INDIANAPOLIS - On April 1, 2009, John Calipari was introduced as the new head coach of the Kentucky men's basketball team. If he hadn't, he says what happened to him April 6, 2015 may not have.
Six years and five days after Coach Cal had been named the new UK head coach, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, becoming just the sixth active head coach in the hall.
"I don't know if Dr. (Lee) Todd and Mitch (Barnhart) didn't come to me and say, 'Hey, let's talk about this Kentucky job,' if this happens," Coach Cal said. "If I'm not at Kentucky, I'm not sure it happens. Maybe it does, I don't know."
It wasn't meant to be a knock on his previous schools of Memphis or UMass, it was just that Coach Cal always wanted to coach at a premier program such as UK.
Calipari has certainly made his opportunity at Kentucky count. The 56-year-old won the won the 2012 national championship, has taken the Cats to four Final Fours in the last five years and has posted the best winning percentage over a coach's first six seasons (.832) in school history.
"I always wanted to have a job like the other guys," Coach Cal said. "...It's not that I had any disrespect for Massachusetts or Memphis. I loved those places. I loved those jobs. But you were at the little table. You weren't at the big table. You never got to carve the turkey. You had plastics forks and plates and that's what it was. But I always said, 'I wonder what would happen if I got one of those jobs.' You know, guys that have had those jobs 20 and 30 years. I was 50 and had been coaching for 20-some years when I got the Kentucky job."
Another big moment in Cal's career that ultimately led him to the hall of fame: failing in the NBA.
After a successful run as head coach at UMass, Coach Cal tried his hand at the NBA where he went 72-112 with the New Jersey Nets before he was fired 20 games into this third season. What he learned at the next level, though, has helped him in better guiding college student-athletes to the next stage of their own careers and lives. And if he had to get fired for that to happen, Coach Cal says, then it was all worth it.
"I would not trade that time for anything, because it made me a better coach and it better prepared me to teach the kids that I have now what it takes to be in that league," Coach Cal said. "Maybe that's why it happened. Alright, we know you're going to have these kids so get up here. And we're going to fire you, but at least you know what it takes for those kids. I don't know. We look back on - and I'll say it again, if I don't get hired by Kentucky, am I sitting here? Maybe. Doubt it, but maybe. Why did I go to the NBA? Maybe - how many of these kids have we prepared for that? You just don't know. You look back - the only thing I'm going to say, this that has happened for me gives me another platform to help kids and families. Even more of a platform to help them." Handling UK's first, only loss
Kentucky lost just one game all season. It just so happened to unfortunately be its last game of the season.
After losing to Wisconsin 71-64 in the Final Four on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, Coach Cal joked that he's lucky the hotel the team was staying at didn't have windows that could open in his room. In its quest to win Kentucky its ninth national championship and become the first school in 39 years to go undefeated, the Wildcats fell just two games shy of their goal, something Calipari never imagined.
"What I'm trying to do is laugh and smile and enjoy myself so I don't cry, because it was devastating," Coach Cal said. "I thought we were going 40-0. Never entered my mind that we would lose."
In the brief time since that game, Coach Cal says he has replayed the game in his head, but said he never watches the final game of the season in which he loses, nor will he watch the championship game Monday night between Duke and Wisconsin.
"I will tell you that I wish I had a few more answers how to post the ball," Calipari said. "I don't know. I refuse to watch the last game tape so I won't watch it, but I was begging, throw it - we were trying to do what we did against Notre Dame. Now maybe they fought us harder than we fought them to do it, but then that's on me to figure out how do you get Karl the ball, not only to score, but to pass out of. There's just so many - it's so raw right now. But I won't ever watch the tape."
After fighting back from an eight-point deficit earlier in the second half to take a four-point lead with less than five minutes to play, many have said Kentucky tried to slow the game down in order to take more time off the clock. The end result was that UK had three shot-clock violations in the closing minutes and went 5:40 without scoring. Being the players-first coach that he is, Coach Cal took the blame for how the Cats closed against the Badgers.
"I will say this, if they want to blame me for the loss, I agree," Calipari said. "Don't blame these kids. If I slowed it down, I didn't do it, Cal kicked this game, then I can live with that. I'm fine. That would make me happy."
Another aspect that helped Calipari get over Saturday's loss was looking over to the other bench and seeing his friend Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers were defeated in the 2014 Final Four by the Cats in on a game winning 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left.
"Somebody says, how did you get over the stuff last night?" Coach Cal said. "Because Bo had to walk off that floor last year like I did, and I have to respect that. How did he feel last year? Just like I felt this year."
Development of young people still most special part of Calipari's career
The only way to be elected into the hall of fame is to have had one special career. For Coach Cal, the most special part isn't that he's won a national championship or been to six Final Fours. It isn't the fact that he's the only head coach to win 38 games in a single season, that he's done that three times in his illustrious career, or that he became the first coach to ever win the first 38 games in a season. Instead, he said it's seeing the development of the young people that go through his program.
"Let me just say this, what I told the kids after the game, 'We lost guys, and you should be hurting, but every one of you helped yourself this season. You got better. Every player improved their position and abilities, and grew, and learned to be selfless, learned to be a great teammate,' " Coach Cal said. "And they're all in a position they would not have been in if they didn't share and give up. And I told them history, you may not have gone 40-0, history will talk about this team and what they gave up for each other, and it won't be taken away. Thirty-eight wins to start a season ... I got a few more tries."
Now, with "hall of famer" beside his name, Calipari said similar to when the Cats won the national championship in 2012, it's time to move on and continue to be about his players.
"Let's leverage all this stuff to do good," Coach Cal said. "It's not a relief, it's just I'm proud, surreal, dumbfounded, but at the end of the day, I'm truly appreciative and blessed that this happened, and now we move on."
Cal to the NBA?
In addition to wondering about whether several of Kentucky's star players will leave school early to put their name in the NBA Draft, many members of the Big Blue Nation have also worried about whether Coach Cal, himself, would explore the NBA waters. The big question in regards to that is how much of a desire he has to prove himself in the NBA.
"I don't," Calipari said. "I have one question, so you understand, and I went through some things last year, and I had a simple question for an owner: The impact I have on these young people, the impact to help change their families lives, the impact I have in the seat I'm in at Kentucky to move people in a positive way, can I have that in the NBA? Where do I get the satisfaction from? What do we do that has an impact on the community, has an impact on people, or am I just coaching to try to help you make more money and win a championship? Tell me how, because I'm at a stage in my life, that's not what moves me."
Willie Cauley-Stein guards Frank Kaminsky. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein has always done things his own way, so it's no surprise he handled talk of his future on his own terms Saturday night.
Bypassing the usual "I'm not thinking about that yet" response to inevitable questions about his upcoming stay-or-go decision, Cauley-Stein revealed his decision is already close to made.
Asked whether the junior had just played his final game in a Kentucky uniform in the Wildcats' Final Four loss to Wisconsin, he answered "probably."
"It's time to take another step," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, obviously I'm not a hundred percent on it, but I'm pretty sure I know what I want to do. I have to talk to a couple more people, but that probably was my last game here."
Cauley-Stein is projected as a top-10 pick by both ESPN and Draft Express, a designation he shares with potential top overall choice Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns, however, wasn't willing to join his fellow forward in addressing the specifics of the decision he's now facing.
"I can't tell you," Towns said. "Right now I'm just - I have no thoughts about that. I just want to be with my teammates - just be with them. That's really it."
With UK's deep and talented roster, as many as 10 players could consider entering the NBA Draft. None besides Cauley-Stein, however, is entertaining the talk just yet.
"Like I said, I haven't thought about it," Devin Booker said. "As of now, I'm getting ready for my sophomore season. I'll sit down with my family and just come to a decision."
"In a couple weeks I'll probably make up my mind, but I'm just worried about my guys on my team right now," Andrew Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison and his twin brother have already been through the decision-making process once, electing to stay for their sophomore season. Based on that experience, they know they need time and space.
"Just have to get away from this," Aaron Harrison said. "Can't really let this affect you because you can't make the right decision when there's emotion involved."
Besides, the Cats have another priority in mind.
"It doesn't even matter right now," Marcus Lee said. "That's the least of our worries right now. Right now being our first and only loss, we're going back home and getting in school, getting caught up on school and being a regular student again."
Once they settle back in, decisions will have to be made.
"I don't know yet," Ulis said. "A lot of guys, like you said, have an opportunity to (either) go pro, (or) stay. For me, hopefully, some people stay. You just have to let them live their dream."
That's what Cauley-Stein now plans to do, though he'll pursue an NBA career having missed on the national championship he came back to win as a junior. To make matters worse, the fact that he only managed two points, five rebounds and two blocks in his 33 minutes of his final college game will weigh on his mind.
"I mean, that's going to probably eat at me for the rest of my life, just to know that I have so much more that I could have given and changed the outcome of the game," Cauley-Stein said. "But I just didn't do it and that's probably going to kill me on the inside."
If this season is any indication, Cauley-Stein will only use that feeling as fuel for that next step. The same goes for his teammates, whether they join him in declaring for the draft or elect to stay and pursue the championship that eluded them.
"We try to teach these kids to learn from every opportunity that they're given," assistant coach John Robic said. "This is just another one of those. How to face it, they've been very good through the entire season. Never really stuck their chest out. They were the same kids, same person, same team. They worked their tails off for us and couldn't ask for more from these guys."
UK's season ended two wins shy of a national championship on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - For the first time since April 7, 2014, when the final horn sounded the Kentucky Wildcats were not celebrating a victory.
For the first time all season, it was Kentucky that faltered down the stretch as the opponent surged, and for the first time all season Kentucky (38-1) was on the losing side of a game, falling to Wisconsin 71-64.
"Could not be more proud of this group of young people," UK head coach John Calipari said. "What they did all year, just took us all on a ride, our staff, our school, our state. Took us on a ride. We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way."
It was a season to remember, but more specifically, it was a team to remember. Nine McDonald's All-Americans bought in, put the team and their teammates before themselves, sacrificed, gave back and showed what hard work and a selfless attitude can accomplish.
After the game, players spoke about the heartache of defeat in a somber locker room reminiscent of a funeral visitation, and looked back on the bond they shared throughout a historic season.
"The journey that we made with these guys right here--I know everybody says that they love their teammates but we really are like brothers," sophomore Andrew Harrison said.
"It's the best team I've ever been a part of," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "Best guys I've ever been a part of. Best coaching staff."
"I think I'll just remember how much we love each other," freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said. "We really love each other a lot. I think it's our love that keeps us so together, even in this hard time. It's hard. It's hard to think right now, but we just love each other so much. That's what I'm going to take away: how close we really are as a family, and how people really don't understand how close we really are. Like brothers. How we almost always do everything together, no matter what."
Despite the loss, the Wildcats still made history in a number of ways. Their 38 wins are tied for the most wins in college basketball history, and their 38-game winning streak is the longest ever to open a season. The Cats became the first team from a power conference to enter the postseason undefeated since Indiana in 1976.
They faced adversity, rallying from late deficits in each of their first two Southeastern Conference games to ultimately win in overtime. They also rallied late on the road against LSU and Georgia and again in the Elite Eight round against Notre Dame before coming up with the winning plays.
The fifth-youngest team in the country, these Wildcats played, spoke and acted like seasoned veterans throughout a season in which they received more national attention than any other college basketball program has in the history of the sport.
Thirty-eight and 0 is how they started the night. The lone blemish they leave it with is what had each of them questioning whether the season was a success.
"For our personal goals I feel like it kind of ruins the season," Booker said. "But again, you can't overlook what we've done this year. Thirty-eight and 0 is incredible, but we wanted the championship."
Kentucky's ninth championship banner will have to wait. After having played in the Final Four in four of the past five seasons, no one knows how long that wait will last. The 2015-16 version will undoubtedly be a different one as some Wildcats will surely leave Lexington after the semester is over to pursue their professional careers.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, however, all of the focus was pointed inward toward each other and how much they will miss the team camaraderie and brotherhood established through a grueling season that began in the summer at the Bahamas, and ended in the spring in the national semifinals.
"It's definitely a close-knit group and I'm going to miss all these guys because the seniors and the rest of us who have a decision to make, we won't ever be on the same team," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "It's just disappointing."
Disappointing, sure, but the special nature of their accomplishments, despite the loss, wasn't forgotten.
"This season is historic," Coach Cal said. "I just can't believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it."
And it wasn't only what the team accomplished on the court, but also all of their acts of greatness off the court. With a fan base as passionate as any in the country backing the team's every basket or defensive stop, these Wildcats recognized their place in the fabric of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as well as the Big Blue Nation as a whole.
They visited hospitals, connected with fans and those less fortunate, participated in the ALS Challenge and Samaritan's Feet, and represented what many ask for in a team: humility, selflessness, teamwork and talent.
In the eyes of Towns, more than the records, more than the numbers, that may be what this team is remembered for the most.
"I think we should be remembered as great basketball players (and) great human beings," Towns said. "A team that shows that success is more important than individual success. Accolades don't count as much as the team success. That we all gave up a part of ourselves for each other to make a perfect mold in our minds. I think that just shows that talent doesn't always come with egos, but it comes with great human beings also."
UK fell to Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday, 71-64. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - It seemed a familiar script for Kentucky.
The Wildcats, once trailing by nine points in the first half and eight early in the second, were poised to close out another opponent in the final minutes, this time in the Final Four.
With an 8-0 run and their defense holding Wisconsin scoreless for more than six minutes, the Cats grabbed a 60-56 lead with less than five minutes remaining. They could taste a trip to the national championship game, right up until the Badgers snatched it away.
"Didn't win," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Didn't make plays, and they did. If you don't make plays in the last five minutes, you'll lose."
And for the first time in 39 games, the Cats found out what losing felt like. Their bid for a perfect season and - more importantly - a national title came to an end with a 71-64 loss, while Wisconsin (36-3) will take on Duke on Monday for the trophy UK had so intently focused on for so long.
"Could not be more proud of this group of young people," John Calipari said. "What they did all year, just took us all on a ride, our staff, our school, our state. Took us on a ride. We all wanted to win those last two. These kids wanted to win it in the worst way. But you have to give Wisconsin credit."
The Badgers earned the credit, reeling off an 8-0 run of their own that Sam Dekker started. Next, Nigel Hayes tied the game with a put-back that narrowly beat the shot clock. It was the last of Wisconsin's 12 offensive rebounds and 13 second-chance points. For the game, the Badgers outrebounded Kentucky, 34-22, tying the Cats' largest rebounding deficit of the season.
"They played a great game," Devin Booker said. "They played a full game. The whole game they just never gave up."
Neither did UK, but the Cats simply couldn't execute well enough on offense to close it out.
After Karl-Anthony Towns scored in the post with 6:36 to go, UK had five consecutive empty possessions. The stretch included shot-clock violations on back-to-back possessions as UK appeared to look to milk the clock. On the contrary, Coach Cal says the credit goes to Wisconsin.
"We didn't slow it down," Calipari said. "We were trying to post the ball, run the pick'n rolls, the stuff we were running. They crowded a little bit, the guys got a little bit tentative. We were trying to still play. The thing that was tough is we are a finishing team, that's what we've been, and we didn't. They did and we didn't. That's why they're still playing and we're not."
Andrew Harrison, who scored 11 of his 13 points before halftime to keep the Cats in the game, tried to shoulder the blame by himself.
"That's all on me," Andrew Harrison said. "Being the point guard gotta be aware, more aware of what time it is on the clock and stuff like that."
In spite of the miscues, UK wasn't done just yet. Aaron Harrison, filling his familiar role as a crunch-time killer, drove and scored through contact. He hit the ensuing free throw to cut Wisconsin's lead to 64-63.
On the other end, national player of the year Frank Kaminsky - who had 20 points and 11 rebounds - drew a foul and made two free throws, putting UK down three with 24 seconds to go. Towns would then draw a foul of his own and make one of two free throws for the last of his 16 points, forcing UK to foul intentionally. Wisconsin would make five of six free throws to close out the upset and send the Cats to their locker room with tears in their eyes.
"It was very emotional," Ulis said. "Nobody said much. We understood we had a great season, but basically everybody understands we did it for nothing."
The way Ulis feels is surely similar to the way outsiders will remember this Kentucky team, that the Cats went on an incredible, but ultimately meaningless run. Coach Cal knows that's simply not true.
"Can't take away," Calipari said. "I know everybody is going to say, This season... This season is historic. I just can't believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it."
Towns was as torn up about the loss as Ulis was, but able to reflect on all this team has accomplished in spite of the sting.
"I think we should be remembered as great basketball players (and) great human beings," Towns said. "A team that shows that success is more important than individual success. Accolades don't count as much as the team success. That we all gave up a part of ourselves for each other to make a perfect mold in our minds."
That perfect mold is what makes the end of this season so devastating. For all the talk of 40-0 and a ninth national championship for UK, these Cats are more focused on the fact that they won't be together as a team again.
"The journey that we made with these guys right here--I know everybody says that they love their teammates but we really are like brothers," Andrew Harrison said. "We really do sit around, joke, laugh all day long, so I mean it sucks."
"We had a lot of fun this season," Aaron Harrison said. "One of the best times of my life. I wouldn't trade it for anything. We didn't finish like we were supposed to."
This weekend, we compete for a championship. Before the ball is tipped in Indianapolis, I want us all to reflect on what this special group of young men has accomplished. Already, we have witnessed one of the great stories in the history of the greatest tradition this sport has ever seen. It's a story worth celebrating.
The way they act as a team, share with one another, and represent our school and our state is something I will never forget. The way they have embraced John Calipari's message to pursue being the best version of themselves, both individually and collectively, has inspired us all.
By doing so, they have made this remarkable undefeated run. By doing so, they have carried us to a fourth Final Four in five years under Coach Cal, solidifying my belief that we have the best coach in the game.
Let's relish the final steps of this special journey.
John Calipari at UK's open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - A fun, annual game many in the Big Blue Nation often like to play is to debate how different teams from Kentucky's past would fare when playing against another Wildcat squad, whether that be another former team or the current version of the Cats.
With the Cats sending so many players to the NBA each year, that game has certainly become far more interesting due to such different rosters with each passing season.
In reality, all the former players can do is lend their advice to the current Cats, and thanks to the brotherhood and family that UK head coach John Calipari has fostered in his six years in Lexington, that ever-growing family remains a constant presence, especially for his undefeated 2014-15 team.
"I don't have to do that," Coach Cal said. "Those kids do it themselves. I mean, our former players are in touch with our players, in touch with our staff. I get the texts and the calls. You know, they know over All-Star break if they're not playing, they stop in. In the summers they always will pass through. It's been a great thing to see how they help each other and talk to one another."
After defeating LSU 71-69 in a thrilling game in Baton Rouge, La., NBA superstar and former Wildcat Anthony Davis stopped by the UK locker room and offered some advice to forwards Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns.
"It helps me and Karl out a lot because AD went through the same exact stuff that we're going through," Cauley-Stein said. "AD came in and wasn't so good on offense, or he just did a lot of dunks and stuff. Then you see him develop into one of, arguably, the best forward/centers in the league right now. You see him making jumpers, you see him taking people off the dribble and you're like, 'We're the same, we have the same background, we all came to the same school and do the same stuff.' You see that and it kind of gives you like, 'I just have to work on my stuff and I'm going to end up like him.' "
And when Davis, or any other former Cats, speak to the current team, their words always carry clout. These guys are, after all, in the NBA, a place all of the current players want to get to. Cauley-Stein said the biggest difference between Davis and anybody else he's spoken with is his mindset, and his ability to flip a switch when he steps on the court.
"He's going to be cool to you right now, if he was in here, but once you step on the floor he's trying to take your heart out," Cauley-Stein said. "That's the way you have to play."
For Calipari, who calls each of his current and former players his "sons," the moment and growth of his extended family has been fun to watch.
"It's been fun being a part of this family, knowing that they've benefited by the experience of being at Kentucky and they give back," Calipari said. "They give back in a lot of ways, but they give back to each other."
Evolution of Trey Lyles concludes at home in Indianapolis
Before freshman forward Trey Lyles ever put on a Kentucky jersey, he had a vision for how he wanted the 2015 season to conclude.
He wanted to win a national championship in his hometown of Indianapolis.
In 2015 I want to win a National Championship in my hometown Indianapolis!!! #BBN#Cats 🏀💙
Now, just shy of one year later, Lyles and his Wildcats are just two wins away from making that dream a reality. The first obstacle for him is staying focused on the game, and not get caught up in the emotions that surround it.
"It's just an exciting moment for me and my family," Lyles said. "I'm just trying to approach it like any other game. You know, going to stay focused. You know, just got to go out there and play hard."
When the Cats began their season in August with a six-game exhibition tour in the Bahamas against professional teams from around the world, Lyles was relegated to the sidelines with an injury. His absence left a mystery not only for outsiders, but his own teammates as well. Just how good is he?
"We didn't know because Trey got hurt before anybody could even see what he can do," Cauley-Stein said. "So you didn't know what, really, Trey could do, you just knew he was super crafty. Super crafty. One of the craftiest dudes I've played against. Now you're seeing it."
At the next level, Lyles figures to play the power forward position, but with three 7-footers on the roster, the 6-foot-10 Lyles has played more of the small forward role, creating mismatches for opponents both on offense and defense due to his size, strength and athleticism. He's also benefitted greatly from having to defend smaller players nearly every single game.
"Now it's to the point he knows he's one of the best players on the floor," Cauley-Stein said. "He knows on defense nobody can guard him. His craft really comes into play for us and it's really beneficial to us as a team."
Calipari has often referred to Lyles as the team's X-factor, the guy who can take the Cats to a different level.
"He's that one guy that is hard to guard, can make rebounds, plays hard, plays big," Coach Cal said. "Makes us a really big team, 7-foot, 7-foot, 6-10, 6-6. Really big."
As he does anytime one of his players returns to play a game in his hometown, Calipari says he also worries about Lyles playing back in Indianapolis, though the freshman does have some experience doing it after having played Kansas in Indianapolis on Nov. 18.
"As a matter of fact, I even forgot it until I got on the bus (Wednesday) night," Coach Cal said. "I went, 'Oh, my gosh, we're coming back to Indiana, back to Indianapolis.' I said, 'Oh, my gosh.' He laughs about it. But it's a hard deal. The whole environment is hard for everybody."
Teams prepare for shooting in dome setting
Lucas Oil Stadium is not your typical basketball arena.
That's because it's a football stadium.
And with that comes different sightlines, different vantage points, and different scoring outputs.
"Tough playing in domes," Coach Cal said. "The worst one we played in as a coach, we played in the 2011 Final Four in Houston, that was hard. Every team shot 30 percent. It was crazy. I don't think that will be the case here. All four teams are good shooting teams. The backdrop and the way ... I don't think it will be an issue."
And Calipari isn't the only one. UK freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said while it takes time to get used to the depth of the background, the Cats have had a great shootaround and practice and have been hitting shots.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo also didn't express any concern in playing in a large football arena, though that may be because his teams have played in much more challenging venues in the past.
"We played on an aircraft carrier where the background was the sea," Izzo said. "That don't bother our guys. ... There's been a couple of domes that I think have been tougher. But this hasn't been one. No matter how we shoot tomorrow, I think this is as good a setup as there is."
Approaching the Final Four
Every team and every season is different. Similarly, there are many different ways to approach different situations within each season, such as the Final Four.
For Coach Cal, finding the identity of his team has seemed to be the key. While at UMass, Coach Cal said his teams backed up, and they tried to keep them loose.
"It was our first time, school's first time," Calipari said. "Probably didn't do as good of a job as I needed to because of that."
Then at Memphis, he said his team had a spirit about it, but did back off some, just not as much as when he was at UMass.
This year's version of the Wildcats appears to want to cut the brakes and continue stomping on the gas.
"This year's team, I mean, we had two vicious practices Tuesday and Wednesday," Calipari said. "I was on them like it was December. This is a team that wants to go at each other. Our advantage is that we have a lot of guys. So when we scrimmage, you really benefit by that. They want to. They don't want to do drills. This is not a drills team. 'Stop the drills, throw the ball up.' They go after each other. They argue every call. They fight. I have to, 'Stop it!' I'm saying that five times a practice. So we went at it. We're basically done now. I feel that we've done what we're supposed to do with this team, but you never know. Probably after it's over, I'll say, I wish I hadn't gone so hard."
The biggest challenge facing his team at the Final Four outside of the immensely talented Wisconsin Badgers (35-3)? Tickets, Coach Cal said.
"The challenge is staying away from that, getting your players to stay away from it."
Aaron Harrison and Kentucky will face Wisconsin in the Final Four for the second straight season on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Kentucky fans can probably recall every detail of the shot Aaron Harrison hit to send the Wildcats past Wisconsin and into the 2014 national championship game.
They remember how Andrew Harrison drove and dumped to Dakari Johnson, who quickly returned the pass. They'll never forget how Andrew kicked to his twin brother and told him to shoot. The memory of Aaron rising and burying a game winner is burned into their minds.
The same can't be said for the man who hit the shot.
"I just remember falling and celebrating," Aaron Harrison said. "I really don't remember anything else."
Josh Gasser - the player defending Aaron Harrison - has a memory similar to Kentucky fans' when it comes to the shot, though the feelings that come with it are quite a bit different.
"I think our fingers actually interlocked," Gasser said. "When it left his hand, I was feeling good."
Instead, Aaron Harrison's long-distance strike sent Wisconsin home. As the Cats celebrated, the Badgers pondered the end of their season. The shot and loss still fresh in their minds, Wisconsin players say they couldn't help but watch it again.
"I came home two days later and watched it from the perspective of me being sour and angry and sad," Sam Dekker said. "Then a few weeks later I watched it just getting over it. I watched it in bits and pieces. Then the night before the season started I watched it again just to, this is the stage you want to be at again. It kind of got me pumped up to go."
Motivated and returning the bulk of its roster from the Final Four team, the Badgers (35-3) have had one of the best seasons in program history and set up a reprise of last year's national semifinal at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. This time, the Wildcats come in as the first 38-0 team in NCAA history.
"It's a great story," Frank Kaminsky said. "Talk about starting last year when we played them and the way we lost. To come back this year and beat them on the same stage would be a storybook ending almost."
Aaron Harrison concedes he would have been motivated had Kentucky's season ended the way Wisconsin's did in 2014. However, he won't allow that Wisconsin has a monopoly on motivation. UK, after all, did come up short of its ultimate goal of winning a national championship.
"I think everyone's overlooking that," he said. "And I don't really see how it's a revenge game because we're a completely different team with different players."
On that count, the Badgers agree. Talk of the rematch might be dominating headlines (and this story), but it will matter little once the two teams step between the lines.
"Obviously, I understand where that's coming from, but when you get to the Final Four in the NCAA Tournament, it shouldn't matter - or any game for that matter - it shouldn't matter who you're playing," Dekker said. "If you need some type of fuel to fuel the play in a game you want to win, then there's something a little off."
More than revenge or anything, what UK and Wisconsin will truly be playing for in Lucas Oil Stadium is a spot in the national championship game. Both teams will have to pass their toughest on-paper test to date to earn it.
The matchup pits teams ranked first and third in both major polls, as well as kenpom.com. Kentucky, a team renowned for its otherworldly assemblage of talent, has four projected first-round NBA Draft picks. Wisconsin lags barely behind with three.
"Just a great team," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "They have a great coach also. A great program. I think all together you just have to respect the whole program as a general to make a team like that come together."
UK fields the nation's best defense, Wisconsin the nation's best offense. To put it briefly, this is going to be good.
"Well, they're outstanding," John Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post. They shoot the 3 the same as Notre Dame does. They have that one guy that's a big guy, not a guard, and their guards are good, too, in Frank (Kaminsky) who can go get his own. But Dekker has proved he can do the same."
Slowing down Kaminsky, Dekker and company is a monumental challenge. In fact, handcuffing them as UK has so often done to opponents this season might be impossible. The good news is Wisconsin still has to contend with UK's balanced attack.
Regardless whether the Cats do it with defense as they did against Cincinnati or offense like against Notre Dame, the overall approach is the same as it ever was.
"We have one job," Calipari said. "Individually it's to be the best version of yourself. Get yourself mentally and physically prepared to be your best. We have to play at our best. That's the best we can do. I can't ask them for anything else. I told them, I don't know the outcome. I can't promise you the outcome. But I do know our chances are best if you're the best version of you and we're our best as a team. Things are going to go crazy. We'll adjust. We've done it all year."
Willie Cauley-Stein leads Kentucky into a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin on Saturday. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein became Kentucky's 25th consensus All-American on March 30. His path to get there was long, different and remarkable.
Now, Cauley-Stein is perhaps the face of college basketball's first-ever 38-0 team.
"It's just crazy to think about the last three years of losing first round in the NIT against Robert Morris," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming back and finding a way to get back to a title game, coming up short, having a chance to come back and do it again."
Cauley-Stein came to Kentucky as a four-star recruit and the 40th-ranked prospect in the country, according to Rivals.com. At most any other school, the 7-footer, who played both wide receiver and safety in high school, would have been one of the top recruits in the class.
Instead, Cauley-Stein was the lowest-ranked recruit of Kentucky's four-member 2012 class, including being the second-best prospect at his own position. The star of that class was Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 center in the country and the No. 2 overall prospect.
Cauley-Stein played well as a freshman, earning Freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors, but never had the pressure on him that he did as a sophomore, or especially as a junior.
In his second year in Lexington, Cauley-Stein became a defensive star for the Wildcats, becoming just the third player in program history to block more than 100 shots in a season, and tied Noel for the second most in single-season history with 106.
As the Wildcats picked up steam heading into the NCAA Tournament, Cauley-Stein had everything made up in his mind. Silence some critics, hopefully win a championship and then head off to the NBA. Then, just four minutes after entering the game against Louisville in the Sweet 16, Cauley-Stein went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
"It's just, everything happens for a reason," Cauley-Stein said. "... Getting injured and coming back, I was thinking about going the whole time until I got injured. End up coming back and end up being part of history and end up doing stuff people didn't really think you could do."
That "stuff" includes earning first team All-America honors from the Sporting News, Associated Press, National Association of Basketball Coaches and the United States Basketball Writers Association.
"How far Willie has come in his career is truly ridiculous," Calipari said.
And Coach Cal would know. The newly crowned AP National Coach of the Year first saw Cauley-Stein in AAU game where he was guarded by a 6-foot-4 player, and yet the freakishly athletic forward finished with just two points - though Cauley-Stein argues he scored more.
"He has come so far as a player, but more importantly as a person," Calipari said. "He came in saying, 'You know what, I don't like academics, I'm going to do what you're making me do.' He and I became book club members together. I would make him read books. He and I would discuss books. One of the things he said last year is, I'm enjoying school. That's what we're supposed to be about. ... Now he's going into his junior year, here is a kid that averages under double figures and is one of the top players in the country 'cause he's that selfless about his team. It's a good part about what we do, to see that kind of growth."
Speaking to the media Friday in a private room, Cauley-Stein, who has previously said that his favorite book read from his book club with Calipari is "The Energy Bus" by Jon Gordon, talked about Calipari in a different light than just being a basketball coach.
"He's like a life teacher," Cauley-Stein said of Calipari. "He's a life coach. He doesn't just coach the game of basketball. He wants us to become men. It's not all about basketball. It's not all about wins. Regardless whether we won games or not, Coach Cal is still going to be Coach Cal. He's still going to be really successful. He's still going to do all the things he does. I think one of his biggest teaching moments is actually making us into young men and teaching us life skills to use when we're done playing basketball, or when we take the next step."
And due to the play of Cauley-Stein, considered one of the favorites to win the National Defensive Player of the Year award, that next step looks to be coming sooner rather than later.
In the latest NBA Draft projections, Cauley-Stein appears set to become a top-10 pick. Though he's averaging just 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, Cauley-Stein is playing with great confidence on the floor, as well as a chip that rests on his shoulder placed by his critics.
The knock on the SEC Defensive Player of the Year has always been that he can't score or that he's not a true all-around basketball player.
"I don't know how you can be an All-American in this country and not be a good basketball player," Cauley-Stein said.
But the biggest knock by critics may not be what he does or doesn't do on the court, but perhaps all of his interests off of it.
"Me being interested in three or four different things, then they say, 'Well, you don't love the game of basketball,' " Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, that's nonsense to me. Why would I come to Kentucky if I didn't love the game of basketball? This is the hardest place to play, in my opinion. You just have to know what you think and it doesn't really matter what everybody else thinks. You know what you've done and what you've been through to get to where you are."
In this journey from a basketball player who once played football to a likely top-10 NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein has always been able to keep things in perspective.
Now just two wins away from making history as the sport's first 40-0 team and the first undefeated national champion in 39 years, Cauley-Stein and Kentucky ready themselves to face a talented Wisconsin team that has revenge on its mind. Either way, history will be made this weekend, Cauley-Stein is just hoping it's the good kind.
"If we ended up winning it all we'll go down in history," Cauley-Stein said. "If we end up losing we'll still go down in history being talked about going undefeated until we lost it. Either way we're going to be talked about. But us, we want to be talked about in a good way, not like a letdown."
John Calipari and UK's starters speak at their press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - In theory, there's an easy solution for Kentucky when it comes to facing Frank Kaminsky.
Just get him in foul trouble.
In reality, there's a problem.
He almost never fouls.
"Well, he plays with his feet more so than a lot of other 7-footers I've seen," Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan said. "He doesn't reach in. He doesn't try to block every shot."
The Wildcats (38-0) can throw all the bodies they want at Kaminsky in Saturday's national semifinal. They can try the bruising Dakari Johnson, the springy Willie Cauley-Stein or possible No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, but history suggests Kaminsky won't take the bait and fall victim to foul trouble.
"I think Arizona was the first game I think I've ever had four fouls here in my career at Wisconsin," said Kaminsky, who was named AP National Player of the Year on Friday.
That's not quite true, but last weekend's Elite Eight win was the first time Kaminsky has picked up four fouls this season. In his first two seasons, he picked up four fouls 11 times and fouled out only once. All told, he went more than a year between games with four fouls.
Kaminsky is no exception on this Wisconsin team either. He's merely the best example of Ryan's approach.
"In the 30 years or whatever that I've been a head coach, I would guarantee you that my teams have had the fewest number of blocked shots than any other team in the country, if you take Platteville, Milwaukee and Wisconsin," Ryan said. "We try to keep our feet on the ground, we try to chest up with our hands straight up."
The numbers prove it.
Wisconsin is first in the country in defensive free-throw rate, allowing just 0.221 free-throw trips per field-goal try for its opponent, and is 224th in defensive block rate in spite of being the nation's second-tallest team, according to kenpom.com. Teams are hard-pressed to even get into the bonus against the Badgers. Wisconsin has committed 15 or fewer fouls in all but five games this season.
"He knows what refs look for, he knows what tendencies of refs to call are and he shows us every single film session," Kaminsky said. "He'll even show us our fouls that we got away with so we can learn from that too. So it's a process. He has a system. He doesn't foul, doesn't want to give the other team free points. Just doing whatever we can to stay out of foul trouble in this game is going to be big."
The Arizona game was the first time all season the Badgers have committed more than 18 fouls and the first time they have allowed more than 20 free-throw attempts. Arizona is a team with length and athleticism similar to Kentucky, suggesting UK could stress Wisconsin in the same way.
Aaron Harrison said Wisconsin's ability to avoid fouling has been a consistent topic in UK's preparation, saying John Calipari is directing his team to attack the basket as usual. Nonetheless, they aren't counting on Wisconsin becoming foul happy overnight.
Odds are the Badgers will avoid foul trouble and make the Cats earn their points on tough 2s and 3s. If they do, UK - 25th nationally in free-throw rate - will have to adjust to having a big part of its offensive limited.
"If they don't foul, they don't foul," Harrison said. "I'm not really sure what to do to draw fouls. We've just gotta get in close to the basket and if they foul you, you have to make it."
Odds are Kaminsky will stay on the floor for something close to the 33.4 minutes he's averaging this season. If he does, the Cats will have to contain him.
"He's going to hit you from a lot of different spots and you're not going to stop him," Cauley-Stein said. "He's the type of player you just have to limit. You're not going to stop him from scoring. You just can't let him score 30 on you and that's the way we have to approach it."
Cauley-Stein, with a 7-foot, 242-pound frame identical to Kaminsky, projects as the likely primary defender on his fellow All-American, but it isn't likely to be so simple.
UK threw multiple defenders at Kaminsky in one-on-one situations in last year's Final Four, from Dakari Johnson to Marcus Lee to Julius Randle to Alex Poythress. Even though Cauley-Stein - the presumptive national defensive player of the year winner - will be on the floor this time around, expect UK to use the same strategy used to limit Kaminsky to eight points on seven shots.
"I think with the guys that we have, we're going to do a lot of switching anyway," Cauley-Stein said. "Not one person is going to be on that set player during the whole game. You know, everybody in practice has been guarding guards and bigs. We're just kind of ready for everything."
Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, UK's Willie Cauley-Stein, Duke's Quinn Cook and Michigan State's Travis Trice. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Willie Cauley-Stein was sandwiched between one of his Saturday opponents and a guard who plays for the team Kentucky fans revile perhaps more than any other.
Cauley-Stein could only say good things about Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and Duke's Quinn Cook, as well as Michigan State senior Travis Trice.
"Just a great respect for each one of these players up here, and their teams," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, each one of us is a big part of their team, the way they run things. It's really just a good respect."
With Kaminsky, the respect seemed to be accompanied by a budding rapport. The two 7-footers walked on to the podium for a Thursday Final Four press conference in the middle of an easy conversation. Within a few minutes, Kaminsky revealed what they had bonded over.
"Personality-wise, we were talking about Super Smash Bros. on the way up here, so I feel like we would get along," Kaminsky said.
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein got to keep talking about their video game of choice once they sat down when a reporter asked them about their character of choice. It was another point of bonding.
"I've been trying Captain Falcon," Kaminsky said. "He's really slow, so I think I'm going to go back to Kirby."
"I play with Kirby just because he can change," Cauley-Stein said. "He can change into anybody he's playing against. And he flies around, so when you get knocked off the little stage, you can just fly back and you don't have to worry about jumping."
Kaminsky and Cauley-Stein, however, will be putting the controllers down and stepping onto a significantly bigger stage themselves come Saturday at 8:49 p.m. at Lucas Oil Stadium. Just like with Super Smash Bros., the right to play the next game will be on the line, but this time the next game is the national championship.
Coack K, Izzo praise Cats
Mike Krzyzewski hasn't watched much of Kentucky this year.
Considering the Wildcats aren't on Duke's schedule and won't be unless both teams advance to the national championship game Monday, that makes sense.
That doesn't mean he's not aware that John Calipari's team is the story of college basketball this season.
"John has done an amazing job with his group, and it's been good for college basketball in that you've been talking about a team instead of talking about freshmen or individuals," Coach K said.
UK has its share of talented freshmen and individual stars, but its cohesiveness and depth have carried the Cats to a 38-0 mark entering the Final Four. The regular season began with the Cats ranked No. 1 based largely on their roster featuring nine McDonald's All-Americans. It ended the same way because they turned their potential into something special.
"You got to be talented," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "And I think Mike alluded to it with Kentucky this year, guys are willing to take on different roles, not play as many minutes, not score as many points. I think the more talent you have, the better it is, as long as it's talent that's coachable and talent that has a team concept in mind."
There's no questioning that UK constantly has that team concept in mind. The result has been a narrative positive for the game.
"For a few years we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals," Krzyzewski said. "This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be: It's about teams. Kentucky's been a great team."
Talent aplenty at Final Four
Bo Ryan knows better than anyone how good this Final Four field is.
Within the last calendar year, his Wisconsin Badgers have played Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four, Duke on Dec. 3 and Michigan State twice in the last six weeks.
"What I can say about the talent is there's shooters, there's ball handlers, there's bigs," Ryan said. "I mean, you can go from every aspect of the game of basketball and look at these four teams, there are guys that are just blue-collar guys that are there to rebound and play defense, there are guys that are there to score, there are guys that are there to kill you in the post, there's guys defensively that can lock you down.
"I would say in this Final Four, having played all the teams within the past year, there's a little bit of everything. It's at a very high level."
Beyond the talent, each of the four teams has faced a tough road to get here. Combined, they have defeated three No. 2 seeds, two No. 3 seeds, two No. 4 seeds and two No. 5 seeds. None has faced a double-digit seed after the round of 64.
"That's what you admire about people that have success in this tournament, you know how hard it is," Izzo said. "It's not just about being good enough, you've got to be lucky. We have gotten here (in the past) because teams lost. One year it was Kansas who was ranked. I think this year, we've all earned our way without major surprises or many major surprises. That's pretty good."
Champions Classic reunion
November, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State and Kansas played the first
two marquee games of the college basketball season in the Champions
In April, three of the four have returned to Indianapolis for the last three games.
State and Duke will play in one national semifinal - a rematch of an
81-71 Duke win on Nov. 18 - while Wisconsin subs in as Kentucky's
opponent in the other.
Coach K called it "prophetic" that the three teams are in the Final Four together.
"That's been a good deal for our programs, I think, to play that doubleheader at the start of each year," Krzyzewski said.