Mark Stoops hoped a bye week would reenergize his team, leading to a strong week of preparation and good performance in its season finale.
So far, he's getting exactly what he wanted.
"It's been a good week of practice so far," Stoops said. "The guys are very energetic, worked hard, enthusiastic. So it's been good. Excited about the opportunity here this week."
The opportunity for Kentucky is two-fold.
To begin with, the Wildcats get to face rival Louisville at noon ET on Saturday in Papa John's Cardinal Stadium. To that end, UK continued its educational series on the rivalry by watching a handful of clips from Governor's Cup games past.
Other coaches might downplay the importance of the matchup, but not Stoops. He sees UK-UL as an important part of what it means to be at Kentucky.
"It's a rivalry," Stoops said. "We want to embrace that rivalry. We want kids to be a part of that and know when they come play at Kentucky that Louisville's a big game for us."
Stoops and his staff have needed some educating too, since most have still only been in Lexington for less than two years. Included in that group is defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot, who has quickly learned about the intensity of the rivalry.
"Well, one thing that I've learned is this is as big a rivalry as anywhere I've been," Eliot said. "The players want to win. The fans want to win. It's something that is special and it's something you look forward to."
At the same time, the Cats are looking forward to their last chance to secure their sixth win and clinch bowl eligibility. Stoops, just as he hasn't hidden from the magnitude of UK-UL, has acknowledged the importance of reaching that plateau for his program.
Even so, that's not the message he's delivering to his team. He simply sees a group that deserves to keep playing football.
"I haven't said anything about a playoff, but I've said it's pretty self-explanatory," Stoops said. "If we win, then we're going to play another game and, I've told them, they deserve it. They've worked hard, they've done a lot of good things and worked hard for a solid year leading up into this season and did some good things. So I'd like the opportunity for them."
Before that opportunity, the Cats will tweak their game-day schedule slightly for Thanksgiving. They will practice earlier than normal on Thursday before eating a meal together. After that, Stoops has given them the night off, with an option to stop by his house in the evening.
Stoops and his wife Chantel are prepared for a crowd.
"We're going to have a dinner right afterwards for the whole group and then I told them my house was open," Stoops said. "So I may get anywhere from two to a hundred."
At this late stage of the season, it's almost unheard of for a coach to allow his quarterback to be hit in practice. So was Mark Stoops trying something drastic before Kentucky's season finale?
No, it turns out. It's just Louisville week.
"No red in this facility this week," Towles said.
With UK (5-6) set to travel to Papa John's Cardinal Stadium for a matchup with the No. 22 Cardinals (8-3) at noon ET on Saturday, Towles and his fellow quarterbacks decided in a walkthrough they wanted no part of wearing their archrivals' color. With the Ft. Thomas, Ky., native set to start against Louisville for the first time, it just wouldn't feel right.
"I've been a Kentucky fan my whole life, so this is a game that I look forward to every year," Towles said. "Being able to play in it is truly special for me and my family, so I'm excited - we're all excited to go down there and play 'em."
The excitement is team-wide, but Towles is somewhat of a rarity among the Wildcats when it comes to intimate familiarity with the heated UK-U of L rivalry. He's one of just 10 players on the two-deep depth chart from Kentucky, meaning the coaching staff has had some work to do in helping a young UK team understand the passion behind the annual battle for the Governor's Cup.
"We're giving them different things each (day) and having former players talk to the team a bit and just get them educated on (the rivalry) a little bit and the importance of it," Stoops said. "I don't think there should be any lack of motivation for our team. Just the opportunity to go in there and get our sixth victory, which we all know is very important to us and this program. So I think our team is motivated, but it's also good to educate them on the series and get them caught up to speed on the rivalry."
As Stoops said, UK is trying to manage the emotions of playing its biggest rival and working toward its sixth win, which would make the Cats bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Stoops expects his team to handle it all just fine, especially with the open date UK had to recuperate mentally and physically beforehand.
"We'll prepare and be excited to go play," Stoops said. "But there is no reason to be tense or to go play tight. I don't anticipate that. I'd like to see us play with that great passion and energy that we did for most of the season."
The Cardinals can be expected to do the same.
"They're playing some very good football coming off a great win at Notre Dame," Stoops said. "So Louisville's a very good football team, very well-coached and playing at a high level right now."
That starts on defense, where the Cardinals rank seventh nationally in total defense at 290.2 yards per game and 14th in scoring defense at 18.7 points per game. Only unbeaten and defending national champion Florida State has managed more than 28 points or better than 4.1 yards per carry against U of L.
"They've got one of the top defenses in the country," Towles said. "Bring a lot of pressure. They're really good at defensive end. They've got a lot of really good players, and of course they've got that defensive back with all those interceptions."
That defensive back is safety Gerod Holliman, who, with 13 interceptions, is one pick away from tying a national record that has stood since 1968.
"I think some of that is schematic," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "You have to give some of the credit to their defensive staff. He's a free player quite a bit. But the thing about it is he breaks on the ball really well and he's got good ball skills."
Louisville's pass rush doesn't hurt his cause either.
The Cardinals are ninth nationally in sacks, racking up 3.27 per game. Senior defensive end Lorenzo Mauldin (6.5 sacks) anchors the Cardinal pass rush while also helping to hold opponents to 88.5 yards per game on the ground, good for third nationally.
"They've rushed the passer so well you've got to keep them honest (with the run)," Brown said. "But I think that's important. We've got to do a good job, not only at the offensive line position, but our tight ends, fullbacks have to be involved in the game plan and we've gotta, our running backs have got to run."
On the other side of the ball, UK will contend with a U of L offense that has handed the reins to athletic freshman quarterback Reggie Bonnafon after a season-ending injury to Will Gardner. The Cardinals also have a stable of running backs that features three runners with at least 378 yards and four touchdowns, as well as a receiving corps boosted by the return of DeVante Parker.
In just five games in 2014, Parker has 29 catches for 555 yards.
"Certainly them having DeVante back outside is a real weapon," Stoops said. "He is a fantastic football player and a guy you've constantly got to have your eye on and know where he's at."
Whether it's in defending Parker or otherwise, it's all hands on deck for a UK team that's as healthy as it's been in a long time after a much-needed bye.
"We'll need to go in there and play our very best," Stoops said. "I expect our team to do that. We've had a great bye week and we're off to a great start here this week. Guys are energized and working extremely hard. Again, we'll need to improve to go in there and compete at a high level with Louisville."
The season began with incessant talk of Kentucky's platoon system and whether it would work, but the way the Wildcats are playing shifted the talk to defense.
Calipari, however, wants to press rewind. He wants to go back to the platoon talk, though with, as he would surely put it, a tweak.
"The story, everybody wants to talk about defense, they all want to talk about the energy, the blocked shots and the length, and the story is you have 10 guys sharing minutes," Calipari said. "That's the whole story in a nutshell."
No offense, Coach Cal, but this team's story can't fit in a nutshell, not with the way the Cats have been smothering opponents.
The latest victim to succumb to UK's waves of depth and athleticism was UT Arlington. Top-ranked Kentucky moved to 6-0 with a dominant 92-44 victory, holding the visiting Mavericks (3-2) to 27-percent shooting and a mere 0.611 points per possession and leaving yet another opposing coach raving, this time about exactly the topic Calipari wants everyone talking about.
"They played the game the right way, that's what is really impressive, to be able to get all of those NCAA All-Americans to play together as a team with 10 different guys, that is impressive," Scott Cross said.
But that defense though.
UK allowed just 12 points in building a 43-point halftime advantage, the second-largest in school history behind only the 44-point lead the 1996 team had on LSU on the strength of an 86-point explosion. Astoundingly, UT Arlington made just four field goals in 32 attempts, compared with eight blocks for the Cats, as UK closed the half on a 42-5 run.
The performance would have been more remarkable if it wasn't so, well, commonplace for this team.
Six times in 12 halves now, UK has held its opponent under 20 points. The Cats have not yet allowed 40-percent shooting from the field in a game this season and opponents are shooting just 28.7 percent from 2-point range, good for second nationally. UK has 60 blocks to boot, and at least seven in every game this season.
"This team has a chance of being one of those teams you talk about defensively, like of all time, if they choose to be," Calipari said. "But they're going to have to choose to be that."
It seems they've already made that choice.
"Coach is a defensive guy," said Karl-Anthony Towns, who had his first double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "He wants our offense to just (feed) off of our defense. So that's the biggest thing for us."
Towns, who upped his team-leading total to 21 blocks with three against UT Arlington, can remember hearing the old "defense wins championships" cliche throughout his youth, but it took coming to Kentucky for it to sink in.
"You're told that all the time in high school and middle school," Towns said. "You go to camps and stuff. But you don't really see that happening until you're in college. That's really the biggest thing. We're realizing that probably our biggest strength is our defense."
Calipari may have been the one who got the ball rolling with the defensive emphasis, but the players have taken over pushing it down the hill.
"I wouldn't say it's Cal that's getting us into it," said Devin Booker, who has made 12 of his last 17 3-point tries after pouring in 19 points on 5-of-6 shooting from deep on Tuesday. "It's us as a collective group, you know. We just want to lock teams down. We take pride in it."
Booker and the Cats have quite a bit to be proud of, having allowed 72 points in their last two games combined. Seventy-eight Division-I teams are allowing 72 points per game or more on average this season.
For a team with 10 players among ESPN's top 100 prospects for next June's draft to sustain the focus necessary to do that to two admittedly overmatched opponents, not to mention holding then-No. 5 Kansas to 40 points, is nothing short of incredible.
Uh oh, Coach Cal heard that.
"I'll come back to this: In this day and age, every one of these kids has pro aspirations and pro potential, and they're draftable players, and they're doing this for each other," Calipari said. "This is crazy. That's why I say, for anybody in our society, where everybody talks about the me and mine and narcissism and all that, why wouldn't you root for this to happen and be good? I don't understand why you wouldn't root for this?"
The Cats become even harder to root against once you hear Towns navigate his way around an extended metaphor expertly cooked up for Thanksgiving week.
"I would say that if your group is doing what it's supposed to do, then everyone should eat," Towns said. "That's the biggest thing. There's a lot of food out there to go get. All you gotta do is go grab a plate and just go get it. That's the biggest thing for all of us. We have the utensils."
How does UK's defense fit into mix?
"It seems like the buffet line starts there," Towns said.
Part of having a roster made up of 64 percent underclassmen creates a consistent learning environment in the Nutter Training Facility.
With Kentucky preparing for its regular-season finale at No. 23 Louisville at noon on Saturday, the Wildcats are getting a lesson in what the UK-UL in-state rivalry means to the Commonwealth and the fan bases from each school.
The Wildcats have a total of 77 underclassmen on their 120-man roster and only 10 of the 58 players listed on the depth chart entering the finale at UL are from the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
"So excited about rivalry week, been educating the guys all week on the rivalry," UK offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "We educated them today about the Governor's Cup, what it means. Some of the coaches talked about their personal memories. Some of the in-state guys are going to talk tomorrow. We're just taking a little bit of our offensive meeting and trying to educate them, especially for some young guys from out of state, educating them, teaching them what a rivalry is and a little about Kentucky-Louisville."
Kentucky (5-6) enters the rivalry tilt with a lot more at stake than bragging rights. UK is seeking to earn its sixth win to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010.
While any rivalry game brings the challenge of managing the added emotion, UK's matchup in the Derby City will present a unique challenge for Brown's offense.
"Obviously Louisville is very, very talented on defense," Brown said. "They're well coached. They play hard. That's the thing that struck me last year preparing for them -- and I know it's a different coaching staff, but it's a lot of the same kids -- they really get after it. They rise up every week. And they play good, solid defense, as good as anybody we've played."
The Wildcats will be seeking to reestablish an offense that shined early in the season in games with UT Martin, Florida, South Carolina and ULM, and 31-point performances in losses to No. 1 Mississippi State and Georgia over UK's last four games.
After UK had an eight-game stretch - including seven against SEC foes - the Wildcats benefited from a bye on Saturday, giving UK fresh legs entering the matchup at UL.
"The bye was good for us. We needed it," Brown said. "I think we were getting worn down there. We used last week to kind of re-engergize, coaches and players. We had a good, spirited workout today, do that tomorrow and then kind of wind down and get ready for Saturday at noon."
With two former Cats sidelined by injury and one former Cat enjoying his team's bye week, Week 12 saw five Kentucky NFL alumni emerge victorious and four go home with the sour taste of defeat.
Cats in the Spotlight
Randall Cobb | #18 WR | Green Bay Packers (8-3)
In a game that concluded on a much tighter note than expected, Cobb hauled in four receptions for 58 yards in a 24-21 win over the Minnesota Vikings. For the second consecutive week, Cobb failed to reach the end zone, leaving his season touchdown total untouched at 10 (tied for fourth most in the NFL).
John Conner | #38 FB | New York Jets (2-9)
Conner, who came to the University of Kentucky as a walk-on in 2005, has been considered one of the best blocking backs in football since his days in college. As many teams stray away from the fullback position in favor of today's modern rushing attack, Conner still continues to find his way onto an NFL roster each season. "The Terminator" recorded his first rushing attempt since 2011 with a 13-yard run in Monday's 38-3 loss to the displaced Buffalo Bills.
Avery Williamson | #54 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9)
For the sixth time in his rookie season, Williamson totaled at least six tackles in one contest. The 6-foot-1 Tennessee native made five solo tackles and one assist in the Titans' 43-24 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Wesley Woodyard | #59 ILB | Tennessee Titans (2-9)
For the fourth time this season, Woodyard totaled at least eight tackles in one contest. The seven-year NFL veteran matched Williamson's tally of five solo tackles, but surpassed his Titans teammate with three assisted tackles in Tennessee's fifth consecutive loss.
Two weeks into the season, Kentucky is one of just three teams with a win over a top-10 opponent.
To go with that victory against then-No. 8 Baylor, the Wildcats have two more home wins and another on the road against a Central Michigan expected to contend for a conference championship.
But for UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell, it's not all sunshine and rainbows.
"We are off to a 4-0 start and it's good results for us," Mitchell said, "but we really, really need to get better as a basketball team."
During Thanksgiving week, the ninth-ranked Cats will have ample opportunity to do just that while getting some literal sunshine along the way.
Starting on Thursday, UK will play in the Paradise Jam Island Tournament in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. The Cats left for the U.S. Virgin Islands (forecast 81 degrees and sunny on Thanksgiving Day) early Tuesday morning for a trip where they'll mix basketball and some tourist activities.
First up, UK will face Illinois, off to 4-0 start identical to the Cats', at 6 p.m. ET on Thursday. Next is 3-0 Oklahoma (receiving votes in the AP Top 25) on Friday at 6 p.m. with USF (3-1) to close it out on Saturday at 8:15 p.m.
"Three games against three really quality opponents in three days will be a tough task down in the Virgin Islands," Mitchell said. "It's a great trip; it's a great tournament."
For UK to most effectively capitalize, Mitchell has one thing on his mind above all else.
"From a basketball standpoint right now, we are really needing to improve defensively," Mitchell said. "You can be a good defensive team if you give consistent effort. You're a great defensive team if you give consistent effort along with consistent fundamentals and technique. We are neither one of those right now."
More than anything else, it was the second half of UK's win at Central Michigan that had him thinking that way.
After a solid first half, the Cats built a lead that ballooned to 20 points with 16:13 left. The Chippewas would chip away from there, missing a would-be game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds as UK survived, 71-68. CMU shot 44.8 percent from the field in the second half after the Cats held them to 28.6 in the first.
"A lot of energy in the first half, a lot of focus in the first half, a lot of disruption," Mitchell said. "And in the second half, it was very little attention to detail, very little energy defensively."
Mitchell, though he's demanding improvement, isn't concerned. Bumps in the road, especially this early in the season, are to be expected. What the Cats can't do is become satisfied with a little early-season success.
"We can't take the approach of, 'Well, we beat Baylor and we're a highly ranked team and so we just show up and take the floor,' " Mitchell said. "That's not our formula. Our formula is being honest with ourselves, working really hard and having some discipline. I think that the players, once they see the visual evidence, they'll get it corrected."
With that in mind, Mitchell will be looking for a few simple things as he coaches his team this week.
"If we do nothing else, we're just Kentucky tough and Kentucky tenacious and playing together and being the fastest, most disruptive, toughest team we can be in that tournament," Mitchell said. "If we can accomplish those goals, the technique and the positioning and those kind of mistakes will start to work itself out."