Alex Poythress cheers on his teammates during UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Alex Poythress has had a front-row seat for one of the greatest rides in college basketball history.
Sitting on the bench and traveling with the team as Kentucky has rolled unbeaten through the 2014-15 season, Poythress has been there every step of the way. It's a spot most UK fans would love to be in.
For Poythress - whose season was cut short in early December by a torn ACL - it hasn't been easy. Every day is a reminder that he's supposed to be on the floor.
"Oh, I miss it a lot," Poythress said after watching UK dispatch Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, 64-49. "I'd give the world to still be playing."
But given his current situation - rehabbing from reconstructive surgery - he's thankful the top-ranked Wildcats still count him as a teammate.
"I don't feel like I've been left behind," Poythress said. "I'm still a part of the team, still come to all the meetings, activities, all the stuff to do. Whenever I'm not doing my rehab, I'm around the team still."
The junior forward, unable to play or practice, has thrown himself into his rehab. When he's not in class or with his teammates, Poythress can probably be found doing some kind of work to facilitate the healing process, as much as four hours a day.
"Every day I'm doing something about my knee," said Poythress, who called rehab harder than basketball. "There's no days off. I'm just trying to stretch my knee as much as I can."
To break up scar tissue left from surgery, Poythress has to continually bend and stretch his knee. Talking about the pain, he said he "wouldn't wish it on anybody."
"It makes you want to cry," Poythress said. "But you gotta get through it."
And with the help of his teammates and family, he is.
"It feels good because I was at points after the surgery the first couple days when I couldn't get out of bed by myself," Poythress said. "I couldn't move my leg. I had to have somebody help me out of my bed, move my leg and stuff like that. So moving around well now, it's real good for me."
Poythress moves better each day and no longer needs the crutches he used when he made his first public appearance post-injury at UK's win over North Carolina. He received a standing ovation upon taking the court for that game and his teammates wore warmup shirts honoring him. That support hasn't died down.
"It's just a great feeling that my teammates and the fans, they all care about me still," Poythress said.
The fans, as much as they care about him, are eager to find out what Poythress might do following the season. Set to graduate in May, he has a decision ahead of him about whether to return to Lexington or pursue a professional career.
"I haven't even thought about that yet," Poythress said. "Like I said earlier, I'm just focused on this season we got so far."
Playing or not, he has plenty to focus on.
Cats closing out
Thirty-two games into the best unbeaten start in school history, the Cats have shown an uncanny ability to find another gear in crunch time.
When they're down late - as they were against Georgia and LSU - they clamp down on defense and find ways to win.
When they're locked in a close game - as they have been twice in the last seven days against Florida - they turn in back-breaking runs.
"They have a will to win," Calipari said.
That will to win manifested itself against the Gators with a 14-2 run that turned a slim five-point lead with less than eight minutes left into a comfortable 64-49 victory. Similarly, UK outscored Florida 25-11 over the final 10:28 of a win over the Gators in the regular-season finale.
"We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play," Calipari said. "To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
'We need this tournament'
One of the few things Karl-Anthony Towns is better at than piling up double-doubles - he had his seventh on Friday - is turning a phrase.
"One thing I know is that we may not need to win this tournament," Towns said, "but we need this tournament."
After overcoming Florida for the third time in five weeks to advance, Towns was waxing poetic about the tournament John Calipari says is for the fans who trekked to Nashville, Tenn., alone. It turns out it might be a bit more meaningful than that.
"We need this tournament to grow and continue our process of being the best team we can possibly be going into the NCAA Tournament," Towns said. "A lot of things we're going to probably work on here and also we're going to get better as individuals playing all these great games."
Auburn awaits after OT upset
UK's next opportunity to play in a "great game" comes Saturday at 1 p.m. against Auburn, which defeated fourth-seeded LSU in overtime, 73-70.
The Tigers trailed by seven with 2:45 left in regulation, but continued their improbable SEC Tournament run thanks in large part to a game-tying 3-pointer by K.T. Harrell in the closing seconds. Harrell has scored 73 points in Auburn's three wins in Nashville and had 17 in the lone regular-season matchup with UK.
Kentucky was dominant in that game, scoring a season high in a 110-75 victory. The rematch will tip at 1 p.m. on ESPN.
Tyler Ulis had seven points and four assists in UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Same story, different location.
It's rare to face a team in back-to-back games, but it was just six days ago that Kentucky topped Florida in Rupp Arena to close out its historic undefeated regular season. On Friday, in front of what looked and sounded an awful lot like Rupp Arena, Kentucky (32-0) used a similar method to top Florida for a third time this season, 64-49.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Wasn't happy with how we started the game, but it was a good win. And the kids fought and guys played, did the stuff they had to do. Didn't shoot it well, still won."
It was just six days ago that Kentucky defeated Florida by 17 points in Rupp Arena by going on a 23-9 run to close out the game after it was just a three-point game with 10:28 remaining. On Friday, the Cats won by 15 points thanks to 14-4 run over the final 7:40.
Florida continued to fight and hang around for much of the second half, but the Cats clamped down on defense over the final 9:29, allowing just two made field goals, including a stretch of five minutes and 10 seconds where they held the Gators scoreless.
"They have a will to win," Coach Cal said. "They do have a will to win and we have enough playmaker kind of players Andrew (Harrison) to Aaron (Harrison) to Karl(-Anthony Towns) now to Trey (Lyles), I think Tyler (Ulis). We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play. To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
Yet again, Kentucky was able to do what it has done all season, and that's a find a combination of five players that simply works. In working with a bevy of talent such as the 2014-15 Wildcats, Coach Cal can sub players in and out until one lineup clicks.
"And see, that's the advantage we have," Calipari said. "We'll juggle it around until we figure out who is playing well and then we'll ride with those guys. We want to platoon. We want all nine players to play. But if you get in there and you're shaky at all or you're breaking down, it's like, 'OK, going to go with these guys.' "
Against Florida, that combination often included both Andrew Harrison and Ulis. Each point guard played 32 minutes against the Gators. Combined, they finished with 16 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals and just one turnover.
"I'm a facilitator and he can do both," Ulis said about playing with Andrew Harrison. "He's in attack mode every play and that's helping him out a little more to be more aggressive and try to score the ball."
Towns secured his seventh double-double of the year with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Aaron Harrison joined Towns with 13 points, hitting four of his eight shots, and while his stats ween't eye-opening, sophomore forward Dakari Johnson was praised by his teammates for his defensive presence, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots in 11 minutes.
"Dakari played his butt of on the defensive end," Andrew Harrison said. "He didn't get some calls on offense, but Dakari played great. We would not have won without him."
While Coach Cal continues to say he doesn't mind if his team gets a loss and that he doesn't care for conference tournaments, his team believes they need this tournament and will use it to continue to improve in their quest to be the best version of themselves.
They also know, as it has been all season long, the Cats will get their opponent's best game.
"Teams are playing for their last win or to go home, so we're going to get the best out of everybody and that's what we want," Booker said. "We wouldn't want it any other way. We're kind of excited for it."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CoachCal.com's Metz Camfield contributed to this notebook.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats know their quarterfinal opponent in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and it's a very familiar foe at that.
Florida defeated Alabama 69-61 on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., setting up the second matchup in a matter of seven days against the Wildcats, and the third matchup in just five weeks.
"Sometimes (it's) a little bit more difficult when you play against a team that you haven't seen since let's say the middle of January," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "So, these guys will be a little bit familiar with it. The quick turnaround, we're excited we get the opportunity to play."
And in the eyes of Kentucky head coach John Calipari, they should be excited.
"They're good," Coach Cal said. "Everybody is excited about playing us. I'd imagine they were because they played us good both games. My team's - we had a great practice today. I think they're ready to play basketball, whoever it is. They're capable of beating us. No question."
Kentucky topped Florida 68-61 in an exciting game in Gainesville, Fla., but trailed by nine in the first half and didn't take the lead for good until Willie Cauley-Stein's legendary dunk with 12:09 left in the second half. The Cats benefitted greatly by going 21 of 22 at the free-throw line in that game.
Then on Saturday, Kentucky and Florida were separated by just three points with 10:28 remaining in the game before the Cats gained separation in the final 10 minutes.
"They're healthy," Coach Cal said. "They've got a full complement of guys. They should be confident. They played us twice really good."
UK assistant coach John Robic said Tuesday that he feels the concept of "it's difficult to beat a team three times" is a bit exaggerated, saying instead, "it's the next game," and agreed with Donovan in that sometimes it can be more difficult when you haven't played the opponent in a long time because of all that can change during that time in between.
For Kentucky, the SEC Tournament offers the Cats another opportunity to continue to strive to become the best version of themselves. Cauley-Stein said some players were right mentally, and others were still trying to get right, even critiquing himself by saying he has played tentatively of late.
"We feed off him," Coach Cal said. "He's that one guy that can do stuff a normal player can't do, and he hasn't been doing it. He's been getting scored on, he's missing a lot of shots just by--they're physical with him and he's not balanced coming back. But I think he'll be fine."
The question that continues to circle around Kentucky, is what if everyone does in fact click at once and becomes the best version of themselves. Thousands of members of Big Blue Nation who have flocked to Nashville will be hoping to see just that.
"We've had some games this year," Coach Cal said. "You know what it looks like." Seeing is believing when it comes to Cats fans at SEC Tournament
All season long, UK has relied on its veterans to shepherd its four freshmen.
The experience has been invaluable as the Wildcats have made it four months and 31 games without a loss, but it won't matter much this weekend.
Kentucky, with its No. 1 overall seed all but assured and John Calipari indifferent toward conference tournaments, has decided it will play for the fans in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
It's the same approach the Cats took a year ago, but Coach Cal isn't even bothering to ask his returners to tell the newcomers about just how unbelievable the fan support will be. It's just not necessary.
"They'll see it if they don't know," Calipari said. "When we walk into the game they'll be like, 'What in the world is this?' "
If the Cats watched Wednesday's games at Bridgestone Arena, they'd already have figured it out.
As Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri played a pair of first-round games, most fans - even though their beloved Cats wouldn't play for two days - wore Kentucky blue.
"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "
They'll be a little more vocal about that Friday afternoon, which Calipari appreciates. That still doesn't change what has to happen on the floor.
"I guess it would be better that we had more fans than the other team, but this comes down to us being a good basketball team and playing well," Calipari said. "And I keep saying it: I'm concerned about my team. No one else. If someone else is playing out of their minds and we get beat, we get beat. My thing is, how do we continue to grow and be at our best? And if that's not good enough, it's not good enough."
Calipari expecting tough tournament road
Technically, the postseason begins for Kentucky on Friday.
Coach Cal doesn't have much time for technicalities.
"The real part starts when Sunday we hear how tough our bracket's going to be," Calipari said. "That's when the real stuff starts."
The Selection Show on Sunday will be when the Cats find out their path to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Calipari doesn't expect a primrose path to be laid in front of them.
"It'll be hard," Calipari said. "They called the Lakers and they can't pull out of the NBA right now so I don't think they'll be in there. But it'll be a hard bracket. There won't be a, you're the (top) one seed, you should have this kind of road. No. It will not be that. And that's fine."
And even if it's a professional team awaiting them as a No. 16 seed, the Cats will say, "Bring it on."
"I think if we had to see Oklahoma City or Cleveland, those would be tough," Calipari said. "I'm not sure. And they tell me that Portland's as big as we are. So those would be teams I wouldn't want to see. I hate to say that because they may try to get those people in there."
Preparation changing with tournament format
Some coaches are insistent in approaching tournament play just the same as the regular season.
Not Coach Cal.
"Oh, it changes," Calipari said.
With the prospect of playing three games in three days ahead of his team, Calipari is cutting back.
"We won't have a shoot-around tomorrow," Calipari said. "We will just go right to the gym. If we're lucky enough to win we won't have a shoot-around on Saturday. If you're lucky enough to win you won't have one Sunday. You'll come back and let the next game finish and do some film and walk through and just play basketball games. You're not really doing anything."
John Calipari leads UK into the SEC Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After capping off a perfect 31-0 regular season with an 18-game excursion through the Southeastern Conference, the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats head into the SEC Tournament with little reason for adjustment.
"I don't think there are going to be many changes, because what we're doing right now is working," said freshly crowned SEC Sixth Man of the Year Devin Booker. "I feel like if it's working, why change it?"
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, 2015's SEC Defensive Player of the Year, echoed Booker's sentiment.
"(We're doing) the same stuff we've always been doing," Cauley-Stein said. "Now, it's do-or-die. It's win-or-go-home, and just have a lot of fun doing it. This is the (most fun) time of the year. From the first workout, now it's all about business. That's what you play for."
For 2015 SEC Coach of the Year John Calipari, the reason for which his team will be playing on Friday has never been in question. For the first (and last) time all season, Kentucky's next three potential games will not be about the players.
"We all talked about it," Calipari said. "We're going to play for our fans."
Despite four SEC Tournament championship-game appearances through his first five seasons in Lexington, Calipari has adamantly denied personal stake in the event since he came to Kentucky.
"I just want the kids to focus on why we're (competing) this week," said Calipari. "Next week will be about us. This week has no bearing on (NCAA Tournament seeding) and the most important thing for us, which is to be the best and the last team standing."
Instead of shining the spotlight on his perpetually celebrated student-athletes, Calipari hopes to shift focus in the direction of Kentucky's loyal fan base before making one last postseason push.
"Our fans, they make an effort to get here," Calipari said. "It's not easy, and they do it. That's why I'm saying, 'Let's play for them. Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person.' Because, again, it's going to be hard for that core group (of fans) to get to the NCAA Tournament."
Cauley-Stein -- one of two Kentucky players recently named First Team All-SEC -- has no problem sharing the limelight with his devoted supporters.
"This tournament is for the fans," said Cauley-Stein. "Our fans (are) going to come full force, and it's like a getaway weekend for them. That's kind of the way we approach it."
With just over three hours of driving time separating Rupp Arena from Nashville's Bridgestone Arena (and a detailed history of traveling in droves), Cats fans are expected to invade Music City by Friday afternoon.
"(There are) fans who can't get into (Rupp Arena)," Calipari said. "You're saying, 'What do you mean? There are 25,000!' There are probably another 100,000 (fans) who want to come, but can't get tickets. They come to the (SEC Tournament), they spend their rent money, mortgage money, their car money... They get money, take loans, and they go to the tournament because they can't get into (Rupp Arena)."
Like Calipari, Cauley-Stein emphasized that Nashville's close proximity to Lexington will allow even more UK fans than usual fill Bridgestone Arena's 20,000-seat capacity.
"We're not really worried about the SEC Tournament," said Cauley-Stein. "It's more like we're playing for the fans there. They're going to travel everywhere anyway, but especially (to Nashville). That's really what we're playing for when we go there, for the fans and everything."
Kentucky will face the winner of eighth-seeded Florida and No. 9 Alabama on Friday, March 13 at 1 p.m. The Cats defeated both teams twice this season. But with an undefeated record and a shot at history on the line, it's safe to assume that UK will be making more than just a friendly appearance when they play for the 28th SEC Tournament title in program history.
"The mindset is we want to win it," said big man Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky's other First-Team All-SEC selection and 2015's SEC Freshman of the Year. "Of course we're trying to win every game we're in. We're going out there, and we're trying to get prepared for this SEC Tournament. We're trying to make a great run. We're trying to use these games definitely to get better as a team before the NCAA Tournament, but we're also there to win."
Spring practice began in earnest for Kentucky football on Wednesday, as the Wildcats wore pads for the first time.
Defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot called it a day of good work, specifically praising the way his defense played in the run game.
"Emphasis was on being physical and for the most part we were able to do that," Eliot said. "Played the run well today."
Wednesday was the first step in a spring-long effort to take UK's physicality to the next level in Mark Stoops' third season as head coach. To continue the growth that carried that Cats from two wins in 2013 to five in 2014, there's no choice in the matter.
"I expect us to be more physical every year," Eliot said. "That's the emphasis. We have to--in this league, that's the key and we're harping on it. Today is first day of pads and we're going to continue to harp on it through the spring."
With the likes of Bud Dupree, Za'Darius Smith and Ashely Lowery having graduated, UK is having to adjust in terms of personnel. That's resulting in some fits and starts, but Eliot isn't concerned.
"You got some new guys in some new spots so still making some assignment mistakes, but nothing that we can't get cleaned up by the end of the spring," Eliot said.
The important thing at this point, says Eliot, is effort. That part the Cats have covered.
"Emphasis on playing with intensity and playing with enthusiasm and running to the football and for the most part we've been able to get that done the first three practices," Eliot said. "Very excited about this group and excited about finishing the work with these guys the rest of the spring."
Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On a team full of stars, Willie Cauley-Stein has emerged as Kentucky's top candidate for major awards.
He's been named to the shortlists for three major national player of the year awards, but on Tuesday he missed out on Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.
Arkansas star Bobby Portis took home the big trophy from league coaches.
"Honestly, you can give him Player of the Year," Cauley-Stein said. "I'll take 31-0 any day of the week. You know, he's a good player but that's what it is. I'd rather be undefeated than get Player of the Year."
Not that he needed any consolation, clearly, but Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 blocks. He also won First-Team All-SEC honors, but assistant coach John Robic knows that won't move Cauley-Stein much either.
"These awards, they're nice and everything, but that's not what these kids are playing for," Robic said.
Instead, the Wildcats have played for each other and their team. The result has been a perfect regular season - the first for a power-five conference team since 1975-76 - and a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking in both major polls, not to mention a few other SEC awards.
John Calipari was named Coach of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns Freshman of the Year and Devin Booker Sixth Man of the Year. Towns joined Cauley-Stein on the SEC First Team, while Booker and Aaron Harrison were Second-Team performers and Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis made the All-Freshmen Team.
"It just shows that we all have just taken each other under our wing and cared for each other and looked out for each other," Towns said. "These awards are very prestigious, and I'm blessed to have a chance, but I'm more blessed to have brothers like I have right now on this team."
Towns credits one of those brothers - Cauley-Stein - for much of his own development during his freshman season.
"He's the cornerstone of this team," Towns said. "He's the leader. This team has been taken to new heights with him here."
Towns and his teammates are fully aware of his impact on the team and his ability on both ends of the floor, but Cauley-Stein isn't so sure the same is true on a national level.
Praise for the 7-foot junior's defense is universal, but his offense is another story. In fact, Cauley-Stein has heard talk of him being a "one-sided" player.
"I don't believe that, my team doesn't believe that and that drives me nuts," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein knows how important defense is and that those outside opinions don't hold much water, but he still turns to them for a little added motivation.
"I'm not just a defensive player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."
Cauley-Stein has shown an improved offensive game this season with refined post moves and even a midrange jumper, but the fact remains that he's on a team full of offensive weapons. None of the Cats - not a sharpshooter like Booker or a post presence like Towns - has to carry a full offensive load.
"I scored in high school," Cauley-Stein said. "I had to. Here you don't have to score. And I think that's why I play the way I am, is because we got so many offensive weapons that one game I'm probably going to have to score. Eventually, they're probably going to have to start playing on Karl heavy so I'm going to have to step up and score some baskets."
But more than anything, Cauley-Stein just wants to be his best for the sake of his team. He knows everything else will take care of itself.
Cauley-Stein said his last five games he hasn't done that. Leading up to UK's SEC Tournament opener at 1 p.m. ET against either Florida or Alabama, he plans to do something about it.
"I've been playing real tentative, not at the best of my game, but I plan on getting right," Cauley-Stein said. "These next couple days are vital for me getting right and just to show the world, you know, about all these other awards."
Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans: 88, Detroit Pistons: 85 In Davis' first game back since reinjuring a sprained right shoulder on Feb. 21, last year's NBA leader in blocked shots made an immediately monstrous impact on both ends of the floor. Davis posted 39 points, 13 rebounds, eight blocks and three steals in the Pels' win over the Pistons on March 4.
Cats in the Spotlight
Eric Bledsoe | #2 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31) Bledsoe averaged 14.8 points, 6.8 assists and 6.3 rebounds in four Suns games last week. Highlighted by the former first round draft pick's 19-point, 10-rebound, six-assist performance on March 6, Phoenix ended the week with two wins and two losses.
DeMarcus Cousins | #15 C | Sacramento Kings(21-40) Cousins recorded three remarkable double-doubles in four games after returning from a sprained left ankle and bruised left hip last week. In a 124-86 win over the New York Knicks on March 3, the big man notched 22 points (and his second 3-pointer of the season) and 10 rebounds. However, his 29-point, 12-rebound showing on Friday and 27-point, 17-rebound performance on Saturday both came in five-point Kings losses.
Anthony Davis | #23 PF | New Orleans Pelicans (34-29) In addition to his Performance of the Week effort on Wednesday, Davis continued his pattern of double-double outings in his second and third games back from injury. The Chicago native scored 29 points, grabbed 14 boards and blocked three shots in a 104-98 loss to the Boston Celtics on Friday. The next day, NOLA bounced back with a 95-89 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, thanks to 23 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks from "The Brow."
Terrence Jones | #6 PF | Houston Rockets (43-20) Jones began the week averaging 18.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest through his first four games, but cooled off on Friday with seven points (on 3-of-12 field goal attempts) and 11 rebounds in Houston's 114-100 win on the road over the Denver Nuggets.
Enes Kanter | #34 C | Oklahoma City Thunder (34-28) Kanter anchored the Thunder with 16 points, 15 rebounds,and five assists in a 108-101 win over the Los Angeles Lakers on March 1. The Turkey native followed with two lackluster performances on Wednesday and Thursday, but OKC turned in a 2-1 record on the week.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist | #14 SF | Charlotte Hornets (27-33) Charlotte's 21-year-old starting wingman averaged 10.8 rebounds and 10.3 points in four straight Hornet wins. Kidd-Gilchrist accentuated his week with 11 points and 13 rebounds on March 1 and 10 points and 13 rebounds on March 4. The Hornets beat the Lakers, Orlando Magic, Brooklyn Nets, and Toronto Raptors over the four-game span.
Brandon Knight | #3 PG | Phoenix Suns (33-31) Knight dished out seven assists in all but one of Phoenix's games last week, complemented by double-digit scoring outings in all four contests. In the Suns' 105-100 victory over the Magic in Orlando, Knight recorded 28 points (on 10-of-12 free throw shooting), seven assists and three steals on March 4.
Jodie Meeks | #20 SG | Detroit Pistons (23-38) Although Davis came out a winner on both the scoreboard and the stat sheet in Detroit's matchup with New Orleans, Meeks poured in 20 points of his own in the 88-85 Pistons loss. Two days later, in a 103-93 loss to the Houston Rockets, the sixth year veteran scored just seven points (4.5 below his season average), but recorded three assists, two rebounds and a steal in only 18 minutes.
Nerlens Noel | #4 C | Philadelphia 76ers (14-49) In the midst of the most stellar rebounding performance of his young career, Noel made his presence known in every facet of the box score last week. The rookie big man posted three double-doubles, averaging 12.0 rebounds, 11.2 points, 3.6 steals and 2.0 blocks per game in the process.
Rajon Rondo | #9 PG | Dallas Mavericks (40-24) Rondo's week was highlighted with 19 points and five rebounds in a 102-93 win over the Pelicans on March 2. The Louisville native finished the week averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game over one win and two Mavs losses.
John Wall | #2 PG | Washington Wizards (35-28) Kick started by 21 points, 11 assists, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks on March 3, Wall averaged 12.7 points, 9.7 assists, 6.7 rebounds, 2.3 steals and 1.3 blocks over three contests last week. Despite his efforts, two Washington losses sandwiched just one Wizard win on March 6, by way of a 99-97 defeat of the Miami Heat.
The Kentucky football team held its second practice of the spring on Monday morning.
To follow up a solid day of work on Saturday, the Wildcats took another step forward.
"Guys had good energy for a Monday morning, came out and had a real good practice," Mark Stoops said. "Still obviously got a lot of work to do, but overall pleased, pleased with their attitude, their effort. Playing a little bit cleaner. There weren't as many footballs on the ground today and execution was a touch better. Just overall pleased with the effort. Continuing to get better and work hard."
Stoops is preparing for his third season as UK head coach and is already noticing growth from his first two springs with his team. The evolution continues.
"It's just another year in the program," Stoops said. "As we would expect, just more progress, more bodies, a little bit cleaner, more efficient in what we're doing. We're certainly further ahead than we were day two last spring, but we should be, and that's good to see."
Under Stoops, UK has been blessed with continuity on the coaching staff for the most part, but a new face has been added to the equation this spring. Shannon Dawson is replacing Neal Brown as offensive coordinator and though two coaches' scheme is similar, there's learning to be done.
That's especially true when it comes to communication.
"They're getting signals from me, and then they're communicating with the group," Dawson said of quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Drew Barker. "That's all like learning a new language. It's like if I told you to learn Spanish in two days. That'd be tough, right? I mean just communication is -- and you've got some miscommunication. You've got the quarterback flashing signals quickly to the receiver and the receiver not getting it, which is typical."
UK capped off a 31-0 regular season with a 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Thirty-one up, 31 down.
What started with a 40-point victory over Grand Canyon on Nov. 14 ended with a 67-50 victory over Florida on Saturday afternoon. With a roster filled with McDonald's All-Americans, future NBA lottery picks and millionaires, it was the team that shined brightest throughout the entirety of this historic regular season.
"I would tell you what these kids have accomplished, and as young as they are, it's not winning every game; it's that they shared," UK head coach John Calipari said. "... This is a great story for college athletics, for society. Instead of me, me, me, it's us, us, us."
Kentucky (31-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference) completed the first undefeated regular season by a power-five conference team since 1975-76. In front of a sold-out Rupp Arena crowd that was buzzing well before the opening tip with anticipation of what was to come, UK shed all the pressure and attention and played the team ball that has allowed it to succeed
"The first thing I want to say is congratulations to John and his team," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "What they've done may not happen again for a long, long time. For people that have covered their team, I think it's really important that people at least reflect in a real positive way of what they've accomplished this season.
"When you look at a team, so much of the team is based on chemistry, how connected they are, how they play for each other, share the ball, all those kinds of things."
Prior to Saturday's game, the Wildcats said they were not focused on 31-0 or the "pursuit of perfection." Instead, they said they were simply focused on defeating Florida because Florida was the next game on their schedule. They've preached the cliche "one game at a time" throughout the 2014-15 season, but they've also practiced it.
On Senior Day, with all of the attention and pressure of the college basketball world weighing down on them, Coach Cal decided it was more important for UK to recognize its three seniors, all walk-ons, by starting them.
"What would you have done if we would have lost this game?" Coach Cal said. "How many of you would have said, 'How could he do that, start these kids with this on the line?'
"Let's think about it. I keep telling you this is about these players, it's about them. What about those three?"
Junior Willie Cauley-Stein said their 31st win was for those seniors, Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone.
"It wasn't even about the perfect season," Cauley-Stein said, who scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds. "It was about everybody else, like the seniors. That's what it was about. We were playing for them so they could get in the game and have that moment for the rest of their life."
Following the win, the Wildcats donned blue T-shirts with "31-0" printed on the front in white, and "Not done yet" below that. Sophomore Andrew Harrison and junior Willie Cauley-Stein then took the mic and thanked the fans.
"We appreciate y'all coming out and supporting us and everything, but we're not done yet," Cauley-Stein said to a loud, approving roar from the crowd.
It's been a wild ride for the 7-footer from Olathe, Kan. As a freshman, Cauley-Stein and the Cats went to the NIT where they were ousted in the first round by Robert Morris. Then one year later, Cauley-Stein suffered an ankle injury in the Sweet 16 and missed out on playing in the Final Four with his teammates.
"The NIT thing was just bad," Cauley-Stein said. "It was just bad. I didn't really have any control over it. Last year was just - to see everybody else in the tournament was worse than losing.
"It hasn't really set in yet. It's just, everything happens for a reason. ... End up coming back and end up being part of history and end up doing stuff people didn't really think you could do."
The Cats did not have their best offensive performance against the Gators, scoring just 1.063 points per possession. But as they have shown all year, there are many ways for this team to earn a win, primarily through its defense.
Kentucky blocked eight shots against the Gators, including six by freshman phenom Karl-Anthony Towns - who also scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds - and held Florida to a season-low-tying 50 points.
Now, Kentucky will head to Nashville, Tenn., home of this year's SEC Tournament, where it says it will play for its passionate fan base that has shown its unrivaled support all season long. The Cats maintain, however, that whatever happens in the SEC Tournament, happens. They have much bigger goals on their mind.
"I feel like there's no pressure on the winning," Cauley-Stein said. "Everybody's like, 'Oh, they have to go 40-0.' That's not what we're playing for. If we lose, we lose. You're just going to learn from it and have a feeling in your gut that you're not trying to lose again. So, I mean, going a perfect season is great, but that's not what we're trying to do."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 13 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and three assists in UK's 67-50 win over Florida on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Karl-Anthony Towns had people buzzing again.
Kenny Payne, Kentucky's associate head coach, called him "one of the most complete players there is" after he helped lead the Wildcats past Florida and to the first unbeaten regular season for a power-conference team in 39 years.
Experts wondered aloud whether such performances could make him the No. 1 overall pick come June's NBA Draft.
Afterward, one reporter asked Towns whether he was "feeling it" after his latest big game, which caught the 6-foot-11 freshman off guard.
"Feeling it?" Towns said. "I was feeling the rim a lot. I struggled today."
Struggled, huh? His stat line begs to differ.
Towns posted 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists as top-ranked UK (31-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference) pulled away from Florida (15-16, 8-10 SEC) for a 67-50 win. All Towns could think about, however, were the six shots he missed in 10 attempts, especially his 1-of-5 first-half effort.
"Every game I'm not going to be going 7 for 7, 10 for 10, 9 for 9," Towns said. "The only thing I can take out from this game is a lot of tape to improve my game and also just go back to the drawing board, see what I gotta do to get back."
Towns had set a high standard for himself over the last month, shooting an incredible 80 percent from the field in his previous six outings. That helps explain his seemingly harsh self-critique.
"The game's not always going to be as efficient as always," Towns said. "But like I said, if one aspect of the game's not working for you, you gotta go to the other aspect. I'm glad I was able to keep playing defense the way I was playing tonight."
He certainly had the defense covered. Towns blocked six Gator shots in his 27 minutes, helping hold Florida to 42.9-percent shooting and 0.82 points per possession.
"Just doing what I do," Towns said. "I mean, my sister always taught me when one aspect of the game doesn't work for you, make sure all the (other) aspects work. So I was just trying to be a defender out there, also. The offense was going to catch up and I'm glad it did, but it's a game where I definitely have to go back to my room and, I guess as we all say, have Karlito chew me out a little bit."
Karlito likely won't have much to say when UK's decisive run comes up on tape.
"When we needed him to play at the end, he played," Calipari said.
With 10:28 left, the Cats led by a slim 44-41 margin. Towns, however, spearheaded a 9-2 run that lifted the lead to double digits and began the celebration of a historic regular season in Rupp Arena. He scored four points, added two rebounds and a block, and started the spurt rifling a beautiful cross-court pass out of a double team to Devin Booker for a 3-pointer.
"He's got a great feel of how to play," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "And the thing I like about him more than anything is when he does get post trapped, he's got long arms, he's got good vision, he's a good passer for a big man, he seems to be willing to throw it out of the post."
As willing a passer as Towns may be, he still has moments, says Coach Cal, where his judgment falters and he tries to make "hero plays." His coach won't stop until those have all disappeared.
"Well, look, I keep trying to explain to Karl, 'You are so good, you don't have to do anything crazy,' " Calipari said. " 'So why do you keep trying to do crazy stuff? You're too good a player.' "
Asked about his "crazy" plays, Towns smiled knowingly. He's still trying to strike the right balance between aggressiveness and recklessness.
"I guess I just play the game," Towns said. "I don't have (any) fear and if I have to do something that a lot of people say is very risky I'm kind of the guy that would be the guy who would try to do it. I guess, yeah, that makes me crazy."
Craziness aside, Towns has evolved into a go-to guy of sorts for a Kentucky team with unparalleled depth. There were times early in the season when he blended in, but no more.
"It took me some games," Towns said. "It's like I said, I went through the process naturally. I didn't make it artificial. I didn't try to rush everything. I just let it come to me and as time went on everything started to click."
He'll take the same approach to the next step Coach Cal is asking him to take.
"I'm on him because I want him to be the best," Calipari said. "I don't want him to be just a good big; I want him to be the best. He's working toward that."