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John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is one win away from his third Final Four trip in four seasons. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- As NCAA Tournament paths go, it gets no more difficult than Kentucky's.

It began with a slug-it-out battle with ninth-seeded Kansas State. To follow, the Wildcats would have to beat No. 1 Wichita State, the first team to ever enter the tournament 34-0. Next, defending national champion and scorching hot Louisville, the four seed in the Midwest Region.

UK has to be rewarded with a reprieve after handling three games that challenging, right?

Wrong.

The Cats' final obstacle on their improbable quest for the Final Four is Michigan, only last year's national runner-up and a team that came within a Big Ten Tournament championship game win of a likely No. 1 seed.

If that all sounds tough, that's because it is.

For a little perspective, last year's Wichita State team faced the most difficult path to the Final Four in the history of kenpom.com's advanced statistical ratings. That year, the Shockers got past Pittsburgh (No. 11 in kenpom.com's final rankings), Gonzaga (No. 5), La Salle (No. 51) and Ohio State (No. 7) to reach the national semifinals. The average ranking of the four teams was 18.5.

This season, UK has already topped No. 43 Kansas State, No. 5 Wichita State and No. 3 Louisville. Now, No. 9 Michigan looms, meaning the average ranking of the opponents the Cats will have beaten to reach the Final Four will be 15.

So, what makes the Wolverines such a test? Let's use kenpom.com's stats to explore how UK and Michigan match up.

When Kentucky is on offense


In a bit of good news for UK fans, Michigan has the lowest-ranked defense of any UK opponent thus far in the tournament. The Wolverines allow 1.03 points per possession and rank 99th in adjusted defensive efficiency, worst of any team still alive.

Michigan, however, is not without strengths on defense. A hallmark of John Beilein-coached teams, the Wolverines avoid fouls and keep opponents off the free-throw line about as well as any team. They are third in the nation in defensive free-throw rate, meaning the Cats will be hard-pressed to find their way to the charity stripe as often as they're accustomed to.

UK will need to make up for that by capitalizing on Michigan's average effective field-goal percentage defense (144th) and defensive-rebounding percentage (100th). The Cats, particularly after the way they protected the ball against pesky Louisville, don't figure to commit many turnovers either against a Wolverine defense that ranks 249th in that category.

It's also worth pointing out that Michigan excels defending the 3-point shot, allowing opponents to make just 31.2 percent of their attempts on the season. If the Cats fall in love with the outside shot the way they did in the early going against U of L, it could spell trouble. They will be better served attacking the paint, as Michigan allows 50.1 percent shooting from inside the arc and blocks just 6.4 percent of opponents' attempts (305th nationally).

The numbers, in John Calipari's eyes, don't say everything though.

"They're better than you think defensively," Calipari said. "They cover elbows and blocks. They're going to play that 1-3-1 (zone).  They're going to throw some stuff at us."

When Kentucky is on defense

Offense -- and shooting in particular -- is what makes Michigan elite.

The Wolverines offense is ranked second in efficiency behind their effective field-goal percentage of .558, seventh nationally. Michigan is particularly lethal from 3-point range, shooting 40.2 percent (fourth in the NCAA). Four Wolverines -- Nik Stauskas, Zak Irvin, Derrick Walton and Carls LeVert -- shoot at least 41 percent and have hit at least 42 3s on the season.

UK will rely on its length and athleticism to contest those outside, as the Cats have done throughout the season. Kentucky opponents are shooting 31.8 percent from 3 on the season.

"You found out in that game (against Tennessee), if you give them 3s, they're making them," John Calipari said. "So your hope is to make them tough 3s. They may make them anyway. So somebody said, What can you do? I said, 'Dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing.' I don't know. But they're going to shoot them anyway."

Michigan is also exceptional in protecting the basketball, so don't expect UK to create many extra possessions with turnovers. The Wolverines are 18th in turnover rate, while the Cats are 300th in defensive turnover rate.

UK, however, can make up for that by closing out stops by grabbing defensive rebounds. Michigan is 259th in offensive-rebounding rate, more often opting to get back in transition rather than attack the glass.

Bottom line

Barring on off-night, UK should be able to score regularly against the Wolverines on the strength of athleticism and offensive rebounding. Tennessee certainly was on Friday night, piling up 1.18 points per possession.

The question, however, will be whether the Cats can guard well enough in a game likely to be played primarily in the half court. Michigan is 333rd nationally in adjusted tempo and hasn't played a game of more than 60 possessions in the NCAA Tournament. UK has also been content to grind it out in March, averaging just 61.2 total possessions over its last five games.

Ultimately, by the quick-turnaround nature of the Elite Eight, it'll be about which team executes the things it wants to more effectively.

"You have to understand, I've got 16 hours to get these guys ready," Calipari said. "The good news is well, he had about 19 hours. So you don't have the time to go and say here's the 12 things they're going to do and defensively here's what they're going to do, you just don't have time.

"It's going to be our best, hopefully, against their best and see who comes out on top.  Neither one of us are going to change much. They play how we do, we play how we do."

(National rankings in parentheses)

 

UK

Michigan

Scoring offense

75.4 (60)

74.0 (81)

Scoring defense

66.5 (77)

64.8 (49)

FG percentage

45.1 (127)

47.7 (21)

FG percentage defense

40.8 (47)

44.2 (201)

3-point percentage

32.6 (237)

40.2 (4)

3-point percentage defense

31.8 (53)

31.2 (36)

FT percentage

68.6 (214)

76.2 (8)

Rebound margin

+9.8 (2)

+0.6 (178)

Steals per game

4.8 (307)

5.2 (271)

Blocks per game

6.1 (10)

2.4 (299)

Assists per game

11.3 (265)

14.3 (63)

Turnover margin

-1.4(271)

+1.4 (1)

kenpom.com adjusted offensive efficiency rank

13

2

Kenpom.com adjusted defensive efficiency rank

27

99

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 










   


Stat leaders

 

UK

Michigan

Points per game

Julius Randle (15.1)

Nik Stauskas (17.3)

Rebounds per game

Julius Randle (10.7)

Jordan Morgan (5.0)

Field-goal percentage

Willie Cauley-Stein (59.6)

Jordan Morgan (69.4)

3-point percentage

Andrew Harrison (35.6)

Nik Stauskas (44.8)

Free-throw percentage

Aaron Harrison (79.8)

Nik Stauskas (81.9)

Assists per game

Andrew Harrison (3.9)

Nik Stauskas (3.3)

Blocks per game

Willie Cauley-Stein (2.9)

Jon Horford (0.7)

Steals per game

Willie Cauely-Stein (1.2)

Chris LeVert (1.2)


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

UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will take on Michigan on Sunday with a Final Four berth on the line. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The streak of juicy storylines in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament run continues heading into the Wildcats' Elite Eight matchup with Michigan.

First it was the team (UK) that talked about going undefeated against the one (the Wichita State Shockers) that actually made it happen in the regular season. Then, in the Sweet 16, it was all about the in-state rivalry of two storied programs, the Battle of the Bluegrass and veterans vs. rookies.

Now, with a trip to the Final Four on the line, the UK-Michigan Elite Eight matchup presents a fitting storyline for a Kentucky group that, as recently as a month ago, looked too young and too inexperienced to do any damage in March.

Michigan, of course, is where the legendary Fab Five played. Heading into the 2013-14 season, UK was compared to that exciting Michigan bunch because of its six freshmen McDonald's All-Americans. That 1991-92 Michigan team had four.

As the year has worn on, the similarities have eerily grown, starting with the disappointment of the regular season.

Michigan, at one point, was just 17-8 and didn't win more than five in a row in the regular season, but the Wolverines came alive during tournament time. The Fab Five, which consisted of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson, rallied their way to to the title game where they came up short against the top-seeded Duke Blue Devils, 71-51.

James Young, who calls Michigan home, grew up with Fab Five talk.

"It's amazing what they did," Young said.

UK ended its regular season 21-9, but like Michigan, has come on late, winning six of its last seven in the postseason. Like Michigan did 22 years ago, the Cats have banked on five freshmen starters to push them through games down the stretch of the season.

Facing the school where the Fab Five made their name, the freshmen Wildcats, none of whom were alive when the Fab Five played, naturally were asked on Saturday about the similarities.

"We don't pay much attention to that," Dakari Johnson said. "We just play each game and take one game at a time and just focus on winning ball games."

Michigan head coach John Beilein said he didn't even know Kentucky started five freshmen until Saturday when he looked at the roster.

"The first time I knew that," he said. "I really don't pay attention to that. You're asking the wrong guy. If you ask me about Michigan, I'll tell you about Michigan. I don't know what other people are doing until we play them. That's when I find things out. But I understand that's a media (thing). Freshmen playing is such an interesting fact that people make so much of it, and I get it. I get it. But my goodness, there's so many freshmen out there (in college basketball)."

For now, the comparisons between the Kentucky five and the Fab Five are eerily similar, but there is one key difference: UK's full story has yet to be written.

The balance between fun and accountability

One of Kentucky's focuses for pushing through the postseason is to have fun and enjoy the ride.

The regular season, which was bogged down by criticism for a failure to meet preseason hype, was not necessarily fun for the team. Now that UK is on a hot streak, some stress has been lifted and the players are enjoying themselves.

"We started to have a lot more fun," Andrew Harrison said. "Coach tells us whoever has more fun usually wins. That's what we just try to do. We just try to play together."

As the Cats have had more fun and won more games, John Calipari has been able to back off his team a little bit. Coach Cal cautioned reporters from making the assumption that it's been the other way around.

"Somebody will say, 'Well, he's been nicer. That's why (we're playing better),' " Calipari said. "How nice was I, Julius (Randle), last night? Yeah. You want to ask Alex (Poythress) how nice I was?"

Calipari described a balance between having fun and holding kids responsible.

"I'm holding them accountable, but they're playing the way they need to play, so I don't have to do it that often," Coach Cal said.

Of course, after those answers, a couple of the Cats were asked what it's like to play for a coach like Calipari. Young started to answer that "he's always positive with" him, at which point Coach Cal interrupted and said, "I'm not always positive to you. Tell them the truth."

Laughing, Julius Randle stepped in and shared why he believes Cal's toughness and persistence is what's best for the team.

"He's tough on us, but it's the best thing for us," Randle said. "He's going to push us every day. You may not like it some days, but at the end of the day it's what's best for us. It's not just about basketball. I mean, what he's teaching us goes far beyond basketball. It's a lot of life lessons. So gotta take it in stride every day."

Cats grounded the plane just in time

Short on time, Calipari said he was pleased his team got it together late in the year before time ultimately ran out. The Cats, after an up-and-down season, have come together and played well when it's mattered most.

"I'm just happy we're playing better right now," Calipari said. "Because I'm telling you, we almost ran out of runway when we landed the plane. As a matter of fact, the nose of the plane was in grass. But we got down. That's all we were trying to do is land the plane. And if the runway was 25 games instead of 30 games, we probably went off the edge. Just happy for this team."

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

Linnae Harper scored 14 points off the bench in UK's Sweet 16 loss to Baylor. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics) Linnae Harper scored 14 points off the bench in UK's Sweet 16 loss to Baylor. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Tony Neely, UK Athletics

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Kentucky's season ended Saturday, as it does for all but one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament, with a defeat.
 
The Wildcats fought gamely but fell 90-72 against No. 5-ranked Baylor, which was the No. 2 seed in the Notre Dame Regional and moves on to the Elite Eight.
 
It was a rematch of the epic 133-130 four-overtime classic that Kentucky won back in December.  And although this outcome didn't turn out the same way today, the Wildcats can be no less proud of their effort, or their season.
 
"I'm really proud of the players for the season that we had," coach Matthew Mitchell said.  "We had some heavy expectations on us (before the season) and things started going in a way (in mid-season) that we didn't feel like we were going to meet any of those.
 
"They were able to get it back together, so we learned a lot, experienced a lot. We became very close as a team this year. I built some great relationships that we wouldn't have done any other way if we hadn't had that adversity, so I'm really proud of them, they had a lot of great moments.  I think we'll look back on this season as being very significant in the development of our program."
 
Kentucky completed the campaign with a 26-9 worksheet, setting numerous accomplishments not just for this season but over the careers of seniors Kastine Evans, DeNesha Stallworth, Samarie Walker and Bernisha Pinkett.

  • This year extended UK's school-record streak of five straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
  • The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16 for the fourth time among those five tourney appearances.
  • UK has charted at least 25 wins the last five seasons, another school record.
  • This year contained five wins over Top-10 ranked opponents -- Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road, South Carolina and Baylor at neutral sites and Louisville at home. 
 
"We've been underdogs for so many years and we've always been able to come together as a team and prove people wrong," Stallworth said. "I'm sure many people thought we wouldn't be in this position with the way we started the SEC but we're just proud of ourselves and what we accomplished during the year."
 
The second edition of the Baylor contest turned out to be a game of frustration for the Wildcats. It began well enough; UK got an early lead and forced a flurry of missed shots on the defensive end - including six straight misfires by All-American Odyssey Sims - but that is where the trouble began.
 
The taller Bears grabbed rebound after rebound, controlling 10 of the first 11 boards of the game, and began cashing in on the second chances.  Problems compounded on the offensive end as the Wildcats earned good opportunities but saw four layups crawl around the rim and fall off. Baylor capitalized with a 16-2 run and led 20-7.
 
To their credit, the Cats didn't panic and started scratching out of the hole. Makayla Epps began scoring on drives to the hoop. DeNesha Stallworth tallied post-up baskets. Bria Goss and Jennifer O'Neill got to the free-throw line, and when O'Neill canned a couple of freebies with 4:31 remaining, the Cats had pulled within 32-28.
 
Then, the decisive time came. Sparked by a suddenly hot Sims, Baylor closed the first half with a 17-4 spurt, and the Wildcats found themselves on the wrong end of a 49-32 halftime score. 
 
Kentucky battled just as gamely in the second half and got within 12 points on four occasions but could get no closer.
 
An analysis of the game shows that Baylor's height advantage was simply too much. The Bears outrebounded the Cats, collected 20 second-chance points on offensive rebounds and totaled 50 points in the paint. Sims, who came in averaging 28.5 points per game, was held below her average but still showed why she is one of the nation's best with 25 points.
 
The Wildcats were led by Stallworth, who totaled 19 points and eight rebounds. Freshman Linnae Harper sparked UK's second-half rallies and finished with 14. As noted above, Goss got to the foul line and made 9 of 10 en route to 13 points.
 
The ending, however, shouldn't overshadow what was another outstanding season for Kentucky. In addition to the 26 wins, the hallmark of this team was who they were and what they overcame.
 
This group truly came together as a team. Eleven players saw action on a regular basis. And even though UK had one of the nation's top scoring units with more than 81 points per game, no one averaged more than 13. UK shared the ball, shared the defense and shared the responsibility when adversity hit.
 
As Mitchell alluded to, the Wildcat ship endured some rough sailing early in the SEC schedule. The Cats were 5-5 in league play with the toughest part of the schedule straight ahead. But Captain Mitchell and his players came together to right the ship, grab some memorable wins down the stretch, reach the finals of the SEC Tournament and go to yet another NCAA Sweet 16.
 
"I want to thank our players for battling through some tough circumstances and doing a good job this year," said Mitchell, who once again showed his respect for his seniors.
 
"Bernisha had a lot of great moments on the court but I'm more proud of her for getting her college degree. She comes from a neighborhood where only two percent of kids even try college and less than one percent ever finish college. She is a success story just by walking across that (graduation) stage," Mitchell said. "Kastine, you want your child to be like her, she's just such a wonderful young woman.
 
"Samarie and DeNesha really gifted us with their presence, transferring here and helping elevate the program. Hopefully they benefited from it, too. A class group of seniors, really proud and feel blessed by God that I got to coach them."
 
And although their seasons end like almost everyone else's, the seniors can hold their head high when they think of what they've done at Kentucky.
 
"I'm very proud of the team, proud of the coaches and myself as well," Walker said. "I think we've come a long way from when I was being recruited by UK in high school, just seeing how the program has changed and knowing I've had an impact on that really makes me happy."
 
Evans also was able to look past today's disappointment and take the long-range view.
 
"My class (committed to Kentucky in Nov. 2009) before that first team with Amber Smith, Victoria Dunlap and Amani Franklin went to the Elite Eight (in 2010), so we came in wanting to make a change," Evans said. "A lot of credit goes to our class, although we're still up and coming and still have a lot more to do as a program, I think we have put our face out there and start having Kentucky be recognized."

John Calipari and the Wildcats talk to reporters about their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari and the Wildcats talk to reporters about their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Ironic as it may seem, in the moment of the games and in the aftermath of two classics, the Kentucky Wildcats have little appreciation for the types of victories they've been a part of in the last week.

"We all talked about it on the bus after, that everybody says that game was the best game ever played and this game was also a classic, and we're like, we're so tired, we don't know," John Calipari said. "We have no idea if it was a good game, bad game - we just know we won."

Proud owners of the NCAA Tournament's two most impressive victories - wins over top-seeded and previously undefeated Wichita State, followed by a comeback over defending national champion Louisville - Kentucky (27-10) has erased the disappointment of the regular season and rewritten how this team will be remembered no matter what happens going forward.

But now that the Cats have made it this far, why stop here? If they've gone through all this trouble, why not finish it off right?

That was the mindset of Andrew Harrison on Saturday barely 12 hours removed from his team's resilient victory over its archrival in the Sweet 16. He said he was too tired to begin with to even bask in Friday's win, but he also paid little attention to the celebration pictures in Lexington with second-seeded Michigan (28-8) on the horizon.

"It's hard (to move on) because we're a young team," Andrew Harrison said. "After a game like that you just feel so relieved. But now I think it's bigger than that. It's bigger than any individual. No one thought we would be here right now, so that just wants us to keep on fighting."

Given little shot to reach Dallas when the field was set two weeks ago, UK finds itself just a victory away from its third Final Four in four seasons after navigating a mine field that's been the toughest, seed wise, of any team still dancing.

The Cats are close enough to the Final Four to taste it, but they say they're not content with the magical ride they've already enjoyed.

"The only thing I can really focus on right now is Michigan," Andrew Harrison said. "I know they're a great team. A lot of people didn't even have us being here or losing to Wichita or Kansas State or whatever, but we just have to focus on Michigan right now."

John Calipari conceded contentment is on his list of concerns after two emotional victories.

"There's a chance for a letdown because the last two games we played were just like slugfests," he said. "But I don't think it will be based on you just played Louisville, now you're going to let your guard down. I don't think so."

Kentucky can ill-afford to lets its guard down against a Michigan team that is among the best in the country.

The Wolverines, last year's national runners-up, didn't just win the Big 10, a conference some regard as the best in the country, they won it by a three-game margin. Had they won their league tournament, which they lost in the Big Ten title game, the NCAA Selection Committee said they - not Virginia - would have ended up with the fourth No. 1 seed.

Michigan nearly did it, remarkably, without its best low-post player, Mitch McGary, who was lost for the season after just eight games due to back surgery.

"We had a plan in place because his injury happened early enough in late August, early September, that we virtually did all of our individuals without him," Michigan head coach John Beilein said. "We had a month of practice in October without him. So we had that in place. When he came back, you know, then we started to work the other plan that we had over the summer. Then he went down again and we went back to plan A. So it was a fairly seamless change back to the original plan that we started in December."

The plan included making a whole lot of 3s - Michigan ranks fourth in the country in 3-point field-goal percentage and sixth in 3-point field goals made - and the best player you've probably never heard of, Nik Stauskas.

Combined, the two have been a pretty formidable force in the second half of the season where Michigan has won 10 of its last 11 games 22 of 26.

"If you give them 3s, they're making them," Calipari said. "So your hope is to make them tough 3s. They may make then anyway."

How to stop those Michigan treys?

"Dim the lights, open up some doors, hope there's a wind blowing," Coach Cal joked.

All jokes aside, a little good fortune may be the only way to slow down Stauskas, who scored 14 points in Michigan's nail-biter against Tennessee and has hit 90 3-pointers on the season at a 44.8-percent clip.

"You could say we're going to try to not let him shoot any balls, (but) he's going to get off 3s," Calipari said. "They're going to dribble at and run him off backdoor (screens) and he's going to get a lot of handoffs. You can't say he's a hard-right driver (because) he'll go either way.

"But you do know if you lose him in transition, if you lose him in penetration and he's open, don't even try to rebound it. Just run back. ... He's that good."

Kentucky's size on the perimeter could present challenges for Stauskas, but at 6-foot-6, he's had little trouble shooting over his smaller counterparts this year. UK will have little time to game plan for him with less than 24 hours until tip.

"I've got 16 hours to get to get these guys ready," Calipari said. "The good news is, well, (Beilein) had about 19 hours. So you don't have the time to go and say there's 12 things they're going to do. ... You just don't have time.

"It's going to be our best, hopefully, against their best and see who comes out on top."

If both are at their best, fans could be in for another classic. Judging by the recent swing of things, that bodes well for Kentucky in its quest to reach the Final Four.

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

Andrew Harrison shares a moment with John Calipari during UK's upset of Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison shares a moment with John Calipari during UK's upset of Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - If Andrew Harrison had to do this season all over again, he wouldn't change a thing.

Instead of fulfilling preseason expectations and flirting with 40-0, he would choose the losses and realization that he and his team failed to reach such dreams. Rather than live up to the experts' billing that he was the top point guard in the class and the next great John Calipari guard, Andrew Harrison would opt for the criticism was slung his way when UK's season headed south.

He wouldn't change a thing because it's defined who he is and how he's playing in the NCAA Tournament. And how he's playing right now is, in the words of Charles Barkley, like the best point guard in the country.

"Every freshman that's highly recruited and stuff, they think they're going to come in here, play out a year and it's all going to be fun, but it wasn't like that and I'm kind of happy it wasn't," Andrew Harrison said Saturday. "There's some bumps in the road and we got through it."

Nobody has gotten through as many as Andrew Harrison.

The punching bag -- alongside his twin brother -- for UK's 10 losses in the regular season, Andrew Harrison has been hit with just about every damning description an 18-year-old should never have to hear. By both fans and the media, he's been described as selfish, unresponsive to coaching and an incapable leader.

Those weren't the adjectives that accompanied his name when he signed with UK as the No. 5 overall player in the 2013 class. A player whose defining attribute was being a winner, he was suddenly labeled a loser by some.

"We have 18-, 19-year-olds that were counted and ridiculed and crushed," Calipari said. "Can't play, not any good, bad guys."

The low points for Andrew Harrison, he said, were the loss at home to Arkansas followed by the shocking upset at South Carolina. At that point, when UK was suddenly in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament altogether, Andrew Harrison questioned himself.

"Of course (I did)," Andrew Harrison said. "In those situations people are disappointed. You have to go back and realize who you're playing for: yourself and your parents and stuff like that. You have to get in the gym and regain that confidence."

Two things changed everything for Andrew Harrison.

One was a more simplified game plan from his head coach. The other was a timely visit from his father, Aaron Harrison Sr., who told him his family was financially secure and that he didn't need to worry about leaving college after a year.  

"That kind of lifted some weight off my shoulders," Andrew Harrison said. "He just told me don't worry about what happens next year. Just worry about the next practice and the next time you get on the floor. So that's what I did and it was kind of relieving."

Relieved of the expectations and free to just play, Andrew Harrison has been at the center of UK's unforeseen and damn-near miraculous turnaround.

Over six postseason games, Andrew Harrison's scoring (12.3 points per game), assists (5.7) and shooting percentage (.422) are all up. More importantly, he's transformed into the leader of the team and the face of UK's uncanny resiliency.

"He's doing a great job leading us," Julius Randle said. "When things get tough, he's picking us up."

Where bad body language once surfaced when adversity would hit, a steely resolve has now replaced it.

"He understands the grind better, how you have to work," Calipari said. "He understands the effect he has on his team more than ever; that he's got to be more focused on his teammates than himself."

Without the criticism he faced earlier in the season, Andrew Harrison said he would have never developed that ability to bounce back when things go wrong.

"I feel like it shows who you are as a man, really," he said. "You just have to fight through it. It's just some adversity, some I had never experienced before on the basketball court. I think it just made me tougher."

Because in order to lead a team like the one Andrew Harrison was tasked with guiding, you need to have the training to do it. Before you can navigate a group through a war like the NCAA Tournament, you have to go through the battles.

Andrew Harrison had never been through those before, and yet it was up to him to lead the preseason No. 1 team in the country from the start.

He didn't arrive on campus until August, a few months after most of his teammates, but everyone just assumed that Andrew Harrison would take the keys to the car and drive the Maserati right to the promised land. They forgot that other than John Wall, it took Calipari's other heralded point guards like Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague time to develop.

"What people don't understand, people think, 'Oh, you're the point guard, you're going to become the leader.' But at the same time, you have to earn it," Andrew Harrison said. "You have to do something to earn your teammates' respect whether it's stand up to somebody or speak up for them."

Andrew Harrison said there hasn't been a singular moment when he's done that. Rather, it's been a series of smaller ones.

When the team has been tired, he's taken it upon himself to show toughness. When his teammates haven't felt like practicing, he's been the first one to the gym. When there were no answers for why things weren't going well as recently as a month ago, Andrew Harrison spoke up.

"I think you have to gain their respect, and I think I did that," Andrew Harrison said.

To gain their respect, he's had to go through a lot, but that's exactly why he's transformed into the player he now is and why UK is just a victory away from the Final Four.

"This is for him - and really all these guys - where they've come from, where they were and where they've come, it's incredible," Calipari said. "Incredible story."

 
Dakari Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson had 15 points and six rebounds in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- There Dakari Johnson was, the No. 9 overall player in his class, relegated to a reserve role as his fellow freshmen started and starred.

Naturally, it got to him.

"It was tough at first, just not getting the minutes early in the season," Johnson said.

Johnson had his moments in November and December -- including a 10-point, seven-rebound performance against Eastern Michigan -- but just as often would be a nonfactor, albeit a very large one.

Accustomed to being a featured post-up presence on high-school teams that hardly lost, the normally jovial Johnson found himself sulking. Now that he's started six straight postseason games as Kentucky (27-10) has raced into an Elite Eight matchup with second-seeded Michigan (28-8), Johnson has come to realize that was only on him.

"You can kind of call it selfishness," Johnson said. "I wasn't happy not getting the ball and stuff like that and not really paying attention on what I needed to be doing, which was defending and rebounding and just letting the offense come to me."

It was right after UK's short break for Christmas that Johnson came to understand that. In the days before the Wildcats' regular-season showdown with Louisville, John Calipari summoned the 7-footer for a meeting, sensing Johnson's displeasure with his role.

"He just told me all the things I needed to do to increase my play and just listen to him," Johnson said. "Just focus on defending and rebounding and everything else will come."

It took some time, but now it's coming in a big way.

After playing single-digit minutes nine times before Jan. 18, Johnson has started all but six games since, including his best game as a collegian in the Sweet 16 against Louisville. In UK's remarkable comeback win, Johnson had a career-high-tying 15 points and six rebounds, capitalizing on the size advantage he had over the Cardinals and even showing off the open-floor ability he's developed as his conditioning has improved.

"You know, I just played hard for my team," Johnson said on Friday night. "I just tried to get on the offensive rebounding and just tried to make some good post moves just to capitalize for us."

No one was happier to see that than Julius Randle, who was Johnson's roommate when the two arrived in Lexington over the summer.

Randle, like Johnson, dealt with frustration early in the season. Losses piled up at a much faster rate than anyone expected for the nation's preseason No. 1 team. Randle had a hard enough time with that alone, which only strengthens his admiration for Johnson, who rode the bench for many of those early defeats.

"The biggest thing is at any given moment Dakari could have just let go of the rope," Randle said. "But all he did was work hard. He didn't complain and his hard work is showing up now."

Randle hopes that continues. And frankly, after Friday night, it's going to have to for UK's magical March Madness run to last into April.

Willie Cauley-Stein, the player with whom Johnson has split time at the five position, went down with a left ankle injury against Louisville. He hasn't been officially ruled out for Sunday's 5:05 p.m. tip-off, but Coach Cal termed the sophomore "doubtful."

Johnson, who played a career-high 31 minutes after Cauley-Stein left early in the first half against Louisville, isn't overcomplicating the task he'll be faced with in playing an expanded role.

Though he'll assume many of his minutes, Johnson can't afford to fall into the trap of trying to become Cauley-Stein. He's not going to develop Cauley-Stein's quick-twitch athleticism and shot-blocking ability overnight, so he may as well focus on what he does well.

"Just keep on doing what I'm doing, just bringing energy to the team," Johnson said. "Probably playing more minutes and sustaining that."

He was also sure to point out that fellow freshman Marcus Lee, who hasn't played double-digit minutes in a game since January, will need to be ready as well. Lee saw one minute of second-half action against Louisville.

Whether it's Johnson, Lee or Randle at the five in UK's "small" lineup, the Cats will have a size advantage on the Wolverines, who feature just one player in their regular rotation taller than 6-8.

But just as Johnson learned that his pedigree wasn't going to earn him anything on its own, so too will UK have to make that edge pay off on the floor.

"We have a size advantage but also Michigan's a very physical team," Johnson said. "So I really don't think that's a big factor for us. We just have to go out there and compete."

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

INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein, who suffered a left ankle injury in Kentucky's 74-69 Sweet 16 victory over Louisville, is telling his team he's going to try to play vs. Michigan, but John Calipari said on Saturday his sophomore center is "doubtful" for the Wildcats' Elite Eight game.

"He's still in a boot. He's doubtful," Calipari said. "He's acting like he thinks he can do something. I would be stunned if he played in this game, but he's saying he may want to give it a try. But he hasn't been out of that boot."

Cauley-Stein left Friday's game at the 13:05 mark, though it's still unclear what exactly happened. The sophomore forward limped off the court and received treatment on the sidelines before hobbling back to the locker room.

He never returned to the game or the bench.

"It's not an Achilles," Calipari said. "It's an ankle. It's his ankle."

When Cauley-Stein's teammates saw him on the trainer's table during halftime and learned they would be without him for rest of the game, several of the Cats told him they were going to win it for him.

Calipari was told Cauley-Stein was going "bonkers" in the locker room rooting for his teammates, but it looks like he will be reduced to nothing but a cheerleader again on Sunday.

"Hopefully he's able to limp his way in there and give us a few minutes, but maybe he can't," Coach Cal said.

If Cauley-Stein can't play, UK will lose its best defender. Cauley-Stein led the team with 106 blocks in 37 games, and down the stretch he's been instrumental in UK's turnaround, swatting 18 shots in the previous five contests.

Without the lanky 7-footer, the Cats blocked just two shots on Friday, well below their 6.1 average.

"It changes a lot," Aaron Harrison said. "He's a great defender, blocks a lot of shots, drives from the corners."

Dakari Johnson stepped up in Cauley-Stein's place, scoring a career-high-tying 15 points and grabbing six rebounds, but his role will become even more vital going forward.

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

Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in UK's 74-69 win over Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dominique Hawkins played 15 minutes in UK's 74-69 win over Louisville on Friday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

INDIANAPOLIS -- Few likely expected Dominique Hawkins to even see the floor in the Sweet 16, but a conversation with his coach on Friday had him prepared.

John Calipari pulled the freshman guard aside at UK's open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium, telling Hawkins -- who hadn't played more than seven minutes in a game since Jan. 8 -- he better be ready for the challenge of shadowing one of the nation's best players.

"He basically told me, 'You know who you're going to be guarding, right, if I put you in?' " Calipari said. "I was like, 'Yeah, I know Coach.' And he told me, 'Get ready for it if I call your name. That's who you're going to be guarding.' "

That who, of course, was Louisville's Russ Smith, the 6-foot senior All-American. And with 14:34 left in the first half, Hawkins got his shot.

Forgoing any thoughts of scoring -- Hawkins didn't attempt a single field goal or even register a statistic other than a foul -- he put Smith in his crosshairs.

"My focus was on my defense," Hawkins said. "I feel like that's the best part of my game and I know I'm guarding one of the best guards in college basketball right now. I was taking it real personal. If he scored on me and I was going to be upset about it and if I defended I was going to be happy and try to do it again."

Smith, as Smith does, did his share of scoring. He poured in 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting, but Hawkins made him work hard for the 15 minutes he was on the floor.

After James Young fouled out, Hawkins played the final 5:32. UK outscored U of L 17-5 during that stretch, overcoming a seven-point deficit to advance to the Elite Eight with a 74-69 win. Smith scored just two points on 1-of-4 shooting over the final minutes, committing a crucial turnover to boot.

It was the first time Hawkins had played in crunch time in a win-or-go-home scenario since last March when he led Madison Central to the Kentucky state championship. With the Wildcats mounting their late rally, Hawkins says he called on that experience.

"You just gotta keep fighting and fighting," Hawkins said. "That's the only thing I know how to do. ... When I was in the Sweet 16, Kentucky state, I know that we were down a lot and we just kept fighting and fighting. The result will end in a win if you keep on doing that."

That's representative of the way Hawkins has approached his entire freshman season. Even as his playing time has dwindled, his mentality has remained the same. On Friday, that paid off.

"He was ready," Calipari said. "I just thought it was a better game for him than Jarrod (Polson). He's more of a pit bull. I thought he could play against those guys, and he did well."

Polson is the player who has taken Hawkins' spot in the rotation over the last two months and understands the challenged of staying tuned in when the minutes aren't coming. That's why he was so impressed by what Hawkins did on Smith.

"I can't say enough about Dominique," Polson said. "I feel like he's deserved a lot more time than he has gotten this year. But he's never complained once this whole year. For him to be able to step up and play like he did was huge for us. I'm just extremely happy for him."

That's a feeling many likely share in seeing the always-smiling Hawkins have success. Polson, however, isn't surprised as many others are that it happened on this stage.

"That's who he is," Polson said. "He's a really good defender and putting him on Russ Smith was really good for us tonight. He kind of got into him a little bit and that was good. I don't know, that's just Dominique for you. And he played well tonight."

Messy start

The way things started, the way the Wildcats settled for 3-pointers, clanked them and reverted to their old ways, one could have deduced that the progress of the last few weeks had vanished with one daunting game against their archrivals.

"Just so you know, before the game, our staff talked today and we knew how this would start," Calipari said. "They're going to pee down their leg is what I said. They will pee down their leg and let's just be positive and keep them going."

The Cats, who have found their shooting stroke late in the season, went to the well one too many times in the opening minutes of Friday's Sweet 16 game, taking five 3-pointers in the opening four minutes, missing all five.

UK's reliance on perimeter shots, coupled with Louisville's efficient start, put UK in an early 18-5 hole, but the Cats never panicked.

Calipari reminded his team what Tennessee did the game before in nearly coming back from a double-digit deficit and told his players they were fine.

They responded to their head coach as they did last week when they came back from a nine-point hole against Wichita State.

"With so much adversity we've been through all year, nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said. "So we knew we were going to get him and we'd have to swing back, and we did that."

Road to Final Four runs through last year's Final Four for Cats

For a team that lacked so-called quality wins in the regular season, Kentucky has captured the two most impressive wins of the NCAA Tournament at the halfway point.

By beating Wichita State and Louisville in back-to-back games, UK has eliminated the two highest-ranked teams that are no longer alive in the tournament. The Shockers and the Cardinals were ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the USA Today Coaches' Poll coming into the Big Dance.

"I think we played a lot of tough games this year," Aaron Harrison said. "Having a tough schedule really helps us throughout this tournament because we've been through a lot and been through tough games."

But the road to the Final Four doesn't get any easier.

UK's game against Michigan on Sunday will mark the third straight matchup against a team that was in last year's Final Four. The Wolverines, seeded No. 2 in the Midwest Region, were discussed as a potential No. 1 seed before losing in the Big 10 championship.

UK capitalizes on U of L's charity


UK has been criticized for leaving points at the foul line this year, but the Cats' ability to hit their free throws vs. Louisville not only kept them in the game early when the Cardinals threatened to pull away, it helped them ice the game late.

Kentucky hit 11 of 12 free throws over the final 7:23 and 22 of 27 (81.5 percent) for the game.

Conversely, U of L made just 13 of 23 at the charity stripe, keeping UK in the game in the first half when the Cards made just 6 of 15.

Over the last two games, Kentucky has made 38 of 49 at the line (77.6 percent).

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

Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- After everything that had just happened, there was really only one question on anyone's mind.

Dakari Johnson was the man it was directed to.

"Dakari, how in the hell did you guys win this game?"

How, indeed.

UK had just completed an improbable rally from 13 points down in the first half and seven with less than five minutes to go to take defending national champion Louisville. The Wildcats did it without defensive anchor Willie Cauley-Stein, who exited with an ankle injury early, and with swingman James Young on the bench for the final minutes with five fouls.

After a hearty laugh, Johnson offered a simple reason why UK had just pulled off a 74-69 victory.

"Well, when we were down by seven Alex (Poythress) made a lot of key plays for us," Johnson said. "I think he played well down the stretch for us. I think he won the game for us."

It was Poythress's dunk that started the 15-3 run on which UK closed the game. Thirty seconds later, it was his block of a Louisville layup -- the kind of play Cauley-Stein would normally make -- that gave the ball back to the Cats.

"I think the block that he got was probably the biggest play, when he blocked Russ Smith," said Dominique Hawkins, who made more than his share of big plays in chasing U of L's dynamic senior guard.

Julius Randle would bring UK to within three with a bank shot in the post, setting Poythress up for another signature moment.

At the top of the key, Luke Hancock -- seemingly poised to close out another NCAA Tournament victory for the Cardinals -- came around a ball screen and Poythress switched onto him. Finding another level of focus as Hancock drove to the basket, Poythress stripped the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player and forced a turnover.

To finish off what was probably the best -- and undoubtedly the most important -- three-minute stretch of his UK career, Poythress corralled an offensive rebound, finished through contact and hit the ensuing free throw to tie the game at 66-all. Forty-five seconds later, he skied for a rebound, was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give UK its first lead since 2-0.

Prior to his outburst, to call Poythress's night quiet would have been too kind.  At that point, the sophomore forward was scoreless and had just two rebounds.

With Cauley-Stein in the locker room, John Calipari needed his other big men to step up. Johnson was, punishing the archrival Cardinals to the tune of 15 points and six rebounds, as was Randle, who posted his 23rd double-double.

To pull off a second upset in five days and advance to a fourth Elite Eight in five seasons, Poythress would have to follow suit. Coach Cal told him so on the sideline in no uncertain terms.

"He was crushing him pretty bad," Jarrod Polson said. "I just think it's 'cause he just knows how good Alex is."

Polson, who counts Poythress as one of his closest friends on the team, took it upon himself to take him aside to reinforce in slightly softer terms the message he knew Calipari was trying to send.

"I just was telling him to keep his head up," Polson said. "I was just telling him, 'You're one of the best players I've ever played with and keep your confidence.' "

With that combination of Calipari's prodding and Polson's cajoling, Poythress played like a man possessed.

"I was just trying to step up for my team," Poythress said. "The team needed me. They were telling me they needed me. I was just trying to step up for them."

He did, and Kentucky moved on because of it. Now, to take the next step past second-seeded Michigan and into the Final Four, the Cats will need him once more.

"We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time," Calipari said. "It was unbelievable how he finished. That's who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out."

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

Cats win one for Willie

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Dakari Johnson, stepping in for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, had 15 points in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Dakari Johnson, stepping in for the injured Willie Cauley-Stein, had 15 points in UK's Sweet 16 win over Louisville. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- With its best defensive player hobbling to the locker room and the team down 13 points, the Kentucky Wildcats had a choice on Friday night with their postseason lives on the line: retreat or win it for Willie.

Willie Cauley-Stein, the anchor of UK's defense, suffered a left ankle injury at the 13:05 mark of the Cats' Sweet 16 game vs. Louisville. It's unclear how Cauley-Stein injured his ankle, but after he limped off the court, down the tunnel and to the locker room on one foot, Cauley-Stein never returned to the game.

Instead of folding, the Wildcats (27-10)  rallied back. When they saw him on the trainer's table at halftime and learned he wouldn't be back, they decided to win one for him.

"We were pretty sure that he wasn't coming back at all," Jarrod Polson said. "We all shook his hand and were all kind of saying, 'We got this for you.' "

And win for him -- 74-69 over archrival U of L -- they did.

Throughout the second half, Kentucky played with a spark on both ends of the court, even without their leading shot blocker.

Offensively, Julius Randle's right-on-the-money assist to set up Aaron Harrison's 3 put the Cats in the lead 70-68 with 39 seconds remaining. Dominique Hawkins' smack talk and pit-bull like presence helped contain Russ Smith. Without Cauley-Stein's threat at the rim, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress stepped up, snagged some key rebounds, and in Poythress' case, blocked a huge shot.

"Just tried to imitate him," Poythress said on playing without Cauley-Stein. "It's hard to, with the great shot blocker he is. We just (had) people who could do it. Me, Julius, Marcus Lee off the bench doing it too. We just gotta try to win for him."

Back in the locker room, as his teammates came back without him, Cauley-Stein was his usual energetic self, Calipari said.

"The doctor told me he was absolutely going bonkers in the locker room for game, like for the team, cheering," Calipari said. "They had to hold him down. He was going crazy."

The extent of Cauley-Stein's injury is still unknown.

"It's not a good ankle injury," Calipari said. "Let me just put it that way."

If the injury is as bad as Coach Cal feared in the early hours of Saturday, the Cats will need Dakari Johnson to rewind and replay his performance against the Louisville Cardinals.

Johnson scored a career-high-tying 15 points, two of which came from a monstrous dunk that won't soon be forgotten.

"We didn't really know he could do that," Andrew Harrison said. "But Dakari is a great low-post player. He's hard to guard. He played with a lot of energy."

Johnson, playing a career-high 31 minutes in Cauley-Stein's absence, also posted six boards and three steals.

Calipari was pleased with his ability to draw "and ones."

"Dakari played well today," Coach Cal said. "That 3-point play, that made free throw, that was huge. That just kept eating in their lead to where we could get it close."

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


Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
  • Griffin: What's the name of the song that this video starts playing when describing Cal getting ejected and Aaron talking about read more
  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
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