UK won its 28th SEC Tournament championship on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Its top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament set, Kentucky by no means needed to win Sunday.
The Wildcats didn't play like it.
Facing an Arkansas team eager to reestablish itself as a worthy challenger to the Southeastern Conference's top dog, UK asserted its dominance one final time.
"A lot of it's just staying the course and staying what we have been doing the whole year and continue to keep a fight and not get bored of what we're doing," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
With a 78-63 win over the No. 21/20 Razorbacks in Nashville, Tenn., the top-ranked Cats claimed the 28th SEC Tournament championship in school history to follow up the regular-season title they'd already won. The league's other 13 schools have 27 tournament championships between them. John Calipari has coached Kentucky to three SEC Tournament titles in his six seasons.
"This team has a lot of dog in it," Calipari said. "So I don't think they're worried about numbers. That's ego stuff. I don't think they worry about it."
By toppling the SEC's second-place team for the second time in barely two weeks, UK takes a spotless 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament. As soon as their postgame responsibilities would allow, the Cats boarded a plane and returned to Lexington to watch the Selection Show at 6 p.m. ET on CBS and learn their March Madness path.
Before then, UK did take a little time to relish the title. Confetti and streamers fell from the rafters as a stage was quickly set up at midcourt so the Cats could receive their trophy and Willie Cauley-Stein his own MVP trophy. He was joined on the All-SEC Tournament team by Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
There was one part of the celebration the Cats decided to forgo.
"Those aren't the nets we're really looking to cut down," Cauley-Stein said. "It was just a milestone. It's part of the process for us winning and everything, but we're looking for something bigger. We're looking to cut down a couple more nets in the tournament."
Most of the 20,315 fans in attendance - a Bridgestone Arena record for an SEC Tournament game - stuck around to watch the celebration, enjoying it almost as much as the first-half show put on by the Cats.
UK sprinted out to an 8-0 lead behind a pair of Andrew Harrison 3s, but Arkansas quickly responded. After Michael Qualls buried a 3 of his own with 10:18 left in the first, the Cats and Hogs were tied and seemingly bound for a battle like so many the two teams waged in the 1990s.
Instead, Kentucky clamped down on defense and shredded Arkansas' patented full-court press. UK would outscore the Razorbacks 22-6 to close the half by scoring on 10 of its final 12 possessions and eventually convincing Arkansas to sink back into a zone defense. Arkansas, on the other hand, made just 1-of-13 field goals over the final 10-plus minutes.
"Arkansas's a ranked team," Calipari said. "Talking about a top-20 team. We kind of did our thing. So proud of our guys."
Arkansas would put up a fight in the second half, coming alive offensively and at one point scoring on nine of 11 possessions. But with the Cats steady against an Arkansas team that leads the SEC in turnover margin, the game would never get closer than nine points.
UK effectively toed Coach Cal's line between aggressiveness and taking care of the ball, committing 13 turnovers and dishing out 16 assists on 25 made field goals. Aaron Harrison had a season-high six assists to go with his 11 points, while Tyler Ulis had six assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes.
"With two point guards in most of the game it's hard to press us," Ulis said. "I can get the ball, Aaron and (Devin Booker) can also handle the pressure, and Trey (Lyles). It's hard to press us, and then once we get in the open court it's lobs."
For the game, UK scored 1.24 points per possession on the strength of 51-percent shooting from the field, 7 of 12 from 3 and 21 of 27 at the line. The Cats' efficiency was crucial in weathering Arkansas' second-half run and eventually fueled a response.
"That's just a part of basketball, really," Aaron Harrison said. "We knew we had to make a run to break the game open, so that's what we did. We just kept it from there."
The lead at 54-45 with 9:47 left, UK unleashed a decisive 13-3 spurt to erase all doubt and pave the way for a third victory by 15 points or more in three days at the SEC Tournament. All told, the Cats won 15 of 21 games against SEC opponents by double digits.
UK's remarkable run through the regular season and conference tournament, however, officially goes into the rearview mirror on Sunday evening.
"Regardless if we were perfect or not, it's still we're only guaranteed one game," Aaron Harrison said. "So it's really the slate is clean, whether we're 34-0 or got five losses, we still from here on out, you're 0-0. You got to take it one game at a time."
Tyler Ulis had six points, six assists and five rebounds as UK defeated Auburn, 91-67. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Everyone in Bridgestone Arena knew Kentucky had the advantage in every which way.
Even Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said earlier this season UK was the only Southeastern Conference team his Tigers couldn't beat. And that was before big man Cinmeon Bowers was suspended just before the two teams matched up in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Knowing that, the Wildcats had little doubt Auburn would try to turn the semifinal showdown into a slugfest.
"That's what they had to do to win," Tyler Ulis said. "They had to try to get into a physical game with us and we just had to keep our heads, keep playing ball."
Fortunately for the Cats, Saturday wasn't the first time they faced an opponent that tried to push them out of their game. And considering UK's spotless 33-0 record after coasting past Auburn, 91-67, coping with that challenge hasn't presented too much of a problem.
"Teams try to be physical with us all the time," Aaron Harrison said. "We just have to know you can't let them push you around or anything. You just have to be smart about it and play physical back, of course. But you have to be smart about it."
The greatest test on that front came quickly, as 7-foot-2 Auburn freshman Trayvon Reed got in the face of 5-9 Tyler Ulis after UK forced a turnover with 13:31 left in the first half.
"I was standing there," Ulis said. "He kind of walked up and pushed me. I just reacted a little bit."
Ulis, not surprisingly considering his well-documented pickup scuffle with DeMarcus Cousins, didn't back down. Officials separated the two before it escalated further and assessed technical fouls to both.
"That's his heart right there," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Coach said it in the interview. His heart is as big as a 7-footer. That just showed it right there."
With the diminutive Ulis toeing the line between keeping his cool and sticking up for himself, the almost exclusively blue-clad crowd was inspired.
"Everybody just got really excited, pumped," Ulis said. "Got the crowd into it and everybody had my back, obviously."
Once the exchange was done, Ulis went right back to going about his business.
Per usual, his business included involving his teammates and taking care of the ball. Ulis took only three shots and scored six points, but he dished out six assists against two turnovers. What wasn't so expected was Ulis' work on the glass. He pulled down five rebounds - just two short of the team high - chasing down many of the long jumpers the Tigers missed.
Asked to choose between the points and the rebounds, Ulis didn't hesitate.
"Five rebounds," Ulis said. "Because six assists, that's what I'm supposed to do. But the rebounds I really like being able to rebound at my position."
Cauley-Stein dominates on both ends
For once, Willie Cauley-Stein's offense overshadowed his defense.
The junior poured in 18 points, mixing in jump shots and post-up baskets with the highlight-reel dunks that have become his trademark. But see, his defense was still really good too.
For more of his team-high 31 minutes, Cauley-Stein was the primary defender on Auburn star K.T. Harrell. The 6-4 guard made just 1-of-12 field goals and scored 13 points after averaging 24.3 points to lead Auburn's unlikely run to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
"Willie defended Harrell really well and it was pretty amazing to watch, actually," Aaron Harrison said.
In fact, Cauley-Stein credited his defense for sparking his big offensive day.
"I think that's what I was doing in the beginning of the year was just making sure, 'Look, I'm going to lock down on defense and then if offense happens, then it happens.' " Cauley-Stein said. "Today it just happened. So that's kind of my game plan going into the rest of these games."
If it means he's going to keep playing defense the way he did on Harrell, that plan works for his teammates.
"He's just a different kind of athlete, really," Harrison said. "I'm glad he's on my team."
Cats tower over Tigers
On paper, the size differential was substantial.
It was even more pronounced when Kentucky and Auburn took the floor for the opening tip.
"I'm not going to say what I really said," Cauley-Stein said when he was asked his reaction. "Just wow, that's what I'll say."
With Bowers suspended, Auburn's tallest starter stood 6-5. UK's point guard, Andrew Harrison, is 6-6. The Cats took advantage, outrebounding the Tigers 39-25, and scoring 28 points in the paint to Auburn's 18. Top seeds set to meet in title game
After an SEC Tournament full of upsets, the championship matchup that was supposed to happen has.
Top-seeded UK and second-seeded Arkansas took care of business in the semifinals on Saturday, with the Razorbacks (26-7) winning a defensive battle against Georgia, 60-49.
"We get a chance to go to the championship game," Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. "That's what we came up here for, and our guys are looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge of playing a great Kentucky team."
The two teams met just two weeks ago, with UK building a 31-point lead en route to an 84-67 victory. The Razorbacks said after the game they would jump at the chance to rematch with the Cats, and now they'll get it.
"Of course, they left a bad taste in our mouths, so we're not shying away from the moment, we're not shying away from playing them," guard Michael Qualls said. "It just it happens like that. You just got to come out and focus on us and how we can be better and just play Arkansas-brand basketball."
Under Anderson, Arkansas is playing a similar brand of basketball to the one that made it an SEC power and UK's top conference rival in the 1990s. The Cats and Hogs regularly matched up in the SEC Tournament then - UK is 7-1 against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament - but they have not played in it since 2001.
"There's been a tremendous history with Arkansas and Kentucky," Anderson said. "And, of course, they're playing at another level right now. So we look forward to the opportunity. We look forward to the challenge."
That's why when he swats an opponent's shot away he'll give a stare and a face that will let everyone know about it just as much as the rejection.
"It energizes the whole team," freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. "It's his trademark."
"It's not even a stare down, it's more of just a look like, 'What are you thinking? What are you doing?' " Cauley-Stein said.
Hey, at least he's being honest.
Whether you want to call it a stare or a look is semantics at this point. When Cauley-Stein does it, it's a very good thing for the Cats (33-0). On Saturday in the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, that look came back again as the Cats cruised to a 91-67 victory.
"Willie was the best version of himself," UK head coach John Calipari said. "That's what we're striving for. Hard to do that every night out. But he has that ability. It's just hard. I don't want him to feel there's an expectation he has to be that good every night, but strive to be that good."
Midway through the second half, freshman guard Devin Booker found Cauley-Stein in transition for a gorgeous lob dunk to put the Cats up by 26. What followed was both a scream of excitement and a stare that could pierce the thickest of skins.
The referee talked to Cauley-Stein afterward, but not so much about the stare as to let him know what he would have done had he been the player. After a skirmish broke out Friday between Auburn and LSU and words were exchanged in the first half between 5-foot-9 Tyler Ulis and 7-2 Trayvon Reed, he didn't want this to escalate.
"He was like making sure I was going to stay safe because we were up by 20 and he was like, 'If you were staring me down I'd get mad too,' " Cauley-Stein said about his conversation with the official.
Cauley-Stein, who wore an appropriate gray T-shirt after the game that read "You run, I fly," says the stare comes in the flow of the game and none of it is premeditated, but if intimidates his opponent, well, that works too.
"I never looked at it like it's intimidating," Cauley-Stein said. "That's just what I'm thinking is 'What is that dude thinking?' "
A similar question perhaps could be asked to those who have pegged Cauley-Stein as a one-dimensional player, as the 7-foot John R. Wooden Award finalist scored a team-high 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked three shots and dished out two assists against the Tigers.
It was the first time Cauley-Stein reached double figures offensively since scoring 14 points on Valentine's Day against South Carolina, and his second highest scoring output of the year. While he was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and is one of the favorites to take home national defensive player of the year honors, Cauley-Stein said it "drives me nuts" when he's described as a defender alone.
"I'm a ballplayer," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not just a defensive player. I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."
He did say though that his offensive performance against Auburn stemmed from his prowess on defense. Cauley-Stein said it was a mindset he had at the beginning of the year that he carried over to the blue-clad Bridgestone Arena, saying "if offense happens, then it happens."
Against Auburn, the junior hit jump shots and floaters. He made post moves, grabbed rebounds for put-back dunks, and of course also skied for lob dunks.
"When he sees a lot of those shots go in, it's just--he gets a lot of confidence like I said and he just keeps going and we keep feeding him," Ulis said. "When he gets it going, it's hard to stop him."
It also makes it really hard to stop everyone else on Kentucky. When a team is fortunate enough to have as many scoring options as the Wildcats do, what are opponents supposed to do when an athletic, quick 7-footer then begins to get in a groove offensively?
"Opens everybody else up," Cauley-Stein said about the repercussions if he gets in an offensive groove. "Then they have to play you. A lot of our plays most of the time they just sag off and play the post. If you're hitting shots and you're scoring and getting to the free-throw line they have to play you, especially if you're in attack mode. Then you're just going to get layups and dunks. It just opens up everybody else."
Against the Tigers, Kentucky shot 56.3 percent from the field, its 10th time this season making at least half of its shots. The Cats also hit 7-of-14 3-point attempts and five players reached double figures as the Cats scored 1.34 points per possession.
As Kentucky now enters its fifth SEC Tournament championship game in the last six years, it does so with a singular focus: cut down some nets and raise some hardware. If it is to do that Sunday against a top-25 ranked Arkansas team, Cauley-Stein and both his offensive and defensive game will likely play a large role.
"Willie was what you saw today," Coach Cal said. "That's Willie when you say, Wow."
Alex Poythress cheers on his teammates during UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Alex Poythress has had a front-row seat for one of the greatest rides in college basketball history.
Sitting on the bench and traveling with the team as Kentucky has rolled unbeaten through the 2014-15 season, Poythress has been there every step of the way. It's a spot most UK fans would love to be in.
For Poythress - whose season was cut short in early December by a torn ACL - it hasn't been easy. Every day is a reminder that he's supposed to be on the floor.
"Oh, I miss it a lot," Poythress said after watching UK dispatch Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, 64-49. "I'd give the world to still be playing."
But given his current situation - rehabbing from reconstructive surgery - he's thankful the top-ranked Wildcats still count him as a teammate.
"I don't feel like I've been left behind," Poythress said. "I'm still a part of the team, still come to all the meetings, activities, all the stuff to do. Whenever I'm not doing my rehab, I'm around the team still."
The junior forward, unable to play or practice, has thrown himself into his rehab. When he's not in class or with his teammates, Poythress can probably be found doing some kind of work to facilitate the healing process, as much as four hours a day.
"Every day I'm doing something about my knee," said Poythress, who called rehab harder than basketball. "There's no days off. I'm just trying to stretch my knee as much as I can."
To break up scar tissue left from surgery, Poythress has to continually bend and stretch his knee. Talking about the pain, he said he "wouldn't wish it on anybody."
"It makes you want to cry," Poythress said. "But you gotta get through it."
And with the help of his teammates and family, he is.
"It feels good because I was at points after the surgery the first couple days when I couldn't get out of bed by myself," Poythress said. "I couldn't move my leg. I had to have somebody help me out of my bed, move my leg and stuff like that. So moving around well now, it's real good for me."
Poythress moves better each day and no longer needs the crutches he used when he made his first public appearance post-injury at UK's win over North Carolina. He received a standing ovation upon taking the court for that game and his teammates wore warmup shirts honoring him. That support hasn't died down.
"It's just a great feeling that my teammates and the fans, they all care about me still," Poythress said.
The fans, as much as they care about him, are eager to find out what Poythress might do following the season. Set to graduate in May, he has a decision ahead of him about whether to return to Lexington or pursue a professional career.
"I haven't even thought about that yet," Poythress said. "Like I said earlier, I'm just focused on this season we got so far."
Playing or not, he has plenty to focus on.
Cats closing out
Thirty-two games into the best unbeaten start in school history, the Cats have shown an uncanny ability to find another gear in crunch time.
When they're down late - as they were against Georgia and LSU - they clamp down on defense and find ways to win.
When they're locked in a close game - as they have been twice in the last seven days against Florida - they turn in back-breaking runs.
"They have a will to win," Calipari said.
That will to win manifested itself against the Gators with a 14-2 run that turned a slim five-point lead with less than eight minutes left into a comfortable 64-49 victory. Similarly, UK outscored Florida 25-11 over the final 10:28 of a win over the Gators in the regular-season finale.
"We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play," Calipari said. "To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
'We need this tournament'
One of the few things Karl-Anthony Towns is better at than piling up double-doubles - he had his seventh on Friday - is turning a phrase.
"One thing I know is that we may not need to win this tournament," Towns said, "but we need this tournament."
After overcoming Florida for the third time in five weeks to advance, Towns was waxing poetic about the tournament John Calipari says is for the fans who trekked to Nashville, Tenn., alone. It turns out it might be a bit more meaningful than that.
"We need this tournament to grow and continue our process of being the best team we can possibly be going into the NCAA Tournament," Towns said. "A lot of things we're going to probably work on here and also we're going to get better as individuals playing all these great games."
Auburn awaits after OT upset
UK's next opportunity to play in a "great game" comes Saturday at 1 p.m. against Auburn, which defeated fourth-seeded LSU in overtime, 73-70.
The Tigers trailed by seven with 2:45 left in regulation, but continued their improbable SEC Tournament run thanks in large part to a game-tying 3-pointer by K.T. Harrell in the closing seconds. Harrell has scored 73 points in Auburn's three wins in Nashville and had 17 in the lone regular-season matchup with UK.
Kentucky was dominant in that game, scoring a season high in a 110-75 victory. The rematch will tip at 1 p.m. on ESPN.
Tyler Ulis had seven points and four assists in UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Same story, different location.
It's rare to face a team in back-to-back games, but it was just six days ago that Kentucky topped Florida in Rupp Arena to close out its historic undefeated regular season. On Friday, in front of what looked and sounded an awful lot like Rupp Arena, Kentucky (32-0) used a similar method to top Florida for a third time this season, 64-49.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Wasn't happy with how we started the game, but it was a good win. And the kids fought and guys played, did the stuff they had to do. Didn't shoot it well, still won."
It was just six days ago that Kentucky defeated Florida by 17 points in Rupp Arena by going on a 23-9 run to close out the game after it was just a three-point game with 10:28 remaining. On Friday, the Cats won by 15 points thanks to 14-4 run over the final 7:40.
Florida continued to fight and hang around for much of the second half, but the Cats clamped down on defense over the final 9:29, allowing just two made field goals, including a stretch of five minutes and 10 seconds where they held the Gators scoreless.
"They have a will to win," Coach Cal said. "They do have a will to win and we have enough playmaker kind of players Andrew (Harrison) to Aaron (Harrison) to Karl(-Anthony Towns) now to Trey (Lyles), I think Tyler (Ulis). We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play. To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
Yet again, Kentucky was able to do what it has done all season, and that's a find a combination of five players that simply works. In working with a bevy of talent such as the 2014-15 Wildcats, Coach Cal can sub players in and out until one lineup clicks.
"And see, that's the advantage we have," Calipari said. "We'll juggle it around until we figure out who is playing well and then we'll ride with those guys. We want to platoon. We want all nine players to play. But if you get in there and you're shaky at all or you're breaking down, it's like, 'OK, going to go with these guys.' "
Against Florida, that combination often included both Andrew Harrison and Ulis. Each point guard played 32 minutes against the Gators. Combined, they finished with 16 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals and just one turnover.
"I'm a facilitator and he can do both," Ulis said about playing with Andrew Harrison. "He's in attack mode every play and that's helping him out a little more to be more aggressive and try to score the ball."
Towns secured his seventh double-double of the year with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Aaron Harrison joined Towns with 13 points, hitting four of his eight shots, and while his stats ween't eye-opening, sophomore forward Dakari Johnson was praised by his teammates for his defensive presence, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots in 11 minutes.
"Dakari played his butt of on the defensive end," Andrew Harrison said. "He didn't get some calls on offense, but Dakari played great. We would not have won without him."
While Coach Cal continues to say he doesn't mind if his team gets a loss and that he doesn't care for conference tournaments, his team believes they need this tournament and will use it to continue to improve in their quest to be the best version of themselves.
They also know, as it has been all season long, the Cats will get their opponent's best game.
"Teams are playing for their last win or to go home, so we're going to get the best out of everybody and that's what we want," Booker said. "We wouldn't want it any other way. We're kind of excited for it."