Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - This is the Final Four. Every team in the country dreams of making it to this point. Heck, the slogan of the event is "The Road Ends Here." Certainly, this is no time for fun and games.
Oh, on the contrary.
"New experience, we want to take it in, have fun," Duke senior guard Quinn Cook said. "At the end of the day, we're here to win games. Not change, just continue doing the great habits we've done all year, just have fun."
That three-letter word was used or talked about frequently Thursday when one student-athlete from each Final Four team came to the stage in the interview room to meet with the media. Other words, or variations of them, that were talked about frequently included, camaraderie, excitement, togetherness and adversity.
While adversity may seem like an antonym to the aforementioned words on the surface, it actually has served as a precursor to allow the other words to prosper and grow.
"I think adversity is what has gotten our team to this point," Michigan State guard Travis Trice said. "Midway through the year, we were on the bubble. People questioned whether we were going to get into the tournament. Because of that, we've banded together."
And now the Spartans (27-11), as well as the Badgers (35-3), Blue Devils (33-4) and Wildcats (38-0), are hardly separable from their teammates.
During Kentucky's photo and video shoots with Turner Sports on Thursday afternoon, the team took numerous pictures with a Twitter Mirror showing just how stressed out they were from the whole experience.
Even the four head coaches looked to be having a good time Thursday. Wisconsin head man Bo Ryan and Kentucky coach John Calipari, who have been friends for years, joked back and forth from the very beginning of their press conference when Coach Cal got on the stage and said, "C'mon, Bo" who was following him, to a question about Ryan's team's personality.
"Believe it or not, I know how I'm perceived by some people," Ryan said. "I'm actually a pretty funny guy."
"No, you're not," Calipari interrupted with a smile, "you're mean."
Perhaps that loose attitude, both by coaches and players, is the best way to combat all of the pressure that surround being on the biggest stage of the game.
Wisconsin senior forward Frank Kaminsky said he and his teammates played the suddenly resurgent Nintendo 64 game Super Smash Bros. in the team's hospitality room at its hotel Wednesday night. They also got their hair cut and simply hung out. When it's time to get focused, though, they know what to do.
"It's great being around so many characters on our team," Kaminsky said. "It just makes this experience that much more memorable being around so many fun guys.
"When we got on the court today for practice, all seriousness. We know how to flip it when we need to."
Kaminsky and the Badgers aren't the only ones playing games though.
"We're constantly together," Trice said. "Like Frank said, the hospitality room, we were there till 12:00, 1:00 (a.m.) last night. You really got to fight us to get away from each other. I think that's a good thing and helps us in close games."
And each team has had close games. Kentucky rallied late against Notre Dame to hit two free throws with six seconds remaining to win 68-66. Wisconsin has won each of its last three games by seven points each. Duke fought through a shooting slump against Utah to win by six. Michigan State, the tournament's lone non-No. 1 seed remaining, defeated Louisville in overtime in the Elite Eight.
On Saturday, while the video games may take a back seat, the players seemed quite certain the fun would not.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store here," Cook said.
"We're going to take it all in," Trice said.
"It's going to be fun," Kaminsky said. "I can't wait."
"I'm super excited to play," Cauley-Stein said. "It's a dream. When you're young and you're playing in your driveway, you're playing one-on-one against yourself, this is the moment that you're playing against."
Bo Ryan and John Calipari held a joint press conference on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Through all the tests Kentucky has faced this season, one team has always loomed more than any other.
As the Wildcats have piled up victory after victory, Wisconsin has been talked about as the team best suited to take them down.
Two days before UK and Wisconsin finally face off, John Calipari can see why.
"I mean, they do what they're supposed to do," Calipari said. "They give you a tough look. They rebound the ball. They're outstanding. This will be a really hard game for our team. We know that. Bo (Ryan) has done what he's done with every team: He's just made them a cohesive offensive and defensive unit."
The Badgers pass Coach Cal's eye test and the numbers back him up. UK-Wisconsin is a matchup of the teams rated No. 1 and No. 3 according to kenpom.com and the Badgers took down No. 2 Arizona on Sunday.
Let's dig into the numbers behind those rankings, numbers that have a lot to say about which team will win the right to play for the national championship.
When Kentucky is on offense
Kentucky's offense has been overshadowed by its historically good defense, but the Cats can really score the ball. Wisconsin's head coach has noticed, and it's a lot about UK's depth.
"Even if there's a guy that shoots a bad percentage or has a rough day, look how many other guys can pick them up," Ryan said. "There are some teams who have two, three, maybe four scorers. If they all have a bad day the same day, they're definitely losing. Kentucky can have guys have bad days but still have enough guys to make up for that."
Six Cats are used on between 20 and 24 percent of UK's possessions, and they all have individual offensive ratings of better than 109. Perhaps most incredibly, Kentucky's consensus first-team All-American, Willie Cauley-Stein, isn't among them. He's used on just 18.6 percent of possessions for which he's on the floor.
Against Wisconsin - the nation's 54th-ranked defense, according to kenpom.com - UK will face a unique test, notably because the teams will match strengths in a couple notable areas.
UK has the fifth-most efficient offense in America thanks in large part to its ability to attack the offensive glass and get to the free-throw line. The Cats rank sixth nationally in offensive-rebounding percentage (0.399) and 25th in free-throw rate (44.5). Wisconsin, meanwhile, is fourth in defensive-rebounding percentage (0.741) and first in defensive free-throw rate (22.1). Which team wins these two battles is anyone's guess.
UK and Wisconsin are also evenly matched in effective field-goal percentage, the Cats ranking 75th on offense and the Badgers 99th on defense. Interestingly, the Badgers struggle guarding the 3-point line. Wisconsin is 301st in 3-point percentage defense (0.374), but allows 3-point attempts so infrequently (only 26.3 percent of opponents' shots come from 3) that it doesn't often hurt the Badgers.
Where UK figures to get a boost is in the turnover department. The Badgers never sell out to force miscues and their opponents commit turnovers on just 16.1 percent of possessions (327th nationally). The Cats, by contrast, take care of the ball effectively and rank 36th in turnover percentage (0.164). In last year's national semifinal, UK had just four turnovers. When Kentucky is on defense
Speaking of matching strengths, how about the best offense in the country against the best defense in the country?
Wisconsin is the only team with an offense rated better by kenpom.com than Notre Dame, which just scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season.
"Well, they're outstanding," Calipari said. "We just played a great offensive team in Notre Dame. This team rivals and maybe surpasses because they can iso you in the post."
Cauley-Stein is similarly impressed.
"Us watching film, they run angles a lot," he said. "One of our biggest things in the Notre Dame game was giving up backdoors, easy baskets. They utilized that. They kind of pride themselves on, you know, exploiting people's weakness and taking over from it. So that's our biggest thing is not giving up easy baskets, not letting them play angles against us."
The Badgers' top threat is Frank Kaminsky, the versatile 7-footer who scores inside and out. Thanks in large part to him, Wisconsin is 16th nationally in effective field-goal percentage (0.55) and facing the best effective field-goal percentage defense in Kentucky, which holds opponents to 0.392.
Wisconsin's greatest strength is its ability to take care of the basketball. The Badgers, steadied by point guard Bronson Koenig, commit turnovers on just 12.3 percent of their possessions, the best mark in the country. They haven't committed double-digit turnovers since Dec. 13, meaning even UK's disruptive defense isn't likely to cause too many errors.
In short, expect Wisconsin to shoot the ball relatively well and commit few turnovers. UK could make up for that at the free-throw line, because the Cats are 55th in defensive free-throw rate and the Badgers are 181st in offensive free-throw rate.
Where the game could be decided, however, is on the glass when Wisconsin does miss. The Badgers are middle of the pack in offensive-rebounding percentage (129th), while UK is below average in defensive-rebounding percentage (204th). If the Cats can perform better than they typically have in this area, they will gain an edge.
One thing that's close to a certainty is that Saturday's game will not be an up-tempo affair. UK ranks 250th in adjusted tempo, Wisconsin 345th.
The Cats have thrived this season in up-and-down games, but they've handled grind-it-out affairs just fine too. At the end of the day, they're just going to play their game.
"We're not going to control what Wisconsin does," Calipari said. "They're going to play the way they play. I just hope my team plays well. I think if you talk to all four coaches, when you say, 'We're stopping Wisconsin.' We're not stopping Wisconsin. I just hope my team plays well and then we'll see how it plays out."
The Wildcats pose on Thursday at the Final Four in Indianapolis. (Elliott Hess, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Rock and roll hall of famer Bob Dylan famously wrote "The Times They Are a-Changin'." College basketball can relate.
On Thursday, four current or future college basketball hall of fame coaches talked about the changing times of their sport, specifically the one and done - succeed and proceed, if you prefer - era that has overcome it.
"It's changed," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "It's changed for all of us. It's changed from Internet to draft lists to the gazillions in the NBA. It's all that stuff that's made this different, our jobs different."
Since Calipari was hired six years ago Wednesday, Kentucky has churned out 19 NBA Draft picks, including 15 first-rounders, and 13 freshmen. Those numbers dwarf every other school in America, but don't signify that UK is the lone team that recruits those players, nor encourages them to leave for the NBA if they have that opportunity.
While Wisconsin, which sports a starting lineup of two sophomores, a junior and two seniors, is not known for sending players to the NBA after only one year in college, head coach Bo Ryan said he would not hold a player back from that decision if that's what they wanted to do.
"Nigel Hayes, after he said he was coming to Wisconsin, you can ask him this, said, 'Coach, now if I'm the Player of the Year my freshman year and I decide to go pro, is that OK with you?' " Ryan said. "... Are you serious, Nigel? I just said, 'Hey, sure, I have no problem with that.' "
"It's just a different era," Coach Cal said. "We're dealing with things in a different way. You just have to, we all are. Whether me or Bo, if Bo has a guy after a year, Bo is going to tell him to go for it if he's a lottery pick. We're all in the same thing. You don't know when you recruit a kid if he's going to leave after a year. You don't know. You just coach them, then they make a decision what they want to do. We just try to make sure we make this about the kids."
One of the numerous gripes that is often thrown out in the criticism of the one and done era is that because the student-athletes are only at the university for one year they do not have enough time to build a legacy or make an impact in the community.
Those following this year's group of Wildcats knows, however, that this idea appears to be a farce.
There's Karl-Anthony Towns, who became friends with Matt Bunk, a 19-year-old who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child and is now restricted to a wheelchair. Towns signed and gave Bunk his shoes after the Wildcats' regular-season finale versus Florida and told Bunk to let him know the next time he was around.
"Whether they chase their dream or not doesn't make them good or bad, we have great kids," Coach Cal said. "The second thing is our kids are connected. Anyone that knows any of our players that are in the NBA, not in the NBA, they are connected whether they stayed one year, two years, three. We are family, and they know that. They stay in touch. They text. We talk to them. I'll go to games. They'll come in for watching games. It's just different. I think everybody's now looking at this saying, 'It's not my rule.' As a matter of fact, it's not the NCAA's rule. This is a rule between the NBA and the Players' Association."
The reason so many players have decided to leave college early for the NBA, in Calipari's eyes, is the growing value of contracts. What was once a $125,000 contract, has now become a $25 million contract if you're a top-10 pick, he says.
What was lost on both Calipari and Ryan, is the double standard associated with young people leaving school early to pursue an NBA career, but not when another student, athlete or not, leaves school early to further pursue their sport or a different profession.
"I will tell you, we have universities here around this country, some of the top, that encourage genius, kids to move on and do their things if they stayed one or two years," Coach Cal said. "As a matter of fact, they'll invest in them financially and tell them, 'If it doesn't go, you can come back and your position will always be there.' I don't understand why it's a problem if it's the same with basketball players. These kids have a genius. Our jobs are to help them grow on and off the court, to help them become better men, to be prepared for society, yet they're chasing a dream and they have a genius."
"What I agree totally with is the entertainers, the people who are talented in other areas that end up going and doing something, going out of school thinking later to come back, that maybe they'll get their degree, maybe they won't," Ryan said. "You never hear about those people. It only comes up, and John has to face those type of questions a heck of a lot more than I do. In college, if people are stepping away, I don't call it dropping out, they're stepping away to pursue their passion."
DraftExpress.com has five players currently listed in the top 10 of its latest 2015 NBA Draft projection who will be playing in Saturday's Final Four games, three of whom are freshmen. Of DraftExpress' top 20, eight will be playing in the Final Four, five are freshmen, and just one is a senior. It's quite possible all will enter the NBA Draft to begin their professional lives by season's end.
In last year's Final Four and national championship, Kentucky started five freshmen. In 2014-15 the Wildcats have often started two freshmen, two sophomores and one junior. The Cats have thrived off the play of their four rookies, three of whom are listed in DraftExpress.com's top 20, as well as their returners, a mix Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who is starting three freshmen this season who are all projected to be first-round picks, said helps "tremendously."
Despite being the fifth-youngest team in all of college basketball, each of the Wildcats' student-athletes has shown a great sense of maturity both in their selfless attitudes, team-first approach and ability to block out distractions and pressure and focus on the task at hand. The end result has impressed coaches from afar and near, while also ushering in a changing of times in this new era.
"Times have changed a little bit," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said. "I still think they can make an impact. I don't think we always appreciate it as much because we want them there longer, means fans, media, everybody else."
"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," Krzyzewski said. "For a few years we've gotten to be like the pros where it's a matchup of individuals. This year it's a renewal of what college basketball should be: it's about teams. Kentucky's been a great team."
UK will face Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com contributed to this piece
They're 38-0 and have set a number of both program and national records this season. And yet, when you talk to the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats and hear about what goes on in their heads something stands out perhaps more than their immense talent.
Outside of their athletic "genius" as UK head coach John Calipari says, these guys are no different than any other college basketball players around the country.
"We're student-athletes just like everyone else," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "We're required to go to class, we're required to make the grades, so we're just like every other program in that sense."
One thing that is different is the amount of attention these players get, which can make life difficult at times.
"Everything you do is under a microscope and everything is blown up," Aaron Harrison said. "You're just overly criticized and it's tough being a young man here. But it's not a bad place to be, obviously.
"Oh, of course. We have a great amount of fun. I'm not saying that. It's just, you have to be careful. It's a lot of criticism."
Their tweets, Instagram posts and Facebook pages are seen by thousands each and every day. Grown men from opposing teams will heckle and yell at them incessantly during games. Their pictures and highlights have been shown on national TV nearly every day since the calendar turned to February and their bid for an unbeaten season became more realistic.
Thirty-minute TV shows have been dedicated to break down how to beat them, and countless stories have been written online, in magazines and in newspapers tackling the same topic. Despite its thrilling win in the Elite Eight on TBS going down as the most viewed college basketball game of all time on cable TV, they've also been told they're ruining college basketball.
"I mean it didn't bother us because we knew it wasn't the truth," Harrison said about hearing UK was ruining college basketball. "And we know a lot of people say things about us and make up their own theories about us, but most of it's not true."
Perhaps the biggest theory the Cats have had to face this year is if they can become the first team in 39 years to complete an undefeated season with a national championship. Just two wins shy now, freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns said the prospect of doing such a thing is hard for somebody to think of at the beginning of the year, much less practice.
"Obviously, coming in, I knew my brothers, we had a great amount of talent, but you never knew were going to jell so well and this season was going to go the way it went," Towns said. "You just were blessed with this opportunity, and you just want to take it as full amount as you can take it as, cherish every moment, and try to end the season with no regrets, and that's what we're going to try to do this weekend."
UK-Wisconsin matchup the same, but different
It's a familiar sight, Kentucky and Wisconsin going head to head with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
Just a year ago, the Cats topped the Badgers on the third of three memorable Aaron Harrison 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament, completing a comeback from five points down with barely six minutes remaining to win, 74-73.
Wisconsin, then, will surely have vengeance on its mind Saturday, right? Aaron Harrison isn't sure that will be a major factor.
"When you get this close and to the Final Four, everyone's motivated," Aaron Harrison said. "... I mean, I'm not really sure how other teams are feeling, but I know we're just as motivated as we've ever been and even more so. We're just going out trying to win games, make statements and play as hard as we can."
Furthermore, the two teams that will take the floor in Lucas Oil Stadium are not the same ones that played in AT&T Stadium last April.
To be sure, both have plenty of returners, but UK has added four talented freshmen to its rotation and lost Julius Randle and James Young to the NBA. For Wisconsin, Ben Brust has graduated and Traevon Jackson is only just playing his way back into the rotation after suffering a right foot injury in January.
And oh yeah, Willie Cauley-Stein is back.
The consensus All-American missed last year's national semifinal with a stress fracture in his ankle, leaving UK to deal with Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky without its top defender. The Cats, throwing everyone from Julius Randle to Marcus Lee to Dakari Johnson at the versatile 7-footer, limited Kaminsky to just eight points on seven shots, including no 3-point tries, but Cauley-Stein still figures to provide a boost.
"You know it's going to be great," Johnson said. "He matches up well with the guys they have on the floor. He gives us just another weapon that we didn't have last year." Wisconsin offense another stiff test for UK
John Calipari was less than 48 hours into preparing for a national semifinal matchup with Wisconsin when he joined the Final Four Coaches' Teleconference on Monday.
He'd already seen everything he needed to out of the Badgers.
"Well, they're outstanding," Coach Cal 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."
Considering the Fighting Irish scored more points per possession than any UK opponent this season in the Elite Eight, that's high praise.
Wisconsin ranks first nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, comfortably ahead of second-place Notre Dame. The Badgers have scored more than a point per possession in 10 consecutive games. They play at a deliberate pace similar to Notre Dame, but Aaron Harrison says the similarities don't go much further.
"It's not the same style, I don't think," he said.
Working in UK's favor on Saturday will be some additional preparation time. Against Notre Dame, the Wildcats had to get ready for a complex, efficient offense in essentially a day. This time around, they have a week.
"I think it showed it's really hard when you have to prepare for a team in a day's span and get ready for a whole different offense with such great shooters," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I think that's what's so great, we have a whole week this week to prepare for Wisconsin and get used to their offense, and get to implement our defense into their offensive game plan and try to make it the most difficult for them as we possibly can."
Towns on the cover of latest Sports Illustrated
For the third time this season, a Kentucky Wildcat is on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Towns is the latest to grace the cover of the famed sports magazine. In a regional cover, Towns is shown overhead scoring two of his career-high 25 points against Notre Dame. To the left of him is a headline reading "From the brink. To the brink. Kentucky closes in on ... 40-0"
The 6-foot-11 freshman was also on the March 16 cover previewing the NCAA Tournament along with frontcourt mates Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Junior forward Alex Poythress was on Sports Illustrated's college basketball preview issue Nov. 10.
DeMarcus Cousins | Sacramento Kings: 107, Philadelphia 76ers: 106 | March 24, 2015 In a one-point contest that came down to the closing seconds, Cousins' defense stole the spotlight at Sacramento's Sleep Train Arena on Tuesday night. The 6-foot-11 fifth-year veteran posted 33 points (on 17-for-19 free throws), 17 rebounds, four blocks and four steals in the Kings' 25th win of the season. When Philly's Hollis Thompson burst through the lane with hopes of getting to the basket with less than two seconds remaining, Cousins stepped in the lane and stripped the ball, sealing the Sacramento victory. Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (38-35) Despite only one win in three tries for Phoenix last week, Bledsoe averaged 17.3 points, 5.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds over the stretch. The Suns defeated the Dallas Mavericks 98-92 on March 22, but fell to the Kings and Portland Trail Blazers on March 25 and 27, respectively. DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (26-46) Besides Cousins' monster performance in the win over Nerlens Noel's Sixers last Tuesday, the big man highlighted his week with victories over former teammates John Wall and the Washington Wizards and Bledsoe and the Suns. Cousins averaged an incredible 29.0 points, 13.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 2.5 steals and 2.0 blocks over Sacramento's four-game stretch. The Kings' only loss came at the hands of Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans on March 27. Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (38-34) The Pelicans' 102-88 win over Sacramento put an end to a four-game New Orleans losing streak. In the three games that took place last week, Davis averaged 24.7 points, 11.7 rebounds, 3.7 blocks and 2.0 steals.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (41-32) In two wins over the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers to start the week, Kanter averaged 26.0 points and 14.0 rebounds for the Thunder, who is fighting for its playoff life. However, OKC dropped its next two contests to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on March 25, and Kanter's former team, the Utah Jazz, on March 28. Kanter averaged 17.0 points and 10.5 rebounds in the losses.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (18-55) With three double-doubles in four Philly games last week, Noel has positioned himself as a frontrunner for NBA Rookie of the Year in the minds of many of the award's voters. The youthful 76ers defeated the Denver Nuggets 99-85 on March 25, but fell to the Lakers, Kings and Los Angeles Clippers in Philadelphia's other three contests. Noel's stat sheet was highlighted by a career-high 30-point, 14-rebound performance in Friday's 119-98 loss to the Clippers.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (41-32) Wall began his week with two lackluster personal performances in consecutive Wizards blowout losses on the road. However, Wall bounced back with 34- and 32-point scoring outings in Washington's next two games. The Wizards fell to the Indiana Pacers 103-101 on March 25, and defeated the Charlotte Hornets 110-107 on March 27.
John Calipari has coached Kentucky to a fourth Final Four in five seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
"Do you understand if you're going to lead, you're going to serve?"
When a player feels he is ready to leave John Calipari's Kentucky program, he is subject to the same series of questions Calipari asks all his student-athletes before releasing them to the professional ranks.
"Do you understand how to be a great leader?" Calipari asks.
On the court, Calipari's leadership speaks for itself. The 56-year-old Pennsylvania native has led the Wildcats to the Final Four in four of the past five seasons-- a feat matched in college basketball only by the late John Wooden and 2015 Final Four counterpart Mike Krzyzewski, head coach of the Duke Blue Devils.
"(When) you talk about Mike Krzyzewski, come on," Calipari said. "Wooden, Krzyzewski, and that's about it. My respect for Mike Krzyzewski goes beyond just watching him and what he's done in thousands of games, all that."
In addition to a potential second national title and the sport's only subsequent 40-win undefeated season, Calipari's career achievements have put him in a position for another honor to possibly be bestowed upon him this weekend: induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"People aren't up for (the Hall of Fame) unless people believe that he belongs," said Krzyzewski. "I think whether it happens this year, it will happen."
Calipari and Krzyzewski, who himself was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006, are joined in Indianapolis by two of the Big Ten's most legendary active coaches, Wisconsin's Bo Ryan and Michigan State's Tom Izzo.
"When you talk about the coaches here, when you talk about Bo Ryan, you're talking about one of those guys that walked through the ranks and has done it anywhere he's been," Calipari said. "He was a great assistant before he was a great head coach. He's just a good guy."
Together, Calipari, Krzyzewski and Izzo comprise three of Division I's top five active coaches in terms of Final Four appearances.
"Tommy Izzo and I go so far back," said Calipari. "We're in touch throughout this tournament. He knows what I feel about him. You talk about one of the top two or three coaches, he's it. He's done it every year with every kind of different team. He's done it when he's lost guys, when he's had great players, when he's had great teams."
Izzo echoed Calipari's sentiment, adding a personal endorsement for Calipari's Hall of Fame bid this weekend.
"Well, if you look at it, when you can win at Massachusetts, then go and win at Memphis, then the job he's done at Kentucky is unbelievable," Izzo said. "He doesn't get enough credit for his coaching. Having great players, I mean, there's days that it's easier. I think what people don't realize is there's days when it's more difficult juggling egos, juggling the NBA stuff, juggling the expectations at a school like Kentucky. I do think he's very deserving of being in (the Hall of Fame)."
With a combined 27 Final Four appearances between the four head coaches vying for Monday's coveted national championship trophy, this year's Final Four may just be a true "Mount Rushmore" of college hoops.
"It's a privilege and an honor to be in the class with the people that are (at the Final Four)," said Izzo. "I think you got a lot of coaches that have worked hard to get there and put in their time, put in their years, been graduate assistants on up... That makes it great because I know I have great respect for the other three coaches that are in here."
No. 7 Michigan State will tip-off against No. 1 Duke on Saturday, April 4 at 6:09 p.m. Following the conclusion of that game approximately two and a half hours later, No. 1 Kentucky will face No. 1 Wisconsin in a rematch of last season's Final Four.
UK fans cheer their team on in the NCAA Tournament in Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's become a slogan of sorts for Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and as simple as it may be, it couldn't be more spot on.
"You people are crazy," he says.
He's right, they know it, and most importantly, they love it and are proud of it.
Whether Kentucky is playing in the Bahamas, an opposing Southeastern Conference gym, the West Coast, a tournament venue or Rupp Arena, the venue is sold out and the electricity is at a fever pitch.
Known as one of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in all of sports, collegiate or professional, Big Blue Nation is loud, big and, well, crazy.
"You walk into our arena at home, the upper deck in the corners are filled 40 minutes before the game," Coach Cal said Monday on a teleconference with the other three Final Four head coaches. "What, are you crazy? Why are you here right now? The radio show has 8,000 or 9,000 people that stay after. Our radio show would rank in the top 30 in attendance of games. The other thing is you go on the road, they're chanting. You're like, 'Oh, my gosh, they've taken over the arena.' Like, they do that."
Perhaps nowhere was that more apparent than the SEC Tournament in Nashville this year. Swarms of Big Blue flooded to the Music City, painting the town blue and turning Bridgestone Arena into Rupp Arena South. In fact, even in the days before Kentucky played - thanks to a double bye - there were some games were it was estimated the majority of fans present were Wildcat supporters who couldn't get tickets to the UK games, but simply wanted to be a part of it all.
"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "
Indeed they are, and that fact isn't lost on Coach Cal, who had his squad play the SEC Tournament for the fans as a way to show his appreciation for their support.
"Our fans, they make an effort to get here," Calipari said prior to the conference tournament. "It's not easy, and they do it. That's why I'm saying, 'Let's play for them. Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person.' Because, again, it's going to be hard for that core group (of fans) to get to the NCAA Tournament."
The end result made the SEC Tournament neutral only by technicality, as the Cats rolled to victory by winning each game by at least 15 points.
After every big play, run or moment, Bridgestone Arena became deafening with cheers of "Go Big Blue." During one sequence in the championship against Arkansas, Razorback cheerleaders who were on the court to help pump up their fans could only look at each other and laugh as the Wildcat chants completely drowned them out.
A similar effect is present at conference road games, where especially when UK has a comfortable lead in the closing minutes, UK fans can be heard over the home crowd.
"It gets you juiced," Willie Cauley-Stein said about Big Blue Nation starting an audible chant in the closing minutes of a 22-point win at a sold-out Coleman Coliseum in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Jan. 17. "You know they're going everywhere you go. You can go all the way to California and we're going to have probably half the fans there because they're crazy, and I love them all. That's why it's so fun playing here."
"Best fans in America, and that's a statement I really believe in," Devin Booker said after the same game. "I've seen a lot of fan bases. I've been everywhere. Just like (Cauley-Stein) said, half of our fans on away games, you see the blue in there when we first get in. They get in before all the other fans. Like I said, just (the) best fans in America."
Though all the tricks of the trade aren't known in terms of how UK fans are getting these tickets, one known method is done through disguise.
In today's day and age, many opposing fans will choose not to sell their tickets to UK fans because they don't want their own fan base to be outnumbered at home - or at a neutral-site venue such as the Final Four in Indianapolis. So what do UK fans do? Naturally, they buy opposing team gear and put that on as a disguise.
"They know not to wear blue when they're trying to get tickets," Coach Cal said. "They have to wear red, orange, another color. People don't want to sell them their tickets. They figure out ways of getting in. They don't tell, because it's a secret. They don't tell anybody. No one knows. How in the world are they getting these tickets?"
The origin of this madness started, Coach Cal says, back in the early years of the UK basketball program, when legendary head coach Adolph Rupp took on any opponent, at any location, at any time. The fans thus took great pride in all of the wins and championships that were filling the trophy cases and record books.
"He came in and established a program out of nothing," Calipari said of Rupp.
At times, UK fans have gotten a bad rap from outsiders who say they can be too passionate and sometimes unrealistic. Coach Cal doesn't completely see it that way, though.
"If I have to deal with their expectations, I would be under the desk in a fetal position," Coach Cal said. "So I don't worry.
"Everybody says, 'Well, you got to win a national title.' No, you got to be significant. They want you in the conversation. I've been here now six years. 'You got to win it or...' No. They'd like you to win it now, they'll be depressed if you don't for maybe a month. But they want (to be) in the conversation. They want (to be) in the conversation in recruiting. They want (to be) in the conversation when you're talking one of the best teams. If they thought you should win it every year, we'd have 125 national titles. Doesn't happen. And they know that."
At Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this weekend, UK fans will hope their beloved Cats can bring home their ninth national title, inching them to within two of UCLA for the most in college basketball history - yet another accolade they would love to tout, and would certainly put a smile on their face.
"Just enjoy all this because that's what we all should be doing," Coach Cal said on his weekly call-in show Monday evening. "Because when this is over, it's over, and only memories. Right now we're living it, so enjoy yourself, have a ball. This team deserves your great karma and prayers and all that you're sending their way. Believe me, they feel all that stuff."
Two days after Kentucky's first scrimmage of the spring, the Wildcats returned to the practice field on Monday.
Mark Stoops called UK's work on Monday decent, saying the Cats took some time to get their feet under them for the morning practice.
"Started a little sluggish, had to get them going a little bit," Stoops said. "Once we picked up the tempo I thought execution got a little bit better. Defensively probably had a little bit better day today than the offense but got some good work in."
That was a departure from Saturday's scrimmage, when the offense had the upper hand with a number of big plays. In further film review over the weekend, the offense looked as good at it did live.
"I really felt like we did a very good job, for six practices in, offensively," Stoops said. "We had a few pre-snap penalties, a couple holds and like you would anticipate, a few sloppy plays here and there. But overall, the execution and the amount of plays and the versatility of our plays, I thought they were very effective. And I think that's part of the beauty about what Coach Shannon (Dawson) does offensively, keeping it simple within certain personnel matchups."
Dawson was similarly pleased with the Saturday scrimmage, and the same is true about the spring as a whole. In taking over as offensive coordinator for Neal Brown, Dawson hasn't seen as many of the growing pains as he expected.
"We still, we busted a few things today, but overall we haven't really busted signals and everything," Dawson said. "It's been good. We busted a few, mental lapse, just coming out every day and competing at the same level. I thought we had a little lull today with that, but overall, the communication has been good; it hasn't been as frustrating as I thought it would be. Pleased with that."
UK will be back on the field for its eighth practice of the spring on Wednesday morning.
UK advanced to its fourth Final Four in five years with a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Needless to say that in a game featuring 20 lead changes and a dozen ties, things got a bit tense.
Add in that a Final Four bid was on the line and Kentucky was trying to maintain its perfect record, and, well, you have what we saw Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena.
It was a game to remember whether you're a fan of the Wildcats (38-0) or the Irish (32-6), and it was one that featured a number of timely plays by Kentucky in order for the Cats to come through with their 38th victory of the year.
"We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you, and it was nice to see how it finished for these kids," UK head coach John Calipari said.
Trailing by six points with 6:10 left on the clock, Kentucky's quest for a ninth title banner and fourth trip to the Final Four in the last five years was very much in jeopardy. Over that final stretch, five plays stood out in particular.
Tyler Ulis hits a 3-pointer in the corner
Kentucky came out of a 30-second timeout with 6:10 showing on the clock facing its biggest deficit of the game at 59-53.
Freshman guard Tyler Ulis brought the ball up the court and passed it to forward Karl-Anthony Towns outside the 3-point arc. Towns then handed it back to Ulis as the two worked off each other on the right side of the court by the UK bench. After Ulis bounced an entry pass back to the 6-foot-11 freshman on the right block he darted to the corner. When Towns kicked it back out to him there was no hesitation on what to do.
"The whole bench was yelling at me, 'shoot the ball, shoot the ball,' when Karl had it, so I knew I had to knock it down," Ulis said.
The 3-pointer cut UK's deficit in half, and while Zach Auguste would hit a layup for the Irish on the next possession, it was the confidence that Ulis' 3-pointer gave the Cats that carried through and helped swing the momentum back in UK's favor.
"We had to have the 3 by Tyler," Coach Cal said.
Aaron Harrison returns to heroic role with deep 3-pointer
Aaron Harrison has a knack for the dramatic when the calendar flips to March. This much we all know. But after three straight double-digit victories to open the NCAA Tournament, UK had not needed to call on the sophomore sharpshooter in the 2015 Dance to rescue them in a dire situation.
Then Saturday happened.
Trailing 63-61, Aaron Harrison got a pass from Ulis, who immediately pointed toward the basket, or perhaps it was the shot clock that had six seconds showing. Either way, Aaron Harrison didn't hesitate and ripped the net from well beyond NBA 3-point range to give Kentucky its first lead in nearly 12 minutes of game time.
"It was exciting," Aaron Harrison said. "It's always cool when you hit a big shot to see your team's reaction. I just looked over at my bench and I was just happy. I was excited."
"That was a deep shot," his twin brother, Andrew, said. "I mean, it's Aaron. So y'all know what to expect from him."
"Aaron's 3 was huge for us," Ulis said. "It put us up one and he pulled it from deep and that's what he does. He did it, what, three times last year and the kid, he just makes big shots."
Willie Cauley-Stein wins All-America matchup with blocked shot
It was only fitting that the best defensive team in the country had perhaps the biggest play of the game on the defensive end.
With the game tied at 66-all and less than a minute showing on the clock, Notre Dame senior All-American Jerian Grant was matched up with UK junior All-American Willie Cauley-Stein. The Irish's leading scorer vs. the Cats' top defender with a Final Four berth awaiting the winner.
Standing just to the left of the top of the key, Grant did the move that had worked so many times earlier in the night with a quick drive and step back as he attempted a long 3.
"His step-back is vicious," Cauley-Stein said. "It's probably one of the coldest step-backs I've guarded."
The 7-foot tall Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year didn't bite too hard on the drive this time though and with his long wingspan was able to tip Grant's 3-point attempt, causing the ball to float harmlessly into the air like a wounded duck. The two teams then battled to gain possession of the blocked shot, knocking it out of bounds with one second left on the shot clock.
"I had no idea that I was even close to it to block it and I barely tipped it," Cauley-Stein said. "I got my fingertips on it. Dude is crazy. His step-back is probably one of the fastest step-backs that I've guarded and he's good at it. He knows how to set you up to get just enough space and I'm fortunate enough to have even gotten my fingertips on it."
"No other player in the country," Ulis said. "He's 7-foot. The Grant kid, he's really good, he's a great player. He was beating us off the dribble a lot. He hit him with a move, step-back, Willie read it perfectly and blocked the shot, which was the biggest play of the game actually."
Kentucky would then steal the inbounds pass on that final second opportunity and not allow Notre Dame to get a shot off. The sequence gave UK possession with 33.6 seconds to play, the shot clock turned off and the game tied. It also set up the next big play in the game, as a different Harrison showed how strong his nerves are.
Andrew Harrison sinks two game-winning free throws
Knowing he could hold the ball for the final shot of the game, point guard Andrew Harrison waited until there was less than 10 seconds showing before he drove toward the basket.
The 6-6 guard drove hard to the basket and after recognizing Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson beginning to establish his position, Andrew Harrison side stepped, forcing Jackson to move and thus get the block call.
"Andrew tried to avoid him, which made him move instead of just jumping, which is something we do work on a lot but he's been great at," Coach Cal said.
Drawing a foul in a tie game with six seconds left is great, but then making one or both of the ensuing free throws is a whole other task. Luckily for Kentucky, Andrew Harrison was up for it.
"It's usually Aaron making the shots and stuff like that," Andrew Harrison said. "I'm just glad I could make the free throws.
"You had to block out everything. I don't even know what I was thinking at that time. You just block out everything, try to make the shot."
"I didn't look at the first one," his twin brother, Aaron, said. "I tried to look away at the first one. And then when he hit the first one, I knew he was going to make it. I think the first one was the toughest. I had confidence in him, of course." UK swarms Jerian Grant on final possession
After Andrew Harrison's free throws the Cats led by two and had one timeout remaining, while Notre Dame did not have any. Coach Cal was faced with the decision: Call timeout and set up a defense, but also allow Notre Dame to set up a play; or let the players play it out?
"They didn't have a timeout, and I wasn't going to call one," Coach Cal said. "You guys know how I am. I wasn't (going) to call one and let Mike (Brey) design something crazy, so we weren't going to call a timeout."
Notre Dame inbounded the ball to Grant, who ran the length of the court, streaking down the left sideline with Cauley-Stein matching him step for step. Once Grant got to the corner he paused for Cauley-Stein to run by, but then had to double clutch in the air as Andrew Harrison followed closely behind on the side. Then, with 6-10 Trey Lyles guarding in front of him, Grant had to heave up a desperate 3 that appeared to be on target but sailed too long.
For the game, Kentucky trailed for 21:51, but five plays spanning the final six minutes helped push UK out of a hole and into the Final Four.
"I mean, I think we just focused," Aaron Harrison said. "When our back's against the wall, we do what we have to do to win the game."
UK overcame a six-point deficit with less than six minutes to play against Notre Dame to advance to the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - The way the Cats closed out, there was surely never any doubt in their mind they would come back and win.
Kentucky was too poised, too confident, too good down the stretch for it to be any other way, right?
"Heck no," Aaron Harrison said.
Andrew Harrison, meanwhile, couldn't help but turn to a higher power in the final minutes of Kentucky's 68-66 win over Notre Dame to reach a fourth Final Four in five seasons.
"I was praying on the bench, man," he said. "I was praying. I don't know. I'm just happy we won. They're a great team. They really outplayed us in some aspects of the game."
Through three-quarters of the game, that was certainly the case.
Notre Dame held a six-point lead with less than six minutes to go. The Fighting Irish were the aggressors and the unbeaten season was very much in peril. For really the first time all year, UK seemed on its heels.
"I said you're playing too cool," John Calipari said, recalling his halftime message. "It's hard to be loose when the other team is playing harder than you."
Perhaps even more than its waves of depth and mountain of talent, this Kentucky team has been remarkable for its ability to stay in the moment. Whether the Cats have faced a nonconference home game, a Southeastern Conference road contest or a win-or-go-home NCAA Tournament matchup, they've been focused solely on the task at hand.
For 34 minutes, that changed.
"I don't know about tight," Aaron Harrison said, "but maybe I think we were looking ahead a little bit because we just want to win it all so bad and maybe we just weren't focused on today as much we should have been."
And all of a sudden, the Cats had their backs against a wall.
"When we was down and it felt like all the momentum was their way and you feel this pressure," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You're making mistakes and Coach is yelling at you and you look up and there's seven minutes left and I'm like, 'I thought there was a minute left.' The pressure was on you and you gotta kinda settle back down and make sure you're playing loose and making sure your team's together."
Just like the Harrison twins admitted doubt crept into their minds, Cauley-Stein is comfortable saying it felt briefly like the magical run might be ending. It only took a second for that to flip.
"I did (feel like UK might lose) when there was about seven minutes left and then I realized there's seven minutes left, like this is what we do," Cauley-Stein said. "If we can get it tied again there's no doubt in my mind that we win it."
Coach Cal set the tone for that.
"My mind is never on we may lose," Calipari said. "My whole mindset all the time is how are we going to win, how do we win this game. That's all I keep saying to myself, how do we win the game. I want them to know we're not playing not to lose; we play to win."
Following their coach's lead, the Cats unleashed a 15-7 run to close the game. They overcame the best per-possession offensive output by an opponent of the season by making their final nine shots and scoring 24 points on their final 13 trips.
"When it's time to win we really want to win, that we can do it when we want to," said Tyler Ulis, who drilled a huge 3 when UK trailed by six. "We gotta be ready, we gotta play like that the entire game. We always at the end of games say we need five stops, five stops, but this game it didn't work out like that. They kept making buckets and we just had to make plays on the other end."
The Cats did, and now they'll dance on and into Final Four showdown with Wisconsin next Saturday in Indianapolis.
"They did enough, and they wanted to win, they do have a will to win, and I know that," Calipari said. "I know that, I've coached them, I know they'll make plays. It's just a matter of you have to keep the game close enough so they can."