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Young Cats trying to soak in first March experience

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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.

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