Karl-Anthony Towns had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocks in UK's win over Cincinnati to advance to the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Lindsay Travis, CoachCal.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Willie Cauley-Stein's dunk will be the play fans remember as the one that turned a first-half nail-biter into a double-digit round-of-32 win over Cincinnati.
As big as it was, the players say it was the moment that followed that precipitated the run UK used to take a seven-point lead into halftime.
In fact, they can remember the exact time left on the clock.
"I think our identity was shown, I think, with 2:44 left in the first half," Karl-Anthony Towns said.
"We said it in the huddle when there's 2:44 left in the half, 'We have to push it. We have to push it now,' " Cauley-Stein said.
There was a media timeout immediately after Cauley-Stein's dunk and before he stepped to the line to convert the and-one. In the huddle, the Cats weren't so happy with themselves as they led eighth-seeded Cincinnati by a score of just 25-24.
"We were really upset with ourselves and we just told ourselves we wanted to lock down and we wanted to get all stops and capitalize offensively," Towns said.
UK would do just that, reeling off a 10-point run en route to a 64-51 win to advance past the Bearcats and into the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16. In the huddle that preceded it, John Calipari wasn't the one delivering the buckle-down message.
"We looked at each other in the huddle and Coach Cal just listened to us talk to each other," Towns said. "We literally came together and we said, 'We need to get stops. We can't let this happen. We can't keep letting this happen.' And we made a goal for ourselves. We didn't want them to score one point for the rest of the half and we did that."
As significant as the huddle was in regards to Saturday's outcome, it was perhaps just as encouraging for UK's prospects of building on their NCAA-record 36-0 start to the season. The Cats seem to be seizing control of their own destiny.
"Coach wants us to be empowered," Trey Lyles said. "Coach wants it to be our team. We're starting to do that now and at the end of the first half we came together as a group. We told each other that we needed to lock down defensively and if we do that defensively then the lead will push. You saw that at the end the half and then the second half we did that as well."
Double the energy
When the moment gets big and the Cats need energy there's one, no, two players the team looks to: the Harrison twins.
"(Aaron) and his brother are kind of the throttle on the team," Willie Cauley-Stein said prior to the Cats' matchup with Cincinnati. "If they're saying they're going to come out playing different, then they're going to come out playing different. In return, everybody's going to come out playing different. They're kind of the fuel to the fire."
Against an unrelenting Bearcats squad, the Harrisons combined for 18 points, 13 for Aaron and five for Andrew. The all-clutch shooting guard went 3 of 7 from deep, while the sophomore point guard had two baskets and a pair of assists in 26 minutes of playing time. Oh, and Andrew Harrison had zero turnovers, his third turnover-free game in a row.
"It's ridiculous how much they both improved," UK head coach John Calipari said. "They're both winning players now. They're both winning players. They both are not afraid to make game-winning shots because they're not afraid to miss game-winning shots. They'll make free throws. They're both defending better."
Aaron Harrison picked up a rare technical against the Bearcats that helped energize the team. Maybe not as much as Willie Cauley-Stein's poster-worthy dunk, but it helped get the Cats going.
"Yeah, anytime some stuff like that happens, it doesn't matter who, you're going to automatically be juiced," Cauley-Stein said. "Anytime somebody is talking trash to you you're going to go back at them."
After missing both attempted 3s against Hampton and scoring his only three points from the free-throw line, Aaron Harrison found his way out of a shooting slump Saturday.
"Aaron can do other things like get to the rim, so once he hit some layups and stuff like that the goal opens up for him," Andrew Harrison said.
On a team packed to the rafters with talent, Coach Cal thinks the twins don't get enough credit for what they do and what they did last season.
"They carried us to the final game last year, those two," Calipari said. "You watch the tapes. Those two carried us to where we were. Struggled a little bit in the final game. We never would have gotten into the final game without those two. Now they're starting to do the same thing again. It says something about who they are as players in their heart to win and their will to win."
Booker not worried about shooting slump
So far in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, Devin Booker has not reloaded a 3 one single time. He's attempted seven shots and they've hit every part of the rim, but none have fallen.
You would think the normally hot-handed freshman would be worried that his shot hasn't found its way in. But you'd be incorrect.
"It's nothing new to me, but like I said, I've stressed it, that's the least of my concerns right now as long as my team is winning," Booker said. "If we're finding other ways to win, that's definitely fine with me."
The shots may not be falling right now, but Coach Cal wants the freshman to keep shooting.
"We told him after the game, hey, you've got to keep shooting because there's going to be a game we need him to make shots or we can't win," Calipari said. "It just didn't happen to be this one or the first one. You can miss all these ones. It doesn't matter. The next one's coming up, we may need you to make some shots."
Booker didn't go scoreless vs. Cincinnati. His 3s weren't falling but his 2s were and the freshman shooting guard found other ways to produce for his team, such as driving to the basket.
"If my shot is not falling I try to assert myself in different ways, whether that's defending, rebounding, or like you said, attacking the rim," Booker said. "That's what I did today in transition. It kind of opened up a few times for me and I took advantage of it."
In addition to his six points, the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year had four rebounds in 22 minutes of play. And post-Cincinnati, he feels like his shot will come soon.
"I think it's going in," Booker said. "It feels good. I actually don't know what it is, but I'm going to keep shooting and I feel like we're going to be all right.
"I don't know if it's a good thing I'm not on fire, but like I said, it's going to come along. I know it is. My team trusts me, the whole coaching staff trusts me."
Willie Cauley-Stein's first-half dunk spurred a 10-0 UK run that gave UK the lead against Cincinnati. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - After defeating Hampton, Willie Cauley-Stein said he wasn't Superman.
Further proof may be needed.
With 2:46 remaining in the first half of Kentucky's 64-51 third-round victory over Cincinnati, Cauley-Stein took a pass from Tyler Ulis and took flight from the left side of the lane, throwing down one of the biggest and baddest dunks of the college basketball season, and certainly the still young NCAA Tournament.
"I feel like I might have turned into Superman on that, but I'm just Clark Kent, you know what I'm saying?" Cauley-Stein said. "I just went into a little phone booth and turned into Superman real quick."
Unfortunately for Cincinnati (23-11), there was no kryptonite to be found.
After trailing for 7:42 of the opening 17:14, UK never trailed again following the junior forward's dunk that put UK up 25-24.
After the game, many wondered, where does this dunk rank in the ever-growing collection of Cauley-Stein posters?
"It might be worse than the dude from Florida," Cauley-Stein said. "I mean, I don't think they put the kid back in the game. It was nasty."
"Probably top three," Ulis said. "Not No. 1. The Florida dunk is No. 1. Definitely."
Whether it was his best dunk or not is a matter of preference, but it did share a number of similarities to that of his poster over Florida's Devin Robinson.
Aside from both posters occurring on the left side of the lane and with Cauley-Stein already having picked up a head of steam, they both came against 6-foot-8 freshmen. Perhaps the naivety of youth played a role in contesting the dunk.
"I don't get it," Andrew Harrison said. "I don't know why you would jump. Just swipe it. Run-through swipe, that's what I would do."
"We don't know why people jump when he's already in the air," Trey Lyles said. "It's pretty much over after that. So if you jump after that there's something wrong with you."
Second, and of much more importance to the Cats, both dunks gave Kentucky the lead for good in what had otherwise been back-and-forth, tight games. Against Florida, it was the ensuing free throw after the dunk that gave Kentucky a 45-44 lead with 12:09 to play in the game. On Saturday, Cauley-Stein's dunk pushed the Cats ahead 25-24. Both times the dunk fueled UK.
"That's why I think Coach harps on just dunking it all the time because it just gives everybody so much juice," Cauley-Stein said. "It gets the crowd going, especially something like that. It was crazy."
It also helps push Kentucky defensively, something it does better than any other team in the country.
"It got us all going, got us a little hyped, got Willie going a little bit," Lyles said. "Defensively, like I said, we started to lock down at the end of the half."
Cauley-Stein's three-point play was part of a 10-0 run for Kentucky to close out the half and turn a once five-point deficit into a seven-point halftime lead, giving the Cats momentum, and confidence to know their defense is capable of shutting the Bearcats out.
"We said it in the huddle when there's 2:44 left in the half, 'We have to push it. We have to push it now,' and we succeeded at it," Cauley-Stein said "Anytime you can execute what you're thinking is good."
Fresh off a 21-point, 11-rebound performance against Hampton, Karl-Anthony Towns had another strong game against Cincinnati, scoring eight points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking three shots, but it wasn't just Towns who played well against the Bearcats. It was a balanced, team effort, with no one player shining well over another.
"Every game I'm not going to go for 21," Towns said. "They're not going to just let me go for 21, but that's the beauty of this team. My brothers, everyone's so talented that it doesn't matter if you get eight. But if you get eight, he gets 10, he gets eight, he gets eight, he gets 10, it adds up to be a lot of points."
There was Lyles, who posted his second double-double of the year with 11 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Ulis scored nine points, dished out five assists and didn't commit a turnover. Not to be forgotten, Aaron Harrison scored a team-high 13 points, and his brother finished with five points, two assists, no turnovers and one of the biggest baskets in the game: a tough layup while getting fouled midway through the second half. Cauley-Stein scored nine points, blocked two shots and played suffocating defense.
In all, Kentucky had five players score at least eight points, but nobody register more than 13. The Cats were outrebounded by seven, outscored in the paint by two and shot just 37 percent from the field, their lowest percentage since shooting 28.1 percent on Jan. 10 in a double-overtime victory at Texas A&M, but still won by 13.
"I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits," UK head coach John Calipari said. "It shows them they don't have to make shots to win.
"The good news is there's enough guys that, if two or three aren't playing well, we can still survive. What they learned today is we don't have to shoot the ball well, and we can still survive. You just want them going into every game saying, it doesn't matter what happens. We can still win. And that's the mentality I want them in."
It also doesn't hurt to have a guy who can dunk a player out of a game.
"I didn't even see it," Andrew Harrison said. "I didn't get to see it, I was talking to somebody on the side of me. I just saw everybody standing up and I saw a dude went down on the ground. 'Not this again.' "
Aaron Harrison scored 13 points in UK's win over Cincinnati on Saturday in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Cincinnati looked for a moment to have Kentucky rattled.
After tempers flared early in the second half, Aaron Harrison was whistled for a technical foul for bumping into the Bearcats' Octavius Ellis. Officials went to the monitor to check the play and John Calipari shouted at the normally cold-blooded sophomore, "What did you do?"
Cincinnati capitalized on the exchange and cut UK's lead to three points. The unbeaten season and bid for a ninth championship seemed in jeopardy.
Then Kentucky happened.
"Everybody I think just locked in defensively," Trey Lyles said.
Over the next 15-plus minutes, the top-seeded Cats outscored Cincinnati 31-15 to build an insurmountable lead. The Bearcats hit just 6 of 29 from the field during the stretch and UK (36-0) clinched a Sweet 16 berth with a 64-51 victory in spite of shooting just 37 percent from the field.
Harrison was UK's top offensive threat, scoring 13 points. He buried three 3-pointers, including a crucial one with 11:54 left that gave UK an eight-point lead.
"We're familiar with what Aaron can do," Dakari Johnson said. "He hits big shots."
From that point on, UK's lead would never dip below seven and grew to as large as 19, though the Bearcats battled until the buzzer.
"I thought Cincinnati played well," Calipari said. "They didn't back away. They came right at us. I always like it when my team shoots 37, 36, 35 percent and wins in double digits. It shows them they don't have to make shots to win. You can miss them all. No, you can't miss them all. You can miss most of them, and you can still win games if you defend, you rebound and you play that way, make your free throws, and they did."
UK would have to make its free throws in this one, as Cincinnati took a physical approach to trying to take down No. 1. The Cats went to the line 28 times and made 20, absorbing 22 Bearcat fouls, including one that triggered the technical.
Lyles, who had his second-career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds, drove the lane and was fouled hard by Shaq Thomas. As the teams assembled at the foul line, there was some light jawing. Ellis, who battled Lyles all day and was booed regularly by Kentucky fans among the 21,760 in attendance at the KFC Yum! Center, was in the middle of it and eventually was bumped by Harrison for the technical call.
"He was just trying to be physical and stuff like that, but nobody let that get to them," Lyles said. "Kudos to him for going hard, but we were going at them hard too."
And even harder after the technical.
"Anytime some stuff like that happens, it doesn't matter who, you're going to automatically be juiced," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who had another of his poster-worthy dunks to key a game-turning first-half run. "Anytime somebody is talking trash to you you're going to go back at them."
Undeterred by yet another grind-it-out game and the back-and-forth that came with it, the Cats stayed alive and marched into the Sweet 16. In spite of being outrebounded for just the seventh time all season and the second time in the last 14 games, UK answered the bell.
"That was what everybody thought that to beat us you have to play more physical," Cauley-Stain said. "We're a physical team. We're all big and fast and strong. It's not like pushing us in the back on a rebound - we might not get it that time, but we know next time, OK, go ahead and push me in the back or anything, pushing and shoving. I don't know, it doesn't really bother me."
Nonetheless, the Cincinnati game still inspired talk that the game plan the Bearcats used might be the one a more dynamic offensive team could use to take down UK. Harrison isn't overly concerned.
"You gotta do what you gotta do, but I think we're a physical team as well," Harrison said. "Teams have tried to be physical with us all year and I think we're one of the more physical teams in the country and we can match anybody's intensity or aggressiveness or anything."
For a few brief moments, the Cats were able to celebrate what they did to advance past Cincinnati. It doing so, UK became the first team in NCAA history to start 36-0, besting the record set by the Wichita State team that saw its season ended a year ago in the round of 32 by Kentucky.
Still, the Cats were ready to move on quickly to thoughts of the Midwest Regional.
"We're not done yet," Lyles said. "It's a good accolade to have, but we have another game coming up on Thursday that we have to get ready for."
UK will face Cincinnati on Saturday after beating Hampton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Fourteen words. That's all it took for Aaron Harrison to get his point across. They were simple words, nothing poetic, nothing to make you look deeper into their meaning. But they were powerful and they proved to be prophetic.
"We know what we can do and it's going to be a great story," he said.
At the time, the words fell on many a deaf ear. The Cats had dropped to 21-8 after losing at South Carolina and a once-promising 2013-14 season was looking more and more disappointing.
What followed, of course, was a trip to the national championship game. As for Harrison, he did his part, hitting two of the biggest shots in UK's illustrious postseason history, vaulting the Cats over Michigan and then Wisconsin on game-winning 3-pointers from the wing.
So why are those 14 words being brought up again now over one year later and with the Cats standing tall at 35-0? Well, because Harrison may be on to something again.
After a ho-hum 23-point opening game victory over 16th-seeded Hampton on Thursday, Harrison wasn't happy. The only one of UK's active rotation of players without a field goal, the second team All-Southeastern Conference selection said UK's next game Saturday against Cincinnati (23-10) would be different.
"I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely," he said.
The reason behind Harrison's words is he didn't think the Cats played with much intensity against Hampton. He wasn't the only one though.
"We did some good things, we did some bad things," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
"We kinda came out sluggish and we gotta come out of the gate better than that with what we did (Thursday)," Dakari Johnson said.
"Came out a little sluggish at the beginning," Trey Lyles said.
Aaron Harrison wasn't the only one who vowed a change on Saturday though. His twin brother, Andrew, joined in this time.
"For me, I started off sluggish," Andrew Harrison said. "It won't happen again."
Again, uh oh.
As it has been written before, in March, the Harrison twins tend to step their games up to new heights. While Aaron Harrison had an uncharacteristically off night against Hampton, Andrew rebounded from a tough first half with a strong second half. In the final 20 minutes, Andrew Harrison went 3 for 3 from the field, scored seven points, grabbed three rebounds, dished out two assists and had a steal.
So does it carry a bit more weight when it's Aaron Harrison who makes a statement about what the team is going to do?
"Yeah, especially if he's saying it," Cauley-Stein said. "Him and his brother are kind of the throttle on the team. If they're saying they're going to come out playing different, then they're going to come out playing different. In return, everybody's going to come out playing different. They're kind of the fuel to the fire."
Whether it comes to fruition or not is still to be seen, but it appears there's a hearty amount of fuel in the tank for Saturday's third-round matchup between two schools just 85 miles apart. While they haven't played since 2005, the proximity of the schools coupled with the David vs. Goliath theme that nearly every team will use when playing undefeated Kentucky, makes UK head coach John Calipari believe the Bearcats will be more than ready.
"They've got a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country," Coach Cal said. "They've got a chance. They're next up on the docket. I would imagine they're dreaming about it, thinking about it, having people in the stands. Make sure you take video of this because I want my grandkids to see it. And I don't blame them. ... It should be a great game. It should be a war."
Which makes the attitude and confidence held by the Harrisons one that Calipari welcomes from his team. This time of year, Coach Cal says, is time for him to love his team, but not a time for him to drag his team. Instead, he wants his team to become more empowered, and to take more ownership in how everything goes and is carried.
"It's their team," Calipari said. "They know it's not my team."
And the longer this season goes, the more Coach Cal wants that empowerment to grow, and the players do as well. The end result, well, that could make opponents say "uh oh."
"Later in the season we go I feel like we're all going to need each other the most," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "We know that. We're coming together even closer toward the end of the year and I feel like it's going to be dangerous."
John Calipari leads UK in a third-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Teams have run with Kentucky. Teams have tried to punch the Wildcats in the mouth.
Some have sunk into zone defenses and challenged the Cats to hit from the outside. Some have gone with full-court pressure against UK.
For what seems like every one of the Cats' wins, opponents have gone with a different approach to hand them their first loss.
"They gotta run out eventually," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They try everything. You got to though. You can't get mad at it. I would do the same thing."
Of course, none of it's worked.
Top-seeded UK has charged through 35 games without a loss to tie the best start to a season in NCAA history. The Cats will look to take over the record on their own when they face eighth-seeded Cincinnati (23-10) at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.
When they do, they'll take on an opponent they expect to try a familiar game plan.
"We just know that they're going to play extremely hard and try to bully us," Cauley-Stein said. "They play that zone. That's really all we've looked at so far. We'll know more about probably an hour."
Cauley-Stein would have to wait an hour because the Cats had yet to spend much time preparing for the Bearcats as of Friday afternoon. The final buzzer didn't sound on their second-round NCAA Tournament win over Hampton until well after midnight and the team bus didn't pull into the hotel until close to 3 a.m.
But that would change at UK's practice later in the day, when John Calipari would reinforce the message about what to expect from Cincinnati.
"The stuff that has affected us, real physical play, stretching our big guys out, playing a zone and doing stuff, that's all what Cincinnati does," Calipari said. "We know we're in for a tough game. They fought all year and deserve to be in a position they're in. A great win. It's going to be a really hard game for us."
The great win Coach Cal referenced was a 66-65 overtime triumph against Purdue. In the game, the Bearcats trailed by seven with less than a minute to play before charging back and forcing the extra session on a buzzer-beating layup by Troy Caupain.
The victory sets up a showdown between two schools separated by barely 80 miles. There are fans of both schools on either side of the Kentucky-Ohio border, a fact that does not escape the Bearcats.
"Being that they are really close to us, we see the things fans and all the blue," sophomore forward Gary Clark said. "We go over to Kentucky to the movie theater, and there's dinner and restaurants. So we see the fans all the time."
In fact, their coach used to be one of them.
Growing up in Mount Sterling, Ky., Larry Davis - serving as interim coach with head coach Mick Cronin out for the season with an unruptured aneurysm - listened to UK games on the radio with his father before attending Asbury College.
"I had some friends there in college whose father had some tickets, and any chance we could, we followed the national championship team with (Jack) Goose Givens and those guys," Davis said. "So I've always had a lot of respect for Kentucky basketball."
For the Cats, the proximity adds a little something extra, though playing for the right to continue their season is motivation enough.
"This has a little more pride on the line," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "It's around the hometown. You gotta protect home at all costs, so like I said, we're going to go out there and play to the best of our abilities for that night and just see how it falls."
Towns expects the same of Cincinnati.
"They're going to be playing like it's their Super Bowl," Towns said. "But not only is it going to be their Super Bowl, it's going to be their Super Bowl, their NBA Finals, their Stanley Cup Finals. I mean, everything together is coming here and we're just playing the game."
UK will face Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Lindsay Travis contributed to this feature.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They won big, but they weren't thrilled with how they did it.
For the Kentucky Wildcats (35-0), each game is a battle against themselves. Up big? Doesn't matter, what can we do to get better? How can everyone individually improve their game to then raise the overall level of the team? That's the mindset this bunch has, and it's clearly worked all season.
"In this locker room it's the same if you're up 50 or you're down 10," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "Coach is always yelling at you to do better and that's what makes us great. We're always trying to push each other to do better no matter what the score is."
Top-seeded Kentucky led 16th seeded Hampton by 35 points Thursday night with 12:43 remaining in the game. From there, Hampton outscored Kentucky 28-16. Obviously, it was too little, too late, but it bookended a game that saw Kentucky hit just two of its first nine shots and five of its first 15.
"We did some good things, we did some bad things," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
The good included a +20 advantage on the boards against a much smaller and overpowered opponent. Similarly, Kentucky outscored the Pirates 44-20 in the paint. The Cats dished out 15 assists while holding Hampton to just two, and had another solid performance at the foul line, converting 20 of 28 attempts.
The bad included a sluggish start that was partly attributable to the Cats not tipping off until approximately 10:18 p.m., thanks to the game before theirs going to overtime, forcing UK to wait in the tunnel and locker room in anticipation of what had already been a very long day of waiting around.
The bad things for Kentucky also included taking its foot off the gas in the second half, a lesson head coach John Calipari has preached to his team, and one that seems to have been heard.
"You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a 2-point game," Coach Cal said. "What just happened? You broke down on two pick-and-rolls defensively, and then someone fouled, didn't need to, and then all of a sudden, they make a play, and it's a 2-point game."
"Something you can take away is that no game is ever over, no matter what the score is," Lee said. "That's something you have to go with and you always have to battle throughout the whole game. You can't just assume you're going to win."
With all of that said, Kentucky did win its opening game of the Big Dance by 23 points and was able to unload its entire bench. Certainly it was a stark contrast to the other three games played in the KFC Yum! Center that day which were each decided by a single point, an NCAA Tournament record for one venue in a single day.
Would Coach Cal, have liked to have maintained that 35-point lead throughout the remainder of the game or even strengthened it? Sure, but he knows that's not always going to happen, especially when he's leading the youngest team in the entire tournament field.
"We held them to 30 percent (shooting from the field) and 25 (percent) from the 3," Coach Cal said. "We fouled way too much today, but like I told the staff, you get up 35, it's hard. It's hard."
Back to the basics for Booker
When Devin Booker came to Kentucky and first started playing with this team he just wanted to figure out how he'd fit in. Fast forward 35 games and the freshman knows what his role is: a shooter.
Booker started the season in a shooting slump but after coming back from an injury he hit a streak that left many anxiously waiting for each reloaded 3. In a seven-game stretch from Dec. 13-Jan. 17, Booker hit 71.4 percent of his shots from deep. Add in the next four games, two where he didn't hit a trey, and his shooting percentage was still 65.8 percent.
Since the Cats played at Georgia on March 3, the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year hasn't hit more than two 3s in a game. But all of that could of course change in the blink of an eye.
During the SEC Coaches' Teleconference prior to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Cal predicted that Booker would get back to his old ways of playing, his old ways of shooting.
"Devin has to step up a little bit, but this has been a thing," Calipari said. "I think you'll see Devin in the tournament get back to the way he was playing, losing himself in the game. I think there are times he's thinking a little too much because he played so well the expectation was that every shot was going to go in."
For the freshman, it's not that he lacks confidence necessarily, it's that he's frustrated.
"As long as we're winning, I'm fine," Booker said, "but if I'm frustrated it's I'm frustrated with myself because I'm not playing the way that I work so hard to play. If there's frustration it's in myself, if anything."
Shooters just keep shooting and Booker knows that's what he has to do, along with getting back to the basics of his game.
"I just have to get back to fundamentals," he said Thursday night. "I just have to have more confidence in my shot and keep doing what I was doing through the middle of the season. I feel like the next game I'll knock down those shots."
His teammates know that he'll knock down those shots too.
"There are some guys like me, Aaron, Book, we weren't hitting on the offensive side, so obviously you're going to be down on yourself for that," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "... (Aaron Harrison and Booker), those dudes hit shots all the time. Today they're not hitting. Hopefully Saturday they're hitting."
'They swear I'm Superman or something'
At times this season, Cauley-Stein's athleticism has seemed to be out of this world.
It's not just that the 7-footer can guard all five positions on the floor, including limiting second team All-SEC point guard K.T. Harrell to 1-of-12 shooting, it's the dunks he's thrown down too.
Oh, those dunks.
Against Florida, Cauley-Stein got the feed from Andrew Harrison and took off for one of the best dunks of the entire college basketball season. One game later, Cauley-Stein could have opened up his own personal poster business with the number of jams he threw down at the expense of LSU defenders.
"I still like the whole criticism is, 'I'm soft,' or something like that, so I'm just going to start dunking on people," Cauley-Stein said after Kentucky's 34-point rout of South Carolina on Valentine's Day. "I don't see how you can call me soft if I'm just dunking on people, so that's my whole mentality going into games now."
On Thursday night against 16th seeded Hampton, that mentality was missing, and the result were a few missed bunnies that had Big Blue Nation scratching its collective head.
"They swear I'm Superman or something and I can just fly over everybody," the Olathe, Kan., native said. "I mean, a lot of it I probably could, but you're not thinking of it like that. You're not thinking you can just jump over somebody and dunk it until you actually do it and you're just like, 'OK, well maybe I could do that.' "
That's not to say Cauley-Stein is down on himself. Though he finished 1 for 5 from the floor, he did score seven points, grab a team-high tying 11 rebounds, dish out two assists and block two shots. The missed shots, they'll happen, for Cauley-Stein it's about wiping the slate clean and moving on to the next one.
The example he used after the game went back to just one week prior at the SEC Tournament in Nashville. In the Wildcats' opening game against Florida, Cauley-Stein went 2 for 9 with nine points and four rebounds. He then followed that disappointing performance with 18 points and seven boards against Auburn in the semifinals, 15 points and 10 rebounds against Arkansas in the championship, and SEC Tournament MVP honors when all was said and done.
"You miss four one-footers that you should probably dunk, OK, but I didn't, so you miss some," Cauley-Stein said. "To me, I'm not looking at it, I'm not killing myself on it because I know I'm going to make them. I just happened to miss them tonight." Getting physical
There's no question that UK has a size advantage at some position in every game they play. When you've got the tallest basketball team in the country that's not all too surprising.
So how do other teams keep their heads above water when facing off with a team fans have compared to the MonStars from Space Jam?
"Teams are going to do whatever they need to do to try to stay with us and try to compete with us," sophomore forward Dakari Johnson said. "And I do think they're going to try to be physical with us, maybe try to get us out of our heads. But we do a good job controlling that and just being physical back."
The Cats aren't unaccustomed to teams trying to push them around a bit. Case in point: Auburn's 7-foot-2 Trayvon Reed getting chippy with 5-9 Tyler Ulis in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Between league play and practice, they're pretty familiar with it.
"We're from the SEC so we're kind of use to that with huge bodies," Lee said. "I guess you can see they were really trying to do something like that, but we're kind of used to it."
"In practice we're going at each other too and we're being physical with each other too, so we're prepared for those (things) during the games," Johnson said.
Following the SEC Tournament semifinals, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talked about the type of team it would take to beat the, so far, undefeated Cats.
"I think it would need to be a team that would be a big physical club that could be able to withstand their size and their dominance," Pearl said. "It would have to be a great team."
Teams like Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M had enough size to hang with UK, according to Pearl. Those teams each gave the Cats some of their closest contests of the season, with the Rebels and Aggies taking the No. 1 team in the country into overtime and double overtime, respectively.
The Cats know they'll get their opponents' best games and if the opponent starts a slugfest, Booker thinks it'll help push UK to play their best ball.
"A lot of teams have tried that, but we know how to respond to that," he said. "I think that brings the best (out) of us when teams try to be the aggressor first."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 21 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Hampton in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - None of the Wildcats, among Kentucky's active rotation, had ever won an NCAA Tournament game by more than seven points.
Check another first off the list.
It may not have started how many were thinking it would, but it certainly got to that point by the final buzzer as Kentucky cruised to a 79-56 victory over 16th seeded Hampton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I didn't like how we started the game. I didn't quite like how we finished the game. But it is one o'clock at night, and we had an overtime game where the guys were hanging out in the locker room for an hour and a half. So I'm going to chalk it up to that and move on."
The game Calipari was referring to was the Cincinnati-Purdue matchup that occurred directly before the Cats' game, pushing an originally scheduled 9:40 p.m. tipoff back to 10:18 p.m.
The late night start was no problem for freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who shined for Kentucky (35-0) by scoring a career-high 21 points, grabbing a team-high tying 11 rebounds and blocking three shots. It was the team-leading eighth double-double this season for the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, and further cemented his role as one of Kentucky's go-to scorers.
"(He) played special," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "I'm not surprised at all. I know what Karl's capable of and everyone's seeing it now, that he's basically unstoppable down there."
Facing a team of Hampton's height, whose tallest player was 6-foot-9, Towns showed off his patented baby hook, grabbed rebounds over others, and overpowered just about everyone in his way.
"Karl played really good," Cauley-Stein said. "Had really good touch around the rim today. We could just throw it to him every time. Until they start double-teaming or doing something we were going to continue to throw it in there."
The largest margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament for Kentucky dating back to the 2013 season was UK's seven-point victory over Kansas State in last year's second round. Since then, the Cats had tournament wins of two points, five points, three points, one point and a six-point loss in the national championship to Connecticut.
Thursday's 23-point win, therefore, was a welcome development for these Cats. Kentucky led by as many as 35 with 12:43 remaining in the game, and more or less grinded it out for the remainder of the contest, working on sets and execution in preparation for their next game Saturday.
"Anytime you don't have to play a nail biter is good," Cauley-Stein said. "I hate them. I'm glad we were up by so much because nail biters are not good for my heart."
Early in the first half it didn't necessarily look like it could be a nail biter, but it certainly didn't look like Kentucky's best version of itself.
The Wildcats led just 13-11 with 13:09 remaining in the first half, but then put their feet on the gas by going on a 19-3 run in which they allowed just one made field goal in 9:48 of game time to take a 32-14 lead. Kentucky would later enter the halftime locker room leading 41-22, and the only thing left in question being the final margin of victory.
"We have so many waves of dudes that come in, and they don't get to do their normal stuff," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming in with seven-footers and not being able to shoot shots over bigger defenders. Just the fact that we take them out of their element that they're not used to, it probably grinds them out."
On a day that saw an NCAA Tournament record five games decided by one point, the Cats didn't want to raise that number to six. The players said afterward that they saw the close games and upsets play out during the day as they waited for their game, and it got their full attention.
"Anything can happen," Cauley-Stein said. "They could have come out and all of them just clip 3s on us. Stuff happens like that."
"We know every team is fighting for the last win in March so we have to go in with that mindset and that's what we've been doing and Coach has been stressing that to us every game," Booker said.
Up next for the Cats is a third-round matchup against Cincinnati (23-10) on Saturday at approximately 2:40 p.m. While the Cats say they don't know much about the Bearcats outside of the few minutes they watched in the tunnel Thursday night, Coach Cal said he does think Cincinnati will have something in mind if they watched UK play against Hampton.
"If there are points in this game they watch tonight, they probably have in their mind, we can beat these guys," Calipari said. "The we know every team we play comes in with the idea, I'm telling you we can beat them, and we deal with that every time we play, and I imagine Cincy will come in with the same thing."
Andrew Harrison had 14 points as UK opened the NCAA Tournament with a 79-56 win over Hampton on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky had waited all season long for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday morning, the Wildcats woke up and it was here.
It was like Christmas morning, only the Cats had to wait all day to run down the stairs and open their presents for a scheduled 9:40 p.m. start.
"It was really difficult just to be so excited to play and then you have to wait all day and pretty much all night too," Aaron Harrison said.
The wait was almost over as the Cats stood in the tunnel outside their KFC Yum! Center locker room. They watched the final seconds of a matchup between Cincinnati and Purdue tick down, only for the Bearcats' Troy Caupain to hit a game-tying layup as time expired to send the game to overtime.
The presents would have to wait even longer.
"To be honest, we're just all in the locker room stretching, talking, trying to keep each other loose," said Andrew Harrison, who drew playful jabs from teammates after predicting the extra session.
Finally, Cincinnati would pull out the win and Kentucky's second-round matchup with Hampton could begin. When it did at 10:18 p.m., all the anticipation turned into, well, coal.
"We've been excited to play all day and I think it just got that moment and we didn't have a lot of energy," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just tough to wait all day to play."
In spite of the relative dud of a start, the top-seeded Wildcats (35-0) took down Hampton, 79-56, to set up a showdown with those eighth-seeded Bearcats at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday. They still weren't content with the way they played.
"We played really sluggish and just didn't have enough energy, I think," said Aaron Harrison, who missed all five of his field goals and scored three points in an uncharacteristically pedestrian NCAA Tournament performance. "We're of course a young team. We might have not come into the game as focused as we should have."
The Cats started the game 8 of 23 from the field and led by single digits until Karl-Anthony Towns - who was the standout for UK with a career-high 21 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks - scored with 5:36 before halftime. The juice that the Cats have come to be known for in blitzing through this college basketball season, outside a crippling 14-0 run to build a 19-point halftime lead, was just never there even though UK led by as many as 35.
The lack of focus, to John Calipari, did not come as a shock.
"You sit in the locker room that long, you kind of know that can happen," Calipari said.
Readily explainable as it may have been, it's unacceptable in his eyes. From this point forward, the games only get tougher. Future opponents, starting with Cincinnati, will be eager to pounce if the Cats suffer a similar lapse.
"One of the things I talked to them after, you're not going to do this on their terms. You can't start games like this," Calipari said. "You can't do things that we talk about every day and you choose to do something else. You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a two-point game."
Hampton was never able to make it a game in that way, as UK won its fifth game in a row by double digits and 28th overall. In spite of that, there was a distinct feeling that the Cats had played a subpar game from most anyone who watched. That's a high standard to live up to, but the Cats don't mind it.
"Not only is it everybody else around, we should expect that out of ourselves too," Devin Booker said. "Coach expects that out of us. He came in here and told us we didn't play our best game and if we keep playing like that it's going to be trouble. We're just focusing on coming out first and being the aggressor."
Booker scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, continuing a six-game slump during which he's scored in double figures once and shot 11 of 34 from the field. As ready as Booker might be to return to the sweet-shooting form he showed for much of the season, that kind of thing isn't what Coach Cal is thinking about when he says the Cats played short of their potential.
Shots will miss and shots will fall, but UK cannot get away from what makes it special.
"You can't do stuff on your terms," Calipari said. "You've got to follow the script. Here's how we play. This is what we do. Here's the energy we play with. And we're able to play enough people that, OK, we start the game slow. I may sub earlier. I see it Saturday, I may sub one minute in. Let's go, need more energy. I think these guys will be fine."
So does Aaron Harrison.
"I expected a lot more out of us and I expected a lot more out of myself," he said. "I should have played a lot better as well. But I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely."
UK held an open practice on Wednesday in the KFC Yum! Center attended by thousands of fans. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky guards Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone started against Florida on Senior Day. It was supposed to be the last home game for UK's three walk-ons, with the emphasis on supposed to be.
If you closed your eyes while in Bridgestone Arena during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, or during Wednesday's open practice at the KFC Yum! Center, you would have thought you were in Rupp Arena.
Blue has gotten in and blue has made itself heard.
"Our fans follow us pretty much everywhere we go," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "So they make it kind of home for wherever we go."
In Nashville, Bridgestone Arena was painted in blue with UK fans descending on the Music City and turning it into Lexington South. In the championship game, a Bridgestone Arena record was set for an SEC Tournament game, as 20,315 fans, mostly dressed in blue, cheered on the Cats.
"I mean, this (SEC Tournament), it was crazy," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I mean there were 97 percent Kentucky fans in that building. What? And they said 10,000 came to the opening games because they couldn't get tickets to our games. So they just bought tickets and went to the opening games to be a part of the thing. Which is great for the SEC and our fans, but I say it again, it's like Woo. But I would expect we'll have a pretty good crowd."
He was right.
When Kentucky took the floor for its open practice Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center, the entire lower bowl was filled with UK fans, as they chanted "Blue, White!" and "Go Big Blue!" consistently throughout the 40-minute glorified shootaround. When a Louisville fan made his way into the arena, boos showered down so loud that freshman guard Tyler Ulis stopped shooting free throws to turn around and see what was going on.
When it was announced Kentucky would play its opening game of the tournament in nearby Louisville, many of the players were asked how they felt about that. Most said it was cool, but that it didn't matter where they played, Big Blue Nation would be there.
"Our fans would still travel even if we played in California," Cauley-Stein said. "They would still be there. It just makes it a lot easier on them I guess."
In regards to them, personally, as players, the Cats said playing in a familiar gym, one where they've experienced success this year already, was a nice perk as well.
"We've all played in this gym, so we're used to it already," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "That, combined with our fan base, it's basically a home game for us." Harrisons shifting gear in March, again
It's March, so that means the Harrison twins are shifting their games into a higher gear again.
One year after point guard Andrew Harrison reaped the benefits of Coach Cal's famous "tweak" to help lead his team to the national championship game, and his twin brother, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, hit three of the bigger shots in UK's postseason history, the backcourt duo is at again in 2015.
Andrew actually heightened his game a month early this season, scoring 11.8 points and dishing out 3.5 assists per game to just 16 total turnovers (2.8 assist-turnover ratio) since the calendar turned to February. Aaron, meanwhile, is averaging 12.2 points per game in March and hitting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, a stark improvement from his February averages of 10.3 points per game and 22.0 percent shooting from distance.
"I think just a competitive switch flips," Cauley-Stein said of the twins. "Knowing without them we're not gonna be able to do this without them and they know that, so they have to play a way that Coach set out for them to play and they know how to play."
For Andrew, that way to play is with high energy and an aggression to attack the lane. When he's doing that, the Cats' offense, including both the guards and the bigs, excels. Coach Cal also stresses a positive mindset and outlook, which includes strong body language.
"It's a spirit," Coach Cal said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play. He doesn't stop on the court. There's nothing. I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled."
And his teammates notice as well.
"We feed off their energy and Coach harps on it," Cauley-Stein said. "If their energy is bad then the whole team's energy is not good. When they're playing with high energy and a lot of effort, doing the things that they do, everybody benefits from it."
For Aaron, March brings about a time to step up to the main stage, a place where he thrives under the bright lights and high pressure situations. While the 6-foot-6 guard from Richmond, Texas, has shown this season that it doesn't have to be March for him to put the team on his back in a tight game, last season's run gave him the knowledge that he can do it again this year if needed.
"It really helped my confidence, and also my teammates' confidence just to go out there and be able to beat the best teams in the country even though we had an up and down year," Aaron Harrison said. "That was really helpful.
"Hopefully we don't have a game that close, but if we do, if Coach wants to give me the ball I think I'll be confident enough to hit the shot for us."
UK keeping focus internal
As Guy Ramsey wrote Wednesday, Kentucky is not straying away from what got it to this point. Part of that includes continuing to play against themselves each game, rather than against their opponent.
That, however, doesn't mean the Cats are overlooking their 16th-seeded opponent, Hampton (17-17). UK has done this all season long, and it's part of how they've been able to get to 34-0. They're not only playing against themselves during the games, they do it in the pregame as well.
Kentucky doesn't spend days on scouting its opponent. Typically, the players don't see tape of their opponent until their pregame meal. Asked Wednesday what he knows about the Pirates, freshman forward Trey Lyles said he knew nothing yet.
"But I'm sure the coaches do and we're going to get a lot of information from them," Lyles said.
Keys for the Cats will remain the same for this game as all games, come out with energy and attempt to maintain that energy for all 40 minutes. If Coach Cal sees a decrease, subs, or reinforcements as he calls them, will be ready.
"We just gotta come out with a lot of energy because we know they're going to come after us like every other team this year has and we just gotta be prepared for it," Lyles said.
One nice change of pace for the Cats will be seeing a team on the other side of the court that doesn't have an "SEC" patch on its jersey. After going through a tough and physical 18-game SEC schedule and three-game SEC Tournament, the Cats will face an out of conference opponent for the first time since Dec. 27, when they defeated Louisville in this very gym.
During the non-conference portion of its schedule, Kentucky outscored its opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game (75.8-50.1). Facing an opponent that isn't as familiar with UK's players and schemes will be a welcome change of pace, Aaron Harrison said.
"I think the SEC teams are a little tougher because they've played us so many times, and they're more physical," Aaron Harrison said. "They're a lot more prepared than the other teams are."
UK held an open practice at the KFC Yum! Center on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - John Calipari has good reason to have faith in his team.
He's got 34 games worth of proof that the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament won't get to Kentucky.
"I think they see what's happening for each other, and I think they'll stay the course," Calipari said.
With each passing stage, however, the spotlight will shine brighter. Already, the media throng following the top-seeded Wildcats (34-0) has expanded from its regular-season size ahead of a matchup with 16th-seeded Hampton (17-17), and it's only the second round.
That's why, in spite of all the evidence suggesting it's not necessary, Coach Cal will be on guard.
"But believe me, I'll be feeling the pulse every day," Calipari said.
Not only is he feeling the pulse, he's also hammering home his message about keeping the clutter away every day. The Cats' unselfish approach has worked too well so far to do anything else.
"I stopped them today when we practiced," Calipari said. "Don't be changing now. Don't. No, no, no, no, no. You stay on the path you're on. Don't let someone tell you now is the time to go crazy. Don't do that. Just be the best version of you right now, and that's good enough."
With the Cats set to start their NCAA Tournament run on Thursday at approximately 9:40 p.m., consider the message received.
"You just gotta stay with what got you here," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "Act like how you did before all the success happened. As a group, we don't really listen to it. We know what got us here and we know it was work and defense, so we got to stay on that."
Calipari has drawn deserved praise for the work he's done in inspiring his players to reach toward their potential. He's been named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year by both league media and coaches and is a finalist for national honors, recognition he surely appreciates.
He'd still rather the recognition go to his players.
"Everybody saying, it's got to be the toughest job of getting these kids to play with their egos," Calipari said. "They talk about their egos. These kids are just great kids, and I'm coaching them hard."
And they just keep responding, sacrificing and, most of all, winning.
"My job is to help them be the best version of themselves," Calipari said. "Now, they have gotten the point that, if they don't do this together, they're hurting each other, and they know that. I want every one of these kids to achieve. This that's going on, it's been a great story of every one of these kids giving up something to someone else on the team, all of them feeding off of one another, all of them having each other's back."
About 15 minutes before Calipari said that, Trey Lyles was sitting in a locker room at the KFC Yum! Center saying almost exactly the same thing. Who says teenagers don't listen?
"Just having everybody's back," Lyles said. "Everybody being there for one another. Having a brotherhood on and off the court. We know if one guy's not playing well somebody else is going to step up. That's just the thing of--like Coach said--the strength is in the pack."
It's that strength that the Cats believe will carry them through the NCAA Tournament, though they know challenges lay ahead, as well as off nights for all of UK's nine regular rotation players.
"They don't have to play great every night, and they don't, but someone seems to do something to help us win," Calipari said. "So you're not under the pressure of I've got to be great tonight. No, you don't. Prepare to be great, but you're not a machine. You're not a computer. Be the best you can be."
The hope is that will carry UK to a national championship come April 6, which would mean the first 40-0 season in NCAA history. Talk of a perfect season for UK has consumed the college basketball world, spurring unprecedented national and local attention for a program accustomed to being on center stage.
The Cats are happy the tournament has rendered their perfect mark essentially meaningless in their eyes and their opponents' as well.
"It doesn't really matter about the record anymore," Dakari Johnson said. "Every team is at 0-0. We've just got to come in and just play our hardest and just treat every game like, basically, as if every game is our last."
Once again, the Cats are counting on the pack to get that done.
"It's not that hard to stay in the moment with this team," Marcus Lee said. "As you see, we enjoy each other very much in everything we do, going through shootarounds or in practice. So with this team, it makes it very easy."