UK will face Cincinnati on Saturday after beating Hampton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Fourteen words. That's all it took for Aaron Harrison to get his point across. They were simple words, nothing poetic, nothing to make you look deeper into their meaning. But they were powerful and they proved to be prophetic.
"We know what we can do and it's going to be a great story," he said.
At the time, the words fell on many a deaf ear. The Cats had dropped to 21-8 after losing at South Carolina and a once-promising 2013-14 season was looking more and more disappointing.
What followed, of course, was a trip to the national championship game. As for Harrison, he did his part, hitting two of the biggest shots in UK's illustrious postseason history, vaulting the Cats over Michigan and then Wisconsin on game-winning 3-pointers from the wing.
So why are those 14 words being brought up again now over one year later and with the Cats standing tall at 35-0? Well, because Harrison may be on to something again.
After a ho-hum 23-point opening game victory over 16th-seeded Hampton on Thursday, Harrison wasn't happy. The only one of UK's active rotation of players without a field goal, the second team All-Southeastern Conference selection said UK's next game Saturday against Cincinnati (23-10) would be different.
"I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely," he said.
The reason behind Harrison's words is he didn't think the Cats played with much intensity against Hampton. He wasn't the only one though.
"We did some good things, we did some bad things," Willie Cauley-Stein said.
"We kinda came out sluggish and we gotta come out of the gate better than that with what we did (Thursday)," Dakari Johnson said.
"Came out a little sluggish at the beginning," Trey Lyles said.
Aaron Harrison wasn't the only one who vowed a change on Saturday though. His twin brother, Andrew, joined in this time.
"For me, I started off sluggish," Andrew Harrison said. "It won't happen again."
Again, uh oh.
As it has been written before, in March, the Harrison twins tend to step their games up to new heights. While Aaron Harrison had an uncharacteristically off night against Hampton, Andrew rebounded from a tough first half with a strong second half. In the final 20 minutes, Andrew Harrison went 3 for 3 from the field, scored seven points, grabbed three rebounds, dished out two assists and had a steal.
So does it carry a bit more weight when it's Aaron Harrison who makes a statement about what the team is going to do?
"Yeah, especially if he's saying it," Cauley-Stein said. "Him and his brother are kind of the throttle on the team. If they're saying they're going to come out playing different, then they're going to come out playing different. In return, everybody's going to come out playing different. They're kind of the fuel to the fire."
Whether it comes to fruition or not is still to be seen, but it appears there's a hearty amount of fuel in the tank for Saturday's third-round matchup between two schools just 85 miles apart. While they haven't played since 2005, the proximity of the schools coupled with the David vs. Goliath theme that nearly every team will use when playing undefeated Kentucky, makes UK head coach John Calipari believe the Bearcats will be more than ready.
"They've got a chance to beat the No. 1 team in the country," Coach Cal said. "They've got a chance. They're next up on the docket. I would imagine they're dreaming about it, thinking about it, having people in the stands. Make sure you take video of this because I want my grandkids to see it. And I don't blame them. ... It should be a great game. It should be a war."
Which makes the attitude and confidence held by the Harrisons one that Calipari welcomes from his team. This time of year, Coach Cal says, is time for him to love his team, but not a time for him to drag his team. Instead, he wants his team to become more empowered, and to take more ownership in how everything goes and is carried.
"It's their team," Calipari said. "They know it's not my team."
And the longer this season goes, the more Coach Cal wants that empowerment to grow, and the players do as well. The end result, well, that could make opponents say "uh oh."
"Later in the season we go I feel like we're all going to need each other the most," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "We know that. We're coming together even closer toward the end of the year and I feel like it's going to be dangerous."
John Calipari leads UK in a third-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Teams have run with Kentucky. Teams have tried to punch the Wildcats in the mouth.
Some have sunk into zone defenses and challenged the Cats to hit from the outside. Some have gone with full-court pressure against UK.
For what seems like every one of the Cats' wins, opponents have gone with a different approach to hand them their first loss.
"They gotta run out eventually," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "They try everything. You got to though. You can't get mad at it. I would do the same thing."
Of course, none of it's worked.
Top-seeded UK has charged through 35 games without a loss to tie the best start to a season in NCAA history. The Cats will look to take over the record on their own when they face eighth-seeded Cincinnati (23-10) at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center.
When they do, they'll take on an opponent they expect to try a familiar game plan.
"We just know that they're going to play extremely hard and try to bully us," Cauley-Stein said. "They play that zone. That's really all we've looked at so far. We'll know more about probably an hour."
Cauley-Stein would have to wait an hour because the Cats had yet to spend much time preparing for the Bearcats as of Friday afternoon. The final buzzer didn't sound on their second-round NCAA Tournament win over Hampton until well after midnight and the team bus didn't pull into the hotel until close to 3 a.m.
But that would change at UK's practice later in the day, when John Calipari would reinforce the message about what to expect from Cincinnati.
"The stuff that has affected us, real physical play, stretching our big guys out, playing a zone and doing stuff, that's all what Cincinnati does," Calipari said. "We know we're in for a tough game. They fought all year and deserve to be in a position they're in. A great win. It's going to be a really hard game for us."
The great win Coach Cal referenced was a 66-65 overtime triumph against Purdue. In the game, the Bearcats trailed by seven with less than a minute to play before charging back and forcing the extra session on a buzzer-beating layup by Troy Caupain.
The victory sets up a showdown between two schools separated by barely 80 miles. There are fans of both schools on either side of the Kentucky-Ohio border, a fact that does not escape the Bearcats.
"Being that they are really close to us, we see the things fans and all the blue," sophomore forward Gary Clark said. "We go over to Kentucky to the movie theater, and there's dinner and restaurants. So we see the fans all the time."
In fact, their coach used to be one of them.
Growing up in Mount Sterling, Ky., Larry Davis - serving as interim coach with head coach Mick Cronin out for the season with an unruptured aneurysm - listened to UK games on the radio with his father before attending Asbury College.
"I had some friends there in college whose father had some tickets, and any chance we could, we followed the national championship team with (Jack) Goose Givens and those guys," Davis said. "So I've always had a lot of respect for Kentucky basketball."
For the Cats, the proximity adds a little something extra, though playing for the right to continue their season is motivation enough.
"This has a little more pride on the line," Karl-Anthony Towns said. "It's around the hometown. You gotta protect home at all costs, so like I said, we're going to go out there and play to the best of our abilities for that night and just see how it falls."
Towns expects the same of Cincinnati.
"They're going to be playing like it's their Super Bowl," Towns said. "But not only is it going to be their Super Bowl, it's going to be their Super Bowl, their NBA Finals, their Stanley Cup Finals. I mean, everything together is coming here and we're just playing the game."
UK will face Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32 on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Lindsay Travis contributed to this feature.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - They won big, but they weren't thrilled with how they did it.
For the Kentucky Wildcats (35-0), each game is a battle against themselves. Up big? Doesn't matter, what can we do to get better? How can everyone individually improve their game to then raise the overall level of the team? That's the mindset this bunch has, and it's clearly worked all season.
"In this locker room it's the same if you're up 50 or you're down 10," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "Coach is always yelling at you to do better and that's what makes us great. We're always trying to push each other to do better no matter what the score is."
Top-seeded Kentucky led 16th seeded Hampton by 35 points Thursday night with 12:43 remaining in the game. From there, Hampton outscored Kentucky 28-16. Obviously, it was too little, too late, but it bookended a game that saw Kentucky hit just two of its first nine shots and five of its first 15.
"We did some good things, we did some bad things," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said.
The good included a +20 advantage on the boards against a much smaller and overpowered opponent. Similarly, Kentucky outscored the Pirates 44-20 in the paint. The Cats dished out 15 assists while holding Hampton to just two, and had another solid performance at the foul line, converting 20 of 28 attempts.
The bad included a sluggish start that was partly attributable to the Cats not tipping off until approximately 10:18 p.m., thanks to the game before theirs going to overtime, forcing UK to wait in the tunnel and locker room in anticipation of what had already been a very long day of waiting around.
The bad things for Kentucky also included taking its foot off the gas in the second half, a lesson head coach John Calipari has preached to his team, and one that seems to have been heard.
"You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a 2-point game," Coach Cal said. "What just happened? You broke down on two pick-and-rolls defensively, and then someone fouled, didn't need to, and then all of a sudden, they make a play, and it's a 2-point game."
"Something you can take away is that no game is ever over, no matter what the score is," Lee said. "That's something you have to go with and you always have to battle throughout the whole game. You can't just assume you're going to win."
With all of that said, Kentucky did win its opening game of the Big Dance by 23 points and was able to unload its entire bench. Certainly it was a stark contrast to the other three games played in the KFC Yum! Center that day which were each decided by a single point, an NCAA Tournament record for one venue in a single day.
Would Coach Cal, have liked to have maintained that 35-point lead throughout the remainder of the game or even strengthened it? Sure, but he knows that's not always going to happen, especially when he's leading the youngest team in the entire tournament field.
"We held them to 30 percent (shooting from the field) and 25 (percent) from the 3," Coach Cal said. "We fouled way too much today, but like I told the staff, you get up 35, it's hard. It's hard."
Back to the basics for Booker
When Devin Booker came to Kentucky and first started playing with this team he just wanted to figure out how he'd fit in. Fast forward 35 games and the freshman knows what his role is: a shooter.
Booker started the season in a shooting slump but after coming back from an injury he hit a streak that left many anxiously waiting for each reloaded 3. In a seven-game stretch from Dec. 13-Jan. 17, Booker hit 71.4 percent of his shots from deep. Add in the next four games, two where he didn't hit a trey, and his shooting percentage was still 65.8 percent.
Since the Cats played at Georgia on March 3, the Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year hasn't hit more than two 3s in a game. But all of that could of course change in the blink of an eye.
During the SEC Coaches' Teleconference prior to the NCAA Tournament, Coach Cal predicted that Booker would get back to his old ways of playing, his old ways of shooting.
"Devin has to step up a little bit, but this has been a thing," Calipari said. "I think you'll see Devin in the tournament get back to the way he was playing, losing himself in the game. I think there are times he's thinking a little too much because he played so well the expectation was that every shot was going to go in."
For the freshman, it's not that he lacks confidence necessarily, it's that he's frustrated.
"As long as we're winning, I'm fine," Booker said, "but if I'm frustrated it's I'm frustrated with myself because I'm not playing the way that I work so hard to play. If there's frustration it's in myself, if anything."
Shooters just keep shooting and Booker knows that's what he has to do, along with getting back to the basics of his game.
"I just have to get back to fundamentals," he said Thursday night. "I just have to have more confidence in my shot and keep doing what I was doing through the middle of the season. I feel like the next game I'll knock down those shots."
His teammates know that he'll knock down those shots too.
"There are some guys like me, Aaron, Book, we weren't hitting on the offensive side, so obviously you're going to be down on yourself for that," junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. "... (Aaron Harrison and Booker), those dudes hit shots all the time. Today they're not hitting. Hopefully Saturday they're hitting."
'They swear I'm Superman or something'
At times this season, Cauley-Stein's athleticism has seemed to be out of this world.
It's not just that the 7-footer can guard all five positions on the floor, including limiting second team All-SEC point guard K.T. Harrell to 1-of-12 shooting, it's the dunks he's thrown down too.
Oh, those dunks.
Against Florida, Cauley-Stein got the feed from Andrew Harrison and took off for one of the best dunks of the entire college basketball season. One game later, Cauley-Stein could have opened up his own personal poster business with the number of jams he threw down at the expense of LSU defenders.
"I still like the whole criticism is, 'I'm soft,' or something like that, so I'm just going to start dunking on people," Cauley-Stein said after Kentucky's 34-point rout of South Carolina on Valentine's Day. "I don't see how you can call me soft if I'm just dunking on people, so that's my whole mentality going into games now."
On Thursday night against 16th seeded Hampton, that mentality was missing, and the result were a few missed bunnies that had Big Blue Nation scratching its collective head.
"They swear I'm Superman or something and I can just fly over everybody," the Olathe, Kan., native said. "I mean, a lot of it I probably could, but you're not thinking of it like that. You're not thinking you can just jump over somebody and dunk it until you actually do it and you're just like, 'OK, well maybe I could do that.' "
That's not to say Cauley-Stein is down on himself. Though he finished 1 for 5 from the floor, he did score seven points, grab a team-high tying 11 rebounds, dish out two assists and block two shots. The missed shots, they'll happen, for Cauley-Stein it's about wiping the slate clean and moving on to the next one.
The example he used after the game went back to just one week prior at the SEC Tournament in Nashville. In the Wildcats' opening game against Florida, Cauley-Stein went 2 for 9 with nine points and four rebounds. He then followed that disappointing performance with 18 points and seven boards against Auburn in the semifinals, 15 points and 10 rebounds against Arkansas in the championship, and SEC Tournament MVP honors when all was said and done.
"You miss four one-footers that you should probably dunk, OK, but I didn't, so you miss some," Cauley-Stein said. "To me, I'm not looking at it, I'm not killing myself on it because I know I'm going to make them. I just happened to miss them tonight." Getting physical
There's no question that UK has a size advantage at some position in every game they play. When you've got the tallest basketball team in the country that's not all too surprising.
So how do other teams keep their heads above water when facing off with a team fans have compared to the MonStars from Space Jam?
"Teams are going to do whatever they need to do to try to stay with us and try to compete with us," sophomore forward Dakari Johnson said. "And I do think they're going to try to be physical with us, maybe try to get us out of our heads. But we do a good job controlling that and just being physical back."
The Cats aren't unaccustomed to teams trying to push them around a bit. Case in point: Auburn's 7-foot-2 Trayvon Reed getting chippy with 5-9 Tyler Ulis in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament. Between league play and practice, they're pretty familiar with it.
"We're from the SEC so we're kind of use to that with huge bodies," Lee said. "I guess you can see they were really trying to do something like that, but we're kind of used to it."
"In practice we're going at each other too and we're being physical with each other too, so we're prepared for those (things) during the games," Johnson said.
Following the SEC Tournament semifinals, Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl talked about the type of team it would take to beat the, so far, undefeated Cats.
"I think it would need to be a team that would be a big physical club that could be able to withstand their size and their dominance," Pearl said. "It would have to be a great team."
Teams like Georgia, Ole Miss and Texas A&M had enough size to hang with UK, according to Pearl. Those teams each gave the Cats some of their closest contests of the season, with the Rebels and Aggies taking the No. 1 team in the country into overtime and double overtime, respectively.
The Cats know they'll get their opponents' best games and if the opponent starts a slugfest, Booker thinks it'll help push UK to play their best ball.
"A lot of teams have tried that, but we know how to respond to that," he said. "I think that brings the best (out) of us when teams try to be the aggressor first."
Karl-Anthony Towns had 21 points and 11 rebounds in UK's win over Hampton in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - None of the Wildcats, among Kentucky's active rotation, had ever won an NCAA Tournament game by more than seven points.
Check another first off the list.
It may not have started how many were thinking it would, but it certainly got to that point by the final buzzer as Kentucky cruised to a 79-56 victory over 16th seeded Hampton in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"It was a good win," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I didn't like how we started the game. I didn't quite like how we finished the game. But it is one o'clock at night, and we had an overtime game where the guys were hanging out in the locker room for an hour and a half. So I'm going to chalk it up to that and move on."
The game Calipari was referring to was the Cincinnati-Purdue matchup that occurred directly before the Cats' game, pushing an originally scheduled 9:40 p.m. tipoff back to 10:18 p.m.
The late night start was no problem for freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns, who shined for Kentucky (35-0) by scoring a career-high 21 points, grabbing a team-high tying 11 rebounds and blocking three shots. It was the team-leading eighth double-double this season for the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, and further cemented his role as one of Kentucky's go-to scorers.
"(He) played special," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "I'm not surprised at all. I know what Karl's capable of and everyone's seeing it now, that he's basically unstoppable down there."
Facing a team of Hampton's height, whose tallest player was 6-foot-9, Towns showed off his patented baby hook, grabbed rebounds over others, and overpowered just about everyone in his way.
"Karl played really good," Cauley-Stein said. "Had really good touch around the rim today. We could just throw it to him every time. Until they start double-teaming or doing something we were going to continue to throw it in there."
The largest margin of victory in the NCAA Tournament for Kentucky dating back to the 2013 season was UK's seven-point victory over Kansas State in last year's second round. Since then, the Cats had tournament wins of two points, five points, three points, one point and a six-point loss in the national championship to Connecticut.
Thursday's 23-point win, therefore, was a welcome development for these Cats. Kentucky led by as many as 35 with 12:43 remaining in the game, and more or less grinded it out for the remainder of the contest, working on sets and execution in preparation for their next game Saturday.
"Anytime you don't have to play a nail biter is good," Cauley-Stein said. "I hate them. I'm glad we were up by so much because nail biters are not good for my heart."
Early in the first half it didn't necessarily look like it could be a nail biter, but it certainly didn't look like Kentucky's best version of itself.
The Wildcats led just 13-11 with 13:09 remaining in the first half, but then put their feet on the gas by going on a 19-3 run in which they allowed just one made field goal in 9:48 of game time to take a 32-14 lead. Kentucky would later enter the halftime locker room leading 41-22, and the only thing left in question being the final margin of victory.
"We have so many waves of dudes that come in, and they don't get to do their normal stuff," Cauley-Stein said. "Coming in with seven-footers and not being able to shoot shots over bigger defenders. Just the fact that we take them out of their element that they're not used to, it probably grinds them out."
On a day that saw an NCAA Tournament record five games decided by one point, the Cats didn't want to raise that number to six. The players said afterward that they saw the close games and upsets play out during the day as they waited for their game, and it got their full attention.
"Anything can happen," Cauley-Stein said. "They could have come out and all of them just clip 3s on us. Stuff happens like that."
"We know every team is fighting for the last win in March so we have to go in with that mindset and that's what we've been doing and Coach has been stressing that to us every game," Booker said.
Up next for the Cats is a third-round matchup against Cincinnati (23-10) on Saturday at approximately 2:40 p.m. While the Cats say they don't know much about the Bearcats outside of the few minutes they watched in the tunnel Thursday night, Coach Cal said he does think Cincinnati will have something in mind if they watched UK play against Hampton.
"If there are points in this game they watch tonight, they probably have in their mind, we can beat these guys," Calipari said. "The we know every team we play comes in with the idea, I'm telling you we can beat them, and we deal with that every time we play, and I imagine Cincy will come in with the same thing."
Andrew Harrison had 14 points as UK opened the NCAA Tournament with a 79-56 win over Hampton on Thursday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky had waited all season long for the NCAA Tournament. Thursday morning, the Wildcats woke up and it was here.
It was like Christmas morning, only the Cats had to wait all day to run down the stairs and open their presents for a scheduled 9:40 p.m. start.
"It was really difficult just to be so excited to play and then you have to wait all day and pretty much all night too," Aaron Harrison said.
The wait was almost over as the Cats stood in the tunnel outside their KFC Yum! Center locker room. They watched the final seconds of a matchup between Cincinnati and Purdue tick down, only for the Bearcats' Troy Caupain to hit a game-tying layup as time expired to send the game to overtime.
The presents would have to wait even longer.
"To be honest, we're just all in the locker room stretching, talking, trying to keep each other loose," said Andrew Harrison, who drew playful jabs from teammates after predicting the extra session.
Finally, Cincinnati would pull out the win and Kentucky's second-round matchup with Hampton could begin. When it did at 10:18 p.m., all the anticipation turned into, well, coal.
"We've been excited to play all day and I think it just got that moment and we didn't have a lot of energy," Aaron Harrison said. "It's just tough to wait all day to play."
In spite of the relative dud of a start, the top-seeded Wildcats (35-0) took down Hampton, 79-56, to set up a showdown with those eighth-seeded Bearcats at approximately 2:40 p.m. on Saturday. They still weren't content with the way they played.
"We played really sluggish and just didn't have enough energy, I think," said Aaron Harrison, who missed all five of his field goals and scored three points in an uncharacteristically pedestrian NCAA Tournament performance. "We're of course a young team. We might have not come into the game as focused as we should have."
The Cats started the game 8 of 23 from the field and led by single digits until Karl-Anthony Towns - who was the standout for UK with a career-high 21 points to go with 11 rebounds and three blocks - scored with 5:36 before halftime. The juice that the Cats have come to be known for in blitzing through this college basketball season, outside a crippling 14-0 run to build a 19-point halftime lead, was just never there even though UK led by as many as 35.
The lack of focus, to John Calipari, did not come as a shock.
"You sit in the locker room that long, you kind of know that can happen," Calipari said.
Readily explainable as it may have been, it's unacceptable in his eyes. From this point forward, the games only get tougher. Future opponents, starting with Cincinnati, will be eager to pounce if the Cats suffer a similar lapse.
"One of the things I talked to them after, you're not going to do this on their terms. You can't start games like this," Calipari said. "You can't do things that we talk about every day and you choose to do something else. You can't do things on your terms in this tournament because what happens is you'll have a 12-point lead, and then you'll turn around, and it will be a two-point game."
Hampton was never able to make it a game in that way, as UK won its fifth game in a row by double digits and 28th overall. In spite of that, there was a distinct feeling that the Cats had played a subpar game from most anyone who watched. That's a high standard to live up to, but the Cats don't mind it.
"Not only is it everybody else around, we should expect that out of ourselves too," Devin Booker said. "Coach expects that out of us. He came in here and told us we didn't play our best game and if we keep playing like that it's going to be trouble. We're just focusing on coming out first and being the aggressor."
Booker scored just two points on 1-of-6 shooting, continuing a six-game slump during which he's scored in double figures once and shot 11 of 34 from the field. As ready as Booker might be to return to the sweet-shooting form he showed for much of the season, that kind of thing isn't what Coach Cal is thinking about when he says the Cats played short of their potential.
Shots will miss and shots will fall, but UK cannot get away from what makes it special.
"You can't do stuff on your terms," Calipari said. "You've got to follow the script. Here's how we play. This is what we do. Here's the energy we play with. And we're able to play enough people that, OK, we start the game slow. I may sub earlier. I see it Saturday, I may sub one minute in. Let's go, need more energy. I think these guys will be fine."
So does Aaron Harrison.
"I expected a lot more out of us and I expected a lot more out of myself," he said. "I should have played a lot better as well. But I think everyone will see a different team on Saturday, definitely."
UK held an open practice on Wednesday in the KFC Yum! Center attended by thousands of fans. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Kentucky guards Tod Lanter, Brian Long and Sam Malone started against Florida on Senior Day. It was supposed to be the last home game for UK's three walk-ons, with the emphasis on supposed to be.
If you closed your eyes while in Bridgestone Arena during the Southeastern Conference Tournament last week, or during Wednesday's open practice at the KFC Yum! Center, you would have thought you were in Rupp Arena.
Blue has gotten in and blue has made itself heard.
"Our fans follow us pretty much everywhere we go," sophomore forward Marcus Lee said. "So they make it kind of home for wherever we go."
In Nashville, Bridgestone Arena was painted in blue with UK fans descending on the Music City and turning it into Lexington South. In the championship game, a Bridgestone Arena record was set for an SEC Tournament game, as 20,315 fans, mostly dressed in blue, cheered on the Cats.
"I mean, this (SEC Tournament), it was crazy," UK head coach John Calipari said. "I mean there were 97 percent Kentucky fans in that building. What? And they said 10,000 came to the opening games because they couldn't get tickets to our games. So they just bought tickets and went to the opening games to be a part of the thing. Which is great for the SEC and our fans, but I say it again, it's like Woo. But I would expect we'll have a pretty good crowd."
He was right.
When Kentucky took the floor for its open practice Wednesday at the KFC Yum! Center, the entire lower bowl was filled with UK fans, as they chanted "Blue, White!" and "Go Big Blue!" consistently throughout the 40-minute glorified shootaround. When a Louisville fan made his way into the arena, boos showered down so loud that freshman guard Tyler Ulis stopped shooting free throws to turn around and see what was going on.
When it was announced Kentucky would play its opening game of the tournament in nearby Louisville, many of the players were asked how they felt about that. Most said it was cool, but that it didn't matter where they played, Big Blue Nation would be there.
"Our fans would still travel even if we played in California," Cauley-Stein said. "They would still be there. It just makes it a lot easier on them I guess."
In regards to them, personally, as players, the Cats said playing in a familiar gym, one where they've experienced success this year already, was a nice perk as well.
"We've all played in this gym, so we're used to it already," freshman guard Devin Booker said. "That, combined with our fan base, it's basically a home game for us." Harrisons shifting gear in March, again
It's March, so that means the Harrison twins are shifting their games into a higher gear again.
One year after point guard Andrew Harrison reaped the benefits of Coach Cal's famous "tweak" to help lead his team to the national championship game, and his twin brother, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, hit three of the bigger shots in UK's postseason history, the backcourt duo is at again in 2015.
Andrew actually heightened his game a month early this season, scoring 11.8 points and dishing out 3.5 assists per game to just 16 total turnovers (2.8 assist-turnover ratio) since the calendar turned to February. Aaron, meanwhile, is averaging 12.2 points per game in March and hitting 43.8 percent from beyond the arc, a stark improvement from his February averages of 10.3 points per game and 22.0 percent shooting from distance.
"I think just a competitive switch flips," Cauley-Stein said of the twins. "Knowing without them we're not gonna be able to do this without them and they know that, so they have to play a way that Coach set out for them to play and they know how to play."
For Andrew, that way to play is with high energy and an aggression to attack the lane. When he's doing that, the Cats' offense, including both the guards and the bigs, excels. Coach Cal also stresses a positive mindset and outlook, which includes strong body language.
"It's a spirit," Coach Cal said. "It's a spirit that we all feel when you watch him play. He doesn't stop on the court. There's nothing. I'm in attack mode, I'm aggressive. I'm talking to my teammates. I'm running this. You know I'm controlling this. I'll score when I have to. I'm not trying to get fouled. I'm driving to score, not get fouled."
And his teammates notice as well.
"We feed off their energy and Coach harps on it," Cauley-Stein said. "If their energy is bad then the whole team's energy is not good. When they're playing with high energy and a lot of effort, doing the things that they do, everybody benefits from it."
For Aaron, March brings about a time to step up to the main stage, a place where he thrives under the bright lights and high pressure situations. While the 6-foot-6 guard from Richmond, Texas, has shown this season that it doesn't have to be March for him to put the team on his back in a tight game, last season's run gave him the knowledge that he can do it again this year if needed.
"It really helped my confidence, and also my teammates' confidence just to go out there and be able to beat the best teams in the country even though we had an up and down year," Aaron Harrison said. "That was really helpful.
"Hopefully we don't have a game that close, but if we do, if Coach wants to give me the ball I think I'll be confident enough to hit the shot for us."
UK keeping focus internal
As Guy Ramsey wrote Wednesday, Kentucky is not straying away from what got it to this point. Part of that includes continuing to play against themselves each game, rather than against their opponent.
That, however, doesn't mean the Cats are overlooking their 16th-seeded opponent, Hampton (17-17). UK has done this all season long, and it's part of how they've been able to get to 34-0. They're not only playing against themselves during the games, they do it in the pregame as well.
Kentucky doesn't spend days on scouting its opponent. Typically, the players don't see tape of their opponent until their pregame meal. Asked Wednesday what he knows about the Pirates, freshman forward Trey Lyles said he knew nothing yet.
"But I'm sure the coaches do and we're going to get a lot of information from them," Lyles said.
Keys for the Cats will remain the same for this game as all games, come out with energy and attempt to maintain that energy for all 40 minutes. If Coach Cal sees a decrease, subs, or reinforcements as he calls them, will be ready.
"We just gotta come out with a lot of energy because we know they're going to come after us like every other team this year has and we just gotta be prepared for it," Lyles said.
One nice change of pace for the Cats will be seeing a team on the other side of the court that doesn't have an "SEC" patch on its jersey. After going through a tough and physical 18-game SEC schedule and three-game SEC Tournament, the Cats will face an out of conference opponent for the first time since Dec. 27, when they defeated Louisville in this very gym.
During the non-conference portion of its schedule, Kentucky outscored its opponents by an average of 25.7 points per game (75.8-50.1). Facing an opponent that isn't as familiar with UK's players and schemes will be a welcome change of pace, Aaron Harrison said.
"I think the SEC teams are a little tougher because they've played us so many times, and they're more physical," Aaron Harrison said. "They're a lot more prepared than the other teams are."