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March 2010 Archives

Orton: I have not declared for NBA Draft

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Thumbnail image for ky.etsu_23.jpgUPDATE: Well as I alluded to at the bottom of the initial post, you can't believe everything you read or hear (that's certainly not a shot at Jerry Tipton either). UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy just released the following statement from Daniel Orton on his future:

"I have not declared for the NBA Draft," Orton said in a statement. "I'm currently weighing my options and will make a decision prior to the deadline."

So there you have it. Orton's status remains in the air. Interesting that his dad would come out and say his son was declaring. Expect the rumor mill to pick back up.

The news Kentucky basketball fans did not want to hear came from Jerry Tipton on Wednesday.

Tipton talked to Daniel Orton's father, Larry, who told the Lexington Herald-Leader beat reporter that Orton will submit his name for the NBA Draft. Orton will not hire an agent, according to his father, and will have the option of returning to school.

According to NCAA rules, underclassmen must withdraw from the draft by May 8.

Orton's father said he is entering the draft to see how viable he is as an NBA prospect.

"Just to see where he is," Larry Orton said. "I don't see that as a big deal."

But to UK fans, it could mean the the complete overhaul of the freshman class. Although no announcements have been made, many expect freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to make the jump, and now Eric Bledsoe has been rumored as a lottery pick as well. 

As a UK employee, I can't really speculate on what the players will or won't do and I certainly can't talk about potential prospects because this is the official Web site of UK Athletics.

I can tell you not to believe everything you read on the message boards. Tipton's report is certainly legit, but there is going to be a lot of guessing and second-guessing among the fan base because these are such high-impacting decisions on the team.

Underclassmen have until April 25 to submit their names for the NBA Draft. The draft takes place June 24 in Madison Square Garden in New York City. 

Anxious Phillips opens spring practice

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Joker Phillips prepared for this day for his entire life. The chance to head up his very first football practice as head coach at the University of Kentucky was bestowed before him.

But Phillips was lost in the rush of practice.

"I didn't know what to do," Phillips said. "I am lost. I had my hand in my pocket and was twiddling the whistle."

Phillips conducted his first spring practice as head football coach of the UK football team Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility. The team, dressed in shorts with no pads, broke off into position drills at the beginning of practice before a brief 11-on-11 scrimmage.

By the time the team had joined for 7-on-7 passing drills, Phillips had finally found his niche.

"I just tried to dive in," Phillips said. "Started talking about effort, talking about fundamentals. Those are the things that I think I have to stress."

The first day of spring practice was pretty typical. Balls sailed high, the defense dominated and the quarterbacks looked like they have months of rust to shake off.

"There were a lot of balls going all over the place," Phillips said. "We've got to get more consistent throwing the ball. Morgan (Newton) didn't have a good day. Mike (Hartline) had some good and bad throws. And also (Ryan Mossakowski) had some good and bad throws. The thing we're trying to emphasize this spring is being able to be efficient throwing the ball."

Interceptions were plentiful during the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 throwing drills, but that's to be expected during the first few days of practice. Generally speaking, the offensive unit usually starts much further behind than the defense.

The key for Phillips during the first few days of spring ball is effort and energy. He said he'll be paying close attention to where players' eyes are. If their eyes are in the right place, he will know they are executing their assignments right.

"I really liked the energy," Phillips said of the first practice. "People are communicating. That's the thing you have to do in this sport especially. I think we have to practice a little bit faster. We practice fast and we got a lot of reps, but we've got to get more reps, especially for the young guys. When you get more reps, the faster you practice. We're limited in time so the thing we've got to do is practice faster so we can get more reps."

There were a few subtle practices at Phillips' first practice. Players sprinted from drill to drill to condition and get more reps in during the allotted time.

"We sprint," said wide receiver Randall Cobb, who will enter his third year in the fall. "We're getting our conditioning in during practices instead of having to wait until the end of practices to do sprints. I think that's better. It makes us play a little faster, makes us just move faster and get that sense of urgency in us."

New and old faces made appearances under the bright spring sun. Former coach Rich Brooks stopped by to check on his former players while new defensive line coach David Turner was as animated as any coach UK has had in years. On every other play, Turner sprinted onto the practice field to get in the face of his players or encourage them for making a play.

There are adjustments to be made, Cobb said, but the first day received positive reviews.

"We picked up the energy," Cobb said. "It's real high energy and tempo. It's been pretty good so far."

Concussions end Lentz's career, create void at LB

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FB 08_09 UK_MTSU 34.jpgThe sun shined bright over the first day of spring football practice, but a gloomy cloud loomed over a position with the announcement that Matt Lentz will give up his football career.

Lentz, a junior who was in the midst of switching from safety to linebacker, has decided to end his football career due to repeated bouts with concussions, head coach Joker Phillips announced Wednesday.

"It breaks my heart because I was a huge part of getting Matt here," Phillips said. "Knowing how much this program means to him and his family and for him to have to give up football ..."

Lentz, who stood on the sidelines of Wednesday's practice with shorts and a sweatshirt on, will file for medical scholarship and join the UK staff as a student-coach.

The loss of Lentz creates even more instability at a position that faced a myriad of questions heading into spring practice. The losses of Micah Johnson and Sam Maxwell to graduation (and presumably the NFL), have opened up two starting positions at middles and strongside linebacker.

Lentz was expected to make a push for time at strongside.

"One of the things we were trying to do was get some experience and some more depth at that position, which was the reason we moved him to that position, which was the Sam linebacker," Phillips said. "It does (weaken the position), but the game goes on, and Matt understands that. Life goes on for him. We're just excited about getting him to be a part of our staff."

Lentz is scheduled to graduate in August after three years at UK.

Future has never been brighter for UK Hoops

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Thumbnail image for 003_kuvsneb.jpgThis was just the starting point.

Although the offseason now looms after an 88-68 loss to Oklahoma in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, there is no room for the Kentucky women's basketball team to be demoralized. Few teams can see hope and promise after a 20-point loss.

This is one of those teams.

"All I can say is that it definitely hurts that we lost, but we're definitely going to cherish this moment, this season, this team because we started something new," junior forward Victoria Dunlap said, who was named to the Kansas City Region All-Tournament team. "I'm proud of my teammates, where we've gone so far and just cherish this moment forever."

The record books have been written, rewritten and amended time and time again this season. The feats the Cats accomplished in Mitchell's third year are both remarkable and historic.

Among the most noteworthy accomplishments this season:

• UK recorded the single-season school record for wins on the back of a program-record 187 three-pointers made and 816 turnovers forced.

• The Cats advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1982, but also for the first time since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams. The three straight wins in the tournament was a school record.

• UK swept the major SEC awards for only the second time in league history en route to school-best second-place finish in the conference. Mitchell was named SEC Coach of the Year, Dunlap was tabbed SEC Player of the Year and A'dia Mathies was selected as the SEC Freshman of the Year. Dunlap was also the first player to be named to the Associated Press All-America team.

It's worth repeating just how small the expectations were for the 2009-10 season and just how far UK exceeded them.

Before the season started, the league's coaches tabbed Kentucky 11th in a preseason poll. It seemed disrespectful at the time, but the Cats' recent track record gave them no reason to think otherwise. Quite honestly, it was a fair assessment.

The players and coaches used it as jet fuel. They flew from the start of the season and their feet never landed. From 11th in the SEC to the final eight teams in America -- the Cats' feet might never touch the ground again.

"This team worked so hard day after day after day," Mitchell said. "People thought they were going to be a bad team. They didn't listen. People thought we wouldn't get to the SEC Tournament championship game. No one probably thought we'd get to the Sweet 16. Certainly no one thought we were going to get to the Elite Eight."

This surprise run has generated the momentum that carries far beyond a year. This type of success is enough to change a program.

"This team has accomplished a lot, and so for next season, whatever good we can take, whatever momentum builds, whatever standard has been set, I think that's how you use this season getting ready for the next, because these kids aren't robots; they're human beings," Mitchell said. "They have to go out and go through it and do all the work. We will go in with tremendous optimism but knowing that we have to stay true to what our principles are."

Some will say Oklahoma discovered the secret to beating UK. For really the first time all year, a team beat Kentucky at its own game.

Nyeshia Stevenson ran wild and scored 31 points, and the Sooners matched UK's defensive intensity by hitting a gaudy 61.5 percent from the field. The Cats continued their affinity for turnovers and forced 21 Oklahoma mishaps, but like the men, the women picked a bad time to start missing shots.

Kentucky hit just 32.9 percent of its shots.

"We've played guards that quick," junior guard Amber Smith said. "It was just we weren't focused in fundamentally on defense. We didn't get to the right position in defense, so that was our fault. We just turned the ball over too much."

Even so, UK will remain a threat next season if it can continue to play defense like it did in 2009-10. Few teams can survive that pressure in the women's game.

The major parts of this year's team will return next year. Believe it or not, leading scorer Dunlap, who scored a game-high 31 points Tuesday night, will return next season as a senior. She'll join super freshman Mathies, whose ceiling is taller than just about anyone in the game.

Seniors Amani Franklin and Lydia Watkins helped build the program and will be sorely missed, but a top-10 recruiting class should cushion the blow. Sophomore guard Keyla Snowden became a critical third scoring option down the stretch, Smith is the type of gritty, fearless point guard teams need to win and sophomore Rebecca Gray has shown flashes of brilliance.

Kentucky has always had the facilities, the fans and basketball background to be good, but it never quite caught up to its potential. Quite frankly, the program was a sleeping giant.

Now with the right coaches and the right players, Kentucky may have found its launching pad. Recruits will take notice of this sensational run and presumably build off the foundation that has been built.

Expectations will be different from here on out, but the exposure the team received from this run will only help the program exponentially grow.

"This is an important thing, that we do not take this team for granted," Mitchell said. "One thing that I've been able to learn that's been very valuable is that tradition is important and tradition is great, but really the focus needs to be every year is a new year. Every year is a new team." 

The magical season is over. But the program is just getting started.

Elite Eight blog: No. 4 UK Hoops vs. No. 3 Oklahoma

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Live blog: UK baseball vs. Cincinnati

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As the basketball season winds down, the one thing I'm looking forward to doing more of is covering baseball and softball and joining in on the live blogs. Fortunately, our stellar staff has covered for me on the live blogs in my absence while I cover the basketball season.

I'll be on women's basketball duty tonight as the Cats look to advance to the Final Four for the first time in school history, so that means I'll be missing out on a live blog again. Nonetheless, some of our staff will be bringing you a live baseball blog from the Queen City.

As the basketball season comes to a close, I'll make sure to post more of the applications on here in addition to the live blog home page.

The UK-UC game starts at 6:30 p.m.

Spring football position battles to watch for

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Spring football is a time for movement. The depth chart is never more fluid than it is during spring.

With the graduation of key starters, players will wage battles over the next four weeks to find time on the field. The wars will certainly influence the lineup by the time the season starts in the fall.

Here is an extensive look at some of the most important positions that could shape the 2010 football team:

FB 09_10 UK_TN WEB 32.jpgPhillips hopes to find QB leader: As a freshman, quarterback Morgan Newton took over the starting position when Mike Hartline went down with a knee injury and never relinquished the job.

Newton performed admirably under less than favorable circumstances in the Southeastern Conference, passing for 706 yards and six touchdowns in eight starts.

Newton, however, struggled to throw the ball down the field, which head coach Joker Phillips took some of the blame for Wednesday.

"I had a lot to do with it, just feeling comfortable with him at times," Phillips said. "I will admit that. As well as we were running the ball, the thing that I didn't do enough of was throw hard play action to try to get the ball down the field."

Phillips, however, is confident in the future of Newton, comparing him favorably with some of the top freshman quarterbacks around the nation.

"I think Morgan is right on the schedule," Phillips said. "The things that he did last year were amazing. And let's say this: I did try to protect him."

Even if Newton can develop a better downfield game, it's far from certain that he'll be the starting quarterback in the fall.

"The one thing that we have to do offensively is come out of this spring where we're comfortable throwing the football," Phillips said. "We've got to put a huge emphasis on being more efficient in the passing game. That's going to require finding who our quarterback is this spring."

Senior Mike Hartline has returned to 100 percent from his knee injury and Phillips is hopeful that freshman Ryan Mossakowski is fully over a shoulder injury that forced him to redshirt his first season.

"From what we hear, and that's all we can talk about is what we hear because we don't know, physically in the weight room (Mossakowski) is doing well and the drills he's done well," Phillips said. "But as far as us being able to see and feel, all we can go on is what we hear, and what we hear is he's doing well. He's a really sharp kid, which I think gives you a chance at that position."

Hartline, who has the edge in terms of experience with 2,502 yards and 15 touchdowns in his career, and Newton, currently sit atop the spring football depth chart with Mossakowski close behind.

Phillips said he would love to name a starter or at least trim it down to a two-man race by the end of spring, but Phillips would not commit to naming a starter by the summer.

"I would love to," Phillips said. "If that separation is not huge, then I think we need to carry it on throughout the fall. I would love to do that, to go ahead and name a quarterback so he could take you through the offseason."

Phillips was asked what he is looking for from each player, something that could potentially separate the battle.

"Who who can get us in the end zone," Phillips said. "Who can manage the team, but also who can get us in the end zone. That's the thing that a quarterback is measured on."

Rebuilding the O-line: One of the most interesting positions during former coach Rich Brooks' tenure was the offensive line. Brooks repeatedly prophesized that the O-line would be a strength season after season, but injuries and inexperience usually prevented the line from meeting expectations.

Then, in 2009, when the line's expectations flew under the radar, a veteran group turned out to be one of the best lines of the decade. Behind a veteran offensive line, UK rushed for 2,698 yards per game, 21st in the nation.

With the graduation of four seniors, that line is all but gone. Junior Stuart Hines, a third-team All-SEC selection, is the only starter left.

"I'm anxious to see how the competition is up front," Phillips said. "We lost four guys up front, but the thing that's happened up front offensively is we've been able to redshirt a lot of guys."

After redshirting, Phillips didn't want some of those linemen to sit for two and sometimes three years straight, so he put them in the rotation. That means for guys like senior right tackle Brad Durham, although he didn't get plenty of starts, he has enough experience to continue last year's progress.

"We rotated Brad Durham with Justin Jeffries," Phillips said. "We were able to play (sophomore right guard) Larry Warford every other series (or) three series, which gave him a chance to get some reps. The thing we're trying to do is build for the future."

Highly touted centers Matt Smith and Sam Simpson will battle for the starting center position while Marcus Davis, who started the Miami (Ohio) game, will try to recover from last year's season-ending injury.

Junior Billy Joe Murphy will head into the spring with the early lead at left tackle, but keep a close eye on junior Chandler Burden, who will switch to the offensive line after two seasons at defensive end.

"We've got some options," Phillips said. "Now I'm just looking forward to seeing those guys compete up front."

FB 09_10 UK_Miami web 105.jpgCalling all tacklers: Linebacker has been a staple of stability over the last four or five years.

The line of great UK linebackers started with Wesley Woodyard and Johnny Williams, moved on to Braxton Kelley and Micah Johnson, and was joined by Sam Maxell last season.

None of those guys roam the middle of the UK defense anymore. Questions abound the linebacking unit heading into the fall.

"That's a position that there probably is not as much depth," Phillips said. "There's bodies, but there hasn't been guys that went into games."

Junior linebacker Danny Trevathan returns as the lone linebacker with significant experience. The Will linebacker (weakside), long called a potential star by the coaching staff, posted 82 tackles, five tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and one fumble forced.

Junior Ronnie Sneed, who filled in for Johnson last year when he was hurt, will compete with redshirt freshman Qua Huzzie at the middle linebacker position. Huzzie was making a strong move to be the backup middle linebacker as a true freshman last season until a shoulder injury sidelined him for the year.

"We thought that Qua Huzzie might be a guy like Larry Warford that you play a series here or a series there because the talents that he had," Phillips said. "We feel good about him."

Senior Jacob Dufrene will get the nod at Sam linebacker (strongside) to start the spring, but sophomore Ridge Wilson and junior Matt Lentz, who is moving from safety, are expected to push him for time.

Although the linebackers aren't blessed with depth and experience, Phillips doesn't foresee it as a problem because of the change in defense most teams are currently undergoing.

"You don't see a lot of three linebacker sets nowadays because the spread (offenses)," Phillips said. "That Sam linebacker, it really gets about 10-15 snaps a game when teams are in two back."

Last year, UK often took out Trevathan at Will linebacker and moved Sam Maxwell over to Trevathan's position. Expect to see Trevathan get a lot more snaps this season.

Third phase of 'Operation Win' to commence

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for joker_phillips_with_football.jpgIf you listen closely, past the dribbling of a basketball and far beyond the screeching shoes on the hardwood, you can hear a familiar but forgotten sound.

It's the sound of whistles, pads crashing together and the start of spring football.

Starting Wednesday, the Kentucky football team will reconvene for four weeks of spring football practice. Spring football will culminate on April 24 at Commonwealth for the Blue/White Game.

By that time, we will have gotten our first taste of the Joker Phillips regime. After seven successful years with Rich Brooks, Phillips will run the show.

Operation Win has fully commenced.

"The first phase of Operation Win was recruiting and we felt like we finished strong in recruiting," Phillips said at Tuesday's spring news conference. "The second phase has been on our offseason program. The thing you want to go in the offseason with and try to come out of the offseason with is having your football team well conditioned and also they're mentally tougher. We feel like those two things are accomplished. We feel like are team is way ahead mentally and being tough.

"The third phase, which is what we're excited (about) - me probably more than anybody because now everything comes to a screeching halt as far as touring the country and talking to alums and those things - now it's down to some football."

For the first time since taking over for the recently retired Brooks, Phillips will be able to put his imprint on the football team on the field. Phillips admitted to being a little "lost" when they broke off into individual workouts but has since got his feet underneath him.

Now he's eager to begin preparing for his first season as head coach.

"The thing that I think a head coach has to do is, No. 1, when this thing first started, I wanted to make sure our offense and defense and special teams schemes are sound," Phillips said. "The next thing I think I have to focus on is make sure we're fundamentally sound. The third thing is making sure we're playing with effort."

Phillips addressed a number of things Wednesday in a pre-spring football news conference, including injuries, position battles, position changes and the three-way race for the starting quarterback position. I'll run through the major news, notes and battles headlining spring football practice 2010 in upcoming posts.

The first seven spring football practices will be open the public. The team will hold a Monday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday practice schedule leading up to the Blue/White Game.

Video: Phillips previews spring practice

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Kentucky football coach Joker Phillips held a pre-spring practice news conference Tuesday morning to preview the spring football season, which begins Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility.

Phillips discusses injuries, position battles, position changes in the videos below, including some insight on the three-way battle for the starting quarterback position.

The first seven practices will be open to the public. More to come on a full post later this afternoon.

Mar. 28 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Mar. 28:

Softball: Molly Johnson

Senior Molly Johnson has erupted in the last few weeks and has charted a hit in 22 of UK's last 25 games. She is currently on an eight game hitting streak and batted .500 for the week against two of the league's top opponents. Johnson blasted two home runs this week to overcome Brooke Marnitz on UK's all-time career home run list with 32 career round trippers. Her home run against Tennessee looked to be the game winner in a 10-inning affair, before the Lady Vols came back to score two runs in the bottom of the inning. In UK's win over Georgia, their third over a top-10 opponent this season, Johnson drilled a two-run home run to tie the score against the Bulldogs in which UK would come back to win in the seventh frame. Johnson also recorded 12 assists this week from her shortstop position to claim the third slot in UK's record books in that category. With the two home runs this week, Johnson now holds the top spot in UK history in batting average, home runs, doubles, slugging percentage and she is hot on the heels of the No. 1 spot in RBI, runs scored and total bases.

Elite Eight is 'big, big moment' for UK Hoops

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WBSK 09_10 UK_MichSt NCAA Web 04.jpgAmani Franklin hopped on Twitter and Facebook after Kentucky's win over top-seeded Nebraska on Sunday night. She looked to the top of the screen, saw the updated notifications icon and expected to see a few messages of congratulations.

She never could have expected to see 50 posts.

"Everybody is just showing us a lot of support from back home," Franklin said. "It's just great to hear people who usually don't watch us are now watching us since the guys are out. Everybody is kind of watching us, so that's great for Kentucky women's basketball."

The funny thing is Franklin's account wasn't the most popular.

"Keyla (Snowden), she had 99 messages after the game," Franklin said. "So I came in second place."

Junior guard Amber Smith said she had 90, but who's counting.

Kentucky women's basketball is on the grand stage, preparing for the biggest game in school history. Just hours removed from upsetting No. 1 seed Nebraska in the Sweet 16, UK is preparing for No. 3 seed Oklahoma (Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN).

With the men's season closed, the attention of Big Blue Nation has turned to the women's historic run. UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell has always stressed the "one game at a time" mentality, but he's not oblivious to Tuesday's stakes.

"It's a big, big moment," Mitchell said. "There's no doubt about it. I think it's silly to say it's just another game. It's not."

A win would push the Cats into the Final Four for the first time in school annals.

"What we will try to do is get all of those things - how happy we would be to win, how sad we would be to lose - get all the consequences of the game off our mind and just focus on what we need to do," Mitchell said. "This team has shown me they have that ability, and so I suspect they're probably going to be able to do that one more time."

Kentucky's defense was spectacular in the regular season and has spilled over to the postseason. In NCAA Tournament play, UK is forcing 18.7 turnovers a game, which has generated an average of 20 points off turnovers.

Against Nebraska, UK turned the No. 1 seed's offense upside down. The Cats limited Big 12 Player of the Year Kelsey Griffin's touches and forced the Cornhuskers out of their half-court rhythm.

"It was our fundamentals," Mitchell said. "It was closing out. It was putting pressure on the ball. It was denying passing lanes. It was fronting the post."

Mitchell's defense, although it has done it all season long, was taken notice of by some of the game's best coaches.

"I had had some friends of mine that are coaches that aren't playing right now, and they came in for the game, and the compliments I received were, 'Wow, you front the post, you deny the passing lanes, you put pressure on the ball,' " Mitchell said.

After forcing 16 turnovers, including 10 steals, junior forward Victoria Dunlap was asked if UK had played a perfect defensive game yet. The remaining teams in the tournament might want to heed her answer.

"I don't think we have played a perfectly complete defensive game," said Dunlap, who finished with 18 points and seven rebounds against Nebraska. "I know we have our moments where everybody is on one tilt and everybody is moving and rotating on defense, but every now and then we just have a couple times where we'll slip up and get penetration or just different little things.

"We definitely have a lot more room to grow and just things to get better at."

One of the biggest improvements defensively for the Cats has come from an unlikely source. Sophomore sharpshooter Snowden has emerged in the starting lineup the last eight games to provide a stingy defensive presence.

Snowden has always had the ability to shoot, but she was pointed to the bench midway through the season against Vanderbilt because of her inability to defend, Mitchell said.

The diminutive guard took the benching to heart and refined her work ethic on the defensive end.

"I'm really proud of her because she was getting it in practice," Mitchell said. "It was not a lot of warm and fuzzies in practice for her. It was tough every day for her to come in because I knew she had the ability. I knew she could do it."

Coupled with her ability to shoot - Snowden is 8-of-18 from three-point range in the NCAA Tournament - Snowden has been too good to return to the bench.

"Her range is so deep, you have to respect that, and if you don't she's going to burn you," Mitchell said. "It's a remarkable thing, an example for the rest of the players, that if you just change your mindset, you can go from literally not getting in a game to, as you all are witnessing, being a significant player on the college women's basketball's biggest stage."

Mar. 29 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

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It was disappointing ending but a very successful season for the Kentucky men's basketball team. The 35-3 campaign included a return to the top spot in the polls and a number one seed for the NCAA Tournament, tremendous amounts of positive attention for the program, a bunch of records that were broken and some memorable moments for a fan base that had far too few of those for far too long.

Here are my 10 most memorable moments from this season, in chronological order:

A winner from Wall--freshman sensation John Wall wasted no time in bursting on the scene, hitting the game winning shot with one second left in a win over Miami.

The game featured a rally from 18 points down and provided the first glimpse of the clutch playmaking ability Wall would bring to the team.

The ballroom blitz in Cancun--riding up an escalator to the second floor of a hotel to watch a basketball game was a new experience, but one that several hundred Big Blue fans enjoyed. In the title game against Stanford, the Cats made an improbable game, with Wall once again stepping to the forefront to make a pair of game-tying free throws in the final seconds of regulation play, in a game that UK eventually won in overtime.

28-2 run v. North Carolina--having seen the Wildcats thoroughly dominated by Carolina the year before, UK fans may have hit an all-time high on their noise level when Wall led a 28-2 run in the first half of the game against the defending national champs.

UK2K--getting Kentucky to 2,000 wins before UNC was a primary objective for coach Calipari's first season and he and his team delivered, culminating with a huge postgame party the night the Cats routed Drexel to hit the magic number. Those milestone achievements are important to the UK fans, who revel in the tradition of their program and adding former coach Joe B. Hall to the mix in the on-court celebration was a nice touch.

Big Blue nation takes New York by storm--Madison Square Garden is like a second home to the UConn Huskies, so it was a little surprising to many to see Cat fans occupying most of the seats for the early December showdown. This was the game that kicked the John Wall hype to another level, as he took control of the game down the stretch before a number of national media types on press row.

ESPN's Gameday comes to Rupp--this was another example of Kentucky's return to its customary spot among the game's elite programs. Filling Rupp Arena for a Saturday morning TV show is the kind of thing only this program could pull off and it was a wonderful opportunity to showcase Kentucky basketball not only to a national TV audience but to prospective recruits.

Wall's block saves the day at Vandy--this time it was Wall's defense that came to the rescue for the Wildcats, as he blocked a potential game-winning shot from John Jenkins and then grabbed the ball away from him to help seal a two-point win. That victory effectively clinched the SEC championship for UK.

Routing Tennessee by 29 in the SEC Tournament--this was the peak performance for a freshman-dominated team that didn't always hit on all cylinders for 40 minutes. No doubt revenge was a factor for the Wildcats, who had been upset in Knoxville a few weeks earlier, and the rout of a team that would eventually reach the Elite Eight was something to see.

Cousins' followup v. Mississippi State--Kentucky fans had taken over the city of Nashville, but it looked as though MSU was going to spoil the party by denying the Wildcats' their first SEC Tournament title in six years. But when Demarcus Cousins' followed up a missed shot a tenth of a second ahead of the buzzer, you just knew fate was on Kentucky's side that day. The scene of Wall and several teammates tackling Cousins in celebration after the game-tying shot was one of the lasting images for this team.

Cats roll into Sweet 16 for first time in five years--being in serious contention for the Final Four was standard operating procedure from 1992 through 2005 but then Kentucky either failed to get past the first weekend or even get into the tournament. Although the turnout on site in New Orleans was light for the Big Blue nation, fans were back home basking in the jubilation of seeing the Wildcats march back into the Sweet 16 with a pair of dominating victories.

Whether your team plays well in defeat or less than its best, it's nothing but a bitter taste when a team with Final Four potential comes up short of that goal (just ask "The Unforgettables" if it felt any better because they played so valiantly in their loss to Duke). But if Kentucky continues to put itself in the right position, i.e. one and two seeds, then the Cats will bust through that Final Four door and maybe even win another title or two.

Front and center

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Move over, men. It's time to make room for the women.

Following the UK Hoops' team upset of top-seeded Nebraska, a victory that has launched the Cats into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1982, the women's basketball team has made the cover of the The Cats' Pause. According to UK records, it's the first time the Cats have graced the cover.  

Talked with Matt May from The Cats' Pause just a moment ago and he informed me that it's the first time to the knowledge of his staff that the women have been the dominant art on the cover of TCP.

It's great to see the women getting the publicity and respect they deserve. We'll see if they can keep it going Tuesday night against Oklahoma. 

kentucky.wake_07.jpgKentucky's fabulous freshmen have made more history.

Freshman stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins have been named first-team Associated Press All-Americans, becoming the first freshman teammates in AP history to make the first team.

Wall and Cousins joined Ohio State's Evan Turner, Syracuse's Wes Johnson and Villanova's Scottie Reynolds on the first team.

In making the AP first-team, the freshmen break UK's 12-year drought without a first-team AP All-American. Guard Jodie Meeks made the second team last year, but UK has not had an AP first-teamer since Ron Mercer was selected in 1997.

"This means a lot to both of us. I'm surprised and glad we both made it," Wall said, according to an AP wire story. "We had to learn a lot as freshmen and we were able to help our teammates along the way. This means a lot to both of us.

The freshman stars join the likes of Mercer, Jamal Mashburn, Kenny Walker, Kyle Macy and more as Kentucky players to make the AP first team.

"It's important to me but it wasn't something I was expecting," Cousins said, according to the AP wire report. "This means a lot because all we really did was try to come in and help our teammates."

We should have  full news release on the home page shortly.

UK Hoops news conference

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Unfortunately the NCAA has halted our efforts in recording the news conferences at the women's basketball NCAA Tournament in Kansas City, Mo. However, we do have a live stream that you can view of the news conferences.

Oklahoma is at the podium as we speak and is taking questions. UK head coach Matthew Mitchell and select UK players are scheduled to take the podium at 2:35 p.m. ET.

The live stream is free.

Can UK Hoops go all the way?

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WBSK 09_10 UK_MichSt NCAA Web 32.jpgIt's time to start thinking big picture.

No longer should the Kentucky women's basketball team be satisfied with just a good showing. History has already been made with the program's longest run in the NCAA Tournament. Headlines now splash the front pages with UK's 76-67 toppling of No. 1 seed Nebraska.

With a victory that convincing in that type of hostile setting, who is to say the UK Hoops team can't make it to the championship game in San Antonio? (Let's disregard talk about winning it all until Connecticut shows an inkling of vulnerability.)

Other than the team's lack of history, the Cats have not shown anything that would lead one to believe they can't hang with the nation's very best.

Against a one-loss Nebraska team, UK was the better team from start to finish. The Cats (28-7) jumped to a 31-22 commanding lead early in the game on the back of Keyla Snowden's three-point shooting. They never looked back.

"It's not time for us to attach meaning to or significance to this win," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "There will be time for that. What we need to do is put our energy into whatever confidence we can gain from tonight. We need to get that and take it into the next game."

This is no longer just a season-long Cinderella story. This is a powerhouse team capable of playing in the final game of the season in San Antonio. Sunday night was final proof of that.

Aside from record-setting UConn, Nebraska was the best team in women's basketball this season. The Cornhuskers cruised through Big 12 regular-season play behind All-America candidate Kelsey Griffin and didn't suffer their first hiccup until a semifinals loss in the Big 12 Tournament.

But against a smaller, quicker Kentucky team Sunday night, Nebraska was really no match. Dominique Kelley scored 22 points and Griffin played up to her accolades for spells, but an outsider with no previous knowledge of the teams would have thought UK would was the No. 1 seed.

The Cats were that much better.

The difference, as it has been all season long, was on the defensive end. There's a tendency to think UK is at a disadvantage because its lack of height, but the Cats more than make up for that with speed and tenacity. They're relentless at both ends of the floor.

"You can't overstate the importance for our team," Mitchell said. "We are not tall. We don't have a lot of size. We do have good, well-conditioned athletes, so that's our whole method of playing. We have to play with quickness. We have to use the speed to our advantage."

The Cats have a penchant for coming up with every loose ball, and they continue to produce turnovers at an alarming rate. Sixteen turnovers, including 10 steals, led to 16 points, but it was more about UK's ability to take Nebraska out of its rhythm.

UK dictates the tempo. The Cats say when to run and when to hold up. When teams appear to make a run, much like Nebraska's late flurry of threes, the Cats do what that other Kentucky team had trouble doing -- they step on teams' throats.

"John Wooden used to say when he coached, if you have three players on your team that are quicker than your opponent, you have a really good chance to win," Nebraska head coach Connie Yori said. "If you look at their lineup, they were either as quick or quicker at every position than us, and that was the difference. They got every loose ball. They chased down loose ball rebounds. They beat us to the ball.  And the collection of those plays added up to a win for them. They're a very quick team."

Size usually matters -- see Baylor's rout of Tennessee -- but UK's speed makes it a non-factor. Teams like Nebraska know the pressure is coming, but nothing can prepare them for the relentless attack.

"We watched plenty of film," Yori said. "We knew they were quick. We tried to simulate it. You do the best you can to simulate it but (UK's pressure) is hard to simulate."

It's the best thing going for Kentucky as it enters the Elite Eight for the first time since 1982. Oklahoma, Tuesday night's opponent (9 p.m. on ESPN), will game plan for the Cats' quickness and defense, but the Sooners can't fully prepare for what they will face on the floor.

The best comparison would be former Arkansas great Nolan Richardson's "40 Minutes of Hell," an intense defensive system that placed emphasis on guarding the ball from baseline to baseline. Longtime Kentucky fans might liken the pressure defense to Rick Pitino's pressing UK teams of the 1990s.

"We tried to push the tempo and tried to just speed every team we play up," said freshman guard A'dia Mathies, who finished with 21 points and three steals. "That's part of Kentucky basketball."

The Elite Eight, made up of teams like Connecticut, Baylor, Oklahoma and Stanford, are the best of the best, but none of them have seen defensive pressure quite like Kentucky's.

Are some of the teams remaining more talented? Well, sure. One could make a case that UK sits at the bottom of the talent totem pole of the eight teams remaining.

But with the type of defensive pressure Kentucky employs and the heart and effort the Cats put into every game, there's no reason to believe they can't make it to the championship game.

"Clearly this is a special group, special team," Mitchell said. "I love this team. But it's not time (to celebrate) now. When the time comes, obviously this will be a significant victory."

But right now, more significant victories could still lie in the future. Right now, it's time to start thinking big picture.

Sweet 16 blog: No. 4 UK Hoops vs. No. 1 Nebraska

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Freshman stars, Patterson mum on future

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Thumbnail image for bledsoe_image001.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y.-- Freshman point guard Eric Bledsoe said it best when asked to look at how different next year's Kentucky men's basketball team will look.

"This is the last time we will all be together," Bledsoe said.

The graduation of three seniors will make that much true. How much different the team will look next year now hangs in the hands of four underclassmen as the offseason looms.

Junior forward Patrick Patterson, freshman guards John Wall and Bledsoe, and freshman center DeMarcus Cousins must now face a decision on their immediate futures. All four are being touted as potential first-round picks, but none wanted to speculate as to what they would do just minutes after Kentucky's loss to West Virginia in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament.

"I'm not thinking about that right now," Cousins said.

The deadline to declare for the NBA Draft is April 25. A new rule approved by the NCAA's Board of Directors last year requires early entrants who have not signed with an agent to withdraw from the draft by May 8. The former rules gave players until June 15.

Players are unable to test the NBA waters twice, making Patterson ineligible to return to school if he were to place his name in the draft for the second year in a row.

The likelihood that all four players return is slim to none. Wall is the overwhelming favorite to go No. 1 in June's NBA Draft, and Cousins and Patterson have been tabbed as potential top-10 picks. 

"I don't know," Wall said of his immediate future. "I'm not thinking about nothing right now. I'm just disappointed about the loss and (want) to get back home."

Asked where home was, Wall said Lexington.

"I'm finishing school out," Wall said.

Patterson and Wall seem the most likely to leave school. Patterson is scheduled to graduate in three years in June.

"I still have time to decide if I want to leave or if I want to stay," Patterson said. "The deadline isn't coming for a month or so. I still have time to think about if I want to stay or I want to leave. Right now, I'm just going to hang with my teammates and do whatever I need to do to lift their spirits."

The X-factor for next year's team looks to be Bledsoe. It was a foregone conclusion at the beginning of the season that Bledsoe would be at least a two-year player at UK, but his stock has skyrocketed as the season has progressed.

Last week, ESPN Insider Chad Ford projected Bledsoe as the final NBA lottery pick. First-round picks are guaranteed contracts in the NBA.

"We're just in the moment right now," Bledsoe said. "I'm not worried about all that."

Bledsoe told the Kentucky Kernel in January that he would consider the jump if he were to go in the top 10, but the absence of a Final Four will weigh heavily on his decision, Bledsoe said Saturday after UK's loss.

"I really want to win me a national championship," Bledsoe said. "I don't know whether I might come back or I might stay but as of right now I'm just focused on this moment."

UK head coach John Calipari has encouraged his players to turn pro early in the right situations. Calipari has a proven track record of replacing his lost stars.

The NBA Draft is June 24 in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Video: Mitchell previews Nebraska

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Video: Cats try to cope with defeat, season's end

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kentucky.wake_01.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y. - This was the ultimate what could have been. Everything about the season spelled national championship.

With one abysmal shooting night, the rags to riches storybook season fell short of the grand prize.

"It's extremely hard," Patterson said. "Our main focus was a national championship. We truly believed we could accomplish that goal. We had the players, we had the coaches, we had the team to get it done. Unfortunately we fell short to a team that outplayed us."

Kentucky lost Saturday night at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, falling 73-66 to No. 2 seed West Virginia. That Cats were done in by the very same things UK head coach John Calipari prophesized could end their season. West Virginia was lights out from three-point range, hitting 10-of-23 long-range shots, and for a brief period, UK lost its cool.

"I don't want to have excuses," Calipari said. "They outplayed us. But I think there were times that the inexperience hurt us."

Kentucky was also done in by the two things Calipari said wouldn't determine the Cats' season: three-point and free-throw shooting. UK was dreadful with both against West Virginia, hitting only 4-of-32 shots from behind the arc and 16-of-29 from the charity stripe.

The consequences of defeat mean the longest Final Four drought in school history will continue.

But that overwhelming miss paled in comparison to the disappointment the players and the coaches suffered through as they sat for 30 agonizing minutes while they tried to recover, reflect and answer questions all at once. Little could disguise the pain in their hearts.

It was almost unbearable to watch.

Senior Ramon Harris bent over, head in hands, in the middle of the locker room. Sophomore Darius Miller fought back tears. Eric Bledsoe had trouble just getting a word out.

It was an excruciatingly bitter end to a season filled with promise, hope and revival.

"I really wish we could have just won a national championship and dedicated this season to those who had such a rough first four seasons, two or three seasons -- Patrick, (Mark) Krebs, Perry (Stevenson) and Ramon," freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. "The seniors, they'll never get another chance to put on a college jersey. I just wish we could have ended their careers on a good note."

Wall tried to do his best to search for answers to the loss. As dignified and as prideful as he tried to stand, the wounds stung deep for a player that bravely shouldered the responsibilities of the program's savior.

"I took it hard," said Wall, who finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists. "I took it real hard. I was crying in the locker room and they had to pick me up. As a leader, you have certain goals you set for the team. I was trying to lead them all the way there. We fell short."

The season fell short of the ultimate goal and the disappointment poured solemnly over the team, but it shouldn't cast a shadow of disappointment over what was still a wildly successful season.

"We were pretty successful this year," said Cousins, who scored 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds in perhaps his final game in a Kentucky uniform. "We just didn't reach our main goal of a national championship."

But they reestablished Kentucky basketball, both in the state and across the country. Before the super freshmen signed with UK and before Patterson decided to come back, the program had largely fallen off the map.

The national perception following the dismissal of former coach Billy Gillispie was that the UK program was in shambles. The national analysts said Kentucky didn't mean what it used to mean to recruits. The facilities were great, they said, but nothing better than a dozen other schools around the country.

What made it so special now, they asked. To the majority of the nation, the premier basketball program in the country had become a "has been."

Although UK couldn't stamp the final seal of approval on a remarkable rebuilding project, one that few could have expected to happen so fast, it was still a raging success.

The players, although their faces didn't show it after the game, can take satisfaction in the fact that they have put the Kentucky label back on the map. UK is once again relevant.

"I take a whole lot (of satisfaction)," Wall said. "We finished 35-3. That's a record that some people don't have on their record. We wish it could have went longer and we could have won more games, but we did a great job this year of coming together as one team. This is our first year with all these guys and the coaching staff. It means a lot that we came this far, but we wish it would have went further."

The hardest part to swallow for the players is that even if they win a national championship next season, it will be difficult to match this year because of the bond and the obstacles the team had to overcome.

"We all cared," Cousins said. "Blood, sweat and tears this whole season. We put our hearts into this."

It hurt because no matter how long the decisions delay, the likelihood of Patterson, Wall, Cousins and Bledsoe all returning is smaller than Saturday's basket looked for the Cats. No team, no season, will ever be quite like Calipari's honeymoon with the program.

"This is the last time that we will all be together," Bledsoe solemnly admitted.

Like the great Kentucky teams of the past, this one will hold a special place in the hearts of UK fans, even without a championship.

"We had a terrific team and everybody came together to win," Bledsoe said. "I have never seen a team like that so determined to be equals and come together as one."

Time is just about the only thing that will heal the heartache that Saturday's loss brought, and that might not even be the remedy. The bitter end will stick with the UK players, coaches and fans for a long time.

But no matter how hard and how painful it is to look back, no one should consider this season a disappointment. Look back and remember the smile of John Wall, the dedication of Patrick Patterson and the honorability of the seniors. Think back and laugh at the maturity of DeMarcus Cousins, the blossoming of Eric Bledsoe and the heart of Mark Krebs.

"I'm proud of my team," Calipari said. "They fought, they just kept trying. I'm proud of what they've done all season."

This season was special in every sense of the word. Disappointment will not cloud it for very long.

"I loved it," Cousins said. "I just wish it didn't end like this."



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Cats aren't content with Sweet 16

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WBSK 09_10 UK_MichSt NCAA Web 62.jpgPart of what has made the 2009-10 basketball season extraordinary is that lightning has struck twice.

One year ago today, it was both teams -- the men and the women -- that were finished with postseason play after early bows in their respective National Invitation Tournaments.

To think both programs would still be playing in the Big Dance at this time last year after last season's debacles would be nothing short of ludicrous.

Maybe some could see the men coming. The hiring of superstar coach John Calipari, the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation and the return of Patrick Patterson hinted of an early turnaround.

But Matthew Mitchell's squad? Come on, how many of you thought the women would be playing in the Sweet 16 after three straight WNITs? Don't all speak up at once.

As great and as transcending as the men's revival has become, some would argue the women is even a better story. Mired in mediocrity and picked to finish 11th in the preseason in the Southeastern Conference, UK is now just one of 16 teams left in the entire country.

It's the Cats' first regional semifinals since 1982 and now they have an opportunity to win three straight tournament games for the first time in school history.

The women applaud the men for what they're doing, but excuse them while they step away to make their own history.

"The challenge now, for us, is to make certain we are not celebrating what we have already done and understand what the opportunity is," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said Friday before departing for Kansas City, Mo. "That is all that we have talked to them about. The whole tournament, we have talked to them about winning it with their mind and being mentally sharp and focused. That will be the message. I think they will be excited and I don't think that we will have any trouble to get them to give a great effort."

The message heading into the Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1 seed Nebraska (32-1) is not to get complacent. Just because history has been made doesn't mean it's time to stop rewriting the history books. Plenty of more pages are left to be filled.

"It is really important now that they don't get satisfied or get in a point in the game where they say, 'Look, we have done enough and this has been a good season,' " Mitchell said. "We want to try to push it as far as we can and we have a great shot to beat Nebraska. I am not saying that we are going to, but we clearly have the ability to advance to another round and that is the conversation that we are having now."

The road, at least on paper, would appear to come to an end in the first game in Kansas City. Nebraska ranked just behind record-setting Connecticut in terms of dominance this season and didn't lose its first game until Big 12 Tournament.

What in the world would give Mitchell any confidence that the Cats could pull off arguably the upset of het tournament?

Look no further than the Michigan State win in Freedom Hall last week. Against a bigger, taller, more physically imposing Spartan squad, the Cats won the battle inside and dictated the up-tempo rhythm. UK won going away, 70-52.

"I think they believe that they can win," Mitchell said. "I really do. I was so impressed in how they beat Michigan State. Michigan State had a lot of weapons and a lot of things that concerned me. I thought that we played with a lot of heart and confidence. We didn't play fearful or like we were overwhelmed by the circumstances and that is a great sign.

"That is what you are looking for as a coach. You are looking to see if they are confident and if they understand the game plan. If they execute that, it lets you know they are not nervous or thinking about other things. They are thinking about winning."

UK will once again have to match a daunting post player. Big 12 Player of the Year Kelsey Griffin, standing at 6-foot-2, averages 20.3 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. In addition to her presence in the paint, the Cornhuskers have three players that average 11.8 points or more per game.

"When you get to this point, no matter what region you are in, the four teams that make it to this point in your region are going to be tough," Mitchell said. "That is what I told the players, is that we need to play tough because that is what you should have to do at this point in the year. We are down to the final 16 teams in the country and we are one of 16 teams that still have an opportunity to play in this tournament and it is going to be tough."

What gives Mitchell the most confidence going into Sunday's 10 p.m. ET game is the work ethic and bond his team has shared this season.

Following the win over Michigan State, Mitchell spoke at length about the disappointment he would feel to have this season end. When senior forward Amani Franklin walked into his office last week, he realized just how close this season is to coming to a close.

He doesn't want it to end. Since their midseason SEC run, something special has been brewing, and now is not the time to become complacent with it.

"I have said many times that they are a really special group," Mitchell said. "I have loved all of our teams that we have had a chance to coach at Morehead State and here. This team has clearly come together and played for each other and supported each other. They want to win. Right now, I love this team because it is the team that I am coaching now. I wouldn't want to be coaching anybody else right now."

Kentucky has played its most consistent basketball in the postseason, culminating with a spot in the Elite Eight against West Virginia on Saturday.

After watching his alma mater from a courtside seat as a radio analyst for the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Kevin Grevey  marveled at how far the Cats have come since the beginning of the season.

"I saw them early in the year, especially when they played Miami of Ohio, Rider, North Carolina," Grevey said. "As the season progressed, they got better, individually and as a team. DeMarcus Cousins isn't even the same player as far as where he was when he started the year to where he is now. I think John Calipari is starting to get to know these guys better and they are starting to know strengths and weaknesses and know where to put them in substitutions. 

"Some guys are emerging from the bench and others are beginning to hide.  And one thing I love is their defense. Their defense has improved. When they started the year, remember, they are giving up three-point shots. Now they are going out and guarding them. They force people into Patterson and Cousins and Orton and they are able to block shots. 

Grevey particularly likes how Kentucky rebounds, calling the Cats a "tremendous" rebounding team.

"When you got John Wall rebounding from the point guard spot and you have all your bigs, Patterson, Demarcus Cousins, Daniel Orton and Bledsoe, who is becoming a better rebounder at guard, I think if they can eliminate teams to one shot, that is huge," Grevey said. "I also like their pro style of offense. They really spread the court and set a lot of high pick and rolls for Bledsoe and Wall to utilize their speed. They can stick it to another gear and take it right into the paint and right into the teeth of the defense and are very creative when they get in the air. 

"I can tell you, these guys don't make up their minds with what they are going to do. They will read the defense and fly to the basket and if the defense recovers and is there, they will make the necessary pass. If not, they can finish at the rim. John (Calipari) has allowed these guys to play to their talents and I like that about them."

===

Who is Kentucky's all-time best guard?  Now, there's a tough question.  If John Wall leads UK to the Final Four, he's certainly in the conversation, along with the likes of Kyle Macy and Tony Delk, who were voted to the school's all-century team by the fans a few years ago.
 
But in an unscientific poll at tomleachky.com, in which more than 1,000 fans cast votes, Ralph Beard, a two-time All-American in the late 1940s, was the overwhelming choice. 

===
When Grevey was working the SEC Tournament, it gave him a chance to experience something he had not seen firsthand in a long time -- how well the Big Blue nation travels to follow the Cats.

"I forgot how great these Kentucky fans are," Grevey said. "I go to Rupp Arena and I see it and I don't get to a lot of road games and that SEC Tournament was unbelievable. It made me proud to say you are either from Kentucky, love Kentucky or played at Kentucky, or you are a Kentucky fan. I know that the economy in Nashville can be very grateful to those Kentucky fans. It was unbelievable and really something to witness."

Calipari was there for Huggins in time of need

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Ga Web 38.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y. -- One of the great untold stories of college basketball is the camaraderie that exists among the fellow coaches. In a way, the coaches of college basketball are in their own fraternity.

Too often, we (and by we, I mean the media), blow up the coaching rivalries (John Calipari vs. Rick Pitino, Calipari vs. Bruce Pearl) and lose focus of some of the great coaching friendships.

Calipari and Bob Huggins is one of them.

As longtime coaches in Conference USA, Calipari and Huggins had some pretty heated battles at Memphis and Cincinnati, respectively. That, however, never stopped the two from forming a rock-solid friendship that has lasted through time, teams and conferences.

That friendship was never more evident than in September 2002. Huggins, who at the time was the head coach of the Cincinnati Bearcats, was on his way through the Pittsburgh International Airport when he suffered a serious and life-threatening heart attack.

Despite their battles on the court, the first coach to fly to Pittsburgh and stand by Huggins' side was none other than Calipari himself. Among other things, it was Calipari's nephew in the ambulance that helped keep Huggins alive on the way to the hospital.

It's really a phenomenal story and one I would love to tell, but I think this is one of those cases when hearing the men tell the story themselves, in full detail, might be better. Here is part of the transcript from Friday's interviews with the coaches on the heart attack incident:

Question: "Would you talk about your relationship with Huggs and the incident in '02 when a relative of yours was in the ambulance when Huggs had that problem?"
Calipari: "Bob and I go way back to when he was at Walsh College. You know, obviously I say this, and I mean it, he's as good as any coach out there. He's a Hall-of-Famer, but he's also a guy that would give you the shirt off his back. And when he had the heart attack in Pittsburgh airport, my nephew was in the ambulance picking him up. When they got him on the ambulance and he said, 'Coach Huggins, you're going to be all right. I'm John Calipari's nephew.' And he went 'Oh, my goodness. I'm not going to make it.' But he and I go way back. He's as competitive and as good a coach as you'll see out there."

Question: "Any truth to the rumor your relative said, 'You can't die yet because Cal has to beat you once?' "
Calipari: "No, Bob said that. That's what Bob adds. He likes to embellish. I don't know if we beat him the next year by 20 but it was shortly thereafter, the next year."

Question: "Coach, Bob Huggins' dad told me a story one time about how when he went through the Pittsburgh ordeal, you were the first coach that came and visited him in the hospital. I was wondering if you could recollect on that day."
Calipari: "I would tell you that when I went to visit him when I heard about it, he's a young man. And I raced out there and I can't remember where I was, but I went in and I was the paddle burns. I just told him, 'You know, you're getting that second life here.' It was scary, to be honest with you. They told me he was going to be fine. It was a scare. It teaches us to take better care of ourselves and all those things. I went out and just let him know that you know what, 'I'm here for you.'

"I saw his mom and dad were there. His wife was there. It was just a scary thing. It was really scary. We all think Bob being that big - he's a big guy. All of a sudden this happens. I was like, it kind of blew me away. I was glad my nephew was there for him."

Question: "Bob, can you kind of take us back to when Cal visited you in the hospital and how much of that you remember, if you do, and what your thoughts were on that, him coming by?"
Huggins: "Do you want to hear the whole story? It actually really is a pretty good story. I'm laying there. They scoop me up off the sidewalk and put me in the ambulance, and I'm kind of in and out of consciousness. They're pumping morphine in you. I kind of came to and I said to -- the whatever the guy is in the back of the ambulance -- I said, 'What's the ETA?' And he got on the thing and he said, '22 minutes.' I said, 'Man, I'm not going to make 22 minutes.' You know how they tap you on the leg and say, 'I haven't lost a patient.' I said, 'Get ready, get ready to. I'm not some old lady, man. I know what is going on. I don't have 22 minutes.' And so he got on and said, 'Abort, abort, abort.' They went to a closer hospital, which is really right where Cal grew up.

"The guy in the back of the ambulance tapped me on the leg and he said, 'Coach, don't worry. I'm not going to let you die until Cal beats you at least once.' "

Question: "After that, when you were in the hospital, did Cal ..."
Huggins: "Oh, yeah. Really, nobody was supposed to be in there but family. Cal being Cal, talked his way back there. Honestly, I don't remember a lot. I was pretty drugged up. Yet John came in and Skip (Prosser) came in. When you kind of finally come to and realize what's going on, it means an awful lot. Cal was at Memphis. To fly in from Memphis and stop in the hospital really meant a lot."

Question: "Just to elaborate a little on that, you coaches obviously are very competitive. What did it mean to have your competitors come in to check on you in that way?"
Huggins: "Cal and I aren't that way. You say, very competitive. Tomorrow we're going to compete like crazy. But, you know, when he was at Memphis, they beat us and I went on his TV show after the game. Actually I just walked on. He didn't know I was coming. Just for fun. I was kind of low. I was trying to cheer myself up. We beat them and we were at the rendezvous having ribs, and Cal came in with the priest from UMass. He brought the priest in and said, 'I brought the priest in from UMass.' That didn't even help. I said, 'It didn't help UMass either. You better get another priest'

"I mean, we have fun. I think sometimes, I think the modern-day coaches, they kind of get that way. John and I have never been that way. John and I have always been friends. We play them in Springfield I think the first time we played against each other. I was in his room afterwards. And we were sitting around talking, and we've always been like that. John is good. John really is a hell of a coach. And he's a guy who when coaches are down, he'll pick up the phone and call. He's always been very good about that."

Cats come together to rebuild Kentucky legacy

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Drexel Game Web 09.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y. -- What is Kentucky basketball?

Kentucky basketball is shooting jump shots on a gravel driveway in the middle of winter. Kentucky basketball is emulating Dan Issel, Jamal Mashburn or one of the other hundreds of greats that have put on the blue and white uniform. Kentucky basketball is born and blossomed, from middle school leagues in the farthest corners of the state to the high school Sweet Sixteen in Lexington.

Kentucky basketball is Final Fours.

Sophomore guard Darius Miller was that kid not too long ago, lofting three-pointers at a rickety goal, doing his best impression of Tony Delk. As a Maysville, Ky., native, Miller grew up, became a hometown hero and carried his team through the Sweet Sixteen in Lexington to a high school state championship.

If there is a guy that knows about the importance of Kentucky basketball to the Commonwealth, it's Miller.

"It means a lot to the people of the state of Kentucky," Miller said. "They don't really have a pro team or anything, so they look up to us and Louisville as the two main schools. For us to have success, I think it means a lot to them and the community that we are in."

Miller knows firsthand that if there is one thing the program is missing, it's another trip to the Final Four. Stuck in the longest Final Four drought in school history, UK sits on the brink of advancing to its first national semifinals since 1998.

If a near flawless regular season didn't do the trick, getting to the Final Four, in a sense, would complete the journey of reestablishing the lifeblood of the Bluegrass State. Saturday at 7 p.m. in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., UK will try to punch its ticket to April basketball with a win over West Virginia.

"For us to have a chance to do something special, I think it means a lot to them," Miller said of the opportunity at hand.

Admittedly, Miller said the freshmen didn't understand the importance or the significance college basketball had on the state and its people when they signed with the program.

"I really don't think you can understand it until you're a part of it," Miller said. "The fan support for UK is kind of crazy. Sometimes we went to away games and expected to be all the other team and we had a whole bunch of fans there. I don't think anybody can know what it's like until you experience it."

The freshmen have experienced it, shouldered the expectations and pressure, and flourished in arguably the most special season since the 1998 championship team.

People have always cared in the state of Kentucky about basketball, but after a long drought of tournament success, they're back to living around it, in it and with it. They're immersed in Kentucky basketball again.

Asked if he knew what they were doing, freshman guard John Wall said, "We don't want to stop here, but we know we're doing something special."

To get back on the brink of Kentucky basketball meant cohesion that some predicted wasn't possible. A new coach, new attitude and seven new players had to not only mix but jell with six veterans.

"We all had to come together," Wall said. "Our whole team was brand new, including our coaching staff. We all had to learn. The coaches did a great job of making us watch the show 'Remember the Titans' and bringing us together. We just combined together and said we want do something special. You can't do it by yourself, so we've got each other's back."

One guy that probably held the key more than any other to UK's success was junior forward and team leader Patrick Patterson. He had both the ability to push the Cats to the next level or hold them back. When a stockade of highly touted freshmen took over the reins of the team, he could have blown everything up.

"He could have come back and said, 'This is my team and I'm shooting all the balls (because) I decided to come back,' " UK head coach John Calipari said. "Well, guess what he does? He scores less points, gets less rebounds and his stock has gone through the roof."

More than that, Kentucky has become a better team because Patterson led the solidarity  movement and didn't let his ego stand in the way of the team.

"Patrick is a great person, Wall said. "He's a great person to have as a teammate. He accepted a role that I had so much hype coming into (college) and all my other fellow freshmen had so much hype coming in. He didn't say, 'This is my team, give me the ball.' He just showed us a guy that could help us get through it. Even though we all had great success this season, he would rather his teammates have success.

"That's the type of person Patrick is."

Two years at UK without so much as a whiff of an NCAA Tournament playing floor was too much to handle for the third-year star, so he evolved.

He accepted.

"I appreciate this more," Patterson said. "The first two years weren't the true years that Kentucky should have as a Kentucky program and basketball team. Now that we have such a great basketball team, such a great thing going for and a successful year, I definitely appreciate everything I've gone through and definitely appreciate the type of run that we're having."

The state appreciates it, too. Thirteen players and one head coach came together for one special season. They certainly don't want it to end before the Final Four and a national championship, but even if it does, at this point, it's been one heck of a run.

"Let's finish it the right way," Patterson said. "Let's win."

One more and the Kentucky basketball as we once knew it will be completely back.

Video: Ticket to Final Four looms

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Disciplined defensive effort best of the season

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uk_011.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Chants of "Go Big Red" bounced down from the overhead dome. "Overrated" even echoed from a few thousand leftover West Virginia fans. Boos berated the Kentucky players every 30 seconds.

This was every bit a road game. In hostile territory, nearly 85 percent of the 22,271 fans in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., wanted Kentucky to lose.

The Cinderella story was all that mattered to those 17,000 rabid pro-Cornell fanatics. Whether Cornell blood ran through their veins, it didn't matter. Taking down big, bad Kentucky was the only outcome that would satisfy.

For five thrilling minutes, it appeared as if the slipper fit. That was before the deafening Red had finally irritated the Kentucky men's basketball team just enough to turn on quite possibly the most dominant defensive effort of the tournament. Jay Bilas called it the best defensive performance he'd seen all season.

For 15 minutes in the second half, UK looked impenetrable. Cornell couldn't make a shot much less get near the basket. To borrow an overused cliche, they couldn't buy a bucket.

The Cats had shutdown the ATM, the Cinderella story and the anti-UK sentiment.

Kentucky (35-2) is indeed marching on to its first Elite Eight in five years with a 62-45 victory over Cornell (29-5). The next opponent in UK's way stands West Virginia (Saturday at 7 p.m.), a defensive demon in its own right.

"I definitely think it's probably the best defense we've played this year," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "We understood that they're a great three-point shooting team, so we had to have a total team effort."

The Cats did what few teams -- not Wisconsin (53.3), not Temple (39.1), not Alabama (55.6 percent), not St. John's (61.1 percent) -- could do this season. The three-point line, for one of the first times this season, was a Rubik's Cube the "smart" kids couldn't figure out.

"I thought Kentucky came out and played tremendous defense," said Cornell coach Steve Donahue, whose team shot hit just 5-of-21 from behind the arc. "(They) did a great job of taking us out of things."

The game was billed as the "smart" kids vs. the "dumb" kids. First off, let's give credit where credit is due. The Ivy Leaguers are smart and they are good ball players.

But the Cats aren't "dumb." Recording a 35-2 mark, playing the type of defense the Cats have this season and shouldering expectations that freshmen should never have to face isn't associated with an unintelligent team.

To play defense like that, "It takes a disciplined team," UK head coach John Calipari said.

During Kentucky's smothering 30-6 run in the first half that led to a 32-16 halftime lead, Kentucky allowed Cornell to do nothing offensively. The Cats forced 12 turnovers in the first half (15 for the game), stole the ball nine times (12 for the contest) and allowed just three Cornell field goals over the final 15:16 of the second half. 

Only one of those baskets came in a half-court set.

"We just locked down on defense," Wall said. "We went over everything that they did. Handoffs were what was going to kill us and ball screens and backdoor cuts. We went over that for like four days straight with coach. That's all we did. We knew that was the key to their offense."

uk_027.jpgSmart kid(s), huh?

"When they were coming screens to hand off, we tried to pressure them over," sophomore guard Darius Miller said. "Our big men did a great job giving us time to get back to them."

Kentucky's defense helped a struggling offense find its groove in the first half. The turnovers led to easy transition baskets as the Cats scored 17 points off turnovers before halftime and 13 points in transition.

Even when the Cats lost focus in the second half and Cornell crept back into it, Kentucky never wavered on the end that everybody says "wins championships."

Cornell was more focused on getting a shot off than actually making it.

"We came out and played some tough defense tonight," said freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins, who steadied the Cats with a team-high 16 points, including free throws down the stretch when it mattered most. "I've never seen us go at people like that."

For all the praise Kentucky gets for its high-flying athletes, bruising inside presence and lightning-quick transition game, it's the UK coach and his players that have called this a defensive team. They've called it their identity.

They might not go to Cornell, but these kids are smart enough to know what they're talking about.

"I was really pleased with the defense we played today," Calipari said. "The guys really worked hard to make it hard for them. ... The discipline it takes for a group of young people like this in their first NCAA Tournament run was tremendous."

Video: Kentucky puts clamps down on Cornell

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A closer look at Cornell's 3-point shooting

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- By now you've surely read all the stories of the different styles of basketball Kentucky and Cornell play.

The Big Red, an Ivy League school that has never been on this stage before, has danced to the Sweet 16 on its three-point shooting. Cornell leads the nation in three-point percentage (.434) and ranks third in three-point field-goals made (9.7).

But Tom Leach, UK's play-by-play radio broadcaster, brought up an interesting coversation topic Wednesday night. He wondered what Cornell's three-point shooting is like against the major opponents on its schedule.

Wonder no more, Tom. I decided to take a look at what Cornell's three-point shooting has looked like against what I would call the high-major opponents.

Alabama -- 10-for-18 (55.6 percent)
Seton Hall -- 11-for-29 (37.9 percent)
Syracuse --  13-for-37 (35.1 percent)
St. John's -- 11-for-18 (61.1 percent)
Kansas -- 9-for-26 (34.6 percent)
Temple -- 9-for-23 (39.1 percent)
Wisconsin -- 8-for-15 (53.3 percent)

That comes out to 71-of-166 (42.8 percent) three-point shooting against the so-called high-major opponents. What's that tell us? Well, not what UK fans might have hoped, considering that's just a shade off what Cornell normally shoots. 

Basically, this team, regardless of the level of competition or the type of defense it will face against Kentucky, appears to be able to knock down the long-range shot.

If you're looking for a silver lining, look at Cornell's toughest competition of the season. Against Kansas and Syracuse, both No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament, the Big Red shot a combined 22-of-63 (34.9 percent).

Even better for the Cats is that the Syracuse game took place in the Carrier Dome, the site of Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup. Does that mean the Big Red had trouble with the depth perception and shooting angles in the dome? That's hard to judge off just one game.

One thing that list above tells me is that Cornell is battle tested. How many teams can say they will have played three No. 1 seeds in one season?  

Spring football approaches

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Thumbnail image for cobb td 1 b.jpgIt's hard to believe during this March Madness run with the basketball teams, but the spring football season is right around the corner.

And by corner, I mean next week.

Starting Wednesday, the UK football team will begin spring practice. For nearly four weeks, the team will prepare for its upcoming fall season with four weeks of practice under new head coach Joker Phillips. The spring game will take place April 24.

I'm hoping to have a few posts from the spring season, but it will be considerably less than last year while the basketball teams are playing. I promise that you'll still get your spring fill, but until I'm able to hop on the beat, check out a few links on the Web:

- CollegeFootballNews.com previews spring practice for all six of the Southeastern Conference teams, taking a look at the early buzz, the biggest question and most important position to watch.

- CollegeFootballNews.com also takes an in-depth look at wide receiver Randall Cobb, one of the stars heading into spring practice.

- ESPN blogger Chris Low analyzes the strongest and weakest positions for UK.

- The Cats' Pause's Rob Gidel, one of the go-to experts when it comes to Kentucky football, previews the spring season and looks at some of the key storylines.

Anthony's run could inspire Wall

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IMG_9546.JPGSYRACUSE, N.Y. -- If John Wall needs a reminder of how just how tough and just how special it is for a player to lead a team to the national championship in his freshman season, he need look no further than the southeast corner of the Carrier Dome.

Perched above the Syracuse basketball floor sits a gigantic picture that honors Syracuse's 2003 national championship run. On it stands former freshman sensation Carmelo Anthony, one of the few and last great freshman to lead his team to a national championship.

Wall was asked Wednesday if seeing a picture of a freshman that faced similar expectations meant anything to him.

"I watched the game he played," Wall said. "It was great to see him win a championship. It's tough and it's going to be hard. It's not an easy road to get there. We're just trying to take it one game at a time and we're preparing ourselves for this game and hopefully we'll get to the next."

It is rather fitting in a way that if Kentucky were to cut down the nets, it will go through a place that hosted the last great freshman to carry a team all the way to the national title.

Since then, teams have tried but failed to win without experience (see Ohio State in 2007). Even the Fab Five, a starting five of freshmen that led Michigan to the national championship in 1992, failed to capture the ultimate prize.

The Cats are the youngest team in the tournament in terms of experience according to kenpom.com, and the seventh-youngest in all NCAA Division I men's college basketball.

Wall is aware of how rare it is for freshman-laden team to win it all. He's seen teams like Kansas, Villanova and Georgetown lose in the early rounds.

"I think ever since the tournament started, we started taking practice more serious," Wall said. "It's one game and you go home. Coach told us anybody can lose. Everybody is coming to play. Most of these teams don't want to go home."

Will Wall take notice of Anthony's run and be the next great freshman to win a national championship? Syracuse will be the final springboard.

Thumbnail image for kentucky.wake_14.jpgSYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Kentucky-Cornell is being billed as David vs. Goliath, the powerhouse vs. the Cinderella, the smart kids vs. the dumb kids.

DeMarcus Cousins believes that categorization is both ignorant and "stupid." And he's right.

"We're here to play basketball," the freshman forward said. "This isn't a spelling bee."

No, DeMarcus it's not. When Kentucky, a longtime powerhouse of college basketball and seven-time national champion, faces Cornell, a proud Ivy League school with little basketball success, Thursday at 9:57 p.m. in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, an Elite Eight berth - not a spelling bee - will be on the line.

In spite of the differences in the programs, the seeding and the styles, Cornell has become a trendy upset special, a media darling if you will, to knock off the second No. 1 seed of the tournament.

"They're ball players and they're here for a reason," Cousins said. "They've earned their way into the Sweet 16, so that means they can play basketball. I'm not getting into smart kids, dumb kids - I'm not getting into that. They can play ball and they're a good team. We're not out there reading books seeing who can read the fastest. We're out there playing basketball.""

Cornell advanced to the Sweet 16 by way of wins over No. 5 seed Temple and No. 4 seed Wisconsin. The seeding would indicate upsets, but the Big Red's style of play and record (29-4) would suggest otherwise.

Cousins, fittingly dressed with a hat and glasses (when asked if he had the Cornell look going, he said, "Nah, I'd probably have a little piece of tape in the middle") said if UK (34-2) comes out sluggish and without energy, it could fall victim to Cornell's third straight upset.

"We've seen the damage that they can do," Cousins said. "We saw earlier in the year when they played Kansas. They've got a chance to win it."

Most of Cornell's damage has come from the three-point line. The Big Red lead the nation in three-point field-goal percentage (.434), rank third in three-point field goals made (9.7) and stand 12th in field-goal percentage (.486).

"They're kind of like Princeton," freshman guard John Wall said. "They can lull you to sleep and go backdoor. If you're not watching, they can hit threes from anywhere if you're guarding the ball screens. They're a perfect team. It's hard to get them out of what they want to do (because) they execute so well."

Guards Ryan Wittman (17.8 points per game, 107 three-pointers) and Louis Dale (12.6 points per game, 4.8 assists per game) pace the Big Red offensively, but 7-foot center Jeff Foote (12.4 points per game) has become a presence down low for Cornell.

Wall said the key for Kentucky will be establishing and enforcing an up-tempo rhythm.

"We want to play at our game pace," Wall said. "Our game pace is going up and down. If we go half court, we can run that type of style, but we want to play at our pace and what's best for us and that's getting up and down the court."

But what if the Big Red continues to knock down perimeter shots like it did in the first two games when it buried a combined 17 triples?

"If they go nuts and we're doing a great job of guarding them and we're making them take tough threes and they're shooting through rafters and they're going in, it's been a heck of a season," UK head coach John Calipari said. "The issue becomes we are so inexperienced that can we sustain possessions? In other words, if you stop with 30 on the shot clock, if you stop, they're scoring. You have to play the entire shot clock."

There's been a tendency to stereotype the game as contrasting styles, teams and backgrounds, and to a point, there are some significant differences:

- Before entering this year's Big Dance, Cornell had never won an NCAA Tournament game. UK is looking for its 101st win.

- The Big Red has never signed a McDonald's All-American and probably never will. Kentucky churns them out like a factory.

- Cornell, like the rest of the Ivy League, does not offer athletic scholarships. UK, like most of Division I, is allotted 13 per year.

But the Big Red is legit. Cornell has outrebounded its opponents in 29 of its games this season and lost by just five to Kansas earlier this season. 

More than anything, the Big Red and Big Blue are both out to prove once again that this isn't about academics, IQ or "spelling bees." Thursday is for a chance at the Elite Eight and an opportunity to prove who has the better basketball team this year.

"There is a stereotype that because we are an Ivy League team, that we fit a certain mold," seldom-used Cornell forward Eithan Chemerinski said. "We are a very intelligent team, but at the same time there are a bunch of great athletes and great players (on this team)."

Kentucky knows. Kentucky has been warned. Will Kentucky respond?

To the Cats' credit, every time they have been doubted this season, they've responded with an unbeatable swagger.

"You're talking about seniors that have been through wars," Calipari said. "(Cornell has) won three Ivys and NCAA Tournaments. They're going to play how they play. We're going to try to play how we play. So I can see people looking at this and saying, 'Wow, let's see how this plays out. Is it fast? Is it slow?' I think they play fast.

"I think they throw it ahead. They like to shoot quick threes. I think they'll score and look to score off the first or second pass if you let them. If not they'll wind it down. And if they have to shoot a late three over the top of hands from beyond the NBA line and swish it, they will. I mean, they're good."

They're basketball players, and darn good ones at that. 

Video: UK players preview Cornell, Sweet 16

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Video: Coury 'hyped' to play former team

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- These boys can shoot.

That was my initial reaction after watching Cornell, UK's Sweet 16 opponent, practice in the Carrier Dome just moments ago. Physically, the Big Red should be overmatched by the Cats, but fundamentally the Big Red might be the best team left in the tournament.

On multiple occasions during practice, the Cornel players knocked down six, seven and sometimes eight shots in a row during a shooting a drill.

As the great Allen Iverson once said, "We in here talkin' about practice. ... Not a game, not a game, not a game. We talkin' 'bout practice."

But the Big Red has proven its marksmanship during games. Entering Thursday's primetime affair, Cornell is No. 1 in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (.434), third in three-point field-goals made (9.7), 12th in field-goal percentage (.486) and 15th in assists (16.2).

The highlight during practice, at least for me, was when former Wildcat Mark Coury drilled a buzzer-beater from just inside the half-court line. Coury's heave was one of just three last-second shots the Big Red hit during the drill, but it brought out arguably the loudest ovation.

The two-year Cat, who played under former coaches Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie, waved his hands in the air after hitting the shot.

One last thing before I head to Cornell and Kentucky's media availability: there is a decent amount of Cornell fans here. It's hard to gauge how that will translate to Thursday's game since it is just open practice, but right now there is definitely more Big Red fans at the Carrier Dome than there are Big Blue fans.

Kentucky's open practice is scheduled to start at 3:10 p.m.

Syracuse in photos

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Decided to snap a few pictures on my walk through campus to the Carrier Dome. Again, I'm obviously not a photographer, but I hope these give you a little view into what we get to see in Syracuse for the NCAA Tournament.

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Mar. 21 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Mar. 21:

Softball: Brittany Cervantes

Sophomore Brittany Cervantes exploded for the Wildcats in their 4-2 week which included a win over No. 5 Alabama and an SEC series win over Arkansas. Cervantes batted .400 with four home runs and 11 RBI along with an astounding 1.200 slugging percentage. Cervantes' three-run home run became the game-winning hit for the Wildcats in their upset of No. 5 Alabama on Tuesday. It marked just the second time in school history UK knocked off the Crimson Tide. Cervantes' then drilled a three-run home run to defeat Morehead State and remain a perfect 5-0 against the Eagles in the last three seasons. Cervantes' came up with another home run in the opening game of the Arkansas series to help UK earn the first win of that series. In helping the Blue and White clinch their first SEC series of the season, she was 2-for-3 and drove in a run in the second game. In the final game of the Arkansas series, she tied the score at 3-3 in the third inning with her third three-run home run of the week. With four round trippers this week she moved into sole possession of fifth place all-time in the UK record books with 17 career home runs in just 86 career games as a sophomore. She also ranks third all-time at Kentucky with a .535 slugging percentage.

Baseball: Alex Meyer

Sophomore right-hander Alex Meyer picked up the first SEC win of his career Sunday in UK's series-finale win over No. 19 Ole Miss ... Meyer tossed 6.2 innings, allowing three runs and striking out a season-high 10 ... A 6-foot-9, 220-pounder, Meyer was tossing a shutout until allowing a single run in the sixth inning and two runs in the seventh inning, in a 12-3 UK win ... Meyer , a native of Greensburg, Ind., retired the first eight hitters he faced ... On the year, Meyer has totaled a team-high four wins, tossing 27.2 innings and striking out 36.

Baseball: Chad Wright

Sophomore leftfielder Chad Wright had another solid week for the Wildcats, batting leadoff in all five games ... Wright hit .389 (7-for-18) with two doubles, a homer and four walks, adding a sacrifice fly and a sacrifice bunt during the week ... A native of Paducah, Ky., Wright had, what wound up being, the eventual game-tying home run robbed by Ole Miss centerfielder Tim Ferguson in the bottom of the eighth inning of a UK one-run loss Saturday ... On the year, Wright has hit .338 (27-for-80) with three doubles, a triple and two homers, tying for the team lead with 17 RBI, drawing nine walks and stealing 5-of-7 bases ... In UK's last 10 games, Wright has hit .405 (17-for-42) with seven RBI and three steals.

Headed to the 'Cuse

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Thumbnail image for NCAA_logo.gifI can't wait to get on the road again
On the road again
Goin' places that I've never been
Seein' things that I may never see again

-Willie Nelson, "On the road again"

Yes, it's time to hit the road again. I'm about to take off for the airport with the men's basketball team as we get ready to head to Syracuse, N.Y., for the Sweet 16 and potentially the Elite Eight. We are scheduled to depart at 6 p.m.

Same drill as last week on the blog. We will have features, columns, videos, live blogs and more as the Wildcats try to reach their first Final Four since 1998.

The team is scheduled to have a rather quiet night in Syracuse after practicing this afternoon, but it will hold an open practice Wednesday at 3:10 p.m. at the Carrier Dome. There will be media availability just before that, so check back Wednesday evening for more coverage.

Also, Cam will continue to travel with the women's basketball team as it heads to the Kansas City regional semifinals. The Cats will learn their Sweet 16 opponent late Tuesday night.

In the meantime, while we're in the air, check out a live blog from Cliff Hagan Stadium (post below) as the Cats take on Xavier at 6 p.m., or head on over to the ballpark and see it for yourself.

Live blog: No. 24 UK baseball vs. Xavier

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Will Bledsoe go pro after this season?

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ky.etsu_13.jpgThere is suddenly a realistic shot that guard Darius Miller could be the lone returning starter on next year's team.

According to ESPN Insider Chad Ford, freshman guard Eric Bledsoe has moved into the top 14 in his NBA Lottery Mock Draft. That begs the question, if Bledsoe is a projected NBA Lottery pick, will he make the jump after one season in college?

It could be one of the most important questions in the offseason.

"I never thought about anything like that," Bledsoe told the Kentucky Kernel in late January, when Ford first placed Bledsoe as a potential first-round pick. "I was reading it and I was shocked like 'Is he really talking about me?' because I went through everything growing up. I guess I had bumps in the road and it's paying off."

Bledsoe told the Kernel that he was planning on coming back, but he did say that he would likely leave if he was a projected top-10 pick.

What about top 14?

"It makes me feel great that I have a chance to be one and done but I don't really look into or buy into it," Bledsoe told the Kernel in January. "That just means I have to come in and practice every day and work hard and try to be the best."

Ford has Bledsoe going No. 14 in most of his lottery projections, joining teammates John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson in the lottery. First-round picks are guaranteed contracts in the NBA.

Should all four UK players go in the lottery, it would be the first time four players from the same team have been selected in the top 14 since North Carolina's foursome of Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants were picked in the 2005 NBA Draft Lottery.

UK head coach John Calipari has continually pledged his support for his players that want to jump to the pros. Calipari has a track record of being able to replace them.

Just last week, Calipari told reporters that freshman reserve Daniel Orton has played so well of late that he could have the option of turning pro after this season. As well as Orton has played, his stats (zero starts, 3.5 points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game) would suggest otherwise. 

"Daniel will have options at the end of the year to make a decision on what he wants to do," Calipari said. "Can you imagine? And I'm not sure that would have happened if he was on a team that was an NIT team. You hear what I'm saying? Now they're looking at him saying this kid is really, really good. And he is."

Bledsoe has been on a tear down the stretch. The freshman point guard from Birmingham, Ala., is averaging 16.8 points per game over his last six games. Bledsoe has hit 36-of-58 shots (62.1 percent) during that stretch, including 9-of-12 three-pointers in the NCAA Tournament.

The NBA Draft will take place June 24 at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

Tom Leach: From the pressbox -- March 23

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grevey_kevin2.jpgUK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

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With a win over Cornell on Thursday, Kentucky will go into a regional final as the favorite to make it to the Final Four. Thirty-five years ago this month, the Wildcats were about as far on the other end of the spectrum as a team could be. They were facing an undefeated juggernaut from Indiana, which had beaten the Cats by 24 points earlier that season. But in one of the most memorable games in the history of this program, Kentucky upset the Hooisers 92-90, on the way to an eventual national runner-up finish.

There's an interesting parallel between that team and the current edition. The seniors on that team had been part of a freshman class that was ranked as the best in the nation. Freshmen were not eligible at that time, so the so-called "Super Kittens" recorded a perfect 22-0 record. As sophomores, they helped Kentucky reach the regional final, where it lost to Indiana. As juniors, they struggled through a 13-13 season, but the influx of another super rookie class --which by now was eligible to play right away -- put Big Blue back among the nation's upper-tier programs.

Despite their lopsided loss to IU, Kevin Grevey, one of the seniors on that team, said he and his teammates entered the rematch with confidence.

"There was some revenge factor going into the Indiana game after being beaten during the regular season very badly," Grevey said. "Our confidence grew after that as we beat some very good basketball teams in Notre Dame and North Carolina and then went through our SEC schedule beautifully. Yes, we lost a few games in the SEC, but we won the championship, and at that point we knew we were a much better team than we were in December when we played Indiana.

"We had them scouted and were as big and strong and felt as deep and as talented. It was just that Indiana was undefeated but we were on a roll. Coach (Joe B.) Hall mapped it out for us and told us how we were going to do it and we executed it. We were all in belief that we were going to beat Indiana and get to the NCAA championship. Losing to UCLA (in the finals) was one of the worst losses I have ever had in my career.

"The week before, beating Indiana, was one of the best wins I ever had in my life. I played 10 years in the NBA and was finally able to win a championship, but those two games, winning against Indiana and losing against UCLA in the championship, are two games that I will never forget and pretty much identify that freshman class and our careers."

On the eve of the title game, legendary UCLA coach John Wooden announced that the game against Kentucky would be his last on the bench. Grevey and company remain convinced that Wooden's decision had a big impact on the outcome.

"There is no question I feel that way," Grevey said. "I have read his books and I have even spoken to him personally and I have told him to this day that I don't think that UCLA would have won that game if he hadn't retired. But you can't rewrite history and you have got to get over that stuff. I have although I still can't watch that game. My kids say 'Hey, Dad, it is on ESPN Classic and you gotta see this. Man, you are making shots and you guys look good.' But I say, 'Yeah, but we lost.'

"And that is the most hurt I have ever been in my life and I can't watch it and never have. I have seen some highlights but you couldn't pay me all the money in the world to sit in front of a TV set and watch that UCLA game. It brings back wounds that I can't deal with anymore."

But Grevey says he'd love to watch a replay of the Indiana win.

"I would rewatch that in a heartbeat," Grevey said. "I never had a chance to but I can remember so many of the plays. The guys really came through. Mike Flynn and Jimmy Dan Conner, Larry Johnson, Bob Guyette -- it was such a team win and our guard play was just unbelievable. I have never seen those two guys, particularly Jimmy Dan and Mike, play so well at one time in a game that never meant more to us ever. I was defended pretty toughly by Indiana but those guys carried us and it was such a great win and it gives me chills talking about it right this minute."

Grevey said his freshman class talked often about the great things they wanted to accomplish in their UK careers. Earlier this month, he was at courtside for the SEC Tournament in Nashville working games for Westwood One radio when he saw something in the eyes and body language of this Wildcat team that told him they had that kind of inner drive.

"We were very, very close and still are to this day," Grevey said. "I can see that with these guys. They are close and are trying to do something special and yes, the expectations were high on us when we came in as the number one freshman team in the country that long ago and it is the same now. Comparisons are being made to Jalen Rose, Chris Weber and the great Michigan teams. There are only a handful of teams that have relied on freshman as Kentucky has and maybe the last would have been Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse.

"It is a different day now, but I think there are similarities in the spirit and desire to do something and achieve. These guys have achieved everything that has been set before them up to now and I don't see any reason why they can't continue on."

wbsk uk_mich st dunlap 1.jpgLOUISVILLE -- The Kentucky women's basketball players have little man's syndrome.

For 48 hours they watched tape of a bigger, stronger, more physical Michigan State team. The headlines warned of a potential roadblock in UK's magical season run.

But height is only a number to the Kentucky women's basketball team. What it lacks in size, it makes up for with speed, defense, toughness and heart.

The diminutive Cats (27-7) out-powered the super-sized Spartans at Freedom Hall on Monday, defeating fifth-seeded Michigan State 70-52 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The second win in two days sends the Cats to their first regional semifinals since 1982.

UK will play the winner of UCLA-Nebraska in Kansas City on Sunday at a time still to be determined.

"We've got a lot of heart, a lot of fight," said freshman guard A'dia Mathies, who finished with eight points, six rebounds and five assists, a pedestrian performance by her standards. "We really don't care how much smaller we are than anybody. We just go out there and play."

Nine Spartans stood 6-foot-1 or taller, including 6-9 senior center Allyssa DeHaan, the tallest player in Michigan State history. UK, meanwhile, sent just three players to the floor Thursday night that stood taller than 6-feet.

It hardly mattered.

Kentucky employed its season-long winning formula of defense and speed, forcing 18 MSU turnovers that led to 22 points and 12 fast-break points, in the convincing victory over Sparty.

"We knew that we could get up and down with them and out-run them," said senior forward Amani Franklin, who finished with eight points and seven rebounds. "That caused a lot of problems for them. We just knew our quickness would be real hard on them."

What Michigan State didn't know is that it would be pushed around inside. Despite their lack of height, the Cats scored 18 more points in the paint and out-rebounded the Spartans 40-37.

"It's just physical," Franklin said. "We had to be physical back."

DeHaan, who UK had to hear about for two straight days, was held to eight points and five rebounds. She hit just 3-of-9 shots and turned it over four times.

When UK wasn't forcing turnovers and running in transition, it was isolating 6-1 forward Victoria Dunlap on the perimeter with DeHaan. Dunlap continually drew the senior Spartan out of the paint and blew by her for easy layups.

"That was the plan," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "I thought she could get around them some if they came out and guarded her. I thought they came out just enough at times. (Dunlap) made some pretty good reads. I thought she did a much better playing against size than she has at any other point."

Dunlap was one of the players that suffered the most against size earlier in the year. In two of the three games against KeKe Carrier and Auburn, Dunlap was held to her only single-digit outings of the year. In the games again Tennessee, one of the tallest teams in the nation, she shot a combined 15-of-40 from the field.

Against Michigan State, she scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed eight rebounds.

The reigning SEC Player of the Year said she learned a great deal from her struggles against the trees of Tennessee and Auburn.

"The coaches really put in my mind today that I should try to go around the post players and not through them because in the past games I've tried to just post up and try to turn around and shoot a jumper," Dunlap said. "Coach talked a lot about being aggressive on the outside, making a move and going around them and making layups."

She attacked the rim so aggressively and played with such an edge that some of the MSU players said they felt as if she was 6-8.

"I've always played like that -- just play taller than I am," Dunlap said. "I think that's one thing coach has looked at me as, as playing taller than my size."

Funny what cheesecake can do. Dunlap woke up feeling ill Monday morning from what Mitchell guessed as three too many cheesecakes at the team dinner the night before. An IV had to be hooked up to Dunlap just for her to play against Michigan State.

"What a performance by somebody that had cheesecake sickness," Mitchell said.

Now it's on to Kansas City for the scrappy Cats, a destination few envisioned at the beginning of the season.

Mitchell was asked postgame how far away the team was to a Sweet 16 when he took over the program three years ago.

"We weren't close to the Sweet 16," Mitchell said ingenuously.

Now, on the backbone of a heart-filled, lightning-quick, up-tempo team, Mitchell's team is not only making history, it's on the verge of accomplishing goals no other UK Hoops team has every conquered.

Although there's a likely date with No. 1 seed and one-loss Nebraska ahead, Monday's riveting victory in front of a pro-UK crowd isn't a time to get complacent.

"I think the danger for us right now is to feel like the Sweet 16 is a place of arrival," Mitchell said. "We need to resist that as much as we can. This team has a good chance to advance to the next round and that's all we need to focus about."

"There have been a lot of milestones with this team. There have been a lot of points during the season where we could have stopped and smelled the roses. To their credit, they have not done that. I don't expect them to now, but we will fight like crazy to make them understand they have a wonderful shot - no matter who they have next Sunday - they have a great, great shot to advance."

No need to worry with this team. With the mental edge -- the little man's syndrome, if you will -- they've shown all season, there's no reason to expect a letdown now.

"We can't just settle for where we've gone," Dunlap said. "I know people are going to tell you we've had a great season even if we go in there and lose. We can't think that way. We have to go in there and think we're going to win."

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WBSK 09_10 UK_AU Web 24.jpgLOUISVILLE -- A'dia Mathies doesn't say much, but she didn't need to in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Her play told all one needed to know about how much Saturday's homecoming meant to her. Playing in front of a hometown crowd in Freedom Hall for the first time as a collegian - in UK's first NCAA Tournament appearance in four years of all places - Mathies took over the Liberty game and led UK to an 83-77 win.

Mathies was nothing short of dominant, scoring a career-high 32 points to go along with four rebounds, four assists and four steals.

"She wasn't going to let anybody stop her," junior forward Victoria Dunlap said.

Now all that stands in the way of Mathies, Kentucky and the program's first visit to the regional semifinals 1982 is 6-foot-9 Allyssa DeHaan and Michigan State (Monday at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 in Freedom Hall in Louisville). The Spartans will have a decisive height advantage as nine players stand 6-1 or taller. UK, plagued with injuries, will be fortunate if nine players even take the floor.

"The good thing for us is that we've been undersized all year, so it's a place we've been before," UK Hoops head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "There is a comfort level there. It doesn't make it any easier because Michigan State is an extremely impressive team to watch on film. I have a lot of respect for their players and what they are doing out there on the court. It is going to be tough."

Kentucky has countered with an in-your-face defense and up-tempo offense to offset its size this season. The Cats are 14th in the nation in steals per game and fourth in turnover margin.

Mitchell said defense will once again be the key if the Cats want to end their eight-game losing streak to Big Ten teams, as it's been all season for UK.

"The goal is 25 turnovers each game," Mitchell said. "That is a lofty goal. When I talked to some people about developing some ideas for the defense, a person that I have a lot of respect for said that 25 is the mentality that you need to have."

Against DeHaan and the much taller Michigan State, Kentucky will try to speed the game up and take height out of the equation.

"What you have to do, is if they want to catch it 20 feet from the goal, we're trying to get them to catch it 25 feet from the goal," Mitchell said. "We're going to try to just take them out of their comfort level and rhythm. It is a simple theory, but it's hard to actually make happen.

"For instance, with DeHaan, if the guard can't see her, they can't get it in there to her because DeHaan is always going to have the height advantage. Ball pressure is where it all starts. We talk a lot about playing post defense 35 feet from the basket. We pick the ball up early and try to make it tough for them to get into what they're trying to do."

DeHaan, the tallest player in Michigan State history, is averaging 10.8 points and 6.0 rebounds per game. But where her height really makes a difference is on the defensive end, where she's averaging 3.2 blocks per game.

Overall, Michigan State has blocked 117 more shots than its opponents and is outrebounding teams by a 4.9 clip.

That could be troubling news for a Kentucky team that has struggled against bigger, stronger basketball teams. In two losses to Tennessee and one to Auburn, size was the difference.

Dunlap, UK's leading scorer and rebounder (17.6 ppg, 8.3 rpg), will have her work cut out for her on the block. The 6-1 forward has never faced a player as tall as DeHaan.

"I think we are going to do a lot of shot fakes and go around her and not really go in and try to score layups," Dunlap said. "I know me personally, I would try to do that even though I did that in the SEC and did not make a lot of shots and got blocked. We are going to try to focus on going around her and not really going into her and using our other teammates."

The good news for UK is that even if Dunlap is slowed, it has another bona fide option in Mathies. The Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year is averaging 20.6 points over her last five games.

"It's all excitement," Mathies said of her Derby City performance. "Just knowing that my family and my friends can come out and see me makes me even more excited."

Mitchell predicted before the NCAA Tournament that Mathies would have a breakout performance.

"A lot of times in the power conferences, you see some of these highly touted freshmen really do well against the non-conference opponents and then they struggle to adjust to conference play," Mitchell said. "A'dia was sort of the opposite. She had some huge games in the SEC and was incredible in the SEC Tournament. When she got a few days off and got to go home, it seemed like she came back really recharged and ready to go. In practice, she looked great and explosive. She looked confident and looked to be in control of her game. That's what led me to believe that she was poised for something like that."

Mitchell is hoping she's poised for one more breakout performance to offset the size of Michigan State.

Big Red vs. Big Blue in Sweet 16

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UPDATE: The UK-Cornell game time has been seet for Thursday at approximately 9:57 p.m. at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. The game will officially begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Washington-West Virginia game. Also, UK will hold an open practice Wednesday at 3:10 p.m. at the Carrier Dome. 

Cornell.gifKentucky will try to crash Cinderella's dance next week in Syracuse.

The Cornell Big Red upset No. 4 seed Wisconsin 87-69 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The 13th-seeded Big Red was one of the hot upset picks entering the Big Dance, and the 29-4 Ivy League team is quickly proving why.

Cornell has thumped both its opponents - both higher seeds - in advancing to the round of 16.

Although UK will remain a heavy favorite, there are a couple of things to be concerned about, No. 1 being the perimeter shooting of Cornell. The Big Red entered the postseason third in Division I men's basketball with 9.8 three-point field goals per game and first in three-point percentage.

Kentucky will be bigger, stronger and faster than Cornell, but the three-point shot is the great equalizer in college basketball.

Also to consider will be possibility that Thursday's game could be a neutral crowd. Because Cornell is located less than an hour from Syracuse, there's a very good chance the Big Red could have a significant crowd and put a dent in UK's typical home-court tourney advantage.

Kentucky had the strongest fan base in New Orleans this weekend, but there were far fewer fans in the Big Easy than the program is accustomed to in the postseason . Will the Big Blue outnumber the Big Red? Order your tickets at ticketmaster.com.

And finally, the matchup with Cornell will pit former UK forward Mark Coury against his old team. Coury, who played two seasons with the Wildcats, told Courier-Journal columnist Rick Bozich that is looking forward to seeing his old teammates, Mark Krebs, Patrick Patterson, Perry Stevenson and Ramon Harris.

Coury started 29 games in his sophomore season under Billy Gillispie, averaging 2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. Coury is averaging 2.4 points and 2.4 rebounds in 11.0 minutes for the Big Red.

The UK-Cornell game will take place Thursday but no time has been set. CBS has the rights to choose a game time and will make its selections after Sunday's slate of games.

Unleashed Kentucky the new tournament favorite

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ky.etsu_11.jpgNEW ORLEANS -- Camera flashes dotted a sea of blue at New Orleans Arena as Eric Bledsoe flew down the lane and took flight five feet from the rim to throw down a one-hand tomahawk jam.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari had nothing. What could he say? He headed back to the bench and scratched his head.

Calipari was bewildered at the show in front of him, taken aback by Bledsoe's dunk and UK's 90-60 annihilation of Wake Forest. Kentucky, after its second straight rout in the postseason, is headed for the Sweet 16 in Syracuse against either Cornell or Wisconsin on Thursday.

But don't look so confused, coach. You were the one that said this day was coming.

On multiple occasions this season, especially early, you said this team was building to this moment. In fact, you said the Southeastern Conference Tournament was "not important" for this very reason. When the hard work, the system, coach and players all finally came together at the perfect time, you prophesized this team would be "unleashed."

"I knew we could turn it up," said freshman guard John Wall, who finished the second round with a routine 14 points and seven assists. "This might be our last opportunity to look good. We've got a chance to do something special. Coming into the tournament, me and Patrick (Patterson) all talked to the team and Coach Cal said this is your last chance. You've got six games to do it all. Take one game at a time."

Through the first two games of the "real" tournament, Kentucky has looked special.

"I have been in the ACC 10 years," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. "That's as good a basketball team as we played against in the 10 years I've been here."

No. 1 overall seed Kansas fell to Northern Iowa in stunning fashion about a half an hour before UK's tipoff. Fans in New Orleans Arena roared when the public announcer reported the score and Kentucky's cheerleaders crashed the media room during the final minutes, clapping with every Northern Iowa point.

But the UK players had no clue of the upset.

"They wouldn't tell us," Wall said. "We watched the game when we were at the hotel but once we got here they turned the TV off and wouldn't let us watch nothing."

Yet they played like a team that knew an opportunity lay before them. Wake Forest was a physical, sometimes nasty team, but it had no punch against a better Kentucky team.

When Darius Miller takes it to the hoop and scores a career-high 20 points (16 of which came in the first half) and grabs nine rebounds, it makes the rest of the Kansas-less tournament field wince. The remaining tournament teams know that if Miller is driving to the basket and hitting shots, they can't just focus on Wall, Patterson , Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins.

Just about everybody from one end of the bench to the other is capable of stepping up on any given night.

"We tell (Miller) that if he'd be that aggressive and just go out there and play, he can change the game for us," Wall said of Miller. "They didn't have nobody that could guard him."

The performance Saturday coupled with the Kansas loss should make Kentucky the tournament favorite.

"I don't think that adds any pressure," Miller said. "As long as we come out and play the best we can, that's all we can control."

Calipari wasn't so ready to roll out the red carpet to Indianapolis.

"I don't know if we're the overwhelming favorite," Calipari said. "Everybody was picking us to lose today being a tough game. They were also saying we'd be the first No. 1 out. So how do they change those talking heads overnight? With one game? Come on. We're still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores. Our second NCAA Tournament game. They've never played in any other games. The guys that we're playing have never played in it. So all we're going to worry about is us."

But you are the overwhelming favorite now, coach, for the very same reason you told us at the beginning of the year. You looked us in the eyes and said there would be a point in the season where this team would be unleashed.

And you were right. The leash is off and the beast is loose. Every team standing in its way should be very, very concerned.

The Cats found that swagger around the 11-minute mark against Wake Forest. Leading 21-19, UK went on a 23-6 run to close the half. Kentucky continued the torrid pace in the second half with 11 straight field goals.

UK's first miss in the second stanza came eight minutes after halftime. Overall, UK shot 60.3 percent and outrebounded a team that beat Texas on the boards by 25.

"We're still better than what we played tonight, I think" Patterson said. "We can still rebound a little bit better and communicate a little bit better. As for our performance tonight ...  I just think it's a total team effort and one of our best games of the season."

Sophomore DeAndre Liggins has rediscovered the tenacity that brought midseason praise from his coach, Bledsoe has regained his shooting touch from behind the arc and Cousins has completed the transformation in his maturity.

Midway through the second half, notorious troublemaker Chas McFarland intentionally fouled Cousins as we he went up for a shot, clocking the first-year freshman on the head and sending him to the deck.

Two months ago, Cousins would have picked himself up, got in the face of McFarland and likely retaliated. But that was so two months ago.

This new-look Cousins got off the hardwood, walked away from McFarland and raised his hands in the air to the approval of the pro-UK crowd. The smile stayed on his face all the way through postgame interviews.

"He laid a couple of licks on me but I've been getting this all season," Cousins said. "Trash talking, he was just saying the same thing. He came out with a momma joke or something."

The Cats are hitting their stride when they wanted to and said they would. It can become so easy to praise a 34-2 team, and maybe we shouldn't book our flights to Indianapolis quite yet.

But it's hard to find a team that has had a more impressive opening weekend to the tournament.

"You're trying to win," Calipari said. "You're trying to land the plane. You're trying to get it down on the ground. Whatever's happening, all the turbulence and the other kind of stuff. We're just trying to get the plane on the ground right now."

Figuratively speaking, coach, I think you've got one thing wrong. This team is off the leash and off the ground.

The new tournament favorite is soaring into the Sweet 16.

Video: UK Hoops is moving on to the second round

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Rebounding battle won't be for the faint of heart

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Cuz.jpgNEW ORLEANS - Just short of getting in a fight -- one thing DeMarcus Cousins vowed not to do Saturday -- Kentucky might want to bring everything it has when it squares off with Wake Forest on Saturday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Wake Forest is long, athletic and physically imposing. Four players stand 6-foot-11 or taller, and that list doesn't include potential NBA lottery pick Al-Farouq Aminu (6-9), the Demon Deacons' best talent and only Atlantic Coast Conference player to average a double-double (15.8 points, 10.8 rebounds) this season.

That list does include 7-footer Chas McFarland, a player quickly becoming notorious for getting under players' skin.

"I knew that question was coming," Cousins said when asked how he would handle the emotional McFarland. "I'm just going to go play basketball. I'm telling you now, I'm not trying to get in a fistfight (and) I'm not playing dirty or nothing. I'm just going to play ball."

But he may want to bring the wood, energy and muscle it will take to match up with the Demon Deacons in what expects to be an old fashioned slugfest at approximately 8:20 p.m. ET in New Orleans Arena.

Wake Forest took Texas to the woodshed Thursday night on the boards, outrebounding the Longhorns 59-34. That beat-down included 20 offensive rebounds, 42 points in the paint and 25-second chance points. Aminu and 6-foot guard Ishmael Smith, known more for his speed than size, combined for 27 rebounds.

"You're playing a team from the ACC who did damage," said head coach John Calipari. "They're physical. They outrebounded Texas by 25. Think about that -- 25 rebounds. They got 20 offensive boards against Texas, who prides itself in that toughness and that rebounding. That's the one thing you're not going to beat them with, and they did. ...

"I just watched tape and you get sick to your stomach. I hate watching too much tape because you start like, 'Oh, my gosh, how are we going to even stay on the court with these guys.' "

In the 19 games Wake Forest won prior to Thursday night's rebounding shellacking, the Demon Decaons averaged 7.7 more rebounds than their opponent. In the 10 games they lost, they were outrebounded by 1.4 a game.

That means the key for Kentucky will be crashing the glass.

"(We will) need a total team effort," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "They're pretty big, so it's just all about who wants it more when it comes off the rim and who is the tougher team out there."

UK, the nation's tallest team, was one of the top rebounding teams in the country this season but struggled mightily down the stretch. Entering Saturday's primetime affair, the Cats have been outrebounded four of their last six games.

Against a much smaller East Tennessee State team Thursday night, UK just barely outrebounded the Buccaneers by four.

"We were just ball watching," senior guard/forward Ramon Harris said. "The shot went up and we weren't going to get contact with anybody. We were seeing if the ball was going in and out and not getting the opportunity or the chance to get the rebound."

Patterson was asked what makes a good rebounding team.

"Moving your feet and not accepting being boxed out, just wanting the ball more," Patterson said.

There's a strong misconception that forwards and centers are responsible for most of the rebounding, but it's been the guards Calipari has pointed to when the rebounding numbers aren't where they should be.

"If you look over the course of the season, when our guards rebound, we get out and get a fast-break and either get a three or a quick post-up or even a layup," Harris said. "If we get all five guys rebounding, we're a hard team to beat."

Wake Forest runs a similar attack to that of South Carolina, who shocked Kentucky in early February with a rebounding bombardment.

Speedy guard Devan Downey ran circles around the Cats and drew attention away from the basket. That opened up the rim for key second-chance opportunities.

The end result turned ugly.

"They've got their little point guard, Smith, who is as good -- he's Devan Downey that beat us at South Carolina," Calipari said.

Cousins, who welcomed the opportunity to quite possibly play one-on-one for the first time this season, said their misfortunes at South Carolina were a long time ago.

"In that game there was a lot of bad placement and was a situation where we were still learning the pick-and-roll defense," Cousins said. "But we've been doing a lot of drills since that game and it's helped with our rebounding. We didn't have anyone crashing the boards and you'll see a better effort. You saw how we were the second time against South Carolina."

NEW ORLEANS -- DeMarcus Cousins has become the media darling of this year's basketball team.

Whether he intends to or not, he often gives the most candid, hysterical, and quite frankly, most insightful interviews.

During Friday's pre-Wake Forest media availability, he was in rare form.

First he tried to sneak into the locker room without any reporters noticing. How does a 6-foot-11, 270-pound forward scurry past 30 reporters in a 30-by-20-foot dressing area, you might ask. Crawling past the legs of the journalists toward the bathroom was Cousins' method of choice.

Obviously, it did not work.

When Cousins finally sat down, he shined some new light on this whole "land the plane" mantra that head coach John Calipari has preached since the opening day of the tournament.

In case you haven't read or heard it, here is what Calipari said: "When you have a team this young, you're in the survive-and-advance mode. What we're talking about and the message I've given the team is land the plane. Land the turbulence. There's storm, there's lightning, people drinking their 'Hater-ade' and coming at you. There are going to be things written and said. It's all coming at you. Land the plane. Survive and advance."

Cousins took the speech quite literally.

"We had a rough landing on one of (the flights)," Cousins said. "You know how you come down, it's supposed to land on the back wheels then the front wheel. It's supposed to be smooth. It was like (smacks his hands). So I thought he was like, 'land the plane.'

" 'Yeah, coach, (the pilot) almost killed us.' "

Cousins believes the rough landing occurred on a flight back from the Mississippi State game.

"I was sleeping and just woke up and thought I was dying," Cousins said.

Whether or not Calipari has a book of aphorisms, we'll never know, but he's become a machine for motivational adages. "Land the plane" was good, Cousins said, but he still has a personal favorite.

"The first one that I'll never forget was 'poop ice cream' " Cousins said. "I was like, 'What are you talking about?' "

Asked if he thought he did "poop ice cream," Cousins mischievously looked up and popped a grin too priceless for words.

The message, though, has always been clear for Cousins and the team. The constant theme is to keep improving and don't settle for  just good.

"I understand Cal in a strange way," Cousins said. "It takes me a minute to get it as well."

As for the whole "land the plane" mantra, Cousins eventually got it. He wrote it on the whiteboard for one of the team's pregame objectives, although Calipari wasn't sure who did it.

"That was me," Cousins said, laughing again. "Don't tell him though."

Don't worry, DeMarcus, your secret is safe with us.

Video: Cats preview Wake Forest

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Orton's pride in defense spilling over to offense

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Orton2.jpgNEW ORLEANS -- One guy may know Daniel Orton better than himself. That guy would be Orton's 6-foot-11 adversary in practice, DeMarcus Cousins.

"Daniel has improved a lot, especially offensively," Cousins said after Kentucky's win over East Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. "He came in as a defensive player, but his offense is starting to come around now."

Cousins would know. If there is one matchup in practice worth checking out, it's the battle of the burly freshmen.

Some of the wars they've waged in practice have become so fierce and so competitive that Cousins calls Orton the best player he's faced all year. Although Cousins has earned the most minutes on the court, Orton has earned the renowned reputation as Cousins' kryptonite in practice.

Orton has had no qualms telling the media of all the shots of Cousins he's blocked in practice, and Cousins has had no embarrassment in owning up.

"When he comes out ready to play, he's a beast," Cousins said. "He came out ready to play today. He was blocking shots, rebounding, scoring. He just helped us out tremendously."

Cousins provided a huge spark off the bench against ETSU. The 6-foot-10, 255-pound freshman logged eight points and seven rebounds in just 14 minutes. On a night when Cousins wasn't on his game (five points in 24 minutes), Orton provided all the power UK needed in the paint.

"Hopefully I can do it further on in the tournament when DeMarcus is tired and give us that offensive presence off the bench," Orton said.

During one defensive stop in the second half, Orton blocked three consecutive shots before ETSU ever got a shot to the rim. It was like watching a volleyball player spike a ball at the top of the net.

"(Defense is) just something that I have a lot of fun with and I used to do in high school," Orton said. "To be able to do it on this level is great."

In fact, Orton has frequently said that it was his defensive game that earned him such high accolades out of Bishop McGuiness Catholic High School.

"It's my No. 1 priority," Orton said. "I'm our defensive stopper, so that's one thing I focus on."

Orton said he's starting to gain confidence in his offensive game. If that's the case, the ceiling could be as tall as the potential of Cousins, head coach John Calipari said last week.

During Friday's media availability with Calipari, the first-year UK coach spoke of the recruitment and development of Orton.

"In our locker room after one of our games I was proud of how he played and how he's responded to this team," Calipari said. "I said, 'Daniel, when you were recruited here, what did they tell you?' 'They told me I would start.' 'Did they tell you you'd be the man' 'Yes, they did.' Now all of a sudden he's playing behind DeMarcus Cousins, and you know what, all he's done is helped our team win."

Calipari said Orton has played so well of late that he could have the option of leaving school for the pros after this season. As well as Orton has played of late, his stats (zero starts, 3.3 points per game and 3.5 rebounds per game) would suggest otherwise. 

"Daniel will have options at the end of the year to make a decision on what he wants to do," Calipari said. "Can you imagine? And I'm not sure that would have happened if he was on a team that was an NIT team. You hear what I'm saying? Now they're looking at him saying this kid is really, really good. And he is."

The first-year big man took a hard fall in the second half against ETSU and bruised his lower back. He did not play the rest of the game but told reporters Thursday and Friday that he should be ready to go for Saturday's game after some minor treatment.

Nidiffer ready to lead Cats into SEC battle

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With only three seniors on its roster, some may look at the University of Kentucky baseball team and consider it a young one. However, upon consideration of the fact that all three seniors are in their fifth year after redshirting, that may not be the case.

"I feel like I've been here 10 years," UK backstop Marcus Nidiffer said.

After redshirting his freshman season, the fifth-year senior has put together an impressive career so far for Kentucky, earning 2010 second-team preseason All-Southeastern Conference honors from SEbaseball.com. After playing through a broken thumb on his catching hand last year, he's certainly battle-tested, and has been described as the "vocal, physical, and emotional leader" and the "heart and soul" of the UK baseball team.

Nidiffer had some interesting thoughts to share on UK's upcoming SEC-opening series against Ole Miss:

"We're a little ways into (the season) by now," Nidiffer said. "Our goal is to keep getting better, and I think we're doing that. The Ole Miss pitchers are going to come right at us, going to throw strikes. We can't change our approach, though, we just have to battle every pitch. A lot of times, these SEC games are decided by just a run or two. We've got to fight every inning, every pitch to get that run."

Included in the stable of the Mississippi pitching staff is their workhorse, All-American lefty Drew Pomeranz, who will start for the Rebels on Friday night. Even though there's been plenty of hype surrounding the Cats' opener, Nidiffer knows that it's a long journey to the promised land of college baseball:

"We just have to take it one game at a time," Nidiffer said. "You see teams all the time go from 'on the bubble' and then two weeks later, they're at the bottom or even the top of the league."

Another intriguing aspect of this weekend will be the first career SEC start by Freshman Taylor Rogers, who is scheduled to go on Saturday. As the leader of the pitching staff, Nidiffer has been impressed with Rogers so far:

"He's comparable to Chris Rusin when he was a freshman; similar stuff," Nidiffer said. "He's done a great job so far. I think he's ready. Obviously, these hitters are going to be more disciplined, so he'll have to concentrate on throwing to location, and I'll tell him that."

When asked if he thought he was personally ready for SEC play, the laid-back native of Bristol, Tennessee simply chuckled and said in his signature southern drawl, "Sure am."

Baseball preps for Pomeranz, Ole Miss

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The No. 20 University of Kentucky baseball team handled Wright State on Wednesday night, cruising to an 11-1 victory to wrap up their "preseason" schedule. The Wildcats (14-3) now look ahead to Southeastern Conference play, where they host No. 19 Ole Miss this weekend.

The Rebels (13-4) have had a good season so far and feature seven everyday players with batting averages of .319 or better. Ole Miss also has one of the best pitching prospects in the nation on its staff in junior left-handed pitcher Drew Pomeranz.  A second-team All-SEC selection last year, Pomeranz made a name for himself in the 2009 NCAA Regionals. The 6-5, 230-pound southpaw went eight innings in an opening-round win against Monmouth, allowing only five hits and striking out 10. After just two days rest, Pomeranz returned to the bump against Western Kentucky, tossing a complete-game gem with a career-high 16 strikeouts. His 2009 totals of 95.1 innings, 124 strikeouts and just 37 walks certainly raised some eyebrows.

In four starts this season, the southpaw has a 2-0 record with a 1.54 ERA and a staggering 40 strikeouts in just 23.1 innings. The Tennessee native has held opponents to a .198 batting average in 2010.

Projected Starters:

Friday (6:30 p.m.): Kentucky - Logan Darnell (3-0, 2.17 ERA); Mississippi - Drew Pomeranz (2-0, 1.54 ERA)

Pomeranz leads the SEC in strikeouts (40) and logged 12 against No. 8 Louisville last weekend. Darnell has been just as impressive, and in his last 21 innings, he's allowed just one run on 15 hits and 15 strikeouts.

Saturday (1 p.m.): Kentucky - Taylor Rogers (3-0, 4.30 ERA); Mississippi - Aaron Barrett (4-0, 1.80 ERA)

Barrett has 30 strikeouts in 25 innings this year and has allowed only 15 hits and a .190 opponent average. Freshman Rogers will be making his first career SEC start.

Sunday (1p.m.)- Kentucky - Alex Meyer (3-2, 7.29 ERA); Mississippi - Matt Tracy (1-1, 3.38 ERA)

Meyer went five innings and allowed just one run Sunday vs. IPFW. On the same day, Tracy gave up 10 hits and seven runs against No. 8 Louisville.


Alex Meyer is hoping for continued success.

On the air: The series will be broadcast live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio). Fans in Lexington can hear them on Friday and Sunday WLAP 630-AM and in Louisville live on WKJK 1080-AM. Saturday's game can be heard in Lexington on WGVN 1580-AM. All games will be broadcast on UKathletics.com as well.

UK Stat UM
.306 AVG .297
.424 OBP .406
20 HR 19
36 SB 28
3.67 ERA 2.96
.965 FPCT .978
Rankings:
Publication UK UM
Baseball America 22 21
Collegiate Baseball 26 20
NCBWA 20 22
Rivals/Yahoo 18 19
USA Today/ESPN 20 19

Head coach Gary Henderson on Ole Miss: "Ole Miss is going to have one of the best starting pitchers in the country (Drew Pomeranz) and one of the best pitching staffs in the conference. They will be extremely tough. They are going to bring a lot of returning position players to Lexington, a group with experience. They are going to have tremendous depth in the pitching staff and they have high-end pitching."

Breakdown: Through 17 games, both Kentucky and Ole Miss have comparable statistics. The Cats seem to hit and run a little better, while the Rebels have an advantage in pitching and defense. Look for a trio of close games this weekend at the Cliff.

Showdown: Darnell and Pomeranz figure to display one of the best showdowns on the mound that college baseball has seen this season. What may decide the series, however, will be how each team's closers perform. UK's Matt Little has been spectacular this season, boasting a 0.59 ERA with 21 strikeouts in 15 innings. The Rebels' David Goforth has been nearly as impressive with a 1.08 ERA to go with his three saves.


The 14-3 Cats look to continue their winning ways vs. the Rebels.

Lowdown: While it's not likely both will be in any particular game at the same time, the importance of getting clean, shutdown innings from Little and Goforth will be paramount to each team's success. Quick outs late in the game can result in large momentum swings and perhaps multiple appearances over the weekend for both.

Each of UK's starters will be tested in different ways. Darnell will have to go blow for blow with one of the nation's best in Pomeranz and will have an opportunity to make a name for himself on the national scene. Rogers will have plenty of eyes on him for his first career SEC start. Meyer responded well from a nightmare outing vs. Evansville, hurling five innings of one-run ball against IPFW. If the big righty can last five or more innings, UK will have a clear advantage in what very well could be a series-deciding Sunday tilt.

Kentucky has lost five consecutive games in this series but has won the last two sets played in Lexington. Last weekend, Ole Miss lost a home series to No. 8 Louisville.

Notes from N'awlins

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- The UK-Wake Forest second-round NCAA Tournament game is scheduled to start 30 minutes following the conclusion of the Baylor-Old Dominion game, which is scheduled to tip off at 5:50 p.m. ET (4:50 p.m. CT) in New Orleans Arena. Tentatively that would set the UK start time for 8:20 p.m. ET. My money is on an 8:35 p.m. start or later.

- Two reports, one from Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com and the other from The Birmingham News, say that Auburn, who dismissed Jeff Lebo last week, is "close to hiring" former Kentucky coach Tubby Smith. Dodd cited an unnamed source and admitted "it could be nothing." Two quick things: If Smith wants out of Minnesota, why Auburn? No disrespect to the Auburn job, but is that really a step up for Smith? The report in The Birmingham News indicates that the Auburn athletics department could be willing to pony up to lure Smith into packing for the South. The return to the Southeastern Conference could also be intriguing for Smith. Secondly, don't expect to Smith to sign today. In case you weren't aware, Minnesota is playing Xavier in the NCAA Tournament as we speak. I'm not saying Tubby the Tiger isn't happening - I'm just saying I don't think it's as "close" to happening any minute now.

- If there is one unfortunate thing about traveling with and covering the men's basketball team, it's that I'm missing out on some great action back in Lexington. If you're in town this weekend, make sure you stop by the baseball or softball diamonds. The No. 20 baseball team is opening SEC play against No. 19 Ole Miss. If you know anything about SEC baseball, the start of league play is an entirely new season. Also, before you tune into the men's basketball blog Saturday, make sure you tune into the women's live blog at 2:41 p.m. ET. Matthew Mitchell's Cats will be taking on No. 13 seed Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Louisville.

Mar. 19 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

= = =

John Wall has the speed, DeMarcus Cousins the strength, but the third member of Kentucky's freshman "Three Amigos" makes his own unique contribution -- beyond just points -- to the Wildcats' success.

"His aggressiveness, his energy, his intensity -- he drives us," head coach John Calipari said of Eric Bledsoe after watching the rookie from Birmingham, Ala., torch East Tennessee State University for 29 points in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night. "The way he's shooting right now, I told him at halftime, 'Whatever you're thinking, go talk to Darius (Miller) and tell him how you got to this point, where you just expect to make every shot.' "  

Calipari said Bledsoe's "whole demeanor, his body language" is better now. Statistically, you can track the improvement. Heading into the Senior Day game against Florida, he had five straight single-digit scoring games, matching his longest streak of the season. During that stretch, he had a game at Vanderbilt in which he picked up a technical foul for shoving an opponent and a game at Tennessee where was repeatedly beaten off the dribble on defense. It appeared that as Bledsoe's shooting percentage slipped, so did his attitude and focus.

But then he went for 14 against the Gators and followed that up by averaging 15 points per game and making the All-SEC Tournament team in Nashville. During Wednesday's media session in New Orleans, Bledsoe credited assistant coach Rod Strickland with getting him refocused.

"Rod is always positive with him," Calipari said. "He tells him, 'You're not going to play great every night. Quit getting down when you're not playing great.' That's why we talk about landing the plane. It doesn't matter what's coming at you, what's being written or said, what the talking heads are saying. Just land the plane."

= = =

Cousins told reporters Wednesday that there has not been one single fight all season long among the players on this team. I asked Calipari if that is surprising.

"It's rare when you're talking about first-year players getting to know one another and returning players trying to hold their position," Calipari said. "It means they have good hearts. If a guy's not a good teammate, I really don't want him.

"You want to watch how they interact with the players on their teams. In this game, it's about guys playing together and playing off one another."

A lot of the credit for the good chemistry on this team has to go to the upperclassmen, who sacrificed a more prominent role to let the freshmen do their thing.

"They got tired of losing," Calipari said of the veterans. "They got tired of not being the Kentucky that's always been. They wanted more for their team and for themselves and now look at it."

= = =

If you're a college basketball fan, this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament is arguably the most fun time of the year. Does a coach get to appreciate that sense of being a fan?

"I'm having a ball," Calipari said. "It's on, but I want to have fun with this."

Thumbnail image for Wake.gifNEW ORLEANS -- For all that worrying about Texas, it will be Wake Forest -- not the Longhorns -- facing UK in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

The ninth-seeded Demon Deacons, after blowing a 12-point second-half lead, rallied from eight down in overtime to defeat eighth-seeded Texas in New Orleans Arena. Wake Forest's Ishmael Smith hit 10-foot jumper with 1.6 seconds left in the game to defeat Texas 81-80.

Texas' Gary Johnson two missed free throws with 10 seconds left opened the door for the late-game heroics.

"The second part of the second half, Texas did a great job of keeping me out of the lane," Smith said. "I knew I wasn't going to be able to get all the way to the lane so I knew I had to pull up. Thank God I hit a big shot. We live to play another day."

The Demon Deacons, now 20-10 on the season, are viewing it has a new window of opportunity. Before the NCAA Tournament, Wake Forest was in a serious funk, losing five of the last six regular-season games.

Now with Kentucky, the East Region's No. 1 seed on the schedule for Saturday -- game time is scheduled for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Baylor-Old Dominion game at 5:40 p.m. ET -- the Atlantic Coast Conference team has new life.

"Everybody knows that we can play," said sophomore forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who finished with 20 points and 15 rebounds. "This is going to give us confidence. Hopefully we can carry it on to the next game."

If nothing else, they'll have a swagger should the game go into overtime. The Demon Deacons are now 5-0 in overtime games.

Afterward, Wake Forest head coach Dino Gaudio admitted to knowing very little about UK. The third-year Wake Forest coach said assistant coach Dave Wojcik was in charge of scouting Kentucky in the case the two teams met.

"I have not seen one second of Kentucky tape," Gaudio said. "We'll see a lot of it between now and daybreak tomorrow. ...They're just really, really good. They're very well coached. It will be a challenge for us."

If there is one thing Kentucky should be concerned with, it's on the glass. The Demon Deacons whipped a tall, athletic Texas team on the boards 59-34, including 20 offensive rebounds. The rebounding dominance led to 42 points in the paint and 25 second-chance points. Aminu had 15 rebounds, and Smith, a 6-foot guard, pulled down 12 boards.

That'll be a daunting task for a Kentucky team that has been outrebounded four out its last six games.

That's all from me tonight. I have about 20 minutes to catch the media shuttle and need to get some sleep. There is media availability back here at New Orleans Arena Friday afternoon, so be on the lookout for more posts and videos on Friday.

Is UK 'unbeatable' if it makes perimeter shots?

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ky.etsu_15.jpgNEW ORLEANS -- The critics would have you believe that Kentucky can't shoot from the perimeter. The Cats calmly answered that concern with 15 three-pointers.

They'd also have you think UK is too young to cut down the nets. The Cats' first-year players responded with 64 points.

The Kentucky men's basketball team did all the things it wasn't supposed to be capable of doing Thursday night in New Orleans Arena in crushing No. 16 seed East Tennessee State 100-71. Playing in its much-anticipated NCAA Tournament game for the first time in two years, the Cats looked like a team that was out to prove it's one of the favorites to march to the Final Four.

Eric Bledsoe scored a career-high 29 points behind a record-setting day on the perimeter.

The freshman guard drilled 8-of-9 attempts from behind the arc to set the school record for most three-pointers in an NCAA Tournament game. Bledsoe's barrage broke Tony Delk's previous mark of seven set during the 1996 national championship game against Syracuse.

Bledsoe, grinning ear to ear, had a few words for UK's assistant director of basketball operations after the game.

"I just said, 'Tony who?' " Bledsoe joked. "He got mad. He said I should have stopped at seven."

The Cats dropped 15 three-point bombs in all, coming just one short of tying UK's team record in the NCAA Tournament. Shooter's touch, good luck, whatever you want to call it -- it was pretty obvious things were going UK's way when a Ramon Harris three-pointer clanked between the glass and the iron and rolled in. Freshman guard John Wall would later bank in a trey.

Not bad for a team that can't shoot it.

"I've been playing well for the past couple of weeks and in the SEC Tournament," Bledsoe said. "Coach just told me to keep my aggressiveness. Once I started playing hard on the defensive end it carried over to the offense."

Bledsoe wasn't heralded as a three-point shooter coming out of high school and described himself as streaky shooter. An hour of work with assistant coach Rod Strickland before practice every day is quickly changing that reputation.

"I knew Eric throughout his high school career," freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. "Eric is shooting the ball real well now. He puts in the work every day in the gym. He's in there every day before practice just shooting the ball. It's helping him and it's shown."

"Usually he would just take over the game with layups. Now he's doing it everywhere."

Kind of sounds like the rest of Kentucky, huh?

UK shot the ball well (59.4 percent), Wall dished out 11 assists, junior forward Patrick Patterson scored 22 energetic points, and freshman forward Daniel Orton added eight big points, seven rebounds and three blocks off the bench. All that came in spite of a pedestrian five-point performance from Cousins, who scored his first field goal with 8:06 left in the game.

"It's pretty tough (to beat us playing like that)," Wall said. "If we play defense like we do and we're making three-point shots, we can beat anybody in the country."

Even more encouraging was Kentucky's efficiency and ability to share the ball. Out of the Cats' 31 field goals, 27 came off assists.

"That's the key to this team," Wall said. "We're not selfish. If somebody is open we're going to make the extra pass."

It makes you think: If the Cats can shoot like the ball like it did Thursday and get all-around performances from its youth, how good can they be?

"We're pretty much unbeatable," Cousins said.

It looked like it during stretches against the Buccaneers. Sure, it was against an Atlantic Sun team that didn't boast a player taller than 6-foot-8, but the Cats looked dominant during their first-half run.

Trailing 10-9 with 15:51 to play, UK went on a 29-4 run to take control of the game. Patterson provided all the muscle the Cats need inside, routinely finishing plays from the passes of Wall with his patented two-hand slam.

When the ball wasn't going inside, Bledsoe was pouring in triples. On a pair of daggers, the net hardly moved.

"Eric can do that," Cousins said. "When he comes out with that mindset, with that tough-man mindset, he's pretty much unstoppable. He's just as good as John."

If that is indeed the case, maybe this team is unbeatable.



NCAA_logo.gifNCAA.com





Standing in Kentucky's way

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NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky is without a doubt one of the favorites to reach Indianapolis and make it to the program's 14th Final Four, but before the Wildcats can think about weekend No. 3, they have to make it out of weekend No. 1.

Standing in their way is No. 16 seed East Tennessee State and either No. 8 Texas or No. 9 Wake Forest. Let's take a brief look at the first- and second-round opponents in UK's pod.

No. 16 East Tennessee State Buccaneers

ETSU.gifThe skinny: The Buccaneers earned an at-large berth into the tournament by winning the Atlantic Sun Tournament. ... ETSU went 20-14 in the regular season, 13-7 in the A-Sun despite losing Mike Smith, the heart and soul of the team, to a season-ending injury. ... Tommy Hubbard, a second-team All-Atlantic Sun selection, leads the Bucs in both scoring (14.1 ppg) and rebounding (8.3). ...  No player stands taller than 6-foot-8 (sophomore Isiah Brown) and only two stand 6-7 or taller. ... Coach Murry Bartow and Kentucky coach John Calipari have a longstanding friendship from Conference USA.

Why Kentucky should be concerned: Although a No. 16 seed has never toppled a No. 1 seed, ETSU has come the closest. The Bucs took No. 1 seed Oklahoma down to the wire in the 1989 tournament before dropping a heartbreaking 72-71 decision. Just last year, ETSU played second for second with Jamie Dixon's one-seeded Pittsburgh before losing 72-62. Sure, those two teams are different from this year's, but play close so many times and you're eventually going to pull off the upset. Kentucky just hopes it's not the first victim.

Key quote(s): "What makes the NCAA Tournament so special is we don't have to play Kentucky seven times. We only have to play them on one given night. Any team is capable of beating another team, no matter the seeding. So every team that comes out and ready to play tomorrow night, throws their hearts out the most and the team that sticks together ,,, has a real good chance." - head coach Murry Bartow

"I would say a No. 1 seed may feel a little pressure as opposed to what we feel as a 16. I think that with them being No. 1, a lot of people predicting them to go pretty far in the tournament, I would say they probably do have a little pressure on them more than we do. I think we just need to go out there and just play. I think we can play loose and kind of play like we have all year." - junior Micah Williams

No. 8 Texas Longhorns

Texas.gifThe skinny: The Longhorns enter the postseason as an at-large team after going 24-9 in the regular season, including 9-7 in the Big XII. ... The Longhorns started the season 17-0 and climbed to No. 1 in the national polls before finishing 7-9 down the stretch. ... Senior Damion James, long considered a National Player of the Year candidate, averaged a team-high 18.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game in the regular season.

Why Kentucky should be concerned: Texas coach Rick Barnes would be the first guy to tell you that the Longhorns struggled down the stretch. Most would even call it a disappointing season. But the fact of the matter is that this was once the No. 1 team in the land. Injuries and struggles at the guard position derailed this team for a bit, but that doesn't change the fact that this team is still made up of Final Four talent. James was at one point a Player of the Year candidate, senior Dexter Pittman can match up with anybody in the nation, including Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins, because of his 6-foot-10, 290-pound frame, and freshman guard Avery Bradley was one of the top recruits coming out of high school last season. The Cats are hoping the sleeping giant doesn't awake in time for the NCAA Tournament.

Key quote: "I think being No. 1 was cool, but like Dexter (Pittman) said, with Texas being on your jersey, you always took the opponent's best shot. And now it's 65 teams playing for one goal. The team that's better that night for 40 minutes is going to win. We're going out there with that attitude. People forget we were the best team in the country. We're still the same team. We just have to go out there with that swagger and that demeanor and go out there and go at it." - senior Damion James

No. 9 Wake Forest Demon Deacons

Wake.gifThe skinny: The Demon Deacons enter the tournament as an at-large team after going 19-10 in the regular season, 9-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. ... Wake Forest notched six wins over teams in the RPI top 50. ... The Deacs are led by All-American forward Al-Farouq Aminu, a 6-foot-9 forward. ... Aminu was the only player in the ACC to average a double-double this season (15.7 points and 10.7 rebounds per game). ... All-ACC guard Ishmael Smith ranks in the top 10 nationally in assists (6.0 assists per game). ... Wake Forest lost five out of their last six games.

Why Kentucky should be concerned: Al-Farouq Aminu, quite possibly the best player you've never heard of. Aminu, in his second season with the Demon Deacons, had a disappointing season by some accounts. But it's hard to be disappointed while averaging a double-double. Aminu, a five-star prospect coming out of high school, has the potential to score 20 points and grab 15 rebounds on any given night and could be a future NBA lottery pick. A Cousins-Aminu matchup down low could be one of the best of the tournament.

Key quote: "It's a fresh start for everyone. But this tournament is a chance for us to really get back to what we were accomplishing early in the season. We've obviously been down a little bit, but we had a couple of great pictures coming in. I feel really confident coming to the tournament." - senior L.D. Williams
 

Thumbnail image for MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 65.jpgNEW ORLEANS -- The 2010 NCAA Tournament has been in motion for a long time for the Kentucky Wildcats.

When Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart hired head coach John Calipari on March 31, he had an eye on the next March. When John Wall signed with UK just weeks later, he did so to win a national championship. And when Patrick Patterson decided to return to Lexington for his junior season, he did so to take the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.

Now he's making sure he doesn't miss a moment of it.

To ensure he didn't miss the Big Dance because of any unforeseen accidents, Patterson surrounded himself in an imaginary safety bubble. The only time he left the Wildcat Lodge was to eat and practice. When he did leave, it was by two feet and not the four wheels of a car.

"I wanted to make sure nothing happened," said Patterson, who missed the NCAA Tournament in 2008 with an injury. "I wanted to make sure I didn't get hurt, didn't get injured, mess up my ankle or get in a car accident. I wanted to make sure nothing happens so I could be here today."

Now that he's here, he's worried he can't sleep. Nyquil and sleeping spills are the solution to that.

The caution and anxiety are byproducts of a season's worth of work and expectations. When UK missed the NCAA Tournament last year for this first time in 18 seasons, the Cats, new and old, vowed to restore the program to college basketball's elite.

They did it in the regular season with a Southeastern Conference regular-season and tournament championship, but this, as head coach John Calipari has reminded everyone all season, is what UK has been slowly building for.

On Thursday at 6:15 p.m. CT in New Orleans Arena, UK (32-2) will begin its season-long journey against No. 16 seed East Tennessee State in the first round of the East Region.

"This is the last stage in college basketball for the season," freshman guard John Wall said. "This is your last statement to leave as a team and do something special."

Like it or not, an early exit in the NCAA Tournament - or even a second-place finish - will leave a feeling of disappointment for the players, fans and coaches.

"They don't hang up banners for a conference championship or the SEC Tournament," Wall said. "They hang banners for national championships."

It's an unfair and unenviable position to be in, but it's the one everyone knew Kentucky would be in when Calipari hauled in the nation's No. 1 recruiting class last spring. The Cats have weathered doubts about their maturity, outside shooting and strength of schedule all season.

Now they're a No. 1 seed and a Final Four contender. 

Although a No. 16 seed has never defeated a No. 1 seed before and no East Tennessee State player stands taller than 6-foot-8, Calipari warned his players not to think they're going to waltz into the second round.

"At some point a one is going to get beat by a 16," Calipari said. "I just hope it's not here in New Orleans."

The naysayers point to UK's lack of inexperience as its potential downfall. Most believe the Cats possess the talent and the coach to make it to the final game, but Kansas has become the hands-on favorite to cut down the nets in Indianapolis.

"A lot of teams want to come at us because of who we are and what individuals we have on our team," freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. "At the same time, if we lose, we were basically supposed to lose because of our inexperience. If we win, we were supposed to win because of our talent."

Senior Ramon Harris is one of just two players on the team with NCAA Tournament playing experience. Harris spoke on Wednesday of a more confident feeling in this team than the 2008 squad.

Harris believes the talk of youth is overrated. He points to the road battles, the 32-2 record and the clutch plays the freshmen have come up with time and time again.

Just a few days ago, it was two freshmen - Cousins and Wall - who lifted UK to another improbable come-from-behind win to capture the SEC title.

"At this point, we've played so many teams in so many situations," Harris said. "We've played in the Garden and in Nashville at Vandy. There are a lot of games that we've had that we've played that have been like tournament games."

Harris was asked which is more important in tournament time: talent or inexperience.

"I'd go with talent because it just got us the No. 2 one seed," Harris said. "Why not take what we have right now? The talent that we have right now has beaten experience."

If Kentucky is to ride talent for the rest of the season, Calipari believes it will once again have to overcome inexperience. The Cats are the youngest team in the tournament by average years of collegiate experience.

"When you have a team this young, you're in the survive-and-advance mode," Calipari said. "What we're talking about and the message I've given the team is land the plane. Land the turbulence. There's storm, there's lightning, people drinking their 'Hater-ade' and coming at you. There are going to be things written and said. It's all coming at you. Land the plane. Survive and advance."

With every win, even one over a lowly 16 seed, the Cats are hoping to prove their doubters wrong.

"We do want to prove people wrong," Cousins said. "The whole youth thing and us being a brand new team and all that other trash talking, we have a lot of business to prove. Winning the championship is our main goal."

Video: The real season begins

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Obama picks UK as national runner-up

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NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky has the Presidential Seal of Approval.

President Barack Obama has picked Kentucky to advance to the national championship game in his NCAA Tournament bracket. Obama has Kentucky losing to Kansas in Indianapolis in the season's final game.

Big Blue fans won't be pleased to hear the president has UK finishing second - not first - in the Big Dance, but the commander in chief does know a thing or two about college basketball. Although his track record is small, he's 1-for-1 in picking the national champion as the president. Last year he correctly picked North Carolina to cut down the nets.

Earlier in the season, Obama called the Cats before the South Carolina game to thank them for their efforts in the "Hoops for Haiti" telethon. UK went on to lose its first game of the season later that night.

Should Kentucky meet Kansas in the national championship game, it woud pit John Calipari and Kansas coach Bill Self in the national title game for the second time in three years. Self's Jayhawks came from behind in the 2008 championship to defeat Calipai's Memphis team.

Obama unveiled his bracket on ESPN SportsCenter. It's the second year in a row the self-described basketball fan revealed his bracket on national television.

New Orleans in pictures (part 2 of 2)

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New Orleans in pictures (part 1 of 2)

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NEW ORLEANS -- Media availability is about to begin in just a few moments. I'll have video and a post or two following the interviews on the blog. In the meantime, check out a few photos I snapped of the city of New Orleans. Warning: I'm not the greatest photographer in the world, but they should give you at least a small glimpse of what you're missing in New Orleans.

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UK Hoops mentally recharged for tourney

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Thumbnail image for dunlap 2 uk butler.jpgTime is supposed to heal all wounds. In the physical sense, time did not come through for the UK women's basketball team.

Head coach Matthew Mitchell expects to be without the services of sophomore guard Crystal Riley (stress fracture) and freshman center Anna Cole (stress fracture) for the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Junior guard Carly Morrow remains day-to-day with an undetermined illness.

But the near two weeks that will pass from UK's last game and Saturday's first-round NCAA Tournament game against No. 13 seed Liberty should serve as a mental recharger for the UK Hoops team.

"It's been great," Mitchell said. "I'm telling you, it's been exactly what I'd hoped. Right now, for us, it's all about our mentality and can we play close to our identity.Tthat is so much more mental than it is physical. You just have to be tough minded. You have to be mentally strong. We have to have great enthusiasm that leads to great energy. Great energy leads to great effort and it's a real simple formula for us."

Unlike the men, the women had to sit through a full week before learning of their postseason plans. The week was well worth the wait as the Cats learned they would be playing just down the road in Louisville, but now they have another week before tipping things off in Freedom Hall on Saturday.

The time off could affect any positive momentum UK built during the SEC run, but the players welcomed the time off.

"Oh, yes, it was lovely," Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies said. "I enjoyed that."

Although the break didn't allow for Riley and Cole to fully recover, Mitchell said seniors Amani Franklin (ankle) and Lydia Watkins (foot, back) are near 100 percent.

UK held one practice last week and has resumed for activity in preparation for the postseason run.

"I think mentally and physically we're just getting back into the rhythm of basketball," said junior forward Victoria Dunlap, this year's SEC Player of the Year. "We practiced last week before we got the weekend off. We had some little ups and downs but we still have the same mentality, same effort that we had."

Even though the team remains banged up physically, their mental engines have been revved up for the postseason run.

"Mentally for them to have a few days to recharge has been tremendous because they have been able to come back and to play the way they have been in practice has been encouraging," Mitchell said. "I'm excited. I think the time off has helped us a lot."

Road to Final Four starts in the Big Easy

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NEW ORLEANS - All is quiet now in the Big Easy, but that won't be the case starting Wednesday when New Orleans Arena officially opens for NCAA Tournament festivities.

The team touched down around 7 p.m. CT at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport after about a two-hour flight. We immediately boarded a bus for the team hotel, which is located downtown at the JW Marriott.

The Cats were supposed to practice upon arrival but head coach John Calipari decided to cancel it and give the players a night to themselves. Some of them won't have this opportunity again (to be in a city like New Orleans for the NCAA Tournament), so Calipari wanted to give them a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city.

Most of the players headed for the world famous Bourbon Street, but rest assured, Calipari made sure to remind them that this was a business trip only.

Speaking of Bourbon Street, I have yet to wander to the French Quarter but plan on doing so once or twice before the week is over. A late dinner, a long day of work and travel convinced me that I better get some rest while I can before this week's festivities.

Not a lot of Wildcat fans out on the streets Tuesday night but it's still a couple of days away from the start of the actual games. I expect Big Blue Nation to start filing in Wednesday, although there is still reportedly a good chunk of tickets left. We did happen to see a few Texas players walking the street, one of which I believe was Longhorn superstar Damion James.

As far as Thursday's plans go, every team at the New Orleans pod is scheduled to have an open practice for the fans and media (I'll post the schedule below). In between the practices, each team will have media availability, of which I'll have a few posts from later Wednesday.

The practice that most of you are concerned with, of course, starts at 4:25 p.m. CT when the Cats take the court.

Before calling it a night, I just wanted to remark how loose the players seemed to be on the plane ride and bus trip to the hotel. Without getting into specifics, let me just say that the atmosphere has been completely transformed from last season.

I can remember sitting with the team on the trips to Florida last season and noticing how tense the mood felt. The coaching controversy, the struggles of the regular season and the uncertainty of the postseason was unbelievably taxing on last year's squad. It looked as if the weight of the world was on the shoulders of the players.

That certainly isn't the case with this year's team. These guys are loose, confident and taking in the experience. They're smiling, laughing and joking with one another.

Is the pressure still immense? Sure. But because of the season's success, the atmosphere head coach John Calipari has created and the confidence this team has gained over the year, they seem to be at ease with themselves. This isn't a team that's feeling the pressure, which I think is certainly a good thing.

More than anything, this team has outstanding chemistry. From the players to the coaches to the trainers to the student mangers, everybody seems to truly like each other. I really believe, in a time where everybody will have to rely on one another, that's extremely important.

I know it's only a small window into what goes on behind the scenes, but I can personally tell you that it is night and day from what I witnessed last year.

We'll see how it all transpires over the next few days and weeks. Again, I'll be with you throughout the postseason to bring you the latest updates, features, videos and more. I'll check back with everybody on Wednesday from the arena.

Wednesday practices (open to media and general public)
Noon-12:40 p.m. Old Dominion (11)
12:45-1:25 p.m. Sam Houston State (14)
1:30-2:10 p.m. Notre Dame (6)
2:15-2:55 p.m. Baylor (3)
4:25-5:05 p.m. Kentucky (1)
5:10-5:50 p.m. Texas (8)
5:55-6:35 p.m. East Tennessee State (16)
6:40-7:20 p.m. Wake Forest (9)

NCAA Tournament coverage

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Thumbnail image for NCAAenhancedlogo.jpgI'm on the road again -- actually the air this time -- for the men's NCAA Tournament.

I have just boarded the private plane set for New Orleans along with Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart (turns out Barnhart didn't board the plan after all and is flying down on another jet), radio broadcaster Tom Leach, compliance director Sandy Bell and several other noteable figures in the athletics department. As soon as the men's team arrives, we'll hit the runaway and take off for the Big Easy and the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Before we get this bird in the air, I wanted to use this opportunity to give a short programming note for the upcoming postseason.

Given that I will be traveling with men's team throughout their stay in the Big Dance, I'll be bringing you the latest updates, features, commentary, video, live blogs and more. With the exception of the Associated Press recaps, photos and notes we will have on the homepage, this will be your one-stop click for all the latest postseason news.

Although I won't be able to tag along with the women's team throughout their run, Cam, UK's Web site coordinator, will be making the trip with the team. He'll have videos and live blogs with the Cats, and I'm hoping to add a few blog posts, time permitting, from the road as well.

If all goes according to plan, I should be able to make it Louisville on Monday for the women's second-round game, but that's very tentative at this point.

I'll check back in later tonight once we get settled in at the hotel in New Orleans. Until then, make sure you stay tuned to Cat Scratches and UKathletics.com for all your latest postseason news.   

Mitchell, Dunlap earn top SEC honors

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WBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 27.jpgWherever this mythical trophy case is, it must be getting overfilled by now as the awards for the men's and women's basketball teams continue to roll in.

The latest went to Matthew Mitchell and Victoria Dunlap from the UK Hoops team.

Mitchell was selected as the Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year and Dunlap was named SEC Coach of the Year by the Associated Press. Two weeks ago, each won the respective awards from the league's coaches.

Dunlap, who was a unanimous selection, earns her second major award after averaging 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.0 steals and 2.1 blocks per game for the 25-7 Cats. She is the only SEC player to rank among the league's top three players in scoring and rebounding.

In his third season at the helm, Mitchell has led UK to its first NCAA Tournament since 2006. Picked to finish 11th in the SEC in the preseason, Mitchell guided UK to a second-place finish in the regular season and conference tournament.

In addition to the AP award, Mitchell was also named the Russell Athletic/WBCA Region 3 Coach of the Year.

Complete details are available on the homepage.

King's must-read story on Cousins

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RHT_0562.jpgIf there is one story you read about Kentucky this postseason, make sure it's Jason King's profile of freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins, "Mad about Cousins."

King, a sportswriter with Yahoo! Sports and Rivals.com, takes a long and in-depth look at the maturation process of Cousins, from a young, immature kid in Alabama to the budding star at UK.

Some of the incidents in the story you may have heard, others maybe you haven't. But whether you know or don't know about Cousins' past and the development he's undergone in the last several years, this story serves as a great profile on the life of DeMarcus Cousins.

Below is an opening excerpt from the story. It's long, but I guarantee you won't regret reading it. The link at the top will take you to the full story.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - When DeMarcus Cousins signs an autograph, you never know what you're going to get.

If the crowd is big and Kentucky's standout freshman is in a hurry, he'll simply scribble his initials and jersey number. Catch him alone at a restaurant or on campus, and Cousins may write his entire name in perfect penmanship.

"The other night, he signed a shirt for me and I couldn't even read it," said Monique Cousins, DeMarcus' mom. "I think he must've been in a bad mood. That doesn't happen very often."

Not at Kentucky, where in less than a year the 6-foot-11, 270-pound center has become one of the biggest celebrities - literally - in the history of the Wildcats' storied program. At Rupp Arena females write marriage proposals on signs while others hold up posterboards that read "In Kentucky We Love Our Cousins."

The autograph requests are non-stop, Cousins has his own nickname ("Boogie") and everyone, it seems, wants to pose for a picture with the future NBA lottery pick. Back in the fall, at a burger joint called Tolly-Ho, Cousins put his arm around a classmate during a photo and could feel the kid shaking.

"Craziest thing I've ever seen," Cousins said. "Dude was so nervous."

Cousins laughs as he leans back in his chair at Wildcat Lodge, Kentucky's athletic dormitory. As much as he's enjoyed his time on the court during his first - and probably only - season for the 32-2 Wildcats, he's relished his time off of it, too. Feeling loved and respected, he said, is a nice change from his days growing up in Alabama, where his mother said he was treated like a "piece of meat."

Cousins is thankful that the folks in Lexington were willing to let him establish his own identity instead of judging him by the labels that have always defined him.

"I'm a thug," Cousins said. "I'm a bad guy, a criminal. I know that's what people say about me, people that don't know me.

"Nothing could be further from the truth."

Read the rest of the story at Rivals.com.

Darnell moving up MLB Draft boards

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BSB 08_09 UK_Vandy Game 3 web 34.jpgOne of the key marks of a good program is its ability to bounce back during adverse times.

See Kentucky baseball.

When MLB first-round pick James Paxton announced he was leaving the team because of his decision to not meet with the NCAA over a potential NCAA amateur issue, it left a potentially disastrous situation in Gary Henderson's starting pitching rotation.

Instead of going on the defense, head coach Gary Henderson simply reloaded. Enter freshman pitcher Taylor Roger (3-0). Insert sophomore stud Alex Meyer (3-2).

And finally, enter junior pitcher Logan Darnell.

Darnell, a hard-throwing lefty, has cushioned the blow of Paxton and headed the Kentucky pitching rotation in the early season. The Joelton, Tenn., native is 3-0 with a 2.17 ERA and 23 strikeouts, including a complete-game shutout against San Diego.

Meyer, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, and Rogers, a potential first- or second-round pick, could be MLB stars one day, but Darnell is quickly making a name for himself as well.

According to one writer at SportingNews.com, Darnell is quickly moving up the draft boards and is looking like a potential second-round pick.

"The Darnell kid is strong as an ox," one MLB scout told SportingNews.com. "He's got an above-average fastball with good late life around 92-94, and a good slider and change-up. They have improved a lot since last year."

The scout said he was impressed with the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Darnell's ability to mix pitches and also remarked that Darnell has really started to gain confidence in his stuff. 

It's hard to imagine the Cats (13-3) having such success without Paxton, but Henderson just keeps reloading with arms. With three future MLB pitchers still in the rotation, don't think the loss of Paxton has derailed UK's hopes quite yet.

Mar. 16 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

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ESPN's Jay Bilas and CBS' Greg Anthony are not only outstanding college basketball analysts but they also know what it takes for a team to reach a Final Four -- because both of them did it with Duke and UNLV, respectively. Therefore, it's interesting to get their thoughts on some of the challenges this Kentucky team faces as it begins its quest for the school's eighth national title Friday in New Orleans.

Topping the list of concerns the experts have about Kentucky is inexperience. The Wildcats are far and away the youngest team in the NCAA Tournament.

"This is the first time for these guys. They have never played this many games before," Bilas told tomleachky.com. "In high school, you don't play this many games during the regular season and you certainly don't play with this intensity level with travel and school and all that stuff. So, it is different. Does that mean that they can't do it? Of course not. They are good enough to beat anybody. I think that it has been proven over the years that the best team does not always win this thing and especially this year."

That's because Bilas has said repeatedly in recent weeks that he thought the field of at-large candidates for this year's tournament was the weakest in years and that could mean fewer upsets this March.

Anthony says the game doesn't change but the circumstances might at this time and that's where a young team could have an issue.

"What becomes unique about it is that you could potentially have matchups where you don't have a familiarity with an opponent and that could be an issue at times," Anthony said. "This is where as a young team, you can start talking about inexperience because it is far more difficult to make adjustments let's say, case and point, that Thursday and Saturday. You play a team that wants to get after it and they try to turn you over and create tempo that way.

"Then the next game you have 24 hours to flip the switch and go up against a tempo control zone team. They like to play the matchup zone. Those are the kind of situations that in the tournament that can create problems for you because you don't have time to prepare and the younger you are obviously, the more difficult that transition could be. Those are the things that you definitely have to deal with but having said that, Kentucky is such a talented team and the way they compete and get after it defensively, they have all bought into that. I think it gives them the opportunity to accomplish the goal which is to get to the Final Four."

Anthony and Bilas agree that one thing that helps offset the inexperience of Kentucky is the Wildcats' will to win.

"Everyone likes to point out what are issues for Kentucky, but the reality is that I think that they are a basketball team that knows how to win," Anthony said. "I think when you combine that skill and I think sometimes people don't appreciate the ability to win games, find ways to win games, and make plays when they have to be made, I think you have to be impressed."

Bilas has seen Kentucky make significant improvement over the course of the season and he says that speaks to the maturity of the youngest players.

"I think the thing that has impressed me most about Kentucky is about how they have continued to improve and while improving they have been winning," Bilas said. "There are a lot of teams out there, especially young ones, that when they play in a new environment or they face a tough challenge, they lose and then they learn from that. You learn more by losing often times but mature teams are the ones that can win and take a hard look at themselves and say, 'You know what, if we had played this way against the best teams in the country, we would have lost this game,' and get better that way. For the most part, Kentucky has done that.

"They have answered the challenge by winning the game in front of them and dealing what they have had to deal with on the floor at that time but they have also learned from that and have been able to get better and better through the course of the season. If the Kentucky team that I saw in November was playing that way now, they wouldn't be ranked number two. They have gotten much, much better since then. It is a totally different team than it was in November and December."

And Anthony gives coach John Calipari the credit for keeping this group so focused from the start to now.

"It is so true that the younger you are as a player, the more you are trying to prove what you can do as opposed to playing to your strengths and focusing on your results, which is to win basketball games," Anthony said. "I think that the fact that at times they didn't play great, they still never -- and it is the calling card all season long -- they never lost their resolve or their focus on the objective, which was to win the game. If you are a Kentucky Wildcat fan, or like college basketball or are a potential opponent, you have to respect the fact that they are not just a young talented team, they are an excellent basketball team."

Mar. 14 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Mar. 14:

Baseball: Logan Darnell

Junior left-hander Logan Darnell tossed eight innings and allowed only one run in his fourth career start, leading UK to a series-opening win Friday night ... Darnell allowed only five hits and one run, striking out six for his third win of the year ... The reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week, Darnell is coming off a complete-game shutout win at San Diego, and until allowing a seventh inning solo home run, carried a 19.1 scoreless innings pitched streak ... He tossed 114 pitches, with 84 going for strikes and forced 12 ground-ball outs ... A week after throwing first-pitch strikes to 22-of-32 hitters faced against San Diego, Darnell tossed first-pitch strikes to 24-of-29 hitters faced ... On the year, Darnell has totaled a 2.17 ERA and a 3-0 record, tossing 29 innings, allowing only 27 hits and striking out 23 ... A reliever his first-two seasons, Darnell owns a 3.69 ERA in 47 career appearances and four starts, tossing 92.2 innings with 82 punch-outs.

Baseball: Cory Farris

Sophomore rightfielder Cory Farris had a breakout week at the plate for the Wildcats, registering starts in four of UK's five games and leading the team with a .462 (6-for-13) average ... Farris launched his first three homers of the year on the week, adding two doubles and a club-high seven RBI ... The Florence, Ky., native slugged for a 1.308 percentage during the week ... Farris drew three walks and got hit by a pitch, reaching base at a .588 clip on the week ... Defensively, Farris added an outfield assist and gathered seven putouts while playing flawless defense in rightfield ... In UK's 8-4 win over Evansville, Farris went 3-for-3 with his first homer of the year, adding a double and getting hit by a pitch ... In a Saturday win over IPFW, Farris led the team with three RBI, going 2-for-4 with a walk a homer and a double ... Sunday, Farris again homered - for the third time in the last four games - a three-run jack ... Farris added two walks in the win Sunday, hitting No. 4 in the lineup for the first time in his career.

Baseball: Taylor Rogers

Dynamic freshman southpaw Taylor Rogers had an excellent outing in a win over IPFW Saturday, tossing seven shutout innings to improve to 3-0 on the year ... Rogers struck out a career-high eight in his seven frames, allowing only four harmless singles and walking two ... Rogers tossed first-pitch strikes to 19-of-26 hitters faced in the game, throwing 65 strikes in 96 total pitches ...A native of Littleton, Colo., Rogers retired seven consecutive hitters through the middle innings of the win ... On the year, Rogers has a 3-0 record and a 4.30 ERA, striking out 14 in 23 innings ... Without a poor start against Monmouth in San Diego and in three starts, Rogers owns a 3-0 record and a 0.44 ERA in 20.2 innings pitched, allowing only 16 hits and five walks, striking out 13, with opponents hitting .219.

Softball: Megan Yocke

Junior Megan Yocke led the Wildcats offensively this week with at least one hit in every game. She also earned three walks on the weekend to reach base on seven occasions to pace the squad. Yocke also recorded a team-best 32 putouts from her catcher position and tossed all three base runners attempting to steal a bag.

WBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 80.jpgKentucky players don't usually dream of playing in the former arena of their archrival, but Freedom Hall was on a short wish list of destinations the Kentucky women's basketball team wanted for the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

On Monday night, huddled on a couch in head coach Matthew Mitchell's house, the Cats had their wish come true.

Headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, UK will travel just an hour west on Interstate 64 to Louisville for the first and second rounds of the tournament. The Cats will take on No. 13 seed Liberty on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in Freedom Hall. Should Kentucky win, it would play the winner of fifth-seeded Michigan State and 12th-seeded Bowling Green State.

Regardless of the opponent, the once red-filled Freedom Hall is expected be painted blue with Big Blue fans.

"We are elated, ecstatic to play there and give our fans an opportunity to turn out and watch us play," said Mitchell, who guided UK to a 25-7 season and second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference in his third season at the helm. "Now we just need them to saddle up and ride with us. They can make a huge difference."

Mitchell said the Cats tried to turn their focus away from the location of their first- and second-round games, but the reaction when UK's name popped up on the television screen in the Louisville pod said everything one needed to know about their real desires.

"It was nerve racking to see where we were going to go, but when I saw Louisville it was exciting," SEC Player of the Year and junior forward Victoria Dunlap said. "The fact that we get to stay in Kentucky is great. It is close by and our fans can get there and support us. It will be a great opportunity for us."

Fans are encouraged to purchase tickets by calling the UK ticket office at (859) 257-1818, purchasing them at the UK ticket office in the Joe Craft Center or online at UKathletics.com. Tickets, which are $27 for three games, are also available through the Freedom Hall ticket office at 1-800-633-7105 or 502-852-5151.

"It can make a tremendous difference if we can somehow, someway, reach our fans and let them know how important it is to go buy tickets and show up," Mitchell said. "There is nothing that can replace that energy that they can give you. You've seen how well we can play at home. Any kind of support or crowd we could get will mean a lot to us and be a big bonus."

The biggest fan of Sunday's selection and seeding was freshman guard and Louisville native A'dia Mathies. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year will make a homecoming of sorts this weekend but couldn't guarantee tickets for the countless friends and family members that are likely to try and catch the 2009 Miss Kentucky Basketball play.

"I think that it is going to be twice as much (support as we would normally get) because it is the tournament and it is so close to Lexington," Mathies said. "We even have fans in Louisville that don't get the chance to come to Lexington. I think that will be a big crowd and a great atmosphere."

Kentucky will certainly need all the help it can get in a very challenging Kansas City Region. In addition to a one-loss Nebraska team and Big East power Notre Dame, the Cats face a very realistic shot of playing Michigan State in the second round.

Sound familiar?

In 2006, the last time UK played in the NCAA Tournament, it was bounced by Michigan State in the second round. Overall, the Cats have lost seven straight to Big Ten teams, one of the main reasons the benefits of playing near home - less travel, familiarity and crowd support - can pay dividends for UK.

As favorable as the Louisville site is, Mitchell said the Cats will have to continue to do the things they've done all year, namely defend and force turnovers, to advance beyond the Derby City and into the Midwest finals.

"We cannot get caught in where we are playing, and just because it's Louisville doesn't mean that we are going to do something different than we would (normally)," Mitchell said. "We need to keep the same mentality that we would wherever we would have played."

If they do, they'll likely be dancing long after this weekend's trip to Louisville.

"No matter where we go, no matter where we are seeded, we wanted an opportunity to play for a national championship and now we have it," Mitchell said. "Now it's up to them."

INJURY UPDATE: The Cats will be far from 100 percent heading into the postseason. Mitchell said sophomore guard Crystal Riley and freshman center Anna Cole are doubtful for this weekend. Each is battling a stress fracture in their respective feet.

Junior guard Carly Morrow is day-to-day with what Mitchell called fatigue. Mitchell said UK's training staff isn't sure what's causing the lack of energy but said the training staff is working diligently to find the solution.

Senior Amani Franklin (ankle) and Lydia Watkins (foot, back) are expected to be near 100 percent and play.

Video: Cats are dancing in the Derby City

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Cal's Cats the youngest team in Big Dance

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MBSK 09_10 UK_TN Web 65.jpgJohn Calipari can exaggerate with the best of them. That's why, when Calipari constantly says the UK men's basketball team is the youngest team in America, reporters often chuckle.

It turns out he isn't joking.

Of the 65 teams in the NCAA Tournament field, Kentucky is the youngest team in terms of experience. According to KenPom.com, the Cats average 0.85 years of experience, far and away the youngest team in the Big Dance. Gonzaga, an eight seed, is the closest with 1.24 years of experience.

In fact, of the 347 team in Division I men's basketball, only six teams had less experience than Kentucky this year. Those six teams combined to go 76-111 (.406 winning percentage) in the regular season and none made the NCAA Tournament.

"We are the youngest team in the tournament," Calipari said. "You don't know what's going to happen when you get in there. The experience that we got in the SEC (Tournament) was very good for us. It builds confidence. It did some good stuff for us. But, again, this is going to be a hard road for a young team like this."

What's even more worrisome or amazing, depending on how you look at it, is that most of Kentucky's experience is loaded on the bench in the form of reserves. When it comes to who plays the most minutes and who starts, the Cats are as green as it gets.

UK's traditional starting five of John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Darius Miller, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson had three years of experience between them entering this season (two with Patterson and one with Miller) and zero years of postseason experience (Patterson did not play in the NCAA Tournament in 2008 because of an injury).

(Even more, the first two players off the bench are usually Daniel Orton, a freshman, and Darnell Dodson, a sophomore.)

Only Michigan's Fab Five, a starting collection of five freshmen that went to the national championship game in 1992, can lay claim to having conquered a tougher road than Kentucky.

For a better perspective, look at the 2007 Ohio State team that lost to Florida in the national championship. The Buckeyes, led by superstar freshmen Greg Oden and Mike Conley, were lauded for overcoming their youth and inexperience in making it to the national title game.

And yet when the numbers add up, Kentucky seems like a group of toddlers when compared to that Ohio State team. The Buckeyes averaged 1.73 years of experience that season, according to KenPom.com, a full year more than UK.

Sure, there have been younger teams in the past, but few of those have found success in the NCAA Tournament.

In 2007, Kevin Durant and his fourth-seeded Texas Longhorns entered the tournament with an average of 0.41 years of experience but were bounced in the second round. Duke, a No. 6 seed in 2007 with a 0.79 experience average, and Southern California, a No. 6 seed in 2008 with a 0.66 experience average, suffered similar early exits in their respective seasons of youth. 

Like those teams, UK team is raw, inexperienced and untested heading into the NCAA Tournament. But boy is it talented. 

Which trait will weigh the most? Over the next three weeks of Madness we'll find out.

Media tabs Calipari SEC Coach of the Year

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SEC LOGO UK BLUE.jpgFor all the (misguided) flak the media receives, they do get things right a lot of times. Take for instance Monday's Southeastern Conference men's basketball awards, which were voted on by the media.

The media voted UK coach John Calipari the SEC's Coach of the Year after he guided UK to an SEC regular-season and tournament championship. He's the first coach in NCAA history to guide a team to five straight 30-win seasons.

The announcement comes a week after Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was named SEC Coach of the Year by the league's coaches.

In addition to Calipari's honors, freshman guard John Wall took home his second SEC Player of the Year award by winning the Associated Press' top honor. Wall, also the AP Newcomer of the Year, joined fellow freshman DeMarcus Cousins on the AP first team.

Junior forward Patrick Patterson was named to the second team.

We'll have a full release on the homepage in just a big. Busy day as we prepare to leave on Tuesday for the postseason and gear up for the women's NCAA Selection Show tonight at 7.

Calipari talks postseason on SEC teleconference

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Bama Web 39.jpgQuestion: Talk about your team as you head into postseason play.
Calipari: "You play that Sunday championship game and travel back and find out you're playing Thursday. I've got to give them off today just to get their legs and mind back. We're having breakfast at my house right now. We've got a tough road ahead. The one thing I'll tell you is nothing will be easy in the tournament. We are the youngest team in the tournament. I'm not just saying that. We are the youngest team in the tournament. I would imagine it may be the first time a team that's not been in the tournament before. I don't know. I haven't looked at it that closely, but we may be the most inexperienced team. Guys have never been in this tournament before. That's why the SEC Tournament was good for us. It gave us the environment that we are going to have to face."

Question: It was mostly freshmen who came through at the end of regulation and overtime yesterday. What does that say about their readiness to handle the pressure?
Calipari: "Patrick (Patterson) played better when I watched the tape. I want him to be perfect which is probably not fair, but he played better than I thought. Daniel Orton played really well in this game. I thought Ramon (Harris) and Perry Stevenson gave us some good stuff. That's important to us, but we are the youngest team in the tournament. You don't know what's going to happen when you get in there. The experience that we got in the SEC (Tournament) was very good for us. It builds confidence. It did some good stuff for us. But, again, this is going to be a hard road for a young team like this."

Question: What's your major concern going into the tournament?
Calipari: "There's an anxiety the first time you do this. I'm trying to make it like we're playing this like we do every other game. For our first game, we're off today, we'll practice tomorrow and Wednesday, and we'll play the game Thursday, which is about what we've done all year. We're just trying to make it a normal game and that's how we're trying to play it. I'm trying to keep their focus on where we are - our little bracket our little world - and don't focus about anything else."

Question: DeMarcus Cousins has even commented this season that he's really matured off the court the season as much as he has on the court. Have you seen that with him and where do you think it comes from?
Calipari: "The bar has been really raised on him in what's acceptable and what's not acceptable. I think the other thing is as the accolades started coming his way and when he's being viewed as this player and this type of person in a good way, I think he kind of liked it. So now he's striving towards that. But he still gets frustrated when they double team him and he's not getting baskets, or they're double teaming him on rebounds. He's trying to learn to deal with it. The reality of it is he's come so far. Now, he's got a long way to go, but he's come so far it's good."

Question: What do you think about the SEC getting four teams in?
Calipari: "Mississippi State and Mississippi were the other two teams (that could have got in). Both of them went on a run of losing games within the league where it was like, 'Man, how did they lose that?' You said it, I said it, we all said it. It put them in a bad position. If Mississippi would have beaten Tennessee, obviously they would have gotten in. Mississippi State, they're saying now they had to beat us, which is crazy because they took us to overtime in two games. If we're the No. 2 seed in the whole tournament, I don't know what that means. 'Well, they could have done more out of the league.' But they won the division. I don't know. I don't have the answers to all that. All I can tell you is we were in a position to get six teams in. That's where we wanted to be."

Question: You told Dan Patrick that John Wall wants to stay, that you're going to have to talk to him about it. Is that a legitimate thing he talked to you about?
Calipari: "That's me teasing Dan Patrick because I knew he was going to bring it up. We haven't talked about it. What I've told all these guys is focus on being great college players. Focus on what you can do to help our team win. Focus on how you have to work or what you have to do to be your best right now. That's all we're talking about. That's all were focused on. We're not talking about anything next year. We've got three weeks to this season left and that's all we're focused on."

Video: NCAA Tournament reaction

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John Calipari

DeMarcus Cousins

Patrick Patterson

John Wall

Wait for SEC championship was 'worth it'

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_MG_0465.jpgNASHVILLE -- The smiles said everything one needed to know about the trials and tribulations the Kentucky men's basketball players have overcome to capture the program's 26th Southeastern Conference Tournament title.

Entrenched in a real-life nightmare last season, a year ago suddenly seems like a lifetime ago. From the National Invitation Tournament to a tumultuous coaching change, this past season has now become a real-life fantasy for the elder players on the UK men's basketball team.

On Sunday in Nashville, although it wasn't the ultimate culmination for the players like Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Patrick Patterson, it was darn close. For the first time since 2004 and the first time in the careers of anybody on UK's roster, the SEC Tournament championship belonged to the University of Kentucky.

Kentucky captured the title with a thrilling 75-74 overtime victory over SEC Western Division champion Mississippi State in front of 20,082 fans in Bridgestone Arena. The win earned UK (32-2) a No. 1 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

As the players embraced each other at midcourt and swayed to "My Old Kentucky Home" - a truly rewarding scene for the Kentucky faithful - jubilation, elation and gratification all overcame the players.

"It feels wonderful and great, especially doing it with a bunch of great guys we have on this team," said freshman point guard John Wall, one of the biggest reasons UK has reestablished its SEC dominance. "It's awesome for Perry and Ramon, them being seniors, and Mark Krebs. For them to finally have this, we're just cherishing this and having a lot of fun."

Moments after carrying the SEC trophy back to the locker room, it hit several of the players at what they had done and the long road it took to get there.

"We were in the bathroom changing and Ramon and Krebs was like, 'It took all this to get this far.' " freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. "I was like, 'So how does it feel? Was it worth it?' He was just like, 'Hell yeah.' "

No need to excuse them for their language. Some of the veterans had been through hell itself to get there. Sunday they deserved to bask in the glory of a historic run.

"The past two years I haven't had the type of success that I would like to have," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "Finally coming in this junior year with the type of team that we have and making the run that we have made and getting something that I've always wanted - the SEC Tournament and the SEC trophy - it just feels great for myself. It's something I've always wanted and I've worked hard for it since my freshman year. Finally getting it, I'm not going to let it go."

Patterson deserved to glow quite possibly more than anyone. The third-year star signed with UK during uncertain times and endured two seasons without the NCAA Tournament because an injury his freshman season and National Invitation Tournament invite last year.

Patterson stood in the glare of the negative spotlight when the program fell on hard times and shouldered the responsibility to return it to its rightful glory.

"Bloody feet my freshman year from running, my injury from my freshman year, my sophomore year going to the NIT, having all the ups and down and the rollercoaster, and finally coming in this year and having the types of success we're having this year, it's definitely worth it," Patterson said. "All the pain, all the hurt, everything we went through, just having the success we're having this year, everything is worth it."

Patterson was a big factor in the victory, scoring 15 points and grabbing six rebounds, but it was once again the helping hand of the freshmen that proved to be the difference between last year's misery and this season's splendor.

"At some point a big play always happens," Patterson said. "When you look around, it's always them."

When MSU went up five on Ravern Johnson's three-pointer in the corner, things looked dire.
Said Calipari: "As we walked to the bench, Eric Bledsoe grabbed (Patterson) and said, 'We got your back. We're not going to lose it that way. You just keep playing. We got you.' "

That's when the Cats mounted their furious comeback for the second time against MSU this season.

_MG_7312.jpgPatterson cut it to three with a jumper, but when Cousins missed a hook shot, the Bulldogs retained possession up by three with 43 seconds left. The situation appeared bleak again, but the Cats refused to give in.

Wall came up with a steal on Barry Stewart in the left corner and raced down the baseline for a dunk with 40 seconds left. MSU extended it back to three on a pair of Stewart free throws and fouled UK with 4.9 seconds left.

Down by three and at the line for two, it meant Bledsoe would have to make the first free throw and purposely miss the second for somebody to get a tip-in and send it to overtime.
The scenario was as improbable as the unlikely one-year turnaround, but it worked to perfection.

Bledsoe sank the first and then threw the ball high off the rim on the second freebie. Patterson tipped the ball out to Wall for a long-range jumper. Wall's baseline shot was well short, but Cousins read the misfire, grabbed the offensive rebound and banked it off the glass just before the horn sounded.

Replay video confirmed the ball left Cousins' hand with mere fractions of a second left.

"I was just looking for the red square," said Cousins, who finished with 10 points and 10 rebounds for his 20th double-double of the season. "I didn't know. I just threw it up and I was looking for the red light and I knew I got it off so I ran."

Wall, who finished with 17 points and nine assists, pummeled his teammate like a linebacker in the opposite corner of the court thinking the game was over, but the Cats and Bulldogs were headed for overtime in the Music City.

"John actually thought we won," Cousins said. "We're in the dog pile and I'm 'John, it's just overtime. Get off me.' "

But with the pro-UK crowd in utter pandemonium and the momentum swinging Kentucky's way, it was all but over.

"When they were excited I had a real good feel that we were going to win this," Calipari said. "I think they could see it my eyes and I could see it in their eyes and they were like let's just get this over."

Wall sealed the game in overtime with an unbelievable leaning three-pointer from the left elbow. The triple, Wall's only one of the game, put the Cats up five with 29 seconds to play.

"He's got what every great player has," Cousins said. "I don't know what it is, but he's got it."

The improbable and frantic comeback was fitting of the storybook turnaround. The Cats are once again perched on top of the SEC and not a moment too soon.

"I don't see how Pat, Perry and Ramon did it this long," Cousins said.

They did it because they wanted it. They did it because they deserved it. They suffered, battled and sacrificed because the SEC championship was worth it.

Cats faced with tough draw

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NCAAenhancedlogo.jpgNASHVILLE -- I don't have a lot of time to run through the entire NCAA Tournament field UK was just presented with since I have to drive back to Lexington tonight in addition to a story I have to finish, but I thought I'd give a couple of quick bullets on the Cats' draw.

- UK earned a No. 1 seed in the East Region and will play Atlantic Sun champion East Tennessee State on Thursday in New Orleans. Should the Cats win, UK would get the winner of Texas-Wake Forest in the 8/9 matchup on Saturday.

- It's the 10th time Kentucky has earned a No. 1 seed and first since 2004. Kansas, Syracuse and Duke earned the other No. 1 seeds.

- Four Southeastern Conference teams -- UK, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida -- made the Big Dance. Mississippi State, which lost out on an automatic bid Sunday in a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Cats in the SEC championship, had its bubble popped and was left out of the tourney.

- UK will be playing in New Orleans, not Milwaukee as most projected. The Cats would still go through Syracuse for the Regionals if they were to win their first two games. The Final Four takes place in Indianapolis, Ind.

- I think CBS analyst Seth Davis said it best when he said, "It's a brutal road for Kentucky." Although the Cats earned the No. 2 overall seed in the tournament, it looks like UK could face the toughest or second-toughest region based on the eye test.

- UK's second-round matchup looks to be the hardest of any of the No. 1 seeds. Texas was ranked No. 1 in the nation at one point this season and was a preseason pick for the Final Four. While the Longhorns have stumbled down the stretch, they still have Final Four talent with Damion James, Avery Bradley and Dexter Pittman. Wake Forest is certainly no slouch either with Al-Farouq Aminu.

- The No. 2 seed in Kentucky's bracket is Big East champion West Virginia. Although the Mountaineers are No. 4 in the CBSsports.com RPI, the draw for Kentucky is pretty fair when one considers that Ohio State and Kansas State, two potential No. 1 seeds, did not make it into UK's bracket.

- Do not overlook third-seeded New Mexico. Although the Lobos are a traditional mid-major, they are a very dangerous team this year and ranked No. 10 in the CBSsports.com RPI. Temple, a No. 5 seed and potential Sweet 16 matchup with UK, is also a potential scary matchup as the Owls rank No. 9 in the RPI.  

- We should have a few video clips from head coach John Calipari and the players on the NCAA Tournament later on.

- View the entire field of 65 at UK's Tourney Central

Video: Cal, players discuss SEC championship

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UK fans prove again why they're the nation's best

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_MG_6756.jpgNAHSVILLE --  Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl had a notion earlier in the Southeastern Conference Tournament that Tennessee's fans may be the league's best.

"I understand that we've got some wonderful visitors from the north that probably rival Tennessee as the greatest basketball fans in the country," Pearl said.

Pearl, inevitably, showed up to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Saturday for a rude awakening. In Tennessee's very own backyard, it was the Cats - not the Volunteers - who had Saturday's home-court advantage.

Nearly 80 percent of the 19,123 fans at Saturday's session donned blue and white, turning Bridgestone Arena into a raucous Rupp Arena of the South. The Cats rode the electricity of the crowd in their 74-45 thumping of rival Tennessee.

"The crowd definitely helps," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "There was a lot of blue yesterday and even more blue today and hopefully there will be a lot more tomorrow. The crowd definitely helps. It basically feels like a home game when you look into the crowd and you see all that blue and only a little color of the opponent."

It put to bed some of Pearl's misconstrued notions that Tennessee might have the best fans in the SEC. This weekend's Kentucky turnout has easily reaffirmed Kentucky's long proclaimed title as the most passionate college basketball fan base in the country.

Pearl insisted after the game that Tennessee had "enough fans in there that, when (they) made (their) runs, (they) could hear (their) people in the building," but it was hard to even hear the Tennessee band play its unofficial fight sing, "Rocky Top," during the first semifinal game.

During each and every single timeout, the Tennessee band, to the best of its efforts, tried to blare "Rocky Top" throughout the arena. And every time, without a moment's hesitation, the rowdy Kentucky fans drowned it out with chants of "Go Big Blue!"

"It's unbelievable," UK head coach John Calipari said of the support. "The blue dust is everywhere. It's incredible."

Tickets have become the hot commodity this weekend in Nashville. Their dollar value on the streets of the Music City have rivaled that of gold. Online, tickets are being sold for hundreds of dollars, and on street corners a four-day package at center court have reportedly gone for thousands of dollars.

UK fans have made no hesitation in buying them to watch their team play.

Calipari, who at one time said the SEC Tournament wasn't that important in the big picture of the NCAA Tournament, has taken the showing to heart and said he feels a responsibility to the fans to lead UK to its first tournament title since 2004.

"When I see a building full of blue fans who paid a lot of money for the tickets ... to watch our team play, well then you kind of feel as a coach you owe it to them to give it your best."

There are so many Kentucky fans in town that it's logistically impossible for everyone to get into Bridgestone Arena. Instead, thousands of fans have painted Broadway Street blue, turning the Music City's party epicenter into Big Blue on Broadway.

The Kentucky support has been so large and so decisive that UK's competition for the SEC championship, Mississippi State, is worried. Following the Bulldogs' 62-52 victory over Vanderbilt, MSU head coach Rick Stansbury pleaded with the league's remaining fans to stick around and pull for the Bulldogs.

"I would hope too all those fans that are still left here, we need all those fans for us," Stansbury said. "Put it in your paper. We need them cheering for us. Vanderbilt, we need all those fans. (We need) Tennessee fans (too). I'm sure they will be, Tennessee will, if they don't go home."

Stansbury can plead and beg all he wants, but Sunday is going to be a decisive home-court advantage for UK. As Peal and the rest of the nation once again learned on Saturday, the Kentucky fan base takes a backseat to no one.

Video: UK pummels Tennessee in rubber match

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Fine line of emotions brings out the best in UK

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Thumbnail image for KWA_3136.jpgNASHVILLE -- The Tennessee Volunteers predicted that the team to throw the first punch would win Saturday's Kentucky-Tennessee semifinal game.

As it turns out, it was the team that didn't throw any jabs that will be advancing to the Southeastern Conference championship for the first time since 2005.

Kentucky walked a fine line of emotions and trash talking on Saturday at Bridgestone Arena in its 74-45 rout of Tennessee, Bruce Pearl's most lopsided career loss in the SEC. As it turns out, the emotions, verbal sparring and Melvin Goins jab at DeMarcus Cousins' groin was just the right formula to fully awaken a sleeping giant.

The Cats, to their credit, withstood the Goins cheap shot (he was immediately ejected) and held their composure just enough to ride a wave of emotions in the pummeling of Tennessee.

"I was a little heated after that (incident with Goins)," said Cousins, who thumped the Volunteers for 19 points and 15 rebounds, his 19th double-double of the year. "It was a good, competitive, clean game and that just changed the whole game."

It was just one of several altercations during a brutally physical, nasty rivalry game that featured four technicals, one ejection and a whole lot of R-rated vernacular. The teams not only trash talked and pushed each other but fired back at their own teammates and coaches.

Early in the first half, freshman forward Daniel Orton and UK coach John Calipari got into a very heated and visible argument that sent Orton to the locker room. A pair of UK assistant coaches quickly calmed him down and Orton returned to the court and the game with an apologetic hand shake with his coach.

"It was just emotions," Orton said. "Everybody got caught up in the moment. Basketball is a really emotional sport. I think everybody just got caught up in it. A few words were exchanged but we apologized about it."

Orton got in a war of words with Tennessee forward Wayne Chism in the second half for a pair of technicals before Goins hit Cousins with a jab to the midsection for two more Ts and an ejection. It was a dangerously fine line for both teams in a game that nearly got out of hand, but it was the perfect mix of motivation for a Kentucky team that possesses all the right skills for a championship run.

When push came to shove, UK unveiled its complete arsenal. Cousins went wild, John Wall was John Wall (14 points, nine assists and six rebounds), and Kentucky's perimeter shooters - gasp! - actually hit three-point shots (8-of-22 from behind the arc, including a career-high five treys from freshman guard Eric Bledsoe).

For a team that's had its fair share of lapses, UK finally put its foot on the pedal for an entire 40 minutes and showed what it's capable of when everything is clicking. The Volunteers pushed the wrong buttons and never knew what hit them.

"Just about any team we play, (if) we're making threes like that, because of the way we guard, because of how big we are, because we have a post presence, we become pretty good," Calipari said.

Bledsoe and sophomore guard Darnell Dodson broke out of a late-season three-point shooting slump to hit four big triples during a 29-6 game-ending run. It makes you wonder, if UK can find that type of emotion, get that type of production from Cousins and Wall, play that type of ferocious defense (UT shot 30.9 percent), and hit those types of outside shots, what's to stop them from title No. 8 (other than Cousins' on-again, off-again free-throw shooting)?

"The game is so much easier," Cousins said. "We're such a better team when we're knocking down shots. We can shoot the ball. We've just been struggling lately. When we're hitting, it's a lot more easy."

The three-point shots were big, but Saturday was more about the complete effort UK gave. When Tennessee (literally) punched, UK (figuratively) hit back.

The Vols presented the right type of nastiness and hostility to evoke the killer instinct and attitude everybody has been clamoring for. It's been the only missing ingredient on this 31-2 team.

"It's just because it's Tennessee," junior forward Patrick Patterson said. "I think it's one of our rivals, so whenever you play your rival, it's always going to be a lot more pushing, shoving, elbows and a lot more physical game.

But Tennessee certainly won't be there throughout the Big Dance to motivate the Cats like they did Saturday. In lieu of the Vols, maybe the Cats need more in-the-face altercations like the ones Calipari got into with Orton and Cousins. 

Patterson said they thrive off the emotion their first-year head coach instills in them.

"It happens every day," Patterson said. "Whether you think you did the right thing or whether you didn't. You may have one thought in your mind but Coach Cal has a different one. As a coach he's right pretty much every single time. Everybody gets mad, everybody gets heated on this team."

But they never hold grudges, Patterson said, and judging by Saturday's game, they play better when they're mad. When it's channeled in the right manner - and not in the form of technicals - it makes for an ever better Kentucky team.

Remember the UK squad that fell behind 18-4 at Tennessee? The difference between that team and the one that bludgeoned Tennessee was all between the ears.

"I know this, if we play like we did today, we'll be fine, we'll march," Calipari said. "They want to win. They have a will to win. They refuse to lose. I've got to give it to the team."

He has to give them credit because the Cats finally unveiled their entire arsenal and full potential. All it took was a fine line of emotions to get there.

UK-Tennessee part 3

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NASHVILLE -- Orange and blue don't mix, but the two colors will clash on Saturday in Bridgestone Arena when the Kentucky Wildcats and Tennessee Volunteers meet in the first semifinal game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

The conference championship won't be decided until Sunday, but it's become clear through the first two days of the tournament that UK and Tennessee boast the two best fan bases of the tournament.

Thousands upon thousands of Big Blue fans have journeyed south to the Music City and packed Tennessee's backyard. It goes without saying that Tennessee orange has painted a good portion of the Music City as well.

On Saturday, the two colors will mix at 1 p.m. ET (noon CT) in what expects to be an electric atmosphere in Bridgestone Arena.

"We are in Nashville, Tennessee, and we're going to try to defend our territory," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "I understand that we've got some wonderful visitors from the north that probably rival Tennessee as the greatest fans in the country."

The semifinal matchup will pit two of the hottest SEC teams and set the stage for another storied chapter in a suddenly bitter rivalry. The teams split the regular-season matchup, with each team winning at home.

"They're an extremely tough team," UK forward Patrick Patterson said. "We match up extremely well with one another. They have shooters, they have drivers, they have post play, they have speed, just as much as we do. We definitely look forward to playing them.

"We know it's going to be an extremely emotional and tough game because we're obviously in Tennessee. They've played in this arena multiple times before and they have just as many fans as we do."

The rivalry has taken on a new level of intensity this year because of the built-in rivalry between Pearl and UK head coach John Calipari. Things have heated up even more since Tennessee's Scotty Hopson mocked the John Wall dance following UT's upset of Kentucky two weeks ago in Knoxville, Tenn.

It's safe to say that the Volunteers haven't lost that swagger since.

"The way to beat Kentucky is just play basketball," Tennessee forward Wayne Chism said. "A lot of teams probably get scared to play these guys, but obviously when you go out and play somebody bigger and better on your schedule, you just come out and play basketball because that's one thing you know how to do. You come out and play different than what you all usually do, it's going to be a big mistake."

As Chism said, we'll be back tomorrow for more basketball, but for now, that's all the blogging and basketball this mind can take. I'm taking the rest of the night off to take a break and enjoy the Music City, but I'll return tomorrow from Bridgestone Arena for more live blogging, video, features and more. I hope you'll join me.

Effort, energy remain factors for youthful Cats

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_18C8735.jpgNASHVILLE -- Kentucky might be the most perplexing 30-2 team ever.

There are stretches in a game where the Cats look like the most talented team in the nation, where they dominate so much that you wonder what's stopping them from the program's eighth national championship. UK had a similar run in Friday's quarterfinals win over Alabama when the Cats went on an 11-2 second-half run to bounce the Crimson Tide from the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

But what's stoppping them many of the times from reaching their full potential was on full display for most of Friday's game. It all comes down to energy.

Head coach John Calipari has said repeatedly that the SEC Tournament is not important in the big picture. His team took it a little too literal in a lethargic 73-67 win over Alabama on Friday. The Cats came out flat in the first half versus the Tide, looking more disinterested than focused on a No. 1 seed. 

UK scraped by without much energy in the first half but had to mount a furious 11-point come-from-behind win to advance.

"I'm trying to convince this young team of 19 year olds that either you want it more than they do or they want it more than you do," Calipari said. "And whoever's in that mode in this tournament or the next one is going to win."

UK fell behind early against Alabama and by as much 11 points thanks to a decisive Alabama rebounding advantage. The Tide outrebounded UK 45-33 for the game  and 26-16 in the first half. Alabama's 21 offensive rebounds led to 22 second-chance points.

"They just came out with a better energy than we did," said freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins, who finished with eight rebounds, zero on the offensive glass. "We've been saying this since the beginning of the year that we're every team's Super Bowl. They're going to come out pumped, so we've just come out and stop them. We've got to come out with a higher energy."

Kentucky, the tallest team in the nation, has outrebounded its opponents by 8.7 boards per game this season, but the Cats have lost the battle of the glass the last three games.

"You all know rebounding is just effort, and they had more effort than we did to go after the balls," Calipari said.

Junior forward Patrick Patterson, who finished the game with seven points and eight rebounds, took blame for the rebounding woes. He was without a rebound until pulling one down with 7:56 left in the game.

"This is all effort, effort on my part," Patterson said. "Tonight, I think they even double teamed DeMarcus on rebounding and my man left and I still wasn't able to get the rebound, so it's about effort. It's all about who wants the ball more."

Cousins has been so dominant on the glass this season that Patterson said he and his teammates have developed a tendency to defer to Cousins.

"The rebound goes up and you expect him to get it," Patterson said. "You can't do that. You have to work just as hard or even harder than him to get the ball. We understand that he's not going to get it every time."

Whether it's laziness, a lack of focus or the early start time, the energy and effort was day and night from the first to the second half.

In the first, UK allowed Alabama to impose its will on both the glass and on the defensive side of the ball. In the second, Cousins took two straight offensive charges and the Cats made a concerted effort to drive the ball to the hoop.

If they can somehow generate that type of energy on a consistent basis, they'll be a lock for an SEC championship and Final Four appearance. Whether or not UK will discover that 40-minute mentality is a question that has remained one of this team's most perplexing qualities.

"It's win or go home," Patterson said. "We understand that we need to bring it every night. We understand that we need to bring the intensity and just up our level of play. We need to be the more aggressive team out there and tonight we weren't. Luckily enough we were able to get the win even though they were just basically beating us physically and outrebounding us. They totally had more effort than we did."

MBSK 09_10 UK_ARK Web 62.jpgForget the dribble-drive, three-point shot or whatever type of offense you would like Kentucky to run. UK's best offense these days appears to be the "take it to the rack" offense.

With UK muddled in another dreadful perimeter shooting slump against Alabama and the Crimson Tide packed in, in a stifling zone, head coach John Calipari put the ball in his best players' hands and let sheer talent take over.

As Alabama out-toughed, out-rebounded and out-attacked the Cats in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Calipari had a succinct and simple message for his freshman guards at the half: take the ball to the hoop.

"He said just take over because our big men weren't playing to their potential," freshman guard Eric Bledsoe said.

Did they ever. UK rallied from 11 down Friday and did just enough to overcome a 45-33 rebounding deficit (more on that in a later post) and feisty Alabama team. The Cats defeated the Crimson Tide 73-67 in the first game of the day, setting up a semifinals rubber match Saturday versus Tennessee.

"It wasn't even the dribble-drive," Bledsoe said. "It was just take your man off the dribble and pick and roll. We were just playing."

Wall led the second-half charge with an aggressive take it to the rack mentality. Wall scored seven straight points - all coming on driving layups - midway through the second half to ignite the UK rally. His "and one" layup with a 14:38 left in the second half gave UK its first lead since the opening minutes.

The Cats would never relinquish it.

"Basically, coach told me to make a couple of plays," said Wall, who finished with a game-high 23 points on 7-of-12 shooting. "They told me the whole game to push it in transition, but I wasn't getting there. I was trying to find my teammates. Second half, I found the gaps and got into the lane. Second half, (Calipari) let me run the pick and roll to the five man and let me make the play, and I was getting to the basket."

Although Alabama beat up UK inside on the boards, the Cats actually won the battle of points in the paint, 46-26, because of their emphasis on the drive. Mired in the season's worst three-point shooting slump (1-of-13 for the game), Calipari placed the ball in the hands of his playmakers and told them to take their man to the basket.

During the game's key stretch, where UK took a 40-36 deficit and turned it into a 55-47 lead, the Cats scored 14 of their 19 points on either a dunk or a layup. The other five came on free throws getting fouled in the paint.

It all started with Wall's transition-slicing drives.

"When I get it, I'm pushing it and I'm looking for my teammates," Wall said. "It's that one split second you see a lane and you just go."

At times, it looked like the dribble-drive was being utilized more than we've seen all season, but the players said it was a simple pick and roll they urged the coaching staff to let them use.

"The coaches gave us an opportunity to run pick and roll with the five man in," Wall said. "If you can take them off the dribble, go and get the basket and find your teammates. We did a great job of that."

As for that abysmal three-point shooting, it's become quite clear that the poor perimeter shooting is more of a norm than it is an anomaly. Junior forward Patrick Patterson insisted the players haven't lost confidence in their ability to hit the outside shot.

"If I'm open, I'm going to shoot it," Patterson said. "Same goes for my teammates. We're going to shoot it even if we have a bad miss. We don't put our heads down and say don't shoot the ball. If it's not falling, we try to drive the ball to the basket and look inside more."

As more and more bricks pile up, though, it looks as if UK will have to make a more concerted effort to drive the ball to the basket.

"We don't have a choice," Bledsoe said.

Dribble-drive offense? Three-point shooting? Forget it. This is the "take it to the rack" offense.

Mar. 12 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

= = =

Southeastern Conference Tournament time is a little like a family reunion and one of the folks we see only at this event but who always has interesting things to say is former Auburn coach Sonny Smith.

I caught up to him during Thursday's opening session and he spoke glowingly about Nashville, Tenn., hosting the tournament, in part because of its proximity to Big Blue fans, who will help fill the seats. Smith says it's good for the league for Kentucky to be an elite team again.

"No question. Everybody also gets a little jealous of Kentucky but look at what they've done for this league over the years," Smith told tomleachky.com. "Kentucky has made this league better because they made everybody play catch up. That drove me when I coached in the league -- to beat Kentucky and beat Alabama. And if you ask what came first, I'd say beating Kentucky."

Smith says Kentucky is the clear favorite to win its 26th SEC Tournament title but it's no sure thing.

"Being as young as they are, they go through lulls where they go through five minutes at a time where they don't score the ball so they could easily get beat," Smith said. "But you've got think they're the favorite. They know how to win."

I also asked him to comment on some of the stars on the Kentucky team:

On John Wall, he said, "when it comes to transition basketball -- and taking over a game --he's the best in this league."

On Patrick Patterson: "I love him. I don't think I've ever seen a player as good as him sacrifice as much as he has to make the team better. He could have scored a ton of points."

As for Demarcus Cousins: "I don't think I've seen a post player come into the game as a freshman that heavy and have the offensive skills that he has. His hands are so good."

Smith says he sees some similarities between his former star at Auburn, Charles Barkley, and Cousins, from the standpoint of getting into tip-top shape.

"(Charles) was fun to coach because he gave you a chance to win every night but he was difficult to coach because he didn't want to work as hard as he needed to to be a superstar," Smith said. "He could turn it off and turn it on and I wanted to turn it on all the time.

Asked how much he sees of Barkley in Cousins, Smith said a great deal. 

"But when he turns it on, you can forget those times when he turns it off," Smith said. 

SEC Tournament live blog: No. 2/2 UK vs. Alabama

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Made a new blog now that I have an Internet connection.

Video: Calipari previews Alabama

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Alabama color.jpgNASHVILLE -- Alabama pulled off the early storyline of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Thursday with a stunning second-half comeback against South Carolina.

The Crimson Tide rallied from an 18-point second-half deficit to send Devan Downey and Co. packing with a 68-63 loss.

Alabama flustered South Carolina in the second half with a smothering defensive effort. The Tide held the Gamecocks to 29.6 percent shooting in the second half en route to a game-winning 26-5 run. Alabama was nasty, aggressive and just downright dominant during the comeback, holding arguably the league's best player, Downey, to just 3-of-13 second-half shooting.

UK will play Alabama on Friday at 1 p.m. ET (noon CT) in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament.

"Our guys, I thought, showed great toughness, a great will to, even when things were going bad, to stay together and to fight and do the things that really we worked on in terms of building all year," Alabama head coach Anthony Grant said.

Now here's the scary part: Kentucky didn't see any of it.

Midway through the second half with South Carolina leading by 18, the UK players, presumably scouting the game in one of the end zones behind the goal, headed for the exits for practice with the game's outcome in little doubt.

Who could blame them for leaving? Downey was having his way with the Tide, and the Cats certainly weren't alone in thinking the game was over.

But just as soon as Kentucky left, Alabama somehow turned on a switch and took control of the game. The Gamecocks look flustered and confused and scored just 11 points over the last 12 minutes of the game after taking that 18-point lead.

Does it matter in terms of scouting that the Cats probably didn't find out about the comeback until arriving back at the team hotel? Probably not considering assistant coaches Orlando Antigua, John Robic and Rod Strickland stayed behind to watch the game, and the fact that the two teams played a month ago (a 66-55 UK win).

But the Alabama players certainly noticed the early exit.

"I guess they thought we were just going to tuck it in and give the game away, but we're a rough and scrappy team and we know how to fight back," Alabama forward Justin Knox said.
It had to rub the Alabama players the wrong way, though, that UK didn't even bother to stick around for the whole game, right?

"Nah, we're good right now," Alabama forward JaMychal Green said. "We're on a winning streak so we're feeling good about ourselves."

Freshman forward Tony Mitchell said it would benefit the Tide because the Cats, even if they did watch it on TV, didn't get to see in person the newfound toughness that has sparked 'Bama to a three-game winning streak.

"That's good for us because they don't know what we did in that second half, but I know they're going to come out ready to play just like we're going to come out ready to play," said Mitchell, who scored a team-high 13 points in the first meeting against UK.

What Kentucky will find Friday is a different team than the one it saw a month ago, one that stresses defense and rebounding.

"I feel like we're getting better and better with every game we play with our identity," Green said. "We go out there and just run hard and play tough defense. We try to get our opponent to have a low shooting percentage and try to keep them off the glass and not let them make 3s."

Safe and sound in UK's home away from home

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Thumbnail image for IMG_9439.JPGNASHVILLE -- Hi, hello and welcome, Wildcats fans, from the Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.

I just arrived and settled in on press row a few moments ago after the drive down Interstate-65 this morning. I'm courtside to watch the first game of the tournament between South Carolina and Alabama.

The winner will play UK on Friday at 1 p.m. ET (noon CT), and apparently I'm not the only here to scout this game as thousands of Big Blue fans have already packed the Music City.

I went outside to snap a few pictures for the blog and saw more UK fans entering the arena for the USC-Alabama game than the two teams playing. Inside the numbers are a little more even, but it's still pretty clear from the streets of Nashville that Kentucky has by far the most fans here, as to be expected. Must also mention that there is quite a bit of Tennessee orange in the stands as well.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for IMG_9435.JPGHead coach John Calipari and his team are sitting in the end zone behind one of the goals and taking in the game as well (presumably scouting for Friday's winner). Believe it or not, the loudest cheer of this first-round game so far came when the videoboard showed some of the Cats.

Need I say more about the power of Big Blue Nation?

Anyway, I'm going to watch the rest of this game and should have something small later this afternoon on UK's opponent. Stay tuned.

SEC Tournament coverage

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2010_SECTour_color_on_white.jpgThe Music City has been good to the Kentucky Athletics program over the years.

There was the Music City Bowl in 2006, the Music City Bowl again in 2007 and this year's thrilling men's basketball victory over Vanderbilt.

The Cats will try to continue their success in Nashville, Tenn., this weekend with the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

Cat Scratches will be in Nashville throughout the weekend to bring you the latest UK men's basketball action. We'll have live blogs, features, recaps, videos and more, live from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.

I'm driving to Nashville this morning so the blog could be a little light today. I'm hoping to get there in time to catch the South Carolina-Alabama game, the winner of which will play UK on Friday. Look for a small post on UK's opponent after the game.


SEC Tournament a stepping stone to NCAAs

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Bama Web 24.jpgThe more things change, the more they stay the same for the Kentucky men's basketball team.

Although the stakes have changed as postseason play begins, head coach John Calipari said his team will not play, practice or prepare any differently for this weekend's Southeastern Conference Tournament than it did during the 29-2 regular-season. 

UK will tip off its postseason Friday in the SEC Tournament in Nashville at 1 p.m. (noon CT) against the winner of Thursday's South Carolina-Alabama matchup.

"When we go into postseason, whether it's conference or NCAA, we do nothing different," Calipari said. "We prepare for every team like we've (always) prepared. I want them comfortable. I don't want them to feel like this is different. It's not different. It's exactly the same. You're playing a bunch of weekend tournaments. The problem with this one is there are no days between. You win, you're playing, and it's hard. The next one, the one that's important, you're going to have a day in between."

Calipari said last week that the SEC Tournament was not important to the Cats in terms of their season-long goals. He has since backed off that statement just a bit but reiterated again Tuesday that the ultimate goal is getting a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and winning the national championship.

The SEC Tournament is just another step in that process in Calipari's mind.

"If you're going to be in a tournament, you want to win it," Calipari said. "But our whole thing is that it's bigger and it's more important than winning. We've got to get ourselves prepared for that next weekend and that's what we'll do. Basically, everything we do is based on the end (of the season). We're trying to get ready and right, physically and emotionally, and in every way so we can go in and be our best."

The SEC Tournament has long had a special place in the hearts of Kentucky fans. In the 1990s, the SEC Tournament was the annual stomping ground for the Cats and yearly Spring Break destination for the UK faithful (SEC officials are expecting a large pro-UK crowd in the Music City this weekend).

UK has won 25 of the 50 SEC tournaments, and, in some aspects, it's become the ultimate springboard into spring's glory.

Now, tournament title-less since the 2004 tourney, UK is stuck in its longest championship drought since the late '80s.

That's why, for as much as Calipari downplays the significance of the tournament, it means something for both the players and fans to build off the regular-season championship and win this weekend's tournament.

"It's a big goal," freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins said. "It's going to help us with our season as well. We're trying to win every game from here on out."

Calipari is under the notion that UK has not locked up a No. 1 seed. He believes an early loss could place some doubt with the NCAA selection committee.

As unlikely as that may seem, it provides extra motivation for the No. 2 team in the country.

"Coach Cal said we need to win two (to get a No. 1 seed) so we want to win three," Patterson said. "We want to get the championship and bring that trophy back, another accomplishment under our belts and achievement we can look back on and say that we did that. We're all focused on having that No. 1 spot, but if it means by us getting the SEC championship trophy, then by all means necessary we'll do it."

But Calipari doesn't want to win it all at the cost of the NCAA Tournament. If sacrificing the SEC Tournament means having a healthy team that can win the national championship, Calipari seems at ease with that.

On Tuesday, he praised his team's maturation and development this season and repeatedly reiterated that the players have come a long way. But in terms of their starting point and final stopping point, the Cats are not there yet, Calipari said.

"I want fresh legs, I want fresh minds, I want a competitive spirit," Calipari said. "You want the players to expect to win so that when things go awry they're OK. That takes a mature person. They don't call a foul, 'Oh well, we're still winning.' A player starts talking, 'Oh well, we're still winning.' "

Calipari is hoping that final step will take place in the SEC Tournament.

"It's going to be about us," freshman point guard John Wall said. "It's going to be tough because we're freshmen and some of the upperclassmen have never really been in this situation to be in a conference tournament and the NCAA Tournament. If we get down or we get frustrated we have to stick together, because if lose one game it's over with."

Live blog: UK softball vs. Louisville

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The UK softball team, off to the best start in school history, will open the home portion of its schedule Wednesday at 5 p.m. vs. archrival Louisville.

Live blog: No. 23 UK baseball vs. Evansville

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Story worth checking out: Former UK baseball star Ryan Strieby is quickly climbing the professional ranks.

Cats improve draft stock at Pro Day

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The UK football program held its annual Pro Day on Wednesday at Nutter Field House, giving several seniors and juniors the opportunity to showcase their talents in front of scouts from 15 NFL teams and scouts from the NFL and UFL Combine.

Nearly two dozen seniors, juniors and former UK players worked out in front of the scouts. Among the notables were seniors Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell, Trevard Lindley, John Conner and Alfonso Smith, juniors Mike Hartline and Derrick Locke, and former players Andre Woodson and Dicky Lyons Jr.

The players had the opportunity to go through the 40-yard dash, pro shuttle, vertical jump and broad jump in addition to some positional testing for some players.

Several of the NFL Draft hopefuls felt like they improved their draft status from the NFL Combine, and Locke and Smith - as expected - ran speedy 40-yard times.

The most interesting comment from the players, including Peters and Johnson, was the fact that the players felt more comfortable at Pro Day than they did at the NFL Combine. As a result, they posted much better numbers Wednesday in front of the scouts than they did a couple of weeks ago at the Combine.

Check out the videos below from several of the hopefuls as they prepare for the NFL Draft, which will take place April 22-24. Expect four or five players to hear their names called.

Tony Neely will have a full release on the Pro Day details on the homepage in just a bit.

Mar. 7 Performances of the Week

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Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Mar. 7:

Softball: Chanda Bell

Sophomore pitcher Chanda Bell went 2-1 on the weekend, with her lone loss coming to No. 9 Georgia Tech. Against Georgia Tech, she struck out an impressive 11 batters in just six innings of work, against one of the hottest hitting teams in the country. For the week, Bell worked 20 innings and struck out 30 batters for an average of 1.5 strikeouts per inning. With her 30 strikeouts for the weekend, Bell has now tossed over 300 strikeouts in her career and ranks second all-time in the UK career record books with 327 strikeouts. Her two victories give her 27 for her young career, which is the fourth highest total in UK history. She has appeared in just 46 career games and owns a career record of 27-10. She is on pace to break the UK career strikeout and career wins record by the beginning of her junior season.

Baseball: Logan Darnell

Week Stats: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1 GS, 1 CG, 1 SHO, 9.0 IP, 8 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 4 SO

Junior southpaw Logan Darnell had the game of his career in a win at San Diego Friday ... Making just his third career start, Darnell tossed a complete-game shutout against the Toreros, hurling nine innings and allowing only eight hits and no runs, striking out four ... Darnell needed just 90 pitches to blank USD, throwing 70 strikes and tossing first-pitch strikes to 22-of-32 hitters ... Darnell completely handcuffed USD, a team ranked No. 19 in the Baseball America preseason top-25, facing only five hitters over the minimum of 27 and not allowing an extra-base hit ... He pounded the low part of the strike zone, forcing USD into 12 ground-ball outs and allowing his UK defense to turn a season-high four double plays ... After the game, UK head coach Gary Henderson raved on his performance: "He was tremendous. When you throw 70 strikes in 90 pitches that is getting it done at a high level. Not only did he throw a whole lot of strikes, but he did it with three pitches. It is pretty rare that you see a complete-game, 90-pitch effort in college baseball. I have to say if he doesn't win some national and conference awards for this performance, something is seriously wrong." ... The complete-game shutout marked UK's first since James Paxton twirled a shutout against Ole Miss on the final weekend of 2008 ... On the year, Darnell has totaled a 2-0 record and a 2.57 ERA in three starts, tossing 21 innings and striking out 17.

Baseball: Matt Little

Week Stats: 1-0, 0.00 ERA, 1 save, 5 IP, 2 H, 0 BB, 11 SO, .125 opp. avg.

Junior right-hander Matt Little broke out in a big way during UK's 3-1 week, posting a save and a win in two appearances in relief ... Little picked up his team-best third save of the season in Tuesday's win over Morehead State, pitching a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts to close out the win for the Wildcats ... In UK's dramatic comeback win over Monmouth, Little entered with UK trailing by six runs in the sixth inning ... Little immediately showcased his lockdown stuff striking out the first six batters he faced and fanning seven of his first eight opposing hitters ... With the UK offense slowly mounting a comeback over the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, Little held strong, going the final four innings, allowing two hits and no walks, striking out a career-best nine ... Little brought a competitiveness and spark that the Wildcats needed on the bump in the win over Monmouth, igniting the UK offensive resurgence ... UK head coach Gary Henderson was impressed by the outing from Little: "Matt Little's performance out of the bullpen was outstanding. It gave us a chance to get back into the game. It gave our club a shot of adrenaline and it brought some energy to our dugout. To go four innings with only two hits, nine punch-outs and no walks is a pretty special performance." ... Overall on the week, Little pitched five innings, allowing only two hits and issuing no walks, striking out 11 ... On the year, Little owns a 0.82 ERA with a team-high three saves, fanning 14 in 11 innings and issuing only three walks, holding opponents to a .121 average.

Softball: Natalie Smith

Senior Natalie Smith had a tremendous weekend for the Wildcats going 10-of-18 at the plate for a team-best .556 batting average. Smith charted two triples and four RBI during the week as well. The senior second baseman's stellar weekend helped her emerge on several of UK's all-time career lists. She is now eighth all-time in career hits (183) and triples (8), and 10 th all-time in career RBI (74). With a team-best seven assists this weekend she now also ranks 10 th all-time in career assists with 218. The five-game hitting streak matches a season-best streak. Her three hits in a single outing against Liberty matches a season-high.

Kentucky's mysteriously missing hardware

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MBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 88.jpgSeven national championships, 2,017 all-time wins and one college basketball tradition like no other. Surely, in all of that, Kentucky has won a few National Player of the Year awards, right?

No? How about two? No?! One? Try nada.

As unbelievable as it may seem, the UK men's basketball program has never had a player named a National Player of the Year winner by any of the major awards (Associated Press, Wooden Oscar Robertson, Naismith, Rupp and NABC).

Not Dan Issel, not Kenny Walker, not Jamal Mashburn or Tony Delk has ever taken home hardware for Player of the Year. Again, it's a bit jaw-dropping but true.

Kentucky fan Timothy Hull pointed out the anomaly to UK on Tuesday, and, after checking with our records, UK confirmed the note.

Hull did some extensive research to discover the news. According to Hull's statistical analysis, there have been 241 past Players of the Year awards given to 38 different teams over the last 50 years.

Maybe even more shocking, as Hull pointed out to UK, is that only six awards have ever been given to the Southeastern Conference. Coincidentally, all six went to LSU with SEC legends Pete Maravich and Shaquille O'Neal.

That means that Duke's J.J. Redick alone won more Player of the Year awards (seven) than the SEC has ever won. Crazy? How about the fact that the Atlantic Coast Conference has only three less NPOYs than the other five power conferences combined?

As Hull pointed out several times in his e-mail to UK, the stats aren't meant to suggest some sort of anti-UK/SEC conspiracy. They're only meant to show just how shocking it is that college basketball's greatest tradition has never won one of the prestigious awards and to add the potential significance it will carry if freshman point guard John Wall wins some National Player of the Year awards for this season.

The anomaly certainly isn't any precedent. Football powerhouse Alabama had never had a Heisman Trophy winner until Mark Ingram won this year. The Crimson Tide went on to win this year's BCS national title. Sounds like a good omen for UK.

Please check out Hull's statistical analysis below after the jump. I guarantee you'll find it interesting.

38 Teams/ 241 NPOY winners total (notables)
36 winners - Duke
26 winners - UCLA
20 winners - North Carolina
10 winners - Indiana
5 winners - Kansas
5 winners - Ohio State
1 winner - Louisville
0 winners - Kentucky
 
Multi Oscar Robertson NPOY (from 1959)     
9 - UCLA                                                                    
7 - Duke                                                                      
4 - North Carolina                                                       
3- Cincinnati  
    Virginia                                                                              
2 - Ohio State                                                              
    LSU           
    St John's

Multi AP NPOY (from 1961)                                                         
6 - Duke                                                                                    
5 - UCLA                                                                                                              
3 - Ohio State                                            
    North Carolina
    Virginia
2 - Indiana
    NC State

Multi Naismith NPOY (from 1969)      
7 - Duke                                                                      
5 - UCLA                                                                    
3 - Virginia                                                                  
2 - Indiana                                                       
    North Carolina                                                       
    Texas

Multi Rupp NPOY (from 1972)
6 - Duke
4 - UCLA
3 - North Carolina
    Virginia
2 - Indiana

Multi NABC NPOY (from 1975)         
5 - Duke                                                                      
4 - North Carolina                                                       
3 - Kansas                                                                   
2 - Indiana                                                                        
    Virginia                                                                       
    Lasalle

Multi Wooden NPOY (from 1977)
5 - Duke
4 - North Carolina
2 - UCLA
    St John's
    Virginia
    Texas
 
Remaining 24 schools with at least one NPOY winner:
Arizona, Bradley, BYU, DePaul, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Houston, Indiana State, Marquette, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Navy, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Princeton, Purdue, St Joseph's, UConn, UMass, UNLV, Utah, Wake Forest, Xavier
 
Notes:
- Duke has won more NPOY awards than UCLA in the AP voting, which began in 1961 (before even the first of UCLA's 11 NCAA Championships).
- Duke has won almost twice as many NPOY awards (36) as third-place North Carolina (20).
- Kansas won three awards from the NABC voting but zero from the AP, Rupp and Oscar Robertson.
- Virginia's awards were all won by Ralph Sampson
 
Various notable players who never won a NPOY award:
Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins, Clyde Drexler, Jason Kidd, Karl Malone, John Stockton

Combined All-Time NPOY winners
88 - ACC
30 - Pac-10
24 - Big 10
19 - Big 12
12 - Big East
6 - SEC

Naismith (No. of players/No. of times named)
14/16 - ACC
3/3 - Big 10
4/4 - Big 12
3/5 - Pac-10
1/1 - Big East
1/1 - SEC

Wooden
11/12 - ACC
2/2 - Big 10
4/4 - Big 12
3/3 - Pac-10
2/2 - Big East
0/0 - SEC

Oscar Robertson
14/16 - ACC
4/5 - Big 10
2/2 - Big 12
7/9 - Pac-10
2/2 - Big East
2/2- SEC

Rupp
13/15 - ACC
3/3 - Big 10
2/2 - Big 12
3/5 - Pac-10
2/2 - Big East
1/1 - SEC

NABC
11/13 - ACC
4/4 - Big 10
5/5 - Big 12
2/2 - Pac-10
3/3 - Big East
0/0 - SEC

AP
13/16 - ACC
6/7 - Big 10
2/2 - Big 12
4/6 - Pac-10
2/2 - Big East
2/2 - SEC

Such SEC stars as Charles Barkley, Chris Jackson, Dan Issel, Dominique Wilkins, Bernard King, Corliss Williamson, Clyde Lee, Neal Walk, Louie Dampier, Johnny Neumann, Leon Douglas, Dale Ellis, Jamal Mashburn and Allan Houston never won a NPOY award.

 

MBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 23.jpgFew things could have wiped the smiles off the faces of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Eric Bledsoe when they were talking about their Southeastern Conference awards Tuesday.

The one constant that seemed to drop the jaws of the players was the news that their commander in chief, head coach John Calipari, wasn't selected as SEC Coach of the Year by the league's coaches.

"What?" said a stunned Patterson upon learning the winner. "I'm shocked. I felt Coach Cal was going to get it for him being a first-year head coach with the team that we had being freshmen, young and inexperienced, with players leaving and a few people returning. The accomplishments that he's done this year, in and out of the regular season, I thought he would have got it. I'm extremely surprised."

Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings was tabbed the SEC Coach of the Year by the conference's 12 coaches for the second time in his Commodore tenure. Stallings had the credentials to win the award by leading Vandy to a 12-4 record in SEC play, the most victories since winning 14 during the 1992-93 season.

That work aside, the UK players felt like an SEC championship, 29-2 record and likely No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament warranted Calipari's name on the mythical hardware.

"He did a great job this year but I feel like Cal should have gotten it," Wall said. "He didn't get it and that's OK because we'll just keep playing basketball. He did a lot of hard work being a first-year coach, bringing in six new players and having seven returning players he had to start from scratch with this team."

Had Calipari won it, UK would have won all three major SEC awards, as Wall and Cousins were named Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, respectively. Coupled with the women's SEC awards sweep -- Victoria Dunlap won Player of the Year, A'dia Mathies captured Freshman of the Year and Matthew Mitchell earned Coach of the Year -- the UK basketball programs nearly swept all six major awards.

UK's domination in the SEC awards is one reason Cousins believes Calipari didn't get the nod.

"I guess they didn't want the whole conference to have Kentucky going across it so they mixed it up a little bit," Cousins said.

Cousins took the news lightheartedly, though, and admitted he didn't even know who Stallings was when he learned of the Calipari snub.

"John was like, 'Who is that?' " Cousins said. "I said, 'I don't know, who is it?' I thought it was the coach from like Georgia or something. I don't know. That was crazy."

No one knows exactly how Calipari feels on the lack of recognition, and chances are we'll never find out.

"He's not going to say he's mad and we're not going to say he's mad but he should have gotten the award," Wall said. "Coach Cal, he'll never tell you. He'll keep it to himself and respect whoever got the award."

Calipari can take solace in the fact that he's still a strong candidate for Associated Press SEC Coach of the Year and National Coach of the Year.

"I'm sure he's just going to focus on getting that championship," Patterson said.

Lights, camera, action ... on Kentucky

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espn_logo.jpgWe all know that the Kentucky's fan base is one of the largest and most passionate fan bases in all of sports. When the UK men's basketball team is on TV, the Commonwealth slows to a halt and people watch.

But who knew the rest of the nation took so much interest in the Cats as well?

According to Mike Humes in ESPN's communications department, four of ESPN's six highest-rated college basketball games of the season have involved Kentucky. ESPN's ratings indicate that some of this year's UK men's basketball games involved the third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-highest rated games of the year.

Humes did not give the specific games for those four games, but with the UK-Louisville and UK-North Carolina games on CBS this year, one could presume that UK-Connecticut and UK-Tennessee were two of them.  

Cats discuss SEC awards, SEC tourney

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March 9 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

= = =

"He always makes the right decisions and the right plays to win the game."

That's what Magic Johnson said about John Wall, when talking to a group of reporters during his visit to Rupp Arena. Johnson was always all about winning and thus he not only elevated his game but the games of those around him.. Therefore, that gives his analysis extra weight and to me, it's the best way to make the case for Wall to be the first-ever Kentucky Wildcat to win some or all of the major national player-of-the-year awards.

One of those awards is given out by the Associated Press, via a survey of print and broadcast media from all over the nation. Since he's involved with the balloting, veteran AP college basketball writer Jim O'Connell did not want to make a pick but he did have some glowing comments about Wall's game.

"First of all, John Wall is a once in a generation-type player. Just imagine if it was back in the days, how much fun it would be to see this guy stick around four years and see him grow and progress,"O'Connell told tomleachky.com.

Ultimately, O'Connell thinks Ohio State's Evan Turner may get the edge over Wall for player-of-the-year because of the experience factor.

"You know we finally had a freshman win it when Kevin Durant won it. There had never been a freshman to get it. People used to talk and say freshman shouldn't get it and it's amazing in sports how something that's said like that becomes a mantra for years to come. We finally broke that mold," he noted. "I don't think anyone does it with an overly prejudiced view but if you have two guys that are pretty even and there is a more senior guy, that we go that way.

It might not be something they do intentionally but that is in their minds that they are going to reward the older guys. So I think Turner might have a little bit of a lead right now but no one votes for our player of the year until the games are over on Selection Sunday so you get to see all the conference tournaments. If Turner has a big tournament and leads Ohio State up there or if Wall has a big SEC tournament, I can see people being in between. It should be a great race. The Big East people will tell you that Scotty Reynolds should be in there but he has kind of been on a slide the last few games. I think it is pretty much just Turner and Wall."

Longtime college hoops writer Mike Decourcy of The Sporting News is one of those who will be casting some player of the year ballots and he's leaning toward Turner.

"I think that John did a great job in the first half of the season to get such a huge lead and really extended it when Evan Turner was injured for six games and it seemed like, gosh, how can you come back from that. But he came back so well and he has been spectacular," said Decourcy a couple of week back. "Right now my vote would go to Evan Turner and there isn't any bigger fan of John Wall than me. I think he is fantastic and is as important of a player in college basketball."

Decourcy says the freshman angle undoubtedly works against Wall with some voters.

"This is how some voters might see it--if it is Kevin Durant and he is just blowing everybody out of the water then you don't have a problem giving it to a freshman. But if it is close, the tie might go to the upperclassman. That is not the case for me at all and if John would establish a lead again over Evan or if Evan were to falter then I would vote for John. It is very close for me."

ESPN's Andy Katz is thinking in a similar way.

"I'd probably lean a little more toward Evan Turner, because of what he means to Ohio State," Katz told me a couple of weeks ago. "The supporting cast, while it's solid, is not as the same as Kentucky's. And the problem with Wall winning the award, you have to balance how good Cousins has been and you can make the argument that his value has been pretty close to John Wall. The two of them may negate each other (in the voting)."

Video: Calipari previews SEC Tournament

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MBSK 09_10 UK_UL Web 18.jpgMake room in the trophy case, UK. Your Wildcats have just won a ton of awards.

Freshman guard John Wall was named Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins was named SEC Freshman of the Year, just one of several awards the SEC announced UK won on Tuesday.

Wall, who was named the Yahoo! Sports National Player of the Year on Monday, averaged 16.8 points, 6.2 assists and 4.0 rebounds for the 29-2 Wildcats. The first-year point guard becomes just the second freshman in league history to win SEC Player of the Year, joining Chris Jackson, who did it in 1989.

Cousins, who posted 18 double-doubles on the season, averaged 15.6 points and 10.1 rebounds per game in the regular season.

And that's just the start of the hardware.

Wall and Cousins joined junior forward Patrick Patterson (14.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg) on the All-SEC first team. Patterson was also named to the All-SEC Defensive Team after blocking 40 shots and swiping 21 steals.

Freshman guard Eric Bledsoe (10.4 ppg, 3.0 apg) was named to the All-Freshman Team, which Wall and Cousins made as well.

I could go on and on with this year's awards, but fortunately we already have a release on the homepage with the full details. Check back here later this afternoon for videos of the award winners. Also, the SEC has a highlight video of Wall in honor of his SEC Player of the Year award.

UPDATE: Even more awards have rolled in for the Cats. Wall was named National Freshman of the Year by FOXSports.com and joins Cousins on its All-America first team. Also, John Calipari was named the 2009-10 USBWA District Coach of the Year and Wall was tabbed Player of the Year. The awards should continue to roll in as the week progresses.

For the complete SEC award winners, check below:
 
First Team All SEC
*Trey Thompkins, Georgia - F, 6-10, 247, So., Lithonia, Ga.
*DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky - F 6-11, 270, Fr., Mobile, Ala.
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky - F 6-9, 235, Jr., Huntington, W.Va.
*John Wall, Kentucky - G 6-4, 195, Fr., Raleigh, N.C.
Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State - F, 6-9, 230, Sr., Brownsville, Tenn.
*Devan Downey, South Carolina - G, 5-9, 170, Sr., Chester, S.C.
Wayne Chism, Tennessee - C, 6-9, 246, Sr., Jackson, Tenn.
*Jermaine Beal, Vanderbilt - G, 6-3, Sr., 205, DeSoto, Texas
 
Second Team All-SEC
Mikhail Torrance, Alabama - G, 6-5, 210, Sr., Eight Mile, Ala.
Courtney Fortson, Arkansas - G, 5-11, 180, So., Montgomery, Ala.
Erving Walker, Florida - G, 5-10, 171, So., Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tasmin Mitchell, LSU - F, 6-7, 238, Sr., Denham Springs, La.
Chris Warren, Ole Miss - G, 5-10, 168, Jr., Orlando, Fla.
Dee Bost, Mississippi State - G, 6-2, 170, So., Concord, N.C.
A.J. Ogilvy, Vanderbilt - C, 6-11, Jr., 255, Sydney, Australia
Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt - F, 6-7, So., 210, Norrkoping, Sweden
 
SEC All-Freshman Team
Tony Mitchell, Alabama - F, 6-6, 185, Fr., Swainsboro, Ga.
*Marshawn Powell, Arkansas - F, 6-7, 220, Fr., Newport News, Va.
Kenny Boynton, Florida - G, 6-2, 183, Fr., Pompano Beach, Fla.
*Eric Bledsoe, Kentucky - G, 6-1, 190, Fr., Birmingham, Ala.
*DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky - F 6-11, 270, Fr., Mobile, Ala.
*John Wall, Kentucky - G 6-4, 195, Fr., Raleigh, N.C.
Reginald Buckner, Ole Miss - F, 6-8, 233, Fr., Memphis, Tenn.
*John Jenkins, Vanderbilt - G, 6-4, 215, Hendersonville, Tenn.
 
SEC All-Defensive Team
Patrick Patterson, Kentucky - F 6-9, 235, Jr., Huntington, W.Va.
*Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State - F, 6-9, 230, Sr., Brownsville, Tenn.
Devan Downey, South Carolina - G, 5-9, 170, Sr., Chester, S.C.
Sam Muldrow, South Carolina - F, 6-9, 220, Jr., Florence, S.C.
Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt - F, 6-7, So., 210, Norrkoping, Sweden
 
SEC Coach of the Year: Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
SEC Player of the Year: John Wall, Kentucky
SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year: Ray Shipman, Florida
SEC Freshman of the Year: DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky
SEC Sixth-Man of the Year: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt
SEC Defensive Player of the Year: Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State*
 
*-Unanimous selection
^-Ties are not broken

Pitching parade finally comes home

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SBL 08_09 UK MissSt3 24.jpgWhen you've been on the road for four straight weeks and the season's first 19 games, home sweet home has never seemed so welcoming.

On Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the UK Softball Complex, the Kentucky softball team (14-5) will make its much-anticipated 2010 home debut versus archrival Louisville.

It's been a long-time coming for a team that took an untraditional approach to starting this season.

"You have to be really tough to play on the road," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We've played a great schedule, played outstanding teams and played them in their atmosphere. We've been able to hold our own and win a bunch of games. Anytime you can do that, you can grow in maturity and be tough. There's not going to be anything in the upcoming weeks thrown at us that we haven't already seen in the preseason."

But for the fans in the stands Wednesday, what they might see thrown in front of them is something this town has not seen from the softball diamond in, well, ever.

Last year the Cats marched to their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, and now, get this: They expect to go back. Yes, a team that was mired in mediocrity (that's putting it nicely) since its inception in the late 1990s has dreams of a deep postseason run. Since they've been on the road, you're probably wondering why.

Let's give you a few reasons:

- They're led by a softball junky. Lawson eats, breathes and sleeps softball in addition to being an ace recruiter. Some wonder if she's secretly installed a bed in the home dugout. She loves it that much. And she's that good. She fostered success at Western Kentucky and now she's quickly turned it over to Kentucky. So long as Lawson is at the helm, UK is going to be good for a long, long time.

- UK has the best player you've never heard of in Molly Johnson. The All-American shortstop is not only one of the best players in the Southeastern Conference but the entire nation. She's a stud with the glove and a menace with the bat. The U.S. National Team member is currently hitting .373 at the dish with six home runs and 11 RBI.

- With the exception of a seldom-used player, the Cats return every single player from the NCAA Tournament team. They're stronger, more experienced and vastly improving at the
plate.

But if there's one reason more than any other of why this team has the potential to be special, look no further than the circle 43 feet from home plate. UK has not one, not two but three pitchers in Chanda Bell, Rachel Riley and Amber Matousek who are all capable of twirling a gem on any given night.

It's a three-headed monster in a sport where you can compete with one ace and dominate with two. Three? That's like striking oil.

"It's really helpful for us because all three of them have different strengths," Lawson said. "Depending on the team we are facing and their strengths, we can attack their offense with a pitcher that matches well with one of their weaknesses. It really helps to have diversity in the circle, whereas most teams don't have that kind of diversity."

Between the three of them, UK has a 1.51 ERA. Let me repeat: one-and-a-half runs per game! That means that on most given nights, if you stop by the UK Softball Complex, chances are you won't see two runs cross the plate when UK is in the field. That's phenomenal, folks.

And that ERA is after a so-so pitching weekend.

Thanks to Riley (4-1, 0.62 ERA), Bell (8-2, 1.87 ERA) and Matousek (2-2, 1.68 ERA), UK ranks third in the SEC in pitching and almost certainly near the top nationally (national statistics have not been released at this point in the season). 

As freshmen last year, Riley and Bell tore it up. Bell, who is already second on UK's all-time strikeouts list - with two and a half seasons to go - pitched the program's first no-hitter against Western Kentucky. Riley came on late and became a key element in UK's postseason run.

But Matousek, now a senior, has been just as good this season. After watching Riley and Bell shine in the spotlight last season, she has honed her pitching arsenal and inserted herself back into the daily rotation. She has made Kentucky's pitching staff one of the deepest in the nation.

"Chanda and Rachel are very good pitchers and I was extremely happy for them (last year)," Matousek said. "It was great for our program to have the three pitchers. There are a lot of schools that get by with one pitcher but in our case I think that we are going to be extra special because we have the three of us. I worked harder this fall and I know that the other two worked hard as well to pick up other pitches and get great at what they did."

As the veteran pitcher on the team, nobody would have blamed Matousek had she gotten frustrated last season when two first-year players came in and shined in the circle. To her credit, she never did.

In fact, Matousek has been Riley and Bell's biggest supporters, serving as a mentor in the bullpen sessions.

"If it wasn't for Amber, they wouldn't be as good as they are," Lawson said. "She gives them a lot of advice. She has really helped Rachel with a couple of her pitches and she's been a real steady factor for Chanda."

Lawson likened Matousek to a secondary pitching coach and believes she has the potential to be a terrific head coach one day if she chooses that path.

"She could have created a situation that was very adversarial, but she didn't," Lawson said. "She wanted to take them under her wing. She helped them with some of their pitches and she has a great mind for the game. She has been able to give me a few pointers about what she thinks they are feeling at that moment. We've really been able to improve the other pitchers. I think it's not only that she wants to be a part of the success of the team, but I think she has directly been a huge part of their successes."

With three stellar arms now gliding in UK's rotation, don't expect the success to stop anytime soon.

Mustang Cal-ly?

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Full1.JPG
InteriorwithSig.JPG SignatureSeat.JPG
CalStarting1.JPG

Head coach John Calipari was given this Coach Cal Edition 2010 Roush 427R Mustang on Monday before his radio show at Sal's Chophouse.

You can check out all the details and a few quotes from Calipari about the car on the homepage.

Calipari doesn't get amazed by much these days - come on, the guy is the head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky - but he was definitely taken back by the Mustang on Monday. I don't know much about cars, but I can tell you it's one sweet ride.

I hope the pictures do it justice. I did my best to capture the car from all angles, so check out the full photo gallery of the limited edition Mustang.

Men's basketball finishes season at No. 2

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A wise man -- or Will Ferrell from "Talladega Nights" -- once said if you're not first, you're last.

Well, he was wrong.

UK finished the regular season ranked No. 2 in both major polls. The Cats finished behind Kansas in both the Associated Press Top 25 and the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, picking up two first-place votes in the AP.

But when one considers where UK was a year ago from today -- headed for the National Invitation Tournament -- to No. 2 in the nation, finishing second doesn't seem so bad after all. Clearly, with the postseason still to be played, UK has made a one-year turnaround to national prominence.

The top four -- Kansas, Kentucky, Syracuse and Duke -- are the same in both polls. Ohio State checks in at No. 5 in the AP poll and Purdue is No. 5 in the Coaches poll.

Men's bracketology (UK a No. 1 seed)

Women's bracketology (Cats a No. 4 seed)

AP Top 25
1 Kansas (63)  29-2 1,623
2 Kentucky (2)  29-2 1,553
3 Syracuse 28-3 1,500
4 Duke 26-5 1,348
5 Ohio State 24-7 1,344
6 Purdue 26-4 1,252
7 West Virginia 24-6 1,231
8 New Mexico 28-3 1,188
9 Kansas State 24-6 1,063
10 Villanova 24-6 1,016
11 Michigan State 24-7 1,015
12 Butler 27-4 796
13 Wisconsin 23-7 710
14 Brigham Young 28-4 690
15 Tennessee 23-7 650
16 Pittsburgh 24-7 644
17 Temple 26-5 552
18 Gonzaga 26-5 534
19 Maryland 23-7 499
20 Vanderbilt 23-7 480
21 Baylor 24-6 474
22 Georgetown 20-9 277
23 Texas A&M 22-8 271
24 Xavier 23-7 136
25 UTEP 24-5 134

Coaches Poll
1 Kansas (30)  29-2 774
2 Kentucky 29-2 740
3 Syracuse (1)  28-3 709
4 Duke 26-5 661
5 Purdue 26-4 625
6 West Virginia 24-6 610
7 Ohio State 24-7 604
8 New Mexico 28-3 526
9 Kansas State 24-6 501
10 Villanova 24-6 476
11 Michigan State 24-7 463
12 Butler 27-4 461
13 Tennessee 23-7 387
14 Gonzaga 26-5 347
15 Brigham Young 28-4 324
16 Pittsburgh 24-7 295
17 Temple 26-5 282
18 Wisconsin 23-7 273
19 Maryland 23-7 210
20 Baylor 24-6 167
21 UTEP 24-5 153
22 Georgetown 20-9 125
23 Vanderbilt 23-7 117
24 Texas A&M 22-8 103
25 Northern Iowa 28-4 54

Calipari on SEC Coaches Teleconference

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Ga Web 38.jpg

Men's basketball head coach John Calipari answered questions on Monday morning's Southeastern Conference Coaches Teleconference as his team gets ready for the SEC Tournament later this week.

Question: Can you talk about the play of Darius Miller and do you see that becoming more consistent and more what you're wanting at this time of the year?
Calipari: I like the fact that he's trying to guard, he's trying to rebound. How about he gets an offensive rebound and dunks it? Then the question is, if you can do that, why haven't you been doing it? What we're trying to get out of him he has in there. He's playing more aggressive, he's defending better - I'm happy. I think having to sit him on the bench and make him earn his way back probably helped him.

Question: Is your MVP John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins?
Calipari: I think we have a bunch of them. There was a time when it was Patrick (Patterson). There was a time when Eric (Bledsoe) was the guy. There were times when it was Darius or John or DeMarcus. I think we have a lot of good guys. When you're a really good team, everybody has somebody different that they think is your star. That's when you have a really good team.

I come back to Patrick Patterson. Patrick had to make a choice of whether to come back or not. I never tried to talk him into coming back. I know he had people in his ears trying to talk him into leaving. Some of it was they just didn't want Kentucky to be good. Others just thought he should leave. Well, he chose to come back. Now he could have came back and said this is my team, I take all the shots, I do all this. He didn't. He came back and played a different position. Instead of playing under the basket he played out on the floor. He improved himself in all areas. Our team goes 29-2 because of his attitude, because of his approach. Now all of a sudden he's improved himself, and the image and perception people have of him as a player. That's how this is supposed to work.

There are flashy guys. John has done has his thing. I could tell you he would deserve it. There are games or parts of the season where DeMarcus was absolutely dominating and he deserved it. We're not really worried about that. We're worried about us continuing to move on.

Question: John has shown he can come through in pressure situations. Is there anything about the postseason atmosphere that makes you wonder if he can continue that?
Calipari: Usually history is a pretty good indicator. His history is he's making plays and he's not afraid to. The crazy thing is one of you guys said he said something about when it's on the line I'm going to make the plays. He came out the very next game and does it again. That bodes well for us. But you also need Eric Bledsoe making free throws like he did. You need Patrick Patterson making tough shots like he did. You need DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton coming up with big blocks and big rebounds down the stretch. You need a big 3 by Darius or Darnell (Dodson). You need an energy - a 50-50 ball that's absolutely grabbed by DeAndre Liggins. That's what we are.

Question: How many SEC teams do you like to make the NCAA Tournament?
Calipari: I think we're going to have five. Mississippi State and Florida have got to win a couple of games or at least win one. They win one I think they're both in. They win two and I think all of a sudden it's easier for them. I think we get five in. The great news is I think we're going to have teams advance. I'm just hoping we're one of them that advances, but think we'll have teams advance. I think this league is a good league. On the road it's ridiculous to try to win games. It's hard to win at home. It's hard to win in this league.

Question: How come the top four teams in the East went 24-0 against the West?
Calipari: Because our side of the league is a little bit better this year. There have been other times you look over the SEC the West was better. You have that. But that's why I'm saying Florida should be in. Mississippi State, we played against them. I know how good they are. They win a couple in our tournament, they'll be fine, or win one and they're in. Let me tell you who is a good team: Georgia. Let me tell you who else is a good team: South Carolina, who beat us. They're good teams, and we were all on the same side beating the crap out of each other. That's why Florida should be a shoo-in. Mississippi State, go get it done. That loss at home hurt them a little bit but I like their team. I like their ability to shoot balls. If Mississippi State gets in, which they should, they'll win a couple of games and maybe more. But I bet everybody will be stunned because they block shots, they're a great defensive teams and they can really shoot the ball. In the NCAA Tournament, that's what gets you over.

Wall named Yahoo's National Player of the Year

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Ga Web 30.jpgGet ready to hear this news a lot: John Wall is your National Player of the Year.

Yahoo! Sports unveiled its 2010 college basketball awards Monday, naming UK freshman guard John Wall its Player of the Year. Wall and freshman teammate DeMarcus Cousins were named to Yahoo's All-America first team.

Wall and Cousins join Villanova's Scottie Reynolds, Ohio State's Evan Turner and Oklahoma State's James Anderson on the first team.

Junior forward Patrick Patterson was named honorable mention. Head coach John Calipari did not get Coach of the Year, which was awarded to Syracuse's Jim Boeheim.

In addition to Yahoo's awards, Wall was named the Sporting News Freshman of the Year. Cousins joined Wall on the Sporting News All-Freshman Team.

Expect a bunch of postseason awards as the week carries on.

Here is what Yahoo had to say about Wall and Cousins:

G John Wall, Kentucky, freshman - Wall was at his best during crunch time. In the last two minutes of games this season (plus two five-minutes overtime periods), Wall scored 66 points in 70 minutes with only six turnovers. He shot 62 percent from the field during those stretches. If Wall weren't surrounded by future lottery picks his scoring stats would be even higher.

C DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky, freshman - The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins was so hard to stop that teams had to resort to intentionally fouling him to keep him from scoring. Still, the country's best big man managed to average 15.6 points and 10.1 rebounds. Cousins almost had as many offensive boards (135) as he did on the defensive end (177). The most impressive thing about Cousins' gaudy statistics is that he amassed them despite playing just 22.9 minutes per game.

The following release is from the folks at Insight, who will be offering a free preview of the CBS College Sports Channel for its customers during March Madness.

March Madness is here and to make sure Insight customers don't miss a minute of the action Insight will be offering a free preview of the CBS College Sports Network beginning today, Monday March 8th through April 5th.
 
Customers can access the free preview on digital channel 531.
 
Customers need to have a digital box in order to view the free preview.
 
Beginning this week, UK fans can catch a special encore of this past weekend's UK v. Florida game, which will air throughout the week. The program, "Hardwood Heavens - UK & Rupp Arena" will also air throughout the week on the CBS College Sports Channel.
 
The CBS College Sports channel will also have wall-to-wall coverage of the NCAA Tournament when it begins next week.
 
For up to the minute NCAA game information, don't forget to check out www.SportsOnInsight.com. All tournament games with channel numbers and air times will be listed.

Notes on a unique weekend for UK baseball

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RHL_5587.jpgQuite an interesting weekend for the University of Kentucky baseball team in San Diego. The casual fan will look at the Cats' 2-1 record and consider it a moderate success, but since you're not the casual fan, I'll enlighten you on some truly unique occurrences that the Wildcats experienced on the West Coast.

UK lost its chance at going 70-0 this season on Thursday, as San Diego State All-American Addison Reed stifled the Cats' bats in a 12-4 Aztec victory. The junior, who was college baseball's closer of the year last season, went six innings for a Tony Gwynn-coached SDSU team that got an early lead and never looked back. Starter Alex Meyer was touched for seven runs in 4.1 innings for a UK team that also made one defensive error, walked seven and hit two batters. San Diego State, on the other hand, made no errors, walked only two and didn't hit a batter -- which was an accomplishment compared to UK's next two opponents. Kentucky, whose record dropped to 7-1, had to respond.

To respond from a disappointing loss is one thing. To positively dominate your next opponent less than 24 hours later is another, and UK southpaw Logan Darnell did just that, twirling a complete-game shutout against No. 19 San Diego on Friday. The junior disposed of the Toreros with unparalleled efficiency, needing just 90 pitches -- 70 of them strikes -- to get the Cats back on track. The 6-0 victory pushed UK to 8-1 and impressed head coach Gary Henderson.

"Logan Darnell had an outstanding game for us today," Henderson said. "He showed up in a big way. He got better as the game went along. He kind of gave us the boost that we needed after yesterday's overall performance. What we needed was someone to show up, take control of the situation and he did that today."

Fact: If Darnell doesn't garner some Southeastern Conference and national accolades for this performance, then folks just aren't paying attention.

In addition to Darnell's heroics, senior Gunner Glad went 4-for-5 and Kentucky hitters were plunked by seven -- yes, seven -- pitches. And if that number surprised you, you would've been shocked after the Cats' next game.

Kentucky defeated Monmouth University 14-13 on Saturday. That's the short of it. The long? How about Monmouth hitting 10 UK hitters? The figure tied an NCAA record for hit batters in a game (with St. Joseph's vs. Fordham in '09 and Washington vs. Rice in '98). Kentucky used the HBPs to score seven unanswered runs and knock off the defending Northeast Conference champs at Cunningham Stadium in San Diego.

Chris Bisson was hit in the face by a pitch in the second inning and had to be replaced by Neiko Johnson. The All-American broke his nose and it remains to be seen how much time he misses, if any. When Monmouth pitchers managed to throw the ball over the plate, Kentucky took advantage. Braden Kapteyn went 4-for-5 on the day with three RBI, Chad Wright had a 3-for-4 with four RBI and Johnson smacked his first career home run in the ninth inning to tie the game.

While freshman Taylor Rogers was roughed up for 10 earned runs in 2.1 innings, junior Matt Little was untouchable for the Cats, hurling the last four frames to earn his first win of the season. The Louisberg (N.C.) College transfer, who already leads the team with three saves, allowed just two hits and struck out a career-high nine. So far this season, the Virginia Beach, Va., native owns a 0.82 ERA and has struck out 14 with just three walks.

Kentucky batters have been hit by a staggering 39 pitches in just 10 games. They're on pace to get plunked 218 times in 2010, a number that would shatter the previous NCAA record set by Nevada in 1997. The Wolfpack wore 125 pitches that year.

In summation, to quote Bill Parcells, "you are what your record says you are." The Cats are 9-1, and while it's been an interesting 2010 to say the least, it's always good to see UK on the winning side of things early. Considering that two of their three starters on the weekend had tough days, it's reassuring to see others step up as if they'd been in the mix all season long. The performances of Little (1-0, three saves, 0.82 ERA), Keenan Wiley (.400 batting average, eight RBI) and the rock-solid Bisson (.378, 10 RBI) has lifted UK to a .900 winning percentage thus far. Look for others to settle in to their 2010 seasons and contribute in a big way, starting with Kentucky's midweek series with Evansville on Tuesday.

Cats can hold heads high after valiant SEC run

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Sometimes Goliath does beat David.

The Kentucky women's basketball task Sunday was monumental. Playing in the Southeastern Conference championship for only the second time in school history and first since 1982, UK had the weight of the Bluegrass State on its shoulders.

Win and the Cats pull off history. Win and suddenly a two or three seed is in the discussion for the NCAA Tournament.

In their way stood No. 4 and one-seeded Tennessee, the longtime powerhouse of women's college basketball. Just a week and a half ago, the Lady Volunteers, as most would expect, blew the doors off of little-known Kentucky in Knoxville, Tenn., 81-65.

Now in the second go-around in the unlikeliest of places, if you pay attention to preseason polls, the once-overlooked Cats actually had a chance to pull off the ultimate underdog special.

Pat Summitt's team, as it's so often done over the years, ripped the fairytale ending to shreds with superior talent, defeating the UK Hoops team 70-62 in Duluth, Ga.. It was the Lady Volunteers' 14th SEC Tournament title.

But UK, its players and its coaches shouldn't feel an inkling of shame after this loss. In one of the gutsiest performances of the year, the Cats went toe-to-toe with a Final Four favorite and nearly pulled off the unthinkable. It took a 13-3 run late in the second half to finally bury UK's bid for an upset.

"We came here to win and came up a little short today," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "But I thought our players battled against a really fine basketball team today, and I thought we found out a lot about our team. One thing I do know is they wanted to win today, and it certainly showed out there on the court. They played awfully hard."

Physically, UK looked like the team picked to finish 11th in the preseason by the coaches and the media when the players in the blue and white stood next to the orange giants. The Cats stood in the shadows at nearly every position on the floor, especially when matched up against 6-foot-6 Kelley Cain on the block.

The decisive height advantage showed on the boards as well, as UT pounded UK on the glass 51-32 for 13 second-chance points.

"It was pretty physical out there," junior forward Victoria Dunlap said. "That's the kind of team that's going to come in there and go hard to the boards. I think mentally we weren't ready to really box them out. They got in there, got a couple of boards in the first half and just mentally, as a team, we weren't able to box them out, push them back, so they got a lot of rebounds."

And yet with 11 minutes to go in the game, the Cats held a 48-46 advantage and had Tennessee so flustered that Summitt's head was spinning.

It was once again the Cats' relentless defensive pressure that led the way. UK forced 20 turnovers on the game for 16 points. Twice, when UT appeared to be running away with things - a 10-point deficit in the first half and a six-point disadvantage to start the second half - UK turned up the full-court pressure and retook the lead.   

"I thought Kentucky did an excellent job of just putting the pressure on us," Tennessee guard Angie Bjorklund said. "They really came out trapping and were just very aggressive. I give them a lot of credit because they didn't give up the whole game. They fought all the way until the end. That's the sign of a great team."

Tennessee regained the lead for good at 52-50 on an Alyssia Brewer layup and never looked back. It ended the Cats' hopes of an SEC title, but did nothing to damage their championship spirits.

"I'm really encouraged with what the team is doing right now," Mitchell said. "We have a long way to go this year. The season's not over but the SEC portion is. It is time to look back. They performed well. We just need to stick to our core principles: hard work and honesty. These kids hear this every day. I think if we do that, we have a great chance to be successful."

The Kentucky players can truly hold their heads high when they think of how far they've come since last year. At this point last season, UK was sweating it out at home in hopes of making the Women's National Invitation Tournament. Now they're postseason lives have gotten considerably more prestigious.

Dunlap said the transformation started with an attitude adjustment.

"I think compared to last year and the year before that, the team chemistry wasn't really there," Dunlap said. "We had a lot of individuals doing their own thing. This year people were willing to put in the time, put in the work, listen to the coaches, be willing to play defense and get all the fundamentals right and not worry about what they're doing personally. Just as a team we got together."

Dunlap once again led the way for the Cats with 21 points, six rebounds and three blocks. She put Cain into foul trouble early on and sent her to the bench, and her "and one" late in the first half capped a 16-4 run that gave UK the lead and the momentum.

Dunlap, standing at just 6-foot-1, showed the type of resolve and courage against one of the nation's tallest team that won her SEC Player of the Year.

"That kid doesn't just play with talent," assistant coach Kyra Elzy said. "She's got a heart the size of Kentucky."

As does the rest of this UK Hoops team. Even if they can't walk away with a championship trophy, the Cats can take consolation in the fact that they're not only pointing in the right direction, but that they've already gotten there. In just a year's time, Mitchell has broken the chains of mediocrity on this UK women's basketball program and placed it into the field of 64.

"We played some very good basketball in this tournament," Mitchell said. "We played very tough. We had kids play a lot of minutes. I just thought they performed at a real high level for three straight days in what I think is one of the toughest tournaments in the country. There's no question from my perspective right now, there's plenty that we can build on. I think we'll be a very difficult team to play against in the NCAA Tournament."

The Cats will have to wait another week to find out what seed they've earned and where they'll play, but the key is that they have earned the opportunity to play in the Big Dance for the first time since 2006.

When one considers how unlikely that was in the preseason, David did beat Goliath after all.

Tennessee halts UK Hoops' SEC title hopes

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Inability to put teams away still a problem

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MBSK 09_10 UK_Ga Web 11.jpgThe pageantry of Senior Day was in full effect Sunday afternoon at Rupp Arena.

Kentucky seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson, Mark Krebs and de facto senior Patrick Patterson got the tradition final-game start, UK built an 18-point lead, and the outright Southeastern Conference championship was already firmly in the back pockets of the Cats.

It was a time of celebration for a special season that's seen the UK program reestablish itself on the national stage.

And then that nagging coasting problem crashed the party. 

Maybe it was a drunkenness of jubilation or the 12 p.m. start, but for whatever reason, Rupp Arena sounded more like the William T. Young Library than a basketball arena. The players must have noticed because they fell asleep during the 15-minute halftime.

What was once an 18-point first-half lead dwindled and dwindled and dwindled some more. By the time the players and crowd woke up, the lead had had been reduced to two points. Yes, Kentucky squeaked out the win again, 74-66, for its 29th victory of the year, but the recurring inability to put teams away has to be getting old for first-year UK coach John Calipari.

"We had two or three plays," Calipari said. "We saved a ball under our own basket. We've been talking about it since the last game, so we throw to them and it's a 3-point play. We don't rebound a free throw and it's another 3-point play. And then there is another 3-point play, and all of a sudden it goes from 18 to 11 to 10. You just sit there and tell them these are things we cannot do."

Maybe it will never catch up to them or maybe they start to blow out teams in the postseason, but the second-half lulls when the other team appears to be wobbling has to be picking at the back of Calipari's brain.

Just knock them out, Calipari wants to say.

"I thought Florida outworked us at individual positions, which gave them a chance," Calipari said. "I just keep coming back to, our goal has to be we're going to play harder than the other team. We have to or we're going to disappoint ourselves somewhere along the way."

There was certainly a lot to love on Senior Day:

Watching a senior-laden starting lineup storm out to a 7-3 start, seeing Patrick Patterson play in Rupp Arena for perhaps the final time and witnessing Mark Krebs' touching moment with his ill mother were all emotional storylines for the final game of the regular season. Then there was the reemergence of Darius Miller (14 points on 5-of-7 shooting), Eric Bledsoe's consistent play (14 points) and Darnell Dodson's outside shooting (2-of-2 from the perimeter).

But all of those good stories could come to a screeching halt with the do-or-die postseason now here. The inability to close teams out is a growing concern that could be the difference between March Madness and April glory.

"That's what our key is, our main problem is," Wall said. "We get up a lot on teams and we look at the scoreboard and see we're up 18 and we feel like the other team can't come back. We don't understand that they've got another whole half. When they get it down to 10 or eight, you're giving the other team a chance to say, 'We can play with these guys.' "

What happens during those spurts? Wall said UK becomes "lackadaisical" and too "cool."

One thing happened for sure: Whether it was Florida's shooting or a lack of defense, the Gators started scoring in the second half. In the time it took them to cut the lead from 36-18 in the first half to 50-46 in the second half, Florida scored 28 points in only a 10-minute span.

Fortunately for UK, when the game was on the line, Wall came through in another clutch late-game situation. The freshman phenom's trey from the left elbow with 4:52 left to play extended Kentucky's lead from two to 65-60. Florida would get no closer than six the rest of the way.

"It don't matter how I'm shooting for the whole game," Wall said. "When it comes down to crunch time, I feel like the shot I'm taking is going to go in."

Wall had said in earlier weeks that he feels like he's at his best when the game is on the line. On Sunday, he reminded us again with nine of his 11 points coming after halftime.

"What I like is that someone would say that and then go in the game and back it up," Calipari said. "Wow."

The first-year guard clearly has a killer instinct when outcome remains in the balance, but what about the rest of the team? Patterson showed signs in maybe his final game in Rupp, scoring a couple of key baskets in the waning minutes.

"We've showed signs of (a killer instinct) before," Patterson said. "All we have to do is just bring it back out and continue using that in games. Whenever we get up 18, we need to make it 25 and continue on. We need to step up."

The ability to close teams out will be the single biggest postseason storyline for UK. Clearly, a 29-2 regular-season record would indicate Kentucky has the talent to win the national championship.

"It's not going to be our 3-point shooting, it's not going to be our free-throw shooting," Calipari said. "Anything (that happens to us) is what we'll do to ourselves, how we'll react in situations. The biggest thing I can't get across to our team right now is when you expect to win, you have a swagger, you've worked hard and you're prepared, you don't get upset with things. You say 'Oh well, we're going to win anyway.' We're not there yet. Something happens and we lose our minds."

But oh well, Kentucky keeps winning despite the dramatics. So who cares?

"That might not work against some other teams," Miller said. "We've really got to come and play the whole 40 minutes."

Because you play with fire, you're eventually going to get burned. The Cats have been able to overcome the inability to step on a team's throat all season long, but one slipup now and it's over, done, finished, bring on the fat lady.

"If we learn to play for 40 straight minutes, it could be scary," Wall said.

That's what's so scary as this team heads into postseason play, both good and bad.

Energy has been key to UK Hoops' season, SEC run

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WBSK 09_10 KY_Alabama Web 45.jpgEnergy, enthusiasm and attitude have been staples of Matthew Mitchell's philosophy this season.

Before the Southeastern Conference Tournament began, Mitchell said UK had the ability to both beat and lose to any team in the tournament. The key, he said, was the Cats' approach.

That thinking was on full display Saturday night in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament vs. Mississippi State.

In the first half UK came out flat and careless. The Cats turned the ball over 14 times en route to an 11-point first-half deficit. In the second half, they regrouped with a fiery intensity that flustered Mississippi State.

Thanks to a stifling full-court press that ignited a 23-4 second-half run and a plus-nine turnover differential after halftime, UK came from 14 down to defeat the Bulldogs 76-65 and advance to the SEC Tournament finals for only the second time in school history and first since winning the championship in 1982.

UK will face Tennessee on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

"The pressure was able to turn the game around," Mitchell said. "You cannot do that if you don't have five players really spreading the floor and laying it on the line. That was as good as we've pressed all year in the second half. That was outstanding."

The Cats have played with a consistent effort all season long. Their up-tempo offense, in-your face defense and school record-tying 25 wins have been predicated on effort and energy.

But for some reason in the SEC tourney, UK has been a bit Jekyll and Hyde in the first two games. The Cats fell behind early to Auburn in the quarterfinals game Friday and were on the verge of getting blown out of the gym early in the second half against Mississippi State.

A lot of factors contributed to the sluggish first half. One could point to the 14 turnovers, the lack of rhythm because of five stoppages of play (clock malfunctions and injuries) or A'dia Mathies' foul trouble.

But the reality of the situation is that MSU was simply playing harder. The Bulldogs looked every bit the part of a team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life while the Cats seemed like a team that was content with an NCAA Tournament appearance.

UK played lethargic, lazy and sometimes just uncharacteristically dumb in the first half.

"Coach (Kyra) Elzy was like, 'Are you going to lay down or are you going to bring the heat back to them?'" junior point guard Amber Smith said. "We had to make a choice."

They chose effort and energy.

It started with Dunlap's 10 points in the first four minutes, continued with Smith and Mathies' second-half surge, and ended with UK's smothering full-court defense.

It was simply a tale of two halves of effort. The energy statistics (points in the paint, points off turnovers and second-chance points), often times the decider in games, said it all.

At halftime, Mississippi State had an 18-8 points in the paint edge, led 12-9 in points off turnovers and held a 5-0 second-chance points advantage. After halftime, as if Mitchell suddenly flipped a switch, those numbers flip-flopped.

In the second half, UK won the interior game 24-12, scored 16 more points off turnovers than MSU and had a 12-2 second-chance points advantage. 

If Mitchell was the person who flipped the switch, Mathies was obviously the switch. After taking an elbow to the face just a few minutes into the second half, the SEC Freshman of the Year returned - with part of a tooth missing - to score 18 second-half points.

"It's gutsy play for a freshman or fifth-year senior," Mitchell said. "She's just a very talented basketball player. There's no way I could have more confidence in A'dia Mathies."

When Mathies was saddled on the bench in the first half with two fouls, UK's offense looked lost and passive. When she returned in the second half, she was, as Mitchell has called her all season long, the difference maker.

The Louisville native scored 10 big points during the 23-6 run that saw UK's seven-point deficit turn into a commanding 10-point lead. That elbow in the second half appeared to light the fire.

"I think it kind of gave the team energy," Mathies said. "When I was on the bench, that's when the run started. I think that actually gave us a little bit of momentum. We just had to get tougher and come together as a team. When I came back into the game it was already high energy so I just fed off of them."

If UK's semifinal game resembled what UK is capable of when its energy and effort is in the right place, then Smith's game might be the prime example.

Smith, by her own admission, played poorly in the first half. She had more turnovers (six) than points (three) and fueled the Mississippi State defense. After the halftime talk with Elzy, Smith calmed down in the second frame and finished with 14 points and seven assists. She turned it over just one time the rest of the way.

"When things are going bad, generally if the leader gets down and doesn't fight through, then bad things happen," Mitchell said. "You're working with her and trying to get her to understand that we go as you go emotionally. I know it's frustrating (sometimes). I'm frustrated. Everybody's upset."

"We looked dead in the water. She was able to pull herself out of that and she made some plays that were incredible. ... It was a good turnaround for Amber Smith and we'll need to build off that."

Next is Tennessee in the finals. With a team as talented as the 28-2 Lady Volunteers, UK can ill-afford to come out in the first half like it did in the first two SEC tourney games. That much was evident in the first meeting in Knoxville, Tenn., when the Cats came out anxious and tentative.

Before they knew it, they were down double digits to UT and never recovered.

"We have to come out from the beginning," said Dunlap, who finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, five blocks and five steals. "Last time coach talked to us about not being ready for the shootaround mentally and not being mentally ready. Tomorrow, from beginning of the game we have to be ready."

If UK can stick to its philosophy and come out with a full 40 minutes of effort and energy, it will have an opportunity to cap a historic league run.

"Our team needs to do and play as close to our identity as they can play to give themselves a chance to win this championship," Mitchell said. "I expect them to do that. I expect them to come out and play extremely hard."

Live blog: UK Hoops vs. Mississippi State

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The UK women's basketball team will take on third-seeded Mississippi State at 6 p.m. in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Duluth, Ga.

A win would put UK in the SEC finals for only the second time in school history and first time since winning the tourney in 1982. Should the Cats defeat the Bulldogs, they would play the winner of the Tennessee-Vanderbilt game, which starts at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The game is televised on ESPNU. If you don't have the channel, don't worry. Cam is in Duluth and will be running a live blog courtside from the game. I'll be joining as well to chip in from time to time.

Join us here at 6 p.m. for all the action.

Kentucky outright SEC champs

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Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for SEC LOGO UK BLUE.jpgWith South Carolina's stunning upset of Vanderbilt in Memorial Gymnasium, the UK men's basketball team has clinched the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship outright.

Win, loss or tie on Sunday against Florida, it won't matter -- the Wildcats stand alone as SEC champs, UK's 44th regular-season title.

The Cats had already clinched at least a share of the championship with a win over Georgia on Wednesday.

Overall, it is UK's 50th regular-season conference title, second only to Kansas' 53. The Cats claimed six league crowns in the Southern Conference.

A little bit of irony comes with the championship: South Carolina guard Devan Downey has long terrorized the Cats, earning the nickname of "Cat killer" over the years. But in his final regular-season game, Downey has helped the Cats clinch their first outright SEC title since 2005.

With the regular season just about done, seeds for the SEC Tournament have been determined. UK will play the winner of the South Carolina-Alabama game on Friday at noon.

'Crazy' ride a blessing for three seniors

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Thumbnail image for Seniors_PAL8695.jpgBoys become men at a certain age in life.

For seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Mark Krebs, that turning point came at the University of Kentucky. Though they've been seldom used in their final season in Wildcat uniforms, they arguably have endured more trials and hardships than any senior class has had to fight through in recent memory.

Two had to go through three coaches and two coaching changes (Stevenson and Harris), one suffered through a scary head injury (Harris), another was questioned at times for his motivation (Stevenson), and the other bypassed the chance to play at other schools just for the chance to walk-on at Kentucky (Krebs, who now has a scholarship).

Now, in the blink of an eye, the three seniors will close the door on a chapter in their lives that has surely made them stronger. On Sunday, they will play their final home game at Rupp Arena against Florida for Senior Day.

"Time flies," Harris said. "I could just remember stepping foot in this facility getting ready for a Louisville game that I only practiced one day for and now I'm getting ready to step out the door. Time goes by fast."

It seems like just yesterday Harris and Stevenson were starting for former coach Billy Gillispie's Cats. Now they're playing 12.7 and 8.0 minutes, respectively, for John Calipari's UK.

It's surely been more ups and downs than any of the seniors could have expected when they decided to come to Kentucky, but none of them have any regrets as they get ready to lace it up for the final run of their collegiate careers.

"It's definitely been an experience," said Stevenson, who has also played under coach Tubby Smith in addition to Gillispie and Calipari. "If I had to do it again, I probably would. I have learned a bunch and you can always learn more from three coaches than you can one. If I ever decide to coach one day, I will be able to speed it up, slow it down, dribble-drive, post, do it all."

Their senior years haven't been a fairy tale. When they envisioned their time at UK, none of them could have predicted that a 2.1 scoring average by Harris would be the highest among the three.

But winning has a way of making things easier and in their case even better.

"It hasn't been that hard because of the success of the team," Harris said. "The team is 28-2 and there are a lot of teams just playing to get the season over with. They don't have a postseason. Their conference tournament is it, and we have a chance to play beyond that. It wasn't hard for me at all."

Asked if he would change anything about the way things transpired, Stevenson said no.

"Being a starter, we ended up in the NIT," Stevenson said. "But coming off the bench now, we are No. 3 in the country and we are playing for a No. 1 seed in the (NCAA) tournament. I don't have a problem changing roles because it was for the better."

Their lack of playing time this season hasn't come from a lack of talent, Calipari said. They've just been put in situation on an uber-talented team where two or three guys at their respective positions just so happen to be better than them. 

"That doesn't mean (they are) not any good," Calipari said. "It just means we're pretty good."

In fact, Calipari credits the seniors with much of this year's success and doesn't believe Senior Day is the final chapter for them. He thinks they could make one final lasting mark in the postseason.

"It is why we have stayed together as a team," Calipair said. "I really believe that we can count on them. I really do. Not only have they accepted that some guys in front of them are better than them, but they've also accepted that they have to be ready. I've seen many times in the NCAA Tournament a player who has not played much all of a sudden make his name because he's prepared and in the right frame of mind. I've seen it many times."

The three seniors said they often look back at the tough times - Gillispie's boot camp, the coaching changes, lack of playing time, etc. - and laugh at what they went through.

"We talk about the past years and we laugh and joke about it," Harris said. "It wasn't funny then but it's funny now. We can always sit back and think how crazy it is we went from this to that and laugh about it. If we only knew back then how it would turn out now, but that makes it even better."

The close-knit trio is as unlikely as their routes to Kentucky (Harris is the only Alaskan UK signee, Stevenson journeyed to the Bluegrass State from Louisiana at only 190 pounds and Krebs walked on at Kentucky after a year at Thomas More) but they've forged an inseparable friendship that will likely span far beyond their days at UK.

"Those two guys, I'll remember them the most because they have been here with me through three coaches," Stevenson said. "If they change their numbers I'll be pretty upset about it. Those guys are pretty special to me. We've been through a lot."

Krebs, who wrote a letter to Smith just to walk-on at UK three years ago, described the opportunity the seniors had best when he talked about his trek to UK.

"Here I am, a guy that comes from a Division III school who walked on under Tubby, and just as soon as I start getting to know all the guys and start becoming friends with everyone Tubby leaves. I'm left thinking I'm done; it was good while it lasted. Then Coach G came in. I worked hard every day in practice and that's when I really took it seriously. Then Coach Cal came and Coach G left and it was like man, again? What am I going to do?

"I just talked to my family and said worst comes to worse, I never play again, I'm just going to give it all I got, work really hard, work harder than everybody and maybe it will pan out. And it did. He gave me a scholarship and still to this day, in my mind, I love it. Do I deserve it? I work really hard, but no one deserves everything I've gotten."

It's been the chance of a lifetime for three seniors that, for the final time on Sunday, will take the floor at Rupp Arena.

"I tell myself that every day I should enjoy the blessings that I have," Harris said. "From being able to get up and go to school and go to class, go to practice, even hanging out with my teammates, because pretty soon, all of this is coming to an end."

MBSK 09_10 UK_Ga Web 03.jpgSome have called Kentucky great Jamal Mashburn the most important player in the modern era of UK basketball.

Mashburn, who scored 1,843 career points in three years at UK, was Rick Pitino's first big-time recruit following UK's NCAA sanctions in 1989. Knowing full well that he'd be unable to play in the postseason in his first year at Kentucky, Mashburn decided to sign with the Wildcats anyway and helped the rebuilding process of the sport's greatest tradition.

But if Mashburn is considered the most important player in the program's modern revival, in that sense, consider Patrick Patterson a close second.

Patterson never had to deal with a postseason ban or suffer through the effects on NCAA probation, but Patterson can relate to Mashburn in the pressure and rebuilding job he faced when he signed with Kentucky.

Upon Patterson's signing in 2007, the Kentucky program was in serious transition. To a degree, it was stuck in mediocrity, having not advanced to the Final Four since 1998, a long stretch in the minds of the Kentucky faithful.

When Billy Gillispie was hired as the 21st coach of the program, there was no telling what direction the program would head. While things never panned out in the two-year marriage with Gillispie, things would have been considerably worse without the services of Patterson.

During two years of talent malnutrition, Patterson shouldered the scoring load, leadership responsibilities and spotlight of a team that was under fire. Ever more impressive, he did so as a freshman and sophomore, even without so much as a whiff of the NCAA Tournament (Patterson has never played in an NCAA Tournament game because of an injury his freshman season and a National Invitation Tournament bid in 2009).

It should only be so fitting that in his junior and quite possibly final year in the collegiate ranks, Patterson's team has risen from the depths and returned to its rightful spot on top of the college basketball world.

Heading into the final regular-season game of the season, UK has claimed a share of its 44th Southeastern Conference regular-season title, is ranked No. 3 in the nation and is one of the favorites to win the national championship.

While the spotlight has been quick to center on a sensational freshman class, and deservedly so, the Cats probably are never in a position without Patterson to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament with one week to play.

Patterson was the one constant during a time of instability. He is the single biggest reason the Kentucky basketball program has returned to national prominence.

If it is indeed his last home game at Rupp Arena on Sunday, Patterson deserves a standing ovation of gratitude like none the historic arena has seen in some time.

"I know when I step on the court, if it is my last game, it's going to be something I have to remember and cherish for the rest of my life," Patterson said. "Stepping one last foot, playing one last game at Rupp Arena in front of all those adoring, loving fans who have supported me throughout the years and this university ... it's something that I'm definitely going to cherish and take with me wherever I go."

When Kentucky was flying high and undefeated at the beginning of the season, it seemed so easy to forget the hardships Patterson had to undergo with two coaches in the last two seasons. Some, including this writer, lost sight of the hard work he put in to keep the program afloat and forgot to appreciate what Patterson had to go through to revive the program.

We failed to remember that Patterson could have just as easily gone to the NBA last season. It would have been the easy choice and maybe the smart thing to do.

Instead, Patterson adopted a reduced role in order to come back to college, achieve his family's lifelong dream of graduating from college (he will graduate in three years in the spring), and to make it to and possibly win the NCAA Tournament for the first time in his career.

Now, when his team needs him the most, he's been on a tear, averaging 16.4 points and 9.2 rebounds over his last five games. On the season, his averages have ballooned to 15.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, all while transforming himself into a hybrid power forward that can shoot the 3 and post up in the paint.

His worth, though, has been priceless.

"I always knew the NBA was going to be there," Patterson said. "If God wanted me to go to the NBA, he would give me the opportunity to go. I always felt like I wanted to enjoy college as long as I can. I love being here at the university, I love playing college basketball. College has definitely always been something that I've always looked forward to going to."

Patterson called it fitting that he'll face Florida in perhaps in his final regular-season game. After all, it was Florida that Patterson chose Kentucky over.

The three-year star admitted that not everything worked out the way he originally planned it but said he was more than satisfied with his collegiate experience at UK.

"Everything that was hard that we went through - all the hardships, all the tough times, all the battle wounds - at the moment, when we were in the moment, it wasn't funny then," Patterson said. "Now that we look back on it, we talk about it all the time, we reminisce , we laugh at the moments, we make fun of each other for the moments and we just share what we lived through."

A chance to make a run at the national championship under unprecedented hype has made the struggles and the revival all worth it, Patterson said.

Patterson's had so much fun watching the end product of UK's reestablishment that he's not so sure he's doesn't want to stick around for one more year to enjoy it.

"It's something I'm not sure if I'm ready to give up or not," Patterson said.

Regardless of what he decides, one of the most important players in modern Kentucky basketball history deserves a proper, albeit tentative, Big Blue goodbye on Sunday.

UK Hoops 'thrilled' to advance in SEC tourney

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The UK women's basketball team rebounded from its first two-game losing streak of the season to defeat the Auburn Tigers in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament on Friday.

Kentucky advances to the semifinals with the win and will face the winner of the Mississippi State-Georgia game Saturday at 6 p.m. on ESPNU.

The Cats defeated the Tigers for the second time this season behind Victoria Dunlap's 24 points on 11-of-19 shooting. Dunlap had been held to single-digit scoring only twice this season, both of which came against Auburn.

Cam, live from Duluth, Ga., will be back on Saturday for another live blog and more video from the SEC Tournament. Stay tuned.

Calipari: Seniors will start

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Make no mistake about it, John Calipari likes winning. And he plans to win on Sunday against Florida.

But when it comes to Senior Day ceremonies, namely starting the seniors, Calipari doesn't mess with tradition. In honor of the seniors' final home game at Rupp Arena, Calipari said he plans to start seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Mark Krebs.

Although Calipari would not give a starting five, one would suspect that lineup includes junior forward Patrick Patterson, who will participate in Senior Day ceremonies.

"I think they deserve it," Calipari said. "They've worked hard, they're a part of the team, it's their day. You want to win, but I always say it's more than winning."

Calipari made sure to point out that playing them -- and leaving them in -- won't be a liability. So long as they do their job, they'll continue to play.

"I would say it's going to be an unbelievable crowd," Calipari said. "It's going to appreciate the guys and what they've done for the program. All of them are a bunch of good guys."

Calipari will use Patterson as a model for future players who wish to jump to the pros early if they have their degree in hand.

"If a player graduates his junior year and has an opportunity to leave, we'll honor him," Calipari said. "If he comes back, he'll get it twice. If he hadn't have been graduating, we probably wouldn't have done it."

Calipari gave no thought to having John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins, who most believe will jump to the NBA after this season, participate in Senior Day activities because he doesn't know if they're coming back or not and neither of them are set to graduate.

The first-year UK coach used the opportunity to take a playful jab at a few Atlantic Coast Conference schools in the process. I'm sure you can figure out which ones he was directing his attention.

"(Graduating) is tough in one year," Calipari said. "A couple of schools in the ACC you can do that but not here."

Video: Seniors reflect on time at UK

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No decision on Patterson's return yet

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Although he will participate in Senior Day ceremonies on Sunday against Florida, junior forward Patrick Patterson has made no decision on whether he will turn pro after this season.

Patterson, who is set to graduate in three years, said he's participating in Senior Day activities "just in case" he doesn't get to do it next year. The three-year star, who has never played in an NCAA Tournament game, said the decision could hinge on UK's success in the postseason.

"If I become satisfied with what I've done, what've done as a team and what we've accomplished, my decision to leave will be easier to make," Patterson said. "I'm just focusing on accomplishing these goals, the team goals, and then the other goals for myself this year to make that decision easier."

Asked what would satisfy him, Patterson said a Southeastern Conference championship, an NCAA championship and his teammates getting recognized for the awards they deserve.

"If everything I do satisfies me and I feel like I've done enough for the university and for myself and I think I can move on, then I most likely will," Patterson.

However, Patterson stopped short of saying Sunday would be his last home game because of the enjoyment he gets from playing at the University of Kentucky.

"It's something I'm not sure if I'm ready to give up or not," Patterson said.

More on Patterson and the seniors later. For now, I have to head down for head coach John Calipari's media availability.

Live blog: UK Hoops vs. Auburn

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Live chat with UK's basketball seniors on Friday

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Seniors_PAL8695.jpgThe sun is setting on the collegiate careers of three men's basketball players.

On Sunday, seniors Ramon Harris, Perry Stevenson and Mark Krebs will take the court at Rupp Arena for the final time in their UK careers. Before you honor them Sunday at Senior Day, join us Friday for a live chat with the three seniors.

Starting at 12:15 p.m. on Friday, the three Wildcats will be available on UKathletics.com and Cat Scratches for a live interactive chat. Fans can send in questions and comments, pending approval of the moderator, by clicking on the live blog application Friday at 12:15 p.m.

We are expecting a large audience for the live chat, so please be patient if your question does not make it through the first time. We will do our best to get to as many people as possible.

Don't miss out on your chance to send the seniors a word of thanks or ask them a question for the final time as Wildcats.

March 5 From the Pressbox

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UK alum Tom Leach has been the play-by-play "Voice of the Wildcats" for the football Cats for 12 years and nine years for men's basketball. He is a four-time winner of the Kentucky Sportscaster of the Year award. Tom offers an entertaining and insightful perspective into UK athletics. Column entries will be posted twice per week through April. Read Tom's full biography

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Check about any of the projections from the NCAA Tournament bracket analysts and there's a consensus that Kentucky, Kansas and Syracuse are three of the four numer one seeds. And it's unlikely that will change between now and Selection Sunday.

But Big Blue fans are rooting for the Wildcats to get placed in the Midwest Regional in St. Louis, because it's much easier to travel there than the other three regional sites--Houston, Syracuse and Salt Lake City--if the Cats survive the tournament's opening weekend.

CBS Sportsline.com analyst Jerry Palm says St. Louis is the closest site to each of those three schools, so getting place there means being considered the number one overall seed by the selection committee. Therefore, he says Kentucky will need to win out and hope the 'Cuse and the Jayhawks stumble either this weekend or in their conference tournament. And even then, Palm says it's not a sure thing for UK.

"It's not about the number of losses--it's about the overall profile," Palm told tomleachky.com. "Kentucky doesn't have wins over top 10 teams." He noted that Syracuse and Kansas both have those kinds of wins because their conferences are stronger this year.

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"It's always special when you're out there on your homecourt for the last time. There are so many thoughts that run through your mind. I don't know if there's anything that really prepares you for it as far as the emotions and sometimes it's kinda challenging to get back down to earth and play a game."

That comment comes from former UK All-American Kyle Macy, who played his final home game as Wildcat in 1980.

Two years earlier, Macy was part of a memorable Senior Day as Jack Givens, James Lee, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips bid farewell with a 92-70 rout of UNLV, on the way to the 1978 national championship.

Macy did not score a point but dished out eight assists and he says teammates on Senior Day want to make sure those guys playing in their final home game get the right kind of sendoff.

"That may have been the only game I didn't score in. We won huge (over UNLV) and that may be one of the loudest times I've heard it in Rupp Arena," Macy told coachcal.com. "You want to help those guys and make it a great memory for them as well."

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As far as I know, there's only one player in UK's history that got a nickname as a result of his blazing speed--Dwight "The Blur" Anderson, who burst on the scene as a freshman in the 1979 season but transferred at mid-semester the following winter.

Teammate Kyle Macy was asked to compare Anderson's speed to current UK phenom Jonn Wall.

"He was exceptionally fast," Macy said of Anderson. "And if you compare just in a straight-line run, I think Dwight Anderson might have been faster. But as far as John Wall's ability to change directions and body control and shift gears, I think he does a better job of knowing how to use that (speed)."

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Kentucky's 80-68 win over Georgia kept the Wildcats from having back-to-back losses for the first time this season. And it kept alive a much longer streak for coach John Calipari.

The last time one of his teams suffered at least two losses in a row was at the end of 2005 regular season, when Memphis dropped four straight before rallying to make a run to the finals of the C-USA Tournament.

Nashville pep rally information

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2010_m_bball.jpgThe Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club will host this year's pep rally for the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament in Nashville, Tenn., on March 12.

The event will be held at the Wildhorse Saloon, located at 120 Second Avenue North in downtown Nashville, and will start at 9:30 a.m., two and a half hours before UK's opening-round game at noon.

UK alumni and fans can enjoy music, door prizes and more at the pep rally, which is sponsored by Frost Brown Todd LLC. The UK cheerleaders and band will make a special appearance.

The cost is $12 for preregistered UK Alumni Association member and $15 for nonmembers and walk-ups. Register at www.ukalumni.net/sectournament or by calling 859-257-7161. Contact Brad Bradshaw at brad@bradshawlitigation.com or Jill Smith at jhsmith@uky.edu or 859-257-8906 for more information.

The Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club will also host a postgame party after Saturday's game (should UK advance to Saturday) at the Big Bang, located at 411 Broadway in Nashville. Fans can show your ticket stub for food and drink specials. 

UK Hoops faces stiff test in SEC tourney

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WBSK 09_10 UK_AU Web 33.jpgAuburn it is.

The 10th-seeded Tigers just finished off a 74-61 win over seventh-seeded Florida in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Women's Basketball Tournament. That means UK, the No. 2 seed, will face Auburn on Friday at 2:30 p.m. in Dulth, Ga.

On paper it looks like a cakewalk. In reality, it's one of the two opponents UK did not want to face in the SEC Tournament, the other one being Tennessee. The Tigers, with Keke Carrier leading the way, have a significant advantage inside. If there is one thing the Cats have struggled with this year, it's been physical teams with size inside.

Auburn possesses both those traits.

Look no further than Sunday's regular-season finale. The Tigers spoiled the Cats' last game of the season with a 65-53 loss at Auburn.

UK was outrebounded that 43-27 against Auburn and leading scorer and SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap was held to single digits in the scoring column for just the second time this season. The only other time she was held below 10? Yup, you guessed it -- the first meeting vs. Auburn.

That's troubling news for the Cats, but we'll see what happens Friday.

Head coach Matthew Mitchell took blame for Sunday's loss for not imposing their up-tempo game against Auburn. Because of injuries and because of Auburn's size, Mitchell decided to stick with a half-court trap instead of the Cats' traditional full-court press.

Expect to see a different defensive look Friday against the Tigers.

"Now we're at a time when you have to step up and play and you have to play the style that has enabled to be in the position we're in," Mitchell said. "I'm not going to be as worried about the things I was worried about on Sunday. Whoever is ready to go, we're going to play our style and see if that can be good enough to win. At least we'll be true to our identity."

Cam will be in Duluth on Friday to live blog all the action Friday. Check back here in the afternoon for coverage. 

Afternoon links

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- Jason King of Yahoo! Sports list not one, not two, but three UK men's basketball players on his All-Southeastern Conference team. The usual suspects made the list as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson were named first-teamers. Wall was also named Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year, and head coach John Calipari was selected as the Coach of the Year. Expect more media selections as the season winds down.

- AOL Fanhouse writes about the UK women's basketball team's turnaround. Although the story is a week old at this point, it's still worth noting the national coverage Matthew Mitchell's team has received. It's as if the Cats are this year's NCAA Cinderella. Check out the stories when you get a chance.

WBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 15.jpgReality set in last week for the UK women's basketball team.

The buzz felt by the top-25 rankings, the team's best conference run in school history and competing for a Southeastern Conference title fizzled last week with two straight losses at Tennessee and at Auburn. It was the first back-to-back losses of the season and first significant setback the Cats have faced this year.

The underdog mentality that fueled UK to second place in the SEC was noticeably absent in both losses. For the first time all season, Kentucky let the other team determine the tempo and become the aggressors.

Were the Cats resting on their laurels?

If they were, nobody could blame them. Sweeping the major SEC awards (Coach, Player and Freshman of the Year), competing with Tennessee for a conference title and riding a wave of unparalleled hoops excitement in Lexington is all pretty heady stuff.
 
Excuse a group of college kids if they got caught up in the hype.

"We're in a bit of uncharted waters," head coach Matthew Mitchell said, "and I'm not afraid to say that."

Better now to discover that than the postseason when a loss means an offseason of learning. For the most part, the players have maintained their level-headedness during the frenzy of a historic run. They've listened to their coach preach the one-game mentality, and, until the Tennessee-Auburn stretch, have played with the same intensity no matter if the opponent was Florida or Florida A&M.

Now, the Cats will have to rediscover that intensity in time for the SEC Tournament, which starts Thursday in Duluth, Ga. The second-seeded Cats have earned a first-round bye and will face the winner of the Auburn-Florida matchup on Friday at 2:30 p.m.

It's a new situation for UK, which, for the first time since the 2005-06 season, will enter the tournament as one of the favorites. Instead of battling for their postseason lives, the Cats are basically assured of making the NCAA Tournament.

"The challenge all season long for us as a coaching staff is to try to understand how to deal with being in a different situation," Mitchell said. "I thought the team did a really good job of handling one game at a time (during the regular season) and staying focused and staying locked in on what they needed to do, and that's obvious by the record."

Regardless of the different scenario, the stakes, as far as the team is concerned, remain the same - win the conference tournament.

UK must use that mentality when its postseason run starts Friday or else it will get bounced from the SEC and NCAA tournaments just as easily as it lost last week.

"We have to come in with the mentality that we have to play hard no matter what," said junior forward and SEC Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap. "Just because we're already set for the NCAA Tournament doesn't mean we can settle for finishing second in the SEC. We have to get better and better."

Despite the SEC honors delivered Monday to Kentucky - which some could view as a distraction - they have regained the disrespected, overlooked hunger that led them to their current position in the first place.

"The loss that we had to Auburn is humbling," SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies said. "Every game we play we have to fight. We have to come out and play aggressive and play defense and do everything we did that got us to this point. Just as easy as we beat Auburn the first time, we lost to them the second time."

Mitchell took blame for the loss to Auburn on Sunday. Instead of imposing their will on the Tigers with their traditional up-tempo full-court press, the Cats tried to play Auburn with a half-court man-to-man trap.

That, Mitchell said he sent the wrong signal to his team not to be aggressive.

"I think this team needs the green light to go and go play aggressive," Mitchell said.

UK has defeated every team on its side of the bracket but does face the prospect of playing Auburn again. The Tigers, like Tennessee, pose problems in the interior because of their size and physicality.

When the Cats have gone up against bigger, stronger teams this season, they've struggled. The two games with Auburn are the only two games Dunlap has failed to reach double-figure scoring.

Should UK match up with Auburn or Tennessee along the way, Mitchell said the Cats will play to their strength instead of countering the other team's force.

"Now we're at a time when you have to step up and play and you have to play the style that has enabled to be in the position we're in," Mitchell said. "I'm not going to be as worried about the things I was worried about on Sunday. Whoever is ready to go, we're going to play our style and see if that can be good enough to win. At least we'll be true to our identity."

That sounds more like the attitude that won UK 23 games this season. While the stakes might be different, the scenario remains the same. As it's been all season, it's about this team and its mentality - not the accolades, awards, rankings and expectations that comes with success.

"We have the opportunity to beat anybody we play, but we better darn sure understand that if we don't prepare and play like heck, we have the opportunity to lose," Mitchell said. "We don't really focus a lot on what everybody else is saying. We need to come together here."

Reality couldn't have sunk in at a better time.

Five thoughts from UK's 44th SEC championship

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MBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 66.jpgI didn't make the trip with the team this time, so you'll have to settle for my personal thoughts and notes from UK's 80-68 win over Georgia in Athens, Ga.

Here are the five biggest things to take from the win:

1.) Championships are always special: John Calipari hasn't made many missteps as head coach at Kentucky, but one of them may have came last week when he said winning the regular-season Southeastern Conference championship meant "nothing." No, Wednesday's night's SEC championship meant something.

The victory clinched at least a share of UK's 44th SEC title and 50th conference crown overall (six championships came in the Southern Conference). Only Kansas, with 53 conference championships, owns more than UK. Plus, a Vanderbilt loss or a UK win against Florida in the 16th and final conference game of the season would give the Cats the outright title.

Although the title might not mean a lot in the big picture, the championship - UK's first since 2005 - is another confirmation that Kentucky basketball is back. The Cats now have the hardware to prove it.

2.) What 3-point shooting woes?: UK's 8-of-25 shooting from the 3-point line probably wasn't enough to silence the critics that have pounced on the Cats for their abysmal perimeter shooting over the previous four games (12-of-73 prior to Wednesday). But it probably was enough to get a smile out of Calipari after the game. Almost as if it was by design, the Cats came out shooting from the 3-point line from the very first play of the game and rarely hesitated from that point forward.

Calipari seemed to scoff at the notion Tuesday that his team's 3-point shooting was a weakness in almost the same manner he used to laugh off his team's free-throw shooting woes at Memphis. His team appeared to use that same stubbornness in Wednesday night's victory by regaining (some of) its 3-point touch.

Sophomore guard Darnell Dodson broke out of a 2-of-21 3-point shooting slump with three critical treys and freshman guard John Wall drilled 3-of-5 perimeter shots. I don't buy Calipari's notion that his team is one of "the best 3-point shooting teams in the country," but I also don't believe it's a glaring Achilles heel.

We already knew coming into this season that this team didn't have a legit outside shooter. Plus, with all the weapons UK has, if the Cats can hit even 33 percent of their shots from behind the arc, as Calipari joked Tuesday, it's like hitting 50 percent. If they hit outside shots, they're unbeatable.

3.) Road warriors: The road wins at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State were mighty impressive two weeks ago. But this one might have topped them all.

Yes, Georgia is just 13-15 on the season and yes, UK has won 39 of 54 in Athens. But this isn't your father's Stegeman Coliseum anymore. What used to be a break in the SEC road schedule has become a trip to hell.

Just ask the rest of the SEC East. Prior to UK's win at Stegeman on Wednesday, Georgia was 4-0 at home against SEC East teams, including double-digit wins against the Volunteer State's brethren, Tennessee and Vanderbilt.  

Calipari had been pointing to the Athens trip for weeks as a potential trap game and called Georgia the most improved team in the SEC from the beginning of the season to the end. When considering the No. 1 seeds on Selection Sunday, the NCAA selection committee should take a closer look at Wednesday's win.

4.) A notch above the rest: Speaking of Selection Sunday, Kentucky has to be a No. 1 seed after Wednesday's win, right? In my opinion (for whatever that's worth), the win over Georgia locked up one of the four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. At this point, only an epic collapse would bar UK from one of the top four spots, and even that might not be enough.

Just think of the worst-case scenario. Let's say UK loses at home to Florida on Senior Day (I know, seems unlikely, right?) and follows that with a second-round hiccup in the SEC Tournament. On most years, that would drop a team out of consideration for a top spot, but not this year.

If the season ended today, Kentucky, Kansas and Syracuse are hands-on No. 1 seeds. After that? Good luck finding a team worthy of the fourth spot. It seems like teams are more inclined to take a two seed than a one, because every time a golden opportunity presents itself, a team takes two steps back.

A few weeks ago Villanova had a strong case for a No. 1 seed, then the Wildcats went on to lose four of seven games. Duke seemed to be taking a stranglehold on the fourth No. 1 seed until losing to Maryland just moments ago. Purdue just lost one of its top scorers for the season in Robbie Hummel and appears to be damaged goods. And now Kansas looks like it knocked Kansas State out of contention with a butt whooping in Lawrence, Kan.

Who does that leave? Ohio State? The only question at this point is if UK can still claim the top overall seed.

MBSK 09_10 UK_GA Web 62.jpg5.) POY race far from over: A poll by annarbor.com that was released Wednesday would lead you to believe that Ohio State Evan's Turner is your runaway National Player of the Year.
In the words of the great Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.

Wall once again proved his worth in Athens, scoring a game-high 24 points on 8-of-10 shooting. He added six assists in the win.

I'm one of those people that believe you don't have to tear down a player to make a case for the other one. Turner is a heck a player and would probably get my vote at this point, but this race is from a landslide at this point.

Wall, in my opinion, has re-emerged over the past two games and is playing just as well as he was at the beginning of the season. Against Tennessee, he went on a personal 7-0 to single-handedly get UK back in the game and Wednesday night he could do no wrong.

He filled it up from the outside, killed Georgia in transition and threw down a nasty one-hand dunk over Georgia's Travis Leslie.

That's the only slam dunk when it comes to this Player of the Year race.