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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cedric Kauffmann saw how the match was playing out.

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

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

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

Kauffmann was right.

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

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

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

Accordingly, UK got contributions from everywhere.

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

But as Kauffmann foretold, it came down to Jomby.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Post-practice interview with Mark Stoops



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neal Brown interview



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They'll have plenty to tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

When Kentucky is on offense

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Kentucky is on defense

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

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

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

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

Bottom line

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

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

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

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

The redefinition of Kentucky euphoria

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UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK is one win away from its ninth national championship with Connecticut standing in the way on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

To fully appreciate the magnitude of what the Kentucky Wildcats basketball team has accomplished during its magical run to the NCAA title game, one has to understand the entirety of the story, for it's a multi-layered saga with nonstop drama.

"I've never witnessed a season like this," legendary former UK coach Joe B. Hall said. "It redefines what it means to cause the fan base to have such euphoria. This has been unreal."

The euphoria that Wildcats fans are feeling at the moment comes not only from the Cats' 12th appearance in the national championship game, but also from how decidedly unexpected the team's incredible tourney run is, especially considering that between Feb. 15 and March 8, Kentucky lost four of seven games in uninspiring fashion.

So bleak were the prospects of UK making noise in any postseason tournament that the Wildcat faithful had to look toward the heavens to see a snail's belly after a 72-67 road loss at lowly South Carolina on March 1, merely 10 games ago.

"People lose hope (when the Cats struggle so mightily); it effects everything they do in their lives," Hall said about the rabid UK fan base. "They're hurt, they're downtrodden and depressed. They enter the depths of depression when the team doesn't play well."

Not playing well is a kind characterization of how most Cat fans felt about how poor UK's late-season efforts were. Included in the four losses in seven games were back-to-back losses to unranked Arkansas in Rupp Arena, followed by the South Carolina loss then an 84-65 spanking at the hands of mighty Florida.

The Commonwealth was so down on this team, all aspects of how the program is run were brought into question by disappointed fans. Before, questioning the direction of the program was a laughable thought.

"There was a lot of talk that people don't like Coach Cal, they don't like the one-and-dones, he needs to get four-year players, etc.," former UK great Winston Bennett said.

Without a doubt, the Cats were scuffling.

Then came "The Tweak." After being crushed in the regular-season finale in Gainesville, Fla., John Calipari altered something -- perhaps the way he coaches his players, perhaps the way the team plays defense, perhaps in the way he handles the Harrisons. Theories on the makeup of the tweak are all guess work because Cal has been unsurprisingly coy as to exactly what the tweak entails.

Whatever the alteration might have been, Kentucky basketball history was waiting to be made, because the team was poised to make the singular leap from confounding to champions, in record-setting time.

"And then all of the sudden (for the team) to come to life?" Hall said, happily exasperated. "It's like the prodigal son returning home. It just lit up the world."

Reversal of fortune

Being saddled with an eight seed coming into the NCAA tourney, and with a bracket of top-10 teams awaiting the nation's youngest college basketball squad, Kentucky fans were left mostly to hope. Hope that the Wildcats they saw nearly upset the country's No. 1 team in the SEC title tilt, had enough left in them to make a run in the only tournament that really matters.

Hope quickly morphed into unbridled elation, as the Cats mowed down, one after the other, more experienced and highly ranked teams on their way to a Final Four for the ages.

"To come from where they came in the month of February is just amazing," UK analyst Mike Pratt said. "That's all I can tell you ... amazing."

It's not just that Kentucky has made it to the championship game of the NCAA tourney which has UK fans walking on air, it's the manner in which the team has executed a turnaround never before seen in the rich tradition and lore of Wildcats basketball:ยท

  • Beating the undefeated, top-seeded Wichita State Shockers in the round of 32 after being down 66-62 with 5:50 remaining. James Young's 3-point bulls-eye with 1:40 left in the contest helped seal the victory.
  • In the Sweet 16, beating the defending national champions, the Louisville Cardinals, after being down 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, giving UK fans their first glimpse of what clutch is all about, as Aaron Harrison absolutely owned a trey with 1:39 left, giving the Cats a 70-68 lead they would not relinquish.
  • Then came Aaron Harrison again, this time in the Elite Eight against second-seeded Michigan, as he rose up and tickled the twine with yet another 3-pointer, giving UK the lead with 2.6 seconds left on the clock and sending the Cats to Final Four for the third time in four years.
  • Beating No. 12 Wisconsin after being down 67-62 with 6:17 left in the game. The Badgers were seemingly in control of the contest until a late push by the Cats brought hope out of the closet. It was Kentucky's newest hardwood hero, Aaron Harrison, who elevated from 24 feet away and bottomed out a 3 with 5.7 ticks left on the clock, propelling Kentucky to the national title game and sending UK fans into a frenzy.

"I have not seen anything like this, and I think they've redefined the word iconic," Bennett said about this squad. "It's so amazing, I don't have words for it. Here they are in the championship, and your mind is just completely blown."

No Kentucky team has beat four consecutive top-12 teams to get to the title game. No Kentucky player has made game-winning shots in three straight NCAA Tournament games.

Take note Kentucky fans, because we are witnessing history. The kind of history passed down from father to son, mother to daughter. This team has defied more than the odds because late in the season, common sense dictated little hope be harbored for a meaningful postseason. The history of the thing, though, is in the Cats' response to the experts' (and many fans') dire forecast of failure.

"The ride through the tournament, against the odds, and against the teams we had to go through to get to the Final Four, and to get to the final game is just phenomenal," Hall gushed. "It's the toughest road Kentucky has ever had in getting to the final game.

Simply stated, the resiliency of this team is remarkable. The fans' and sports writers' ubiquitous derision of the club throughout the regular season did not deter this team; it did not cause hope to be lost in the locker room. The Cats were able to put the past just where it belongs -- in the past -- and then concentrate all of their considerable efforts on proving that they are indeed champions.

"You have to give a lot of credit to these players because they listened to Cal," Bennett said. "Now look, you're playing on the night where you will hopefully get the ultimate prize. And even if they don't, and I hope and pray that they do, but (if they lose) that should not tarnish at all the legacy of redefining an iconic brand."

For all the rightful talk of team, though, it's one player who rose above all others and crowned himself Mr. Clutch during this historic UK streak of excellence.

"Aaron Harrison is an example of a true winner," Hall said flatly about Kentucky's coolest customer. "A player who can take advantage of those situations, they have a sixth sense to be able to create such focus and confidence to execute to perfection when under pressure. And that's what a winner is; a winner wants that shot and has all the confidence in the world in taking it."

It's the entire team that deserves tremendous credit for displaying a mighty will to win, a willingness to be coached, and the talent to execute greatness. But some think Calipari needs a back pat, as well.

"Anybody who has any doubts about the greatness of this coach needs to be put away," Bennett said. "I mean seriously, if you had any doubts before now, he and this team should have eradicated and erased every doubt in your mind that he is one of the best coaches in the nation."

The legacy

Ten or 15 years from now, when we look back at the 2014 season, one word will come to mind: special.

"They led us into the deepest depression this community ever saw, and then resurrected us out of the doldrums, and took us to the heights ... a turnaround like this has never been seen," Hall said about this team.

It's not every day a Kentucky team rises from the ashes and lights the Big Blue Nation on fire with an NCAA tourney run filled with unexpected victory after unexpected victory. It's awe inspiring. It's the new watershed.

"The way they turned this whole season around in a week's time prior to the SEC Tournament should be their legacy," Pratt contends. "What made them connect like they are connected now. Their sacrifice to be able to make that connection. ... It would have been easy for them to just write it off, and say, 'We'll just do what we have to do, it's been a bad year.' But they were able to connect, and as Coach (Adolph) Rupp used to say, bow their necks and make a statement. And they certainly have. You have to give them all the credit in the world. It's been amazing."

The legendary perseverance displayed by these young players is what will stick in some people's minds as being the key component to this group spinning a lost season on its head.

"You can be in your darkest moment, and ready to give up, but as long as you continue to strive and keep doing the best you can, things have an awesome chance of turning around," Bennett said. "This team has proven that. I'm so excited about this team, I don't know what to do because it's so unbelievable what they've done."

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

Notes: Improbable UK-UConn meeting historic

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UK advanced to the national championship game against UConn with a win on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the national championship game against UConn with a win on Saturday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Connecticut hasn't experienced quite the serendipitous turnaround that Kentucky has in reaching the title game, but the Huskies were actually bigger underdogs to make the title game than the Cats.

Statistician Nate Silver, who runs the highly popular FiveThirtyEight blog on ESPN, only gave UConn a 2.0 percent chance to reach the finals when the brackets were unveiled. UK only had a 3.9 percent chance of making the title game.

UConn was seeded one line ahead of the Cats with a No. 7 seed, but the Huskies weren't given much of a chance after their recent performances against Louisville. The Huskies were slaughtered by 33 points in the Derby City on March 8 before losing by 10 points in the American Athletic Conference Tournament finals.

All told, UConn lost three games to U of L by a combined 55 points.

"I'm glad that happened because we went back and I had to evaluate myself as a coach, and I hope every player went to their dorms and looked themselves in the mirror and had to evaluate their effort," UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. "Down times like that just promote you. So I'm glad it happened, because we all got together, we knew what we had to do, the challenge that was in front of us and we were going to face it. We got better from that."

Since the 33-point drubbing at U of L, UConn has won seven of eight games.

Shabazz Napier has continued to play like a first-team All-American, but the difference in the late-season surge has been forward DeAndre Daniels, whom UK recruited out of high school. Daniels is averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds since that loss at Louisville.

"We bounced back from that loss and everybody was tuned in, everybody was focused and determined," Daniels said. "We made it to the finals in the conference tournament and lost to Louisville again, but we made a bigger step and we played a lot better."

Improved play aside for both teams, Monday's meeting is still historic. It's the highest combined seeds in the national championship since the tournament started seeding teams in 1978.

"I don't think we were an eight seed and I don't think Connecticut was a seven seed," Calipari said.

Only one No. 8 seed has ever won the tournament (Villanova in 1985) and a No. 7 seed has never done it.

Cauley-Stein out for championship

There will be no mystery about Willie Cauley-Stein's status for the third straight game. The sophomore forward, who injured his left ankle during the Louisville game, will be in street clothes with a jersey over top for the national championship game.

"It's tough," Cauley-Stein said. "It's heartbreaking."

Cauley-Stein's status has improved, as he's ditched the boot and crutches of a week ago for a camera he's been using on the sidelines, but the chance to shoot some behind-the-scenes footage and join his teammates in the celebratory dog piles of the last two games doesn't fill the void of not being able to play.

"I feel like a bystander, like a person just watching because I'm not playing," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein has tried to stay positive through the injury as his teammates have tried to lift his spirits up, but he was clearly disappointed on Sunday knowing he won't be able to play in the national championship game after all the time he's put in the last two seasons.

"The only thing I can really do is encourage the team and stay positive even though I can't play," Cauley-Stein said. "I still serve a purpose uplifting people and just staying in people's ears or cheering."

Alex Poythress nearly joined his roommate on the injured list after hurting his leg during Saturday's postgame pile-up. Poythress left the celebration with a noticeable limp but confirmed on Sunday that he's fine and will play on Monday.

Stay in school


With Kentucky in the Final Four, the one-and-done subject has been a hot topic of debate and continued Monday morning with NCAA President Mark Emmert's press conference.

Julius Randle, who figures to be a top-five draft pick if he chooses to leave after this season, was asked Sunday if he would have gone pro out of high school if he would have had the option. His answer might surprise you.

"I probably still would have chosen to go to college," Randle said. "It is what I needed as far as maturity level. A lot of people think they are ready, but in actuality you are really not. I am really happy that I chose to go to college and get that experience of being away from home. This year has been wonderful for me as far as maturity level and kind of growing me into a young man. I am extremely happy, whether they had the rule or not, that I chose to come to college."

Pucker up

Alex Poythress drew a huge smooch on his cheek from Calipari after a play in the second half of the Wisconsin game.

"I kiss them all the time," Calipari said. "I don't kiss them on the lips, but I--"

When Coach Cal thought he heard someone say "ewwww" in the media, he pointed out that all his kids are like family to him.

"They don't need me to be a father figure," Coach Cal said. "They need me in another way, and that's who I am for them. I can't be more proud of all of these guys."

Impressing a Hall of Famer

Wisconsin, as strong as the Badgers were defensively, didn't turn over a lot of opponents during the season, ranking near the nation's worst in turnover percentage.

Having said that, for the Cats to turn the ball over just four times Saturday night, especially when possessions were at a premium against a highly efficient offense, was an impressive feat to legend and former Georgetown coach John Thompson.

"Coach Thompson said to me after the game, Hall of Famer, 'How in the world did your young kids play that offense, defend that offense? How did you have young kids do that?' " Calipari said. "They dialed in. They dialed in. We broke down a few times, (but) the reality of it is they do have a competitive spirit."

The student becomes the teacher

Though Monday will mark the first meeting of Calipari and Ollie as head coaches, it's not the first time their paths will have crossed.

Coach Cal was actually an assistant on the Philadelphia 76ers when Ollie was a player in 2000.

"You know what he was doing while he was playing: He was coaching," Calipari said. "That's how he played. He was an unbelievable student of the game then. He was teaching me when I was in Philly."

Pomeroy streak ends

Barring a historic offensive performance by UConn or a UK shutout, Ken Pomeroy's streak of projecting the national champion will come to an end Monday.

Since Pomeroy began rating teams with his very reliable formula in 2002-03, no team has ever won the national title without being in the top 25 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Kentucky falls outside the criteria on the defensive side of the ball, where the Cats rank No. 44 in defensive efficiency, while UConn sits outside the offensive criteria at No. 37.  

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
  • Griffin: What's the name of the song that this video starts playing when describing Cal getting ejected and Aaron talking about read more
  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
  • Sandy Spears: I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything read more
  • BJ Rassam: The Cats came so close to winning another NCAA basketball championship. read more
  • chattyone: Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, read more
  • clint bailes: Such a great season! You guys fought hard til the end. Loved watchin the season! Can't wait til next season. read more
  • Andrea Boyd: you guys are AMAZING! as individuals and as a team. thank you for your tremendous playing and work and attitudes. read more
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  • Amy Carnes: Very proud of you cats you have really grow as a team .You proved all the doubters wrong. And have read more