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Wednesday morning, John Calipari took to Twitter to pass along the news that all had gone well.
Got a call from @nerlensnoel3 yesterday & put it on speakerphone so he could talk to the team. The surgery went well and he's doing fine.-- John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) March 13, 2013
That's certainly good news.
It was great for his teammates to hear from him after surgery and I think it helped Nerlens too. I can't wait to see him back on the court.-- John Calipari (@UKCoachCalipari) March 13, 2013
This week is spring break for all UK students, which is the reason Noel elected to have the surgery now. Dr. Scott Mair of UK Sports Medicine is with Noel and will help coordinate his return to Lexington.
Once Noel is back in the Bluegrass, he will begin the rehab process while continuing to attend classes. Coach Cal said earlier this week he will recommend that Noel gauge his rehab progress over the next two months and make a decision on whether to enter the NBA Draft or return for a second season at UK.
"Yesterday's practice was really good," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "It was tough, but guys seemed to be in it mentally, more focused."
"We had a great practice yesterday," Kyle Wiltjer said. "Guys are working hard."
Even John Calipari had to agree: "Yesterday's practice was good, one of our better practices."
Combine those rave reviews with the fact that the Wildcats are just days removed from their best win - a comeback against Southeastern Conference champion Florida - and whether things are finally beginning to click into place for UK is a legitimate question. Fair as that question may be, the Cats don't have a response.
"We've been here before like this, so I'm not even going to try to answer right now," Cauley-Stein said.
The Cats aren't falling into that trap. Too many times this season they have been sure that they had finally turned a corner to believe it's for real this time. They are placing the burden of proving that this latest bit of progress is lasting on themselves.
"We have something to prove, believe me," Calipari said. "Individuals, as a team, we have a lot to prove."
And as a matter of fact, that's the reason UK even practiced on Monday in the first place.
Normally, Calipari gives his teams two days off immediately following the regular-season finale in anticipation of a lot of basketball and a lot of travel in the conference and NCAA tournaments. But this year, Coach Cal wasn't about to take his foot off the gas. After the Cats were given Sunday to relax, it was back to work on Monday.
"It was good that Coach didn't back off yesterday in practice and is going to continue to push us through because he said last year, or in years past, that they would have had two days off instead of one day off," Cauley-Stein said. "So it's good. It'll keep us in the right mind frame that we need to be in going into it."
It's been a rarity this season that Cauley-Stein - named to the SEC's All-Freshman team on Tuesday - hasn't been in the right frame of mind. He remains a work in progress, but his energy and effort have been beyond reproach. So, what prescription does he have for his team to match that?
"Just listen to what Coach has to say because he's been through it for so many years," Cauley-Stein said. "So that's something we don't get is the time that he's spent in this and preparing guys for it. We're fresh in the game; he's been there for a long time so we just gotta listen and I don't think that's what we've been doing."
The suggestion may be simple on its face, but following it is anything but. This year has clearly demonstrated that.
This season more than any of his first three in Lexington, Coach Cal hasn't had a friend in his bench. He simply hasn't had the option of sitting players when they fail to follow his instructions because there haven't been enough viable replacements. Calipari vowed things will be different in the future, but that doesn't matter in the present. For now, he has had to do everything in his power to put his best team on the floor.
"I'm going to do everything and try to get the team across the finish line," Calipari said. "What happens is it just, as a coach, you're doing everything in that in your heart of hearts, in your bones, you know you wouldn't do or accept or wouldn't even consider to try to get your team across the finish line, knowing at the end of the season (it's) time to regroup, going back to how we do things."
All things considered, it's hard for Coach Cal to be too displeased with the results.
UK finished the season 21-10 in spite of playing only brief stretches with a full complement of players. The Cats' 12-6 conference record was good enough to earn them a No. 2 seed in the upcoming conference tournament, even though SEC Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year Nerlens Noel missed their final seven games.
"This team has gone and done a lot of good stuff," Calipari said. "At the end of the day, you look back, with all that's happened to this team, to be where we are, second place...We're just hanging around, and that's what we want to do."
By "hanging around," Calipari surely means doing enough to reach the NCAA Tournament. Saturday's win over Florida put the Cats on the right side of the bubble according to most experts - at least temporarily anyway. Most agree that UK needs to back up that performance with a win over Arkansas or Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals on Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET in Nashville, Tenn., to solidify its place in the Big Dance.
"We just need to go into the (conference) tournament with the mindset like we're not trying to get beat, like we want to win it, obviously, and keep it rolling," Cauley-Stein said.
Coach Cal still believes his team can roll deep into the NCAA Tournament. He invoked the example of Connecticut in 2011, a team that finished 9-9 in conference play before winning five games in five days at the Big East Tournament and six more - including a Final Four defeat of UK - to win the national title.
The Cats, however, don't have a player likely to average 24.6 points in postseason play to carry the load like Kemba Walker did for the Huskies. Coach Cal does see a player on his roster capable of having a similar impact though.
"Maybe Willie becomes the most dominating big guy in college basketball, makes a difference in every game, and everybody else just does what they're supposed to do," Calipari said.
That's heady stuff for a player who wasn't even focused exclusively on basketball a year ago.
The reality is that Coach Cal doesn't want Cauley-Stein or any of his players thinking in those terms with the postseason just days away.
"I keep telling them, 'Let's worry about us. Let's just keep playing at our best and see what that means,' " Calipari said.
- UK did not hit 40 percent of its field goal attempts and still won for the first time this season;
- UK failed to shoot a higher percentage from the field and still won, for the first time in seven such games;
- UK did not score 70 points, and won for only the second time in nine games when scoring below that mark.
Kentucky's game plan to defend Florida - the team with the Southeastern Conference's most efficient offense and the team averaging almost nine 3s per game - was to force the Gators inside the arc. Once there, the plan said to make them take "tough 2s" and rebound the misses. And that's exactly what the Cats did down the stretch, when the game turned in UK's favor.
The Wildcats and Gators both ranked in the nation's top 10 in 2-point defense before last Saturday, but when blocked shots were taken out of the equation, leaving only the contested ones, Kentucky dropped to 50th. But in those final minutes, with Willie Cauley-Stein in foul trouble, UK could not go for blocks and had to rely on simply contesting the Gators' shots. Florida missed 11 in a row.
If the Kentucky defense that we saw in the last seven-and-a-half minutes of that Florida win keeps showing up, UK won't have to worry itself with "bubble" talk.
Kentucky was switching defenders on Florida's patented pick-and-roll plays and during that stretch run and there was a possession in which Alex Poythress was matched up on a driving Scottie Wilbekin. All season long, that kind of mismatch has resulted in baskets and/or fouls, but Poythress played it perfectly, misdirecting Wilbekin into a missed shot.
That's one example of the kind of defense that happened on possession after possession in those final minutes - 14 consecutive scoreless ones over the final 7:36, to be exact - and it's why Kentucky won a game for the first time all season when it failed to crack 40 percent from the field with its own shots. You have to win those kinds of games in the postseason and if this team can sustain that kind of defensive effort, it has a chance to make a little noise in March.
The UK Alumni Association and the Greater Nashville UK Alumni Club invite alumni and friends to attend a pregame pep rally at the Southeastern Conference Men's Basketball Tournament on Friday, March 15 from 4 to 6 p.m. ET (3 to 5 p.m. CT) prior to the Wildcats' first game. The event will take place at the Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville (120 2nd Avenue North, Nashville, Tenn). The tourney is set for March 13-17.
Cost is $10 for pre-registered UK Alumni Association members and $15 for nonmembers and event walk-ups. Make your reservation online by visiting www.ukalumni.net/sec2013 or call 859-257-7161 or 1-800-269-ALUM (2586).
Join fellow alumni and Wildcat fans for:
- Door prizes
- A special appearance by the UK band and cheerleaders
- The first 500 fans to enter the event will receive a free T-shirt
For questions about the event, contact Jill Smith at jhsmith(at)uky.edu, 859-257-8906 or 1-800-269-ALUM or Jill Frost at jillfrost(at)frostpr.com or 615.339.5905.
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, March 10:
Men's basketball: Archie Goodwin
Freshman Archie Goodwin led the Wildcats to a marquee victory over visiting No. 9/11 Florida on Saturday, after earning a 20-point scoring effort at Georgia on Thursday. For the week, the Little Rock, Ark., native averaged a team-high 18.0 points per game. He ranked second on the team with a .429 shooting clip. He was the only guard to log double-figure rebounds for the week and his six steals topped the squad. Against the Bulldogs, Goodwin turned in his fifth 20-point effort and second against conference competition. He sunk a career-high three 3-pointers and hauled in six rebounds. In the upset of the season for UK, Goodwin led the team with 16 points including nine in the second half. His steal and dunk tied the game at 57 and he then hit one free throw for UK's final lead en route to the win. In the second stanza he also notched a trio of steals to push his career-high total for swipes in a game to four. Furthermore, Goodwin has scored in double-figures a team-leading 23 times this season including in six-straight contests.
Baseball: Corey Littrell
Junior left-handed All-America starter Corey Littrell turned in his best start of the year in leading UK to a series win over Michigan State during a Sunday afternoon rubber match ... Littrell worked seven strong innings allowing only one run on four hits, walking one batter and striking out a career-high nine batters ... He carried a shutout into the seventh inning, only surrendering a single hit through his first six shutout innings ... Battled through the seventh after three consecutive hits plated the first run of the game for the Spartans, getting the final two outs to set up the UK bullpen for the save in the 3-1 game ... He fired 100 pitches in the start, with 69 going for strikes ... After an All-Southeastern Conference season in 2012 as the Sunday starter, Littrell reasserted himself as the series-winning starter in rubber matches, making his eighth rubber-match start in the last two years vs. Michigan ... In those eight series-deciding games, Littrell has led UK to eight wins and owned a 6-0 record with a 2.8 ERA ... On the year, Littrell had made four starts with a 2-0 record and a 3.42 ERA, tossing 23.2 innings, allowing 22 hits and eight walks, striking out 24 ... With his 17th career win on Sunday, Littrell had now moved into a five-way tie for 10th in UK career history, seven wins shy of the program mark.
Baseball: Paul McConkey
Junior Paul McConkey paced the Wildcats in multiple offensive categories during a four-game week, batting .444 (4-for-9) in three games ... The third baseman led UK to a series win over 2012 NCAA Tournament team Michigan State, a 37-win club in 2012 ... McConkey had three RBI and belted a homer during the week, reaching base at a .500 clip ...Hit the game-winning, two-run double in a 3-1 win on Sunday vs. Michigan State, good for his second game-winning RBI of the year ... On the year, McConkey has hit .324 (11-for-34) with three doubles, one triple, one homer and 11 RBI.
Softball: Christian Stokes
Christian Stokes had the best weekend of her young collegiate career against Ole Miss, hitting .833 (5-for-6) with her first collegiate home run and two multi-hit games. Stokes started all three games at second base against the Rebels, earning a hit in each game, while posting a .889 on-base percentage for the weekend. The native of Chesterfield, S.C., went 2-for-3 in the series opener, including launching a solo homer in the seventh inning - the first homer of her career. In game two, Stokes scored a run after going 1-for-1 with a single and two walks, helping UK tie the series at a game apiece. Stokes finished the series off in style with a 2-for-2 effort in the finale, including two RBI. She is currently riding a season-best three-game hitting streak whiles hitting .279 (12-for-43) with one double, one homer, 12 RBI and four runs scored this season.
- Kentucky went 1-1 on the week which included a critical upset of No. 9/11 Florida on Saturday.
- Freshman Archie Goodwin was sensational in leading the Cats with an average of 18.0 points, five rebounds and three steals in two games this week. Goodwin snatched a career-high four steals in the upset of the Gators and had a team-high 16 points.
- With the win over Florida, UK improves to 10-0 at home in Rupp Arena against ranked foes in the John Calipari era.
- The win also helped seal the No. 2 overall seed in the SEC Tournament. UK has won the tournament twice in Calipari's tenure.
- Kentucky advanced to the SEC Championship game for the third time in four seasons before falling to Texas A&M.
- UK logged wins against Vanderbilt and No. 12 Georgia en route to making its title game appearance.
- UK outscored the Lady Dawgs 41-14 in the second half, holding them scoreless for the final 6:08 of the game, and 22.2 percent (14-of-63) shooting for the game.
- Senior All-America candidate A'dia Mathies (Louisville, Ky.) added 11 points and grabbed two steals which set a new UK career steals record with 310. The previous record was 309 set by Stacey Reed from 1991-95.
- The Kentucky rifle team placed second at the NCAA Championships, shooting a 4670 to place runner-up for a second consecutive year.
- Senior Henri Junghänel placed second in individual smallbore, falling by .5 points to claim the silver medal.
- Freshman Connor Davis finished fourth individually in air rifle.
- Kentucky had six members named All-America, including Connor Davis, Heather Greathouse, Emily Holsopple, Ed Ryznar, Elijah Ellis and Stacy Wheatley. Henri Junghanel would have been selected but was not eligible because he is currently in graduate school.
- The 20th-ranked Kentucky Gymnastics team topped 196 for the third consecutive meet in a 196.375-192.7 win over Bowling Green on Friday.
- Kayla Hartley clinched the second-highest team score in school history with a 9.9 floor exercise routine. The performance gave Hartley the event title for the second week in a row. It was also her first 9.9 since the season-opener. The junior has three event crowns from the past two meets.
- The Wildcats scored 49.125 on floor, which tied the season high.
- Kenzie Hedges took the event honors on vault as she stuck her landing for a career-best 9.875.
- The No. 15 UK softball team started its Southeastern Conference schedule in style by winning its series with the Ole Miss Rebels. UK dropped the first game of the series 3-1, before winning the final two games 5-2. The series win is the sixth consecutive over Ole Miss and marks the second time in three years UK has won the opening series of conference play. The series vs. Ole Miss was the first ever games played in the new UK Softball Complex.
- Freshman infielder Christian Stokes led the way for Kentucky, hitting .833 (5-for-6) for the weekend with three RBI and her first collegiate home run. Junior Lauren Cumbess went 3-for-9 over the weekend with a double, while junior Emily Gaines was 2-for-6 with two RBI.
- Freshman pitcher Kelsey Nunley suffered her first loss of the season in game one before earning wins Saturday and Sunday in a relief effort. Nunley is 12-1 on the year with a 2.02 ERA, striking out a team-best 67 batters.
- Seventh-ranked Kentucky completed a 3-1 week with a series win over Michigan State during the weekend, also picking up a midweek win over Xavier on Wednesday.
- UK opened the series with the Spartans with a 2-1 win on Friday night. Sophomore left-hander A.J. Reed worked seven shutout innings, allowing only five hits and two walks. All-American centerfielder Austin Cousino got UK on the board with a first-inning homer, before Max Kuhn slugged his first career homer in the bottom of the eighth as the game-winning bomb.
- Kentucky won the series on Sunday in another rubber-match win from junior southpaw Corey Littrell, making his eighth series-deciding start in the last two years. The All-America starter worked seven innings and allowed just one run, striking out a career-high nine.
- The UK men's tennis team fell twice this weekend, to No. 38 Baylor and No. 14 Texas A&M.
- Kentucky's road trip continues next weekend traveling to Ole Miss for a Friday showdown in Oxford before continuing the weekend in Starkville against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
- No. 44 Kentucky went 1-1 over the weekend, defeating No. 57 Missouri 5-2 on Friday, before falling to No. 4 Texas A&M 5-2 on Sunday.
- Freshman Nadia Ravita knocked off sixth-ranked Cristina Sanchez-Quintanar on Sunday 2-6, 6-4, 6-2. The win was Ravita's 13th singles win and fourth win over a ranked opponent this year.
- In Kentucky's win over Missouri, the Wildcats received singles wins in slots one through four, with Nadia Ravita, Jessica Stiles, Edmee Morin-Kougoucheff and Caitlin McGraw winning in straight sets.
Track and field
- The No. 20 Kentucky women's track and field team finished the NCAA Indoor Championships tied for 20th-place. The Wildcats earned the program's highest team finish since 1994 when they also finished tied for 20th. The Wildcats' 10 team points was the highest total at the National Championship Meet since 1990.
- Cally Macumber won the bronze medal in the women's 3,000 meters final to add six points to the Kentucky cause. She also contributed four on Friday night as the anchor in the distance medley relay.
- Morganne Phillips, Allison Peare and Chelsea Oswald were the other members of that squad.
- Keith Hayes scored two points for the men with a seventh-place finish in the 60-meter hurdles. Hayes lowered his school-record time to 7.69 in the event prelims to reach the final.
- The Kentucky men's golf team finished seventh out of the 17-team field at the USF Invitational, shooting 20 strokes over par for the tournament.
- Junior Stephen Powers recorded his second top-10 finish of the year, placing tied for sixth at 2-under-par. The Naperville, Ill., native was tied for the lead after the first round, posting a 4-under-par day and concluded his impressive tournament with an even par round two and two-over-par round three.
- Junior Ben Stow also finished in the top-20, tying for 14th overall at 1-over-par.
Monday, March 11
Men's golf at Tiger Invitational (Auburn, Ala.)
Tuesday, March 12
Baseball hosts Ohio - 4:00 p.m.
Softball hosts North Carolina - 5:00 p.m.
Men's golf at Tiger Invitational (Auburn, Ala.)
Wednesday, March 13
Softball hosts Southern Illinois • 3:00 p.m.
Baseball hosts Cincinnati • 4:00 p.m.
Thursday, March 14
Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Track and field at Bulls Invitational (Tampa, Fla.)
Friday, March 15
Men's tennis at Ole Miss - 2:00 p.m.
Women's tennis hosts Ole Miss - 4:00 p.m.
Softball at LSU - 7:00 p.m.
Baseball at Florida - 7:30 p.m.
Men's basketball vs. Arkansas/Vanderbilt - 7:30 p.m. (Nashville)
Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.)
Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Saturday, March 16
Baseball at Florida - Noon
Softball at LSU - 5:00 p.m.
Gymnastics at Penn State - 7:00 p.m.
Men's basketball at SEC Semifinals - 3:30 p.m. (Nashville)
Swimming and diving at NCAA Zones - 10:00 a.m. (West Lafayette, Ind.)
Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.)
Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
Sunday, March 17
Women's tennis hosts Mississippi State - Noon
Softball at LSU - 1:00 p.m.
Baseball at Florida - 1:00 p.m.
Men's tennis at Mississippi State - 1:00 p.m.
Men's basketball at SEC Finals - 3:30 p.m. (Nashville)
Women's golf at Insperity Lady Jaguar Intercollegiate (Augusta, Ga.)
Men's golf at Schenkel Invitational (Statesboro, Ga.)
In the meantime, here are a few notes on the day's happenings:
-We're to the point in the season when experts release bracket projections basically every day and Monday is no different. According to Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, John Calipari's Wildcats are slotted for a "First Four" matchup with La Salle as a No. 11 seed. Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com also has UK matched up with La Salle in a play-in game, but with both teams seeded 12th. As for the Bracket Matrix, which aggregates dozens of projections, UK is also seeded 12th there. The consensus at this point is that UK played its way into the field with Saturday's win over Florida, but the Cats would be wise to win at least one game in the SEC Tournament to assure their status.
-Sunday's loss in the SEC championship game was certainly painful for Matthew Mitchell and his team, but according to Charlie Creme's latest projections on ESPN.com, it was not costly in terms of NCAA seeding. UK remains a No. 2 there and Creme has UK traveling to Queens, N.Y., for first- and second-round games.
-Nerlens Noel hasn't played a game in nearly a month, but on Monday he was named to the Sporting News All-Freshman Team. That's quite an accomplishment for a player who missed the final third of conference play.
-Speaking of Noel, Coach Cal joined the Dan Patrick Show on Monday. As is customary for the show, he talked about a number of interesting topics, but the update he gave on his fallen star freshman jumped out. According to Calipari, Noel will undergo surgery soon and then two months of rehab. At that point, he will have a decision to make. Calipari said he will advise Noel to return to school if the rehab process is slow. If rehab goes well, Noel will "have options." Here's video of the interview in full.
-Another note on Noel: His dunk against Auburn is one of eight finalists for GEICO Play of the Year. Vote here.
-Last on the men's basketball front, Coach Cal wrote on his website about UK being a "players first" program, not "player first." Give it a read here.
-Saving the best for last, former Wildcat gymnast and eight-time NCAA champion Jenny Hansen was UK's legend at the SEC Women's Basketball Tournament. During halftime of Kentucky's game on Friday, Hansen was introduced and she broke out this move. The only way it would have been more impressive is if she had kept her heels on.
Of course, the topic du jour was this week's SEC Tournament, which begins on Wednesday. Kentucky doesn't play until Friday at 7:30 p.m. ET - against either No. 7 Arkansas or No. 10 Vanderbilt - but John Calipari joined in to talk about his team (and numerous other topics) heading into the postseason.
Here's what he and a few other coaches from around the league had to say.
On the upcoming tournament ...
"First of all, I've got to say a couple things. We've had some coaches this year in our league do unbelievable jobs. I'm going to leave guys out, but just off the top of my head, Mark Fox at Georgia, I can't begin to tell you the respect (I have for him). Johnny Jones, what he has done with that team (LSU). You look at Cuonzo (Martin) and where they were and what he did (at Tennessee). And I'm even going to throw a bouquet to Kevin Stallings (at Vanderbilt), who doesn't like to throw bouquets, but I'm going to throw one to him. The job he's done with that young team to get them to play the way they're playing. This year there has been more coaching than any of the other years I've been in this league. For us, I feel good that out of the top six teams playing against each other, we have the best record - us and Florida. So I'm proud of what this team has accomplished with all the injuries and all the other stuff that's gone on. But we're still fighting, and that's what tournament time is about."
On Nerlens Noel, a timetable on his surgery and the possibility of him returning next year ...
"His family has that information. I don't have it all. It's going to be done here soon and all the other stuff will take time to play out."
On how he feels about the importance of conference tournaments now that the stakes are different for his team ...
"Not really. I wish none of us played in the tournament. Let's go on to the next tournament. But we're in this tournament. Now some years we're playing for a seed. There is an importance to the game. It's not the tournament itself. I have not changed. Other years it's, 'OK, you've got to get this one to make sure you're in, or you may have to get two, or you may have to win the tournament.' So there's an importance to it that way - seeding or whatever else. But as far as playing in a tournament at this time, three games in three days, I'm not a big fan."
On game planning for two teams ...
"I'm really concerned with our team. We've just got to be consistent. We come off a Missouri win, which was a heck of a win, and then we just go and lay two eggs. Now we're coming off a Florida win. Normally I would give them today off; well, I'm not. We're going to go really hard today and really focus on us being consistent in our effort, trying to sustain energy throughout a practice - all of those kinds of things that this team has lacked throughout. Now, we've overcome a ton. Willie (Cauley-Stein's) out and we're winning without him. Now Nerlens is out and we beat Missouri and Florida without him. Our point guard's out early and we played without a point guard. We're playing shorthanded. All that stuff, this team overcame a lot, and I'm proud of 'em, but we're still inconsistent, and that's what I'm trying to get (out of) these next few days. Let's just know that we're going to be consistent in our effort."
On how his team matches up with Arkansas and Vanderbilt ...
"We had two games that could have gone either way with Vanderbilt and Arkansas smashed us. So either game, either team is going to be a hard game for us. It isn't going to be like, 'OK, we win this game.' Arkansas absolutely demolished us. And Vanderbilt had their chances to beat us twice."
On Cauley-Stein being where he projected him to be at this stage ...
"He's done fabulous. This kid just has a great temperament. He's growing. He's building his own confidence. And I say it, if you want confidence from the Coach - 'Coach, you yell too much at me.' You can't play. You stink. You build your own self-confidence. You do it through great preparation and hard work and demonstrated performance. It doesn't matter what a fan yells at you, what the media writes about you; it has no effect on you. You have confidence. Well, he's building his own, and it's coming slowly because he was playing football six months ago. He was a heck of a wide receiver, by the way. But he is becoming a better and better player and becoming an integral part of what we're doing."
On him making additional steps the rest of the season ...
"Yeah, he's getting better every game. I could see him coming up with a 25(-point), 15(-rebound) and seven-block night. He has that. His feet and hands are so good, it's just he gets so tired out there because he plays so hard he's got to come off the floor. Against Florida, everybody's saying, 'Why would you put him with 11 minutes to go (and four fouls)?' Huh? How about that I wanted to win the game? How about that? 'Were you afraid he'd foul out?' Yeah, I was afraid, but I was more afraid of losing the game, so we played him. We told him don't foul. A basket does not kill us. Don't foul. You look at what he means to this team, he's had a huge impact. Nerlens being gone has hurt us, but we're still blocking shots, we're still rebounding the ball and doing the stuff we were doing when Nerlens was here."
On this being anyone's tournament to win ...
"Oh yeah. My respect for the coaches in the league - and I can even talk about guys that have been struggling and the jobs they did with their teams. What Tony (Barbee's) done (at Auburn). What Rick (Ray) has done (at Mississippi State). What Frank (Martin) has done (at South Carolina). You've got guys continuing to coach their teams and guys making strides. And Billy (Donovan), when you have the target on your back, I've been there. That's the hardest time to coach. And the job he's done. So you look around, one guy has done a crap job with his team and I think it's me. What we've done at times and what we've accepted is not what I've accepted in the past. But I've been really impressed (with everyone else). I think, because of that, that coaching, that ability to get through to their teams and keep them believing, that I believe this tournament is going to be crazy. I think it's going to be crazy."
On the Big Blue Nation's presence being an advantage ...
"It's important to this young team. Obviously we engaged our fans last game and it really helped us, but at the end of the day you've got to play basketball. The second thing is you've got to battle and fight. If they come at you, they can quit, like go on the rope, or you can fight. You can't have teams walking off the floor and their staff is saying to each other, 'This team is soft.' We've got to battle. When we battle, we're a good team. When we step back and don't want the contact or avoid the body check, we're not that good. That other team is as good as anybody in the country and I believe we can advance as far as they want to go. But you've got to fight, you've got to battle and you've got to really sustain that kind of attitude and that kind of effort."
On the job Mark Fox has done at Georgia ...
"Let me tell you what he's done. One, he's letting his star be a star, and he's getting other guys to accept how they have to play in a system for them to have success. And then they're not breaking off. They're playing physical. They're playing unbelievable defense. The last five or six games, their defense presence has been ridiculous. They never think they are out of a game. Early in the season we thought they can't win any games, and you look at them now. I called him on the phone and told him the same thing. I said, 'Man, you are doing an unbelievable job.' Cuonzo, the same thing at Tennessee. You think about where they were, and then he went to a smaller team. Well, you've got to get guys to buy into that. You can't just do it. They're still defending. They're still being physical. Their guard play is outstanding. You just go up and down the line and you just look at what some of these guys are doing and I'm blown away. That's probably why I look at myself and say, 'Daggone, what the heck am I doing?' "
On Georgia's Kentavious Caldwell-Pope having a revelation this year ...
"I think that's part of it, but I also think Mark's giving him the freedom that they need and the kid needs. He's saying, 'Look, you make plays, man, and the rest of us are going to do what we're supposed to do.' Now that doesn't mean he's not letting the other guys play, but what you do when you have a talent like that, you give him a little room, and he has. Like I said, when we went in there, we knew that if that kid got it going he's hard to stop. And Mark gives him room to get going."
Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings
On the tournament being wide open ...
"I think that the tournament is a little bit more wide open this year than it's been in other years. I'm certainly not going to sit here and say that we can or cannot or Arkansas can or cannot. I'm no prognosticator other than to think that our tournament will be very interesting and I think a lot of teams are good enough to win it. We'll just see what happens."
On late-season momentum helping teams into the tournament ...
"I don't know that's really an indicator, to be honest with you. A lot of it is matchups. I think it's who you get paired with and who you end up playing. I think there are certain teams in this league, for instance, that we match up with than we do with others. I think the same can be said for others in the league. And it's not always the same team. You go back and look at last year, we probably matched up with that great Kentucky team as well as if not better than anyone in the league, but there were some other teams in the league that we didn't match up with as well as maybe as we did even as Kentucky, as good as they were. So I think so much of it depends on matchups and who wins and who you draw and how you match up with them. And then somebody will get on a little bit of a roll and start playing well. And the reason I say that I don't think it's much of an indicator is because we've had some of our best conference tournaments having gone into the tournament not playing as well as we would have liked to play, including last year. We didn't feel like we were playing great last year going into the tournament and we ended up winning. I just don't know that that's an indicator of what's happened recently. It's about who you draw and the teams that kind of get on a roll as the weekend unfolds."
On why Bridgestone Arena is the best arena for the SEC Tournament ...
"I'm biased to the city. I'm biased to the people that run the tournament. I think the arena is terrific, and again, it's not one that we've had a lot of success in, but I think with a smaller venue, the tickets are a little tougher to come by, so it seems more like there's more people there and the arena's fuller. I just think it's a great place to have the tournament. We certainly enjoyed New Orleans last year a lot, probably more than any other tournament we've ever been to. Atlanta does a great job with it, but I'm biased to Nashville for obvious reasons."
Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson
On Vanderbilt's improvement and increased confidence ...
"I think you get confident in one another. I think when you look at the young guys - (Sheldon) Jeter and (Kevin) Bright - I think they're starting to put their impact on this team here. (Josh) Henderson played a lot better the second time around and I think it's big. And obviously they shoot the ball. When they shoot the ball, they're a dangerous basketball team."
On Vandy having an advantage playing close to home ...
"Well they are playing there, so I'm sure it'll have some effect for them. But at the time, it's a one-and-done situation. It's survive and advance. But they get a chance to sleep in their own beds and play in a facility that's right down the street from Vandy."
On building confidence after struggling away from home this season ...
"It's a neutral setting and I think you throw all the records out because everybody's 0-0 right now. Two teams that have played each other, so they're familiar with one another. I look for a heated contest against some teams that's trying to survive and advance. That's the bottom line. It's a neutral setting, so to speak, so we'll roll the ball out and see what takes place."
On whether the tournament is wide open ...
"I think of course Florida, they ended up winning the league, so people will deem them the prohibitive favorite. But I think if you look at the records and teams beating up on each other, I think it can be an open tournament, there's no question. It's who's playing better at a particular time, who can get on a run and hopefully we're one of those teams that can get on a run."
LSU head coach Johnny Jones
On UK fans traveling to Nashville for the tournament ...
"I think that anytime you go there (Rupp Arena), it's one of the greatest atmospheres that you can play in front of college basketball. And you look around, anytime they travel - and I think Cal has made statements several times - the way that the crowds are when they're on the road, teams' attendance is generally up when they're playing because of their fan base and the way that they travel is impressive. So yes, I've always noticed it from time here before and now that they've always been that."
On whether than can provide an advantage to UK ...
"Well absolutely. Anytime you're playing at home, I think when you look at it and the percentage of times that guys have an opportunity to win or you look at the percentage of games won at home compared to on the road, I think you have to give your fans a great deal of credit for being a part of that as well and the way they're able to energize you when you're making a run and when you're playing well and you have that support. I think it means something. So absolutely, I think it means a great deal to have that type of support. When you're on the road, I think guys know that they're being followed that way."
Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin
On the differences in Kentucky without Noel ...
"Obviously without Noel, from a defensive standpoint you lose a lot. Not just a guy that can really block shots, but you're talking about a guy that can defend on the perimeter at 6-11, 7-feet tall. He can defend smaller guys, he gets steals. So he wasn't just a shot blocker. He did a lot of things for their defense. He would guard smaller guys and Willie Cauley would probably guard the bigger guy. So you lose that presence. What happens is your perimeter guys get used to having a guy behind them who can block shots like that. So sometimes you have a tendency to open up the gate and funnel guys to him. So that's a major loss (when) you lose that caliber of talent. You can't all of a sudden next game (say), 'Let's get back to where we were.' It takes time to make adjustments. But when played him at our place, it was the first game without him in front of a tremendous atmosphere and our guys played well that night. Cal does a good job with his team. Those guys will be ready to play. You saw what they've done thus far. They lost to a tough Georgia team at Georgia. They've done a good job protecting their home court. But they're a good team. They still have pieces. They have talented guys. Now some might be young, but they still have talent."
Florida head coach Billy Donovan
On the effect on another close loss at Kentucky on his team's psyche ...
"I think our team, at least from what I can tell, is pretty good. I was obviously disappointed with the way we certainly started the first half and the second half in Lexington. We were up by seven and didn't get to the free-throw line and score points. It's been a couple different ways (that Florida has lost close games). At Missouri, I thought we probably relied too much on behind the 3-point line and probably didn't get enough action toward the basket. And then in Lexington against Kentucky, we only took two perimeter jump shots. Everything else is around the basket, which is what you want to try to do to try to get fouled or to at least go inside and have maybe a higher-percentage shot. But for us in those games, I just don't think that we've shot the ball particularly well. I can't sit here and say we've gotten poor shots or taken poor shots or taken poor shots. I will say this: The one common theme in those games to me, because I actually thought we didn't execute great against Missouri and I think we executed well against Kentucky in terms of what we were looking to do and where wanted to get the ball and the kind of shots we were looking to get. I thought we got them. But the one common theme in those games is I think our turnovers have been way too high. Against Kentucky, we turned it over five times. We had a stretch against Missouri with about 11 minutes to go where we were up and three of the four possessions we turned it over and inevitably it led to a run. What kept us around in the Kentucky game was we turned it over five times, I think they turned it over four. We were never really able to capitalize, either were they, but they were able to manufacture points, Kentucky was, from the free-throw line and we weren't able to manufacture any shots. We had some stuff in around the basket, but I think we've got to continue to work to get better. I think we've confident guys, I think we've got guys that are capable, but for whatever reason in those situations - and it hasn't been like a game-winning shots as much as it's been like a stretch where we've kind of had a drought."
On this being talked about as an open SEC Tournament and whether Florida will be looking to prove that wrong ...
"I don't think that that's our view at all. I think, nine-week league schedule, we've had some high moments and some disappointing games, which I think you're gonna probably have in an 18-game league schedule. But I think the one thing I said about our league: I think back in November and December before the conference started, we've had a lot of teams in my opinion that I think were not playing great in November and December and have gotten much better. We obviously played Vanderbilt towards the end of the year; I think Kevin's (Stallings) done a great job with his team being youthful. They've gotten better and better and better and strung together some games. I think the same thing can be said about Georgia with Mark Fox. The same thing can be said about LSU. Maybe when the league started back in January, teams weren't playing to their capabilities, but all these teams have gotten better. Even playing Kentucky, although (Nerlens) Noel's been out for five or six games, they're still learning how to play. So I think the tournament is wide-open. I don't think it has anything to do with who's won a regular-season championship. It's a new season. It's a new opportunity. There's no longer really any more home games; it's neutral site so I do think it is (wide open). There's a lot of teams out there that are very, very capable. And when you're dealing with a one-and-done situation and a one-game tournament like this, I think anything can happen. And I would agree: I think the tournament's wide open."