UK had its normal walkthrough on Thursday, opting to move inside with cold weather in Lexington before the Wildcats go back outside on Friday. Head coach Mark Stoops spoke to the media afterward for the final time before a Saturday matchup with Tennessee, praising his team for the way it has practiced all week. Stoops also gave an injury update on a pair of players, saying Za'Darius Smith (ankle) is expected to play in spite of practicing little this week. Stoops also expects Blake McClain (shoulder) to play after the nickelback practiced all week, but with no contact.
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."
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."
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.