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

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

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

He never returned to the game or the bench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy start

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UK capitalizes on U of L's charity


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dakari Johnson was the man it was directed to.

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

How, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cats win one for Willie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Andrew Harrison and James Young celebrate UK's 74-69 win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison and James Young celebrate UK's 74-69 win over Louisville in the Sweet 16. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - To hear Andrew Harrison tell it, the Kentucky Wildcats were comfortable when they were down 13 and without Willie Cauley-Stein, who was lost for the rest of the game with a left ankle injury.

They were comfortable when Luke Hancock hit back-to-back 3-pointers, James Young fouled out and momentum was swinging in Louisville's favor. They were comfortable down seven to the defending national champions with 4:33 left in the game.

Comfortable? Are you kidding?

Believe it, because these Kentucky Wildcats continue to do the unbelievable in the postseason.

Left for dead like they were so many times this season, the Cats (27-10) jolted back to life late in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup and somehow knocked off their archrivals with a shocking, almost impossible-to-fathom 74-69 victory over the Cardinals (31-6) at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

"Told them before the game, you'll get punched in the mouth and you're going to taste blood," John Calipari said. "You're going to fight or brace yourself for the next shot. They fought. They never stopped playing."

Even when the late-season turnaround seemed to finally be coming to an end.

"As much stuff as we've been through all year, it's nothing we haven't seen," Andrew Harrison said.

This was just the latest magic trick in a season that seemed destined for failure as recently as three weeks ago.

Trailing 66-59 with 4:33 remaining, the Cats, who had seemingly hung around all game without ever getting over the hump, went on a 15-3 run to close out the game. When Russ Smith missed a 3-pointer with just four seconds to go and Aaron Harrison followed with two game-clinching free throws, UK was headed back to the Elite Eight for the fourth time in five seasons under Coach Cal.

As the Cats jumped jubilantly at midcourt for the second straight game, one thing was crystal clear: The disappointment of the regular season is now a thing of the past. For all the expectations UK didn't meet in the regular season, it has exceeded them in the postseason and rewritten how this team will be remembered.

"In a way I think we have (rewritten our history)," Julius Randle said. "We just kind of had to put the past behind us and leave it where it was. It's a new season, the postseason. That's all we can worry about, survive and advance, and we've gotta take it one game at a time."

The next game up will be a date with second-seeded Michigan on Sunday at 5:05 p.m. on CBS with a berth to the Final Four on the line.

As improbable as a trip back to Dallas appeared to be a month ago, UK is still in the hunt thanks to timely plays from Alex Poythress and steely resolve from the Harrison twins and Julius Randle.

Poythress, nothing short of a nonfactor for the first 35-plus minutes of the game, ignited the comeback when Andrew Harrison found him wide open on the baseline with a slick one-handed pass for a dunk.

On the very next possession, with Louisville's Smith looking to provide the dagger, Poythress seemingly came out of nowhere to block Smith's shot off the backboard. After Randle got UK within three on a jumper, Poythress manned up on Hancock, who had torched the Cats just minutes earlier, and forced a turnover.

"We were begging him the whole game to start playing and he played at the right time," Coach Cal said. "It was unbelievable how he finished."

After Randle missed a pair of shots inside, Poythress got the second offensive rebound in traffic, went back up against Montrezl Harrell and banked the shot in. The foul was the fourth on Harrell, U of L's best big man, and the ensuing free throw tied the game.

But he wasn't done yet.

After a turnover by Smith, Poythress got the ball again and knocked Harrell out of the game. He hit 1 of 2 free throws to give UK a 67-66 lead.

"He's the reason we won the game," Aaron Harrison said.

Aaron Harrison may have had a thing or two to do with it too.

Down by one after a Smith jumper, Calipari put the ball back in the hands of his best player, Randle, to deliver the knockout punch, and he delivered - with a pass.

Randle drove into the lane, spun into traffic and then kicked it out to Aaron Harrison in the corner. Like he has done so many times in the postseason, Aaron Harrison swished the 3, giving UK a 70-68 lead it would never relinquish.

"I was definitely looking to shoot but I saw Aaron just wide open in the corner," Randle said. "He's made that shot a million times. I didn't even really go to offensive rebound because I knew he was making it."

Said Calipari: "Three weeks ago he would have shot a hook to try to get that at the basket. Now, he's just playing the game as it comes. And that's what - they're playing for each other. They have finally surrendered and lost themselves in the team. It's just taken us a long time."

Wayne Blackshear missed 1 of 2 free throws with 14.2 seconds left, Randle sunk two more free throws to go back up by three and Smith missed a game-tying 3 in the closing seconds, sending a bunch of freshmen and sophomores who weren't supposed to have this type of resolve to the Elite Eight amid a week of unrelenting buildup and hype.

In the process, UK delivered Rick Pitino his first loss in 12 games in the Sweet 16 while improving Calipari's record to 6-1 vs. Louisville as Kentucky's head coach.

"It's just we got to keep fighting," Aaron Harrison said. "I think we've gotten that over the last three or four weeks. We've been down in the last couple of games and we knew we'd been through a lot this season and we knew we could get through anything if we got through what we did this season."

They even got through a devastating injury to their best defensive player, Cauley-Stein, who left the game with 13:05 left in the first half with an ankle injury. Calipari confirmed after the game that "it's not a good ankle injury," but that was obvious when Cauley-Stein limped back to the locker room with hardly any weight on his left foot.

UK could have folded, down 13 just seconds after the injury, but Dakari Johnson stepped up with a career-high-tying 15 points and six rebounds, Randle bullied his way to 15 points and 12 rebounds, and the Harrison twins combined for 29 points.

Kentucky shot just 43.6 percent overall and allowed U of L's three-headed monster of Smith, Harrell and Hancock to have their way offensively, but the Cardiac Cats, who don't seemed to be fazed by any type of adversity anymore after a roller-coaster regular season, never wilted.

They seem to like the taste of blood.

"This team has fought the whole year," Calipari said. "They're maturing right before our eyes."

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.

Baylor rematch the next step on UK Hoops' path

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Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics) Jennifer O'Neill scored a career-high 43 points in UK's four-overtime win over Baylor on Dec. 6. (Aaron Borton, UK Athletics)
When the bracket was unveiled, the matchup immediately stood out.

Kentucky and Baylor, back in December, slugged it out to the tune of four overtimes with the Wildcats coming out on top in a game that appeared at times might never end.

And there the two teams were in the Notre Dame Regional, poised to meet again in the Sweet 16.

"The committee has really just a tough, tough job to do, but you just have to believe they have a sense of humor too," Matthew Mitchell said on the night the field was revealed.

Selection Monday, however, was a long time ago.

To make the rematch happen, the third-seeded Cats (26-8) would need to advance past Wright State and Syracuse in hosting first- and second-round games for the first time in school history.

For their part, the second-seeded Lady Bears (31-4) would have to beat Western Kentucky University and California at home.

As fate would have it, UK and Baylor would take care of business, setting the stage for a reprisal of that thriller in Arlington, Texas. On the line for the Cats at noon on Saturday will be their third Elite Eight trip in as many seasons and fourth in five years.

"It will be a real, real test for our team," Mitchell said. "Baylor has a fantastic team and they've had a great season and we know from firsthand experience how tough they are and so we'll just have to continue to try and prepare well."

In that first matchup, both teams had every opportunity to pack it in during UK's 133-130 win that set an NCAA record for most points in a game.

The Cats could have given in as Baylor's Odyssey Sims hit shot after shot and scored 47 points. The Lady Bears could have yielded as Jennifer O'Neill went off for a career-high 43 and certainly when Sims fouled out late in the first overtime period. Neither would, of course, and a classic ensued.

Nearly four months later, the Cats wouldn't mind another back-and-forth battle. Four overtimes though? That's a different story.

"Four overtimes, that's a whole other half," Bria Goss said. "It's a long season. We're not trying to do that again."

The length of the game isn't the only thing Mitchell would like to see change.

While viewers surely enjoyed the scoring and big shots of the first edition of UK-Baylor, Mitchell -- a coach with a sterling defensive reputation -- found himself trying to keep from covering his eyes when he broke out the film.

"When you go back and watch that game, it was a very exciting game to watch, but from a coaching standpoint, it wasn't fun to go back and watch the kind of defense we played," Mitchell said. "We just didn't have a very good defensive night at all."

Sims was the primary reason for that.

"She was terrific," Mitchell said.

Accordingly, Sims has come up often in practice this week.

"(Baylor) really gets the ball in Sims' hands a lot and she's just so explosive and so tough to guard," Mitchell said. "We really try to work hard on how we're going to defend her and then their overall offensive scheme and get as solid as we could. We did a lot of defensive work yesterday."

With a player like Sims, Mitchell said it is the responsibility of all five players on the floor to guard her. That's particularly true when it comes to drawing charges.

"We were able to get her out of the last game by drawing charges and I think you have to have the guts to stand in and take some hits from her because she's so aggressive going to the basket," Mitchell said. "She's really, really physical trying to get loose from denials and things like that so you have to stay strong and that call goes in your favor."

Four of Sims' five fouls against Kentucky were of the offensive variety.

But don't make the mistake of thinking Sims -- the nation's second-leading scorer at 28.5 points per game -- is a one-woman show. The Lady Bears proved otherwise the first time around.

"They have more than just her," Mitchell said. "They have a really good team with good players that made a lot of good plays in that game. One benefit of the game was you could really see their full complement of players because everybody had to get in that game because it was so long."

Much more is on the line this time though. Both teams have a goal of reaching the Final Four and this is the next step. In fact, Mitchell wants it to be the only step the Cats think about right now.

"Baylor will be a huge test, but what we tried to talk about (Wednesday) was getting our mind off the Final Four and getting our mind on Baylor because you can't go if you don't win Saturday," Mitchell said.

Andrew and Aaron Harrison speak to reporters at UK's pre-Sweet 16 press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew and Aaron Harrison speak to reporters at UK's pre-Sweet 16 press conference on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Story by Eric Lindsey and Guy Ramsey

INDIANAPOLIS - Even if his team was billed as the top team in the country to start the year, and even if there were beliefs that his team could go undefeated, don't tell John Calipari that his 10-loss group failed to meet expectations.

"It wasn't disappointing," Coach Cal said.

But he didn't mind people talking about the disappointment when his players were struggling because "that's what they had to hear."

"They had to hear how bad they were as players, how selfish they were," he said. "(People said), 'They're not together. This isn't a team. You can't do this. This is what's wrong.' They had to deal with that."

Calipari seemed to hint that the criticism brought his team together, and after hitting rock bottom against South Carolina, it appears to be true.

"Instead of separating, they stuck together," Calipari said. "They kept believing in one another. They kept believing in the staff and wanted answers, how do we get this right and accepts answers. So I'm proud of them."

Coach Cal said the adversity has made his team stronger and one of the most dangerous teams left in the tournament.

"I told them, 'Of any team that's still standing, there's no one that's gone through what you have to be strong enough and have enough character when adversity hits,' " Calipari said. "Because every one of us still playing, there's going to be adversity hitting these games. It's can you hold on to the rope? Can you continue to move forward even though the fluff looks a little bleak? And I think this team's been through enough that they can do that."

Randle looking forward to playing full game vs. U of L

The way the Kentucky Wildcats played without Julius Randle in the second half of the regular-season meeting with Louisville, Randle's teammates hardly noticed that he only played four minutes.

"I feel like once he went out, everybody else stepped up," Alex Poythress said. "That's just how it is on this team. If one guy goes down, the train keeps moving."

The train should have its locomotive for the full 40 minutes in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville.

Since missing most of the second half in the Dec. 28 meeting with cramping in his legs, Randle hasn't had any more issues. Even before the U of L game Randle had problems, leaving the press conference in the Michigan State game with cramps.

"I hope that's behind me," Randle said.

If it is, it's because Randle has made a few lifestyle adjustments. He said he's eating better now, getting more rest and drinking more fluids.

"I haven't cramped up in a while," Randle said. "Knock on wood."

Randle scored 17 first-half points against the Cardinals in the first game before his legs gave out. His absence, coupled with Montrezl Harrell's first-half foul trouble, deprived fans of what should be a fantastic battle of the big men Friday.

"I don't know if it was a mismatch or anything," Randle said of his first-half success. "I was just kind of feeling it."

Randle said he's looking forward to playing a full game against U of L this time around.

"I hope so," Randle said. "God willing."

Harrisons key to limiting U of L transition game


Willie Cauley-Stein admits it: UK's transition defense has been far from perfect.

"That's kind of always been our little kryptonite throughout the season was transition defense," Cauley-Stein said.

Cauley-Stein says UK has improved, though Wichita State made the Cats pay for not getting back on numerous occasions in the Wildcats' memorable 78-76 win. Louisville will look to do the same on Friday night.

The Cardinals are more than capable, and it begins with Russ Smith and Chris Jones. The two small  guards turn defense -- U of L is second in the country in defensive turnover rate -- into offense as quickly as anyone in the country.

That means Andrew and Aaron Harrison will need to be ready for the challenge after they committed seven combined turnovers in their regular-season matchup with Louisville.

From what Smith has seen, he expects they will be.

"With the amount of minutes that they've played at the guard position, and in February they've become sophomores, January they've become sophomores, they're not freshmen anymore," Smith said. "They've improved on their decision-making, getting into the lane."

Last (fresh)men standing

UK's highly touted group of newcomers has been among a handful of freshmen to garner national headlines this season.

They began the season ranked No. 1, but were eventually surpassed by the likes of Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, Duke's Jabari Parker, and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis. When the Cats fell out of the polls altogether near the regular season's end, pundits were ready to label the group a flop.

A few weeks later, it's Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, James Young, and Dakari Johnson who are still playing.

"Seems like we stuck together during hard times and listening to Coach, I guess, and just brought us here this far and we're going to keep listening to him," Young said.

Of Rivals.com's top five players in the 2013 class, only Randle and Arizona's Aaron Gordon are still playing. Among Rivals.com's top 11, only Gordon and Florida's Chris Walker and Kasey Hill are still alive alongside UK's five freshman starters.

It's also worth noting that the other 15 teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 start four freshmen combined, according to Cats Illustrated's Brett Dawson.  The four are Gordon, Virginia's London Perrantes, Michigan's Derrick Walton and Iowa State's Monte Morris.

Andrew Harrison's elbow better than it was


Andrew Harrison hardly showed it with his sparkling play against Wichita State, but that right elbow of his, which he injured two days earlier in the win over Kansas State, was barking the next day.

"Very sore," Andrew Harrison said. "I could barely move it."

Don't worry, Kentucky fans, Andrew Harrison will play Friday, and the freshman point guard sounds as if he will be much closer to 100 percent than he was against the Shockers.

"It's better," he said. "It's still a little sore but I'm icing it. It's fine."

Andrew Harrison said he will wear the arm sleeve over his elbow again, partly to protect his elbow and part for superstition.

"(The sleeve) has like a pad on it so if I do hit it again, it won't really affect me," he said.

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 held an open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK held an open practice at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Going on three weeks now, John Calipari has turned his basketball practices into football workouts.

To adjust to his team's inability to finish through contact as officiating returned to its more relaxed, let-them-play emphasis, Coach Cal has brought out pads in practice, told his guys to make contact with their hands up and just play more physical.

With Louisville, arguably the most physical defensive team in the country, standing in Kentucky's way in the Sweet 16, Coach Cal ramped up intensity even more so this week.

"It's been as tough as any practice," Andrew Harrison said. "Coach has definitely been pushing us and he wants to make sure we're not satisfied."

Specifically, to prepare his team for U of L's pressure defense, he's told Jarrod Polson, Dominique Hawkins and EJ Floreal, who match up with the first-team guards in practice, to foul the starters.

"We have free reign to foul them as much as we can," Polson said. "There's no referees in practice so we're grabbing them, pushing them, pulling them."

The hope is, as Polson explained, is to prepare the Wildcats for Louisville's smothering defense, which ranks second in the country in steals with 10.1 per game.

"The hope is that if they can handle that when we're actually really fouling then they can handle that in the games when there's referees," Polson said.

How the game will be called will go a long way in determining just how aggressive Louisville can be with its defense. In the game in Lexington, 25 fouls were called on the Cardinals, neutralizing a bit of what they like to do defensively.

"They definitely have a defense that pressures the ball and tries to get up in you," Polson said. "I guess if they do call it tight that would be to our advantage."

John Calipari hinted on his weekly radio show Monday night that the officials are going to let the two teams play.

"Here's what the key is," Calipari said Monday. "Can you play through physical play? Can you get open? Can you catch balls? Can you drive when play is physical? At this point, critical."

If the game turns physical, Coach Cal said that's fine. He said his team has adapted and learned how to play grind-it-out games over the last month like it did against Kansas State, and when the situation calls for it, like it did against Wichita State, it can win a shootout.

In the first meeting with Louisville, Kentucky turned the ball over just 11 times, a surprising stat for a team that has struggled with them this season, especially against a defense like U of L's.

As a matter of fact, the Cardinals' minus-one turnover margin in the regular-season meeting was one of only two games this season in which Louisville has been on the wrong side of the turnover battle. The Cardinals lead the country in turnover margin at plus-6.8 per game.

But to a man, players in both locker rooms insisted these are two different teams from the ones that faced each other on Dec. 28 in Rupp Arena. And defensively, Louisville looks more like the Rick Pitino teams of old than the one that UK's guards, who were still finding their way at the time, had few problems against.

The Cardinals said it took time for their new additions to adjust to Pitino's defense, particularly the matchup zone.

"The more we play it the better we're getting at it," Luke Hancock said. "So guys are making their rotations when they're supposed to be getting in there, boxing out when they're supposed to be. Early on in the year you just don't make those rotations, especially with new guys coming into your defense because it's not the easiest thing in the world to pick up."

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 face Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 9:45 p.m. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Louisville in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 9:45 p.m. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- In five years, John Calipari has left his mark on Kentucky fans.

He's helped them learn to "enjoy the ride," to maintain just a little bit more on an even keel through the ups and downs of a long season. He's shown them that putting players first can lead to the kind of program success expected at UK.

But try as he might, Coach Cal knows there's no changing the Big Blue Nation when it comes to Louisville.

"People grieve for a year after the game," Calipari said on the eve of a Sweet 16 matchup with the Cardinals. "People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work."

It doesn't work because the rivalry is too ingrained. Just ask Jarrod Polson, who grew up a UK fan before going on to a four-year career playing for his favorite team.

"I was born to hate Louisville," Jarrod Polson said, only half joking.

Those are the feelings at play on both the blue and red sides of a Sweet 16 showdown between UK (26-10) and Louisville (31-5). On Friday at 9:45 p.m., bragging rights will be decided. Coach Cal knows better than to think he can control any of that, but it's another story with his team.

"We will not make this game bigger than it is," Calipari said. "It's an NCAA Tournament game. We've gotta play a basketball game against a really good team. Every team still standing is playing a really good team. So that's my message. Don't make it bigger than it is. Just play."

To that end, Coach Cal has given very specific directions to the Wildcats.

"Don't watch any TV," Calipari said. "Watch the History Channel, watch Biography, watch the Military Channel, watch movies and don't read anything, don't look at anything. It has no bearing on this game we're about to play."

That's not a difficult message to put into practice because, really, how could there be anything bigger than playing in the NCAA Tournament? No matter the opponent, there are only two options at this stage of the season: win or go home.

"I don't want to disrespect the rivalry or anything, but we're playing for something bigger than the rivalry," Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters in UK's locker room, television tuned to CNN.

Taking his turn after Kentucky's time with the media was up, Louisville star senior Russ Smith was asked about the way Cauley-Stein views the game. Though he has a couple years and a few extra games of UK-U of L experience on most of the Cats, he agrees.

"It is a rivalry game," Smith said. "There's no way around it. But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game. They would have to play with the same enthusiasm and wake up reading the same scouting report as if they were playing a UCLA in the Sweet 16 or UConn.  It's just the same game face.

"You just want to get to the next round. And that's what's most important. I feel the same way. I felt the same way the last two, three years, coming into this program, be prepared for every team the same way."

Count U of L head coach Rick Pitino -- a man intimately familiar with the rivalry -- in the same camp.

"I've been in the state 20 years, and the game to me has really only had difficult consequences for the loser twice," Pitino said. "Once was two years ago when they stopped our run in the Final Four, and the next game we play."

Polson is the only scholarship Wildcat who was in uniform for that national semifinal matchup. When he stepped into the Superdome in 2012, he remembers all thoughts about the rivalry -- long as he's been on the UK side of it -- going out the window.

"I mean, in that Final Four game, to me and our team, two years ago it didn't really seem like a rivalry at all," Polson said. "Once you get so far in the tournament there really is no rivalry games. It's just getting to the next round. That's how we saw it back then and I think that's how we're looking at it this year."

Three months ago, the Cats and Cards faced off when the rivalry was the biggest thing at play. Then, UK picked up its signature regular-season win in Rupp Arena, 73-66.

"Honestly, I don't even remember the first game, the first time we played them," Cauley-Stein said. "You know, the only thing I can really take from that is we fought for the whole 40 minutes of the game and that's what we have to do tomorrow, is just play like we played against Wichita (State), which we didn't even realize how close we were to winning or losing the game until the buzzer."

In defeating Louisville, the Cats played with the kind of 40-minute intensity that's become their hallmark in the postseason. With that, UK has improved by the day since the Southeastern Conference Tournament, making them a far different team than on Dec. 28.

"I think we just all settled down and just started thinking about having fun and it's still basketball," Aaron Harrison said, explaining UK's improvement. "We just go out there and have fun and fight for each other."

In a battle of Louisville's experience -- four starters played key roles on last year's title team -- and UK's youth, that carefree approach could work in the Cats' favor.

"The difference between freshmen is freshmen are going to play hard no matter what," Smith said. "That's what's so scary. Freshmen, regardless of how prepared they are, regardless of how trained they are, they're going to always be ready to play and they're always going to come play hard. They may not do the right things, but they're always going to be ready to play."

Differently comprised as UK and U of L may be, their goals -- and their approach to facing their archrival in the tournament -- are the same.

"The goal is to get to the Elite Eight," Smith said. "If you let the university or the other school that you're playing against get in the way of that it could potentially become a problem."

"We're playing to move on and that's the way we're coming into the game," Cauley-Stein said. "We're not thinking about, 'Oh it's Louisville so it's a must-win because it's Louisville. It's a must-win because we're trying to win a national championship."

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 will lead UK into a Sweet 16 matchup with Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari will lead UK into a Sweet 16 matchup with Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- To hear John Calipari and Rick Pitino tell their side of story, their relationship is the same as it ever was: They're friends.

Yes, friends.

That was Coach Cal's description of the relationship of the two coaches tasked with guiding the most heated rivalry in college basketball - sorry, Duke-North Carolina -- on Thursday prior to their teams' meeting in the Sweet 16 in Indianapolis.

"The stuff that they're at each others' throats, it's just not accurate," Calipari said.

Not only were they not lobbing grenades at each other Thursday, Calipari said they've bounced information off each other during this season.

"We were in touch throughout the year, back and forth," Coach Cal said. "He'd throw something at me, I'd throw something at him. Different things about our teams."

Take that for what's it's worth, but it's certain the two won't be sharing information this week.

When Kentucky-Louisville meet at Lucas Oil Stadium on Friday, the "friendship" will cease to exist for the night. At stake will be the chance to advance to the Elite Eight. For the other coach, the losing one, the season will end.

So, to a degree, there is a rivalry between the two coaches. The nature of their jobs creates it.

Whether there is a genuine friendship, a behind-the-scenes dislike for one another or just mutual indifference, the two must compete on a regular basis for the crown of one of the most competitive basketball states in America.

It just so happens that in two of the last three seasons, the two Bluegrass titans have collided in the NCAA Tournament, only further intensifying the rivalry and spotlight on the relationship between the two coaches.

"You know, I think that hurts a little because you all (the media) bait and try to get certain answers out of us," Pitino said. "And if John says, 'I like a certain thing,' some people think he's taking a shot at me, vice versa. ... We understand what takes place between the lines. We understand the fans' intensity, but we don't personalize our battles. We understand what's it's all about."

Pitino said the two first met when Calipari was just a teenage camper at the Five-Star Basketball Camp. Since then, both of their careers have taken similar paths, crossing each other at turns along the way.

Both made meteoric rises at schools that had relatively little success before their arrivals (Calipari at UMass, Pitino at Providence), both coached at Kentucky, both left college to try their luck in the NBA (Coach Cal with the Nets, Pitino with the Celtics), and both have taken three different schools to the Final Four - coincidently (and ironically), the only coaches to do so.

During their brilliant careers, they've coached across from each other as heated competitors. Calipari's UMass team lost to Pitino's UK group in the 1996 Final Four after beating Cats earlier that season. Then the two wound up across from each other as Conference USA rivals when Pitino took the Louisville job and Calipari went to Memphis.

Now, they're the two biggest figures in the biggest rivalry in college basketball.

And so, on Thursday, knowing full well where the two came from and how intertwined their history and success has actually been, the two heaped praise at one another.

"I know that he's a great coach," Calipari said. "He's done it at different programs. His kids play with great energy and they play with confidence, and it's every year."

Was some of the praise an attempt to take the microscope off their relationship and, to a greater degree, the rivalry game on Friday? Maybe. But we'll never know.

And without knowing, all anyone can report is the two coaches had nothing but sunshine and roses for each other Thursday. Pitino went as far as to defend the "one-and-done" criticism Calipari gets blasted with so often for developing kids into NBA-ready prospects.

"He's one of the premier coaches in our game," Pitino said. "Has always been. The thing that I remember most about John, because I've known him since he was 15, is he always didn't have one-and-dones. He had a team at Massachusetts, and I knew where he took them from to today.

"He had the least amount of talent on the court when he went out there (and still won). And he didn't play an easy schedule. He had to take a lot of people on to get Massachusetts in the limelight. I've seen all stage of John's career, and so it doesn't surprise me that they're well at this time."

Perception is the two coaches are heated rivals whose friendship deteriorated long ago. The two say they remain friends.

"I don't care about perception because perception is not reality. We're friends," Pitino said. "We respect each others' programs very much and we're friends in the business. And I certainly have great respect for what they're accomplishing right now."

Whatever the case really is, they're both in each others' path to the Elite Eight.

"We're getting older, both of us, and I think I'm not on his mind and he's not on my mind, so to speak," Coach Cal said. "We all got tough jobs, what we're doing."

Recent Comments

  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
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