UK will face Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Lindsay Travis contributed to this feature.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They won big, but they weren't thrilled with how they did it.
For the Kentucky Wildcats (35-0), each game is a battle against themselves. Up big? Doesn't matter, what can we do to get better? How can everyone individually improve their game to then raise the overall level of the team? That's the mindset this bunch has, and it's clearly worked all season.
"In this locker room it's the same if you're up 50 or you're down 10," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "Coach is always yelling at you to do better and that's what makes us great. We're always trying to push each other to do better no matter what the score is."
Top-seeded Kentucky led 16th seeded Hampton by 35 points Thursday night with 12:43 remaining in the game. From there, Hampton outscored Kentucky 28-16. Obviously, it was too little, too late, but it bookended a game that saw Kentucky hit just two of its first nine shots and five of its first 15.
"We did some good things, we did some bad things," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
The good included a +20 advantage on the boards against a much smaller and overpowered opponent. Similarly, Kentucky outscored the Pirates 44-20 in the paint. The Cats dished out 15 assists while holding Hampton to just two, and had another solid performance at the foul line, converting 20 of 28 attempts.
The bad included a sluggish start that was partly attributable to the Cats not tipping off until approximately 10:18 p.m., thanks to the game before theirs going to overtime, forcing UK to wait in the tunnel and locker room in anticipation of what had already been a very long day of waiting around.
The bad things for Kentucky also included taking its foot off the gas in the second half, a lesson head coach John Calipari has preached to his team, and one that seems to have been heard.
"You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a 2-point game," Coach Cal said. "What just happened? You broke down on two pick-and-rolls defensively, and then someone fouled, didn't need to, and then all of a sudden, they make a play, and it's a 2-point game."
"Something you can take away is that no game is ever over, no matter what the score is," Lee said. "That's something you have to go with and you always have to battle throughout the whole game. You can't just assume you're going to win."
With all of that said, Kentucky did win its opening game of the Big Dance by 23 points and was able to unload its entire bench. Certainly it was a stark contrast to the other three games played in the KFC Yum! Center that day which were each decided by a single point, an NCAA Tournament record for one venue in a single day.
Would Coach Cal, have liked to have maintained that 35-point lead throughout the remainder of the game or even strengthened it? Sure, but he knows that's not always going to happen, especially when he's leading the youngest team in the entire tournament field.
"We held them to 30 percent (shooting from the field) and 25 (percent) from the 3," Coach Cal said. "We fouled way too much today, but like I told the staff, you get up 35, it's hard. It's hard."
Back to the basics for Booker
When Devin Booker came to Kentucky and first started playing with this team he just wanted to figure out how he'd fit in. Fast forward 35 games and the freshman knows what his role is: a shooter.
Booker started the season in a shooting slump but after coming back from an injury he hit a streak that left many anxiously waiting for each reloaded 3. In a seven-game stretch from Dec. 13-Jan. 17, Booker hit 71.4 percent of his shots from deep. Add in the next four games, two where he didn't hit a trey, and his shooting percentage was still 65.8 percent.
Since the Cats played at Georgia on March 3, the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year hasn't hit more than two 3s in a game. But all of that could of course change in the blink of an eye.
During the SEC Coaches' Teleconference prior to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Cal predicted that Booker would get back to his old ways of playing, his old ways of shooting.
"Devin has to step up a little bit, but this has been a thing," Calipari said. "I think you'll see Devin in the tournament get back to the way he was playing, losing himself in the game. I think there are times he's thinking a little too much because he played so well the expectation was that every shot was going to go in."
For the freshman, it's not that he lacks confidence necessarily, it's that he's frustrated.
"As long as we're winning, I'm fine," Booker said, "but if I'm frustrated it's I'm frustrated with myself because I'm not playing the way that I work so hard to play. If there's frustration it's in myself, if anything."
Shooters just keep shooting and Booker knows that's what he has to do, along with getting back to the basics of his game.
"I just have to get back to fundamentals," he said Thursday night. "I just have to have more confidence in my shot and keep doing what I was doing through the middle of the season. I feel like the next game I'll knock down those shots."
His teammates know that he'll knock down those shots too.
"There are some guys like me, Aaron, Book, we weren't hitting on the offensive side, so obviously you're going to be down on yourself for that," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "... (Aaron Harrison and Booker), those dudes hit shots all the time. Today they're not hitting. Hopefully Saturday they're hitting."
'They swear I'm Superman or something'
At times this season, Cauley-Stein's athleticism has seemed to be out of this world.
It's not just that the 7-footer can guard all five positions on the floor, including limiting second team All-SEC point guard K.T. Harrell to 1-of-12 shooting, it's the dunks he's thrown down too.
Oh, those dunks.
Against Florida, Cauley-Stein got the feed from Andrew Harrison and took off for one of the best dunks of the entire college basketball season. One game later, Cauley-Stein could have opened up his own personal poster business with the number of jams he threw down at the expense of LSU defenders.
"I still like the whole criticism is, 'I'm soft,' or something like that, so I'm just going to start dunking on people," Cauley-Stein said after Kentucky's 34-point rout of South Carolina on Valentine's Day. "I don't see how you can call me soft if I'm just dunking on people, so that's my whole mentality going into games now."
On Thursday night against 16th seeded Hampton, that mentality was missing, and the result were a few missed bunnies that had Big Blue Nation scratching its collective head.
"They swear I'm Superman or something and I can just fly over everybody," the Olathe, Kan., native said. "I mean, a lot of it I probably could, but you're not thinking of it like that. You're not thinking you can just jump over somebody and dunk it until you actually do it and you're just like, 'OK, well maybe I could do that.' "
That's not to say Cauley-Stein is down on himself. Though he finished 1 for 5 from the floor, he did score seven points, grab a team-high tying 11 rebounds, dish out two assists and block two shots. The missed shots, they'll happen, for Cauley-Stein it's about wiping the slate clean and moving on to the next one.
The example he used after the game went back to just one week prior at the SEC Tournament in Nashville. In the Wildcats' opening game against Florida, Cauley-Stein went 2 for 9 with nine points and four rebounds. He then followed that disappointing performance with 18 points and seven boards against Auburn in the semifinals, 15 points and 10 rebounds against Arkansas in the championship, and SEC Tournament MVP honors when all was said and done.
"You miss four one-footers that you should probably dunk, OK, but I didn't, so you miss some," Cauley-Stein said. "To me, I'm not looking at it, I'm not killing myself on it because I know I'm going to make them. I just happened to miss them tonight." Getting physical
There's no question that UK has a size advantage at some position in every game they play. When you've got the tallest basketball team in the country that's not all too surprising.
So how do other teams keep their heads above water when facing off with a team fans have compared to the MonStars from Space Jam?
"Teams are going to do whatever they need to do to try to stay with us and try to compete with us," sophomore forward Dakari Johnson said. "And I do think they're going to try to be physical with us, maybe try to get us out of our heads. But we do a good job controlling that and just being physical back."
The Cats aren't unaccustomed to teams trying to push them around a bit. Case in point: Auburn's 7-foot-2 Trayvon Reed getting chippy with 5-9 Tyler Ulis in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Between league play and practice, they're pretty familiar with it.
"We're from the SEC so we're kind of use to that with huge bodies," Lee said. "I guess you can see they were really trying to do something like that, but we're kind of used to it."
"In practice we're going at each other too and we're being physical with each other too, so we're prepared for those (things) during the games," Johnson said.
Following the SEC Tournament semifinals, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talked about the type of team it would take to beat the, so far, undefeated Cats.
"I think it would need to be a team that would be a big physical club that could be able to withstand their size and their dominance," Pearl said. "It would have to be a great team."
Teams like Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M had enough size to hang with UK, according to Pearl. Those teams each gave the Cats some of their closest contests of the season, with the Rebels and Aggies taking the No. 1 team in the country into overtime and double overtime, respectively.
The Cats know they'll get their opponents' best games and if the opponent starts a slugfest, Booker thinks it'll help push UK to play their best ball.
"A lot of teams have tried that, but we know how to respond to that," he said. "I think that brings the best (out) of us when teams try to be the aggressor first."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 21 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Hampton in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - None of the Wildcats, among Kentucky's active rotation, had ever won an NCAA Tournament game by more than seven points.
Check another first off the list.
It may not have started how many were thinking it would, but it certainly got to that point by the final buzzer as Kentucky cruised to a 79-56 victory over 16th seeded Hampton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I didn't like how we started the game. I didn't quite like how we finished the game. But it is one o'clock at night, and we had an overtime game where the guys were hanging out in the locker room for an hour and a half. So I'm going to chalk it up to that and move on."
The game Calipari was referring to was the Cincinnati-Purdue matchup that occurred directly before the Cats' game, pushing an originally scheduled 9:40 p.m. tipoff back to 10:18 p.m.
The late night start was no problem for freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who shined for Kentucky (35-0) by scoring a career-high 21 points, grabbing a team-high tying 11 rebounds and blocking three shots. It was the team-leading eighth double-double this season for the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, and further cemented his role as one of Kentucky's go-to scorers.
"(He) played special," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "I'm not surprised at all. I know what Karl's capable of and everyone's seeing it now, that he's basically unstoppable down there."
Facing a team of Hampton's height, whose tallest player was 6-foot-9, Towns showed off his patented baby hook, grabbed rebounds over others, and overpowered just about everyone in his way.
"Karl played really good," Cauley-Stein said. "Had really good touch around the rim today. We could just throw it to him every time. Until they start double-teaming or doing something we were going to continue to throw it in there."
The largest margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament for Kentucky dating back to the 2013 season was UK's seven-point victory over Kansas State in last year's second round. Since then, the Cats had tournament wins of two points, five points, three points, one point and a six-point loss in the national championship to Connecticut.
Thursday's 23-point win, therefore, was a welcome development for these Cats. Kentucky led by as many as 35 with 12:43 remaining in the game, and more or less grinded it out for the remainder of the contest, working on sets and execution in preparation for their next game Saturday.
"Anytime you don't have to play a nail biter is good," Cauley-Stein said. "I hate them. I'm glad we were up by so much because nail biters are not good for my heart."
Early in the first half it didn't necessarily look like it could be a nail biter, but it certainly didn't look like Kentucky's best version of itself.
The Wildcats led just 13-11 with 13:09 remaining in the first half, but then put their feet on the gas by going on a 19-3 run in which they allowed just one made field goal in 9:48 of game time to take a 32-14 lead. Kentucky would later enter the halftime locker room leading 41-22, and the only thing left in question being the final margin of victory.
"We have so many waves of dudes that come in, and they don't get to do their normal stuff," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming in with seven-footers and not being able to shoot shots over bigger defenders. Just the fact that we take them out of their element that they're not used to, it probably grinds them out."
On a day that saw an NCAA Tournament record five games decided by one point, the Cats didn't want to raise that number to six. The players said afterward that they saw the close games and upsets play out during the day as they waited for their game, and it got their full attention.
"Anything can happen," Cauley-Stein said. "They could have come out and all of them just clip 3s on us. Stuff happens like that."
"We know every team is fighting for the last win in March so we have to go in with that mindset and that's what we've been doing and Coach has been stressing that to us every game," Booker said.
Up next for the Cats is a third-round matchup against Cincinnati (23-10) on Saturday at approximately 2:40 p.m. While the Cats say they don't know much about the Bearcats outside of the few minutes they watched in the tunnel Thursday night, Coach Cal said he does think Cincinnati will have something in mind if they watched UK play against Hampton.
"If there are points in this game they watch tonight, they probably have in their mind, we can beat these guys," Calipari said. "The we know every team we play comes in with the idea, I'm telling you we can beat them, and we deal with that every time we play, and I imagine Cincy will come in with the same thing."
Andrew Harrison had 14 points as UK opened the NCAA Tournament with a 79-56 win over Hampton on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky had waited all season long for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday morning, the Wildcats woke up and it was here.
It was like Christmas morning, only the Cats had to wait all day to run down the stairs and open their presents for a scheduled 9:40 p.m. start.
"It was really difficult just to be so excited to play and then you have to wait all day and pretty much all night too," Aaron Harrison said.
The wait was almost over as the Cats stood in the tunnel outside their KFC Yum! Center locker room. They watched the final seconds of a matchup between Cincinnati and Purdue tick down, only for the Bearcats' Troy Caupain to hit a game-tying layup as time expired to send the game to overtime.
The presents would have to wait even longer.
"To be honest, we're just all in the locker room stretching, talking, trying to keep each other loose," said Andrew Harrison, who drew playful jabs from teammates after predicting the extra session.
Finally, Cincinnati would pull out the win and Kentucky's second-round matchup with Hampton could begin. When it did at 10:18 p.m., all the anticipation turned into, well, coal.
"We've been excited to play all day and I think it just got that moment and we didn't have a lot of energy," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just tough to wait all day to play."
In spite of the relative dud of a start, the top-seeded Wildcats (35-0) took down Hampton, 79-56, to set up a showdown with those eighth-seeded Bearcats at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday. They still weren't content with the way they played.
"We played really sluggish and just didn't have enough energy, I think," said Aaron Harrison, who missed all five of his field goals and scored three points in an uncharacteristically pedestrian NCAA Tournament performance. "We're of course a young team. We might have not come into the game as focused as we should have."
The Cats started the game 8 of 23 from the field and led by single digits until Karl-Anthony Towns - who was the standout for UK with a career-high 21 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks - scored with 5:36 before halftime. The juice that the Cats have come to be known for in blitzing through this college basketball season, outside a crippling 14-0 run to build a 19-point halftime lead, was just never there even though UK led by as many as 35.
The lack of focus, to John Calipari, did not come as a shock.
"You sit in the locker room that long, you kind of know that can happen," Calipari said.
Readily explainable as it may have been, it's unacceptable in his eyes. From this point forward, the games only get tougher. Future opponents, starting with Cincinnati, will be eager to pounce if the Cats suffer a similar lapse.
"One of the things I talked to them after, you're not going to do this on their terms. You can't start games like this," Calipari said. "You can't do things that we talk about every day and you choose to do something else. You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a two-point game."
Hampton was never able to make it a game in that way, as UK won its fifth game in a row by double digits and 28th overall. In spite of that, there was a distinct feeling that the Cats had played a subpar game from most anyone who watched. That's a high standard to live up to, but the Cats don't mind it.
"Not only is it everybody else around, we should expect that out of ourselves too," Devin Booker said. "Coach expects that out of us. He came in here and told us we didn't play our best game and if we keep playing like that it's going to be trouble. We're just focusing on coming out first and being the aggressor."
Booker scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, continuing a six-game slump during which he's scored in double figures once and shot 11 of 34 from the field. As ready as Booker might be to return to the sweet-shooting form he showed for much of the season, that kind of thing isn't what Coach Cal is thinking about when he says the Cats played short of their potential.
Shots will miss and shots will fall, but UK cannot get away from what makes it special.
"You can't do stuff on your terms," Calipari said. "You've got to follow the script. Here's how we play. This is what we do. Here's the energy we play with. And we're able to play enough people that, OK, we start the game slow. I may sub earlier. I see it Saturday, I may sub one minute in. Let's go, need more energy. I think these guys will be fine."
So does Aaron Harrison.
"I expected a lot more out of us and I expected a lot more out of myself," he said. "I should have played a lot better as well. But I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely."
UK held an open practice on Wednesday in the KFC Yum! Center attended by thousands of fans. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky guards Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone started against Florida on Senior Day. It was supposed to be the last home game for UK's three walk-ons, with the emphasis on supposed to be.
If you closed your eyes while in Bridgestone Arena during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, or during Wednesday's open practice at the KFC Yum! Center, you would have thought you were in Rupp Arena.
Blue has gotten in and blue has made itself heard.
"Our fans follow us pretty much everywhere we go," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "So they make it kind of home for wherever we go."
In Nashville, Bridgestone Arena was painted in blue with UK fans descending on the Music City and turning it into Lexington South. In the championship game, a Bridgestone Arena record was set for an SEC Tournament game, as 20,315 fans, mostly dressed in blue, cheered on the Cats.
"I mean, this (SEC Tournament), it was crazy," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I mean there were 97 percent Kentucky fans in that building. What? And they said 10,000 came to the opening games because they couldn't get tickets to our games. So they just bought tickets and went to the opening games to be a part of the thing. Which is great for the SEC and our fans, but I say it again, it's like Woo. But I would expect we'll have a pretty good crowd."
He was right.
When Kentucky took the floor for its open practice Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center, the entire lower bowl was filled with UK fans, as they chanted "Blue, White!" and "Go Big Blue!" consistently throughout the 40-minute glorified shootaround. When a Louisville fan made his way into the arena, boos showered down so loud that freshman guard Tyler Ulis stopped shooting free throws to turn around and see what was going on.
When it was announced Kentucky would play its opening game of the tournament in nearby Louisville, many of the players were asked how they felt about that. Most said it was cool, but that it didn't matter where they played, Big Blue Nation would be there.
"Our fans would still travel even if we played in California," Cauley-Stein said. "They would still be there. It just makes it a lot easier on them I guess."
In regards to them, personally, as players, the Cats said playing in a familiar gym, one where they've experienced success this year already, was a nice perk as well.
"We've all played in this gym, so we're used to it already," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "That, combined with our fan base, it's basically a home game for us." Harrisons shifting gear in March, again
It's March, so that means the Harrison twins are shifting their games into a higher gear again.
One year after point guard Andrew Harrison reaped the benefits of Coach Cal's famous "tweak" to help lead his team to the national championship game, and his twin brother, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, hit three of the bigger shots in UK's postseason history, the backcourt duo is at again in 2015.
Andrew actually heightened his game a month early this season, scoring 11.8 points and dishing out 3.5 assists per game to just 16 total turnovers (2.8 assist-turnover ratio) since the calendar turned to February. Aaron, meanwhile, is averaging 12.2 points per game in March and hitting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, a stark improvement from his February averages of 10.3 points per game and 22.0 percent shooting from distance.
"I think just a competitive switch flips," Cauley-Stein said of the twins. "Knowing without them we're not gonna be able to do this without them and they know that, so they have to play a way that Coach set out for them to play and they know how to play."
For Andrew, that way to play is with high energy and an aggression to attack the lane. When he's doing that, the Cats' offense, including both the guards and the bigs, excels. Coach Cal also stresses a positive mindset and outlook, which includes strong body language.
"It's a spirit," Coach Cal said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play. He doesn't stop on the court. There's nothing. I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled."
And his teammates notice as well.
"We feed off their energy and Coach harps on it," Cauley-Stein said. "If their energy is bad then the whole team's energy is not good. When they're playing with high energy and a lot of effort, doing the things that they do, everybody benefits from it."
For Aaron, March brings about a time to step up to the main stage, a place where he thrives under the bright lights and high pressure situations. While the 6-foot-6 guard from Richmond, Texas, has shown this season that it doesn't have to be March for him to put the team on his back in a tight game, last season's run gave him the knowledge that he can do it again this year if needed.
"It really helped my confidence, and also my teammates' confidence just to go out there and be able to beat the best teams in the country even though we had an up and down year," Aaron Harrison said. "That was really helpful.
"Hopefully we don't have a game that close, but if we do, if Coach wants to give me the ball I think I'll be confident enough to hit the shot for us."
UK keeping focus internal
As Guy Ramsey wrote Wednesday, Kentucky is not straying away from what got it to this point. Part of that includes continuing to play against themselves each game, rather than against their opponent.
That, however, doesn't mean the Cats are overlooking their 16th-seeded opponent, Hampton (17-17). UK has done this all season long, and it's part of how they've been able to get to 34-0. They're not only playing against themselves during the games, they do it in the pregame as well.
Kentucky doesn't spend days on scouting its opponent. Typically, the players don't see tape of their opponent until their pregame meal. Asked Wednesday what he knows about the Pirates, freshman forward Trey Lyles said he knew nothing yet.
"But I'm sure the coaches do and we're going to get a lot of information from them," Lyles said.
Keys for the Cats will remain the same for this game as all games, come out with energy and attempt to maintain that energy for all 40 minutes. If Coach Cal sees a decrease, subs, or reinforcements as he calls them, will be ready.
"We just gotta come out with a lot of energy because we know they're going to come after us like every other team this year has and we just gotta be prepared for it," Lyles said.
One nice change of pace for the Cats will be seeing a team on the other side of the court that doesn't have an "SEC" patch on its jersey. After going through a tough and physical 18-game SEC schedule and three-game SEC Tournament, the Cats will face an out of conference opponent for the first time since Dec. 27, when they defeated Louisville in this very gym.
During the non-conference portion of its schedule, Kentucky outscored its opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game (75.8-50.1). Facing an opponent that isn't as familiar with UK's players and schemes will be a welcome change of pace, Aaron Harrison said.
"I think the SEC teams are a little tougher because they've played us so many times, and they're more physical," Aaron Harrison said. "They're a lot more prepared than the other teams are."
UK held an open practice at the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Calipari has good reason to have faith in his team.
He's got 34 games worth of proof that the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament won't get to Kentucky.
"I think they see what's happening for each other, and I think they'll stay the course," Calipari said.
With each passing stage, however, the spotlight will shine brighter. Already, the media throng following the top-seeded Wildcats (34-0) has expanded from its regular-season size ahead of a matchup with 16th-seeded Hampton (17-17), and it's only the second round.
That's why, in spite of all the evidence suggesting it's not necessary, Coach Cal will be on guard.
"But believe me, I'll be feeling the pulse every day," Calipari said.
Not only is he feeling the pulse, he's also hammering home his message about keeping the clutter away every day. The Cats' unselfish approach has worked too well so far to do anything else.
"I stopped them today when we practiced," Calipari said. "Don't be changing now. Don't. No, no, no, no, no. You stay on the path you're on. Don't let someone tell you now is the time to go crazy. Don't do that. Just be the best version of you right now, and that's good enough."
With the Cats set to start their NCAA Tournament run on Thursday at approximately 9:40 p.m., consider the message received.
"You just gotta stay with what got you here," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Act like how you did before all the success happened. As a group, we don't really listen to it. We know what got us here and we know it was work and defense, so we got to stay on that."
Calipari has drawn deserved praise for the work he's done in inspiring his players to reach toward their potential. He's been named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year by both league media and coaches and is a finalist for national honors, recognition he surely appreciates.
He'd still rather the recognition go to his players.
"Everybody saying, it's got to be the toughest job of getting these kids to play with their egos," Calipari said. "They talk about their egos. These kids are just great kids, and I'm coaching them hard."
And they just keep responding, sacrificing and, most of all, winning.
"My job is to help them be the best version of themselves," Calipari said. "Now, they have gotten the point that, if they don't do this together, they're hurting each other, and they know that. I want every one of these kids to achieve. This that's going on, it's been a great story of every one of these kids giving up something to someone else on the team, all of them feeding off of one another, all of them having each other's back."
About 15 minutes before Calipari said that, Trey Lyles was sitting in a locker room at the KFC Yum! Center saying almost exactly the same thing. Who says teenagers don't listen?
"Just having everybody's back," Lyles said. "Everybody being there for one another. Having a brotherhood on and off the court. We know if one guy's not playing well somebody else is going to step up. That's just the thing of--like Coach said--the strength is in the pack."
It's that strength that the Cats believe will carry them through the NCAA Tournament, though they know challenges lay ahead, as well as off nights for all of UK's nine regular rotation players.
"They don't have to play great every night, and they don't, but someone seems to do something to help us win," Calipari said. "So you're not under the pressure of I've got to be great tonight. No, you don't. Prepare to be great, but you're not a machine. You're not a computer. Be the best you can be."
The hope is that will carry UK to a national championship come April 6, which would mean the first 40-0 season in NCAA history. Talk of a perfect season for UK has consumed the college basketball world, spurring unprecedented national and local attention for a program accustomed to being on center stage.
The Cats are happy the tournament has rendered their perfect mark essentially meaningless in their eyes and their opponents' as well.
"It doesn't really matter about the record anymore," Dakari Johnson said. "Every team is at 0-0. We've just got to come in and just play our hardest and just treat every game like, basically, as if every game is our last."
Once again, the Cats are counting on the pack to get that done.
"It's not that hard to stay in the moment with this team," Marcus Lee said. "As you see, we enjoy each other very much in everything we do, going through shootarounds or in practice. So with this team, it makes it very easy."
UK will face Hampton in the NCAA Tournament second round on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky hasn't lost since April 7, 2014, but that date is still very much on the minds of several Wildcat players to this day.
More than 11 months after falling to Connecticut by six points in the national championship game, the guy who made three historic shots to get the Cats to that point still thinks about it and admits it drives not only him, but his teammates as well.
"I think we have an edge because that is a chip on our shoulder that no one else feels in the tournament," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "Just to be so close to winning a national championship and coming up short, I think that will drive us a little bit in the tournament as well."
While the Cats (34-0) are the youngest team in the tournament field, they enter Thursday night's game vs. No. 16 seed Hampton (17-17) with vast tournament experience. Not only have they played in a national championship game before, they have won four tournament games decided in the final minute, and they have players who have hit game-winning baskets and made big-time plays.
That experience has been apparent during Kentucky's regular-season run. The Cats trailed with less than a minute to play against Ole Miss, but promptly stole the ball and sank a free throw to send the game to overtime. They also trailed by two points with six seconds to play in overtime at Texas A&M before Trey Lyles calmly sank both free-throw attempts to push the game to a second overtime.
"They play to win," Kentucky head coach John Calipari said. "They're not playing not to lose. But I'm going to say this: This tournament -- the good news for us, it's on everybody. Normally, it seems to be just on us. Now everybody's season is about to end one way or another. So everybody now, you could be up 15, and all of a sudden, you jam up a little bit like, uh-oh, what happens now? It's not like, hey, our season will keep going. Let's try to win this game. No, it isn't that way. This is a different deal for all of us."
And while if Kentucky finds itself in a close game in the Big Dance the pressure that will be placed on it will dwarf what other teams face, the Cats haven't yet shown any signs of feeling it.
After winning the Southeastern Conference Championship on Sunday, Marcus Lee took a camera and began filming one of his teammates. Earlier in the year, both he and freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns got in a playful wrestling match after barking back and forth during interviews.
"It's not that hard to stay in the moment with this team," Lee said. "As you see, we enjoy each other very much in everything we do, going through shootarounds or in practice."
The crazy thing is that had the Cats won the national championship last year, the 2014-15 season could very well be much different. Perhaps more players would have chosen to enter their name in the NBA Draft. Perhaps the edge the Cats have currently played with this season, and plan to play with in this tournament, would not quite be as sharp.
Willie Cauley-Stein has said he was planning on submitting his name to the NBA Draft last year if he had not gotten injured during the Cats' run to the finals. But, as he noted, everything happens for a reason.
With a number of sophomores and juniors who competed during last year's roller coaster season, and heart-stopping tournament run, the Cats' four rookies, who were all named to the SEC All-Freshman team by the league's 14 head coaches, have thrived.
Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker, in particular, have found the road their home away from home, especially in wins at Texas A&M, Alabama and Tennessee. At Mississippi State, Trey Lyles led Kentucky with a team-high 18 points, and at LSU and Georgia, Towns overcame mental mistakes to lead his team to victory down the stretch.
"The young guys, they do a good job in coming up in big games anyway," sophomore forward Dakari Johnson said. "I'm sure they'll be prepared for (the NCAA Tournament)."
"Coach Cal stressed it to us, how big these games are," Ulis said. "We'll be ready for it. We've had a lot of big games over the season. So we just can't wait."
It's not as though the Cats have entered this tournament or this season unprepared. From its Big Blue Bahamas Tour in August, to having Drake at Big Blue Madness, having Coach Cal's press conferences carried live on "SportsCenter" or several thousand show up for an open practice, Kentucky has been the talk of college basketball all year long.
But that's not to say UK's players mind it. That attention and target they've carried all season is part of what drives the Cats. That, and that loss on April 7, 2014.
"We love the big stage," Ulis said. "That's why we're here."
UK was tabbed a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament's Albany Regional on Monday night. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Matthew Mitchell looks at the bracket and understands what all the buzz is about.
He sees a potential Sweet 16 rivalry matchup with Louisville. He couldn't miss a possible Elite Eight showdown with Connecticut.
"As the storylines go, and just in the interest of that, there's some very intriguing matchups in the regional," Mitchell said.
The thing is, it doesn't mean much of anything right now.
"From a very important, practical matter, you just cannot, from a basketball team's perspective, concern yourself with that," Mitchell said.
UK (23-9) was tabbed the No. 2 seed in the Albany Regional with the Huskies and Cardinals as the No. 1 and 3 seeds, respectively. As tantalizing as the games may be, there are far more immediate tasks at hand as the Cats make their school-record sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
Namely a matchup with Tennessee State (18-12) at 2:30 p.m. on Friday.
It will be a rematch of a Dec. 28 game, which the Wildcats won by a margin of 87-75. The game took place in Memorial Coliseum, the same venue that will host Friday's first-round game.
"This is a really tough match because Tennessee State was in the game with us, there is no question about it," Mitchell said. "But we're excited to tip off 2:30 p.m. Friday afternoon."
For the second year in a row, UK will open the tournament at home. Last year, the Cats won the right to host as a result of a bid process. This time, it was based solely on their regular-season merits.
"This year, you had to earn it," Mitchell said. "To me, that's the thing that I'm most proud of, is that the players, through all of the early mornings and hard runs and weight-lifting sessions and tough practices and day after day after day, to be standing here at this point is something that I'm proud of them for."
2014-15 has been a year of adversity for the Cats, but ultimately achievement. UK had an impressive nonconference run, scoring wins over the likes of Louisville and Baylor, but injuries to Bria Goss and Janee Thompson helped precipitate a lull in Southeastern Conference play.
Less than a month ago, the Cats had lost three games in a row after a disheartening performance at Ole Miss on Feb. 23. But a few weeks and one meeting at Mitchell's house called by UK's seniors later, the Cats have won four of five, including an upset of NCAA Tournament No. 1 seed South Carolina on Senior Day.
"That Monday night when we got on that bus to drive to Memphis to fly home - one of the worst bus rides of my life - do you think anybody on paper thought that next Sunday you had a chance against South Carolina?" Mitchell said. "My point is that you're in control of how you play the game and they change their mindset in a very short period of time and beat a tough team at Arkansas, beat a really, really talented South Carolina team and then played three really tough games against tough competition (at the SEC Tournament)."
The ups and downs have made reaching this point even sweeter.
"Seeing our name up there as a No. 2 seed, you think about all the adversity we've been through and it was almost like a sigh of relief," Bria Goss said. "We're so excited to be in the position that we're in and we're going to take every opportunity to get better from here on out and not take any days off."
UK's final days off came in the week the Cats had to rest following an SEC Tournament semifinal loss to Tennessee on March 7. The time - for a team nursing bumps and bruises, most notably to sophomore point guard Makayla Epps - was well used.
"I think for us it was great mentally, emotionally and physically," Mitchell said. "The time off was good, and then the ability to really get back to focusing on what we do well. Our style of play needs some energy and being able to give them a little bit of time off and then come back energetic and really focusing on our transition game both offensively and defensively, focusing on our press - all of those hustle aspects."
If it sounds like the Cats are going back to their roots, that's no accident.
"We're just getting back to being an up-tempo, high-energy-type of team that we are," Bria Goss said. "It's been great practices. He's done a great job creating the practice plan. He and the assistant coaches and we've really been executing. Just getting back to a high tempo. We're going to carry it out for the tournament."
Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 114, Milwaukee Bucks: 103 Davis began his week with a prolific performance on the road at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee. The 6-foot-10 Chicago native poured in 43 points (on 17-of-23 shooting from the field and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line) and grabbed 10 rebounds, complemented by six assists, two blocks and a steal in Monday's win.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (34-33) Bledsoe averaged 19.3 points and 6.0 assists over three games last week. In Phoenix's lone win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 11, Bledsoe recorded 18 points, nine assists, two rebounds and one steal.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (22-43) Despite only one Kings victory in the face of three Sacramento losses, Cousins had a monstrous week on the stat sheet. Highlighted by a 39-point, 24-rebound performance in a 114-107 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on March 13, "Boogie" averaged 25.3 points and 14.5 rebounds over four games.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (36-29) After Monday's superstar outing, Davis finished Tuesday with 15 points, six rebounds, five assists and three blocks in NOLA's third consecutive win. Davis & Co. defeated the Brooklyn Nets 111-91 on the road.
Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (43-22) In only two Houston games last week, Jones posted two straight double-doubles. The Portland native finished with 17 points and 12 rebounds in a road loss to his hometown Trail Blazers on March 11, and 11 points and 10 rebounds in a 109-91 loss to the Utah Jazz on March 12 in Salt Lake City.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (36-29) Since being traded from the Jazz on February 19, Kanter has continued to thrive in his new environment. The Turkish big man averaged 20.7 points and 10.7 rebounds over three Thunder games last week, while OKC walked away with a 2-1 record.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (29-35) Before informing The Charlotte Observer that he wishes to be "the best defender this league has seen," (http://www.charlotteobserver.com/sports/nba/charlotte-hornets/article14415113.html) Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 13.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 1.0 steals over four Hornets games last week. The 21-year-old small forward's stretch was highlighted by 23 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal in Charlotte's 113-106 loss to Cousins' Kings on March 11.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (15-51) As 2014-15 comes to an end, Noel continues to make a serious push for NBA Rookie of the Year. The Massachusetts native averaged 13.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks over the past three Sixers contests.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (38-28) Including his latest 31-point, 12-assist showcase against his former college teammate Cousins and the Sacramento Kings on March 14, Wall averaged 22.3 points, 9.0 assists and 4.7 rebounds over three straight Wizards wins last week.
Kentucky opened its 2014-15 season against Grand Canyon on Nov. 14. At that point, every team's record was 0-0. More than four months later, the same is true again for Kentucky and 67 other teams.
The freshly crowned Southeastern Conference Tournament champion Kentucky Wildcats were named the No. 1 overall seed of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday evening. Kentucky earned that seed by going undefeated throughout the regular season, taking every team's best shot while also performing under the brightest media spotlight any college basketball team ever has.
Now everybody else gets to play with that pressure of avoiding a single loss.
"I've said it, now everybody has the same issues," UK head coach John Calipari said. "You lose, you go home. See, to play us before you live for another day. No. Now you're strapped up to the chair. OK, you lose this you're done. It's like, OK, we're all in the same boat, now how do you play? We have been in these dogfights, but it doesn't matter. All that aside, one game, one day, you gotta play."
Kentucky begins the postseason in the same position it began and ended the regular season: No. 1. That top-dog target UK has carried all year is still there, but the big difference is that the weighted jacket of being undefeated is now worn by all of UK's opponents.
Everybody is back at square one.
"Everybody is 0-0, including us, which is nice," Coach Cal said. "We don't have to worry about it now. We're all the same."
If dealing with pressure, scrutiny, skepticism and questions was a class, each Wildcat passed with flying colors. From the day Coach Cal dropped the mic at Big Blue Madness with hip-hop superstar Drake by his side and said "Let's ball," the Cats have balled harder than anybody else.
They've defeated top-10 teams on the road and in neutral-site venues, cruised through much of the SEC season without too much drama, and won every game in the SEC Tournament by at least 15 points.
"We did a lot of good things as a team," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said about the Cats' play in the SEC Tournament. "We're going to have a good week of practice and go into our game with a clear mind and ready to hoop."
First up for the Cats is a matchup against either Hampton or Manhattan, which will face off Tuesday in the first round of the tournament.
Hampton, though 16-17, earned an automatic bid into the tournament after winning the Mid Eastern Athletic Conference title. Meanwhile, Manhattan, coached by former Kentucky guard Steve Masiello, went 19-13 and won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
"You have teams that are 20-10 that could win the whole thing, 22-10 and they finish 28-10, win the national title," Coach Cal said. "What was Connecticut's record last year? I think it was 28-10."
Coach Cal's point is, your record going into the tournament has no bearing on your chances of winning it. The Cats' 34-0 record looks nice, but gives them no advantages when the ball is thrown up. For now, every team is 0-0.
And while the Cats have denied talks all year of trying to go undefeated, they can embrace the talk now. Coach Cal's goal has been to have eight or nine players drafted this June. The Cats' goal has been to win a national championship, and if they are to do that they will have to go 40-0.
"Now we have to go 40-0 and I want to go 40-0 and make history," Aaron Harrison said.
UK was tabbed the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
You wouldn't have blamed the Wildcats had they been swept up in the moment.
When the buzzer sounded on Kentucky's Southeastern Conference Tournament title game victory, confetti and streamers fell. A makeshift stage was erected and trophies appeared.
As a final step for the celebration, ladders emerged from the bowels of Bridgestone Arena, ready for players, coaches and staff to climb them and cut down the nets. The Cats politely passed.
"Those aren't the nets we're really looking to cut down," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was just a milestone. It's part of the process for us winning and everything, but we're looking for something bigger. We're looking to cut down a couple more nets in the tournament."
Less than three hours and a short flight home to Lexington later, the Cats learned the path they will have to take to Indianapolis to cut down those nets. UK, ranked No. 1 in both polls throughout a remarkable 34-0 run through the 2014-15 season, was tabbed the No. 1 overall seed in the Midwest Regional in one of the most anticlimactic announcements in Selection Show history.
"There are no surprises," Aaron Harrison said. "I knew we were going to have a tough road. It has to be tough, it is the tournament."
UK will open its tournament run against the winner of a play-in game between Manhattan and Hampton on Thursday at approximately 9:45 p.m. at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center. A third-round game against either No. 8 Cincinnati or No. 9 Purdue then looms on Saturday should Kentucky advance. Beyond that, Coach Cal isn't overly concerned about the likes of Kansas, Notre Dame, Maryland or West Virginia, the other top seeds in the Midwest.
"That's the greatest thing about this tournament," Calipari said. "I've coached a bunch of teams in here, and any time you get ahead of yourself you hurt yourself and usually it's wasted time because the team you think is going to advance loses. They didn't even win, so why were you spending any time? So the best thing you can do is stay in your own little pocket of those teams that we have to play: the eight/nine in our region, the team we've got to get in our region."
And in reality, even UK's immediate opponents won't occupy all that much of his thinking. His own team will, instead.
"I was good with whatever they did," Calipari said. "I have, in my opinion, the best team and the best players. That doesn't mean you win. This isn't best of five, best of seven. It's one game. But as long as we're at our best, that's the most we can ask of these kids. And I'll be fine."
Based on the way the Cats dispatched Arkansas, Coach Cal is feeling pretty good about his team being at its best.
"Today showed a lot, because that game was so physical," Calipari said. "I watched the tape on the plane back. That was a physical game that we withstood."
It was a physical game that left the Cats exhausted, particularly since it was the third in three days for UK. Coach Cal said the plane ride home was nearly dead silent and players hardly reacted as brackets were unveiled at a watch party hosted at their coach's house.
"I was half-asleep in there," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, I don't even know. I was half-asleep in there."
Cauley-Stein, the SEC Tournament MVP, and his teammates will have some time to rest on Monday. Calipari will give the team a much-needed day off.
"We'll take tomorrow complete off from basketball," Calipari said. "We may watch some tape later tomorrow night, and that tape is going to be our Arkansas game. And it won't even be with me. It will be with the staff. Let those guys go over the tape with them. We'll come back Tuesday, practice. We probably won't leave until Wednesday to go to Louisville."
Once the Cats get back together, the goal will be to build on the momentum they built in Nashville.
"We did a lot of good things as a team," Cauley-Stein said. "We're going to have a good week of practice and go into our game with a clear mind and ready to hoop."
The clear mind thing is key, because there's no longer any room for error. UK never wanted to lose before, but now they have no choice but to win.
"It's not the best of five," Calipari said. "It's one and done. I'm telling you that my message will not change. Let's be the best version of each individual player. Let's be at our best. If that's not good enough, I'll live with the consequence."
And to put it even more simply: "One game, one day, you gotta play," Calipari said.