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Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Dylan Dwyer picked up the win after tossing 6.1 shutout innings against Missouri on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
In a perfect world for UK baseball, Chandler Shepherd would have made his regular weekend start. He would have avoided the forearm laceration that sidelined him on Saturday and Dylan Dwyer would have started on Tuesday against Morehead State.

Instead, Dwyer was pressed into action.

The circumstances under which Dwyer made his first-career Southeastern Conference start may not have been ideal, but he made the best of the situation.

"What you really hope when a kid gets an opportunity, whether it's playing defense in the ninth inning, a pinch hit or his first start in SEC play, is that he maximizes it and forces you to give him more opportunity," UK head coach Gary Henderson said. "And that's what you hope and that's what he did."

With UK on a two-game losing streak and in need of a Saturday-night win to even a crucial league series with Missouri, Dwyer stepped up. He tossed 6.1 shutout innings, allowing just six hits and a walk against a Tiger lineup that touched up the Wildcats for eight runs just a day earlier.

"I was just planning on attacking," said Dwyer, who found out Wednesday he would be making his SEC starting debut. "My approach was to go in there and attack, keep the ball low and let them hit on the ground, let my defense work for me."

Behind Dwyer, UK (23-12, 7-7 SEC) topped Missouri (16-17, 5-9 SEC), 12-0. Five different Cats had two RBI, led by A.J. Reed, who got the scoring going with a two-run home run -- his NCAA-leading 14th of the season -- in the fifth. Reed now has homers in five straight SEC games, making him the first player in the modern era of UK baseball to accomplish the feat.

"Especially in our conference, guys are going to come at you and it's just a matter of hitting the pitch when you get it," Reed said. "Like I said, right now I'm doing a pretty good job of that and not missing those pitches."

Reed narrowly missed out on a second home run, with his sky-scraping seventh-inning fly ball losing steam at the warning track.

"It's pretty impressive," Henderson said. "He's seeing it good right now, taking good swings and even when he swings and misses and chases a pitch he doesn't get out of his game, it doesn't speed up on him and he's at a good spot right now."

The final score would have been even more lopsided had Reed's fly ball left Cliff Hagan Stadium, but don't be fooled into thinking Dwyer (4-1,  coasted through his outing with a big lead. He traded scoreless frames with Missouri's John Miles through the first four innings, with UK not breaking the 0-0 tie until Reed's blast in the bottom of the fifth.

"You lose Friday night and you don't score until the fifth, there it is," Henderson said. "And that's what it is and, yeah, he did (pitch in some high-stress situations). Got out of a couple of jams where they could have scored first, but didn't and really proud of him. Solid effort. He's growing up."

Dwyer sustained the momentum built in his last start, when he overcame early struggles to pick up the win as the Cats topped rival Louisville on April 1.

"The U of L start, I learned what I did wrong and I knew I had to come in here this time and fix it," Dwyer said. "I thought I came out well, kept the ball down and let my defense back me up. There was a bunch of great plays."

The best of those plays came from Austin Cousino, who fired a strike from center field on a single by Dylan Kelly to throw out Logan Pearson and preserve the shutout and UK's 3-0 lead. The play, which ended the sixth inning, drew the most emotional reaction of the game from Dwyer.

"That's the biggest play of the night right there," Dwyer said. "After we put up a three-spot and then he guns them out, we put up a zero right there and all the momentum goes to us and that just kills their momentum."

Any remaining momentum in the Missouri dugout was eliminated by a nine-run bottom of the sixth when Max Kuhn delivered one of his four hits and the Cats capitalized on three Tiger errors.

The crowd enjoyed the offensive explosion, but Dwyer's night will likely prove much more significant. The left-handed sophomore is exactly the kind of arm the 12th-ranked Cats will need to advance in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, which means his budding confidence is likely to pay dividends down the road.

"Having these starts like this is definitely good for experience and getting me ready for the postseason because that time is going to be time to have four starters ready," Dwyer said.

UK is within striking distance of first place in the SEC in spite of operating at less than full strength at the mound. In addition to Shepherd's injury, key reliever Kyle Cody is battling forearm tightness and has not yet pitched this weekend.

If the Cats can get Shepherd and Cody back and healthy and Dwyer pitching like he did on Saturday, they could be playing into June.

"Those are the things that are going to allow us to keep winning and do well once we get to the postseason," Henderson said.


UK has best day of spring at second scrimmage

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It was a rare scrimmage for Kentucky football.

Mark Stoops didn't leave the scrimmage -- UK's second of the spring -- thinking one side of the ball had the better of the action and wondering what had gone wrong with the other.

Instead, Stoops came away believing neither the offense nor defense had won the tug-of-war in Commonwealth Stadium on Saturday.

"That's why it's hard for me, because if one side does well I'm disappointed in the other," Stoops said. "But I really did feel like both sides had some moments today. I thought we were a little bit more stout in some of the run game with the ones on defense. Had some good stops, but the offense bounced back, had some good drives, threw the ball well, caught it better."

That kind of give-and-take is exactly what Stoops is looking for. As a result, UK had its best overall day of the spring, representing a vast improvement from last Saturday's scrimmage. Stoops opted to cancel Friday's practice to focus on preparation for Saturday and the Wildcats took advantage.

"That's maybe why I was a little frustrated (after the last scrimmage): looked a little bit sloppy," Stoops said. "But it was good to get back out there today. We had a couple days to meet and to get set and kind of just went out there today, basically got a warm-up, did a little seven-on-seven and did some special teams and rolled right into the scrimmage."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown was even more positive in his evaluation,

"Probably our best in a scrimmage or a game-type atmosphere - the best, just from the mechanics of the game, the best we've executed," Brown said. "What I mean by that is playing at the tempo that we want to; we're getting closer. We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we ever were at any point last year."

Naturally, much of that has to do with quarterback play.

Jalen Whitlow, Patrick Towles, Reese Phillips and Drew Barker are splitting time as the battle for the starting position continues with Maxwell Smith recovering from a shoulder injury. Stoops does not yet have a timetable for making a decision, but Brown did say he wants to get it done sooner than a season ago.

The important thing right now is Brown knows UK will be improved at quarterback in 2014, no matter who wins the job.

"The thing I'm pleased about is they're all much, much better," Brown said. "We're better. Whoever the quarterback is going to be, they're going to be better than we played last year. So that's pleasing."

Barker -- the highly touted midyear enrollee -- is the lone signal caller who was not on campus last year, but there were moments when he could have fooled Brown.

"I think the biggest thing about Drew is, if you would've came out and just watched us today, you wouldn't have known he was a high school senior," Brown said. "And that's the most impressive thing to me. Because the mechanics of the game and not being in awe of being in that stadium for the first time and playing, that was what I was most impressed with."

Barker was hardly the only one of the four to impress. Towles, a redshirt sophomore, made a handful of throws that drew praise from both Stoops and Brown while Whitlow and Phillips each had their moments as UK's offense did not commit a turnover.

"I think all of them stood out," sophomore running back Jojo Kemp said. "That's gonna be the coaches' call. They got a handful, I can tell you that, because to me all of them looked great. All of them was competing, completing passes. Just the whole group of guys looked good today."

It helps that the quarterbacks are surrounded by a group of talented running backs and a receiving corps improving by the day in spite of battling some bumps and bruises.

"The young guys did some good things," Stoops said. "Thaddeus (Snodgrass) had a chance to make a real big play, didn't come down with it. T.V. (Williams) made a nice play where he caught the ball, bounced off some people, made a big play for the offense, which was good. I think (Ryan) Timmons. Timmons is always -- he's been solid."

The offense had only to contend with the defense's base packages. Installing wrinkles is for later.

"We weren't trying to out-scheme anybody and we just wanted to find out who could make plays and who could play hard and so we got something to build on," defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot said.

As expected, senior defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith shined. Beyond his two building blocks, Eliot saw one fresh face and two more familiar ones stand out.

"A.J. Stamps, again, did some good things," Eliot said. "I was pleased with some his effort. And Jason Hatcher did some good things. I was pleased with some of the things he did. I saw some good plays by J.D. Harmon just initially. And after we watch the film we'll be able be more detailed on that."

Stamps, a junior-college transfer, appears poised to contribute immediately in the secondary in spending most of his time at safety after playing corner at East Mississippi Community College.

"A.J. Stamps is making a pretty good impact on our defense, giving us a better balanced look," linebacker Khalid Henderson said. "A more versatile safety back there."

Harmon, meanwhile, has added important depth at cornerback after sitting out last season and Hatcher is taking steps forward in his first college spring after playing as a freshman in 2013.

"You know, at any sport, any position, it's hard to come in and play as a freshman," Eliot said. "And so now we're seeing a big jump in Jason because he's a sophomore and I'm really liking the progress that he's making. He's grown up, not only on the football field, but in any natural progression from a freshman to a sophomore he's done that as well."

With those individual performances and the way UK continues to come together as a team in mind, Stoops has plenty of reason for optimism.

"We feel better," Stoops said. "At times, you get out here during practices and everything, we're running a lot of teams and doing a lot of reps, so you're getting ones, twos and threes. Already in the spring, you're already a little bit thin if you don't have your whole group here. So it's sloppy at times, but overall you put it together, get out there on the scrimmage and get going. We're definitely further along. We just operate our offense and our defense better at this point. We're getting there, getting better."

UK is ranked No. 13 in the latest Directors' Cup standings, well ahead of the pace set by last year's record No. 25 finish. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK is ranked No. 13 in the latest Directors' Cup standings, well ahead of the pace set by last year's record No. 25 finish. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
A season ago, UK Athletics set a record by finishing in the top 25 of Directors' Cup standings for the first time in school history.

Now, UK is poised to blow that record-setting performance out of the water.

Kentucky ranks 13th in the latest Learfield Sports Directors' Cup standings on the strength of strong finishes by men's basketball, rifle, women's indoor track and field and women's basketball. Also scoring points among winter sports were men's and women's swimming and diving and men's indoor track and field.

UK currently ranks second among all 14 Southeastern Conference schools, trailing only No. 6 Florida, and leads all schools from the Bluegrass state, with Louisville coming in at No. 20.

Looking ahead, UK appears to have a good chance of maintaining its current ranking or even improving on it. UK will add points from gymnastics' finish at NCAA Regionals when standings are tabulated on April 24 and potentially even more as spring sports play out.

The women's outdoor track and field team currently checks in at No. 5 in the polls after finishing ninth at NCAA Indoor Championships, while the men are No. 24. Baseball, softball and men's tennis are all ranked in the top 15, while women's tennis is No. 28 and both golf teams are in contention for NCAA berths.

If those teams perform as well as expected, UK could be in line to meet Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart's goal of finishing in the top 15 of Directors' Cup standings by the year 2015 as part of the 15 by 15 by 15 Plan. UK has won 11 of the 15 conference or national titles needed to meet Barnhart's goal and has reached his threshold of a 3.0 department-wide grade-point average in three straight semesters.

It's also worth mentioning that UK is faring well in Capitol One Cup standings, tying for seventh in men's standings with 41 points and coming in 37th in women's standings.

All in all, 2013-14 is shaping up to be a year to remember for UK Athletics.


The Kentucky softball team tallied a 9-1 win over Wright State and a 10-0 win over Mississippi Valley State in a mid-week series that served many purposes in the midst of a grueling SEC slate.

The Wildcats easily could have overlooked the two games, sandwiched between a home series against Texas A&M and a three-game set at Ole Miss. Instead, they turned in back-to-back run-rule efforts to keep the momentum going from one conference series to the next.

"It says a lot about our team's focus," UK head coach Rachel Lawson said. "We had a certain game plan going into the two games, and each player went out there and did their job and executed what we were trying to do, so it really says a lot about their focus and their ability to keep working towards going deep in the postseason."

Kentucky had won four of its last five heading into Tuesday's game, and the focus never wavered.

UK scored 19 runs and allowed 29 base runners in eight total innings at the plate. In the circle, three Wildcat hurlers allowed one run, six hits and notched 12 strikeouts in 10 total innings.

Aside from earning a pair of wins to boost their record to 33-8, Rachel Lawson was happy to see the Wildcats work on improving parts of their game.

"I think we were working on hitting certain pitches, instead of taking them, and I think that was good," Lawson said. "Each girl knew what her job was, what her role was, and she was able to execute, so that was great. It was also nice to put some players into positions that I believe they are going to play this weekend, which they didn't get to do last weekend, just to make them a little bit more comfortable."

Another benefit of the two-game set was getting a number of underclassmen valuable playing experience. In Wednesday's contest, freshman Breanne Ray launched her first career home run.

"It was awesome," Ray said about getting the opportunity to play today. "When Coach Lawson told me I was in the lineup, I was extra excited for today. I just wanted to show my team that I had it in me."

Ray certainly had it in her to lead off the third inning. A shot to right center was the outfielder's first home run as a Wildcat and just her second career hit. 

"I couldn't stop smiling, to be honest," Ray said. "I was so happy. Then all my teammates were there to greet me, and they made me feel even better."

"She is a great hitter and we're expecting great things from her in the future," Lawson said. "The fact that she was able to sit on her pitch and drive it over the wall says a lot about how mature she is mentally. I just love how she was able to take advantage of the opportunity."

The Wildcats, now winners of four in a row and six of their last seven, look to keep the momentum going on the road when they travel to Ole Miss for a three-game set April 11-13.


Cedric Kauffmann saw how the match was playing out.

With No. 1 Ohio State in town and UK out to a 1-0 lead in doubles, he watched as Alejandro Gomez and Beck Pennington were poised for straight-set wins on courts two and three that would put the Wildcats within one point of a match win.

Kauffmann recognized there was a good chance it would all be decided by his best player, Tom Jomby.

"We had to win some third sets for us to win this match, so I told Tom, 'I think it's going to come down to you,' " Kauffmann said.

Kauffmann was right.

Jomby, the nation's No. 13 singles player, had fallen to No. 9 Peter Kobelt in the first set, but Kauffmann challenged him to hone his focus with the match potentially on the line. He won the second set, 6-3, setting up an opportunity for Jomby to win it for the Cats in the third.

He did just that, dominating the set and giving No. 14 UK (17-7, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) its fourth win over a top-ranked team in school history and first since 1997.

"They're always very, very tough to beat," Kauffmann said of Ohio State. "They're always fit. They're always well-coached, so we know it was going to take everybody in the lineup to beat Ohio State to play well."

Accordingly, UK got contributions from everywhere.

In doubles, Pennington and Gomez rallied from a 5-0 deficit to win a tiebreaker. Ryuji Hirooka and Nils Ellefsen followed with another tie-breaking win in No. 3 doubles. In singles, Gomez and Pennington finished those straight-set victories.

But as Kauffmann foretold, it came down to Jomby.

The senior is in the home stretch of his UK career. With his final regular-season home matches coming up this weekend, Kauffmann has seen a different level of focus from Jomby after a late-March lapse.

"I thought he did a really good job in January, February," Kauffmann said. "After Georgia (on March 21), I think he went away for 10 days, two weeks. Maybe a little tired. Maybe he was watching too much basketball late night. I think he bounced back tonight with his nerves a little bit so I'm very happy for him."

Jomby won't have to won't long to sustain it, as UK will host Morehead State at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday, South Carolina on Friday and Florida and Murray State on Sunday.

"We'll take it one match at a time," Kauffmann said. "We'll take care of Morehead and then tomorrow we'll--I think physically that's going to be the most important. We're playing five matches in six days so we're going to have to take care of our bodies and all that stuff, but I told them in the locker room, 'We can beat Ohio State but we can go down to South Carolina or Florida.'

UK's win over Ohio State served notice of what the Cats are capable of, but Kauffmann doesn't want his team to forget what it looks like when they aren't in top form.

"We're for sure going to use this match in the future and I'm going to use the Alabama match also," Kauffmann said. "That's what we can do when we are not intense and not playing great and this is what we can do when we're together and playing good."


Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops



The back-and-forth between Kentucky's two units continued on Wednesday, with the offense bouncing back during what Neal Brown called a "really good, spirited" practice.

"Pretty good work today," head coach Mark Stoops said. "Good energy. Offense responded a little bit. Monday defense got after a little bit. Had good energy. Good enthusiasm. Probably had the upper hand in team drills, today the offense responded a little bit, a little more balanced."

That continues a trend that's lasted through the week and a half of spring practice with the Wildcats showcasing offseason improvement. That doesn't mean there isn't a long road ahead.

"I like what I see," Stoops said. "Guys are working hard and getting better. But like I always say, we have miles to go. But I like their attitude, their energy and their work ethic. We're improving."

Brown echoed that sentiment, singling out his linemen for praise.

"I like the energy we got, especially up front with our offensive line," Brown said. "We're starting to get some leadership up there with Jordan Swindle and Darrian Miller and Jon Toth really coming along."

In the backfield, UK got a boost with the return of Jojo Kemp and Braylon Heard. The two running backs have sat out recently with minor injuries, but were back in action on Wednesday.

"We're getting more depth at that position," Stoops said. "Mikel (Horton) is getting a bunch of work. Josh (Clemons) being back a little bit has been helpful. He's a tough physical presence in there. It's been good. We need to get a bunch of guys."

Clemons has been a particularly pleasant surprise after missing each of the last two seasons, the first while rehabbing a knee injury suffered as a freshman and the second after sustaining an Achilles tendon injury in preseason workouts.

"I can't even explain it, really," Clemons said, asked how much he's enjoying being back on the field. "I'm just happy to be back out here with the guys and getting better instead of just sitting around watching all the time."

Clemons, however, was doing more than just sitting during the time he missed, working hard in the weight room and making sure his injured knee and ankle are back at full strength. And now, looking much like the player who led UK in rushing through the first six games of his freshman year, Brown says Clemons is an example to his teammates.

"Toughness and perseverance, without question," Brown said. "He really attacked his rehab. He looks better now than any time that I've seen him."

If Clemons sustains that form, he could be a valuable piece for an offense that needs as many running backs as possible. For now, he's excited just to have the chance to compete.

"It's a lot of talent, a lot of talent," Clemons said. "We're out there competing each day, pushing each other and we're getting better as we go."

Neal Brown interview



Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a lot to ask, holding a season celebration less than 24 hours after Kentucky's magical NCAA Tournament run ended.

Emotions were still raw after the Wildcats' national championship game defeat for players and fans alike, and missed opportunities from Monday night still very much top of mind.

But on Tuesday afternoon, it should come as no surprise the Big Blue Nation came through under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Wildcats, because they know what UK fans are all about, weren't surprised, but they certainly appreciated the show of support.

"You're the best fans in the world," senior Jon Hood told the crowd at the season celebration at Rupp Arena. "You supported us all year in an up-and-down year. You came out when we were playing good; you came out when we were playing bad. You supported us the whole way."

An estimated crowd of 3,500 filled Rupp Arena to pay a deserved tribute to the Cats and the season that was. The mood may not have been as jubilant as it would have had the 60-54 score of UK's game against Connecticut been reversed, but the event and the drive from the airport to downtown served as a fitting cap to a month no one will soon forget.

After UK's team plane arrived early Tuesday afternoon, the Wildcats were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers at the airport before they piled into three buses with coaches and support staff. Flanked by a police escort, the Cats went on a circuitous path to Rupp, even stopping to say hello to a large group gathered outside Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

The rest of the route was lined by waving and cheering fans -- an incredible number wearing UK blue -- as the team buses traded honks with passing cars.

"We made this ride from the airport to the arena two years ago and I forgot how emotional it was, people lining streets of Lexington to thank this group of basketball players," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It reminds me how deeply tied we are to this community, to our state and to our university and how much this program means to all of you and we're indebted to you for your loyalty to us."

UK fans, to say the least, have a reputation for being demanding of their beloved Wildcats. That was never clearer than this year as Kentucky saw its season go from unbeaten aspirations to an almost-assumed first-weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, of course, the Cats went on that run. They upended unbeaten Wichita State. They took down rival Louisville and rode clutch performances past Michigan and Wisconsin and into the title game, though just short of a championship.

Disappointment still fresh for the Cats, the UK fans known far and wide for their championship-or-bust expectations, proved they value the heart, determination and togetherness their team showed throughout the tournament above all else.

In doing so, they may have just helped fast forward the healing process for the Cats by reminding them of exactly how special these last three weeks have been.

"I can't tell if we lost that game last night after witnessing what I am right now," Willie Cauley-Stein tweeted from the bus ride to Rupp.

John Calipari, following Barnhart in addressing the crowd from a podium erected on the Rupp floor, delivered another such reminder.

"You know these guys behind me -- because I'm going to say this from experience -- at some point they're going to be a grandfather," Calipari said. "... They're going to be a grandfather and their grandson's going to on their lap and sit on their knee and say, 'Granddad, tell me about you as a player. I heard you played.' 'Well let me tell you about my freshman year.' "

They'll have plenty to tell.

By the time Aaron Harrison is bouncing a grandchild on his knee, his three game-winners will probably have come from half-court. When Alex Poythress remembers his game-turning and-one dunk against Wisconsin, he'll probably have jumped from outside the free-throw line.

But for all the tall tales they'll tell about surviving one of the hardest roads in NCAA Tournament history, there's no way they'll be able to exaggerate the closeness that made it all possible.

"I want to thank the young men behind me who have possessed the skill, combined it with learning and listening and loving each other to create moments and memories which will last our lifetime and theirs," Barnhart said. "I want to thank you. It has been a heck of a ride and we're really, really, really proud of what you guys have done. Outstanding."

Pride, for everyone on that end-zone stage, was mixed with regret and -- maybe more than anything else -- exhaustion. Not only have the Cats played nine games in 25 days in four different cities while also managing a regular spring-semester course load, they had also had a short night of rest following the season's final game.

Tiredness, however, will fade after a couple good nights of rest. The memories, including the ones made on Tuesday in Rupp Arena and on the roads of Lexington, will not.

"While our minds and bodies -- all of us -- are tired, our hearts are still filled with love for each other and this opportunity to climb this mountain together," Calipari said. "I will tell you it's time now to reflect, celebrate and remember -- and continue to remember -- we are breaking barriers."

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.

James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas - The questions on their future were as predictable as this recent run has been improbable.

Is it too early to start asking about declaring for the NBA Draft?

"Yes," Aaron Harrison said, leaving it at nothing more than that.

But with Kentucky's season over and the NBA early-entry deadline now looming, the Wildcats, still dealing with a disappointing loss to Connecticut in the national championship game, were hounded with questions on their basketball future nonetheless.

All of the potential NBA players said they haven't thought that far ahead.

"I'm just focused on this game right now," Andrew Harrison said. "I want to spend these last days with my teammates and stuff before we get back to Lexington."

After they get back and the dust settles from the season, John Calipari said he will sit down with each player and figure out what they want to do.

"I'll sit down with each young man individually, probably have their family either with us or on a speakerphone, and get them information and say, 'If I can help you with anything, let me know. Tell me what you want to do, what do I need to do to help you?' " Calipari said. "I kind of stay out of the decision-making. I just get them information. So we'll see. I have no idea because I haven't talked to them and none of us have talked about that. We were playing to win the national championship."

A number of Wildcats were already predicted as potential NBA Draft picks as recently as a month ago, but the wild tournament run that brought Kentucky to the national championship game certainly boosted the draft stock for a number of players.

Looking through the roster and NBA mock drafts, there are multiple players who will have the option of moving on to the next level should they choose to do so. Returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are potential draft picks after staying through a second season to develop their game. Freshmen Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson are all high on NBA draft boards, especially after their performances in the NCAA Tournament.

But in the immediate aftermath of the UConn loss, with eyes still puffy and tears still flowing, the Cats didn't want to talk about their futures. Randle, who is predicted to go high in the first round, said thinking about the NBA is the farthest thing from his mind.

"Right now it's just hard to think about that," Randle said. "It hurts. I haven't really thought about it yet."

Cauley-Stein, who chose to stay another year after last season's NIT appearance to compete for a national championship, said the decision comes down to more than just dollars and cents.

"The best thing that's probably ever happened to me is coming to Kentucky," Cauley-Stein said. "That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star. The kids look up to you. The old people, they look up to you. You got 40-year-old guys that you're their role model because you're 20 years old and you're like, 'How am I going to be a role model when you're 20 years older than me?' It's just amazing to see. Those fans are so powerful."

The power of the fans and the community will make him think long and hard about his decision.

"That will always being weighing in the back of your head when you're trying to make a decision whether you want to stay until you can't stay no more or you want to leave early," Cauley-Stein said. "That's kind of like how I am. Why not relish something for as long as you can until you're forced to leave or make that jump. That's the hardest thing."

One item that does not play a factor in Cauley-Stein's case is his recent ankle injury.

"It's not serious enough what's going to happen," Cauley-Stein said. "But you just don't know. Something might come up where you have to leave or something might come up where you need to stay. It's just time, you know what I'm saying? You got weeks before you really have to make your decision."

As for Aaron Harrison, the biggest factor for him is his family, and even potentially playing without his twin brother, Andrew.

"I really don't want to think about that right now," Aaron Harrison said. "I've been playing with him my whole life. It's our dream, but taking away something that's been there is taking away your oxygen."

Within the next couple of weeks, by April 27 to be exact, all of the Wildcats will be forced to decide between playing another season at UK or taking the leap to the next level by entering the NBA Draft. Calipari said that the decision ultimately comes down to what's best for the individual player.

"Now that the season's over, it is about the players," Calipari said. "It's no longer about the program. It's no longer about the team. It's about each individual player on this team now. They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Season's over. Now it's about them. And we'll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves."

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's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Willie Cauley-Stein, reduced to cheering on his teammates and watching from the bench, had clearly spent some time thinking about UK's championship celebration.

He couldn't help but think about it more after the Wildcats' bid to cut the nets down in AT&T Stadium was cut short in the national title game on Monday.

"The hardest part is you want to leave on some joy," Cauley-Stein said. "You don't want to leave this tournament how we're about to leave it. It would have been so much better if we left it up on this stage swinging our shirts and wearing our hats backwards and taking goofy pictures that are going to be with us forever."

Instead, the Cats walked off the floor as the Connecticut Huskies enjoyed the celebration Cauley-Stein so vividly imagined. As if a 60-54 loss to end a remarkable NCAA Tournament run wasn't painful enough.

"It's a long walk," Aaron Harrison said. "You just get the feeling that that could have been you and you kind of want to start over but you don't get start-overs in life and you don't get second chances."

Aaron Harrison is right about not getting second chances. The Cats won't ever shake the frustration that came with the 11 free throws they missed in 24 attempts. The nightmares of the loose balls they missed out on in being outrebounded 34-33, those won't go away anytime soon.

But neither will the moments that brought UK to within one win of its ninth national title.

Those three game-winners Aaron Harrison hit in in as many games -- no matter what he may say -- they'll still be seen on March Madness highlight reels for years to come. Those four instant-classic games a group of freshmen managed to win with grit, toughness and a steadfast refusal to give in, fans will still remember them for years to come.

Still processing the fact that their season was over, the Cats went through the internal tug-of-war between the sting of a too-recent defeat and the memories built on a run for the ages.

"I'm proud of the run we made, but this isn't what we planned on," Aaron Harrison said. "I'm not really satisfied with it, but at the same time we did make one of the best runs ever and we just came together as a team like has never been seen before."

As much the Cats captured the hearts of the Big Blue Nation with the unlikeliest of Final Four berths in the program's rich history, that togetherness is what those outside the UK locker room will never quite grasp. No one could be expected to, because there are moments when not even John Calipari is able to fathom what just happened.

"I can't tell you, even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."

They had seemingly every reason to give up a month ago after their season hit its low point with a loss to South Carolina, but they rallied around each other and an as-yet-unconfirmed "tweak" in the postseason.

The same was true as UK faced deficits of at least nine points in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game, but the Cats simply never gave in.

"These kids really fought and tried and what they accomplished, I told them, this was the best group I've ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn," Calipari said. "I've never coached a team this young."

Shouldering the unyielding burden of unprecedented preseason expectations, there was a time when it seemed unlikely that young team of talented players would jell into a cohesive unit. Aaron Harrison credits his coach for finally turning the bond the team had always shared into on-court results.

"I think Coach taught how to play basketball together," Aaron Harrison said. "We were always close off the court. We always hung out, but just what Coach taught us, it was just amazing that he could change us around and what everyone was saying about how we were selfish and couldn't play as a team, we just proved the world wrong really."

In the process of proving the world wrong, the Cats proved themselves and their coach right. Winning at the highest level with a group of gifted freshmen is indeed possible.

"The things we did and accomplished this year is just something we're always going to remember," Julius Randle said. "I wish we could have got more game, but I'm proud of the fight that we had."

That pride, of course, was twinged with a dose of dejection.

Randle sat back in the corner of his locker, answering questions politely but barely above a whisper at times. Andrew Harrison also handled his postgame responsibilities admirably, but with his eyes still damp with tears.

His twin brother kept a stiff upper lip as he addressed reporters, only coming close to losing his composure when asked about the hardest part of the loss.

"Just seeing the seniors like Jon Hood and Jarrod (Polson) just going out like that," Aaron Harrison said.

On that count, score one against the cynics who say Coach Cal's gifted newcomers care only about themselves and their immediate futures.

"At the end of the day with no one left, we knew that this team would never be assembled again," Polson said. "We realize that this is probably one of the best groups of guys we've ever had at Kentucky and probably that anyone will ever experience again, as far as pros or wherever people might go."

Those stay-or-leave questions, however, are for another day. For now, these Cats are only thinking about each other, the run they made and what they fell just short of accomplishing.

"It's just a blessing to be a part of this team because of the way we came together," Aaron Harrison said. "We're still one of the best stories ever and on paper we had the hardest run in NCAA Tournament history. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We just wanted to win."


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

John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will coach in his second national title game in three years on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- One win.

That's all that separates the Kentucky Wildcats from their ninth national championship, and surely the most improbable of the bunch.

To reach the national championship game, UK has survived a veritable murderer's row. Starting with Wichita State and going through Wisconsin, the Cats have taken down three Final Four teams from a season ago and four top-11 teams, according to kenpom.com.

Every one of those games has been an offensive slugfest, with UK using sound execution to advance. Perhaps the most incredible thing about the run -- other than Aaron Harrison's repeated clutch displays -- has been the Cats' ability to withstand efficient offensive days by opponent after opponent. UK has allowed 1.1 points per possession in four straight games, but stayed alive by scoring at least 1.18 points per possession.

A look at the numbers using kenpom.com's advanced stats shows recent history is unlikely to repeat itself against UConn.

When Kentucky is on offense

UK has climbed all the way up to sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency during the tournament, but the Cats are in for a test against a Connecticut team that's been similarly good on defense.

The Huskies rank 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency and boast impressive defensive outings against top-25 offenses Villanova, Michigan State and Florida in the tournament. UConn held all three to 0.93 points per possession or fewer to set up a rematch of the 2011 national semifinal.

UConn is a rare team that both forces turnovers at a high rate (86th nationally) and is effective avoiding fouls (71st in defensive free-throw rate). That starts with ball pressure in the backcourt from Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The two small guards each average at least 1.5 steals per game.

That will be a test for the Harrison twins, especially Andrew. UK's point guard is playing his best basketball of the season, but he is still averaging four turnovers per game in the NCAA Tournament. Decision-making, suffice it to say, will be at a premium.

UK (143rd in effective field-goal percentage) also faces a tough matchup against UConn's first-shot defense. The Huskies rank 15th nationally in effective field-goal percentage defense largely on the strength of a front line that is the longest UK has faced this postseason. UConn ranks 12th nationally in block percentage and eighth in 2-point field-goal percentage defense.

But even if the Cats aren't hitting shots as they have the last two weeks, all hope is not lost. UK -- the second-best offensive rebounding team in the country according to kenpom.com -- will take on a UConn team ranking 247th in defensive rebounding percentage. Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee could have a field day on the offensive glass.

When Kentucky is on defense

This is another even matchup, with UK ranking 44th in defensive efficiency and UConn 37th in offensive efficiency.

The Huskies' strength is their shooting, from outside specifically. UConn is 81st nationally in effective field-goal percentage and 22nd in 3-point shooting at 38.9 percent. Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey all shoot better than 40 percent from 3, and Daniels and Giffey figure to pose a unique matchup challenge. Often on the floor together, the two forwards are 6-foot-9 and 6-7, respectively, meaning UK's bigs will need to play close attention.

UConn is slightly above average in the turnover department (turnover rate of 17.3 percent) and below average in offensive rebounding and getting to the foul line. For UK to have success on defense, rebounding and playing without fouling will be paramount.

That's especially true given UConn's free-throw shooting. The Huskies are fourth nationally in foul shooting at 77.4 percent on the season and 86.7 percent in the tournament.

Bottom line

UK's tournament games thus far have all featured 64 or fewer possessions. Don't expect that to change on Monday night at 9:10 p.m. ET. The Huskies are 260th nationally in adjusted tempo and perfectly happy grinding it out and allowing Napier to make plays.

More of a defensive battle than we've seen of late is likely in the offing as well. UConn excels in taking opponents out of their game, primarily with ball pressure. Over the last two games, opposing point guards Keith Appling of Michigan State and Scottie Wilbekin of Florida have combined for six points on 3-of-12 shooting, three assists and seven turnovers.

Given the problems UConn poses on the perimeter on both ends of the floor, you'll likely be talking about rebounding if UK cuts down the nets. The Cats have a significant on-paper edge on both ends of the floor in this area with their athleticism, strength and length.

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.

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
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  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
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