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Karl-Anthony Towns scored a career-high 25 points to lead UK to a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns scored a career-high 25 points to lead UK to a 68-66 win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Kentucky freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns told his dad that the person who struggled mightily against West Virginia in the Sweet 16 was not him.

The kid who registered one point, two rebounds, one turnover, four fouls and no made field goals in 13 minutes of a 39-point rout of West Virginia was a 6-foot-11 mystery man.

That mystery man did not show up at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday night.

Against Notre Dame, Towns played like the Freshman All-American he is, putting together an offensive clinic against the Fighting Irish that they had no answer for. After going 2 for 5 in the first half, Towns went 8 for 8 in the second half to finish with a career-high 25 points, five rebounds, four assists, two steals and one block in 25 minutes of action.

"He was unbelievable," UK head coach John Calipari said.

Kentucky didn't miss a shot for the final 12:05 of the game to stave off a Notre Dame team that appeared destined to be the first to knock off the undefeated Wildcats. Instead, UK hit each of its final nine shots, with Towns accounting for four of them.

"I just did a better job of getting better position," Towns said of his second half. "Also I jumped a lot more, used my legs. I was liking that in the first half. And in the second half, I just trusted what the coaching staff told me, and I guess the results speak for themselves."

With Notre Dame essentially refusing to put two defenders on Towns in the paint, the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year excelled. He went to his right with a left baby hook. He went to his left with a right baby hook. He pump faked and went up and under. He finished through contact.

"They didn't do anything to stop him," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They didn't try to double him. Every other team we play, they double him. They just played a dude on him, straight up, and he'll torch whoever is gonna play straight up on him. You can't just put one player on him. That's what he did. Give him the ball and get out of his way. He's going to find a way to put the ball in there."

Essentially, he showed why many NBA Draft analysts have him pegged as either the No. 1 or the No. 2 pick this summer.

"Offensively, by the time this season winds down, I want people to look and say, wow, a big man, can make free throws, can score around the basket, can play pick and roll defense, not today but he can," Coach Cal said. "Blocked shots, makes his free throws. That's what you want, and I'll tell you, he's the greatest kid, he's a great kid, really is."

And because of that, his essential absence against West Virginia is what was so puzzling. How can a guy go 0 for 3 from the field one game, and then the next game hit 10-of-13 shot attempts while battling foul trouble?

The answer may just be that he's a 19-year-old kid and that he plays on a team loaded with numerous scoring options. If you're not "engaged" in the game, as both he and Coach Cal said he wasn't, you can get lost in the shuffle.

No matter the reason, Towns wasn't worried about it, and his teammates had all the faith in the world that he would bounce back in a big way.

"With this team, you never worry about what you did last game," Towns said. "That wasn't me. I just went out there and I wasn't engaged. I just wasn't playing well. You don't let that game affect how you play this game, especially in a time like this. It's not even a regular season game, this is tournament time. I just took yesterday to work hard and refocus."

"They asked me last game, what do you think Karl's gonna do next game," Ulis said. "I said he's gonna have a big game. It's Karl. He's a great player, one of the best players in the country and he carried us this entire game and I thank him for that.

"He doesn't worry about the last game. It tells you how confident he is in his game and how much he's grown throughout the season, playing through fouls, finishing over the defenders and just listening to what Cal says."

After the game, Towns sat in his locker at Quicken Loans Arena with a swarm of media around him and the Midwest Regional trophy proudly sitting in his lap. Freshly minted the regional's Most Outstanding Player, Towns could hardly get the smile off his face.

A kid wise well beyond his years, though not immune to a few childish actions from time to time, Towns was able to reflect and appreciate the moment. Just because Kentucky was undefeated, just because he was one of the most highly touted players coming out of high school and a likely millionaire in a few months' time doesn't mean what happened Saturday had to happen the way it did.

"There are a lot of things you're supposed to do in life. Sometime it doesn't go your way," Towns said. "Just blessed to have it so far go our way and we have more work to do, but we're going to really cherish this moment and enjoy this moment."

Andrew Harrison hit the game-winning free throws to send UK past Notre Dame and into the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison hit the game-winning free throws to send UK past Notre Dame and into the Final Four. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Aaron Harrison has been called clutch too many times to count.

In his two Kentucky seasons he's never shied away from a moment, no matter how big.

But even he didn't want any part of the shots his twin brother was about to take with a Final Four berth on the line.

"Free throws is different," Aaron Harrison said. "You gotta sit there and think about free throws. I'm happy it was him."

With six seconds left in an Elite Eight matchup with Notre Dame, Andrew Harrison drove and drew a foul on Demetrius Jackson. Following a timeout called by the Fighting Irish, he toed the line in a 66-66 game, every eye in Quicken Loans Arena trained squarely on him

Except his brother's.

"I didn't look at the first one," Aaron Harrison said. "I tried to look away at the first one."

When the pro-Kentucky crowd roared its approval after the first, Aaron's ears told him all he needed to know. Certain he would make the second, Aaron was able to bear watching as Andrew gave UK (38-0) its final margin of 68-66 in a heart-stopping affair, a margin that remained intact as Jerian Grant missed a contested 3-pointer as time expired.

"You had to block out everything," Andrew Harrison said. "I don't even know what I was thinking at that time. You just block out everything, try to make the shot."

It was a role reversal for the Harrison twins, and for Andrew to be the one to deliver the game-winning points.

In the final timeout, John Calipari elected to put the ball in his point guard's hands. After UK bled the clock, Andrew had options to drive or hit Karl-Anthony Towns in the post, Willie Cauley-Stein for a lob or Aaron at the top of the key.

Seeing a lane, Andrew went on the attack and created the opportunity to prove he has the clutch gene just like his brother, a gene Aaron Harrison showed again just minutes prior.

"He still made the big 3," Andrew Harrison said.

The big 3 came with 3:15 on the clock. The Cats, in the midst of a rally after previously trailing by six points with 6:14 to go, trailed by just two when Aaron Harrison pulled up from the right wing. Nursing a left ring finger still sore after it was dislocated in a Sweet 16 win Thursday night, he had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting when he did.

It was no problem.

"And that was a deep shot," Andrew Harrison said. "I mean, it's Aaron. So y'all know what to expect from him."

Aaron Harrison's 3 was one of nine consecutive shots UK made over the final 10:24 in yet another remarkable display of closing out a game by the Cats. Over its final 13 possessions, UK scored 24 points.

"That's what we do," Aaron Harrison said. "We get stops at winning time. We've been down before in games. It wasn't like we've never been down before and had to come back. We've been down nine with four or five minutes to go and we just had to get stops and get baskets. That's what we do when we need to. When desperation times come, I think we step up."

Towns was foremost among players stepping up when it mattered most. The 6-foot-11 forward played through foul trouble to score nine of his career-best 25 points over that final stretch, including the game-tying basket in the post with 1:12 left.

"I just go in with a lot of confidence and my moves were working," Towns said. "I just kept trying to utilize them and keep switching it up, going from the right hand to the left hand and just kept switching up what I was doing. God bless it was happening and it was working."

For a while, it seemed Towns' dominance would be rendered but a footnote by a clinical Notre Dame offense. The Fighting Irish hit 46.4 percent from the field for the game, using one play repeatedly to flummox UK's historically stingy defense.

"I don't know if our breakdowns, until I watch the tape, were us or Notre Dame being that good offensively," UK head coach John Calipari said. "And I'll tell you the thing on the side pick-and-roll and the empty side pick-and-roll, that's on me as a coach. We never figured it out, we tried doing some different things and they just kept scoring on that, and Mike (Brey) did what he should have, just kept going back at it."

Notre Dame used the play to score 1.16 points per possession, a season high for a UK opponent, but the Cats locked down when it mattered most. The Irish managed just a single field goal over the final five minutes, UK's most impressive stop setting up the game-winning free throws.

Grant, Notre Dame's senior All-American, had the ball at the top of the arc with Cauley-Stein guarding him on a switch. Trying the go-to move that had given Cauley-Stein fits, Grant took a 3 that the presumptive national defensive player of the year somehow blocked.

"I'd be anywhere I needed to be and I think it just was kinda meant to be for me and him, to be on there, be guarding him and going in like that," Cauley-Stein said. "I was just fortunate enough to get my fingertips on it. His step-back is vicious. It's probably one of the coldest step-backs I've guarded. And he hit me with it a couple, early in the game and I was just like, I don't know how to guard this. I don't know. And I just had momentum going at the time and was able to put some fingertips on it."

Cauley-Stein was all over Grant again on the final shot of the game, chasing him from 3-point line to 3-point line with Andrew Harrison alongside him. When the shot missed well long, the celebration began.

"You saw how the game ended," Towns said. "We were jumping and running from the bench. Just because we're supposed to do something doesn't mean it happens. There are a lot of things you're supposed to do in life. Sometime it doesn't go your way. Just blessed to have it so far go our way and we have more work to do, but we're going to really cherish this moment and enjoy this moment."

It's a moment worth enjoying, especially considering UK is making its second Final Four trip in a row and fourth in five seasons. Not only that, the Cats also tied an NCAA record for most wins in a season, a record they share with Coach Cal's teams at Kentucky and Memphis in 2012 and 2008, respectively. On Saturday, UK will go for the record on its own against Wisconsin in the Final Four.

"We're going to enjoy tonight and tomorrow," Andrew Harrison said. "Monday we're going to get back at it. Just like two more games. You really remember the feeling that you had after the (national championship) game last year. So you don't want to have that feeling again."

Wilie Cauley-Stein and Tyler Ulis

Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles

Video: Celebration from the floor

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Video: Highlights vs. Notre Dame

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Trey Lyles is leading Kentucky in scoring in rebounding through three games of the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Trey Lyles is leading Kentucky in scoring in rebounding through three games of the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - Trey Lyles is just 19 years old, but his game resembles that of two 36- and 38-year-old NBA superstars.

Lyles grew up logging many hours on the basketball court with his dad, working on shooting angles and the fundamentals of the game. He also watched tape of his favorite players and tried to mimic their every move.

The end result is a guy who is coming into his own on the biggest stage, averaging a team-high 11.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in the NCAA Tournament. According to junior Willie Cauley-Stein, Lyles' emergence as a force was simply a matter of time.

"You knew it (in) workouts, you could see the talent level, you could see how he could be a huge factor on a team," Cauley-Stein said. "It's just the fact, when you learn to play in a college setting or play in the college game like that. It started in workouts. You could see him starting to take over a workout or him embracing being tired and being fatigued and still making shots and still doing stuff that's not normal."

And now the guy UK head coach John Calipari routinely labels as Kentucky's X-Factor is causing excruciating headaches to opposing defenses and offenses due to his size and athleticism.

"For his size, the things that he does, I'm saying it again, he's the X-Factor for us," Coach Cal said after UK's first rout of Arkansas. "He's the one that makes us go from pretty good, really good, to uh-oh, what is this I'm watching?"

His favorite player is Kobe Bryant, and his game resembles both a blend of the athletic, 6-foot-6 guard and 6-11 forward Tim Duncan, known as the Big Fundamental. This all makes perfect sense, since the 6-10 Lyles is a natural four playing as a three for the Wildcats.

"Kobe is my favorite player so I watch him a lot," Lyles said. "I watch his workout tapes, highlights and stuff like that. Try to learn from guys. Then again, Tim Duncan is another guy I learned from just being fundamentally sound, learning how to use footwork and angles off the glass, stuff like that."

Cauley-Stein says Lyles has an "old-man game" with the way he doesn't get sped up and with how smooth he plays.

"Plays angles and knows how to use his body," Cauley-Stein said. "You can't really teach it. It's something that you acquire over time."

Against Notre Dame, a team known for its 3-point shooting and offensive prowess, Lyles' defense and offense will both be called upon for Kentucky to advance to back-to-back Final Fours. Only this Final Four would be even more special for the Indianapolis native.

"It would mean a lot," Lyles said. "It would be a great moment for me and my family. It would be exciting to be able to play on that stage in front of a home crowd and stuff like that. It would be exciting.

"I said I wanted to win a national championship in Indy. Now we have the opportunity to do that, but we have to make sure we get there first."

Wildcats, Irish show mutual respect before showdown


Against West Virginia, the trash talk from the Mountaineers prior to the two teams' Sweet-16 showdown fueled the Wildcats' fire in a big way. The end result was a UK rout, as the Cats jumped out to an early lead and kept their foot down throughout the game en route to winning 78-39, tying a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory.

Either Notre Dame saw what happened when you poke the bear - err, Wildcats - or the Irish just go about their business in a different manner. Either way, the trash talk from the Sweet 16 didn't carry over to the Elite Eight.

"Everyone talks about their size but if you look at Kentucky's team overall, they're a fabulous team," senior swingman Pat Connaughton said. "In the way they're unselfish, the way they always talk about how they have nine McDonald's All-Americans, and none of them really care about their stats; they care about winning. So they're the true testament of a team."

"They're really good," sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said. "They've got tall guys inside, they've got tall guys on the perimeter, they're just really good all over."

"You just know you're going to have to bring your A game," senior All-America guard Jerian Grant said. "When a team is that dominant, you can't mess around with the game, you can't come out and not be ready to play from the jump."

Kentucky, for its part, showed similar praise when asked to assess their upcoming matchup with the Irish, which sport the second most efficient offense in the country.

"Notre Dame is a great offensive team," Andrew Harrison said, "it's going to be a big challenge."

"They're one of the best 2-point shooting teams and one of the best 3-point shooting teams and one of the most efficient teams in the country," Coach Cal said. "They score in bunches, they can score at the rim, layups, post-ups. They can score on breakdowns. But what I've seen in the last five games is they're really defending. They're playing more physical, they're playing tougher, their rotations are tighter and I think that's why they've gone on this run, because now they can get to 75, 80, and they make it hard for you to do it now."

Willie Cauley-Stein says the lack of trash talk isn't a problem though, and that with a berth into the Final Fourth on the line, looking for an extra edge isn't necessary.

"I think guys are self-motivated," Cauley-Stein said, "and I think guys know exactly how they see themselves playing in the game and going to the game ready to play and take care of business."

Aaron Harrison gives update on finger

Much of Thursday night's demolition of West Virginia was a beautiful sight for Big Blue Nation. Not everything was so pretty though when Aaron Harrison reached for the ball early in the second half and pulled back to reveal his left ring finger wasn't in the exact place it was supposed to be.

"It was awful," Coach Cal said, "and then I kept looking like, is that his right hand or is that his left hand, I couldn't figure it out, and he said left, I said you're good, tape that thing up. And I put him back in, I just wanted him to take a shot or two like to make sure he would feel OK."

After the game, Harrison said his hand was fine and he would definitely play against the Fighting Irish. On Friday, he echoed those sentiments and said he didn't expect it to play a big role Saturday evening.

"It's a little sore but it's not going to be a big factor in the game," Harrison said. "I'm doing a lot better and continue to get treatment and things like that."

Cats playing with something to prove

At 37-0, Kentucky has tied the 10th-ongest winning streak in NCAA Division I men's basketball history. It's also set an NCAA record for the best start to a season in history.

Not bad, right?

Except, Aaron Harrison said there's more left to prove for the Cats. Much more.

"We just want to prove that we're one of the best teams ever," Harrison said. "Just to prove that I think we definitely need to win a national title. That's our goal and that's what we're working for."

UK will face Notre Dame on Saturday in the Elite Eight. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK will face Notre Dame on Saturday in the Elite Eight. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND - In the days leading up to Kentucky's matchup versus West Virginia, it was often asked how Kentucky's offense would fare against West Virginia's No.1 turnover-inducing defense.

As everyone saw, it did just fine, doubling up the Mountaineers 78-39 in front of a sold-out Quicken Loans Arena on Thursday night.

Now just one game away from its fourth Final Four berth in the past six seasons, the question for Kentucky has reversed from how its offense will handle the opposition's defense, to how the Wildcats' defense will do against Notre Dame's offense.

"Defense is our first priority as a team and that's what we pride ourselves in is being a defensive team," freshman forward Trey Lyles said. "I think that tomorrow going out against a great offensive team is just going to pick it up even more for us."

That defense was on full display against West Virginia. UK scored 18 of the game's first 20 points and held the Mountaineers to just 19.2-percent shooting in the first half. The second half wasn't much better, as West Virginia didn't hit a basket in the second half until 8:42 had ticked off the clock.

Such numbers aren't expected again against the Irish. Notre Dame enters Saturday's showdown third nationally in offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, is the No. 1 2-point shooting team in the country, is No. 2 in effective field-goal percentage and No. 3 in offensive turnover percentage.

"They're very precise," Lyles said. "They run their plays, they run everything they're supposed to, to the pinpoint. We just have to go out there and try to disrupt it in any way we can."

After Notre Dame shot 75 percent in the second half against Wichita State and hit nine 3-pointers in the Sweet 16, junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said Kentucky would have to try to hold them to about half that number.

Two big cogs - literally - in doing that will be he and Lyles. While Cauley-Stein's defensive prowess is well documented, Lyles' defense has paired up quite nicely with the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year to form a formidable 6-foot-10 and 7-foot perimeter defense.

"I think I've grown a lot in the defensive aspect of my game having to run around and guard guys who are 6-foot and 6-5, stuff like that," Lyles said. "I feel like defensively my game has developed a lot more than any other area."

He and Cauley-Stein will likely have to face Notre Dame All-America guard Jerian Grant and swingman Pat Connaughton at points during the game, who combined to average 29.2 points, 10.5 rebounds and 8.2 assists per game.

"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team."

By really good defensive team, Cauley-Stein means historically good. Currently, Kentucky's defense ranks No. 1 nationally in adjusted efficiency, effective field-goal percentage and 3-point percentage, and No. 2 in 2-point percentage and block percentage.

Not to be forgotten, the Cats have the sixt- most efficient offense, averaging 115.4 points per 100 possessions. So how do you stop a team with such balance?

"I don't know if someone has to play a perfect game," UK head coach John Calipari said. "My team knows that every team that's left playing can beat us, we know that. Somebody talked about perfection. We're not perfect; we're undefeated. I mean, we should have lost five or six games. I mean, easily could have lost those games. And we were lucky enough to win, stay undefeated. We're not perfect."

In order for UK's record to remain perfect it will have to continue to guard the 3-point line with the same stingy effort that it has all season. The Irish average over eight made 3-pointers per game while hitting over 39 percent of its attempts. Connaughton averages 2.49 3s per game by himself, and has hit 42.6 percent of his attempts, while Demetrius Jackson is a 43.2-percent outside shooter and V.J. Beachem has hit 41.6 percent and Steve Vasturia is hitting 40.6 percent.

"I think that we just have to force them to drive and take tough 2s because, really, it's tough to take 2s against us," sophomore guard Aaron Harrison said. "I think a team could beat us by hitting a lot of 3s, if we let them take 'em. So that's why we're definitely pressuring them and making them drive."

The differences between Notre Dame and West Virginia aren't limited to each team's offensive abilities. While West Virginia led the country in fouls per game, Notre Dame commits the sixth fewest.

With all that said, Coach Cal said Kentucky will stick to what it has all year: itself, and being the best version of themselves.

"You know, the thought of playing fast or pressing, playing slower, I don't know. How do you play when you play your best?" Coach Cal said in regards to the season-long question of how a team must play in order to beat Kentucky. "But here's the great thing, our team's not worried about that, we just don't want to help them. So let's make sure we're at our best, we're the best version of ourselves, we know how we want to play. ... this is the same kind of game, you can't help Notre Dame. If you do, you're going to lose because they're that good."

Karl-Anthony Towns will look to rebound from a one-point Sweet 16 effort on Saturday against Notre Dame. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Karl-Anthony Towns will look to rebound from a one-point Sweet 16 effort on Saturday against Notre Dame. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- Karl-Anthony Towns is in the conversation for best big man in the country.

The 6-foot-11 freshman has turned into a dominant force the last two months of the season and his Kentucky team has come to rely on him.

But on Thursday night, the Wildcats got but a point and two rebounds from Towns,  spelling trouble for their quest for a national title and a 40-0 season, right?

Wrong.

Instead, the Cats tied a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory with a 78-39 throttling of West Virginia.

"It's one of those things that, not many people in the country could ever say that they played the way I played and still come out and win by 39," Towns said.

With Towns limited to 13 minutes by foul trouble and general ineffectiveness, John Calipari instead turned to Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. The two sophomores answered the bell, combining for 16 points and 11 rebounds.

"Karl gave us ugats," Calipari said, breaking out some Italian slang, "nothing, and we still win big because of those two, and that's because we're playing them."

To Towns' credit, he was able to relish his team's success even though it came as he took a step back individually.

"That just shows you how deep and how much my brothers had my back," Towns said. "I think that's the blessing. You can't look at individual success. This is the tournament. Individual success doesn't matter. It matters what the team does."

Kentucky, however, is best when Towns is at his best. And to survive third-seeded Notre Dame and advance to the Final Four, it's likely Towns will need to regain his late-season form.

On a team with an historic level of talent and depth, Towns scored double figures in 10 of 16 outings prior to West Virginia. He averaged 12.4 points and 7.8 rebounds during the stretch, surging to win Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors.

His teammates expect to see that player back on the floor in Quicken Loans Arena against Notre Dame.

"Karl's a competitor so I expect him to do big things this next game," Willie Cauley-Stein said.

That's due in part to the fact that his coach demands it of him.

"I've been harder on him than anybody on this team, but I told him at the beginning of the year, it would be that way because he had a long way to go," Calipari said. "But I saw his upside being the best big guy in the country, and I'm not settling for anything else."

Neither Towns nor his family would have it any other way.

"When he gets off point, I'm right there, but after the game I get a text from his dad: 'Stay on him, don't let up, Coach,' " Calipari said. "Not: 'Get him more shots, play him more minutes.' That's the greatest thing about coaching these kids, they trust us that we're about them, we're about them getting better individually, that I want every one of them to shine, I want every one of them to be talked about. And so when they have a game like that and we still win, kind of takes the pressure off you."

On the season, Towns is averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. Solid, but not the kind of eye-popping statistics typical of a player in contention to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Towns, playing just 20.7 minutes per game, has the perspective necessary to understand why.

"It hasn't hurt any of us," Towns said. "I mean, it's not about the minutes we get, it's about what we do with those minutes."

Towns will look to be a little more effective with his minutes Saturday night, but that's still not even his primary concern.

"I think that's the biggest joy I have: the fact I still get to play with my brothers," Towns said. "We love each other tremendously. It's just one of those things that it's not even the fact of playing another game. It's about who you're playing another game with. I've been given an opportunity to play another game with my brothers and we get to go back out there and lace up our shoes again and hopefully we get to do it again for several more times."

Cauley-Stein embracing pressure of big stage

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Willie Cauley-Stein will play in the Elite Eight on Saturday after sitting out the final three games on UK's 2014 NCAA Tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein will play in the Elite Eight on Saturday after sitting out the final three games on UK's 2014 NCAA Tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CLEVELAND -- Willie Cauley-Stein has talked many times over the last year about how difficult sitting on the bench for the latter half of Kentucky's magical tournament run was for him

On the eve of the Elite Eight, he revealed another facet to what it was like being relegated to spectator status.

"It was a weight off your shoulders though, knowing you're not going to have any impact on the game playing," Cauley-Stein said. "So that worry, that stress, you didn't have to endure that."

Unable to play due to a stress fracture in his ankle that knocked him out of UK's Sweet 16 matchup with Louisville and had him in plainclothes for the Elite Eight and Final Four, Cauley-Stein admits there was part of him that enjoyed just being along for the ride.

A year later, he has no such chance.

Cauley-Stein is the upperclassman leader and defensive anchor for top-seeded Kentucky as the Wildcats carry a 37-0 mark into an Elite Eight showdown with Notre Dame at 8:49 p.m. on Saturday. Night in and night out, the 7-foot junior draws the toughest defensive assignment and carries an ever-growing offensive load.

In short, whether UK makes its fourth Final Four trip under John Calipari will be up to Cauley-Stein as much as anyone. Different as it may be from last year, it's exactly where he wants to be.

"It feels good," Cauley-Stein said. "You just embrace it. You can't be scared of it. You can't be scared of the moment that we're in."

Whenever Cauley-Stein feels the fear, he needs only reflect on where he was two years ago.

Then, he had just seen his freshman season unceremoniously end in the first round of the NIT. After that loss at Robert Morris, Cauley-Stein said he was on a mission to render it a distant memory.

The mission continues.

"I feel like I'm on a mission," Cauley-Stein said. "I said that day after we lost, I have never won a championship before. I've never won anything, any crazy awards and I'm back to fill that spot in my heart, that emptiness. And crazy enough, it's happening. Never thought it would happen like this, but it's really happening. It's crazy to think that two years ago I was just talking. And now I'm living it, and it's sensational."

The crazy awards - national defensive player of the year, All America - are certainly coming and Cauley-Stein already has two conference titles under his belt, but the championship he really wants is three wins away. Third-seeded Notre Dame, which put on an offensive clinic in shooting 75 percent in the second half of an 81-70 Sweet 16 win over Wichita State, is the first hurdle.

The Fighting Irish (32-5), rated third nationally in offensive efficiency, will be the best offense UK has faced all season. Kentucky, of course, is first in defensive efficiency , pitting two of the best units in the game against one another.

"It's going to bring that competitiveness out," Cauley-Stein said. "But then it's also going to make you cautious. They got the reputation of being a really good offensive team. Well, we got the reputation of being a really good defensive team. ... It's just one of those things that you'll know when the ball gets thrown up whether you think you can play the guy or not."

For Cauley-Stein, the answer will surely be yes. The question, however, is who he'll actually guard.

Notre Dame has just one regular who stands taller than 6-foot-8 - 6-10 Zach Auguste - and often plays three 6-5 players at the same time. Almost all of them can shoot, with four players hitting 40 percent or better from 3-point range.

Not included in that group is star 6-5 point guard Jerian Grant, who averages a team-best 16.4 points per game and 6.7 assists. Could Cauley-Stein see time on him? Is sharpshooter and leading rebounder Pat Connaughton his more likely cover? Or what about any of the other five players averaging 6.4 points per game or more?

"We're going to get everybody's best, so them having five guys who can be a threat to us just opens up our defense," Cauley-Stein said. "It's going to put more pressure on our defense to play better and accept that challenge."

It's a challenge Cauley-Stein will be happy to accept considering he didn't have the choice a year ago.

"I think this means a lot to him," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "He didn't get to experience it last year, and who would have known what would have happened last year if he was playing. I know he has a chip on his shoulder because he wants to go out there and he wants to prove that we can win it."

That desire started long before he ever had to sit out during last year's NCAA Tournament.

"Playing in your backyard and you're thinking of these moments, taking a last-second shot and shooting maybe the last free throws of the game and if you make them then you win, if you miss you lose," Cauley-Stein said. "That's that pressure that you put on yourself all when you were growing up. This is it now. This is the time to put it together."

Recent Comments

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