HOUSTON -- How appropriate that, at the place "the road ends," the Kentucky men's basketball team must try to solve the question that nobody has figured out on the Road to the Final Four.
How do you stop Kemba Walker? How do you limit one of the nation's best scorers and arguably its best playmaker from taking over the game?
Even Walker isn't sure.
"How would I stop myself?" Walker said. "I wouldn't be able to."
Best of luck, DeAndre Liggins.
For all the misguided comparisons of the Kemba Walker-Brandon Knight matchup at Final Four media availability Thursday, the difference for UK between advancing to the school's first national championship since 1998 and becoming another victim of Walker's sensational run could be the Walker-Liggins matchup.
In the first meeting, an 84-67 shellacking by Connecticut in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, Walker abused Liggins and the Wildcats, one of the few players over the last two seasons to get the best of one of the nation's top defenders.
In Walker's coming-out party, so to speak, the UConn junior hit 10-of-17 shots from the field en route to a 29-night point outing.
"He killed us," Liggins said. "The first time we played, it was three games in three days and I was kind of worn out a bit. That's still no excuse, but I had no legs. I was tired."
Ever since then, Liggins has wanted another shot at the UConn point guard, even mentioning Walker's name before the Southeastern Conference Tournament, well before anyone could have imagined Kentucky and Connecticut would be playing in Houston at the Final Four.
"If I had the chance to play (Connecticut's) Kemba Walker and the guys that beat us (again), it would be different," Liggins said in early March.
Liggins has since backed off his words a little bit and even suggested Thursday that reporters heard him wrong back in March. Coming from a guy who plays with such ferocity on the court, Liggins has done a lot of praising this week instead of hyping of the rematch any further.
"It's not animosity," Liggins said of his desire to guard Walker again. "Kemba Walker is a great player. He scores in bunches. I just want to do a better job on him this time. He is going to score points, but I am going to try to make him work for everything he puts up."
Walker, who didn't blame Liggins for wanting to face him again, was reciprocal in his admiration.
"He's definitely a great on-ball defender," Walker said. "He's got extremely long arms and he definitely has a height advantage. I'm pretty sure he's going to force me into some tough shots. I'm going to try my best to get the best shots possible."
And if Walker gets off 25 shots and makes them? "Oh well," Liggins said, there's not much you can do.
"You can't stop him," Liggins said.
Liggins may very well speak the truth. En route to 931 points this season and a 23.9 scoring average, Walker has captured the attention of the nation and is one of the favorites to win National Player of the Year honors. The 6-foot-1 guard, who Calipari admitted "missing on" years ago when he was at Memphis, has 11 games of 30 points or more this season and only once has he been held to single digits.
More importantly, Walker has led what was a maligned National Invitation Tournament team from a year ago and carried it back to the Final Four.
Walker's value isn't lost on longtime UConn coach Jim Calhoun. Having coached the likes of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Caron Butler and Emeka Okafor, Calhoun feels comfortable with putting Walker in that elite company, especially when he considers his importance to the program.
"When you score 900-something points in a year, when you average over six rebounds a game and you change your game ... you're pretty special," Calhoun said. "He's cut from the same cloth as some of the other great players we've had. He's in that category of just first name needed, nothing else."
Against Ohio State and North Carolina, head coach John Calipari matched up Liggins with Aaron Craft and Kendall Marshall, the teams' respective point guards. The line of thinking has been, cut off the head and the rest of the body falls.
That would seem to be the key against a UConn team that has just one other scorer averaging double figures (Jeremy Lamb). Calhoun, however, thinks that would be a mistake for Kentucky.
"If you need to load up and do it with other folks, it's going to cause you problems," Calhoun said. "He recognizes when you load up."
And though the ball is in Walker's hands a lot, Calhoun is right.
At the end of the Big East championship game in New York, Louisville tried doubling Walker at the top of the key. Walker made the Cardinals pay with a slick pass under the hoop. In four games in the NCAA Tournament, Walker is averaging 6.8 assists, including 12 dimes in the opening-round win over Bucknell.
"He is going to score his points and do what he does," Liggins said. "Our job is to stop the other guys."
Even so, Liggins will likely draw the assignment on Walker, if for no other reason than to harass Walker and tire him out. Liggins, at 6-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, has a significant height advantage on the 6-1 Walker, and this time around, Liggins said he's going to try to deny Walker the ball, one thing we generally haven't seen from his repertoire of impressive defense.
Whatever Liggins decides to do, his matchup with the nation's most electrifying scorer could very well prove to be the difference Saturday in Houston.
"My job is to contain him the best way I can," Liggins said.
Very few have been able to figure out how to do that.
HOUSTON -- Just arrived at Reliant Stadium for a full day of interviews. I'll have a couple of written stories later on, but in the meantime, check out some pictures of the gargantuan Reliant Stadium, home of this week's Final Four.
Kentucky men's basketball signess Michael Gilrchrist was named a co-MVP in the McDonald's All-American game held Wednesday night in Chicago. Gilchrist's East squad, going up against fellow UK signess Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer, won the game 111-96.
Like most all-star games, there wasn't a ton of defense, so it's hard to take a whole lot out of Wednesday's performances other than the future Wildcats are super athletic and look to be a perfect fit for John Calipari's offense.
Since I wasn't there, I'm not going to pretend to break down how the Kentucky signees fared overall, but their numbers were pretty impressive:
Michael Gilchrist: 16 points, 12 rebounds Marquis Teague: Nine points, three assists Anthony Davis: 14 points, six rebounds, four blocks Kyle Wiltjer: 11 points
HOUSTON -- The Kentucky men's basketball team has landed at the Final Four.
The Wildcats just checked into the Hilton Post Oak in Houston, just three days away from the program's first Final Four since 1998.
In my post last week when we landed in Newark, N.J., I noted how the players seemed to be relaxed and at ease, as if the pressure was off and they had nothing to lose. I don't know if it had any correlation in how they played on the court, but if it was any indication, then they Cats could be in for a historic weekend in Houston.
There were no cheerleaders and band members on our flight this time, so the players were a little more laid back, plus the flight was a whole heck of a lot smoother (no turbulence). We landed about 6:45 p.m. CT and then headed to the hotel.
UK practiced at the Joe Craft Center on Wednesday afternoon before leaving Lexington, but no practice was scheduled in Houston on Wednesday night. On Thursday, the Cats will get into their normal routine with practice in the afternoon and media interviews.
On Friday, there is an open practice for fans at Reliant Stadium from 1 to 1:50 p.m. CT.
As always, I'll have more throughout the week on the blog, including feature stories, video and live blogs.
As head coach John Calipari prepares for a historic third Final Four, his first with Kentucky, he has his blinders on and is only looking forward.
If there is one thing he's learned from his two previous Final Four appearances with Massachusetts in 1996 and Memphis in 2008, and even last year's knockout in the Elite Eight, it's to enjoy the moment, because you never know when -- or if -- you'll ever be back.
"At this point I have no rearview mirror," Calipari said in an exclusive interview Tuesday. "If you're driving near me, just know I'm not looking in the rearview mirror. Everything is looking out the front window, so don't come near me if I'm driving because I can't see behind me and I'm not looking back right now. Everything I'm doing is just looking forward."
That was Calipari's response when asked if this has been one of his most rewarding teams in his 19-year college coaching career.
Calipari wasn't sure, but he was certain this has been one of his most developed and surprising teams. From bidding farewell to five first-round draft picks -- Calipari was quick to point out that he also lost former starters Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson -- losing star recruit Enes Kanter and dropping six games by five points or less midway through the season, it's been an unexpected run to the program's first Final Four since 1998.
"When we became the fourth four seed -- not the four seed; we were the last four seed, the 16th team -- that's when I said this is going to be hard because we were eventually, if we won, having to play the best team in the country in Ohio State," Calipari said. "If you're lucky, then you're playing the fifth-best team in the country in North Carolina. It's what we had to do and we kind of got by it."
Calipari is just the second coach in college basketball history to reach three Final Fours with three different teams, joining former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino in elite company. He joined history during a year in which his critics said he couldn't survive with a six-man rotation, couldn't recover from losing an entire team to the NBA and couldn't win without Kanter.
It has to feel sweet, doesn't it? Calipari said his return to the Final Four offers no vindication.
"I haven't listened to what anybody says," Calipari said. "You're saying that to me and I'd say if I knew all that, I would say, 'Yeah this is sweet,' but I didn't. I'm focused on the team and trying to get guys better. The talking heads say what they want. Somebody told me one of the (media) guys said I'm the most overrated coach in the country or in the tournament. My comment was, 'Geez, there's got to be one or two down there with me. I can't be the only guy.' You just take it with a grain of salt. You just smile and move on and do your job and make sure your team is prepared to do its best."
Although he said he knew just how hard it was to make a Final Four when he was 37 years old with UMass as he knows now, he does have an appreciation for how special it is to make it to a place that few coaches ever experience.
"This is a humbling profession," Calipari said on a Final Four teleconference Monday. "It's very, very hard. It can be very rewarding, but it also could be one of those things that you get slapped in the mouth when you really think: I got this figured out. ... I'll tell you, what you feel is blessed and lucky and fortunate because there are so many coaches in our profession who are as good as they get that have never been to a Final Four, but they're unbelievable coaches. Sometimes it's luck, other times it's the situation they're in."
The key ingredient in his runs, Calipari said in his "we just roll the balls out there" tone, is having "really good players."
"I think what I've learned at an early age is just to continue to make this about these kids, to continue to try to make kids better, and then have them buy into team, whether it's team defense or being unselfish," Calipari said. "It still comes back to: How do I get individual players better? Not just one or two guys, but the entire team. How does each individual improve? How do they feel unleashed? Make it more about them or me or style of play or any of that. That's what I try to do."
It may be a players-first program, as Calipari has said throughout his two years at UK, and Calipari very well may want his legacy to revolve around what his players do after college.
"I hope people look and say, 'Boy, he does a good job with his kids and they get better and they play and they go on to good careers, whether it is basketball or business or education, whatever it is," Calipari said after the Elite Eight win over North Carolina. "He prepares them for life after basketball. I hope that would be what it is."
But you can bet the head coach wants a national championship, too. He says the elusive title on his resume doesn't eat at him, but if he wants to join the current coaching icons like Mike Kryzewski, Roy Williams and even Jim Calhoun -- as if he already hasn't with three Final Fours -- he'd do himself a favor to win this week in Houston.
"I'm at Kentucky," Calipari said, referring to the enormity of the program and the state's appetite (or demand) to win national titles. "Obviously if you got this far every one of us coaches that are in that Final Four want to win it. But it won't be the end all for me. The sun's going to come up on Tuesday."
Would it change his legacy though? Would it enhance it? Maybe so, not that Calipari loses sleep over it at night.
"Would it change what my players think of me? I don't believe so," Calipari said. "Would it change what my family and friends think of me? I don't think so. Would it change what maybe some of the public think of me? For some it won't matter. I could win 10 national titles and it won't matter. Others probably would. But at the end of the day, I want this to be about these kids and what they've done and how far they've come."
With all the hoopla on the current men's basketball team and its run to the Final Four, wanted to remind everyone to take a look the future Wednesday night.
Five Kentucky signees will be featured at Wednesday's McDonald's All-American game at the United Center in Chicgao.
The girls' game, which will feature UK Hoops signee Bria Goss, is scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The boys' game, which will include men's signees Michael Gilchrist, Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Kyle Wiltjer, will tip at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 forward, won the 3-point contest two nights ago.
We're about to take off from Blue Grass Airport for the Final Four in Houston. I'll have much more as the week progresses.
The UK Alumni Association is inviting alumni and fans to its Tip-off Tailgate Event on Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. CT in the Reliant Stadium Blue Lot in Houston.
The event will feature live music just outside Reliant Stadium and a performance by the band and cheerleaders from each participating school. The UK band and cheerleaders will perform at approximately 3:30 p.m. CT.
There is no cost to attend but game tickets will be need to be presented in order to enter the event area. Food and drinks (including soft drinks, beer and margaritas) are available for purchase during the Tip-Off Tailgate. Parking is available on the grounds of Reliant Park and tailgating is permitted.
If Kentucky advances to the final game, alumni and friends are encouraged to attend Monday's Tailgate Tip-Off Event from 4:30 to 7:15 p.m. CT. The UK band and cheerleaders will make an appearance if the Wildcats are playing in the championship game.
Also, the Final Four has designated gather spots for alumni and friends from each participating university around Houston. The designated spots for the University of Kentucky are:
Echoing a sentiment he first expressed on his radio show Monday night, Coach Cal is calling on the Big Blue Nation to allow him, the staff and the team to tend to their business in Houston in relative peace and quiet.
"If we take care of our business, there will be plenty of time to get autographs and personal photos beginning next Tuesday," Coach Cal said. "We have the greatest fans in America and we want to reward them with our players' undivided attention, focus and peak physical condition."
There is no Cousins or Patterson on this team, and while freshman point guard Brandon Knight is even more clutch than Wall, he doesn't have the same breathtaking array of NBA skills; what this Wildcats team has is more gunners than Calipari has ever had at his disposal in the past. Knight (38.2 percent), Doron Lamb (48.1), Darius Miller (44.9) and DeAndre Liggins (40.2), who hit the dagger three on Sunday, are all dangerous from beyond the arc, and they're the big reason why this year's Kentucky offense is actually more efficient (ranking seventh nationally) than last year's.
Alabama scored four runs in the first inning and went on to beat Kentucky 8-3 Sunday for a series sweep at Thomas-Sewell Stadium.
The Tide (18-7, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) batted around against UK starter Taylor Rogers in the first inning, getting six hits. Austin Smith drove in two runs with a double down the left-field line, and Josh Rosecrans hit a two-run homer to right to make it 4-0.
"He always wanted me to be great," Rose said. "When I was going to college, I wasn't aggressive. In (Simeon) high school, I probably averaged 14-16 points. He just makes you aggressive the whole time. He makes you play hard the whole time."
Rose, of course, is now the Bulls' point guard. Calipari now is coaching Kentucky, where he will lead the Wildcats in the Final Four against Connecticut this weekend in Houston.
Men's basketball: Kentucky boasts a six pack of inspiration (Lexington Hearld-Leader)
Here's the quandary in thinking about the six players who are primarily responsible for carrying the University of Kentucky to the cusp of an improbable eighth NCAA championship.
It's hard to decide which has the most inspirational story.
Even at 18, Cousins understood he was part of something special.
Yet the promise of NBA riches proved to be too tempting. Cousins and four other Wildcats -- John Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton -- opted to leave school early rather than make another run at a national title.
"Yes, I wish I was still there," Cousins said. "College life was fun."
Kentucky (29-8) plays in its first Final Four in 13 years on Saturday when it faces UConn (30-9) in Houston. More than a thousand fans showed up at Blue Grass Airport to welcome the team back late Sunday night after knocking off North Carolina in the East Regional final, the same kind of celebration that was supposed to happen last year.
"I wanted to be there for that," Cousins said.
Wizards look to Wall as primary scorer (Michael Lee, Washington Post) John Wall is having the most prolific scoring month of his career, as the rookie point guard is averaging 19.2 points in 14 games in March. His 28-point outing in the Wizards' 100-95 overtime win on Monday over the Utah was his sixth game with at least 20 points this month.
After initially being ruled out of action for the second straight game because of a jammed right pinkie, Rajon Rondo [stats] last night talked his way into the lineup before the Celtics [team stats]' 107-100 loss to the Indiana Pacers.
The result was a 22-point, 9-for-13, eight-assist effort. The 20-plus scoring performance was the point guard's first since Feb. 6, when he put up 26 in a win against the Orlando Magic.
Women's tennis:Wildcats overwhelm Auburn in 6-1 win Videos of the week Perhaps the most special part of UK's 10-game winning streak that has propelled the Wildcats to the Final Four is the way that this mix of veterans and freshman has come together and played as a unit. Here is a Rivals.com/Yahoo! Sports video breaking down how UK's chemistry is so important to their success.
The Kentucky Kernel, the independent student-run newspaper at UK, was featured on ESPN First Take on Tuesday. Editor-in-Chief Matt Murray was interviewed to deliver the campus pulse of Big Blue Nation as Kentucky embarks on its first Final Four since 1998.
"Coach, it feels like you're doing this a year too late or a year too early."
That's how one reporter started a question to Kentucky coach John Calipari after the Cats' 76-69 win over North Carolina that punched their ticket to the Final Four this week in Houston.
Since seeding began in the NCAA Tournament in 1979, Kentucky has never advanced to a Final Four as anything lower than a No. 2 - until now. And despite the barrage of 3s that UK rained down on North Carolina, former Georgetown coach John Thompson was more impressed by how well the Cats guarded the Tar Heels.
"You hear so much about Kentucky's ability to shoot outside, but what impressed the most was their intensity in defense," said Thompson, who worked the games in Newark, N.J. for Westwood One Radio. "I think Cal deserves a lot of credit for getting them to play as a cohesive unit at both ends of the floor and not just one. I think it's a testimony to Cal's ability to be able to do that. The more talented kids have a tendency to want to express themselves. Most talented people don't want to play in a group and he's gotten these guys to form a bond and play together defensively."
That defense will get a supreme challenge this Saturday in Houston from Connecticut star guard Kemba Walker, one of the nation's leading scorers.
"The key to UConn is Walker," Thompson said on the The Leach Report radio show. "You can pretty much be assured that if you clamp down on Walker, Connecticut is going to have a major problem."
So how does an opponent do that?
"I wish I knew the answer to that," Thompson said. "I've seen the Big East try everything. He's a modern day old-time player. Years ago you had a key player that would carry a team. They can try to deny him, try to cover him but the kid has been able to survive that."
Kentucky's best asset in this game is its speed, said the man who led Georgetown to the 1984 national title.
"(DeAndre) Liggins will do a good job but you've got other guys that are good in supporting," Thompson said. "Cal has done a great job of having a team defense. You don't stop a great player with one person. The most misleading thing in basketball is the (term) man-to-man. That man-to-man has to be backed up by a team concept, which Kentucky is very capable of, as they showed against North Carolina."
Thompson said UK's speed was better than he thought when he saw the Cats in person. He also likes the bond this group of players has with their head coach.
"Those guys are playing hard for him," Thompson said. "He has a knack of not only coaching his team well but communicating with them."
Back in the '90s, Thompson and Calipari crossed paths in the NCAA Tournament.
"He had a very good team and they beat us and I remember how classy (he was)," Thompson said. "After the game got out of hand, he told his kids he didn't want them to do anything to embarrass me or carry on with any foolishness. He said he had too much respect for me to do that. He didn't tell me that but I heard it from another party. For a young (coach) to feel that way meant an awful lot to me and I've never forgotten it."
Really cool sound bite the folks at ABC News passed us along.
At the conclusion of Diane Sawyer's recent one-on-one interview with President Barack Obama, Sawyer asks Obama how much Kentucky will win by. Sawyer, who happens to be a Glasgow, Ky., native, seems to thinks Kentucky is going to cut down the nets Monday.
The internal scoreboard starts to tick down, the imaginary defenders set into position and the crowd behind the car starts to roar. You fake left but drive right. The plan is to go to the basket, but that imaginary defender in the post, where the driveway starts to lean off towards the grassy hill, steps up and cuts off your lane.
"Quick," you think, "time is running out."
Five, four, three ...
Plan B, you decide, You fake the drive, cross like Allen Iverson, step back like Michael Jordan and knock down the jumper like Magic Johnson.
We've all been there before in our backyards -- that last-second shot; the chance to win it all when everything and nothing at the same time is on the line.
Brandon Knight is no different.
As a kid growing in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Knight rehearsed those shots all the time. They continued this season late at nights in the empty gym of the Joe Craft Center when the coaches were gone and the cameras were off.
"I think every kid does that when they are growing up outside shooting around," Knight said Tuesday, a day before the Wildcats take off for the Final Four in Houston. "Just 5-4-3-2-1 and shoot it. And then when you finally make it, you can just go inside and chill."
Those backyard shots have paid off during this NCAA Tournament run. Despite a late-season dip in his shooting numbers (Knight is 20 for 56 from the field in the last four games), Knight has been clutch.
The freshman point guard missed his first seven shots against in the second round versus Princeton before hitting a game-winning layup in the final seconds. Against No. 1 overall seed Ohio State, seconds after Buckeye Jon Diebler nailed a game-tying 3-pointer at the other end of the floor, Knight pulled up at the right elbow and drilled a 15-foot shot with 5.4 seconds left and Aaron Craft in his face.
"When I watched it, it was a lot faster than I thought than when I was doing it," Knight said. "It felt slow. I didn't really see a hand. I just saw the basket and shot it. I guess it was for a split second that I saw it because his hand was all in my face."
Once again, it proved to be the difference on a night when Knight's shots (3 of 10) weren't falling.
"Some of those shots you make, some of them you don't," Knight said. "All I can do is thank God I was able to make those in big-time games in the tournament. It's really just confidence and continuing to shoot."
They were shots Knight wasn't hitting during the regular season. Remember Arkansas and Florida? Against the Gators he missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer before missing a pair of potential game winners in Fayetteville, Ark.
All along, head coach John Calipari said he had faith in him and never doubted putting the ball back in his hands.
"He's a winner," Calipari said after the Princeton game. "He's not afraid to make a play. Guys like him aren't afraid to miss."
Knight has hit game winners on the high school and AAU scene and withstood the pressure of being one of the top overall prospects in the country and the point guard for the University of Kentucky.
Some call that intestinal fortitude -- the ability to, when the game gets hot and the pressure is on, inject ice in your veins -- a God-given talent. But Knight developed that habit in the driveway of his home and at local parks in Ft. Lauderdale.
"Any kind of shot," Knight said of the scenarios he worked on. "Normally jump shots, step-back jump shots where you are holding your follow-through."
Knight said he was playing himself in those recreations but was imitating other players' moves and style.
"Whoever was hitting game winners at the time," Knight said.
Knight didn't have to hit a game winner against North Carolina, but he seemed to hit the big shot every time the game called for it. Just about every time the Tar Heels made a run at Kentucky, Knight answered with a momentum-halting 3-pointer.
His biggest came with 2:51 left in the game, a trey from the right wing that broke the final tie of the game.
"He is a great finisher," senior forward Josh Harrellson said. "He missed a few in the beginning of the season, but it didn't stop him. He is making big shots for us now when they count."
In large part because he hit those shots years ago in his driveway when they didn't count.
If revenge really is a dish best served cold, this group of Kentucky players are cold-blooded Cats.
The payback tour of 2011 has been swift and sweet for Kentucky. North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Ole Miss and Florida -- all teams that beat UK earlier this year that later paid the consequences in the second meeting. Considering some of this year's team had to experience the heartbreak of the West Virginia loss last season, you could throw in the third-round win over the Mountaineers for good measure, too.
Nicknames are floating around Lexington to anoint this team among some of the all-time favorites like the Untouchables, the Unforgettables and the Fiddlin' Five, to name a few. Names like the Unexpectables and the Unpredictables have been tossed around, but the best one, the most fitting one, says senior forward Josh Harrellson, may revolve around the Cats' ability to achieve a little redemption.
"I like Payback Cats," Harrellson said. "I guess we are on the road to payback everybody. The only team we can't get is Arkansas."
Now comes Connecticut, the only team other than Arkansas on the scheudule Kentucky has not beaten this season. The Huskies delivered UK its biggest defeat of the year, an 84-67 drilling in the finals of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.
Kemba Walker scored 29 points in that game, the beginning of his season-long ascension to becoming one of the best players in the game, but this Kentucky team is a far different group than the one that came home Thanksgiving day stuffed with a full serving of humility.
"Everybody was selfish that entire tournament, especially the last game," junior guard DeAndre Liggins said. "As the season kept going on we kept progressing and getting better as a team and coming together like a group. This is where we are now."
Beating a team twice is difficult enough, but to deny five teams from repeating success is an equally impressive achievement.
"A lot of those teams we played early in the season," Knight said. "We've gotten a lot better since that point. We've kind of got a chip on our shoulders losing those games, so I think we want to come out and prove that, in the beginning, we weren't as good as we thought we were and we have gotten better."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes.
These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Mar. 27:
Softball: Chanda Bell
Junior pitcher Chanda Bell threw the first no-hitter in SEC action in school history with a complete-game shutout over Mississippi State in the series-clincher. Bell narrowly missed out on a perfect game when the lone base runner reached on a Wildcat fielding error. Bell, however, quickly escaped the inning without further damage by striking out the side to record 11 strikeouts in 15 total outs in the game. It marked the 29th time in her career she registered 10 or more strikeouts in a single game. Bell recorded the first-ever no-hitter in her freshman season at UK. She had another earlier this season in non-conference action, but the no-no against the Bulldogs was the first in SEC play in school allure. Furthermore, Bell picked up her 45th career victory to move into second place on UK's all-time career list in that category. Her .095 opponent batting average in SEC action is tops in the league, and she ranks second in strikeouts tossed against league foes.
Softball: Lauren Cumbess
Freshman Lauren Cumbess was simply sensational in helping guide the Wildcats to a series sweep of Mississippi State for the second time in three seasons, batting .600 in those three outings. Cumbess had two game-clinching hits for the Blue and White in two decisive victories. In the opening game of the series, Cumbess connected for a three-run homer in the third inning to give the Wildcats a lead it would never relinquish. It was the first round tripper in SEC action for UK's freshman, and it marked one of a program-record four homers in the game. The three-RBI is a single-game high for the first-year player. In game two of the series, Cumbess had a bases-clearing double in the first inning to highlight a six-run first frame to put the game out of reach in the opening stanza in the series-clincher. In the final game of the series, Cumbess came to the plate in two situations with runners aboard and Mississippi State opted to walk her in both instances. Her .429 batting average for the week ranked second on the team, only trailing Megan Yocke's week. The five-RBI tied a team-high and she was one of five players to connect for a homer on the weekend.
Softball: Megan Yocke
Senior Megan Yocke led the Wildcats to their first three-game sweep in league action this season. Yocke paced the squad with a .556 batting average and five runs scored. Yocke made her presence felt at the plate all weekend which began with a solo homer in the opening game of the series, one of four Wildcat long balls. The four homers in a single game are the most in school history. Yocke scored twice in the 8-0 series-winner when she was walked twice in the game. Prior to leaving the game with an injury in the third game of the series, Yocke registered her first triple of the season and would come home to score. Yocke set several milestones this week as she moved into five all-time in both runs scored (115) and home runs (22). She also became UK's all-time career leader with 102 walks. She also took over the No. 2 spot with 1,074 career put outs.
Men's tennis: Kentucky remained at No. 14 in the team rankings, one of four teams in the Southeastern Conference in the top 15. In singles, Eric Quigley dropped three spots to No. 7, while Alex Musialek is 51st, Alberto Gonzalez is 100th and Anthony Rossi is 104th. In doubles, Tom Jomby and Alberto Gonzalez are ranked 51st, while Brad Cox and Eric Quigley are 64th. UK is back in action Friday when it takes on the No. 15 Florida Gators in Gainesville, Fla., at 3 p.m. ET.
For two solid years, Morgan Newton has been Kentucky's heir apparent at quarterback.
Coming in as a highly touted prospect, Newton narrowly lost battles for the starting position before both his freshman and sophomore seasons. Along the way, he's had his opportunities to play, stepping in for starter Mike Hartline in 2009 and in Kentucky's bowl game after the 2010 season.
With Hartline graduating and no other experienced quarterbacks on the roster for ongoing spring practices, now is the time for which Newton has been groomed for two years. Now is the time for Newton to make the position his.
Newton is the first to admit that grasping offensive coordinator Randy Sanders' complex offense has been a challenge for him. Coach Joker Phillips pointed primarily to Hartline's firm understanding of the playbook as the main factor that earned him the starting role. Newton still isn't quite to that level, but it's a work in progress.
"He's done a better job of having his eyes where they need to be early in the drop so he can make good decisions," Sanders said. "The better you understand the offense the easier it is to play fast. He's learning the offense better and he understands it better."
Newton has taken the lion's share of the first-team reps thus far in spring practice and that fact has allowed the coaching staff to work more closely with him than any time in the past, especially in the film room.
"I'm coming in on a daily basis and watching the tape," Newton said. "I'm seeing the things I'm doing well fundamentally and some of the things I'm not doing so well and the staff is coaching me up."
The dearth of quarterbacks on the roster, especially experienced ones, has also allowed Sanders to devote more time to some of the more intricate aspects of the position with Newton.
"I'm spending more time teaching him protections than I was earlier (in his career)," Sanders said. "I think he understands protections better."
Although Newton is doing all the things that have been asked of him, spring practices have not always gone quite as the staff would like them to in the passing game. As you might expect with a mostly new group of starters at the skill positions, there have been some bumps in the road.
In spite of the occasional struggles, Sanders likes the attitude he has seen from Newton.
"Morgan has been very eager to learn," Sanders said. "The quarterback is a leader and a point man on offense and I think his attitude has been great and it's kind of rubbed off on our offense. Our offense has a lot of holes to fill and a lot of production to replace but we have a lot of guys that are eager and ready to do that."
Veterans like Hartline, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke were logical leaders on offense, but their departure calls for Newton, among others, to fill the void.
"It's different," Newton said. "I haven't been in this position before here at UK. I'm definitely taking on a leadership role and a lot of other guys who haven't been in leadership positions are doing so as well. It's a different experience but we continue to carry forward."
It won't happen overnight, but Newton understands that leadership is all-encompassing.
"To be a leader you have to do things right off the field, on the field, in the meeting room, in the community and everything else," Sanders said. "He's off to a great start that way."
With so many important holes needing to be filled on offense, developing chemistry with the new group at the skill positions is another must. Again, that will be a process, but Newton's well-established relationships with teammates like La'Rod King, Jordan Aumiller, Brian Adams and Jonathan George should help.
"A lot of the guys that are stepping up now are the guys I came in with," Newton said. "These are guys I hang out with. We're real close, but we haven't done on it on the field together yet. There's already a chemistry from knowing each other. It's just a matter of continuing to get more reps on the field and things with continue to improve for us."
Even though the Wildcats have to replace a great deal of production, one reason to be excited about the offense for the 2011 season is the unique skillset that Newton brings to the quarterback position. Newton has a big arm, but he is also a dangerous and powerful runner, something that will add an element of flexibility to the offense.
While former quarterbacks like Andre' Woodson and Mike Hartline were adept throwers, they were not major threats on the ground. That limited offensive options, particularly out of the shotgun formation, which is used extensively at UK.
"With Woodson or Mike Hartline getting in the gun, you have a couple of (running) plays," Phillips said. "You either have some type of zone scheme with your running back, or you have to throw the ball. You didn't have any downhill running game. But with Morgan Newton we've got some downhill running game because you're really in the two‑back offense when you have him back there in the shotgun."
Even though Phillips and Sanders are sometimes caught talking about Newton as if he has already earned the starter's role, this spring is not without an element of competition at quarterback.
Ryan Mossakowski's decision to leave the program certainly reduced the competition Newton is facing, but freshman Max Smith is on campus early and impressed coaches in practices leading up to the bowl game in January.
"We're really excited about what we saw in the five (pre-bowl) practices with Max Smith, and that will continue to be a competition at that position with Max Smith pushing Morgan," Phillips said.
The fact that Smith arrived on campus early will allow him to compete for playing time.
"For him to have any chance to be able to play early or be a factor at all early, spring practice is pretty much a requirement," Sanders said. "Having him here this spring gives him a chance. Randall Cobb played as a freshman at quarterback (without attending spring practice), but his game wasn't necessarily throwing it. It was more run game and things like that. With Max's skill set, to come in and play and be a factor you pretty much have to have spring practice."
Smith's ability to make all the throws on the field is exciting for the coaching staff, but he is facing the same steep learning curve that Newton did upon arriving at UK.
"Max seems to see pretty well downfield and he throws it well," Sanders said. "He can throw the ball well and that helps you get beyond the fact that, right now, with all the plays we put in and all the defenses that have been put in, his head is swimming."
The freshman did not expect to be in the position of competing for a starting job or even the backup job this early.
"It's great," Smith said. "Obviously I didn't expect that right away. I expected that I was going to start at the three and work my way up from there. It's a little bit nerve-wracking, but I'm preparing myself as best I can."
Smith is a native of Los Angeles, so the adjustment to life in Lexington has been major.
"The adjustment to Lexington was kind of a big change coming from Los Angeles," Smith said. "The time change I don't really like, but I'm used to it now and it's not so bad. I like Lexington a lot."
Even though Smith is Newton's main competition, he is not afraid to say he has been impressed by what Smith can do.
"Max is a very talented guy," Newton said. "He's got a lot of tools. He has a big arm and he can make all the throws. He's definitely a guy who aspires to get better every day. He's very similar to me coming in, I think. Our offense is not one you get overnight. It's going to take a lot of preparation, a lot of practice and a lot of reps. There are going to be some things he has to learn and there are going to be some growing pains, but everybody should be excited for him."
The leadership role that Newton now plays calls on him to help Smith in any way he can and that is something he has embraced.
"We have a pretty good relationship," Newton said. "We're pretty good friends. It's my job to try to give him as much information as I can to help him to try to make Kentucky better. That's what's important at the end of the day."
- Lost in head coach John Calipari's third Final Four appearance is the fact that he's just one win away from another 30-win season. A win over Connecticut would give Kentucky its 30th victory of the season, the eighth career 30-win season for Calipari and his sixth straight, the only coach in NCAA Division history I to do so. (Apologies for the obvious mistake earlier. Don't blog on no sleep.)
- Kentucky signee Kyle Wiltjer, the least heralded of next year's mega recruiting class, won Monday night's McDonald's All-America 3-point contest in Chicago. Wiltjer finished with 17 points in the final round to edge Duke's Quinn Cook. Steve Jones from The Cats' Pause has the full scoop, plus here's video highlights from the contest.
- The nation just can't get enough of Jorts. One day after cutting down the nets in Newark, N.J., senior forward Josh Harrellson was on the Scott Van Pelt Show on Monday. You can listen to the podcast here. Make sure you listen to the end. You won't want to miss the part about the bullet Josh Harrellson threw off Ohio State's Jared Sullinger.
- The madness of the Final Four has kind of overshadowed some developing news in regards to a new basketball arena. Lexington Mayor Jim Gray appointed a 42-member group Monday to study the future of Rupp Arena and the Lexington Center. The committee will be in charge of determining the feasibility of redesigning and renovating Rupp Arena. The Lexington Herald-Leader has the full details.
- If you missed the Cats getting off the plane at Blue Grass Airport late Sunday night, WKYT had live coverage as it happened. Check out the replay below.
John Calipari, along with Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, VCU coach Shaka Smart and Butler coach Brad Stevens, were on a Final Four teleconference Monday to speak with the media. Here is the full transcript from Calipari and Calhoun.
COACH JOHN CALIPARI
DAVE WORLOCK:We have Coach John Calipari on the phone.We'll jump right into questions and get you on your way.
Q.You and Jim have both been here several times before.What do you see in him that allows him to take all these different kinds of teams, especially like a young group, to a Final Four?What is it about his makeup?
COACH CALIPARI:I think he's a battler and I think he holds the bar high and doesn't accept anything except their best.He gets them to a point where they look at it and say, Hey, we can do this.And he has talented players.
He named some names of guys that are in the league and doing very well.So he got talented players to buy in and has done a great job throughout his whole career.
Q.Every year there's talk about Jim retiring, Jim going out.Obviously this year he's back in the Final Four.There seems to be something about this guy and other great coaches that they don't think about the end.Do you see him as one of these guys?
COACH CALIPARI:I see me as one of those guys, that I see the end.I don't see him seeing the end (laughter).
I would be stunned when that day comes and he said, You know what, I'm not going to coach.I would be stunned.I would be like, Wow, I never expected it.
It's what he does, he coaches.He gets kids better, he wins.He creates an atmosphere within his team.But he's as good as they get.
Q.I know you discussed it many times over the years because it happened to you a few times, but there's been a lot of talk about late‑game possessions.Seems there's been so many key free throws missed all over the place.Have you seen a drop‑off in players making free throws?What is the difference in current players from players 30 years ago?
COACH CALIPARI:I don't know 20, 30 years ago, but I will tell you, I've had teams that have been really bad free‑throw shooting teams.As a matter of fact, the worst going into a tournament, I think it was 2008.At the end it did not hurt us throughout the whole tournament until a minute to go in a game and we started missing free throws.So it can affect you.
But I think the kids are playing so fast.The kids are working on ball skills that they don't go shoot 500 free throws a day like we used to.I just don't think that's the most important thing on their radar screen.
Q.I know you work on it in practice, but do you have a limited window in terms of the amount of practice time you put in?Are free throws something that's up to the player to work on on their own?
COACH CALIPARI:What we've done to really, really, really improve our free‑throw shooting is we recruited better free‑throw shooters.That's what I can tell you.
Q.Earlier in the year it seemed like Terrence Jones was scoring a lot more, but as the year progressed it seemed like he hasn't taken on as big of a scoring load but the team has progressed better.How would you say that he's accepted the role change, if you will?How do you view his improvements over the course of the season?
COACH CALIPARI:He's gotten better and better.What's happened is people are zeroing in on him and they're really making runs at him and they're trying to make him give up the ball, which is a smart thing.If they play him one‑on‑one, he's going to be able to get baskets down.
The other thing that's happened is he's been playing against better competition so now all of a sudden it's not so easy.But he is a much better player than he was at the beginning of the year.He's in better condition.He's tougher.He's rougher.He's shooting the ball better.But he's not taking as many shots and he's playing against a better level of player.
Q.Would you say mentally he's tougher, as well?
COACH CALIPARI:I think he's mentally tougher.But I think this stuff is for all these young kids.This is high level.It's like Brandon the game before against Ohio State couldn't make a shot till that last shot.This is not easy.These kids are 18 and 19 years old.My veterans have probably performed as well as anybody.
Now, Brandon's last game was phenomenal.But the reality of it is these are young kids.They're young.
Q.When you look back to going to the Final Four with UMass, you were 36, 37, how much did that embolden you in developing the self‑confidence in you that you were going to be a very good college coach?
COACH CALIPARI:Well, I think what I've learned at an early age is just to continue to make this about these kids, to continue to try to make kids better, and then have them buy into team, whether it's team defense or being unselfish.But it still comes back to:How do I get individual players better?Not just one or two guys, but the entire team.How does each individual improve?How do they feel unleashed?Make it more about them or me or style of play or any of that.That's what I try to do.
But, again, we were fortunate that Marcus Camby wanted to play for us.We went from a top‑20 team, we were a good team, to one of those teams.Kind of the same stuff at Memphis.We were a top‑20 team, did some good stuff, then all of a sudden we jump up to that next level.
This is totally different than that.We lost five first‑round draft picks and two backup players who were starters the year before.So we lost seven guys.To replace them with some inexperienced veterans and freshmen and be like this, this team has done phenomenal this year.We really improved, really improved as the year went along.
Q.When you look back at being a young coach at that time, did you feel validated in terms of the direction you were going individually by getting to a Final Four at that early stage of your career?
COACH CALIPARI:No.I don't think you ever feel validated in this profession because this is kind of like golf:you think you've got it figured out, you get humbled real quick.I followed up that Final Four, within a year and a half I was fired in New Jersey.So I don't know if it validated anything.Obviously it made me feel good at the time.
But this is a humbling profession.It's very, very hard.It can be very rewarding, but it also could be one of those things that you get slapped in the mouth when you really think:I got this figured out.
Let me explain to all that are listening:I do not have this figured out.One of the reasons we lost six close games in our league is I was trying to figure it out with my team.We wanted to put it on individual players.It wasn't about our team.We didn't know how to finish a game yet because I hadn't figured out my team yet.
As we went forward and we started believing in each other, figuring out each other, how we're going to play, the team did better.
I'll tell you, what you feel is blessed and lucky and fortunate because there are so many coaches in our profession who are as good as they get that have never been to a Final Four, but they're unbelievable coaches.Sometimes it's luck; other times it's the situation they're in.
I mean, they're at a school, there's no way that school should be at a Final Four ever.If they get to an Elite 8, it's like winning a national title.I think that's part of it.
Plus I can't remember back that long.I know I was in my mid 30s.I'm now in my late 40s.I think I'm a little older than that.But, you know, trying to just think ahead I guess.
Q.I've asked each of the coaches this.I'm wondering if there was a practice, a game, a meeting this year where you felt your team really galvanized, sort of came together, and this kind of run became improbable to maybe possible?
COACH CALIPARI:Well, we had a span of games when we lost to Arkansas on the road in overtime, we had to play Vanderbilt at home, Florida at home, had to go to Tennessee.All three NCAA tournament teams to end our season.
I think after that Arkansas game, they had a players‑only meeting.Normally those meetings don't do anything.But I think they wanted to understand each other.The veterans talked about committing to what they had to do.The young kids committed to what they had to do.I think they just came together.
It's not like we changed how we played.We had to make plays at the end of games.We had to finish a game offensively and had to figure out how we did it.But they came together.That's when it was.
Q.As a guy who's been around it now, when you hear that a players‑only meeting has been called, do you say to yourself, I want to see how this next practice and game goes?What's the message it sends to you?
COACH CALIPARI:Here is my thing:there's only one thing that brings about change within a team, and that's a crisis.I don't think meetings do anything.
If that meeting was brought about because of a crisis and we're telling everybody, This ship is going down, folks, don't take this lightly, we have to change or we're going down.That may change.
But to just have a meeting, I don't think they do anything.But I do know this:a crisis will bring about change.We were in that crisis mode after that Arkansas game.
Q.I wanted to know how much you know about either Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart.Having been where they are at a fairly young age, how impressed are you with what they've been able to do already?
COACH CALIPARI:I will tell you, they're both better than I was at that stage.Both of them.What Brad has done.You're talking about guys, I've been in their shoes, and I know how hard it is, one, to get your kids to forget about what that name on the front of the jersey is versus that name.This is about bodies in jerseys.This is about who is in the jersey, not what name is on the jersey.
So I know how hard that is.I also know you're not going to get a break.You got to go out and do it.And as a coach, you got to battle.You can't accept anything.I've watched those guys coach.I think they're battling both in their own ways.I think they've got their teams believing, which is so hard to do.
But the biggest thing in both cases, not only do they believe, they're doing it together.They're truly good teams.Some of the best teams I had was when we were at Massachusetts.That last team I had was maybe one of the best teams that I coached.
This team is becoming that kind of team, the one I'm coaching now.But that's the challenge of this.
Q.Coach, is there a special pride or different sort of pride you take in having done this in multiple programs now, different scenarios?
COACH CALIPARI:What I take grade pride in is players at each of those programs have done well and gone on to do well.You think about not only my young kids that everyone talks about, Josh Harrelson's life has change, so has DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller.They've now put themselves on a different trajectory.I'm as proud of that as anything I've done with a team.
When I first took the job at Kentucky, I said this is going to be a players‑first program.Some people were angry about that.I look at this and say, If we can do right by these young people, then they'll do right by us and we'll accomplish as a program what we're trying to accomplish.But we've got to do right by them.We've got to help them reach their dreams too.During the season it's about team, after the season it's about each individual player.
It's a neat thing.I never thought about it that way, like I don't do this by numbers, how many wins, this.I'm just coaching these guys.I try to stay focused on them.
If you're worried about numbers, if you're worried about all that other stuff, I think it takes us off point of why we do what we do, which is trying to help young people get from Point A to Point B, and in some cases get from Point A to Paint Z.That's all I'm trying to do.
Q.You've done it at UMass, going to a Final Four from a school that is 'out of the BCS leagues.'How much does a program have to make of an opportunity like that to keep building?
COACH CALIPARI:That's a great question.That is a great question because what happens is sometimes they think they don't have to reinvest.Sometimes they don't look at, All right, we've done this, but now how do we make this better?
Let me make the analogy.For Butler, and I know Butler, and I know VCU, they've got great administrations, both of them, great ADs.That snowball is big and it's rolling downhill.
My suggestion is, Push it faster because down the road a little bit there's going to be a ridge and that snowball has to make it over that ridge.If you don't push it down the hill faster, it won't make it over that ridge.
If you want to keep this rolling, you reinvest in practice facilities, you reinvest in all the things that surround these players, academic support, the recruiting budget so they can continue to go out in doing it, scheduling, driving TV games.
I thought at both UMass and Memphis, Bob Barkham (phonetic) and R.C. Johnson did that.They kept reinvesting in the programs which kept the program going to the next level.I think it's so important for those programs.
As I say that, both have ADs that understand that, that are as good as they get.
DAVE WORLOCK:Thank you, Coach Calipari.We appreciate your time.We'll see you in a couple days.Safe travels down to Houston.
COACH CALIPARI:Thank you.
COACH JIM CALHOUN
DAVE WORLOCK:We have Coach Calhoun on the phone.Thank you for your time and congratulations.
We'll jump right into the Q&A with the media.Let's go ahead and take our first call.
Q. Coach, you did this when you first arrived at Connecticut.How difficult is it to get to this point for one of these smaller schools and how much do you have to make of this moment in order to build what you've built at Connecticut?
COACH CALHOUN:First thing, you seize every moment.In our first 13 years, we had some great players, Ray Allen, just some terrific players in our program, didn't get to a Final Four.My advice for my three sons would be this, my two sons plus my problem child, I'm the oldest of the group, that's what I feel like, very simple point being that you always think it's a natural thing.I didn't.I was at Northeastern for 14 years.In '86 I came to UConn.Got hit by a Christian Laettner shot in 1990.Lost to Oakland in 1996.Lost to a terrific Carolina team with Vince Carter and company.We were really close and couldn't get there.Then we finally got there.
I enjoyed every moment.Brought a team in on Tuesday night and we made sure in Tampa, St. Pete, to really enjoy it.Then we were fortunate to go back in 2004, 2009.You just don't know whether you're going to go back or not.A lot of things can happen.I think of the great John Cheney who never got to a Final Four, who is in the Hall of Fame, rightfully so, great players that haven't been to a Final Four.
I would say soak up the moment, enjoy every single moment, make sure your kids enjoy the Final Four.
One thing as far as small schools.If they have five really good players and a pretty good bench, there's no such thing as a small school in the sport of basketball.
Q.Over four months ago now you sent the huge statement by finishing off Maui with a victory over Kentucky.How different are these teams?How much can you learn from looking back on that game?
COACH CALHOUN:Well, nothing, absolutely nothing, except I enjoyed the last four minutes of the first half.I have a pretty good memory.I remember when we were really playing well.I think we went from plus five or so to putting up 50 points.We had I think an 18‑point lead at halftime.It was not an indication of what they've become, not an indication of what we really went through.
It's two different teams playing each other.I'm sure they remember maybe even more than we do.I don't know that.I don't remember when we played or didn't play a great game.They came together a different lot.We're different.Jeremy Lamb wasn't a factor.Big star was quite frankly Niels Giffey.I don't think there's anything in that game.Technically we ran, got ahead, everything else kind of fell in place for us.
I guess the point I'm making to you is I don't think that game means anything in this particular game.They're now a terrific three‑point shooting team.I think one of the things John has done is particularly good is run, control halfcourt offense, and of course they make threes like crazy.They always could drive, but now they drive.If you try to take that away, they're going to make shots from the outside.They use really their veterans exceptionally well to help their young freshmen who are no longer young.They're very good players.
That game means nothing, no.
Q.Coach, you mentioned your two sons, Coach Cal.The fact that Brad and Shaka have both gotten here at such young ages, what does that tell you about them as coaches and what do you know about them?
COACH CALHOUN:I know Brad pretty well in the sense that I got to know him a little bit, see him on different occasions.He's the personification, in my opinion, of what I hope ‑‑ I shouldn't say sunset, because that's an awful thing to see.I started to see my career not winding down because we're going to the Final Four, but a different perspective.Brad is the epitome of what you want our profession to represent.
Obviously what's happened at VCU I love because it's something I would have thought about doing, didn't by the way, to burn up a month.I love it.I love it.And John Calipari, who always has been an aggressive, incredible personality has developed into a terrific basketball coach.
That's kind of how I know them.All I have to do is watch the VCU team play and I know they're an extension of their coach.I don't have to know them that well.I think I've met him once.I've known John for a long time. But, no, it's a different group than I've normally been there with when I've been fortunate enough to be in the Final Four.
You know, they're reflective really of this game.As we started to have kids leave earlier and earlier, I think what it's done, without noticing this much, this year we noticed, there's been less and less power teams.I said all year there's some terrific basketball teams, Pitt, Ohio State, Kansas, et cetera.But they may not be a great team.If it's not a great team, it opens up the field for everybody else.Thus, that's what happened.
They should be congratulated, thoroughly enjoy it.There's no guarantees you're going to get back.I don't care who you're coaching, it's tough to get there.
Q.When you are that young, what is the biggest challenge you have as a coach?
COACH CALHOUN:I think the biggest thing is keep being yourself.I don't think there's any change in playing in the Final Four or playing in an exhibition game as the season starts.There's a lot more responsibility, different type of things.But the best thing to do is be who you are as a coach and understand what got you there.
If you had a terrific win somewhere over Old Dominion, I'm using VCU as an example, that's what you need to get now to try to beat Butler.Butler has tremendous wins over whomever it may be.That's really what you need to do.
I think both John and I come from at least playing against 'big‑name' teams.One of the greatest championships I ever won was when (indiscernible) High School won its 18th straight game to win the league championship when I was 24 years old.I tell people that, they laugh at me.
The coach is the coach, the game is the game.If you treat it like that, you'll be just fine.
Q.Having been around as long as you have, having some security there, are you able to enjoy or appreciate the fact there are so many teams now, whether it's in football or in your sport, there really does seem to be something that the establishment has almost lost its complete control on winning the championship?
COACH CALHOUN:You're right.And it has.It's changed greatly.In our sport because I think kids have gone out early, all you have to do is go to the NBA today, grab a Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo, and I think what would Griffin be, a senior, to grab some of the kids in the NBA and maybe the establishment would still be the establishment.
That's not the facts.The facts are simply you're right, whether it be football, TCU, Boise State, any other schools, certainly with VCU this year, there's an opportunity for teams.I think that's good.I think it's healthy.
In my 14 years, when I started real young at 28 at Northeastern University, making our way through, yeah, we always felt 'the elite' were the elite.Just to play them was great, not just to beat them.Now everybody can beat everybody.
I think it's good for the sport.I still believe the kid should be in for three years or go right from high school, but that's just my opinion.It's better for both games, for the NBA and college basketball.With the way it is now, it's kind of like the wild, wild west.May the best team win and it doesn't need to have pedigree attached to it.
Q.I'm sure you've been around long enough to see this and get a chuckle out of it.If a college basketball coach has been in a power conference for a long enough time, they get painted with broad strokes.The young, up‑and‑coming guy is the saintly, fresh‑faced kid who does everything right, graduates 110% of his players.Is there an inevitability that it doesn't matter what you're doing, is there something about that, that you see that it's a can't‑win proposition?When you're 30 and young and hot, everybody loves you.If you coach long enough, you're going to be a bad guy to somebody.
COACH CALHOUN:To somebody, no question.If you stay a long time at a place, they get upset you only won 24 games and didn't get to the Final Four.It's the best, quite frankly, analogy I've heard of why sometimes after, in my case, 39 years as a Division I head coach, particularly the last 25 years at UConn, there's no way you're going to please everybody.That's what you really find out.If I please my God, my family, that's very important to me, and then please my players and my university, then I'm fine.You have to develop that.If you don't, it's going to make coaching long‑term‑wise very, very difficult.
What I'm sometimes painted at or perceived as, clearly I don't recognize that person (laughter).You get stuck with something.All of a sudden that becomes you.It's so far away from you, it's unbelievable.
By the way, that's good and bad, too.There's some good things, too.Bottom line is, without question, the shine will wear off the car.That's a Boston car, by the way.And you'll get nicks and dents and bumps.Hopefully when it's all said and done, you can look back, see what you did for your kids, university and community.I've been involved here for 25 years at UConn.
You're a hundred percent right.Right now it's shining, new.The paint is so fresh that obviously they could never, ever even use a curse word.I saw it with myself in the early days.Always I was a miracle worker.20 years later, I still know the game.Things change.
But I'm delighted that I have had the opportunity and want to continue to do it, to coach this wonderful game with some incredible people at this university.
COACH CALHOUN:Jimmy's win, they beat us, they beat Wichita State, North Carolina and Michigan State.That's a pretty good résumé for a lifetime, never mind a mid‑major school or a run that Jimmy had.
Q.I guess could you expand on what you just said, is there any feeling of déjà vu?
COACH CALHOUN:We are playing them right off the gap.We are playing a pretty good Kentucky team.I see that happening more and more.You can go back to UNC Charlotte with Maxwell.I'm really dating myself.I'm saying it happened before.Sometimes we're really surprised.
I think it's happening more and more as long as we continue to have our league players.Kemba Walker is an elite player.We just played against Derrick Williams.God, is he good.Fredette is a great player.There's just not as many of them on one team anymore.You're going to do this ride.If the rules stay as they are right now, you're going to see this ride a lot more times.It's wonderful.
I don't know what at VCU they're following.They're a terrific basketball team.At one point they we're the 250th defensive team in the country.Now they beat the heck out of you.This is what 39 years of experience does.When you get on a run, it builds upon itself.I've always said this.When I was at Northeastern, we played in the tournament five or six times.We played 10 games or something over that period of time.When we were down 6, we had you just where we want you.Now at UConn, when we're up 6, I start to feel dry mouth (laughter).You know what I'm saying to you?
COACH CALHOUN:In all those games, the shoe has definitely fit differently.So maybe it's good that Cal and I are playing each other.
Q.Jim, I know both Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb visited Connecticut their senior years and considered it.How frustrating was it when those guys chose not to go to Connecticut and at that point how confident were you in Shabazz Napier, that he could play at a high level?
COACH CALHOUN:Funny you mention those two kids.There was a great deal of disappointment.One time we were recruiting a kid named Brandon Jennings.He committed to us as he did with the other two schools he visited.At one time we determined that Brandon didn't make his mind up so we went after a kid we thought we could get, named Kemba Walker.He turned out okay, to say the least.When we got Shabazz and Jeremy Lamb, we think we got two pretty good players.Next year, Shabazz is going to mold into one of the best point guards in the country.Jeremy has already molded into one of the best freshman in the country.
The one thing I would guarantee you after 39 years of doing this, you get a lot more nos than you do yeses.You have to make sure you're going after enough good kids that have great potential.They give you those years just to make a difference.
No question, we were disappointed.Ironic we're playing two kids we went very hard after.
Q.When you recruited Kemba, did you have any idea that this kid would have that type of upside?
COACH CALHOUN:I think all my kids are.If you've heard me in the press conference talking about Kemba, years ago Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Omeka Okafor, Ben Gordon, all the grade players we've had, you recruit them because you think they can someday be special.That's what I do anyways.I believe in them.I think that helps to some.
Kemba was quick and fast.Some guys are quick and some guys are fast, he's both.He's competitive as any kid we have recruited.
The thing that, I'll be very honest with you, that I didn't know was his competitive drive also allowed him to put in a summer, like where he played for the national select team, and to put in two to three hours every single day shooting the basketball.That's changed in many, many ways so much of his game.He was a terrific player last year.Obviously you're right, right now he's as good of a player in the country, midrange jump shot, he can make threes.To me he's the most valuable player in the United States.So when I recruited him, I thought I was going to get a quick New York City point push guard, defender, all that type of thing.And he's evolved into even more than that.
Q.Everybody is talking about the Cinderella coming from a VCU or Butler.You were ranked 9th a couple weeks ago when you hit the Garden for the Big East tournament.What has that been like?Have you used that to help motivate your team?
COACH CALHOUN:I haven't used that as much.True sense, we thought we had something to prove.We thought we lost two or three real close games that could have made us a team with a double seed.We were two games against getting a double bye in the tournament.We had beaten Texas at Texas, Tennessee, Michigan State, Kentucky.We had some great wins.Bottom line is that, yeah, we felt we were just an afterthought in the Big East.We went to Madison Square Garden to prove something different.Nine games later we proved something different.
These kids have been incredible, resilient.They have as much energy on a Saturday night to beat Louisville as Saturday to beat DePaul.This has been a great ride for me and these kids have been absolutely special.
Q.Questions about recruiting.If you ever thought about if history changed, if Brandon had said yes, how that might have changed the way the team looked.What would you have done with Kemba?Did that ever enter your mind how they would have worked together?
COACH CALHOUN:It really hasn't.I think if I spent all my time on the kids we lost, I'll fantasize, we would have won a lot of championships because we lost a lot of good players.I'm more interested in the kids we get.I really think about who we have, what they're going to do.Kemba and Shabazz, how they work together.They work pretty good.Won 30 games.Shabazz has been sensational for us, quite frankly taken a lot of pressure off of Kemba this year, allowed us to play him other than as just a point guard.
Q.There's no guarantees you ever get back.This is your fourth time.Two years ago you had a shot to win it for that third time.Have you given much thought to your legacy, what it would mean to be elevated up into that category?What would that mean to you?
COACH CALHOUN:I said this before we played Arizona very simply that I wanted to go back, without question.My staff, I wanted them to go back, first time a couple of them.I wanted this team to go back.This team has given us an incredible year, our university, the fan base.They've been a loveable team.Given everything they possibly had.I want them to go to No. 1.
Any legacy stuff I can look at later.Right now I just can't wait to get this team to the Final Four, to have them see something they've never experienced in their life.Only Kemba and Donnell played in the Final Four in Detroit.
Q.You and your players spoke a lot in Anaheim about that practice after the Notre Dame game.You mentioned that you said to them, I'm not going to quit on you and I'm not going to let you quit on yourselves.Did you say that at the beginning of the practice?Did you see something in practice that said, I've got to stop this?
COACH CALHOUN:You're right.We came out of that Notre Dame game, led most of the way, lost the game.For the first time I thought they looked down.This team has not looked down.It's been amazing resilience for the entire ride all the way through.We're pretty good.We were 21 games.Knew we were going to the NCAA tournament.The heck with this.We're not going to put our heads down.For the next two and a half hours, the basketball wasn't as important as the activity, how physical we were with each other, how we really went at t and said we're going to do it tomorrow, weren't going to quit,.We just attacked the new season, that became post‑season, then Madison Square Garden, then the Verizon Center, then the Pond out in Anaheim.Thank got now it's become Houston, Texas.
Q.Did you say that at the very beginning of that practice?
COACH CALHOUN:Yeah, that's how we started practice.Usually the thought of the day.I kind of went on that day just about this journey, the things they accomplished.You've got new life.Very few people have a second chance.We automatically have a second chance because we have the Big East tournament.That's our second chance.
We'll play after that.But more importantly, let's go back to being the team we are and let's just play basketball.Stop this worrying about everything else.You haven't worried for most of the year.All of a sudden I see, at the close of the Notre Dame game, no one on this team is going to quit.As a matter of fact, we're going to be even better.We're going to be a better basketball team by the time we get to play in New York on Tuesday.
DAVE WORLOCK:Thank you, Coach Calhoun.We appreciate your time today.Best of luck and safe travels to Houston.
Men's basketball - Kentucky advances to the Final Four for the 14th time in program history and the first time since the 1998 season. - John Calipari joins Rick Pitino as the only coach in NCAA history to lead three different teams to the Final Four. - Kentucky is the first team to lose the No. 1 overall pick (John Wall) to the NBA Draft and make the Final Four the following season since Virginia lost Ralph Sampson in 1984. - UK hit 12 3-pointers in the regional final against North Carolina, which is tied for the fifth most in an NCAA Tournament game for Kentucky. - Brandon Knight was named the East Region Most Outstanding Player. Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins joined him on the All-Tournament team.
Softball - Kentucky swept Mississippi State in SEC action for the second time in three seasons and captured the series over the Bulldogs for the third straight season. - In the series-clincher, junior pitcher Chanda Bell threw UK's first no-hitter in SEC action in an 8-0 victory. Bell struck out 11 in the win. It was the second no-hitter of the season for UK's hurler. - Kentucky hit four homers in the opening game of the series to set a program record for the most long balls in a single outing. Megan Yocke, Brittany Cervantes, Lauren Cumbess and Rachel Riley all connected for a homer in the win.
Baseball - Kentucky posted a pair of wins during the midweek, riding a 4-2 win over Cincinnati and a 12-4 win over Canisius on Wednesday. The Wildcats then traveled to Alabama for its first road series in SEC play on the year. 'Bama rode a complete-game shutout performance from ace right-hander Nathan Kilcrease on Friday and took advantage of a UK error in the bottom of the ninth for a walk-off win on Saturday. In the Sunday game, 'Bama plated four runs in the first inning and the Wildcats couldn't recover, falling in a series sweep with a 9-3 loss. - The Wildcats have been led by freshman J.T. Riddle, who has batted .349 with five doubles, two homers and 11 RBI. Outfielder Chad Wright hit .348 with three homers and 19 RBI, adding 11 stolen bases. Senior shortstop Taylor Black hit .317 with six doubles, two triples, one homer and 19 RBI, while center fielder Brian Adams has hit .306 with six doubles, eight RBI and five steals. - As a team, UK has hit .302 through 25 games with 17 homers and 144 runs scored, adding 43 stolen bases and a .973 fielding percentage. On the mound, UK owns a 3.93 team ERA with eight saves and 208 strikeouts in 219.2 innings.
Men's tennis - The Kentucky men's tennis team wrapped up a seven-match home stand this week with dominating wins over No. 43 Maryland and Eastern Kentucky. The Wildcats dropped it's lone SEC match of the week 4-1 to Auburn. - The win over Maryland was Kentucky's 11th this season over a top-50 ranked team and the two non-conference home wins extended UK's home non-conference winning streak to 25 matches. - Freshman Tom Jomby was named SEC Freshman of the Week last week for his efforts two weeks ago with Kentucky's wins over Notre Dame, Butler and Alabama.
Women's tennis - Kentucky won all three doubles matches en route to a 6-1 win over Auburn, with senior Megan Broderick and freshman Khristina Blajkevitch clinching the doubles point and grabbing their team-leading fourth victory at the No. 1 position. - Broderick won her eighth victory in singles play with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Auburn's Paulina Schippers at No. 1. Broderick leads Kentucky with three victories in SEC competition. - Blajkevitch earned a win over Auburn and was also the lone player to capture a victory in the loss to Alabama.
Swimming and diving - Freshman diver Greg Ferrucci placed 33rd on the one-meter board at the NCAA Championships before suffering a quad injury that forced him to withdraw from the remaining competition. - Senior forward Victoria Dunlap has been selected as one of the top 40 finalists for the 2011 State Farm Coaches' All-America Team, as announced by The Women's Basketball Coaches Association, in cooperation with State Farm. The finalists, who are voted upon by WBCA-member coaches in each of the eight WBCA geographical regions, are now in the running for selection to the 10-member State Farm Coaches' All-America Team.
Monday, March 28 Men's golf at Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegaite (Awendaw, S.C.)
Tuesday, March 29 Baseball hosts Tennessee Tech - 4 p.m. Men's golf at Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegaite (Awendaw, S.C.)
Friday, April 1 Men's tennis at Florida - 3 p.m. Women's tennis hosts Florida - 4 p.m. Softball hosts Florida - 7 p.m. Baseball at South Carolina • 7 p.m. Women's golf at Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic (Athens, Ga.) Track and field at Florida Relays
Saturday, April 2 Softball hosts Florida - 1 p.m. Baseball at South Carolina - 4:30 p.m. Gymnastics at NCAA Regional - 7 p.m. (Tuscaloosa, Ala.) Men's basketball vs. Connecticut • 8:49 p.m. (Houston) Women's golf at Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic (Athens, Ga.) Track and field at Florida Relays
Sunday, April 3 Women's tennis hosts South Carolina - noon Softball hosts Florida - 1 p.m. Men's tennis at South Carolina - 1 p.m. Baseball at South Carolina - 1:30 p.m. Women's golf at Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic (Athens, Ga.) Men's basketball vs. VCU/Butler - 9 p.m. (Houston)
On this Monday, everybody is talking about the Wildcats' 76-69 Final Four clinching win over North Carolina. We've had plenty of coverage last night and this morning, but here are some of the best stories from around the Internet on UK's return trip to the Final Four in case you're looking for some celebratory reading material.
- OK, we all know the Josh Harrellson story by now. We all know he's one of the most underrated players in the country. But come on. Josh Harrellson?! Jorts?! The story will never get old. The thing I think everyone needs to take out of Sunday night's performance is that he's no longer just an underrated, feel-good story anymore. I know I've said it on here recently, but he is legitimately turning into one of college basketball's best big men. He wasn't named the East Regional Most Outstanding Player after a 12-point, eight-rebound performance in the win over North Carolina - Brandon Knight was, although Harrellson was named to the All-Regional team - but he very well may be the Cats' most valuable player in this amazing run. Without him, UK would have a hole the size of Houston inside. Sunday night, it was about his defense again. Sure, Tyler Zeller scored 21 points, but they were hard earned again. Harrellson's ability to hold his ground against the 7-foot Zeller allowed the Kentucky defense to collapse down and force Zeller into four turnovers.
- Vacated schmacated (something like that, right?). The NCAA has officially vacated John Calipari's Final Four appearances with Massachusetts and Memphis, but in everyone else's book, he just became the second coach in college basketball history to lead three different teams to the Final Four. The other, of course, is Rick Pitino. Said Calipari: "We will all be judged 50 years from now. The good news is, there will be no emotion to it where someone wants to be nasty and mean; it won't be that. It will be, here's the facts, here's what he's done, there it is. Play it out. Do you like it or not? I'm young enough that I am not worried about legacy. I am trying to win one more game. But I would tell you I hope people look back and say, 'Boy, he does a good job with his kids and they get better and they play and they go on to good careers, where it is basketball or business or education, whatever it is. He prepares them for life after basketball.' I hope that would be what it is."
- Yes, rapper and New Jersey Nets minority owner Jay-Z was in the locker room postgame to celebrate with the Kentucky players and congratulate them on the victory. Although the Cats are stars in the eyes of Kentucky fans, even they get a little starry eyed when they meet their heroes. "That was my favorite rapper," freshman guard Doron Lamb said. "I was so excited to see him. I took a picture with him, so I'm good with that." Said freshman forward Terrence Jones: "The best rapper is in the building. I can't believe it." When Larry Vaught of the Danville Advocate-Messenger told Jones Jay-Z was his favorite rapper too, Jones, giddily grinning, looked up and said, "For real?" No, not really, but even Vaught knows how big of a celebrity Jay-Z is. Jay-Z told the team congratulations and to "win the whole thing."
- This Kentucky team sure is good at righting its wrongs. Adding North Carolina to the list, UK is now 5-0 in so-called rematch games this year (teams that UK lost to in the previous matchup). The second Florida win is not included in that statistic and neither is the redemption game against West Virginia. Obviously, that means Kentucky hasn't lost to a team twice this year. How fitting is it that Connecticut, the team that handed the Cats their worst defeat of the year (84-67 in the EA Sports Maui Invitation) is next?
NEWARK, N.J. -- The No. 1 seeds have fallen like dominoes, one after the other. They even took down the No. 2 seeds with them.
For the first time in NCAA Tournament history, there is not a single one or two seed in the Final Four. It's also the highest collection of seeds in the Final Four in tournament history.
The one true heavyweight standing, Kentucky, may not be the highest seed, but the Cats are now being tabbed the favorite to win it all in Houston.
Yeah, that same team that lost to Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas on the road. That same team that lost Enes Kanter at the start of the year. That same team that waved goodbye to five first-round draft picks. That same team that is led by a guy they call "Jorts" who averaged 1.3 points last year.
It's hard to believe, isn't it?
In case you've been living under a rock, an 11 seed, VCU, who had to win a new "first-round" game just to get into the field of 64, has shocked the nation and won five games, including a stunning upset of No. 1 seed Kansas, to make the Final Four. Last year's Cinderella, Butler, is back for its second straight Final Four.
And then, opposite of Kentucky on Saturday is the other favorite and only school to beat UK by double digits this year: Connecticut.
"We love getting redemption games, but UConn is a great team," senior forward Josh Harrellson said. "I don't know how many games they've won in a row. They're like us, on a winning streak. They've been playing tremendous basketball just like us. It's going to be another tough battle, another close game."
Connecticut has won nine straight games, which started with the five-games-in-five-days run in the Big East Tournament.
The Huskies are spearheaded by arguably the top player in the game in Kemba Walker. The junior guard is averaging 23.5 points, and he dropped 29 on the Cats in the 84-67 rout of UK in the EA Sports Maui Invitational in November.
"They've got a great player, one of the best players in the country in Kemba Walker," junior guard/forward Darius Miller said. "They also have a lot of people who have been stepping up recently. I've gotten to see them recently. I know it's going to be a tough game. I'm hoping we can come out and play well."
Kentucky or UConn - who you got it? The winner will likely be the odds-on favorite to win the 2011 national championship.
NEWARK, N.J. -- The pride of Kentucky has returned to a place it hasn't been in far too long.
The longest Final Four drought of college basketball's winningest program came to one jubilant end Sunday night in Newark, N.J. The Kentucky men's basketball team, the Commonwealth's team as John Calipari likes to say, is headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998.
Long has the UK program been the standard in college basketball. As the sport's all-time winningest program and holder of seven national titles, excellence is demanded of the Kentucky basketball team and Final Fours are expected.
It's an annual tradition for the Kentucky basketball players, no matter how highly touted or undervalued they are, to take on both the honor and burden of trying to return to college basketball's greatest stage ever year.
In the 1990s, it seemed like a formality UK would be there every year. The program made it to the national semifinals four times in the '90s, including three straight from 1996-98.
Kentucky hadn't returned since and wasn't expected to again this year.
This was supposed to be the bridge year between two great teams -- last year's fabulous freshman team of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and next year's unprecedented signing class.
"I think we had the most talented team in the NCAA by far last year, position by position" Harrellson said. "This year, I just think we play with more passion and more heart than we did last year."
Rebuilding isn't all that acceptable in the Kentucky program, but it appeared this season was exactly that when UK started to stumble through Southeastern Conference play in January and February and lost four of seven games. When Kentucky dropped a game at Arkansas in mid-February, surely nobody thought an NCAA Tournament run was possible, much less a run to the Final Four.
And yet here they are. The Unexpectables? Yeah, you could call them that.
"We knew we were special, we knew we were talented," sophomore reserve Jon Hood said. "We just had to get it on the right path. We had to complete games down the stretch. Once we did it, started doing it in the SEC Tournament, we knew we could do it."
Hood, a Kentucky native, knows a thing or two about the importance of the basketball team in the state of Kentucky. Growing up on the gravel driveways of Madisonville, Ky., hoisting shots on rickety rims while he watched players like Antoine Walker and Tony Delk cut down the nets in the '90s, he knows that, as the lifeblood of the Commonwealth, the heartbeat of the state beats a little softer, a little slower when the Wildcats aren't at the top of college basketball.
As Final Four chance after Final Four chance eluded the program -- in 1999 against Michigan State, in 2003 versus Marquette, in 2005 against Michigan State and again last year versus West Virginia -- it looked as though Kentucky's grip on the college basketball world was slipping.
Remember, two years ago, before Kentucky hired the program's savior, Calipari, this team was in the NIT. No disrespect, but the National freakin' Invitation Tournament!!!
"We went to the NIT and we are here now and back in the Final Four," said Harrellson, an All-East Regional performer. "We got Kentucky back."
Back where it belongs.
"It means a lot to me, especially being a part of this program," said Darius Miller, another Kentucky native, who was 8 years old the last time UK was in the Final Four. "I grew up in Kentucky, so I know what it means to the state of Kentucky. I'm just happy to be a part of it."
Emotions sank in everywhere in the closing seconds at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. A far less entertaining team than last year's group of rascals, and by far a much more reserved group, the team let loose in the final seconds.
Calipari kissed the sweaty forehead of DeAndre Liggins. The players embraced at the free-throw line. Stacey Poole, as always, jumped, hooted and hollered.
When the buzzer sounded, the dancing began on the court and continued onto the stage. T-shirts waved, Big Blue chants roared and Miller headed to the stands to hug his father. Even the great salesman of Kentucky basketball, Calipari, was left speechless when a reporter pointed out that you're either going to the Final Four a year early or a Final Four too late.
In Lexington, pictures and video surfaced on the web as fans stormed the streets of Limestone and Maxwell.
"Man," Miller said, "we know they're going crazy back home."
They were. Thousands of fans greeted the fans as the Wildcats got off the plane at Blue Grass Airport and Josh Harrellson climbed some airline equipment to hoist the East Regional trophy
The fans have lived, they've died and they've waited a long time for this. The Kentucky players have waited an even longer time to return to the ladder and snip a piece of that nylon.
Liggins, donned with an East Regional championship hat, made his way up the ladder in the postgame to get himself a piece. Sure, he's done it a few times for the SEC championship, but that's not what the Kentucky program is measured by, what it's about.
At some point, you just knew North Carolina would make a run at Kentucky.
In fact, it wasn't just one run. The Tar Heels, behind star freshman Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller, repeatedly came at UK, mounting rally after rally and severely testing the will of the fourth-seeded Wildcats.
In the face of adversity, Brandon Knight, DeAndre Liggins and a bevy of Cats simply would not wilt, leading UK to a 76-69 Elite Eight victory and a long-awaited return trip to the Final Four next weekend in Houston. It's the program's 14th Final Four appearance and first since 1998.
Every time North Carolina threatened, UK answered with a big shot.
"The resiliency this team showed was unbelievable," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "It got late, they tied it up and we didn't back away."
That resiliency came in the form of cold-blooded shot-making right when it looked as if the Tar Heels might just complete another comeback, something that has been a hallmark of their runs in both the NCAA and Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments.
Coming out of halftime trailing 38-30, the Heels wasted no time in testing the Wildcats, scoring consecutive baskets to close within four. However, Liggins was there for the first of many answers, draining a 3-pointer with 17:18 remaining. After a stop, Knight quickly followed with a trey of his own to extend the lead to double digits.
For the remainder of the second half, UNC continually came at UK, but Knight, Liggins, Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones all hit clutch shots that might have been back-breakers for a lesser team, but the Tar Heels would not go down without a final fight.
Barnes led the way for UNC's last stand. He scored eight straight, slicing UK's lead to 67-65 before Tyler Zeller hit a pair of free throws with 3:18 remaining to create the game's first tie since early in the opening half.
UK was in for another last-minute nail-biter to match the Wildcats opening three NCAA Tournament games, but Calipari had faith in his team.
"There were a couple times I thought about calling timeouts and I did not want my guys to think I didn't believe in them," Calipari said. "I wanted them to play through it."
With two buzzer beaters already in his tournament highlight reel, Knight also believed. Knight, the East Region's Most Outstanding Player, was right to be confident, drilling a 3 on a Miller pass to give UK a three-point cushion.
Although Knight will received deserved attention for his clutch play and game-high 22 points, plenty of Wildcats hit big shots on this day and it was someone other than Knight hit the biggest of all.
"It wasn't only me that hit big shots," Knight said. "I think DeAndre hit the biggest shot of the game, you know, when we were up by one to put us up by four. It shows how not only me, but the rest of our team can really make big-time shots."
After consecutive empty possessions with UK up one, it was Liggins, known more for his defense than his offense, that delivered the final Wildcat answer with 35 seconds remaining. On another Miller feed, Liggins made a corner 3-pointer to make it a two-possession ballgame.
"Darius drove the ball, they collapsed on him, he kicked it out and I had confidence to make it," Liggins said.
In closing out the game, Liggins reminded everyone why his reputation comes from his defense, heavily contesting a pair of the Heels' desperation 3-point attempts, prompting Calipari to pull the junior aside and kiss him on the forehead. Though Liggins appreciated his coach's sentiment, he was more focused on the fact that time was still on the clock.
"We still had a game to play," said Liggins, who scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half. "The game wasn't over."
Wildcat fans were likely thankful for that attitude, bearing in mind that Kentucky had dropped two previous regional finals against UNC and was in the midst of a 13-year Final Four drought.
Thirteen years is not a great deal of time in the grand scheme of things, but when it comes to Kentucky basketball, going that long without making a Final Four can make that amount of time feel like an eternity.
These Wildcats have not been around for all of that time, but they have an understanding of what it means to have the program back on the game's biggest stage and the fact that they did it after some early season struggles makes it even sweeter.
"We got Kentucky back, and a lot of people doubted us this year," Harrellson said. "We know we really struggled early in the season, lost a few games we should have won. We really pulled it together as a team and, you know, we're back now."
NEWARK, N.J. -- Headed to the Prudential Center in about an hour. We'll get the live blog started early today (around 4:20 p.m.) for the colossal Kentucky-North Carolina matchup in the Elite Eight.
One programming note before tonight: postgame coverage on here will be delayed until late Sunday night. I'm flying back with the team immediately after postgame interviews and will not have Internet access until we arrive back in Lexington. If the Cats win, I'm sure there will be no shortage of stories on other websites anyway. On to the notes:
- UK is 104-45 (.698) in the NCAA Tournament, trailing North Carolina by just one win for the NCAA Tournament leader in postseason victories.
- The Cats are 14-1 (.933) in tournament games played in the New York City metro area.
- Late-game woes? Since losing to Arkansas, UK has won three games by two points or less, including two during the NCAA Tournament run.
- The Wildcats own a 13-18 record in regional final games but haven't won an Elite Eight matchup since the 1998 season. Kentucky has lost its last four regional final games: Michigan State (1999), Marquette (2003), Michigan State (2005) and West Virginia (2010).
- UK has appeared in more regional finals than any other school. North Carolina is second with 25 and UCLA is third with 22.
- UNC owns an 18-6 record in its 24 previous regional finals and has won nine of its last 10 regional finals since 1988.
- The Tar Heels are making their fifth Elite Eight appearance under head coach Roy Williams over the last eight seasons.
- UK is making its second straight regional finals appearance under John Calipari, who will be making his seventh Elite Eight coaching appearance at three different schools. Calipari is 2-4 in those previous six games.
- Calipari owns a 31-12 (.721) mark in NCAA Tournament games. Williams has a 58-18 (.763) record.
- Calipari is 2-1 all-time vs. UNC. Williams is 7-5 against UK, including a 6-2 mark as the North Carolina coach.
- North Carolina owns a 2-0 advantage over Kentucky in NCAA Tournament matchups with wins in the 1977 East Regional final and the 1995 Southeast Regional Final.
- UK lost to North Carolina 75-73 in the matchup on Dec. 4. Tyler Zeller led the Tar Heels with 27 points and 11 rebounds. Doron Lamb scored 24 for UK, but Terrence Jones struggled to a 3-for-17 afternoon from the field.
- Senior forward Josh Harrellson is 21 of 27 from the field in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds.
- Brandon Knight has struggled from the floor in the postseason, making just 13-of-38 shots through three NCAA Tournament games, but two of those field goals have been game winners.
- Heads up in the front row today. Kentucky ranks second this postseason with 8.0 blocks per game. North Carolina has been the fifth-best blocking team in the Big Dance, pitching 7.67 shots a game.
- UNC's Harrison Barnes is averaging 19.8 points over his last 17 games. Kendall Marshall is averaging 9.1 points and 7.9 assists over his last 15.
- How will the Cats try to defend UNC? With North Carolina's size (Zeller is 7-foot, John Henson is 6-10 and Barnes is 6-8), will Calipari continue to go strictly man-to-man? Similar to the Aaron Craft matchup, will DeAndre Liggins guard Marshall and try to cut off the head of the Carolina offense? Who takes Barnes? Should be fun to watch.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Exorcising old demons and erasing recent history has been a common theme for the Kentucky men's basketball team during its postseason parade.
Kentucky notched three consecutive victories over Ole Miss, Alabama and Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, all three of which defeated UK in the regular season. Then, in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, it was West Virginia, which knocked the heavily favored Wildcats from the tournament a year ago in the Elite Eight round. On Friday, UK erased what was an 0-5 record against Ohio State in the NCAA Tournament.
Now comes North Carolina.
Nearly four months ago, the Tar Heels knocked off Kentucky in Chapel, Hill, N.C., erasing a six-point deficit to pull off a last-minute win. Asked to reflect on that Dec. 4 game, most of the Wildcats remember foul trouble and North Carolina's size, particularly 7-footer Tyler Zeller (27 points, 11 rebounds), that shut the door on UK.
Terrence Jones remembers a much different tale.
"It was my fault," Jones said. "I broke a team rule by going to sleep (before the game). That was a big part of the season when the team was depending on me to do a lot of the scoring. I didn't step up."
"Terrence had a tough night," head coach John Calipari remembered, looking at Jones on the dais. "I think you were 3 for 18?"
Well, 3 for 17, but close enough.
"We definitely owe them one," senior forward Josh Harrellson said. "We definitely have a grudge. We definitely want to get them back. It's going to a tough matchup because they're a totally different team than they were and so are we."
That, more than anything, defines the rematch in the Elite Eight on Sunday. For as much as Jones struggled in the first meeting, both teams may want to throw that game film out in this meeting. Neither bears much of a resemblance to the teams that met in snowy Chapel Hill.
"We've both grown tremendously," freshman guard Brandon Knight said. "Looking at them, they've completely turned it around. People were writing them off from the beginning saying it was going to be another bad season. They've gotten a lot better. All of their players have gotten a lot better. That's the same thing with us."
For one, UK doesn't have to count on Jones as much to do all the scoring. If he struggles, he's shown maturity to regroup and still contribute. Even if he doesn't score, other players such as Knight, Harrellson and Darius Miller have picked up the load.
That Kentucky team also faltered in late-game situations. This one suddenly flourishes, winning two games in the NCAA Tournament run by two points or less.
"There was a time where I believed in guys more than they believed in themselves," Calipari said. "What happened the last nine games, they are starting to believe in themselves and they are starting to believe in each other. Now you are seeing a swarming team that is covering for each other."
North Carolina doesn't even have the same personnel as it did in the first meeting. Point guard Larry Drew left the team a couple of months ago and freshman Kendall Marshall has taken the reins.
Over his last 15 games, Marshall is averaging 9.1 points and 7.9 assists. North Carolina, blessed with the super size and length of Zeller and John Henson (6-10), has added a dynamic transition game thanks to Marshall. That was evident in North Carolina's 17-point smashing of Marquette on Friday night.
"It's easier for me because (Marshall) is such a bright young man and he understands how to play the game of basketball," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "It's been an easier transformation maybe than any point guard I (have) coached. The best thing I have with Kendall is that most of the time, I just have to say something to him once and he understand what we're talking about."
Harrison Barnes was around during UNC's victory in early December, but he may as well be a different player, too. Playing much more like the preseason All-American that he was touted to be, the 6-8 freshman forward is averaging 19.8 points over his last 17 games.
"He was under more of a microscope than any player I ever remember at North Carolina," Williams said. "We brought in Tyler Hansbrough and he wasn't in that type of microscope. I was there when Michael Jordan, James Worthy (played and it was) nothing like it was for Harrison. So he is human. It bothered him some, but he is so focused and driven and disciplined, he kept at the task at hand. He is a task-oriented kid. And he went through his workouts and went through practice and listened to what we were trying to get him to do. And every week, and I really mean this, I saw him getting better every week."
Said Jones: "He was a good player in high school so it was bound to happen."
The evolution of Marshall and Barnes has been the key behind North Carolina's 17-2 stretch. Meanwhile, as the Cats have graduated from wide-eyed freshman to steely postseason veterans, UK has won nine straight.
All of that would already make for one sensational Sunday showdown in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. But when you combine Tobacco Road with the Commonwealth, pit the country's two winningest programs -- both regular season and postseason (North Carolina has a 105-104 edge in NCAA Tournament wins) -- and put a Final Fourth berth on the line, you get a matchup for the ages.
Call it a clash of the blue-blooded titans.
"The name's on the front, Kentucky-North Carolina, wow," Calipari said. "The history of both of these programs, wow. But I don't think they are worried about that and I am certainly not. I know they are going against terrific players and I am going against a Hall of Famer. That's what I know."
History aside, one of these two programs will be back atop the college basketball food chain come Sunday night.
I'll have a full story on the Kentucky-North Carolina matchup later, but I wanted to drop a few off-the-beaten-path notes that I found interesting before I head to dinner:
- In praising Brandon Knight for his hard work and dedication, John Calipari pointed out Brandon Knight's displeasure with getting a 91 on a sociology test. "Still got an A but he is mad," Calipari said. "Conscientious." Knight, whose favorite class is anthropology, said he thought he should have had a higher grade. "We have to turn in sheets when we miss class," Knight said. "Some stuff I wasn't there for. As long I got the A I was happy, but I thought I should have gotten a higher grade."
- Josh Harrellson is still shocked to see his name and face on ESPN. Being the center of attention isn't an everyday thing for a guy who rode the bench until this year. After the Ohio State upset, Harrellson received a ton of love on SportsCenter. "My girlfriend called me and said she saw they just had me highlighted," Harrellson said. "I didn't get to see it but then I asked Brandon Knight and he said, 'Yeah, they had you highlighted, a whole segment about you.' Just hearing about that puts a smile on my face."
- Knight admitted that being from Florida, he didn't know much or think about the tradition of Kentucky basketball before he arrived in Lexington. He said the names and banners that hang in Rupp Arena opened his eyes to the importance of the program, and he actually likes the idea that only national championship banners are hung in the Rupp rafters. "They only accept excellence and perfection as far as that goes," Knight said. "I enjoy that. I like the fact that Kentucky basketball, they expect nothing but national championships. It kind of motivates me a bit. Sometimes when I get second-place trophies I just put them in the trash. My dad gets mad at me for doing stuff like that. If it's not the best, I don't want it."
- I talked with some of the players today about UK's pregame preparation and Calipari's decision not to show his team any video or scouting report until the pregame meal. All of them said they loved it because the focus is on what they can take care of. "I want them worrying about us," Calipari said. "Let's play our best. If that's not good enough, it's been a heck of a year. That's how I prepare them for every game they play. The board that they will see prior to the game is exactly like the board when we played Mississippi Valley State early in the year. The board is exactly the same in our approach."
- Calipari referred to North Carolina coach Roy Williams as a Hall of Famer in his news conference, and yet, according to one reporter, he is the second-most famous coach in North Carolina. Calipari seemed dumbfounded by that statement. "Who is the most famous?" Calipari said. "The guy who has 900 wins," the reporter answered. "Oh, I forgot about him," Calipari quipped. That "him" is Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
- Speaking of playful coaching jabs, Roy Williams had one for Calipari on his sideline coaching: "John goes a little wacko on the sidelines because he's John."
NEWARK, N.J. -- Just hours after Ohio State center Jared Sullinger made a bold declaration that he was returning to college for his sophomore year, Kentucky's star trio of freshmen were asked if they were contemplating the same thing.
With their season still going on, two of the players, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, chose to focus on UK's current NCAA Tournament run instead of their future. One of them, however, guard Doron Lamb, said he plans to return to Lexington next season for his sophomore year.
"I'll be back next year," Lamb said. "I can't be worried about leaving."
Lamb averages 12.4 points and shoots 47.4 percent from 3-point range, but he's not a projected selection in the upcoming 2011 NBA Draft by most draft analysts.
"I am just having fun playing with these teammates and playing with Coach," Lamb said. "I just want to have fun."
Jones and Knight were noncommittal about their future.
"Really, I am just having fun in this," Jones said. "I don't know about what (Sullinger) said. That's his decision and that's a good decision since he felt he could take his team farther. It's just a decision he made."
Said Knight: "Right now, all of us are student-athletes. We are focused on being student-athletes first. I am enjoying the time that I'm having here and loving the college experience."
Knight, who, along with Jones, is projected as a first-round pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of returning to college for another year.
"At the (right) time, that will take care of itself, but right now I'm not even thinking about that at all."
NEWARK, N.J. -- One of the nation's top party spots, Times Square in New York, is just a 10-minute train ride away from the Prudential Center, the site of Sunday's Elite Eight matchup between the Kentucky men's basketball team and North Carolina.
If one didn't know any better watching the Wildcats at the dais Saturday, he/she would think they had just hopped the NJ Transit back from a night of partying in Times Square. As the players sat down at their respective microphones, eyes drooped and heads hung low (reporters in the room looked just as tired after a night of reporting).
So goes the life of a Kentucky Wildcat after upsetting the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
"I stayed up a long time," freshman forward Terrence Jones said.
How late? Freshman guard Doron Lamb said he didn't go to bed until about 4 a.m.
"We celebrated a little in the hotel room," Lamb said. "We got in the rooms and started yelling and screaming."
There wasn't too much actual partying after the win Friday night, but the sheer logistics of a game that starts near 10 p.m. made for a long night Friday and a sleepy hangover Saturday.
Interviews after the Ohio State win weren't over until after 12:30 a.m., and the team didn't arrive back at its hotel until around 1:30 a.m.
By the time they soaked in the win, settled down and hit the sheets, they were just a few hours away from game planning for their rematch with North Carolina.
"We've got to get over it," junior guard/forward DeAndre Liggins said. "Today is a whole different day and we've got to get ready for our next opponent."
The players admitted it can be difficult to refocus after such a big win, but the Cats said they turned the page on the Ohio State victory Saturday morning.
"When I woke up this morning I started thinking about North Carolina and what the game plan was going to be," Liggins said.
UK practiced for North Carolina on Saturday at the Prudential Center, a mere 26 hours from its Elite Eight showdown with the Tar Heels.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Ohio State was the been-there, done-that team.
The Buckeyes were, minus freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, the team loaded with experience with David Lighty, Jon Diebler William Buford and Dallas Lauderdale. They were supposed to be the unshakeable group, the guys that had played in tight games, overcome second-half hurdles and hit the game winners.
Kentucky, stocked with the uncertainty of three freshmen who lead the team in scoring, was believed to be inexperienced and vulnerable. When teams punched Kentucky in late-game situations, it was the Wildcats who were supposed to falter, and to a point, UK did earlier in the season, losing its first six games that were determined by five points or less.
Clearly, this Kentucky team has turned a page on freshman woes and grown up in a short time.
Kentucky withstood Ohio State's best punch Friday in Newark, N.J., defeating the Buckeyes 62-60 to advance to the Elite Eight. UK battled through foul trouble, 19 lead changes, 11 ties and an early seven-point deficit to win a classic at the Prudential Center.
After trading haymakers with the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, it was freshman guard Brandon Knight who once again came through with the game's deadliest blow. Tied at 60-60 after Diebler's game-tying 3-pointer, Knight drove right, pulled up and nailed a 16-foot jumper from the right elbow with 5.4 seconds left.
Buford had one final shot from the left wing, but it was Kentucky's youth that proved to be the most clutch.
"Coach put me in a pick-and-roll with a couple of seconds left," Knight said. "Instead of going off it, I felt he gave me a lane to the right, so I just went right. He jumped in front of me, so I pulled up, and thank God it went in."
Knight hit his second game winner of the tournament, but it was the moxie of the entire team that led to the victory. To win a game while only leading by three points at the most says a lot about Kentucky's development over the last month.
"No question," Calipari said when asked if UK's close losses had any effect on the current nine-game winning streak. "One, if it didn't hurt, we would have never changed. I used to go in after those games and I walked in and I said, 'This has to hurt bad and you have to take responsibility.' It was a month ago that Derrick Rose had a bad game and he stood up and said, 'This is on me. It won't ever happen again.'
"I told my team, 'That's what being a professional is about. That's being a good teammate. Don't look to blame. If you didn't do your job, just accept it and change.' So those close games were good. ... It is tough going through it, but it benefitted us."
Calipari pointed to freshman forward Terrence Jones as someone who epitomized the change. Jones picked up two fouls in the first 3:09 of the game, but he returned in the second half to hit two big 3-pointers down the stretch.
"That's growth," Calipari said.
Ohio State played poised for most of the game, but the longer Kentucky stuck around, the more doubt started to creep in. When Knight put UK on top by three points on a trey with 5:17 remaining, the realization that the Buckeyes could actually lose began to set in for the Ohio State players.
"They were getting rattled," freshman guard Doron Lamb said. "Running their plays, they were a little shaky."
Even when Ohio State reeled off four straight points and took a lead on Lighty's layup with 2:10 left, junior guard DeAndre Liggins calmly drew a foul, hit two free throws and followed with a jumper.
"I felt they had somebody on him that couldn't stay on him when it comes to DeAndre driving," Jones said of Liggins' second-half play. "He drives the ball real hard and every player they put on him it seemed like he got to the basket."
For all the comparisons of UK's youth against Ohio State's experience, it hardly mattered once the ball was thrown up in the air around 10 p.m. Kentucky, despite its underdog role, wasn't all that inferior to or different from the top overall seed in the tournament, and that was evident after the game when both coaches scoffed at two questions by reporters.
First it was OSU coach Thad Matta, who became irritated when a reporter asked one of his players if it was difficult playing against a UK team that is "not supposed to be here."
"How the hell are they not supposed to be here?" Matta said. "They just won the SEC Tournament. It is a hell of a basketball team there."
Next was Calipari's turn.
"It will never go to rest," Calipari said of all the youth and inexperience questions that surround his team. "It just seems that I am the only one with the young players, but we all have young players. And I would tell you, it never enters my mind."
Maybe that's everyone's cue to finally realize these Wildcats are now 36 games into the season.
"They are not freshmen anymore when you get to this point," Diebler said.
NEWARK, N.J. -- On March 1, the Kentucky men's basketball team beat Vanderbilt for its second straight win after the Arkansas loss, laying the groundwork for its current nine-game winning streak and the program's second straight Elite Eight appearance.
Little did anyone know then that the Vanderbilt victory may have been the blueprint to beating Ohio State on Friday in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Against Vanderbilt, John Calipari elected to leave senior forward Josh Harrellson one-on-one with Festus Ezeli to focus on the Commodores' 3-point shooters. Ezeli had one of the best games of his career that night, but Vanderbilt mustered just two 3-point field goals and Kentucky won the game.
The Wildcats used a similar pick-your-poison defense against No. 1 seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16, choosing to take their chances with Jared Sullinger inside and limit the Buckeyes' perimeter sharpshooters.
It worked perfectly as Ohio State went just 6 of 16 from behind the arc and UK won 62-60 to advance to the Elite Eight.
"Recently we've definitely been taking pride in our defense, trying to lock up the other team, make them uncomfortable and take away at least one of their strong points," junior guard/forward Darius Miller said. "We did a great job of playing defense today."
Calipari chose to leave Harrellson on Sullinger, the national Freshman of the Year, to free up more players against the nation's top 3-point shooting team. Sullinger got his points, scoring a team-high 21, but Kentucky got into the faces of perimeter shooters David Lighty (1 of 4 from behind the arc), William Buford (1 for 3) and Aaron Craft (0 of 2).
Only Jon Diebler, the Big Ten's all-time leading 3-pointer shooter, had a decent day (4 of 7), as Ohio State shot just 32.8 percent from the field, the third-worst shooting performance for the Buckeyes this season.
"The game plan was to dig, scramble and contest every 3-ball," freshman guard Doron Lamb said.
But make no mistake about it, UK's defense wouldn't have been possible without another heroic defensive effort from Harrellson, who played Sullinger to a virtual standstill and even frustrated him with three blocks.
"He's one of the strongest players out there in my opinion," Miller said of Harrellson. "For him to put a body on him like that and play him straight up without needing a lot of help ... that was big for us. We didn't have to help much off the shooters."
Kentucky's defensive stopper, DeAndre Liggins, also deserves much of the credit. After switching on several different Buckeyes in the first half, Liggins drew the assignment on guard Aaron Craft for most of the second half and shut down the wily freshman.
Craft didn't make a field goal and was limited to two assists on the night.
"I felt that if we could make the game hard for Craft, it was going to be in our benefit," Calipari said. "There are certain players on teams that you got to go at them to change the direction of the game, and that's why we did it. The start of the half, I took him off Craft and you saw Craft go nutty. I called timeout and I put him back on Craft. ... He was huge today - huge."
Kentucky has ranked in the top 10 in field-goal percentage defense nearly all season long, but it's been the Cats' ability to clamp down on opponents during this nine-game winning streak that has made UK suddenly so dangerous. No team has scored more than 68 points in the nine victories and only three times has the opposition shot 44 percent or better.
Against Ohio State, Kentucky blocked 11 shots, the second most by a Kentucky team in NCAA Tournament history.
"You have to give them credit on defense," Diebler said. "They played hard and they just challenged shots. With their size and length, we knew that they were shot blockers and they got some shots blocked."
NEWARK, N.J. -- The absence of Enes Kanter was supposed to be the downfall of the Kentucky men's basketball team this season.
It turns out it may be the inspiration of UK's second consecutive run to the Elite Eight and the seeds of turning a young man's mediocre college basketball career into the stuff of Kentucky lore.
Surely, you know the whole story by now. Senior forward Josh Harrellson enters the year as a seldom-used afterthought. Kanter is ruled ineligible by the NCAA and all hopes of a Final Four run appear dashed. Harrellson's importance suddenly grows with Kanter's ineligibility, but the chances of him actually playing and cushioning the blow of Kanter are slim to none, especially after Harrellson tweets some not-so-flattering comments about his head coach.
At that point, John Calipari thinks about suspending Harrellson, but decides to keep him on the team and force him through a hellacious pre-practice conditioning program. The additional running, extra lifting and further guidance not only strengthen Harrellson's conditioning, they transform his game, his attitude and his outlook.
Fast forward to Friday night's 62-60 upset of No. 1 seed Ohio State. Harrellson is no longer just a Cinderella story. He is legitimately playing as if he's one of the best big men in the country.
Harrellson went toe-to-toe with the national Freshman of the Year and arguably the best big man in the country, Jared Sullinger, and won the battle. With yet another Herculean effort, Harrellson helped advance Kentucky to its second straight Elite Eight.
"I have been guarding the best guys in the country for the last two years with DeMarcus (Cousins), Daniel (Orton), Pat (Patterson), and this year guarding Enes," Harrellson said. "It gives me an edge guarding Jared Sullinger, one of the best in the nation. Going against Enes, it gives me more confidence coming into this game."
For as much as the Kanter situation called for Harrellson to step up and for all the hours Kanter has helped Harrellson with his game, Harrellson somehow conjured up one of the most drastic transformations and improvements the college game has ever seen because of his own hard work.
"If you asked me at the beginning of the year (if I thought he'd be a factor like this), I would say no," Calipari said. "But you know what? I have done this a long time (and) I'm not sure if I have ever been this proud of a young man who, you know, he's going to do what he wants to do now. He changed. He did it himself. It's not what I did. We put him on stage, but they have to perform."
And oh my, did "Jorts" perform Friday.
Under the microscope of the nation, Harrellson scored 17 points (7-of-9 shooting) and grabbed 10 rebounds. Sure, Sullinger scored 21 points and 16 rebounds, but Harrellson blocked three shots and frustrated the Ohio State center from ever getting into a rhythm.
"Everybody's talking about how (Harrellson on Sullinger) is such a mismatch, but I'm telling you, Josh really works hard for those rebounds and he can score, too," freshman forward Terrence Jones said. "Josh was thinking about this game all last night and he really went out and played as hard as he could."
Harrellson set the tone early with a smothering two-hand block on Sullinger in the opening minutes. With the game on the line and UK hanging to a one-point lead with just over a minute remaining, he came up with the stop of the game by forcing Sullinger into an awkward turnaround that hit the side of the backboard.
The willingness and the fortitude to take on Sullinger one-on-one allowed the rest of Kentucky's defense to focus on the perimeter shooting of Ohio State. With Harrellson able to hold his own on the low block, Kentucky was able to employ a similar strategy to the one that worked so well in the win over Vanderbilt.
Kentucky got into the shooters of the best 3-point shooting team in the country and limited the Buckeyes to 6 of 16 from behind the arc.
"Coach believed in that in the game plan," Jones said. "Coach believed in (Harrellson). Everybody knew that we would have to guard the shooters and he would have to defend (Sullinger)."
Said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta: "I think Harrellson is probably the most underrated player in college basketball."
In the hours leading up to the game at UK's shoot-around, Calipari and some of the players reportedly started calling Harrellson "Enes" to motivate him for the big matchup.
"I think it worked," Harrellson said. "I came out and played like Enes would play."
He's become every bit as valuable as the Turkish big man that was expected to lead Kentucky to this point.
NEWARK, N.J. -- "They really don't have a weakness. They have athleticism, they have shooters, they have guys that can create off the bounce and they have a scoring threat around the goal with (Jared) Sullinger. And they play hard."
So says Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall, whose Eagles lost to Ohio State 64-45 in late November.
Rookie big man Sullinger is the Buckeyes' leading scorer but coach Thad Matta's team has great balance, with any of their perimeter players being capable of big scoring games. So if Tyndall had a guy like DeAndre Liggins, which OSU player would he pick for Liggins to defend?
"That' s a great question," Tyndall told The Leach Report radio show. "I think you probably put Liggins on Buford because he's probably the most aggressive (of their perimeter guys). And I would take my chances and not double Sullinger. If he gets 30, you've got to live with that. You don't want to give guys like (Jon) Diebler and (David) Lighty open looks at the end of the possession."
The MSU coach said Kentucky can create some matchup issues for Ohio State, too.
"Brandon Knight, first and foremost," Leach said. "Aaron Craft is a very good player but he'll be at a size disadvantage and he's going to be overwhelmed a little athletically. Craft is what I call a poor man's Bobby Hurley and he's better than people think."
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Has Ohio State faced any team similar to the challenge Kentucky will present? We put that question to longtime OSU radio voice Paul Keels.
"Maybe, in some ways, Purdue, because of the ability they have to get (different) guys rolling and because of the athleticism," Keels said. "Maybe Illinois a little, but Kentucky has been more consistent (than the Illini)."
Ohio State lost as the favorite to Tennessee in the round of 16 last March and Keels believes that memory has been a motivating force for this team.
"I think that was big," he said. "That was a game a lot of people thought Ohio State could and should have won."
= = =
Kentucky is 2-4 all-time in the NCAA Tournament when facing number No. 1 ranked teams. The last win came in 1996 when John Calipari was coaching the opposing UMass Minutemen. The other win was the 1975 upset of undefeated Indiana in the Mideast Region final.
You could make the case that if Kentucky upsets Ohio State on Friday night, it will be UK's biggest NCAA upset since the epic performance against the Hooisers.
= = =
Darius Miller's streak of consecutive double-figure scoring games ended at 10 in the West Virginia win. A return to that previous form would greatly enhance UK's chances for an upset against Ohio State, given that the Wildcats are 14-1 in Miller's career when he scores at least 15 points.
Back in 1998, a veteran player, Jeff Sheppard, took his game to a higher level and led Kentucky to a national championship.
"Darius is, I think one of the few players on the team that understands and appreciates what it means to have Kentucky on the front of the jersey," Sheppard said. "When I was a fifth-year senior, I completely understood what that meant and it gives you the extra motivation to go out and do what you need to do to win games. But you can't press it. It has to flow and he needs to push and drive and do what he does, but at the same time, he can't try to do things that he usually doesn't, and that was the good thing about the team in 1998 was that we had the ability to know our role and do what we do."
= = =
Freshmen have carried a big share of the load for the last two Kentucky teams, a stark contrast to the previous UK teams that made it to the national title game.
In 1975, Jack Givens was the sixth man on the squad that fell to UCLA in the finals and remembers clearly that he did not expect to have a prominent role.
"I understood that team belonged to them and they were nice enough to let me score some," Givens said.
"The Goose," by the way, led UK with 24 points in the 1975 semifinal win over Syracuse.
Givens knows times have changed when it comes to players staying in college for four years, but at this point in his life, he looks back most fondly on those days wearing the blue and white.
"I wish there was a way that I could meet with these guys to let them know how wonderful it is to play four years," Givens said. "I am all for the guys going and making the money. I cannot say much because you go to college to get a great job and make good money. But the experience as I walked around (the Georgia Dome at the Southeastern Conference Tournament), these Kentucky fans are just unbelievable."
Brian Adams left the Wednesday's baseball game in the fifth inning with soreness in his knee. It was just precaution, baseball coach Gary Henderson told reporters, and after the game Adams was back in the cages taking cuts.
Maybe he just left the game to get a little breather. After all, Adams will have no time for rest over the next five weeks.
At the pre-spring football practice news conference Tuesday, football coach Joker Phillips announced that Adams would split his time between baseball and football during the five-week spring practice period while the baseball team journeys through Southeastern Conference play.
"We'll share him," Phillips said. "(The baseball team), as they compete for an SEC championship during the weekends, we'll allow Brian to play in those SEC series that are away. When it's home, he'll also play in them, but he'll also practice on mornings with us in football."
The "sharing" will be full time in both sports. Unlike a season ago when Adams was only a part-time contributor for baseball, he's now the starting center fielder, hitting .333 for a 14-8 baseball team. Football was the reason he came to Kentucky for, so that of course will also get his full attention, but there's also school, too.
"It's definitely going to be busy," Adams admitted. "It's going to be a busy schedule. We'll work it out though. Coach Phillips and Coach Henderson have been great and I appreciate the opportunity to play both sports at this level."
Adams will travel with the baseball team to Alabama this weekend, so he won't be pulling double duty over the next few days, but during the week and when the baseball team is at home, Adams will have a full plate.
Take for instance Wednesday. Adams had football practice from 9 to 11:15 a.m. After practice he grabbed some lunch and then high-tailed it over to Cliff Hagan Stadium for a full afternoon of baseball preparation against Canisius. First pitch was 7 p.m. because of a weather delay and the game ended around 10 p.m.
Thursday, he was on the road headed to Tuscaloosa, Ala., with the baseball team. He'll return late Sunday night, drop his glove and bat, and pick up his helmet and pads for football practice Monday. On Tuesday, he's got another baseball game, and then Wednesday it's back over to football.
"That just comes with the territory," Henderson said. "That's not any different than any other (two-way players) in the conference doing it. It's kind of standard."
But far from the normal workload for a typical student, who has a hard enough time just balancing 15 credit hours of school work. Throw baseball games and baseball practices on top of that, add the football responsibilities and hours of tutoring that he's required to take, and it can all become downright hectic.
The true test comes April 23 when Adams will try to play in the annual Blue/White Spring Game at 3 p.m. before a baseball game against Arkansas at Cliff Hagan Stadium at 7 p.m.
"I will be alright," Adams said. "I just need to take care of my body and the rest will take care of itself. It will be a lot of fun."
"God's been tremendous to allow me to be back out on the field," Adams said. "It's definitely His plan. Sometimes it's hard because you want to control everything yourself, but really it's been Him. He's been great and blessed me with so much. It's been a true blessing to play both in the SEC."
Adams isn't fazed by what lies ahead for him. He credits the people at UK's Center for Academic and Tutorial Services for planning a schedule that balances both sports and classes. He attends classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays in addition to two online courses.
"That's such a big part of my game in both football and baseball," Adams said. "If I don't have my legs, I'm not going to be effective. Taking care of my body is the biggest thing for me."
Adams is such a prized commodity with both teams that you wonder if either coach has any hesitancy about splitting his time. The junior-to-be, once drafted in the 45th round of the MLB Draft, is a rising star on the diamond, and he'll be counted on heavily next fall on the football field with the departures of Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews.
"You're concerned that he stays healthy and you're concerned that it doesn't leave him with zero energy, but he's a big, strong kid," Henderson said. "He's really smart. He's a high-energy person, a high-energy player. I suspect he's going to be fine."
Before a recent 0-for-11 slump, Adams was actually leading Henderson's club in hitting. He's a rangy outfielder with top-of-the-order speed. He's still very raw on the diamond, but his future is promising.
"He's got to continually work to play at a pitch at a time at the plate and not be worried about anything else other than seeing the ball and swinging at strikes," Henderson said. "He's like a lot of young guys. He gets excited and he jumps at balls occasionally. Those are the battles that you face and overcome when you're a freshman and sophomore in college."
Adams is listed second on the depth chart at one of the wide receiver positions at football. Gene McCaskill, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, is expected to be back in the fall, and veterans La'Rod King and Matt Roark will be favorites to win the top two spots.
Other than that, though, a lot of playing time is up in the air. Adams (three catches for 23 yards last season) figures to be - no needs to be, says wide receivers coach Tee Martin - in the mix.
"I'm looking for that guy that when we've got man-to-man, one-on-one, we say he's going to win every time for us," Martin said. "We had that in Randall, we had that in Chris and I think we have it in three or four more guys. At the end of the spring, I have a few questions that I want to have answered. One of those is La'Rod that guy. Is Matt that guy? Is E.J. (Fields) that guy? Is Brian that guy? We've got to find that out."
Adams' lone start a year ago, a fill-in start for the suspended Matthews at Mississippi State, didn't turn out as well as everyone hoped. He dropped a pair of balls and was relegated to the bench after the first quarter.
"It's hard to even watch the game," Adams said. "I did just terrible on the field. I didn't really do anything I wanted to do. It's kind of motivation to get things right and go from there. It drives me."
One guy who was even more disappointed was Martin, who had raved about Adams' potential throughout the fall. In hindsight, Martin said it may have been a blessing in disguise.
The way Martin sees it, Adams had the chance, as a first-year wide out (Adams missed his first season with the blood clot), to get thrown in the fire and see "some bullets fly across his head."
Said Martin: "What I told him was, 'On the baseball field, aren't you a leader? Aren't you one of the top guys? When you take the football field, be the same guy. Make those same kinds of plays for us.' His eyes kind of opened up. I was like, 'So that's what I had to say all along.' Now I think he understands what he means to us. Sometimes when you're not being called on, when there's a Chris and a Randall in front of you and there's a La'Rod and a Matt in front of you and you don't have to be called on, then you're not forced to get better. Now he knows he's going to get the reps, so he's paying more attention and coming through and making plays."
After practice Wednesday, having just completed his first spring practice and with a baseball game later that evening, Adams decided to stay on the turf at Nutter Field House while the rest of his teammates left. Cobb was there about to workout. Adams thought it would be the perfect opportunity to pick his brain and get a few extra reps in.
It isn't like he doesn't have the time. There will be a time for rest for Adams in some other life.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Two cups sit in front of Kentucky coach John Calipari.
In one is the best freshman of the year and perhaps the best player in the country, Ohio State center Jared Sullinger. In the other are veteran swingmen and deadly 3-point shooters David Lighty, Jon Diebler and William Buford.
Go ahead, Cal, pick your poison. Which one are you picking up and drinking?
That's likely the situation Calipari and the Kentucky men's basketball team faces Friday at 9:45 p.m. when the fourth-seeded Wildcats face No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 in Newark, N.J. In a perfect world, Calipari would choose to shut down both Sullinger and the perimeter players of Ohio State, but there's a better chance of the temperatures rising above 60 degrees in frigid Newark than completely neutralizing OSU's two biggest strengths.
"There are times I watch the tape and I go, 'Oh, my goodness,' " Calipari said Thursday at a news conference at the Prudential Center. "They are really talented. They play to their strengths. They are very skilled. They shoot, they bounce. They have got great strength, they have got size. They're really a terrific basketball team."
Good grief, is there anything Ohio State doesn't do? That's the Rubik's Cube Cal and the Cats will try to solve by Friday.
On one hand there is Sullinger, who averaged 17.1 points and 10.0 rebounds per game this year en route to Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Some people think he should have received Player of the Year honors in the league, and he's still very much up for consideration for National Player of the Year.
Kentucky freshman forward Terrence Jones has played against Sullinger before and said the OSU big man's ability to force his way to the basket is what makes him so dangerous.
"Just how hard he posts and rebounds and how well he can move for how big he is," Jones said. "He really can move when it comes to posting up and getting position."
Guarding Sullinger one-on-one could be asking to give up 25 points and 12 rebounds, so naturally, if you're a coach, you put Josh Harrellson and another guy on him and double team him, right?
"It'll be a good matchup," freshman guard Doron Lamb said. "Josh is playing the best he's ever played. We just have to see what happens. Josh is going to keep fighting on him and make it hard for him and keep him out of the paint."
But if you focus on Sullinger, you leave the nation's top 3-point shooting team (42.4 percent) open for looks around the perimeter. Maybe you can put defensive stopper DeAndre Liggins on the Big Ten's all-time leading 3-pointer shooter, Diebler (110 of 220 behind the arch this season), but then you run the risk of leaving Buford and Lighty, who are more than capable of knocking down treys (44.4 percent and 43.5 percent, respectively), against weaker defenders.
Against George Mason, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, Ohio State knocked down 16 shots from behind the arc, one of several sensational shooting displays from the Buckeyes this year. Diebler alone had games in which he drilled 10 of 12 (at Penn State) and 7 of 8 (against Wisconsin), and Lighty nailed all seven of his 3-point shots in the rout of George Mason.
"You don't want any team that's going to make that many 3s or you can't win the game," Jones said. "We're really going to try to take that away."
Kentucky could employ a similar strategy to the one it used on Vanderbilt in the game in Lexington. After allowing 11 3-pointers in the loss in Nashville, Tenn., Calipari opted to play the perimeter in the second meeting and leave Harrellson one-on-one with Festus Ezeli in the paint.
Ezeli scored 22 points that game, but the Cats got into Vanderbilt's marksmen and limited the Commodores to only two triples. Most importantly, UK won that game.
Of course, Vanderbilt didn't have a point guard like Ohio State's Aaron Craft, who can do a little bit of everything for the Buckeyes at the point guard position. Craft is averaging 7.1 points as a freshman, can get to the basket and knock down the 3 (38.8 percent), but he's also a lethal distributor. He dishes out 4.9 assists per game, including a career-high 15 last weekend.
When you include Craft alongside Sullinger, the stable of veterans, and then add DeShaun Thomas, another super freshman, and big man Dallas Lauderdale (4.3 points per game), you're talking about one of the two or three elite teams in the country.
"I think over years there was really a clear-cut two or three teams, and I think (Ohio State and Kansas) separated from the rest," Calipari said. "They are that good. They deserve the accolades that both of the teams are getting."
How exactly to stop them, though, the Kentucky players are not telling. No matter how many times a reporter tried to get an idea for UK's strategy from freshman guard Brandon Knight, he stuck with "we haven't watched a whole lot of film yet" answer.
That's par for the course for Kentucky, which usually doesn't show its players a lot of tape of the opposition before a game. Even so, the UK players don't want to give up what they might have up their sleeve for the vaunted Buckeyes.
"I think it will change," Jones said, declining to show Kentucky's hand. "There might be a lot of switches. I don't know really who is going to guard who."
If there is one thing Kentucky possesses that Ohio State hasn't seen a lot of, it's size and length. The Buckeyes say they're concerned about UK's athleticism on the wings and how it will disrupt their game plan, and Lighty said Kentucky reminds him of Tennessee last year.
The Volunteers, as you may or may not know, went on to beat Ohio State in the Sweet 16.
"They are athletic, they get out and run, (and) they push the pace," Lighty said of Kentucky. "They have bigs, they have wings and they have a guard who can pretty much do it all. If we don't come ready to play, it's going to be a long night for us."
NEWARK, N.J. -- Kentucky coach John Calipari made a comment on his radio show this week that Ohio State wants to be Kentucky.
Misunderstood by other fan bases, the quote was a reflection of the totality of the two programs, a comparison of their history and tradition. It didn't sit well with some because the reality of the current situation -- Kentucky wants to be in Ohio State's position this year. UK wants to be the top dog again.
Meeting Friday in the Sweet 16, the fourth-seeded Cats will face the No. 1 overall seed Buckeyes in an unfamiliar position as the underdogs. Over the long history of the NCAA Tournament, it has generally been Kentucky -- not Ohio State -- that enjoys both the spoils and pressures of being the favorite.
The Cats say they've noticed.
"Everybody expects us to lose," freshman forward Terrence Jones.
And Jones doesn't necessarily disagree with the majority's perception.
"They had a better season than us," Jones said. "They're playing better."
Ohio State enters Friday's primetime matchup at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. as the odds-on favorite to cut down the national championship nets in April. At 34-2 on the season with an average winning margin of 18.0 points per game, it's easy to see why the Buckeyes are so highly touted.
As one of the few elite teams in college basketball this season, the Buckeyes own the best freshman in college basketball, center Jared Sullinger (17.1 points per game, 10.0 rebounds per game), along with one of the most balanced supporting casts in the nation. Veterans Williams Buford, Jon Diebler and David Lighty all average 12.1 or more points a game, and freshman point guard Aaron Craft is one of the top assist men in all of college basketball.
"We haven't watched a whole lot of film yet," UK freshman point guard Brandon Knight said of Ohio State. "I just know they're a good team with a lot of great players. They're the best team in the country right now."
The position of underdog seems to be a role the Wildcats, winners of their last eight games, are enjoying.
"We've been the underdogs the last two games," freshman guard Doron Lamb said. "We're used to that. We just have to prove everybody we're the best team."
For once, the pressure of the expectations to advance isn't on Kentucky. Last year, it seemed like a formality that No. 1 seed UK would at least make it to the Final Four. When the Cats didn't, it resulted in major disappointment across the program and state.
This year's situation is a little different. Just by pure seeding, Kentucky isn't expected to advance past this round. Add to that the fact that UK is going up against the No. 1 overall seed and it appears to make things that much more dire.
Not that you could tell by looking at Kentucky.
The Cats appear looser than they've ever been. The players are joking with one another, the coaches are smiling and a quiet confidence -- one similar to what West Virginia had a year ago against UK -- seems to be building.
"Guys are growing closer together over the season on and off the court," Knight said. "Guys are starting to hang out with each other more off the court. We are talking to each other more. It shows we're growing up."
For a coach who likes to tout Kentucky as everybody's Super Bowl in the regular season, Calipari is doing his best to say the right things and downplay the underdog role. It's a role, though, that is right up his alley.
"We are worried about us," Calipari said. "We are worried about us playing well. We'll give them what they need to play this game. But to this point, we have been focused on us and I am not worried about who is favored, who is not favored, who is the underdog or who is the favorite. Non of that matters in this stuff.
"There is so much more that goes into it and players dealing with all this other stuff. An inexperienced team like mine, it is hard to predict how they will come out and do that with the lights on the way they are."
The Buckeyes don't appear to be uptight with their role as the pick to win it all, but they say they're wary of the spotlight. Ohio State coach Thad Matta said last year's loss to Tennessee in the Sweet 16 heightened their awareness for how good the opposition is at this stage in the tournament.
"I think these guys have done a much better job of not buying into all the hype that goes along with this," Matta said. "I think they have a better understanding of, regardless of what happens tomorrow night, (that) if we don't come to play well, it's all irrelevant. It's one of the things we tried to do with our guys, is really tune out the best that they can everything that's going on around the outside and just concentrate on what's on the inside and things that we can control."
But Kentucky's players wouldn't mind if the fans and the media continue to butter up the bustling Buckeyes.
"I don't think that matters what people say before the games," Jones said. "That's how upsets are created."
Upset and Kentucky in the same sentence? On Friday night, we'll find out who truly is the better team.
"I know they're one of the top teams, but we've been playing so well, I think we're one of the top teams, too," Jones said.
NEWARK, N.J. - The weather isn't nearly as beautiful as Tampa, Fla. (it's sleeting in the Northeast), but the stakes are even bigger in Newark, N.J.
It took a little while to get there, but the Kentucky men's basketball arrived in Newark on Wednesday night for the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. After a rather lengthy delay in Lexington due to inclement weather, the team departed BlueGrass Airport around 6 p.m. and touched down in Newark at 7:45 p.m.
I noticed a very loose team before takeoff. The guys were joking around with each other and talked with some of the cheerleaders and band members that were along for the ride. I'm not sure how much that translates over to the court, but these guys seem to be enjoying the NCAA Tournament ride.
The team has a rather quiet night in store. The Cats went straight from the airport to the New Jersey Nets' facility for practice. The team will eat dinner after that and then call it a night. On Thursday, it gets a little busier.
UK will have an open practice from 1-1:50 p.m. on Thursday at the Prudential Center. Fans are invited to attend. After that, the media will have their turn with head coach John Calipari and the players before dinner and another practice Thursday night.
Just like last week, I'll be along for the ride with some updates, written features, live blogs and video interviews. We'll get everything started on the blog Thursday afternoon, but in the meantime, here are some stories to read from the media on the UK-Ohio State matchup.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- When Matthew Mitchell took over as the head coach of Kentucky's women's basketball program four seasons ago, he inherited a program that had had only occasional success. To turn the Wildcats into consistent winners while being at times overwhelmed by the size and talent of their opponents, Mitchell would have to get a little creative.
What resulted from Mitchell's creativity was a brand of fast-paced, high-pressure basketball that lifted UK to recently unprecedented heights. Under Mitchell's guidance, UK won 53 games in the past two seasons and advanced to consecutive NCAA Tournaments for the first time since the 1982-83 seasons.
Kentucky has used quickness, effort and pace to overcome opponents during the program's rise, but in the Wildcats season-ending second-round defeat against fifth-seeded North Carolina, Kentucky was faced with an opponent that combined the size UK lacks with the ability to play the up-tempo style that the Cats rely on.
The combination was deadly.
Not only did the Tar Heels overwhelm UK inside, resulting in a 55-31 rebounding advantage, 40 points in the paint, 27 made free throws and eight blocks, but they outran the Wildcats to the tune of 18 fast-break points to UK's two.
After the game, Mitchell credited UNC for the way they played, but also lamented what UK failed to do.
"It was everything they were doing," Mitchell said. "It was a bad combination for us. We haven't had a game like this where we just weren't sending anybody into the paint for rebounds. We just got caught standing in the middle."
Although Kentucky may not have played with maximum effort at times, it is impossible to ignore how North Carolina was able to devastate Kentucky with their size. UNC consistently played three players measuring six feet or taller and had players measuring 6-3, 6-5 and 6-6. UK, on the other hand, had just one player measuring over 6-2 (Samantha Drake), and she played just two minutes on Monday.
"I feel like our size down low got us a lot of rebounds and me being a taller guard in transition helped me catch some higher passes," 6-0 UNC guard Krista Gross said. "My size helped me a lot with that because I was able to catch passes over them."
With UK's style, the Wildcats' room for error is very small, which has been evident all year long and even more so against the kind of opponent Kentucky faced in North Carolina.
"I've always said our style of play is sort of feast or famine," Mitchell said. "When you're not clicking you look really bad and we looked really bad (against UNC). It's a step slow here and a step slow there and against a good team like North Carolina, (they) can really take advantage of you."
On days where the Wildcats turn in their best collective effort, they can beat a team like North Carolina, but for UK to weather days like Monday, Mitchell will need to infuse the program with the kind of talented size that UNC possesses.
That is something he is already beginning to do.
Mitchell is bringing in a highly touted group of signees next season, including 6-3 power forward Azia Bishop from Toledo, Ohio. Bishop is ranked the No. 34 prospect overall and the No. 3 post player, according to ESPN's HoopGurlz rankings.
Additionally, Mitchell scored a coup when UConn transfer Samarie Walker opted to attend Kentucky in January. Walker is a versatile 6-1 forward who was ranked among the nation's top ten recruits in 2010. She will be eligible to play at the conclusion of the fall semester in December 2011.
Walker and Bishop are exactly the kinds of players that exploited UK in the loss to the Tar Heels.
Even though UK loses Victoria Dunlap, arguably the program's second-best player in school history, to graduation, Mitchell returns all of the other 10 players that saw action against UNC, plus star senior point guard Amber Smith, who missed all of this season due to a knee injury.
Add the group of returning players to Kentucky's three talented newcomers and the Wildcats figure to be dangerous again next year.
"You don't lose a kid like Vic and think that's not going to be tough, but hopefully we've been able to put some talent in place and we'll coach them as hard as we can," Mitchell said. "As you look forward to next season, we certainly plan on having a very good team. We will set our goals very high for championships. That's what we want to do at Kentucky."
Even in the shadow of a season-ending loss, Mitchell was able to recognize the 2010-11 season was another year full of accomplishments that could lead to an even brighter future.
"It didn't happen for us this year, but we still took some steps forward with our women's basketball program," Mitchell said. "Next year has some promise. We'll have to work really hard but I think we have some good players in place."
Ohio State's opponent Friday night is Kentucky, as much a blue blood in college basketball as the Buckeyes are in football. The Wildcats' fans are just as rabid -- at least -- as Ohio State's in football. Expect to see more blue than scarlet and gray in the Prudential Center.
Bubba Tandy wasn't about to lose two state titles games in one season.
Tandy, a UK football signee, and Christian County lost in the Kentucky 5A state football championship game 50-0 to Highlands on Dec. 4, 2010.
But once the Colonels won the 2nd Region basketball tournament, Tandy said he knew he had a chance to redeem himself and teammate Anthony Hickey, Christian County's starting quarterback and point guard.
At this NCAA tournament, Cinderella has traded in her ball gown for denim shorts. Josh Harrellson has spent the past six months moving from the end of Kentucky's bench to the center of attention. The guy who earned the nickname "Jorts" for his love of jean shorts has captured the hearts of college basketball's most passionate fan base.
The 2011 World roster for the first time includes a player based in Portland, the venue for the game. Kyle Wiltjer, a 6'9" forward from the Jesuit High School will also represent his home nation Canada at the Nike Hoop Summit. Former Wildcats making headlines
Just when you think there's absolutely nothing else to be said about Chuck Hayes, he has another game that leaves you feeling a mixture of admiration and awe. He gives away six or seven inches and 50-60 pounds most nights, and yet he remains an effective defender.
While it is a small sample size, it's kind of hard NOT to be excited about what Patterson has brought to the table the second half of the season. Specifically what he has done since getting inserted into the starting line-up due to Scola's injury. The guy is a double-double machine and, unlike Luis, one heck of a defender that should only get better.
Before the 2011 Kentucky baseball season began, head coach Gary Henderson said freshman J.T. Riddle was hitting so well in the offseason that Riddle was going to force his way into the lineup.
Twenty-one games into season, Henderson looks like a prophet.
Riddle, hitting a team-high .413 for the 13-8 Wildcats after Tuesday night's 4-2 win over Cincinnati, has played so well that he's playing a position (right field) he hasn't played since he was a little kid.
"A little foresight, huh," Henderson said of his prediction.
Try one talented freshman.
As the 2010 Kentucky Mr. Baseball and a 35th-round MLB Draft selection, Henderson knew before the season that Riddle would play a key part on a team that was going to live and die with youth. As a senior at Western Hills High School in Frankfort, Ky., Riddle batted .514 with seven home runs, 62 RBI and 32 runs.
With numbers like that, there was little doubt Riddle would be a contributor. The problem was, Riddle signed with UK as the shortstop of the future.
Guess who happens to play the six hole for Kentucky? Senior Taylor Black, arguably the Cats' top returner from a season ago.
Henderson still figured he could use him for spots starts and as a backup infielder, but when senior Neiko Johnson was sidelined with a broken finger and freshman Lucas Witt suffered a hip flexor injury, it "demanded" an opportunity in right field, as Henderson described it.
Riddle saw the opportunity and seized it.
"A couple of outfielders ended up getting hurt and I asked coach, 'Do you want me to take some balls in the outfield?' " Riddle said. "He was like, 'Actually, you're starting tomorrow.' It just kind of went from there."
Since getting his first start in right field Feb. 26, Riddle is 19 for 43 with 10 RBI and nine runs in 14 games. Last week, in a series win over Tennessee and victory over Murray State, Riddle batted .538 (7 for 13) with a homer and a team-best eight RBI en route to Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors. After Tuesday night's 3-for-4 night against the Bearcats, he's hit safely in 11 of 12 games, including nine straight, helping a UK ballclub that lost six of its first 10 games to nine wins in its last 11 games.
The man they call "the Riddler" has hit so well that he may be impossible to take out of the lineup.
"He's absolutely done that," Henderson said, "but I'd also say that he's done the exact same thing defensively. That showed up a little bit before the offense."
In little league, right field was generally where you'd put your worst defensive player. It's thought of as the position with the least defensive liability.
That isn't the case with college.
Judging balls off the ping of the back can be nerve-wracking. Take a step forward on a hard-hit ball and you could get burnt over your head. Step back on a blooper and it could be the difference between an out and a single.
When you take into consideration the quirkiness of the 30-foot wall in right field at Cliff Hagan Stadium, the brick wall down the line and the slicing hits by right-handed batters, not everybody can play right field.
And yet, Riddle is doing it like he's been hugging the right-field line his whole life.
"There's really not a lot to think about when you're out in the outfield," Riddle said. "It's catch it and throw it. Any baseball player at this level, I think, should be able to play any position. If they're at this level in baseball, college baseball, D-I, SEC level, I think they have the ability to play wherever they want."
Baseball junkies will tell you if you can play shortstop, you can play anywhere on the diamond. The truth is, though, not everybody can play right field. Riddle just happens to be a natural.
"He's a pretty good athlete," Henderson said. "He's Mr. Baseball. He's scoring 25 points a game in basketball (in high school). He's just a really good athlete and he's one of those kids that's got that the-game-doesn't speed-up-on-him gene. A lot of kids, when they get here for the first part of the schedule, when they're new, the game speeds up on them. He hasn't had much of that. The game is slow for him."
In his first career start in right field against Illinois-Chicago, Riddle made a leaping catch and gunned down a runner that was tagging up and trying to advance to third base. Against Tennessee on Friday, he laid out for a diving catch down the right-field line to prevent extra bases and a run. He made a nearly identical catch again Sunday.
"It seems like I've had at least one (big play) every game since I've been out there," Riddle said. "Making those plays gives you the confidence that if you can make that play, you can make any play in the outfield if you want."
Not bad for a guy who shagged fly balls for just four sessions of batting practice before his first start.
"I'd like to tell you it's good coaching - it isn't," Henderson said. "That piece of it right there isn't about very much coaching. That's all about a guy that's able to stay calm and do the same things in the game that he's been able to do in practice."
Riddle's upside is tremendous. He's a gap hitter at the moment, but Henderson believes he'll hit for power once he hits the weight room this summer and puts on some pounds of muscle. Here's the kicker: the guy can also pitch.
Blessed with four pitches (a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a curveball, and a changeup), Riddle went 8-0 with 1.26 ERA during his final year of high school, striking out 90 in 60 innings.
"He's absolutely at some point going to be able to help us out on the mound," Henderson said.
Henderson planned on getting Riddle on the bump against Murray State last week but was forced to put him back in right field when Witt came up lame again with that hip flexor. The third-year skipper is itching to get him a shot on the mound when the right situation calls, but right now he has more pressing needs.
"If he wasn't playing right field he would be pitching, but he's not," Henderson said. "He's doing this. That's what we need him to do right now. That's what the club needs him to do and that's what he's going to do for the foreseeable future."
The shortstop of the future and soon-to-be-pitcher is doing so well, it's going to be hard to force him out of right field.
Video interviews following UK's 4-2 win over Cincinnati on Tuesday:
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, March 20:
Softball: Meagan Aull
Senior Meagan Aull led the Wildcats to a 3-2 week on the road in the Southeastern Conference. Aull has set a new personal best with a nine-game hitting streak, including having a hit in all eight SEC games. Aull charted three consecutive multi-hit performances in UK's three victories this week. In UK's win at LSU, just the third win against the Tigers in program history, Aull was 2 for 3 on the evening and scored two of UK's six runs. She also charted a stolen base in that outing. Aull was the only player to record a hit against Brittany Mack in the final game of the series. With eight hits this week, Aull moved into 10th all-time at UK with 176 career hits.
Baseball: Braden Kapteyn
Junior two-way star Braden Kapteyn had a solid week in leading UK to three wins and a series victory over red-hot Tennessee. Kapteyn batted .333 with a homer and five RBI on the week, also recording a save in the series opener on Friday. In the Friday win, Kapteyn belted a two-run homer in the bottom of the seventh inning in a 3-3 game, giving UK a 5-3 lead. After hitting the homer, Kapteyn took the mound for a six-out save, striking out three of the six hitters he faced and not allowing a base runner for his seventh career save. Kapteyn, who now ranks 10th all-time on the UK career save list, has batted .320 on the year with four doubles, one triple, three homers and 17 RBI, drawing seven walks and striking out just six times with three stolen bases. On the mound this year, Kapteyn has a save in five relief outings, owning a 4.91 ERA and striking out 13 in 7.1 innings with only four hits allowed.
Baseball: Alex Meyer
Junior right-hander Alex Meyer posted his third quality start of the season in a winning effort over Tennessee on Friday night, lifting UK to a series-opening win over the red-hot Vols, who entered the series winning nine straight games and leading the conference in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage and stolen bases. In his start, Meyer picked up the win in seven innings, allowing only two earned runs with seven strikeouts. The SEC's leader in strikeouts, Meyer has fanned 46 in 34.2 innings. In five starts this year, Meyer has posted a 3-2 record and a 2.60 ERA, allowing only 23 hits in 34.2 innings, walking 15.
Baseball: J.T. Riddle
Freshman J.T. Riddle had a breakout week during UK's four games, including helping push the Wildcats to a series win over Tennessee on SEC opening weekend. Riddle led UK all week, batting .538 (7 for 13) with a homer and a team-best eight RBI. Riddle drew two walks and got hit by one pitch, only striking out once and totaling a .588 on-base percentage. Riddle's breakout game during the four-game week came in the rubber match on Sunday, with UK needing a win to clinch the series. Riddle belted his first career homer, a three-run job, and added a walk and an HBP, also making a jaw-dropping catch in rightfield to save extra bases with a fully extended, leaping catch. Riddle added a sac fly and stole 2-of-2 bases, charting a .769 slugging percentage. A natural shortstop and considered the shortstop of the future for the Wildcats, Riddle has forced his way into the lineup, playing right field for the first time in his career. In Tuesday's win over Murray State, UK kept Riddle out of the starting lineup, in an attempt to get the two-way star some innings on the mound. After UK had to pull Lucas Witt in the early innings due to injury, Riddle came off the bench to go 2 for 2 with three RBI, a walk and a stolen base, adding a sac fly. In the series opener vs. Tennessee on Friday, Riddle went 1 for 4, helping UK secure a 5-3 comeback win and making his first fully extended, diving catch in rightfield on the weekend. On Saturday, Riddle collected a career-high three hits, going 3-for-5 with two RBI and a stolen base. Currently riding an eight-game hitting streak, Riddle leads UK with a .381 average (16 for 42) with four stolen bases and a .500 on-base percentage through 15 games.
Softball: Ellen Weaver
With UK utilizing all four of its pitchers in rotating fashion, freshman Ellen Weaver made her first career SEC start on the opening night of the series at LSU. Weaver was masterful in limiting the Tigers to just one run while striking out nine, one shy of her career-high mark of 10 strikeouts. Weaver tossed all seven innings of action, and the highlight of her night may have been in the fourth inning with LSU threatening with runners on first and second. Weaver was sensational in getting out of the jam by striking out the next three batters she faced to limit any further damage. Weaver earned the win on the mound, marking just the third time in school allure the Wildcats defeated LSU. She is the second consecutive freshman to win on the mound against the Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., as Chanda Bell earned the last win two years ago during her freshman season. In the outing, Weaver also saw action at the plate and recorded her first career SEC hit.
Kentucky football begins spring practice Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility. The first seven practices are open to the public (schedule here), plus the annual Blue/White Spring Game on April 23 at 3 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium.
We'll have more coverage as the spring season gets underway, especially when basketball season ends, but until then, here are eight storylines to watch for this spring (and no, there is no significance of choosing eight storylines):
1. Newton's the man: Really, for the first time in four years, there's an actual frontrunner for the quarterback position. That isn't to say there won't be some type of competition - Joker Phillips continues to be impressed with early enrollee Maxwell Smith and said he'll push Newton for the job - but Ryan Mossakowski's abrupt transfer basically means the job is Newton's to lose.
Newton will start the spring getting the first-team reps, and he's shown flashes that he's talented enough to lead the offense (971 career passing yards and six touchdowns), but will he embrace the role of being the guy? Will he take ownership of the offense? Will the fact that he's not enveloped in a quarterback controversy give him more confidence, or will he throw away a prime opportunity?
"The thing is, Morgan is a talent," Phillips said. "We've got to be more efficient in the passing game, no question about that. But we also want to see Morgan take control of this offense and lead them in the right direction. The right direction is at the goal line. He's definitely talented enough."
Newton has been groomed and touted for the job for a long time, but he's always had to look over his shoulder or ahead at another quarterback. This spring, it's his turn to lead the UK offense.
"It's a little bit different (without a quarterback battle), but you've got to stay humble and continue to get better," Newton said. "I've got another year in the offense, been working a lot on footwork and stuff like that. I've had another year to get familiar with things we've got going on."
2. Replacing Cobb: Speaking of Newton, who is he going to throw the ball to? His primary target and the lifeblood of the program over the last few years, Randall Cobb, is headed to the NFL. Cobb was Mr. Do Everything. He caught passes, ran the Wildcat formation, and returned punts and kickoffs. He left the school as the all-time leader in touchdowns.
But for everything UK will have to replace on the field in the absence of Cobb, replacing his intangibles might be the most difficult task this spring. Cobb was the emotional leader last year and put the team on his back on numerous occasions. Who will be that guy this year?
In terms of the receiving position, Kentucky has depth in La'Rod King, Matt Roark, E.J. Fields and Brian Adams, plus a ridiculously loaded group at tight end that includes seven players. But as for the guy that can step in and be the emotional leader and be a game changer, Phillips mentioned King and running back Raymond Sanders, who will fill in for the departed Derrick Locke, as two possibilities.
Instead of looking at it as an unenviable task, Phillips is choosing to characterize it as a challenge, similar to the offensive exodus after the 2007 season.
"For some people, it's a concern," Phillips admitted. "For us, it's not. It's a challenge. It's an opportunity."
3. Building a new defensive frame: The Kentucky players received a two-week crash course of Rick Minter's 3-4 approach before the BBVA Compass Bowl to some mild success. This spring, the foundation of the defensive frame will be built on a defense that returns its top 11 tacklers.
The defensive base won't be a complete overhaul. In fact, Phillips said the formation will still be four-down linemen with more defensive backs on the field.
"We'll have more of a 4-2-5 (look)," Phillips said. "We'll have two linebackers. (Ridge) Wilson will be a hybrid type of guy where he'll go play some defensive end, some rush end, play some linebacker when we get into some heavy packages. Ridge allows us to be able to do that. You'll see Winston Guy playing a little closer to the ball in some of our packages, so that's the difference. When you do that, you get faster. When you move Ridge to defensive end or rush back, or you move Taylor Wyndham inside and you move Winston Guy down in the box, you do nothing but make yourself more athletic and a lot faster."
Ultimately, it will be a hybrid offense with a more athletic feel to it. The defense should be better equipped to defense the pass-happy and spread offenses of college football.
4. Brian "Willie Mays" Adams: The second-year, super-athletic wide receiver, who Phillips has nicknamed Willie Mays, is expected to take on a much larger role this year, but he's also become one of Gary Henderson's starters and best players on the UK baseball team. It's a different role than it was last year for Adams when he was first learning the ropes at football and wasn't playing much with baseball.
Instead of choosing one sport over the other, both coaches are allowing Adams to play each one full time. When the baseball team is on the road, Adams will go with the baseball team. When baseball is at home, he'll practice with football in the morning and then play baseball later in the afternoon or night.
On April 23, the day of the Blue/White Spring Game and home baseball game with Arkansas, Adams will try to play in both.
"You're concerned that he stays healthy and you're concerned that it doesn't leave him with zero energy, but he's a big, strong kid," Henderson said. "He's really smart. He's a high-energy person, a high-energy player. I suspect he's going to be fine."
5. Who won't be practicing: Spring is all about development, but coaches never want improvement at the cost of injury. Phillips will hold left tackle Chandler Burden and wide receiver Gene McCaskill out of spring practice while they recover from injuries.
Burden had shoulder surgery in December and missed the bowl game against Pittsburgh. Burden is nearing full strength, but the coaches are going to limit him to only non-contact drills in the spring as a precaution.
McCaskill, who missed all of last season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, suffered a slight setback with swelling and will likely sit out this spring.
Early additions this spring include Smith, linebacker Tim Patterson and defensive lineman Jabari Johnson.
6. Developing offensive line depth: Although Kentucky must replace a bundle of playmakers on offense, the blow of losing Cobb and Co. is cushioned a bit by the return of four starters on the offensive line. With those four guys (Burden at tackle, Stuart Hines at left guard, Matt Smith at center and Larry Warford at right guard) cemented into the line, the objective for Phillips and offensive line coach Mike Summers this spring will be developing depth behind them.
Senior Jake Lanefski, who was needed for depth at center last year, will get more reps at the guard position this year. Tevan Eatmon-Nared is up to 325 pounds and is listed behind Burden at left tackle. Guard Kevin Mitchell has dropped 10 to 15 pounds but has gotten stronger as he's gotten leaner, Phillips said.
7. Danny's development: Phillips has no doubts that senior linebacker Danny Trevathan is one of the best linebackers in the country. That's why he had the chance to forego his senior year and enter the NFL Draft a year early.
So what's the next step for a guy that led the Southeastern Conference in tackles last year, specifically for this spring?
"Danny's got to be more of a leader," Phillips said. "Danny's going to play hard and have 15, 20 tackles a game. We need Danny to be a vocal leader for us. Danny put on probably 10, 15 pounds, looks really, really good. That's not a man crush. That's just telling it how it is."
8. A year wiser: For the first time since taking the job in January 2010, Phillips took a vacation last week. Of all places he decided to go, he went with his wife to a spa in Arizona. "My wife kidnapped me," Phillips said. "I did get a man's pedicure, but I didn't let them mess with his hands."
As silly as it sounds, it turned out to be beneficial for the second-year head coach. In addition to reenergizing, it allowed Phillips to reflect on his first year and think about things to do differently.
"I did cut some of the things down that I was doing because I thought I needed to spend more time on football," Phillips said. "I needed to be fresh when I'm in front of our football team. I need to be fresh for spring football."
Phillips' tenure as an assistant coach and offensive coordinator at UK overshadowed the fact that last spring was the first time he was making the crucial decisions from the big office. In hindsight, he said he's learned a few things.
"You've got to lean on your staff," Phillips said. "I've never been on a staff that the head coach didn't lean on his staff. I've got to do that even more this year. That is a lot of the experience. Rick's been a head coach before. You have to lean on him. You have to lean on all our guys because they do have experience."
As we've profiled on this blog in recent weeks, the Kentucky softball team is off to a great start at 19-6 on the season, 5-3 in the Southeastern Conference. For really only the second time in school history and first since claiming the SEC East championship in 2000, UK is entertaining the possibility of competing for the SEC crown.
Kentucky is hitting .287 on the season, well above its average from last year, to go along with a 1.79 ERA.
One of the few achievements that has eluded the program during its meteoric rise over the past few years is a win over Louisville. The Cats have lost eight straight in the series, setting up a pretty critical game with the 18-9 Cardinals on Wednesday at 6 p.m. in Louisville.
Head coach Rachel Lawson stopped by the Wildcat Den before Joker Phillips' spring football news conference Tuesday to talk about the Louisville game and her team's play this season. Video of her comments are below:
When Brandon Knight scored 30 points in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament win over West Virginia, he became the third different freshman player to score 30 or more in a game this season.
UK's research thus far indicates that has not happened anywhere since the 1997 season, and chances are they won't find any instances in college basketball history when that feat occurred.
For the second straight year, Kentucky has achieved a top four seed in the NCAA Tourney while starting three rookies. That certainly speaks to John Calipari's ability to find and procure talented players, but what doesn't get enough credit is what he and his staff do with them once they arrive.
"I think he's probably as good as there is in the college game at (developing players)," ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said in a recent appearance on The Leach Report radio show. "He had to do that at Memphis as well. When I'm around him in practice, he has a great way of communicating with kids, just how he gets his points across to them. Not everyone can take that highly talented player and get them to play hard and I think he does that as well as anyone. That sounds simple, but it isn't."
Dykes says a player thinking only about getting himself to the NBA after one season can screw up a team's chemistry, so he's impressed by how Calipari manages to avoid those kinds of personalities.
"A lot of coaches are scared of them, but there's no reason to be as long as you do your homework," Dykes said. "John has never brought a guy into his program that is going to be a selfish teammate. There have been some guys that have come through the college game recently that haven't (been that way). Cal does a great job in his evaluation, making sure they understand that, 'If you come play for me for one year, it's going to be how I want you to do it,' and he holds them to it. He'll be the first to tell you that the biggest mistake you can make is bring a guy into your program that has a one-year agenda and you can't get him out of it. It can destroy your team."
Said CBS college basketball analyst Greg Anthony: "I don't think anybody does a better job of bringing what's inside out than John Calipari. The players are going to have to trust Coach Calipari. The one advantage you have with him if he's going to do what's in the best interest of the player. That's why he's been able to do such a good job recruiting, because it's about the players - it's not about him."
Big Blue Sports Network radio analyst Mike Pratt brings a good perspective to this story, too. He played at UK in the late 1960s when freshmen were not allowed to play for the varsity their first season. But as first-year starters as sophomores, Pratt, Dan Issel and Mike Casey led the Wildcats to the brink of the Final Four (they lost in a regional final to Ohio State on a last-second shot).
Pratt later coached in college and scouted and coached in the NBA, so he has kept a keen eye on how the game has evolved. But Pratt also says the Calipari way is reminiscent of an old school coach who often went against conventional wisdom.
"If you have ever been to one of Coach Calipari's practices or really looked closely at how he deals with his players, it reminds me of Al McGuire," Pratt said. "I have said this before: Al would not be up in someone's face but he would certainly do a good chewing job when he had to, but he loved those guys and put his arms around them.
"I talked with Al and had the privilege to talk with him after his coaching days, and he wanted to talk about coaching at Rupp and the Kentucky days. Al would always say, 'I had to do what I had to do with any player I had so I would love on them a little bit, kick their butt and put my arm around them,' and he said, 'sometimes I didn't put my arm around them.' He said, 'I did all sorts of weird things and they knew I cared in my own way,' and that is what Cal does. He is pressing the buttons and doing what he can to get the best out of you and then he can always say, 'Look at my track record of guys getting their degree, guys getting to the NBA.' Those two things are the bottom line. Cal talks about trust, and there is trust between player and coach. You have to do it with your own personality, and that is how Cal is."
Pratt says while Calipari preaches the message about Kentucky being a program that focuses first on players, the coach also subtly sells them on the idea of the importance of team goals, too.
"As hard as he communicates his care for them individually, he also communicates that the betterment of the team is our number one goal," Pratt said. "It is like one and one-A. I care about you both. Kids are different now as far as their perception of things and what he says is, 'That is not the way we do things here.' He will say that this place isn't for everybody and this is a special place, so be appreciative."
With 10 seconds remaining in UK's 86-74 second-round NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina, Victoria Dunlap went to the bench for the final time as a Kentucky Wildcat.
She was faced with a harsh reality that so many of even the most decorated players must deal with: only a select few get the opportunity to end their careers with a win.
"There only would have been one great way for (her career) to end and that would have been to cut down the nets in Indianapolis (after a national championship)," Mitchell lamented.
Making the ending even harder to swallow for both Dunlap and Mitchell was the fact that the Wildcats simply did not deliver the kind of performance and effort they expect of themselves.
"I did not want her career to end on a night where we just didn't work very hard and we didn't play very hard," Mitchell said.
UK's lack of effort was particularly evident on the glass, where the Tar Heels held a 55-31 advantage and Dunlap managed just four rebounds, less than half her season average. Kentucky was also consistently exploited in transition as UNC outscored the Wildcats 18-2 on fast breaks.
North Carolina owned a sizable height advantage over UK and plays a similar up-tempo style to UK's, but Dunlap was left wondering why the Cats' intensity was so inconsistent.
"We can make up a lot of excuses for why it happened, but in the end we didn't do the things we needed to do to win the game," Dunlap said. "It started from the beginning. We got up a couple times, then we let down a couple times, so it was like a back-and-forth kind of thing with our intensity, our energy. We just didn't pull through."
With 10:29 left in the game, it appeared that Dunlap's final game would be especially forgettable. UK trailed 63-49 and looked completely overmatched by the Tar Heels considerable size, speed and talent.
Dunlap, though, wouldn't go down that easily.
The senior forward triggered a furious Kentucky rally that pulled the Wildcats to within two points in a 14-2 run that spanned just over three minutes. Dunlap scored six of UK's points during the run and it was the Wildcats' assertiveness that allowed them to get back into the game.
"I think we were just being more aggressive and not really settling for what they were giving us," said Dunlap, who finished with a game-high 23 points. "We were attacking more and being really decisive about what we were going to do."
In the end, the Wildcats simply could not get enough stops nor hit enough shots to finish off the run, leading to Dunlap's exit with seconds remaining. Although the end was bitter, Mitchell pulled his star aside when she exited to make sure she knew what a pleasure it was to coach her.
"I just told her I didn't want it to end that way, but that I was a really lucky son of a gun to get to coach Victoria Dunlap," Mitchell said.
As Mitchell began to build UK Hoops into a national power a few years ago, Dunlap played an instrumental part. She's Kentucky's all-time leader in games played (133) and ranks in the top 10 of 14 career lists at UK, including No. 2 in scoring (1,846), rebounding (1,099), blocks (178), steals (307), free throws made (445), free throws attempted (714) and double-doubles (31).
Dunlap was the centerpiece of a rebuilding project under Mitchell. Although Mitchell didn't recruit her to Kentucky, the program's return to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances would not have been possible without her.
But as much as Dunlap has meant to the program, her impact on Mitchell personally has been equally profound.
"She has meant so much to not only this program, but to Jenna (Mitchell's wife) and me personally," Mitchell said. "She's like family. She has impacted our lives in so many ways and so many people's lives she's impacted by what she's been able to accomplish as a basketball player at this great university."
Even though she was only minutes removed from one of the most difficult losses of her career, Dunlap was able to look back fondly on her time at UK, at least in some small measure.
"I'll never forget it," Dunlap said of her time at UK. "I love this program, I love this school. I'm going to miss it."
Dunlap had to stifle emotion when she thought about how much she has improved.
"It means a lot," Dunlap said, continuing to talk about her time as a Wildcat. "Especially when I think about where I started as a freshman. I wasn't the player that I am now where the coaches have confidence in me to make plays and have embraced the player I am now."
It's that development as a player that has turned Dunlap into one of the top WNBA prospects in the country. Even though the UK careers of Dunlap and fellow graduating senior Carly Morrow are completed, Mitchell sees bright futures ahead of them.
Regardless of what the future holds, Dunlap and Morrow will always be a part of the UK family.
"This season's over, but those kids are Wildcats forever," Mitchell said. "They'll have us 365, 24/7 the rest of their lives. If they need us, they'll have us."
We interrupt March Madness to bring you some news about Kentucky football spring practice.
Believe it or not, the UK football team will begin its spring practice Wednesday at the Nutter Training Facility, weather permitting (practices could be moved inside to Nutter Field House). Kentucky will have 14 practices before the annual Blue/White Spring Game on April 23. The first seven of UK's practices will be open to the public (schedule below).
Spring practice has traditionally lasted four weeks, but head coach Joker Phillips has decided to spread out the practices over a five-week period this year.
Coverage on here may be a little light while I travel with the basketball team during postseason play, but there will be a spring preview on here Tuesday following Phillips' news conference.
Practices open to fans
Wednesday, March 23: 9 - 11:15 a.m. Friday, March 25: 9 - 11:15 a.m. Saturday, March 26: 9 - TBA Monday, March 28: 9 - 11:15 a.m. Wednesday, March 30: 9 - 11:15 a.m. Friday, April 1: 9 - 11:15 a.m. Saturday, April 2: 9 - TBA (Commonwealth Stadium) April 8-20: Practices closed Blue/White Spring Game: April 23 at 3 p.m. at Commonwealth Stadium
Men's basketball - Kentucky advances to its 22nd Sweet 16, the second most in NCAA history, after a 71-63 win over West Virginia in third round of the NCAA Tournament. - In holding the Mountaineers to 63 points, Kentucky ran its record to 25-0 this season when holding the opponent to 67 or fewer points and 46-0 under John Calipari. The win extended UK's season-best winning streak to eight games. - Brandon Knight poured in 30 points in the victory, the most by a UK freshman in program history in NCAA Tournament action. Terrence Jones notched his 12th double-double this season, tying him with Chris Mills for second on UK's freshman double-double list. - Josh Harrellson is averaging 15.0 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game in the NCAA Tournament. - The Wildcats have four players averaging double figures in the tournament, including Brandon Knight (16.0), Josh Harrellson (15.0), Terrence Jones (11.0) and Darius Miller (10.0).
Women's basketball - The Cats are making their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance and now own an 8-7 record in the tournament following a win over Hampton in the opening round. - UK is now 4-1 all-time as a No. 4 seed. - Junior guard Keyla Snowden scored a team-high 19 points in a career-high 37 minutes of play. Snowden's 16 points in the first half marked the most points in an opening frame since Dunlap scored 16 vs. Tennessee on Feb. 7. - Dunlap recorded her 31st career and ninth doubledouble of the season with 13 points (11 coming in the second half ) and a game-high-tying 12 rebounds.
Swimming and diving - The Kentucky women's swimming and diving team concluded its season Saturday with a 28th-place finish at the 2011 women's NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships held at the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center in Austin, Texas. - Senior diver Lisa Faulkner led the Wildcats by earning points on each of the three boards with a fifth-place finish on the platform, a 15th-place mark on the three-meter board and a 16th-place finish on the one-meter board. - Senior backstroke swimmer Chatham Penrod earned All-America honorable mention honors in the 100 backstroke with a 16th-place finish. - Mandy Myers swam a career-best time in the 100 butterfly on Friday, tapping in at 54.31. Myers topped her previous best time by .02.
Softball - Head coach Rachel Lawson earned her 100th career victory as the head coach of Kentucky with the first of two wins at Arkansas. She attained 100 wins in the Blue and White faster than any other coach in school history. - Senior Meagan Aull is enjoying a career-long hitting streak at nine games. Aull has a hit in every SEC game this season. - Freshman pitcher Ellen Weaver earned the win on the mound in the opening game of the LSU series. It marked just the third win in program history over the Tigers, and Weaver is the second consecutive freshman pitcher to earn a win in Baton Rouge, La.
Baseball - Kentucky has won eight of its last nine contests. - In the rubber match on Sunday with Tennessee, UK rode a four-hit game from senior closer/outfielder Mike Kaczmarek and a three-RBI outing from freshman J.T. Riddle to a 7-3 series-clinching win. - Riddle had a monster week, batting .538 during the four games with a homer and eight RBI. Riddle's breakout game on Sunday included a three-run homer in the first inning, his first career homer, and a spectacular diving catch in right field to save extra bases.
Gymnastics - The gymnastics team earned a team score of 193.95 en route to a seventh-place finish at the SEC Championships. - Kentucky's best event score came on vault where the Wildcats scored a 48.715. The Wildcats were led on the event by seniors Jasmine Minion and Phylicia Reshard, who each scored a 9.8. Fellow senior Andrea Mitchell earned a 9.775, while senior Colleen Williams scored a 9.7 and freshman Audrey Harrison posted a 9.65. - Kentucky concluded the meet on floor exercise with a team score of 48.675. Mitchell led UK on the event with a 9.85, while Minion and Reshard each earned a 9.8.
Men's tennis - The Kentucky men's tennis team continued its dominance this season, posting three wins on the week over No. 21 Notre Dame, No. 37 Alabama and Butler. - UK has now defeated 10 top-50 ranked teams this season, including a 5-2 record at home. The Wildcats are now 11-2 at home this season overall and 39-8 at the Hilary J. Boone Tennis Center since the start of the 2009 season. - With the wins over Notre Dame and Butler, Kentucky continued to be unbeatable at home in non-conference play, earning a 23-0 record the past two seasons, including a 10-0 mark this season. - Kentucky was led throughout the week by its strong play in both singles and doubles, winning at least five singles matches in each victory. No. 4 Eric Quigley, No. 77 Anthony Rossi, No. 117 Alberto Gonzalez, Brad Cox and Tom Jomby each earned two singles wins during the week.
Men's golf - Kentucky finished the Schenkel Invitational in a tie for 13th with freshman Cody Martin and sophomore Chase Parker finishing in the top 40 on the individual leaderboard. - Martin scored the lowest round of the tournament for UK with his 1-under-par 71 in the second round. The native of Union, Ky., earned a team-high 10 birdies on the weekend en route to finishing tied for 32nd. Parker scored only three birdies at the event but earned an impressive two eagles to finish tied for 50th.
Women's tennis - The UK women's tennis team concluded its three-match Texas road swing on Saturday, but could not pick up a victory. - Senior Megan Broderick and sophomore Jessica Stiles each picked up their co-team-leading seventh singles victories of the season. Broderick defeated Elizabeth Ullathorne of Texas Tech 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) and Stiles got a win over TCU's Olivia Smith 6-0, 6-3. - Freshman Khristina Blajkevitch earned her fifth victory in singles play by topping Texas Tech's Haley Fournier 4-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3).
*The UK-Ohio State on Friday has been slated for a 9:45 p.m. tip on CBS. Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg are scheduled to call the game.
Headed to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season, here are 16 things to feel good about if you're the Kentucky men's basketball team heading into this week's trip to Newark, N.J.:
1.) Knight's already a tourney vet: Questions surrounded the youth of Kentucky's freshmen entering the NCAA Tournament, and rightfully so. The trio of Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Dorn Lamb did little to quiet those for the first 39 minutes of the opening-round game against Princeton. But after hitting the game-winning shot against Princeton and then scoring a career-high 30 points against West Virginia, any anxiety Knight admitted to feeling is likely gone. He's already become one of the faces of this year's tournament.
2.) Jones is healthy again: Terrence Jones was in a serious funk over the last four games as he dealt with a cold and some congestion. A day after declaring a clean bill of health, though, it looked like Jones' illness wasn't the reason behind his dip in play after the first half against West Virginia. Fortunately for the Cats, Jones returned to his early season form with 10 points and seven rebounds in the second half. UK will need Jones in the next game, especially against the big men of Ohio State.
3.) Miller's not afraid to take the big shots: The evolution of Darius Miller over the last month and a half has been remarkable. But to say all doubts about him were gone would be completely untrue. Miller has had the bottom drop out on him before, so it was reasonable to wonder what would happen when the shots didn't fall for him. That happened Saturday in Tampa, Fla., when Miller missed his first six shots. But with the outcome teetering from side to side late in the game, Miller gave the Cats a five-point lead with a huge 3-pointer from the left wing. "I let it go," Miller said of his only field goal. "I wasn't going to quit shooting. I've still got confidence in my shot. I don't want to quit shooting just because I'm missing."
4.) Harrellson's a legitimate inside threat: Head coach John Calipari wasn't sure after the Louisville game if Josh Harrellson's performance was a fluke. But a full season of work that includes 8.8 rebounds per game and a .604 field-goal percentage has confirmed what some started to believe after the Louisville game: Harrellson is the most improved big man in the country. Harrellson still isn't capable of taking over a game, but he isn't just a "garbage man" anymore. He's developed just enough back-to-the-basket moves and has a great floor presence that he's forcing the opposition to keep him honest.
5.) Kentucky has found its "it" guy: You ever notice how most national championship teams have the kind of "it" player or "glue" guy that does a little bit of everything? He's not the best offensive player or the most talented, but he usually comes up with the winning plays. That guy for the Cats is DeAndre Liggins. We already knew Liggins was a lockdown defender, a reputation that he added to Saturday, but his energy and fearlessness of late has been contagious. He's developed an edge that's helped ignite the current eight-game winning streak. On Saturday, he shut down Cat killer Joe Mazzulla in the second half in addition to nine rebounds.
6.) Playing loose: The pressure's off Kentucky. Seriously. How many of you have picked Kentucky to go past the Sweet 16? How many of you thought a month ago UK could even get out of the second round? In some ways, this team has already met expectations. But more than that, Kentucky will enter a rare NCAA Tournament game in which it's an underdog. Everyone expects Ohio State to be in Newark. Just about everybody expects Ohio State to advance to the Final Four. And a lot of people expect Ohio State to win it all. That means the pressure is on the Buckeyes, not the Cats, to win Saturday.
7.) The law of averages: Surely Ohio State isn't that good. The Buckeyes mauled George Mason 98-66 Sunday, hitting 61 percent of its shots, including 16 of 26 from the 3-point line. Yikes. But as eye popping as those numbers are, they don't always translate from game to game. Remember what Kentucky did in its first three games in last year's NCAA Tournament? Things happen. Maybe Ohio State has an off night. But surely the Buckeyes don't shoot 61 percent again, right?
8.) The great motivator: You can bet John Calipari is salivating at the scenario that is playing out. He's going to tell his players how much everyone wants to see them lose. He's going to say they're lucky to be there. He'll tell them over and over again that if they don't execute, they'll get blown out of the gym. It's the perfect scenario for one of the great motivators in the game.
9.) Extra incentive: Speaking of motivation, you don't think the fact that Ohio State Athletics Director Gene Smith was in charge of the committee that tabbed Kentucky a No. 4 seed won't be a factor? You can bet Calipari will use that as ammo, too.
10.) Man of March: A lot of coaches can rack up victories before the postseason, but Calipari has the numbers to prove he can win when it matters the most. Calipari is now 30-12 in the NCAA Tournament, including two Final Four appearances.
11.) Depth is overrated: If there is one thing that March teaches us year after year, it's that depth doesn't mean a whole lot, at least in terms of conditioning. For all the questions Kentucky has faced about its six-man rotation this year, it's hardly seemed to matter since the postseason started. The Cats have managed just fine with a short bench. The one concern, of course, is foul trouble, but it hasn't been as big of a factor as you might believe. For as much as it seems like UK is flirting with players fouling out, only 11 times this year has a Wildcat gone to the bench with five fouls.
12.) De-fense! One of the nation's top defense units in the regular season has taken it up another level in the postseason. Starting with the Ole Miss game in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, UK has limited its five opponents to 33.9 percent, 41.5 percent, 38.6 percent, 46.2 percent and 41.5 percent from the field. No team has scored more than 66 points.
13.) Winning close games: Remember that inability to win in the clutch and close teams out? That seems like an awful long time ago now. After the loss at Arkansas, UK was 0-6 in games decided by five points or less. Kentucky is 2-0 since, but the statistics don't actually do the Cats justice. The Tennessee, Florida (in the SEC Tournament) and West Virginia wins were decided by six, six and seven points, respectively, but the games were even closer than that. UK was able to hits its free throws in the closing seconds in each of those games to clinch the victory.
14.) Hanging on to the ball: UK isn't wasting possessions in the postseason. Beginning with the SEC Tournament, the Cats are only averaging 9.6 turnovers a game. Really, Kentucky's minimal turnovers throughout the season have led to the nation's seventh-most efficient offense, according to kenpom.com.
15.) Playing fast: After the rout of George Mason, analysts on CBS wondered what the best way was to beat Ohio State. Their answer was a fast, athletic team. Sounds like UK, right? That's what most of the analysts agreed upon when previewing Friday's matchup. That doesn't necessarily mean Kentucky has the athleticism and speed of Ohio State, but the Cats push the ball just enough to give the Buckeyes problems.
16.) Fan turnout: With one of the biggest collegiate fan bases in the country, Ohio State usually owns a decisive home-court advantage when it plays at neutral sites. As we've learned time and time again, against the most passionate fans base in college basketball, that won't be the case. There's no telling who will have the most fans in Newark, but given the stakes, the fan bases and the traditions of the programs, it should have the feel of a Final Four game.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- There really isn't much on a basketball floor that Maegan Conwright hasn't been asked to do this season. The 5-foot-8 freshman is listed officially as a guard, but she spent much of the first 39 minutes of Kentucky's NCAA Tournament first-round win over Hampton battling with much bigger players in the post.
When A'dia Mathies fouled out with 1:05 left in regulation against Hampton, Conwright was asked to step in and fill Mathies' shoes at point guard. She did so admirably, helping the Wildcats to a 66-62 overtime victory to send UK into a second-round matchup with fifth-seeded North Carolina (27-8) on Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET in Albuquerque, N.M.
Conwright has shown that kind of ability all season, seamlessly switching positions effectively. It's an ability that has come to represent UK Hoops under Matthew Mitchell.
"We have looked to sign some players with versatility because we thought it was more important to get kids that wanted to play for the Wildcats instead of (worrying about) what position you play," Mitchell said.
Mathies also fits that bill.
Mathies had a successful freshman campaign playing off the ball, but when senior Amber Smith went down with a season-ending knee injury and it became clear UK's freshmen couldn't fill the point guard role immediately, Mathies switched to the point.
"When you've been able to get kids like A'dia Mathies who can play multiple positions, Maegan Conwright can play multiple positions, it helps a lot because we don't have a roster full of traditional centers and traditional power forwards and on and on," Mitchell said.
The face of UK's rise to prominence over the past two seasons has quite clearly been senior forward Victoria Dunlap, one of the most dynamic players in the country. Dunlap, undersized for her interior position, has developed into one of the best players in the history of Kentucky's program by diversifying her game each year she has been in Lexington. She doesn't play point guard, but she leads UK's defensive pressure, she rebounds, and she can score inside and out.
Dunlap, in spite of registering her ninth double-double of the season and 31st of her career, did not play up to par in UK's win over Hampton.
"Victoria, for whatever reason, did not come out very strong (against Hampton)," Mitchell said.
In order for UK to advance against a team ranked 15th nationally in North Carolina, Dunlap will absolutely have to return to form.
"I've addressed that with her," Mitchell said. "I think Vic needs to get herself in a spot where she's going to play with some poise on offense and play with some tremendous tenacity on defense. She didn't do either of those things yesterday."
Dunlap said that she will take things up a notch.
"I need to bring the energy for my teammates and make sure they can look at me as a leader and follow what I'm doing," Dunlap said.
Mitchell looked to Dunlap's track record as evidence that she would
"One thing about her is that she's had a great knack from bouncing back from poor performances all season, so I expect her to play well," Mitchell said.
Dunlap will start opposite 6-3 senior forward Jessica Breland, who is second on UNC in both points (12.5) and rebounds (7.0) per game.
"She is a long and athletic player," Dunlap said. "She's very versatile and great player for their team."
Breland is a major part of a Tar Heel attack that averages 78.0 points per game. Senior guard Italee Lucas leads the team with 15.8 points per game and another senior guard, Cetera DeGraffenreid, is the straw that stirs the drink, dishing 4.9 assists per contest.
"They have a very talented, gifted basketball team that will be a tough opponent for us," Mitchell said. "We will have to do the best job we can in preparation and play very hard tomorrow night and see if we can win one more game in the tournament."
UNC figures to push the pace on Monday. The versatile Wildcats believe that an up-tempo style of play fits them well.
"We practice a lot with out intensity and tempo," junior guard Keyla Snowden said. "I think that any game with a fast-paced tempo will be to our favor."
Then again, a faster pace could test the bumps and bruises Mathies and Conwright are having to play through.
Mathies aggravated a lower back strain during Southeastern Conference Tournament play and has been limited since, while Conwright gutted out her overtime performance against Hampton after straining her groin late in the game.
Mitchell said that Mathies continues to battle through the injury and plans to play Monday.
"A'dia's back was a little tight this morning," Mitchell said. "She feels like she's going to be OK. She's not 100 percent and I don't know that she'll be 100 percent the rest of the season, but A'dia Mathies at 80 percent is better than most people."
Mitchell praised Conwright for her ability to play with her injury on Saturday and said that she also intends to play.
"Maegan strained her groin yesterday and we think that's going to be something that's manageable as well," Mitchell said. "She showed a tremendous amount of toughness yesterday finishing out the game because she was in pain and that was a tremendous performance."
Of course, should one not be able to go, having versatility always helps.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- For the entire 2010-11 season, senior forward Victoria Dunlap and sophomore guard A'dia Mathies have been the heart and soul of the Kentucky women's basketball team. They have been asked to do numerous things on the court and they have done most all of them well.
If UK Hoops is to make an extended run this NCAA Tournament, there will be days that Dunlap and Mathies have to shoulder the load. Thanks to herculean efforts by a number of their teammates, they will have that opportunity.
Behind stellar play by UK's purported supporting cast, the Kentucky Wildcats survived a first-round matchup against a game Hampton team in a heart-stopping 66-62 overtime victory in Albuquerque, N.M.
"It was that kind of day," head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "Everybody had to play, everybody had to step up. A lot of kids scored today and it took just about all of them."
Keyla Snowden headlined that group, scoring 19 points on the game, including four 3-pointers.
When Dunlap went to the bench with her second foul with 9:55 remaining in the first half, it looked as if UK would have trouble holding onto a 10-8 lead against Hampton's swarming defense.
The Wildcats turned to Snowden to carry the load and carry the load she did. She poured in 16 first-half points, scoring from distance, on drives and from the foul line. Her contributions helped send the Wildcats into halftime with a 32-26 lead in spite of only four combined points and rebounds from Dunlap and Mathies.
"When teams let her have a little room, it's a dangerous thing for them because she's such a good shooter," Mitchell said. "I thought so many players were playing in such a rush and just not playing well from a mental standpoint, I thought Keyla kind of bailed us out there."
With Dunlap and later Mathies exiting with two fouls in the first half, Mitchell was equally pleased with how Snowden stepped into the leadership void left by the absence of his two stars.
"I thought Keyla was really talking and trying to be a leader and never got down," Mitchell said. "It was a great performance by her and she's really matured into not only a good player, but a good leader for us."
Perhaps lost a bit in Snowden's first-half explosion was the lift that freshman forward Sarah Beth Barnette provided. Barnette canned a pair of 3s and grabbed three vital rebounds, a signal that every player on the roster is ready to contribute when her number is called.
"Anybody can come in," sophomore forward Brittany Henderson said. "Sarah Beth came in and hit two big shots."
When the second half started, Kentucky looked to establish the previously quiet Dunlap immediately. However, Mid Eastern Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year Quanneisha Perry and her teammates continued to make life hard for Dunlap.
"I think starting with Hampton and their pressure defense, they were working a lot of traps and ducking in on me trying to make me either pick the ball up or throw it back out to my teammates," Dunlap said. "They did a good job of making me decide and making me become a little hesitant on what I was doing on the offensive end."
Dunlap was consistently doubled in the post whenever she got the ball on her hands, so she turned to the offensive glass to create opportunities for herself. Dunlap had 11 points and 10 rebounds after halftime, but still shot just four of her 14 shots.
Behind Dunlap, UK nabbed a 51-45 lead with 7:57 remaining in regulation, but Hampton's defense stiffened and allowed the Pirates to close on a 11-5 run to send the game to overtime.
During that run, Mathies picked up her fifth foul and headed to the bench for the remainder of the game. With Mathies watching from the sidelines, Mitchell turned to freshman guard Maegan Conwright to run his team as the point guard in the extra session.
"That was an unbelievable performance by Maegan Conwright," Mitchell said. "It was incredible what she did in overtime."
In overtime, Brittany Henderson was challenged to make a difference for her team by Mitchell and injured guard Amber Smith.
"Before overtime started, Amber said I could change the game by getting on the boards," Henderson said.
Henderson responded not only by hitting the glass for two vital rebounds, but she also scored the Wildcats' first four points of the extra stanza to stake the Cats to a lead that they never relinquished.
The fact that UK was able to overcome a worthy opponent while getting sub-par performances by its two stars is a positive sign for how the rest of the team has come.
"I love my teammates," Henderson said. "We pick each other up when we know somebody is struggling."
Based on past performance, it's a safe bet to say that Dunlap and Mathies will bounce back and play to the level that has become expected of them. Dunlap had a workmanlike second half that was more characteristic of her All-American form, but Mathies never quite found her way into this game coming off of a back injury that limited her in practice.
"We didn't really get a good performance out of A'dia today," Mitchell said. "I think her timing really suffered. She's been off for two weeks,"
When UK plays its second-round matchup against fifth-seeded North Carolina on Monday at 9:30 p.m. ET, Mitchell anticipates that her timing will be much improved.
"I just think that she'll be much better on Monday," Mitchell said.
Add an in sync A'dia Mathies to a team that gutted out a very hard-fought victory and you have a team capable of making a lot of noise.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sewn through Josh Harrellson's sweaty brow with blood still oozing from the seams, four stitches above Harrellson's left eye symbolized the full-out war the senior forward has just been through.
Harrellson scored 15 points and recorded eight rebounds, and freshman guard Brandon Knight scored a career-high 30 points to lead the Kentucky men's basketball team back to the Sweet 16 for the second consecutive season. UK avenged last season's Elite Eight loss to West Virginia with a 71-63 win Saturday, out-toughing the fifth-seeded Mountaineers in the third round of the NCAA Tournament in Tampa, Fla.
After enduing arguably the most physical battle of the year at the most important time of the season, perhaps the four stitches mean even more to this group: four more wins for a national championship.
"It's sweet," junior guard DeAndre Liggins said. "I'm just happy we beat the team that beat us last year."
A youth-driven, inexperienced and shorthanded Kentucky team out-rebounded, out-scrapped and outlasted a West Virginia team that was among the roughest and toughest in college basketball. The Cats held their own on the boards, winning the battle of the glass 34-30.
Freshman forward Terrence Jones awoke after halftime to record seven of his 10 rebounds, and Harrellson notched seven of his eight after halftime. The Wildcats said the key to the game would be matching West Virginia's physical toughness, and the Cats went head to head with the Mountaineers, even knocking a few heads to get there.
Late in the game, with Kentucky clinging to a 60-56 lead, Harrellson took an elbow to the eyebrow from WVU guard Casey Mitchell. Harrellson would go to the bench briefly to get the cut cleaned and return with a bandage above his eye.
It was a mark of toughness for a player who played like a raging bull among a paint filled with wild animals. Harrellson proved to be the strongest of them all.
"I definitely knew it was going to be physical," Harrellson said. "I'm just happy for the guys with how we responded to the physical (play). We actually played tough against them back and it kind of caught them off guard a little bit."
Although the players said this game wasn't a rematch, for a while it looked like it was going to be a rerun of last year's game in Syracuse, N.Y.
Knight got the Cats rolling early with 12 of UK's first 16 points. Riding the momentum of Thursday's game-winning layup over Princeton - his only field goal that game - Knight ignited Kentucky to an early 23-16 lead.
"I felt more confident," Knight said of his 9-of-20 shooting afternoon. "My teammates continued to have faith in me even though I didn't play such a great game. They still had faith in me and they really helped me out today, finding me and stuff like that. They really stepped their level of play up, which got me more shots."
Soon thereafter, though, the whistles started to blow and the fouls started to mount. By halftime, four UK players were in foul trouble (Doron Lamb had three, and Jones, Harrellson and Eloy Vargas had two), and West Virginia rode an 8-0 run to close the half with a 41-33 lead.
To that point, WVU senior guard Joe Mazzulla had 15 points, three off his career high and just two short the season-high 17 he posted against Kentucky last year. Rehashing nightmares of last season's Elite Eight game, Mazzulla knifed his way to the basket for uncontested layups.
Mazzulla, who finished with 20 points, and West Virginia were well on their way to punking Kentucky again until somebody decided to step up and and fight back.
That man was Liggins. Having watched a player who averages 7.3 points per game torch the Cats again, Liggins spoke up at halftime.
"It didn't come from coach or the assistants," Liggins said. "(Mazzulla) had the hot hand, so I said, 'I'm going to guard him.' I took it upon myself to guard him."
As Liggins has done so many times before, he shut down his opposition.
After Mazzulla hit 5-of-7 field goals in the first half, Liggins stuck to Mazzulla like flypaper. He cracked a window of opportunity for Mazzulla to drive right on most possessions, but it was a trap for the left-handed point guard. On all but two occasions, Liggins and the Cats closed the door shut, cutting off the head of the West Virginia offense.
"He's one of the best (defenders) I've ever seen and one of the best I've had to play against," Knight said. "His length and his ability to move like a 6-foot point guard, and his energy, always trying to get up in you, make you uncomfortable."
The Cats fed off Liggins' energy to begin the second half. UK went on an 11-0 run after halftime to retake the lead, and when West Virginia fought back, Kentucky, as it has so often during its season-high eight-game winning streak, didn't back down.
Trailing 55-51, Calipari called timeout, and, oddly enough, called Jones' number. After a lackluster first half, the move seemed curious, but Jones played off his coaches' confidence, spun in the paint and knocked down an 8-foot jumper. On the next possession, he received a slick dish from Knight for a two-hand slam.
Then, after a nonexistent first 35 minutes, junior guard/forward Darius Miller knocked down the biggest 3-pointer of the game, a dagger from the left wing to put UK ahead by five with 4:11 left to go.
It was a shot Miller wouldn't have taken months ago - ahem, Ole Miss - but this is a new player, a tougher, more confident Miller.
"I let it go," Miller said of his only field goal. "I wasn't going to quit shooting. I've still got confidence in my shot. I don't want to quit shooting just because I'm missing."
But the epitome of the Cats' passion existed in the 6-foot-10 frame of a guy who not only was supposed to get pushed around by West Virginia's bigs, but was never even slated at the beginning of the season to be in the position he is now: Josh Harrellson.
In between Jones' four straight points and Miller's trey, Harrellson provided the play of the game. Following a missed 3-pointer by Knight, Harrellson crashed the glass for an offensive board, missed, grabbed a rebound again, missed, and then corralled it one last time and banked his shot in as he was getting fouled.
"I just sought an opportunity to go get a ball," Harrellson said. "I missed the first one and I saw an opportunity to go get it again and just tried to keep it alive. I knew we were down a little bit and I was trying to fight for my teammates to get us back in the game, and there was an opportunity there to get us a couple points, so I had to go get it."
The play, the comeback and the fight earned the players their highest badge of honor from their head coach, John Calipari.
"He actually called us tough today after the game," said Miller, noting the first-time compliment. "That's a big step for us."
TAMPA, Fla. -- For the second consecutive year, the Kentucky men's basketball team is headed back to the Sweet 16. The Cats avenged last year's heartbreaking loss to West Virginia in the Elite Eight with a 71-63 win over fifth-seeded West Virginia in the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
UK will play the winner of the Ohio State-George Mason game on Friday in Newark, N.J.
Brandon Knight scored a career-high 30 points in the win and Terrence Jones recorded his 10th double-double of the season (12 points and 10 rebounds). Senior forward Josh Harrellson finished with 15 points and eight rebounds.
I'm traveling with the team as we speak, so my coverage of the game is going to be delayed until much later Saturday. In the meantime, here is some video from the postgame news conference:
Big day for the basketball programs of Kentucky on Saturday. We've done our best on this blog to give you a small sample of March Madness, but there's no way we could possibly close even half the storylines of both the men's and women's teams.
With that in mind, here's a few links to prep you for Saturday's games:
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Motivational ploys at this time of year are a dime a dozen. With so many teams looking to find that extra edge for an extended NCAA Tournament run, coaches turn to any number of sayings emblazoned on t-shirts, wrist bands and the like as a last-ditch effort to motivate their teams.
Matthew Mitchell and the Kentucky women's basketball have a theme for their March Madness run, but it's far from a Hail Mary attempt to try to propel them to the Final Four. Recognizing his team's goal of a trip to Indianapolis to the Final Four at the beginning of the season, Mitchell wanted to impart to his team the long, arduous voyage that awaited them by educating his players about the challenges endured by travelers of the Oregon Trail.
"In trying to prepare for the season, I just got to looking at the journey people made on the Oregon Trail to try to make it to a better place," Mitchell said. "Indianapolis is not very far from Lexington, but I wanted to try to symbolize that it was going to be a long season. It was going to be five, six months of hard work.
Mitchell's inspiration came from his background as a history teacher. He knew that people traversing the Oregon Trail traveled 15 miles a day for months to arrive at a destination 2,000 miles away, so he instituted a doctrine of "15 MAD" that imparted to his players that they would need to work every day.
"The folks on the Oregon Trail had to go 2,000 miles, but they could only go 15 miles a day," "They had to have the right supplies in the wagon, they couldn't hold onto things that would slow them down, so there's a lot of symbolism there.
Although his players were more likely to know about the Oregon Trail from the famous computer game, senior forward Victoria Dunlap and her teammates embraced the metaphor.
"At the beginning of the year, Coach Mitchell talked about the journey getting through the season and that getting to Indianapolis for the championship wouldn't be easy," Dunlap said. "The people that were strong enough to make it there were going to have to push through and fight through it. Whether you were sick or you were hurt, you wanted to get to a better place and make yourself better."
After a successful season thus far that resulted in a 24-8 record, a second-place regular-season finish in the Southeastern Conference and a trip to the finals of the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats are taking their mantra into the stretch run of their season. Ironically, the Wildcats will have to travel nearly as far westward as those Oregon Trail settlers did in the 19th century to make it out of the finals of the Spokane Region.
UK opens NCAA Tournament play on Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M., as a four seed playing against 13th-seeded Hampton (25-6) of the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference. The Wildcats may be seed-line favorites when the teams take the floor on at 6:30 p.m. ET, but the Lady Pirates have UK's full attention.
"I'm very impressed with Hampton," Mitchell said. "They have a great record. They're on a tremendous winning streak right now. They have not lost a game in a while so they have to be coming in with tremendous confidence."
The winning streak Mitchell is referring to is a 13-game stretch dating back to a Jan. 22 loss to Bethune-Cookman. In that time, the Lady Pirates have defeated all but two of their opponents by double digits, thoroughly dominating the MEAC in the process. Additionally, Hampton is 24-2 since a 1-4 start to their season, defeating Florida, an SEC rival of UK, 69-54 along the way.
Hampton is led by second-year head coach David Six, who boasts an experienced starting lineup with four juniors and one senior. Guard Jericka Jenkins, forward Quanneisha Perry and guard Choicetta McMillan average double figures in scoring for the Lady Pirates and Jenkins is second in the nation with 7.3 assists per contest.
"They seem to play with a ton of confidence," Mitchell said of Hampton. "They seem to know what they need to do to win and they stick to that. I think this is a tough game for us. What we've tried to tell the team is that you don't worry about the (seeds) in front of the names. All that gets thrown out when you go between the lines."
With their stellar record season, the Lady Pirates have every reason to believe they can play with the Wildcats.
"This is a fantastic opportunity for us," Six said. "I would like to think we can compete against anybody. We're going to go out there and play our style and I'm sure they'll (do the same). We played a great (James Madison) team at the beginning of the year and won at JMU. We played a great Florida team, so I think we do have confidence going into the game."
Much like Kentucky, Hampton's team is triggered by defense. Hampton is undersized and gets after opponents with pressure-filled man-to-man defense. The Lady Pirates used that style to topple Florida and will look to do the same against Kentucky.
"The first thing we said about the Florida game was we're only going to win by defense," two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year Perry said. "We can't outscore a team like Florida, we can't outscore a team like Kentucky. Our mindset is just defense. We're just going to lock down, play hard and we're going to see what the outcome (is)."
Kentucky is concerned about the challenges that Hampton will present, but as they have all year, and especially in tournament play, the Wildcats are worried about playing their own brand of up-tempo, high-pressure basketball.
"That's our bread and butter," Dunlap said. "That's what we do best, especially playing defense with a lot of pressure. I think with a tournament like this not many people have that type of mindset for games. We are used to it. That's the way we practice and the way we play in all our games and that's what we are looking to do in the tournament."
Like Oregon Trail settlers, the Wildcats' wagon has been in the proverbial ditch on a number of occasions this season. Mitchell has had to guide the Wildcats back on the trail of playing their brand of basketball and the Oregon Trail analogy has played a role in that.
Most recently, the Wildcats were humbled by a hot-shooting Tennessee team in the finals of the SEC Tournament. Dunlap says that she's not concerned about how she and her teammates will respond as they head in the Big Dance.
"Throughout the season we were going to have ups and downs and even in low times we have to get the wagon back on the trail and fix it up," Dunlap said. "We have to make sure its right and just keep going and not worry about the past."
The Kentucky women's basketball team, by its own admission, was a ragged bunch the last time it took the floor. Playing eight consecutive weekends of Southeastern Conference play without a bye, then heading to Nashville for the SEC Tournament and three games in three days, had taken its toll.
After a blowout loss against the Tennessee Volunteers, the Wildcats were left licking their wounds in more ways than one. Not only had they been beaten badly by their rivals, but players were fighting fatigue and injury. Fortunately, Matthew Mitchell knew he had nearly two weeks before his team would play in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
"I think some teams might not have liked the time off because you'll maybe lose rhythm, and I can see that, but we really needed it badly," Mitchell said. "We needed the time off; we needed the time to get a couple of people healthy."
Mitchell said the break gave his players a chance to get a fresh start and approach the tournament as a sort of new season.
"I thought (it helped) mentally more than anything for our players to be able to get away from it for a few days and sort of come back at the beginning of the season," Mitchell said.
While the mental side was vital, the break was important from a physical perspective, particularly for sophomore guard A'dia Mathies.
"For A'dia, it was really a fortunate thing because she was in bad shape and she's still not back 100 percent," Mitchell said
Mathies, in a semifinals win over Vanderbilt, aggravated a lower back strain, an injury that would limit her significantly in the finals. Even with the extra time to heal, she remains a question mark heading into Saturday's NCAA first-round matchup against Hampton, though she is expected to play.
"She's still struggling a little bit so we'll see," Mitchell said of his star guard. "We've had her out of practice for a while, so we'll see if she can bounce back and if she can play tomorrow. Certainly that time gave her a better chance to play tomorrow than if we'd had to jump right back in it. I don't think she could have played last weekend."
While senior forward Victoria Dunlap was not dealing with any injury that threatened her ability to play, the break gave her a chance to recuperate from a long season of playing the high-energy brand of basketball she is known for.
"Physically, I think Victoria is looking very refreshed," Mitchell said. "She has practiced better over the last two weeks than I've seen her in a long time. She seems very energized, very motivated so that seems good for her to have a little time off."
For one of the best players in the history of the Kentucky program, being rested and ready for her final NCAA Tournament run could be vital.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Maybe no loss has haunted the Kentucky men's basketball team over the last decade quite like last year's Elite Eight loss to West Virginia in the 2010 NCAA Tournament.
The favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis following the early ouster of Kansas, UK's super team of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson seemed like a lock for the Final Four, which would have been the program's first appearance since 1998.
The trip became such a sure thing that hundreds - perhaps thousands - of fans put off going to the earlier rounds of the NCAA Tournament in anticipation of taking their vacation to the Final Four in the Hoosier State.
And then, in one of Kentucky's all-time most heartbreaking losses, West Virginia shocked UK 73-66, ending the run of the team that reestablished Kentucky's place among the nation's elite.
"I still remember it," said junior guard DeAndre Liggins, one of only three UK players (Darius Miller and Jon Hood being the other two) to play in last year's game. "I'll remember it tomorrow when we play them."
Said senior forward Josh Harrellson: "They just pretty much beat us to everything - layups, fastbreaks. We really didn't play the game we played the whole year. We really didn't play very well at all."
One can image the enjoyment the Kentucky players had Selection Sunday when West Virginia popped up in the same bracket, setting up a possible third-round matchup.
From Patterson to Wall and even some of the current players, they all say last year's game has played over and over in their heads like a reoccurring nightmare. For the last year, it's long been their dream to right one of the few wrongs with last year's season.
"We're ready to get our win back," Liggins said.
But this isn't a rematch, or so the players say.
Both teams put on their public relations hats Friday to dispel any storylines of revenge or payback. They're two different teams, they both say, and by and large, they really are.
Only one Kentucky starter (Miller) returned from a year ago, and three of WVU's top five leading scorers are gone.
"They have a completely different team," said senior guard Joe Mazzulla, who torched UK for a season-high 17 points in last year's game. "I'm not sure they have that inside presence like what they had from Cousins, even though (Josh) Harrellson does a pretty good job. On our end, we're a much different team. We kind of spread the load out as far as what we're going to do offensively, and we really have to rely on defense and rebounding, so I don't think it's too much of a rematch."
The main difference is this is a much better Kentucky shooting team. Led by sharpshooting freshmen Brandon Knight and Doron Lamb, UK enters Saturday's 12:15 p.m. game at the St. Pete Times Forum with a 3-point shooting percentage of .398, 11th in the country.
Although the Cats had some of the nation's best individual talent last year, they bricked their first 20 attempts from behind the arc. For the game, UK was an almost unbelievable 4 of 32 from long range.
"I just thought if we would have made shots we would have beat them," Liggins said. "We didn't."
To expect a poor shooting team to make most of its shots would have been unrealistic, but to miss so many last year with so much riding on the line was perplexing. When Liggins was asked why they missed so many shots, he had a hard time finding a reasonable explanation.
"We just missed shots," Liggins said.
The answer may lie somewhere between West Virginia's brutal physicality and the implementation of former coach John Beilein's 1-3-1 zone.
What this West Virginia team lacks in style points, it makes up for with its sheer punishing style of play. One of Bob Huggins' staples as a head coach is rebounding and defense, both of which the Mountaineers do well again this year. West Virginia is averaging 3.6 more rebounds than its opponents while holding them to only 64.5 points per game.
And while there isn't a consistent scorer on offense like Da'Sean Butler and no athletic wing like Devin Ebanks on this year's WVU team, there's plenty of muscle in the paint and a pretty consistent scoring load (six players average 6.7 or more points, including three in double figures).
"Watching last year's game, they were physical with us," Harrellson said. "They were very physical the whole game - pushing, setting good screens, keeping guys away from rebounds and boxing us out. They're definitely a very physical team."
But perhaps the biggest challenge for UK will be a non-Huggins trademark: the 1-3-1 zone. Although Huggins has preferred to play physical man-to-man defense over the years, he decided to keep Beilein's 1-3-1 zone for his occasional disposal because of the leftover personnel from the previous regime.
It's worked wonders for him, especially in last year's matchup.
"A lot of their shots were contested, under duress, from the 1-3-1," Mazzulla said. "We got them off of the 3-point line and probably a few steps back. That's just what we've got to do tomorrow. We can't let them get standstill shots and we can't let them set their feet."
Miller doesn't quite remember it like that, insisting they had a lot of looks that they couldn't knock down.
"I think we just settled too much really," Miller said. "We didn't really pound the ball, which was one of our strengths last year. I don't know if we panicked or not, but we continued to settle for the jumpers and they weren't falling."
Liggins, however, was willing to concede a sense of fear when the shots didn't go down.
"I think we panicked last year," Liggins said. "They were just trying to rattle us, and they did."
In Kentucky's hindsight, the most frustrating part about the zone was it wasn't a pregame plan.
"We thought we could do a better job man to man a year ago than what we did," Huggins said. "We'd put (Ebanks) on a lot of really good players, and because he was so long, he bothered people. John Wall went by him a couple times and he came over to me and said, 'Coach, man, that cat is fast. I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying.'
"He couldn't stay in front of him, so we had to try to do something else. We didn't go in planning on playing 1-3-1 as much as we did, but you're just trying to win."
Huggins doesn't plan to use the 1-3-1 as much Saturday because of Kentucky's ability to shoot, but should he decide to unveil it again, the Kentucky players say they're ready for it this time around.
"We've got to penetrate the gaps and see what we've got in there," Liggins said. "If we're wide open, we've got to shoot the ball."
The only fear is, is that exactly what West Virginia wants again?
TAMPA, Fla. -- I touched on this story a bit last year when Kentucky met Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight (which you can read here), so I don't want to get into a full story about it, but I thought I would at least post some quotes regarding the relationship between UK coach John Calipari and West Virginia coach Bob Huggins since the two are playing again Saturday.
As most of you know, Calipari and Huggins have been longtime friends since their early coaching careers. When Huggins had a heart attack in 2002, it was Calipari who flew to Pittsburgh to stand by Huggins' side.
Both tell a slightly different version about what happened around the time when Huggins had the heart attack, but both can agree their friendship has stood the test of time and the battles of recruiting and basketball.
Here is a transcript from all things Calipari-Huggins from Friday's news conference. They also touch on Huggins' domination of Calipari (the West Virginia coach is 8-1 against Calipari, including last year's Elite Eight win over the Cats).
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins
Q. A lot has been made of your friendship with Cal, and I'm just curious, why do you think you guys hit it off? COACH HUGGINS: I don't know. I'm struggling to find something that I really like about him. (Laughter). No, we -- he played with one of my teammates in high school. He played with Joe Fryz. I've known John for a long, long time, long, long, long time, and we've been good friends for a long time.
Q. Are there more similarities than differences between you two? COACH HUGGINS: No, he dresses, I choose not to. He buys expensive suits, mine stay in the closet. No, you know, I think what Cal and I have is from the time we were young is a great passion for this game. You know, John was the ultimate camp guy. He was at Five- Star, he was at all the camps and just loved being around the game. I kind of grew up in the gym, my dad being a high school basketball coach, and so I spent countless hours in the gym.
Q. Absolutely, without a doubt. Could you clear up the heart attack ambulance story? There seem to be two versions: yours and Cal's. COACH HUGGINS: Cal wasn't there. (Laughter). I wasn't going to tell it. Cal likes to tell it better than I do. Of course Cal wasn't dying and I was. (Laughter). No, they come in and they kind of scooped me up off the sidewalk there in the Pittsburgh airport and put me in an ambulance and hooked me up, started pumping some morphine in me to slow everything down, and I'm kind of in and out of consciousness. I mean, I know I'm not doing very well, you know. So I say to the EMT, I said, "How much longer?" And I was out, and I kind of woke up, and I said, "How much longer?" And he said, "Don't worry, I've never lost a patient. You know, and I said to him, "I ain't no old lady now. I know when I'm hurting. I'm not going to make it a lot longer." So he says, "What's the ETA?" And they said, "I don't know, 22 minutes or something like that." And I heard him say, "Abort, abort, abort." And then I passed back out. When I woke up he was a lot more serious about it. He was -- he kind of put his hand on my shoulder, he said, "Coach, I'm Cal's cousin." Now, Cal says it his nephew, but the guy said, "I'm Cal's cousin. We're not going to let you die until he beats you at least once." And that's the story.
Q. He has beat you, though. COACH HUGGINS: I know. I don't think he had then. I don't think he had then. But what are you trying to say, I can die now? (Laughter).
Q. You and Cal go after a lot of the same guys. I was kind of wondering when one of you gets a guy or he gets a guy, just kind of wondering if that affects or changes anything or do you guys just keep going on about it? COACH HUGGINS: If I was upset with everybody that we recruited against, I wouldn't have any friends. Everybody beats us. No, I mean, we -- I think when you have mutual respect for each other, it's -- we recruited a guy against Andy Kennedy, and AK and I are very, very close, as you know. What are you going to do? He's a heck of a guy, he takes care of his players, he does the right things.
Q. Do you like coaching against John, and more to the point, is 9 and 1, is there any point at which you can needle him about it or he can needle you? COACH HUGGINS: If you would go back and look at the games, the games have been -- I mean, we've just been lucky, that's all. We've made some shots. We beat them in Memphis one time, I think it was a tie score, and we take a shot at the end of the shot clock, and we fortunately get the offensive rebound, my guy starts dribbling it out because he thinks we're ahead and Cal's guy jumps over and shuts him off to keep him from dribbling the ball back out to the top of the key so there's nobody between him and the basket so he goes and lays it in. He didn't realize we were up by two until they called time-out. I'm like, "What are you doing, man?" He said, "Coach, I thought we were ahead. I didn't know what was going on." It was a tie score, we win by two.
Q. You don't needle him? COACH HUGGINS: No, we'll probably play again the next NCAA Tournaments, so why would I do that?
UK coach John Calipari
Q. A lot has been made about your friendship with Huggins -- COACH CALIPARI: I can't stand Bob Huggins.
Q. He said the same thing. Why do you think you guys get along, competitive people? COACH CALIPARI: Well, we're from the same neck of the woods. I remember him when he was at Walsh College. I remember him even before that when he'd come to the Pitt fieldhouse in the old day. No one got booed like Bob. I'm not even sure he was allowed in Duquesne's building because he screamed at B.B. Flenory very hard one game if I remember right. Joe Fryz, who was a teammate of mine, ended up going to West Virginia and was a teammate of Bob's. So I followed West Virginia closely because of Joe. You know, and I've just followed his career. I can remember him at Walsh when he was getting it done, and I can remember him at camps going up to him. I was still a counselor, and talking to him. And our paths have crossed, and obviously we've stayed friends, and in this profession that's not easy.
Q. I was just kind of wondering with the relationship you and Bob have, does it put any kind of extra spin on it when you guys recruit against each other? For instance, like Devin a couple years ago, Doron this last year? Obviously you guys are close, but this is kind of a different spin. COACH CALIPARI: I don't take recruiting personal. If the families decide that they want to play for another coach, whether it's Bob or anybody else, I move on. I don't take a whole lot of transfers. So when kids call and say I made a mistake, I'd like to come, I never take them. You get the first round and that's it because we've moved on to other guys. I've never yelled at a coach or a player for not coming with me, and I wish you luck and hope you do well unless we play you and I hope we smash you if we play you. With Bob or anybody, I try real hard not to take this stuff personal, move on to the next young man who really wants to play for us or me personally.
Q. Can you clear up a little bit of the legend here? Coach Huggins insists he knows the story better because, A, he was there, and two, he was the one dying, but can you clear up the ambulance-nephew story? COACH CALIPARI: He was out cold, and he tells you he remembers everything? He was out. He knew something was wrong. He sat down on the curb at the Pittsburgh airport, and the ambulance comes up, and it's my cousin. And he goes and figures out who it is, and we're going to have to get my cousin because you know Bob does embellish. And he said, you know, "I'm Coach Calipari's cousin and I'm here, you're going to be fine." And that's when Bob said, "Oh, my gosh, I'm not making it." But that was the scary thing. Let me just tell you. I can't remember where I was, but I flew back to Pittsburgh because I heard about it because it was scary. You know, because he's such a big, tough guy, which he's a teddy bear, I mean, he's not, but he comes across like he wants to fight -- no, he does want to fight everybody, but he comes across -- but reality is here's a guy, June was there, family was there, and he had the paddles, you know. And he's one of those guys that now he takes care of himself, he's doing what he's supposed to, and it was just scary for us and him and anybody that's a friend or a friend of his family. But his story is my cousin hasn't beaten you yet so you've got to live. Is that what it is?
Q. Just one more question on you and Coach Huggins. You two guys, the one thing you have in common, you both built programs out of nothing. But on the other hand, very few people are neutral when it comes to you two guys. No Switzerlands. They love you; they hate you. Some people say we love this guy and other people say we don't like the way they do things. Are you kind of kindred spirits with Bob that way? COACH CALIPARI: Look, you guys either put a black hat on some of us and you put a white hat on some of us and I'm not going to be able to fight it. I just do my job, take care of kids, Bob does the same, graduate our kids wherever we've been. We've helped them reach their dreams and develop habits that have helped them later on in life. They've all stayed in touch. I mean, at the end of the day, 50 years from now, what we've accomplished, Bob and myself, it's there, and when there's no emotion to it, you look at what we've done in the communities we've been, with the athletes we've had, the graduation rates we've had, what we've done on those college campuses, what we've done to give back, and people will judge us that way. Right now I'm just trying to win another ballgame. Can we win one more? That's all I'm worried about.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Terrence Jones is in a serious slump, but maybe he has a legitimate excuse.
The freshman forward was noticeably coughing during Kentucky's second-round NCAA Tournament win over Princeton on Thursday, and he had a hard time just getting out a few words in postgame interviews before losing his breath and coughing.
During a four-minute interview, Jones broke out into coughing spells of 16 and 14 seconds. UK spokesman DeWayne Peevy said the illness is nothing more than the common cold.
"I'm sick," Jones said, "but I'm not going to use that as an excuse."
Jones' cough emerged last week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, when his late-season struggles seemed to really start. Over his last four games, he's averaging 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds, down from his season averages of 16.3 points and 8.7 rebounds.
The illness is not expected to affect Jones' availability for Saturday's third-round game against West Virginia, which is slated for a 12:15 p.m. start at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
"I wanted to do as much as I could to win," Jones said of Thursday's 10-point, two-rebound performance.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Thursday's win over Princeton marked the sixth straight game in which Kentucky won despite not having a 20-point scorer. Until this stretch, the longest the Wildcats had gone with a player getting 20 or more was two games, so that speaks to how the three veterans on this team have stepped up their play down the stretch.
"When our veterans, who are inexperienced, play that way, it' s a lot easier for the freshmen to do what they do," head coach John Calipari said. "Hard for freshmen to carry a team."
Leading the charge has been junior swingman Darius Miller, who is averaging almost 15 points per game over a 10-game run in which he has scored in double figures each time. Calipari said hard work is paying off.
"He's been working out with (assistant coach) Kenny Payne for 30-40 minutes before practice to lose some weight and do some skill work," Calipari said. "He's building his own self-esteem and he's really doing well. If you look at big-time shots in the last nine or 10 games, he's made half of them. And that goes from the Mississippi game when he wouldn't shoot a wide open 3."
Former UK All-American Jack Givens has taken notice, too.
"He seems to like the spotlight, he seems to like leading the team in scoring," Givens said on the "The Leach Report" radio show last week. "Early on in his career and even earlier this year, it looked like he shied away from those opportunities. I really like that he wants to be the guy now. I'd love to have that body of his, 6-8 and being able to do the things he can do. But the guy I'm most proud of is Josh (Harrellson) for doing the little things. He understands what his role is as well as anybody on the team."
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With Miller going for 17 in the win over Princeton, Kentucky improved to 13-1 in Miller's career when he scores at least 15 points in a game.
Kentucky is also 15-0 when holding the opposition under 30 points in the first half, so a fast start on the defensive end might be a big help Saturday.
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"If you really want to compete on a national level, you have to be tougher. It's all stuff that we've talked about, but at the end of the day, they've got to go out and play with that kind of aggressiveness."
That's the message coach Cal has been preaching to his young team down the stretch run of this season, and he's noticed a difference in both the physical and mental toughness.
"We've had guys coming that had not been focused on practice and now they're really focused, really ready to go, so we can practice an hour and 15 minutes (and be productive)," he said. "This time of year, we practice an hour -- but we go hard."
And Calipari said this team is one of his best when it comes to executing the offense in the half court.
"In the last six years, this and the 2008 (Memphis) team are probably the two most efficient offensive teams that I've coached," Calipari said.
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The Big Blue Nation turnout in Tampa, Fla., was strong but well short of the estimated 15,000-plus Cat fans who descended on Atlanta for last week's SEC Tournament.
"I was kind of blown away," Calipari said of the sea of blue he saw for the Cats' first game last Thursday. "I said to my staff, 'Are there are other blue teams here?' It's a neat thing and I'm just happy for them. People that can't get in Rupp Arena plan for this. "
Kentucky basketball fans are accustomed to watching both the men's and women's teams play in famous and historical venues. Rupp Arena and Memorial Coliseum are known around the college basketball world as near cathedrals of the game.
When the UK women's basketball team tips off its run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament against Hampton on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET, the Wildcats will do so in an gym with similar notoriety, but with a much different look and feel.
UK's first- and second-round games will be played University Arena in Albuquerque, N.M., the home court of the New Mexico Lobos for nearly a half century. The arena is better known by "The Pit," a nickname stemming from the distinctive construction of the arena.
In 1966, builders first constructed a roof, then dug a 37-foot hole under the newly built roof. Then, concrete was poured and almost 15,000 seats were installed. After two renovation projects in 1975 and 2009, the current capacity of The Pit is more than 17,000.
Based on both the uniqueness of the building itself and the environment that Lobo fans create, USA Today, Rivals.com and FoxSports.com have all named The Pit among the elite gyms in college basketball. Sports Illustrated also named it one of the top 20 venues in all of 20th century sports.
Also adding to the mystique of The Pit is that, while underground, it sits a mile above sea level. The impact of the thin air will be something to be mindful of this weekend, particularly with the fast-paced style of play Matthew Mitchell emphasizes.
The team arrived in Albuquerque early Wednesday afternoon and dined atop Sandia Peak, which is more 10,000 feet high, so the Wildcats' lungs will have had a few days to adjust by the time they take the floor Saturday.
Late Friday afternoon, Mitchell and the UK players will be available to the media before practice. I will have a story for you heading into the game as well as updates on A'dia Mathies healing back and how the Cats are adjusting to the altitude.
Survive and advance. That March Madness phrase may never be more applicable than it is now.
On a day in which five afternoon games came down to the final possession and two double-digit seeds scored upsets -- No. 13 seed Morehead State over No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 12 seed Richmond over No. 5 seed Vanderbilt -- advancing was the only thing that mattered Thursday.
Kentucky is moving on to the third round of the NCAA Tournament on a Brandon Knight game-winning layup with 2.0 seconds (which you can read more about here). Fourth-seeded UK defeated 13th-seeded Princeton 59-57 in front of 14,835 fans at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
The victory helped UK avoid its biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history.
"Winning is the most important thing no matter how bad you played," junior guard DeAndre Liggins said.
It was close, and there are a lot of things to be concerned about if you're a Kentucky fan, but ask Louisville how much it would prefer an ugly win than to sit at home for the remainder of March. See if Vanderbilt would trade a scary two-point win for a loss to Richmond.
Survive and advance.
"How we escaped, I still have to go watch the tape and figure it out," head coach John Calipari said.
He'll see an inexperienced team suddenly being carried by three veterans.
With Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight continuing to struggle in the postseason, it was Darius Miller, Josh Harrellson and Liggins who helped Kentucky advance to the third round of the Big Dance.
Sure, Knight had the game-winning layup, but his only points came with 2.0 seconds left. Until that point, he was 0 for 7 from the floor. Jones scored 10, but he had just two rebounds. And with Lamb largely nonexistent (seven points), how did Kentucky score enough to stay in the game?
Seventeen points from Miller, 15 points and 10 rebounds from by way of Harrellson, and eight points and two very big assists from Liggins, was how. Of Kentucky's 59 points, 40 came from juniors or seniors.
So much for this being a youth-driven team.
"Those three (freshmen) played a part, yet this team was carried by the veterans today," Calipari said.
Kentucky found itself in a dogfight midway through the first half when the Tigers clawed back from a nine-point deficit and took a 24-22 lead with 4:05 left in the first half. UK went to the locker room with a one-point lead, but Princeton pulled in front by as many as five points when Brendan Connolly hit a layup with 13:27 left in the game.
With its two leading scorers struggling and concern setting in among the Big Blue faithful at the St. Pete Times Forum, the players say they never wavered.
"No panic," Liggins said. "You can't be concerned. You can't panic in the tournament. That's how you lose tournament games."
Calipari called timeout to halt the 9-3 Princeton run to start the second half, but UK didn't seem to get its bearings until its sparkplug, Liggins, started to get his game going on the offensive end.
Trailing 44-39, Liggins received a backdoor bounce pass from Miller at the top of the paint. Liggins sliced through traffic and looked as if he was about to turn the ball over, but he somehow whipped a pass to Harrellson on the other side of the basket, and the senior forward finished it off with a layup as he was fouled.
Moments later, Liggins would find Harrellson on the low block again to give Kentucky a 47-44 lead. It was all part of a 15-6 run that reestablished UK control.
"I didn't play so well in the first half," Liggins said. "My body language wasn't in it like it usually is. I'm usually intense. The second half my team lifted me."
The recipient of Liggins' momentum-changing passes, Harrellson, was just as valuable in holding off Princeton.
"We're still playing ... because of him," Calipari said.
Harrellson had logged just six career minutes in an NCAA Tournament game before Thursday, but he looked like he had been there before. He didn't want his UK career to end, and it showed in his will to win when Kentucky fell flat.
"I came out and I was pretty nervous at first, but the jitters went away pretty quick," Harrellson said.
Of course, Kentucky may have been behind even more than five had it not been for Miller. He provided the only real offensive threat in the first half, scoring 15 of his 17 points before halftime.
"We all stayed focus," Miller said. "We talked to each other, made sure everybody was still confident. In most of the huddles, we were just trying to stay focused on what we needed to do. We needed to pick up our intensity and stay focused, and hopefully it played out the best for us, and it did."
Kentucky played far from its best game Thursday, and questions about UK's ability to seriously contend with several key inexperienced players should only intensity after narrowly escaping.
But the bottom line is the Cats survived and advanced Thursday. That's the only thing that counts at this time of the year.
Now will they learn?
"You don't want to get in that situation no more," Liggins said. "We'll try to do whatever it takes in the beginning of the game to put us in a situation where we don't have to deal with that at the end."
TAMPA, Fla.-- So many times this season, Brandon Knight has gripped the ball in his hands with a chance to tie or win the game. In every one of those tries, he's come up short.
But in the most important game of his career, Knight finally hit the shot that has eluded him the entire season. Ironically, he hit it in his worst career game in a Kentucky uniform.
Knight hit a running layup with 2.0 seconds left to advance the Kentucky men's basketball team to the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Knight's right-handed layup off the glass was the difference as the fourth-seeded Wildcats barely fended off a pesky and 13th-seeded Princeton team from the Ivy League.
"I'm just happy to win the game," Knight said. "That's the most important thing, making sure we win. I wanted to be aggressive. I didn't want to settle for a jump shot. I was able to get in the lane and finish."
It was Knight's first points and first field goal of the game.
Prior to the drive, Knight was a dreadful 0 for 7 from the field. He had five assists, two rebounds and just one turnover, but it was a career-low scoring effort (two points) for the freshman point guard.
Knight was becoming such a liability -- he was burned defensively multiple times -- that head coach John Calipari sat him for a period of six minutes and 40 seconds midway through the second half. Knight's 29 minutes were tied for the second fewest he's played this year.
And yet, with a 57-57 tie game after Dan Mavraides' fade-away jumper in the paint, Calipari put the ball and season in his freshman's hands.
"I knew coach had faith in me no matter how much time is on the clock," Knight said.
Talk about confidence.
"He's not afraid to make a play," Calipari said. "Guys like him aren't afraid to miss."
But on an afternoon where Knight missed everything, and given his problems with late-game shots this season, why give it to Knight and not, say, junior Darius Miller (team-high 17 points)?
"I'm with him every day," Calipari said. "There's no one that works harder, spends more time or believes in himself based on his work ethic. He's the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and he goes at night. I have no problem putting that ball in his hand because he's made that shot in that gym by himself many times, counting it off."
There was an option to Miller on the last play. After calling timeout, Calipari drew up a pick-and-roll for Knight and Miller. Knight got the screen from Miller on the right wing, but the Cats weren't expecting Princeton to switch defenders on the pick.
When the Tigers did, and Knight saw he had a taller defender on him in Princeton forward Kareem Maddox -- the Ivy League Defender of the Year, mind you -- he figured the best shot was getting to the basket.
"I don't want to settle in that situation," Knight said. "I had a bigger guy on me so I thought I had a good chance of going by him. I wanted to make sure I put it high off the glass."
Knight said it never dawned on him that he hadn't made a shot. His confidence never wavered with a potential shocking upset on the line.
"As a player that works on his game a lot, I just felt confident no matter what the situation is even though I missed all of my shots up to that point," Knight said.
His teammates never doubted him either.
"He's one of the best shooters I've seen, so he's not going to continue to miss," Miller said."We're not worried about that at all. He made a big play, especially for a freshman. He made a big play in his first NCAA and finished."
Princeton had one final shot, but the Tigers couldn't get off a shot in time.
Kentucky fans in the St. Pete Times Forum erupted as Knight's game winner helped UK escape what would have been its biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The Cats have only lost one postseason game to a double-digit seed in program history - a 1982 loss to 11th-seeded Middle Tennessee.
TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Kentucky men's basketball team plays 13th-seeded Princeton on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, nobody really knows what to expect of yet another freshman-dominated John Calipari team - not even the coach himself.
"When you're starting three freshmen and three players who were inexperienced prior to this season and you jumble them all together, they can get off kilter at any point," Calipari said. Who truly knows what will happen with this UK team.
As is the case with any Kentucky squad, it will be expected to make a deep postseason run. That's just how life goes when you play for the all-time winningest program.
But is this team capable of a deep run? Does it have the experience, the depth and the right draw to make a Final Four journey?
Those are all questions that will have to be played out over the next few days and maybe weeks, but Calipari and his players enter the NCAA Tournament with the confidence of a six-game winning streak and an SEC Tournament title. The winning streak is the longest since winning seven consecutive games in December and January.
"What I'm comfortable with is we're playing as well as we've played all season," Calipari said. "What I'm comfortable with is individual players are playing better than they have in their careers. That I'm comfortable with. How they'll respond to this situation, I have no idea."
There was both a feeling of calmness and excitement in the UK locker room Wednesday, a day before the second- and third-round games begin (the added play-in games in the NCAA Tournament are now called the first round).
The few veterans that have legitimate NCAA Tournament experience - juniors Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins - appear comfortable with what's about to happen. But freshmen and leading scorers Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight admitted a little nervousness and anxiety on the eve of their first career NCAA Tournament.
"I'm excited," Knight said. "Just ready to start playing and go out and perform and have our team do well."
There's a notion among some talking heads that youth can't win an NCAA Tournament. Michigan's Fab Five never did it, last year's Kentucky team came up short in the Elite Eight, and recent national champions, in a day and age when one-and-dones rule the individual college basketball scene, have been dominated by experience.
Of Kentucky's primary six-man rotation, three are freshmen.
"I really don't think that's a big deal, honestly," Miller said of UK's lack of veterans. "We had freshmen last year and we made it pretty far. I don't think that's going to be a big focal point or anything like that. If we come out and play like we can, we're one of the best teams in the country."
Even senior forward Josh Harrellson, who has brought an invaluable veteran and leadership role to this year's team, has never really experienced the spoils (and pressures) of postseason play. Entering the 2011 tournament, Harrellson has logged just six minutes of NCAA Tournament time.
"I've never really been a starter or a significant player," Harrellson said. "Coming out here playing multiple minutes is going to be new to me. Hopefully I can carry over what we did in the SEC Tournament."
So why is it that, with such limited experience in a one-and-done format, this team believes it can be a dangerous one at this time of the year?
"Just how we're playing right now, especially defensively," Miller said. "We're playing really good defense. We're starting to take pride in it. If we keep playing defense the best we can, we should be a hard team to beat."
UK has stifled opponents recently, holding its three opponents in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to 37.9 percent shooting. For the year, Kentucky is yielding only 39.1 percent of the opposition's shots to find the bottom of the net. That mark ranks ninth in the country.
But what makes the players so upbeat and so optimistic of a tourney run is how they say they've come together and defined their roles.
"(Coach) says the best team is going to win it," Knight said. "It's not the people with the best players but the best team, so that's what we're trying to focus on is being the best team." Said Jones: "It's one of the most important parts of the season. It really tells the type of team you are and how much together you are as a team."
Kentucky received no favors from the NCAA Selection Committee when it landed in Ohio State's bracket - three of the top seven RPI teams are in the East Region - but most of the players say they've moved on from the disappointment of a four seed.
Now the focus has turned to a Final Four and even a national title. How realistic that will be with a freshman-laden team, we're about to find out.
"It should be every team's mindset that they're going to win it," Harrellson said. "If it's not, then I don't think they should be here. Our mindset is we're going to come out and play hard and try to win everything."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Fifteen years ago, as a key player in Princeton's shocking upset of defending champion UCLA in the NCAA Tournament, Sydney Johnson was on the bottom of a pile similar to the mosh pit last weekend when Princeton stunned Harvard on a last-second shot to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
He understands this is a big moment for his program, its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2004 and a chance at the national spotlight on CBS. None of that is lost on him.
So by no means is he going to let the big stage frighten his team from playing Princeton basketball and trying to win a game against Kentucky in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It's our moment against Kentucky, and we're not going to spoil it," said Johnson, Princeton's fourth-year head coach. "I can't tell you if we're going to be perfect out there. I know mistakes are part of the game, but we're not going to waste this opportunity. I won't allow them to do that."
Princeton advanced to the NCAA Tournament by way of the Ivy League's automatic berth. The Tigers stunned Harvard on a Douglas Davis buzzer beater in a one-game playoff for the league's championship. Thursday's game will mark the program's 24th NCAA Tournament berth, but few are giving Princeton a chance with Kentucky riding a six-game winning streak entering the tournament.
Count Kentucky head coach John Calipari as one of the few Princeton supporters.
"Princeton can beat us," Calipari said. "They can beat just about anybody. They shoot it, they're long. I'll bet Princeton is bigger than we are. They've got more size than we do. Their guard play is outstanding. Their best player (Kareem Maddox) comes off the bench. He's really good, and people are going to find that out."
How much of that is coach's speak, let the reader be the judge, but Johnson is willing to concede that Princeton is indeed overmatched from an athletic standpoint.
"We're the underdog," Johnson said. "I think when you're the underdog, you have to show people how good you are. ... With Kentucky, everybody realizes how good of a program they are and they're the favorites, and we take no offense to that. But now we've got to prove as the underdog that we belong, that we belong in this tournament, that we belong on that floor at 2:45 p.m. tomorrow."
But how does a team that knows it's overmatched physically and understands it must play a near flawless game overcome it? What's the game plan?
"I can't give away any secrets about how we're going to stop that," senior Princeton guard Dan Mavraides said.
Mavraides was willing to reveal one perceived advantage: experience. Princeton's top four leading scorers are made up of juniors and seniors. Meanwhile, Kentucky is paced offensively by three freshmen - Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb - although junior guard/forward Darius Miller has picked his scoring load up of late and has scored in double figures in nine straight games.
"I really don't think that's a big deal, honestly," Miller said of UK's lack of veterans. "We had freshmen last year and we made it pretty far. I don't think that's going to be a big focal point or anything like that. If we come out and play like we can, we're one of the best teams in the country."
If experience isn't the difference, then what gives Princeton the idea that it can overcome a handicap of inferior speed, athleticism and skill that Johnson and his players conceded to?
"There's certain ways to neutralize that," Johnson said. "You've got to take care of the ball. You can't turn it over and let them capitalize on getting out in transition. We have to shoot the ball at a high clip. If we do that, if there's limited possessions but we're shooting it well, all of a sudden all that athleticism gets neutralized. That's easier said than done."
Maddox was quick to point out that Princeton has some athletes, too.
In an attempt to play to his players' strengths, Johnson ditched the old slow-it-down style of the Princeton offense and injected some more run-and-gun techniques along with some traditional pick-and-roll concepts.
"It's very flexible," Maddox said. "We have our sets and our plays that we run, but you can run them as fast or as slow as you want."
The core and traditional spacing of the Princeton offense isn't completely gone. There are still backdoor cuts, handoffs and an emphasis on rotation around the perimeter, but it's a faster version of it.
Think of it as the Princeton offense on steroids, with a continued emphasis to get the best possible shot. The only difference is it doesn't matter when it comes in the shot clock or what set - half court of transition - it's in.
As a result, Princeton's 69.6 points per game is the program's highest scoring average since the 1971-72 team averaged 79.7 points per game.
"It's a little variation from the traditional Princeton, but you'll see times and possessions throughout the game where we're grinding throughout the shot clock and getting a backdoor layup or an open shot with four seconds left on the shot clock," Mavraides said. "It's something I think we, as a team, found a pretty good balance in terms of how much we want to push it, when we're getting stops and how much we want to slow the game down and take it possession by possession like the most traditional Princeton teams."
Another Ivy League team's Sweet 16 run of a year ago, Cornell, gives the Tigers some confidence heading into tournament play that they can pull of a similar feat. But the Princeton players are pointing to their development from a six-win team in 2007-08 to an NCAA Tournament team this year as a reason for belief.
"We've played big games in our four years here," Mavraides said. "We've had a handful of those, so we're going about Kentucky the same way we did every team on our schedule. It's obviously a bigger stage ... but when the jump comes, it's going to be the same thing."
Princeton has a penchant for living up to the spotlight in the NCAA Tournament. In addition to the upset of UCLA in 1996, the Tigers also own the distinction as being the closest a 16 seed has ever come to knocking off a No. 1 seed. It nearly happened in 1989 when Princeton lost 50-49 to Georgetown.
As far as this Princeton team, they've welcomed the big stage. As a group that has experienced uncharacteristic difficulties in Ivy League the prior three years, this team full of veterans was ready for a big game like Saturday's Harvard matchup and a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
We all know now how that turned out.
"It worked out nicely," Johnson said, "and maybe there's a little bit more of that to come."
TAMPA, Fla. -- Kentucky's most watched left ankle is nearing 100 percent, according to freshman guard Doron Lamb.
Lamb, who sprained his left ankle in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals game against Alabama, said he expects to play Thursday against Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Tampa, Fla.
"It's getting way better," Lamb said. "I'd say it's 90, 95 percent. I can do a lot of things on it - jump, make moves on it - so I think I'll be ready for tomorrow."
Despite heavy concerns about the health of his ankle, Lamb played in the SEC championship game and scored six points in 23 minutes.
Lamb said there was some swelling after the game but nothing worth keeping him out of the tournament. He received around-the-clock treatment in Lexington prior to the trip to Tampa and has been walking around in a boot the last few days to keep some pressure off the ankle.
"It hurt a little bit but I iced it, got a lot of treatment when I got back to school and I think it's going to be ready for tomorrow," Lamb said.
Lamb had full mobility in Kentucky's open practice Wednesday at the St. Pete Times Forum on Wednesday. There was no visible wrap or brace on Lamb's left ankle.
University of Kentucky rifle coach Harry Mullins couldn't help but tear up a bit as he and his team listened to his shooters' names announced as national champions.
Mullins took over the Kentucky rifle program in 1987, when it was a non-scholarship sport, and led the team to national runner-up finishes in 1997, 2001, 2002 and 2009 before finally winning the school's first NCAA Rifle Championship overall title on Saturday at Columbus State University.
Mitchell believes UK's up-tempo, aggressive style of play gives it an extra edge when it comes to tournament time.
"We are built -- if our players will play hard and do what they're capable of -- our team's really built for tournament play," he said. "It's tough to prepare for. It's a good style of play for a tournament."
But the Tigers who will face the University of Kentucky on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA Tournament East Regional aren't quite as tame as their Princeton predecessors.
"It's not as much a controlled game as it has been in the past, but it's been a lot more fun from the players' perspective," said Tigers guard Dan Mavraides, whose 13th-seeded team faces the No. 4 seed Wildcats at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, Fla.
Watching footage of Kentucky's first meeting with Vanderbilt, an 81--77 loss on Feb. 12 in Nashville, Robic points out stark differences from last year, namely the rise in handoffs, pick-and-rolls, three-pointers and isolation possessions. After Kentucky sent John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton to the first round of the NBA draft, then lost an eligibility battle with the NCAA over the school's one elite post recruit, beastly Turkish center Enes Kanter, the coaches couldn't just force the new personnel into the old slots. They had to create new slots and hope it would work. Former Wildcats making headlines 26 NFL teams represented at UK Pro Day (Mark Maloney, Herald-Leader)
UK's top two draft prospects, Randall Cobb and Derrick Locke, bypassed the 40-yard dash, broad jump and vertical jump, electing to stand on the performances they turned in two weekends ago at the NFL Combine.
However, they did take part in a series of agility drills and, along with Chris Matthews, ran pass routes for quarterback Mike Hartline.
Matthews and Hartline did complete the dash and agility drills, along with fullback Moncell Allen, tackle Brad Durham, defensive end DeQuin Evans, long snapper J.J. Helton, and defensive tackles Ricky Lumpkin and Shane McCord.
Johnson is keenly aware of his place in the universe. He's kind of a big deal yet refuses to act like it, regardless of how much he (mostly) enjoyed a wild breakout season.
Johnson caught 82 passes and threatened Buffalo's touchdown record. His stats plus a $470,000 base salary earned him the Vizio Top Value Performer Award. He's entering the final year of his contract. The Bills would be wise to make signing him to an extension a priority as soon as the collective bargaining agreement is settled.
But as the stepson of a noted Bay Area music producer, Johnson knows well enough to avoid being a one-hit wonder. He doesn't want his production or the Bills' record to regress.
After an encouraging junior campaign, he played the entire season with a damaged rotator cuff and labrum in his right shoulder.
Evans underwent surgery to repair the damage with doctors scoping the rotator cuff and labrum and inserting stitches on top of the labrum.
The initial magnetic resonance imaging exam conducted during the season didn't reveal the full extent of the problems with Evans' shoulder. He chose to play through the discomfort, but it limited his power and flexibility.
Strieby, at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, is an imposing figure. Former teammate Dontrelle Willis nicknamed him "Polar Bear" because "he's big and white." But all the hours in the Florida sun have left him with a deep tan, and he was asked about losing the nickname because of that.
"Nah. I've just been running and I'm flushed," Strieby said with a smile.
Strieby is hitting .227 with one homer and four RBIs in 22 Grapefruit League at-bats, but has made an impression with his skills.
But I'm not worried about Wall. After watching him compete -- play with passion throughout many games whose outcomes were apparent during warmup drills -- I'm convinced the Wizards got it right. They chose wisely in selecting Wall with the first overall pick in the 2010 draft, and another wasted Wizards season could potentially mean something if their sound decision-making continues. News from UKathletics.com
UK Hoops will head westward this week to try to make another run in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. I will be traveling with the team as they head to Albuquerque to play Hampton in the first round. During ESPN's NCAA tourney selection special, they broke down the Spokane Region, which also includes Stanford, Xavier, Louisville and Vanderbilt.
Pretend you're in the batter's box. There are two runners on base, but there are two outs, it's the bottom of the seventh and final inning, and your team trails by three runs.
Not only is the game at stake with your one at-bat, the series and potentially the stamp on the best start in program history hangs in the balance.
You're on a team that has historically struggled but has found budding success the past two seasons. It's contended, made the NCAA Tournament twice and is on the brink of becoming one of the nation's elite teams, yet it always seems to lack the kind of series win over a nationally ranked conference opponent like they're one you're going up against.
There's no telling exactly what went through the mind of Kentucky softball senior catcher Megan Yocke on Sunday afternoon when she stepped up to the plate with that exact scenario against then-No. 7 Tennessee, but chances are some of that raced through her mind.
"For most at-bats I get nervous, but I'm able to get past that by focusing," Yocke said. "I'm sure I was nervous knowing it was the seventh inning with two outs."
A loss would have by no means tarnished a spectacular start to the 2011 season, but a win would not only legitimize Kentucky's now 16-4 start, it would cement UK as a bona fide contender this year, a program that is ready to make the next step from a middle-of-the-pack Southeastern Conference team to one that can truly contend for an SEC crown.
Yocke came through in the clutch with perhaps the biggest at-bat of her career. With 1,063 fans watching in the first home series of the year, Yocke smacked a three-run bomb over the fence in left-center field to tie the game at 4-4 and force extra innings.
"I wasn't thinking home run," Yocke said of the at-bat.
UK would later win the game when Tennessee opted to intentionally walk Yocke to get to Kara Dill. The sophomore shortstop made the Volunteers pay by singling in freshman Ellen Weaver, the game-winning run.
"Since I've been here, we've won series, but we haven't won series against schools like Tennessee or a team that's been ranked so high," head coach Rachel Lawson said. "For us to be able to put things together and win a series and not just a game means that we're improving the program."
Kentucky could very well go on to lose its midweek games at Arkansas on Wednesday. The weekend series could have just been an anomaly or an off weekend for Tennessee, and maybe the Cats will return to the middle of the pack in the SEC.
Or just maybe it was the start of a spring-long league race that UK softball has never experienced before.
"Everyone in our conference is going to be top 25 or at least top 50, so we've got to be able to knock off teams like Tennessee and Alabama to really help build our confidence and keep it going, otherwise it's going to be a long, hard season playing good-caliber teams," Yocke said.
If the Tennessee series does nothing else, it at least brought some national attention to the job Lawson continues to do at UK. Despite losing All-American Molly Johnson to graduation, Kentucky is now ranked in both major polls (No. 21 in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 and No. 24 in the NFCA Division I Top 25 Poll). Yocke was also tabbed USA Softball Player of the Week by the Amateur Softball Association of America for her heroics over the weekend.
"It makes us feel good," Lawson said. "That's been one of our goals since September was to be able to win big games on Sunday and win series. The fact that we've worked so hard for so long, to actually see it come to fruition in our first (conference) series gives the players a sense of satisfaction that what they're working on is working. It gives them a boost to keep pushing forward."
The fact that Kentucky owns the series win over Tennessee, has lost just four games on the year and is just now cracking the major polls could be viewed as an indication of the lack of respect the program has received over the years.
Even with its two NCAA Tournament appearances the last two seasons, UK bore the image of an average but not-so-threatening team. Perhaps coaches in the conference thought, "Oh, Kentucky, that's a nice team." But did those coaches ever really take the Cats seriously as a title contender?
Lawson doesn't try to think about those things, she's not hiding her good feelings about this ballclub. Just making the SEC Tournament the past two years - only the top eight teams in the league make the tournament - made her entertain thoughts of competing for the league crown. Now that her team has proven it can take a series form an elite team, she's trying to win it. (Of course, it doesn't help that the top three teams in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Collegiate Top 25 are SEC teams.)
"More than anything, it just makes us realize that we can compete against the best and we can beat them," Lawson said.
Kentucky's meteoric rise this year has come from all different positions, years of experience and players.
Yocke, as the leader of the team, is batting .390 in Johnson's departed spot at leadoff. Pitching aces Chanda Bell and Rachel Lawson continue to do what they've done in their previous two years at Kentucky - limit runs and win ballgames. Dill, faced with filling the gigantic shoes of an All-American, is third on the team in batting average with a .389 clip. Junior Brittany Cervantes is not only hitting home runs (six), she's also hitting for average (.359). And freshman pitchers Weaver and Lauren Cumbess are a combined 6-1.
Everywhere Lawson looks, somebody is coming through in the clutch.
"We have a team full of little superheroes," Lawson said. "Somebody new steps up every time. That's kind of how we're made and how we practice. ... We've never had a complete team before. We've certainly had great moments and we've had great players, but to be able to have one through 20 is pretty special for us."
Of course, all these positive feelings could quickly be erased by a letdown at Arkansas on Wednesday and this weekend's series at LSU. Lawson said she's made her team realize that being a real contender isn't built off just one series.
"My team is fully aware that any team in the SEC can beat you on any given day," Lawson said. "As much as the Tennessee series was great, we understand that if we don't take care of Arkansas that we haven't really improved our standing in the conference."
TAMPA, Fla. - Greetings from Tampa, Fla., host of second- and third-round games of the East Region and Southeast Region of the NCAA Tournament, and, of course, where the Kentucky men's basketball team will play 13th-seeded Princeton on Thursday.
I'm traveling with the team once again and, much like last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, will have updates on the tournament throughout the week. Guy Ramsey will be traveling with the women's team starting Wednesday and will have similar coverage of the UK women's basketball team.
We left Lexington on Tuesday around 4:30 p.m. via a chartered plane. We arrived in Tampa around 6:20 p.m. -- no turbulence this time -- and arrived at our hotel in Tampa around 7 p.m. Not much to speak of on the flight. We picked up a few more passengers this week, including Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and UK President Dr. Lee T. Todd, Jr., but for the most part, it was a quiet and event-less flight.
After arriving at the hotel, the team ate, had a meeting and then it was lights out. Wednesday is when the real fun begins.
The team will have two practices Wednesday, including an open practice at 1:30 p.m. at the St. Pete Times Forum. Fans are invited to attend and watch.
Just before the open practice, the players and head coach John Calipari will be available to the media. As always, I'll have video and a written post or two from that and for the game Thursday.
Also, for those fans still wanting tickets to the games in Tampa, individual tickets will go on sale Wednesday at 9 a.m. Individual sessions are priced at $77 per seat and include two games within each session.
Tickets for all six games on March 17 and March 19 remain on sale and are priced at $231, which include two sessions Thursday and one session Saturday. Tickets are available at the McDonald's Box Office at the St. Pete Times Forum, Ticketmaster.com of 1-800-745-300. Check back Wednesday afternoon for more coverage.
And if you're on the fence about coming to Tampa, let me offer some facts that might push you over: The forecast calls for sunny skies and 80-degree temperatues all week.
(Photos are by Chet White of UK Athletics and were taken on the plane ride to Tampa.)
A freshman guard coached by John Calipari is blossoming at the end of the season. Boy, who would have seen that coming, right?
Kentucky's Brandon Knight is joining the line that includes the likes of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall. Through the Feb. 12 loss at Vanderbilt, Knight had 88 assists to 81 turnovers and was averaging about four free-throw attempts per game.
In the past nine games, Knight's assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1 and he's shooting twice as many free throws per game.
Not that interested in stats? Then just use the eyeball test. He's attacking defenses in transition, he's finding open teammates and he's vocally taking charge of his team on the court.
"Those kids were the same way," Calipari said of Knight's comparison to Rose, Evans and Wall. "Everybody had questions about them as point guards. I can remember Dick Vitale absolutely killing Derrick Rose in (Madison Square) Garden when we played Southern Cal. The same with John Wall -- he turns it over, he's not a true point. Same with Tyreke (Evans) -- he's not a point guard, he's a scorer, he's this, he's that. What I'm seeing is the same thing. (Knight) is getting better."
Like most freshmen, Knight had to adjust to the college game.
"Early in the season, he was still trying to figure it out," Calipari said. "All the point guards I've had have done that, but as the season goes on, there's that point where you say wow. He's starting to hit that stride, but you've got to finish that way. It was at different times for all of them."
Calipari said each of those point guards brought their own particular mix of skills to the position but there are some common traits.
"He has a large work capacity and those guys all did," Calipari said of Knight. "He doesn't have the physical attributes that those guys have. Brandon is fast and he's quick but those guys are physically stronger. But none of the three shoot the ball like Brandon does. And he just turned 19, so I think you're going to see some special things out of him, too."
Remember Knight's first game as a Wildcat? It was an exhibition game in Canada in which he scored 31 points and did not make a single turnover. As the season unfolded and the coach was trying to find the best way for this team to play to reach its potential, Calipari said he let Knight slip on some things like the transition game.
In mid-February, Calipari began preaching to Knight to "capture the middle of the floor," so he could maximize his weapons against the opponent.
"He can see people up the floor that are open," Calipari said. "When you go down the side, you're playing against five defenders. In the middle of the floor, they can't do that. We got away from that and that's as much my fault. Early on, that's what we talked about, even before we went to Canada."
And what about the increased trips to the charity stripe?
"He's not settling for jumpers," Calipari said. "He's getting to the rim, capturing the middle of the floor in transition."
Others have taken note of how Knight is evolving as Kentucky's floor general. Take former UK star and 1998 Final Four MVP Jeff Sheppard.
"I absolutely love Brandon Knight, as does my 6-year-old son, who wears his No. 12 jersey," Sheppard said on "The Leach Report" radio show last week. "I just hope he'll stay around. I think he can be the all-time leading scorer at Kentucky. I think he can lead Kentucky teams to a Final Four or a national championship and I think he can be remembered like one of those players like Richie Farmer or Sean Woods and (Deron) Feldhaus and (John) Pelphrey and (Jamal) Mashburn -- one of those pivotal guys that helped turn the momentum of Kentucky basketball back around.
"Selfishly," he added, "I want a role model like that to stick around for a long time."
ESPN analyst and former Alabama coach Mark Gottfried was once a pretty fair point guard himself, and he's effusive in his praise of the Kentucky quarterback.
"I think he's got a chance to be a great player," Gottfried said on the same radio show. "As soon as he gets an outlet pass, first thing he does is catch and look quickly. His head is up, his eyes are up."
Gottfried said Knight, who averages a team-leading 17.5 points per game, is Kentucky's MVP.
"He's the player they cannot play without," Gottfried said. "He's the most valuable player. When you have a point guard that can't score, you're going to play four on five. But when you've got a point guard that can shoot -- I had Mo Williams at Alabama and he could get 24, 25 points in a game. All the great point guards in the NBA can score the ball, and I think being coached by John Calipari has helped him. It's made him a better player all the way around."
Rifle - Behind gritty performances from veterans Heather Greathouse and Ethan Settlemires, the Kentucky rifle team won the overall national title at the 2010-11 NCAA Championships. After UK won the smallbore NCAA Title on Friday in the first day of competition, the Wildcats held off West Virginia's charge in air rifle on Saturday to secure the first national championship in program history, finishing with a 4700 team total score. - Kentucky entered the final day of competition on Saturday owning a seven-point lead. UK claimed its first-ever NCAA Championship in smallbore on Friday, totaling a 2336 team score, led by Settlemires and Greathouse. Settlemires won the NCAA individual championship on Friday with a 590 in smallbore, becoming the first individual NCAA Champion in smallbore in program history.
Men's basketball - Kentucky won its league-leading 27th SEC Tournament championship, defeating Florida 70-54 in the championship game. Darius Miller was named the tournament MVP and the Wildcats placed Miller, Josh Harrellson and Brandon Knight on the SEC All-Tournament team. - UK will be making its NCAA record 51st appearance in the NCAA Tournament, taking on Princeton in the second round of the tournament in Tampa, Fla.
Women's basketball - The No. 17/16 Kentucky women's basketball team earned its eighth bid to the NCAA Tournament with a No. 4 seed in the Spokane Regional. UK will play 13th-seeded Hampton on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. in Albuquerque, N.M. - It is the eighth overall NCAA Tournament berth for the Cats and their first back-to-back appearances since the 1982-83 seasons. UK is 7-7 all-time in the Big Dance, including a 3-1 mark under Matthew Mitchell.
Softball - Behind a pair of comeback victories, the 23rd-ranked softball team defeated No. 7 Tennessee in two out of three games to capture the series to begin SEC play. It marked the first time since 2000 UK had won the series with its border-state rival. - Senior Megan Yocke batted .556 on the weekend, which included a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh to force extra innings in the rubber match between the two teams. She was then intentionally walked in the bottom of the 10th to set the stage for Kara Dill's walk-off RBI-single.
Baseball - The Wildcats posted four wins on the week, totaling a staggering 1.40 ERA as a team in 45 innings pitched, walking just 13 and striking out 45. UK got stellar starting pitching during the week, including quality starts from four of five starters a complete-game shutout from junior Alex Meyer on Saturday. - Kentucky has been a well-rounded team, totaling a .295 batting average and a 3.51 team ERA, fielding at a .978 clip. The Wildcats have been led by center fielder Brian Adams, who has hit .368 with five doubles and five RBI.
Gymnastics - The gymnastics team scored three wins over the weekend, defeating William and Mary on Friday and North Carolina and George Washington on Sunday. Kentucky was led in both meets by senior Phylicia Reshard, who won the all-around against William and Mary and finished second in the all-around in Sunday's quad-meet. - The Wildcats defeated William and Mary on each event, with junior Storey Morris winning the uneven bars title, Reshard winning the vault title, seniors Jasmine Minion, Andrea Mitchell and Reshard winning on floor, and Mitchell grabbing event honors on beam.
Men's tennis - The Wildcats were led by impressive play in doubles, taking the doubles point from both Tennessee and Georgia. Against Tennessee, Kentucky got upset wins at No. 2 and No. 3 doubles with senior Alberto Gonzalez and freshman Tom Jomby taking down the 55th-ranked doubles tandem in the nation, while junior Alex Musialek and sophomore Anthony Rossi defeated the 52nd-ranked team. UK was equally impressive against Georgia in doubles with junior Eric Quigley and senior Brad Cox knocking off the sixth-ranked doubles team in the nation and Gonzalez and Jomby posting a win over the 36th-ranked doubles team. UK dropped the overall matches to nationally ranked Tennessee and Georgia. - In singles, Musialek led the UK charge with a convincing win over No. 24 Javier Garrapiz, while Rossi and Jomby also posted singles wins.
Swimming and diving - Freshman diver Greg Ferrucci and senior diver Lisa Faulkner earned spots in the men's and women's NCAA swimming and diving championships, respectively, thanks to their performances in the Zone C Diving Championships. - Ferrucci recorded a score of 339.60 in the preliminaries and finished with a mark of 716.35 in the finals to finish in second place on the men's one-meter and earn his spot in the NCAAs. Faulkner earned a score of 296.35 in the women's one-meter preliminaries and finished with a score of 581.15 in the finals to finish in fifth place and earn a spot in the NCAA championships.
Track and field - Kentucky track and field junior Keith Hayes capped off an incredible three-week run leading up to the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships with a seventh-place finish in the finals of the 60-meter hurdles, grabbing two points for the Wildcats. - Hayes earned his first All-America honor for his top-eight performance in the finals Saturday.
Men's golf - Behind impressive final rounds from sophomore Chase Parker and freshman Cody Martin, the UK men's golf team moved up four spots on the leaderboard to finish 13th in the Cleveland Golf Palmetto Intercollegiate. Martin (80-70-69-219) and Parker (78-72-70-220) led the Wildcats, posting solid scores on the final day to earn a top-25 finish. - Martin carded the lowest UK round of the day Tuesday, earning a 1-under-par 69 to move 36 spots up the leaderboard. He finished the tournament in a tie for 21st, totaling a 9-over-par 219 after a 10-ove-par 80 in the opening round and an even-par 70 in the second round.
Women's golf - The Cats competed in the LSU Tiger Golf Classic and finished in 18th place with a final score of 95-over-par 959. - Sophomore Heather Lott led the Wildcats with a final score of 12-over par to finish the tournament in a tie for 31st among the 111 competing golfers.
Women's tennis - The Cats dropped a pair of SEC road matches over the weekend to Tennessee and Georgia. The Wildcats fell 6-1 in each match. - Freshman Khristina Blajkevitch won a thrilling victory over UT's Kata Szekely 7-5, 4-6, 1-0 (12-10). Senior Megan Broderick topped Chelsey Gullickson of Georgia after the 48th-ranked player had to retire.
Tuesday, March 15 Baseball hosts Murray State - 4 p.m.
Wednesday, March 16 Softball at Arkansas (DH) - 5 p.m. Women's tennis at Baylor • 5:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 17 Men's tennis hosts Notre Dame - 1 p.m. Women's tennis at TCU - 2 p.m. Men's basketball vs. Princeton - 2:45 p.m. (Tampa, Fla.) Men's tennis hosts Butler - 7 p.m. Women's swimming and diving at NCAA Championships (Austin, Texas)
Friday, March 18 Baseball hosts Tennessee - 6:30 p.m. Softball at LSU - 7 p.m. Women's swimming and diving at NCAA Championships (Austin, Texas) Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Saturday, March 19 Women's tennis at Texas Tech - 10 a.m. Baseball hosts Tennessee - 1 p.m. Men's tennis hosts Alabama - 1 p.m. Softball at LSU - 4 p.m. Women's basketball vs. Hampton - 6:30 p.m. (Albuquerque, N.M.) Men's basketball vs. West Virginia/Clemson/UAB - TBA (Tampa, Fla.) Gymnastics at SEC Championships (Birmingham, Ala.) Women's swimming and diving at NCAA Championships (Austin, Texas) Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Sunday, March 20 Baseball hosts Tennessee - 1 p.m. Softball at LSU - 2 p.m. Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
That's where the Kentucky women's basketball team will find itself in the first two rounds of play in the NCAA Tournament. The Cats were tabbed a four seed in this year's bracket of 64, scheduled to face 13th-seeded Hampton on Saturday in Albuquerque, N.M., in the Spokane Region.
It's UK's eighth NCAA Tournament appearance overall and second straight invitation. The at-large berth is the first time Kentucky has made the NCAA Tournament in back-to-back seasons since 1982-83.
"I've always wanted to go to Albuquerque, so now complements of the NCAA I'm going to be able to go," Mitchell said. "I hear it's beautiful in Albuquerque this time of the year."
If anyone was upset with Kentucky's cross-country draw this season, Mitchell made sure to point out the positives.
In a speech he delivered to his team at a Selection Show party at his house, Mitchell pointed out the advantages of going to the West, chiefly the opportunity to draw a four seed and stay out of a team's local region, such as Maryland in College Park, Md.
"As far as the NCAA considers you, you're one of the top 16 teams in the country," Mitchell said to reporters. "That's a tremendous accomplishment for this particular team. As it relates to our program, it's great to go back to back for the first time in a long time, but I'm more excited for this team because this team had to overcome so much. We've had so many obstacles we've had to clear and so many times of adversity where we've had to bounce back, and they've done that every time. To land inside the top 16 is a tremendous accomplishment for this particular group of players."
The main obstacle facing Kentucky entering the season was the loss of starting point guard Amber Smith. After guiding the Cats to the Elite Eight a season ago, Smith tore her anterior cruciate ligament over the summer.
The team held out hope that she could return by season's end, but Smith recently decided to redshirt this year and return for next season.
Even if she would have come back, the Cats weren't guaranteed to even make the postseason. Although 2010 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Victoria Dunlap was back for her senior year, six newcomers made up the roster.
Kentucky navigated through some bumps along the way, but the Cats still managed to finish with a 24-8 record and a second-place finish in the SEC. Making it back to NCAA Tournament, a place where the school has been unable to secure frequent visits, was a big step forward for the program.
"They can't say last year was a fluke," sophomore guard A'dia Mathies said. "We came back this year and played very well. We had a decent season and we're looking to take it even farther."
UK's draw is potentially treacherous. On the way to the Final Four, Kentucky could play traditional power North Carolina, No. 1 seed Stanford, and No. 2 seed Xavier or archrival Louisville.
But if last year's Elite Eight run proved anything, it's that UK is a team to fear as well because of its aggressive, full-court-pressure defense.
"I still think that will be key in the tournament, trying to play as close to our identity as we can," Mitchell said.
Mitchell spoke at length before the SEC Tournament about his team's advantage in style of play. The ability to wear down opponents paid off in the SEC Tournament as the Cats advanced to the championship game for the second straight year.
The opposition in NCAA Tournament will have the luxury of an extra day of preparation, but there's no mimicking Kentucky's defensive pressure, especially in the high altitude of New Mexico, where conditioning could play a major role.
"If our players will play hard and do what they're capable of, I really think our team is really built for tournament play," Mitchell said. "It's tough to prepare for, especially if you can get through one game and you have a team that has one day to prepare for you. It's a good style of play for a tournament. It's very hard to play and very hard to get yourself where you can legitimately play pressure basketball defensively."
Unlike the SEC Tournament, there's unfamiliarity with Kentucky. While UK's league foes are used to the in-your-face style of play that the Cats like to employ, most teams around the country haven't seen it or experienced it. That was evident last year when the Cats knocked off a strong Michigan State team and No. 1 seed Nebraska.
In that same thread, last year's run could also be a curse. While the Elite Eight trek provided a ton of experience and confidence, there will be some people who expect Kentucky to do it again even though the pieces are different.
That can create pressure.
"It's not the same team," Mathies said. "It's a whole different team, different players."
Asked if he could take any positives out of last season's run and apply it to this year's team, Mitchell chose only to look at this year's objective - enjoying the Land of Enchantment and moving on to Spokane, Wash.
"The experience helps you and I'm certain that some of the veteran players can gain some positive feelings from any experiences they had or any positive things that happened for them, but I thinks it's probably a little bit overrated," Mitchell said. "I think you need to focus on getting this team ready and this team has to do certain things. What we did last year won't help us a whole lot."
Key players: Kareem Maddox (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg), Ian Hummer (13.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg), Dan Mavraides (12.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg), Douglas Davis (11.9 ppg)
How they got to the Big Dance: By winning the Ivy League crown in dramatic fashion last weekend. Faced with a one-game playoff for the Ivy League title and an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, Douglas Davis hit a buzzer-beating jumper from just inside the 3-point arc to give the Tigers a 63-62 win over Harvard (video below).
NCAA Tournament history: Princeton is no stranger to the dance floor. This will be the Tigers' 24th NCAA Tournament appearance but first since 2004. Princeton has history of upsetting a four seed, too. As the 13 seed in 1996, the slow-it-down Tigers upset fourth-seeded and defending national champion UCLA in what is widely regarded as one of the top upsets in NCAA Tournament history. Princeton's 50-49 loss to Georgetown in 1989 is still the closest a 16th-seeded team has come to beating a top seed.
The skinny: This isn't your father's Princeton team. While the Princeton style offense is still the backbone of the Tigers' offense, it has evolved to keep up with the talent boost head coach Sydney Johnson has injected back into a traditionally strong program. There will still be plenty of spacing, tons of backdoor cuts and lots of rotation around the perimeter, but this Princeton team can run, likes to play pressure defense and can bang with teams inside. UK head coach John Calipari is impressed with Princeton's big men, Hummer and Maddox, and their athleticism.
Princeton quote: "This last game against Harvard, we were getting a rebound and I looked down the floor and I saw five guys for Harvard sprinting back, just turning around and sprinting all the way back," senior guard Dan Mavraides said. "That's not something you would see teams do against Princeto,n traditionally. We've obviously had a big enough impact pushing the ball where teams kind of abandon going for offensive rebounding and want to get back on defense."
Calipari on Princeton: "They're a team that has size for an Ivy (League team), has shooters. They run their stuff. They can run back cuts, but they also do a lot of post-up basketball. They'll do pick-and-roll basketball, so it's not just straight Princeton even though (the offense) will have (traditional Princeton) principles. They're good. A couple of kids athletically, and I think they play with a chip on their shoulder."
Some may say craziness is playing a conference championship game at 1 p.m., winning it, celebrating, boarding a flight in Atlanta and then trying to make it back to Lexington in time for the NCAA Selection Show at 6 p.m. That's what Kentucky head coach John Calipari and his team attempted to do Sunday after defeating Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game.
But that (March) madness was met by much larger absurdity Sunday evening when Calipari and his team arrived at his house Sunday for a Selection Show party -- they were late, by the way -- and were informed of their NCAA Tournament seeding. And even all that paled in comparison to Gene Smith's comments explaining the seeding.
Smith, the chair of the Division I Men's Basketball Committee, took a lot of heat Sunday night for UK's seeding in the NCAA Tournament. UK is seeded fourth in the East Region across from 13th-seeded Princeton. Should Kentucky win, it would play the winner of fifth-seeded West Virginia and either 12th-seeded Clemson or UAB.
UK also has the tournament's top overall seed, Ohio State, in its bracket -- the Cats would face the Buckeyes in the Sweet 16 should both teams advance that far -- along with a red-hot North Carolina team.
"I'm a little surprised to be honest with you," UK head coach John Calipari said upon returning to his house from the SEC Tournament. "It's a tough road for us."
Tabbing Kentucky a four seed isn't so much the problem until you look at where some other opponents were placed and seeded. Florida, which UK defeated Sunday for a second time this season to claim the SEC Tournament title, was seeded second in the Southeast Region.
How does that make sense? Smith said the committee doesn't put a lot of stock into just one game. The entire body or work, or resume, as Smith described, is taken into account for seeds.
"You know, a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on the one seed, two seed," Smith said on an NCAA teleconference. "At the end of the day, the top five lines are benefited in a great way. You benefit because you're protected from being in an environment where you are at a home-crowd disadvantage when you get into the bracketing process. You're protected as best as you can geographically, when we can put you in a geographic location that's closer or in proximity, if we can do that, but that's not always the case. Kentucky is a very good ballclub. But when it came to the votes, they slid a little bit.
"Also keep in mind, when I mention Florida, it was to a particular question. You look at Kentucky's full resume compared to everyone else, we feel real comfortable with their seed."
Slid a little bit? Kentucky is actually rising faster than it has all season.
The Cats are winners of their last six games and eight of nine overall. After the double-digit win over Florida, UK's RPI moved all the way to No. 7, according to realtimerpi.com, before the NCAA Tournament.
"I don't think it's personal," Calipari said of UK's four seed, "but wow. This team's really worked hard throughout the whole year. I think our RPI is a seven. So a seven RPI gets you a four?"
Going into Sunday's title bout, Calipari thought both Kentucky and Florida were three seeds or one was a three and one was a four, which would be determined by Sunday's winner. Obviously that didn't happen.
"Good for Florida," Calipari said. "Let them go win and hopefully we go win."
Smith was asked to explain how Kentucky "slid a little bit" entering the tournament.
"Keep in mind there's 10 people in the room and everyone in the room has different emphasis on different criteria," Smith said. "So when we go to vote, everyone selects the criteria they think is important to them and they ultimately vote.
"That didn't happen with just Kentucky; it happened with everyone else in the field. So when they came up on the board, everybody voted based upon their individual criteria. We study every single team, look at a lot of different factors. They ended up in the spot that they did, and we think it's a good spot."
Kentucky fans would beg to differ.
"Let's take it and move on," Calipari said. "I'm just happy with how we played in the tournament and how my team is playing. They can seed us where they want to seed us. We're playing well, let's go do it."
We'll have more on the NCAA Tournament on Monday (after I get a little sleep), including a look at UK's first opponent, Princeton. Also, it's the women's turn Monday for the NCAA Selection Show, so we'll have coverage of that as well in the evening. Stay tuned.
Editor's note: Apologies on the late post from the Southeastern Conference Tournament. I had to hitch a ride back from Atlanta and we got into some car trouble on the way back, so it's been a long day since the tourney ended. Here's my best effort to wrap up some storylines from the SEC Tournament only.
Defense the Cats' calling card in title defense
ATLANTA - If there was a book of clichés, chapter one would read "defense wins championships."
While that really isn't always the case, defense was the reason Kentucky was able to defend its Southeastern Conference Tournament title in Atlanta this weekend. UK used a smothering defensive approach in the final game - really, it was all three games - to defeat Florida, the SEC regular-season champion, 70-54 in Sunday's finale.
UK held the Gators, the league's top shooting team entering the weekend, to an uncharacteristically bad shooting afternoon. Florida hit just 38.6 percent from the floor, well below its 46.4 season mark.
"We swarmed them," said DeAndre Liggins, one of five representatives on the All-SEC Defensive Team. "We wanted to take away layups and contest all their 3s. That's the only way they could beat us."
UK limited Florida's top three leading scorers - Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons - to a combined 11 of 38 from the floor.
"We're playing the best defense we've played in a long time," senior forward Josh Harrellson said.
Following a fantastically frantic offensive start for both teams, Kentucky laid the hammer down defensively halfway through the first half.
After Florida took a 24-21 lead with 10:26 in the first half, points and field goals were hard to come by for the Gators. Florida was held without a point for more than seven minutes in the first half, and UK would yield just two more field goals until halftime.
It didn't get much easier after that either.
With a mix of zone and on-the-ball pressure, Florida netted only two field goals for the first 7:54 of the second half. In all, after scoring 24 points in the first 9:34 of the game, the Gators totaled just nine points in nearly 19 minutes of action.
"I thought we had some things around the basket we weren't able to finish," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought we missed a lot of layups. The biggest part was I didn't think that we were strong enough and physical enough around the basket."
Florida missed a lot of bunnies inside, but the Cats' significant size advantage at the guard positions had a lot to do with that. UK's height and physicality bothered diminutive guards Boynton and Walker, and UK guard/forward Darius Miller used his versatility to limit Parsons, the SEC Player of the Year, for the second straight meeting.
"Everybody is playing together finally and helping each other out and not trying to take assignments on their own," Harrellson said. "If we get down or something, we try to come back as a team and try to fix it as a team instead of trying to do it by ourselves."
Kentucky has been one of the most underrated defensive teams in the country all season long, entering the week ninth in field-goal defense, but the Cats really put their foot down in Atlanta. UK held its three opponents to 37.9 percent shooting.
"Every game starts with defense," freshman guard Doron Lamb said. "We're going to score regardless because we've got great players."
MVP maturation: Turnaround gratifying for Miller
Maybe it's not so much a conclusion in development for Miller, but his evolution over the last month has already been remarkable.
For every time head coach John Calipari said Miller had the talent to be the league's best player, he seemingly followed it up with a lackluster performance. Potential seemed to define him. Inconsistency plagued him.
That all seems to be in the past as Miller's turnaround reached a sweet pinnacle Sunday afternoon in Atlanta. Miller backed up his coach's confidence in him by winning SEC Tournament MVP honors.
"I think Darius Miller has the talent and ability and skill to be the best player in our league," Calipari said again Sunday, "and this week, obviously, he was. I'm proud of him."
Miller averaged 13.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in three games in Atlanta, including a 15-point, six-board performance in the finals. With Florida hanging around midway through the second half, the Kentucky native nailed back-to-back 3-pointers to extend Kentucky's lead to 14.
Remember, it was just a month and a half ago that Miller passed up a shot at Ole Miss in the closing minutes. Now he's found confidence late in the season to take the big shot.
"His mindset changed," freshman forward Terrence Jones said. "He's not as relaxed. He believes in himself. He's not nervous to shoot anymore. He doesn't expect anybody else to shoot. He knows he'll make the plays."
Miller has scored in double figures in nine straight games. Kentucky's stock has been rising ever since, going 8-1 in those games, including a six-game winning streak heading into the NCAA Tournament.
"It makes us a whole different team," Jones said.
Miller said the criticism of his inconsistent play used to bother him, but he's learned to weather storms in his three years at Kentucky.
"I try to look past it now," Miller said. "I've gotten over it."
Miller was at a loss for words in postgame celebration when asked about what it meant to win the MVP. His evolution has been so fast and so important to the team, even he's a little taken aback.
"I don't even know how to explain it really," Miller said. "I was excited, I was happy. I didn't really think it was going to be me at first. It's a special thing."
Sweeter championship than last year's?
Returning to glory last year was a defining moment in the revitalization of the Kentucky men's basketball program under Calipari. It was the first time UK had won an SEC Tournament crown since 2004, a long and rare stretch by Kentucky basketball standards.
But this year's title may have been even sweeter.
Written off a month ago by some people after losing five of 10 games, UK became somewhat of an underdog in the SEC. Yes, Kentucky finished out the regular season strong and earned a first-round bye in the tournament, but the crown was still Florida's to lose.
"Florida's one of the best teams in the conference," Harrellson said. "To come out and beat them like we did tonight and just execute and play team basketball like have been playing these last couple games, it just built a lot of momentum and confidence for us going into the NCAA (Tournament)."
In the same mold as Miller, Harrellson has come a long, long way to get to the point where he was standing in the locker room in the Georgia Dome with a net draped around his neck.
Harrellson averaged just a shade over a point a game in 26 appearances last season, and he was shrouded in controversy at the beginning of the season for some criticism of his head coach on Twitter.
Now, Harrellson is one of the most important parts in Kentucky's chances in the NCAA Tournament. He was named to the SEC All-Tournament Team after averaging 10.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the title run, and Pat Forde of ESPN tabbed him as one of the five best big men in this year's NCAA Tournament.
Being able to contribute this year made the 2011 championship that much sweeter for Harrellson.
"It's definitely more meaningful to me," Harrellson said. "Last year I figured we were going to win. We had one of the best teams in the nation. I was confident in the guys that they were going to win it. Just being actually out there playing and helping them win the championship. That just makes it mean a whole lot more to me right now."
Last year's team had lost just two games entering the NCAA Tournament and went on to earn a No. 1 seed in the field of 65. It also had five first-round draft picks in the 2010 NBA Draft.
This year's team has faced a lot more adversity, is younger than's last year's bunch and has limited depth.
"It's great because we only played six guys," Liggins said of this year's championship. Sweeter than last year's though?
"I don't know," Miller said. "That's tough to answer."
Lamb's a 'man'
The status of Lamb heading into the championship game was the storyline Sunday. After watching Lamb be carried off the court in Saturday's win over Alabama, there were significant concerns, not only for his SEC championship availability, but the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
Those concerns reached red alert following the Alabama win when Lamb could hardly put weight on his heavily wrapped and iced ankle. Lamb left the locker room on crutches and was listed as doubtful for Florida.
It turns out it was all much ado about nothing.
Lamb not only played Sunday, he logged six points in 23 minutes. The freshman guard didn't start, but he was the first player off the bench.
"We put him on crutches so that you guys would see him on crutches and make a big deal out of it, but he didn't need the crutches coming out of the locker room," Calipari said.
The left ankle of Lamb received around-the-clock treatment from the time Lamb left the Georgia Dome floor Saturday until the time he took the court for warm-ups Sunday.
Despite assuring reporters that he would play Sunday, Lamb said his ankle was "killing" him most of Saturday night. He said he only slept three hours before the game.
"My mentality was to play anyway," Lamb said. "I was never not thinking about playing. I told coach this morning I was going to play because I felt a little bit better after last night."
Lamb clearly wasn't at 100 percent for the game and probably could have benefited from some rest, but he earned a lot of points with his teammates for riding the injury out and helping a thin bench. Calipari said Lamb will definitely start in the NCAA Tournament for being a "man" and "choosing to play."
"He's from New York, just like I'm from Chicago," Liggins said. "Those cities are tough. He's tough. He fought it out."
The field of the 2011 NCAA Tournament was just announced on CBS. The Kentucky Wildcats, winners of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, earned their 51st berth in the Big Dance, most of any school in the nation. We'll be providing coverage all week leading up to the Wildcats' first game, but here a few notes on what UK will face.
- UK received a four seed the East Region and awaits a second-round matchup (with the addition of the "First Four," what used to be called the first round is now called the second) against the Ivy League champion Princeton Tigers. Princeton advanced to the tournament by winning a playoff game against Harvard, a game they won in dramatic fashion with a Doug Davis buzzer beater. The Wildcats' first-round game will be played in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday.
UK-Princeton will follow a 12:15 p.m. matchup between West Virginia and Clemson/UAB. Tip-off will be at approximately 2:45 p.m. on CBS (all times eastern).
- UK was last seeded fourth in 2002, when it won a pair of games against Valparaiso and Tulsa behind Tayshaun Prince before falling to Maryland in the Sweet 16.
- A potentially fascinating round of 32 matchup looms for UK. With a first-game win, the Wildcats would move on to face the winner of a game between fifth-seeded West Virginia and play-in opponents UAB and Clemson. A game between the Wildcats and Mountaineers would be a rematch of West Virginia's upset of UK in last year's Elite Eight.
- UK is one of five SEC teams -- Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Georgia -- to make the NCAA Tournament. The conference's two bubble teams heading into Selection Sunday were Alabama and Georgia. Georgia made the field as a 10 seed in spite of being beaten by Alabama twice in the last week of the season.
- Kentucky's first two tournament games will be played in the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. There were closer potential early round sites for the Cats, but being designated a four seed set the Cats lower in the pecking order.
- UK seed's came as a surprise to many, including me. The Wildcats looked to secure at least a three seed by defeating Florida in the SEC finals, but instead received a four. Even more perplexing is the fact that the Gators were seeded two lines above UK as a No. 2 seed in the Southeast Region. The Selection Committee has minimized the impact of Sunday championship games, which may help explain this. Ironically, UK and Florida will both play second- and third-round games in Tampa.
- The consensus among most onlookers is that UK's East Region, along with the Southwest Region, is the most difficult. Kentucky would have to face overall top seed Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen if both teams advance that far. Additionally, North Carolina is the two seed in the region as one of the hottest teams in the country, and Big East power Syracuse is the three seed. The region holds three teams ranked in the top 10 of the RPI.
- As sleepers in the East, do not forget about sixth- and seventh-seeded Xavier and Washington.
- We'll have more coverage of this all week as we build up to UK's first NCAA game on Thursday. Also, Eric Lindsey will have more coverage of the Wildcats' SEC championship victory over Florida much later tonight. He's currently driving back from Atlanta so it could be a while.
In his 26-year tenure as head coach of Kentucky's rifle team, Harry Mullins has accomplished a great deal. The program produced All-Americans and Olympians. His teams won conference championships and perennially contended on a national level.
With four second-place national finishes and four third-place finishes, saying that his tenure had been successful would have been an understatement, but something was missing.
At the 2010-11 NCAA Championships in Fort Benning, Ga., the Kentucky Wildcats gave Mullins that title he had been seeking for so long.
"To be able to explain it is kind of tough," Mullins said of UK's national championship, the first in school history. "We've put ourselves, the last few years, in contention to win national championships and fallen short. For this group to be able to achieve that, it's hard to find words to try to explain how that feels, just the pride in them."
The Wildcats delivered that national title in grand fashion. Their overall team score of 4700 is the highest ever recorded in the NCAA Championships. In the air rifle portion of the competition on day two, the Wildcats held off the top-ranked and hard-charging West Virginia Mountaineers.
UK was headlined by smallbore national champion Ethan Settlemires, whose score of 590 also set a NCAA Championships record, but it was a true team effort that brought the crown to Lexington.
"We don't dwell on the numbers as much as the performance," Mullins said. "That's why I'm so proud of the group. They really believe in themselves. It's about having that trust that, if I'm putting myself out there and giving 110 percent, we will be successful."
Mullins views the championship as a culmination of the efforts of all of the people involved in the program over the past quarter century. The program has come a long way in that time, but one tipping point came when Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart arrived at UK in 2002.
Upon Barnhart's arrival, Mullins' duties as head coach were only part time. Mullins worked as a bartender to supplement his income, but Barnhart quickly realized what Mullins was building and made a full-time commitment to him and the program.
There was never any doubt about whether the commitment to Mullins and UK rifle was worthwhile, but winning a national title is a testament to just what it has meant.
"If Mitch had been there, I would have given him a great big hug," Mullins said. "Mitch and (UK President) Dr. (Lee) Todd and the administration on both sides, as far as academics and athletics, does nothing but give great support to all the sports, but especially to us."
That support has helped the Wildcats build an unprecedented following. In the final moments of the competition, Mullins said he was forced to put his cell phone out of reach because of the constant stream of texts, calls and tweets from all around.
If you were on Twitter at all today, you likely saw evidence of that outpouring of support, which was particularly clear immediately after the Wildcats won the title. Barnhart, John Calipari, Matthew Mitchell and countless other UK coaches and athletes offered congratulations. The meaning of those gestures is not lost on Mullins.
"It means so much to the kids," Mullins said. "There are people out there that care just as much about what we're doing as we do. That's a great feeling to have."
While so much of Mullins' satisfaction comes from seeing his athletes perform in the way that they did, this championship is very meaningful to him personally.
His father, Alger, was Kentucky through and through before passing away six years ago.
"He was a Kentucky boy," Mullins said of his father.
Alger Mullins shared with his son a great love of rifle and had a chance to see him build a program at the university they both loved.
"He was always proud when we would finish in the top four or five," Mullins said. "He understood the competitiveness of it and the effort, drive and dedication you have to have."
The site of the NCAA Championships was meaningful as well for Mullins. Alger Mullins was a sergeant in the military and eventually settled with his family in Fort Benning, Ga., where Mullins competed in rifle for the prestigious Fort Benning Junior Club.
"There was a little soft spot in my heart with being able to win a national championship where I got started," Mullins said.
Mullins hopes that a national championship tradition at UK will eventually be able to trace its roots back to the area.
"Hopefully we'll be able to continue that streak of starting things in Fort Benning," Mullins said, ever mindful of continuing to build the program he has led for so long.
ATLANTA -- Even the hush of two potentially damaging ankle injuries couldn't quiet the growing feeling of confidence within the Kentucky men's basketball team, not after the Cats thrashed Alabama 72-58 Friday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
UK played one of its best games of the year in a beating that was much wider than the final score indicated. Kentucky led by as many as 26 points against the same team that it trailed by 20 and lost to in Tuscaloosa, Ala., two months ago.
Riding a five-game winning streak, UK (24-8) is playing its best basketball of the year.
"That's what I'm looking for from my team," head coach John Calipari said. "We had a lot of guys performing, so it was a good game. We really guarded. Offensively we were really good."
The first five possessions were telling of how much Kentucky has improved since struggling against a defensive-minded Alabama team in the first meeting.
On the very first play of the game, UK dumped the ball down to senior forward Josh Harrellson and he got fouled. The next play, Harrellson leaked back door, wide open, for an easy layup.
Darius Miller missed a jumper on the next possession, but Harrellson hit Doron Lamb on the next series on an off-the-ball screen for a 3-pointer. On the fifth possession, Brandon Knight missed a 3, but UK crashed the boards for an offensive rebound and Lamb hit another shot.
That was nine points in five possessions. All five plays were perfectly executed.
UK stretched its lead early behind Lamb's quick start -- he scored 10 of the Cats' first 14 points - and Kentucky never looked back. The Cats shot 50 percent from the floor, committed just seven turnovers and held Alabama to 41.5 percent shooting.
"We'd have smacked anybody the way we played," Calipari said.
Kentucky led by as many as 26 and five players scored in double figures. Lamb led the way with 15 points, but Harrellson collected his sixth double-double of the season and DeAndre Liggins had 14 points and nine rebounds.
"Great team win," Terrence Jones said. "We really came out playing aggressive. Everybody was knocking down open shots. Hopefully I'll join them one of these days."
Jones' ineffectiveness is actually what's most encouraging about UK's current SEC Tournament run. The freshman forward scored just seven points on 2-of-9 shooting, missing several looks around the basket. Freshman guard Brandon Knight wasn't much better. He finished with 12 points, but 10 of them came in a sizzling two-minute stretch.
The fact that Jones and Knight could go a combined 0 for 9 from the floor before halftime and still lead by 16 "means we're a good team," Liggins said.
How good, we may not know until the NCAA Tournament, but UK's ability to succeed without its leading duo producing says a lot about how far the team has come in the last few weeks.
"We're going to be a dangerous team going into the postseason," Liggins said.
Before Liggins and Doron Lamb went down with ankle injuries late in the game, it was a full-game, on-court celebration for the Cats. Rupp Arena South, er, the Georgia Dome rocked with 21,728 fans, most of who watched blissfully as Kentucky's youth finally met its potential.
"A lot of guys are stepping up and really taking a hold of their roles and just really buying into the team and team effort," Knight said.
The ability for a team to mesh doesn't happen in December, and for some, it never materializes. But for Kentucky to finally fit the puzzle pieces together just before the NCAA Tournament means this team either knew what it was doing all along or it just got really darn lucky.
"If you've been together for a while already it can happen like that, but with a new team with a lot of new guys, it kind of takes a while to get that jelling," Knight said. "We know what each other can and can't bring to the table and we know what we should be bringing to the table. We hold each other accountable now."
Meanwhile, Florida continues to just buzz right along. The Gators were crowned the league's regular-season champ a week ago and have won nine of their last 10 games. Chandler Parsons was named SEC Player of the Year last week, and his surrounding cast of Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin is as good as anyone's in the country.
On Saturday, Florida drilled 11 3-pointers to defeat Vanderbilt 77-66. The Gators also held the John Jenkins-led Commodores to 6 of 33 from behind the arc a day after beating Tennessee.
"I think it's a great accomplishment for us," Boynton said. "The key to these games were our focus to get one win and move on to the next. We have had a problem with that this year, winning big games and then losing to other teams. But I think that lately we have been doing well just moving on from wins."
One of Florida's big wins this year's was a two-point victory over Kentucky in Gainesville, Fla., another one of UK's six losses by five points or less. UK evened the season series two weeks ago with a 10-point win in Lexington and hasn't looked back since.
"You want to hit a high stretch going into the tournament," Knight said.
Kentucky and Florida seem to have hit that point at the right time of the season. Now two immovable objects will meet in heavyweight collision course in Sunday's SEC Tournament championship game.