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)
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)
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
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
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.
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."
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."
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)
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."
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.
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."