Sam Malone, Brian Long and Tod Lanter will participate in Senior Day activities on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Sam Malone's first three college seasons couldn't have been much different.
Coming to Kentucky as walk-on, the Scituate, Mass., was there every step of the way as the Wildcats went from national champions in 2012 to first-round NIT losers in 2013 to within one win of another title in 2014.
"Freshman year I thought it was going to be like that every year, then the next with that NIT--it was totally different from the first year," Malone said. "But we just stuck with our game plan of what we were doing as far as the program goes, and we're back to where we want to be."
With UK sitting atop the polls with a record of 30-0 entering Senior Day for Malone and classmates Brian Long and Sam Malone, that might be an understatement.
The Cats are a game away from completing the first unbeaten season for a power-conference team since Indiana accomplished the feat in 1975-76. Malone and Long have already been a part of a pair of Final Four teams and they clearly have designs on making it three within the next month.
"So far it's been great," said Long, a Dumont, N.J. native. "We've had two real good years and this year the story's not over yet. It's been a great ride all four years. Just appreciate everything and it's been real fun."
The three seniors have had an inside view of the program that's been at the center of college basketball. They been a part of some downs, to be sure, but more often than not they've watched John Calipari mold groups of young stars into cohesive units.
"I think that he just gets people focused on buying into the team, like he says, and everyone's worried about winning," Malone said. "If we win it's been shown that good things will happen for everyone, so trusting in that is really how it works."
Even more than with that title team, the 2014-15 Wildcats are proof of how well Coach Cal's approach can work. Nine McDonald's All-Americans, Willie Cauley-Stein and in-state high-school stars Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins have put team above self and reaped the rewards beginning with a preseason island trip.
"I think it started in the Bahamas, but we're at the point where I think we know what we're doing is working really well, so why would we change anything," Malone said. "You know what I mean? Just keep trusting each other. There's no reason to do anything we haven't been doing and I think that's really been working out great for us."
None of the three seniors have had a regular in-game role this season or in any prior year, but don't tell them or their teammates they haven't been a part of it all.
"Coming in and seeing the results and seeing all these people succeed after they leave here," Long said. "Just being part of it and seeing everyone succeed has been the best part for me."
For Lanter, that's been extra special.
The Lexington, Ky., native is the son of former UK player Bo Lanter and a lifelong Kentucky fan. He started his college career at Gulf Coast State Community College, but elected to transfer home and take a shot at becoming a Wildcat. His gamble paid off.
"I've grown up around this program," Lanter said. I've seen its ups and downs. I've seen the ins and outs of it through--I've had a little bit of insight with my dad being here, stories and things, and I've had personal relationships with past players. So I've gotten a little bit more of an insight than most typical fans have.
But even Lanter has had moments when he forgets he's in a place he always dreamed of being. It's then that he gives himself a little dose of perspective.
"You get caught up in the ups and downs of a season and the ins and outs of practice and things and you sometimes lose track of where you actually are and what you're getting to go through and how many people would kill to be able to be in this position," Lanter said. "I try to take the time to take it all in."
He'll be doing plenty of that on Saturday when he participates in Senior Day activities. Lanter has long dreamed of walking through that hoop with his picture on it and standing alongside his family for the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home."
"Now I'm going to have to be a part of it and I'm sure it'll be tough, but at the same time it's part of the process and I'm thankful to be there," Lanter said.
The question then becomes whether the three will get the start against Florida. Malone showed his usual humor in answering that question.
"Unless 12 other people get a crippling flu, I don't think we're going to start," Malone said. "But we'll see what happens."
Matthew Mitchell leads UK into the SEC Tournament this week in North Little Rock, Ark. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Defining success for this team has always been simple for Matthew Mitchell.
"We started the season of the goal of becoming a great team, and that being defined by this team becoming the best that this team can be," Mitchell said.
Wins and losses have never figured into the equation, at least not directly. Nor has Kentucky's performance in the postseason. That doesn't mean those things don't have a role as the Wildcats head to North Little Rock, Ark., for the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
"I think it would be significant to get in the mix for a championship," Mitchell said. "I think it would be very significant to win the SEC Tournament. It would be a great sign that they have given it their best."
Significant, not to mention especially meaningful to this group.
UK - which enters as the No. 6 seed - has advanced to the finals of the SEC Tournament in four of the last five seasons but never won. Fifth-year senior Jennifer O'Neill has been a part of three of those trips, and classmates Jennifer O'Neill, Azia Bishop and Jelleah Sidney two each.
"I think they'll be hungry to go down there and win it," Mitchell said. "Especially the veterans. We have gotten very close. I think the veterans have been to two championship games. It's a big-time tournament. It's a big one to win. We would be very proud to win it and we're going to try to do that."
The Cats (21-8, 10-6 SEC) will open their title bid at approximately 9:30 p.m. ET on Thursday against either No. 11 Vanderbilt or No. 14 Alabama. They will also do so in a much better place than if the tournament had started a week and a half prior.
On Feb. 23, UK had just lost its third straight game. Sensing their team was about to "go off the cliff," those four seniors - led by O'Neill - called a meeting with their head coach to ask him to be more involved in demanding focus and intensity from his team.
"We're not the most talented team around," Mitchell said. "We're talented enough that when we play extremely hard and we're ultra-competitive, we're talented enough to win. We're also talented enough that if we don't compete, if we're not ultra-competitive and we don't play extremely hard, we can lose to anybody. So there's really no in between with the team."
With no in between, Mitchell has changed up practice and even implemented game-speed drills during pregame warmups. He's also abandoned his customary spot in the locker room before games in favor of running the team through those drills. The Cats have responded by winning two straight, including Sunday's upset of then-No. 2 South Carolina.
"For me, it's been fun because I'm sort of bored back in the locker room, staring at the board," Mitchell said. "You've written the words and you know what you want to say and you're just back there by yourself and so it was great."
Mitchell will be on the court again Thursday night helping his team get ready. If anything, he'll be even more eager to be there.
"I think it's a really exciting tournament, the SEC Tournament," Mitchell said. "I think it's very difficult to win and we've had a chance several times to win it and we'd love to taste victory in that tournament. It would really be a big accomplishment if we could win it, so we have to take them one game at a time obviously and no matter who it is, Vanderbilt or Alabama, it'll be a tough test. We will do everything we can to get prepared."
Though UK will be preparing for a game with winning in mind, the ultimate goal remains the same as the one the Cats had to start the season.
"I just talk to them about doing the things that we need from them to be successful and that is to have an edge to us, a competitiveness to us, playing defense for each other, getting on the boards, things like that," Mitchell said. "We'll go down there with the intention of winning, but I'll talk with them more about the process than I will about whatever result we get."
Aaron Harrison had 16 points as UK completed a nine-point comeback against Georgia on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There John Calipari was again, saying unexpected things in a Kentucky huddle.
Almost a month after he famously told the Wildcats he wanted them to lose at LSU, Coach Cal had an interesting reaction when UK found itself down nine with barely nine minutes left at Georgia.
"I hope we go down 10," Calipari told his team.
Just like against the Tigers in UK's last close game, there was a reason Calipari was talking that way.
"We need to find out who's who, who's going to make a play, who's going to do stuff, who's going to play," Calipari said. "I kept saying, 'Scared money don't make no money.' "
There no fear in the way the top-ranked Cats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) closed out the Bulldogs in a 72-64 win, especially not after Georgia was up six with five minutes to go.
"We're a really together team, so we knew we just had to lean on each other and depend on each other and that's what we did," Aaron Harrison said. "Players came through."
Harrison, unsurprisingly, topped the list.
The clutch sophomore guard scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half, including five points in a decisive and game-ending 16-2 run.
"Aaron, of course everyone knows what he's going to do in a big game," said Andrew Harrison, who started the run with a 3-pointer. "And Karl(-Anthony Towns), Karl stepped up great down the stretch."
Similar to that close call at LSU, a mistake by Towns seemed it might end UK's bid for an unbeaten season. Backing down in the post, Towns extended his arm attacking the basket rather than kick to a wide-open Tyler Ulis at the top of the key. The result was the fourth foul on Towns with 5:50 to go.
"They double-teamed him and he had Tyler Ulis wide open and he ball faked," Calipari said. "Why? And then he charged the guy. Throw it to the - don't be a hero. That's the thing he's learning. Easy play. Quit trying - he is so good, you don't have to do crazy stuff. Other guys do. They have to do crazy stuff to stand out. You don't. Why are you doing it?"
A little more than two minutes later, with UK on a 6-0 run to tie the game, Towns checked back in and Calipari called for the offense to run through the 6-foot-11 freshman. He promptly scored seven of the Cats' next eight points to finish a dominant 19-point, seven-rebound performance.
"That's how much I think of him," Calipari said. "I know he has the courage and he has the skill and the ability, and that's what we did: We went to him late."
But if not for UK's defense, Towns' offense would have mattered little.
In building the lead, Georgia had a stretch of seven straight possessions with points and later three straight. It was around the five-minute mark that Towns spoke up and said the Cats needed three stops in a row to climb back into the game.
Andrew Harrison, who scored 12 points and steadied a UK offense that committed a season-low three turnovers - raised him to five.
"I was looking at my jersey number," he said. "Nah, I mean, we just wanted to get as many stops as long as we could. That's what we did."
On cue, the Cats - with the help of two missed front ends of one-and-ones - held Georgia scoreless on six straight trips, much to the chagrin of a raucous Stegeman Coliseum crown.
"They're starting to be empowered," Calipari said of his team. "They're starting. Last year, it was about this time they said, 'Alright, we can listen to everyone make excuses for us, tell us it's not me, personally, it's somebody else. Or, we can come together and do this.' And they did it. This year, right now, again, I don't want them relying so much on me. I want them to be about themselves."
The Cats are accepting that challenge, whether that's in games like the five straight blowouts that preceded Tuesday or a hard-fought battle like the one Georgia gave them.
"It definitely builds confidence to know that we can win a close game 'cause we have guys that have been through this, and even our younger guys are mentally tough and ready for it," Aaron Harrison said.
Eric Bledsoe | Phoenix Suns: 117, Oklahoma City Thunder: 113 (Overtime) It took a near triple-double performance from the Suns' star player and five extra minutes of basketball for Phoenix to put away the Thunder last Thursday on TNT. Bledsoe recorded 28 points, 13 rebounds, nine assists and four blocks in the nationally televised win at home.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) In addition to Bledsoe's superstar performance on February 26, the 6-foot-1 Birmingham, Ala. native averaged 19.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, and 6.3 APG through a four-game week. In two wins and as many losses, Bledsoe turned in two double-doubles. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (20-36) Before sitting out Friday's home contest with the San Antonio Spurs due to a sprained ankle and bruised hip on the left side of his body, Cousins produced 16 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a 102-90 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on February 25.
Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (40-18) After missing almost the entire season with lingering injuries and illness, Jones is back in the Houston starting lineup and better than ever. The former 2011 First Team All-SEC performer manufactured two dazzling double-double showcases over three consecutive Rockets victories. On February 23, Jones recorded 15 points and 15 rebounds in a 113-102 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves. Four days later, the Portland native exploded for 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 102-98 win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (32-27) In three games last week, Kanter averaged 17.7 PPG and 7.7 RPG, resulting in two wins for OKC. On February 22, Kanter had 20 points and 12 rebounds in a 119-94 lopsided victory over the Denver Nuggets.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (23-33) Though the Hornets dropped two games and won only one, Kidd-Gilchrist boasted two double-doubles over last week's three-game stretch. On February 25, MKG had 18 points and 12 rebounds in Charlotte's win over the Chicago Bulls, and 12 points and 11 rebounds in a loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday.
Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (31-29) Eric Bledsoe's newest backcourt teammate put up double-digit scoring outings in three of the Suns' four games last week. Knight scored 20 points on February 23, 19 points (with six assists) on February 25, and 15 points the next day, before a season-low one-point performance in 17 minutes on February 28.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (13-45) Noel surpassed his season average for blocks per game in three of Philly's four matchups last week. The 20-year-old big man highlighted the four-game stretch with 18 points, seven rebounds and four blocks on February 23, and 14 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks on February 27.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (34-26) Wall dialed in four straight double-digit performances in the assist category in four straight Wizards losses-- capping off a seven-game D.C. losing streak. The Raleigh, N.C. native averaged 14.8 PPG and 10.0 APG in one Washington win over a busy five-game week.
John Calipari and Kentucky face a rematch with Georgia on Tuesday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The clutter isn't going away.
That's why John Calipari won't stop talking about it.
"I talked to them about it yesterday a little bit and just said, 'You've got to stay the course, and that's the one thing that can break us down,' " Coach Cal said.
As Kentucky has piled up wins, the noise surrounding them has intensified from an early-season buzz to a dull roar now that the calendar has flipped to March. Of course the national media has latched on to the top-ranked Wildcats' pursuit of perfection, but Calipari is more worried about immediate threats.
"Like I said to them, you're going to have people around that are trying to make you like them and they're going to say whatever they've got to say, which is, 'Ah, you should shoot more, you should play more,' " Calipari said. " 'Why is he going to him and not you? What about this? You really don't like that guy, right? You're the man.' I mean, again, it's all to enable, it's all to make them feel good and, 'Come with me, listen to me, talk to me.' That's the stuff they've got to be mature enough to deal with."
"I could put my head in the sand and say, 'Ah, that's not happening here,' " Calipari said. " 'This is Kentucky.' It's worse here. So these kids are strong, they're mature for their age, they've dealt with it, they've done it."
It's a good thing, too, because the tests on the court aren't getting any easier.
That starts Tuesday at Georgia (19-9, 10-6 Southeastern Conference), a team that was within six points of the Wildcats (29-0, 16-0 SEC) in the final five minutes of a February matchup in Rupp Arena. For further evidence that UK is in for a major test, look no further than the fact that Georgia played that game without leading scorer and rebounder Marcus Thornton.
"This is a totally different game," Calipari said.
Working in Kentucky's favor is the fact that Trey Lyles is back in uniform. He missed the first game against Georgia due to illness, but has scored 18 points in back-to-back games. Coach Cal has labeled the freshman forward UK's X-factor, so figures to help against the Bulldogs.
"They're a better team, and they're playing better," Calipari said of Georgia. "Hopefully we're playing better. We have Trey now.
"They're an NCAA Tournament team we're playing on the road. It's gonna be a hard game for us."
Making it even more of a challenge is the coach who will walk the Georgia sideline. Calipari knows he can watch all the tape in the world and still not know what to expect from Mark Fox.
"He may come out and play zone," Calipari said. "He may come out and play man. They may sag. You don't know what he's going to do. He looked at the tape, and he's going to try to exploit us defensively. He is one of those coaches that I know when we walk in we better be ready. Our team better be ready, our staff better be ready. His team will be ready. He's one of the toughest ones to go against that I've been in 20-some years."
Led by Fox, Georgia has won three straight after a stretch of four losses in six games while the Bulldogs suffered through a rash of concussions.
"They run their stuff," Calipari said. "They do their stuff. They know how they're supposed to play and they play that way. They create the kind of shots they're trying to create. They put you in situations. They know where they're gonna find their shots. They do a good job."
Fortunately for the Cats, their preparation won't change much based on Georgia. Calipari just wants them playing basketball and having fun.
"If a team plays with anger, mad, that physiology can turn to fear," Calipari said. "I want you to play with joy. Play with joy. Have fun. Joy always beats anger, negativity. 'What's the worst thing I can say?' versus 'How can I build something up? How can I make this (positive)?' I just told them about it last game: Just play."