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Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein announced on Monday he will return to UK for his junior season. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Minutes after Kentucky's national championship game loss, Willie Cauley-Stein spelled out the decision in front of him.

Long thought to likely choose to pursue a lifelong dream and become a first-round NBA Draft pick, Cauley-Stein gave fans pause when he spoke of the pull to return.

This, clearly, was a person who loved playing basketball at UK.

"It's the best thing," Cauley-Stein said on April 7. "It's the best thing that's probably ever happened to me, is coming to Kentucky. That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star."

If Cauley-Stein felt like a rock star before, he probably feels like a Beatle on Monday night after he tweeted the news that he will come back for his junior season.

"I'm proud to say I'm coming back for my junior year," Cauley-Stein said. "I still have an empty spot to fulfill and in no rush to leave the best fans in the USA!

ESPN's Chad Ford had him pegged as the No. 20 overall prospect in the 2014 NBA Draft before news of his decision broke, but Cauley-Stein wasn't ready to leave Lexington. Between his academics and the chance to make another special NCAA Tournament run, there was too much pulling him back.

"I want to come back and have a chance to win a national championship, while also getting closer to earning my degree," Cauley-Stein said in a release. "Being at the Final Four this year was special, but not being able to help my teammates on the floor was tough. I look forward to helping us get back there next year, while playing in front of the best fans in the nation."

Prior to an injury in a Sweet 16 win over Louisville that relegated him to a cheerleading role, Cauley-Stein was averaging 6.8 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game. The 106 blocks the 7-footer totaled as a sophomore are the second most in single-season UK history. He will need 103 blocks in 2014-15 to become the leading shot blocker in school history.

"I'm happy for Willie and also proud of him for making the best decision for him and his family," head coach John Calipari said. "Being in school for at least three years will get him closer to having a degree and will help him prepare for the next level and life afterwards."

In the short term, Cauley-Stein's return assures UK of having one of the nation's most imposing frontcourts yet again.

Julius Randle, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee have not yet formally announced their draft intentions, but UK will have no trouble fielding forwards and centers regardless. Derek Willis is set to return for his sophomore season, while 7-footer Karl Towns and 6-10 Trey Lyles give Coach Cal another pair of gifted incoming freshmen. Both are consensus five-star players in the class of 2014.

Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee hugs a fan along UK's drive from the airport to Rupp Arena for Tuesday's season celebration. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was a lot to ask, holding a season celebration less than 24 hours after Kentucky's magical NCAA Tournament run ended.

Emotions were still raw after the Wildcats' national championship game defeat for players and fans alike, and missed opportunities from Monday night still very much top of mind.

But on Tuesday afternoon, it should come as no surprise the Big Blue Nation came through under less-than-ideal circumstances. The Wildcats, because they know what UK fans are all about, weren't surprised, but they certainly appreciated the show of support.

"You're the best fans in the world," senior Jon Hood told the crowd at the season celebration at Rupp Arena. "You supported us all year in an up-and-down year. You came out when we were playing good; you came out when we were playing bad. You supported us the whole way."

An estimated crowd of 3,500 filled Rupp Arena to pay a deserved tribute to the Cats and the season that was. The mood may not have been as jubilant as it would have had the 60-54 score of UK's game against Connecticut been reversed, but the event and the drive from the airport to downtown served as a fitting cap to a month no one will soon forget.

After UK's team plane arrived early Tuesday afternoon, the Wildcats were greeted by a crowd of well-wishers at the airport before they piled into three buses with coaches and support staff. Flanked by a police escort, the Cats went on a circuitous path to Rupp, even stopping to say hello to a large group gathered outside Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

The rest of the route was lined by waving and cheering fans -- an incredible number wearing UK blue -- as the team buses traded honks with passing cars.

"We made this ride from the airport to the arena two years ago and I forgot how emotional it was, people lining streets of Lexington to thank this group of basketball players," Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart said. "It reminds me how deeply tied we are to this community, to our state and to our university and how much this program means to all of you and we're indebted to you for your loyalty to us."

UK fans, to say the least, have a reputation for being demanding of their beloved Wildcats. That was never clearer than this year as Kentucky saw its season go from unbeaten aspirations to an almost-assumed first-weekend exit in the NCAA Tournament.

Instead, of course, the Cats went on that run. They upended unbeaten Wichita State. They took down rival Louisville and rode clutch performances past Michigan and Wisconsin and into the title game, though just short of a championship.

Disappointment still fresh for the Cats, the UK fans known far and wide for their championship-or-bust expectations, proved they value the heart, determination and togetherness their team showed throughout the tournament above all else.

In doing so, they may have just helped fast forward the healing process for the Cats by reminding them of exactly how special these last three weeks have been.

"I can't tell if we lost that game last night after witnessing what I am right now," Willie Cauley-Stein tweeted from the bus ride to Rupp.

John Calipari, following Barnhart in addressing the crowd from a podium erected on the Rupp floor, delivered another such reminder.

"You know these guys behind me -- because I'm going to say this from experience -- at some point they're going to be a grandfather," Calipari said. "... They're going to be a grandfather and their grandson's going to on their lap and sit on their knee and say, 'Granddad, tell me about you as a player. I heard you played.' 'Well let me tell you about my freshman year.' "

They'll have plenty to tell.

By the time Aaron Harrison is bouncing a grandchild on his knee, his three game-winners will probably have come from half-court. When Alex Poythress remembers his game-turning and-one dunk against Wisconsin, he'll probably have jumped from outside the free-throw line.

But for all the tall tales they'll tell about surviving one of the hardest roads in NCAA Tournament history, there's no way they'll be able to exaggerate the closeness that made it all possible.

"I want to thank the young men behind me who have possessed the skill, combined it with learning and listening and loving each other to create moments and memories which will last our lifetime and theirs," Barnhart said. "I want to thank you. It has been a heck of a ride and we're really, really, really proud of what you guys have done. Outstanding."

Pride, for everyone on that end-zone stage, was mixed with regret and -- maybe more than anything else -- exhaustion. Not only have the Cats played nine games in 25 days in four different cities while also managing a regular spring-semester course load, they had also had a short night of rest following the season's final game.

Tiredness, however, will fade after a couple good nights of rest. The memories, including the ones made on Tuesday in Rupp Arena and on the roads of Lexington, will not.

"While our minds and bodies -- all of us -- are tired, our hearts are still filled with love for each other and this opportunity to climb this mountain together," Calipari said. "I will tell you it's time now to reflect, celebrate and remember -- and continue to remember -- we are breaking barriers."

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.

Big Blue Nation stands proud after memorable season

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ARLINGTON, Texas -- It's a tough day in Big Blue Nation, but hardly one to be ashamed of. Though the season ended in disappointment Monday night, it hardly tarnished a magnificent run.

BBN was in full support of the Wildcats after their loss on Monday and into the early morning hours on Tuesday. Below are a collection of tweets of support.

Just a reminder, the team will still have its season celebration Tuesday afternoon after landing back in Lexington. Tickets are free. You can read the full details here.

                    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.

James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young and John Calipari. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
By Annie Dunbar, CoachCal.com

ARLINGTON, Texas - The questions on their future were as predictable as this recent run has been improbable.

Is it too early to start asking about declaring for the NBA Draft?

"Yes," Aaron Harrison said, leaving it at nothing more than that.

But with Kentucky's season over and the NBA early-entry deadline now looming, the Wildcats, still dealing with a disappointing loss to Connecticut in the national championship game, were hounded with questions on their basketball future nonetheless.

All of the potential NBA players said they haven't thought that far ahead.

"I'm just focused on this game right now," Andrew Harrison said. "I want to spend these last days with my teammates and stuff before we get back to Lexington."

After they get back and the dust settles from the season, John Calipari said he will sit down with each player and figure out what they want to do.

"I'll sit down with each young man individually, probably have their family either with us or on a speakerphone, and get them information and say, 'If I can help you with anything, let me know. Tell me what you want to do, what do I need to do to help you?' " Calipari said. "I kind of stay out of the decision-making. I just get them information. So we'll see. I have no idea because I haven't talked to them and none of us have talked about that. We were playing to win the national championship."

A number of Wildcats were already predicted as potential NBA Draft picks as recently as a month ago, but the wild tournament run that brought Kentucky to the national championship game certainly boosted the draft stock for a number of players.

Looking through the roster and NBA mock drafts, there are multiple players who will have the option of moving on to the next level should they choose to do so. Returning sophomores Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress are potential draft picks after staying through a second season to develop their game. Freshmen Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young and Dakari Johnson are all high on NBA draft boards, especially after their performances in the NCAA Tournament.

But in the immediate aftermath of the UConn loss, with eyes still puffy and tears still flowing, the Cats didn't want to talk about their futures. Randle, who is predicted to go high in the first round, said thinking about the NBA is the farthest thing from his mind.

"Right now it's just hard to think about that," Randle said. "It hurts. I haven't really thought about it yet."

Cauley-Stein, who chose to stay another year after last season's NIT appearance to compete for a national championship, said the decision comes down to more than just dollars and cents.

"The best thing that's probably ever happened to me is coming to Kentucky," Cauley-Stein said. "That whole community, that whole fan base makes you feel like you're a rock star. The kids look up to you. The old people, they look up to you. You got 40-year-old guys that you're their role model because you're 20 years old and you're like, 'How am I going to be a role model when you're 20 years older than me?' It's just amazing to see. Those fans are so powerful."

The power of the fans and the community will make him think long and hard about his decision.

"That will always being weighing in the back of your head when you're trying to make a decision whether you want to stay until you can't stay no more or you want to leave early," Cauley-Stein said. "That's kind of like how I am. Why not relish something for as long as you can until you're forced to leave or make that jump. That's the hardest thing."

One item that does not play a factor in Cauley-Stein's case is his recent ankle injury.

"It's not serious enough what's going to happen," Cauley-Stein said. "But you just don't know. Something might come up where you have to leave or something might come up where you need to stay. It's just time, you know what I'm saying? You got weeks before you really have to make your decision."

As for Aaron Harrison, the biggest factor for him is his family, and even potentially playing without his twin brother, Andrew.

"I really don't want to think about that right now," Aaron Harrison said. "I've been playing with him my whole life. It's our dream, but taking away something that's been there is taking away your oxygen."

Within the next couple of weeks, by April 27 to be exact, all of the Wildcats will be forced to decide between playing another season at UK or taking the leap to the next level by entering the NBA Draft. Calipari said that the decision ultimately comes down to what's best for the individual player.

"Now that the season's over, it is about the players," Calipari said. "It's no longer about the program. It's no longer about the team. It's about each individual player on this team now. They sacrificed. They surrendered to each other now, for our team and our program and our school. Season's over. Now it's about them. And we'll sit down with each of them and they will make decisions for themselves."

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's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK's bid for a national championship fell short in a 60-54 loss to Connecticut on Monday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Willie Cauley-Stein, reduced to cheering on his teammates and watching from the bench, had clearly spent some time thinking about UK's championship celebration.

He couldn't help but think about it more after the Wildcats' bid to cut the nets down in AT&T Stadium was cut short in the national title game on Monday.

"The hardest part is you want to leave on some joy," Cauley-Stein said. "You don't want to leave this tournament how we're about to leave it. It would have been so much better if we left it up on this stage swinging our shirts and wearing our hats backwards and taking goofy pictures that are going to be with us forever."

Instead, the Cats walked off the floor as the Connecticut Huskies enjoyed the celebration Cauley-Stein so vividly imagined. As if a 60-54 loss to end a remarkable NCAA Tournament run wasn't painful enough.

"It's a long walk," Aaron Harrison said. "You just get the feeling that that could have been you and you kind of want to start over but you don't get start-overs in life and you don't get second chances."

Aaron Harrison is right about not getting second chances. The Cats won't ever shake the frustration that came with the 11 free throws they missed in 24 attempts. The nightmares of the loose balls they missed out on in being outrebounded 34-33, those won't go away anytime soon.

But neither will the moments that brought UK to within one win of its ninth national title.

Those three game-winners Aaron Harrison hit in in as many games -- no matter what he may say -- they'll still be seen on March Madness highlight reels for years to come. Those four instant-classic games a group of freshmen managed to win with grit, toughness and a steadfast refusal to give in, fans will still remember them for years to come.

Still processing the fact that their season was over, the Cats went through the internal tug-of-war between the sting of a too-recent defeat and the memories built on a run for the ages.

"I'm proud of the run we made, but this isn't what we planned on," Aaron Harrison said. "I'm not really satisfied with it, but at the same time we did make one of the best runs ever and we just came together as a team like has never been seen before."

As much the Cats captured the hearts of the Big Blue Nation with the unlikeliest of Final Four berths in the program's rich history, that togetherness is what those outside the UK locker room will never quite grasp. No one could be expected to, because there are moments when not even John Calipari is able to fathom what just happened.

"I can't tell you, even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."

They had seemingly every reason to give up a month ago after their season hit its low point with a loss to South Carolina, but they rallied around each other and an as-yet-unconfirmed "tweak" in the postseason.

The same was true as UK faced deficits of at least nine points in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Final Four and national title game, but the Cats simply never gave in.

"These kids really fought and tried and what they accomplished, I told them, this was the best group I've ever coached as far as really being coachable and wanting to learn," Calipari said. "I've never coached a team this young."

Shouldering the unyielding burden of unprecedented preseason expectations, there was a time when it seemed unlikely that young team of talented players would jell into a cohesive unit. Aaron Harrison credits his coach for finally turning the bond the team had always shared into on-court results.

"I think Coach taught how to play basketball together," Aaron Harrison said. "We were always close off the court. We always hung out, but just what Coach taught us, it was just amazing that he could change us around and what everyone was saying about how we were selfish and couldn't play as a team, we just proved the world wrong really."

In the process of proving the world wrong, the Cats proved themselves and their coach right. Winning at the highest level with a group of gifted freshmen is indeed possible.

"The things we did and accomplished this year is just something we're always going to remember," Julius Randle said. "I wish we could have got more game, but I'm proud of the fight that we had."

That pride, of course, was twinged with a dose of dejection.

Randle sat back in the corner of his locker, answering questions politely but barely above a whisper at times. Andrew Harrison also handled his postgame responsibilities admirably, but with his eyes still damp with tears.

His twin brother kept a stiff upper lip as he addressed reporters, only coming close to losing his composure when asked about the hardest part of the loss.

"Just seeing the seniors like Jon Hood and Jarrod (Polson) just going out like that," Aaron Harrison said.

On that count, score one against the cynics who say Coach Cal's gifted newcomers care only about themselves and their immediate futures.

"At the end of the day with no one left, we knew that this team would never be assembled again," Polson said. "We realize that this is probably one of the best groups of guys we've ever had at Kentucky and probably that anyone will ever experience again, as far as pros or wherever people might go."

Those stay-or-leave questions, however, are for another day. For now, these Cats are only thinking about each other, the run they made and what they fell just short of accomplishing.

"It's just a blessing to be a part of this team because of the way we came together," Aaron Harrison said. "We're still one of the best stories ever and on paper we had the hardest run in NCAA Tournament history. It's nothing to be ashamed of. We just wanted to win."


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.

UConn steals Kentucky's storybook ending

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UK_UConn_mbball_4-7-14_03_cw.JPG

ARLINGTON, Texas - The story, for all its magic, for all its improbability, just seemed so perfect.

On a run for the ages, with dramatic, implausible victories with youth not seen since the Fab Five, the only thing left in a storybook season was the last chapter.

But Kentucky, sticking to a carbon-copy script that got it to the NCAA Tournament finals, finally got burned by it. The Wildcats (29-11) fell behind by double digits before making its patented late first-half charge, but UK could never fully get over the hump, falling 60-54 to Connecticut in the national championship game in AT&T Stadium.

"Even in that loss, I can't believe what these guys got done together," John Calipari said. "Talking about a bunch of young kids that just went out there and believed and believed in each other and just kept fighting."

The fight just came up one game short, ending but not tarnishing an unforgettable run.

Kentucky started the season atop the polls with 40-0 dreams, appeared to crumble with youth during the regular season under the pressure and expectations of the hype, and then turned everything around in the postseason with a run to the finals as the No. 8 seed.

The Wildcats couldn't finish it off, meaning Villanova is still the highest seed to ever win the tournament, but the run will hardly be forgotten.

"The stuff we fought through, the scrutiny we took, it's amazing," Andrew Harrison said. "This one definitely hurt us but there's a bigger picture than that."

The big picture, the Wildcats said in a somber but not overly dejected locker room, is that this is a team that came back from the dead when the coffin was already buried beneath six feet of dirt.

"This group of guys are special," said Julius Randle, who came up just a game short of winning a national championship in his hometown. "We have been through a lot this season. How we kept fighting and (how) we were able to make this run just says a lot about the guys. I just hate that it ended like this."

After all the comebacks they made to get to Monday night, it seemed like the season wouldn't end how it did.  The Wildcats, in rallying back from deficits of nine, 13, 10 and nine in the previous four tournament games, had made the unthinkable believable with late-game charges and iconic Aaron Harrison shots.

With all that had happened, even when UK fell behind early, it just felt like Kentucky was going to make its charge and pull one more out of the hat.

"I thought we were going to win the game," Calipari said.

Kentucky, finally, just couldn't get over the hump.

"The run was fun and everything but it was a big letdown," said Willie Cauley-Stein, who missed his third straight game with a left ankle injury. "The steps we took to get here and how we won the last three games, you feel like you're going to win this one because you don't win three games in a row the way you did and come up short. That's really heartbreaking because you feel like some crazy faith is going to happen and you end up winning the game even though you played like you did. You feel like you came up short on something."

James Young dunks in traffic for two of his 20 points against UConn (Chet White/UK Athletics) James Young dunks in traffic for two of his 20 points against UConn (Chet White/UK Athletics)

The Cats, as they've done throughout the tournament, dug themselves a hole in the first half. After turning it over just four times in the win against Wisconsin, UK struggled to hang on to the ball against UConn's pesky guards and failed to hammer the opponent on the glass like it had done all year long.

"You're playing in the national championship game. You're a freshman. It's tough," Andrew Harrison said of UK's seven first-half turnovers. "But at the same time they played great defense."

Hardest to overcome of all was an apparent less-than-100 percent Julius Randle, who grimaced in pregame warm-ups and struggled to assert himself early. TBS reported during its national broadcast that Randle was dealing with cramps, which plagued the freshman forward early in the 2013-14 campaign, but Randle dismissed the report.

"I was fine," Randle said.

Coach Cal said he was tired.

"He's a freshman and he's anxious," Calipari said. "That was the national championship in front of 17 zillion people and he ran up and down the court three times and he got winded. It's normal."

Randle came alive late in the first half and Coach Cal went to a zone, briefly slowing down Shabazz Napier and Co. and slicing what was once a 30-15 deficit to 35-31 at halftime.

"The only thing that slowed them down is us going zone," Calipari said. "And you know me well enough, I don't usually do that. I said we got no choice or we're going to be down 20. We hung in there and gave ourselves a chance."

The Cats closed within one on three different occasions, evoking memories of Kentucky's memorable surges in the last couple of weeks, but they could never take the lead.

Connecticut pulled away by nine midway through the second half, UK rallied back to within one again on a James Young surge, but after Aaron Harrison, who provided three game-winners in the previous three games, missed a 3 to take the lead, Napier (22 points) hit a 3-pointer to start the championship closing.

"All those shots (I hit) don't really matter anymore," Aaron Harrison said.

Calipari suggested that was nonsense.

"You think I'm mad at that guy (Aaron Harrison) that missed that 3? Not at all," Calipari said. "They kid made shots this whole run. Missed one. Hey, it happens."

UK hung around just a little bit longer, but when Ryan Boatright hit a step-back jumper with 4:13 left, Kentucky cracked.

"Boatright's big shot, huge shot," Coach Cal said. "Like, they're dying and he makes like a step-back and we miss an open shot, a couple free throws. We're not going to win then."

If there was any hope, DeAndre Daniels squashed it on a second-chance layup with 2:47 left. That put the Cats down six.

"I needed to do a better job for these kids today because they needed more help in this," Calipari said. "... You're talking all freshmen out there. They needed more from me. I wish I had a couple more answers to create something easier for them."

Calipari said he elected not to foul at the end and stretch the game out because of Connecticut's success at the line. The Huskies, one of the best free-throw shooting teams in the country, made all 10 of its attempts Saturday.

Meanwhile, UK missed 11 of its 24 attempts.

"We were waiting for that something to happen and it was them this time, it was UConn that made the biggest shots to win the game," Jarrod Polson said. "That's just the way things go sometimes. You can't really do anything about it."

Said Calipari: "This was as much (about) them, how they played. They were not going to let us take this game from them."

The Huskies didn't allow Kentucky to finish off its storybook ending, but they couldn't take away the memories.

"It's been the best experience of my life," Andrew Harrison 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.


Video: UK-UConn Postgame Player Interviews

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Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, and Alex Poythress

Julius Randle and James Young

 

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  • Guy Ramsey: Yes, that is correct. The UK IMG Network will no longer televise games live or delayed. However, it will still read more
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