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.
UK won its 28th SEC Tournament championship on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Its top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament set, Kentucky by no means needed to win Sunday.
The Wildcats didn't play like it.
Facing an Arkansas team eager to reestablish itself as a worthy challenger to the Southeastern Conference's top dog, UK asserted its dominance one final time.
"A lot of it's just staying the course and staying what we have been doing the whole year and continue to keep a fight and not get bored of what we're doing," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
With a 78-63 win over the No. 21/20 Razorbacks in Nashville, Tenn., the top-ranked Cats claimed the 28th SEC Tournament championship in school history to follow up the regular-season title they'd already won. The league's other 13 schools have 27 tournament championships between them. John Calipari has coached Kentucky to three SEC Tournament titles in his six seasons.
"This team has a lot of dog in it," Calipari said. "So I don't think they're worried about numbers. That's ego stuff. I don't think they worry about it."
By toppling the SEC's second-place team for the second time in barely two weeks, UK takes a spotless 34-0 record into the NCAA Tournament. As soon as their postgame responsibilities would allow, the Cats boarded a plane and returned to Lexington to watch the Selection Show at 6 p.m. ET on CBS and learn their March Madness path.
Before then, UK did take a little time to relish the title. Confetti and streamers fell from the rafters as a stage was quickly set up at midcourt so the Cats could receive their trophy and Willie Cauley-Stein his own MVP trophy. He was joined on the All-SEC Tournament team by Aaron and Andrew Harrison.
There was one part of the celebration the Cats decided to forgo.
"Those aren't the nets we're really looking to cut down," 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."
Most of the 20,315 fans in attendance - a Bridgestone Arena record for an SEC Tournament game - stuck around to watch the celebration, enjoying it almost as much as the first-half show put on by the Cats.
UK sprinted out to an 8-0 lead behind a pair of Andrew Harrison 3s, but Arkansas quickly responded. After Michael Qualls buried a 3 of his own with 10:18 left in the first, the Cats and Hogs were tied and seemingly bound for a battle like so many the two teams waged in the 1990s.
Instead, Kentucky clamped down on defense and shredded Arkansas' patented full-court press. UK would outscore the Razorbacks 22-6 to close the half by scoring on 10 of its final 12 possessions and eventually convincing Arkansas to sink back into a zone defense. Arkansas, on the other hand, made just 1-of-13 field goals over the final 10-plus minutes.
"Arkansas's a ranked team," Calipari said. "Talking about a top-20 team. We kind of did our thing. So proud of our guys."
Arkansas would put up a fight in the second half, coming alive offensively and at one point scoring on nine of 11 possessions. But with the Cats steady against an Arkansas team that leads the SEC in turnover margin, the game would never get closer than nine points.
UK effectively toed Coach Cal's line between aggressiveness and taking care of the ball, committing 13 turnovers and dishing out 16 assists on 25 made field goals. Aaron Harrison had a season-high six assists to go with his 11 points, while Tyler Ulis had six assists and just one turnover in 34 minutes.
"With two point guards in most of the game it's hard to press us," Ulis said. "I can get the ball, Aaron and (Devin Booker) can also handle the pressure, and Trey (Lyles). It's hard to press us, and then once we get in the open court it's lobs."
For the game, UK scored 1.24 points per possession on the strength of 51-percent shooting from the field, 7 of 12 from 3 and 21 of 27 at the line. The Cats' efficiency was crucial in weathering Arkansas' second-half run and eventually fueled a response.
"That's just a part of basketball, really," Aaron Harrison said. "We knew we had to make a run to break the game open, so that's what we did. We just kept it from there."
The lead at 54-45 with 9:47 left, UK unleashed a decisive 13-3 spurt to erase all doubt and pave the way for a third victory by 15 points or more in three days at the SEC Tournament. All told, the Cats won 15 of 21 games against SEC opponents by double digits.
UK's remarkable run through the regular season and conference tournament, however, officially goes into the rearview mirror on Sunday evening.
"Regardless if we were perfect or not, it's still we're only guaranteed one game," Aaron Harrison said. "So it's really the slate is clean, whether we're 34-0 or got five losses, we still from here on out, you're 0-0. You got to take it one game at a time."
Tyler Ulis had six points, six assists and five rebounds as UK defeated Auburn, 91-67. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Everyone in Bridgestone Arena knew Kentucky had the advantage in every which way.
Even Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl said earlier this season UK was the only Southeastern Conference team his Tigers couldn't beat. And that was before big man Cinmeon Bowers was suspended just before the two teams matched up in the SEC Tournament semifinals.
Knowing that, the Wildcats had little doubt Auburn would try to turn the semifinal showdown into a slugfest.
"That's what they had to do to win," Tyler Ulis said. "They had to try to get into a physical game with us and we just had to keep our heads, keep playing ball."
Fortunately for the Cats, Saturday wasn't the first time they faced an opponent that tried to push them out of their game. And considering UK's spotless 33-0 record after coasting past Auburn, 91-67, coping with that challenge hasn't presented too much of a problem.
"Teams try to be physical with us all the time," Aaron Harrison said. "We just have to know you can't let them push you around or anything. You just have to be smart about it and play physical back, of course. But you have to be smart about it."
The greatest test on that front came quickly, as 7-foot-2 Auburn freshman Trayvon Reed got in the face of 5-9 Tyler Ulis after UK forced a turnover with 13:31 left in the first half.
"I was standing there," Ulis said. "He kind of walked up and pushed me. I just reacted a little bit."
Ulis, not surprisingly considering his well-documented pickup scuffle with DeMarcus Cousins, didn't back down. Officials separated the two before it escalated further and assessed technical fouls to both.
"That's his heart right there," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Coach said it in the interview. His heart is as big as a 7-footer. That just showed it right there."
With the diminutive Ulis toeing the line between keeping his cool and sticking up for himself, the almost exclusively blue-clad crowd was inspired.
"Everybody just got really excited, pumped," Ulis said. "Got the crowd into it and everybody had my back, obviously."
Once the exchange was done, Ulis went right back to going about his business.
Per usual, his business included involving his teammates and taking care of the ball. Ulis took only three shots and scored six points, but he dished out six assists against two turnovers. What wasn't so expected was Ulis' work on the glass. He pulled down five rebounds - just two short of the team high - chasing down many of the long jumpers the Tigers missed.
Asked to choose between the points and the rebounds, Ulis didn't hesitate.
"Five rebounds," Ulis said. "Because six assists, that's what I'm supposed to do. But the rebounds I really like being able to rebound at my position."
Cauley-Stein dominates on both ends
For once, Willie Cauley-Stein's offense overshadowed his defense.
The junior poured in 18 points, mixing in jump shots and post-up baskets with the highlight-reel dunks that have become his trademark. But see, his defense was still really good too.
For more of his team-high 31 minutes, Cauley-Stein was the primary defender on Auburn star K.T. Harrell. The 6-4 guard made just 1-of-12 field goals and scored 13 points after averaging 24.3 points to lead Auburn's unlikely run to the SEC Tournament semifinals.
"Willie defended Harrell really well and it was pretty amazing to watch, actually," Aaron Harrison said.
In fact, Cauley-Stein credited his defense for sparking his big offensive day.
"I think that's what I was doing in the beginning of the year was just making sure, 'Look, I'm going to lock down on defense and then if offense happens, then it happens.' " Cauley-Stein said. "Today it just happened. So that's kind of my game plan going into the rest of these games."
If it means he's going to keep playing defense the way he did on Harrell, that plan works for his teammates.
"He's just a different kind of athlete, really," Harrison said. "I'm glad he's on my team."
Cats tower over Tigers
On paper, the size differential was substantial.
It was even more pronounced when Kentucky and Auburn took the floor for the opening tip.
"I'm not going to say what I really said," Cauley-Stein said when he was asked his reaction. "Just wow, that's what I'll say."
With Bowers suspended, Auburn's tallest starter stood 6-5. UK's point guard, Andrew Harrison, is 6-6. The Cats took advantage, outrebounding the Tigers 39-25, and scoring 28 points in the paint to Auburn's 18. Top seeds set to meet in title game
After an SEC Tournament full of upsets, the championship matchup that was supposed to happen has.
Top-seeded UK and second-seeded Arkansas took care of business in the semifinals on Saturday, with the Razorbacks (26-7) winning a defensive battle against Georgia, 60-49.
"We get a chance to go to the championship game," Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson said. "That's what we came up here for, and our guys are looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge of playing a great Kentucky team."
The two teams met just two weeks ago, with UK building a 31-point lead en route to an 84-67 victory. The Razorbacks said after the game they would jump at the chance to rematch with the Cats, and now they'll get it.
"Of course, they left a bad taste in our mouths, so we're not shying away from the moment, we're not shying away from playing them," guard Michael Qualls said. "It just it happens like that. You just got to come out and focus on us and how we can be better and just play Arkansas-brand basketball."
Under Anderson, Arkansas is playing a similar brand of basketball to the one that made it an SEC power and UK's top conference rival in the 1990s. The Cats and Hogs regularly matched up in the SEC Tournament then - UK is 7-1 against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament - but they have not played in it since 2001.
"There's been a tremendous history with Arkansas and Kentucky," Anderson said. "And, of course, they're playing at another level right now. So we look forward to the opportunity. We look forward to the challenge."