Andrew Harrison had 14 points as UK opened the NCAA Tournament with a 79-56 win over Hampton on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky had waited all season long for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday morning, the Wildcats woke up and it was here.
It was like Christmas morning, only the Cats had to wait all day to run down the stairs and open their presents for a scheduled 9:40 p.m. start.
"It was really difficult just to be so excited to play and then you have to wait all day and pretty much all night too," Aaron Harrison said.
The wait was almost over as the Cats stood in the tunnel outside their KFC Yum! Center locker room. They watched the final seconds of a matchup between Cincinnati and Purdue tick down, only for the Bearcats' Troy Caupain to hit a game-tying layup as time expired to send the game to overtime.
The presents would have to wait even longer.
"To be honest, we're just all in the locker room stretching, talking, trying to keep each other loose," said Andrew Harrison, who drew playful jabs from teammates after predicting the extra session.
Finally, Cincinnati would pull out the win and Kentucky's second-round matchup with Hampton could begin. When it did at 10:18 p.m., all the anticipation turned into, well, coal.
"We've been excited to play all day and I think it just got that moment and we didn't have a lot of energy," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just tough to wait all day to play."
In spite of the relative dud of a start, the top-seeded Wildcats (35-0) took down Hampton, 79-56, to set up a showdown with those eighth-seeded Bearcats at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday. They still weren't content with the way they played.
"We played really sluggish and just didn't have enough energy, I think," said Aaron Harrison, who missed all five of his field goals and scored three points in an uncharacteristically pedestrian NCAA Tournament performance. "We're of course a young team. We might have not come into the game as focused as we should have."
The Cats started the game 8 of 23 from the field and led by single digits until Karl-Anthony Towns - who was the standout for UK with a career-high 21 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks - scored with 5:36 before halftime. The juice that the Cats have come to be known for in blitzing through this college basketball season, outside a crippling 14-0 run to build a 19-point halftime lead, was just never there even though UK led by as many as 35.
The lack of focus, to John Calipari, did not come as a shock.
"You sit in the locker room that long, you kind of know that can happen," Calipari said.
Readily explainable as it may have been, it's unacceptable in his eyes. From this point forward, the games only get tougher. Future opponents, starting with Cincinnati, will be eager to pounce if the Cats suffer a similar lapse.
"One of the things I talked to them after, you're not going to do this on their terms. You can't start games like this," Calipari said. "You can't do things that we talk about every day and you choose to do something else. You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a two-point game."
Hampton was never able to make it a game in that way, as UK won its fifth game in a row by double digits and 28th overall. In spite of that, there was a distinct feeling that the Cats had played a subpar game from most anyone who watched. That's a high standard to live up to, but the Cats don't mind it.
"Not only is it everybody else around, we should expect that out of ourselves too," Devin Booker said. "Coach expects that out of us. He came in here and told us we didn't play our best game and if we keep playing like that it's going to be trouble. We're just focusing on coming out first and being the aggressor."
Booker scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, continuing a six-game slump during which he's scored in double figures once and shot 11 of 34 from the field. As ready as Booker might be to return to the sweet-shooting form he showed for much of the season, that kind of thing isn't what Coach Cal is thinking about when he says the Cats played short of their potential.
Shots will miss and shots will fall, but UK cannot get away from what makes it special.
"You can't do stuff on your terms," Calipari said. "You've got to follow the script. Here's how we play. This is what we do. Here's the energy we play with. And we're able to play enough people that, OK, we start the game slow. I may sub earlier. I see it Saturday, I may sub one minute in. Let's go, need more energy. I think these guys will be fine."
So does Aaron Harrison.
"I expected a lot more out of us and I expected a lot more out of myself," he said. "I should have played a lot better as well. But I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely."
UK held an open practice on Wednesday in the KFC Yum! Center attended by thousands of fans. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky guards Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone started against Florida on Senior Day. It was supposed to be the last home game for UK's three walk-ons, with the emphasis on supposed to be.
If you closed your eyes while in Bridgestone Arena during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, or during Wednesday's open practice at the KFC Yum! Center, you would have thought you were in Rupp Arena.
Blue has gotten in and blue has made itself heard.
"Our fans follow us pretty much everywhere we go," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "So they make it kind of home for wherever we go."
In Nashville, Bridgestone Arena was painted in blue with UK fans descending on the Music City and turning it into Lexington South. In the championship game, a Bridgestone Arena record was set for an SEC Tournament game, as 20,315 fans, mostly dressed in blue, cheered on the Cats.
"I mean, this (SEC Tournament), it was crazy," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I mean there were 97 percent Kentucky fans in that building. What? And they said 10,000 came to the opening games because they couldn't get tickets to our games. So they just bought tickets and went to the opening games to be a part of the thing. Which is great for the SEC and our fans, but I say it again, it's like Woo. But I would expect we'll have a pretty good crowd."
He was right.
When Kentucky took the floor for its open practice Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center, the entire lower bowl was filled with UK fans, as they chanted "Blue, White!" and "Go Big Blue!" consistently throughout the 40-minute glorified shootaround. When a Louisville fan made his way into the arena, boos showered down so loud that freshman guard Tyler Ulis stopped shooting free throws to turn around and see what was going on.
When it was announced Kentucky would play its opening game of the tournament in nearby Louisville, many of the players were asked how they felt about that. Most said it was cool, but that it didn't matter where they played, Big Blue Nation would be there.
"Our fans would still travel even if we played in California," Cauley-Stein said. "They would still be there. It just makes it a lot easier on them I guess."
In regards to them, personally, as players, the Cats said playing in a familiar gym, one where they've experienced success this year already, was a nice perk as well.
"We've all played in this gym, so we're used to it already," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "That, combined with our fan base, it's basically a home game for us." Harrisons shifting gear in March, again
It's March, so that means the Harrison twins are shifting their games into a higher gear again.
One year after point guard Andrew Harrison reaped the benefits of Coach Cal's famous "tweak" to help lead his team to the national championship game, and his twin brother, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, hit three of the bigger shots in UK's postseason history, the backcourt duo is at again in 2015.
Andrew actually heightened his game a month early this season, scoring 11.8 points and dishing out 3.5 assists per game to just 16 total turnovers (2.8 assist-turnover ratio) since the calendar turned to February. Aaron, meanwhile, is averaging 12.2 points per game in March and hitting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, a stark improvement from his February averages of 10.3 points per game and 22.0 percent shooting from distance.
"I think just a competitive switch flips," Cauley-Stein said of the twins. "Knowing without them we're not gonna be able to do this without them and they know that, so they have to play a way that Coach set out for them to play and they know how to play."
For Andrew, that way to play is with high energy and an aggression to attack the lane. When he's doing that, the Cats' offense, including both the guards and the bigs, excels. Coach Cal also stresses a positive mindset and outlook, which includes strong body language.
"It's a spirit," Coach Cal said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play. He doesn't stop on the court. There's nothing. I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled."
And his teammates notice as well.
"We feed off their energy and Coach harps on it," Cauley-Stein said. "If their energy is bad then the whole team's energy is not good. When they're playing with high energy and a lot of effort, doing the things that they do, everybody benefits from it."
For Aaron, March brings about a time to step up to the main stage, a place where he thrives under the bright lights and high pressure situations. While the 6-foot-6 guard from Richmond, Texas, has shown this season that it doesn't have to be March for him to put the team on his back in a tight game, last season's run gave him the knowledge that he can do it again this year if needed.
"It really helped my confidence, and also my teammates' confidence just to go out there and be able to beat the best teams in the country even though we had an up and down year," Aaron Harrison said. "That was really helpful.
"Hopefully we don't have a game that close, but if we do, if Coach wants to give me the ball I think I'll be confident enough to hit the shot for us."
UK keeping focus internal
As Guy Ramsey wrote Wednesday, Kentucky is not straying away from what got it to this point. Part of that includes continuing to play against themselves each game, rather than against their opponent.
That, however, doesn't mean the Cats are overlooking their 16th-seeded opponent, Hampton (17-17). UK has done this all season long, and it's part of how they've been able to get to 34-0. They're not only playing against themselves during the games, they do it in the pregame as well.
Kentucky doesn't spend days on scouting its opponent. Typically, the players don't see tape of their opponent until their pregame meal. Asked Wednesday what he knows about the Pirates, freshman forward Trey Lyles said he knew nothing yet.
"But I'm sure the coaches do and we're going to get a lot of information from them," Lyles said.
Keys for the Cats will remain the same for this game as all games, come out with energy and attempt to maintain that energy for all 40 minutes. If Coach Cal sees a decrease, subs, or reinforcements as he calls them, will be ready.
"We just gotta come out with a lot of energy because we know they're going to come after us like every other team this year has and we just gotta be prepared for it," Lyles said.
One nice change of pace for the Cats will be seeing a team on the other side of the court that doesn't have an "SEC" patch on its jersey. After going through a tough and physical 18-game SEC schedule and three-game SEC Tournament, the Cats will face an out of conference opponent for the first time since Dec. 27, when they defeated Louisville in this very gym.
During the non-conference portion of its schedule, Kentucky outscored its opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game (75.8-50.1). Facing an opponent that isn't as familiar with UK's players and schemes will be a welcome change of pace, Aaron Harrison said.
"I think the SEC teams are a little tougher because they've played us so many times, and they're more physical," Aaron Harrison said. "They're a lot more prepared than the other teams are."
UK held an open practice at the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Calipari has good reason to have faith in his team.
He's got 34 games worth of proof that the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament won't get to Kentucky.
"I think they see what's happening for each other, and I think they'll stay the course," Calipari said.
With each passing stage, however, the spotlight will shine brighter. Already, the media throng following the top-seeded Wildcats (34-0) has expanded from its regular-season size ahead of a matchup with 16th-seeded Hampton (17-17), and it's only the second round.
That's why, in spite of all the evidence suggesting it's not necessary, Coach Cal will be on guard.
"But believe me, I'll be feeling the pulse every day," Calipari said.
Not only is he feeling the pulse, he's also hammering home his message about keeping the clutter away every day. The Cats' unselfish approach has worked too well so far to do anything else.
"I stopped them today when we practiced," Calipari said. "Don't be changing now. Don't. No, no, no, no, no. You stay on the path you're on. Don't let someone tell you now is the time to go crazy. Don't do that. Just be the best version of you right now, and that's good enough."
With the Cats set to start their NCAA Tournament run on Thursday at approximately 9:40 p.m., consider the message received.
"You just gotta stay with what got you here," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Act like how you did before all the success happened. As a group, we don't really listen to it. We know what got us here and we know it was work and defense, so we got to stay on that."
Calipari has drawn deserved praise for the work he's done in inspiring his players to reach toward their potential. He's been named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year by both league media and coaches and is a finalist for national honors, recognition he surely appreciates.
He'd still rather the recognition go to his players.
"Everybody saying, it's got to be the toughest job of getting these kids to play with their egos," Calipari said. "They talk about their egos. These kids are just great kids, and I'm coaching them hard."
And they just keep responding, sacrificing and, most of all, winning.
"My job is to help them be the best version of themselves," Calipari said. "Now, they have gotten the point that, if they don't do this together, they're hurting each other, and they know that. I want every one of these kids to achieve. This that's going on, it's been a great story of every one of these kids giving up something to someone else on the team, all of them feeding off of one another, all of them having each other's back."
About 15 minutes before Calipari said that, Trey Lyles was sitting in a locker room at the KFC Yum! Center saying almost exactly the same thing. Who says teenagers don't listen?
"Just having everybody's back," Lyles said. "Everybody being there for one another. Having a brotherhood on and off the court. We know if one guy's not playing well somebody else is going to step up. That's just the thing of--like Coach said--the strength is in the pack."
It's that strength that the Cats believe will carry them through the NCAA Tournament, though they know challenges lay ahead, as well as off nights for all of UK's nine regular rotation players.
"They don't have to play great every night, and they don't, but someone seems to do something to help us win," Calipari said. "So you're not under the pressure of I've got to be great tonight. No, you don't. Prepare to be great, but you're not a machine. You're not a computer. Be the best you can be."
The hope is that will carry UK to a national championship come April 6, which would mean the first 40-0 season in NCAA history. Talk of a perfect season for UK has consumed the college basketball world, spurring unprecedented national and local attention for a program accustomed to being on center stage.
The Cats are happy the tournament has rendered their perfect mark essentially meaningless in their eyes and their opponents' as well.
"It doesn't really matter about the record anymore," Dakari Johnson said. "Every team is at 0-0. We've just got to come in and just play our hardest and just treat every game like, basically, as if every game is our last."
Once again, the Cats are counting on the pack to get that done.
"It's not that hard to stay in the moment with this team," Marcus Lee said. "As you see, we enjoy each other very much in everything we do, going through shootarounds or in practice. So with this team, it makes it very easy."
UK will face Hampton in the NCAA Tournament second round on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky hasn't lost since April 7, 2014, but that date is still very much on the minds of several Wildcat players to this day.
More than 11 months after falling to Connecticut by six points in the national championship game, the guy who made three historic shots to get the Cats to that point still thinks about it and admits it drives not only him, but his teammates as well.
"I think we have an edge because that is a chip on our shoulder that no one else feels in the tournament," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "Just to be so close to winning a national championship and coming up short, I think that will drive us a little bit in the tournament as well."
While the Cats (34-0) are the youngest team in the tournament field, they enter Thursday night's game vs. No. 16 seed Hampton (17-17) with vast tournament experience. Not only have they played in a national championship game before, they have won four tournament games decided in the final minute, and they have players who have hit game-winning baskets and made big-time plays.
That experience has been apparent during Kentucky's regular-season run. The Cats trailed with less than a minute to play against Ole Miss, but promptly stole the ball and sank a free throw to send the game to overtime. They also trailed by two points with six seconds to play in overtime at Texas A&M before Trey Lyles calmly sank both free-throw attempts to push the game to a second overtime.
"They play to win," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "They're not playing not to lose. But I'm going to say this: This tournament -- the good news for us, it's on everybody. Normally, it seems to be just on us. Now everybody's season is about to end one way or another. So everybody now, you could be up 15, and all of a sudden, you jam up a little bit like, uh-oh, what happens now? It's not like, hey, our season will keep going. Let's try to win this game. No, it isn't that way. This is a different deal for all of us."
And while if Kentucky finds itself in a close game in the Big Dance the pressure that will be placed on it will dwarf what other teams face, the Cats haven't yet shown any signs of feeling it.
After winning the Southeastern Conference Championship on Sunday, Marcus Lee took a camera and began filming one of his teammates. Earlier in the year, both he and freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns got in a playful wrestling match after barking back and forth during interviews.
"It's not that hard to stay in the moment with this team," Lee said. "As you see, we enjoy each other very much in everything we do, going through shootarounds or in practice."
The crazy thing is that had the Cats won the national championship last year, the 2014-15 season could very well be much different. Perhaps more players would have chosen to enter their name in the NBA Draft. Perhaps the edge the Cats have currently played with this season, and plan to play with in this tournament, would not quite be as sharp.
Willie Cauley-Stein has said he was planning on submitting his name to the NBA Draft last year if he had not gotten injured during the Cats' run to the finals. But, as he noted, everything happens for a reason.
With a number of sophomores and juniors who competed during last year's roller coaster season, and heart-stopping tournament run, the Cats' four rookies, who were all named to the SEC All-Freshman team by the league's 14 head coaches, have thrived.
Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, in particular, have found the road their home away from home, especially in wins at Texas A&M, Alabama and Tennessee. At Mississippi State, Trey Lyles led Kentucky with a team-high 18 points, and at LSU and Georgia, Towns overcame mental mistakes to lead his team to victory down the stretch.
"The young guys, they do a good job in coming up in big games anyway," sophomore forward Dakari Johnson said. "I'm sure they'll be prepared for (the NCAA Tournament)."
"Coach Cal stressed it to us, how big these games are," Ulis said. "We'll be ready for it. We've had a lot of big games over the season. So we just can't wait."
It's not as though the Cats have entered this tournament or this season unprepared. From its Big Blue Bahamas Tour in August, to having Drake at Big Blue Madness, having Coach Cal's press conferences carried live on "SportsCenter" or several thousand show up for an open practice, Kentucky has been the talk of college basketball all year long.
But that's not to say UK's players mind it. That attention and target they've carried all season is part of what drives the Cats. That, and that loss on April 7, 2014.
"We love the big stage," Ulis said. "That's why we're here."
UK was tabbed a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional on Monday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell looks at the bracket and understands what all the buzz is about.
He sees a potential Sweet 16 rivalry matchup with Louisville. He couldn't miss a possible Elite Eight showdown with Connecticut.
"As the storylines go, and just in the interest of that, there's some very intriguing matchups in the regional," Mitchell said.
The thing is, it doesn't mean much of anything right now.
"From a very important, practical matter, you just cannot, from a basketball team's perspective, concern yourself with that," Mitchell said.
UK (23-9) was tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Albany Regional with the Huskies and Cardinals as the No. 1 and 3 seeds, respectively. As tantalizing as the games may be, there are far more immediate tasks at hand as the Cats make their school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Namely a matchup with Tennessee State (18-12) at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
It will be a rematch of a Dec. 28 game, which the Wildcats won by a margin of 87-75. The game took place in Memorial Coliseum, the same venue that will host Friday's first-round game.
"This is a really tough match because Tennessee State was in the game with us, there is no question about it," Mitchell said. "But we're excited to tip off 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon."
For the second year in a row, UK will open the tournament at home. Last year, the Cats won the right to host as a result of a bid process. This time, it was based solely on their regular-season merits.
"This year, you had to earn it," Mitchell said. "To me, that's the thing that I'm most proud of, is that the players, through all of the early mornings and hard runs and weight-lifting sessions and tough practices and day after day after day, to be standing here at this point is something that I'm proud of them for."
2014-15 has been a year of adversity for the Cats, but ultimately achievement. UK had an impressive nonconference run, scoring wins over the likes of Louisville and Baylor, but injuries to Bria Goss and Janee Thompson helped precipitate a lull in Southeastern Conference play.
Less than a month ago, the Cats had lost three games in a row after a disheartening performance at Ole Miss on Feb. 23. But a few weeks and one meeting at Mitchell's house called by UK's seniors later, the Cats have won four of five, including an upset of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed South Carolina on Senior Day.
"That Monday night when we got on that bus to drive to Memphis to fly home - one of the worst bus rides of my life - do you think anybody on paper thought that next Sunday you had a chance against South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "My point is that you're in control of how you play the game and they change their mindset in a very short period of time and beat a tough team at Arkansas, beat a really, really talented South Carolina team and then played three really tough games against tough competition (at the SEC Tournament)."
The ups and downs have made reaching this point even sweeter.
"Seeing our name up there as a No. 2 seed, you think about all the adversity we've been through and it was almost like a sigh of relief," Bria Goss said. "We're so excited to be in the position that we're in and we're going to take every opportunity to get better from here on out and not take any days off."
UK's final days off came in the week the Cats had to rest following an SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee on March 7. The time - for a team nursing bumps and bruises, most notably to sophomore point guard Makayla Epps - was well used.
"I think for us it was great mentally, emotionally and physically," Mitchell said. "The time off was good, and then the ability to really get back to focusing on what we do well. Our style of play needs some energy and being able to give them a little bit of time off and then come back energetic and really focusing on our transition game both offensively and defensively, focusing on our press - all of those hustle aspects."
If it sounds like the Cats are going back to their roots, that's no accident.
"We're just getting back to being an up-tempo, high-energy-type of team that we are," Bria Goss said. "It's been great practices. He's done a great job creating the practice plan. He and the assistant coaches and we've really been executing. Just getting back to a high tempo. We're going to carry it out for the tournament."