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Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for Wisconsin game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kentucky's freshmen in a class by themselves

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UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - He, too, a bit shocked, a bit in disbelief, a bit in amazement at the type of turnaround his young team had just completed, John Calipari sat at the dais in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium and tried to review the silliness of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids defying the odds, forgetting the past and coming together for one of the most unforgettable turnarounds in recent college basketball memory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There's more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emotions were tested. Resolve was questioned. Supporters dwindled.

And yet the Wildcats endured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injured Cauley-Stein still very much part of team

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Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't about to let anything separate him from his team, not in this moment.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Wildcats knew at that point they would likely be without Willie Cauley-Stein.

Talking to the Cats after their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan was set, John Calipari offered a prediction of something that would help them survive the big man's absence.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Marcus Lee said.

That's right. Lee, the player who had as many DNPs as games played in Southeastern Conference play, was going to star.

"And everyone in the world would be talking about you is what I said," Calipari said.

Lee and his teammates, understandably, were skeptical.

"Knowing us, none of us believed him," Lee said.

For the first minute he was on the floor against the Wolverines, the doubt seemed well-founded

His team in the midst of a characteristic slow start, Lee checked in at the 15:25 mark of the first half. On his third possession, he made a mistake that led in part to an Alex Poythress turnover. On the other end of the floor, he missed a block-out assignment and Jon Horford capitalized with a tip-in to give Michigan an 11-4 lead.

Coach Cal, poised to end all thoughts of a breakout performance for the slender freshman, turned to the bench and summoned Dakari Johnson as a substitute.

But then something happened.

Andrew Harrison drove and missed a floater. Lee, on the weak side, flashed to the rim. In one motion, he rose, palmed the rebound and spiked it downward. It rattled around for a moment before falling and giving Lee his first points in more than a month.

As Lee ran back on defense, Calipari summoned Johnson again, this time back to the bench.

It was good he did, because Lee was about to author one of the most improbable stories of an NCAA Tournament full of them. Well, improbable to everyone except Calipari maybe.

His put-back dunk was the first of three such plays. By the time Calipari did finally bring Lee back to the bench, he had six points and three rebounds in just three minutes, helping UK withstand a first-half barrage by Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.

"I was just trying to do my part to help my team win," Lee said. "And throughout our practices and our shootarounds, I just got more confident because my team got more confident in me."

His confidence only grew as he produced.

Lee was on the floor as UK stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes of the half, slamming down another tip dunk to cap an 8-0 run. Forty-one seconds later, he drove from the free-throw line and hit a right-handed layup.

It was a play that reminded everyone watching that Lee was a UK's seventh McDonald's All-American in Coach Cal's top-ranked 2013 class, including the Wolverines.

"We had very little on him (on the scouting report)," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays way above the rim."

His teammates needed no such reminder of that, even as Lee went from scouting report afterthought to trending nationwide on Twitter during that remarkable first half.

"What he did kept us in the game, won us the game," Julius Randle said. "That's what we need from him. We knew he was capable of it all season. We had Willie and Dakari playing out of their mind all season but we knew he was capable of it."

More aware of the bouncy Lee, the Wolverines paid him more attention after halftime. Lee didn't score as UK came out on top after a back-and-forth final 20 minutes on Aaron Harrison's game-winning 3, but he was still effective in six minutes of playing time.

For the game, Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks. His performance earned him a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team alongside Randle, the Most Outstanding Player, and the ever-clutch Aaron Harrison.

"It is pretty crazy, but he really stepped up," said Johnson, who told reporters on Saturday the Cats would need Lee to play well. "He got his opportunity. You know, Willie was out and he more than stepped up big time. He was a difference-maker in the game. Without him I don't think we would have won today."

That's probably the first time in Lee's short college career that could be said.

Lee exploded for 17 points in his UK debut, but in a game against UNC Asheville that was never in doubt. When he did get his opportunities, Lee would flash athleticism but make maddening mistakes that made it impossible for Coach Cal to play the Antioch, Calif., native over Cauley-Stein or Johnson.

He understood why he wasn't seeing more time, but he couldn't help but let frustration creep in.

"Just as a competitor you have it going through your head sometimes," Lee said. "But when you're with your team and you're with your family, it kind of just goes right past you."

Nevertheless, there would be times when Lee would have lapses in practice and daydream.

"I mean, when you have really long practices you have to take some time to yourself for a second," Lee said, smiling. "But, yeah, you gotta get the foot in your butt to tell you to come back to earth."

He didn't need any kicks in the butt on Saturday knowing an opportunity might be coming. Once it did, all Lee did was carry a solid day of practice forward.

"I just tried to play the same way I played in practice," Lee said. "I treated every game like me going through practice. Coach always told me to be ready so that's what I tried to do."

With Cauley-Stein -- wearing a protective boot and using crutches on Sunday -- uncertain for next weekend's national semifinal against Wisconsin, Lee will need to be ready again.

"Marcus Lee, again," said Johnson, asked how the Cats will cope without Cauley-Stein. "He'll get another opportunity and he more than handled this opportunity. So I have no doubt he's going to play well again."

For now, Lee's just going to enjoy having the entire world talk about him. That, and the pride of the coach who believed in him more than he believed in himself.

"Proud of you, kid," Calipari told Lee at UK's postgame press conference.

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.

'Great story' indeed: Cats headed to Final Four

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Aaron Harrison scored 14 points -- including the game-winning 3 with 2.6 seconds left -- in UK's Elite Eight win against Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scored 14 points -- including the game-winning 3 with 2.6 seconds left -- in UK's Elite Eight win against Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - Nearly one month ago, on March 1 in Columbia, S.C., Aaron Harrison faced a horde of reporters in the bowels of South Carolina's arena and tried to make sense of Kentucky's inexplicable loss to the Southeastern Conference cellar-dwelling Gamecocks.

Confidently, surprisingly, he said of Kentucky's remaining season: "It's going to be a great story."

Few people could have believed him. Even his twin brother, Andrew, hardly did.

"I was like, 'Aaron, I hope so,' " Andrew Harrison said Sunday night, shaking his head at the mere thought of where this UK team was a month ago.

There's no need to hope anymore. The unthinkable of a month ago, it's happened.

Kentucky is headed back to the Final Four for the third time in four seasons after a heart-stopping 75-72 victory over Michigan in yet another classic befitting the Wildcats' wacky, mind-boggling season.

Fittingly, the guy who foretold the baffling turnaround punched the Wildcats' ticket to Dallas with a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2.6 seconds left to break the tie and win the game.

"Andrew gave me a hand-off and I kind of fumbled it," Aaron Harrison said. "I had to get control of the ball back and I tried to create some space. He was up on me. He touched my hand a little bit, actually. And the shot just fell."

It fell as if it was fate, as if this team is destined for something special. With the way things have gone lately - the Cats winning four straight games in the NCAA Tournament after losing three of four a month ago and falling from preseason No. 1 to out of the polls altogether -- it sure feels like it.

"I wouldn't say that 'I told you so' or anything, but ... we knew what kind of team we could be," Aaron Harrison said.

It's become the team everyone thought it could be at the beginning of the season when the unprecedented collection of talent and McDonald's All-Americans was talked about potentially going 40-0; the one everyone forgot about when it struggled to 10 regular-season losses; and now, it's a leading contender to cut down the nets in Dallas next weekend.

The Cats (28-10) are just two wins away from their ninth national championship. The next roadblock is on Saturday against Wisconsin.

"We showed a lot of toughness," Aaron Harrison said. "We're just a group of young guys, doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore, we just try to go out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game."

Aaron Harrison saved his hardest swings for the clutch.

After going scoreless for nearly 32 minutes of game time, Aaron Harrison hit four field goals - all 3-pointers - in the final 8:06 of the game, saving his best for last after Michigan's Jordan Morgan had tied it on a tip-in with 27 seconds left.

John Calipari called timeout - which he normally doesn't do so the other team can't set up defensively - and drew up a play for the hot hand. The plan didn't call for Aaron Harrison to take a 3, especially one of that distance, but it didn't matter; he made it anyways.

"You can't be afraid to miss," Coach Cal said. "He's not afraid to miss."

"It was like a rainbow shot, one of those that takes like five seconds to drop," said Alex Poythress, who scored eight big points. "Once it finally went in, I probably jumped five feet in the air. I was just happy."

When Nik Stauskas' last-second heave from half court met only the backboard, pandemonium broke out on the court at Lucas Oil Stadium. UK was headed to its 16th Final Four in school history.

"We don't know if it was another classic kind of game, but I'll tell you this: They weren't going to go away and neither were we," Calipari said.

This one, the third straight unforgettable NCAA Tournament game the Cats have played in, featured seven ties and three lead changes. That almost looked like it would never happen when Stauskas and Michigan raced out to a 10-point first-half lead.

Burying 3-pointers and capitalizing on second-chance opportunities, the Wolverines took a 32-22 lead with 5:10 left in the first half. But Kentucky, as it has done in the last three games of this tournament when it's trailed by nine, 13 and 10 points, respectively, refused to go down.

"They played better when they're down and I don't know why," Calipari said. "They play fearless. They play aggressive. They get emotion. They bow their neck. They have a will to win."

The fearless savior was Marcus Lee. Yes, Marcus Lee.

Getting major minutes because of the loss of Willie Cauley-Stein, Lee not only played well, he kept UK in the game. The freshman forward who had scored just nine points in all of 2014 and none since Feb. 22 scored 10 points on Sunday - four of them on tip-in dunks - grabbed four rebounds and blocked a shot in the first half alone.

Coach Cal, apparently, knew he had it in him all along. Two days earlier, he told Lee that "everyone in the world would be talking about you" after the game.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Lee said. "Knowing us, none of us believed him."

It appears nothing is unbelievable on this dream run.

After Lee steadied the ship and Julius Randle tied the game just before halftime, UK rode Randle to six quick points to start the second half and a brief 45-39 lead.

Carolyn Kyles, Randle's mother, saw her son take over, but she didn't get a chance to see him finish off his 24th double-double (16 points and 11 rebounds) and his most gratifying moment as a basketball player. According to the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker, she had to leave with 11 minutes to play to catch a flight for work the next day in Dallas.

"I looked up and she wasn't there," Randle said.

He will see her next week when he goes back home to play in his hometown in Dallas.

"I'm coming home to my mom," Randle said.

Michigan came back and took the lead on a 16-6 run, but that's when Aaron Harrison got going. His first trey with 8:06 left gave UK a 58-55 advantage, a lead it would hold on until Michigan tied it at 70.

That set the stage for the final shot and just the latest stamp on UK' reclamation project. Sure, these Cats didn't understand what it took to win for much of the season, but they've learned, come together and now knocked off three of the four teams that were in last year's Final Four.

"It's just a great feeling," Aaron Harrison said. "We've been through so much and been doubted so much that we just came together at the end of the season, just got better, and I don't know how many teams are mentally strong enough to do something like that. We proved a lot to the world - even to ourselves."

They've proved everybody right and everybody wrong at the same time. This team is as talented and as scary as everyone thought it was in the preseason, but it took adversity, it took criticism and it took a bunch of young guys growing up to finally put it together.

"Never give up," Randle said. "The biggest thing is we know we have hard-nosed guys, tough guys. Everybody stayed the course, never wavered."

Now they don't want it to end. They've written their unbelievably great story. Why not make it legendary?

"We're still not satisfied," Poythress said. "We still got things to prove. We still got two games to prove. We're trying to leave on top."

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

John Calipari 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.

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
  • Griffin: What's the name of the song that this video starts playing when describing Cal getting ejected and Aaron talking about read more
  • Quinn : It was an amazing run! I hope you all return and make another stab at it. read more
  • Sandy Spears: I completely with the person's comment above. So proud of all the young men and their accomplishments. They have everything read more
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  • chattyone: Congratulations to our Wildcats! They are terrific. All of us just like these young men are disappointed in the loss, read more
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  • Amy Carnes: Very proud of you cats you have really grow as a team .You proved all the doubters wrong. And have read more