Cat Scratches

Recently in Features Category

Notes: Cal, Cats 'ecstatic' for Antigua

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Orlando Antigua was named head coach at South Florida earlier this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Orlando Antigua was named head coach at South Florida earlier this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

As the University of South Florida gained a new head coach in Orlando Antigua this week, Kentucky lost a lovable assistant and one of the game's best recruiters.

Antigua, who has been with the Wildcats since the start of the Calipari era, has built an impressive résumé during his coaching career - 10 NCAA tournament appearances, seven trips to the Sweet 16, four Final Fours, one national championship -- and was hired as head coach of the Bulls on Monday.

Even though Antigua is moving forward in his career and UK is losing a valued assistant in the process, John Calipari and the players are happy for Antigua and his long overdue opportunity.

"The guys were ecstatic for him," Calipari said. "They were happy. Willie (Cauley-Stein) got on the phone with him and said 'You know you owe me now. I helped you get that job.' It's just funny. This is a little different deal here. The guys aren't separated from the players, they create relationships with them and these guys are happy for them. ... It is the right job for him."

Calipari believes the University of South Florida is the perfect match for Antigua because of his heritage and position as the head coach of the Dominican Republic National Team.

"Being South Florida, one of his home bases is going to be the Dominican Republic, which he will be able to recruit," Calipari said. "So now you're talking South Florida, a little Latin flavor. They also need someone to excite their fans, their campus. Well, that's him. That's who he is. That's why I say it's a perfect fit, in my opinion."

But Cal isn't the only one cheering about Antigua's new coaching job; the Kentucky players are happy for him as well.

"We're extremely proud of him," Marcus Lee said. "He's a really great guy. If I can think of someone who has more energy than I do going through practice, it's him. He's the most energetic person I've ever met, and that's saying something. So I'm real proud of him. He's done a lot for me and the team, so I'm loving what he's doing."

Antigua will stay with Kentucky to finish out the Wildcats' tournament run.

"I'm excited for him," Andrew Harrison said. "We're going to miss him around here, but he was a great coach and they're lucky to have him."

Cal's friendship with Bo Ryan

Saturday's Final Four showdown with Kentucky and Wisconsin is more than just a game for Coach Cal and Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan.

The two head coaches have a close friendship and connected over the relationship Coach Ryan had with his father. Calipari and Ryan spoke Monday, and according to Cal, he was the only person Ryan answered the phone for.

"Well, let me tell you, he and I talked yesterday for about 15 minutes and what I told him was I watched the end of your game and I watched the interview and I got emotional because he talked about his father," Calipari said. "The reason we got to know each other was because I got to see how he was with his father. His father would go everywhere with him. Every year. And I'd see his dad, and we'd talk. It's like Billy (Donovan). I like Billy, but what I respect the most is what he is with his dad. His dad sits on the bench. So are you coaching tonight? I grab him - 'What are you coaching tonight? Rebounding? Defense?' But, the same with Bo and his father. Coaching and all that - I don't care. Wins, national championships, that doesn't matter."

Calipari plans to honor Ryan's father, who died in August, at the Final Four banquet before the games.

"To see him and how he was and then know that and watch that postgame, he and I have planned a toast to his father at the function that they do for all of the teams," Calipari said. "So, we're both going to have a beer and toast to his dad. I said we're going to toast him yesterday and he said great. I told him I wish we weren't playing each other because one of us has to lose. I'm happy for him. He's a good man. He's a good guy."

AT&T Stadium take two

Playing in AT&T Stadium on Saturday for the Final Four isn't the Wildcats' first rodeo with the home of the Dallas Cowboys.

Back in December, Kentucky dropped a 67-62 decision to the Baylor Bears in Arlington, Texas. Heading into Final Four action, the Wildcats are hoping to block that loss out of their mind and this time around, produce a different outcome.

"It's a huge place, very nice place," Andrew Harrison said. "We did play there earlier this year, but we want to forget that game and just go in there with a new life, a new team, a different team."

Aaron Harrison said they had no idea if they would make a return trip after that Baylor game. Their thoughts were focused simply on the heartbreak of the loss.

"After a loss you always have to have some negative thoughts," he said. "But it was just another game really, so it wasn't that big of a deal."

Capacity for the Final Four will be 77,122. Having played there once already, the Cats aren't worried about shooting sight lines or playing on a stage, especially after their experience there the first time and this past week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"It's huge and it's just going to be fun," said Julius Randle, who is returning to his hometown for the Final Four. "The atmosphere, the environment, so many people there. The last time it was an ice storm, so it was a big arena but it wasn't too many people. I'm just looking forward to this time playing in front of a big crowd and competing again."

UK broadcast

Viewers of the Final Four will have two options for watching the game on TV.

They can stick with the usual national broadcast on TBS, which will feature Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony and Steve Kerr, or they can watch an alternate, UK-specific version on TNT that will be called by local broadcasters Rob Bromley (play-by-play), Rex Chapman (analyst) and Dave Baker (sideline reporter).

Turner Sports and CBS are experimenting with team-specific broadcast during the Final Four to give fans the option of watching the game through the view of one team. Each team in the Final Four will have a team-specific broadcast.

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.

Healthy Bernal propels UK past U of L

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment

Thomas Bernal didn't have much fun during the second half of the 2013 season.

Relegated to the bench with an injured arm, Bernal watched helplessly as UK sputtered down the stretch and fell just shy of an NCAA Tournament berth.

"It was tough," Bernal said. "You can't really help the team out and you've just gotta learn from it."

The Wildcats, without Bernal's right-handed bat available, simply couldn't score regularly enough in the rigorous Southeastern Conference. Head coach Gary Henderson never made any excuses, but the numbers don't lie.

UK (20-9, 4-5 Southeastern Conference) batted just .223 as a team and finished the season 10-19 after starting 21-6.

"We were kind of rudely awakened to what his presence meant last year, there's no doubt about that," Henderson said.

Bernal now healthy and filling his regular role as a first baseman, designated hitter and pinch hitter, there's no arguing his importance. That's especially true after what he did in UK's 8-3 win over No. 8 Louisville on Tuesday night.

A designated hitter on this day with A.J. Reed at first, Bernal had three hits in four at-bats out of the No. 7 spot in the UK lineup as the Cardinals started freshman lefthander Josh Rogers. All told, he had four RBI, scored two runs and hit the first home run of his college career.

"Good to get that off my back," Bernal said with a laugh. "It feels great. Any home run feels great but to hit it against Louisville feels really good."

His first homer nearly came in the second inning.

After U of L struck first for two runs in the second inning, Micheal Thomas and Kyle Barrett reached base to set up a sacrifice opportunity for Storm Wilson. He got the bunt down, moving two runners into scoring position.

Free to swing away, Bernal pulled a changeup just foul over the fence down the left-field line. Later in the at-bat, he settled for a single to score Barrett and halve Louisville's lead.

Two innings later, he finally got the monkey off his back, knocking in the go-ahead runs in the process. Thomas and Barrett reached to lead off the fourth and Wilson laid down another successful sacrifice. On the first pitch of his at-bat, Bernal hit a three-run homer that looked like it would leave the park off the bat.

Bernal, unconvinced, busted it out of the batter's box.

"I've never hit a home run before, so I don't know how to trot," Bernal said.

Though the home run was his first, Bernal has been a steady presence for UK all season. He's batting .288, but is just as important for the leadership he developed in part during his half-season out with injury.

"He's just an older kid that's really mature that people respect," Henderson said. "He's a good player, gives us some flexibility when A.J.'s pitching. He's kind of a team favorite. He's a kid that everybody respects and admires."

A lot of that respect and admiration comes from the way Bernal handles his split role. Whether he's starting or coming off the bench, he's the same person and player.

"It takes a good attitude," Henderson said. "It takes all the things that your mom and dad try to teach you as a kid: have a good attitude, try really hard, and be nice to other people. They are basics and he does them well. He is a kid that appreciates what he is a part of and the kids respect him. He is a hard worker and a good player, which is a pretty good combination for us."

Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For the last few months, Marcus Lee toiled in anonymity. Well, as much anonymity as is possible for a 6-foot-9 former McDonald's All-American on the UK campus.

That came to an end in a big way after he exploded to help lead Kentucky to the Final Four, and at no point was that clearer than on Tuesday morning.

Walking into a marketing class of about 200, Lee was welcomed by a standing ovation.

"It was just awesome," Lee said. "If you could see me blush, I was probably blushing."

Lee, after a 17-point collegiate debut, found himself buried on the bench due to an illness that caused him to drop 15 pounds and the play of Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. But an injury to Cauley-Stein in the Sweet 16 created an opportunity and Lee -- delivering on a prediction of a big game by John Calipari -- capitalized.

An afterthought on Michigan's scouting report, Lee had four put-back dunks in the first half alone en route to 10 points, eight rebounds, two blocks and a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team. Since then, on top of his lecture-hall greeting, Lee has been treated to a barrage of text messages and calls from friends from his home of Antioch, Calif.

"They were just so proud of me, so I'm just glad that they have my back," Lee said.

But if you're concerned about Lee letting a little success go to his head, you can rest easy. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Lee could hardly make it through two questions without having to dab sweat from his brow after what was clearly an intense pre-practice workout.

"That's what right now is for, is just to get in the gym and keep up what I started to make sure I'm always working to better so they're not just looking at one thing I can do," Lee said. "I'm just broadening my horizons as we go."

Lee surely won't be sneaking up on Wisconsin when UK plays for a spot in the national championship game at 8:49 p.m. ET, so the broader his horizons the better.

Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for the matchup, leaving the Wildcats to deal with talented 7-footer Frank Kaminsky without their most versatile post defender. Kaminsky leads the Badgers in scoring and rebounding and has 3-point range, hitting 37 of 98 (37.8 percent) of his attempts on the season.

"He's going to be a handful," Calipari said.

It's a handful the Cats are thankful to have to deal with.

UK is one of just four teams still dancing, a fact the players celebrated wildly on Sunday. Back home in Lexington, fellow students took to the streets, which wasn't lost on the Cats.

"I've seen pictures on Instagram and stuff," Andrew Harrison said. "That's pretty crazy. That just shows how much school spirit we have."

That display of school spirit in the rearview mirror, the Cats go back to work. As plain as the joy on players' faces was to see in a postgame dog pile and receiving the Midwest Regional trophy, UK is having no problem with that.

"When you realize you're going to the Final Four of course you're going to celebrate, but, look," Julius Randle said, nodding his head toward Aaron Harrison and James Young firing jumpers on the Joe Craft Center practice floor, "guys are in the gym working right now. So we're not done yet."

If that's true, it could be more than Lee getting in-class standing ovations a week from now.

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 Wildcats celebrate their third Final Four berth in fourth seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The Wildcats celebrate their third Final Four berth in fourth seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The words out of Andrew Harrison's mouth told one story.

Asked if he believed they would be in this position, just a day away from traveling to Dallas for the Final Four, Andrew Harrison said, "Yeah, of course. Never a doubt."

The smile told a different one.

To believe Kentucky would be in this spot even three weeks ago when UK was treading water and reeling from three losses in four games, one would have to either be a crazy person or John Calipari.

The latter, of course, said he never gave up, never stopped believing. He warned a while back that his team may not "click" this year, but that didn't stop him from hoping and trusting it would.

He said Tuesday, two days since the latest example that no one is truly dead until there are no games left on the schedule, that he never wondered if his team would ever "get it," so to speak.

"I don't think that way," Calipari said. "It's just like when I'm coaching a basketball game. I never think we're going to lose until the horn goes off and say, 'Man, we needed more time. We lost that one.' The losing never comes in my mind.

"I never give up on a player.  I never give up on a team. I just think it's going to take longer. There are times that I get more aggressive. There are times I get more impatient, but I never stop believing."

Coach Cal said he'll do whatever he has to do try to make this thing work.

This season it took the well-known "tweaks," which Calipari said on his radio show Monday night included one more for this weekend. Last season he went as far as to play dodge ball to change the mentality of the team after the injury to Nerlens Noel.

But to get this year's players to believe they were going to get better, Calipari joked on Tuesday that he had to go to drastic lengths get them to buy in.

"You all counted us off," he said. "I had to be wheeled in, in there (practice gym) in a casket, and I opened it and said, 'We ain't dead yet, boys!' for my guys to believe."

A casket? Really?

"Absolutely," said the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, who was hobbling by on crutches and a boot on his way to the locker room.

OK, so the casket thing really didn't happen, but the players confirmed that Coach Cal did entertain the idea.

"He said he was going to," Aaron Harrison said. "He said he couldn't get a casket, but I think that was fun."

Said Marcus Lee: "When he told us that, we all started dying laughing. It was probably the funniest thing that's happened this year."

Between that and the DVDs of old game tape Calipari shredded in front of the players, Calipari stopped at nothing to get the Cats to understand that the past was the past and their goals were still in front of them.

That notion seemed hard to believe after the loss at home to Arkansas, in the aftermath of the embarrassing loss at South Carolina or on the plane ride home from the beating at Florida, but Calipari has always said that one of his main goals throughout the regular season is to put his team in a position to be in the hunt at the end of the year when it matters most.

Here they are, two wins away from a national championship, as implausible as that once seemed.

"We were never dead, honestly," Lee said. "To everybody else we were dead, and now it's just in their brains. So I guess that's what he was trying to come out and say (with the casket thing)."

Obviously it worked.

"We definitely got it," Andrew Harrison said. "A lot of people didn't think we would be here, let alone Sweet 16 or anything like that. It's fun proving people wrong."

Even themselves.

"We just had to figure things out," Aaron Harrison said. "I don't think it's about destiny. Yeah, we're definitely a blessed team, but I think we worked hard to do what we'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.

Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For most of the season, UK survived on offense with brute force.

The Wildcats overwhelmed opponents with size and athleticism, going to the offensive glass and the free-throw line at remarkable rates.

Two weeks into a magical NCAA Tournament run, the Cats are adding a little finesse to their game.

Over their last three games -- wins over formerly unbeaten Wichita State and 2013 national title game participants Louisville and Michigan -- the Cats have operated at an unprecedented level of offensive efficiency.

That tweak? Yeah, it's working.

"When I did the first tweak, I told everybody, 'You will see a change,' and they saw it; couldn't believe it," John Calipari said. "Then before we went to the tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said, 'You will see a change,' and they've all seen it."

The Cats have scored an astounding 1.24 points per possession over their last three games. In NCAA Tournament play overall, UK is scoring 1.16 points per possession facing defenses ranked 20th, 11th, fifth and 109th by kenpom.com in succession.

Among Final Four teams, only Wisconsin has been more efficient offensively. And if you take out the Badgers' second-round bludgeoning of overmatched American, the Cats are a few thousandths of a point better.

UK has been characteristically good on the glass during the run, rebounding 47.1 percent of its misses over the last three games. The Cats aren't getting to the line as often as they did in the regular season, but they have hit 73.3 percent of their free throws and are shooting lights out from the field. Kentucky sports an effective field-goal percentage of .561, boosting their season percentage to .500.

In the process, they've climbed to ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, second among Final Four teams to national semifinal opponent Wisconsin.

Don't let final scores and a slow pace fool you: The Badgers are among the best offensive teams in the country, ranking fourth according to kenpom.com with solid shooting and the second-lowest turnover rate in the country. That should be of some concern to the Cats, who haven't exactly locked down opponents in the tournament.

Over the last three games, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan -- all top-16 offenses -- have combined to score 1.19 points per possession against UK, the latter two capitalizing on the absence of shot-blocking extraordinaire Willie Cauley-Stein.

Hood enjoys quality time with regional trophy

During the 30 minutes UK's locker room was open to the media following a win over Michigan, Jon Hood held the Midwest Regional championship trophy on his lap.

He didn't let go of it until the next day.

"He just left my office," John Calipari said. "He had the regional trophy in his room. He said, 'Where you want me to put it?' I said, 'You keep it.' He said, 'Nah, I've had it all night. It was in the bed with me.' "

Hood, catching wind of his coach's comments on Monday's Final Four teleconference, was quick to offer clarification on Twitter.


Important as the distinction may be to Hood, it doesn't change what his joy following his third Final Four trip in four years says about the senior's development.

"He's come so far," Calipari said. "He came from a deer-in-headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?' to a great teammate to a loving part of our family."

Loving, yes, but just as important. He hasn't yet played a minute in the NCAA Tournament, but he serves as a mentor to his younger teammates and even an adviser to his coach.

On his Senior Night, Hood notably told Calipari the lob pass was open against Alabama's zone defense. Coach Cal then called for the play, resulting in a James Young dunk.

And against Michigan in the Elite Eight, Hood -- who bristles when his teammates describe him as a coach -- spoke up again. Nik Stauskas was about to step to the line for two free throws with UK leading by three with 2:26 to play. Seeing 44.9-percent foul shooter Dakari Johnson on the low block, Hood stepped up to the raised floor at Lucas Oil Stadium to talk to his coach.

"Last night in the game, they are shooting free throws and he says to me, 'What are you going to do if Dakari rebounds it? Because they're going to foul him,' " Calipari said. "He came up to me. Not an assistant."

Hood might not be an assistant, but Coach Cal listened to him just the same, shouting instructions to the Harrison twins to call an immediate timeout should Johnson rebound a Stauskas miss.

The episode is another example of Calipari's players-first philosophy.

"See, this is not my team; it's their team," Calipari said. "And I want them to feel empowered, and he knows that."

Calipari, Cats to make time to watch McDonald's game

Coach Cal has a fair bit going on this week. Between practices, traveling to Texas and the media circus that comes with taking a team to the Final Four, he'll scarcely have a chance to breathe.

He will, however, find time to get to a television and tune to ESPN on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET for the McDonald's All-American game, or at least soon after.

"Oh, we'll watch it," Calipari said. "And if I can't watch it, it'll be taped. It'll be taped, because we have four players in it."

The four players -- most of any school along with Duke -- are Karl Towns on the East team and Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis on the West. They make up UK's latest highly regarded class and all have bright basketball futures, but Coach Cal is just excited about their character.

"They're terrific basketball players, but spend some time with them," Calipari said. "You're talking about four great, great kids."

UK's tourney success unmatched under Calipari

Coach Cal has gotten plenty of attention for his recruiting record in his tenures at Kentucky, Memphis and UMass, and rightfully so.

But when everyone looks back on his legacy years from now, it could very well be his NCAA Tournament record that we all remember.

  • Calipari's career record in the tournament is 42-13, tops among active coaches.
  • He will make his fifth Final Four appearance this weekend, tying him for ninth most all-time.
  • The Final Four is the third in four seasons, making Kentucky the first school to accomplish that feat since UCLA reached three straight from 2006-08.
  • UK has won 10 straight NCAA Tournament games under Coach Cal. No team has won that many in a row since Florida won 12 straight and back-to-back titles in 2006-07. Overall, UK is 17-2 in the NCAA Tournament under Calipari.
  • The last three victories in the streak are quite impressive. UK is the first team in history to eliminate three teams from the previous year's Final Four and the third since 1979 to eliminate an unbeaten opponent (Wichita State).

Here are a few more notes from around the Twitter-sphere on a March Madness run the Big Blue Nation won't soon forget.


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.

Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for Wisconsin game

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The update on Willie Cauley-Stein is that there is no update. His status remains the same for the Wisconsin game as it was on Sunday: doubtful.

"I doubt he plays," John Calipari said on Monday's Final Four teleconference, "and he will be on our bench cheering like crazy."

Cauley-Stein missed Kentucky's Elite Eight win over Michigan with a right ankle injury he suffered during the Louisville game on Friday. The sophomore forward came up limping at the 13:05 mark in the first half, hobbled to the locker room and never returned.

Against Michigan, Cauley-Stein was on the sidelines with his teammates, but he was reduced to a supportive role, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with his jersey over the top and a boot on his right foot. He used crutches to move around during the game until UK's postgame celebration, when Cauley-Stein hobbled on one foot to the dog pile.

By the looks of things Sunday and based on Coach Cal's comments on Monday, it does not appear as though UK will have the services of its top shot-blocker against Wisconsin, but Cauley-Stein didn't rule out the possibility when he spoke to reporters after the Cats' Elite Eight victory, as faint as that prospect may be.

"I hope so," Cauley-Stein said when he was asked if he might play on Saturday. "I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee filled in admirably for Cauley-Stein when he went down with the injury. Johnson matched a career high with 15 points in the win over Louisville and Lee re-emerged from a seldom-used bench role with a 10-point, eight-rebound, two-block outing.

UK managed to block six shots vs. Michigan without its best rim protector, but the Cats will miss his presence against the Badgers, who feature a 7-footer in Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin's leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker.

"Do you understand that Willie changed most games for us?" Calipari said.

Coach Cal said Cauley-Stein went "bonkers" in the locker room during the win over Louisville and then watched Sunday as he cheered on his teammates from from the bench, even documenting some of the front-row action with video posted on the UK Sports Video department's Instagram account.

Calipari said he talked to Cauley-Stein to make sure he was in a good place mentally.

"I said, 'Willie, we're going to try to cover for you. It's gonna be really hard. But let me say this: You personally, you've proven yourself. People know what you are. They know the impact you have on games. They know that you're a 7-foot guard. They know that now. So is this hurting our team? Yes. But we're gonna try to cover. You're fine,' " Calipari said. "And I want them to understand, we are about them, and when you're injured, doesn't change things."

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.

Kentucky's freshmen in a class by themselves

| No TrackBacks | Add a Comment
UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - He, too, a bit shocked, a bit in disbelief, a bit in amazement at the type of turnaround his young team had just completed, John Calipari sat at the dais in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium and tried to review the silliness of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids defying the odds, forgetting the past and coming together for one of the most unforgettable turnarounds in recent college basketball memory.

"We played six - no, we played seven freshmen today, didn't we?"

Seven of them, to be clear. Seven of them to the Final Four.

Supposedly too young and too inexperienced to repeat what happened two years ago - a notion backed up by the 10 losses in the regular season - these Kentucky Wildcats are apparently just too stubborn to care what people say can't happen and what's really never been done for.

Sure, the 2012 national title team was headlined by freshmen like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but even that group pales in comparison to the youth of this 2014 Final Four team.

Freshmen were responsible for 53.3 percent and 54.0 percent of the minutes on that title team. Through 38 games this year, UK's nine freshmen account for 81.8 percent of the scoring and 75.3 percent of the minutes.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK is the first team to start five freshmen in an Elite Eight game since Michigan's Fab Five did it in 1992.

But eat your heart out, you young guns at Kentucky, even you are topping that legendary Michigan team. The Fab Five - the entirety of that team's freshman class - were only responsible for 75.3 percent of the scoring and 68.5 percent of the minutes that season.

"Doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore," Aaron Harrison said. "We just try to get out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game, and we just fight so hard."

There's more.

With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined due to a right ankle injury, the Cats became even younger for their Elite Eight game against second-seeded Michigan.

Of the 75 points UK scored Sunday night, 67 of them were scored by freshmen. Of the 200 minutes of game, time, freshmen ate up 182 of them. They had 32 of the 35 rebounds, seven of the eight assists and all seven of the 3-pointers.

Only now does it dawn upon everyone why it took time for this to work itself out.

"They were trying," Calipari said. "Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, being their brother's keeper, all that stuff. Losing themselves in the team. It's hard when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school."

It took them an entire season to surrender as well as a few adjustments from Cal, but when they finally came together, played for one another and surrendered to coaching, their talent really showed through.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Coach Cal said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

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.

Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - The T-shirts of the dream, the talk of perfection, the flirtation with 40-0 -- John Calipari was a victim of the expectations as well.

For the first time this season after dealing with the maddening aftereffects of failing to meet regular-season expectations, Coach Cal admitted that he too bought into the hype.

"I had to accept that, too, now," Coach Cal said Sunday after his Wildcats pulled off another memorable victory, a 75-72 win over Michigan in the Elite Eight. "I started reading what everybody was writing. I'm thinking: This is going to be easy."

Easy? This year might have been Calipari's toughest.

After the disappointing 2012-13 season, one that ended with a first-round loss in the NIT, Coach Cal came into the year a new man.

He boasted about the increase in depth, which he said would give him the option to sit kids when they needed to learn from the bench. He bragged about the ridiculous talent and length that six McDonald's All-Americans would bring. He spoke of the attitude of his new recruits and their will to win.

Things were so different that Calipari caught himself singing in the car one day and "talking crap." Order was restored, in his mind.

"It's back to where we were," Coach Cal said in September.

The program is back to where it was two years ago now, but it involved a whole lot more hardship than anyone could have imagined.

"It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, (and) at times, selfishness," Calipari said Sunday.

UK suffered 10 losses in the regular season, lost three of four late and hit rock bottom with an embarrassing loss at South Carolina. It was then that Aaron Harrison said UK would still write a "great story," a prediction that has unbelievably come true, but it's taken some pretty remarkable steps to overcome.

It took Coach Cal looking in the mirror and realizing he needed to "tweak" some things. It took criticism - some nasty - that brought the players together. It took a lot of failing before the succeeding could happen.

"This was very difficult for all of us," Calipari said.

Calipari faced major scrutiny late in the regular season when the wheels fell off in Columbia, S.C. The Kentucky head coach was ejected from that game, he was criticized for being too hard on his players, and many wondered if his approach of recruiting the most talented players regardless of age was a one-hit wonder in 2012.

All the while, Calipari dragged along a hip that's so bad that he's had trouble getting up steps.

But that's what's made part of this late-season turnaround -- a run through the "region of doom" that's included three teams in last year's Final Four, a No. 1 seed and previously undefeated team and last year's defending national champion - so sweet.

Emotions were tested. Resolve was questioned. Supporters dwindled.

And yet the Wildcats endured.

"We never lost faith," Julius Randle said. "There was never a point where I lost faith in the team or anything."

After listening to the outsiders before the season and falling victim to those weighty expectations, they learned to stop listening to everyone else when the criticism came crashing down upon them.

"We never doubted each other," Alex Poythress said. "Our coaches never doubted us. We always stayed a little family and our little circle. Just try to stay strong."

The consensus in the celebration of Sunday night's ticket punching to the Final Four is that the turnaround happened just before the Southeastern Conference Tournament when Coach Cal made the now legendary -- and still yet-to-be confirmed -- "tweak."

"Coach did a good job," Randle said. "He simplified our roles. Everything just clicked on both ends of the floor."

Andrew Harrison said that humbling game at South Carolina seems like "forever ago," but the reality of it is that loss was just one month ago. That's a lot of soul-searching to do in a few weeks' time and a whole lot of adjustments.

"It's a process," Calipari said. "Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer and it took me a little longer to figure them out. ... It took us four months."

Four months later, they're finally ready to be the team that garnered so much hype at the beginning of the season.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Calipari said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

One hell of a turnaround. One hell of a story.

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.

Injured Cauley-Stein still very much part of team

| No TrackBacks | 1 Comment
Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't about to let anything separate him from his team, not in this moment.

Cauley-Stein was on the bench for UK's heart-stopping Elite Eight win over Michigan. He needed crutches to move around, but he wasn't your typical bench bystander.

The sophomore forward put his own unique spin on "street clothes," wearing the same road blue jersey as his teammates over his hooded sweatshirt. When the Wildcats made a big play, he celebrated. When they took the stage to receive the Midwest Regional trophy, he was right there with them.

Likely to his doctor's chagrin, Cauley-Stein even got in on the jubilant dog pile after the buzzer sounded.

"I jumped on one leg," said Cauley-Stein, who captured the experience with a handheld camera. "I just had to improvise, you know what I'm saying? I felt like a pogo stick."



Cauley-Stein made his presence felt even before tip-off, and as much more than just a symbolic "Win For Willie" figure.

He spoke to his team before and during the game, encouraging the Wildcats to keep playing their game even though he wouldn't be there to play it with them.

"He's been real vocal," Alex Poythress said. "He's still trying to be vocal. He's one of our leaders here so he's just trying to help us the best he can."

He was particularly vocal with Marcus Lee, the freshman who stepped in with Cauley-Stein sidelined. With his help, Lee surprised everyone but John Calipari and had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's 75-72 victory.

"He was always trying to give me pointers and tips and coach me through the games, through the practices as we went," Lee said. "He was always on my shoulder trying to tell me what to do, which was great."

Cauley-Stein spoke before the Southeastern Conference Tournament about never having won anything substantial in his career as a basketball player. UK is now just two victories away from a national championship -- about as significant at it gets in college basketball -- which you'd think might lead to some disappointment on the part of Cauley-Stein since he might not be able to be on the floor for that.

If those emotions are there, Cauley-Stein isn't letting on.

"Right now he's still getting through that injury and he's not even thinking about it," Lee said. "He told us, he was like, 'I totally forgot my ankle hurt.' He was just running up and down the court. So it was really great having him."

It would be even better having Cauley-Stein -- owner of 106 of UK's 230 blocks on the season -- on the floor.

UK, after allowing 1.08 points per possession as Cauley-Stein was limited to just four minutes against U of L, yielded a season-high 1.26 to the high-powered Wolverines. Even though they advanced, the Cats missed Cauley-Stein's rim protection and ability to switch onto quick perimeter players.

Now, as UK prepares for a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin at approximately 8:49 p.m. ET on Saturday, Cauley-Stein is going to work to get back in full uniform.

"I really don't know," Cauley-Stein said, asked of his status for the weekend. "I hope so. I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Whether he's able to or not, you can be sure Cauley-Stein will be on the bench with his teammates in AT&T Stadium.

"It's sad that he's hurt, but he's still a part of this team," Poythress said. "We're not going to leave him out. If he wants to jump in the dog pile he can. If he wants to run sprints with us this week, he can hop in. We're just happy he can share this moment with us."



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.

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
  • laura n: What an honor and privledge to watch all of you grow into incredible young men. Never enjoyed a season more. read more
  • Amy Carnes: Very proud of you cats you have really grow as a team .You proved all the doubters wrong. And have read more