LEXINGTON, Ky. (UK) John Calipari has plenty to be thankful for this holiday season.
He has his family and one of the best jobs in sports, plus those Pittsburgh Steelers pajamas he got for Christmas.
And one more thing: the fact that he's not a football coach.
"I don't know how football teams do it where you play one day and then you've got a week to have to deal with what just happened," Calipari said. "It stinks. I would rather play back to back. Just play, let's get that last one, that taste out of our mouth."
That bad taste is lingering because Kentucky had six days between games - a rarity for a college basketball team - after losing to UCLA on Saturday. In yet another unique twist, the No. 16/15 Wildcats (9-2) didn't even have practice to turn to, as players and coaches went their separate ways for a short break for the holidays.
Nonetheless, Hamidou Diallo wasn't about to leave basketball alone altogether.
"There's only one thing to do when you're disappointed: get back in the gym," Diallo said.
The Wildcats got back in the gym as a team when they returned to Lexington and practiced together on Wednesday.
"Hope you had a great time with your family," Coach Cal said, recounting his message to his team. "Now we get back to work. Let's get better."
Improvement is what it's all about for UK. Though Friday at 1 p.m. will bring the Wildcats their annual regular-season matchup with Louisville (10-2) and the statewide fervor and national-television broadcast that comes with it, getting better remains the primary focus.
"We're excited for any game, but we're definitely excited to come out and really regroup and show that we didn't take a step back or anything," Sacha Killeya-Jones said. "We're taking steps forward, improving, trying to build on everything and improve on where we messed up last game."
The mess-ups concerning Calipari from last weekend's loss aren't anything to do with execution. As it has from day one, it all comes back to effort, hustle and an assertive mentality.
"My thing is how do I get them to play different?" Calipari said. "If they're unaggressive, I created a culture that was unaggressive. If they're not beating anybody to 50/50 balls, that is a culture that's been created. Well, that's my job - to change that culture and get them back to being aggressive and attacking and being a scrap kind of game."
If the Cats are looking for a scrap kind of game, they've come to the right place.
UK-UofL has always been a notoriously intense game, but the intensity has ratcheted up a notch or two since Coach Cal's arrival. Calipari's teams have won eight of 10 matchups, including twice in the NCAA Tournament, but only one of the games has been decided by double digits. The others have been close and, for the most part, relatively low scoring.
"Every game has been a great game," Calipari said. "Two scrappy teams that aren't playing. It's always a good game."
This year's edition of the Dream Game is a little different though, as David Padgett will be patrolling the visitors' sideline as interim head coach. Padgett is familiar with the rivalry from experiences as a player at Louisville and assistant at UofL, but this is his first game as head coach in the series.
"The tape I'm watching, I think Dave is doing a great job with this team," Calipari said. "He's putting them in great positions and situations. They've had a lot of battles, most of them they've won. Couple of them they should have won. The two they lost, they probably should have won. They had the games real late. Had a chance. Big guys, the returning players are all playing well. They're making shots. When they make shots, they beat you big, but they've won games without making shot where they've made, four, five, six 3s."
Louisville has managed to do so on the strength of a customarily stingy defense that ranks 24th nationally in points allowed per possession (0.912) and ninth in effective field-goal percentage defense (0.426). The Cardinals' greatest strength is their length and shot blocking, with Anas Mahmoud (4.3 blocks per game, second nationally) leading a defense that ranks second nationally in blocks per game.
"If they're No. 2, they're a great shot-blocking team," Diallo said. "We're just going to have to go out there and compete."
That boils Friday's game down to its essence. Sure, an entire state will be on the edge of its collective seat watching it. Of course, Louisville is a quality opponent.
But more than anything else, it's another chance for Kentucky to take a step forward.
"It's when do you get the importance of coming up with balls that you defend together," Calipari said. "I told them yesterday, 'When the house is burning, everybody gets it. You either get the fire or the smoke, but you're getting it.' We have to come together and know that we have to defend better. We have to be more aggressive. We have to make easy plays."
UCLA Snaps Young Cats' Seven-Game Winning Streak
Aaron Holiday capped a 20-point performance with a pivotal driving scoop and two free throws in the final 33 seconds as UCLA upset No. 7-6 Kentucky 83-75 on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic in New Orelans.
Hamidou Diallo scored 18 points and Wenyen Gabriel added a season-high 16 points for Kentucky (9-2), which lost for the first time in eight games.
Kevin Knox had 15 points for Kentucky on an array of perimeter shots and slashing dunks, but Kentucky didn't shoot well overall. The Wildcats went 6 of 21 from 3-point range and were outshot overall 47.5 percent (29 of 61) to 42.6 percent (29 of 68).
Kentucky hit only two of 10 3-point shots in the first half. Yet when Gabriel made the Wildcats' second 3-pointer 17 minutes into the game, Kentucky led 37-29.
But Jaylen Hands' layup and Welsh's 3 ignited what grew into a 21-2 Bruins run, putting UCLA ahead 50-39 early in the second half. Welsh and Ali each hit two 3s during the pivotal surge.
Kentucky didn't go down easily though. Knox hit two 3-pointers and a soaring baseline dunk during a 13-2 Kentucky spurt that tied it at 52 and spiked the volume of the evidently pro-Kentucky crowd at the CBS Sports Classic.
But Welsh again helped spark a UCLA spurt with a steady jump shot as the crowd urged on the Kentucky defense, and the Bruins built their lead back to 12 on Holiday's free throws before Kentucky made one last charge that came up short.
Kentucky has been dominant against teams in the state under John Calipari. UK is 15-2 against in-state foes with Calipari at the helm.
The mark also includes an 8-2 mark vs. Louisville. Two of the victories over the Cardinals came in postseason play. UK had its four-game winning streak snapped last season, but has won all four meetings played in Rupp Arena. Louisville's two wins have come by a combined six points.
Here's a list of the meetings between the state's two premier programs since Cal took over at UK:
• Jan. 2, 2010 - UK won 71-62 at Rupp Arena
• Dec. 31, 2010 - UK won 78-63 at KFC YUM! Center
• Dec. 31, 2011 - UK won 69-62 at Rupp Arena
• March 31, 2012 - UK won 69-61 at the Superdome (NCAA Final Four in New Orleans)
• Dec. 29, 2012 - Louisville won 80-77 at KFC YUM! Center
• Dec. 28, 2013 - UK won 73-66 at Rupp Arena
• March 28, 2014 - UK won 74-69 at Lucas Oil Stadium (NCAA Sweet 16 in Indianapolis)
• Dec. 27, 2014 - UK won 58-50 at KFC YUM! Center
• Dec. 26, 2015 - UK won 75-73 at Rupp Arena
• Dec. 21, 2016 - Louisville won 73-70 at KFC YUM! Center
The Best Rivalry in College Basketball
With all due respect to all other rivalries, fans of Kentucky and Louisville will tell you the UK-Louisville game is the best rivalry in all of sports. Given the tradition, there is an argument.
Separated my a mere 80 miles, the two schools are the bluebloods of the Bluegrass State. They have combined for more than 4,000 wins, 11 national championships and 27 Final Fours, including a combined six since 2011. Countless All-Americans have put on uniforms for the two schools.
UK owns an all-time record of 34-16 against the Cards, including an 8-2 mark since John Calipari took over the reigns. Two of those victories came when the stakes were at their highest in the NCAA Tournament. The first was in the 2012 Final Four in which Kentucky went on to win the national title. The second was in 2014 in the Sweet 16, as the Wildcats went on to the Final Four again.
Only one time in those 10 games since Calipari took over has the game been decided by more than 10 points (the 78-63 decision during the 2010-11 regular season).
The two schools had a 24-year gap without a game following the 1959 meeting before the "Dream Game" revived the series in 1983. The two schools have played each other every year since.
The highest-scoring game came in 1991 when UK won 103-89. Prior to Louisville's win in 2016, Kentucky's four-game winning streak in the series was the longest since UK won five straight from 1916-51.