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Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Julius Randle declared for the NBA Draft on Tuesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It was more than a year ago now that Julius Randle committed to Kentucky.

Just a few months later, he arrived on campus and began practicing with his teammates. Big Blue Madness, a tumultuous regular season and a magical NCAA Tournament were next on the docket.

As Randle sat at a podium announcing his decision to declare for the NBA Draft on Tuesday, he couldn't help but wonder where the time went.

"This season, this year, the more I think about it, it just went by fast," Randle said. "I'm definitely going to miss it. Kentucky will always have a special place in my heart. Growing up as a kid, it's always been my dream to play in the NBA, and there's no better opportunity for me to achieve that goal than now."

When Randle came to UK, he put thoughts of playing professionally on hold. Instead, he focused on building bonds with his team and playing for college basketball's ultimate prize.

The Wildcats came up one win short of the latter goal, but succeeded wildly when it came to the former. That's why Randle was able to make the decision to leave Lexington with his head held high.

"I know I came one game short of winning a national championship - we did as a team - but everything we went through this year is just an experience that I'll never forget," Randle said. "That alone was enough, kept me at peace to leave."

Short of beating Connecticut, Randle couldn't have accomplished much more in his short time as a Wildcat.

The 6-foot-9 forward arrived with a five-star pedigree and delivered. He was a dominant force from the beginning of the season onward in spite of facing double and triple teams after a 27-point, 13-rebound performance against Michigan State. Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds, garnering Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year honors in the process.

"I would say my one year here was fantastic because (John Calipari) goes into your home when he recruits you and he says, 'It's going to be the hardest thing you've ever done,' " Randle said. " 'You're going to work the hardest you ever did.' You say OK, but you may not believe it. But once you're in the fire, what he said is true."

After surviving the fire, Randle moves on to the next challenge. He's the No. 5 prospect on Chad Ford's Big Board and the No. 4 overall pick in Draft Express's 2014 mock draft. No matter where he lands, Coach Cal sees a bright future ahead.

"I truly believe that Julius will be an even better pro than a college player," Calipari said in a release. "He was Shaq'd (Shaquille O'Neal) all year - in every way. I really appreciate all that he did for this program and how he represented all of us throughout the entire year. I cannot wait to watch him shine at the next level."

While Calipari watches his former pupil in the NBA, Randle will be watching his former coach's team next season.

He had no insight to offer about the pending stay-or-leave decisions of Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson, but Randle had plenty of good things to say about next year's team.

"I mean, we have so much talent," Randle said. "Willie (Cauley-Stein) coming back. We have Marcus (Lee). He was huge in the tournament. All the incoming guys. We have so much talent coming in next year. We're definitely going to make another run."

The use of first person is particularly telling because Randle isn't about to stop being a Wildcat even though he won't wear the uniform next year. With that in mind, he had some advice to pass on to his UK brethren, who figure to shoulder some of the same expectations Randle and last year's Cats had to cope with.

"I think that's why I was able deal with the criticism myself, because I never really fed into or really read anything or believed anything," Randle said. "I just tried to stay in my own little circle or little bubble and focused on the team and that's all I really cared about. As long as you're invested into the team, that's your total focus, investing into being a student-athlete then you won't really won't waver too much from the criticism or expectations."

Video: Kentucky's SEC Network spot

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On Tuesday, the SEC Network revealed special spots for each of the league's 14 schools. Nothing says Kentucky quite like Big Blue Madness.

Demand the SEC Network today.

Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee will return for his sophomore season, UK announced on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's frontcourt seems to get longer and deeper by the day.

Days after Willie Cauley-Stein decided to come back for his junior season, Marcus Lee followed suit. The 6-foot-9 forward will bypass the NBA Draft and return to UK for his sophomore year, UK announced.

"I've really enjoyed my college experience and I'm looking forward to continuing to develop as an all-around player," Lee said in a release. "Playing in the Final Four was such an amazing feeling, but I want to come back and help win that final game this year."

Lee averaged just 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds, battling an illness that dropped 15 pounds from his already slender 215-pound frame, but reminded everyone of his talent after Cauley-Stein went down with a left ankle injury in the Sweet 16. The athletic Antioch, Calif., native and McDonald's All-American had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in the Elite Eight against Michigan, including four memorable put-back dunks in the first half.

On the strength of that performance and his potential, Chad Ford told Kyle Tucker of the Louisville Courier-Journal Lee would have been drafted had he entered his name.

"I'm excited for Marcus and think he's barely scratched the surface of what he's capable of," head coach John Calipari said.  "In addition to his athleticism and the energy level he brings, the experience he gained in the NCAA Tournament this year will be immeasurable for us next season."

Lee would go on to play key minutes in the Final Four, scoring four points and blocking a shot in the national semifinals against Wisconsin.

With Lee officially in the fold, UK's post play for 2014-15 projects to be even stronger. With draft decisions from Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress -- as well as guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison -- still on the way, Coach Cal already has forwards Cauley-Stein, Lee and Derek Willis to work with. In addition, five-star freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles have already signed letters of intent.


By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Part one

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Below is part two. You can read part one here.

4. Humble pie at LSU

After losing at North Carolina, Kentucky reeled off eight wins in nine games, rising to No. 11 in the Associated Press Top 25. A trip to Baton Rouge, La., would bring the team and its fans crashing back to earth.

Led by Johnny O'Bryant's 29 points - on 12-of-20 shooting -- and nine rebounds, the Tigers flat-out dismantled the Cats in nearly every aspect of the game. LSU outshot UK 50.8 to 43.8 percent; the Tigers had 11 turnovers to UK's 13; LSU had 15 assists to UK's eight; LSU had 11 steals to UK's six; and the Tigers recorded 11 blocks to UK's four.

Freshman stud Jordan Mickey terrorized the Cats with his athleticism, scoring 14 points to go along with six rebounds and five blocks, and Christian County product Anthony Hickey had his way at the point guard spot, dishing out six dimes versus zero turnovers.

The Tigers maintained a double-digit lead throughout most of the second half, stretching the lead to as many as 15 points on two occasions. Only a late-game letup by the Tigers allowed UK to make the final score respectable to those who didn't watch the carnage.

"We weren't ready for the physical part of the game," Calipari said after the 87-82 loss. "We weren't ready for the energy of the game and the viciousness of the game. They beat us to every 50-50 ball from the beginning of the game to the end. That is why they won the game."

Even though clearly upset with his team, Coach Cal wanted everyone to know that his squad was not finished growing.

"This team is in progress; it is all about the process," Cal said.  "The process we are at right now is, will we have the mental toughness to break through and be the kind of team we want to be? We didn't show it tonight."

But panic was beginning to set in among the fan base that the disappointing 2012-13 season was about to repeat itself.

5. Spiraling out of control

After the uninspiring effort at LSU, the Wildcats won seven-of-eight games, including solid wins against a good Ole Miss team, an impressive road victory over Missouri and the overtime triumph against LSU. All appeared to be defining moments - at the very least, turning points - in the season, but as is often the case with a team chock full of rookies, the good times didn't last.

Arkansas paid a visit to Rupp Arena on Feb. 27 and showed the Cats what it means to play defense, as the Razorbacks held UK to 26 made field goals on 76 shots (34.2 percent). Additionally, the Hogs forced 18 UK turnovers, and while committing 20 miscues themselves, Arkansas capitalized on the Cats' mistakes by outscoring UK 21-17 in points off turnovers.

The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The celebration after the overtime win against LSU looked like it was going to the be the start of a turnaround, but things were about to get much worse before they got better for the 2013-14 Wildcats. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
In victory, Arkansas connected on 16-16 free throws, while the Cats struggled from the stripe making only 12-22 attempts. Midway through the first half, as if to affirm its terrible shooting night, UK missed eight consecutive shots, allowing the Razorbacks to build an-11 point lead.

UK battled back, though, and the tightly contested contest, which went into overtime, saw the Cats lead 57-52 with 4:43 left in regulation. But from that point forward, including the overtime period, the Hogs outscored the Cats 19-10 on their way to a 71-67 Rupp Arena win (Arkansas' first victory in Rupp since February of 1994).

"They beat us to loose balls," Coach Cal lamented after the game. "We missed 10 one-foot shots. We missed all free throws that mattered. We have a lead late, we're leaving timeouts (and) not executing. At one point I sat down and I would not speak to them. What are we running? 'I already told you in the timeout.'"

Kentucky's trip to South Carolina a few days later revealed a Big Blue ship quickly taking on water.

The Gamecocks came into the game sporting a 10-18 record, reason enough for Kentucky fans to believe their Cats would right the seemingly sinking ship, thwarting disaster. But UK did not respond to the bump and grind play of Carolina, instead the Wildcats sunk deeper into the abyss by once again failing to find the net with anything resembling consistency.

Making only 26.9 percent of its shots from the floor during a physical contest that was so frustrating that the Cats' coach was tossed from the ballgame, UK fell behind 51-39 with 10:23 remaining.

UK's huge 46-28 rebounding advantage could not offset the unfortunate shooting night the Wildcats experienced, and after a Randle 3-point play made the score 68-67 Carolina with 21 seconds remaining, the Gamecocks made their free throws and pulled out an improbably 72-67 shocker.

In coming back from 16 points down with 10:11 remaining, the Wildcats displayed a willingness to battle. But putting themselves in that position in the first place was Cal's cause for concern.

"After the game I told them how proud I was that they fought and got back in the game and gave themselves a chance to win," Calipari said. "But I said, 'You have to play the whole game that way.' Now, what happened early: The game was called like the old way. It was very physical -- body-checking, hip-checking -- and we thought that was an excuse to miss shots. You've got to know how the game is being called and play that way."

The setback dropped the preseason No. 1 team in the land to No. 25 in the AP poll. And yet, Aaron Harrison said after the game that Kentucky would still write "a great story."

As well all know now, that was the defining quote of the season. It seemed so unlikely at the time, but it somehow came true.

6. Starting fresh

After the late-season losses to Arkansas, South Carolina and a disastrous game in Gainesville, Fla., against Florida, Kentucky fans were not expecting much good to come out of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Cats were in a historic free-fall, certain to land with a disappointing thud.

But running onto the Georgia Dome floor from the locker room, the Wildcats possessed a bounce in their step unseen for at least a couple of months. Was it "The Tweak" Coach Cal had talked about earlier that week? Was it just the fresh start of a new season?

Whatever the case, the energy the players exuded was palpable, as the team seemed bound together by an electrified tether.

The free-flowing Wildcat mojo was replaced with an "uh oh" once the game began, as the Tigers shot out to a 22-14 lead after seven minutes of action. This game, though, would be the beginning of something special as the Cats rode the hot hand of Young and his 17 first-half points to a 28-10 run, eventually taking a 42-32 halftime lead.

The second half, though, would test the Cats -- again.

Cutting the lead to 52-49 on an Andre Stringer layup with 11:56 left in the game, LSU was poised to break the Cats' back once again. But this time, UK responded in rousing fashion.

Over the last 12 minutes of the contest, Kentucky's freshman crushed the Tigers 35-18 on its way to a resounding, confidence-building 85-67 victory.

The Cats, at least for one game, put it all together, as Andrew Harrison dished eight assists (thanks to the tweak, which Coach Cal said was to encourage UK's point guard to look to pass more often), Randle posted a double-double with 17 points and 16 boards, and Young led the squad with 21 points to go along with six rebounds and four assists.

"We've been through adversity all season," Randle said after the game. "It was kind of time for us to grow up, man up and just fight through that adversity."

Apparently simplifying the UK offense, Cal seemingly took the pressure off of his players.

"We didn't run as many plays because we had to get easy baskets," Young said. "(We're) just playing basketball, something we should have been doing for a while, and something we're going to do from here on out."

The Cats had the set the stage for a postseason to remember.

Check back next for the final defining moments of the 2013-14 season.

Notes: Calipari continuing to trumpet reform

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John Calipari is in the midst of a tour promoting the release of his new book this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics) John Calipari is in the midst of a tour promoting the release of his new book this week. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
John Calipari is not opposed to repeating himself, especially not when it comes to one-and-done/Succeed-and-Proceed.

He has had ample opportunity to get his message out this week in promoting his new book, "Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out," and didn't let it go to waste.

In doing so, Calipari was well aware his audience is split into three distinct camps.

"The haters are not changing," Calipari said. "They don't care what I say. They turn the TV off and I'm fine with that. The lovers accept whatever I say. It's all those independents out there that are looking at this in a different light and saying, 'Well.' And then the question is: Am I making sense? Is this common-sense stuff?"

At the risk of sounding like a so-called "lover," it's difficult to answer anything other than yes.

"I even think the NBA and the NCAA should get together and plan on the players' association saying, 'We're not changing,' " Calipari said. "And then I think the NCAA and the NBA should get together and say, 'How do we encourage kids to stay in school longer, which is good for you and good for us and good for kids.' "

Calipari was in a Socratic mood Thursday as he made his case for a two year-year rule and against the current baseball model.

"Would you really want to be a part of the decision that took a whole generation of ninth and 10th graders that said, 'Forget about education, you're going directly to the NBA,' when, in fact, of those 50,000, one or two may do it - maybe, maybe do it," Calipari said. "Would you really want to be that person?"

Whether the rule dictates players stay in school for one, two or three years, Calipari says it would be unwise to dismiss the educational value of top players going to college.

"The guys that say let them go out of high school don't want to coach against them," Calipari said. "It's simple as that. They don't want to coach against them. For anybody to say Brandon Knight or any of my kids have no business being on a college campus, you're old, you're grumpy, go away."

Once they are on campus, Calipari says it's the responsibility of the NCAA, schools and coaches to first put policies in place that don't penalize players for staying in school. Next, the perception that top players sticking around for longer than a season somehow means they have failed has to be eliminated.

"You cannot plan on coming into this university for one year and thinking you're going to get out," Calipari said. "If it happens, hallelujah, I'm happy for you. But if it doesn't happen, you understand, 'I'm maturing. I understand the grind. I'm physically getting better.' But it can't be me just doing it. It's gotta be everybody out there. Staying in school more than one year is not a failure."

Calipari's crusade against the one-and-done rule is only the most prominent example of his campaign to bring change to the NCAA. This week, he revealed another idea he and his wife, Ellen, presented.

"We wanted to start a fund," Calipari said. "We'll fund it; we'll put the money in. That every player that's ever played for me, whether they be at Mass, Memphis or Kentucky, can request a grant for their children's education."

After Calipari's retirement, the money remaining in the fund would go back to the three schools where he coached.

The NCAA decided not to approve the fund, according to Calipari, deeming it an extra benefit, but Coach Cal sees some of the have-vs.-have-nots attitude that has defined much of the organization's legislation beginning to disappear.

"That is what is ending," Calipari said. "It's what I talked about for the last five years. That has to end."

No rest for the weary

After one of the most trying yet rewarding seasons of his coaching career, Coach Cal, at least in theory, could have used a rest.

But in reality, the book tour that hasn't allowed him a moment's rest this week has been exactly what he needs.

"But I haven't - listen, folks, I haven't slowed down right now," Calipari said. "And it's really good."

If not for the tour, Calipari would be incessantly replaying moments from UK's national title game loss to Connecticut. All those times the Wildcats cut the Huskies' lead to one, those wouldn't quite running through his brain.

"And then I'd want to jump off a bridge," Calipari said. "So, just keep running and I'm not looking back until May 2."

Running, for Calipari, meant a Wednesday to remember.

It began with appearances on MSNBC and CNBC, then a visit of nearly two hours with President Bill Clinton over lunch. Just a few hours later, it was off to Charlotte, N.C., to watch two former players -- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Chris Douglas-Roberts -- play for the playoff-bound Bobcats against Derrick Rose's Chicago Bulls.

Calipari was back in Lexington on Thursday. He surely has a few more adventures ahead of him before a medically mandated break two weeks from Friday.

"I'll have my hip replaced here in town," Calipari said. "One of the best hip doctors is right here in Lexington, so I'll do it here and take a month to recuperate and try to get back."

Coach Cal shrugs off latest NBA rumor

In the hours before the national championship game, conversation about UK's quest for a ninth title was momentarily derailed by a tweet.

UK great and longtime NBA player and executive Rex Chapman, citing sources, started the rumor that Coach Cal would go to Los Angeles to coach the Lakers regardless of the outcome.

Calipari, rightfully focused on the task at hand, didn't find out until he returned to the UK locker room after the game.

"The only time I learned about it is when the game ended and then Anthony Davis and Darius (Miller) and John Wall and the guys were in there," Calipari said. "I can't remember if one of them said to me, 'You're going to Lakers.' It might have been Anthony."

He quickly defused the talk, though not without having a little fun first.

"I said, 'Come on, no, I'm not going to the Lakers,' " Calipari said. "And then I looked at him and I said, 'Unless you'll come with me.' As I joked, please. (Pause). Maybe. (Laughing)."

Though the possibility of coaching Davis, the ascendant NBA star, in L.A. is tempting, Calipari has repeated ad nauseam during a media blitz promoting his new book that he is not headed to coach the Lakers.

As for Chapman and the timing of his tweet, Calipari isn't holding any grudges.

"I haven't talked to Rex but I'm fine," Calipari said. "Look, there a couple of other rumors that I'm glad he didn't talk about on radio. It's fine. I mean, we didn't hear it, I didn't hear it."

Decisions about new assistant, summer trip not finalized

With no games to focus on, speculation has shifted to the stay-or-leave decisions of UK's underclassmen and whom Coach Cal will hire as an assistant, a vacancy created by Orlando Antigua's move to South Florida as head coach.

Calipari, busy with that whirlwind tour, is still working his way through a decision.

"Everybody's already named assistant coaches, they tell me, and I haven't gone through the process," Calipari said. "I've called some people up. I still--I have work to do but I haven't had time. I mean, I've not done--like, there's no one I've sat down and said, 'Hey, I want you to do this.' But I will."

The same goes for UK's rumored summer trip.

"We'll probably do something this summer, but I haven't made the total decision of what it'll be," Calipari said. "Probably be something to do with the World Games, trying to play teams from the World Games, which means we probably get beat up each game, because you got NBA players on every one of those teams. But it would be a good experience."

Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle are among UK's players facing early-entry decisions this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison and Julius Randle are among UK's players facing early-entry decisions this month. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Ten days have passed since Kentucky's final game of the season and only nine days remain before UK's remaining draft-eligible players have to make a decision on their future.

The math will tell you that there isn't a lot of time left for what figures to be six more players to make a decision before the NBA early-entry deadline, but John Calipari isn't going to rush his players.

"This is about them, not me and the program," Calipari said Thursday. "They have until the 27th (of April) to make a decision. ... I don't even know what the NCAA date is because we don't worry about it. It has nothing to do with us. The only date they have to be concerned about is the 27th, when they have to put their name in - or they don't put their name in."

Speaking to the media on Thursday as a part of his "Players First" book tour, Calipari said he spoke to NBA teams as recently as Wednesday to get information for his players so that they can make the best decision possible.

"There was information given to me that I needed to go directly to the parents, and the reason is, I don't want there to be any filter," Coach Cal said. "This is it. Happy, sad, angry, whatever, this is it. And then I told all the kids, when we met back on campus (last week), when I had the information that I had and it was pretty accurate, from what I learned yesterday, 'Whatever decision you make -- to leave, to come back -- this basketball program 50 years from now will be fine, and so will this institution. You don't make it because of me. You make it because it's right for you, whatever you do.' "

James Young was the latest - and the second Wildcat so far - to come to a decision. He announced Thursday that he will forego his sophomore season in college to enter the NBA Draft.

Earlier in the week, somewhat surprisingly, Willie Cauley-Stein announced he will be coming back for his junior year.

"He basically said, 'You know, Coach, I'm in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I'm gonna be really close to my degree. I still have to grow as a player. And we left something on the table there that I'd like to try and get.' That's a good answer for me if you want to come back," Calipari said.

Those two decisions made, six more Wildcats figure to have the options of turning pro early and will have to make a choice one way or another over the next week. They include: Julius Randle, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee.

Randle is projected as a top-five pick if he decides to go, but he tweeted last week that he hadn't made up his mind yet. Most people expect Lee to return, but his performance in the Michigan game coupled his freakish potential means he would likely get picked up by a team if he decided to leave.

The other four guys, including the Harrison twins, are anyone's guess right now. Calipari said he had "no idea" when a reporter asked Thursday if Andrew and Aaron Harrison were coming back.

All that's on Coach Cal's mind right now is getting his players the information, letting them make a decision and then supporting it. He won't advise them to come back if they are doing it just because it's easier.

"What you have to do is accept their decision, understand it's been well thought out, they've gotten the information (and) they know the downside because I gave it to them," Calipari said. "They see the upside. I have to remind them of the downside of what could happen. And when they make that choice, you gotta live with it. It's them; it's their families."

Should some of the current question marks decide to return, Calipari said it would make his job different than it has been the last couple of years when he has coached some of the youngest teams in college basketball. But he didn't' sound worried Thursday that he would have too many players with too few opportunities to play.

"Our young players coming in wanted kids to come back," Coach Cal said. "They were calling kids and telling them to come back. So it's not any of that. Someone would say, 'Well, would someone leave because of who you have coming in?' Oh, it'll be easier against those guys in the NBA than a high school guy? What are you nuts? It has nothing to do with that. It becomes what is best? What is best for that family? You may look at it and say that's ridiculous, but you don't live their life. You haven't done what they've done."

With the potential for some players to come back, the coaching staff isn't actively recruiting anyone else for next year. The Cats have already signed four in the 2014 class and have three other scholarships accounted for with the known returns of Cauley-Stein, Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins.

Should a few more declare for the draft and spots open up, the staff would hit the recruiting trail again.

"There are some names out there ... and I would imagine there's players out there waiting to see: 'If these guys leave, I'm going because I'll be able to step in,' " Coach Cal said.

Calipari said he's talked to 19 NBA general managers since the season ended last week. He asked each of his players on the bus ride to the airport after the championship game if they wanted helping exploring their NBA possibilities, and all but one - a player Calipari said is a potential first-round draft pick -- said yes.

"So I called him back in and said, 'You need to get with your mother and we need to talk about this, because I need you to know what you're passing on by coming back,' " Calipari said. "What I told he and his mother: 'I got to live with myself.' I told him, 'I want you to come back. I think you need to come back. But you need to know what's out there.' And so I've had to walk through that."

Calipari admitted that what his team was able to do in the NCAA Tournament boosted some draft stocks that were starting to decline near the end of the regular season.

"Kenny Payne says this all the time: You guys don't understand, people want winning players. So winning matters. It does," Coach Cal said. "If our team had gotten in the NCAA Tournament last year and we had advanced, it would've been different for some of those guys. Just how it is. Winning matters, and that's why you gotta keep convincing them, 'You gotta do this together. You gotta give up some of your game.' "

Cauley-Stein undergoes surgery on injured ankle

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Willie Cauley-Stein recently underwent surgery on an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final three games of UK's tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein recently underwent surgery on an ankle injury that forced him to miss the final three games of UK's tournament run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Riding around campus the last couple of days on a motorized cart, it's obvious the injury to Willie Cauley-Stein's left ankle was more than just a sprain.

John Calipari said as much Thursday during a press conference for his new book, "Players First: Coaching from the Inside Out," when he confirmed that Cauley-Stein went under the knife recently to fix the injury.

"He did have surgery," Calipari said. "The best doctor in the world to do it, kind of like we did with Nerlens (Noel)."

Calipari expects Cauley-Stein to be off the motorized cart and back in the gym in a "couple months."

"He'll be fine," Coach Cal said.

As for who did the surgery and what exactly the injury was that knocked Cauley-Stein out for most of the last four games of the NCAA Tournament, Calipari wasn't disclosing that information Thursday.

"They got knee guys, they got ankle guys, they got shoulder people, they got elbow people. (The doctor who did the surgery) was with the best that there is in the world to have the thing done," Coach Cal said. "And it was a procedure that is done a lot."

Whether it was the ankle injury that would prevent him from working out for NBA teams, falling a win short of a national championship, or tasting a Final Four but not being able to play in it, Cauley-Stein shocked a lot of people earlier in the week when he announced he was returning for his junior season at Kentucky.

Among the surprised was his college head coach.

"Raise your hand if you were stunned that he said he was coming back," Calipari said as he raised his own hand.

Calipari said he never talked to Cauley-Stein about coming back to school. He said their only conversation was about the first time he visited Cauley-Stein at his high school and how amazing it was that a kid who was involved in just about every sport but basketball could now be a first-round pick after just two years.

"Can you imagine?" Coach Cal said. "And that was our talk."

It was Cauley-Stein who approached Calipari about returning.

"He basically said, 'You know, Coach, I'm in no hurry to leave. I love going to school. I'm gonna be really close to my degree. I still have to grow as a player. And we left something on the table there that I'd like to try and get.' That's a good answer for me if you want to come back," Calipari said.

By Ken Howlett, CoachCal.com

Sky-high expectations at Kentucky pre-date the arrival of John Calipari.

Regardless of the number of returning starters, the number of high school All-Americans or the strength of the nation's collective college basketball talent, Kentucky fans dream of watching their team cut down the nets after the last game of the season.

Expecting greatness is as much as part of being a UK basketball fan as listening to Tom Leach with the call and donning Big Blue gear for each game. But the 2013-2014 season carried with it elevated expectations, even by Kentucky standards.

With a roster stacked with what some experts claimed to be the most talented and deep recruiting class in college basketball history, Kentucky fans could best be described as giddy as the summer sun faded in 2013 into fall, and the sweet sound of bouncing basketballs reverberated off the walls of the Joe Craft Center.

Things, of course, didn't go as planned as far as the expectations were concerned. UK lost far more games than many had predicted or hoped, and freshmen, as they often do, struggled.

But as we all came to learn during the magical run in the postseason, it was those losses and that adversity that made the season so special. Those trying times tested the Cats, made them stronger and came to define their gritty resolve when the season mattered most.

So, in one last reflection on an unforgettable season, we're looking back at the defining moments of the 2013-14 season. The story will come in three parts, all in chronological order.

Here's part one:

1. Measuring up to Michigan State

The season began with Wildcat victories over overmatched UNC-Asheville and Northern Kentucky, but the contest fans and pundits alike pointed to as an early test of UK's painfully young squad was a tilt with the experienced, talented and supremely well-coached Michigan State Spartans.

The preseason No. 2 team in the nation (the Spartans received only three fewer preseason Top 25 Associated Press votes than the Cats), Sparty sported experience, size and a willingness to "get physical" with their opponents.

Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Kentucky's undefeated hopes came crashing down early in the season against Michigan State, but Julius Randle showed the nation on a big stage that he was one of the best players in the country. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Kentucky's youth, though, responded to MSU's physical nature and battled the veteran Spartans for the full 40 minutes in Chicago's United Center (big-time Big 10 territory). Down 44-32 at the half, Coach Cal implored his team to keep fighting.

"I told them at half, 'Dudes, you're down six baskets. That's amazing. You should be down 20, 22 points right now. Now the question will be do you want to try to win the game,' " Calipari said. "And they did."

Showing all-important heart, the Wildcats battled through the first eight-and-a-half minutes of the second half, finding themselves down 59-46 with 11:33 left in the game, but UK rallied down the stretch, belying its youth and inexperience.

Julius Randle, continuing his season-opening streak of double-doubles, responded to MSU's size with 27 points and 13 rebounds, while James Young tossed in 19. Both players' performances gave UK fans reason to believe in blue even though UK's rally came up short in the 78-74 loss.

Along with the Cats misfiring on 16 of 36 free throws, it was the upperclassman guard duo of Keith Appling (22 points) and Gary Harris (20 points) who doomed the Cats with their heady, steady play.

After the tight contest, Coach Cal uttered what would become a familiar refrain.

"The biggest thing is, if you don't do this together, you will not win, you'll never be a special team," Calipari said. "So you've got to truly do this together, and that's both on defense and offense."

2. Reality checks to Baylor and UNC

After reeling off five straight victories, the Cats embarked on a made-for-TV event as No. 11 Kentucky traveled to Arlington, Texas to take on the No. 20 Baylor Bears at AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys (and host of the 2014 Final Four).

In a game that was delayed for more than an hour because of the UK women's team's four-overtime victory over the Baylor Lady Bears, the Wildcats came out of the locker room ready to battle. And battle UK did ... for about 26 minutes of game time.

Leading 48-39 with 14:06 left in the contest, UK's youthful squad became complacent while Baylor ratcheted up its intensity, holding the Cats to 35.0 percent second-half shooting. Over the final 14 minutes of action, the Bears had Kentucky on its heels, outscoring UK 28-14 while pulling off the upset.

"I would hope they'd have more fight to win the game," Coach Cal said after the game. "They didn't. Baylor had way more fight than we had."

Although UK connected on 8 of 17 trey attempts and Randle posted 16 points and eight rebounds, Baylor turned the tables on Kentucky in the paint, netting 38 points in the lane compared to 26 for the much bigger Wildcats.

It was UK's ability to overcome adversity, though, which had Cal's ire up after the game.

"As soon as this thing got rough, and the first two raindrops hit - it's like a front-running team," said Coach Cal, who was so frustrated after the game that he left the news conference the first time a reporter asked one of the players a question. "The raindrops hit, we stop fighting. We start looking for excuses and heads are down. That's what we are right now."

After a nice bounce-back win over Boise State in Rupp Arena, the Wildcats traveled to Chapel Hill, N.C., to take on the enigmatic North Carolina Tar Heels.

Kentucky, playing like the young team it was, committed 17 turnovers, giving UNC a 22-13 advantage in points off turnovers for the game. Once again, making matters worse, Kentucky went cold from the charity stripe, making only 29 of 43 free throws. UK's big men were thoroughly outplayed by their Tar Heel counterparts, being outscored by a 49-24 margin and allowing North Carolina to connect on 48.2 percent of its shots.

Calipari lamented his team's concern for personal statistics over team accomplishments after the 82-77 setback, a loss which put UK's record at 8-3 and a No. 19 AP ranking.

"We're not a good team because our emotion is based on individual play instead of our team play," Coach Cal said. "I'm going to keep coaching them. We're going to keep getting better. We're going to try to point things out. But it doesn't matter how bad I want them to get it, they gotta want it. They gotta want to get this. They gotta want to understand this."

3. A much-needed win over an archrival

In what is always the highlight of the regular-season schedule for UK fans, the Cats and Cards hooked up in Rupp Arena on Dec. 28 with more than pride on the line.

Neither team's résumé had what could be considered a marquee win, and with UK dropping like an anchor down the polls after losing to Baylor and UNC, even the most ardent of the Wildcat faithful were in need of a boost up the ladder of confidence.

What Kentucky did in the greatest rivalry game the sport has to offer is what it had failed to do in its three losses: finish the game strong.

With Randle playing only 21 minutes due to cramps (but dominating the opening half with 17 points) and missing the entire final 11 minutes of the game, Young, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison stepped up their games, particularly in the final nine minutes.

With the scored tied at 53 and 8:45 remaining, Kentucky ended the game by outscoring U of L 20-13, with the UK guard trio accounting for 17 of UK's 20 points.

"This team is becoming a good team," Calipari said."We haven't been all year. Now we're starting. You know why? Because they knew if they didn't play together, they had no shot in this game. They had to play and do their job."

Coach Cal also credited the team's tough schedule as preparing his squad for a game of this magnitude.

"One of the things I told them prior to the game, what prepared us for this game was playing Michigan State, playing Providence, playing Boise (State), playing Baylor, playing North Carolina on the road, playing Belmont," Calipari said. "That prepared us for this game.  And so as much as I hate to say, every game I'm coaching is like a war, this team needed that."

Check back Friday for part two.

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.

Recent Comments

  • dave and linda: we are looking forward to another exciting season of wildcat b-ball.This lineup of talent is second to none, and ANY read more
  • grady jobe: the 2 team lineup will work if the players get the act.also I feel sorry for the orther teams.lord merry, read more
  • Paul in KY: Will believe it when I see him do it in a competitive SEC game. Coach Cal has never played a read more
  • Tom: No highlight video from Florida game? I was looking forward to watching some of the big plays again sync'd with read more
  • new fan : Hey KY ya'll played one heck of a game!!!!! I'm a GATOR FAN but everyone on your team can hold read more
  • gary tanner: What are they (you) going to do about finishing the game. This past game after the 2nd q. we seem read more
  • Steve in Dayton UKFBFAN: With UK it has always been about depth. Stay healthy and develop these other guys. read more
  • Greg Williams: I have two enhancement requests for the men's basketball schedule online. 1) Please list the days of the week with read more
  • Bill Coad: Having known Charlie since birth I might be bias in my opinion but this young man has what most of read more
  • Berdj J. Rassam: 2013 was a tough year for UK football, 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the SEC, so 2014 can't be much read more