 8:00 p.m. on TNT Sunday: Houston (Terrence Jones) @ Oklahoma City 7:00 p.m. on NBA TV
Aaron Harrison had a team-best 17 points in UK's exhibition win over Georgetown College on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Nick Jones, UK Athletics
With a pair of exhibitions out of the way, Kentucky has now improved to 53-4 all time in the preseason. The immediate reaction to that record is how does an elite program like Kentucky lose four tune-up games?
Well, it's not always smooth sailing to start the season. For this year's Wildcats, though, it has been nothing but an incredible display of offensive efficiency and domination on the defensive end of the floor.
In their most recent outing the Cats defeated Georgetown College 121-52, controlling every facet of the game. And after being routed by a margin of 69 points, it was all positive feedback from the opposition.
"I knew they were good coming into this game, but sitting out there watching it in front of their eyes, on the sideline, honestly I don't see how they're going to get beat this year," Georgetown head coach Chris Briggs said following Sunday night's game in Rupp Arena.
Sophomore shooting guard Aaron Harrison led the way in the scoring column with 17 points for the Cats, but that was just a minor detail in what was one of the more impressive box scores you will come across in college basketball this season.
Seven Kentucky players scored in double figures, although no player saw more than 19 minutes of action. The team compiled a field-goal percentage of .639 and shot 44 percent from long range, good for 1.46 points per possession.
"On a good shooting night like tonight it's really tough to guard us because we can spread the floor and we have good drivers," Aaron Harrison said. "And obviously we have great big men and great size."
The guard play for Kentucky is sure to be much improved from a season ago with the Harrison twins in command in their second year, while also adding sharp-shooting freshman Devin Booker and tenacious point guard Tyler Ulis to the mix in the second platoon. But what has this team unanimously ranked No. 1 in college basketball preseason polls is the unbelievable depth and size in the frontcourt.
The bigs for Kentucky were dominant in their second and final exhibition. They were relentless on the glass, outrebounding the Tigers 54-26 while tallying 23 second-chance points.
The Cats threw down 19 dunks, which made up over half of the team's 64 points in the paint. Kentucky's seven frontcourt players shot a combined 32 of 43, adding up to an amazing 74.4 percent from the field.
Fourteen different Wildcats recorded at least one assist in the game. It's rare to even see 14 different players check into a basketball game.
Many of the baskets came in the transition game as a result of big guys making the extra effort to run the floor, a point of emphasis in the early stages of the season.
"If that big guy runs, you run right there and try to throw him the ball to reward our bigs for running," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Think about it, every time we're on there, it's either Dakari flying, Willie flying, Karl(-Anthony Towns) flying, Marcus Lee flying. Your bigs better fly. And you better be playing more than two bigs. You better be playing four or five bigs."
Unfortunately for the cross-town foe, Georgetown lacked the size and depth necessary to match up. And with seven interchangeable big men for Kentucky, it was clear how worn down the Tigers were in the final eight minutes of the second half when the game turned into a highlight reel.
There are few teams around the country who even have the manpower to avoid this problem if they face the Cats this season, which begins for UK on Friday at 8 p.m. against Grand Canyon.
With all the positives that can be pulled from Kentucky's first two appearances against other competition it is easy to rave about all the possibilities of the season ahead. But Calipari asks the Big Blue Nation to take a step back and brace themselves for a few inevitable hardships along the way, in spite of what Briggs had to say.
"We're going to hit some bumps in the road," Calipari said. "There's going to be games that playing this many is going to be hard. You know why? Because I'm expecting 10 guys to play well every night out and that's not going to happen."
Jon Lipsitz isn't a coach who avoids NCAA Tournament talk with his team. His ultimate goals for Kentucky lie in the postseason and he's not afraid to let the Wildcats know.
A little more than a month ago, he proved it.
UK had just lost for the fourth time in six matches, dropping its RPI to 59th. After a defeat at Texas A&M on Oct. 5, Lipsitz told the Cats all about how their postseason lives were on the line.
"We handed it out to the team and we said, 'Look, we need to make it clear: We're not in the NCAA Tournament,' " Lipsitz said. " 'And we're not even on the bubble.' "
That was the beginning of a Tuesday tradition for the UK women's soccer program. Lipsitz would print sheets with Kentucky's RPI and upcoming opponents each week and distribute them to his team. In his office, he's kept the sheets to track the Cats' progress, all with one thing in mind.
"Our goal from that moment on was to get seeded," Lipsitz said. "It's something that hasn't happened."
On Monday, it did.
Gathered in the team lounge at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the Cats watched as they received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a program first. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville (13-6-1, 8-2-0 Ohio Valley Conference) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, marking the fourth straight season the Cats have hosted in the first round.
"I don't think any of us in this room were surprised that we got seeded," Stuart Pope said. "We've all been in here the last month and we've seen the change that's happened to our team."
That change, in large part, has been inspired by Pope and her fellow senior captain, Arin Gilliland. Charged with leading a team that relies on many young players, Pope and Gilliland have taken it upon themselves to reinforce and amplify their coach's message.
"We've only got three seniors and everyone else is underclassmen," said Gilliland, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. "So we're a young team. The fact that we had the mental toughness to come back and approach everything and say, 'We're going do this. We're going to make the NCAAs,' says a lot about who they are at a team and who they're going to continue to be."
That's spoken like a player who thinks every day about the legacy her senior class will leave behind. Gilliland, the best player in the history of the program by almost any measure, has been a centerpiece in UK's ascendance these last four years.
In her freshman season, UK returned to the tournament for the first time in 2006. A year later, the Cats won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game. In 2013, Gilliland became the third All-American in school history. Now, the national seed.
"We're doing things every year that haven't been done before," Gilliland said. "That's kind of something we like to do. What have we not done yet that can be done in this program? I think that's something we're leaving with the classes below us."
But before the seniors leave the program in the capable hands of their younger teams, there's work to be done. With two wins UK would reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, but UK's only concern at this point is SIU Edwardsville.
"We always prepare for success and we'll be prepare for each match, but we will not even look at film or discuss film on anyone other than our Saturday opponent," Lipsitz said. "That's all that matters to us."
UK has won first-round NCAA matches each of the last two seasons, but the Cats enter the tournament differently than they ever have. For starters, they'll be carrying the label of favorite that comes with that No. 3 seed.
"It's great that we're seeded, but seeds don't mean anything in the NCAA," Pope said. "You have to come out ready like you're playing the No. 1 seed, like you're the underdog. Because if you don't, if you come in expecting to win, someone's going to catch someone. And we're not going to let that be us."
The other reason why this NCAA appearance is different has everything to do with Pope's "we're-not-going-to-let-that-be-us" confidence.
After that loss to Texas A&M, UK reeled off eight straight wins, including two in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to set up a finals rematch with the Aggies in Orange Beach, Ala. The Cats would lose 1-0 on Sunday, but they did so going toe to toe with an A&M team that received a No. 1 seed on Monday.
"Before the bus pulled away from Orange Beach, I got on the bus and I said to the team, 'I am more confident in our ability today than I was before the game,' " Lipsitz said. "We lost the game and all congratulations to Texas A&M, but the way we played told me that we're ready and told me that we're playing our best soccer at the end of the year and I think that's a big difference from the past."
It also doesn't hurt that UK will play in the friendly confines of the Bell Soccer Complex, a beautiful new facility that opened this season.
"There's something different, a different feeling, about being on your home field, something that's comfortable about that," Gilliland said. "It lets you really just be in your element and I know everyone's going to rise up and do what they need to do."
In short, Gilliland couldn't think of a better place to start her final NCAA Tournament run.
"We want to go as far as we can in this NCAA Tournament and I think we've got a great setup to do so," Gilliland said. "We're going to continue to lead our team the best way we know how."
Mark Stoops knows nothing about the last three weeks of the regular season will be easy.
Ending a four-game losing streak and getting that sixth win will be tough. Doing it on the road against either Kentucky's two biggest rivals will be even more difficult.
But as Stoops sees it, there are two ways to approach what the Wildcats have in front of them.
"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," Stoops said.
This one, of course, is a trip to face Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 Southeastern Conference) with another to Louisville two weeks later. Before UK (5-5, 2-5 SEC) heads to Rocky Top, though, there's work to be done.
After a 63-31 loss to Georgia on Saturday, Stoops told reporters he was considering going against his custom and tossing the tape of the disappointing defeat and moving on. A day and a half later, he had decided he can't go quite that far.
"As coaches we can never do that," Stoops said. "We have to look at the things we do good and the things we did bad and move forward and push to improve. We will continue to look at those things and our players will look at pieces of it. The accountability piece has to be there. We'll watch some of it but we'll move on pretty quick."
UK's performance against Georgia came on the heels of a week in which Stoops minced no words in telling his team its effort against Missouri was unacceptable, starting with a Monday team meeting Bud Dupree called "ugly." Stoops will now look to find the right tone with his players, calling it the "million-dollar question."
"You guys know the approach I took last week, obviously it didn't work so that's my problem as a head coach and you can't continue to do the same thing over and over again and get the same results, that's for sure," Stoops said. "Maybe we're not to the point where we can - I better be careful of my words - not to the point where you can push 'em through that wall.
"We've got to do the very best we can and find the right mental approach, put them in the right position with coaching and continue to push and move forward."
In his second season as a head coach, Stoops has experienced a roller coaster of sorts with the way his defense and offense have played. Against Missouri, the defense kept the Cats in the game while the offense sputtered. Against Georgia, the offense dug out of a deep first-quarter hole before succumbing in the second half, the defense unable to stop the Bulldogs.
"We've been inconsistent that way," Stoops said. "It's been the offense playing well and the defense playing well and trading off. We have not put it all together. Of course we're not a complete team yet, but we're still striving to get there and put it all together and play a complete game."
In spite of all that, UK still has more wins this season than the previous two combined. Stoops and his staff continue to recruit at a high level, but work remains before the Cats are able to go toe to toe with the SEC's elite. Stoops reminds himself of that fact from time to time, that his long-term plan is still in place, but never at the cost of overlooking the here and now.
"You know I'm quite disappointed whenever we lose, no matter who we are playing and that's the situation it is," Stoops said. "That's the mentality our team has to have as well. They're not perfect but we're going to give it everything we have this week."
Injury update: Z. Smith expected to play Saturday
In the second half of Saturday's loss to Georgia, senior defensive end Za'Darius Smith limped off with an ankle injury. According to Stoops, the injury is not a high-ankle sprain and Smith "should be back" for the Tennessee game this weekend.
Stoops also said he is "hopeful" that defensive tackle Regie Meant and nickelback Blake McClain - both with shoulder injuries - will play, while tight end Steven Borden is still "iffy" with an undisclosed injury.
Finally, wide receivers Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet have not yet played this season due to injury. Stoops said on Monday that he considered playing Montgomery a few weeks ago as he neared 100 percent, but decided against it for the sake of the player. Badet, meanwhile, is practicing but not as close to Montgomery to being able to play. Both are redshirt candidates if they do not play in UK's final two games.