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Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison is averaging 16 points and shooting 13 of 24 from 3-point range in the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
For most of the season, UK survived on offense with brute force.

The Wildcats overwhelmed opponents with size and athleticism, going to the offensive glass and the free-throw line at remarkable rates.

Two weeks into a magical NCAA Tournament run, the Cats are adding a little finesse to their game.

Over their last three games -- wins over formerly unbeaten Wichita State and 2013 national title game participants Louisville and Michigan -- the Cats have operated at an unprecedented level of offensive efficiency.

That tweak? Yeah, it's working.

"When I did the first tweak, I told everybody, 'You will see a change,' and they saw it; couldn't believe it," John Calipari said. "Then before we went to the tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said, 'You will see a change,' and they've all seen it."

The Cats have scored an astounding 1.24 points per possession over their last three games. In NCAA Tournament play overall, UK is scoring 1.16 points per possession facing defenses ranked 20th, 11th, fifth and 109th by kenpom.com in succession.

Among Final Four teams, only Wisconsin has been more efficient offensively. And if you take out the Badgers' second-round bludgeoning of overmatched American, the Cats are a few thousandths of a point better.

UK has been characteristically good on the glass during the run, rebounding 47.1 percent of its misses over the last three games. The Cats aren't getting to the line as often as they did in the regular season, but they have hit 73.3 percent of their free throws and are shooting lights out from the field. Kentucky sports an effective field-goal percentage of .561, boosting their season percentage to .500.

In the process, they've climbed to ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, second among Final Four teams to national semifinal opponent Wisconsin.

Don't let final scores and a slow pace fool you: The Badgers are among the best offensive teams in the country, ranking fourth according to kenpom.com with solid shooting and the second-lowest turnover rate in the country. That should be of some concern to the Cats, who haven't exactly locked down opponents in the tournament.

Over the last three games, Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan -- all top-16 offenses -- have combined to score 1.19 points per possession against UK, the latter two capitalizing on the absence of shot-blocking extraordinaire Willie Cauley-Stein.

Hood enjoys quality time with regional trophy

During the 30 minutes UK's locker room was open to the media following a win over Michigan, Jon Hood held the Midwest Regional championship trophy on his lap.

He didn't let go of it until the next day.

"He just left my office," John Calipari said. "He had the regional trophy in his room. He said, 'Where you want me to put it?' I said, 'You keep it.' He said, 'Nah, I've had it all night. It was in the bed with me.' "

Hood, catching wind of his coach's comments on Monday's Final Four teleconference, was quick to offer clarification on Twitter.


Important as the distinction may be to Hood, it doesn't change what his joy following his third Final Four trip in four years says about the senior's development.

"He's come so far," Calipari said. "He came from a deer-in-headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?' to a great teammate to a loving part of our family."

Loving, yes, but just as important. He hasn't yet played a minute in the NCAA Tournament, but he serves as a mentor to his younger teammates and even an adviser to his coach.

On his Senior Night, Hood notably told Calipari the lob pass was open against Alabama's zone defense. Coach Cal then called for the play, resulting in a James Young dunk.

And against Michigan in the Elite Eight, Hood -- who bristles when his teammates describe him as a coach -- spoke up again. Nik Stauskas was about to step to the line for two free throws with UK leading by three with 2:26 to play. Seeing 44.9-percent foul shooter Dakari Johnson on the low block, Hood stepped up to the raised floor at Lucas Oil Stadium to talk to his coach.

"Last night in the game, they are shooting free throws and he says to me, 'What are you going to do if Dakari rebounds it? Because they're going to foul him,' " Calipari said. "He came up to me. Not an assistant."

Hood might not be an assistant, but Coach Cal listened to him just the same, shouting instructions to the Harrison twins to call an immediate timeout should Johnson rebound a Stauskas miss.

The episode is another example of Calipari's players-first philosophy.

"See, this is not my team; it's their team," Calipari said. "And I want them to feel empowered, and he knows that."

Calipari, Cats to make time to watch McDonald's game

Coach Cal has a fair bit going on this week. Between practices, traveling to Texas and the media circus that comes with taking a team to the Final Four, he'll scarcely have a chance to breathe.

He will, however, find time to get to a television and tune to ESPN on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. ET for the McDonald's All-American game, or at least soon after.

"Oh, we'll watch it," Calipari said. "And if I can't watch it, it'll be taped. It'll be taped, because we have four players in it."

The four players -- most of any school along with Duke -- are Karl Towns on the East team and Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Tyler Ulis on the West. They make up UK's latest highly regarded class and all have bright basketball futures, but Coach Cal is just excited about their character.

"They're terrific basketball players, but spend some time with them," Calipari said. "You're talking about four great, great kids."

UK's tourney success unmatched under Calipari

Coach Cal has gotten plenty of attention for his recruiting record in his tenures at Kentucky, Memphis and UMass, and rightfully so.

But when everyone looks back on his legacy years from now, it could very well be his NCAA Tournament record that we all remember.

  • Calipari's career record in the tournament is 42-13, tops among active coaches.
  • He will make his fifth Final Four appearance this weekend, tying him for ninth most all-time.
  • The Final Four is the third in four seasons, making Kentucky the first school to accomplish that feat since UCLA reached three straight from 2006-08.
  • UK has won 10 straight NCAA Tournament games under Coach Cal. No team has won that many in a row since Florida won 12 straight and back-to-back titles in 2006-07. Overall, UK is 17-2 in the NCAA Tournament under Calipari.
  • The last three victories in the streak are quite impressive. UK is the first team in history to eliminate three teams from the previous year's Final Four and the third since 1979 to eliminate an unbeaten opponent (Wichita State).

Here are a few more notes from around the Twitter-sphere on a March Madness run the Big Blue Nation won't soon forget.


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.

Cauley-Stein remains doubtful for Wisconsin game

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Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein missed Saturday's Elite Eight game against Michigan with an ankle injury. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
The update on Willie Cauley-Stein is that there is no update. His status remains the same for the Wisconsin game as it was on Sunday: doubtful.

"I doubt he plays," John Calipari said on Monday's Final Four teleconference, "and he will be on our bench cheering like crazy."

Cauley-Stein missed Kentucky's Elite Eight win over Michigan with a left ankle injury he suffered during the Louisville game on Friday. The sophomore forward came up limping at the 13:05 mark in the first half, hobbled to the locker room and never returned.

Against Michigan, Cauley-Stein was on the sidelines with his teammates, but he was reduced to a supportive role, wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt with his jersey over the top and a boot on his right foot. He used crutches to move around during the game until UK's postgame celebration, when Cauley-Stein hobbled on one foot to the dog pile.

By the looks of things Sunday and based on Coach Cal's comments on Monday, it does not appear as though UK will have the services of its top shot-blocker against Wisconsin, but Cauley-Stein didn't rule out the possibility when he spoke to reporters after the Cats' Elite Eight victory, as faint as that prospect may be.

"I hope so," Cauley-Stein said when he was asked if he might play on Saturday. "I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee filled in admirably for Cauley-Stein when he went down with the injury. Johnson matched a career high with 15 points in the win over Louisville and Lee re-emerged from a seldom-used bench role with a 10-point, eight-rebound, two-block outing.

UK managed to block six shots vs. Michigan without its best rim protector, but the Cats will miss his presence against the Badgers, who feature a 7-footer in Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin's leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker.

"Do you understand that Willie changed most games for us?" Calipari said.

Coach Cal said Cauley-Stein went "bonkers" in the locker room during the win over Louisville and then watched Sunday as he cheered on his teammates from from the bench, even documenting some of the front-row action with video posted on the UK Sports Video department's Instagram account.

Calipari said he talked to Cauley-Stein to make sure he was in a good place mentally.

"I said, 'Willie, we're going to try to cover for you. It's gonna be really hard. But let me say this: You personally, you've proven yourself. People know what you are. They know the impact you have on games. They know that you're a 7-foot guard. They know that now. So is this hurting our team? Yes. But we're gonna try to cover. You're fine,' " Calipari said. "And I want them to understand, we are about them, and when you're injured, doesn't change things."

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.

John Calipari will be all over the place this week with his team set to play in the Final Four. His media obligations started this afternoon on the Final Four Head Coaches Teleconference. Predictably, he touched on a number of topics and you can read his thoughts below. Scroll down for some of Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan's thoughts on Kentucky as well.

Coach Cal

On talk of underachievement motivating his team ...

"It played no part. It's a process, and you can't skip steps. Part of that process is failing fast, sometimes failing often. The final step to all this is you surrender to each other, you lose yourself in the team, and you understand less is more. But that really takes time when you're playing seven freshmen in your top eight and each of them scored 25 points a game in high school. 'You must do less and that would be more for you.' It's a process, but what anybody said or wrote had no bearing on us."
 
On Jon Hood's value as a conduit between coaches and the young players ...
"Let me tell you what he did in the game last night. I just love the kid. He's come so far. He came from a deer-in-headlights, scared to death, to an angry, 'What is this?' to a great teammate to a loving part of our family. Last night in the game, they are shooting free throws and he says to me, 'What are you going to do if Dakari rebounds it? Because they're going to foul him.' He came up to me. Not an assistant. He walked up to me (laughing). And I said, 'Andrew, Aaron, if Dakari rebounds it, call an immediate timeout. Right away.'
 
"That's what he's done. And one game this year he came up to me and said, 'Coach, the lob is open versus the zone. He walked up and told me. We threw the lob and I went down and slapped him on the hand. See, this is not my team; it's their team. And I want them to feel empowered, and he knows that. He just left my office. He had the regional trophy in his room. He said, 'Where you want me to put it?' I said, 'You keep it.' He said, 'Nah, I've had it all night. It was in the bed with me.' That's the enjoyment, even if he's not playing as much. But you know what he says: 'If you need me, I'm ready now,' because of his frame of mind.

"I wish I had all kids for four or five years, to see this. But in the other sentence, I'm not going to convince a young man that should go chase his dreams to come back for me and to win more games. I'm not doing that. But I wish I had them more, because I can't tell you how much enjoyment I get from that."
 
On the last month, what sticks out about the team's composure/mental approach ...
"The bottom line is I screwed this up in a couple different ways. One, we tweaked some things that--I've had all different kind of point guards; I've had guys that have been different kind of players, and I waited probably two months longer than I should've to put a couple things in that changed how we were as a team. When I did the first tweak, I told everybody, 'You will see a change,' and they saw it; couldn't believe it. Then before we went to the (NCAA) tournament, I tweaked another thing and I said, 'You will see a change,' and they've all seen it.
 
"Now, most of the media don't know enough about basketball to really know what I've done. When the season's over, I'll go through point by point, what I did and how I did it, and you'll be able to say, 'Wow, I see it.' The question becomes, when you hear it, you'll say, 'Why didn't you do it earlier?' And I don't really have a good answer. Now, my only hope would be to say to you: Maybe they weren't ready to accept it two months ago. Maybe they had to fail more. Maybe they had to understand that you must surrender to your team, you must lose yourself in your team, and you must understand less is more when you're talking about team play. But if they were ready to accept it two months ago, this -- we wouldn't have been an eight seed playing the gauntlet that we just played."
 
On Kentucky's confidence level right now ...
"They're in a great frame of mind, but we lost Willie. Do you understand that Willie changed most games for us? Now, you may say that I was most happy that we won the game. I was happy we won the game. I was happy for the team and the program, but what made me more excited was Dominique Hawkins walking in that game, defending the way he did and changing the rhythm of the game for Michigan. I also loved what Marcus Lee did. We talked about it for two days, what was going to happen. We made the game really simple for him, said, 'You're only going to do these three things, you don't worry about anything else. Don't give them the ball in these positions, give it to them here, and you go do what you do ,and the world will be talking about you after the game.' And he was trending worldwide.
 
"Actually, as a coach it's not just what your stars are doing. You're here to coach everybody. And so to have those two -- and our team was ecstatic for them. It's been a great experience mentally to see these kids mature and change, and me be able to empower them. Aaron Harrison said something with me on the stage. 'Coach has always had to coach emotion, intensity, effort, and that means you've got to get a little nasty. You can't accept it, you can't let them just do what they want to do.' I've also had to coach body language, I've also had to coach unselfish play. I'm not coaching any of that now. Now, I'm coaching basketball. So people are saying, 'Boy, he looks more relaxed. I am more relaxed because I know I don't have to look out there and see a guy not going hard or a guy pouting or a guy passing up a teammate or taking five bad shots. I'm not dealing with any of that. This team has been empowered now, and now I get to coach basketball."
 
On if Kentucky needs to refresh itself before going forward after the gauntlet of the past two weeks ...
"We're just marching how we've been marching. Nothing changes. You're not going to get away from any of that stuff.
 
On his secret in recruiting, being able to land elite players ...
"Wait a minute, wait a minute. Now, when I was at UMass, we had one McDonald's All-American, Donta Bright. When I was at Memphis, we may have had three over my years there. So when you say -- we weren't getting top-50 players at UMass. Now, we were winning. We were a terrific team, and I had to coach guys four years, and I was ecstatic. And then at Memphis, I was coaching them three and four years, and we were becoming a good team. Now I'm at Kentucky. There's a combination of the parents understanding Kentucky, what it is. And the young people only know three years. The kids we recruit, all of us, they don't know five years ago. They were 12 and 11, 10. They know the last three years.
 
"When John Wall and (Eric) Bledsoe and (DeMarcus) Cousins and (Patrick) Patterson went in that draft with (Daniel) Orton -- five first rounders -- it changed the whole direction. The paradigm changed. Wasn't like we planned it. I never thought Eric Bledsoe was one-and-done. No one ever thought that. He didn't play in the McDonald's game and all that. 'Well you only take one-and-done players.' What about Josh Harrellson? What about DeAndre Liggins making it. That's all crazy talk.
 
"But what's happened is these kids understand you've got to come together, and we're honest with them. This is the hardest place to come and play basketball. If you think this is going to be easy, don't come here. The second piece of it is, 'If you want to be the only guy that can play, don't come here. If you want to take all the shots, go somewhere else. If you want to be on a team where the coach only highlights one or two guys, you better be one of those two guys, and if you want to go there, go.' That's not how it is here. Every game is a Super Bowl. You're scrutinized because people are attacking me, so you're going to get scrutinized because they want to come after me. And what we're doing has never been done, so you can't do this. So you're getting that hit. 'If you can't deal with all that, don't come here.' That's a heck of a sell, isn't it?"
 
On if its seems strange to him to coach a team that was both supposed to make the Final Four in preseason and was not supposed to make the Final Four when the tournament started ...

"Again, I wished we could have skipped steps in the process and probably was trying to do that, which is why I did such a poor job early with this team. Really, I was probably trying to skip steps, but in the end we got the plane down, barely. We almost ran out of runway. This team was built up to be torn down. Sometimes I always wonder if it's the opinion or the hope of how people feel about this team, and we withstood it. They were under immense fire. They never wavered. They kept believing. They were their brothers' keeper. They believed in the leadership. They believed in the staff. They believed in the system and the process. It never went away, and we never -- I never -- stopped believing in this team or the players on it -- and I mean each individual player. That in itself is a great story of 'How in the world did you guys overcome that?' Well it made us stronger, it made us tougher, it made us harder."
 
On what areas the twins have shown the greatest amount of growth and what it says about Dominique Hawkins and Marcus Lee to step up after not playing much recently ...
"Well I'm going to answer the second one first. Those two -- we coach every player like they're a starter. There's no one coached different. You're held accountable just like a starter would be held accountable. You're pushed and challenged and coached just like a starter would be. We try throughout the season to make sure we're getting those kids minutes so by the end of the year if something happens they're ready to go. So, I'm not surprised. There are times in practice those are our best two players. But, it's really hard to get yourself ready to play every game when you don't play in six straight games. That's really hard. that means you're a good person. That means you're mature, because you know the clutter in their ears is telling them they should be playing more, what are they doing, you're better. They're hearing it because it's natural, yet they withstand all that.
 
"The first question about Andrew and Aaron, there are two parts of it. One, the biggest thing we had to help them with was some body language. As that changed, they became different players. The second thing was we had to define the roles better, and I did a poor job of that until late in the year. By the end of the year -- again, I can't believe -- and I was angry when I realized -- what I had done. Because I've coached all kind of different point guards. We had to get Derrick Rose to shoot more. We had to get Tyreke (Evans) and Brandon Knight to shoot less. We had fast point guards. We had point guards that weren't as fast. John Wall. Eric Bledsoe played the combo. It just bothered me as a coach that that's my job. Their job is to play. My job is to help define their roles and bring them together, to get them to understand. And I'm happy it was done. I just wish I had done it earlier."
 
On if he and/or his team will watch the McDonald's All-American game this week ...
"Oh, we'll watch it. And if I can't watch it, it'll be taped. It'll be taped, because we have four players in it. And we got four great -- when I tell you great kids -- they're terrific basketball players, but spend some time with them. You're talking about four great, great kids. I imagine our team will watch it. They'll watch it live, because they all played in it and they'll want to see it."
 
On what he saw in practice that let him sense his team was changing ...
"Yeah. We tweaked one thing, and it changed the whole direction, and the team knew it and the staff knew it and I knew it. And then I was angry for an hour of practice because I hadn't done it earlier. And it changed everything. Overnight. And that's what happened. And it was something that, 'Why didn't I do this earlier?' It changed. And then in the NCAA Tournament I tweaked another thing, and it changed another way of how we were playing. And now everyone saw it. But again, you have to surrender. You have to accept. You have to do less, which is more, for you and our team becomes better, which means you become better. But that's hard. Every one of these kids averaged 25 and was a McDonald's All-American in some way or form or fashion. And all of the sudden now, you're asked to do way less. That's really hard. And as you're doing less, you start saying, 'Wow, they're talking better about me. They think I'm better by doing less? How's that work?' Because you're team's doing better, you're being more patient, you're being a better basketball player because you're trying to do less. But you're doing more of the things you need to do: Defend, rebound, block shots, fly up and down the court. Things that take pressure off you and make the game easier for you."
 
On the prognosis for Willie Cauley-Stein playing ...

"I doubt he plays, and he will be on our bench cheering like crazy. They told me in the locker room of the Louisville game where he got hurt right away, the doctor told me -- I asked him about the injury and all that -- and he said, 'I got to stop you before. You cannot believe how much he was cheering for his team in there. He wasn't worried about himself. He was going bonkers.' I said, 'Really?' 'Oh, we had to hold him down. He was trying to run around.' I'm so happy for him. It's kind of like Nerlens (Noel). When Nerlens got hurt, they see their life flash before them, their careers. And I said to Nerlens, 'Nerlens. You are fine. Now, our team is not, but you are fine.' And I just said to Willie, I said, 'Willie, we're going to try to cover for you. It's gonna be really hard. But let me say this: You personally, you've proven yourself. People know what you are. They know the impact you have on games. They know that you're a 7-foot guard. They know that now. So this is hurting our team? Yes. But we're gonna try to cover. You're fine.' And I want them to understand, we are about them, and when you're injured, doesn't change things."

Ryan

On the Harrison twins
...
"Well, needless to say they're pretty talented or Kentucky wouldn't be playing in the semifinals. They're not young anymore; they're pretty well-established. Very talented. Physically, they were more mature than most freshmen to begin with and they're primed right now. I still have a lot more film to look at along with my assistant coach that has them, but we know we're going to have our hands full with the twins, that's for sure."

On Kentucky ...

"Yeah, well obviously we haven't been to the Final Four very often so most people wouldn't know nationally that I never do scouting reports on other teams. There's still a lot I have to look at and Kentucky's--for me to say they're good, that wouldn't be--I'd be slighting them. They are very good and they're playing in the semifinals for a reason. Well-coached. John's done a great job of getting those guys, as young as they are, to play together and do the things they're doing. And they're playing their best at the right time, obviously, or you don't get to this point."

On Billy Donovan saying UK-Wisconsin represents a contrast in styles ...
"Well, I think Billy was having some fun with you. Kentucky's trying to put the ball in the hole; we're trying to put the ball in the hole. We're trying keep them from doing it; they're trying to keep us from doing it. If that's styles, I didn't know there were that many. I don't see it totally as that. If other people do, they could explain to you why. But we are who we are right now. We're not changing. They're who they are right now. So it's--whatever people want to say about styles and all that, I leave it up to them. I've never gotten caught up in that kind of a conversation."

 

Kentucky's freshmen in a class by themselves

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UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) UK advanced to the Final Four with an Elite Eight win over Michigan on Sunday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - He, too, a bit shocked, a bit in disbelief, a bit in amazement at the type of turnaround his young team had just completed, John Calipari sat at the dais in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium and tried to review the silliness of a bunch of 18- and 19-year-old kids defying the odds, forgetting the past and coming together for one of the most unforgettable turnarounds in recent college basketball memory.

"We played six - no, we played seven freshmen today, didn't we?"

Seven of them, to be clear. Seven of them to the Final Four.

Supposedly too young and too inexperienced to repeat what happened two years ago - a notion backed up by the 10 losses in the regular season - these Kentucky Wildcats are apparently just too stubborn to care what people say can't happen and what's really never been done for.

Sure, the 2012 national title team was headlined by freshmen like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, but even that group pales in comparison to the youth of this 2014 Final Four team.

Freshmen were responsible for 53.3 percent and 54.0 percent of the minutes on that title team. Through 38 games this year, UK's nine freshmen account for 81.8 percent of the scoring and 75.3 percent of the minutes.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, UK is the first team to start five freshmen in an Elite Eight game since Michigan's Fab Five did it in 1992.

But eat your heart out, you young guns at Kentucky, even you are topping that legendary Michigan team. The Fab Five - the entirety of that team's freshman class - were only responsible for 75.3 percent of the scoring and 68.5 percent of the minutes that season.

"Doesn't matter about the age or anything anymore," Aaron Harrison said. "We just try to get out and fight and keep our heads down and swing the whole game, and we just fight so hard."

There's more.

With Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined due to a left ankle injury, the Cats became even younger for their Elite Eight game against second-seeded Michigan.

Of the 75 points UK scored Sunday night, 67 of them were scored by freshmen. Of the 200 minutes of game, time, freshmen ate up 182 of them. They had 32 of the 35 rebounds, seven of the eight assists and all seven of the 3-pointers.

Only now does it dawn upon everyone why it took time for this to work itself out.

"They were trying," Calipari said. "Loving the grind, learning to work, becoming self-disciplined, counting on one another, being their brother's keeper, all that stuff. Losing themselves in the team. It's hard when all seven of them scored 28 a game in high school."

It took them an entire season to surrender as well as a few adjustments from Cal, but when they finally came together, played for one another and surrendered to coaching, their talent really showed through.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Coach Cal said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

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.

Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison celebrates his game-winning 3-pointer with Julius Randle and Dakari Johnson. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS - The T-shirts of the dream, the talk of perfection, the flirtation with 40-0 -- John Calipari was a victim of the expectations as well.

For the first time this season after dealing with the maddening aftereffects of failing to meet regular-season expectations, Coach Cal admitted that he too bought into the hype.

"I had to accept that, too, now," Coach Cal said Sunday after his Wildcats pulled off another memorable victory, a 75-72 win over Michigan in the Elite Eight. "I started reading what everybody was writing. I'm thinking: This is going to be easy."

Easy? This year might have been Calipari's toughest.

After the disappointing 2012-13 season, one that ended with a first-round loss in the NIT, Coach Cal came into the year a new man.

He boasted about the increase in depth, which he said would give him the option to sit kids when they needed to learn from the bench. He bragged about the ridiculous talent and length that six McDonald's All-Americans would bring. He spoke of the attitude of his new recruits and their will to win.

Things were so different that Calipari caught himself singing in the car one day and "talking crap." Order was restored, in his mind.

"It's back to where we were," Coach Cal said in September.

The program is back to where it was two years ago now, but it involved a whole lot more hardship than anyone could have imagined.

"It was difficult because my choice coaching them was to allow them the body language, the effort less than it needed to be, the focus less than it needed to be, (and) at times, selfishness," Calipari said Sunday.

UK suffered 10 losses in the regular season, lost three of four late and hit rock bottom with an embarrassing loss at South Carolina. It was then that Aaron Harrison said UK would still write a "great story," a prediction that has unbelievably come true, but it's taken some pretty remarkable steps to overcome.

It took Coach Cal looking in the mirror and realizing he needed to "tweak" some things. It took criticism - some nasty - that brought the players together. It took a lot of failing before the succeeding could happen.

"This was very difficult for all of us," Calipari said.

Calipari faced major scrutiny late in the regular season when the wheels fell off in Columbia, S.C. The Kentucky head coach was ejected from that game, he was criticized for being too hard on his players, and many wondered if his approach of recruiting the most talented players regardless of age was a one-hit wonder in 2012.

All the while, Calipari dragged along a hip that's so bad that he's had trouble getting up steps.

But that's what's made part of this late-season turnaround -- a run through the "region of doom" that's included three teams in last year's Final Four, a No. 1 seed and previously undefeated team and last year's defending national champion - so sweet.

Emotions were tested. Resolve was questioned. Supporters dwindled.

And yet the Wildcats endured.

"We never lost faith," Julius Randle said. "There was never a point where I lost faith in the team or anything."

After listening to the outsiders before the season and falling victim to those weighty expectations, they learned to stop listening to everyone else when the criticism came crashing down upon them.

"We never doubted each other," Alex Poythress said. "Our coaches never doubted us. We always stayed a little family and our little circle. Just try to stay strong."

The consensus in the celebration of Sunday night's ticket punching to the Final Four is that the turnaround happened just before the Southeastern Conference Tournament when Coach Cal made the now legendary -- and still yet-to-be confirmed -- "tweak."

"Coach did a good job," Randle said. "He simplified our roles. Everything just clicked on both ends of the floor."

Andrew Harrison said that humbling game at South Carolina seems like "forever ago," but the reality of it is that loss was just one month ago. That's a lot of soul-searching to do in a few weeks' time and a whole lot of adjustments.

"It's a process," Calipari said. "Every year it's a process. Some guys get it quicker than others. It took these guys a little longer and it took me a little longer to figure them out. ... It took us four months."

Four months later, they're finally ready to be the team that garnered so much hype at the beginning of the season.

"When they all just settled in and lost themselves in the team, the game became easier," Calipari said. "They became better. They had more fun. They became more confident. And all of a sudden this is what you have."

One hell of a turnaround. One hell of a story.

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.

Injured Cauley-Stein still very much part of team

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Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Willie Cauley-Stein gives directions from the bench during UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- Willie Cauley-Stein wasn't about to let anything separate him from his team, not in this moment.

Cauley-Stein was on the bench for UK's heart-stopping Elite Eight win over Michigan. He needed crutches to move around, but he wasn't your typical bench bystander.

The sophomore forward put his own unique spin on "street clothes," wearing the same road blue jersey as his teammates over his hooded sweatshirt. When the Wildcats made a big play, he celebrated. When they took the stage to receive the Midwest Regional trophy, he was right there with them.

Likely to his doctor's chagrin, Cauley-Stein even got in on the jubilant dog pile after the buzzer sounded.

"I jumped on one leg," said Cauley-Stein, who captured the experience with a handheld camera. "I just had to improvise, you know what I'm saying? I felt like a pogo stick."



Cauley-Stein made his presence felt even before tip-off, and as much more than just a symbolic "Win For Willie" figure.

He spoke to his team before and during the game, encouraging the Wildcats to keep playing their game even though he wouldn't be there to play it with them.

"He's been real vocal," Alex Poythress said. "He's still trying to be vocal. He's one of our leaders here so he's just trying to help us the best he can."

He was particularly vocal with Marcus Lee, the freshman who stepped in with Cauley-Stein sidelined. With his help, Lee surprised everyone but John Calipari and had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's 75-72 victory.

"He was always trying to give me pointers and tips and coach me through the games, through the practices as we went," Lee said. "He was always on my shoulder trying to tell me what to do, which was great."

Cauley-Stein spoke before the Southeastern Conference Tournament about never having won anything substantial in his career as a basketball player. UK is now just two victories away from a national championship -- about as significant at it gets in college basketball -- which you'd think might lead to some disappointment on the part of Cauley-Stein since he might not be able to be on the floor for that.

If those emotions are there, Cauley-Stein isn't letting on.

"Right now he's still getting through that injury and he's not even thinking about it," Lee said. "He told us, he was like, 'I totally forgot my ankle hurt.' He was just running up and down the court. So it was really great having him."

It would be even better having Cauley-Stein -- owner of 106 of UK's 230 blocks on the season -- on the floor.

UK, after allowing 1.08 points per possession as Cauley-Stein was limited to just four minutes against U of L, yielded a season-high 1.26 to the high-powered Wolverines. Even though they advanced, the Cats missed Cauley-Stein's rim protection and ability to switch onto quick perimeter players.

Now, as UK prepares for a Final Four matchup with Wisconsin at approximately 8:49 p.m. ET on Saturday, Cauley-Stein is going to work to get back in full uniform.

"I really don't know," Cauley-Stein said, asked of his status for the weekend. "I hope so. I really hope so. I'm going to go back to Lexington and get a bunch of treatment, a lot of ice and maybe, just maybe, this weekend I'll be able to suit up or something."

Whether he's able to or not, you can be sure Cauley-Stein will be on the bench with his teammates in AT&T Stadium.

"It's sad that he's hurt, but he's still a part of this team," Poythress said. "We're not going to leave him out. If he wants to jump in the dog pile he can. If he wants to run sprints with us this week, he can hop in. We're just happy he can share this moment with us."



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.

Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Marcus Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in UK's Elite Eight win over Michigan. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Wildcats knew at that point they would likely be without Willie Cauley-Stein.

Talking to the Cats after their Elite Eight matchup with Michigan was set, John Calipari offered a prediction of something that would help them survive the big man's absence.

"He told the team I was going to have a big day," Marcus Lee said.

That's right. Lee, the player who had as many DNPs as games played in Southeastern Conference play, was going to star.

"And everyone in the world would be talking about you is what I said," Calipari said.

Lee and his teammates, understandably, were skeptical.

"Knowing us, none of us believed him," Lee said.

For the first minute he was on the floor against the Wolverines, the doubt seemed well-founded

His team in the midst of a characteristic slow start, Lee checked in at the 15:25 mark of the first half. On his third possession, he made a mistake that led in part to an Alex Poythress turnover. On the other end of the floor, he missed a block-out assignment and Jon Horford capitalized with a tip-in to give Michigan an 11-4 lead.

Coach Cal, poised to end all thoughts of a breakout performance for the slender freshman, turned to the bench and summoned Dakari Johnson as a substitute.

But then something happened.

Andrew Harrison drove and missed a floater. Lee, on the weak side, flashed to the rim. In one motion, he rose, palmed the rebound and spiked it downward. It rattled around for a moment before falling and giving Lee his first points in more than a month.

As Lee ran back on defense, Calipari summoned Johnson again, this time back to the bench.

It was good he did, because Lee was about to author one of the most improbable stories of an NCAA Tournament full of them. Well, improbable to everyone except Calipari maybe.

His put-back dunk was the first of three such plays. By the time Calipari did finally bring Lee back to the bench, he had six points and three rebounds in just three minutes, helping UK withstand a first-half barrage by Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.

"I was just trying to do my part to help my team win," Lee said. "And throughout our practices and our shootarounds, I just got more confident because my team got more confident in me."

His confidence only grew as he produced.

Lee was on the floor as UK stormed back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes of the half, slamming down another tip dunk to cap an 8-0 run. Forty-one seconds later, he drove from the free-throw line and hit a right-handed layup.

It was a play that reminded everyone watching that Lee was a UK's seventh McDonald's All-American in Coach Cal's top-ranked 2013 class, including the Wolverines.

"We had very little on him (on the scouting report)," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "But he does one thing really, really well, and that's he plays way above the rim."

His teammates needed no such reminder of that, even as Lee went from scouting report afterthought to trending nationwide on Twitter during that remarkable first half.

"What he did kept us in the game, won us the game," Julius Randle said. "That's what we need from him. We knew he was capable of it all season. We had Willie and Dakari playing out of their mind all season but we knew he was capable of it."

More aware of the bouncy Lee, the Wolverines paid him more attention after halftime. Lee didn't score as UK came out on top after a back-and-forth final 20 minutes on Aaron Harrison's game-winning 3, but he was still effective in six minutes of playing time.

For the game, Lee had 10 points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks. His performance earned him a spot on the Midwest Region All-Tournament Team alongside Randle, the Most Outstanding Player, and the ever-clutch Aaron Harrison.

"It is pretty crazy, but he really stepped up," said Johnson, who told reporters on Saturday the Cats would need Lee to play well. "He got his opportunity. You know, Willie was out and he more than stepped up big time. He was a difference-maker in the game. Without him I don't think we would have won today."

That's probably the first time in Lee's short college career that could be said.

Lee exploded for 17 points in his UK debut, but in a game against UNC Asheville that was never in doubt. When he did get his opportunities, Lee would flash athleticism but make maddening mistakes that made it impossible for Coach Cal to play the Antioch, Calif., native over Cauley-Stein or Johnson.

He understood why he wasn't seeing more time, but he couldn't help but let frustration creep in.

"Just as a competitor you have it going through your head sometimes," Lee said. "But when you're with your team and you're with your family, it kind of just goes right past you."

Nevertheless, there would be times when Lee would have lapses in practice and daydream.

"I mean, when you have really long practices you have to take some time to yourself for a second," Lee said, smiling. "But, yeah, you gotta get the foot in your butt to tell you to come back to earth."

He didn't need any kicks in the butt on Saturday knowing an opportunity might be coming. Once it did, all Lee did was carry a solid day of practice forward.

"I just tried to play the same way I played in practice," Lee said. "I treated every game like me going through practice. Coach always told me to be ready so that's what I tried to do."

With Cauley-Stein -- wearing a protective boot and using crutches on Sunday -- uncertain for next weekend's national semifinal against Wisconsin, Lee will need to be ready again.

"Marcus Lee, again," said Johnson, asked how the Cats will cope without Cauley-Stein. "He'll get another opportunity and he more than handled this opportunity. So I have no doubt he's going to play well again."

For now, Lee's just going to enjoy having the entire world talk about him. That, and the pride of the coach who believed in him more than he believed in himself.

"Proud of you, kid," Calipari told Lee at UK's postgame press conference.

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.

Andrew Harrison and Alex Poythress


Jon Hood and Dakari Johnson



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  • Guy Ramsey: The song is "The Mighty Rio Grande" by the band This Will Destroy You. read more
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