Karl-Anthony Towns will look to rebound from a one-point Sweet 16 effort on Saturday against Notre Dame. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- Karl-Anthony Towns is in the conversation for best big man in the country.
The 6-foot-11 freshman has turned into a dominant force the last two months of the season and his Kentucky team has come to rely on him.
But on Thursday night, the Wildcats got but a point and two rebounds from Towns, spelling trouble for their quest for a national title and a 40-0 season, right?
Instead, the Cats tied a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory with a 78-39 throttling of West Virginia.
"It's one of those things that, not many people in the country could ever say that they played the way I played and still come out and win by 39," Towns said.
With Towns limited to 13 minutes by foul trouble and general ineffectiveness, John Calipari instead turned to Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. The two sophomores answered the bell, combining for 16 points and 11 rebounds.
"Karl gave us ugats," Calipari said, breaking out some Italian slang, "nothing, and we still win big because of those two, and that's because we're playing them."
To Towns' credit, he was able to relish his team's success even though it came as he took a step back individually.
"That just shows you how deep and how much my brothers had my back," Towns said. "I think that's the blessing. You can't look at individual success. This is the tournament. Individual success doesn't matter. It matters what the team does."
Kentucky, however, is best when Towns is at his best. And to survive third-seeded Notre Dame and advance to the Final Four, it's likely Towns will need to regain his late-season form.
On a team with an historic level of talent and depth, Towns scored double figures in 10 of 16 outings prior to West Virginia. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds during the stretch, surging to win Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors.
His teammates expect to see that player back on the floor in Quicken Loans Arena against Notre Dame.
"Karl's a competitor so I expect him to do big things this next game," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
That's due in part to the fact that his coach demands it of him.
"I've been harder on him than anybody on this team, but I told him at the beginning of the year, it would be that way because he had a long way to go," Calipari said. "But I saw his upside being the best big guy in the country, and I'm not settling for anything else."
Neither Towns nor his family would have it any other way.
"When he gets off point, I'm right there, but after the game I get a text from his dad: 'Stay on him, don't let up, Coach,' " Calipari said. "Not: 'Get him more shots, play him more minutes.' That's the greatest thing about coaching these kids, they trust us that we're about them, we're about them getting better individually, that I want every one of them to shine, I want every one of them to be talked about. And so when they have a game like that and we still win, kind of takes the pressure off you."
On the season, Towns is averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. Solid, but not the kind of eye-popping statistics typical of a player in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Towns, playing just 20.7 minutes per game, has the perspective necessary to understand why.
"It hasn't hurt any of us," Towns said. "I mean, it's not about the minutes we get, it's about what we do with those minutes."
Towns will look to be a little more effective with his minutes Saturday night, but that's still not even his primary concern.
"I think that's the biggest joy I have: the fact I still get to play with my brothers," Towns said. "We love each other tremendously. It's just one of those things that it's not even the fact of playing another game. It's about who you're playing another game with. I've been given an opportunity to play another game with my brothers and we get to go back out there and lace up our shoes again and hopefully we get to do it again for several more times."
Willie Cauley-Stein will play in the Elite Eight on Saturday after sitting out the final three games on UK's 2014 NCAA Tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- Willie Cauley-Stein has talked many times over the last year about how difficult sitting on the bench for the latter half of Kentucky's magical tournament run was for him
On the eve of the Elite Eight, he revealed another facet to what it was like being relegated to spectator status.
"It was a weight off your shoulders though, knowing you're not going to have any impact on the game playing," Cauley-Stein said. "So that worry, that stress, you didn't have to endure that."
Unable to play due to a stress fracture in his ankle that knocked him out of UK's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville and had him in plainclothes for the Elite Eight and Final Four, Cauley-Stein admits there was part of him that enjoyed just being along for the ride.
A year later, he has no such chance.
Cauley-Stein is the upperclassman leader and defensive anchor for top-seeded Kentucky as the Wildcats carry a 37-0 mark into an Elite Eight showdown with Notre Dame at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. Night in and night out, the 7-foot junior draws the toughest defensive assignment and carries an ever-growing offensive load.
In short, whether UK makes its fourth Final Four trip under John Calipari will be up to Cauley-Stein as much as anyone. Different as it may be from last year, it's exactly where he wants to be.
"It feels good," Cauley-Stein said. "You just embrace it. You can't be scared of it. You can't be scared of the moment that we're in."
Whenever Cauley-Stein feels the fear, he needs only reflect on where he was two years ago.
Then, he had just seen his freshman season unceremoniously end in the first round of the NIT. After that loss at Robert Morris, Cauley-Stein said he was on a mission to render it a distant memory.
The mission continues.
"I feel like I'm on a mission," Cauley-Stein said. "I said that day after we lost, I have never won a championship before. I've never won anything, any crazy awards and I'm back to fill that spot in my heart, that emptiness. And crazy enough, it's happening. Never thought it would happen like this, but it's really happening. It's crazy to think that two years ago I was just talking. And now I'm living it, and it's sensational."
The crazy awards - national defensive player of the year, All America - are certainly coming and Cauley-Stein already has two conference titles under his belt, but the championship he really wants is three wins away. Third-seeded Notre Dame, which put on an offensive clinic in shooting 75 percent in the second half of an 81-70 Sweet 16 win over Wichita State, is the first hurdle.
The Fighting Irish (32-5), rated third nationally in offensive efficiency, will be the best offense UK has faced all season. Kentucky, of course, is first in defensive efficiency , pitting two of the best units in the game against one another.
"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team. ... It's just one of those things that you'll know when the ball gets thrown up whether you think you can play the guy or not."
For Cauley-Stein, the answer will surely be yes. The question, however, is who he'll actually guard.
Notre Dame has just one regular who stands taller than 6-foot-8 - 6-10 Zach Auguste - and often plays three 6-5 players at the same time. Almost all of them can shoot, with four players hitting 40 percent or better from 3-point range.
Not included in that group is star 6-5 point guard Jerian Grant, who averages a team-best 16.4 points per game and 6.7 assists. Could Cauley-Stein see time on him? Is sharpshooter and leading rebounder Pat Connaughton his more likely cover? Or what about any of the other five players averaging 6.4 points per game or more?
"We're going to get everybody's best, so them having five guys who can be a threat to us just opens up our defense," Cauley-Stein said. "It's going to put more pressure on our defense to play better and accept that challenge."
It's a challenge Cauley-Stein will be happy to accept considering he didn't have the choice a year ago.
"I think this means a lot to him," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He didn't get to experience it last year, and who would have known what would have happened last year if he was playing. I know he has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to go out there and he wants to prove that we can win it."
That desire started long before he ever had to sit out during last year's NCAA Tournament.
"Playing in your backyard and you're thinking of these moments, taking a last-second shot and shooting maybe the last free throws of the game and if you make them then you win, if you miss you lose," Cauley-Stein said. "That's that pressure that you put on yourself all when you were growing up. This is it now. This is the time to put it together."
Aaron Harrison returned after suffering a dislocated finger against West Virginia. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Metz Camfield from CoachCal.com contributed to this piece
CLEVELAND - There was still almost the entire second half to play, but the celebration was already on for Kentucky fans at Quicken Loans Arena en route to a 78-39 win over West Virginia.
The Wildcats (37-0) had built a lead of 29 points and appeared poised to coast through the final 16-plus minutes, until Aaron Harrison doubled over in pain. With 16:39 left, Harrison left the floor hunched over. The team trainer met him and draped a towel over his hand and the two hurried into the tunnel.
Fans watching at home reported his ring finger was bent grotesquely and for a brief moment those who had been jubilant just seconds prior pondered life without the clutch sophomore guard.
But seconds later, Harrison reemerged and rejoined his team on the bench. Minutes later, he checked back in.
"It's fine," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He played. He went back in and played so he's good."
Officially, Harrison's injury was a dislocated finger. He didn't even allow the trainer to pop it back into place for him.
"I had no choice," Harrison said. "I just felt like I needed to get it back, so I just pulled it."
Treating an injury himself only figures to add to Harrison's still-growing NCAA Tournament legend, a legend he says he will most certainly be looking to add to come Saturday at 8:49 p.m. against Notre Dame.
"I'm playing Saturday," said Harrison, who scored 10 of his 12 points in a barrage to start Thursday's blowout win.
Making that easier is the fact that the injury is to his non-shooting hand. When Harrison checked back in his finger was heavily taped and he had direct orders not to drive to the basket. John Calipari just wanted him to get a live shot or two under his belt to build his comfort level.
"I mean it was different to have something on my left hand when I tried to shoot it, but I'll figure a way out," Harrison said. "I'm definitely playing Saturday."
When Harrison checked out for the final time against West Virginia with eight minutes left, Calipari extended his hand to give a high-five. Harrison went across his body to oblige with his right hand, saving his left the trouble.
He also had a couple quick words for his coach.
"I just told him, 'I can still shoot, Coach,' " Harrison said. " 'So I'm good.' "
Andrew Harrison's and-one highlights UK's demolition
The game was over. In fact, it had been over for quite some time. But the highlights weren't and Andrew Harrison still had one play he wanted to perform.
With 6:20 left in the game, the sophomore point guard got his opportunity and didn't disappoint.
Leading 67-32, Harrison read West Virginia's Jevon Carter and picked off his pass intended for Juwan Staten. Harrison raced down the right side of the floor before Carter ran in front of him. That's when things turned silly.
"That was crazy," Tyler Ulis said. "It shows you what type of night we were having."
The type of night UK was having was one where Harrison was able to put the ball behind his back without bouncing it, reminiscent of another former Kentucky point guard in John Wall, and then throw the ball up backwards as he fell to the ground as he was being fouled.
Of course the ball then banked high off the backboard and into the hoop. New score: Kentucky 69, West Virginia 32. Andrew Harrison 1, Sanity 0.
"That's gonna be a top-10 play," Ulis said.
Harrison could only smile from ear to ear as he bounced up immediately after the play and was swarmed by his teammates.
In the grand scheme of things, it was just a three-point play - after the made free throw - that put the Cats up by 38 points with 6:20 remaining, but it was one that caught the attention of the Cats' leader in highlight reel plays, Willie Cauley-Stein, who said Harrison had called the play earlier in the game.
"Crazy," Cauley-Stein said. "He called it. We were sitting on the bench and he was like, 'I should have went behind the back on that,' and I was like, 'Yeah, bro. Do it next time.' He kind of sat there and I'm like, 'Nah, he's not gonna do it.' I was just talking him into it, 'Yeah, bro, do it.' Dude does it! I'm like, 'Dude!' And made the layup. That was crazy. I stopped. I stopped at half court. I thought it was going to be a foul or he was going to miss it, but he ended up making it. I was like, 'This dude really called that shot.' "
But was it a better play than some of Cauley-Stein's dunks, including his poster vs. Cincinnati in the Round of 32?
"Probably more acrobatic," Cauley-Stein said.
Booker finds his stroke
Nitpickers needed only look as far as Devin Booker to find a flaw with UK's postseason run.
The freshman sharpshooter had gone cold in March, hitting a combined 10 of 30 from the field and 3 of 16 from 3 in tournament play. Even though Kentucky had cruised to double digit wins in all five of those outings, Booker would need to find his form for the Cats to hit their peak.
He did just that Thursday night.
"He had to tighten it up," Calipari said. "He got a little loose with his shot, and when you do that and you start missing, it goes the other way on you fast, but I thought today he was terrific."
Booker scored 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, including a perfect 3 of 3 in the first half. He also hit a pair of 3-pointers before halftime for his first makes from outside the arc in the NCAA Tournament. In spite of the cold spell, his teammates never lost confidence in him.
"We've seen that all the time," Towns said. "We're used to seeing that. Anytime he shoots it, we think it's going in. It's nothing new to us."
It's that confidence that has helped carry Booker through.
"This team helped me throughout my slump that I was in," Booker said. "They told me to keep shooting. Once I see one go down, the rest will fall. It's just been a lot of hard work and a lot of confidence that my team's given me and it just ended up falling tonight."
Towns sits down, Johnson steps up
Towns has made a late-season push into contention for the top spot in many projections of this summer's NBA Draft. He's become a go-to guy for Kentucky in the process, delivering big baskets when the Cats need them most.
Considering that, you'd think Towns' one-point, two-rebound, 13-minute line on Thursday night might spell trouble for the top seed in the Midwest Region.
This, however, is not your normal team.
As soon as Towns sat down with foul trouble, Dakari Johnson stepped up.
"That's something he always can do," Towns said. "It's a blessing to have people like him on our team. No matter what happens, there's no bench on our team. Just reinforcements."
Johnson might not have seemed on paper to be suited to play against high-pressure, up-tempo West Virginia, but the 7-foot sophomore carved out a role for himself in his 24 minutes - the most he's played in two months - and plenty of space. Johnson finished with 12 points, six rebounds and three blocks.
"What Dakari did was like, wow, you could play without Karl. Well, Dakari was really good today."
Like the rest of his teammates, Marcus Lee was locked in.
Facing West Virginia's press, Lee saw his man was leaving an opening for a drive to the basket and a lob pass, so he told Tyler Ulis about it. Seeing the situation play out just as Lee said it would, Ulis fed Lee perfectly for a dunk that gave the Wildcats their final points in a game-opening 18-2 run.
The only problem was no one told Booker about it.
"Only me and Tyler kind of knew what was happening so Devin still made that cut-through," Lee said. "We kind of ran into each other and didn't realize what was happening."
Poster dunks have become a common occurrence for this Kentucky team, but not with fellow Cats as the victims. Lee and Booker still had no trouble enjoying it afterward.
"We laughed about it," Lee said. "We were looking at pictures and videos about it after the game."
UK tied a Sweet 16 record for scoring margin with a 78-39 win over West Virginia on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - On Oct. 17 UK head coach John Calipari stood before a rowdy crowd of UK fans and spoke four simple words before dropping the mic at Big Blue Madness.
"Enough talking, let's ball!" he said.
Over five months later, those same four words would have been quite applicable.
After Wednesday's media opportunities, many of the stories centered on Mountaineers' freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr.'s comments in which he said the Cats would be 36-1 and that he didn't think they played hard.
Instead of biting at the bait, UK simply listened, and on Thursday night the Mountaineers heard plenty as the top-seeded Wildcats put together as impressive a performance as they've had all season in doubling up West Virginia 78-39 to advance to the Elite Eight.
"I was really pleased with the energy of our team," Coach Cal said. "I was pleased with how zoned in they were."
Oh, there was no need to worry about the Cats being zoned in for this game.
They say to never poke a sleeping bear. In spite of the difference in species, the same concept applies to this group of Wildcats. When they hear chatter, they may stay quiet, but they listen and they remember. After Thursday's win in which UK (37-0) became the first team in Sweet 16 history to double up its opponent, a lot of folks will remember.
"I don't know why they would do that at all," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said, who hit each of his first four shots in the game. "I guess they woke us up.
"We were super motivated. ... That (talk) was fuel to the fire. And we just wanted to go out there and make a statement to them and the rest of the country."
It wasn't the first time a team has chosen to talk a bit of trash to Kentucky before facing the undefeated squad though. Arkansas twice talked to Kentucky this season. The end results were a 17-point victory at Rupp Arena in which the Cats once led by 31, and a 15-point victory in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship in which the Cats had led by 21. UK never trailed in any of the three games, including Thursday's romp.
"I think you could probably sneak up on us if you didn't talk anything before," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
Which brings up the season-long question yet again: How do you beat Kentucky? Perhaps a start is to not say anything whatsoever to the Cats prior to tipoff.
"If they didn't do that you're probably just going to coast into the game and not really be focused on it," Cauley-Stein said. "You're just going to let it come to you. But when you hear that type of stuff you're focused for the whole preparation. All the hard practices you're thinking of that type of stuff. That's what gets you going, especially this team. We have a bunch of competitive dudes so you hear that type of stuff and you're like, 'Nah, we have to show them who they are and what they are.' "
One of the strategies thrown out by many, and predicted by some in the media to be successful, was West Virginia's press. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the famed "Press Virginia" appeared to look more stressed with UK scoring quickly and easily (UK shot 60.9 percent in the first half).
And again, the doubt of how Kentucky's guards would handle the WVU press was another source of motivation for Aaron Harrison and others.
"We consider ourselves the best guards in the country and for a team to say they can press us and we won't be able to pass the ball and things like that, we thought that was really dumb and ridiculous," Aaron Harrison said.
"I hope not," Cauley-Stein said when asked if he thinks this will put to rest the notion that UK struggles when facing the press. "I hope teams continue to press us."
The Cats used the Mountaineers' talk not only in the game, but in their preparation as well.
"I knew it was going to be like this," Ulis said. "We've been talking about it all day."
The Cats scored 18 of the game's first 20 points and held the Mountaineers scoreless for nearly seven minutes as West Virginia didn't connect on its second field goal of the game until eight minutes and 42 seconds had elapsed. By halftime, UK led 44-18, marking the lowest point total by the Mountaineers all season.
Instead of easing its foot off the gas - or throat, as UK referred to it - Kentucky remained focused and only added to its record-breaking performance in the second half by not allowing a West Virginia field goal for the opening 8:18.
"That was up there with like the Kansas game and the UCLA game where we came out and tried to put our foot on their throat and just keep going," freshman guard Tyler Ulis said.
But was it the most impressive performance of the season? Cauley-Stein said it may still be too early to say.
"Could be," said Cauley-Stein, who finished with eight points, 10 rebounds, three blocks, two assists and one steal. "I mean, we still have some games left."
UK moved into the Elite Eight with a 78-39 win over West Virginia on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - The talk was everywhere.
The words coming out of the Mountaineer locker room made into every story previewing Kentucky and West Virginia's matchup. Daxter Miles Jr.'s guarantee that West Virginia would hand the Cats their first loss even made SportsCenter.
The Cats, meanwhile, responded with the equivalent of a silent head nod.
Andrew Harrison broke out his trademark dry sense of humor. Karl-Anthony Towns said everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Willie Cauley-Stein had the most dramatic reaction, but even he would only say the comments added "fuel to the fire."
The Cats, no doubt, preferred to let their play do the talking.
And their play talked plenty loud Thursday night.
"We've been talking about it all day," Tyler Ulis said. "Coming out and just demolishing them 'cause they were talking so much trash saying we were gonna be 36-1 and stuff like that. We felt like that was nonsense, so we just came out and killed 'em."
In a season full of devastating performances, the Cats delivered one of their best yet on the biggest stage yet. With a 78-39 destruction of the Mountaineers, UK moved to 37-0 and into the Elite Eight, and tied an NCAA Tournament record for the largest margin of victory in a Sweet 16 game.
"I was really pleased with the energy of our team," John Calipari said. "I was pleased with how zoned in they were, with how we were going to attack the press, how we were going to finish and we were going to just, hey, if we could score a hundred, score a hundred, just play."
For a while, the Cats seemed like they might threaten the century mark.
Within the first eight minutes, UK built an 18-2 lead. Aaron Harrison, scoring 10 points, chased away any worries about outside shooting woes lingering from last week's win over Cincinnati or Kentucky's 2010 Elite Eight loss to West Virginia by burying a pair of 3-pointers.
Harrison would finish with just 12 points and briefly departed with a dislocated finger, but the tone was set and West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins' fears realized.
"Well, I think pretty much what I was afraid could happen," Huggins said. "They shot the ball really poorly the last game, and they're too good to have probably back-to-back bad days shooting the ball, and they came out and made a bunch of shots."
Rendering West Virginia's full-court pressure wholly ineffective, UK committed just 10 turnovers for the game and shot a scalding 60.9 percent from the field in building an insurmountable 44-18 lead.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were flummoxed on offense. They shot 24.1 percent from the field for the game and at one point had made just 5-of-37 attempts. All told, they managed just 0.582 points per possession and their 39 points were a season low. UK, meanwhile, blocked seven shots.
"I feel like on some of their rebounds they try to go back up with it and they had three dudes blocking their shot," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "That kind of gets to you like, 'Dang, I can't even get a rebound and a layup. I have three dudes with their hands on the ball.' "
UK added seven steals, snagging a few in using a full-court press that actually one-upped the Mountaineers'. The Cats had a turnover margin of plus-three.
"An old friend of mine says you press a pressing team, you press a pressing team," Calipari said. "And that's why we put in the diamond press and that's why we did some of the stuff we did, just to press them to go like you're not going to be the aggressor; we're going to be the aggressor, too."
UK has always had the press in its arsenal, but overall excellence has been its defensive calling card all season. Huggins, to put it mildly, has noticed.
"They're just -- they're terrific defensively," Huggins said. "They've got -- that's the best defensive team I think that I've ever coached against."
The Cats' offense might not be good on a historical level in the way their defense is, but it's not too shabby either.
"I thought they were the best offensive team in the country," Huggins said. "Everybody kind of gets caught up in their size and all that, which is certainly a part of it, but to get those guys to play as hard and to play together the way they do, I mean, you look down there, you've got guys that, you know, are going to be lottery picks that they give the ball up, they share the ball."
Six players combined for UK's 13 assists on 24 made field goals, while more good passes helped lead to the Cats' 31 free-throw attempts, of which they hit 26. Trey Lyles hit 6-of-7 tries from the line in pacing UK with 14 points, while Andrew Harrison scored nine of his 13 points at the line. Two of the remaining four came on the highlight of the night, a dizzying behind-the-back and-one finish in the open floor destined for highlight reels.
"That was smooth," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "I've never seen something like that before, especially on a stage like this. That just shows you how loose we are."
Towns might have been a little too loose, picking up two fouls in eight first-half minutes and his third and fourth within the first minute of the second half. Talked about as the possible top pick in June's NBA Draft, Towns managed just one point and two rebounds.
Imagine, then, what Thursday's performance looks like with Towns performing at his peak.
"We still gotta work on a lot of things," Towns said. "This team, just because we came out and had a great win today doesn't mean that we're at full capability and working on all cylinders."
UK will take its next shot at reaching its peak on Saturday at 8:49 p.m. against third-seeded Notre Dame, which dispatched Wichita State with a near-perfect second-half offensive effort.
"We just have to come out the same way, with the same intensity knowing that they're going to try to shoot a lot of 3s on us, they're going to try to win it at the 3-point line, but that's been the same way all year round," Cauley-Stein said. "Teams have to shoot well at the 3, so our game plan is just going to guard them at the 3, make sure they make half the 3s they made tonight. Just play with a lot of intensity because it's a big deal."
The chatter would continue, with Miles - a freshman guard - not only saying "nobody is invincible," but also saying "they don't play that hard" of the Wildcats ahead of a Sweet 16 matchup. The top-seeded Cats (36-0) weren't there to hear it, but they surely heard about it soon after when their own locker room opened.
Karl-Anthony Towns mostly nodded quietly.
"I mean, everyone has an opinion," Towns said. "Just take it as you get, I guess. We've always been criticized for everything. So it's OK."
Willie Cauley-Stein, meanwhile, had a bit more vocal reaction. The player most agree to be the best defender in the country, known for his tireless energy in guarding post players and wing players alike, wasn't so sure about the play-hard critique.
"You've never even watched us play in person or you've never even watched us play people that are supposed to beat you and you end up beating them by 30, 40 points," Cauley-Stein said. "But we don't play hard? I mean--If you're playing against teams like UCLA, Kansas, that are good teams and you're able to do what we did to them without playing hard, imagine what we do playing hard. That's kind of my mentality."
Cauley-Stein has a point there.
UK has steamrolled through 36 games this season without a loss, staying atop the polls throughout and winning games by an NCAA-leading margin of 20.8 points per game. The Cats have won all five of their postseason games by double digits to boot, leading some to wonder why the Mountaineers would poke the bear that is Kentucky with anything other than respectful, boilerplate quotes.
Cauley-Stein knows better. He also doesn't mind.
"No, I expect them to say stuff like that," Cauley-Stein said. "I don't necessarily know a team that at this point wouldn't say something like that. That's good. Adds fuel to the fire. Puts a little personal stuff into it. It's all good stuff."
With an Elite Eight berth going to the winner, the stakes were already high enough, said Cauley-Stein. Now the Cats have something more to play for than just a win. Pride's on the line.
"Now I'm kind of juiced," Cauley-Stein said. "This game is going to be really fun. They made it kind of personal now."
The game, based on West Virginia's physical full-court defense and Kentucky's proven ability to deal with such a style, was already plenty compelling. With a little friendly back and forth added to the mix, CBS becomes the place to be at 9:45 p.m. on Thursday.
"It's just going to be one of them games, that I'm telling you, if you want to watch a good game, you're going to want to watch this game because dudes is lit," Cauley-Stein said. "Dudes is really ready to play."
Excited as the Cats might be to have a little fuel added to the fire, one thing is noticeably absent from any of their responses to questions about West Virginia's pregame predictions.
Trash talk of their own.
"We don't worry about that," Towns said. "You know what's the thing? It's usually always the people that are the best that say the least."
The Cats are happy to let their play speak for itself.
UK will face West Virginia in the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six years on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- It may seem just like yesterday for some Big Blue faithful.
Kentucky was riding high, a No. 1 seed in the East Regional Finals looking to make it back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The only team standing in the way was the No. 2 seed in that region, West Virginia.
Played in a cold, wet and dreary Syracuse, N.Y., the Wildcats missed their first 20 3s against the Mountaineers, finishing just 4 of 32, and lost 73-66.
"To even be in the game 0-20, I must have had a hell of a team, which I did," UK head coach John Calipari said Wednesday.
Asked if he could take any lessons from that 2010 game, Huggins replied nonchalantly.
"If Cal promises to miss his first 20 3s like they did in 2010 that would help," he said, "if we could get him to do that."
On Thursday, Kentucky, again the No. 1 seed, will face fifth-seeded West Virginia for the third time in the last six NCAA Tournaments. While no member of either 2010 team is still playing, both schools' players have been reminded of the game.
West Virginia, being the victors that day, naturally have used the history lesson as a sense of pride and motivation.
"That's all we've been hearing all week, is the team that beat that team in 2010, but the reality is we play two different styles," West Virginia senior guard Juwan Staten said. "That team had a lot of size and they played a slower down game. But we're going to be in your face and we're going to be pressing. Ultimately that doesn't mean anything but it gives us a lot of motivation and a lot of confidence."
To put things in perspective, Harrison was just a freshman in high school at the time that game was played. UK's current freshman class was in its second semester of eight grade, preparing for the upcoming rigors of high school, and Devin Booker was just 13 years old.
Asked about it Wednesday, the Wildcats paid no mind to the game, pointing out that it was a different team entirely.
"I was probably playing basketball somewhere or doing something else while they were playing," Trey Lyles said.
"I know we didn't shoot the ball well, but other than that, that's all I really know," Aaron Harrison said about the game. "I liked DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall. I was a fan."
One current Wildcat who was watching the game was freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, only he was watching the Mountaineers more than the Wildcats.
"I was watching," Towns said. "Close friend of mine played for West Virginia, too. Da'Sean Butler."
Even still, with both rosters being entirely different, styles of play having changed, and much more, members of the Big Blue Nation remember the game all too well. On Coach Cal's weekly call-in show Monday, he was asked about the 2010 game before he could remind the caller that the Cats won one year later - and more recently - in the tournament.
Sometimes it's the most painful memories that linger, but the fact that the fans do remember that game and have reminded the players about it comes as no surprise to Lyles.
"I wouldn't say it surprises me, knowing Big Blue Nation and how they love basketball and stuff like that," Lyles said. "Every team was their best team so of course they're going to hold onto something like that and they just want us to beat a team, revenge them I guess."
Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis will face West Virginia's full-court press on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - The theories and strategies of how to beat Kentucky have been thrown out all year dating back to August when the Wildcats were handling pro teams in the Bahamas.
You've got to spread them out, you need to hit a bunch of 3s, you need to score in transition, a physical team is one that can get the Wildcats out of their game, they said.
"They gotta run out (of strategies) eventually," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to the Cats' round of 32 game versus Cincinnati. "They try everything. You got to though. You can't get mad at it. I would do the same thing."
Cincinnati's physical style of ball was the latest to go toe to toe with undefeated Kentucky. Like the 35 teams before the Bearcats, it proved to not be enough, though despite UK leading by 19 points with just over one minute left in the game, some believe the Bearcats actually exposed vulnerability in Kentucky.
Next up is No. 20/21 ranked and No. 5 seeded West Virginia, affectionately known as "Press Virginia" due to its full-court pressure defense applied on nearly every possession following both a made or missed basket.
The Wildcats have faced multiple teams that have applied their press to them this year, namely Louisville and Arkansas, but many believe yet again that this may be the formula to finally crack the as-of-now unbreakable Kentucky will.
"We know that they're going to play hard and it's going to be a physical game, and we have been preparing for that all weekend," freshman guard Devin Booker said.
Preparing for it and facing it are two different items, however. Against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament championship, Kentucky excelled against the Razorbacks' press, scoring 78 points and cruising to victory in the second half.
In that game, Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis combined for eight assists to just one turnover, and showed how effective two point guards on the floor simultaneously can be against a press.
"With two point guards in most of the game it's hard to press us," Tyler Ulis said. "(Andrew Harrison) can get the ball, I can get the ball, Aaron and Book can also handle the pressure, and Trey (Lyles). It's hard to press us, and then once we get in the open court it's lobs."
Over the last five games, the two point guards have proven to be especially effective, distributing 37 assists to just 10 turnovers (3.7 assist-to-turnover ratio). Still, West Virginia, which leads the nation in turnovers forced and steals, didn't think its press would be rendered ineffective against the Cats Thursday and that eventually it would take its toll on Kentucky physically.
"I mean, everybody that we play, their guards, they can break the press - I mean at the beginning of the first half they might be making good decisions but then they don't realize they don't have enough depth on their bench and the second half is going to catch up," West Virginia senior guard Gary Browne said. "Sometime during the game we can see it. We get real excited when things like that happen. I feel like the whole bench, the whole team can realize that and that's when we know, we go harder and more aggressive."
Browne's senior backcourt mate Juwan Staten echoed his sentiments on wearing the opponent down, saying the Mountaineers were the best conditioned team in the country, and used West Virginia's tough, physical practices as an example.
"Why wouldn't it (work)?" Staten said. "We've been playing this way all year, we've had success against everybody no matter what style or what type of players they have. That's the only way we play and it's just up to us to make it work."
Similar to its bordering state to the east, Kentucky has worn teams down all season as well, typically occurring midway to late in the second half, as evidenced in gritty road wins at Florida, LSU and Georgia, as well as Saturday's third-round NCAA Tournament victory over Cincinnati. Kentucky has also talked about the excitement of seeing the opposition begin to wither under fatigue.
"It will be different because we have nine guys (Coach Cal) plays, rotating in and out, two point guards, a lot of people who can handle the ball so that's going to be a little bit different with the rotation and stuff like that," Ulis said.
Another advantage for Kentucky in attacking West Virginia's press will be the Wildcats' size. Kentucky's starting lineup stands at 6-foot-6, 6-6, 6-10, 6-11 and 7-0. The Cats also have three players coming off the bench standing at 6-6, 6-9 and 7-0. By comparison, West Virginia's starters are 6-1, 6-1, 6-3, 6-7 and 6-9.
"I don't know what you do about that," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "I've thought about that, but I haven't really come up with an answer."
"Sometimes you can't dribble around the press, so it's good for them to be able to pick it up and look over defenders, step through presses and stuff like that," Ulis said.
One seemingly distinct advantage of the press for Kentucky is that it speeds up the game and the Wildcats have flourished in fast-paced games. Of the seven games Kentucky has played ending in regulation that have featured 70 or more possessions, the Wildcats have outscored their opponents by 34.0 points per game. West Virginia, for its part, has played in 13 such games and has the 29th-fastest adjusted tempo in the country, according to KenPom.com.
"I think we enjoy just playing, period," Aaron Harrison said. "In fast-paced games - yeah, I do think we enjoy fast-paced games."
Now, West Virginia's method of answering the question that no team has been able to answer will be put to the test. How do you beat Kentucky? The Mountaineers say it's all about their press, and Coach Cal says they won't stray away from that Thursday.
"I said what (Huggins has) done with this team, incredible," Calipari said. "And again, he's taken kids, they've gotten better individually and they've come together and say here's the style we can win with, and that's how they're playing and they won't get away from it, that's who they are. The players now have taken great pride in it."
John Calipari leads Kentucky into a Sweet 16 matchup with Bob Huggins' West Virginia team on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Bob Huggins owed one to John Calipari.
The two coaches share a close bond, so after Calipari came to a fundraiser for the cancer center at West Virginia, Huggins had to repay the favor when Calipari asked him to speak at a clinic in Kentucky.
Huggins went in blind, knowing only that plenty of UK fans would be in attendance. So consider his surprise when he asked Calipari what he should discuss with the crowd.
"He says, '1-3-1, everybody wants to know how to beat the 1-3-1,' " Huggins said. " 'They know I didn't figure it out so they want everybody to do it.' "
It hadn't been long since West Virginia's quirky zone defense had flummoxed UK into 4-of-32 3-point shooting and an Elite Eight loss in 2010 and the wounds were still fairly fresh. Calipari just didn't much care.
"You've got to have a lot of self-assurance to, you know, bring somebody in to talk about a 1-3-1," Huggins said. "... But that's Cal. He's been a very dear friend."
The two dear friends will match wits again on Thursday at approximately 9:45 p.m. in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena. Top-seeded Kentucky carries a perfect 36-0 mark into the Sweet 16, while Huggins' fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-9) are an overachieving bunch that, per usual, match the character of their coach.
"I've always respected what he does coaching his basketball teams, how hard they play, how physical they play, how they rebound," Calipari said.
Huggins had similar respect for Calipari as a coach, praising the work he's done to shape a group of young, talented players into the best defensive team in the country, but it's the man he's gotten to know away from the court Huggins really respects.
"He's more than a basketball coach," Huggins said. "Somebody asked me what separates Cal from other coaches, and Cal and I have gone to Europe together and done a bunch of things. And I say, well, most other basketball coaches aren't getting on a plane and read U.S. News and World Report or Money Magazine or those kind of things. Cal is a very diverse guy and I think he's kept things, I think, in a very good perspective. He's a great family guy, just, and he's been a good friend."
It's a friendship that started years ago.
Huggins says the two were introduced while he was a player at West Virginia and Calipari in high school, while Calipari says it was a few years later when Huggins had recently been named head coach at Walsh College. Regardless which is true, they've grown close over the years, sharing similar backgrounds - Calipari grew up in Moon Township, Pa., less than 80 miles from Huggins' hometown of Morgantown, W.Va. - and have moved through the coaching ranks since.
Over the course of their careers, Huggins has an 8-2 record against Calipari, the best of any coach who has faced him at least three times. Seven of Huggins' wins came while Calipari was at Memphis or UMass.
That history has become a part of regular conversation between Calipari and Huggins, and it's even spread to extended families, as evidenced by the pair's favorite story.
It was in 2002. Huggins was at the Pittsburgh airport when he started to sweat and experienced shortness of breath. An ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital and Huggins was in and out of consciousness as he had a heart attack. At one point when he came to, the paramedic tending to him revealed why he was taking such good care of Huggins.
"So I came to and I was fairly coherent at that time and he said, 'Coach, listen, I can't let you die, I'm John Calipari's cousin, and you can't die until we beat you at least once,' " Huggins said.
Huggins would of course live and return to coaching, and Calipari has gotten two wins against him, including one in the 2011 NCAA Tournament to avenge that 2010 defeat. But come Thursday evening, that's irrelevant.
"When you're playing in these games, none of the past matters," Calipari said. "Whether I was 12-0 against a coach, it doesn't matter, this is a one-game shot."
In a calendar week plagued by injuries for former Cats in the NBA, Terrence Jones suffered a partially collapsed lung nine minutes into a 118-108 Houston Rockets win over the Denver Nuggets on March 19. Jones is scheduled for re-evaluation on March 27, but is expected to miss at least the next three Houston contests. Three other UK alumni-- Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, and Enes Kanter-- ended the seven-day span on the sideline with minor injuries, but were each poised for a return to action once the week was over.
Performance of the week
Nerlens Noel | Philadelphia 76ers: 97, New York Knicks: 81 | March 20, 2015 In the second of back-to-back Sixers wins (and Philly's 17th victory of 2014-15), Noel guided his team with 23 points, 14 rebounds, five steals, and three blocks on the day. The 20-year-old's historic numbers have moved him into serious contention for the NBA's Rookie of the Year Award with under a month remaining in the regular season.
76ers' Nerlens Noel became the youngest player in NBA history to put up at least 20 points, 10 rebounds, 5 steals and 3 blocks in a game.
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (37-33) In three straight Phoenix wins, Bledsoe ignited the Suns on both ends of the floor. Starting out the week with 21 points, 11 assists, nine rebounds and two steals in a 102-89 victory over the Knicks, Bledsoe capped off the winning streak with a career-high 34 points, eight rebounds, four assists, three steals and a block in a 117-102 win over the Rockets.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings (23-45) Before missing Wednesday and Friday with a strained right calf, Cousins notched a 20-point, 13-rebound double-double (complemented by five assists, three blocks and two steals) in a 110-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks on March 16. The defeat was the third installment in a four-game Sacramento losing streak.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (37-32) Before missing games on Thursday and Friday with a sprained left ankle suffered during Thursday's shootaround, Davis dominated his first two games of the week in one Pelicans win and one loss. "The Brow" tallied 36 points, 14 rebounds, nine blocks, seven assists and one steal in a 118-111 double-overtime loss to the Nuggets on March 15. Two days later, Davis recorded 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, three blocks and a steal in an 85-84 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
Archie Goodwin | #20 SG | Phoenix Suns (37-33) After filling the box score with seven points, five assists, four rebounds, and three steals in the Suns' win over the Knicks on March 15, Goodwin averaged 10.5 points (6.5 more than his season average) over the next two Phoenix wins. A reverse alley-oop jam by way of Suns teammate Gerald Green earned the Arkansas native NBA.com's Dunk of the Night honors on March 19.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (39-30) Prior to sitting out Friday's contest with the Hawks due to a sprained left ankle, Kanter posted three straight double-doubles to begin the week. Kanter averaged 19.7 points and 13.7 points over the span, leading OKC to a 2-1 record.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (40-29) Thanks to two double-double performances from Wall over a three-game stretch, the Wizards finished last week with a home win over the Portland Trail Blazers, a road win over the Utah Jazz, and a loss to the Los Angeles Clippers in LA. Over the span, Wall averaged 21.3 points, 9.0 assists and 8.0 rebounds.