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Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For most of the season, UK survived on offense with brute force.

The Wildcats overwhelmed opponents with size and athleticism, going to the offensive glass and the free-throw line at remarkable rates.

Two weeks into a magical NCAA Tournament run, the Cats are adding a little finesse to their game.

Over their last three games -- wins over formerly unbeaten Wichita State and 2013 national title game participants Louisville and Michigan -- the Cats have operated at an unprecedented level of offensive efficiency.

That tweak? Yeah, it's working.

"When I did the first tweak, I told everybody, 'You will see a change,' and they saw it; couldn't believe it," John Calipari said. "Then before we went to the tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said, 'You will see a change,' and they've all seen it."

The Cats have scored an astounding 1.24 points per possession over their last three games. In NCAA Tournament play overall, UK is scoring 1.16 points per possession facing defenses ranked 20th, 11th, fifth and 109th by kenpom.com in succession.

Among Final Four teams, only Wisconsin has been more efficient offensively. And if you take out the Badgers' second-round bludgeoning of overmatched American, the Cats are a few thousandths of a point better.

UK has been characteristically good on the glass during the run, rebounding 47.1 percent of its misses over the last three games. The Cats aren't getting to the line as often as they did in the regular season, but they have hit 73.3 percent of their free throws and are shooting lights out from the field. Kentucky sports an effective field-goal percentage of .561, boosting their season percentage to .500.

In the process, they've climbed to ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, second among Final Four teams to national semifinal opponent Wisconsin.

Don't let final scores and a slow pace fool you: The Badgers are among the best offensive teams in the country, ranking fourth according to kenpom.com with solid shooting and the second-lowest turnover rate in the country. That should be of some concern to the Cats, who haven't exactly locked down opponents in the tournament.

Over the last three games, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan -- all top-16 offenses -- have combined to score 1.19 points per possession against UK, the latter two capitalizing on the absence of shot-blocking extraordinaire Willie Cauley-Stein.

Hood enjoys quality time with regional trophy

During the 30 minutes UK's locker room was open to the media following a win over Michigan, Jon Hood held the Midwest Regional championship trophy on his lap.

He didn't let go of it until the next day.

"He just left my office," John Calipari said. "He had the regional trophy in his room. He said, 'Where you want me to put it?' I said, 'You keep it.' He said, 'Nah, I've had it all night. It was in the bed with me.' "

Hood, catching wind of his coach's comments on Monday's Final Four teleconference, was quick to offer clarification on Twitter.


Important as the distinction may be to Hood, it doesn't change what his joy following his third Final Four trip in four years says about the senior's development.

"He's come so far," Calipari said. "He came from a deer-in-headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?' to a great teammate to a loving part of our family."

Loving, yes, but just as important. He hasn't yet played a minute in the NCAA Tournament, but he serves as a mentor to his younger teammates and even an adviser to his coach.

On his Senior Night, Hood notably told Calipari the lob pass was open against Alabama's zone defense. Coach Cal then called for the play, resulting in a James Young dunk.

And against Michigan in the Elite Eight, Hood -- who bristles when his teammates describe him as a coach -- spoke up again. Nik Stauskas was about to step to the line for two free throws with UK leading by three with 2:26 to play. Seeing 44.9-percent foul shooter Dakari Johnson on the low block, Hood stepped up to the raised floor at Lucas Oil Stadium to talk to his coach.

"Last night in the game, they are shooting free throws and he says to me, 'What are you going to do if Dakari rebounds it? Because they're going to foul him,' " Calipari said. "He came up to me. Not an assistant."

Hood might not be an assistant, but Coach Cal listened to him just the same, shouting instructions to the Harrison twins to call an immediate timeout should Johnson rebound a Stauskas miss.

The episode is another example of Calipari's players-first philosophy.

"See, this is not my team; it's their team," Calipari said. "And I want them to feel empowered, and he knows that."

Calipari, Cats to make time to watch McDonald's game

Coach Cal has a fair bit going on this week. Between practices, traveling to Texas and the media circus that comes with taking a team to the Final Four, he'll scarcely have a chance to breathe.

He will, however, find time to get to a television and tune to ESPN on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET for the McDonald's All-American game, or at least soon after.

"Oh, we'll watch it," Calipari said. "And if I can't watch it, it'll be taped. It'll be taped, because we have four players in it."

The four players -- most of any school along with Duke -- are Karl Towns on the East team and Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis on the West. They make up UK's latest highly regarded class and all have bright basketball futures, but Coach Cal is just excited about their character.

"They're terrific basketball players, but spend some time with them," Calipari said. "You're talking about four great, great kids."

UK's tourney success unmatched under Calipari

Coach Cal has gotten plenty of attention for his recruiting record in his tenures at Kentucky, Memphis and UMass, and rightfully so.

But when everyone looks back on his legacy years from now, it could very well be his NCAA Tournament record that we all remember.

  • Calipari's career record in the tournament is 42-13, tops among active coaches.
  • He will make his fifth Final Four appearance this weekend, tying him for ninth most all-time.
  • The Final Four is the third in four seasons, making Kentucky the first school to accomplish that feat since UCLA reached three straight from 2006-08.
  • UK has won 10 straight NCAA Tournament games under Coach Cal. No team has won that many in a row since Florida won 12 straight and back-to-back titles in 2006-07. Overall, UK is 17-2 in the NCAA Tournament under Calipari.
  • The last three victories in the streak are quite impressive. UK is the first team in history to eliminate three teams from the previous year's Final Four and the third since 1979 to eliminate an unbeaten opponent (Wichita State).

Here are a few more notes from around the Twitter-sphere on a March Madness run the Big Blue Nation won't soon forget.


To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Marlana VanHoose -- Loud and Proud

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Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for Wisconsin game

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Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The update on Willie Cauley-Stein is that there is no update. His status remains the same for the Wisconsin game as it was on Sunday: doubtful.

"I doubt he plays," John Calipari said on Monday's Final Four teleconference, "and he will be on our bench cheering like crazy."

Cauley-Stein missed Kentucky's Elite Eight win over Michigan with a left ankle injury he suffered during the Louisville game on Friday. The sophomore forward came up limping at the 13:05 mark in the first half, hobbled to the locker room and never returned.

Against Michigan, Cauley-Stein was on the sidelines with his teammates, but he was reduced to a supportive role, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with his jersey over the top and a boot on his right foot. He used crutches to move around during the game until UK's postgame celebration, when Cauley-Stein hobbled on one foot to the dog pile.

By the looks of things Sunday and based on Coach Cal's comments on Monday, it does not appear as though UK will have the services of its top shot-blocker against Wisconsin, but Cauley-Stein didn't rule out the possibility when he spoke to reporters after the Cats' Elite Eight victory, as faint as that prospect may be.

"I hope so," Cauley-Stein said when he was asked if he might play on Saturday. "I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee filled in admirably for Cauley-Stein when he went down with the injury. Johnson matched a career high with 15 points in the win over Louisville and Lee re-emerged from a seldom-used bench role with a 10-point, eight-rebound, two-block outing.

UK managed to block six shots vs. Michigan without its best rim protector, but the Cats will miss his presence against the Badgers, who feature a 7-footer in Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin's leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker.

"Do you understand that Willie changed most games for us?" Calipari said.

Coach Cal said Cauley-Stein went "bonkers" in the locker room during the win over Louisville and then watched Sunday as he cheered on his teammates from from the bench, even documenting some of the front-row action with video posted on the UK Sports Video department's Instagram account.

Calipari said he talked to Cauley-Stein to make sure he was in a good place mentally.

"I said, 'Willie, we're going to try to cover for you. It's gonna be really hard. But let me say this: You personally, you've proven yourself. People know what you are. They know the impact you have on games. They know that you're a 7-foot guard. They know that now. So is this hurting our team? Yes. But we're gonna try to cover. You're fine,' " Calipari said. "And I want them to understand, we are about them, and when you're injured, doesn't change things."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

John Calipari will be all over the place this week with his team set to play in the Final Four. His media obligations started this afternoon on the Final Four Head Coaches Teleconference. Predictably, he touched on a number of topics and you can read his thoughts below. Scroll down for some of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's thoughts on Kentucky as well.

Coach Cal

On talk of underachievement motivating his team ...

"It played no part. It's a process, and you can't skip steps. Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, you lose yourself in the team, and you understand less is more. But that really takes time when you're playing seven freshmen in your top eight and each of them scored 25 points a game in high school. 'You must do less and that would be more for you.' It's a process, but what anybody said or wrote had no bearing on us."
 
On Jon Hood's value as a conduit between coaches and the young players ...
"Let me tell you what he did in the game last night. I just love the kid. He's come so far. He came from a deer-in-headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?' to a great teammate to a loving part of our family. Last night in the game, they are shooting free throws and he says to me, 'What are you going to do if Dakari rebounds it? Because they're going to foul him.' He came up to me. Not an assistant. He walked up to me (laughing). And I said, 'Andrew, Aaron, if Dakari rebounds it, call an immediate timeout. Right away.'
 
"That's what he's done. And one game this year he came up to me and said, 'Coach, the lob is open versus the zone. He walked up and told me. We threw the lob and I went down and slapped him on the hand. See, this is not my team; it's their team. And I want them to feel empowered, and he knows that. He just left my office. He had the regional trophy in his room. He said, 'Where you want me to put it?' I said, 'You keep it.' He said, 'Nah, I've had it all night. It was in the bed with me.' That's the enjoyment, even if he's not playing as much. But you know what he says: 'If you need me, I'm ready now,' because of his frame of mind.

"I wish I had all kids for four or five years, to see this. But in the other sentence, I'm not going to convince a young man that should go chase his dreams to come back for me and to win more games. I'm not doing that. But I wish I had them more, because I can't tell you how much enjoyment I get from that."
 
On the last month, what sticks out about the team's composure/mental approach ...
"The bottom line is I screwed this up in a couple different ways. One, we tweaked some things that--I've had all different kind of point guards; I've had guys that have been different kind of players, and I waited probably two months longer than I should've to put a couple things in that changed how we were as a team. When I did the first tweak, I told everybody, 'You will see a change,' and they saw it; couldn't believe it. Then before we went to the (NCAA) tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said, 'You will see a change,' and they've all seen it.
 
"Now, most of the media don't know enough about basketball to really know what I've done. When the season's over, I'll go through point by point, what I did and how I did it, and you'll be able to say, 'Wow, I see it.' The question becomes, when you hear it, you'll say, 'Why didn't you do it earlier?' And I don't really have a good answer. Now, my only hope would be to say to you: Maybe they weren't ready to accept it two months ago. Maybe they had to fail more. Maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team, and you must understand less is more when you're talking about team play. But if they were ready to accept it two months ago, this -- we wouldn't have been an eight seed playing the gauntlet that we just played."
 
On Kentucky's confidence level right now ...
"They're in a great frame of mind, but we lost Willie. Do you understand that Willie changed most games for us? Now, you may say that I was most happy that we won the game. I was happy we won the game. I was happy for the team and the program, but what made me more excited was Dominique Hawkins walking in that game, defending the way he did and changing the rhythm of the game for Michigan. I also loved what Marcus Lee did. We talked about it for two days, what was going to happen. We made the game really simple for him, said, 'You're only going to do these three things, you don't worry about anything else. Don't give them the ball in these positions, give it to them here, and you go do what you do ,and the world will be talking about you after the game.' And he was trending worldwide.
 
"Actually, as a coach it's not just what your stars are doing. You're here to coach everybody. And so to have those two -- and our team was ecstatic for them. It's been a great experience mentally to see these kids mature and change, and me be able to empower them. Aaron Harrison said something with me on the stage. 'Coach has always had to coach emotion, intensity, effort, and that means you've got to get a little nasty. You can't accept it, you can't let them just do what they want to do.' I've also had to coach body language, I've also had to coach unselfish play. I'm not coaching any of that now. Now, I'm coaching basketball. So people are saying, 'Boy, he looks more relaxed. I am more relaxed because I know I don't have to look out there and see a guy not going hard or a guy pouting or a guy passing up a teammate or taking five bad shots. I'm not dealing with any of that. This team has been empowered now, and now I get to coach basketball."
 
On if Kentucky needs to refresh itself before going forward after the gauntlet of the past two weeks ...
"We're just marching how we've been marching. Nothing changes. You're not going to get away from any of that stuff.
 
On his secret in recruiting, being able to land elite players ...
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Now, when I was at UMass, we had one McDonald's All-American, Donta Bright. When I was at Memphis, we may have had three over my years there. So when you say -- we weren't getting top-50 players at UMass. Now, we were winning. We were a terrific team, and I had to coach guys four years, and I was ecstatic. And then at Memphis, I was coaching them three and four years, and we were becoming a good team. Now I'm at Kentucky. There's a combination of the parents understanding Kentucky, what it is. And the young people only know three years. The kids we recruit, all of us, they don't know five years ago. They were 12 and 11, 10. They know the last three years.
 
"When John Wall and (Eric) Bledsoe and (DeMarcus) Cousins and (Patrick) Patterson went in that draft with (Daniel) Orton -- five first rounders -- it changed the whole direction. The paradigm changed. Wasn't like we planned it. I never thought Eric Bledsoe was one-and-done. No one ever thought that. He didn't play in the McDonald's game and all that. 'Well you only take one-and-done players.' What about Josh Harrellson? What about DeAndre Liggins making it. That's all crazy talk.
 
"But what's happened is these kids understand you've got to come together, and we're honest with them. This is the hardest place to come and play basketball. If you think this is going to be easy, don't come here. The second piece of it is, 'If you want to be the only guy that can play, don't come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else. If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys, and if you want to go there, go.' That's not how it is here. Every game is a Super Bowl. You're scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you're going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. And what we're doing has never been done, so you can't do this. So you're getting that hit. 'If you can't deal with all that, don't come here.' That's a heck of a sell, isn't it?"
 
On if its seems strange to him to coach a team that was both supposed to make the Final Four in preseason and was not supposed to make the Final Four when the tournament started ...

"Again, I wished we could have skipped steps in the process and probably was trying to do that, which is why I did such a poor job early with this team. Really, I was probably trying to skip steps, but in the end we got the plane down, barely. We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. Sometimes I always wonder if it's the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team, and we withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They kept believing. They were their brothers' keeper. They believed in the leadership. They believed in the staff. They believed in the system and the process. It never went away, and we never -- I never -- stopped believing in this team or the players on it -- and I mean each individual player. That in itself is a great story of 'How in the world did you guys overcome that?' Well it made us stronger, it made us tougher, it made us harder."
 
On what areas the twins have shown the greatest amount of growth and what it says about Dominique Hawkins and Marcus Lee to step up after not playing much recently ...
"Well I'm going to answer the second one first. Those two -- we coach every player like they're a starter. There's no one coached different. You're held accountable just like a starter would be held accountable. You're pushed and challenged and coached just like a starter would be. We try throughout the season to make sure we're getting those kids minutes so by the end of the year if something happens they're ready to go. So, I'm not surprised. There are times in practice those are our best two players. But, it's really hard to get yourself ready to play every game when you don't play in six straight games. That's really hard. that means you're a good person. That means you're mature, because you know the clutter in their ears is telling them they should be playing more, what are they doing, you're better. They're hearing it because it's natural, yet they withstand all that.
 
"The first question about Andrew and Aaron, there are two parts of it. One, the biggest thing we had to help them with was some body language. As that changed, they became different players. The second thing was we had to define the roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year. By the end of the year -- again, I can't believe -- and I was angry when I realized -- what I had done. Because I've coached all kind of different point guards. We had to get Derrick Rose to shoot more. We had to get Tyreke (Evans) and Brandon Knight to shoot less. We had fast point guards. We had point guards that weren't as fast. John Wall. Eric Bledsoe played the combo. It just bothered me as a coach that that's my job. Their job is to play. My job is to help define their roles and bring them together, to get them to understand. And I'm happy it was done. I just wish I had done it earlier."
 
On if he and/or his team will watch the McDonald's All-American game this week ...
"Oh, we'll watch it. And if I can't watch it, it'll be taped. It'll be taped, because we have four players in it. And we got four great -- when I tell you great kids -- they're terrific basketball players, but spend some time with them. You're talking about four great, great kids. I imagine our team will watch it. They'll watch it live, because they all played in it and they'll want to see it."
 
On what he saw in practice that let him sense his team was changing ...
"Yeah. We tweaked one thing, and it changed the whole direction, and the team knew it and the staff knew it and I knew it. And then I was angry for an hour of practice because I hadn't done it earlier. And it changed everything. Overnight. And that's what happened. And it was something that, 'Why didn't I do this earlier?' It changed. And then in the NCAA Tournament I tweaked another thing, and it changed another way of how we were playing. And now everyone saw it. But again, you have to surrender. You have to accept. You have to do less, which is more, for you and our team becomes better, which means you become better. But that's hard. Every one of these kids averaged 25 and was a McDonald's All-American in some way or form or fashion. And all of the sudden now, you're asked to do way less. That's really hard. And as you're doing less, you start saying, 'Wow, they're talking better about me. They think I'm better by doing less? How's that work?' Because you're team's doing better, you're being more patient, you're being a better basketball player because you're trying to do less. But you're doing more of the things you need to do: Defend, rebound, block shots, fly up and down the court. Things that take pressure off you and make the game easier for you."
 
On the prognosis for Willie Cauley-Stein playing ...

"I doubt he plays, and he will be on our bench cheering like crazy. They told me in the locker room of the Louisville game where he got hurt right away, the doctor told me -- I asked him about the injury and all that -- and he said, 'I got to stop you before. You cannot believe how much he was cheering for his team in there. He wasn't worried about himself. He was going bonkers.' I said, 'Really?' 'Oh, we had to hold him down. He was trying to run around.' I'm so happy for him. It's kind of like Nerlens (Noel). When Nerlens got hurt, they see their life flash before them, their careers. And I said to Nerlens, 'Nerlens. You are fine. Now, our team is not, but you are fine.' And I just said to Willie, I said, 'Willie, we're going to try to cover for you. It's gonna be really hard. But let me say this: You personally, you've proven yourself. People know what you are. They know the impact you have on games. They know that you're a 7-foot guard. They know that now. So this is hurting our team? Yes. But we're gonna try to cover. You're fine.' And I want them to understand, we are about them, and when you're injured, doesn't change things."

Ryan

On the Harrison twins
...
"Well, needless to say they're pretty talented or Kentucky wouldn't be playing in the semifinals. They're not young anymore; they're pretty well-established. Very talented. Physically, they were more mature than most freshmen to begin with and they're primed right now. I still have a lot more film to look at along with my assistant coach that has them, but we know we're going to have our hands full with the twins, that's for sure."

On Kentucky ...

"Yeah, well obviously we haven't been to the Final Four very often so most people wouldn't know nationally that I never do scouting reports on other teams. There's still a lot I have to look at and Kentucky's--for me to say they're good, that wouldn't be--I'd be slighting them. They are very good and they're playing in the semifinals for a reason. Well-coached. John's done a great job of getting those guys, as young as they are, to play together and do the things they're doing. And they're playing their best at the right time, obviously, or you don't get to this point."

On Billy Donovan saying UK-Wisconsin represents a contrast in styles ...
"Well, I think Billy was having some fun with you. Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole; we're trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying keep them from doing it; they're trying to keep us from doing it. If that's styles, I didn't know there were that many. I don't see it totally as that. If other people do, they could explain to you why. But we are who we are right now. We're not changing. They're who they are right now. So it's--whatever people want to say about styles and all that, I leave it up to them. I've never gotten caught up in that kind of a conversation."

 

Kentucky's freshmen in a class by themselves

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UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - He, too, a bit shocked, a bit in disbelief, a bit in amazement at the type of turnaround his young team had just completed, John Calipari sat at the dais in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium and tried to review the silliness of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids defying the odds, forgetting the past and coming together for one of the most unforgettable turnarounds in recent college basketball memory.

"We played six - no, we played seven freshmen today, didn't we?"

Seven of them, to be clear. Seven of them to the Final Four.

Supposedly too young and too inexperienced to repeat what happened two years ago - a notion backed up by the 10 losses in the regular season - these Kentucky Wildcats are apparently just too stubborn to care what people say can't happen and what's really never been done for.

Sure, the 2012 national title team was headlined by freshmen like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but even that group pales in comparison to the youth of this 2014 Final Four team.

Freshmen were responsible for 53.3 percent and 54.0 percent of the minutes on that title team. Through 38 games this year, UK's nine freshmen account for 81.8 percent of the scoring and 75.3 percent of the minutes.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK is the first team to start five freshmen in an Elite Eight game since Michigan's Fab Five did it in 1992.

But eat your heart out, you young guns at Kentucky, even you are topping that legendary Michigan team. The Fab Five - the entirety of that team's freshman class - were only responsible for 75.3 percent of the scoring and 68.5 percent of the minutes that season.

"Doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore," Aaron Harrison said. "We just try to get out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game, and we just fight so hard."

There's more.

With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined due to a left ankle injury, the Cats became even younger for their Elite Eight game against second-seeded Michigan.

Of the 75 points UK scored Sunday night, 67 of them were scored by freshmen. Of the 200 minutes of game, time, freshmen ate up 182 of them. They had 32 of the 35 rebounds, seven of the eight assists and all seven of the 3-pointers.

Only now does it dawn upon everyone why it took time for this to work itself out.

"They were trying," Calipari said. "Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, being their brother's keeper, all that stuff. Losing themselves in the team. It's hard when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school."

It took them an entire season to surrender as well as a few adjustments from Cal, but when they finally came together, played for one another and surrendered to coaching, their talent really showed through.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Coach Cal said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - The T-shirts of the dream, the talk of perfection, the flirtation with 40-0 -- John Calipari was a victim of the expectations as well.

For the first time this season after dealing with the maddening aftereffects of failing to meet regular-season expectations, Coach Cal admitted that he too bought into the hype.

"I had to accept that, too, now," Coach Cal said Sunday after his Wildcats pulled off another memorable victory, a 75-72 win over Michigan in the Elite Eight. "I started reading what everybody was writing. I'm thinking: This is going to be easy."

Easy? This year might have been Calipari's toughest.

After the disappointing 2012-13 season, one that ended with a first-round loss in the NIT, Coach Cal came into the year a new man.

He boasted about the increase in depth, which he said would give him the option to sit kids when they needed to learn from the bench. He bragged about the ridiculous talent and length that six McDonald's All-Americans would bring. He spoke of the attitude of his new recruits and their will to win.

Things were so different that Calipari caught himself singing in the car one day and "talking crap." Order was restored, in his mind.

"It's back to where we were," Coach Cal said in September.

The program is back to where it was two years ago now, but it involved a whole lot more hardship than anyone could have imagined.

"It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, (and) at times, selfishness," Calipari said Sunday.

UK suffered 10 losses in the regular season, lost three of four late and hit rock bottom with an embarrassing loss at South Carolina. It was then that Aaron Harrison said UK would still write a "great story," a prediction that has unbelievably come true, but it's taken some pretty remarkable steps to overcome.

It took Coach Cal looking in the mirror and realizing he needed to "tweak" some things. It took criticism - some nasty - that brought the players together. It took a lot of failing before the succeeding could happen.

"This was very difficult for all of us," Calipari said.

Calipari faced major scrutiny late in the regular season when the wheels fell off in Columbia, S.C. The Kentucky head coach was ejected from that game, he was criticized for being too hard on his players, and many wondered if his approach of recruiting the most talented players regardless of age was a one-hit wonder in 2012.

All the while, Calipari dragged along a hip that's so bad that he's had trouble getting up steps.

But that's what's made part of this late-season turnaround -- a run through the "region of doom" that's included three teams in last year's Final Four, a No. 1 seed and previously undefeated team and last year's defending national champion - so sweet.

Emotions were tested. Resolve was questioned. Supporters dwindled.

And yet the Wildcats endured.

"We never lost faith," Julius Randle said. "There was never a point where I lost faith in the team or anything."

After listening to the outsiders before the season and falling victim to those weighty expectations, they learned to stop listening to everyone else when the criticism came crashing down upon them.

"We never doubted each other," Alex Poythress said. "Our coaches never doubted us. We always stayed a little family and our little circle. Just try to stay strong."

The consensus in the celebration of Sunday night's ticket punching to the Final Four is that the turnaround happened just before the Southeastern Conference Tournament when Coach Cal made the now legendary -- and still yet-to-be confirmed -- "tweak."

"Coach did a good job," Randle said. "He simplified our roles. Everything just clicked on both ends of the floor."

Andrew Harrison said that humbling game at South Carolina seems like "forever ago," but the reality of it is that loss was just one month ago. That's a lot of soul-searching to do in a few weeks' time and a whole lot of adjustments.

"It's a process," Calipari said. "Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer and it took me a little longer to figure them out. ... It took us four months."

Four months later, they're finally ready to be the team that garnered so much hype at the beginning of the season.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Calipari said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

One hell of a turnaround. One hell of a story.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Injured Cauley-Stein still very much part of team

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Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't about to let anything separate him from his team, not in this moment.

Cauley-Stein was on the bench for UK's heart-stopping Elite Eight win over Michigan. He needed crutches to move around, but he wasn't your typical bench bystander.

The sophomore forward put his own unique spin on "street clothes," wearing the same road blue jersey as his teammates over his hooded sweatshirt. When the Wildcats made a big play, he celebrated. When they took the stage to receive the Midwest Regional trophy, he was right there with them.

Likely to his doctor's chagrin, Cauley-Stein even got in on the jubilant dog pile after the buzzer sounded.

"I jumped on one leg," said Cauley-Stein, who captured the experience with a handheld camera. "I just had to improvise, you know what I'm saying? I felt like a pogo stick."



Cauley-Stein made his presence felt even before tip-off, and as much more than just a symbolic "Win For Willie" figure.

He spoke to his team before and during the game, encouraging the Wildcats to keep playing their game even though he wouldn't be there to play it with them.

"He's been real vocal," Alex Poythress said. "He's still trying to be vocal. He's one of our leaders here so he's just trying to help us the best he can."

He was particularly vocal with Marcus Lee, the freshman who stepped in with Cauley-Stein sidelined. With his help, Lee surprised everyone but John Calipari and had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's 75-72 victory.

"He was always trying to give me pointers and tips and coach me through the games, through the practices as we went," Lee said. "He was always on my shoulder trying to tell me what to do, which was great."

Cauley-Stein spoke before the Southeastern Conference Tournament about never having won anything substantial in his career as a basketball player. UK is now just two victories away from a national championship -- about as significant at it gets in college basketball -- which you'd think might lead to some disappointment on the part of Cauley-Stein since he might not be able to be on the floor for that.

If those emotions are there, Cauley-Stein isn't letting on.

"Right now he's still getting through that injury and he's not even thinking about it," Lee said. "He told us, he was like, 'I totally forgot my ankle hurt.' He was just running up and down the court. So it was really great having him."

It would be even better having Cauley-Stein -- owner of 106 of UK's 230 blocks on the season -- on the floor.

UK, after allowing 1.08 points per possession as Cauley-Stein was limited to just four minutes against U of L, yielded a season-high 1.26 to the high-powered Wolverines. Even though they advanced, the Cats missed Cauley-Stein's rim protection and ability to switch onto quick perimeter players.

Now, as UK prepares for a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin at approximately 8:49 p.m. ET on Saturday, Cauley-Stein is going to work to get back in full uniform.

"I really don't know," Cauley-Stein said, asked of his status for the weekend. "I hope so. I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Whether he's able to or not, you can be sure Cauley-Stein will be on the bench with his teammates in AT&T Stadium.

"It's sad that he's hurt, but he's still a part of this team," Poythress said. "We're not going to leave him out. If he wants to jump in the dog pile he can. If he wants to run sprints with us this week, he can hop in. We're just happy he can share this moment with us."



To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Wildcats knew at that point they would likely be without Willie Cauley-Stein.

Talking to the Cats after their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan was set, John Calipari offered a prediction of something that would help them survive the big man's absence.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Marcus Lee said.

That's right. Lee, the player who had as many DNPs as games played in Southeastern Conference play, was going to star.

"And everyone in the world would be talking about you is what I said," Calipari said.

Lee and his teammates, understandably, were skeptical.

"Knowing us, none of us believed him," Lee said.

For the first minute he was on the floor against the Wolverines, the doubt seemed well-founded

His team in the midst of a characteristic slow start, Lee checked in at the 15:25 mark of the first half. On his third possession, he made a mistake that led in part to an Alex Poythress turnover. On the other end of the floor, he missed a block-out assignment and Jon Horford capitalized with a tip-in to give Michigan an 11-4 lead.

Coach Cal, poised to end all thoughts of a breakout performance for the slender freshman, turned to the bench and summoned Dakari Johnson as a substitute.

But then something happened.

Andrew Harrison drove and missed a floater. Lee, on the weak side, flashed to the rim. In one motion, he rose, palmed the rebound and spiked it downward. It rattled around for a moment before falling and giving Lee his first points in more than a month.

As Lee ran back on defense, Calipari summoned Johnson again, this time back to the bench.

It was good he did, because Lee was about to author one of the most improbable stories of an NCAA Tournament full of them. Well, improbable to everyone except Calipari maybe.

His put-back dunk was the first of three such plays. By the time Calipari did finally bring Lee back to the bench, he had six points and three rebounds in just three minutes, helping UK withstand a first-half barrage by Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.

"I was just trying to do my part to help my team win," Lee said. "And throughout our practices and our shootarounds, I just got more confident because my team got more confident in me."

His confidence only grew as he produced.

Lee was on the floor as UK stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes of the half, slamming down another tip dunk to cap an 8-0 run. Forty-one seconds later, he drove from the free-throw line and hit a right-handed layup.

It was a play that reminded everyone watching that Lee was a UK's seventh McDonald's All-American in Coach Cal's top-ranked 2013 class, including the Wolverines.

"We had very little on him (on the scouting report)," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays way above the rim."

His teammates needed no such reminder of that, even as Lee went from scouting report afterthought to trending nationwide on Twitter during that remarkable first half.

"What he did kept us in the game, won us the game," Julius Randle said. "That's what we need from him. We knew he was capable of it all season. We had Willie and Dakari playing out of their mind all season but we knew he was capable of it."

More aware of the bouncy Lee, the Wolverines paid him more attention after halftime. Lee didn't score as UK came out on top after a back-and-forth final 20 minutes on Aaron Harrison's game-winning 3, but he was still effective in six minutes of playing time.

For the game, Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks. His performance earned him a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team alongside Randle, the Most Outstanding Player, and the ever-clutch Aaron Harrison.

"It is pretty crazy, but he really stepped up," said Johnson, who told reporters on Saturday the Cats would need Lee to play well. "He got his opportunity. You know, Willie was out and he more than stepped up big time. He was a difference-maker in the game. Without him I don't think we would have won today."

That's probably the first time in Lee's short college career that could be said.

Lee exploded for 17 points in his UK debut, but in a game against UNC Asheville that was never in doubt. When he did get his opportunities, Lee would flash athleticism but make maddening mistakes that made it impossible for Coach Cal to play the Antioch, Calif., native over Cauley-Stein or Johnson.

He understood why he wasn't seeing more time, but he couldn't help but let frustration creep in.

"Just as a competitor you have it going through your head sometimes," Lee said. "But when you're with your team and you're with your family, it kind of just goes right past you."

Nevertheless, there would be times when Lee would have lapses in practice and daydream.

"I mean, when you have really long practices you have to take some time to yourself for a second," Lee said, smiling. "But, yeah, you gotta get the foot in your butt to tell you to come back to earth."

He didn't need any kicks in the butt on Saturday knowing an opportunity might be coming. Once it did, all Lee did was carry a solid day of practice forward.

"I just tried to play the same way I played in practice," Lee said. "I treated every game like me going through practice. Coach always told me to be ready so that's what I tried to do."

With Cauley-Stein -- wearing a protective boot and using crutches on Sunday -- uncertain for next weekend's national semifinal against Wisconsin, Lee will need to be ready again.

"Marcus Lee, again," said Johnson, asked how the Cats will cope without Cauley-Stein. "He'll get another opportunity and he more than handled this opportunity. So I have no doubt he's going to play well again."

For now, Lee's just going to enjoy having the entire world talk about him. That, and the pride of the coach who believed in him more than he believed in himself.

"Proud of you, kid," Calipari told Lee at UK's postgame press conference.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Andrew Harrison and Alex Poythress


Jon Hood and Dakari Johnson



'Great story' indeed: Cats headed to Final Four

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Aaron Harrison scored 14 points -- including the game-winning 3 with 2.6 seconds left -- in UK's Elite Eight win against Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 14 points -- including the game-winning 3 with 2.6 seconds left -- in UK's Elite Eight win against Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Nearly one month ago, on March 1 in Columbia, S.C., Aaron Harrison faced a horde of reporters in the bowels of South Carolina's arena and tried to make sense of Kentucky's inexplicable loss to the Southeastern Conference cellar-dwelling Gamecocks.

Confidently, surprisingly, he said of Kentucky's remaining season: "It's going to be a great story."

Few people could have believed him. Even his twin brother, Andrew, hardly did.

"I was like, 'Aaron, I hope so,' " Andrew Harrison said Sunday night, shaking his head at the mere thought of where this UK team was a month ago.

There's no need to hope anymore. The unthinkable of a month ago, it's happened.

Kentucky is headed back to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons after a heart-stopping 75-72 victory over Michigan in yet another classic befitting the Wildcats' wacky, mind-boggling season.

Fittingly, the guy who foretold the baffling turnaround punched the Wildcats' ticket to Dallas with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2.6 seconds left to break the tie and win the game.

"Andrew gave me a hand-off and I kind of fumbled it," Aaron Harrison said. "I had to get control of the ball back and I tried to create some space. He was up on me. He touched my hand a little bit, actually. And the shot just fell."

It fell as if it was fate, as if this team is destined for something special. With the way things have gone lately - the Cats winning four straight games in the NCAA Tournament after losing three of four a month ago and falling from preseason No. 1 to out of the polls altogether -- it sure feels like it.

"I wouldn't say that 'I told you so' or anything, but ... we knew what kind of team we could be," Aaron Harrison said.

It's become the team everyone thought it could be at the beginning of the season when the unprecedented collection of talent and McDonald's All-Americans was talked about potentially going 40-0; the one everyone forgot about when it struggled to 10 regular-season losses; and now, it's a leading contender to cut down the nets in Dallas next weekend.

The Cats (28-10) are just two wins away from their ninth national championship. The next roadblock is on Saturday against Wisconsin.

"We showed a lot of toughness," Aaron Harrison said. "We're just a group of young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore, we just try to go out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game."

Aaron Harrison saved his hardest swings for the clutch.

After going scoreless for nearly 32 minutes of game time, Aaron Harrison hit four field goals - all 3-pointers - in the final 8:06 of the game, saving his best for last after Michigan's Jordan Morgan had tied it on a tip-in with 27 seconds left.

John Calipari called timeout - which he normally doesn't do so the other team can't set up defensively - and drew up a play for the hot hand. The plan didn't call for Aaron Harrison to take a 3, especially one of that distance, but it didn't matter; he made it anyways.

"You can't be afraid to miss," Coach Cal said. "He's not afraid to miss."

"It was like a rainbow shot, one of those that takes like five seconds to drop," said Alex Poythress, who scored eight big points. "Once it finally went in, I probably jumped five feet in the air. I was just happy."

When Nik Stauskas' last-second heave from half court met only the backboard, pandemonium broke out on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium. UK was headed to its 16th Final Four in school history.

"We don't know if it was another classic kind of game, but I'll tell you this: They weren't going to go away and neither were we," Calipari said.

This one, the third straight unforgettable NCAA Tournament game the Cats have played in, featured seven ties and three lead changes. That almost looked like it would never happen when Stauskas and Michigan raced out to a 10-point first-half lead.

Burying 3-pointers and capitalizing on second-chance opportunities, the Wolverines took a 32-22 lead with 5:10 left in the first half. But Kentucky, as it has done in the last three games of this tournament when it's trailed by nine, 13 and 10 points, respectively, refused to go down.

"They played better when they're down and I don't know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. They have a will to win."

The fearless savior was Marcus Lee. Yes, Marcus Lee.

Getting major minutes because of the loss of Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee not only played well, he kept UK in the game. The freshman forward who had scored just nine points in all of 2014 and none since Feb. 22 scored 10 points on Sunday - four of them on tip-in dunks - grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot in the first half alone.

Coach Cal, apparently, knew he had it in him all along. Two days earlier, he told Lee that "everyone in the world would be talking about you" after the game.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Lee said. "Knowing us, none of us believed him."

It appears nothing is unbelievable on this dream run.

After Lee steadied the ship and Julius Randle tied the game just before halftime, UK rode Randle to six quick points to start the second half and a brief 45-39 lead.

Carolyn Kyles, Randle's mother, saw her son take over, but she didn't get a chance to see him finish off his 24th double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds) and his most gratifying moment as a basketball player. According to the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker, she had to leave with 11 minutes to play to catch a flight for work the next day in Dallas.

"I looked up and she wasn't there," Randle said.

He will see her next week when he goes back home to play in his hometown in Dallas.

"I'm coming home to my mom," Randle said.

Michigan came back and took the lead on a 16-6 run, but that's when Aaron Harrison got going. His first trey with 8:06 left gave UK a 58-55 advantage, a lead it would hold on until Michigan tied it at 70.

That set the stage for the final shot and just the latest stamp on UK' reclamation project. Sure, these Cats didn't understand what it took to win for much of the season, but they've learned, come together and now knocked off three of the four teams that were in last year's Final Four.

"It's just a great feeling," Aaron Harrison said. "We've been through so much and been doubted so much that we just came together at the end of the season, just got better, and I don't know how many teams are mentally strong enough to do something like that. We proved a lot to the world - even to ourselves."

They've proved everybody right and everybody wrong at the same time. This team is as talented and as scary as everyone thought it was in the preseason, but it took adversity, it took criticism and it took a bunch of young guys growing up to finally put it together.

"Never give up," Randle said. "The biggest thing is we know we have hard-nosed guys, tough guys. Everybody stayed the course, never wavered."

Now they don't want it to end. They've written their unbelievably great story. Why not make it legendary?

"We're still not satisfied," Poythress said. "We still got things to prove. We still got two games to prove. We're trying to leave on top."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Highlights vs. Michigan

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John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- As NCAA Tournament paths go, it gets no more difficult than Kentucky's.

It began with a slug-it-out battle with ninth-seeded Kansas State. To follow, the Wildcats would have to beat No. 1 Wichita State, the first team to ever enter the tournament 34-0. Next, defending national champion and scorching hot Louisville, the four seed in the Midwest Region.

UK has to be rewarded with a reprieve after handling three games that challenging, right?

Wrong.

The Cats' final obstacle on their improbable quest for the Final Four is Michigan, only last year's national runner-up and a team that came within a Big Ten Tournament championship game win of a likely No. 1 seed.

If that all sounds tough, that's because it is.

For a little perspective, last year's Wichita State team faced the most difficult path to the Final Four in the history of kenpom.com's advanced statistical ratings. That year, the Shockers got past Pittsburgh (No. 11 in kenpom.com's final rankings), Gonzaga (No. 5), La Salle (No. 51) and Ohio State (No. 7) to reach the national semifinals. The average ranking of the four teams was 18.5.

This season, UK has already topped No. 43 Kansas State, No. 5 Wichita State and No. 3 Louisville. Now, No. 9 Michigan looms, meaning the average ranking of the opponents the Cats will have beaten to reach the Final Four will be 15.

So, what makes the Wolverines such a test? Let's use kenpom.com's stats to explore how UK and Michigan match up.

When Kentucky is on offense


In a bit of good news for UK fans, Michigan has the lowest-ranked defense of any UK opponent thus far in the tournament. The Wolverines allow 1.03 points per possession and rank 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency, worst of any team still alive.

Michigan, however, is not without strengths on defense. A hallmark of John Beilein-coached teams, the Wolverines avoid fouls and keep opponents off the free-throw line about as well as any team. They are third in the nation in defensive free-throw rate, meaning the Cats will be hard-pressed to find their way to the charity stripe as often as they're accustomed to.

UK will need to make up for that by capitalizing on Michigan's average effective field-goal percentage defense (144th) and defensive-rebounding percentage (100th). The Cats, particularly after the way they protected the ball against pesky Louisville, don't figure to commit many turnovers either against a Wolverine defense that ranks 249th in that category.

It's also worth pointing out that Michigan excels defending the 3-point shot, allowing opponents to make just 31.2 percent of their attempts on the season. If the Cats fall in love with the outside shot the way they did in the early going against U of L, it could spell trouble. They will be better served attacking the paint, as Michigan allows 50.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and blocks just 6.4 percent of opponents' attempts (305th nationally).

The numbers, in John Calipari's eyes, don't say everything though.

"They're better than you think defensively," Calipari said. "They cover elbows and blocks. They're going to play that 1-3-1 (zone).  They're going to throw some stuff at us."

When Kentucky is on defense

Offense -- and shooting in particular -- is what makes Michigan elite.

The Wolverines offense is ranked second in efficiency behind their effective field-goal percentage of .558, seventh nationally. Michigan is particularly lethal from 3-point range, shooting 40.2 percent (fourth in the NCAA). Four Wolverines -- Nik Stauskas, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Carls LeVert -- shoot at least 41 percent and have hit at least 42 3s on the season.

UK will rely on its length and athleticism to contest those outside, as the Cats have done throughout the season. Kentucky opponents are shooting 31.8 percent from 3 on the season.

"You found out in that game (against Tennessee), if you give them 3s, they're making them," John Calipari said. "So your hope is to make them tough 3s. They may make them anyway. So somebody said, What can you do? I said, 'Dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing.' I don't know. But they're going to shoot them anyway."

Michigan is also exceptional in protecting the basketball, so don't expect UK to create many extra possessions with turnovers. The Wolverines are 18th in turnover rate, while the Cats are 300th in defensive turnover rate.

UK, however, can make up for that by closing out stops by grabbing defensive rebounds. Michigan is 259th in offensive-rebounding rate, more often opting to get back in transition rather than attack the glass.

Bottom line

Barring on off-night, UK should be able to score regularly against the Wolverines on the strength of athleticism and offensive rebounding. Tennessee certainly was on Friday night, piling up 1.18 points per possession.

The question, however, will be whether the Cats can guard well enough in a game likely to be played primarily in the half court. Michigan is 333rd nationally in adjusted tempo and hasn't played a game of more than 60 possessions in the NCAA Tournament. UK has also been content to grind it out in March, averaging just 61.2 total possessions over its last five games.

Ultimately, by the quick-turnaround nature of the Elite Eight, it'll be about which team executes the things it wants to more effectively.

"You have to understand, I've got 16 hours to get these guys ready," Calipari said. "The good news is well, he had about 19 hours. So you don't have the time to go and say here's the 12 things they're going to do and defensively here's what they're going to do, you just don't have time.

"It's going to be our best, hopefully, against their best and see who comes out on top.  Neither one of us are going to change much. They play how we do, we play how we do."

(National rankings in parentheses)

 

UK

Michigan

Scoring offense

75.4 (60)

74.0 (81)

Scoring defense

66.5 (77)

64.8 (49)

FG percentage

45.1 (127)

47.7 (21)

FG percentage defense

40.8 (47)

44.2 (201)

3-point percentage

32.6 (237)

40.2 (4)

3-point percentage defense

31.8 (53)

31.2 (36)

FT percentage

68.6 (214)

76.2 (8)

Rebound margin

+9.8 (2)

+0.6 (178)

Steals per game

4.8 (307)

5.2 (271)

Blocks per game

6.1 (10)

2.4 (299)

Assists per game

11.3 (265)

14.3 (63)

Turnover margin

-1.4(271)

+1.4 (1)

kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank

13

2

Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank

27

99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 










   


Stat leaders

 

UK

Michigan

Points per game

Julius Randle (15.1)

Nik Stauskas (17.3)

Rebounds per game

Julius Randle (10.7)

Jordan Morgan (5.0)

Field-goal percentage

Willie Cauley-Stein (59.6)

Jordan Morgan (69.4)

3-point percentage

Andrew Harrison (35.6)

Nik Stauskas (44.8)

Free-throw percentage

Aaron Harrison (79.8)

Nik Stauskas (81.9)

Assists per game

Andrew Harrison (3.9)

Nik Stauskas (3.3)

Blocks per game

Willie Cauley-Stein (2.9)

Jon Horford (0.7)

Steals per game

Willie Cauely-Stein (1.2)

Chris LeVert (1.2)


To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The streak of juicy storylines in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run continues heading into the Wildcats' Elite Eight matchup with Michigan.

First it was the team (UK) that talked about going undefeated against the one (the Wichita State Shockers) that actually made it happen in the regular season. Then, in the Sweet 16, it was all about the in-state rivalry of two storied programs, the Battle of the Bluegrass and veterans vs. rookies.

Now, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the UK-Michigan Elite Eight matchup presents a fitting storyline for a Kentucky group that, as recently as a month ago, looked too young and too inexperienced to do any damage in March.

Michigan, of course, is where the legendary Fab Five played. Heading into the 2013-14 season, UK was compared to that exciting Michigan bunch because of its six freshmen McDonald's All-Americans. That 1991-92 Michigan team had four.

As the year has worn on, the similarities have eerily grown, starting with the disappointment of the regular season.

Michigan, at one point, was just 17-8 and didn't win more than five in a row in the regular season, but the Wolverines came alive during tournament time. The Fab Five, which consisted of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, rallied their way to to the title game where they came up short against the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils, 71-51.

James Young, who calls Michigan home, grew up with Fab Five talk.

"It's amazing what they did," Young said.

UK ended its regular season 21-9, but like Michigan, has come on late, winning six of its last seven in the postseason. Like Michigan did 22 years ago, the Cats have banked on five freshmen starters to push them through games down the stretch of the season.

Facing the school where the Fab Five made their name, the freshmen Wildcats, none of whom were alive when the Fab Five played, naturally were asked on Saturday about the similarities.

"We don't pay much attention to that," Dakari Johnson said. "We just play each game and take one game at a time and just focus on winning ball games."

Michigan head coach John Beilein said he didn't even know Kentucky started five freshmen until Saturday when he looked at the roster.

"The first time I knew that," he said. "I really don't pay attention to that. You're asking the wrong guy. If you ask me about Michigan, I'll tell you about Michigan. I don't know what other people are doing until we play them. That's when I find things out. But I understand that's a media (thing). Freshmen playing is such an interesting fact that people make so much of it, and I get it. I get it. But my goodness, there's so many freshmen out there (in college basketball)."

For now, the comparisons between the Kentucky five and the Fab Five are eerily similar, but there is one key difference: UK's full story has yet to be written.

The balance between fun and accountability

One of Kentucky's focuses for pushing through the postseason is to have fun and enjoy the ride.

The regular season, which was bogged down by criticism for a failure to meet preseason hype, was not necessarily fun for the team. Now that UK is on a hot streak, some stress has been lifted and the players are enjoying themselves.

"We started to have a lot more fun," Andrew Harrison said. "Coach tells us whoever has more fun usually wins. That's what we just try to do. We just try to play together."

As the Cats have had more fun and won more games, John Calipari has been able to back off his team a little bit. Coach Cal cautioned reporters from making the assumption that it's been the other way around.

"Somebody will say, 'Well, he's been nicer. That's why (we're playing better),' " Calipari said. "How nice was I, Julius (Randle), last night? Yeah. You want to ask Alex (Poythress) how nice I was?"

Calipari described a balance between having fun and holding kids responsible.

"I'm holding them accountable, but they're playing the way they need to play, so I don't have to do it that often," Coach Cal said.

Of course, after those answers, a couple of the Cats were asked what it's like to play for a coach like Calipari. Young started to answer that "he's always positive with" him, at which point Coach Cal interrupted and said, "I'm not always positive to you. Tell them the truth."

Laughing, Julius Randle stepped in and shared why he believes Cal's toughness and persistence is what's best for the team.

"He's tough on us, but it's the best thing for us," Randle said. "He's going to push us every day. You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day it's what's best for us. It's not just about basketball. I mean, what he's teaching us goes far beyond basketball. It's a lot of life lessons. So gotta take it in stride every day."

Cats grounded the plane just in time

Short on time, Calipari said he was pleased his team got it together late in the year before time ultimately ran out. The Cats, after an up-and-down season, have come together and played well when it's mattered most.

"I'm just happy we're playing better right now," Calipari said. "Because I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane. As a matter of fact, the nose of the plane was in grass. But we got down. That's all we were trying to do is land the plane. And if the runway was 25 games instead of 30 games, we probably went off the edge. Just happy for this team."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Linnae Harper scored 14 points off the bench in UK's Sweet 16 loss to Baylor. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Linnae Harper scored 14 points off the bench in UK's Sweet 16 loss to Baylor. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Tony Neely, UK Athletics

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Kentucky's season ended Saturday, as it does for all but one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with a defeat.
 
The Wildcats fought gamely but fell 90-72 against No. 5-ranked Baylor, which was the No. 2 seed in the Notre Dame Regional and moves on to the Elite Eight.
 
It was a rematch of the epic 133-130 four-overtime classic that Kentucky won back in December.  And although this outcome didn't turn out the same way today, the Wildcats can be no less proud of their effort, or their season.
 
"I'm really proud of the players for the season that we had," coach Matthew Mitchell said.  "We had some heavy expectations on us (before the season) and things started going in a way (in mid-season) that we didn't feel like we were going to meet any of those.
 
"They were able to get it back together, so we learned a lot, experienced a lot. We became very close as a team this year. I built some great relationships that we wouldn't have done any other way if we hadn't had that adversity, so I'm really proud of them, they had a lot of great moments.  I think we'll look back on this season as being very significant in the development of our program."
 
Kentucky completed the campaign with a 26-9 worksheet, setting numerous accomplishments not just for this season but over the careers of seniors Kastine Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Bernisha Pinkett.

  • This year extended UK's school-record streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
  • The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth time among those five tourney appearances.
  • UK has charted at least 25 wins the last five seasons, another school record.
  • This year contained five wins over Top-10 ranked opponents -- Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road, South Carolina and Baylor at neutral sites and Louisville at home. 
 
"We've been underdogs for so many years and we've always been able to come together as a team and prove people wrong," Stallworth said. "I'm sure many people thought we wouldn't be in this position with the way we started the SEC but we're just proud of ourselves and what we accomplished during the year."
 
The second edition of the Baylor contest turned out to be a game of frustration for the Wildcats. It began well enough; UK got an early lead and forced a flurry of missed shots on the defensive end - including six straight misfires by All-American Odyssey Sims - but that is where the trouble began.
 
The taller Bears grabbed rebound after rebound, controlling 10 of the first 11 boards of the game, and began cashing in on the second chances.  Problems compounded on the offensive end as the Wildcats earned good opportunities but saw four layups crawl around the rim and fall off. Baylor capitalized with a 16-2 run and led 20-7.
 
To their credit, the Cats didn't panic and started scratching out of the hole. Makayla Epps began scoring on drives to the hoop. DeNesha Stallworth tallied post-up baskets. Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill got to the free-throw line, and when O'Neill canned a couple of freebies with 4:31 remaining, the Cats had pulled within 32-28.
 
Then, the decisive time came. Sparked by a suddenly hot Sims, Baylor closed the first half with a 17-4 spurt, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-32 halftime score. 
 
Kentucky battled just as gamely in the second half and got within 12 points on four occasions but could get no closer.
 
An analysis of the game shows that Baylor's height advantage was simply too much. The Bears outrebounded the Cats, collected 20 second-chance points on offensive rebounds and totaled 50 points in the paint. Sims, who came in averaging 28.5 points per game, was held below her average but still showed why she is one of the nation's best with 25 points.
 
The Wildcats were led by Stallworth, who totaled 19 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Linnae Harper sparked UK's second-half rallies and finished with 14. As noted above, Goss got to the foul line and made 9 of 10 en route to 13 points.
 
The ending, however, shouldn't overshadow what was another outstanding season for Kentucky. In addition to the 26 wins, the hallmark of this team was who they were and what they overcame.
 
This group truly came together as a team. Eleven players saw action on a regular basis. And even though UK had one of the nation's top scoring units with more than 81 points per game, no one averaged more than 13. UK shared the ball, shared the defense and shared the responsibility when adversity hit.
 
As Mitchell alluded to, the Wildcat ship endured some rough sailing early in the SEC schedule. The Cats were 5-5 in league play with the toughest part of the schedule straight ahead. But Captain Mitchell and his players came together to right the ship, grab some memorable wins down the stretch, reach the finals of the SEC Tournament and go to yet another NCAA Sweet 16.
 
"I want to thank our players for battling through some tough circumstances and doing a good job this year," said Mitchell, who once again showed his respect for his seniors.
 
"Bernisha had a lot of great moments on the court but I'm more proud of her for getting her college degree. She comes from a neighborhood where only two percent of kids even try college and less than one percent ever finish college. She is a success story just by walking across that (graduation) stage," Mitchell said. "Kastine, you want your child to be like her, she's just such a wonderful young woman.
 
"Samarie and DeNesha really gifted us with their presence, transferring here and helping elevate the program. Hopefully they benefited from it, too. A class group of seniors, really proud and feel blessed by God that I got to coach them."
 
And although their seasons end like almost everyone else's, the seniors can hold their head high when they think of what they've done at Kentucky.
 
"I'm very proud of the team, proud of the coaches and myself as well," Walker said. "I think we've come a long way from when I was being recruited by UK in high school, just seeing how the program has changed and knowing I've had an impact on that really makes me happy."
 
Evans also was able to look past today's disappointment and take the long-range view.
 
"My class (committed to Kentucky in Nov. 2009) before that first team with Amber Smith, Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin went to the Elite Eight (in 2010), so we came in wanting to make a change," Evans said. "A lot of credit goes to our class, although we're still up and coming and still have a lot more to do as a program, I think we have put our face out there and start having Kentucky be recognized."

John Calipari and the Wildcats talk to reporters about their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari and the Wildcats talk to reporters about their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Ironic as it may seem, in the moment of the games and in the aftermath of two classics, the Kentucky Wildcats have little appreciation for the types of victories they've been a part of in the last week.

"We all talked about it on the bus after, that everybody says that game was the best game ever played and this game was also a classic, and we're like, we're so tired, we don't know," John Calipari said. "We have no idea if it was a good game, bad game - we just know we won."

Proud owners of the NCAA Tournament's two most impressive victories - wins over top-seeded and previously undefeated Wichita State, followed by a comeback over defending national champion Louisville - Kentucky (27-10) has erased the disappointment of the regular season and rewritten how this team will be remembered no matter what happens going forward.

But now that the Cats have made it this far, why stop here? If they've gone through all this trouble, why not finish it off right?

That was the mindset of Andrew Harrison on Saturday barely 12 hours removed from his team's resilient victory over its archrival in the Sweet 16. He said he was too tired to begin with to even bask in Friday's win, but he also paid little attention to the celebration pictures in Lexington with second-seeded Michigan (28-8) on the horizon.

"It's hard (to move on) because we're a young team," Andrew Harrison said. "After a game like that you just feel so relieved. But now I think it's bigger than that. It's bigger than any individual. No one thought we would be here right now, so that just wants us to keep on fighting."

Given little shot to reach Dallas when the field was set two weeks ago, UK finds itself just a victory away from its third Final Four in four seasons after navigating a mine field that's been the toughest, seed wise, of any team still dancing.

The Cats are close enough to the Final Four to taste it, but they say they're not content with the magical ride they've already enjoyed.

"The only thing I can really focus on right now is Michigan," Andrew Harrison said. "I know they're a great team. A lot of people didn't even have us being here or losing to Wichita or Kansas State or whatever, but we just have to focus on Michigan right now."

John Calipari conceded contentment is on his list of concerns after two emotional victories.

"There's a chance for a letdown because the last two games we played were just like slugfests," he said. "But I don't think it will be based on you just played Louisville, now you're going to let your guard down. I don't think so."

Kentucky can ill-afford to lets its guard down against a Michigan team that is among the best in the country.

The Wolverines, last year's national runners-up, didn't just win the Big 10, a conference some regard as the best in the country, they won it by a three-game margin. Had they won their league tournament, which they lost in the Big Ten title game, the NCAA Selection Committee said they - not Virginia - would have ended up with the fourth No. 1 seed.

Michigan nearly did it, remarkably, without its best low-post player, Mitch McGary, who was lost for the season after just eight games due to back surgery.

"We had a plan in place because his injury happened early enough in late August, early September, that we virtually did all of our individuals without him," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "We had a month of practice in October without him. So we had that in place. When he came back, you know, then we started to work the other plan that we had over the summer. Then he went down again and we went back to plan A. So it was a fairly seamless change back to the original plan that we started in December."

The plan included making a whole lot of 3s - Michigan ranks fourth in the country in 3-point field-goal percentage and sixth in 3-point field goals made - and the best player you've probably never heard of, Nik Stauskas.

Combined, the two have been a pretty formidable force in the second half of the season where Michigan has won 10 of its last 11 games 22 of 26.

"If you give them 3s, they're making them," Calipari said. "So your hope is to make them tough 3s. They may make then anyway."

How to stop those Michigan treys?

"Dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing," Coach Cal joked.

All jokes aside, a little good fortune may be the only way to slow down Stauskas, who scored 14 points in Michigan's nail-biter against Tennessee and has hit 90 3-pointers on the season at a 44.8-percent clip.

"You could say we're going to try to not let him shoot any balls, (but) he's going to get off 3s," Calipari said. "They're going to dribble at and run him off backdoor (screens) and he's going to get a lot of handoffs. You can't say he's a hard-right driver (because) he'll go either way.

"But you do know if you lose him in transition, if you lose him in penetration and he's open, don't even try to rebound it. Just run back. ... He's that good."

Kentucky's size on the perimeter could present challenges for Stauskas, but at 6-foot-6, he's had little trouble shooting over his smaller counterparts this year. UK will have little time to game plan for him with less than 24 hours until tip.

"I've got 16 hours to get to get these guys ready," Calipari said. "The good news is, well, (Beilein) had about 19 hours. So you don't have the time to go and say there's 12 things they're going to do. ... You just don't have time.

"It's going to be our best, hopefully, against their best and see who comes out on top."

If both are at their best, fans could be in for another classic. Judging by the recent swing of things, that bodes well for Kentucky in its quest to reach the Final Four.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: All-access for UK's win over Louisville

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Andrew Harrison shares a moment with John Calipari during UK's upset of Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison shares a moment with John Calipari during UK's upset of Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - If Andrew Harrison had to do this season all over again, he wouldn't change a thing.

Instead of fulfilling preseason expectations and flirting with 40-0, he would choose the losses and realization that he and his team failed to reach such dreams. Rather than live up to the experts' billing that he was the top point guard in the class and the next great John Calipari guard, Andrew Harrison would opt for the criticism was slung his way when UK's season headed south.

He wouldn't change a thing because it's defined who he is and how he's playing in the NCAA Tournament. And how he's playing right now is, in the words of Charles Barkley, like the best point guard in the country.

"Every freshman that's highly recruited and stuff, they think they're going to come in here, play out a year and it's all going to be fun, but it wasn't like that and I'm kind of happy it wasn't," Andrew Harrison said Saturday. "There's some bumps in the road and we got through it."

Nobody has gotten through as many as Andrew Harrison.

The punching bag -- alongside his twin brother -- for UK's 10 losses in the regular season, Andrew Harrison has been hit with just about every damning description an 18-year-old should never have to hear. By both fans and the media, he's been described as selfish, unresponsive to coaching and an incapable leader.

Those weren't the adjectives that accompanied his name when he signed with UK as the No. 5 overall player in the 2013 class. A player whose defining attribute was being a winner, he was suddenly labeled a loser by some.

"We have 18-, 19-year-olds that were counted and ridiculed and crushed," Calipari said. "Can't play, not any good, bad guys."

The low points for Andrew Harrison, he said, were the loss at home to Arkansas followed by the shocking upset at South Carolina. At that point, when UK was suddenly in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether, Andrew Harrison questioned himself.

"Of course (I did)," Andrew Harrison said. "In those situations people are disappointed. You have to go back and realize who you're playing for: yourself and your parents and stuff like that. You have to get in the gym and regain that confidence."

Two things changed everything for Andrew Harrison.

One was a more simplified game plan from his head coach. The other was a timely visit from his father, Aaron Harrison Sr., who told him his family was financially secure and that he didn't need to worry about leaving college after a year.  

"That kind of lifted some weight off my shoulders," Andrew Harrison said. "He just told me don't worry about what happens next year. Just worry about the next practice and the next time you get on the floor. So that's what I did and it was kind of relieving."

Relieved of the expectations and free to just play, Andrew Harrison has been at the center of UK's unforeseen and damn-near miraculous turnaround.

Over six postseason games, Andrew Harrison's scoring (12.3 points per game), assists (5.7) and shooting percentage (.422) are all up. More importantly, he's transformed into the leader of the team and the face of UK's uncanny resiliency.

"He's doing a great job leading us," Julius Randle said. "When things get tough, he's picking us up."

Where bad body language once surfaced when adversity would hit, a steely resolve has now replaced it.

"He understands the grind better, how you have to work," Calipari said. "He understands the effect he has on his team more than ever; that he's got to be more focused on his teammates than himself."

Without the criticism he faced earlier in the season, Andrew Harrison said he would have never developed that ability to bounce back when things go wrong.

"I feel like it shows who you are as a man, really," he said. "You just have to fight through it. It's just some adversity, some I had never experienced before on the basketball court. I think it just made me tougher."

Because in order to lead a team like the one Andrew Harrison was tasked with guiding, you need to have the training to do it. Before you can navigate a group through a war like the NCAA Tournament, you have to go through the battles.

Andrew Harrison had never been through those before, and yet it was up to him to lead the preseason No. 1 team in the country from the start.

He didn't arrive on campus until August, a few months after most of his teammates, but everyone just assumed that Andrew Harrison would take the keys to the car and drive the Maserati right to the promised land. They forgot that other than John Wall, it took Calipari's other heralded point guards like Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague time to develop.

"What people don't understand, people think, 'Oh, you're the point guard, you're going to become the leader.' But at the same time, you have to earn it," Andrew Harrison said. "You have to do something to earn your teammates' respect whether it's stand up to somebody or speak up for them."

Andrew Harrison said there hasn't been a singular moment when he's done that. Rather, it's been a series of smaller ones.

When the team has been tired, he's taken it upon himself to show toughness. When his teammates haven't felt like practicing, he's been the first one to the gym. When there were no answers for why things weren't going well as recently as a month ago, Andrew Harrison spoke up.

"I think you have to gain their respect, and I think I did that," Andrew Harrison said.

To gain their respect, he's had to go through a lot, but that's exactly why he's transformed into the player he now is and why UK is just a victory away from the Final Four.

"This is for him - and really all these guys - where they've come from, where they were and where they've come, it's incredible," Calipari said. "Incredible story."

 
Dakari Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- There Dakari Johnson was, the No. 9 overall player in his class, relegated to a reserve role as his fellow freshmen started and starred.

Naturally, it got to him.

"It was tough at first, just not getting the minutes early in the season," Johnson said.

Johnson had his moments in November and December -- including a 10-point, seven-rebound performance against Eastern Michigan -- but just as often would be a nonfactor, albeit a very large one.

Accustomed to being a featured post-up presence on high-school teams that hardly lost, the normally jovial Johnson found himself sulking. Now that he's started six straight postseason games as Kentucky (27-10) has raced into an Elite Eight matchup with second-seeded Michigan (28-8), Johnson has come to realize that was only on him.

"You can kind of call it selfishness," Johnson said. "I wasn't happy not getting the ball and stuff like that and not really paying attention on what I needed to be doing, which was defending and rebounding and just letting the offense come to me."

It was right after UK's short break for Christmas that Johnson came to understand that. In the days before the Wildcats' regular-season showdown with Louisville, John Calipari summoned the 7-footer for a meeting, sensing Johnson's displeasure with his role.

"He just told me all the things I needed to do to increase my play and just listen to him," Johnson said. "Just focus on defending and rebounding and everything else will come."

It took some time, but now it's coming in a big way.

After playing single-digit minutes nine times before Jan. 18, Johnson has started all but six games since, including his best game as a collegian in the Sweet 16 against Louisville. In UK's remarkable comeback win, Johnson had a career-high-tying 15 points and six rebounds, capitalizing on the size advantage he had over the Cardinals and even showing off the open-floor ability he's developed as his conditioning has improved.

"You know, I just played hard for my team," Johnson said on Friday night. "I just tried to get on the offensive rebounding and just tried to make some good post moves just to capitalize for us."

No one was happier to see that than Julius Randle, who was Johnson's roommate when the two arrived in Lexington over the summer.

Randle, like Johnson, dealt with frustration early in the season. Losses piled up at a much faster rate than anyone expected for the nation's preseason No. 1 team. Randle had a hard enough time with that alone, which only strengthens his admiration for Johnson, who rode the bench for many of those early defeats.

"The biggest thing is at any given moment Dakari could have just let go of the rope," Randle said. "But all he did was work hard. He didn't complain and his hard work is showing up now."

Randle hopes that continues. And frankly, after Friday night, it's going to have to for UK's magical March Madness run to last into April.

Willie Cauley-Stein, the player with whom Johnson has split time at the five position, went down with a left ankle injury against Louisville. He hasn't been officially ruled out for Sunday's 5:05 p.m. tip-off, but Coach Cal termed the sophomore "doubtful."

Johnson, who played a career-high 31 minutes after Cauley-Stein left early in the first half against Louisville, isn't overcomplicating the task he'll be faced with in playing an expanded role.

Though he'll assume many of his minutes, Johnson can't afford to fall into the trap of trying to become Cauley-Stein. He's not going to develop Cauley-Stein's quick-twitch athleticism and shot-blocking ability overnight, so he may as well focus on what he does well.

"Just keep on doing what I'm doing, just bringing energy to the team," Johnson said. "Probably playing more minutes and sustaining that."

He was also sure to point out that fellow freshman Marcus Lee, who hasn't played double-digit minutes in a game since January, will need to be ready as well. Lee saw one minute of second-half action against Louisville.

Whether it's Johnson, Lee or Randle at the five in UK's "small" lineup, the Cats will have a size advantage on the Wolverines, who feature just one player in their regular rotation taller than 6-8.

But just as Johnson learned that his pedigree wasn't going to earn him anything on its own, so too will UK have to make that edge pay off on the floor.

"We have a size advantage but also Michigan's a very physical team," Johnson said. "So I really don't think that's a big factor for us. We just have to go out there and compete."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered a left ankle injury in Kentucky's 74-69 Sweet 16 victory over Louisville, is telling his team he's going to try to play vs. Michigan, but John Calipari said on Saturday his sophomore center is "doubtful" for the Wildcats' Elite Eight game.

"He's still in a boot. He's doubtful," Calipari said. "He's acting like he thinks he can do something. I would be stunned if he played in this game, but he's saying he may want to give it a try. But he hasn't been out of that boot."

Cauley-Stein left Friday's game at the 13:05 mark, though it's still unclear what exactly happened. The sophomore forward limped off the court and received treatment on the sidelines before hobbling back to the locker room.

He never returned to the game or the bench.

"It's not an Achilles," Calipari said. "It's an ankle. It's his ankle."

When Cauley-Stein's teammates saw him on the trainer's table during halftime and learned they would be without him for rest of the game, several of the Cats told him they were going to win it for him.

Calipari was told Cauley-Stein was going "bonkers" in the locker room rooting for his teammates, but it looks like he will be reduced to nothing but a cheerleader again on Sunday.

"Hopefully he's able to limp his way in there and give us a few minutes, but maybe he can't," Coach Cal said.

If Cauley-Stein can't play, UK will lose its best defender. Cauley-Stein led the team with 106 blocks in 37 games, and down the stretch he's been instrumental in UK's turnaround, swatting 18 shots in the previous five contests.

Without the lanky 7-footer, the Cats blocked just two shots on Friday, well below their 6.1 average.

"It changes a lot," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great defender, blocks a lot of shots, drives from the corners."

Dakari Johnson stepped up in Cauley-Stein's place, scoring a career-high-tying 15 points and grabbing six rebounds, but his role will become even more vital going forward.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in UK's 74-69 win over Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in UK's 74-69 win over Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

INDIANAPOLIS -- Few likely expected Dominique Hawkins to even see the floor in the Sweet 16, but a conversation with his coach on Friday had him prepared.

John Calipari pulled the freshman guard aside at UK's open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium, telling Hawkins -- who hadn't played more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8 -- he better be ready for the challenge of shadowing one of the nation's best players.

"He basically told me, 'You know who you're going to be guarding, right, if I put you in?' " Calipari said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I know Coach.' And he told me, 'Get ready for it if I call your name. That's who you're going to be guarding.' "

That who, of course, was Louisville's Russ Smith, the 6-foot senior All-American. And with 14:34 left in the first half, Hawkins got his shot.

Forgoing any thoughts of scoring -- Hawkins didn't attempt a single field goal or even register a statistic other than a foul -- he put Smith in his crosshairs.

"My focus was on my defense," Hawkins said. "I feel like that's the best part of my game and I know I'm guarding one of the best guards in college basketball right now. I was taking it real personal. If he scored on me and I was going to be upset about it and if I defended I was going to be happy and try to do it again."

Smith, as Smith does, did his share of scoring. He poured in 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting, but Hawkins made him work hard for the 15 minutes he was on the floor.

After James Young fouled out, Hawkins played the final 5:32. UK outscored U of L 17-5 during that stretch, overcoming a seven-point deficit to advance to the Elite Eight with a 74-69 win. Smith scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting over the final minutes, committing a crucial turnover to boot.

It was the first time Hawkins had played in crunch time in a win-or-go-home scenario since last March when he led Madison Central to the Kentucky state championship. With the Wildcats mounting their late rally, Hawkins says he called on that experience.

"You just gotta keep fighting and fighting," Hawkins said. "That's the only thing I know how to do. ... When I was in the Sweet 16, Kentucky state, I know that we were down a lot and we just kept fighting and fighting. The result will end in a win if you keep on doing that."

That's representative of the way Hawkins has approached his entire freshman season. Even as his playing time has dwindled, his mentality has remained the same. On Friday, that paid off.

"He was ready," Calipari said. "I just thought it was a better game for him than Jarrod (Polson). He's more of a pit bull. I thought he could play against those guys, and he did well."

Polson is the player who has taken Hawkins' spot in the rotation over the last two months and understands the challenged of staying tuned in when the minutes aren't coming. That's why he was so impressed by what Hawkins did on Smith.

"I can't say enough about Dominique," Polson said. "I feel like he's deserved a lot more time than he has gotten this year. But he's never complained once this whole year. For him to be able to step up and play like he did was huge for us. I'm just extremely happy for him."

That's a feeling many likely share in seeing the always-smiling Hawkins have success. Polson, however, isn't surprised as many others are that it happened on this stage.

"That's who he is," Polson said. "He's a really good defender and putting him on Russ Smith was really good for us tonight. He kind of got into him a little bit and that was good. I don't know, that's just Dominique for you. And he played well tonight."

Messy start

The way things started, the way the Wildcats settled for 3-pointers, clanked them and reverted to their old ways, one could have deduced that the progress of the last few weeks had vanished with one daunting game against their archrivals.

"Just so you know, before the game, our staff talked today and we knew how this would start," Calipari said. "They're going to pee down their leg is what I said. They will pee down their leg and let's just be positive and keep them going."

The Cats, who have found their shooting stroke late in the season, went to the well one too many times in the opening minutes of Friday's Sweet 16 game, taking five 3-pointers in the opening four minutes, missing all five.

UK's reliance on perimeter shots, coupled with Louisville's efficient start, put UK in an early 18-5 hole, but the Cats never panicked.

Calipari reminded his team what Tennessee did the game before in nearly coming back from a double-digit deficit and told his players they were fine.

They responded to their head coach as they did last week when they came back from a nine-point hole against Wichita State.

"With so much adversity we've been through all year, nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said. "So we knew we were going to get him and we'd have to swing back, and we did that."

Road to Final Four runs through last year's Final Four for Cats

For a team that lacked so-called quality wins in the regular season, Kentucky has captured the two most impressive wins of the NCAA Tournament at the halfway point.

By beating Wichita State and Louisville in back-to-back games, UK has eliminated the two highest-ranked teams that are no longer alive in the tournament. The Shockers and the Cardinals were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll coming into the Big Dance.

"I think we played a lot of tough games this year," Aaron Harrison said. "Having a tough schedule really helps us throughout this tournament because we've been through a lot and been through tough games."

But the road to the Final Four doesn't get any easier.

UK's game against Michigan on Sunday will mark the third straight matchup against a team that was in last year's Final Four. The Wolverines, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Region, were discussed as a potential No. 1 seed before losing in the Big 10 championship.

UK capitalizes on U of L's charity


UK has been criticized for leaving points at the foul line this year, but the Cats' ability to hit their free throws vs. Louisville not only kept them in the game early when the Cardinals threatened to pull away, it helped them ice the game late.

Kentucky hit 11 of 12 free throws over the final 7:23 and 22 of 27 (81.5 percent) for the game.

Conversely, U of L made just 13 of 23 at the charity stripe, keeping UK in the game in the first half when the Cards made just 6 of 15.

Over the last two games, Kentucky has made 38 of 49 at the line (77.6 percent).

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- After everything that had just happened, there was really only one question on anyone's mind.

Dakari Johnson was the man it was directed to.

"Dakari, how in the hell did you guys win this game?"

How, indeed.

UK had just completed an improbable rally from 13 points down in the first half and seven with less than five minutes to go to take defending national champion Louisville. The Wildcats did it without defensive anchor Willie Cauley-Stein, who exited with an ankle injury early, and with swingman James Young on the bench for the final minutes with five fouls.

After a hearty laugh, Johnson offered a simple reason why UK had just pulled off a 74-69 victory.

"Well, when we were down by seven Alex (Poythress) made a lot of key plays for us," Johnson said. "I think he played well down the stretch for us. I think he won the game for us."

It was Poythress's dunk that started the 15-3 run on which UK closed the game. Thirty seconds later, it was his block of a Louisville layup -- the kind of play Cauley-Stein would normally make -- that gave the ball back to the Cats.

"I think the block that he got was probably the biggest play, when he blocked Russ Smith," said Dominique Hawkins, who made more than his share of big plays in chasing U of L's dynamic senior guard.

Julius Randle would bring UK to within three with a bank shot in the post, setting Poythress up for another signature moment.

At the top of the key, Luke Hancock -- seemingly poised to close out another NCAA Tournament victory for the Cardinals -- came around a ball screen and Poythress switched onto him. Finding another level of focus as Hancock drove to the basket, Poythress stripped the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player and forced a turnover.

To finish off what was probably the best -- and undoubtedly the most important -- three-minute stretch of his UK career, Poythress corralled an offensive rebound, finished through contact and hit the ensuing free throw to tie the game at 66-all. Forty-five seconds later, he skied for a rebound, was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give UK its first lead since 2-0.

Prior to his outburst, to call Poythress's night quiet would have been too kind.  At that point, the sophomore forward was scoreless and had just two rebounds.

With Cauley-Stein in the locker room, John Calipari needed his other big men to step up. Johnson was, punishing the archrival Cardinals to the tune of 15 points and six rebounds, as was Randle, who posted his 23rd double-double.

To pull off a second upset in five days and advance to a fourth Elite Eight in five seasons, Poythress would have to follow suit. Coach Cal told him so on the sideline in no uncertain terms.

"He was crushing him pretty bad," Jarrod Polson said. "I just think it's 'cause he just knows how good Alex is."

Polson, who counts Poythress as one of his closest friends on the team, took it upon himself to take him aside to reinforce in slightly softer terms the message he knew Calipari was trying to send.

"I just was telling him to keep his head up," Polson said. "I was just telling him, 'You're one of the best players I've ever played with and keep your confidence.' "

With that combination of Calipari's prodding and Polson's cajoling, Poythress played like a man possessed.

"I was just trying to step up for my team," Poythress said. "The team needed me. They were telling me they needed me. I was just trying to step up for them."

He did, and Kentucky moved on because of it. Now, to take the next step past second-seeded Michigan and into the Final Four, the Cats will need him once more.

"We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time," Calipari said. "It was unbelievable how he finished. That's who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Cats win one for Willie

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Dakari Johnson, stepping in for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, had 15 points in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson, stepping in for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, had 15 points in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- With its best defensive player hobbling to the locker room and the team down 13 points, the Kentucky Wildcats had a choice on Friday night with their postseason lives on the line: retreat or win it for Willie.

Willie Cauley-Stein, the anchor of UK's defense, suffered a left ankle injury at the 13:05 mark of the Cats' Sweet 16 game vs. Louisville. It's unclear how Cauley-Stein injured his ankle, but after he limped off the court, down the tunnel and to the locker room on one foot, Cauley-Stein never returned to the game.

Instead of folding, the Wildcats (27-10)  rallied back. When they saw him on the trainer's table at halftime and learned he wouldn't be back, they decided to win one for him.

"We were pretty sure that he wasn't coming back at all," Jarrod Polson said. "We all shook his hand and were all kind of saying, 'We got this for you.' "

And win for him -- 74-69 over archrival U of L -- they did.

Throughout the second half, Kentucky played with a spark on both ends of the court, even without their leading shot blocker.

Offensively, Julius Randle's right-on-the-money assist to set up Aaron Harrison's 3 put the Cats in the lead 70-68 with 39 seconds remaining. Dominique Hawkins' smack talk and pit-bull like presence helped contain Russ Smith. Without Cauley-Stein's threat at the rim, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress stepped up, snagged some key rebounds, and in Poythress' case, blocked a huge shot.

"Just tried to imitate him," Poythress said on playing without Cauley-Stein. "It's hard to, with the great shot blocker he is. We just (had) people who could do it. Me, Julius, Marcus Lee off the bench doing it too. We just gotta try to win for him."

Back in the locker room, as his teammates came back without him, Cauley-Stein was his usual energetic self, Calipari said.

"The doctor told me he was absolutely going bonkers in the locker room for game, like for the team, cheering," Calipari said. "They had to hold him down. He was going crazy."

The extent of Cauley-Stein's injury is still unknown.

"It's not a good ankle injury," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way."

If the injury is as bad as Coach Cal feared in the early hours of Saturday, the Cats will need Dakari Johnson to rewind and replay his performance against the Louisville Cardinals.

Johnson scored a career-high-tying 15 points, two of which came from a monstrous dunk that won't soon be forgotten.

"We didn't really know he could do that," Andrew Harrison said. "But Dakari is a great low-post player. He's hard to guard. He played with a lot of energy."

Johnson, playing a career-high 31 minutes in Cauley-Stein's absence, also posted six boards and three steals.

Calipari was pleased with his ability to draw "and ones."

"Dakari played well today," Coach Cal said. "That 3-point play, that made free throw, that was huge. That just kept eating in their lead to where we could get it close."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


Andrew Harrison and James Young celebrate UK's 74-69 win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison and James Young celebrate UK's 74-69 win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - To hear Andrew Harrison tell it, the Kentucky Wildcats were comfortable when they were down 13 and without Willie Cauley-Stein, who was lost for the rest of the game with a left ankle injury.

They were comfortable when Luke Hancock hit back-to-back 3-pointers, James Young fouled out and momentum was swinging in Louisville's favor. They were comfortable down seven to the defending national champions with 4:33 left in the game.

Comfortable? Are you kidding?

Believe it, because these Kentucky Wildcats continue to do the unbelievable in the postseason.

Left for dead like they were so many times this season, the Cats (27-10) jolted back to life late in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup and somehow knocked off their archrivals with a shocking, almost impossible-to-fathom 74-69 victory over the Cardinals (31-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"Told them before the game, you'll get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood," John Calipari said. "You're going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing."

Even when the late-season turnaround seemed to finally be coming to an end.

"As much stuff as we've been through all year, it's nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said.

This was just the latest magic trick in a season that seemed destined for failure as recently as three weeks ago.

Trailing 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, the Cats, who had seemingly hung around all game without ever getting over the hump, went on a 15-3 run to close out the game. When Russ Smith missed a 3-pointer with just four seconds to go and Aaron Harrison followed with two game-clinching free throws, UK was headed back to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in five seasons under Coach Cal.

As the Cats jumped jubilantly at midcourt for the second straight game, one thing was crystal clear: The disappointment of the regular season is now a thing of the past. For all the expectations UK didn't meet in the regular season, it has exceeded them in the postseason and rewritten how this team will be remembered.

"In a way I think we have (rewritten our history)," Julius Randle said. "We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It's a new season, the postseason. That's all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we've gotta take it one game at a time."

The next game up will be a date with second-seeded Michigan on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. on CBS with a berth to the Final Four on the line.

As improbable as a trip back to Dallas appeared to be a month ago, UK is still in the hunt thanks to timely plays from Alex Poythress and steely resolve from the Harrison twins and Julius Randle.

Poythress, nothing short of a nonfactor for the first 35-plus minutes of the game, ignited the comeback when Andrew Harrison found him wide open on the baseline with a slick one-handed pass for a dunk.

On the very next possession, with Louisville's Smith looking to provide the dagger, Poythress seemingly came out of nowhere to block Smith's shot off the backboard. After Randle got UK within three on a jumper, Poythress manned up on Hancock, who had torched the Cats just minutes earlier, and forced a turnover.

"We were begging him the whole game to start playing and he played at the right time," Coach Cal said. "It was unbelievable how he finished."

After Randle missed a pair of shots inside, Poythress got the second offensive rebound in traffic, went back up against Montrezl Harrell and banked the shot in. The foul was the fourth on Harrell, U of L's best big man, and the ensuing free throw tied the game.

But he wasn't done yet.

After a turnover by Smith, Poythress got the ball again and knocked Harrell out of the game. He hit 1 of 2 free throws to give UK a 67-66 lead.

"He's the reason we won the game," Aaron Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison may have had a thing or two to do with it too.

Down by one after a Smith jumper, Calipari put the ball back in the hands of his best player, Randle, to deliver the knockout punch, and he delivered - with a pass.

Randle drove into the lane, spun into traffic and then kicked it out to Aaron Harrison in the corner. Like he has done so many times in the postseason, Aaron Harrison swished the 3, giving UK a 70-68 lead it would never relinquish.

"I was definitely looking to shoot but I saw Aaron just wide open in the corner," Randle said. "He's made that shot a million times. I didn't even really go to offensive rebound because I knew he was making it."

Said Calipari: "Three weeks ago he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket. Now, he's just playing the game as it comes. And that's what - they're playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time."

Wayne Blackshear missed 1 of 2 free throws with 14.2 seconds left, Randle sunk two more free throws to go back up by three and Smith missed a game-tying 3 in the closing seconds, sending a bunch of freshmen and sophomores who weren't supposed to have this type of resolve to the Elite Eight amid a week of unrelenting buildup and hype.

In the process, UK delivered Rick Pitino his first loss in 12 games in the Sweet 16 while improving Calipari's record to 6-1 vs. Louisville as Kentucky's head coach.

"It's just we got to keep fighting," Aaron Harrison said. "I think we've gotten that over the last three or four weeks. We've been down in the last couple of games and we knew we'd been through a lot this season and we knew we could get through anything if we got through what we did this season."

They even got through a devastating injury to their best defensive player, Cauley-Stein, who left the game with 13:05 left in the first half with an ankle injury. Calipari confirmed after the game that "it's not a good ankle injury," but that was obvious when Cauley-Stein limped back to the locker room with hardly any weight on his left foot.

UK could have folded, down 13 just seconds after the injury, but Dakari Johnson stepped up with a career-high-tying 15 points and six rebounds, Randle bullied his way to 15 points and 12 rebounds, and the Harrison twins combined for 29 points.

Kentucky shot just 43.6 percent overall and allowed U of L's three-headed monster of Smith, Harrell and Hancock to have their way offensively, but the Cardiac Cats, who don't seemed to be fazed by any type of adversity anymore after a roller-coaster regular season, never wilted.

They seem to like the taste of blood.

"This team has fought the whole year," Calipari said. "They're maturing right before our eyes."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Post-U of L player interviews

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Baylor rematch the next step on UK Hoops' path

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Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
When the bracket was unveiled, the matchup immediately stood out.

Kentucky and Baylor, back in December, slugged it out to the tune of four overtimes with the Wildcats coming out on top in a game that appeared at times might never end.

And there the two teams were in the Notre Dame Regional, poised to meet again in the Sweet 16.

"The committee has really just a tough, tough job to do, but you just have to believe they have a sense of humor too," Matthew Mitchell said on the night the field was revealed.

Selection Monday, however, was a long time ago.

To make the rematch happen, the third-seeded Cats (26-8) would need to advance past Wright State and Syracuse in hosting first- and second-round games for the first time in school history.

For their part, the second-seeded Lady Bears (31-4) would have to beat Western Kentucky University and California at home.

As fate would have it, UK and Baylor would take care of business, setting the stage for a reprisal of that thriller in Arlington, Texas. On the line for the Cats at noon on Saturday will be their third Elite Eight trip in as many seasons and fourth in five years.

"It will be a real, real test for our team," Mitchell said. "Baylor has a fantastic team and they've had a great season and we know from firsthand experience how tough they are and so we'll just have to continue to try and prepare well."

In that first matchup, both teams had every opportunity to pack it in during UK's 133-130 win that set an NCAA record for most points in a game.

The Cats could have given in as Baylor's Odyssey Sims hit shot after shot and scored 47 points. The Lady Bears could have yielded as Jennifer O'Neill went off for a career-high 43 and certainly when Sims fouled out late in the first overtime period. Neither would, of course, and a classic ensued.

Nearly four months later, the Cats wouldn't mind another back-and-forth battle. Four overtimes though? That's a different story.

"Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."

The length of the game isn't the only thing Mitchell would like to see change.

While viewers surely enjoyed the scoring and big shots of the first edition of UK-Baylor, Mitchell -- a coach with a sterling defensive reputation -- found himself trying to keep from covering his eyes when he broke out the film.

"When you go back and watch that game, it was a very exciting game to watch, but from a coaching standpoint, it wasn't fun to go back and watch the kind of defense we played," Mitchell said. "We just didn't have a very good defensive night at all."

Sims was the primary reason for that.

"She was terrific," Mitchell said.

Accordingly, Sims has come up often in practice this week.

"(Baylor) really gets the ball in Sims' hands a lot and she's just so explosive and so tough to guard," Mitchell said. "We really try to work hard on how we're going to defend her and then their overall offensive scheme and get as solid as we could. We did a lot of defensive work yesterday."

With a player like Sims, Mitchell said it is the responsibility of all five players on the floor to guard her. That's particularly true when it comes to drawing charges.

"We were able to get her out of the last game by drawing charges and I think you have to have the guts to stand in and take some hits from her because she's so aggressive going to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's really, really physical trying to get loose from denials and things like that so you have to stay strong and that call goes in your favor."

Four of Sims' five fouls against Kentucky were of the offensive variety.

But don't make the mistake of thinking Sims -- the nation's second-leading scorer at 28.5 points per game -- is a one-woman show. The Lady Bears proved otherwise the first time around.

"They have more than just her," Mitchell said. "They have a really good team with good players that made a lot of good plays in that game. One benefit of the game was you could really see their full complement of players because everybody had to get in that game because it was so long."

Much more is on the line this time though. Both teams have a goal of reaching the Final Four and this is the next step. In fact, Mitchell wants it to be the only step the Cats think about right now.

"Baylor will be a huge test, but what we tried to talk about (Wednesday) was getting our mind off the Final Four and getting our mind on Baylor because you can't go if you don't win Saturday," Mitchell said.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison speak to reporters at UK's pre-Sweet 16 press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew and Aaron Harrison speak to reporters at UK's pre-Sweet 16 press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

INDIANAPOLIS - Even if his team was billed as the top team in the country to start the year, and even if there were beliefs that his team could go undefeated, don't tell John Calipari that his 10-loss group failed to meet expectations.

"It wasn't disappointing," Coach Cal said.

But he didn't mind people talking about the disappointment when his players were struggling because "that's what they had to hear."

"They had to hear how bad they were as players, how selfish they were," he said. "(People said), 'They're not together. This isn't a team. You can't do this. This is what's wrong.' They had to deal with that."

Calipari seemed to hint that the criticism brought his team together, and after hitting rock bottom against South Carolina, it appears to be true.

"Instead of separating, they stuck together," Calipari said. "They kept believing in one another. They kept believing in the staff and wanted answers, how do we get this right and accepts answers. So I'm proud of them."

Coach Cal said the adversity has made his team stronger and one of the most dangerous teams left in the tournament.

"I told them, 'Of any team that's still standing, there's no one that's gone through what you have to be strong enough and have enough character when adversity hits,' " Calipari said. "Because every one of us still playing, there's going to be adversity hitting these games. It's can you hold on to the rope? Can you continue to move forward even though the fluff looks a little bleak? And I think this team's been through enough that they can do that."

Randle looking forward to playing full game vs. U of L

The way the Kentucky Wildcats played without Julius Randle in the second half of the regular-season meeting with Louisville, Randle's teammates hardly noticed that he only played four minutes.

"I feel like once he went out, everybody else stepped up," Alex Poythress said. "That's just how it is on this team. If one guy goes down, the train keeps moving."

The train should have its locomotive for the full 40 minutes in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville.

Since missing most of the second half in the Dec. 28 meeting with cramping in his legs, Randle hasn't had any more issues. Even before the U of L game Randle had problems, leaving the press conference in the Michigan State game with cramps.

"I hope that's behind me," Randle said.

If it is, it's because Randle has made a few lifestyle adjustments. He said he's eating better now, getting more rest and drinking more fluids.

"I haven't cramped up in a while," Randle said. "Knock on wood."

Randle scored 17 first-half points against the Cardinals in the first game before his legs gave out. His absence, coupled with Montrezl Harrell's first-half foul trouble, deprived fans of what should be a fantastic battle of the big men Friday.

"I don't know if it was a mismatch or anything," Randle said of his first-half success. "I was just kind of feeling it."

Randle said he's looking forward to playing a full game against U of L this time around.

"I hope so," Randle said. "God willing."

Harrisons key to limiting U of L transition game


Willie Cauley-Stein admits it: UK's transition defense has been far from perfect.

"That's kind of always been our little kryptonite throughout the season was transition defense," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein says UK has improved, though Wichita State made the Cats pay for not getting back on numerous occasions in the Wildcats' memorable 78-76 win. Louisville will look to do the same on Friday night.

The Cardinals are more than capable, and it begins with Russ Smith and Chris Jones. The two small  guards turn defense -- U of L is second in the country in defensive turnover rate -- into offense as quickly as anyone in the country.

That means Andrew and Aaron Harrison will need to be ready for the challenge after they committed seven combined turnovers in their regular-season matchup with Louisville.

From what Smith has seen, he expects they will be.

"With the amount of minutes that they've played at the guard position, and in February they've become sophomores, January they've become sophomores, they're not freshmen anymore," Smith said. "They've improved on their decision-making, getting into the lane."

Last (fresh)men standing

UK's highly touted group of newcomers has been among a handful of freshmen to garner national headlines this season.

They began the season ranked No. 1, but were eventually surpassed by the likes of Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke's Jabari Parker, and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis. When the Cats fell out of the polls altogether near the regular season's end, pundits were ready to label the group a flop.

A few weeks later, it's Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, and Dakari Johnson who are still playing.

"Seems like we stuck together during hard times and listening to Coach, I guess, and just brought us here this far and we're going to keep listening to him," Young said.

Of Rivals.com's top five players in the 2013 class, only Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon are still playing. Among Rivals.com's top 11, only Gordon and Florida's Chris Walker and Kasey Hill are still alive alongside UK's five freshman starters.

It's also worth noting that the other 15 teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 start four freshmen combined, according to Cats Illustrated's Brett Dawson.  The four are Gordon, Virginia's London Perrantes, Michigan's Derrick Walton and Iowa State's Monte Morris.

Andrew Harrison's elbow better than it was


Andrew Harrison hardly showed it with his sparkling play against Wichita State, but that right elbow of his, which he injured two days earlier in the win over Kansas State, was barking the next day.

"Very sore," Andrew Harrison said. "I could barely move it."

Don't worry, Kentucky fans, Andrew Harrison will play Friday, and the freshman point guard sounds as if he will be much closer to 100 percent than he was against the Shockers.

"It's better," he said. "It's still a little sore but I'm icing it. It's fine."

Andrew Harrison said he will wear the arm sleeve over his elbow again, partly to protect his elbow and part for superstition.

"(The sleeve) has like a pad on it so if I do hit it again, it won't really affect me," he said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK held an open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held an open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Going on three weeks now, John Calipari has turned his basketball practices into football workouts.

To adjust to his team's inability to finish through contact as officiating returned to its more relaxed, let-them-play emphasis, Coach Cal has brought out pads in practice, told his guys to make contact with their hands up and just play more physical.

With Louisville, arguably the most physical defensive team in the country, standing in Kentucky's way in the Sweet 16, Coach Cal ramped up intensity even more so this week.

"It's been as tough as any practice," Andrew Harrison said. "Coach has definitely been pushing us and he wants to make sure we're not satisfied."

Specifically, to prepare his team for U of L's pressure defense, he's told Jarrod Polson, Dominique Hawkins and EJ Floreal, who match up with the first-team guards in practice, to foul the starters.

"We have free reign to foul them as much as we can," Polson said. "There's no referees in practice so we're grabbing them, pushing them, pulling them."

The hope is, as Polson explained, is to prepare the Wildcats for Louisville's smothering defense, which ranks second in the country in steals with 10.1 per game.

"The hope is that if they can handle that when we're actually really fouling then they can handle that in the games when there's referees," Polson said.

How the game will be called will go a long way in determining just how aggressive Louisville can be with its defense. In the game in Lexington, 25 fouls were called on the Cardinals, neutralizing a bit of what they like to do defensively.

"They definitely have a defense that pressures the ball and tries to get up in you," Polson said. "I guess if they do call it tight that would be to our advantage."

John Calipari hinted on his weekly radio show Monday night that the officials are going to let the two teams play.

"Here's what the key is," Calipari said Monday. "Can you play through physical play? Can you get open? Can you catch balls? Can you drive when play is physical? At this point, critical."

If the game turns physical, Coach Cal said that's fine. He said his team has adapted and learned how to play grind-it-out games over the last month like it did against Kansas State, and when the situation calls for it, like it did against Wichita State, it can win a shootout.

In the first meeting with Louisville, Kentucky turned the ball over just 11 times, a surprising stat for a team that has struggled with them this season, especially against a defense like U of L's.

As a matter of fact, the Cardinals' minus-one turnover margin in the regular-season meeting was one of only two games this season in which Louisville has been on the wrong side of the turnover battle. The Cardinals lead the country in turnover margin at plus-6.8 per game.

But to a man, players in both locker rooms insisted these are two different teams from the ones that faced each other on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena. And defensively, Louisville looks more like the Rick Pitino teams of old than the one that UK's guards, who were still finding their way at the time, had few problems against.

The Cardinals said it took time for their new additions to adjust to Pitino's defense, particularly the matchup zone.

"The more we play it the better we're getting at it," Luke Hancock said. "So guys are making their rotations when they're supposed to be getting in there, boxing out when they're supposed to be. Early on in the year you just don't make those rotations, especially with new guys coming into your defense because it's not the easiest thing in the world to pick up."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK will face Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 9:45 p.m. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 9:45 p.m. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- In five years, John Calipari has left his mark on Kentucky fans.

He's helped them learn to "enjoy the ride," to maintain just a little bit more on an even keel through the ups and downs of a long season. He's shown them that putting players first can lead to the kind of program success expected at UK.

But try as he might, Coach Cal knows there's no changing the Big Blue Nation when it comes to Louisville.

"People grieve for a year after the game," Calipari said on the eve of a Sweet 16 matchup with the Cardinals. "People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work."

It doesn't work because the rivalry is too ingrained. Just ask Jarrod Polson, who grew up a UK fan before going on to a four-year career playing for his favorite team.

"I was born to hate Louisville," Jarrod Polson said, only half joking.

Those are the feelings at play on both the blue and red sides of a Sweet 16 showdown between UK (26-10) and Louisville (31-5). On Friday at 9:45 p.m., bragging rights will be decided. Coach Cal knows better than to think he can control any of that, but it's another story with his team.

"We will not make this game bigger than it is," Calipari said. "It's an NCAA Tournament game. We've gotta play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that's my message. Don't make it bigger than it is. Just play."

To that end, Coach Cal has given very specific directions to the Wildcats.

"Don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything, don't look at anything. It has no bearing on this game we're about to play."

That's not a difficult message to put into practice because, really, how could there be anything bigger than playing in the NCAA Tournament? No matter the opponent, there are only two options at this stage of the season: win or go home.

"I don't want to disrespect the rivalry or anything, but we're playing for something bigger than the rivalry," Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters in UK's locker room, television tuned to CNN.

Taking his turn after Kentucky's time with the media was up, Louisville star senior Russ Smith was asked about the way Cauley-Stein views the game. Though he has a couple years and a few extra games of UK-U of L experience on most of the Cats, he agrees.

"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game. They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn.  It's just the same game face.

"You just want to get to the next round. And that's what's most important. I feel the same way. I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, be prepared for every team the same way."

Count U of L head coach Rick Pitino -- a man intimately familiar with the rivalry -- in the same camp.

"I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play."

Polson is the only scholarship Wildcat who was in uniform for that national semifinal matchup. When he stepped into the Superdome in 2012, he remembers all thoughts about the rivalry -- long as he's been on the UK side of it -- going out the window.

"I mean, in that Final Four game, to me and our team, two years ago it didn't really seem like a rivalry at all," Polson said. "Once you get so far in the tournament there really is no rivalry games. It's just getting to the next round. That's how we saw it back then and I think that's how we're looking at it this year."

Three months ago, the Cats and Cards faced off when the rivalry was the biggest thing at play. Then, UK picked up its signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.

"Honestly, I don't even remember the first game, the first time we played them," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, the only thing I can really take from that is we fought for the whole 40 minutes of the game and that's what we have to do tomorrow, is just play like we played against Wichita (State), which we didn't even realize how close we were to winning or losing the game until the buzzer."

In defeating Louisville, the Cats played with the kind of 40-minute intensity that's become their hallmark in the postseason. With that, UK has improved by the day since the Southeastern Conference Tournament, making them a far different team than on Dec. 28.

"I think we just all settled down and just started thinking about having fun and it's still basketball," Aaron Harrison said, explaining UK's improvement. "We just go out there and have fun and fight for each other."

In a battle of Louisville's experience -- four starters played key roles on last year's title team -- and UK's youth, that carefree approach could work in the Cats' favor.

"The difference between freshmen is freshmen are going to play hard no matter what," Smith said. "That's what's so scary. Freshmen, regardless of how prepared they are, regardless of how trained they are, they're going to always be ready to play and they're always going to come play hard. They may not do the right things, but they're always going to be ready to play."

Differently comprised as UK and U of L may be, their goals -- and their approach to facing their archrival in the tournament -- are the same.

"The goal is to get to the Elite Eight," Smith said. "If you let the university or the other school that you're playing against get in the way of that it could potentially become a problem."

"We're playing to move on and that's the way we're coming into the game," Cauley-Stein said. "We're not thinking about, 'Oh it's Louisville so it's a must-win because it's Louisville. It's a must-win because we're trying to win a national championship."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

John Calipari will lead UK into a Sweet 16 matchup with Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will lead UK into a Sweet 16 matchup with Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- To hear John Calipari and Rick Pitino tell their side of story, their relationship is the same as it ever was: They're friends.

Yes, friends.

That was Coach Cal's description of the relationship of the two coaches tasked with guiding the most heated rivalry in college basketball - sorry, Duke-North Carolina -- on Thursday prior to their teams' meeting in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.

"The stuff that they're at each others' throats, it's just not accurate," Calipari said.

Not only were they not lobbing grenades at each other Thursday, Calipari said they've bounced information off each other during this season.

"We were in touch throughout the year, back and forth," Coach Cal said. "He'd throw something at me, I'd throw something at him. Different things about our teams."

Take that for what's it's worth, but it's certain the two won't be sharing information this week.

When Kentucky-Louisville meet at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday, the "friendship" will cease to exist for the night. At stake will be the chance to advance to the Elite Eight. For the other coach, the losing one, the season will end.

So, to a degree, there is a rivalry between the two coaches. The nature of their jobs creates it.

Whether there is a genuine friendship, a behind-the-scenes dislike for one another or just mutual indifference, the two must compete on a regular basis for the crown of one of the most competitive basketball states in America.

It just so happens that in two of the last three seasons, the two Bluegrass titans have collided in the NCAA Tournament, only further intensifying the rivalry and spotlight on the relationship between the two coaches.

"You know, I think that hurts a little because you all (the media) bait and try to get certain answers out of us," Pitino said. "And if John says, 'I like a certain thing,' some people think he's taking a shot at me, vice versa. ... We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fans' intensity, but we don't personalize our battles. We understand what's it's all about."

Pitino said the two first met when Calipari was just a teenage camper at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. Since then, both of their careers have taken similar paths, crossing each other at turns along the way.

Both made meteoric rises at schools that had relatively little success before their arrivals (Calipari at UMass, Pitino at Providence), both coached at Kentucky, both left college to try their luck in the NBA (Coach Cal with the Nets, Pitino with the Celtics), and both have taken three different schools to the Final Four - coincidently (and ironically), the only coaches to do so.

During their brilliant careers, they've coached across from each other as heated competitors. Calipari's UMass team lost to Pitino's UK group in the 1996 Final Four after beating Cats earlier that season. Then the two wound up across from each other as Conference USA rivals when Pitino took the Louisville job and Calipari went to Memphis.

Now, they're the two biggest figures in the biggest rivalry in college basketball.

And so, on Thursday, knowing full well where the two came from and how intertwined their history and success has actually been, the two heaped praise at one another.

"I know that he's a great coach," Calipari said. "He's done it at different programs. His kids play with great energy and they play with confidence, and it's every year."

Was some of the praise an attempt to take the microscope off their relationship and, to a greater degree, the rivalry game on Friday? Maybe. But we'll never know.

And without knowing, all anyone can report is the two coaches had nothing but sunshine and roses for each other Thursday. Pitino went as far as to defend the "one-and-done" criticism Calipari gets blasted with so often for developing kids into NBA-ready prospects.

"He's one of the premier coaches in our game," Pitino said. "Has always been. The thing that I remember most about John, because I've known him since he was 15, is he always didn't have one-and-dones. He had a team at Massachusetts, and I knew where he took them from to today.

"He had the least amount of talent on the court when he went out there (and still won). And he didn't play an easy schedule. He had to take a lot of people on to get Massachusetts in the limelight. I've seen all stage of John's career, and so it doesn't surprise me that they're well at this time."

Perception is the two coaches are heated rivals whose friendship deteriorated long ago. The two say they remain friends.

"I don't care about perception because perception is not reality. We're friends," Pitino said. "We respect each others' programs very much and we're friends in the business. And I certainly have great respect for what they're accomplishing right now."

Whatever the case really is, they're both in each others' path to the Elite Eight.

"We're getting older, both of us, and I think I'm not on his mind and he's not on my mind, so to speak," Coach Cal said. "We all got tough jobs, what we're doing."

UK-U of L: Breaking down the matchups

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Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Kentucky-Louisville. No matter who's wearing the uniforms, those two words capture the Commonwealth's attention.

But on Friday at 9:45 p.m., it will be the players and coaches who decide the outcome. Here are some of the matchups that will determine bragging rights.

1. Andrew and Aaron Harrison vs. Russ Smith and Chris Jones

You won't find two backcourts that contrast much more than these two do.

On the Louisville side you have two lightning-quick water bugs in Russ Smith and Chris Jones, neither measuring taller than 6-foot or weighing more than 175 pounds. Both can score in bunches and shoot at least 38 percent from 3. They are also defensive pests, ranking fifth and 29th nationally in steal percentage, respectively.

Kentucky, meanwhile, has two big, physical guards in Andrew and Aaron Harrison. The two twins, especially late in the season, use their 6-6 frames to outmuscle opponents and get to the free-throw line.

Of the four, Jones (18 points on 7-of-13 shooting, two turnovers) was most efficient in the first UK-U of L matchup back on Dec. 28 at Rupp Arena. Smith had an off day, needing 20 shots to score 19 points while committing four turnovers. Aaron Harrison was also relatively quiet, scoring 10 points on 5-of-12 shooting with four turnovers and just one assist.

Though he shot just 6 of 16 and 6 of 12 at the line, Andrew Harrison played an important role in UK's 73-66 win. Serving as the primary ball handler for 34 minutes against relentless U of L pressure, Andrew Harrison committed just three turnovers and helped limit the Wildcats to just 11 turnovers as a team.

The twins, however, are different players than three months ago. Andrew Harrison has benefitted from a much-ballyhooed late-season tweak and evolved into a floor general for his team. Aaron Harrison, meanwhile, is operating at peak efficiency. In five postseason games, he is averaging 17.8 points on 50.8 percent shooting, including 48.4 percent from 3-point range.

Smith and Jones -- as well as freshman sparkplug Terry Rozier -- will present a different kind of challenge entirely. Will the Harrisons use their size to overwhelm the smaller counterparts? Or will Louisville's guards use their quickness to flummox the twins on both ends?

2. Julius Randle vs. Montrezl Harrell


As a treat for impartial viewers, the two best NBA prospects who will be on the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium happen to play the same position. UK's Julius Randle (6-9, 250) and U of L's Montrezl Harrell (6-8, 235) are close in size, motor and athleticism, which makes the idea of the two power forwards guarding one another for the better part of 40 minutes quite intriguing.

Statistically speaking, Randle has the edge as a rebounder, ranking in the top 50 nationally in both offensive- and defensive-rebounding rate. Harrell, meanwhile, is a stronger defender on paper, coming close to doubling Randle in both steal and block rate. Offensively, Randle bears a heavier load. He is called on to create his shot much more frequently, while Harrell thrives as a finisher in shooting 60.5 percent from the field.

The first time around, we were largely deprived of watching Randle and Harrell do battle. Randle was limited to just four minutes in the second half by leg cramps after a dominant 17-point first half, while Harrell played just six minutes in the first half due to foul trouble and finished with an uncharacteristic six points and four rebounds.

Since then, Randle's cramping issues have disappeared and Harrell has become one of the best big men in the country. For those reasons and, Randle-Harrell II will be very much worth watching.

3. James Young vs. Luke Hancock

Luke Hancock, after earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors a year ago, hasn't had the senior season many expected because of an offseason injury, averaging 12.1 points and shooting 33.9 percent from 3-point range. But once again, he's been a force in the NCAA Tournament. Hancock has scored 37 points combined in two U of L wins during March Madness, including two huge 3-pointers as the Cardinals survived a round-of-64 upset bid by Manhattan.

Young, on the other hand, has been quiet during the tournament. He hit some big shots in the upset of Wichita State, but he's averaging just 10 points per game and shooting 8 of 22 from the field.

These two, who each play the lion's share of minutes at the 3 position for their teams, are known first as scorers and it's certainly possible one or both could swing the Sweet 16 showdown with a scoring outburst. However, look no further than the regular-season matchup for proof that the impact they make in other areas could be just as meaningful.

Young had one of his only two double-doubles against Louisville, grabbing 10 rebounds to go with his 18 points. He also had just two turnovers in serving as a secondary ball handler, an important role against the Cardinal defense.

Using his athletic advantage, Young significantly outplayed Hancock on Dec. 28. If he can duplicate that effort against the clutch seniors, it bodes very well for the Cats.

4. X-factors

It's easy to get caught up in matching up starters vs. starters when looking at UK-U of L, but John Calipari and Rick Pitino both manage their rotations well to create favorable scenarios for their teams. Here are a few examples:

Dakari Johnson -- Back in December, the big center was largely an afterthought. He played just eight minutes against U of L, missing his only shot. Now, he's a key presence as a rebounder, energy guy and scorer inside. Against an already outsized Cardinal team, he could make a big difference. Coach Cal has also turned to a twin-tower lineup with Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein much more frequently in the postseason, which be trouble for the Cards.

Wayne Blackshear -- More and more as the season has worn on, especially without the departed Chane Behanan, Pitino has turned to Wayne Blackshear at the 4 position. Three of U of L's four most-used lineups over the last five games, according to kenpom.com, feature Blackshear in the frontcourt, including the Smith-Jones-Hancock-Blackshear-Harrell grouping that has been Pitino's second favorite in the postseason. Playing a 6-5, 230-pounder inside creates advantages with Blackshear's skill and athleticism, but also challenges. Accordingly, UK will need to be ready.

Alex Poythress --
Poythress has become a versatile weapon for Coach Cal. Moving freely between the two forward positions, he can guard at least three positions and terrorize opponents on the offensive glass. Considering the smaller lineups U of L could use, he could be very valuable. Also, don't forget UK outscored Louisville by 20 points in the first matchup with Poythress on the floor. You can be sure Calipari won't.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Darius Miller scored 13 points in UK's Final Four victory over Louisville in 2012. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Darius Miller remembers the epic buildup for the Kentucky-Louisville game in New Orleans two years ago with a bid to the national championship game on the line. He remembers the unprecedented hype and attention the game received, not only within the state but across the country.

Two years later, he's just glad he gets to watch the rivalry and enjoy it from a different point of view.

"I'm like a fan now so I get to sit back and watch and enjoy it," Miller said. "I know what (the players are) going through and I know they're having a good time. It's exciting. I'm just watching like everybody else now."

The anticipation for the 2012 Final Four game was unlike anything the rivalry had ever experienced, which is saying something for a series that spans all the way back to 1913, includes a number of classics and features the original Dream Game in 1983.

But given the stage in 2012 in the Final Four, the unquenchable thirst for a national championship of both teams at the time (UK hadn't won a title since 1998 and Louisville's drought went all the way back to 1986) and the backdrop (Kentucky was trying to the unthinkable and win with freshmen while U of L made a surprise run), the 2012 buildup was gargantuan.

It was a state divided like never before, and Miller can certainly remember the tension and anxiety when he was a part of the team that week despite everyone's best efforts to shield those distractions away.

"We were aware, especially with all the social media and stuff like that," Miller said. "On campus, it was a huge rivalry in the state, so people would come up to us on campus and ask us to win the game and tell us to have a great game and just be excited about the game. We really just tried to block all that out."

Believe it or not, Miller said they did.

"The main thing we had to focus on - everybody that was on the staff, that was on the team, the whole family that we built there - we just tried to keep it amongst each other and stay focused on the game and what we needed to do," Miller said.

As cliche as the "one game at a time" mentality can sound and as hard as it is to believe that the players actually shut out all the distractions in 2012, Miller said they were able to because that's what they had done all year.

With the type of season the Wildcats were having and the goals that were attainable for that group, hype had been built long before the kings of the Commonwealth met in New Orleans. Sure, the matchup in the Final Four only intensified things tenfold, but Miller said they were able to stay focused because they had fallen into the routine of taking everything one game at a time.

"Honestly, it was pretty much the same," Miller said. "That whole year we did a good job of just preparing for one game at a time and treating every game the same. By that time we had already built that mindset that every game was the same. We were going to treat it just like any other game."

Miller said the team took a "step back" on social media during the entire NCAA Tournament run to avoid any temptation, and he said John Calipari never even brought up the magnitude of the rivalry or what was at stake.

"He just treated it the same way he had all year," Miller said. "He never really approached any game differently. He was consistent throughout the whole year and I think that helped us to be the same and do it the same way."

The approach worked for Miller, who scored 13 points and hit a key 3-pointer near the five-minute mark to give UK a seven-point lead after a furious Cardinal run.

In that regard, Calipari will try to take the same approach with this year's team as it gets ready to meet Louisville in the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons.

The buildup this time around doesn't feel the same as 2012, probably due in large part to the stage in the tournament (Sweet 16). But when one factors in the location of this year's game in Indianapolis and the proximity to both fan bases, not to mention the fact that the teams have won the last two national titles, don't think for a second that UK-Louisville in the NCAA Tournament isn't still an enormous deal.

"Anytime you play Louisville, it's a rivalry game, but when you're playing the tournament, take all that that you did in the regular season and everything you have in the rivalry and multiple that by 10 when you get to the tournament," former Wildcat Kenny "Sky" Walker said. "When you think it can't go up or the rivalry can't get any higher, I think that the last couple of years that we see it absolutely can."

If there is anyone who can identify with what Miller went through in 2012 and what the current UK players are going through now, it's Walker.

Walker was a freshman on the 1982-83 team that played in the original Dream Game in the 1983 NCAA Tournament. After going more than two decades without playing each other, the two rivals finally met in the NCAA Tournament in a game so hyped that only the 2012 one can rival it.

"I don't think anything, even if you grew up in Kentucky, could prepare for the hype because everybody had been anticipating that matchup for so long," Walker said.

Walker still paints a vivid picture of the Dream Game from his memories. He remembers a perfectly divided Stokely Center in Knoxville, Tenn., with fans dressed in blue on one side and fans in red on the other. He even remembers Kentucky's governor at the time, John Y. Brown, showing up to the game in a blazer that was half red, half blue.

"That kind of summed it for me that, yeah, this state is divided," Walker said.

Walker said they faced a similar buildup to that NCAA 1983 NCAA regional, but the hype was actually for a different team and a different rival: Indiana. Before they met Louisville in the regional finals, Walker's Wildcats had to get through the Hoosiers first.

Indiana had beaten UK in the regular season, so Walker said the focus that week was centered on getting revenge. Only once the Cats had beaten the Hoosiers did the attention - and the hype - turn to Louisville, and even then, only a day separated the two games.

"Not only were we fighting to beat Louisville, we were fighting to get to the Final Four," Walker said. "So you know, we had a lot of things we could accomplish and we were only 40 minutes away - actually, in the original Dream Game it was 45 minutes because it went into overtime. It was a great day until overtime."

UK lost the Dream Game 80-68 in overtime, but not because the anticipation or pressure got to the Cats' heads, Walker said. Like Calipari is trying to do with this year's team, Walker said his head coach at the time, Joe B. Hall, kept the team's attention focused only on what it could control.

"He's a disciple of Adolph Rupp," Walker said of Hall. "I remember him being very business-like during the week. Nothing really changed out of the ordinary, and even when the game happened he said, 'Guys, just go out, play the game like you would any other game. We're just going to go out here and win. We've got a game plan and we're going to go out and fight.' "

UK will try to do the same this week in Indianapolis, but Walker doesn't envy this year's group in that it has to put up with an entire week of buildup instead of the quick turnaround like he experienced for the Cardinals.

"Look, the coach can tell you whatever he wants," Walker said. "Don't read the paper, don't look at the news, don't watch sports - all that stuff. But when you're walking around campus, you go to the car wash, you go to the grocery store, you're out at the mall, whatever you do, you're constantly reminded of that game and how important it is to people and the fans."

Throw in today's modern age of social media, sensationalized media coverage, and the thirst to instantly and overly analyze everything and Walker said it's an entirely different buildup than the one he went through in 1983.

"I cannot imagine the compression and the microscope that these kids are under now with camera phones and pictures and Instagram and all that stuff," Walker said. "It's probably more demanding on them today than it was on us because there are so many distractions. You can't get away from them. So God bless them."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

If you're going to Indy ...

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If you're headed to Indianapolis this week to watch Kentucky in the Sweet 16, here are a few important items you will need to know:

Tickets
Tickets for Kentucky's Sweet 16 game vs. Louisville on Friday are, as you can imagine, either hard to find or expensive. With arguably the game's greatest rivalry taking place just a couple hours north of both schools in the NCAA Tournament, it's a must-have ticket - so much so that Ticketmaster.com is showing that no tickets are available right now.

Ticketmaster does say that tickets at the venue may become available closer to the event. If you're hoping to snag some at the last minute, this is your best shot. You can also visit the NCAA Tournament ticket website for more help.

Open practice
Kentucky will hold an open practice at the Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday at 1 p.m. The practice will last 50 minutes. If you want to take a look at Louisville, the Cardinals will have their open practice at the same location at 3:10 p.m.

Noon-12:50 p.m. -- Tennessee
1-1:50 p.m. -- Kentucky
2:10-3 p.m. -- Michigan
3:10-4 p.m. CT -- Louisville

UK Alumni Association pregame event
The official UK Alumni Association headquarters will be at Tin Roof (36 S. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis, IN 46204) during the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight of play in the NCAA Tournament.

UK spirit items will be available. Attendees may purchase drinks and food from the menu. At approximately 6:30 p.m on Friday, the UK band and UK cheerleaders will conduct a pep rally at the venue.

Tin Roof is a short walk (.7 miles) from Lucas Oil Stadium. The UK-Louisville game will be shown at the venue. If Kentucky advances, a similar event will take place.

Weather
Looks like it's going to be cold and rainy in Indianapolis this week. Three of the four days call for rain, and the highest temperature on the forecast is 56 degrees. Good thing they play the games indoors.

  • Thursday - Rain and thunder, high of 53 degrees, low of 48, 90 percent chance of rain
  • Friday - a.m. showers, high 56, low 37, 30 percent chance of rain
  • Saturday - Showers, high 41, low 27, 50 percent chance of rain
  • Sunday - Mostly sunny, high 58, low 40, 0 percent chance of rain

Attractions

If you're looking to kill some time between games, visitindy.com has plenty of attractions to see and do in and around town.

And if you can't make it
Friday's game will be televised at 9:45 p.m. ET on CBS. If you can't watch the game in Indianapolis but want to watch it with other Wildcat fans, here is a list of UK game-watch parties around the country.

Cal has another tweak for another big week

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John Calipari has coached UK to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari has coached UK to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Between the time Fred VanVleet's shot bounced off the rim, the backboard and onto the floor to the time John Calipari did his postgame press conference and finally got on the bus, Coach Cal's phone didn't stop buzzing.

When Calipari checked his phone, he said he had 100-plus text messages, more than half of them from friends telling him they had just watched the best college game they had ever seen. (There's no telling how many more voicemails he got.)

After reading about 30 of them, Calipari stopped, stood up on the bus and asked his players if they were getting the same thing. Unanimously, they said yes.

"I said, 'Did you, like, realize that when we were playing?' " Calipari recounted on his weekly radio show on Tuesday. "And they're like, 'No.' And the rest of us didn't either. We were just trying to play the game."

Time will ultimately decide just how good Sunday's game really was -- though there's little disputing that it was a classic and the best of this year's NCAA Tournament thus far - but the Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats (26-10) will have little time to revel in their best and most thrilling victory of the year.

With archrival Louisville (31-5) next in line on the hopeful journey to the Final Four, UK, believe it or not, has an even bigger stage to tackle.

"Wichita was probably playing as well anyone in the field," Calipari told radio show host Tom Leach. "Now, with us, who's left, who do you think I would tell you I would tell you is playing as anyone in the field?"

Rhetorically, the answer is Louisville.

"That's just the truth," Coach Cal said. "When you watch them, they're being aggressive, their physical play, the bump and grind of it, they're pressing, they're up in you. It's all the stuff that makes them aggressive, and they're playing well."

Louisville actually struggled in its two NCAA Tournament victories, coming back from a late deficit against Manhattan to avoid an opening-round upset before grinding out an ugly win against a strong St. Louis group.

But great teams pull out good wins even when they don't play well, and Louisville certainly fits the criteria of a great, if not elite, team.

The defending national champions have won seven in a row and 14 of their last 15. During that streak, which dates all the way back to Feb. 1, the Cardinals have won by an average margin of 22.9 points per game, including victories over NCAA Tournament teams UConn (once by 33 points and the other by 14 in the American Athletic Conference championship game) and Cincinnati.

UK won the regular-season meeting vs. Louisville, 73-66, at Rupp Arena, but both teams are far different than the ones that met on Dec. 28.

U of L no longer has Chane Behanan down low, who was dismissed from the team just days after the loss to UK, but Montrezl Harrell has stepped up his absence, transforming into one of the premier big men in the country. Luke Hancock was still coming back from an offseason injury during the team's first meeting and has just recently returned to his Final Four Most Outstanding Player form of a year ago, while Russ Smith has continued to score at a high rate.

Throw in the fact that the Cardinals have rounded their defense into their typically stifling postseason form - they lead the country in turnover margin thanks to 10.1 steals per game - and UK, just as anyone would expect, has its hands full with fourth-seeded Louisville.

"Do you really think you're not going to play against somebody who's not good (at this point)?" Calipari said Tuesday. "Every team's good."

UK is also significantly better.

Though the Wildcats won the first meeting behind James Young's 18 points and 10 rebounds and Andrew Harrison's solid point-guard play, they played nearly the entire second half without leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle, who spent most of the final 20 minutes in the bowels of Rupp Arena receiving treatment for leg cramps.

Since then, UK has taken several lumps - seven more losses, to be exact - but the Cats have obviously turned things around in recent weeks, punctuated by Sunday's victory over the previous undefeated Wichita State Shockers.

"Why were we ready for all this adversity? Because we went through a gauntlet this year," Calipari said, noting UK's second-ranked strength of schedule. "As we struggled, oh, the onslaught of criticism, oh, the personal attacks, oh, the agendas came out. ... And these kids never broke up. They stayed together, they kept believing, they kept believing our staff. So which team in this tournament has been through that like us?"

Not many.

Calipari was able to turn things around in recent weeks by taking blame for his failure to coach his players in the way they needed to be guided. Once he realized he needed to change, he made the celebrated and unsolved "tweak" before the Southeastern Conference Tournament and then another tweak before NCAA Tournament play.

Now - you guessed it - there's one more tweak. Calipari's calling it the "three-tweak," and it's being made just in time for Louisville.

"All these have been based on us, but this one's also based a little bit about how that other team plays -- some things that they do that we're tweaking some of our stuff," Coach Cal said on the radio show. "Because you know what? You've got to keep people on their heels a little bit, and so we're going to go with the three-tweak and see what happens."

Calipari planned to institute the third tweak with his team on Tuesday night in the first practice since Sunday's game. The Cats will leave for Indianapolis on Wednesday and practice in the evening while they're there to get their bodies and minds acclimated to the approximate 9:45 p.m. start.

"What time do you think it will start?" Calipari said, hinting at the fact that the game will tip even later because of the preceding Michigan-Tennessee game. "I mean, we're going to be playing until 1 in the morning."

Practices will continue to be physical this week, Calipari said, because that's what's worked so well recently.

"We're going to stay with what we've been doing: physical practices," Calipari said. "Grab. Hold. Guy tries to get open, put two hands around his hip. The guy drives, put your hands up in the air and hip check him. That's what we've been doing. So we're doing it this week."

There's a notion that the pressure is now off UK and squarely on Louisville this week because of the disappointment the Cats endured in the regular season and the subsequent breakthrough against Wichita State. Coach Cal doesn't want his team to have that mindset of relief.

"Losing stinks," he said. "Like, really stinks."

So Calipari wants to win on Friday and keep the turnaround going, but he also doesn't want to lose sight of what this experience is all about, and that's to have fun. Calipari said that goes for both fan bases and told listeners on Tuesday to enjoy this week and not be nasty with rival fans.

"I'm proud of them," Calipari said of his team. "You got a lot of guys with smiles on their faces. And you guys that have listened to me every year, you know I say we have to have more fun than the other team. Bottom line, you've got to have more fun. The last game I kept saying, don't make the game bigger than it is. It's just a basketball game."

Try telling that to the people that will text Calipari if Kentucky wins again.

"This is a time to enjoy all this," he said. "Don't be anxious, don't be uptight, don't--just enjoy the ride and what's going on. A lot of you are going to Indianapolis. Well, have fun."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison had 18 points in UK's 73-66 win over Louisville on Dec. 28. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky and Louisville went nearly three decades without running into each other in the NCAA Tournament before a Final Four matchup in 2012 that essentially shut down the state.

Two years later and two rounds earlier, it's happening all over again in the Sweet 16.

For the second time in five days, the eyes of the college basketball world will be on the Wildcats when they square off with the Cardinals at 9:45 p.m. on Friday. Before then, you'll surely read countless stories about the rivalry and what it means to fans, and the relationship between John Calipari and Rick Pitino will be dissected yet again.

But there's time for all that later. For now, we're going to stick to the stats that could decide the winner of the latest Dream Game.

As we have done for each of UK's two NCAA Tournament wins, we're going to use kenpom.com's advanced data to evaluate the two teams. First, let's take a look at the stats that decided the December matchup between the two teams when the Cats scored their signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.

1. Turnovers -- And really, it's not even close.

Like most Pitino-coached teams, Louisville thrives on turnovers forced with their pressure, both full- and half-court. In spite of a freshmen-laden backcourt, the Cats were exceptional taking care of the ball against the Cardinals.

UK committed turnovers on just 15.7 percent of its possessions and 11 for the game. On defense, the Cats exceeded their season average and forced turnovers on 18.6 percent of the Cards' possessions and 13 for the game.

As a result, UK was the only opponent to have a positive turnover margin against U of L in the regular season. Saint Louis matched the feat in the round of 32, winning the turnover battle, 19-18.

2. Rebounding -- As the Cats have done so often this season, they exerted their will on the glass and won the rebounding battle, 44-36, even though leading rebounder Julius Randle had just three as he battled second-half leg cramps.

UK was solid on the defensive glass, grabbing 69.2 percent of Louisville's misses (27 of 39), but even better on the offensive boards. There, the Cats rebounded 41.5 percent of their own misses (17 of 41). That's a big part of the reason why UK was just one of five U of L opponents this season to score more than one point per possession against the Cardinals.

3. 3-point shooting -- Given that UK shot just 3 of 14 (21.4 percent), this might make you do a double-take.

However, U of L shot just 6 of 26 (23.1 percent) from deep to counteract 53.1 percent shooting from 2-point range. The Cardinals are shooting 37 percent from 3 to UK's 32.7 percent, so treading water from deep was a win for the Cats.

With that behind us, let's take a look at the rematch.

When Kentucky is on offense

It's always interesting to see an offense and defense so efficient match up. UK currently ranks 17th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, while U of L is third on the defensive end.

It's even more interesting that matchup play out when the two units are good for completely contrasting reasons.

The Cats are good on offense thanks to their superb rebounding (second nationally) and free-throw rate (seventh). The Cardinals, meanwhile, are average or below average in the two corresponding defensive categories, ranking 231st in rebounding percentage on the defensive end and 124th in defensive free-throw-rate.

U of L makes up for its deficits by contesting shots and forcing turnovers at an exceptionally high level, ranking sixth in effective field-goal percentage defense (.438) and second in turnover percentage (.252). The Cardinals are the only team in the country to rank in the top 10 in both categories. On the flip side, UK is 158th in effective field-goal percentage (.498) and 167th in turnover percentage (.183).

In December, it was UK that most effectively capitalized on its offensive strengths. If the Cats can duplicate that performance -- and maybe even do a little better than shoot 16 of 30 from the foul line -- they could be on the way to a fourth Elite Eight in five seasons. U of L will have other ideas.

When Kentucky is on defense

This matchup is a bit more straightforward, matching strength vs. strength.

UK and U of L are an identical 29th nationally in effective field-goal percentage on offense and defense, respectively. Both are also solid rebounding units. The Cats (167th in turnover percentage) should not expect many Louisville mistakes, as the Cardinals are 25th nationally in turnover percentage behind sure-handed point guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones.

To limit the Cardinals again, UK will need to protect its defensive glass and force Russ Smith to take contested looks once more. The All-American scored 19 points in the first matchup, but did so on just 7-of-20 shooting.

Bottom line

The pace of Friday's game will be worth paying attention to. On the season, UK is averaging 2.6 fewer possessions per game than U of L.

In the postseason, the difference is even starker. In playing their best basketball over the last five games, the Cats are averaging just 62.4 possessions per game. By contrast, U of L is speeding it up in the postseason and averaging 69.4 possessions in the American Athletic Conference and NCAA tournaments.

UK will likely try to grind it out against the Cardinals, but don't think the Cats can't win a fast-paced game. The regular-season matchup featured 70 possessions.

Regardless of tempo, the outcome is going to come down to which of these two teams playing at their peak executes in a high-pressure environment.

UK and U of L fans each have reason to be confident. Every national champion in the history of kenpom.com's ratings has ranked in the top 25 of both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Cardinals are currently 15th on offense and third on defense. UK is 17th on offense and 26th on defense, one solid performance away from meeting the criteria.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


UK advanced to a third Sweet 16 in as many seasons with a 64-59 win over Syracuse on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK advanced to a third Sweet 16 in as many seasons with a 64-59 win over Syracuse on Monday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell had a hard time containing himself at various points on Monday night.

Coping with the 2-3 zone defense Syracuse mixed with full-court pressure and myriad traps, his Kentucky Wildcats did things that made him scratch his head. Frankly, it was a wonder he didn't do more than that.

"There were times where I wanted to run out to half-court and scream and go nuts or sometimes I wanted to leave the building a couple times with some of the decisions that we were making," Mitchell said. "But what we had to do tonight was keep our wits about us."

Two days after the Cats piled up the points, the Orange made them work for the Sweet 16 berth they so badly wanted. Even though the scoreboard had a much easier time of it than in a record-setting 106-60 win over Wright State on Saturday, UK moved on with a 64-59 victory in spite of shooting just 36.2 percent from the field.

"It still was just very, very difficult to make it happen," Mitchell said. "And I'm so proud of the players on a night where clearly the ball didn't go in the basket for us and we didn't always make the best decisions, being able to create and force 23 turnovers and getting them at crucial times down the stretch and answering every run that Syracuse made today."

The Orange made plenty of them.

When UK (25-8) built a nine-point lead with less than 13 minutes left, Syracuse (23-9) charged back with seven straight to make it 46-44. When the Cats built the cushion back to 10, the Orange wouldn't go away either.

It wasn't until Bria Goss buried five of six free throws over the final 3:52 to salt away the win and clinch a third Sweet 16 berth in as many seasons. For the game, Goss scored led all players with 17 points, 11 of which came at the line.

"I'm really confident going to the line and it's almost like an automatic two and I think that my team knows that and they know my abilities," Goss said. "That always helps."

Goss was valuable as much more than just a free-throw shooter on Monday, making hustle plays on both ends in grabbing six rebounds and snagging two steals.

"On a night where it was difficult to score because the opponent played really, really well and worked real hard to keep them from scoring and confused in so many ways, to have a player that would fight for loose balls, would hang onto the ball when she got fouled, attack the basket when we were struggling to score and no fear going up through three people and getting to the rim and getting to the foul line, it was huge," Mitchell said.

While Goss was drilling shots at the line to salt away the victory, Janee Thompson was coming up with clutch defensive plays.

The sophomore point guard, in many ways, perfectly represented her team on this night. Thompson couldn't make a shot, scoring just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, and was responsible for many of the decisions that left Mitchell wanting to exit the premises in committing five turnovers, but she hung in with the help of an individual talk from her coach at the five-minute mark.

"He basically pulled me aside and just told me to stay ready and he wanted me to come in and play tough defense and try to get some stops down the stretch," Thompson said. "That's just basically what I was trying to do when I got back in the game."

She did just that, coming up with a key steal from Brianna Butler, who led Syracuse with 15 points in the absence of leading scorer Brittney Sykes. The play came when the outcome was still in doubt with 44 seconds left, short-circuiting a possession when the Orange trailed 63-57.

Eleven seconds and two missed free throws by Jennifer O'Neill later, Thompson did it again. This time, it was a blocked shot on a 3-point attempt than killed crucial seconds.

"That's what you like to see, a player bounce back from a real disappointing 35 minutes or up to that point in the game and she got it together and contributed to the victory," Mitchell said.

It's a victory that propels UK into a Sweet 16 rematch with Baylor at noon ET on Saturday in South Bend, Ind. Regardless how it looked, Mitchell is just glad the Cats got it.

"We were not very explosive offensively and we were able to get it done on the defense," Mitchell said. "So I love them and I just want to keep coaching them and I'm real, real excited about the upcoming week."

The Kentucky Wildcats celebrate their 64-59 win over Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) The Kentucky Wildcats celebrate their 64-59 win over Syracuse in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
At the biggest moments in Monday's win, the impact of the crowd at Memorial Coliseum can't be understated. With every big shot from the Kentucky women's basketball team, the Big Blue Nation answered with a big cheer of their own.

Kentucky had to give everything it had in the 64-59 win, and the fans were there every step of the way.

The Big Blue Nation made up nearly all of the nearly 5,000 fans witnessing UK make the Sweet 16 for the third consecutive season. Combined with a small, but vocal, contingent of Orange fans, band and cheer squad, it made for an entertaining atmosphere. There was a lot on the line on the court, and the fans answered.

"The crowd really responded two days in a row," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said. "We had an unbelievable environment so thank you to the fans."

It was the type of game that left you sitting on the edge of your seat. For the fans at Memorial Coliseum, most of them didn't bother using their seat at all in the last several minutes.

With each made basket, steal or defensive stop, the energy was there both on and off the court. It had an impact, on both sides.

"It's a great team, a bunch of athletes in a great environment for women's basketball," Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said of Kentucky and the Memorial Coliseum crowd. "It's unique for women's basketball, to come to a place like this and they bring a great crowd, a very respectful crowd, too. It's just a very good venue for women's basketball."

When Syracuse got within five in the second half, the Wildcats -- and the Big Blue Nation -- answered. When Syracuse cut UK's lead to two at 46-44, the Wildcats, and their fans, had an answer.

There was no giving up, and the Wildcats made it known, the fans had an impact.

"It helped being in our house where the fans were really helpful," Kastine Evans said of making shots down the stretch. "They made a lot of noise when we needed it. Especially when we made big plays.

The party continued well after the final buzzer. The team stuck around for several renditions of the fight song. Coach Mitchell pumped his fists to both sides of the blue-filled Coliseum stands. The players waved and showed their appreciation.

It was a fun night at Memorial Coliseum. Combined with Saturday's opening-round win, it was a fun weekend at the old arena. Whether it was at 11 a.m. Saturday or Monday evening, the noise was there.

Now, the Cats, and the ever-loyal Big Blue Nation, take the party to South Bend, Ind. The Wildcats will play either Cal or Baylor. No matter the color of the Bears, be it blue and gold or green and gold, it will be another tough test for UK.

Kentucky won't have the benefit of the home crowd, but knowing the Big Blue Nation, there will be a sizable number of fans cheering on the Wildcats on the road.



 

SEC backing up talk of disrespect

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Championship-game opponents UK and Florida are two of three SEC teams to reach the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics) League championship-game opponents UK and Florida are two of three SEC teams to reach the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari has been tooting the Southeastern Conference horn all season.

"It amazes me when people beat each other in other leagues it shows how strong their league is," Coach Cal said back in February. "When we beat each other in our league, then the league is not very good. What?"

Reasonably, with the way the league performed against some lesser opponents out of conference, those words sounded hollow then. Now, in late March, with the SEC rolling through the NCAA Tournament, they're carrying a lot more weight.

The league only got three teams into the field of 68, but all three are still dancing in the Sweet 16. Combined, UK, Florida and Tennessee are 7-0, with the Volunteers forced to win three games because of a first-round draw.

Not only is the league the only unbeaten conference in the tournament, according to ESPN Stats & Info, the SEC is the first conference to go 7-0 or better in the NCAA Tournament entering the Sweet 16 since the Big East went 8-0 in 2003.

The Big 10 and Pac-12 also have three teams in the Sweet 16, but they also had more teams in the field to begin with. The Big East is gone. The Atlantic Coast Conference has just one.

Maybe there's some truth to the belief that UK and Tennessee were under-seeded after all.

"Someone's got to find out when you have a strength of schedule of two and that's all they keep talking about, what did you use to make that team an eight?" Calipari said last week. "What did you use? And they can use anything. 'Well, it was a cloudy day that day and we decided they were an eight.' And that's what it is and you go and as coach that's fine. Put me where you want, let's go. But as a league, we got to figure (it) out."

UK finished the season with an RPI of 17 and the second-toughest schedule in the country and got a No. 8 seed (the Cats have played seven games against five of the 16 teams in the Sweet 16). Tennessee's RPI wasn't nearly as good as UK, but the Volunteers won five in a row before narrowly losing to top-ranked Florida just before the NCAA Tournament, and three of those victories were by 27 points or more. Tennessee was regarded as one of the best teams in the country in Ken Pomeroy's rankings, and that was before Selection Sunday and the Sweet 16 run.

LSU and Arkansas are also still alive in the NIT and both were on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Missouri and Georgia also won their opening-round games in the NIT.

"Tennessee played as well as any team in the country down the stretch," Coach Cal said last week. "Are you taking how teams are playing at the end or how we were playing at the end? 'Not in your case.' Well, what did you take in our case? And you really got to go down and find out what it was. 'Well, you didn't beat enough people.' Did everybody else? I mean, so compared to who? And so that's the kind of stuff that our league - not me, not the ADs -- our league needs to find out who in that room, what were we basing this on because you can't keep moving the goalposts. 'It's strength of schedule.' Really? Then move the goalposts. 'It's how you finish.' Really? 'No, it's you didn't beat enough people.' Really? I mean, which one (is it)? And moving the goalposts makes it easy. But you know what? At the end of the day in this thing, you just got to go play now."

The SEC has done just that and backed up the league's beliefs.

Nobody could hear -- or perhaps wanted to hear -- those "S-E-C, S-E-C" chants before, but they ringing as loud as ever.


Kentucky Sports Report (week of March 24)

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Baseball
- The Kentucky baseball team completed a four-game week with three wins, including the third series win over a top-ranked team in program history with a series victory over No. 1 South Carolina. UK picked up a midweek win over Western Kentucky, before claiming victories on Friday and Saturday vs. the NCAA-ERA leading Gamecocks.
- Last week, the Wildcats faced off with the high-octane Gamecocks in a three-game series that matched up UK, the NCAA leader in runs scored, and South Carolina, the nation's leader with a 1.36 team ERA. UK exploded for 13 runs in the series opener, before getting a tight 2-1 win over the Gamecocks in the series decider on Saturday. Sunday, Kentucky got down in a 2-0 hole after five innings, with USC getting three-run frames in the sixth and ninth innings to secure the win.
- The Wildcats notched their third wins over Baseball America No. 1 ranked teams in the first 24 games, also besting top-ranked Virginia in the season opener on Feb. 14. Kentucky now has six wins over No. 1 ranked foes in the last four years of the Gary Henderson era, with UK's series win over the top-ranked Gamecocks marking the third series win over a No. 1 foe in program history (1991 vs. LSU; 2012 vs. LSU; 2014 vs. South Carolina). UK posted 18 runs during the three-game series with the Gamecocks, which is 58 percent of the total amount of runs USC had allowed in its first 19 games of 2014 entering the weekend. In addition, UK stole six bases in the series with USC - including five on Friday night - with the Gamecocks entering the weekend having allowed just four steals in eight attempts.

Men's basketball
- The Wildcats advanced to their national-leading 53rd NCAA Tournament appearance. UK is 113-46 all-time in the NCAA Tournament.
- Kentucky has advanced to its 44th appearance in the Sweet 16. Kentucky is 3-1 all-time in NCAA Tournament games in Indianapolis. The last time UK played in Indy, UK went 2-0 during the first and second rounds in 2005.
- Freshman Julius Randle became the first player since Dwayne Wade in 2003 to have at least 10 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in an NCAA Tournament game when he tallied 13 points, 10 boards and six assists against Wichita State.
- All four of UK's leading scorers are also scoring in double-digits during postseason play (which includes the SEC Tournament). Aaron Harrison is leading the way having reached double figures in all five contests and is averaging 17.8 points per game. He has also knocked down a team-high 15 3-pointers per outing.

Women's basketball
- The Wildcats advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the fifth straight season after defeating Wright State on Saturday, 106-60. UK set program records for most points (106), rebounds (67), field goals made (44), blocked shots (12) and largest margin of victory (+46) in an NCAA Tournament game. The 67 rebounds tied an NCAA record for the most rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game.
- Seven Wildcats finished in double-figures, led by Jennifer O'Neill's 21 points. Samarie Walker collected her ninth double-double of the season with 12 points and a season-high tying 14 rebounds. Linnae Harper also chipped in 12 points, while DeNesha Stallworth and Bria Goss had 11. Azia Bishop added 10 points, eight boards and four blocks off the bench. Stallworth also had a season-high five blocked shots.
- The win improved UK Hoops to 25-8 on the season, marking the fifth straight 25-plus win season. UK is just one of 10 schools to record five consecutive 25-plus win seasons.

Women's golf
- The UK women's golf team claimed its fourth top five finish of the season after placing third at the LSU Tiger Golf Classic this weekend.
- UK finished the three-day tournament with a team score of 35-over par, 899. Freshman Haley Mills recorded her second straight top 10 finish by placing seventh with a four-over par, 220. Senior Liz Breed and sophomore Sarah Harris each finished in the top 20, tying for 13th and 17th, respectively.

Gymnastics
- The Kentucky gymnastic team scored a 195.075 to finish second in the first session and sixth overall at the 2014 SEC Gymnastics Championship Saturday at the BJCC Arena in Birmingham, Ala. UK finished behind No. 12 Auburn's 195.550 and ahead of No. 15 Arkansas' 194.900 and Missouri's 194.650 in the first session. No. 4 Alabama won the meet with a 197.875, followed by No. 1 Florida with a 197.700. Among the eight teams, Kentucky finished sixth overall, the Wildcats' highest finish since 2012 when they placed fifth out of seven.
- Senior Audrey Harrison, redshirt junior Kayla Hartley and junior Shannon Mitchell earned All-SEC honors. Harrison earned her first career honors thanks to a 39.125 in the all-around, the second-highest total in the first session. Hartley was named All-SEC for the second time in her career after a 9.850 on uneven bars and Mitchell earned her first career award thanks to a 9.875 on vault along with a 9.850 on balance beam.
- The Wildcats led the first session with a 49.175 on vault and a 49.050 on bars. UK notched a 48.825 on beam to open the competition, just 0.050 points shy of a session high. Kentucky also scored a 48.025 on floor. Mitchell's 9.875 on vault and 9.850 on beam were both team-bests. Harrison and freshman Taylor Puryear recorded a 9.750 on floor to share team-high honors. Harrison's 39.125 all-around score and Hartley's 9.850 on bars also led the Wildcats.

Softball
- The No. 8 University of Kentucky softball team concluded a 6-1 week this weekend by hosting its second home tournament of the year. The Wildcats earned wins this week over Indiana, Kansas, Kent State, Saint Francis and Fairfield behind strong pitching and impressive hitting.
- Senior Emily Gaines paced UK offensively hitting .529 (9-for-17) with three doubles, a grand slam and seven RBI. Sophomore Sylver Samuel was second with a .478 (11-for-23) average, adding two doubles and the first four RBI of her career, while junior Griffin Joiner and sophomore Maisie Steed each hit two home runs. Senior Lauren Cumbess and sophomore Nikki Sagermann and Ansley Smith each had had runs.
- In the circle, sophomore pitcher Kelsey Nunley went 3-0 with a 1.65 ERA, striking out 17 in 17 innings pitched, while Cumbess was 2-0 with a 1.72 ERA in 20.1 innings pitched.

Swimming and diving
- The University of Kentucky swimming and diving team placed 23rd overall at the NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving Championships in Minneapolis, Minn., March 20-22. UK's 23rd-place finish is the school's best since 2008 and the first time since 2011 that the Wildcats scored points and earned a spot in the final standings.
- The Wildcats had four athletes at the three-day event, three who earned All-America honors. Junior diver Christa Cabot was named All-American on 3-meter and on platform. Juniors Christina Bechtel and Abby Myers both were named All-Americans in the 200 butterfly. The three are the first women All-Americans at UK since 2011.
- Bechtel notched UK's highest finish of the championship in the 200 butterfly when she finished fifth with a school-record time of 1:53.65. Myers finished 12th overall in the same event with a 1:56.43 after a prelim time of 1:56.23, the second-fastest time in UK history. Cabot advanced to the finals at the NCAA Championships for the first time in her career and finished eighth overall in the 3-meter on Friday with a 293.00 before an 11th-place finish on platform on Saturday. She placed 19th in the 1-meter on Thursday, just shy of a finals berth.

Men's tennis
- The University of Kentucky men's tennis team went 1-1 this weekend, defeating No. 15 Tennessee on Sunday after falling to the No. 10 Georgia Bulldogs on Friday night in Athens, Ga.
- The Wildcats are now the only 6-1 team in the SEC, and sit just one game back of the conference-leading Georgia Bulldogs. Kentucky is 13-5 overall and has captured two wins over top-10 teams this season.
- Beck Pennington is undefeated in SEC play this season, at 5-0 on court three for the Wildcats in conference play. The Bowling Green, Ky. native is now up to No. 67 in this week's rankings, a career high, and will rise in the next release on Tuesday afternoon.
- Kentucky will continue its SEC season on Friday and Sunday of next weekend, as the Wildcats will play on the road for the final time of the 2014 season, as UK will travel to No. 30 Auburn on Friday afternoon before concluding the weekend on Sunday at No. 42 Auburn.

Women's tennis
- The No. 28 University of Kentucky women's tennis team went 0-2 at home against the University of Georgia, who's ranked No. 3 nationally, and No. 47-ranked University of Tennessee.
- Georgia handed Kentucky (14-6, 4-4 SEC) their first home loss this season and ended the Wildcats 11-match home streak with a 4-0 win. Georgia won the doubles point and earned an early 1-0 advantage. The Bulldogs won three straight matches to seal their win and remain undefeated in conference play.
- Against Tennessee, Kentucky exchanged points with the Volunteers until both were tied at three each. Tennessee won the deciding court and returned to Knoxville with just their second Southeastern Conference win. The Wildcats started the match with an early lead behind wins at No. 1 and No. 2 doubles to clinch the point. Singles play was a see-saw affair between the teams that ended with a 4-3 Tennessee win.
- Freshman Aldila Sutjiadi and junior Kelsey Dieters were the only two Wildcats to get singles wins. Sutjiadi's came first at the No. 2 slot and over Joana Henderson. The Jakarta, Indonesia native knocked off the junior, 6-2, 6-3. After almost two and a half hours, Dieters toppled Laurence Guevremont in the tie breaking set. Dieters won 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 and gave Kentucky match point. Tennessee responded with back-to-back wins to claim the match.

Track and field
- UK won 13 individual/relay events at last weekend's Arizona State Baldy Castillo Invitational, which served as the outdoor season-opener.
- Sha'Keela Saunders jumped her collegiate-best 6.27m/20-7 to win the long jump, a mark that broke Danielle Sampley's school outdoor freshman-record (20-5 in 2008). UK ran 44.94 to win the 4x100m relay, the fifth fastest women's relay in school-history. The UK women also won the 4x400m relay with a time of 3:39.18.
- Keilah Tyson became the second-fastest outdoor 200m performer in school history, running 23.55 to win that event. Dominique Booker was second in 23.69 to become the No. 4 UK 200m performer all-time.
- Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare won the men's and women's 1,500m respectively.

Upcoming schedule

Monday, March 24
Women's Basketball vs. Syracuse - 6:30 p.m. (NCAA Tournament)
Men's Golf at Hootie at Bulls Bay - All Day

Tuesday, March 25
Baseball vs. Xavier - 6:30 p.m.
Men's Golf at Hootie at Bulls Bay - All Day

Wednesday, March 26
Track & Field at Texas Relays - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)

Thursday, March 27
Track & Field at Texas Relays - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Men's Championships (Austin, Texas)

Friday, March 28
Track & Field at Texas Relays - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)
Women's Tennis vs. Auburn - 11 a.m.
Track & Field at Oliver Nikoloff Invite - 11:30 a.m. (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Men's Tennis at Auburn - 3 p.m.
Softball vs. Auburn - 6 p.m.
Baseball at Vanderbilt - 7:30 p.m.
Men's Basketball vs. Louisville - 9:45 p.m. (Indianapolis)
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Men's Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)

Saturday, March 29
Track & Field at Oliver Nikoloff Invite - 9 a.m. (Cincinnati, Ohio)
Track & Field at Texas Relays - 11 a.m. (Austin, Texas)
Softball vs. Auburn - 3 p.m.
Baseball at Vanderbilt - 3 p.m.
Volleyball at OVVC Spring Tournament - TBA
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Men's Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)

Sunday, March 30

Women's Tennis vs. Alabama - 12 p.m.
Softball vs. Auburn - 1 p.m.
Men's Tennis at Alabama - 2 p.m.
Baseball at Vanderbilt - 2 p.m.
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Men's Championships - All Day (Austin, Texas)

Video: UK Hoops' pre-Syracuse press conference

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Notes: Mutual respect defines UK-Wichita State

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UK bested Wichita State in a memorable round-of-32 matchup on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK bested Wichita State in a memorable round-of-32 matchup on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

ST. LOUIS -- Players for both Kentucky and Wichita State said all the right things in the lead-up to the most anticipated matchup of the NCAA Tournament so far.

The Wildcats praised the Shockers, saying their undefeated record was no mirage. The Shockers praised the Wildcats, saying their size, athleticism and talent were as advertised.

After the two teams went back and forth for 40 of the most intense minutes you're ever likely to see on a college basketball court, UK and Wichita State showed the pregame compliments weren't idle talk.

Once the Cats finished a brief celebration of their heart-stopping 78-76 win, the teams assembled for a handshake line that proved to be much more than just perfunctory.

"I told them I watched tape of you guys and it's amazing and I am happy for our guys," John Calipari said. "And I am just disappointed because they had a heck of a run going."

A matchup as hard-fought as Sunday's often leads to bad blood, but not this time.

"Coach Cal just told me we had a marvelous season," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. "And I congratulated each and every one of them and told them, you know, 'Congratulations and great game.' "

The only thing between UK and Wichita State was mutual respect.

"They played a great game," Marshall said. "They put on a wonderful show. And I just thought it was a great basketball game. And they deserved it tonight. They played -- they were one play better."

Even Ron Baker and Andrew Harrison -- two players who often guarded one another and scored 20 points apiece -- only had good things to say.

"At the end I shook hands with Andrew Harrison and he said, 'You're a bad, bad, bad boy,' " Baker said. "And I told him the same. He's a great player and I wish him the best."

Aaron Harrison had his turn guarding Baker too and had a similar reaction.

"It is a great team and they had a lot of great players on that team. And I was matched up with him and it was a joy just playing, playing the game," Aaron Harrison said. "And we had to play hard and battling is really fun and just going to work, really fun. And going against a great player like that was a good matchup and a great challenge."

Both teams thrived on the challenge and the 19,676 fans in the Scottrade Center got to watch the result.

"They have a few great players on that team, so we knew we were going to have to play every possession," Andrew Harrison said. "And it was just a joy."

Coach Cal can't put classic into perspective

Hyperbole was flying around during and after Kentucky's win over Wichita State.

Twitter was abuzz with attempts to put the game into perspective, while television analyst and hall of famer Charles Barkley immediately ranked it among the best he's ever seen.

Asked whether it's the best game he's ever coached in, Calipari let a little air out of the big-game balloon.

"I have been doing this so long, I don't want to say that," Calipari said. "I've been in wars."

That's not to say, however, that UK-Wichita State wasn't special.

"I would say this was an Elite Eight game that the winner should have gone to the Final Four," Calipari said. "That's how good they are and how good we're playing right now."

In Calipari's eyes, the Shockers didn't deserve to lose in the third round. But even so, the defeat that came too soon doesn't erase what Wichita State accomplished in coping with all that comes with carrying an unbeaten record into late March.

"I feel for their team and I feel for their coach," Calipari said. "And Gregg, understand what he did to keep these guys on point was nothing short of miraculous. I have done it where I had to coach teams that were 26-0, 20-0. I'm telling you, each game there is more and more pressure to win."

That pressure was only intensified by playing in the Missouri Valley Conference.

"I was also in a league where we could not afford to lose any league games," Calipari said. "If we did we became a seven seed. We would go from a one seed to a seven seed. You couldn't lose any games. I have been where he is. I know how hard they worked."

The buildup for U of L has already begun


The dust had barely settled from what will likely be one of the greatest games Julius Randle will ever play in, but given the next opponent and what lies ahead this week, the question about Louisville was inevitable.

"Julius," the reporter started, "your reward for winning a game like this is you get to play Louisville. Do you have any idea what this week will be like building up to that?"

"I have no idea," Randle said.

He really has no clue.

When Kentucky-Louisville played in the Final Four in 2012 for the right to go to the national championship game, it was like nothing the state of Kentucky had ever seen in the storied rivalry.

Sure, there have been some classics over the years, and maybe nothing can quite ever compare to the original Dream Game in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, but the buildup? It was unprecedented in 2012.

This year's meeting in the NCAA Tournament might take a slight step back from that game two seasons ago, but only slightly - and only because this one's a few games removed from the title game.

But when you take into account UK and Louisville have won the last two national titles and could easily win a third one as well, the buildup for Friday's game at 9:45 p.m. in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis is going be insane.

Alex Poythress had already turned his attention from the postgame celebration on Sunday to Louisville by the time reporters met with him in the locker room.

"We have to," Poythress said. "We got to take it one game at a time, focus on your opponent. We got to come out and play strong, try to take their strengths away."

UK won the regular-season meeting 73-66 at Rupp Arena on Dec. 28. The Cats won that game without the services of Julius Randle for most of the second half because of cramps in his legs.

It was Coach Cal's fifth victory in six games against Louisville since coming to Kentucky.

Since then though, Louisville has returned to its national-championship form of a year ago, winning 14 of its last 15 games behind Russ Smith, Montrezl Harrell and a stifling defense.

"They press a lot, they got great guards (and) good bigs," Poythress said. "We just got to come out and try to take those points away and try to break the press and everything like that."

Head down

If someone would have told Calipari before the game that Wichita State would shoot 55.1 percent from the floor and 10 for 21 from behind the arc, he wouldn't have given his team much of a chance.

"I would have said it was a heck of a year," Coach Cal said.

As it turns out, Kentucky matched Wichita State in the shooting column, staying within reaching distance with strong shooting performances from the Harrison twins, James Young and Alex Poythress.

But the Cats didn't rely solely on their jump shots to win. When the game was on the line late, UK took the ball to the hoop.

While Cleanthony Early and Baker seemed to make anything and everything from all spots on the floor, UK made a concerted effort in crunch time to drive to the basket, get a layup or get fouled.

 "In the end they basically just lowered their head," Marshall said. "It seemed they were just driving it and we were having too much body contact. And for the first time this year, it seemed like the rules, the new rules, worked against us as opposed to in our favor. So credit them."

As a result, the Cats shot 14 free throws over the final 4:52 of game time, making 11 of them.

"That was a big key," Marshall said. "We couldn't defend the foul line at the end of the last eight or 10 minutes."

Play of the game

Aaron Harrison hit big shots. Andrew Harrison made clutch free throws. Julius Randle ignited the second-half rally. And James Young hit the biggest shot of the game.

The biggest play of the game in Calipari's eyes, however, was Dakari Johnson's unofficial offensive rebound after Aaron Harrison missed the second of two free throws with 4:11 to play.

Johnson didn't get credit for the rebound because he deflected it off a Wichita State player and out of bounds, but it gave UK the ball back. Andrew Harrison went to the line for two more free throws after the timeout, making both and getting UK within 69-67 with 3:54 left in the game.

"That was the play of the game," Coach Cal said. "If we don't get the ball and get it back to two, I don't think we win the game.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Matthew Mitchell (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Matthew Mitchell (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell was bordering on surprised, not that his team won, but at how well the Wildcats played during Saturday's NCAA Tournament first-round victory over Wright State.

Even with all the momentum the Kentucky women's basketball team took into the NCAA Tournament coming off a nice run at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Mitchell just wasn't sure what to expect.

Hosting a NCAA Tournament game for the first time, having not played in two weeks and facing a relatively unfamiliar opponent with postseason pressure Mitchell had good reason to feel that.

He ended up witnessing -- and contributing to -- one of the better all-around performances Kentucky has put together all year.

"I certainly didn't come into today with this kind of expectation that we would play this sharp," Mitchell said. "We've historically kind of struggled in this game for whatever reason, because of the long layoff and so my mindset going into the game was just to let them know that they had clear advantages in the game."

Mitchell may not have anticipated his team would play as well as they did, but he certainly enjoyed the 106-60 victory. Much of the success may have been down to his simplified message before the game: to exploit Kentucky's physical advantages be them in terms of size and speed.

"I didn't go in thinking we were going to win by 20, or 40, or anything like that," Mitchell said. "I sort of showed up with the mindset (Saturday) of let me do my part for the victory, let me coach the best that I can and let's see what happens. Nothing that they did really surprised me, but I was extremely pleased and grateful to the players that they came out and executed the game plan."

And so Mitchell turned his attention to Syracuse, Kentucky's second-round opponent, and the challenges the Orange will pose to UK when the two tip off Monday at 6:40 p.m. ET inside Memorial Coliseum.

But instead of focusing on the painstaking details of the matchup, Mitchell has been stressing a similarly simple approach to the one UK used going into Saturday's win. The Wildcats will need to continue to excel in every aspect of the game from here on out should they hope to advance.

Standing in the way will be Syracuse and the many variables that could affect how people play them.

"What I see with them is a team that is able to create some turnovers in a different way than we do," Mitchell said. "They full-court press you, three-quarter court press you, they've got some half-court traps that we're going to have to deal with and then the 2-3 zone, which we've had some success against, but it certainly hasn't been automatic this year. There have been times where we've struggled against the 2-3 zone."

The Orange -- in Mitchell's eyes -- match up far better with UK than Wright State. Thus Mitchell and his Wildcats will look to play even better than they did on Saturday morning. In other words the Wildcats are looking to improve on what was already arguably their best-played game of the season.

"We had a great day yesterday and we had a significant advantage in personnel," Mitchell said. "This game, the difference in personnel is not as great, the advantage is not as great and we have to be ready to play."

Arguably the biggest challenge for the Wildcats could be executing offensively against Syracuse's base 2-3 zone defense, which UK struggled against early in the SEC schedule. But the Wildcats have since shown they can make shots and get the ball to the paint no matter what defense they face.

And yet like their coach, the Wildcats themselves are embracing the challenge of facing a formidable zone defense in the high-pressure NCAA Tournament.

"I think it should be easier for us because it's just one thing we have to focus on, it's the 2-3 zone," UK guard Jennifer O'Neill said. "We don't have to worry about them playing man or trying to switch it to a 3-2 or stuff like that. We know what they're going to play and now we just have to go out and perform and execute."

Samarie Walker also doesn't seem to sweat the prospect of facing a 2-3 zone so long as UK can execute its offensive counterattack to the zone.

"It's a little frustrating for inside players because we don't know where were going to get the ball, we have to work just a little bit harder than (against) man (defense)," the senior forward said. We might not always get the ball on the block which is where we want to get the ball, it's a lot more movement for us but I think by now we should be used to it because that is what we got played most by in the SEC."

For his part, Mitchell seems more concerned with his team playing its best more than he focuses on specific opponent game planning. Although he likely watches plenty of opponents' game film and develops schemes to attack other teams too, Mitchell indicated he goes into big games keeping it simple, focusing more on his team positioning itself to play its best than preventing other teams from playing theirs.
 
Mitchell admitted as much when asked how he would prepare the Wildcats for playing Syracuse without knowing the injury status of one of the Orange's best players: Brittany Sykes.

"I don't know if this point in time with our team that we make it totally about the opponent," Mitchell said. "We really try and have a good plan that we can execute whether she's playing or not."

The Syracuse sophomore guard has since been ruled out for Monday's game, but the news likely won't change the broader theme for UK.

Mitchell is focused on his team playing its best as early and as often as possible as UK continues into the second round of the the NCAA Tournament.

Andrew Harrison played with an injured elbow and scored 20 points in UK's round-of-32 upset of Wichita State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison played with an injured elbow and scored 20 points in UK's round-of-32 upset of Wichita State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Speculation ran rampant for the 39 hours or so following Kentucky's win over Kansas State.

Fans broke down the instant replay of the injury Andrew Harrison suffered in the final minutes. Some wondered whether the actual diagnosis was actually more severe than a hyperextension.

The question underlying it all, however, was simple: Would UK's point guard be able to play against Wichita State in the round of 32's most highly anticipated game?

Funnily enough, that's the same question John Calipari had for Andrew Harrison.

"All I asked him was, 'Are you going to play?' " Coach Cal said.

At first, the answer was no. But as game time approached, Andrew Harrison couldn't help but change his mind.

After receiving around-the-clock of treatment in his hotel room overnight, there Andrew Harrison was walking onto the Scottrade Center floor wearing a sleeve over his shooting arm as a starter. In spite of some initial hesitation, he wasn't about to let his elbow keep him away from this moment.

"I wasn't going to play at first, but I felt like I just had to," Andrew Harrison said. "And I fought through it."

His brother, Aaron, always figured he would.

"He knew we needed him and the team knew we needed him," Aaron Harrison said. "And I've known him for a while, so I thought, I knew he was going to play. He wasn't going to sit out this big of a game."

Andrew Harrison played an instrumental role as UK (26-10) handed top-seeded Wichita State (35-1) its first loss, 78-76, in a game that lived up to its billing and then some.

"Without him obviously you know now it would have been a different game," Calipari said. "We couldn't have won the game."

Andrew Harrison didn't wait long to ease concerns about his elbow, scoring UK's second basket and back-to-back jumpers later to give UK a 19-15 lead midway through the first half. He likely would have avoided one or two of his four first-half turnovers and six for the game if he had been 100 percent, but the Cats had their floor general and the game was on.

In a second half filled with body blows and haymakers thrown by both sides, Andrew Harrison landed more than his fair share. He had 13 points after the break, helping to overcome 51 combined points from Wichita State stars Cleanthony Early and Ron Baker and a 3-point attempt at the buzzer by Fred VanVleet.

"I said yesterday that he would play and I anticipated him playing and he played great," Wichita State's Gregg Marshall said. "He drove it, drove it, shot it very well. ... Tremendous young player. Tremendous young player who had a great day."

He took advantage of the size that made him such a sought-after point-guard prospect, absorbing contact on drives to the basket and repeatedly getting to the free-throw line. He converted seven of his nine attempts there -- including five of six in the final four minutes -- as UK made 15 of 19 after halftime when every point was precious.

"He did a good job and we know we needed him for real," James Young said. "And he just came out there and just led us to the win."

It was the kind of performance expected of Andrew Harrison this season, though such efforts have only become regular in recent weeks.

He and his brother came to be the faces of the hype surrounding this Kentucky team. It began before they even before they set foot on campus, as the UK fans turned to the "Keep Calm, The Twins Are Coming" mantra to ease their minds during a disappointing 2012-13 season.

That pressure and those expectations, in many ways, came to define both the Harrisons and this team according to the outside world. Inside the walls of the Joe Craft Center, it's never been that way.

"This team and what people said about this team, all we have done all year is continue to get better," Calipari said. "We hit some shots. We missed some. Like every team, you hit a hole that you don't play well. But they believed in themselves."

After some subtle changes made before the postseason, Andrew Harrison is showing that belief to the world and redefining his year and his team's in the process.

Coach Cal believed his point guard would eventually come around.

"Because I have been through this 20 years and I've coached every different kind of point guard," Calipari said. "And I have been in a situation -- I don't know what I was thinking. Tweaked a couple of things for him and all of a sudden he is playing different, he's got a smile on his face."

Injured elbow and all, Andrew Harrison was all smiles as the Cats celebrated wildly on the floor following their upset win and later at the dais for UK's postgame press conference. He's in for a week of treatment on his elbow to get ready for a rivalry rematch with Louisville in the Sweet 16, but Andrew Harrison wasn't feeling much pain on Sunday evening.

"I am better now," he said. "Yeah, I'm good."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK took down top-seeded Wichita State in a thriller in St. Louis on Sunday, 78-76. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK took down top-seeded Wichita State in a thriller in St. Louis on Sunday, 78-76. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS - The shot was off, the weight was lifted and the perfection was over.

When Fred VanVleet's 3-point attempt bounced off the backboard and dropped harmlessly to the floor, the disappointment of Kentucky's regular season, with one swift, emphatic and stunning performance on Sunday afternoon in St. Louis, suddenly felt like it had vanished.

"It felt like five million pounds off our shoulders when the buzzer went off," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was just a good feeling."

With a 78-76 victory over top-seeded Wichita State on Sunday in a game for the ages, UK has not only erased the frustration of the regular season, it set up a chance to write one heck of an ending. The Wildcats (26-10), in ironic, almost poetic fashion given the preseason expectations that were thrown on this group, ended the Shockers' bid for perfection at 35-1.

They did so with their gutsiest performance of the season in the best game of the tournament.

"Heck of a game," John Calipari said. "Really proud of our guys hanging in there and fighting. They never gave up. Wichita State never gave up and had their last chance to win the game. Just proud of the guys."

The Wildcats, who are headed to their fourth Sweet 16 in five years under Coach Cal, stormed the court in celebration as the buzzer went off at the Scottrade Center.

The game warranted it.

Set up with tantalizing storylines (undefeated vs. preseason hopes of perfection), drastic backgrounds (big, bad Kentucky vs. a Missouri Valley Conference school), and contrasts in age and experience, Sunday's UK-Wichita State matchup was billed by some as the best round-of-32 game ever.

Somehow, someway, it actually lived up to the hype.

"This was an Elite Eight game," Calipari said. "The winner of this should have gone to the Final Four. That's what this was."

Kentucky will have to settle for a reward of a matchup vs. archrival Louisville in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis (more on that later), but the Cats will take it after the way things appeared to be headed.

After Wichita State took a 37-31 lead into the halftime locker room and opened the second half with a 3-pointer, Julius Randle shook out of a first-half slump and sparked the Wildcats on an 8-0 run.

From there on out, it was blow for blow, basket for basket, player for player. There were three ties and 14 lead changes Sunday. It was college basketball at its finest, but Kentucky landed the hardest punch.

"I thought it was a great game the whole time it was going on," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said. "It was back and forth. They would have the lead, we would have the lead, they would have the lead, we would have the lead. And ultimately their lead was two or three points."

That haymaker came from James Young, who, after seconds earlier had hit a layup, pulled up from behind the arc and drained a 3 to give UK a 73-71 lead with 1:41 to play.

"It was supposed to be a drive for (Andrew Harrison), but then I guess the defender stopped him a little bit, so he gave the extra pass and I just shot with confidence and it felt good to hit it," Young said.

From there on out, it was a matter of who could withstand the pressure the best. Andrew Harrison, who nearly didn't play Sunday because of a right elbow injury suffered Friday in the Kansas State game, was game.

The freshman guard, who has taken more than his fair share of criticism for UK's 10-loss season, stepped up with three free throws over the final 42 seconds to ice the win.

"I fought through it," Andrew Harrison said of the pain in his elbow. "The elbow, once you get your adrenaline flowing, it felt fine."

Between Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle, UK hit 11 of 14 free throws over the final 4:52 of game time. One of the only misses - the back end of Andrew Harrison's two free throws with 7.2 seconds left - gave Wichita State a shot to win or tie it, but VanVleet's miss out of a timeout ended a super season for the Shockers.

"It's literally been a magic carpet ride," Marshall said.

The Cats just pulled it out from under them.

"All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get a big win like that, just enjoyed it," Randle said. "Everybody was happy and we just have to keep building on it."

UK shot 54.0 percent for the game - its highest mark since Dec. 21 - knocked down 8 of 18 3-pointers and hit 16 of 22 from the line.

Andrew Harrison led all scorers with 20 points and was clutch down the stretch, but Aaron Harrison was just as big with 19 points and four 3-pointers. Randle rebounded from a rough first half with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, and Young finished with 13 points and eight rebounds.

Wichita State looked liked it was going to hold UK off when the sensational Cleanthony Early - he of the 31 points and 12-of-17 shooting - hit one of his four 3-pointers go give the Shockers a 69-64 lead with 4:36 left, but there were so many moments the Cats could have died and didn't.

Take, for instance, the nine-point Wichita State lead in the first half when UK suddenly couldn't hang on to the ball. Young answered stole back momentum with a 3 before halftime.

Or the 6-0 run by the Shockers when UK had seized the momentum and the lead, 58-55. Andrew Harrison calmly answered it by getting to the line and making two foul shots.

"Earlier in the year we would have gave in, but it just shows how we've grown," Dakari Johnson said.

Was there some good fortune involved? Maybe a little. One could probably chalk up Aaron Harrison's banked 3-pointer as that.

But for a Kentucky team that had failed to live up to its preseason billing and had so often hit the mat when fights got tough in the regular season, there's something to be said about UK playing itself into a position for its biggest win the year - and perhaps a season-changing one at that.

"A lot of people counted us out the first game, let alone this game," Cauley-Stein said. "It just goes to show that we kept on fighting through all the bad stuff that happened the rest of the season and playing with a will to win and playing with more energy and effort now. That's the game, especially in the tournament."

For the Cats, who talked of a new season when the postseason began last week at the Southeastern Conference Tournament, they've been given a chance to write a new ending.

"They have been through so much," Calipari said. "They have been attacked, they have been bludgeoned, 'they can't play, they're not a team, you can't do it this way.' But they stayed together. It makes you strong. It makes you tough as nails. And we just hung around."

When the game ended and the Cats jogged back to the locker room, the coach who has dragged his bad hip along for the last few months seemed to float to the locker room as he pumped his fist in the air for the fans clad in blue.

Coach Cal said not to mistake his happiness as a sigh of relief.

"If wins are relief, it's time for me to retire," he said. "This was great joy in seeing a group of young men come together and start figuring this out. It took longer than I'd hoped. I told them after the game, I've been hard on you like I've been every team. It's just been a longer process with you guys. But at the end of the day, you are seeing that they understand what's acceptable and what's not acceptable."

Now the stage is set for yet another gargantuan NCAA Tournament showdown with archrival Louisville, the second one in three seasons. Randle admitted he has "no idea" what to expect in the buildup to Friday's titanic showdown in Indy, but he's got time to figure it out.

"I just wish we had another month of the season left, like keep playing, because we're getting better every day," Calipari said. "I just wish, you know, this thing could extend and extend and extend, but obviously it won't."

It will for at least one more week and without the weight of the world on their shoulders.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Highlights


Interviews with Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress


 
Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in UK's win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in UK's win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS - Sometimes the best offense is a good defense. In Aaron Harrison's case, his defense has revitalized his struggling offense.

The freshman shooting guard is averaging 14.0 points per game during the postseason, pretty close to his regular-season form, but he's rediscovered his shot over the last four games as he's honed in on defense and stopped worrying so much about the other side of the floor.

After making just 9 of 31 shots in his final three regular-season games, he's connected on 24 of 48 attempts during the Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournaments.

"When I'm playing against a really good scorer and he's not really scoring and I'm playing good defense, I think that takes a lot off me if I'm not playing good offensively," Aaron Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison scored 18 points in Kentucky's win over Kansas State on Friday night in the Cats' opening game of the NCAA Tournament, but it was his defense on K-State's leading scorer, Marcus Foster, that got John Calipari's praise.

"See, you guys are looking at his numbers offensively, but he is also guarding the best offensive player every game and still scoring," Coach Cal said.

Calipari never challenged Aaron Harrison to become UK's lockdown defender. Rather, it was Aaron Harrison who took on the role late in the year out of a desire to win.

"I think I just took that on as a focus because I knew I would need to bring that if we wanted to make a run," he said. "I know we all want to make a run and I just want to do everything I can for the team."

UK was allowing 69.1 points per game during the regular season but hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 67 points or shoot better than 44.7 percent during the postseason.

Aaron Harrison's defense has a lot to do with that, but he said he's been able to take more chances on the perimeter because of the return of Willie Cauley-Stein's shot-blocking presence inside. The more shots Cauley-Stein swats, the more gambles the guards can take on the outside.

"He blocks everything when he sets his mind to it," Aaron Harrison said. "It's really tough to score on us when he's in the game. When he blocks a shot, that's pretty much an outlet pass for the fast break really."

Aaron Harrison has been one of the biggest benefactors of the defense-turned offense. It's allowed him to take his mind off the pressure to score and just go play.

Both sides of the floor have benefitted from the change in focus.

"When we get stops we get out and run, and I think that's when we're the best," Aaron Harrison said. "When we get stops and get some transition buckets, the game's more fun and it just makes us a better team and a better team in transition. That's our strength."

Stretch 'em out


UK will have a sizeable height advantage both inside and out for the second straight game, a challenge for Wichita State that isn't lost on its head coach, Gregg Marshall.

"They're bigger, and inch for inch, pound for pound, more athletic," Marshall said.

 Of Wichita's State's main rotation players, only two stand 6-foot-9 or taller. By comparison, Kentucky boasts five players who are 6-9 or taller, including two 7-footers. The height trickles all the way down to the guards.

"I saw on the scouting report the shortest starter they had was 6-6 and you don't see that hardly anywhere in the country," said the 6-foot-3 Ron Baker, who also said that he's never seen a 19-year-old as big as Julius Randle in his life.

Kentucky's size advantage, of course, is nothing new for the Cats. They've enjoyed a plus-9.9 average rebounding margin this season - second in the country -- in part because they are simply bigger, taller and longer than just about any team in the country.

Marshall is hoping Cleanthony Early, who is 6-8, 218 pounds and more of pop-out power forward, can match up with UK's size.

"Well, I hope so," Marshall said. "I mean, there is nothing really I can do. I can't stretch them out tonight. I can't put them on one of those old medieval contraptions and try to stretch them. We're just going to do with what we have got and play our guys we have on the roster. I can't make any trades or pull anybody out of Triple-A. We will just go with what we have got and hopefully that's good enough."

Wichita State faced - and beat - a bruising Tennessee team early in the season, but as Marshall pointed out Saturday, while the Volunteers' Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon have tree trunks for legs, their limbs don't exactly reach as high as UK's.

"These guys are like a total eclipse when you go in there," Marshall said. "It is a different deal. And they are much more vertical. (Willie) Cauley-Stein is a vertical guy. Maymon is a wall builder. Jarnell Stokes at 6-7 is talented but not as big as (Dakari) Johnson."

Randle still finding himself

Julius Randle broke out a brief funk in the SEC Tournament with his 21st double-double on Friday, the most ever by a UK freshman, but Calipari believes he's still only scratched the surface.

"He is a guy that is still trying to find who he is as a player," Coach Cal said. "And I was trying to help him and didn't' do a very good job until hopefully now, trying to get him to figure out exactly how he needs to play to have success both for himself and his team."

Randle is leading the team in scoring and rebounding while raking in a number of postseason awards, including SEC Freshman of the Year and U.S. Basketball Writers Association Freshman All-America Team honors.

He's done all that while facing a myriad of double and triple teams.

"He's a great kid," Calipari said. "He's really - he's gotten better."

Countering chemistry and experience


Chief among the long list of differences between Kentucky and Wichita State is experience.

The majority of the Shockers' key pieces from their Final Four run of a year ago returned this season, only strengthening an already close-knit group. While Marshall has a number of good players, some even NBA prospects, what makes them elite is their chemistry.

Kentucky, in that regard, will be at a disadvantage, as it has been all year.

"You can't really neutralize it," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You just got to try to match it and you got to try to match it with energy and effort and getting 50-50 balls, making free throws and making put-back layups. That's been kind of the thing for us is we don't do those things. We're just starting to do them and I think tomorrow, that's going to be the difference in the game."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Numbers reveal few Wichita State weaknesses

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John Calipari addresses reporters at a press conference on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari addresses reporters at a press conference on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- As it happens so often for John Calipari's Kentucky team, the narrative entering the Wildcats' round-of-32 matchup with Wichita State is based on contrast.

In one corner there's UK, the uber-talented and uber-athletic group of freshmen and sophomores. In the other there's Wichita State, the outsized and under-recruited group of veterans with experience and cohesiveness on their side.

But for all the (oftentimes overplayed) differences, there's one thing the two teams unquestionably have in common: mutual respect.

"They play really hard," John Calipari said. "They have really good players. You don't go 35 or 36-0 or whatever they are without having really good players. And they have really good players. And they play hard and compete."

Coach Cal's Wichita State counterpart had a similarly glowing review on the eve of the matchup between his top-seeded Shockers (35-0) and Kentucky (25-10).

"With Kentucky you have not only a great style of play, but you have seven McDonald's All-Americans," head coach Gregg Marshall said. "You have guys that will play at the highest level very soon. I don't know how long; I am sure Cal would like to keep a couple of them around. But you have some of the best athletes at their age in the world."

Not only are the Shockers familiar with the Cats, they also know the history of the Kentucky program well. Marshall, for instance, named four of the five leading scorers from UK's 1978 national-title team off hand -- Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Kyle Macy and Mike Phillips.

"One of the storied programs in the history of college basketball," Marshall said. "Eight national championships and preseason No. 1. So certainly our guys are excited for this challenge and they are ready to go."

Ron Baker won't be teaching any history lessons like his coach probably could, but he has family in the Kentucky area and even a father who is a fan.

"When you hear 'Kentucky,' you think of basketball," the sophomore guard said.

Wichita State has a history of its own, including Final Four appearances in 1965 and 2013. All of the Shockers' major contributors this season were on that 2013 team that took eventual national champion Louisville to the wire.

"They've been there for three to four years so they know their coaching staff and they've been through a lot of stuff to get where they're at," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "There's a reason why they're successful."

It's now UK that stands in the way of the Shockers bid for history. Cauley-Stein, in a way only he can, broke down the matchup.

"They're playing with a lot of swag right now but we're also playing with a lot of swag right now, so the swags are going to intertwine and whoever fights more is going to win the game," Cauley-Stein said.

The outcome, however, will be decided by more than just intertwining swags. Let's go to the numbers to figure out how using kenpom.com's advanced stats.

When Kentucky is on offense

Defensively, Wichita State conspicuously lacks weaknesses.

The Shockers are only average in the turnover department, forcing mistakes on 18.3 percent of possessions (175th nationally), but they rank in the top 11 in both effective field-goal percentage defense (.442) and defensive-rebounding percentage (.740), and a solid 71st in defensive free-throw rate.

In other words, the Cats are going to have to earn whatever they get.

Barring a remarkable night, UK can't expect to shoot the lights out on Sunday. The Cats haven't been a knockdown shooting team -- ranking 171st in effective field-goal percentage -- all season and shouldn't expect that to change against a defense that ranks 10th nationally in adjusted efficiency.

Where UK likely needs to make its hay is in attacking the basket and the offensive glass. As well as Wichita State has rebounded and protected the rim this season, the Shockers haven't faced a team with UK's length and athleticism.

Wichita State did defeat Tennessee and its bruising forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, but Marshall sees Kentucky in a different light.

"These guys are like a total eclipse when you go in there," Marshall said. "It is a different deal. And they are much more vertical. Cauley-Stein is a vertical guy. Maymon is a wall builder. Jarnell Stokes at 6-7 is talented but not as big as (Dakari) Johnson."

When Kentucky is on defense

Wichita State offense is much like its defense: solid in nearly all facets. The Shockers' 11th-ranked unit is no worse than 66th in any of kenpom.com's Four Factors. No other team in the country even ranks in the top 100 of all four.

If you want to stretch for a weakness, your best bet is 3-point shooting. The Shockers are just 159th nationally in that category at 34.6 percent and have shown a propensity for attempting more than the numbers suggest they should. Wichita State attempts 36.5 percent of its shots from 3, well above the national average of 32.9 percent.

For UK's defense to have success at the level needed to score an upset, the Cats will need to contest first shots well as they have all season in ranking 11th in effective field-goal percentage defense and close out possessions with defensive rebounds. Since Wichita State takes of the ball so well and UK forces turnovers so infrequently (16.3 percent of opponent possessions), the Cats can't afford to give the Shockers any extra opportunities.

Style of play

Wichita State has the athletes to get out and run, but the Shockers thrive in the half court. They are 241st nationally in adjusted tempo and Kentucky 203rd. This suggests Sunday's game will be a slow-paced one that requires the young Cats to be tuned in from start to finish.

That's how the Shockers' second-round game was, which caught the attention of Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero.

"The thing about Wichita State is what we want to emulate most in our program is they very, very, very rarely take any plays off," Callero said. "Their defensive attention and focus and offensive attention and focus is excellent. As good is there is in basketball, college basketball."

As detailed above, both teams play solid defense. Missed shots, as a result, could be plentiful. If that does prove to be the case, Baker's analysis could be prophetic.

"It will be a war on the glass and I think the winner on the glass will win the game," Baker said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will take on top-seeded Wichita State on Sunday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats will take on top-seeded Wichita State on Sunday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Imagine you're a Kentucky fan still living in October 2013 and have a chance to travel through time to March 2014.

You, swelling with the anticipation of the season and talk of a possible 40-0 season, land in the bowels of the Scottrade Center and end up in the Wildcats' locker room on Saturday afternoon. You see the cameras, the reporters and a feeling of overwhelming hype and you think to yourself, "Everything has gone as planned."

Only, it's not the plan of the Kentucky Wildcats.

Instead, when eighth-seeded UK (25-10) takes the court on Sunday with a chance to advance to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons, it will be the Wichita State Shockers (35-0) -- not the preseason No. 1 team -- who are looking to continue an undefeated if not improbable season.

The irony -- from every end of the spectrum -- is as thick as it is juicy. If it isn't the most compelling round-of-32 matchup over the last decade or so, it's certainly the most intriguing of this hard-to-turn-away-from tournament.

Sunday will feature so many storylines that reporters -- including this one -- were tripping over themselves Friday night when Kentucky finished off Kansas State.

You've got kids who were recruited by every school in the country vs. kids who were overlooked by most. There's the big school with the big fan base -- perhaps the most recognizable in all of college basketball -- against the little guys in the Missouri Valley Conference. Then there's the whole one-and-done freshman team vs. the older, more experienced group.

And of course, this one will pit a team that was discussed as a potential 40-0 team against one that's kept the dream alive.

UK sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, sitting in that locker room on Saturday with a dozen or so reporters in his face, almost sounded glad his team, the one that was favored to win it all at the beginning of the season, is the one trying to play spoiler.

To think about being undefeated at this point in the year and trying to complete what has never been done before (other teams have gone undefeated; just never 40-0) is a burden Cauley-Stein is happy his team doesn't have.

"That's a lot of unwanted pressure to think about," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, you see where that got us in the beginning of the year before we even played a game. It's just an unwanted burden."

Those expectations -- perhaps impossible to meet for 18- and 19-year-olds playing against one of the nation's toughest schedules in unrelenting pressure and under the national spotlight at Kentucky -- nearly ended up destroying Kentucky's season for the second year in a row.

The Cats lost 10 games this season -- way more than anyone could have anticipated -- but they've turned it around and are still in a position to achieve their ultimate goals of a Final Four berth and national championship.

In hindsight, Cauley-Stein said the pressure was unfair on them.

"That's just unnecessary pressure on us, especially for guys that don't really know how to play with a team," he said. "They've all been that dude on their team in high school, so like the stuff runs through them and now you've got eight guys that can play the game of basketball instead of just one or two. We're figuring out that if you share the ball you're still going to get a lot of shots and probably more. That's the difference of who Wichita State is and who we are. They've been here for three to four years and know how to play with each other. We're just figuring it out."

The Cats are figuring out late in the year how to be more like Wichita State and less like the talented but divided group of individuals they were at beginning of the season, but it still doesn't change the backgrounds and the tantalizing story heading into Sunday.

From the recruiting side of things, Wichita State is a group of kids that, according to Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, weren't even on the "second-level down from Kentucky's recruits."

None of Wichita State's players sitting at the podium on Saturday -- Ron Baker, Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter -- said they were recruited by UK.

"I bet not one player on our team got a form letter from Kentucky," Marshall said.

Likewise, Marshall never recruited a single player on UK's roster or, believe it or not, even heard of them because of an inability to talk to kids of that caliber at a program like Wichita State.

"It's just a whole different level of recruiting and whatnot," Marshall said. "They do what works well for them and we try to do what works well for us."

And the Shockers do pretty much everything well.

Since their surprising run to the Final Four last season, which included an upset of the top seed in their region, Gonzaga, and a near victory over eventual national champion Louisville, all they've done is win. Thirty-five in a row, to be exact.

While the resume lacks quality wins -- the Shockers have beaten the likes of Tennessee and BYU but hadn't played an NCAA Tournament opponent since Dec. 22 until Friday night -- part of that has to do with Wichita State's quality of play and not the school's inability to schedule top-level teams.

The school took a major blow when Creighton left the conference for greener pastures, but more so than that, few people want to play the Shockers without an unfair deal that Wichita State's athletic director is wisely not settling for.

So Wichita State just keeps playing who it plays and keeps winning.

"You don't go 35 or 36-0 or whatever they are without having really good players," Calipari said. "And they have really good players."

But even those really good players, a couple of whom have watched Kentucky basketball from afar, realize the magnitude of Sunday's game. While UK is trying to rewrite its season, Wichita State is trying to validate its.

"This is a big step in the road," Baker sad. "It is a big game for us as players, individuals, for our university. And you kind of look at it as a bigger picture."

Marshall, whose attention to detail was on full display Saturday when he rattled off memories, names from his past and even a UK game in the 1970s, has actually embraced the run for perfection with his team. He wants his group to be special and keep the winning streak going, but he also doesn't want his players to look past the weekend.

"Our goal this weekend is to be 2-0 and to win two games in order to get to the next weekend," Marshall said. "Right now we have won one and we have one to go."

Calipari, on the flipside, doesn't want his team to get caught up in the fray, but there's little hiding the juiciness or the irony of Sunday's UK-Wichita State game.

"At this point I just don't want my team to make this game bigger than it is," Coach Cal said. "It's a basketball game."

A basketball game with some seriously good storylines.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Cats confident with or without Andrew Harrison

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Andrew Harrison is day to day with an elbow injury ahead of UK's round-of-32 game against Wichita State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison is day to day with an elbow injury ahead of UK's round-of-32 game against Wichita State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Kentucky and Wichita State are set to face off in the most anticipated game of the round of 32.

CBS has its top announcing crew in town for the showdown between the team that was supposed to be unbeaten and the one that actually is. National media members from every outlet have descended on St. Louis ready to add to the hype.

But on Friday, the status of one of the key players in the matchup was thrown into doubt when Andrew Harrison went down with a right elbow injury in the final minutes against Kansas State.

As much as the powers that be may want both sides at full strength for the made-for-TV matchup, the NCAA Tournament stops for no man.

"Will they postpone the game for a little while so he will get healthy?" John Calipari said, drawing laughs. "Or do we have to play? We probably got to play."

Andrew Harrison is officially listed as day-to-day as of Saturday evening, marking no change from the wee hours of the morning following UK's second-round victory. But after a night of treatment, the freshman point guard is in significantly less pain, though still stiff.

"Oh, it felt a lot better this morning," Andrew Harrison said. "Last night it was very painful but now I'm getting better."

Andrew Harrison, speaking immediately before UK's practice at the Scottrade Center, wore a sleeve on his shooting arm to protect his hyperextended elbow. How much Andrew Harrison will participate was unclear.

"I told him do whatever he wants in the shooting, in the practice today," Calipari said. "If you want to be out there, be out there. If you don't, don't."

Due to the uncertainty, Coach Cal said UK is preparing for top-seeded Wichita State (35-0) as though the Wildcats will be without their floor general. Andrew Harrison said after the Kansas State win he would play no matter what, but his coach wouldn't rule out the possibility of holding him out.

"What if he is 70 percent and I see it?" Calipari said. "And I just say we can't win with a guy at 70 percent, we're going to have to play without you."

While Andrew Harrison tries to ready himself to play, the Cats will try to figure out how to handle his potential absence.

With Andrew Harrison battling a knee injury in the preseason, UK opened with both Aaron Harrison at point guard in its first exhibition before switching to senior Jarrod Polson in the second. Coach Cal now faces a similar decision.

"I don't know how we will do," Calipari said. "We may have Aaron start at point guard. Like I said, we will practice a little bit today and we'll see."

Ideally, UK would like to have its full complement of players as the Cats bid to handle the Shockers their first loss. Losing their point guard would a particularly significant blow, especially with Andrew Harrison playing his best basketball in the postseason, averaging 10 points and six assists in four games. Kentucky's recent turnaround can largely be attributed to his improvement over the last two weeks.

Nonetheless, the show must go on.

"I have a lot of confidence in whoever's filling his position," Julius Randle said. "Jarrod, Aaron filling the point, we've got guys who can play quality minutes at the point position this year and that have been able to step up if he can't play. We'll see, but we have a lot of depth so I'm not too worried about it."

Given his history, however, Andrew Harrison should not be ruled out.

"In high school I pulled my hamstring and I played," Andrew Harrison said. "It was pretty tough but I'll be all right."

"I have seen Andrew play through pain, so if he's able to play he'll play," said his brother, Aaron.

An injury to his shooting arm is a first though.

"I guess I'll be just trying to get a few more assists," Andrew Harrison said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Pre-Wichita State player interviews

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Samarie Walker had 12 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 106-60 first-round win over Wright State on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Samarie Walker had 12 points and 14 rebounds in UK's 106-60 first-round win over Wright State on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
On paper, UK had a significant inside edge against Wright State. The Wildcats were bigger, stronger and had the stats to back it up.

In an NCAA Tournament win, the Cats made sure that edge counted on the floor.

"They had physical advantages in size, speed, depth, and so I really tried to go into the game thinking about just playing 40 minutes, coaching them, encouraging them and making sure that we moved on to the next round," UK head coach Matthew Mitchell said.

UK (25-8) blew past the visiting Raiders (26-9) in hosting a first-round game for the first time in school history, claiming a double-digit lead in barely five minutes and never looking back. The Cats set school NCAA Tournament records for points and margin of victory in a 106-60 that saw them do much more than survive in advancing to the round of 32.

"I think our personnel and our depth probably helped wear them down a little bit physically, so I think just our depth and our overall talent was the reason we were able to be so successful," Mitchell said.

From the very beginning, it was UK's potent post game that set the tone against a Wright State team that primarily played a four-guard lineup.

Samarie Walker --a proven producer in the NCAA Tournament -- had a double-double by halftime and finished with 12 points and 14 rebounds in just 24 minutes. Walker, a senior, seemed intent to make her final shot at playing in March count.

Walker, as well as she played, was hardly UK's only player to get it done inside.

DeNesha Stallworth (11 points, nine rebounds), Azia Bishop (10 points, eight rebounds) and Linnae Harper (12 points, seven rebounds) nearly had double-doubles of their own. The Cats had a school-record 67 rebounds as a team, tying an NCAA Tournament record for all schools and holding a plus-27 rebounding edge --tying a season high -- in a fast-paced game.

"Rebounding is always an emphasis for us," Mitchell said. "Coach makes sure that we know that's what we need to do every game no matter who we're playing. This time, he definitely emphasized that and especially since we had a size advantage, there was no reason for us to lose the boards today."

In topping the century mark, UK shot 55 percent from the field -- its second-best percentage of the season -- getting good looks inside over and over. The Cats outscored Wright State in the paint, 66-26, setting up a second-round matchup with either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga at 6:30 p.m. ET on Monday.

"That's the way we've been practicing," Jennifer O'Neill said. "Today everybody was just clicking on all cylinders. We had seven people in double-digits so everybody was clicking on all cylinders today."

When UK did venture away the basket, it was O'Neill who most often did the damage. She scored a game-high 21 points and hit all four of her 3-point attempts. O'Neill credited her big day to the way her bigger teammates played.

"It freed us up a lot," O'Neill said. "We were able to play an inside-out game and that's something that we have been struggling with. We've been struggling to get post touches, and this game Matthew told us that height was going to be an advantage and we just looked to go to them as much as possible."

That advantage paid off on the defensive end of the floor as well.

Wright State entered Saturday's game fourth in the nation in scoring at 84.0 points per game, but the Raiders never could find a rhythm against Kentucky. UK held its opponent to 19-of-82 (23.2 percent) shooting and blocked a season-high 12 shots in the process.

"I think that we had a real advantage personnel-wise and we had some size advantages that made it difficult for them to score at the rim," Mitchell said.

Stallworth had five of UK's blocks, Bishop four, Jelleah Sidney two and Walker one, helping to frustrate Wright State's Kim Demmings. Averaging 22.7 points before facing UK, Demmings scored just 12 points on 5-of-20 shooting.

A raucous home crowd loved every second of it, helping build the energy the Cats brought from the opening tip. In past years, UK has had its struggles against first-round opponents, but not this time.

Nearly two weeks removed from heartbreaking loss to Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game, the Cats were raring to go.

"I think we kind of felt that sadness from the loss and we wanted to make a run in the tournament," Walker said. "That's what we came here to do."

Notes: Randle regains form in tourney debut

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Julius Randle had 19 points and 15 rebounds in UK's 56-49 win over Kansas State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle had 19 points and 15 rebounds in UK's 56-49 win over Kansas State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Last weekend presented a dilemma for Julius Randle.

His team played its best basketball of the season in coming a basket shy of winning the Southeastern Conference Tournament, but UK's star freshman -- by his own description -- "couldn't throw a rock in the ocean."

One on hand, Randle wanted to help his team carry forward the momentum it had built. On the other, he wanted to move on from his individual struggles.

He accomplished both in making his NCAA Tournament debut on Friday night.

"I just left the SEC Tournament behind me," Randle said.

Randle returned to his dominant form in Kentucky's 56-49 second-round win over Kansas State. Overcoming the physical challenge Randle knew the ninth-seeded Wildcats (20-13) would present, Randle posted 19 points and 15 rebounds.

Randle had his 21st double-double of the season, giving him sole possession of the school record for such performances by a freshman as Kentucky (25-10) set up a matchup with top-seeded and unbeaten Wichita State that is already being hyped as one of the most compelling round-of-32 games in tournament history.

With Randle looking more like the player who won SEC Freshman of the Year honors than the one who missed more shots in the paint than he would care to count last week, UK has a much better shot at scoring the upset.

Randle credits his reemergence to his coach and his point guard.

"Coach (John Calipari) did a great job of taking things off my shoulders, told me not to worry about offense, let Andrew create for me," Randle said. "And Andrew made the game a lot easier for me and I was able to get the ball in spots where it was a lot easier for me to score."

Andrew Harrison delivered three of his five assists to Randle, helping him shoot 7 of 12 from the field after Randle made just 9 of 29 shots in three SEC Tournament games.
 
But even as he struggled from the field in Atlanta, Randle never abandoned his tireless work on the glass. It should come as no surprise he rebounded again against an outsized Kansas State team.

With Randle grabbing 12 defensive rebounds and three offensive, the Cats turned the edge they had on paper into an actual one on the glass. UK outrebounded Kansas State 40-28, creating extra possessions when points were at a premium.

Randle was largely responsible, gobbling up nearly 40 percent of UK's total rebounds in 35 minutes of playing time.

"That's always what you expect out of Julius," Alex Poythress said. "He's a great player, a monster on the boards. He's a beast out there. It's what we expect from him every day."

Andrew Harrison day to day with elbow injury


With uncertain play in the final minutes, UK created nervous moments for the thousands of fans who made the trek to St. Louis by allowing Kansas State to trim a 13-point lead with 52 seconds left to six at the 25-second mark.

During the stretch, Andrew Harrison was on the bench after sustaining an injury to his right elbow committing a foul going for a strip on close friend Wesley Iwundu.

"It's sore, but I'll be all right," Andrew Harrison said with an ice bag wraped around his elbow.

Andrew Harrison told reporters postgame that he underwent an X-ray, but he didn't believe the injury was anything more than a hyperextension. In fact, the freshman point guard felt good enough to return to the floor after Kansas State cut UK's lead to six.

However, he narrowly avoided adding to his career-high turnover total of six when Randle pounced on a ball Andrew Harrison had lost.

"I felt like I could have helped my team in that point," Andrew Harrison said. "I tried to get in and do what I could do. It just didn't work."

Andrew Harrison's status is officially listed as day-to-day by UK, though he gave a different impression when asked whether there was a chance he may miss Sunday's game.

"I'll get another arm or something," Andrew Harrison said. "I'll be alright."

Punch-back Cats

After Coach Cal has talked all season about his team needing to learn to respond to adversity, the Cats seem to have gotten the gotten the message.

For the fourth game in a row, UK responded to an opponent's run with a burst of its own.

After UK built a 12-point lead late in the first half, Kansas State scored nine straight over a 2:37 stretch that spanned halftime to cut it to three. A little less than five minutes later, a Shane Southwell 3-pointer made it 35-33 with 15:06.

In response, UK went on a 7-0 spurt to regain control. From then on, Kentucky would lead by no fewer than six points.
 
Willie Cauley-Stein anchored a stout UK defense with four blocks and four steals in a win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein anchored a stout UK defense with four blocks and four steals in a win over Kansas State on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS - If first impressions are everything, Andrew Harrison's first shots of the night - two free throws before the tip because of a pregame administrative technical foul on Kansas State for dunking in warm-ups - sent pretty strong signals that these UK players, most of them playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, had more than a few nerves to shed.

Andrew Harrison stepped to the line, spun the ball and lofted the shot, just barely grazing the left side of the rim on its downward trajectory.

"Almost shot an air ball left and we bust out laughing," John Calipari said. "Think about it, this kid is 18 years old in the NCAA Tournament, never been here."

Instead of clamming up, UK clamped down on the defensive end.

The eighth-seeded Kentucky Wildcats (25-10) shook off the early jitters and passed the first test in their NCAA Tournament journey, grinding their way to a 56-49 victory over ninth-seeded Kansas State (20-13) in the opening round for both teams.

There were some tense moments at the end when the Wildcats from Manhattan, Kan., cut a 13-point deficit to just six points in the closing seconds, but UK did enough defensively Friday night to set up a dream matchup with No. 1 seed Wichita State. On Sunday at approximately 2:45 p.m. ET, it will be the team that some predicted could go undefeated at the beginning of the season (UK) vs. the one that actually is (Wichita State).

"They play really hard," Coach Cal said of Wichita State. "They have really good players. You don't go 35 or 36-0 or whatever they are without having really good players. And they have really good players. And they play hard and compete."

But before UK could move on to Wichita State - which the Wildcats started to in the wee hours of Saturday morning in the team hotel - it had to take care of another group of Wildcats.

Kentucky did so Friday with one of its better defensive games of the season. Kansas State wasn't exactly an offensive juggernaut this year, but UK made things even more difficult for offensively challenged K-State by limiting Bruce Weber's team to 35.8 percent shooting.

Kentucky made just 38.0 percent of its shots and scored only 0.93 points per possession - its lowest mark in a win this season - but UK held Kansas State to 0.79 points per possession.

"Kind of cracked down and got a few stops when we needed them," Jarrod Polson said. "That's kind of what we've prided ourselves on the last two or three weeks is just cracking down and D'ing up, and I think we did a good job of that tonight."

Take away Kansas State's three buckets with less than a minute to play and the K-State Wildcats mustered just six field goals in the second half.

After cutting what was a 12-point first-half lead for UK to 35-33 early in the second half, Kansas State managed just one field goal over a stretch of longer than 11 minutes.

Kentucky capitalized on its size advantage - KSU has just one eligible player who measures 6-foot-9 or taller - to disrupt Kansas State's offense. Leading scorers Marcus Foster and Thomas Gipson scored early, but they struggled late, scoring just nine combined points in the second half.

Weber said UK's length bothered his undersized team -- and it wasn't just Kentucky's post players.

"I thought their perimeter defense was way better than just watching on some of the games on film," Weber said. "Those dudes fought through screens and got to us. They're long. They not only have size inside, but the Harrisons are 6-5, 6-6. (James) Young is long. They bring in 22 (Alex Poythress), also has great length. So it makes it tough on you."

Calipari gave credit to Aaron Harrison for the perimeter defense. Not only did he score 18 points Friday, he guarded Foster, K-State's best scorer, and limited him to 7-of-18 shooting.

"See, you guys are looking at his numbers offensively, but he is also guarding the best offensive players every game and still scoring," Coach Cal said.

But Kentucky's defense on Friday, as it was during its Southeastern Conference Tournament run, was anchored by Willie Cauley-Stein. The sophomore forward, who had four of UK's seven blocks against Kansas State, has swatted 17 shots over the last four games, going back to the start of the postseason.

During that stretch, UK hasn't allowed an opponent to score more than 67 points or shoot better than 44.7 percent.

"Willie, he's done this all year," Calipari said. "It's hard to drive on us when he's in there, so you end up having to take jump shots."

Cauley-Stein also added four steals Friday. It took him just two seconds of game time to get his first one against Kansas State.

The big man from Olathe, Kan., said he's embracing his role as an energy guy now that UK's "second season" has started.

"Absolutely," Cauley-Stein said. "I thought at the beginning of the season that, you know, I did a pretty good job of coming in and doing it. And you know, for a couple games I lost focus of what I was really trying to do and now it's just picking up again. And I mean, it's a difference of the game, for real."

Calipari said Cauley-Stein is just starting to come "into his own."

"All these kids are," Coach Cal said.

Julius Randle broke out of his SEC Tournament funk with 19 points and 15 rebounds, surpassing Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins for the most double-doubles for a freshman in UK history with 21 of them.

Andrew Harrison added seven points, five assists and five rebounds, and Young had seven points as well.

Friday was by no means a work of art, but it was good enough for the Cats to survive, advance and set up a date with Wichita State.

The talk on Saturday will be focused on the irony of a team that some thought could go 40-0 facing one that still has realistic goals of it, but for a few hours at least, the Kentucky Wildcats wanted to enjoy Friday night's NCAA Tournament victory.

After all, for most of them, it was their first one.

"I'm really not trying to think about them right now," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm trying to enjoy this win tonight with my teammates in the room. We're going to wake up tomorrow focused, and that's the only thing we can do right now."

Video: Kentucky-Kansas State Highlights

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Andrew Evans, 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships Andrew Evans (Spencer Allen, Sports Image Wire)
Kentucky track and field head coach Edrick Floreal speaks often about the importance of "making an impression."

The thinking goes that Kentucky teams, so often considered an afterthought in recent years at Southeastern Conference and NCAA championships, must prove their worth time and time again on big stages before they can be considered "relevant."

For those familiar with Floreal, relevance is another focal point he often hammers home to the Wildcats.

To that end, Floreal's Wildcats are solidly on the way to relevance given their indoor performances, but they're not there yet.

Despite both teams finishing in the SEC top five for the first time since 1988, the women's team placing in the top 10 at the NCAA Indoor Championships for the first time in 25 years and also earning a school-record ranking No. 6 during the indoor season, much remains to be achieved.

After the SEC Indoor Championships, Floreal admitted to the teams that by his nature it's doubtful the Wildcats will ever satisfy him no matter how good they get -- though he did concede he would be quite happy with a SEC team championship as a start.

Nonetheless starting with the 2014 outdoor track and field season, which begins of Friday, UK will have plenty of opportunities this outdoor season to begin the journey toward reaching their coach's goals.

Floreal for his part has now dubbed the 2014 outdoor season the "quest for relevance." The first step in that quest will begin this weekend as the Wildcats are taking spring break in a warm and ideal setting given the winter they just went through in Lexington, Ky.

The setting is typical of many college students' Spring Break: Tempe, Ariz., but the purpose is a little less so.

While they will have ample opportunity to sit by pools and enjoy the desert sun, almost to a person, the Wildcats will compete on Friday and Saturday, pushing their bodies beyond the limit most people would consider comfortable.

Such is the life of a track and field athlete, not to mention those who compete for teams looking to challenge for national prominence and especially those who compete a coach as demanding as Floreal.

"This weekend will be one of many steps we must take on our march toward NCAA outdoor track and field relevance," Floreal said. "Our purpose going into this trip is twofold. No. 1 we want to set some early NCAA East Preliminary Championship qualifying marks. No. 2 we need to reacquaint ourselves with outdoor track and field while we build and strengthen our team under some much-needed sun rays."

What to watch for: Arizona State Baldy Castillo Invite (March 21-22, 2014)

The action will begin Friday evening and the only running events that night will be the men's and women's 1,500m in addition to the women's hammer throw, the only field event in which UK has entries.

Hillenbrand and Peare look to get back out there
Matt Hillenbrand and Allison Peare both made the mile finals last weekend at the NCAA Indoor Championships, but neither earned the top-8 finishes needed to score points. As such they are both likely to be eager to get back out there and post impressive times.

The men's field will be very deep with UK runners coming off strong indoor seasons. Keffri Neal will race for the first time since his SEC 800m Championships, likewise, Adam Kahleifeh will hit the track for the first time since he claimed the SEC 3k Silver Medal, only behind Hillenbrand who also won the conference mile.

Peare will be joined in the women's mile by Chelsea Oswald and Hiruni Wijayaratne. Oswald was the 2013 SEC 5k and 10k Champion last season, but will make her debut this outdoor season apparently looking to build a base of foot speed before going after the longer distances.

Long throwers debut
Part of the optimism for both of UK's teams to do even better than their monumental indoor season comes from the additional events on the outdoor track and field program that are not possible indoors, chiefly the discus and javelin throws.

Of Kentucky's three outdoor male scorers at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Championships, two return: Andrew Evans and Raymond Dykstra.

Evans will throw the discus in collegiate-competition for the first time since claiming the NCAA Bronze last season.

Dykstra will throw for the first time in competition since placing fifth at last season's NCAA Outdoor Championships.

UK will also look to turn out a formidable cast of outdoor throwers.

Rebecca Famurewa ranked No. 3 nationally in the discus for much of 2013 as a freshman after earning points in the weight throw indoors.

Madison Jacobs, who was an SEC All-Freshman performer in the shot put indoors, also has great potential as a discus thrower as she had a national prep top-10 mark last year.

Women's sprint options
Kentucky boasts a talented array of women's sprinters led by 2014 NCAA Indoor 200m Champion and 60m runner-up Dezerea Bryant. Given her recent success, as well as that of SEC 60m hurdles champion Kendra Harrison, the duo will not compete at the Castillo Invite after logging heavy loads at last weekend's NCAA Indoor Championships

Even without Bryant and Harrison's services this weekend, the Wildcats will still boast a formidable corps for relays this weekend, including transfer standout Dominique Booker and 2013 Second Team All-American in the 100m dash Keilah Tyson.

Bryant and Harrison will likely make their outdoor debuts at the upcoming Texas Relays.

Records in play
Many Wildcats made significant strides during the outdoor season, and as such multiple school records could fall this weekend.

Kayla Parker headlines the list of candidates to take down a school record this weekend. Parker owns the 100m Hurdles record, 13.16w, set at last season's NCAA Championships. Coming off a NCAA Indoor Championships where she did not make the 60H final and given her drastic improvement since last outdoor season began -- and especially over the course of the most recent indoor campaign -- now would be as good a time as ever for Parker to lower that mark, especially because Harrison will have a great chance at it when she makes her outdoor debut in the upcoming weeks.

Michelle Canterna will also have a chance at her outdoor school record.

Canterna set the UK pole vault mark last outdoor season, and raised the all-conditions mark to 3.97m/13'0.25" at her last outing, the SEC Indoor Championships.

Charles Moushey will have a shot at the UK outdoor freshman pole vault record, after he broke the indoor mark in a fourth-place performance at SECs.

Ibn Short and Justin Kretchmer will also have a shot at the Outdoor Freshman Record in the high jump.

Video: Sights and sounds from St. Louis

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UK will host Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 11 a.m. ET on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK will host Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at 11 a.m. ET on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
It's not that the Kentucky women's basketball team ever came to take playing in the postseason for granted.

Not long ago, UK Hoops was on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in. Matthew Mitchell was building his program, and that meant NIT berths in both 2008 and 2009.

Nonetheless, the Wildcats enter March Madness 2014 with a different perspective than in the first four years of their school-record five-year NCAA Tournament streak.

"Five or six weeks ago we were wondering if we would get in the tournament or whether we would play in it, so I think this team is very excited to play and I think they are looking forward to the opportunity," Mitchell said. "I think they appreciate the opportunity."

It's an opportunity third-seeded UK (24-8) will get only because of the way the Cats responded to adversity.

The beginning of Southeastern Conference play was rough for UK, bringing five losses in nine games and burying the Cats in the league standings. The Final Four aspirations Kentucky brought into the season and built on with two December wins over top-10 opponents seemed farfetched.

But rather than succumb to his team's struggles, Mitchell swallowed his pride and solicited help.

"When we were not playing well, I just went to the team and asked them for their feedback and God bless them they gave it," Mitchell said. "They were like, 'Well, you aren't real engaged with the team.' "

For Mitchell, that wasn't easy to hear. That didn't stop him from listening.

"I showed up every day knowing that I loved all of them in my heart and working hard and doing things I thought were important to try to get us better and they said they needed something different," Mitchell said. "They needed a different level of engagement off the court and it was surprising to me because it was a lot of veteran players that I felt like I knew them and they knew me."

Casting surprise aside, Mitchell took the message to heart and learned a powerful lesson in the process.

"You don't want to believe that about yourself and your initial reaction is, 'You're wrong, I do love you and look at what all I've done for you,' " Mitchell said. "Then you start playing that game and you have to stop that very quickly and listen to what they're saying. It was pain but I don't know that you learn a whole lot without some pain along the way."

Helping to unburden the Cats of the expectations he said had "weighed down" his team, Mitchell and his coaching staff placed a renewed emphasis on being there for their players outside the game.

"We're spending a lot more time together off the court here the past couple of weeks and I think that has helped on and off the court with our relationships and just getting to know each other better," junior captain Bria Goss said. "The coaches also are around a lot more, we commend them because we went and talked to them about it and they have responded so positively and I think that really helps us."

The proof is in the results.

The Cats have won seven of nine games entering an NCAA Tournament first-round matchup with No. 14 seed Wright State (26-8). Their only two losses have come to No. 1 seeds South Carolina and Tennessee, but UK also has wins over both during the stretch, as well as tournament teams Florida, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M.

UK was particularly impressive in the SEC Tournament, taking down Florida and South Carolina before falling to Tennessee by a single point in the championship game.

"I thought we were the more aggressive team and that's where we need to be tomorrow morning," Mitchell said. "We need to be the more aggressive team on the court and stay in attack mode and I think that was the greatest lesson we've learned out of the SEC Tournament."

It's a lesson that Wright State won't make easy to apply.

The Raiders have grabbed Mitchell's attention in preparing for Saturday's first-round game at 11 a.m. ET in Memorial Coliseum, especially for the way they play on the perimeter.

Wright State took down fifth-seeded North Carolina State earlier this season and was equally impressive in clinching its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in an 88-69 win over Green Bay in the finals of the Horizon League Tournament.

"I look at their guard play on tape and they are just outstanding and one of the scrappiest, most together performances I've ever seen in their championship game on Green Bay's home court," Mitchell said. "They played with a lot of fire and a lot of intensity. They will make it difficult."

Behind junior guard Kim Demmings -- who is averaging 22.7 points per game -- the Raiders are fourth nationally in scoring at 84.0 points per game and first in turnover margin (plus-9.9).

Where UK figures to have an edge is inside. The Raiders often play four guards and feature only one player taller than 6-foot-1.

"They are very scrappy guards and they look to dig on post players," DeNesha Stallworth said. "A key for us will be keeping the ball high and protecting the ball. Rebounding is going to be huge in this game. I think that our size is definitely going to be an advantage but we have to take that advantage and use it."

UK's other advantage will be playing on its home floor. The Cats are hosting NCAA Tournament first and second rounds for the first time ever and figure to have a vocal crowd cheering them on. But just like with their size, home court only becomes an advantage if the Cats make it that way.

"If you think about it overall, probably the No. 1 overall thing -- and I told the team this -- you need to play well so you gain the advantage of playing at home," Mitchell said. "You need to play with a lot of fire, a lot of intensity and a lot of passion, because that gives the fans energy and then they give it back to you."

UK at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Thursday afternoon. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

ST. LOUIS -- For all the naysayers and critics who say Kentucky can't turn its season around and make a run in the NCAA Tournament, Willie Cauley-Stein wants to thank you. You serve as motivation.

"Lot of the talk is we're too young and we can't do it," Cauley-Stein said. "Anytime someone says you can't do something it gives you extra motivation to go out and do it."

In that regard, the Wildcats' us-against-the-world mentality could have traction when eighth-seeded Kentucky (24-10) meets the ninth-seeded Kansas State Wildcats (20-12) on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for both teams.

But when Cauley-Stein told reporters on Thursday that his expectation for the postseason is to "shock the world," well, that raised a few eyebrows. After all, this is the same team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason and boasts seven McDonald's All-Americans.

"There's a lot of people that don't think that we can make a run at it," Cauley-Stein said. "And, you know, a lot of people don't want to see us make a run at it. ... Despite how the season went, now the real season begins tomorrow for us. And, you know, I think (John Calipari's) whole thing is just trying to shock the world and do what people say we can't do."

Coach Cal said it's possible to "shock the world" when everybody says "you have no chance," but that's not the mentality he wants his team playing with as it begins its NCAA Tournament run. Quite the contrary.

"I'm trying to get them to focus," Calipari said. "When they make that kind of statement, they are not totally listening to me now. You must stay in the moment and play good basketball games. It's what we do. It's what we've done. It's how we're playing."

It goes back to the oldest coaching cliché in the book: Take it one game at a time. Instead of focusing on the big picture, Calipari wants his players focusing on the first step. Without the first step, they can't make it to the second step.

"We are worried about one game," Coach Cal said. "Let's shock the world tomorrow - one game. And then we'll go from there."

Kentucky, by definition, is the favorite on Friday according to seeding, but while some people have pegged UK as a potential threat to top-seeded Wichita State in the next round, Calipari has refused to look ahead this week or even acknowledge playing the Shockers.

Calipari knows his team has its hands full Friday night in St. Louis against what he called "an outstanding opponent."

"Obviously my 18-year-olds are not listening to me if that (shock-the-world comment) is the statement they make, but that's OK," Coach Cal said. "Now I will go back and kill them and it will give me another to opportunity to say something to them."

Randle shakes off forgettable SEC title game with good week of practice


After he made just nine shots in 29 attempts in the Southeastern Conference Tournament -- with misses in six of seven tries in a championship-game defeat -- Julius Randle surely spent a lot of time thinking this week.

Fielding questions from reporters on Thursday, Randle didn't let on.

Asked how much time he spent in practice working on the short shots he so often missed over the weekend, Randle smiled wryly.

"I haven't worked on it at all," Randle said, drawing laughs.

Randle wasn't particularly interested in talking about his close-range struggles or how he's addressed them, but the player who most often guards him in practice was a little more willing.

"Oh, he's picked it up in practice," Alex Poythress said. "He had a rough game. Every once in a while you can't play perfect, but he's really been picking it up in practice, doing the things he normally does."

Mix the Randle who posted 20 double-doubles and won SEC Freshman of the Year honors with the Kentucky team that came within one basket of taking down No. 1 Florida on Sunday and the Wildcats could make some serious March noise.

Legacy TBD

With 10 losses, a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a difficult path to the Final Four, it's safe to say the 2014 recruiting class didn't live up to the hype as the greatest recruiting class of all-time, right?

Not so fast.

The Fab Five, regarded as the greatest collection of freshman talent ever, is remembered as the best, not because of how it started but because of how it finished.

The 1991-92 Wolverines were at one point 17-8 before winning three straight games to end the regular season and eight in a row to reach the national championship games. Kentucky, in that regard, could mirror that Michigan team in that its playing its best basketball late in the year.

Jon Hood, who said every team he's been on at UK has had that moment where it's clicked, said this group had its last week when the Cats nearly won the SEC Tournament.

"There's always that click but you always have to keep climbing," Hood said.

Iowa State's Iwundu 'like family' to Harrison twins

Andrew and Aaron Harrison didn't wait long after the Selection Show to get in touch with Wesley Iwundu.

The Harrisons played AAU with Iwundu on a team coached by their father and share a bond with him that goes well beyond basketball.

"I texted him I think the day we found out we play them and we were just laughing and joking a little bit," Andrew Harrison said.

"It was really just a lot of goofy stuff, a lot of funny stuff," Aaron Harrison said. "Wesley is really funny."

The Harrisons and Iwundu may not have engaged in serious trash talk via text, but make no mistake: They'll all be ready to play on Friday night.

"We are both competitors and going to try to play as hard as we can," Aaron Harrison said. "At the end of the day he is like family to me. I mean, we're definitely going out to win the game. There's nothing about that. I mean, we will still be friends after the game."

Free to fly

After one of their best collective stretches of the season at last weekend's tournament, Aaron Harrison said he and his twin brother, Andrew, feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.

"We just don't have to worry about what other people say," Aaron Harrison said. "We just have to make sure we stay within our team and don't try to listen and read every bad thing that everyone says about us."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK held an open practice at the Scottrade Center on Thursday in preparation for a second-round matchup with Kansas State. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held an open practice at the Scottrade Center on Thursday in preparation for a second-round matchup with Kansas State. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein can't help but wonder where all the time went.

The 2013-14 season, from his perspective, has flown by, going from Big Blue Madness to the March version in the blink of an eye.

"It doesn't feel like it should be time yet," Cauley-Stein said "It feels like all that time went by so fast. Honestly, it doesn't feel like we should be here talking now, but it's cool at the same time because it's what you dream of when you're growing up. This is what it's all about."

That dream, for Cauley-Stein and most of his teammates, is a dream that is only now being fulfilled for the first time.

A year ago, UK's season ended in the NIT, robbing Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress of the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament. Their freshman teammates, meanwhile, were roaming high-school hallways then.

That leaves Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson as UK's only two scholarship players who have been on this stage before, and only Hood has tallied a statistic in the NCAA Tournament.

Though Polson did see the floor for a few seconds of UK's run to the 2012 national title, Hood is responsible for the four points, five rebounds and one assist of NCAA Tournament production on the roster.

It's been four years, but Hood doesn't have to think too hard to remember the feeling of making his tournament debut, the same feeling his teammates will experience at around 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday against Kansas State (20-12).

"My first time it was an exciting thing," Hood said. "You really enjoyed while you're in it and you don't want it to end. We got shut out against West Virginia, got knocked out there and didn't like it, so it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It's something you don't want."

That's what makes the tournament so unique, that a single loss spells the end of a season. For that reason, Hood has taken it upon himself to pass along the knowledge he's gained.

Pressure-laden as playing in March may be, Hood knows the Cats (24-10) can't let it the magnitude of the tournament get to them.

"It's more just have fun," Hood said. "You have fun. That's the main thing. You can't go out there and clam up. You can't go out and be shell-shocked. That's a big no-no there because if you do that you're going to get yanked."

Of course, Hood isn't the only source of information on the subject in the UK locker room.

Before last season, John Calipari had coached in seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments, advancing to at least the Sweet 16 each time. Seeding quibbles aside, Coach Cal is happy to be back.

"Am I appreciative for my team to have an opportunity to be in this thing? Absolutely," Calipari said. "And I want them to soak it up. And I want them to enjoy everything. I don't hold them up. I want them to enjoy it all."

That, however, must be tempered by a sense of urgency befitting the win-or-go-home nature of the tournament. That's why Coach Cal hasn't backed off on the intense practices that helped propel UK to a trip to the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game in Atlanta last weekend.

"It's been challenging," Julius Randle said. "Coach has been challenging us every day. At the same time, it's been fun getting better in different areas and just kind of building on what we did this past weekend and just everybody's excited to play."

Excited as they may be, the Cats know better than to try to predict the emotions that will come at the opening tip. Cauley-Stein can only think of one way to cope with that.

"Try to run it out, to be honest," Cauley-Stein said. "That's kind of my game plan going in, is to just not worry about (anything) and just running and the nerves are going to run themselves out."

The hope is that doesn't take long, because Kansas State is long on the NCAA Tournament experience UK lacks. KSU seniors Shane Southwell, Will Spradling and Omari Lawrence have played in the tournament in each of their first three seasons, winning a second-round game in both 2011 and 2012. Now that group is down to its last shot, putting on another kind of pressure altogether.

Because of that, UK's youngsters believe they can play free in a way their opponents cannot.

"I feel like with us being so young, we can just go out there and play, no expectations," Alex Poythress said. "We don't know how hard it's going to be."

UK has worked all week to be ready for however difficult the challenge ends up being against a physical Kansas State team. But in the end, the Cats are just going to have to play.

"No matter how much you prepare for the other team or what your scouting report is, people are out there fighting for their lives to advance," Randle said. "Bottom line, that's what it comes down to tomorrow. Or any game."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

UK will take on Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at the Scottrade Center. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night at the Scottrade Center. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ST. LOUIS -- Kentucky is bigger, stronger, longer.

The narrative suggests Friday's Kentucky-Kansas State second-round matchup in the NCAA Tournament pits a team full of Goliaths vs. a group full of Davids. And to an extent, that's true.

UK boats six players measuring 6-foot-9 or taller, including two 7-footers in Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. The other Wildcats, the ones from Kansas State, feature just one eligible player who fits the same guidelines, and he - D.J. Johnson - stands only 6-9 and plays just 14.2 minutes per game.

"We hold a pretty good advantage, especially height-wise and athletically," said Julius Randle, who stands at 6-9, 250 pounds. "We have advantages everywhere on the floor. I feel like, as long as we share the ball and play within our roles (we should be fine.)"

But as Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson said earlier in the week, what the purple-clad Wildcats lack in size they make up for in "girth."

"You say 'smaller,' but they're physical," John Calipari said Thursday. "... Defensively, they're coming at you. I mean, they're not giving up an inch. So yes, they may not be 7-foot tall, but there aren't many teams in college basketball 7-foot tall."

Kansas State relies on its bruising play, and no player represents that style more accurately than Gipson, KSU's low-post bull. The junior forward stands just 6-7, but he tips the scales at 265 pounds.

Gipson more than makes up for his height disadvantage by scoring 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.

"I feel like he's similar to Jarnell Stokes and Pat Young," Cauley-Stein said. "Those guys were tough to play. (Gipson is) obviously a lot bigger and stronger, but it really hasn't weighed in until I see him."

Cauley-Stein will likely draw some of the assignment on Gipson, and though he has a height advantage on him, Cauley-Stein pointed out that smaller guys generally figure out a way to compensate for their short stature.

Kansas State's solution is to play physical.

"A big body, you can't move 'em like you would other people," Cauley-Stein said. "You got to make sure when you're rebounding you stay on his body and use your length. Like you said, he's 6-7. I feel like I can use my length against him and kind of take away some of those (rebounds) by sitting on his body and using my length."

Gipson said it's accurate to call his team a group of guys who make up for their lack of height by putting some muscle on the opposition.

"We want to play tough and play hard," he said. "... We want to be the gritty team that does all the things to help us win."

To get to 20 wins this season and make the NCAA Tournament, obviously Kansas State has found a way to win against bigger and longer teams. The Wildcats from Manhattan, Kan., have outrebounded their opponents this season and gone 7-8 vs. the RPI top 50.

Against the NCAA Tournament field Kansas State is 7-8. By comparison, UK is just 3-6 against the field.

"We faced big teams in our league," K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. "With Kansas a couple of times. Texas has the big bodies and length. Gonzaga in nonconference. We've been able to survive it."

Earlier in the week Calipari called Kansas State the most physical team UK has faced this season, and he might be welcoming it.

After watching officiating revert back to how the game was called last season - the NCAA placed an emphasis on calling physical play at the beginning of the year - and seeing his team struggle to finish through contact, Coach Cal made a decision last week to go back to playing under the old rules.

To toughen up his team and get them to play more physical, Calipari said his team had football practices last week.

"Helmets, pads, cleats," Calipari described the practices. "We slid around. Body, put your hand (on them); I just need to see your palms. Now foul the guy. Play through it. I don't want to hear it. Everything was physical, from the beginning of practice until we ended. And it made us more confident that we could play through that kind of play. It also put us in a position where if that's how the game is going, then we can play that way."

The Cats flourished under the new physical style in last week's Southeastern Conference Tournament, defeating two bruising teams in LSU and Georgia and coming within a bucket of winning the SEC championship.

Alex Poythress said they're ready to break out the boxing gloves again Friday.

"I feel like people are getting their confidence a lot better playing physical," Poythress said. "We're not taking the punches first; we're actually giving them out first."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Pre-Kansas State player interviews

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Video: March Madness -- The Road Begins

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Kentucky Sports Report (week of March 19)

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Baseball
- The No. 20 Kentucky baseball team completed a four-game road trip and opened SEC play at Alabama, picking up a win in a doubleheader split with the Tide on Saturday, and suffering a loss at No. 16 Indiana on Tuesday.
- Kentucky (14-6, 1-2 SEC) hosts Western Kentucky Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. ET and will then open its SEC home schedule by hosting consensus No. 1 South Carolina in a three-game series, starting Friday at 6:30 p.m. ET.
- UK suffered a midweek loss at Indiana on Tuesday, as the preseason No. 3 ranked Hoosiers got three two-run innings in a 7-2 win, with UK getting the second homer of the year from third baseman Max Kuhn.
- Kentucky then ventured to Alabama, ranked No. 21 in the preseason, with the Crimson Tide securing a 3-0 win to open the series, behind a game-changing defensive output, including a bases-loaded triple play, two double plays and the robbing of a would-be game-tying home run. The two teams then split a series-concluding twinbill, with UK getting a 7-2 win in the first game behind homers from Austin Cousino and Micheal Thomas. Chandler Shepherd worked into the eighth inning for his fourth win. In the finale, UK took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning behind a three-run homer from NCAA homer and RBI leader A.J. Reed. Alabama rallied in the bottom of the ninth with a two-out, two-run homer to tie the game. The Tide then got a two-out, two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th for the win.

Men's basketball
- The Kentucky men's basketball team opened postseason play with wins over LSU and Georgia in the SEC Tournament before a 61-60 loss to No. 1 Florida in the league's championship game last weekend.
- Kentucky will kick off its 53rd NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas State on Friday, March 21 at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET at the Scottrade Center the NCAA has announced.
- Kentucky (24-10), seeded eighth in the Midwest Region, will take on ninth-seeded Kansas State (20-12) in the second round of NCAA Tournament. The winner of the UK-KSU matchup will play the winner of No. 1-seeded Wichita State (34-0) and the winner of the 16-seed First Round play-in game between Cal Poly (13-19) and Texas Southern (18-14).

Men's golf

- For the first time this season the UK men's golf team finished outside of the top five in the team standings through six tournaments. The Wildcats three-day total of 18-over par, 882, put them in 11th place to finish the Schenkel Invitational.
- Senior Stephen Powers and junior David Snyder both recorded top 10 individual finishes by tying for sixth and 10th, respectively. Powers collected a 54-hole score of two-under par, 214, which included two rounds of under par play. Snyder finished just a stroke behind Powers with a one-under par, 215. Snyder's first round score of 68 was the low round by a UK player over the weekend.
- UK will next travel to Awendaw, S.C., for the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate held March 23-25.

Gymnastics
- The Kentucky gymnastics team closed the regular season Feb. 14 at No. 1 LSU with a 197.800-195.000 loss. The Wildcats (9-10, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) faced a team ranked No. 1 in the nation for the second time in 2014 and the Tigers were the eighth opponent ranked within the top eight that Kentucky faced in the regular season and the fourth in the top three.
- For the third consecutive meet and the sixth time in the past seven contests, the Wildcats scored a 49.000 or higher on at least two events. UK registered a 49.025 on vault and a 49.250 on floor, the second and third rotations of the evening. Kentucky opened with a 48.950 on uneven bars and closed the meet with a 47.775 on balance beam.
- Individually, senior Audrey Harrison registered a season-best 39.250 all-around score. Harrison, along with redshirt junior Kayla Hartley, led the Wildcats with a 9.875 on floor. Junior Kenzie Hedges posted a team-best 9.850 on vault, while senior Kayla Sienkowski notched team-high honors on uneven bars with a 9.850. Harrison also posted a team best 9.825 on balance beam in her final regular season meet of her career.
- Postseason competition begins for the Wildcats at the Southeastern Conference Championship in Birmingham, Ala., on March 22. UK is seeded seventh and will compete in the first session at 3 p.m. ET against No. 12 Auburn, No. 15 Arkansas and Missouri. Kentucky is 2-1 against those teams this season. The second session, which features No. 1 Florida, No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Alabama and No. 6 Georgia will commence at 7 p.m. ET and be followed by an awards presentation with all teams.

Softball
- The No. 9 Kentucky softball team won its second straight SEC road series for the first time in program history last weekend, winning two of three games at No. 16 Missouri. The wins moved UK to 7-3 this season against teams that are either ranked or receiving votes in the national polls. Kentucky's 4-2 start in league play is its second best in school history. UK also defeated Marshall in a midweek game, 6-2. UK's 21-4 record through 25 games is its best in school history.
- Senior outfielder Ginny Carroll paced the UK offense going 6-for-12 with a .538 on-base percentage, while senior Lauren Cumbess hit .429 with a double, homer and two RBI. Sophomore Nikki Sagermann had a home run and five RBI, while senior Emily Gaines had two doubles and three RBI.
- In the circle, Cumbess went 2-0 with seven strong innings over Marshall for a win and 1.2 innings over Missouri to clinch the series. Sophomore Kelsey Nunley went 1-1, falling to MU on Friday night before responding with seven strong innings on Saturday in UK's series-evening win.

Swimming and diving
- Divers Christa Cabot and Greg Ferrucci qualified for the NCAA Swimming and Diving Championship at the NCAA Zone Diving Championships in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend.
- Cabot, a junior, earned her second consecutive NCAA Championships berth thanks to a second-place finish in the women's 3-meter springboard event, while Ferrucci will make has fourth NCAA appearance after the senior placed third in the men's 3-meter event.
- Cabot and Ferrucci will join a field of four swimmers and one relay squad who already earned NCAA berths. Juniors Christina Bechtel and Abby Myers and freshman Danielle Galyer will represent UK at the women's championships this weekend in Minneapolis, Minn. Freshman Brandon Flynn, along with UK's 200 medley relay team of senior Lucas Gerotto, junior George Greenhalgh and seniors Eric Bruck and Chris Lott will swim for Kentucky at the men's championships next weekend in Austin, Texas.

Rifle
- The University of Kentucky rifle team finished third at the NCAA Championships, shooting an aggregate 4675.
- Sophomore Connor Davis claimed the individual air rifle title, the first Wildcat to accomplish the feat since Nancy Johnson in 1994.
- Senior Emily Holsopple finished the weekend with a 580 in smallbore and 590 in air rifle.
- Following the championships, seven Wildcats received All-America honors, including Emily Holsopple being named Lapua Coaches Association First Team All-America, recognizing the top-five aggregate shooters in the country. Davis, Holsopple and freshman Sonya May were all named First Team All-America in air rifle.

Men's tennis
- The No. 15 University of Kentucky men's tennis team completed a sweep of the Magnolia State teams this weekend, collecting a 4-2 win over No. 21 Mississippi State on Friday night, and a 4-1 win over No. 54 Ole Miss on Sunday afternoon to improve to 5-0 in SEC play.
- Kentucky won the doubles point in both matches, as the Wildcats have now won the doubles competition in six of the last seven matches. The Wildcats have two ranked doubles pairs in No. 26 Tom Jomby/Kevin Lai and No. 76 Ryuji Hirooka/Nils Ellefsen.
- Sophomore Beck Pennington went 4-0 on the week, picking up wins in both of his singles and doubles matches without dropping a set in either. The No. 67 ranked player in the nation beat Zach White of Mississippi State 6-1, 7-5 on Friday before a 6-3, 6-4 win over Stefan Lindmark Sunday.
- Kentucky, 5-0 in the SEC, joins Georgia as the only team in conference play with an unblemished mark in league action. UK and UGA meet on Friday in Athens for first place in the conference.

Women's tennis
- The No. 24 Kentucky women's tennis team went 1-1 this weekend when they took on Mississippi State and Ole Miss on the road.
- Kentucky (14-4, 4-2 SEC) defeated Mississippi State, 4-2, Friday in Starkville. The Wildcats rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to top the Bulldogs. Winning the doubles point, Kentucky lead early, but Ole Miss picked up three straight points in singles. Down, but not out, Kentucky responded with three singles wins of its own to knock off MSU.
- Against Ole Miss, Kentucky fell behind early and never gained the lead. The Rebels claimed the doubles point and an early 1-0 lead over the Wildcats. In the singles competition, Kentucky only won two matches en route to its second loss in conference play. Edmée Morin-Kougoucheff was the first Wildcat to get on the scoreboard after Ole Miss stretched its lead to 2-0 with a win at No. 6 singles.
- Kentucky hosts No. 12 Georgia Friday at the Hilary J. Boone Varsity Tennis Center. The match will begin at 11 a.m. ET.

Track and field
- The Kentucky women's track and field team scored its most points ever at a NCAA Indoor Championships, finishing with 23 points for ninth place nationally last weekend.
- The ninth-place finish earned the Wildcats their highest women's team placement since 1989 when UK ended the meet eighth with the University's previous all-time NCAA Indoor high score, 15 points.
- The UK women's team also finished inside the national top-10 for the second time ever, the other being 1989.
- Dezerea Bryant became the first woman in Kentucky track and field history to win the NCAA 200-Meter Dash Championship on Friday.
- Bryant finished the NCAA Championships as the team's high-scorer having earned 18 points in two events. On Saturday she came agonizingly close to pulling off the indoor short sprint double finishing runner-up in the 60-meter dash.
- Nine Kentucky Wildcats earned a total of 13 All-America honors for the 2014 indoor track and field season.

Upcoming schedule

Thursday, March 20
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Championships - All Day (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Friday, March 21
Women's Tennis vs. Georgia - 11 a.m.
Softball vs. Kent State - 2 p.m.
Track & Field at Baldy Castillo Invitational - 4 p.m. (Tempe, Ariz.)
Men's Tennis at Georgia - 4:30 p.m.
Softball vs. Saint Francis PA - 6 p.m.
Baseball vs. South Carolina - 6:30 p.m.
Men's Basketball vs. Kansas State - 9:40 p.m. (NCAA Tournament, St. Louis, Mo.)
Women's Golf at LSU Tiger Golf Classic - All Day
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Championships - All Day (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Saturday, March 22
Women's Basketball vs. Wright State - 11 p.m.
(NCAA Tournament, Lexington, Ky.)
Baseball vs. South Carolina - 2 p.m.
Softball vs. Fairfield - 2 p.m.
Gymnastics at SEC Championship - 3 p.m.
Softball vs. Kansas - 6 p.m.
Track & Field at Baldy Castillo Invitational - TBA (Tempe, Ariz.)
Women's Golf at LSU Tiger Golf Classic - All Day
Swimming & Diving at NCAA Championships - All Day (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Sunday, March 23
Women's Tennis vs. Tennessee - 12 p.m.
Softball vs. Kansas - 12 p.m.
Baseball vs. South Carolina - 1 p.m.
Men's Tennis at Tennessee - 1 p.m.
Softball vs. Kent State - 2 p.m.
Women's Golf at LSU Tiger Golf Classic - All Day
Men's Golf at Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercoll. - All Day (Awendaw, S.C.)

Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky will take on Kansas State at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky will take on Kansas State at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky won't be facing a team intimidated by the Wildcats' talent, size or the name on the front of their jersey on Friday.

In fact, Kansas State is itching for a shot at UK.

"My face just lit up," forward Shane Southwell said after the Selection Show on Sunday.

Southwell and his teammates know the names and faces of UK's players. Having watched Kentucky for much of the season on television, they even had an idea of how their second-round opponents would play before watching film.

"I was ecstatic because I love playing against great teams and great players," Southwell said. "When you are a high school player, you think about certain programs. You thing about Kentucky, Duke and Kansas, honestly, and it would be a great opportunity to beat a team of that nature."

That confidence doesn't come out of nowhere. Though the ninth-seeded Wildcats (20-12) have lost three in a row heading into a matchup with eight seed Kentucky (24-10) at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday, they come from a league viewed by many as the best in the nation.

Seven of the Big 12's 10 teams reached the NCAA Tournament, all of them seeded ninth or better. Kansas State has wins over five of them, including Kansas. The Wildcats also handed Iowa State -- one of the hottest teams in the country -- a loss on March 1.

"Our league, I hope, has prepared us for this, a talented team," Kansas State head coach Bruce Weber said of UK. "They've got athletes. I think they get to the boards. They've got some inside presence."

UK's inside presence comes in the form of 7-footers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein, as well as Julius Randle and Alex Poythress. Randle and Poythress -- standing 6-foot-9 and 6-8, respectively -- are taller than any Kansas State player who averages more than 15 minutes per game.

Though Kansas State's two starting post players -- Southwell and Thomas Gipson -- are just 6-7, UK head coach John Calipari knows they'll present a challenge with their strength. Gipson especially, at 265 pounds, will be a handful.

"I watched some tape and I'll tell you what: They're veteran, physical; great defensively; motion offense -- different kinds of motion; and then try to beat you on the dribble and they're physical," John Calipari said.

Coach Cal and his staff are spending much of the week breaking down tape of their opponent to learn even more. We're not equipped to do that here, but we can take a closer look at how the two sets of Wildcats match up on paper.

Per usual, we turn to kenpom.com's advanced statistics to do it.

When Kentucky is on offense

This is a matchup of two units rated in the top 25 nationally in terms of efficiency.

Kansas State's strength is forcing opponents to take -- and more often than not, miss -- tough shots. The Wildcats rank 32nd nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense. They are solid inside the arc at 46.0 percent but elite outside of it. Kansas State is allowing opponents to shoot just 29.4 percent from 3-point range, sixth in the country. Given that UK is shooting a below-average 32.5 percent from 3, the Cats could be in trouble if they rely too heavily on the long-range game.

That idea is only reinforced when you look at UK's strengths on offense and KSU's weaknesses on defense.

Think about it: Kentucky has had hot streaks and cold streaks shooting the ball and has a pedestrian effective field-goal percentage of 49.7 percent. The Cats have had games where they've taken care of the ball exceptionally well and some where they've been more careless.

But from the very beginning of the season, there are two things the Cats have always done well: rebound their own misses and get to the foul line.

UK is in the top eight nationally in both offensive-rebounding percentage and free-throw rate, relying on size, athleticism and strength to get the job done. Kansas State, meanwhile, struggles to keep opponents off the offensive glass and foul line. The Wildcats are 254th in defensive-rebounding percentage (.670) and 277th in defensive free-throw rate (45.5).

Odds are UK won't shoot a great percentage against a stout Kansas State defense. Kentucky, however, should be able to find offensive success if the Cats stay in attack mode, play through bumps against a physical opponent and pound the offensive boards as they have all year.

When Kentucky is on defense

The purple-clad Wildcats were a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of offensive efficiency in the rugged Big 12, ranking between 160th and 197th nationally in free-throw rate, turnover percentage and effective field-goal percentage.

Like UK, Kansas State relies on second chances on offense, rebounding 35 percent of its misses (57th nationally). UK has been a slightly better defensive rebounding team than Kansas State (.701 rebounding percentage), but Kansas State will still surely see an opportunity on the offensive glass given UK's solid effective field-goal percentage defense (.450, 22nd nationally).

Regardless, expect some long offensive possessions for Kansas State. The Wildcats' average possession lasts 18.6 seconds, longer than all but 102 teams in the NCAA. Kentucky, meanwhile, forces its opponents into possessions that last 18.4 seconds on average, longer than all but 101 teams in the NCAA.

Interestingly and likely a function of that offensive patience, Kansas State ranks seventh nationally in assist rate, with 63.5 percent of the Wildcats' field goals coming off of assists. By contrast, UK allows assists infrequently, with only 44.7 percent of opponents' baskets being assisted. If UK can force Kansas State to try to create one-on-one at the end of the shot clock, Kentucky will probably be in good shape on defense.

If it does come to the end of the shot clock, the ball will more than likely be in the hands of Marcus Foster, the star freshman who made second team All-Big 12. The 6-2 guard leads Kansas State in scoring at 15.4 points per game.

"Foster's outstanding," Calipari said. "I mean, makes big shots, not afraid to score it."

He has attempted 400 of Kansas State's 1,787 shots on the season. Going a step further, Foster shoots 31.2 percent of his team's shots when he's on the floor, 57th among all players in the country. By comparison, no Kentucky player shoots more than 25.7 percent of the Cats' shots when he's on the floor.

Style of play

These are two teams that will run when opportunities present themselves, but Friday should not be an especially fast-paced game. Kansas State is 230th nationally in adjusted tempo, while UK is 195th.

Given the strengths of the two teams on the offensive glass and their solid first-shot defense, the outcome could come down to which team is more effective in terms of defensive rebounding. Given Kansas State's physicality and propensity for fouling, UK also figures to benefit if the officials call a tight game.

Whether the whistles are blowing or not, Kentucky will need to be disciplined and focused to make it past Kansas State.

"All I can tell you is that they're really physical, and they play a motion offense, which is somewhat structured, but it's pass, pass, pass, pass, pass and drive, so you've got to be aware of where the ball is," Calipari said. "You can't just start running around, and freshmen, we just sometimes run around."

If you're going to St. Louis ...

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If you're headed to St. Louis this week to watch Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, here are a few important items you will need to know:

Tickets

Tickets for Kentucky's second-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Kansas State on Friday in St. Louis are available online through Ticketmaster or by calling 877-NCAA TIX. Tickets are available by the session or in all-session packages. For all NCAA Tournament ticket information, please visit the NCAA Tournament ticket website.

Open practice

Kentucky will hold an open practice at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis on Thursday at 5:10 p.m. CT. The practice will last 40 minutes. If you want to take a look at UK's opponent, Kansas State, those Wildcats will have an open practice at the same location at 6:40 p.m. CT.

Noon-12:40 p.m. CT -- Stanford
1:30-1:25 p.m. CT -- Eastern Kentucky
1:30-2:10 p.m. CT -- New Mexico
2:15-2:55 p.m. CT -- Kansas
4:25-5:05 p.m. CT -- Wichita State
5:10-5:50 p.m. CT -- Kentucky
5:55-6:35 p.m. CT -- Texas Southern/Cal Poly
6:40-7:20 p.m. CT -- Kansas State

UK Alumni Association pregame event

The official UK Alumni Association headquarters will be at Joe Buck's (1000 Clark Ave., St. Louis, Mo.) during the first weekend of play in the NCAA Tournament. Drink specials and UK spirit items will be available. Attendees may purchase drinks and food from the menu. At approximately 6:30 p.m. CT, the UK band and UK cheerleaders will conduct a pep rally at the venue. Joe Buck's is a short walk (.3 mi.) from the Scottrade Center. The game will be shown at the venue later in the evening.

The weather

Like last week in Atlanta, the first two days of the week look to be promising before cooling off over the weekend, according to the Weather Channel forecast. But again, aren't you making the trip for basketball anyway?
  • Thursday - Sunny, high of 66 degrees, low of 43, 0 percent chance of rain
  • Friday - Partly cloudy, high 73, low 40, 10 percent chance of rain
  • Saturday - Mostly sunny, high 50, low 29, 10 percent chance of rain
  • Sunday - Mostly sunny, high 44, low 27, 0 percent chance of rain
Attractions

If you're looking to kill some time between games, explorestlouis.com has plenty of attractions to see and do in and around town.

And if you can't make it

Friday's game will be televised at 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS. If you can't watch the game in St. Louis but want to watch it with other Wildcat fans, here is a list of UK game-watch parties around the country.

UK will take on Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament second round at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament second round at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Call Kentucky's season what you want -- disappointing, frustrating, a failure to meet expectations -- John Calipari likely has a different opinion from most people of how it's gone leading into the NCAA Tournament.

"When someone says, 'Are you disappointed,' no I'm not disappointed," Calipari said on his weekly radio show on Monday.

Coach Cal is actually proud of his team, which, despite starting the season atop the polls, is seeded eighth in the Midwest Region, opposite ninth-seeded Kansas State.

"A normal team -- I don't care (if they are) freshmen, sophomores, seniors, juniors -- going through what we did, the onslaught of stuff and crap, would have some point broken apart," Coach Cal said. "The built-up expectations to tear you down, that no one can play -- but they stuck together. And they trusted the coaches so that we could then continue to try to figure out ways to get them to play better, to get our team better."   

The Wildcats in blue are scheduled to take on the purple-clad Wildcats on Friday at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on CBS. The winner of that game will likely play Wichita State, a No. 1 seed, which should make quick work of its play-in game opponent.

Some thought UK would be in a similar position as the Shockers, undefeated and atop a regional. Things haven't played out that way, but Calipari said Monday he never saw his 10-loss team as one that would be undefeated right now.

"I don't get that (disappointment) unless you honestly thought we were winning every game," Calipari told radio host Tom Leach. "A bunch of freshmen. Starting five freshmen."

Calipari conceded that he would have liked to have had a few more breaks and won a couple more games -- perhaps one more nonconference game and two league games -- but to navigate through the nation's second-toughest schedule and come on late in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, he feels good with where his team is heading into the most important time of the year.

"What I saw this weekend is what I've been waiting for (to see) for two months," Calipari said. "And you know what? We all were waiting, and so what (if) it happens now. Do you really care? Isn't that our job to be for these kids and just keep coaching them and keep trying to get them where they're supposed to go and be about them? 'Well, you didn't win for us!' It's not about us. It's about getting them right, and they're beginning to get where we're wanting to (go). They're growing up right before our eyes."

Growing, but not grown up quite yet.

"The reason I say there's room, we still have a couple guys not playing the way they're capable of playing," Calipari said.

One of them is leading scorer and rebounder Julius Randle, who fell into a slump during the SEC Tournament.

The recently named SEC Freshman of the Year made just nine of his 29 field-goal attempts (31.0 percent) in Atlanta, the worst three-game stretch of his career. During the second-half comeback against Florida, Randle actually sat on the bench for much of the run.

Calipari said Randle was "devastated" with the way he played over the weekend, but Coach Cal added that he and his staff have to make the game simpler for Randle so he doesn't have to think as much and can get "Julius back to being Julius."

"Here's what you're doing," Coach Cal said. "Do these things. Surrender. Go do them. And again, he wants to do it."

Stepping up for Randle on Sunday was Willie Cauley-Stein. The sophomore forward scored 10 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked five shots in the SEC finals. In the three games prior to the SEC Tournament, Cauley-Stein had averaged just 3.0 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks.

The difference, Calipari said, was a mindset.

"Tell me what happened," Coach Cal said he told him. "And he said, 'I had never won a championship and that's all I was thinking about is winning that championship.' And I said, 'Yeah, it got you out of your own self's way. So instead of thinking of you, you thought about that and what do I have to do.' I said, 'Now, keep that thought 'cause you can still win one. Stay in that mindset.' "

Cauley-Stein wasn't the only Wildcat who made a significant turnaround from the weeks prior.

Speaking glowingly on his radio show of his team's progress at last weekend's SEC Tournament, where the Cats came within a basket of winning the SEC championship, Coach Cal noted a number of areas where his team made strides this past week that it can build off of.

Chief among them was the ball movement by Andrew Harrison. The freshman point guard dished out 21 assists on the weekend, and though he was limited to four in the championship game on Sunday, Calipari said he had 21 attempted assists against Florida.

"That means he got you the ball for a shot," Coach Cal said. "Maybe you made it, maybe you didn't. Obviously if he had four assists that game, that meant four out of 21 were made. Now I don't' know if he can pass it to you and make it. I don't think he can. So if he gives it to you, you've got to make it. Now you don't have to make them all; you just can't miss them all. Part of this is you've got to make shots."

Up until Sunday, UK did.

The Cats made 47.3 percent of their shots against LSU and 51.0 percent vs. Georgia. They combined to make 16 of 33 3-pointers in those two games.

Take away the game at Florida and UK had been in a miserable shooting slump before that. During a three-game stretch against Arkansas, South Carolina and Alabama, Kentucky connected on just 31.6 percent of its shots.

For all the changes UK made during the weekend - playing more physical and adapting to the "tweak" - the offense may have looked smoother just because the Cats finally hit some shots. Calipari said it's certainly why they won games in Atlanta.

"We're getting better looks," he said. "Instead of guarded 3s they're uncontested 3s or we're having gaps where guys are getting looks and we're knocking it down."

It doesn't take, to borrow a phrase from Calipari, a Basketball Benny to figure out that better ball movement spells better shots.

"Everybody said for a while our guard play was our weak spot," Calipari said. "Now it's our strength. You're talking in two weeks."

Perhaps that had something to do with the ballyhooed tweak Coach Cal made last week or maybe it didn't, but Coach Cal said he made another one on Monday.

"It's not a re-tweak, but I did some more tweaking today for this week," Calipari said.

Will it make the difference that last week's did and get this team primed for a tournament run or is it too late?

Like it or not, however you, Calipari or the pundits have judged this season, this group will largely be remembered by what they do in the coming week(s).

And the Wildcats know it.

"They understand this thing's on," Calipari said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Brad Szypka: A game of inches

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Szypka-Inches.jpgBy its very nature, track and field is a sport which comes down to fractions of inches or seconds.

Shot putter Bradley Szypka was on the losing end by a matter of inches twice in 2013. The disappointment of his near misses has motivated him ever since.

During the indoor season, he finished about four inches short of qualifying for the NCAA Championships. Come the outdoor season, he made the National Championships, but ended up three inches from the final.

The motivation of being so close so many times with so little to show for all that work apparently translated into more driven training, which culminated in a fifth-place performance at last weekend's NCAA Championships.

"That was such a short distance and such a big difference in outcome," Szypka said of his near misses in 2013. "Maybe it was one extra rep in the weight room or something. This offseason my motivation was that I don't want that to happen again. I'm certainly never going to miss it by a matter of inches again."

This past indoor season, which concluded at last weekend's NCAA Championships, he didn't. Szypka was the lone scorer for the Kentucky men's team at the 2014 Championships, the culmination of a stronger focus built from hours -- if not days -- of contemplation about what could have been.

"I think the important thing people forget sometimes is the attention to detail," UK throws coach Andrew Ninow said. "The attention to details can make large differences. Obviously he missed nationals by something around four inches indoors, and he missed scoring outdoors by about four inches. I think it has made him more focused on all of the details of his training. That's been a big help to us making a big breakthrough this year."

Indeed the 2014 NCAA Championships signaled a sort of arrival for Szypka, who also became Kentucky's first SEC shot put champion in 10 years at the conference meet.

Yet his emergence as one of the nation's best throwers was not the result of a journey devoid of ups and downs.

Breaking out

Head coach Edrick Floreal took over the program prior to Szypka's sophomore season in the summer of 2012. A decorated high school thrower, Szypka struggled his freshman year and the new start under Floreal's staff, notably throws assistant coach Andrew Ninow, proved to be just what the doctor ordered.

"The way his body moves in the ring works well with what I want to happen in the shot put," Ninow said. "There are different theories out there, but I think he's very much an aggressive thrower at the front of the ring. The technique that we teach is very much more of an aggressive-type movement. I think that sort of fit his mentality well."

Szypka wasted little time making his presence known to the rest of the nation as the 2012-13 season began, winning his first shot put competition of the season in December with a personal-best shot put mark, which ranked No. 1 in the NCAA going into the new year.

Szypka continued to improve under Ninow's direction in 2013, reaching a real threshold at the SEC Championships where he placed fourth. His PR mark from SECs finished the season short of the national top-16 list, which determines the NCAA Indoor Championships field by a margin of those difficult-to-stomach three inches.

Having placed high at the SEC Championships, emerged as a contender to qualify for NCAA Championships and built a solid rapport with his coach, Szypka entered the 2013 outdoor season optimistic.

Yet while he didn't quite struggle outdoors, he also didn't improve at the rate he had come to expect.

The low point came at the SEC Outdoor Championships.

Having placed fourth indoors, Szypka failed to make the final of the SEC outdoor shot put competition. He was at a crossroads.

Unlike the indoor season where regular-season marks qualify for the NCAA Championships, during the outdoor season the top-16 from the East and West Regionals Championships respectively make the NCAA Outdoor Championship Final Meet.

The regional meet provided Szypka with an opportunity for a measure of redemption. Szypka took his chance.

He produced a season-best performance to make NCAAs in the shot put, improving on all three of his throws in the final eventually hitting 18.33m/60-1.75.

And at NCAAs, Szypka improved his regional qualifying mark by nearly a foot, but again came agonizingly short of the major goal.

He hit 18.57 meters / 60-feet 11.25-inches, good for a 10th-place finish, one spot and three inches behind Michigan's Cody Riffle for the final place in the nine-thrower final.

Despite earning All-America honors for the first time (second team), Szypka was understandably disappointed.

Missing his NCAA Championship goal by so little once again was a last straw for Szypka, as he vowed to do whatever it took to avoid being so disappointed in the future.

2014 consistency

While 2013 was a breakout year that never quite materialized into tangible results at the highest levels, in 2014 Szypka learned the benefits of consistency.

"The goal was to hit it big early, and be able to focus on improving up to the Championship meets," Szypka said in reflection on his 2014 indoor season. "I worked all offseason to focus on being able to get a qualifying mark during those first two home meets to get a mark that would get me in so I wouldn't have to worry."

And Szypka did exactly that the second weekend of the season at the home Rod McCravy Memorial Meet with a PR mark nearly three feet better than his previous best. Szypka remained consistent throughout the season, which included winning the shot put at the prestigious Tyson Invitational, one of the most competitive field-event meets of the year.

Szypka continued getting better throughout the year and entering the NCAA Championships he had won four-of-five competitions he had entered during the year, including the SEC Championship.

His head coach had taken notice.

"With Brad we just wanted him to find a way to score some points at the NCAA Championships," Floreal said. "He went in ranked No. 11 and only the top-eight score so it was maybe a bit of an upset, but he had been so consistent the whole season so we were optimistic. We weren't asking to finish runner-up or do something way outside his body, we just wanted him to finally get some points at the national meet.

"When you go to the NCAA meet you experience emotions that you've never experienced before. Now he has been to two and achieved scoring so as a junior he has three more NCAA championship meets where he can learn to calm himself down and compete to his fullest potential. He has a lot of room for improvement, but he also reached an important goal."

Satisfaction ... or lack thereof

Szypka did meet his coaches' goals at the 2014 NCAA Championships.

Szypka's first two throws were well below his potential and he sat in ninth place on the bubble of making the final going into his third attempt. With the pressure on, Szypka connected for a personal-best mark, 19.51m/64-0.25, which was his best of the meet and earned him his first points at a NCAA Championship.

In playing on Floreal's original goal for Szypka -- learning to control the emotions of such a high-pressure atmosphere -- Szypka met expectations. He proved he could come up with nearly a one-foot PR when he needed it just to make the final.

"It was great," Szypka said. "I went into the meet thinking that I had a shot to go top five just by how consistent I had been all year. Looking at the past marks, of all the other years it always took around 19.50 meters to be top five. Coach and I talked all week that if I could hit a PR around that on the first three throws I would be in the top-5, which eventually happened."

Yet even with the strong result, Szypka was slightly disappointed that he failed to get a fair throw in the final.

"I never hit my big throw, which was kind of disappointing for how good I felt, but it definitely leads me to feel like I have a lot more in the tank for outdoors," Szypka, who earned First-Team All-America honors with the fifth-place finish, said. "There I will have higher expectations. I'm going to be shooting for top three, just because I know there's a lot more. I have always thrown better outdoors, with last season as an exception (because of the better footing in outdoor rings), hopefully I can transition well to pick up a few more feet."

So Szypka's strong indoor season afforded him a measure of advantage -- or at least an opportunity to catch up -- in the mostly friendly rivalry that has developed amongst Kentucky's elite throwers.

Entering the 2014 indoor season discus thrower Andrew Evans (the 2012 SEC Champion, 2013 NCAA Bronze Medalist and two-time First Team All-American) and javelin specialist Raymond Dykstra (a two-time SEC Runner-Up and two-time First Team All-American had a leg up on Szypka, a meager one-time Second Team All-American.

With his SEC Championship and First Team All-America status, Szypka now has some bragging rights on Dykstra, one of the team's most vocal leaders.

"Just the other night I saw Ray in the hallway and I was bugging him a little bit because Ray has gotten second (in the javelin throw) twice now at the SEC Championship whereas Brad has now won a conference title," Ninow said. "He is getting his (SEC Championship) ring here pretty soon, so I was kind of bugging Ray like, 'Hey man, are you going to get that ring or is Brad the only one who's going to get the ring this year?'

"He was like, 'Oh, I'm getting the ring this year Coach. I'm getting two rings, conference and NCAA,' so there's definitely an inter-team competition. Who can acquire the most All-Americans, who can score the most points? There's definitely a competition amongst the throwers to see who can be the overall winner when this is all said and done."

Entering the outdoor season where the discus and javelin are part of the track and field competition program the UK throwers will have plenty of opportunities to one-up each other. The more they do, the better off the team is likely to be.

UK received a No. 3 seed and will face Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) UK received a No. 3 seed and will face Wright State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday in Memorial Coliseum. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
The Kentucky Wildcats have long known they would be hosting first- and second-round games in the NCAA Tournament.

On Monday, it became real when the Cats found out for certain they would be making a school-record fifth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

"We obviously overcame some adversity throughout the season that has us prepared for the tournament," Matthew Mitchell said. "I'm really proud of our players, and really, really excited about the opportunity to play in another NCAA Tournament."

UK (24-8) was tabbed a No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional and will face No. 14 Wright State (26-8) in the first round at 11 a.m. in Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. The winner will advance to face either No. 6 Syracuse or No. 11 Chattanooga on Monday at 6:30 p.m.

"We don't know anything about Wright State, but it's a 40-minute big game," DeNesha Stallworth said. "Obviously anybody can win the game, but we just have to play hard and play together. That's been our key to success so we're just going to keep that going."

The Cats learned their fate at a watch party on the same floor where they will begin their tournament run and were joined by hundreds of their biggest fans. Afterward, Mitchell took the microphone to say thank you and make a humble request.

"What would really be huge for us Saturday morning at 11 o'clock: Get up early and get you a good breakfast and bring about 10 or 12 folks in here and let's pack Memorial Coliseum," Mitchell said.

While fans are recruiting friends to join them for UK's first-round game, Mitchell and his coaching staff will be hard at work trying to make sure the Cats have a second game in Memorial on Monday.

"You just start trying to figure out how you're going to prepare and looking at the game times," Mitchell said. "That's where my mind always goes, is you start trying to get a game plan together for your first opponent."

The players may have admitted they know little about the Raiders, but Mitchell has a relationship with Wright State's head coach, Mike Bradbury.

"I sent him a text yesterday," Mitchell said. "It was such a big win for him yesterday and to beat Green Bay and to get into the tournament. He and I share a bond of being former Morehead State coaches, so I've known him a long time and was happy for him."

Wright State -- making its first-ever NCAA appearance -- is averaging an impressive 84.0 points -- fourth nationally -- and is led by junior guard Kim Dennings, who is scoring 22.7 points per game. The Raiders are also first nationally in turnover margin, forcing 22.1 opponent miscues per game.

If UK advances past Wright State, plenty of intrigue awaits the Cats.

Syracuse was ranked for five straight weeks early in the season, while Chattanooga is receiving the most votes of any unranked team in the AP poll having won 25 in a row. In the Sweet 16, a potential rematch with second-seeded Baylor looms.

"I hope we're playing at the time we should be playing and that's in the Sweet 16 and that's all I'm really worried about," Mitchell said. "We need to try to really prepare well for Wright State because they'll be hungry and want to win. It'll be interesting in some ways if that matchup occurred."

His players of course share the same sentiment, but they'd like to see the game decided a little more quickly than it was in UK's thrilling four-overtime win in December.

"One of the fans came up to me after and said hopefully it's not four overtimes this time. Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."

There's a long way to go before the Cats will start thinking about that, but they has reason to be confident heading into the tournament.

UK boasts wins over No. 1 seeds Tennessee and South Carolina -- two of the eight Southeastern Conference teams to make the field -- as well as No. 3 Louisville. The Cats are playing their best basketball of the season to boot, coming within a possession of the SEC Tournament title.

"We're going into this tournament with a lot of confidence and poise," Stallworth said. "Just playing together is really our focus right now. I think that we're going to really come in here and play with a lot of heart, and play with a purpose."

The Cats have now had eight days to recover from that heartbreaking 71-70 defeat. After taking some time off, UK has returned to practice. Mitchell has liked what he's seen to this point.

"What I've seen was a really hungry group came back and really excited to practice every day," Mitchell said. "... We've had a lot of fun together and make practice fun and just doing everything we can to try and bring this team together at the right time. It's the most important time of the year right now and it's here. We need to perform well."

Video: UK Hoops reacts to tournament selection

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UK Hoops will learn its seed and path in the NCAA Tournament on Monday at 7 p.m. The Wildcats will watch the Selection Show -- which will air on ESPN -- in Memorial Coliseum at a party open to the public.

Afterward, Matthew Mitchell and select players will speak with the media about UK's draw. Watch live video of the press conferences below beginning at approximately 8:15:

Mitchell


Players


Kentucky will face ninth-seeded Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky will face ninth-seeded Kansas State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA -- Mitch Barnhart has served on a selection committee before.

It wasn't under quite the same spotlight as the one that selects teams for the men's basketball NCAA Tournament, but he understands the perspective of the people who collaborate to make those decisions.

Years ago Barnhart sat on the baseball selection committee, so he knows what it means to leave a team out.

"I was in the room a couple times when some teams got left out and I got those phone calls," Barnhart said. "Yeah, I've been on that side of it. So, yeah, it's hard. It doesn't matter what sport it is; emotions and kids are the same."

Barnhart said he "vividly" remembers fielding some of those conversations with peers. In fact, he can even remember questioning himself afterwards.

"You sit there and say, 'Did we make the right call?' " Barnhart told reporters after the Selection Show. "You get to a spot where you make -- and then matchups and everybody says, 'Gosh dern, what were you thinking?' "

Even with that background and understanding of the factors committee members have to cope with, Barnhart can't reconcile the No. 8 seed John Calipari's Kentucky team received on Sunday.

"But having said that, all of that -- it is a difficult task -- I just don't think we sometimes get the respect we deserve," Barnhart said. "Cal does a tremendous job coaching this team and he did a great job getting us ready to play in this tournament."

Barnhart was in Atlanta for all three of UK's Southeastern Conference Tournament games. He watched as UK dispatched LSU and Georgia and came within a basket of upsetting No. 1 overall seed Florida. He was with the team as the players licked their wounds following the loss and watched the Selection Show together.

Coach Cal predicted the Wildcats would receive an eight seed in a private room at the Georgia Dome, so neither he nor his team batted an eye when the Cats learned their fate. Barnhart still did though.

"It's very surprising, to be real honest with you," Barnhart said. "I thought when the committee and those folks ask you to play strength of schedule and those kind of things, that's what I think we do. We play a difficult strength of schedule."

Barnhart is right about that.

According to the NCAA's final RPI, UK comes in at No. 17 with an overall strength of schedule ranked third nationally. Coach Cal structured his schedule -- with games against four seeds Michigan State and Louisville, sixes North Carolina and Baylor -- with the Selection Committee in mind, but the Cats were not rewarded.

Instead, they face a second-round matchup with Kansas State, an almost certain third-round showdown with unbeaten Wichita State, and one seed contenders Michigan and Duke on the opposite side of their Midwest bracket.

"I do believe that we've got a very difficult path and obviously some really difficult games ahead of us, and if we find our way through it will have been well-earned," Barnhart said.

Conspiracy theorists will have surely plenty to say about the reasons for that, but Barnhart knows the committee members and can vouch that no nefarious motives are at play.

"They're honest guys," Barnhart said. "Don't ever question the integrity of the guys in the room. They're good people. ... I would hope that if I'm sitting in the room and have an opportunity, you do what's right. And I think basically people try to do what's right. Sometimes it gets difficult and that's hard."

To make those difficult decisions, the committee relied on a handful of criteria that give some insight into UK's seeding.

NCAA Selection Committee Chairman Ron Wellman told reporters significant value was assigned to road wins against top-50 opponents. UK's lone such win came against Missouri, ranked No. 49 in the RPI but left out of the tournament.

"Road wins against top-50 teams are really, really impressive to the Committee," Wellman said.

For the sake of comparison, teams seeded one line above Kentucky at seven had four top-50 road wins between them. Texas had two (No. 25 North Carolina, No. 30 Baylor), Oregon one (No. 14 UCLA), UConn one (No. 37 Memphis) and New Mexico none. UK was rated higher in the RPI than all but New Mexico in that group.

Wellman was asked specifically about Kentucky's seeding in both his teleconference with the media and his Selection Show Interview and both times brought up UK's lack of wins against NCAA Tournament teams.

"Kentucky, when you watch them play, they are very impressive," Wellman said. "Every time you watch them play they're extremely impressive. At the same time, Kentucky had two wins this year against tournament-bound teams and those wins were in December."

UK did add a third win against an NCAA team after December against Tennessee, who was picked for a First Four game, but Wellman's point stands. The Cats managed a record of just 3-6 against the seven NCAA-bound opponents they faced, though only two of the losses came by more than five points.

Seven seeds UConn (7-5), New Mexico (4-4), Oregon (4-6) and Texas (9-9) all had better records against the field.

"So when we compare various metrics -- and we use all kinds of metrics to evaluate teams -- you look for reasons to move teams up, you look for reasons to move teams down, and it's not consistent," Wellman said. "We recognize that. You're just looking for reasons to make the decisions that need to be made."

That underscores the main problem both Barnhart and Calipari have with the selection process after the SEC had just three teams selected and two -- UK and Tennessee -- receive unexpectedly low seeds.

"... That's the kind of stuff that our league -- not me, not the ADs -- our league needs to find out who in that room, what were we basing this on because you can't keep moving the goalposts," Calipari said. " 'It's strength of schedule.' Really? Then move the goalposts. 'It's how you finish.' Really? 'No, it's you didn't beat enough people.' Really? I mean, which one (is it)? And moving the goalposts makes it easy."

Wellman also suggested UK's seed would have changed had the Cats scored on their final possession against Florida. What would not have changed is Barnhart's opinion of the way they played this weekend.

"They've come a long way, and they've worked really, really hard," Barnhart said. "They've made some adjustments the way they're playing the game, and their attitude--I'm really proud of their effort and the way they represented Kentucky."

With UK's tourney run beginning at approximately 9:40 p.m. ET on Friday, the Cats don't have much more time for handwringing.

"It doesn't matter what other seeds are now," Calipari said. "It's over. I can be mad about it, you can be mad, everybody can be (mad). Explain yourself. They had the fourth strength of schedule. Are you telling people they don't have to play anybody? Explain it. But they don't have to explain it. They said what we did. So, we just got to go play. We got to play basketball in St. Louis."

"Let's go prove some people wrong now," Barnhart tweeted.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

For one last time this season, John Calipari joined the Southeastern Conference Coaches' Teleconference on Monday morning. He and the seven other coaches who are postseason-bound spent time talking about their teams and other subjects.

Coach Cal was asked about a Kansas State team that's impressed him as he's watched tape since UK's second-round NCAA Tournament matchup was unveiled, spoke more on the Wildcats' seeding and told reporters his team is "in a great frame of mind" after a solid weekend in Atlanta.

Here's a complete transcript:

On Kansas State ...
"Yeah, I watched some tape and I'll tell you what: They're veteran, physical; great defensively; motion offense - different kinds of motion; and then try to beat you on the dribble and they're physical. A lot like the teams LSU and Georgia and Florida, like the teams we just played. So we had to give our kids a day off today after the week we went through Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday to get ready for Friday, Saturday, Sunday, the wars we played in. But it seems like they're in a great frame of mind right now."

On Kansas State's Marcus Foster ...
"He's been outstanding. You know, again, they have perimeter guys that can really play and shoot it and have the freedom to go do their thing. They have big guys. Now their big (Thomas Gipson) isn't 7-foot, but he's that wide. He's a big body, angles to the rim, put his body on you on drives, put hands up and put a chest on you. You know, they're good and their perimeter guys are good. Foster's outstanding. I mean, makes big shots, not afraid to score it. They're good. For a first-round game, I'm not sure if a team with a strength of schedule of two--two strength of schedule and an RPI I think of 15 or 16, that's a tough first game for both of us, Kansas State and us."

On whether he has looked ahead to Wichita State ...
"No, no, no (laughter). No. I've done this 20 years. You worry about what's in front of you."

On whether UK and Tennessee didn't get their due in terms of seeding and what the SEC has to do to get more teams in the tournament ...
"You know, first of all you gotta figure out, why in the world did this happen? And now that's happened I'm not worried about it. But someone's gotta find out when you have a strength of schedule of two and that's all they keep talking about, what did you use to make that team an eight? What did you use? And then can use anything. 'Well, it was a cloudy day that day and we decided they were an eight.' And that's what it is and you go and as coach that's fine. Put me where you want, let's go. But as a league, we got to figure out. Tennessee played as well as any team in the country down the stretch. Are you taking how teams are playing at the end or how we were playing at the end? 'Not in your case.' Well, what did you take in our case? And you really got to go down and find out what it was. 'Well, you didn't beat enough people.' Did everybody else? I mean, so compared to who? And so that's the kind of stuff that our league - not me, not the ADs -- our league needs to find out who in that room, what were we basing this on because you can't keep moving the goalposts. 'It's strength of schedule.' Really? Then move the goalposts. 'It's how you finish.' Really? 'No, it's you didn't beat enough people.' Really? I mean, which one (is it)? And moving the goalposts makes it easy. But you know what? At the end of the day in this thing, you just got to go play now. And I'm just happy my team's in a great frame of mind. We have another opponent - just like the SEC, you're going from LSU to Georgia to Florida to Kansas State. They're all the same. You're playing the same kind of team."

On how much they think they can take from this past weekend in Atlanta ...

"Well, it's what we've been--we're still not all the way there now. I thought Willie Cauley(-Stein) was ridiculous, how well he played. I thought our guard play -- you know, you're talking three freshmen - our guard play was as good as any in the country during this tournament. And again, against quality teams. And so, again, now we go to next step. And just like those other teams, this team is going to be as physical as anybody we play. Again, we're going to prepare for it. What we've been told is we're not going to allow that kind of physical from either us, Kansas State, Wichita State or anybody, but we can't plan on that. We've just got to be ready to play a physical basketball game. The whole thing is, again, teams that are jacked, that when adversity hits can keep that emotion high, and that's what we've been looking for. And I thought we did it (this past weekend). It was great because every game we played the other teams made runs at us and we withstood. Florida had us down 16, ready to go to 30, and all of the sudden we have the ball with 10 seconds to go and ready to win the game. So that's what I was looking for from my team and we got it."

By-the-numbers look at UK's NCAA Tournament path

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The field is set and the pairings have been announced. In just a couple days the madness will finally begin.

There will be plenty to talk about over the next few days - especially Kentucky's surprising eight seed in the Midwest - but first let's take a look at some of the NCAA Tournament numbers, particularly how they pertain to UK's Midwest bracket.

  • UK is 8-0 all-time vs. Kansas State. The last meeting was in 2007 in Las Vegas, a 74-72 victory for the Cats. UK beat Kansas State in 1951 to win its third national championship.
  • Kentucky is 42-10 in tournament openers and has won 20 of its last 21 to start the Big Dance.
  • UK is making its 53rd NCAA Tournament appearance. The Cats are 111-46 all-time with eight national championships, three runner-up finishes, 15 Final Four appearances and 35 Elite Eight appearances.
  • John Calipari is making his 15th NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach. He's reached the Final Four four times.
  • UK is 2-3 all-time as an eight seed. The Cats were an eight seed in 2006 and 2007. In both those seasons UK won its first game before falling to a one seed in the next game.
  • The last No. 8 seed to make the Final Four was Butler in 2011. The Bulldogs lost to UConn in the national championship. Wichita State made the Final Four as a nine seed last year.
  • UK has played seven teams in the NCAA Tournament field this year, going 3-6 against them. By comparison, Kansas State has played eight opponents in the field, posting a 7-8 record against them. 
  • Kansas State, playing in arguably the best conference in America this season in the Big 12, posted a 3-3 record vs. the RPI top 25 and a 7-8 mark against the RPI top 50.
  • Kentucky was officially the 29th overall seed in the tournament, meaning the Cats are the top eight seed. Perhaps a win over Florida would have moved them up a seed line after all.Oddly, the Midwest features three play-in games. The only other region that has one is the South where a pair of 16 seeds match up for the right to play No. 1 overall seed Florida.
  • There are six teams in the Midwest ranked in the top 20 of ESPN's final RPI rankings.
  • Why is the Midwest considered the toughest region? Let's break down the top four seed lines. Not only does the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee split the seeds into four regions, it also seeds the overall teams 1-68. Florida was the top overall seed, Arizona was No. 2, UK, as mentioned above, was No. 29, and all the way down at No. 68 was Cal Poly. The NCAA Selection Committee then uses those seeds to try and make the regions even by adding the overall seed numbers together to gauge the strength of the bracket. For instance, if you pair the top No. 1 seed, which would obviously be the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, with the worst No. 2 seed, which would be the No. 8 overall seed, you get a total of nine (1 + 8). Still following along? OK, so taking the top four seeds in each region and adding them up, the West has a cumulative seeding of 37 (No. 2 Arizona + No. 8 Wisconsin + No. 11 Creighton + No. 16 San Diego State), the East has a cumulative seeding of 35 (No. 4 Virginia + No. 5 Villanova + No. 12 Iowa State + No. 14 Michigan State), the South has a cumulative seeding of 33 (No. 1 Florida + No. 7 Kansas + No. 10 Syracuse + No. 15 UCLA), and the Midwest has a cumulative seeding of 31 (No. 3 Wichita State + No. 6 Michigan + No. 9 Duke + No. 13 Louisville). The lower the total seeding, the tougher the bracket. Now all things being fair, the regions would add up to be equal (across all seed lines and not just the top four like we're using as an example), but other factors like geography, playing a conference opponent and more come into play. Still, 31 is a strong bracket considering the lowest possible number you could get (i.e. the toughest bracket possible) would be 28 (No. 1 + No. 5 + No. 9 + No. 13).
  • Though UK has the most difficult bracket in terms of seeding, the Midwest is actually the worst in terms of winning percentage. Combined, East teams have a .757 winning percentage, the South and West are tied with a .732 winning percentage, and the Midwest has a .701 mark. The fact that the region has three play-in games probably has something to do with that.

ATLANTA -- The Selection Show is normally cause for celebration, but the Wildcats were in no mood on Sunday.

They had just suffered a heartbreaking defeat in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game at the hands of Florida, so they watched in a private room in the Georgia Dome quietly as brackets were revealed.

When Kentucky popped up on the screen, they barely reacted -- which surely can't be said for most UK fans who were also tuned in to CBS.

"I think they're still disappointed we lost this game so they're still not thinking," John Calipari said. "We've got a couple guys still almost despondent."

UK (24-10) was tabbed a No. 8 seed in the Midwest Region, facing a second-round matchup with No. 9 Kansas State (20-12) on Friday at 9:40 p.m. ET in St. Louis. Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and Tracy Wolfson will be on the call for the CBS broadcast. The winner will likely face the region's No. 1 seed, unbeaten Wichita State.

Even though the sting from their defeat at the hands of the Gators was still fresh, the Cats know they won't have long to dwell on it. This, after all, is when the games really matter.

The seed came as a surprise to some, particularly considering the fact that UK finished with a top-20 RPI and was one possession away from taking down the No. 1 overall seed in their final game. The Cats, however, weren't surprised.

They were warned ahead of time by a prescient Coach Cal.

"Coach told us the exact number actually," Aaron Harrison said. "I don't know what we deserved and I don't know who does the brackets or whatever but we really don't care."

Of course the Cats wouldn't have minded to see a five, six or even seven next to their names, but that doesn't much matter now.

"We thought we could have gotten a little higher but we kind of expected that's what would happen," James Young said. "It's whatever. We're just going to keep going out to play every game."

That would have been the approach regardless whether UK won against Florida. In fact, Coach Cal doesn't even think UK's seed would have been any different.

"We would have been eight," Calipari said. "They made their minds up that that's what this team was. The only way you can prove 'em wrong is go play ball. And we played today and I'm proud of the guys. We'll go play. We'll go to St. Louis and play."

Adding to the intrigue, archrival and fourth-seeded Louisville looms as a potential Sweet 16 matchup for UK in Indianapolis, Ind. UK is also joined by No. 3 Duke and No. 2 Michigan, leading some to declare the Midwest the "region of death."

"It's a stacked region," Dakari Johnson said. "But I think we showed today that we can compete with anybody in the country so as long as we do that, I think we'll be fine."

Before UK can take its shot at any of those teams, the Cats have to take care of business. Kansas State enters the tournament having lost three in a row, but the Wildcats boast wins over the likes of Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Preparation begins right away.

"I haven't watched them one second," Calipari said. "I'll probably watch them on the plane."

For the next few days, brackets and seeds will be broken down in every way imaginable and seeds and draws will be analyzed. But come Friday, nothing else matters but the task at hand.

"We just got to go play now," Calipari said. "It's what it is. It doesn't matter what other seeds are now. It's over. I can be mad about it, you can be mad, everybody can be (mad). Explain yourself. They had the fourth strength of schedule. Are you telling people they don't have to play anybody? Explain it. But they don't have to explain it. They said what we did. So, we just got to go play. We got to play basketball in St. Louis."

Plenty of UK fans are sure to make the trip to St. Louis and the Cats are likely to have a neutral-court fan advantage as they do nearly everywhere. Wichita State and Kansas State, however, don't have far to travel either.

That could make for a popular set of Friday and Sunday games.

"It's good," Calipari said. "Yeah, it'll be good. But it's close to Wichita (State), it's close to Kansas State. Everybody's going to have fans. I bet you everybody uses up their allotment."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Aaron Harrison scored 16 points in UK's SEC title game loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 16 points in UK's SEC title game loss to Florida. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA - Kentucky's recent two-game resurgence has been promising for fans and its players. It's restored some confidence in both and helped put a disappointing regular season in the rearview mirror.

But after back-to-back wins over LSU and Georgia to advance to the Southeastern Conference finals, John Calipari agreed with a reporter who said that Sunday's matchup with the top-ranked Gators, who had already beaten the Wildcats twice the season, would be a bit more of a measuring stick for their renaissance.

Kentucky didn't quite stack up the top team in the country on Sunday in the SEC championship game, falling to the first-seeded Gators for the third time this season, but there may be something to Coach Cal's proclamation that this isn't the same UK team of two weeks ago.

The Cats rallied back from a 15-point deficit midway through the second half on a 14-0 run before ultimately falling to Florida on Sunday, 61-60.

"So proud of my guys," Calipari said. "Had every chance to let go of the rope."

UK held on to the rope and had a chance to win the game on the final possession after the Gators missed back-to-back front ends at the free-throw line, but James Young slipped on his potential game-winning drive, lost the ball and time expired.

"I just took too much of a wide step and just slipped," said, Young, who scored 13 points. "That's just on me."

Andrew Harrison, who handed the ball to Young for the final drive, took the blame.

"I should have made a play," Andrew Harrison said. "I gave James the ball with not enough time left. That was completely my fault, I put him in a bad position."

Coach Cal didn't see it that way. He was kicking himself  afterwards for calling timeout after Dorian Finney-Smith missed the front end of his one-and-one.

"As soon as I called it I was angry because I don't call timeouts (late in games with a chance to win it)," Calipari said. "Now you're going against a set defense. They were spread out and scrambling. I could have stopped them and talked them through what we were going to do and let them play, but I didn't. I called a timeout. (Andrew Harrison) did exactly what I wanted. A little bit too late, but he did what I wanted him to do."

Twice UK stormed back into the game.

UK cut the Gators' lead to one when Willie Cauley-Stein made the first of two free throws. Aaron Harrison, who struggled to find his shot in the first half, came alive with seven points during the run, but Michael Frazier ended the Florida drought with a 3 from the left wing. Scottie Wilbekin followed with a running bank shot.

But UK wasn't done yet. Down 59-53, the Cats rallied back again, cutting Florida's lead to 61-60 when Young drilled a 3-pointer with 1:31 remaining.

"I think what really changed the game was Willie (Cauley-Stein) defensively, blocking a lot of shots, grabbing every rebound," Aaron Harrison said. "We started getting run-outs and hit a few shots."

In the end they came up just one play short. And though, according to Coach Cal, the game had no bearing on Kentucky's NCAA Tournament draw, where the Cats landed as an eight seed in the Midwest Region, to come back from that far down and nearly knock off the top team in the country was tough to swallow for UK.

"In the big scheme of things it doesn't really mean anything," Andrew Harrison said, "But as a competitor, you want to win and I feel really bad because I feel like I didn't make enough plays for my team at the end."

Andrew Harrison can hardly feel bad about the way he played this weekend though. The Cats' recent turnaround has been steered by him and his twin brother.

Andrew Harrison dished out 17 assists in UK's wins over LSU and Georgia while Aaron Harrison recorded 36 in the previous two games. But the Gators must have taken note of their play the previous two days.

Florida, which boasts one of the top defenses in the country, took them both out of the game early with its smothering defense. Andrew Harrison was limited to just two assists on Sunday. Aaron Harrison, who made the SEC All-Tournament team along with Julius Randle, scored a team-high 16 points but had to do so on 6-of-17 shooting.

"(Andrew) played another great game," Calipari said. "We didn't make the baskets for him. He had all kinds of attempts for assists; we just didn't make any shots today."

UK shot just 35.3 percent for the game. Still, it was hard to find fault with the Cats' effort on Sunday.

"Told them on the bus today coming over, there's no team that's been through what this team has been though - the barrage - and they have stayed together," Calipari said. "They have stayed as a unit. They keep believing in each other and they believe in our staff."

Though Kentucky lost to an opponent three times in one season for the first time since 1979, the Cats can take solace in fact that Florida played every bit like the No. 1 team in the country on Sunday and yet UK still nearly won the game.

It's a big confidence booster going into the Big Dance.

"We're a brand-new team and it show that we got some fight in us," said Cauley-Stein, who finished with 10 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. "That's what we did the last game is just fight and scratch and claw our way back into the game."

UK was gunning for its third SEC Tournament championship under Calipari. The Cats have made four appearances in the finals over the last five seasons.

While extending their winning streak to 26 games overall, the Gators polished off the rare SEC sweep, winning all 21 of its league games this season. Florida was rewarded with the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

 
UK will learn its NCAA Tournament fate during the Selection Show at 6 p.m. on CBS. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will learn its NCAA Tournament fate during the Selection Show at 6 p.m. on CBS. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA -- Kentucky fans' favorite unofficial holiday is finally upon us. In a matter of hours, UK will learn its place and path in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

Of course, there's a bit of an important game to be played and a championship to be won before that, but everyone loves brackets. With that in mind, let's take a peek at where we can expect the Wildcats to fit in when their name pops up on Selection Sunday.

UK's profile is an interesting one. The Cats have a solid record (24-9), finished second in a power conference and have a respectable 8-7 record away from home with their lone "bad loss" coming on the road against a South Carolina team that played its best at season's end. They boast an RPI of 17, one spot ahead of Louisville -- a team some have argued should receive a No. 1 seed.

There is one hole in UK's resume: quality wins.

The Cats are just 1-4 against teams currently in the CBSSports.com RPI top 25, the lone victory coming over the aforementioned Cardinals. UK is 3-1 against opponents ranked 26-50 -- including a victory over Big East Tournament champion Providence -- and 10-3 against those ranked 51-100.

So, how will the Selection Committee reconcile the good and the bad? There's no way of knowing until the Selection Show at 6 p.m. on CBS, but we can get an idea based on what the experts are saying.

There are literally dozens of bracket projections out there, so I'm not particularly interested in focusing on any specific one. Instead, let's take a look at the Bracket Matrix, which takes all of them into account.

UK currently averages out as the final No. 6 seed, seeded anywhere from five to eight depending on whom you listen to. That would mean a first-round matchup with an 11 seed, where teams like Tennessee (conference foes can't play in the early rounds), SMU, Providence, Xavier and Nebraska will likely land.

In the second round, a likely matchup with a three seed would await. Current No. 3 seeds, according to Bracket Matrix, are Virginia, Iowa State, Louisville (wouldn't that be fun?) and Creighton.

The next topic for debate is how the outcome of Sunday's Southeastern Conference championship game will affect seeding. The committee will be pressed for time to alter the bracket too much given the game isn't likely to end more than 30-45 minutes before the Selection Show, but it won't be able to ignore a victory over the Gators.

Interestingly, Sunday's title game is reminiscent of the one UK played in two years ago on this front.

Like Florida, UK entered that game in 2012 on a long winning streak and assured of a No. 1 seed. The Cats' opponent -- Vanderbilt -- had a similar record (23-10) to the current UK team and had lost to their title-game foe twice in the regular season. The Commodores would of course win the game, moving up to a No. 5 seed in the process. It's not hard to envision a similar outcome for the Cats should they pull the upset.

On the flip side, UK won the 2011 SEC Tournament under similar circumstances but didn't enjoy a significant seeding boost. The Cats and Florida entered the championship game with similar profiles, but UK ended up with a four seed and Florida a two.

A loss, on the other hand, is difficult to imagine having disastrous effects. UK's RPI won't be hurt by playing the team rated No. 2 according to the measure.

But that's the beauty and the curse of Selection Sunday: You never know until the brackets are unveiled.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Live blog: Men's tennis vs. Ole Miss

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UK will take on top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament title game on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on top-ranked Florida in the SEC Tournament title game on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. ET. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ATLANTA -- After two consecutive solid performances from Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, the Wildcats say they want one more crack at Florida.

Their head coach? Not so much

"I've had enough of Florida," Calipari jokingly said Saturday said after hearing players say they were excited to play the No. 1 team in the country again. "For four years I've seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years."

Florida is, of course, stocked with veterans across the board. And though Coach Cal was just joking -- sort of -- about facing the Gators yet again, second-seeded UK (24-9) will no doubt take a step up in competition on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN.

The top-seeded Gators (31-2) navigated through regular-season SEC play without a single loss, including two double-digit wins over Kentucky, the most recent coming just a week ago in Gainesville, Fla., when the Cats were dispatched by 19 points.

But perhaps that was a different UK team.

The Cats cruised their way through to the final round of the tournament with wins over a physical LSU squad and a defensively strong Georgia Bulldog team. The Wildcats are sharing the ball, receiving contributions from all areas of the court, playing as one and most importantly to them, they are having fun.

Spectators and analysts agree that the team is looking like a new squad and more like the one it was coined to be in the fall.

"We're doing better," Calipari said. "We're not the same team. You've seen us now. We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago."

But Coach Cal also agreed that Sunday's matchup with Florida in the SEC Tournament championship will be a bit of a measuring stick for the Cats' improvement. The third crack at the No. 1 team in the country is an opportunity to test and validate their progress.

"What a great team, what a great story, what a great coaching job," Calipari said of the Gators. "You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don't fight like heck, they're taking it from you. That's who they are and that's who they have been all year. I don't see it changing."

"Now, that means when we go against them, you're going to have to take it," Coach Cal said. "They will not give it to you. As you're trying to take it, they're trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren't even in the game. Then we make a 15-0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again. My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here. I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to go play this game and see what happens."

Even if Calipari isn't thrilled to see the same team for the third time in one season, his players sure are.

"Florida is such a good team that it's that kind of rivalry thing that we want to go at them because they beat us twice," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They beat us at home and waxed us at their place. Now it's like a pride factor. We're in the championship game, playing Florida. That's who we thought we was going to end up playing anyways, so it's just time to lay it all on the table and go play."

Julius Randle didn't have the SEC championship game circled as another crack at Florida, but he was happy the Gators won Saturday. He's looking forward to competing with Florida for the third time and believes the game will come down to one thing.

"Consistency," Randle said. "We can't have lapses during the game. Like Coach always says, when the first rain drop hits how do you fight through adversity? They going to make their runs but we're going to make runs too, and at the end of the day it's going to come down to who wants them more."

Although Florida was favored to slide into the SEC championship game, the Gators route to the finals wasn't handed to them on a silver platter. The No. 1 ranked team in the country rallied back from a 10-point first-half deficit to avoid an upset on Saturday in Atlanta.

The Gators, who are one of the top ranked defensive teams in the country, held the Volunteers to just 14 points in the second half.

"One, they're veterans," Cauley-Stein said on Florida's defense. "They know how to play a college game and they do a great job of helping the helper. If one guy gets beat, there's another guy there and they rotate really well. It's hard to get wide-open shots."

Cauley-Stein described Sunday's matchup as a stepping stone for Kentucky's future.

"Cal said it after the game, the game tomorrow is cool," Cauley-Stein said. "We're in the championship game against Florida but it doesn't really mean anything. Our big goal is to try and make this run and get to the final four. Tomorrow is just a stepping stone for real. We're going to obviously play to win but it's not like a life-or-death situation."

A stepping stone and nothing more is right. Due to the timing of the SEC championship game, the outcome of the showdown will likely have no bearing on Kentucky's seeding in the NCAA Tournament. The game will end just before the NCAA Tournament Selection Show at 6 p.m., giving the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee little time to factor in how the Cats play.

Calipari pointed out that in 2011 -- when the game was even earlier in the day -- UK beat Florida in the championship game and still got a No. 4 seed in arguably the toughest bracket in the NCAA Tournament.  Florida, meanwhile, received a No. 2 seed.

"We're fine," Calipari said. "We're in. But where you put us may hit somebody above us, like, 'Why are you putting them with us?' But that's what makes the committee what they are and makes it hard. They can't watch the game tomorrow. They can watch it, but it's not going to have any bearing on what happens."

No bearing on seeding for the tournament means the Wildcats are playing for one thing: validity. Has the "tweak" worked magic? Can the Cats fight for a full 40 minutes? Is the improvement permanent or will Kentucky revert to old habits against a team like Florida?

A win against the No. 1 team in the country for the SEC championship would prove this team really isn't the same as the one two weeks ago.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Dakari Johnson had eight rebounds as UK outrebounded Georgia 36-21 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had eight rebounds as UK outrebounded Georgia 36-21 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA -- Even when things haven't gone as planned for a Kentucky team burdened with unbelievable expectations, the Wildcats have managed to stay competitive on the strength of one area.

"We have been a good rebounding team all year," John Calipari said. "When you put two 7-footers next to that basket, it's hard, and one of them is 270 pounds."

UK entered the Southeastern Conference Tournament second nationally in rebounding margin. The Cats have bludgeoned opponents with their size, length and athleticism, often compensating for other deficits by prolonging possessions with offensive rebounds.

After a 70-58 semifinal win over Georgia (19-13) on Saturday, it's clear the Cats (24-9) are making progress on the non-rebounding front. Andrew Harrison has posted career highs in assists in back-to-back games in guiding the offense and UK is seemingly making defensive strides by the day.

That doesn't mean the Cats are moving on from their bread and butter.

For the second game in a row, UK outrebounded its opponent by 15 or more, staging a constant backboard assault on both ends of the floor en route to a 36-21 edge on the glass. Julius Randle led the way with 11 rebounds, but every Wildcat who played more than two minutes had a rebound.

"We're really making a team effort," Dakari Johnson said. "It's not just one guy's assignment; it's all five people's assignment to get the rebound."

That was plain to see during a run that removed nearly all doubt from the outcome at a Kentucky blue-filled Georgia Dome as UK set up a rematch with top-ranked Florida in Sunday's final.

With the Bulldogs within three points with less than 13 minutes to go, UK scored seven-second chance points over the course of just two possessions, with Johnson getting it started by snaring a James Young missed 3 and putting it back in while he was fouled.

Johnson missed the free throw, but Willie Cauley-Stein kept the ball in the Cats' hands. Seconds later, Andrew Harrison found Aaron Harrison for a 3-pointer. To finish off the 7-0 run, James Young came flying across the lane to tip in another Aaron Harrison 3-point attempt.

"Coach just told us to crash the glass," Young said. "I saw the ball come off my way so I just tried to go for it."

The Cats have made that kind of play all season but never rebounded on the defensive end like they did against Georgia.

UK rebounded a season-high 89.2 percent of available misses by its opponent, allowing just three offensive rebounds -- two of which went out of bounds off the hands of a would-be Wildcat rebounder. Entering Saturday, the Cats had a defensive-rebounding rate of 69.8 percent, 119th nationally.

Johnson credits the improvement to the week of preparation that preceded the postseason.

"The practices we had before were really physical so I think we're doing a real good job just getting accustomed to the physicalness of every team," Johnson said.

Johnson's fire making him a favorite of fans, teammates alike


Even before Kentucky awoke and began to tap into its vast potential in the SEC Tournament this weekend, Johnson had evolved into somewhat of a fan favorite.

The 7-foot, 270-pound freshman, after seeing only sporadic floor time early, played with reckless abandon and infectious emotion in establishing himself as an important cog for the Cats.

It turns out it's not just the fans who enjoy watching him play.

"Dakari gets me extremely hyped when he plays," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "He bangs in the post and gets and-ones and goes psycho. I love seeing his faces when he does something or when he taunts the crowd or something. It gets me juiced. It just flows through everybody else by the way he plays."

In most other contexts, "psycho" has a negative connotation. But Johnson, told of his fellow big man's description, flashed the same toothy grin that appears so often when he's on the floor.

"I guess I just really get energized and I just try to attack the defense whichever way I can," Johnson said. "Every time I do something or my teammates do something good I'm so happy sometimes I don't know how to control myself."

Johnson -- young as he may be after reclassifying and graduating high school a year early -- has become an essential presence as the Cats have begun to hit their stride in timely fashion.

"If I do something or my team does something good I try to tell them," said Johnson, who had six points eight rebounds in 23 productive minutes against Georgia. "I try to get emotional for them and I just let them know this is the way we have to play all the time."

Randle joins elite company, but shooting struggles persist


Randle, the SEC Freshman of the Year, has had more than his share of impressive accomplishments as a freshman. On Saturday, he etched his name into the UK record books alongside two recent UK greats.

With his 11 points and 12 rebounds, Randle posted his 20th double-double of the season -- and sixth in as many games. The total ties him Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins for most in UK history for a freshman.

"It's a great honor," Randle said. "Those guys that came through here and have done excellent things. You see where they are now with their careers. For me to be in the same sentence and mentioned with those guys, it's a great feeling."

Great as the feeling may be, the struggles shooting from close range that led Randle to say on Friday he "couldn't throw a rock in the ocean" continued. He shot 4 of 10 from the field, well below his season average of 50.9 percent, and is now 8 of 22 for the tournament.

Asked of his slump, Randle was more interested in talking about his team's hot streak.

"This whole season is just really trying to figure out how we're going to play basketball, how we're going to get people involved and stuff like that," Randle said. "Coach has done a great job all season pushing us all season and staying on us and it's finally starting to click."

Given his track record, it's a safe bet to say the same will happen for Randle soon.

Cats unfazed by tournament grind

The question entering Saturday's game was whether UK would sustain the momentum built in a dominant win over LSU on Saturday.

The Cats answered that question affirmatively with their play, a fact that was made all the more impressive by the fact that they were playing for the second time in less than 24 hours.

"It's pretty nice, especially playing back-to-back games," Johnson said. "A lot of people would think we would be tired. But just coming out here and just executing what Coach wants us to do is really refreshing."

UK will look to duplicate the feat on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. against the Gators.

"We feel good," Johnson said. "We're just going to get a lot of recovery. We eat well, we sleep well and I think we'll be ready for tomorrow."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Cooler heads prevail with Calipari and the Cats

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John Calipari led his Kentucky team to a 70-58 win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari led his Kentucky team to a 70-58 win over Georgia on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Tweak. Physical play. Shredding DVDs of old games. A different mindset.

You name it and the Kentucky Wildcats have done it this week to reverse the course of a second straight disappointing season.

But after Kentucky advanced to the 2014 Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game with a 70-58 victory over Georgia, the Wildcats suggested there may be something else to their recent change in play: A calmer John Calipari.

The foot-stomping, official-berating coach (Calipari may have his demonstrative in-game behavior to blame for his bad hip), who has jumped up and down on the sidelines this season like he's 30 years old again, has taken a more serene approach over the last two games, and the Wildcats say it's helped.

"He's been more positive and just helping us," Aaron Harrison said. "He's going to have emotion of course, just like we all do, but I think he's helped motivate us and bring us together."

Calipari vowed to take a more positive approach with his team after getting tossed in the South Carolina game and getting criticized by fans for his negative demeanor. He said he would do whatever it took to adapt to his players and do what they need from him, but the peaceful approach only appeared to last one game.

In the 19-point loss at Florida - a game that would have frustrated just about any coach - Calipari was back to his previous ways, coaching his team as hard as ever when things started to crumble.

Falling in line with the rest of his fresh-approach ideas this past week, Calipari is going with a more positive tone and guiding stance.

"I think he's helping," Aaron Harrison said. "He's just being positive really. After those tough losses that we had, he was the one telling us that that doesn't really matter and it's just us. We just got to stay together and keep fighting."

When Andrew Harrison drilled a 3-pointer late in the game, Calipari smiled at his point guard and gave him a high-five as he walked to the huddle.

Between the apologies to his team, taking responsibility for the regular-season's shortcomings and now coaching more like his age, the Cats have obviously responded.

"He's a very emotional coach," Andrew Harrison said. "He's like a warrior -- he hates to lose. He's like us, but at the same time, we're young and we always have been. He was trying to get us to do that every time we stepped on the court."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Aaron and Andrew Harrison combined for 34 points in UK's win over Georgia in an SEC semifinal on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron and Andrew Harrison combined for 34 points in UK's win over Georgia in an SEC semifinal on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA - John Calipari hasn't done a lot of smiling this season.

He was supposed to when he pieced together the nation's top recruiting class and his team started the year atop the polls, but his sideline demeanor this season has been reduced to head shaking, foot stomping and looks of disgruntled frustration.

After Andrew Harrison saw the shot clock wind down late in the second half, pulled up for a 3 and drained the shot to give Kentucky a 61-48 lead - essentially the final nail in the coffin for Georgia - Coach Cal stared down his point guard until he got his attention and just grinned.

"He was just telling me to be the closer today and that's what I tried to do," Andrew Harrison said. "My teammates found me and I made the shot."

The smiles were harder to come by Saturday than they were in UK's confidence-restoring rout of LSU, but for a team that lost three of four to end the regular season and the faith of many, including some of its fan base, gutting out its second straight win - a 70-58 victory in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament - was important to keep the momentum moving forward.

"Vital," Willie Cauley-Stein called the win. "(If) we're going to make this run, these are just steps to get us on that run. ... If would have took two steps back, our confidence would have been shaken a little bit. It's good that we get to go forward, you know, keep that confidence."

The confidence is as high as it's been all season for the Wildcats (24-9) after UK fought through a foul-riddled first half and past a game Georgia team (19-13) playing for its NCAA Tournament life to advance to the SEC Tournament championship for the fourth time in five seasons under Calipari.

UK will face Florida on Sunday at 3:15 p.m. on ESPN.

"I hope when you watch us you say, 'This is a different team,' " Calipari said.

At times during Saturday's game, one could say that. The beginning was one of them.

The Cats picked up where they left off Friday with an impressive 12-2 run to start the game. James Young rained in two 3-pointers, Andrew Harrison got involved distributing the ball early, and the Kentucky contingent, which made up roughly 80 percent of the 20,330 fans at the Georgia Dome, rose to its feet and started roaring.

It looked like a UK rout until the whistles started blowing.

Foul after foul suddenly infested the game, and Kentucky, playing without several of its key rotation guys, found itself in a dogfight with a Georgia group that thrives on mucked-up games.

The Bulldogs got as close as two points when Kenny Gaines laid in a shot with 15:11 to play, but the Cats answered adversity for the second day in a row.

Leading 46-43 just seconds later, UK went on the game-defining run when Dakari Johnson snagged a long offensive rebound, fought through a couple of grabs on the way to the hoop and then banked his shot in as Nemanja Djurisic fouled him.

Johnson missed the free throw, but Cauley-Stein chased down the rebound, kicked it out to Andrew Harrison, who swung it to Aaron Harrison for one of his game-high four 3-pointers.

Aaron Harrison missed a 3 on the next possession, but Young flew in for the offensive rebound and tipped it in with his left hand. Just like that, UK was up 53-43 and well on its way to the SEC Tournament championship.

"Coach just told us to crash the glass," said Young, who scored 14 points despite sitting most of the first half with two fouls. "I saw the ball come off my way so I just tried to go for it. I've got to do that a little bit more."

Georgia hung around a little bit longer, but Andrew Harrison provided the dagger with the aforementioned 3-pointer from the top of the key.

All told, Andrew Harrison finished with 12 points, a career-high nine assists and five rebounds. It's the second day in row the UK point guard has set a new career high in assists. Of course, Andrew Harrison credited his teammates with his 17 assists over the last two days.

"They make me look good right now," he said. "Just finding them, and they're knocking down their shots."

Andrew Harrison's twin brother, Aaron, was the beneficiary of Andrew's distribution on Saturday. Aaron Harrison scored a game-high 22 points Saturday, and of the seven field goals he made, four were assisted by his brother.

"I know he's having fun," Aaron Harrison said of his brother. "He loves assists. I think he just needed--we just have to have heart. That's how he's always played and that's how he's going back and loosening up."

Calipari said the difference for the Harrison twins has been a fresh start. With all the adjustments the Cats have made in the last week, a message from Calipari to forget the regular season may have been the biggest change they've made all year.

 "I think a lot of this was the weight of the world on these guys," Calipari said. "All of them. The weight of the world of it's not only playing at Kentucky, taking everybody's best shot, every game as a sellout, every game's the other team's Super Bowl. It also is the clutter they're hearing. All the stuff they're trying to deal with, all the high expectations, and then all of a sudden, 'They stink.'

"These players don't stink. 'Oh, they're no good, they're overrated.' They're very good players, but they're 18 years old."

Coach Cal shredded DVDs in front of the team to show them the regular season is history. He's also taken a more positive approach with the players

"It helped me take a deep breath and step back and relax - think about what we could accomplish," Andrew Harrison said.

Despite all the regular-season struggles, the Cats can still claim an SEC championship on Sunday and much more in March. The notion of that seemed to difficult to fathom as recently as a week ago, but with the way Andrew Harrison is leading the Cats, it's not out of the question.

"We're not the same team," Calipari said. "We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago."

It took a tweak and more physical practices for that to happen, but more than anything, Calipari said it just took time.

"We're starting five freshmen, folks," he said. "Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special. This team, they're starting to come together. We're now one of those teams that you would hope we would have been two months ago, but so what? It took time. I'm good with it."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.
John Calipari's press conference


Interviews with Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young, Willie Cauley-Stein


 

Video: Floreal recaps day one of NCAA indoors

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Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson combined for 17 points, 17 rebounds and nine blocks in UK's win over LSU on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein combined for 17 points, 17 rebounds and nine blocks in UK's win over LSU on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA -- John Calipari did everything short of move Kentucky's practices this week to the fields at the Nutter Training Facility.

After the Wildcats returned to Lexington losers of three of their last four regular-season games, Coach Cal removed all restrictions on physical play. Defenders were instructed to body teammates on drives and Calipari even joked he broke out helmets and pads.

At the time, he didn't know it would be LSU awaiting the Cats in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinal. It only worked out well that it ended up that way.

"We did a lot of body-to-body contact, and all of our drills that we did, not just one or two, but everything from the beginning of practice to the end was all bodying each other like on drives or trapping in the post," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We knew if we had to play LSU that it was going to be a battle in the post."

Instead of balking at the physicality confronting them in practice -- the same kind the Tigers used in splitting two tough regular-season matchups with UK -- the Cats embraced it.

"We had three days of football and they responded and they listened," Calipari said. "They're like, 'Tell us what you want us to do,' and then they carried it over on to the court."

It carried over in the form of a dominant 85-67 victory, one that sent UK (23-9) ahead into a semifinal showdown with third-seeded Georgia -- who survived an Ole Miss buzzer-beating 3-point attempt to advance -- at 3:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.

LSU (19-13) exerted its will inside for much of the 80 minutes of those first two matchups, but it was UK doing what it wanted in the interior on Friday night. The Cats bruised their way to a 48-32 edge on the glass, handing the Tigers their largest rebounding deficit of the season. UK outscored LSU 21-7 in second-chance points in the process.

It all began with UK's two centers, Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson.

"They dominated the paint, really," said James Young, who scored a game-high 21 points.

The two centers' stat lines don't look drastically different, but the way they got there certain was.

Cauley-Stein came off the bench to post his eight points and six rebounds, injecting defensive energy in a way only he can. His six blocks were his most in more than a month and many came in spectacular, athletic fashion.

"My mindset was just go in, try to rebound everything, try to block everything, and sprint both sides of the floor," Cauley-Stein said. "That's all I really tried to do."

Johnson, meanwhile, didn't fly from the weak side for any of his three blocks like Cauley-Stein did. He didn't throw down any dunks likely to appear on SportsCenter in scoring nine points. He didn't elevate over everyone else to grab any of his career-high 11 rebounds.

All he did was get the job done, and more often than not with a big smile on his face.

"Dakari is so physical," Aaron Harrison said. "He plays with so much emotion. I love that he's on my team. He's always playing hard, always trying to help everybody out. He's really physical and he definitely kept us in the game."

Maybe Johnson's energy is rubbing off on Cauley-Stein, because the sophomore showed as much emotion as he has all season against LSU. Or maybe he was just eager to get the bad taste from UK's SEC Tournament flameout of a year ago out of his mouth.

"It's win or go home," Cauley-Stain said. "I want to do better than last year, so I feel like a burden's off my shoulder because we did better than last year. It's a win-or-go-home type thing from here on out and it doesn't matter how you win it. If you win it by one, if you win it by 30, 40, it doesn't matter."

Whatever it was, UK will be looking for Cauley-Stein and Johnson to keep it up. For much of the season, the two bigs have taken turns playing well. Against LSU, everyone saw what it looks like when Coach Cal can rotate between two very different players playing at their top of their game.

"I think it affects the opponent a lot. Willie, he's very good defensively and he can make some moves offensively," Johnson said. "And then when you can just bring us in and interchange us, it just gives a different look to the opponent."

The Tigers saw a different look entirely for long stretches, as Coach Cal turned to a lineup featuring both Cauley-Stein and Johnson more often than he has all season.

"I just think that Dakari, there are times where he's just so effective, they both are, and even played them both together," Calipari said. "We had two 7-footers out there today. Willie can play four. He can do it."

How much Calipari uses the two together for the rest of the postseason remains to be seen, but at least half the duo hopes to see more of the twin-tower lineup.

"I like playing with Willie because he kind of covers up some of my flaws defensively," Johnson said. "He's a great shot blocker, so if I break down on a defensive play he's back there to help me."  

UK needed every bit of Cauley-Stein's athleticism and Johnson's strength to defend Johnny O'Bryant, who averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds against the Cats in the regular season.

"You know, you're not going to stop Johnny O'Bryant from doing what Johnny O'Bryant does," Cauley-Stein said. "So you just kind of gotta try to put pressure on him where he makes either a bad play or a tough shot and then just play everybody else on his team because Johnny O'Bryant, he's really good."

Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle took turns guarding the junior forward with plenty of double-team help. O'Bryant scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds, but he was from the force that carried LSU to victory in Baton Rouge, La., in late January.

Knowing that stopping O'Bryant altogether was impossible, the Cats -- especially the tallest among them -- accepted the challenge of slowing him down.

"We know to beat them we had to do a good job of guarding Johnny O'Bryant," Johnson said. "So we just tried to play him tight. He still got a bunch of shots off, but still I think we did a good job defensively."

On both defense and offense, Cauley-Stein and Johnson showed what they can do against LSU. Now, it's down to them to live up to that new standard they've set for themselves.

"That's how we have to play and that's what Coach has wanted with us throughout the whole season," Johnson said. "Now I think we're actually focusing on it and seeing that's what he wants all of us to do."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.


Andrew Harrison had 11 points and eight assists in UK's SEC quarterfinal win over LSU on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison had 11 points and eight assists in UK's SEC quarterfinal win over LSU on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ATLANTA - The mystery of the "tweak" John Calipari made in practice this week may forever go unsolved.

Was it an emphasis on guard play to generate better ball movement? More zone? Physical play? Or perhaps it was a DVD shredding of this season's films the players talked about after the game.

When a reporter suggested in the postgame press conference that it involved Andrew Harrison and getting his teammates more involved, Coach Cal interrupted.

"That's not the tweak," he said. "Keep guessing though."

Whatever it was, the second-seeded Wildcats (23-9) built off the adjustment(s) made in practice this week and turned in arguably their finest performance of the year. After struggling against LSU (19-13) in two regular-season meetings, the Cats smashed the Tigers 85-67 on Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament.

"I think you saw a different team today with what we had been working on," Calipari said.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment of all was just a change in attitude and an increase in confidence the tweaks helped produce. Calipari was hoping his team would get its "mojo" back in the SEC Tournament, and they're off to a good start with Friday's rout.

"We've just been waiting for it," Alex Poythress said. "We practiced real hard this week, came together. We got killed Monday and Tuesday but we just came out and we were ready to play hard and focus on winning this tournament."

In one of their most dominant performances of the season, Kentucky shot 47.3 percent from the field, held LSU to 40.7 percent - an especially impressive feat after the Tigers opened the game with a blistering 8-for-10 start - and out-rebounded a physical LSU team 48-32.

UK's 18-point margin of victory was its largest since Jan. 25, its 87 points were its most since Jan. 28 and its 15 assists were its most since Feb. 18.

Quite clearly, Friday was the type of performance Kentucky needed after losing three of four to close the regular season and failing to come anywhere close to the preseason expectations the Cats have shouldered all season.

"They're in the right frame of mind," Coach Cal said. "They had a swagger."   

For all the changes, Calipari said none of them would matter if the Cats didn't come together when adversity hit. He wondered what would happen when something would go wrong. Would the Cats play through it or would they revert back to old habits like they have done so many times this season?

They answered a couple of major bouts of adversity Friday night. The first came right out of the gate.

After all the talk this week of improving play and a change in mindset for Kentucky, LSU picked up where it left off the when it hit 11 3-pointers against Alabama by sinking two to start the game. Those forced Calipari to call timeout just 1:01 into the game.

Panic immediately set in with the overwhelming blue crowd in the Georgia Dome.

"We start the game and we're not ready for how they were trapping," Calipari said. "Not their fault. That's my fault. So when I called timeout, I just said, 'Settle down, this is not on you; this is on us. Just keep playing. We're going to be fine.' "

LSU didn't slow down out of the timeout, hitting two more 3-pointers and eight of its first 10 shots, but the Cats hung around thanks to a more efficient offense.

When LSU took a 22-14 lead, that's when Kentucky turned it on. Coach Cal moved to his 2-3 zone - which he's used with more frequency this season - and Willie Cauley-Stein turned it on defensively.

The Cats went on a 23-3 run to take control of the game, holding LSU to just four field goals in 17 attempts after the scorching start.

"Regardless of whatever you think you the tweak was, it started on the defensive end and that's what led to us getting easier baskets and us getting a big lead," Julius Randle said.

In one sequence during the run, Cauley-Stein blocked a shot, got a second-chance bucket and then swatted another shot that set up a jumper for Andrew Harrison, UK's first lead of the game.

"My mindset was just go in, try to rebound everything, try to block everything and sprint both sides of the floor," Cauley-Stein said. "That's all I really tried to do."

But the Cats weren't out of the woods yet.

As this young team has done before, the Cats lost their focus midway through the second half and LSU clawed its way back to within three points.

But just when it looked like UK was reverting back to its old ways, Poythress, who struggled for most of the game, hit a key 3-pointer from the left elbow. That started a 7-0 run that gave Kentucky a little breathing room.

"Like Coach says, when the rain drops it just shows how you react, and I think we reacted pretty good," Randle said. "We were able to bust it back open."

The Cats busted it open with a second-half 15-4 run, highlighted by another Cauley-Stein dunk and a pair of Aaron Harrison 3-pointers.

"With how we played down the stretch, they could have gotten rattled. They didn't. It showed me a ton," Coach Cal said. "LSU makes a run; they had a will to win. That's exactly what we wanted to see and I'm really proud of them."

Four Wildcats scored in double figures, led by James Young's 21 points, 17 of which came in the first half.

Though Randle struggled to make shots both from the field and from the free-throw line, he still finished with a monster stat line of 17 points and 16 rebounds, his fifth straight double-double and 19th of the season.

Dakari Johnson was a load down low with nine points and a career-high 11 rebounds, and Aaron Harrison added 14 points.

But perhaps most important of all was Andrew Harrison's career-high eight assists. Andrew Harrison said Calipari put the ball in his hands and gave him the freedom to make plays.

"It felt great," Andrew Harrison said. "I know I wasn't playing to my full potential. Inconsistently I was playing pretty bad. I just wanted to come out here and get the ball to my teammates in the right position."

Said his twin brother, Aaron: "As a point guard and running our team, he was amazing. (This) is what we get when he plays like that and runs our team."

It would be silly to say the Cats have figured it out with the rollercoaster ride they have been on this season, but there is undoubtedly a renewed sense of spirit after Friday's performance.

"We're maturing as a team," Randle said. "It just goes to show that it's been a long, difficult season, but the biggest thing I can say is I'm proud of my team because no matter what we've gone through this whole year we've stayed the course."

Calipari just wishes he could have discovered the changes earlier.

"You ask the question, 'Well, why weren't you doing it earlier?' I don't know," Calipari said. "We had a bunch of freshmen. I was trying to figure out how they needed to play."

Maybe he has figured out how they need to play or maybe it is just one-game fool's gold. Everyone will find out more Saturday when Kentucky plays the winner of Ole Miss-Georgia in the semifinals, but there's no doubt UK opened a few people's eyes Friday and perhaps put a scare back into the rest of the nation.

"Now let's see if we can continue on this path and really make some people mad," Calipari said.

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

Video: Coach Cal's post-LSU press conference

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Video: SEC quarterfinal pep rally

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Live blog: Men's tennis vs. Mississippi State

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