Strange feeling when Kentucky fans are talking football, not hoops, in October
There’s an unfamiliar, but welcomed aura surrounding Lexington this month as its hometown Wildcats prep for a non-conference tuneup prior to a five-game stretch run as a SEC East contender.
That’s correct — Kentucky’s very much alive in its journey toward Atlanta.
This time of year’s often reserved for the build-up surrounding Midnight Madness inside Rupp, the castle for lightning rod John Calipari whose led the Wildcats to three Final Fours over the last four seasons.
Equipped with the nation’s best players every fall, Kentucky’s supposed to compete for national titles, that’s just how it is.
Coach Cal’s embargoed preseason quotes received a ton of interest last week, but it wasn’t the primary topic circulating around an athletic department that’s been basketball-dominated for decades.
Hoops — even Keeneland — can wait.
Mark Stoops is the coach everyone’s talking about, an unassuming, relatively quiet man (compared to Cal) who has lifted the Wildcats from the cellar with defensive vigor.
One must appreciate the job he’s doing this season, handling a football team that’s a triple-overtime loss at Florida away from being unbeaten and nationally-ranked through five games.
The former Florida State defensive coordinator who sat and watched the Seminoles capture a BCS National Championship in January spent much of that night thinking about his own team, one coming off the program’s second consecutive winless SEC season.
Stoops guaranteed improvement from his Wildcats at SEC Media Days, though made sure to not grade this team by a win-loss record. It’s safe to talk results at this point as Kentucky’s in the mix at 2-1 in the conference following its biggest win of the Stoops era Saturday night against South Carolina.
Through six weeks, the Wildcats have forced the second-most turnovers (13) in the SEC, a number that includes nine interceptions.
When asked after the victory over South Carolina if his team had turned the corner, Stoops gave a succinct answer.
“If we go out and win next week and take care of business, I think we do,” he said. “I mean that. That’s the thing in this business, you’ve got seven days to be humbled.”
How has Kentucky football approached the spotlight during ‘basketball season’ in Lexington?
This is a team that looks like a winner, defined by great defense, solid quarterback play and speed at the skill positions. The Wildcats are trending up, no longer the laughing stock of the East after the narrow loss to Florida raised eyebrows across the country.
And they’re having fun doing it.
The nailbiting win wasn’t just lipstick on a pig for the Gators, but instead a testament to how far Kentucky’s risen in Stoops’ second season. There’s no more easy wins against the boys in blue.
The Wildcats have established an offensive identity (unlike 2013) with quarterback Patrick Towles and offensive coordinator Neal Brown and at times, have flexed their muscles on Stoops’ side of the football, especially up front.
We’ll know if the buzz still exists over the next couple games, a challenging stretch featuring road trips to LSU and Mizzou with a bout against Mississippi State — the possible West frontrunner — sandwiched in between.
Good news for Bluegrass basketball fans is that Kentucky’s opener isn’t until Nov. 14, the night before the football’s team final SEC game at Tennessee.
If the Wildcats enter that weekend in need a rivalry win to set up a division tiebreaker scenario, that game on the hardwood loses most — if not all — of its luster.
Even Calipari, who supports all Kentucky sports outside of his own, would attend.