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Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
Now that I've reflected briefly on 2014 in UK Athletics, it's time to look at what our future holds for us in 2015. We have a great deal to look forward to.

In competition, this spring can be one of our best ever if our student-athletes and coaches work as I know they will and you, our fans, give us the kind of support you always do. We enter the New Year 26th in the latest Directors' Cup standings, which puts ahead of last year's record-setting pace heading into the spring semester.

Our men's and women's basketball teams have already shown they are capable of competing for championships this season and the same goes for our rifle team. I'm also eager to see what Rachel Lawson and our softball team do for an encore after last year's Women's College World Series trip. That postseason run was one of the most special I've been a part of. Our track and field team had an outstanding 2014 as well, including the best outdoor finish ever for our women's team. I believe even better things are in store for Edrick Floreal's program in his third season.
We also have a number of ascendant programs ready to take next steps, including Tim Garrison's gymnastics team, Carlos Drada's women's tennis team, Lars Jorgensen's swimming and diving team and our golf teams led by Brian Craig and Golda Borst. Our baseball and men's tennis teams will both have to replace some of the best players in school history, but I know Gary Henderson and Cedric Kauffmann will help create some great moments once again.

This spring is also an important one for our football program. While Mark Stoops and his staff put the finishing touches on another strong recruiting class and get ready for spring practice, construction crews are working hard to prepare The New CWS for our season opener on Sept. 5. The stadium changes every week and I can't tell you how excited I am to show off our new home. With the renovation in progress and the plans we have for our new practice facility, we are taking great steps toward competing at the highest level in our conference as we all want to do.

With the new stadium opening and the momentum our staff and players have created, we know the next year is crucial. What we ask is that you keep an eye on your mail for information about season tickets if you've already ordered or reserve season tickets now if you haven't. We're going to need you on game day in the fall.

On top of the stadium construction, we are working as a department to take our game on game day to the next level. As part of our BBN First initiative, we continue to engage with the Disney Institute to take lessons from one of the world's leaders in customer service and apply them to what we do. Our first step has been to take a close look at our internal culture and we are already gaining valuable insight into what we can do better.

BBN First, in large part, came about as a result of us realizing as a department that the way fans enjoy sports is different than it ever has been before, but the landscape of college athletics is changing in more ways than just that. After more than 30 years in the field, I can tell you things have never been more competitive. Budgets continue to rise, and we have made strides toward positioning ourselves to remain self-sufficient with our new agreements with JMI Sports for multimedia rights and Fermata for licensing. The growth of the SEC Network - which you have helped make a great success in its first months - will also be important as we move forward, but we must continue to be innovative and stay ahead of the curve so that we can fulfill our primary mission.

That mission, of course, is to serve our student-athletes and help them to pursue their dreams.

It is with that mission in mind that I undertake my role on the NCAA Division I Council. It is an honor to serve and I will do so eagerly, but this is also a responsibility I do not take lightly. The world of college athletics is facing tremendous challenges. The changes we make in response to those challenges will drastically affect our student-athletes and the games they play for decades to come. Our work begins in earnest this month and we have a lot to do.

2015 will be full of opportunities. We know a lot must be done to capitalize on them, but with you behind us we know we can do it. There's never been a better time to be a Kentucky Wildcat.

'Til the Battle is Won,
Mitch Barnhart

As demanding as Matthew Mitchell is, he has to admit his three young post players are playing as hard as they ever have.

Alexis Jennings, Alyssa Rice and Kyvin Goodin-Rogers have all developed in their first college season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. The intensity of their play, game by game, is picking up.

"But it's just not quite hard enough for what's coming and what looms in the conference," Mitchell said.

Kentucky's non-league schedule is over and the Wildcats sit at 11-2 and No. 11 in both polls. Those young post players have had a lot to do with UK's strong start, too.

Jennings has come on strong of late, scoring in double figures in four straight games, including a 27-point explosion in a win over Tennessee State on Sunday. Goodin-Rogers, meanwhile, is averaging 6.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in starting all 13 games, while Rice has contributed regularly as well.

But since last weekend's nonconference finale, the Cats have gone to work on taking the next step.

"It's some good, some bad and what we're really trying to do is even that out," Mitchell said. "And it's difficult because we're so young there and I just don't think--well, I think we're having a hard time understanding how hard we have to play."

Alabama, UK's first Southeastern Conference opponent, is likely to make the Cats pay if they aren't clear about that.

The Crimson Tide sit at 11-4 as it prepares to host UK at 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Sophomore forward Ashley Williams, averaging 14.5 points and 6.3 rebounds, leads the way.

"It is going to be very, very challenging all season long and it opens up with a real tough one at Alabama," Mitchell said. "They are a very athletic team. They have what I think is just one of the toughest players in the league. Williams is just so tough down in the post, in the block and can also bring it out on the floor and take it to you."

To cope with that challenge, Mitchell knows it's going to take a level of focus his young post players are still developing.

"You just can't do one thing and then rest," Mitchell said. "You have to keep playing throughout the possession. So I think that's our biggest challenge right now, is just defensively for our post players to understand how consistent the effort has to be. But before we're consistent we just have to learn how tenacious and how hard we have to play."

Jennings is at the top of the list when it comes to developing consistency, and she'll surely be motivated to do so in returning to play in her home state. The Madison, Ala., native might inspire some frustration on the part of her coach as she learns to play with the kind of defensive effort that's being asked of her, but she's more than capable of contributing meaningfully in the meantime.

"I feel good about how she is progressing," Mitchell said. "One thing that is in her favor is that if she is having a good day offensively, she can really help you and make up for some deficiencies on defense."

Long term, that's not what Mitchell has in mind. He expects Jennings to become a two-way player.

"When it finally clicks for her, we are going to have a really, really top-level player in her," Mitchell said.

O'Neill 'progressing well' with knee injury

Senior guard Jennifer O'Neill sat out Sunday's win over Tennessee State with a strained patellar tendon. Days after she was labeled as day to day, O'Neill was back on the court going through a shooting workout. There's no official word on her status for the Alabama game, but there is reason for optimism.

"She went through about an hour of shooting last night and those were game-like shots and she looked good and bounced back this morning," Mitchell said. "So I think--it looks to me like she's progressing well. We are feeling good about her progress right now."

As the 2014 calendar year comes to a close, the 2014 NFL regular season ended on a high note for former Kentucky football players now making a living at the professional level. Several NFL Cats concluded Week 17 with outstanding personal performances, while others prepare for their teams' postseason runs on the road to Super Bowl XLIX.

Cats in the Spotlight

Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (12-4)

After being shut out of the end zone since Week 11, Cobb exploded for two touchdowns in Green Bay's division-clinching 30-20 win over the Detroit Lions. Cobb caught four passes for 80 yards, and rushed for six more on the ground.

Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14)
With four tackles (two solo, two assisted) on the day, Williamson broke former Titan Alterraun Verner's four-year record for most tackles by a rookie in franchise history. Williamson recorded 105 tackles on the season, but the Titans dropped their 10th straight with a 27-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-14)
In Woodyard's final game of his seventh NFL season, the former Walter Payton Man of the Year recorded four solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' loss to Indy.


Cats in the Playoffs


(5) Arizona Cardinals at (4) Carolina Panthers -- Saturday, 4:35 p.m.
Though the Panthers finished the regular season with a losing record, 7-8-1 was good enough to clinch the NFC South and home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Former Wildcat Garry Williams is still part of the Panthers' roster, though the offensive tackle has seen only limited playing time thanks to serious injury.

(6) Detroit Lions at (3) Dallas Cowboys -- Sunday, 4:40 p.m.
After recovering from a left knee injury that caused him to sit out from football for the first time in his playing career, Lions right guard Larry Warford was carted off the field with a right knee injury in Detroit's Week 17 loss to the Packers. Warford is listed as day-to-day and hopes to contribute at some point to the Lions' postseason run.

(1) Seattle Seahawks -- January 10, 8:15 p.m.
The defending Super Bowl champions will face the remaining team with the lowest seed after receiving a bye in the first round. Former Kentucky wide receiver Chris Matthews was signed from the Seahawks practice squad earlier this month, but has not seen the field with Seattle since.

(2) Green Bay Packers -- January 11, 1:05 p.m.

Like Seattle, Green Bay received a bye in the playoffs' opening round. The Packers, however, feature two former UK standouts as prominent members of the NFC North champions. Punter Tim Masthay and Cobb--who does a little bit of everything for head coach Mike McCarthy--look to be major factors in the Packers' sixth straight postseason appearance. Green Bay will face the highest seeded NFC team (save for the Seahawks) on January 11.


(2) Denver Broncos -- January 11, 4:40 p.m.

After losing a shootout to the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday Night Football in Week 16, last year's AFC champions bounced back with a 47-14 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders last Sunday. The Broncos feature tight end Jacob Tamme and injured defensive standout Danny Trevathan. Like the Packers, Denver will face the higher seeded winner of this weekend's opening slate of games.

Photo by Elliott Hess, UK Athletics Photo by Elliott Hess, UK Athletics
With things slowing down just a bit over the holidays, I've had some time for reflection. I've thought about where we are and where we're going. I've thought about what we have accomplished and what we are working to accomplish in the future. I've thought about all the people that make this place so special, from fans to student-athletes to coaches to staff.

As we close 2014 and move into 2015, I want to share a few of those thoughts with you, first by looking back.

We began this year by capping a record 11th-place Directors' Cup finish for the 2013-14 season. But as we did that, I challenged everyone involved with UK Athletics to seize that momentum and pursue even greater things. So far, that challenge has been accepted.

Thanks to the work of our student-athletes and coaches, our fall sports got us off to a good start. Led by Jon Lipsitz, our women's soccer team turned an incredible finish to the regular season into our first NCAA Tournament national seed and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever. Our volleyball team reached the NCAA Tournament yet again, making it 10 straight postseason berths with Craig Skinner as head coach. Our men's soccer team reached the NCAA Tournament as well in spite of relying almost exclusively on underclassmen in Johan Cedergren's third year. Football fell short of the bowl berth we all wanted, but the progress of our program under Mark Stoops is unmistakable.

Our winter sports have kept the ball rolling, led of course by our top-ranked men's basketball team. John Calipari's group has been truly a pleasure to watch so far this season with its unselfishness, talent and commitment to defense and I only expect to have more fun through conference and postseason play. Our women's basketball and rifle teams, as usual, have given us plenty to be excited about as well and I look forward to the schedule heating up for all our teams in 2015.

I also want to make sure I recognize some of the standout individual performances we've seen this year, because there have been plenty. Bud Dupree is the first player who comes to mind. Watching him develop into the player and leader he is today has been so special and we're thankful for everything he's done for our program. We wish him the best as he prepares for the NFL Draft and congratulate him on being named to the All-SEC First Team, where he was joined by Austin MacGinnis.

Arin Gilliland has made a similar impact on our women's soccer program. After she was honored with the Honda Inspiration Award this summer, she had the best season of her decorated Kentucky career, earning All-America and SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors in the process. I know she will continue to represent UK well as she moves on to a professional and international playing career.

Fortunately, we have a year left with Morgan Bergren and Callum Irving, who had great seasons for our volleyball and men's soccer teams. Morgan was named an All-American, while Callum nearly swept Conference USA postseason awards.

Our student-athletes continue to make us proud off the field as well, starting with our cumulative GPA of 3.112 for the fall semester, our fifth straight semester with a GPA of better than 3.0. We are lucky to have so many positive role models on our campus, like AFCA Good Works Team member Max Godby from our football team and Good Works Team nominee Bria Goss from our women's basketball team. Balancing practice and game schedules, class and life is a challenge, but our Wildcats do it well.

I'd like to close by expressing my heartfelt appreciation to our fans. Thanks to your feedback, your passion and the work of my staff, BBN First has helped make game day at Commonwealth Stadium and all of our events that much more special this season. We know we have work ahead of us - and I'll talk more about that next week when I look ahead to 2015 - but the atmosphere at games like our win over South Carolina tells me we are headed in the right direction.

Your support means so much to us, and it's about much more than what happens on game day. Take Alex Poythress as an example. After he suffered a season-ending injury earlier this month, the outpouring from the Big Blue Nation was incredible to watch and I know it uplifted him at a difficult time. I want to thank you for that and ask that you continue to show that kind of care for student-athletes from all 22 of our sports. It means more than you know.

I'll be back later this week to talk about what's on the horizon for UK Athletics in 2015. In the meantime, I hope you get to ring in the New Year with family and friends.

'Til the Battle is Won,
Mitch Barnhart

Wildcats earn 3.112 GPA for fall semester

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For the fifth semester in a row and sixth time in seven semesters, University of Kentucky student-athletes have combined to reach the athletics department's goal of a 3.0 grade-point average.

UK's scholarship student-athletes had a cumulative GPA of 3.112 for the fall semester of 2014, continuing to meet the challenge of matching athletic success with excellence in the classroom.

"Our student-athletes work hard to meet the high standards that come with being a part of this department and I want to congratulate them on the results showing in their grades once again," Barnhart said. "Academics are an important part of our mission and I'm thankful our student-athletes and coaches have embraced that."


Eighteen of 20 teams posted GPAs of better than 3.0, led by women's swimming and diving (3.535), women's golf (3.484), women's soccer (3.462), softball (3.425) and baseball (3.417). The three UK teams that reached the NCAA Tournament this fall - women's soccer, volleyball and men's soccer - all had GPAs of 3.108 or better even though postseason play coincided with the end of the semester.

UK's top-15 basketball teams both excelled academically as well. The women's team combined for a GPA of 3.335, while the men had a 3.111 GPA.

"Our CATS (Center for Academic and Tutorial Services) counselors and tutors do an outstanding job providing our student-athletes with the tools and resources they need to succeed," Barnhart said. "I am grateful for the role they have played in building the academic culture of this department."

To go with the solid grades in the fall, 31 current and former Wildcats graduated at December commencement. Moreover, UK student-athletes set a school record for graduation rate in the annual report issued by the NCAA in October.

The success comes on the heels of one of the top competitive seasons in school history. UK finished 11th in the 2013-14 Directors' Cup standings, putting the department a year ahead of schedule in the goal to become one of the nation's top-15 departments as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. With continued academic success and the current tally of 13 conference or national championships, UK Athletics is positioned to meet all three goals set as part of the plan.

Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Alexis Jennings had career highs in points (27) and rebounds (eight) in UK's win over Tennessee State on Sunday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
If you had watched only the Kentucky bench, you might not have known Alexis Jennings was having a career offensive day.

"I was very hard on her today during the game," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I had no idea she was scoring 27 points because I was trying to coach her up on defense a little bit and it was just a tough game."

It was a tough game that, in large part, the No. 12/13 Wildcats (11-2) won because of Jennings. Along with the career high in points she scored on 8-of-15 shooting, the freshman post player added eight rebounds in UK's hard-fought 87-75 win over Tennessee State (3-8) on Sunday at Memorial Coliseum.

The performance was the latest in a string of good ones by Jennings, who scored in double figures for the fourth straight game after not doing so once since her collegiate debut.

"I wouldn't say I saw it coming," Jennings said. "We had four days off and coming back I really wasn't expecting that. But as I got out there, I adjusted well and I was able to score offensively."

Jennings showed off a diverse skillset, burying three of her four tries from 3-point range and scoring on both post moves and put-backs off her five offensive rebounds.

"We would not have won without her and I've told y'all before: She is supremely talented and skilled on the offensive end and I am really seeing a lot of progress out of her," Mitchell said.

Her teammates are particularly impressed with that progress considering how hard Mitchell has been on her both in practice and in games knowing what she is capable of.

"I give Alexis a lot of credit being as whenever we're in practice Coach Mitchell is extremely hard on her," said Makayla Epps, who scored 16 points. "He's hard on all of us, but some days she gets it harder than any of us and she's got thick skin. She's a tough kid from Alabama and I give her a lot of credit because most players would get down and go in slumps."

Linnae Harper - who had a big all-around game with 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists and four steals as the Cats fended off a game Lady Tiger team - has seen the same. And with it, she's seen Jennings become more and more self-assured in her continuing adjustment to college.

"I just think, personally, her confidence level has just increased drastically day by day and it's making a difference in the game," Harper said. "She's more tough and I think that's really going to help us when we start SEC conference because we have the toughest conference in the nation."

With Bria Goss missing again due to a broken thumb and Jennifer O'Neill day to day with a strained patellar tendon, Mitchell knew the Cats would be tested on Sunday. With Jennings and others stepping up - including Janee Thompson with her ball pressure and career-high seven steals - they passed.

"Those are the kind of games we need while Bria's out to help us be stronger when Bria comes back," Mitchell said.

Now, when it comes to Jennings, Mitchell will continue to push her to improve defensively.

"I definitely believe that she's capable," Mitchell said. "There's no question. The reason I'm hard on Alexis is because her offense is a little bit further ahead than her defense right now. And so usually when I'm hard on her it's defensive driven."

Fearless Ulis leads UK to win at rival Louisville

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Tyler Ulis scored a career-high 14 points in UK's win at No. 4 Louisville on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Tyler Ulis scored a career-high 14 points in UK's win at No. 4 Louisville on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE -- Tyler Ulis looks different than your typical John Calipari point guard.

Coach Cal's floor generals, in recent seasons, have been physical specimens, most standing well above 6 feet, but Ulis is 5-9.

What then prompted Calipari to offer Ulis a scholarship to come to Kentucky?

"He wasn't afraid of the challenge," Calipari said.

Through the first 10 games of his college career, Ulis showed that fearlessness repeatedly and earned fan-favorite status in the process. In the 11th, he erased any lingering doubt about whether a spotlight could get too bright for the diminutive freshman.

Not only would Saturday be Ulis' first college road game, it would also be his debut in one of college basketball's most heated rivalries. But as No. 1 UK prepared for a trip to the KFC Yum! Center to face No. 4 Louisville, Ulis had a similar reaction to when Coach Cal began recruiting him.

"I was more excited than nervous because it was my first away game," Ulis said. "Being a freshman I just wanted to see what the atmosphere felt like."

The atmosphere, predictably, was crazy.

The 22,812 fans in attendance - a notable number wearing blue - were loud from well before tip all the way through the final buzzer of UK's 58-50 win in a defensive slugfest. Ulis was never fazed.

"He was really good today," Calipari said. "That's the best I've seen him play since I've coached him."

Ulis was poised throughout, handling Louisville's trademark pressure with little issue, but briefly exited late in the first half after taking an elbow from Chris Jones. He would receive treatment, return quickly and dominate from there.

"I think he's a great basketball player," said Louisville's Rick Pitino. "He's a true point guard who makes other people better."

Prior to sustaining the cut - which would require three postgame stitches - Ulis had two points. Afterward, he had 12 for a total of 14. He would post just two assists, an uncharacteristically low number for a player called repeatedly a "true point guard," but committed no turnovers on an afternoon when UK had a season-high 18 as a team.

"He just led the team," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had 10 points and nine rebounds. "He led the team. That's one of the things: Against a team like this, you need to make sure everything's under control. He kept the game under control. He was hitting shots like he always does. Hit a floater. He was pretty, pretty, pretty good today. Pretty good."

Ulis scored his career high on 5-of-8 shooting, including 2 of 4 from 3-point range, all the while setting the tone for a UK defense that held Louisville to 25.9-percent shooting and 0.82 points per possession. He rarely looked to shoot, but did so without hesitation when the moment called for it. His two biggest baskets came as UK built a double-digit lead for the first time in a hard-fought affair, burying a 3 when the Cats lead by five and another shot a minute later to give UK a 45-34 lead with 6:19 remaining.

"He's incredible. He's showing people -- you guys -- things you haven't seen out of him before, but I've seen it because we've played on camps and teams all the time, so it's nothing new to me," said Devin Booker, who scored nine points as UK's four-member freshman class combined for 39 points. "He's a real special player."

Ulis would return to a more familiar distributor role as the Cats drove home the dagger, penetrating and passing to Aaron Harrison for a 3 from his familiar spot on the left wing to give UK a 53-43 lead with 1:01 to go.

"They were really big," Ulis said. "Three people hit big shots late: me, Aaron and Andrew hit three 3s late in the game, which really opened it up for us in that point of the game."

Andrew Harrison's late 3 was particularly notable after UK's starter at point guard struggled for much of the day. After playing some of his best basketball in two wins over Louisville last season, he managed just three points and four assists against six turnovers.

"They're not machines. They're not computers," Calipari said, repeating a familiar refrain. "I told him, 'Man, I love you. I got your back. You're my point guard. Stop it.' He's down."

Down but certainly not out.

"Andrew took us to the national championship game last year," Calipari said. "Andrew did. So what I have is I have two terrific point guards, who I can play together if I choose. If Andrew's playing really well Tyler will maybe not play as much or I'll put him as a wing. Tyler's playing well or out of his mind (and Andrew Harrison won't play as much). That's what good about this."

Andrew Harrison averaged 16 points and 4.5 assists in two wins over Louisville last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison averaged 16 points and 4.5 assists in two wins over Louisville last season. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Basketball, even more than usual, has consumed the Bluegrass State this week.

As families and friends gathered for Christmas, the rivalry between Kentucky and Louisville dominated conversation. Talk of the matchup between the Wildcats and Cardinals - both unbeaten and ranked in the top five - has been everywhere all week.

Well, except maybe the Joe Craft Center.

"I'm not making this bigger than it is, because it's not our season," John Calipari said on the eve of the annual UK-U of L showdown.

That's not just idle talk either.

Rather than spending every waking moment preparing for the matchup between No. 1 Kentucky (12-0) and No. 4 Louisville (11-0), Coach Cal actually dismissed his team for a few days following the Cats' dismantling of UCLA last weekend in Chicago.

"We took a Christmas break, we got our minds off basketball, we came back, we started working," Calipari said. "We didn't have two weeks to work on what we're doing."

Instead, UK reconvened on Christmas Eve ahead of Saturday's 2 p.m. ET game at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. The group that returned, if you ask the Cats, was a refreshed one.

"It helped us a lot," Andrew Harrison said. "Just to be able to focus on our families and stuff like that, not worry about basketball or about stuff that goes on here. It's being able to get together with your family and have a nice time."

The Cats now hope to have fun again this weekend, but not the relaxing time they surely enjoyed at their homes across the country. Neither the Cardinals nor their fans will have a home-cooked meal waiting for Kentucky on Saturday.

"We need somebody to punch us in the face," Calipari said. "Let's see if we can still have fun. Can we enjoy this? If we're a world-class team, you enjoy this. Even when they're coming after you, you enjoy it. And so it's gonna be a tough game for us. We know that."

Willie Cauley-Stein, the only Wildcat who will be in uniform to play at Louisville before, is eager for the challenge.

"It just makes the game that much more passionate," Cauley-Stein said. "It's not dull. It's not quiet. It's going to be loud the whole time. The energy level is going to be up, your adrenaline is going to be pumping from the gate. Those games are the best to play in."

From Cauley-Stein to the Harrison twins, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, UK has more experience to call on than in past seasons. The fact remains, however, that this will be the Cats' first true road test of the season.

"This is going to be the craziest first road game for even us," Cauley-Stein said. "I can only imagine what it'll be like for the freshmen. Right when you walk in the gym, dudes are going to be yelling at you, cussing at you. You just have to smile like, 'This is it. This is game time. This will be fun.' "

Adding fuel to the fire, of course, is the rivalry.

A season ago, UK took down Louisville at Rupp Arena in December before ending the Cardinals' season in the Sweet 16. The two wins gave Coach Cal six in seven tries against Rick Pitino since he arrived in Lexington, only serving to intensify the well-established animosity the two fan bases share.

"I still don't understand why it's so hated because I'm from Texas and A&M and the University of Texas, they're rivals, but it's not like this," Andrew Harrison said. "People genuinely hate each other, so it's crazy."

But after the opening tipoff, the passion only means so much and basketball takes over. Once that happens, expect a battle.

By any measure, UK and U of L are among the nation's top defensive teams. In fact, they rank first and second nationally in points per possession allowed with historically low averages of 0.728 and 0.752, respectively.

For that reason more than any other, the Cats know they're going to have a hard time sustaining their streak of 12 consecutive double-digit wins to start the season.

"We know they're not going to go away early," Andrew Harrison said. "We know we're going to have to fight as hard as we can for the full 40 minutes to stay close in their building."

Clearly, the Cats have a lot of respect for their opponents, both individually and collectively.

"It's the next game for us, but it's a great game because of how they play, how they're coached, that they got terrific talent," Calipari said. "Don't ever take that away from those kids. They are talented."

That starts with Montrezl Harrell, the star junior forward on every early shortlist for national player of the year honors. Harrell is averaging 16.7 points and 10 rebounds and presents matchup problems for every opponent with his motor, athleticism and 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame, but he's surrounded by three other double-digit scorers.

"(Wayne) Blackshear, (Terry) Rozier, they're all -- listen, they're all of them able to get 30 points," Calipari said. "Harrell. C'mon. Their big guys, I mean, they'll block shots, they got great size. There's not a guy out there that I don't think, like, 'Well, he can't play.' They all can play, and they all can get 30, and they probably are all gonna try and get 30. Just how it is in this game."

Perhaps most worrisome about U of L is its ability on the offensive glass. The Cardinals rank 12th nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage, grabbing 40.2 percent of their own misses. By contrast, UK is 250th in defensive-rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to rebound more than a third of their own misses.

"Defensive rebounding is our biggest issue," Calipari said. "Guard rebounding. I mean, those are major concerns, because now a team can shoot 30 percent and still beat you. Just shoot it and go rebound. That's a concern of mine. If our guards start rebounding -- we should. We're big, we just don't. We don't get in there and mix it up. We've done stuff here the last 10 days to try and cure it, but it's just going to be one of those things."

More than the rivalry, the rankings or the unbeaten records, that's why UK-U of L matters for this Kentucky team. It's the ideal measuring stick.

"This game is a different kind of game for us, but we're excited to find out where we are right after Christmas," Calipari said. "Where's our team stand at this point?"

Like most of the league, the majority of Kentucky's NFL Cats' postseason fates had already been decided before the NFL's penultimate slate of 2014 regular season games. However, several UK alumni and their teams are still fighting for playoff berths, while others are using the season's final two weeks to cap off successful individual season-long performances. Here are the former Wildcats who shined in Week 16:  

Cats in the Spotlight

Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (11-4)
Cobb led all receivers with 11 catches and 131 yards in Green Bay's 20-3 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Packers have already clinched a postseason berth, but will face the Detroit Lions in Week 17 for the NFC North crown.

Corey Peters | #91 DT | Atlanta Falcons (6-9)
Despite a guaranteed losing record, the Falcons still control their own playoff destiny. Week 17 will pit the Dirty Birds against Garry Williams' Carolina Panthers (who will also finish with a losing record) for the NFC South title. In Week 16's 30-14 defeat of the New Orleans Saints, Peters recorded his first quarterback sack since Week 3. The former third-round pick finished with two solo tackles on the day.

Alfonso Smith | #38 RB | San Francisco 49ers (7-8)

Though the 49ers will not make the playoffs for the first time in the Jim Harbaugh era, late-season injuries have opened the door for playing time for Smith. In San Fran's 38-35 (OT) loss to the San Diego Chargers, Smith attempted two rushes for 14 yards and caught two passes for nine yards.

Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-13)

For the 13th time in 15 tries this season, the Titans came up short of victory. From an individual standpoint, however, Woodyard has continued to shine his entire first season with the franchise. In Week 16's 21-13 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Woodyard tallied two solo tackles, three assists, and one sack on the day.

Dawson's system, personality the right fit for UK

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It should come as no surprise that Mark Stoops had a plan when he learned he would have to replace Neal Brown.

The interest in Kentucky's open offensive coordinator job came from far and wide and speculation about when Brown's successor would be named swirled immediately. Stoops, meanwhile, kept a narrow focus, unaffected by everything going on outside his own head.

"I really took my time, evaluated to find what I wanted, and set out to find that person rather than just get all kinds of great people with great credentials and then try to change what we're doing and so on and so forth, and what direction I wanted to go," Stoops said.

Once Stoops had an idea on direction, he set about finding the best fit. Ultimately, current West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson was the pick.

"With that, that led me to Shannon, and could not be more happy with that hire," Stoops said. "I think the more and more research I did, the more and more I talked to him, it was evident that he was exactly what we're looking for here at Kentucky to lead our offense. Very, very proud to have him."

First, Dawson's hire ensures continuity from the system Brown ran the last two seasons, though Stoops shied away from calling it the "Air Raid."  

"It's the same system, however you want to define it," Stoops said. "It's very similar."

Dawson got his coaching start at Southeastern Louisiana under Hal Mumme, a fact that Stoops didn't come across until late in the game.

"I also think it's kind of unique that some of his roots go back to Coach Mumme in the days of--it all goes back, right?" Stoops said. "I didn't even really realize that until we were far into the process, but I think it is kind of unique that what I'm looking for and what we're trying to be here offensively, a lot of it does tie into the culture and to the history of this program."

The history of the program may have a lot to do with the pass-happy system Mumme pioneered, but Stoops is quick to point out that its future will be defined in large part by running the ball. Playing in the Southeastern Conference, he doesn't see any other option.

"You've heard me talk about it all the time, and people may wonder where I'm going all the time with balance and things like that, but the bottom line is I believe to compete in this conference you have to be physical," Stoops said. "You have to have some balance."

Once again, Dawson fits the bill on that count.

Though West Virginia is ninth nationally in passing and 11th in total offense, the Mountaineers actually attempted more runs (531) than passes (489) this regular season.

"They're very effective at running the ball, even out of the spread, and that's what I want to look like," Stoops said. "I want to threaten people and make them accountable to stopping the run game. If you don't, really you're not going to win a lot of games."

Getting past system and run-pass balance, Stoops sees in Dawson the kind of coach who will fit into a blue-collar staff that, by and large, has been together for two years now. He sees a coach who will capitalize on the opportunity in front of him.

"The most important thing was leadership, but other things I really liked about him was I felt like he's always done more with less," Stoops said. "I like the way he's worked his way up the profession. I like the way he grinded from a young coach and really made a name for himself, working with Hal Mumme, the roots of his system."

Stoops also mentioned Dawson's evolution as a coach. The 37-year-old has come a long way since those days with Mumme and even in his three seasons working under Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, going from relying almost exclusively on the pass to displaying the balance so important to Stoops.

That's now positioned him for this chance to run his own offensive show.

"I think if you ask him when he gets here, I'm sure one of the things that appealed to him about coming here was working for a defensive coach because, you know, sink or swim, here's the keys, you do it," Stoops said. "Sink or swim. That's what it was like when I went to Florida State (as defensive coordinator), and I wanted it that way."

Stoops in no rush to find Naivar's replacement

Stoops confirmed on Monday that special teams coordinator and safeties coach Craig Naivar has accepted a position at the University of Houston. With the decision to hire Dawson now made, Stoops is turning his attention to filling the vacancy left by Naivar.

Just as he did in searching for an offensive coordinator, Stoops won't hurry.

"I want the best football coach I can get," Stoops said.

He also wants a coach who will be a major asset on the defensive side of the ball.

"I would really like to bring in as much defensive experience as we can get," Stoops said. "I think if you just look around this league, and some things that are going on now and guys that I'm talking to and different things, different hires, it's serious business. There's guys hiring an awful lot of good football coaches. You look at certain staffs, and there's two or three coordinator types on each side of the ball, and really that's what you have to get to."

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