John Calipari at UK's open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - A fun, annual game many in the Big Blue Nation often like to play is to debate how different teams from Kentucky's past would fare when playing against another Wildcat squad, whether that be another former team or the current version of the Cats.
With the Cats sending so many players to the NBA each year, that game has certainly become far more interesting due to such different rosters with each passing season.
In reality, all the former players can do is lend their advice to the current Cats, and thanks to the brotherhood and family that UK head coach John Calipari has fostered in his six years in Lexington, that ever-growing family remains a constant presence, especially for his undefeated 2014-15 team.
"I don't have to do that," Coach Cal said. "Those kids do it themselves. I mean, our former players are in touch with our players, in touch with our staff. I get the texts and the calls. You know, they know over All-Star break if they're not playing, they stop in. In the summers they always will pass through. It's been a great thing to see how they help each other and talk to one another."
After defeating LSU 71-69 in a thrilling game in Baton Rouge, La., NBA superstar and former Wildcat Anthony Davis stopped by the UK locker room and offered some advice to forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.
"It helps me and Karl out a lot because AD went through the same exact stuff that we're going through," Cauley-Stein said. "AD came in and wasn't so good on offense, or he just did a lot of dunks and stuff. Then you see him develop into one of, arguably, the best forward/centers in the league right now. You see him making jumpers, you see him taking people off the dribble and you're like, 'We're the same, we have the same background, we all came to the same school and do the same stuff.' You see that and it kind of gives you like, 'I just have to work on my stuff and I'm going to end up like him.' "
And when Davis, or any other former Cats, speak to the current team, their words always carry clout. These guys are, after all, in the NBA, a place all of the current players want to get to. Cauley-Stein said the biggest difference between Davis and anybody else he's spoken with is his mindset, and his ability to flip a switch when he steps on the court.
"He's going to be cool to you right now, if he was in here, but once you step on the floor he's trying to take your heart out," Cauley-Stein said. "That's the way you have to play."
For Calipari, who calls each of his current and former players his "sons," the moment and growth of his extended family has been fun to watch.
"It's been fun being a part of this family, knowing that they've benefited by the experience of being at Kentucky and they give back," Calipari said. "They give back in a lot of ways, but they give back to each other."
Evolution of Trey Lyles concludes at home in Indianapolis
Before freshman forward Trey Lyles ever put on a Kentucky jersey, he had a vision for how he wanted the 2015 season to conclude.
He wanted to win a national championship in his hometown of Indianapolis.
In 2015 I want to win a National Championship in my hometown Indianapolis!!! #BBN#Cats 🏀💙
Now, just shy of one year later, Lyles and his Wildcats are just two wins away from making that dream a reality. The first obstacle for him is staying focused on the game, and not get caught up in the emotions that surround it.
"It's just an exciting moment for me and my family," Lyles said. "I'm just trying to approach it like any other game. You know, going to stay focused. You know, just got to go out there and play hard."
When the Cats began their season in August with a six-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas against professional teams from around the world, Lyles was relegated to the sidelines with an injury. His absence left a mystery not only for outsiders, but his own teammates as well. Just how good is he?
"We didn't know because Trey got hurt before anybody could even see what he can do," Cauley-Stein said. "So you didn't know what, really, Trey could do, you just knew he was super crafty. Super crafty. One of the craftiest dudes I've played against. Now you're seeing it."
At the next level, Lyles figures to play the power forward position, but with three 7-footers on the roster, the 6-foot-10 Lyles has played more of the small forward role, creating mismatches for opponents both on offense and defense due to his size, strength and athleticism. He's also benefitted greatly from having to defend smaller players nearly every single game.
"Now it's to the point he knows he's one of the best players on the floor," Cauley-Stein said. "He knows on defense nobody can guard him. His craft really comes into play for us and it's really beneficial to us as a team."
Calipari has often referred to Lyles as the team's X-factor, the guy who can take the Cats to a different level.
"He's that one guy that is hard to guard, can make rebounds, plays hard, plays big," Coach Cal said. "Makes us a really big team, 7-foot, 7-foot, 6-10, 6-6. Really big."
As he does anytime one of his players returns to play a game in his hometown, Calipari says he also worries about Lyles playing back in Indianapolis, though the freshman does have some experience doing it after having played Kansas in Indianapolis on Nov. 18.
"As a matter of fact, I even forgot it until I got on the bus (Wednesday) night," Coach Cal said. "I went, 'Oh, my gosh, we're coming back to Indiana, back to Indianapolis.' I said, 'Oh, my gosh.' He laughs about it. But it's a hard deal. The whole environment is hard for everybody."
Teams prepare for shooting in dome setting
Lucas Oil Stadium is not your typical basketball arena.
That's because it's a football stadium.
And with that comes different sightlines, different vantage points, and different scoring outputs.
"Tough playing in domes," Coach Cal said. "The worst one we played in as a coach, we played in the 2011 Final Four in Houston, that was hard. Every team shot 30 percent. It was crazy. I don't think that will be the case here. All four teams are good shooting teams. The backdrop and the way ... I don't think it will be an issue."
And Calipari isn't the only one. UK freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said while it takes time to get used to the depth of the background, the Cats have had a great shootaround and practice and have been hitting shots.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo also didn't express any concern in playing in a large football arena, though that may be because his teams have played in much more challenging venues in the past.
"We played on an aircraft carrier where the background was the sea," Izzo said. "That don't bother our guys. ... There's been a couple of domes that I think have been tougher. But this hasn't been one. No matter how we shoot tomorrow, I think this is as good a setup as there is."
Approaching the Final Four
Every team and every season is different. Similarly, there are many different ways to approach different situations within each season, such as the Final Four.
For Coach Cal, finding the identity of his team has seemed to be the key. While at UMass, Coach Cal said his teams backed up, and they tried to keep them loose.
"It was our first time, school's first time," Calipari said. "Probably didn't do as good of a job as I needed to because of that."
Then at Memphis, he said his team had a spirit about it, but did back off some, just not as much as when he was at UMass.
This year's version of the Wildcats appears to want to cut the brakes and continue stomping on the gas.
"This year's team, I mean, we had two vicious practices Tuesday and Wednesday," Calipari said. "I was on them like it was December. This is a team that wants to go at each other. Our advantage is that we have a lot of guys. So when we scrimmage, you really benefit by that. They want to. They don't want to do drills. This is not a drills team. 'Stop the drills, throw the ball up.' They go after each other. They argue every call. They fight. I have to, 'Stop it!' I'm saying that five times a practice. So we went at it. We're basically done now. I feel that we've done what we're supposed to do with this team, but you never know. Probably after it's over, I'll say, I wish I hadn't gone so hard."
The biggest challenge facing his team at the Final Four outside of the immensely talented Wisconsin Badgers (35-3)? Tickets, Coach Cal said.
"The challenge is staying away from that, getting your players to stay away from it."
Aaron Harrison and Kentucky will face Wisconsin in the Final Four for the second straight season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Kentucky fans can probably recall every detail of the shot Aaron Harrison hit to send the Wildcats past Wisconsin and into the 2014 national championship game.
They remember how Andrew Harrison drove and dumped to Dakari Johnson, who quickly returned the pass. They'll never forget how Andrew kicked to his twin brother and told him to shoot. The memory of Aaron rising and burying a game winner is burned into their minds.
The same can't be said for the man who hit the shot.
"I just remember falling and celebrating," Aaron Harrison said. "I really don't remember anything else."
Josh Gasser - the player defending Aaron Harrison - has a memory similar to Kentucky fans' when it comes to the shot, though the feelings that come with it are quite a bit different.
"I think our fingers actually interlocked," Gasser said. "When it left his hand, I was feeling good."
Instead, Aaron Harrison's long-distance strike sent Wisconsin home. As the Cats celebrated, the Badgers pondered the end of their season. The shot and loss still fresh in their minds, Wisconsin players say they couldn't help but watch it again.
"I came home two days later and watched it from the perspective of me being sour and angry and sad," Sam Dekker said. "Then a few weeks later I watched it just getting over it. I watched it in bits and pieces. Then the night before the season started I watched it again just to, this is the stage you want to be at again. It kind of got me pumped up to go."
Motivated and returning the bulk of its roster from the Final Four team, the Badgers (35-3) have had one of the best seasons in program history and set up a reprise of last year's national semifinal at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. This time, the Wildcats come in as the first 38-0 team in NCAA history.
"It's a great story," Frank Kaminsky said. "Talk about starting last year when we played them and the way we lost. To come back this year and beat them on the same stage would be a storybook ending almost."
Aaron Harrison concedes he would have been motivated had Kentucky's season ended the way Wisconsin's did in 2014. However, he won't allow that Wisconsin has a monopoly on motivation. UK, after all, did come up short of its ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
"I think everyone's overlooking that," he said. "And I don't really see how it's a revenge game because we're a completely different team with different players."
On that count, the Badgers agree. Talk of the rematch might be dominating headlines (and this story), but it will matter little once the two teams step between the lines.
"Obviously, I understand where that's coming from, but when you get to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, it shouldn't matter - or any game for that matter - it shouldn't matter who you're playing," Dekker said. "If you need some type of fuel to fuel the play in a game you want to win, then there's something a little off."
More than revenge or anything, what UK and Wisconsin will truly be playing for in Lucas Oil Stadium is a spot in the national championship game. Both teams will have to pass their toughest on-paper test to date to earn it.
The matchup pits teams ranked first and third in both major polls, as well as kenpom.com. Kentucky, a team renowned for its otherworldly assemblage of talent, has four projected first-round NBA Draft picks. Wisconsin lags barely behind with three.
"Just a great team," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "They have a great coach also. A great program. I think all together you just have to respect the whole program as a general to make a team like that come together."
UK fields the nation's best defense, Wisconsin the nation's best offense. To put it briefly, this is going to be good.
"Well, they're outstanding," John Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post. They shoot the 3 the same as Notre Dame does. They have that one guy that's a big guy, not a guard, and their guards are good, too, in Frank (Kaminsky) who can go get his own. But Dekker has proved he can do the same."
Slowing down Kaminsky, Dekker and company is a monumental challenge. In fact, handcuffing them as UK has so often done to opponents this season might be impossible. The good news is Wisconsin still has to contend with UK's balanced attack.
Regardless whether the Cats do it with defense as they did against Cincinnati or offense like against Notre Dame, the overall approach is the same as it ever was.
"We have one job," Calipari said. "Individually it's to be the best version of yourself. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared to be your best. We have to play at our best. That's the best we can do. I can't ask them for anything else. I told them, I don't know the outcome. I can't promise you the outcome. But I do know our chances are best if you're the best version of you and we're our best as a team. Things are going to go crazy. We'll adjust. We've done it all year."
Willie Cauley-Stein leads Kentucky into a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein became Kentucky's 25th consensus All-American on March 30. His path to get there was long, different and remarkable.
Now, Cauley-Stein is perhaps the face of college basketball's first-ever 38-0 team.
"It's just crazy to think about the last three years of losing first round in the NIT against Robert Morris," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming back and finding a way to get back to a title game, coming up short, having a chance to come back and do it again."
Cauley-Stein came to Kentucky as a four-star recruit and the 40th-ranked prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. At most any other school, the 7-footer, who played both wide receiver and safety in high school, would have been one of the top recruits in the class.
Instead, Cauley-Stein was the lowest-ranked recruit of Kentucky's four-member 2012 class, including being the second-best prospect at his own position. The star of that class was Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 center in the country and the No. 2 overall prospect.
Cauley-Stein played well as a freshman, earning Freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors, but never had the pressure on him that he did as a sophomore, or especially as a junior.
In his second year in Lexington, Cauley-Stein became a defensive star for the Wildcats, becoming just the third player in program history to block more than 100 shots in a season, and tied Noel for the second most in single-season history with 106.
As the Wildcats picked up steam heading into the NCAA Tournament, Cauley-Stein had everything made up in his mind. Silence some critics, hopefully win a championship and then head off to the NBA. Then, just four minutes after entering the game against Louisville in the Sweet 16, Cauley-Stein went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
"It's just, everything happens for a reason," Cauley-Stein said. "... Getting injured and coming back, I was thinking about going the whole time until I got injured. End up coming back and end up being part of history and end up doing stuff people didn't really think you could do."
That "stuff" includes earning first team All-America honors from the Sporting News, Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
"How far Willie has come in his career is truly ridiculous," Calipari said.
And Coach Cal would know. The newly crowned AP National Coach of the Year first saw Cauley-Stein in AAU game where he was guarded by a 6-foot-4 player, and yet the freakishly athletic forward finished with just two points - though Cauley-Stein argues he scored more.
"He has come so far as a player, but more importantly as a person," Calipari said. "He came in saying, 'You know what, I don't like academics, I'm going to do what you're making me do.' He and I became book club members together. I would make him read books. He and I would discuss books. One of the things he said last year is, I'm enjoying school. That's what we're supposed to be about. ... Now he's going into his junior year, here is a kid that averages under double figures and is one of the top players in the country 'cause he's that selfless about his team. It's a good part about what we do, to see that kind of growth."
Speaking to the media Friday in a private room, Cauley-Stein, who has previously said that his favorite book read from his book club with Calipari is "The Energy Bus" by Jon Gordon, talked about Calipari in a different light than just being a basketball coach.
"He's like a life teacher," Cauley-Stein said of Calipari. "He's a life coach. He doesn't just coach the game of basketball. He wants us to become men. It's not all about basketball. It's not all about wins. Regardless whether we won games or not, Coach Cal is still going to be Coach Cal. He's still going to be really successful. He's still going to do all the things he does. I think one of his biggest teaching moments is actually making us into young men and teaching us life skills to use when we're done playing basketball, or when we take the next step."
And due to the play of Cauley-Stein, considered one of the favorites to win the National Defensive Player of the Year award, that next step looks to be coming sooner rather than later.
In the latest NBA Draft projections, Cauley-Stein appears set to become a top-10 pick. Though he's averaging just 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Cauley-Stein is playing with great confidence on the floor, as well as a chip that rests on his shoulder placed by his critics.
The knock on the SEC Defensive Player of the Year has always been that he can't score or that he's not a true all-around basketball player.
"I don't know how you can be an All-American in this country and not be a good basketball player," Cauley-Stein said.
But the biggest knock by critics may not be what he does or doesn't do on the court, but perhaps all of his interests off of it.
"Me being interested in three or four different things, then they say, 'Well, you don't love the game of basketball,' " Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, that's nonsense to me. Why would I come to Kentucky if I didn't love the game of basketball? This is the hardest place to play, in my opinion. You just have to know what you think and it doesn't really matter what everybody else thinks. You know what you've done and what you've been through to get to where you are."
In this journey from a basketball player who once played football to a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein has always been able to keep things in perspective.
Now just two wins away from making history as the sport's first 40-0 team and the first undefeated national champion in 39 years, Cauley-Stein and Kentucky ready themselves to face a talented Wisconsin team that has revenge on its mind. Either way, history will be made this weekend, Cauley-Stein is just hoping it's the good kind.
"If we ended up winning it all we'll go down in history," Cauley-Stein said. "If we end up losing we'll still go down in history being talked about going undefeated until we lost it. Either way we're going to be talked about. But us, we want to be talked about in a good way, not like a letdown."
John Calipari and UK's starters speak at their press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - In theory, there's an easy solution for Kentucky when it comes to facing Frank Kaminsky.
Just get him in foul trouble.
In reality, there's a problem.
He almost never fouls.
"Well, he plays with his feet more so than a lot of other 7-footers I've seen," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "He doesn't reach in. He doesn't try to block every shot."
The Wildcats (38-0) can throw all the bodies they want at Kaminsky in Saturday's national semifinal. They can try the bruising Dakari Johnson, the springy Willie Cauley-Stein or possible No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but history suggests Kaminsky won't take the bait and fall victim to foul trouble.
"I think Arizona was the first game I think I've ever had four fouls here in my career at Wisconsin," said Kaminsky, who was named AP National Player of the Year on Friday.
That's not quite true, but last weekend's Elite Eight win was the first time Kaminsky has picked up four fouls this season. In his first two seasons, he picked up four fouls 11 times and fouled out only once. All told, he went more than a year between games with four fouls.
Kaminsky is no exception on this Wisconsin team either. He's merely the best example of Ryan's approach.
"In the 30 years or whatever that I've been a head coach, I would guarantee you that my teams have had the fewest number of blocked shots than any other team in the country, if you take Platteville, Milwaukee and Wisconsin," Ryan said. "We try to keep our feet on the ground, we try to chest up with our hands straight up."
The numbers prove it.
Wisconsin is first in the country in defensive free-throw rate, allowing just 0.221 free-throw trips per field-goal try for its opponent, and is 224th in defensive block rate in spite of being the nation's second-tallest team, according to kenpom.com. Teams are hard-pressed to even get into the bonus against the Badgers. Wisconsin has committed 15 or fewer fouls in all but five games this season.
"He knows what refs look for, he knows what tendencies of refs to call are and he shows us every single film session," Kaminsky said. "He'll even show us our fouls that we got away with so we can learn from that too. So it's a process. He has a system. He doesn't foul, doesn't want to give the other team free points. Just doing whatever we can to stay out of foul trouble in this game is going to be big."
The Arizona game was the first time all season the Badgers have committed more than 18 fouls and the first time they have allowed more than 20 free-throw attempts. Arizona is a team with length and athleticism similar to Kentucky, suggesting UK could stress Wisconsin in the same way.
Aaron Harrison said Wisconsin's ability to avoid fouling has been a consistent topic in UK's preparation, saying John Calipari is directing his team to attack the basket as usual. Nonetheless, they aren't counting on Wisconsin becoming foul happy overnight.
Odds are the Badgers will avoid foul trouble and make the Cats earn their points on tough 2s and 3s. If they do, UK - 25th nationally in free-throw rate - will have to adjust to having a big part of its offensive limited.
"If they don't foul, they don't foul," Harrison said. "I'm not really sure what to do to draw fouls. We've just gotta get in close to the basket and if they foul you, you have to make it."
Odds are Kaminsky will stay on the floor for something close to the 33.4 minutes he's averaging this season. If he does, the Cats will have to contain him.
"He's going to hit you from a lot of different spots and you're not going to stop him," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the type of player you just have to limit. You're not going to stop him from scoring. You just can't let him score 30 on you and that's the way we have to approach it."
Cauley-Stein, with a 7-foot, 242-pound frame identical to Kaminsky, projects as the likely primary defender on his fellow All-American, but it isn't likely to be so simple.
UK threw multiple defenders at Kaminsky in one-on-one situations in last year's Final Four, from Dakari Johnson to Marcus Lee to Julius Randle to Alex Poythress. Even though Cauley-Stein - the presumptive national defensive player of the year winner - will be on the floor this time around, expect UK to use the same strategy used to limit Kaminsky to eight points on seven shots.
"I think with the guys that we have, we're going to do a lot of switching anyway," Cauley-Stein said. "Not one person is going to be on that set player during the whole game. You know, everybody in practice has been guarding guards and bigs. We're just kind of ready for everything."
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, UK's Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke's Quinn Cook and Michigan State's Travis Trice. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein was sandwiched between one of his Saturday opponents and a guard who plays for the team Kentucky fans revile perhaps more than any other.
Cauley-Stein could only say good things about Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Duke's Quinn Cook, as well as Michigan State senior Travis Trice.
"Just a great respect for each one of these players up here, and their teams," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, each one of us is a big part of their team, the way they run things. It's really just a good respect."
With Kaminsky, the respect seemed to be accompanied by a budding rapport. The two 7-footers walked on to the podium for a Thursday Final Four press conference in the middle of an easy conversation. Within a few minutes, Kaminsky revealed what they had bonded over.
"Personality-wise, we were talking about Super Smash Bros. on the way up here, so I feel like we would get along," Kaminsky said.
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein got to keep talking about their video game of choice once they sat down when a reporter asked them about their character of choice. It was another point of bonding.
"I've been trying Captain Falcon," Kaminsky said. "He's really slow, so I think I'm going to go back to Kirby."
"I play with Kirby just because he can change," Cauley-Stein said. "He can change into anybody he's playing against. And he flies around, so when you get knocked off the little stage, you can just fly back and you don't have to worry about jumping."
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein, however, will be putting the controllers down and stepping onto a significantly bigger stage themselves come Saturday at 8:49 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. Just like with Super Smash Bros., the right to play the next game will be on the line, but this time the next game is the national championship.
Coack K, Izzo praise Cats
Mike Krzyzewski hasn't watched much of Kentucky this year.
Considering the Wildcats aren't on Duke's schedule and won't be unless both teams advance to the national championship game Monday, that makes sense.
That doesn't mean he's not aware that John Calipari's team is the story of college basketball this season.
"John has done an amazing job with his group, and it's been good for college basketball in that you've been talking about a team instead of talking about freshmen or individuals," Coach K said.
UK has its share of talented freshmen and individual stars, but its cohesiveness and depth have carried the Cats to a 38-0 mark entering the Final Four. The regular season began with the Cats ranked No. 1 based largely on their roster featuring nine McDonald's All-Americans. It ended the same way because they turned their potential into something special.
"You got to be talented," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "And I think Mike alluded to it with Kentucky this year, guys are willing to take on different roles, not play as many minutes, not score as many points. I think the more talent you have, the better it is, as long as it's talent that's coachable and talent that has a team concept in mind."
There's no questioning that UK constantly has that team concept in mind. The result has been a narrative positive for the game.
"For a few years we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals," Krzyzewski said. "This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be: It's about teams. Kentucky's been a great team."
Talent aplenty at Final Four
Bo Ryan knows better than anyone how good this Final Four field is.
Within the last calendar year, his Wisconsin Badgers have played Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four, Duke on Dec. 3 and Michigan State twice in the last six weeks.
"What I can say about the talent is there's shooters, there's ball handlers, there's bigs," Ryan said. "I mean, you can go from every aspect of the game of basketball and look at these four teams, there are guys that are just blue-collar guys that are there to rebound and play defense, there are guys that are there to score, there are guys that are there to kill you in the post, there's guys defensively that can lock you down.
"I would say in this Final Four, having played all the teams within the past year, there's a little bit of everything. It's at a very high level."
Beyond the talent, each of the four teams has faced a tough road to get here. Combined, they have defeated three No. 2 seeds, two No. 3 seeds, two No. 4 seeds and two No. 5 seeds. None has faced a double-digit seed after the round of 64.
"That's what you admire about people that have success in this tournament, you know how hard it is," Izzo said. "It's not just about being good enough, you've got to be lucky. We have gotten here (in the past) because teams lost. One year it was Kansas who was ranked. I think this year, we've all earned our way without major surprises or many major surprises. That's pretty good."
Champions Classic reunion
November, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas played the first
two marquee games of the college basketball season in the Champions
In April, three of the four have returned to Indianapolis for the last three games.
State and Duke will play in one national semifinal - a rematch of an
81-71 Duke win on Nov. 18 - while Wisconsin subs in as Kentucky's
opponent in the other.
Coach K called it "prophetic" that the three teams are in the Final Four together.
"That's been a good deal for our programs, I think, to play that doubleheader at the start of each year," Krzyzewski said.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - This is the Final Four. Every team in the country dreams of making it to this point. Heck, the slogan of the event is "The Road Ends Here." Certainly, this is no time for fun and games.
Oh, on the contrary.
"New experience, we want to take it in, have fun," Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. "At the end of the day, we're here to win games. Not change, just continue doing the great habits we've done all year, just have fun."
That three-letter word was used or talked about frequently Thursday when one student-athlete from each Final Four team came to the stage in the interview room to meet with the media. Other words, or variations of them, that were talked about frequently included, camaraderie, excitement, togetherness and adversity.
While adversity may seem like an antonym to the aforementioned words on the surface, it actually has served as a precursor to allow the other words to prosper and grow.
"I think adversity is what has gotten our team to this point," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said. "Midway through the year, we were on the bubble. People questioned whether we were going to get into the tournament. Because of that, we've banded together."
And now the Spartans (27-11), as well as the Badgers (35-3), Blue Devils (33-4) and Wildcats (38-0), are hardly separable from their teammates.
During Kentucky's photo and video shoots with Turner Sports on Thursday afternoon, the team took numerous pictures with a Twitter Mirror showing just how stressed out they were from the whole experience.
Even the four head coaches looked to be having a good time Thursday. Wisconsin head man Bo Ryan and Kentucky coach John Calipari, who have been friends for years, joked back and forth from the very beginning of their press conference when Coach Cal got on the stage and said, "C'mon, Bo" who was following him, to a question about Ryan's team's personality.
"Believe it or not, I know how I'm perceived by some people," Ryan said. "I'm actually a pretty funny guy."
"No, you're not," Calipari interrupted with a smile, "you're mean."
Perhaps that loose attitude, both by coaches and players, is the best way to combat all of the pressure that surround being on the biggest stage of the game.
Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky said he and his teammates played the suddenly resurgent Nintendo 64 game Super Smash Bros. in the team's hospitality room at its hotel Wednesday night. They also got their hair cut and simply hung out. When it's time to get focused, though, they know what to do.
"It's great being around so many characters on our team," Kaminsky said. "It just makes this experience that much more memorable being around so many fun guys.
"When we got on the court today for practice, all seriousness. We know how to flip it when we need to."
Kaminsky and the Badgers aren't the only ones playing games though.
"We're constantly together," Trice said. "Like Frank said, the hospitality room, we were there till 12:00, 1:00 (a.m.) last night. You really got to fight us to get away from each other. I think that's a good thing and helps us in close games."
And each team has had close games. Kentucky rallied late against Notre Dame to hit two free throws with six seconds remaining to win 68-66. Wisconsin has won each of its last three games by seven points each. Duke fought through a shooting slump against Utah to win by six. Michigan State, the tournament's lone non-No. 1 seed remaining, defeated Louisville in overtime in the Elite Eight.
On Saturday, while the video games may take a back seat, the players seemed quite certain the fun would not.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store here," Cook said.
"We're going to take it all in," Trice said.
"It's going to be fun," Kaminsky said. "I can't wait."
"I'm super excited to play," Cauley-Stein said. "It's a dream. When you're young and you're playing in your driveway, you're playing one-on-one against yourself, this is the moment that you're playing against."
Bo Ryan and John Calipari held a joint press conference on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Through all the tests Kentucky has faced this season, one team has always loomed more than any other.
As the Wildcats have piled up victory after victory, Wisconsin has been talked about as the team best suited to take them down.
Two days before UK and Wisconsin finally face off, John Calipari can see why.
"I mean, they do what they're supposed to do," Calipari said. "They give you a tough look. They rebound the ball. They're outstanding. This will be a really hard game for our team. We know that. Bo (Ryan) has done what he's done with every team: He's just made them a cohesive offensive and defensive unit."
The Badgers pass Coach Cal's eye test and the numbers back him up. UK-Wisconsin is a matchup of the teams rated No. 1 and No. 3 according to kenpom.com and the Badgers took down No. 2 Arizona on Sunday.
Let's dig into the numbers behind those rankings, numbers that have a lot to say about which team will win the right to play for the national championship.
When Kentucky is on offense
Kentucky's offense has been overshadowed by its historically good defense, but the Cats can really score the ball. Wisconsin's head coach has noticed, and it's a lot about UK's depth.
"Even if there's a guy that shoots a bad percentage or has a rough day, look how many other guys can pick them up," Ryan said. "There are some teams who have two, three, maybe four scorers. If they all have a bad day the same day, they're definitely losing. Kentucky can have guys have bad days but still have enough guys to make up for that."
Six Cats are used on between 20 and 24 percent of UK's possessions, and they all have individual offensive ratings of better than 109. Perhaps most incredibly, Kentucky's consensus first-team All-American, Willie Cauley-Stein, isn't among them. He's used on just 18.6 percent of possessions for which he's on the floor.
Against Wisconsin - the nation's 54th-ranked defense, according to kenpom.com - UK will face a unique test, notably because the teams will match strengths in a couple notable areas.
UK has the fifth-most efficient offense in America thanks in large part to its ability to attack the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line. The Cats rank sixth nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage (0.399) and 25th in free-throw rate (44.5). Wisconsin, meanwhile, is fourth in defensive-rebounding percentage (0.741) and first in defensive free-throw rate (22.1). Which team wins these two battles is anyone's guess.
UK and Wisconsin are also evenly matched in effective field-goal percentage, the Cats ranking 75th on offense and the Badgers 99th on defense. Interestingly, the Badgers struggle guarding the 3-point line. Wisconsin is 301st in 3-point percentage defense (0.374), but allows 3-point attempts so infrequently (only 26.3 percent of opponents' shots come from 3) that it doesn't often hurt the Badgers.
Where UK figures to get a boost is in the turnover department. The Badgers never sell out to force miscues and their opponents commit turnovers on just 16.1 percent of possessions (327th nationally). The Cats, by contrast, take care of the ball effectively and rank 36th in turnover percentage (0.164). In last year's national semifinal, UK had just four turnovers. When Kentucky is on defense
Speaking of matching strengths, how about the best offense in the country against the best defense in the country?
Wisconsin is the only team with an offense rated better by kenpom.com than Notre Dame, which just scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season.
"Well, they're outstanding," Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post."
Cauley-Stein is similarly impressed.
"Us watching film, they run angles a lot," he said. "One of our biggest things in the Notre Dame game was giving up backdoors, easy baskets. They utilized that. They kind of pride themselves on, you know, exploiting people's weakness and taking over from it. So that's our biggest thing is not giving up easy baskets, not letting them play angles against us."
The Badgers' top threat is Frank Kaminsky, the versatile 7-footer who scores inside and out. Thanks in large part to him, Wisconsin is 16th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (0.55) and facing the best effective field-goal percentage defense in Kentucky, which holds opponents to 0.392.
Wisconsin's greatest strength is its ability to take care of the basketball. The Badgers, steadied by point guard Bronson Koenig, commit turnovers on just 12.3 percent of their possessions, the best mark in the country. They haven't committed double-digit turnovers since Dec. 13, meaning even UK's disruptive defense isn't likely to cause too many errors.
In short, expect Wisconsin to shoot the ball relatively well and commit few turnovers. UK could make up for that at the free-throw line, because the Cats are 55th in defensive free-throw rate and the Badgers are 181st in offensive free-throw rate.
Where the game could be decided, however, is on the glass when Wisconsin does miss. The Badgers are middle of the pack in offensive-rebounding percentage (129th), while UK is below average in defensive-rebounding percentage (204th). If the Cats can perform better than they typically have in this area, they will gain an edge.
One thing that's close to a certainty is that Saturday's game will not be an up-tempo affair. UK ranks 250th in adjusted tempo, Wisconsin 345th.
The Cats have thrived this season in up-and-down games, but they've handled grind-it-out affairs just fine too. At the end of the day, they're just going to play their game.
"We're not going to control what Wisconsin does," Calipari said. "They're going to play the way they play. I just hope my team plays well. I think if you talk to all four coaches, when you say, 'We're stopping Wisconsin.' We're not stopping Wisconsin. I just hope my team plays well and then we'll see how it plays out."