Alex Poythress cheers on his teammates during UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday at the SEC Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Alex Poythress has had a front-row seat for one of the greatest rides in college basketball history.
Sitting on the bench and traveling with the team as Kentucky has rolled unbeaten through the 2014-15 season, Poythress has been there every step of the way. It's a spot most UK fans would love to be in.
For Poythress - whose season was cut short in early December by a torn ACL - it hasn't been easy. Every day is a reminder that he's supposed to be on the floor.
"Oh, I miss it a lot," Poythress said after watching UK dispatch Florida in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, 64-49. "I'd give the world to still be playing."
But given his current situation - rehabbing from reconstructive surgery - he's thankful the top-ranked Wildcats still count him as a teammate.
"I don't feel like I've been left behind," Poythress said. "I'm still a part of the team, still come to all the meetings, activities, all the stuff to do. Whenever I'm not doing my rehab, I'm around the team still."
The junior forward, unable to play or practice, has thrown himself into his rehab. When he's not in class or with his teammates, Poythress can probably be found doing some kind of work to facilitate the healing process, as much as four hours a day.
"Every day I'm doing something about my knee," said Poythress, who called rehab harder than basketball. "There's no days off. I'm just trying to stretch my knee as much as I can."
To break up scar tissue left from surgery, Poythress has to continually bend and stretch his knee. Talking about the pain, he said he "wouldn't wish it on anybody."
"It makes you want to cry," Poythress said. "But you gotta get through it."
And with the help of his teammates and family, he is.
"It feels good because I was at points after the surgery the first couple days when I couldn't get out of bed by myself," Poythress said. "I couldn't move my leg. I had to have somebody help me out of my bed, move my leg and stuff like that. So moving around well now, it's real good for me."
Poythress moves better each day and no longer needs the crutches he used when he made his first public appearance post-injury at UK's win over North Carolina. He received a standing ovation upon taking the court for that game and his teammates wore warmup shirts honoring him. That support hasn't died down.
"It's just a great feeling that my teammates and the fans, they all care about me still," Poythress said.
The fans, as much as they care about him, are eager to find out what Poythress might do following the season. Set to graduate in May, he has a decision ahead of him about whether to return to Lexington or pursue a professional career.
"I haven't even thought about that yet," Poythress said. "Like I said earlier, I'm just focused on this season we got so far."
Playing or not, he has plenty to focus on.
Cats closing out
Thirty-two games into the best unbeaten start in school history, the Cats have shown an uncanny ability to find another gear in crunch time.
When they're down late - as they were against Georgia and LSU - they clamp down on defense and find ways to win.
When they're locked in a close game - as they have been twice in the last seven days against Florida - they turn in back-breaking runs.
"They have a will to win," Calipari said.
That will to win manifested itself against the Gators with a 14-2 run that turned a slim five-point lead with less than eight minutes left into a comfortable 64-49 victory. Similarly, UK outscored Florida 25-11 over the final 10:28 of a win over the Gators in the regular-season finale.
"We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play," Calipari said. "To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
'We need this tournament'
One of the few things Karl-Anthony Towns is better at than piling up double-doubles - he had his seventh on Friday - is turning a phrase.
"One thing I know is that we may not need to win this tournament," Towns said, "but we need this tournament."
After overcoming Florida for the third time in five weeks to advance, Towns was waxing poetic about the tournament John Calipari says is for the fans who trekked to Nashville, Tenn., alone. It turns out it might be a bit more meaningful than that.
"We need this tournament to grow and continue our process of being the best team we can possibly be going into the NCAA Tournament," Towns said. "A lot of things we're going to probably work on here and also we're going to get better as individuals playing all these great games."
Auburn awaits after OT upset
UK's next opportunity to play in a "great game" comes Saturday at 1 p.m. against Auburn, which defeated fourth-seeded LSU in overtime, 73-70.
The Tigers trailed by seven with 2:45 left in regulation, but continued their improbable SEC Tournament run thanks in large part to a game-tying 3-pointer by K.T. Harrell in the closing seconds. Harrell has scored 73 points in Auburn's three wins in Nashville and had 17 in the lone regular-season matchup with UK.
Kentucky was dominant in that game, scoring a season high in a 110-75 victory. The rematch will tip at 1 p.m. on ESPN.
Tyler Ulis had seven points and four assists in UK's 64-49 win over Florida on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Same story, different location.
It's rare to face a team in back-to-back games, but it was just six days ago that Kentucky topped Florida in Rupp Arena to close out its historic undefeated regular season. On Friday, in front of what looked and sounded an awful lot like Rupp Arena, Kentucky (32-0) used a similar method to top Florida for a third time this season, 64-49.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "Wasn't happy with how we started the game, but it was a good win. And the kids fought and guys played, did the stuff they had to do. Didn't shoot it well, still won."
It was just six days ago that Kentucky defeated Florida by 17 points in Rupp Arena by going on a 23-9 run to close out the game after it was just a three-point game with 10:28 remaining. On Friday, the Cats won by 15 points thanks to 14-4 run over the final 7:40.
Florida continued to fight and hang around for much of the second half, but the Cats clamped down on defense over the final 9:29, allowing just two made field goals, including a stretch of five minutes and 10 seconds where they held the Gators scoreless.
"They have a will to win," Coach Cal said. "They do have a will to win and we have enough playmaker kind of players Andrew (Harrison) to Aaron (Harrison) to Karl(-Anthony Towns) now to Trey (Lyles), I think Tyler (Ulis). We got a lot of guys that aren't afraid to make the play. To be those kind of players, you cannot be afraid to make the game-winning play. None of those kids are. They will take it. If they miss it, they will live with the result, which is late in the game where we'll make a play or two or come up with a defensive stop, we'll do some good stuff."
Yet again, Kentucky was able to do what it has done all season, and that's a find a combination of five players that simply works. In working with a bevy of talent such as the 2014-15 Wildcats, Coach Cal can sub players in and out until one lineup clicks.
"And see, that's the advantage we have," Calipari said. "We'll juggle it around until we figure out who is playing well and then we'll ride with those guys. We want to platoon. We want all nine players to play. But if you get in there and you're shaky at all or you're breaking down, it's like, 'OK, going to go with these guys.' "
Against Florida, that combination often included both Andrew Harrison and Ulis. Each point guard played 32 minutes against the Gators. Combined, they finished with 16 points, six assists, five rebounds, five steals and just one turnover.
"I'm a facilitator and he can do both," Ulis said about playing with Andrew Harrison. "He's in attack mode every play and that's helping him out a little more to be more aggressive and try to score the ball."
Towns secured his seventh double-double of the year with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Aaron Harrison joined Towns with 13 points, hitting four of his eight shots, and while his stats ween't eye-opening, sophomore forward Dakari Johnson was praised by his teammates for his defensive presence, grabbing three rebounds and blocking two shots in 11 minutes.
"Dakari played his butt of on the defensive end," Andrew Harrison said. "He didn't get some calls on offense, but Dakari played great. We would not have won without him."
While Coach Cal continues to say he doesn't mind if his team gets a loss and that he doesn't care for conference tournaments, his team believes they need this tournament and will use it to continue to improve in their quest to be the best version of themselves.
They also know, as it has been all season long, the Cats will get their opponent's best game.
"Teams are playing for their last win or to go home, so we're going to get the best out of everybody and that's what we want," Booker said. "We wouldn't want it any other way. We're kind of excited for it."
Willie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky defeated Florida on Saturday in Rupp Arena. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
CoachCal.com's Metz Camfield contributed to this notebook.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats know their quarterfinal opponent in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, and it's a very familiar foe at that.
Florida defeated Alabama 69-61 on Thursday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., setting up the second matchup in a matter of seven days against the Wildcats, and the third matchup in just five weeks.
"Sometimes (it's) a little bit more difficult when you play against a team that you haven't seen since let's say the middle of January," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "So, these guys will be a little bit familiar with it. The quick turnaround, we're excited we get the opportunity to play."
And in the eyes of Kentucky head coach John Calipari, they should be excited.
"They're good," Coach Cal said. "Everybody is excited about playing us. I'd imagine they were because they played us good both games. My team's - we had a great practice today. I think they're ready to play basketball, whoever it is. They're capable of beating us. No question."
Kentucky topped Florida 68-61 in an exciting game in Gainesville, Fla., but trailed by nine in the first half and didn't take the lead for good until Willie Cauley-Stein's legendary dunk with 12:09 left in the second half. The Cats benefitted greatly by going 21 of 22 at the free-throw line in that game.
Then on Saturday, Kentucky and Florida were separated by just three points with 10:28 remaining in the game before the Cats gained separation in the final 10 minutes.
"They're healthy," Coach Cal said. "They've got a full complement of guys. They should be confident. They played us twice really good."
UK assistant coach John Robic said Tuesday that he feels the concept of "it's difficult to beat a team three times" is a bit exaggerated, saying instead, "it's the next game," and agreed with Donovan in that sometimes it can be more difficult when you haven't played the opponent in a long time because of all that can change during that time in between.
For Kentucky, the SEC Tournament offers the Cats another opportunity to continue to strive to become the best version of themselves. Cauley-Stein said some players were right mentally, and others were still trying to get right, even critiquing himself by saying he has played tentatively of late.
"We feed off him," Coach Cal said. "He's that one guy that can do stuff a normal player can't do, and he hasn't been doing it. He's been getting scored on, he's missing a lot of shots just by--they're physical with him and he's not balanced coming back. But I think he'll be fine."
The question that continues to circle around Kentucky, is what if everyone does in fact click at once and becomes the best version of themselves. Thousands of members of Big Blue Nation who have flocked to Nashville will be hoping to see just that.
"We've had some games this year," Coach Cal said. "You know what it looks like." Seeing is believing when it comes to Cats fans at SEC Tournament
All season long, UK has relied on its veterans to shepherd its four freshmen.
The experience has been invaluable as the Wildcats have made it four months and 31 games without a loss, but it won't matter much this weekend.
Kentucky, with its No. 1 overall seed all but assured and John Calipari indifferent toward conference tournaments, has decided it will play for the fans in the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
It's the same approach the Cats took a year ago, but Coach Cal isn't even bothering to ask his returners to tell the newcomers about just how unbelievable the fan support will be. It's just not necessary.
"They'll see it if they don't know," Calipari said. "When we walk into the game they'll be like, 'What in the world is this?' "
If the Cats watched Wednesday's games at Bridgestone Arena, they'd already have figured it out.
As Mississippi State, Auburn, South Carolina and Missouri played a pair of first-round games, most fans - even though their beloved Cats wouldn't play for two days - wore Kentucky blue.
"I think they're crazy, but I've said it before," Calipari said. "They're nuts. But it makes them what they are and they're passionate about letting everybody know, 'I'm a Kentucky fan.' "
They'll be a little more vocal about that Friday afternoon, which Calipari appreciates. That still doesn't change what has to happen on the floor.
"I guess it would be better that we had more fans than the other team, but this comes down to us being a good basketball team and playing well," Calipari said. "And I keep saying it: I'm concerned about my team. No one else. If someone else is playing out of their minds and we get beat, we get beat. My thing is, how do we continue to grow and be at our best? And if that's not good enough, it's not good enough."
Calipari expecting tough tournament road
Technically, the postseason begins for Kentucky on Friday.
Coach Cal doesn't have much time for technicalities.
"The real part starts when Sunday we hear how tough our bracket's going to be," Calipari said. "That's when the real stuff starts."
The Selection Show on Sunday will be when the Cats find out their path to Indianapolis for the Final Four. Calipari doesn't expect a primrose path to be laid in front of them.
"It'll be hard," Calipari said. "They called the Lakers and they can't pull out of the NBA right now so I don't think they'll be in there. But it'll be a hard bracket. There won't be a, you're the (top) one seed, you should have this kind of road. No. It will not be that. And that's fine."
And even if it's a professional team awaiting them as a No. 16 seed, the Cats will say, "Bring it on."
"I think if we had to see Oklahoma City or Cleveland, those would be tough," Calipari said. "I'm not sure. And they tell me that Portland's as big as we are. So those would be teams I wouldn't want to see. I hate to say that because they may try to get those people in there."
Preparation changing with tournament format
Some coaches are insistent in approaching tournament play just the same as the regular season.
Not Coach Cal.
"Oh, it changes," Calipari said.
With the prospect of playing three games in three days ahead of his team, Calipari is cutting back.
"We won't have a shoot-around tomorrow," Calipari said. "We will just go right to the gym. If we're lucky enough to win we won't have a shoot-around on Saturday. If you're lucky enough to win you won't have one Sunday. You'll come back and let the next game finish and do some film and walk through and just play basketball games. You're not really doing anything."
John Calipari leads UK into the SEC Tournament on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
After capping off a perfect 31-0 regular season with an 18-game excursion through the Southeastern Conference, the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats head into the SEC Tournament with little reason for adjustment.
"I don't think there are going to be many changes, because what we're doing right now is working," said freshly crowned SEC Sixth Man of the Year Devin Booker. "I feel like if it's working, why change it?"
Junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein, 2015's SEC Defensive Player of the Year, echoed Booker's sentiment.
"(We're doing) the same stuff we've always been doing," Cauley-Stein said. "Now, it's do-or-die. It's win-or-go-home, and just have a lot of fun doing it. This is the (most fun) time of the year. From the first workout, now it's all about business. That's what you play for."
For 2015 SEC Coach of the Year John Calipari, the reason for which his team will be playing on Friday has never been in question. For the first (and last) time all season, Kentucky's next three potential games will not be about the players.
"We all talked about it," Calipari said. "We're going to play for our fans."
Despite four SEC Tournament championship-game appearances through his first five seasons in Lexington, Calipari has adamantly denied personal stake in the event since he came to Kentucky.
"I just want the kids to focus on why we're (competing) this week," said Calipari. "Next week will be about us. This week has no bearing on (NCAA Tournament seeding) and the most important thing for us, which is to be the best and the last team standing."
Instead of shining the spotlight on his perpetually celebrated student-athletes, Calipari hopes to shift focus in the direction of Kentucky's loyal fan base before making one last postseason push.
"Our fans, they make an effort to get here," Calipari said. "It's not easy, and they do it. That's why I'm saying, 'Let's play for them. Let them enjoy you for the last time they can see you in person.' Because, again, it's going to be hard for that core group (of fans) to get to the NCAA Tournament."
Cauley-Stein -- one of two Kentucky players recently named First Team All-SEC -- has no problem sharing the limelight with his devoted supporters.
"This tournament is for the fans," said Cauley-Stein. "Our fans (are) going to come full force, and it's like a getaway weekend for them. That's kind of the way we approach it."
With just over three hours of driving time separating Rupp Arena from Nashville's Bridgestone Arena (and a detailed history of traveling in droves), Cats fans are expected to invade Music City by Friday afternoon.
"(There are) fans who can't get into (Rupp Arena)," Calipari said. "You're saying, 'What do you mean? There are 25,000!' There are probably another 100,000 (fans) who want to come, but can't get tickets. They come to the (SEC Tournament), they spend their rent money, mortgage money, their car money... They get money, take loans, and they go to the tournament because they can't get into (Rupp Arena)."
Like Calipari, Cauley-Stein emphasized that Nashville's close proximity to Lexington will allow even more UK fans than usual fill Bridgestone Arena's 20,000-seat capacity.
"We're not really worried about the SEC Tournament," said Cauley-Stein. "It's more like we're playing for the fans there. They're going to travel everywhere anyway, but especially (to Nashville). That's really what we're playing for when we go there, for the fans and everything."
Kentucky will face the winner of eighth-seeded Florida and No. 9 Alabama on Friday, March 13 at 1 p.m. The Cats defeated both teams twice this season. But with an undefeated record and a shot at history on the line, it's safe to assume that UK will be making more than just a friendly appearance when they play for the 28th SEC Tournament title in program history.
"The mindset is we want to win it," said big man Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky's other First-Team All-SEC selection and 2015's SEC Freshman of the Year. "Of course we're trying to win every game we're in. We're going out there, and we're trying to get prepared for this SEC Tournament. We're trying to make a great run. We're trying to use these games definitely to get better as a team before the NCAA Tournament, but we're also there to win."
Willie Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday by league coaches. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
On a team full of stars, Willie Cauley-Stein has emerged as Kentucky's top candidate for major awards.
He's been named to the shortlists for three major national player of the year awards, but on Tuesday he missed out on Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors.
Arkansas star Bobby Portis took home the big trophy from league coaches.
"Honestly, you can give him Player of the Year," Cauley-Stein said. "I'll take 31-0 any day of the week. You know, he's a good player but that's what it is. I'd rather be undefeated than get Player of the Year."
Not that he needed any consolation, clearly, but Cauley-Stein was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.4 blocks. He also won First-Team All-SEC honors, but assistant coach John Robic knows that won't move Cauley-Stein much either.
"These awards, they're nice and everything, but that's not what these kids are playing for," Robic said.
Instead, the Wildcats have played for each other and their team. The result has been a perfect regular season - the first for a power-five conference team since 1975-76 - and a wire-to-wire No. 1 ranking in both major polls, not to mention a few other SEC awards.
John Calipari was named Coach of the Year, Karl-Anthony Towns Freshman of the Year and Devin Booker Sixth Man of the Year. Towns joined Cauley-Stein on the SEC First Team, while Booker and Aaron Harrison were Second-Team performers and Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis made the All-Freshmen Team.
"It just shows that we all have just taken each other under our wing and cared for each other and looked out for each other," Towns said. "These awards are very prestigious, and I'm blessed to have a chance, but I'm more blessed to have brothers like I have right now on this team."
Towns credits one of those brothers - Cauley-Stein - for much of his own development during his freshman season.
"He's the cornerstone of this team," Towns said. "He's the leader. This team has been taken to new heights with him here."
Towns and his teammates are fully aware of his impact on the team and his ability on both ends of the floor, but Cauley-Stein isn't so sure the same is true on a national level.
Praise for the 7-foot junior's defense is universal, but his offense is another story. In fact, Cauley-Stein has heard talk of him being a "one-sided" player.
"I don't believe that, my team doesn't believe that and that drives me nuts," Cauley-Stein said.
Cauley-Stein knows how important defense is and that those outside opinions don't hold much water, but he still turns to them for a little added motivation.
"I'm not just a defensive player," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm not out there just to play defense and that's what's driving me."
Cauley-Stein has shown an improved offensive game this season with refined post moves and even a midrange jumper, but the fact remains that he's on a team full of offensive weapons. None of the Cats - not a sharpshooter like Booker or a post presence like Towns - has to carry a full offensive load.
"I scored in high school," Cauley-Stein said. "I had to. Here you don't have to score. And I think that's why I play the way I am, is because we got so many offensive weapons that one game I'm probably going to have to score. Eventually, they're probably going to have to start playing on Karl heavy so I'm going to have to step up and score some baskets."
But more than anything, Cauley-Stein just wants to be his best for the sake of his team. He knows everything else will take care of itself.
Cauley-Stein said his last five games he hasn't done that. Leading up to UK's SEC Tournament opener at 1 p.m. ET against either Florida or Alabama, he plans to do something about it.
"I've been playing real tentative, not at the best of my game, but I plan on getting right," Cauley-Stein said. "These next couple days are vital for me getting right and just to show the world, you know, about all these other awards."