Recently in men's basketball Category
They first catch up on each other's lives and families, but it's not long before they start reminiscing. There are too many memorable moments to count, but there seem to be two they always bring up.
The first is familiar to any history-minded UK fan: that remarkable first half against LSU when the Wildcats scored a school-record 86 points en route to a 129-97 victory. Their coach might not even know about the second.
With time to kill in the days and nights before their two games in the Final Four, the Cats staged rather intense wrestling matches in their hotel rooms. Considering the size and athleticism of the group, it doesn't take much of a stretch to imagine a scenario in which one Tony Delk, Antoine Walker or another star could have suffered an injury that would have put the season in jeopardy.
"The things that we remember most and are most special are a lot of the off-the-court things that we did together as a team," Jeff Sheppard said. "That's one of the things that brought us so close together and made us the team that we were on the court."
Seventeen years later, "The Untouchables" still laugh about it.
"If somebody would have gotten hurt before the Final Four, Coach Pitino would have killed us," guard Derek Anderson said.
Fortunately for everyone involved, the roughhousing never resulted in more than rug burns. The '96 Wildcats would finish off a 34-2 record en route to the sixth national title in school history and first in nearly two decades.
"That team was one of the greatest college basketball teams ever assembled," said Rick Pitino, who coached at Kentucky from 1989 until 1997. "That's based on a number of factors: passing, cutting, defense, unselfishness, relentless full-court pressure, and a mixture of great players in the upper classes with the younger ones. They had total focus every night on putting their opponent in the ground defensively for 40 minutes. You don't see that too often from any basketball team."
That "total focus" started with an uncommon bond the team shared, the same bond that made those hotel-room hijinks so much fun. As a matter of fact, Sheppard doesn't even think Pitino would have been too surprised or even too angry to learn about the wrestling.
"He probably would have said, 'That figures,' " Sheppard said. "A part of him would have been really upset and a part of him would have been real excited."
He would have been excited because all the fun times off the court reflected just how special a team that rolled up a 22-point average margin of victory was.
"If you want to see a real brotherhood, you look at that '96 team and look at us 17 years later," Anderson said. "We're still the exact same way. We're closer than basketball and that's why we won championships."
A look back at UK's roster makes that chemistry even more noteworthy. The Cats were a team of stars, featuring nine players who would go on to NBA careers. Jeff Sheppard - the Final Four Most Outstanding Player during Kentucky's 1998 title run - played just 12.8 minutes a game and averaged 5.5 points. Nazr Mohammed - the only player on the '96 team still in the NBA - was stuck on the bench behind the likes of Walter McCarty, Mark Pope and Antoine Walker, so he spent much of the season playing on UK's junior varsity squad.
"I think the only thing that could have possibly gone wrong with that team was selfishness on anyone's part and they totally bought in to just 'championship.' " Pitino said. "Because of that, we did wind up winning it. It was an unbelievable run and I'm really proud of those guys on what they accomplished. They were just a great group of guys to coach."
After UK capped off the title run with a 76-67 win over Syracuse, the Cats were given a hero's welcome in returning to Lexington from East Rutherford, N.J. They raised a banner to the rafters in front of a full house in Rupp Arena. That '96 title, however, was during the early stages of when it became commonplace for schools to design championship rings and distribute them to players. UK's title teams in 1998 and 2012 would both receive team rings, but the '96ers received only the rings given out by the NCAA.
"We were just happy to win," Anderson said. "We weren't really concerned about that."
Though they never spent too much time thinking about it, UK's '96 greats are about to be able to compare jewelry.
"It's showing what the program's giving back to us," Anderson said. "Usually you give so much to a program and they forget about you. When your program remembers you and gives you a blessing like this, it's just like winning. It's like actually coming home from winning a championship. It'll be like coming back to Rupp Arena when we won and seeing 24,000 people celebrating with us again."
On the night of the ring ceremony, the first 10,000 fans to arrive at Rupp will receive special posters commemorating the team. All members on the '96 team participating will be available to sign the posters and other memorabilia at the Kentucky Proud Market in the Lexington Center before the Mississippi State game.
The gesture is just the latest in a series of efforts made by the Kentucky program under John Calipari and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart to reach out to those who were a part of its extraordinary history. Back in August, the '96 were in Lexington for a team reunion. It was there they were surprised to learn they would be receiving championship rings and their ring sizes were taken. Executive Associate Athletics Director DeWayne Peevy delivered the news along with an invitation to be a part of Coach Cal's Fantasy Experience and the UK Alumni Charity Game in September.
"It's the greatest thing ever," Anderson said. "You've given so much of your time and your life, everything to your program, and to have them give some of it back, you can't say enough about that. There's no price tag, there's no winning percentage, there's nothing you can cherish more than that."
Anderson, however, isn't done pouring himself into the UK program. A few weeks ago, he was on campus to speak to the team about the stories of perseverance he writes about in his book, "Stamina". Not long after, he made the six-hour drive from Atlanta upon learning of Nerlens Noel had suffered a torn ACL, the same injury that ended Anderson's senior season in 1997.
"What I was telling him and the players is coming from where I come from and the things that I've had to endure as a child, it never pushed me away from it," Anderson said. "It only brought me closer to success by not giving up."
In town to receive their long-awaited championship rings, Anderson and his teammates will no doubt spend any time they can with current Cats. They are all part of a unique fraternity, one that Anderson only appreciates more as the years go on. He'll be sure to pass that perspective on whenever he can.
"You won't get this opportunity to be amongst the best of the best in college and people and athletics and fans," Anderson said. "You won't get this opportunity again. So if you don't embrace this moment now, don't be upset when you never see it again. You have to find this moment and enjoy it."
He likely won't be encouraging any wrestling for team bonding though, especially not if Coach Cal's in the room.
If you would like to be there as the '96 Cats receive their rings, tickets are still available for Wednesday's game against Mississippi State. Call the UK Ticket Office at (800) 928-2287 or the Rupp Arena Box Office at (859) 233-3535 or visit Ticketmaster.com to purchase tickets.
Seven days ago, John Calipari and his players were fielding questions about their mental state. The Wildcats had just experienced back-to-back blowout losses on the road and a season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel. The future seemed, at best, murky.
But on Tuesday - in the exact same pregame interview setting - the tone was completely different. Rejuvenated by a pair of home wins and a game of dodgeball, the Cats were talking about how things had clicked into place.
That one week may feel like a long time, but Coach Cal isn't going to allow his Kentucky team to forget the not-so-distant past.
"One week ago we were in coffins; people were trying to nail them shut," Calipari said. "Now all of a sudden, we're like 'OK, wow.' Well, you can go right back to where you were if you don't have maturity or toughness."
UK's next outing - hosting Mississippi State at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday - is a different sort of test of the Cats' maturity and toughness.
The Vanderbilt game was all about injecting a sense of fun back into the season and rebounding from setbacks. Missouri on Saturday was about overcoming a quality team in a primetime environment. Mississippi State will reveal the Cats' ability to maintain their focus in a game without the hype, but with the stakes just as high.
With just over 24 hours before tipoff, the Cats are talking a good game.
"We approach every game the same way, treat every opponent the same, so we're not too worried about that," Kyle Wiltjer said. "We're just worried about ourselves really and just getting better."
The Bulldogs (7-19, 2-13 Southeastern Conference) will arrive in Lexington to face UK (19-8, 10-4 SEC) having lost 12 straight. In head coach Rick Ray's first season, Mississippi State has had to cope with roster turnover that resembles UK under Coach Cal in addition to season-ending injuries to freshmen Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis and another injury that has senior Wendell Lewis out indefinitely. Mississippi State is currently playing with six scholarship players.
"It's been a trying season and, to our guys' credit, they really hung in there and tried to be good citizens and do some of the things that we want them to do on the court and continue to try to compete," Ray said.
The Bulldogs have suffered more than their share of blowout losses, but they played well in road games against LSU and Alabama before losing 72-31 at home against Vanderbilt. Calipari is trying to get his team to expect Mississippi State's best effort.
"I just watched them play Alabama at Alabama six days ago," Calipari said. "It was a four-point game with five minutes to go, at Alabama. I just watched their game with LSU. It was a two or three bucket game at the end of the half. LSU made some threes, turned them over and spread it out, but it ended up being a 12-point game. This team is capable."
The Cats have seen opponents set foot in Rupp Arena and play out of their minds too many times to think otherwise.
"We know if a team starts hitting shots then it's a totally different ballgame," Jarrod Polson said. "They probably had their worst game against Vandy, so who knows what they could do."
Players talked a lot on Tuesday about not overlooking Mississippi State but, in truth, Calipari wants UK focused on itself more than anyone else. He remembers his team from two years ago and how the Cats began to find their feet about this time in 2011. That season, Kentucky won its final three games of the regular season before sweeping through the SEC Tournament and all the way to the Final Four.
The Cats' record through 27 games: 19-8, identical to their 2012-13 successors.
"We had the maturity to say let's take advantage of this now," Calipari said. "Let's see if we have that maturity to take advantage of the position we're now versus the position we were in seven days ago."
Memorial Coliseum played host to the eighth annual DanceBlue marathon, where a record $1,113,189.42 was raised for the fight against pediatric cancer. After the final total was revealed on Saturday evening, participants learned of a $500,000 endowment fund started by the late Joy Wills, who beat cancer three times and supported DanceBlue during her life.
"This year, with a record number of 800 dancers, DanceBlue was able to raise over $1.1 million for the Golden Matrix Fund to support cancer research at the Markey Cancer Center and child-life initiatives in the DanceBlue Kentucky Children's Hospital Pediatric Hematology/Oncology Clinic," said Ethan Ritter, DanceBlue's 2013 Overall Chair. "It was a wonderful 24 hours that united our entire campus and state."
Include UK Athletics in that too.
Wildcat student-athletes, coaches, teams and the department at large lent their support in myriad ways. Multiple coaches - including John Calipari and Matthew Mitchell - took to the stage to encourage dancers, one of whom was former UK wide receiver La'Rod King. Any visitors to the marathon left in awe of the dedication and passion of the participants.
"I was blown away by the number of students in that gym Friday night dancing and raising money to fight pediatric cancer," Coach Cal said. "As I told them Friday, they may never do anything more meaningful than what they did with DanceBlue. It is hard to do something by yourself, but to come together like they did and raise more than a million dollars warms my heart. It will make a tremendous difference in the fight against cancer."
The women's soccer team took an even more active role.
"It means a lot for us as a team to be able to give back to the Lexington community and donate to something that we strongly believe in," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "Allison Berger was someone who touched all of our hearts and so we will continue to do everything we can to fight this awful disease in her honor. Yes, we want to win games and win championships, but just as important is winning off the field, and this cause means a lot to our players, coaches, staff and university."
The donation by the women's soccer team instigated a little good-natured competitiveness from a fellow UK program. Volleyball head coach Craig Skinner, in addressing dancers, announced his team would hold a match of its own next season to benefit DanceBlue.
"I personally challenge Coach Lipsitz the volleyball team will raise more money than the soccer team next year," said Skinner before going on to propose the losing coach shave his head. Lipsitz may want to amend that wager considering he has substantially more hair to begin with.
Friendly jabs aside, DanceBlue - which has raised more than $5 million since its inception- has grown into something few could have imagined when it began in 2006. That good work will surely continue with or without the involvement of UK Athletics, but that involvement is appreciated nonetheless.
"The support from our athletic community was terrific," Ritter said. "Visits from our coaches got our dancers excited, the only thing they cheered more for were our clinic families. Our continued use of Memorial Coliseum for the event and the special events hosted by teams like women's soccer shows that UK Athletics truly takes interest in supporting events that improve our community."
Every Tuesday, UK Athletics recognizes outstanding performances for our student-athletes. These are the honorees for the week ending Sunday, Feb. 24:
Men's basketball: Willie Cauley-Stein
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein had a breakout week in helping lead UK to a pair of crucial victories this week. Cauley-Stein averaged 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. His 19 rebounds for the week, .647 field goal percentage, blocks and steals were all team highs. Cauley-Stein began the week by pouring in a career-high 20 points to couple with a team-high seven rebounds and three blocks. He made 8-of-10 field goals in the win over Vanderbilt. In an overtime thriller of a victory over Missouri, Cauley-Stein played in a career-high 35 minutes. The first-year player altered the game defensively with a career-high seven blocked shots. His 12 rebounds was a career-high tying, and it marked only the third game in his career with double-figure rebounding. He added seven points to the winning cause in addition to another steal.
Baseball: Jerad Grundy
Senior southpaw Jerad Grundy continued his dominating start to 2013 with a win over Elon in a pitching duel with 2012 Cape Cod League All-Star Dylan Clark ... Grundy worked seven innings in the win, allowing only three hits and one run, walking two and striking out three ... Elon hit .136 against the Johnsburg, Ill., native with Grundy only facing three hitters over the minimum ... Grundy opened the first 12.1 innings of the year without allowing an earned run, before the Phoenix got a solo homer in the seventh inning ... On the year, Grundy has a 2-0 mark and a 0.69 ERA, tossing 13 innings, allowing seven hits and three walks, striking out 12, with foes hitting .152.
Softball: Griffin Joiner
Griffin Joiner continued her hot bat, earning a hit in every game to move her season-long hitting streak to five games - just one off her career best. Joiner hit .583 (7-for-12) for the weekend, while slugging at a 1.250 clip, and posting two or more RBI in every game. Her three hits against Howard tied a career high, while her three RBI against Howard and USC Upstate also tied a career high. The native of Hopkinsville, Ky., blasted two homers on the weekend, including a go-ahead bomb in UK's thrilling 11-inning win against USC Upstate. Joiner leads the team with three roundtrippers, while sitting tied for first with four doubles and second on the team with 12 RBI.
Baseball: Max Kuhn
Sophomore infielder Max Kuhn continued his blistering pace to open the 2013 season, leading UK in hitting during a challenging three games at the Caravelle Resort Invitational ... Kuhn hit .385 (5-for-13) with a double and two RBI during the week, including a career-best three-hit game vs. Kansas State on Thursday ... On the year, Kuhn is hitting .320 (8-for-25) with two doubles and a triple, adding seven RBI and a 5-3 walk-strikeout ratio.
Women's basketball: A'dia Mathies
- Senior guard A'dia Mathies led UK in scoring on the week, averaging 16.5 points per contest, along with 4.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 steals.
- Despite playing just five minutes in the first half due to two early fouls, Mathies scored a team-high 13 points in the second half to help lead the Wildcats over No. 10/13 Texas A&M 70-66.
- The win snapped A&M's 12-game home winning streak and gave UK its fourth win over a ranked opponent this season, including second win over a top-10 team on the road.
- Scored 17 of 20 points in the second half at LSU, marking her sixth 20-plus point outing and moving her to No. 2 on UK's all-time scoring list.
- Also grabbed six rebounds and equaled a team-high with three assists.
- Has reached double figures in 25-of-27 games this season, including 18 in a row.
- With four 3-pointers on the week, is tied for ninth on UK's single season 3-pointers made list with 55.
- Ranks in the top 10 on 13 UK career lists, including No. 2 in scoring (1,863), No. 3 in steals (297) and No. 5 in field goals made (656) and 3-pointers made (159).
- Only player in UK history to accumulate over 1,800 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 250 steals in her career.
- Overall, leads the team in scoring (15.9 ppg), 3-pointers made (55) and is second in assists per game (2.4) this season.
- Averaging a team-high 18.2 points per game in SEC play and is tied for the team-high with 1.6 steals per contest.
Men's basketball: Julius Mays
Senior Julius Mays was sensational in helping lead UK to a pair of critical victories this week. The senior logged 16.5 points for the week to go along with 6.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. In the opener for the week, Mays logged nine points and a team-high six assists. He added six rebounds and a steal. He was magnificent in the win over Missouri playing in a career-high 44 minutes. He logged a season-high 24 points while going .500 from the field including 4-of-8 from behind the arc. He added six more rebounds and dished out three assists. Furthermore, he was 8-of-9 from the free throw line including a perfect 6-fo-6 in overtime. Mays has connected on a least one 3-pointer in 16-straight games and has made multiple 3s in seven-straight. UK is 5-0 when he pulls down six or more rebounds, which he achieved in both outings this week.
Softball: Maisie Steed
Produced for Kentucky in limited action, hitting .600 (3-for-5) for the weekend with three RBI, including a double, homer and stolen base. Steed's homer was the second of the season, ranking her tied for second on the team. The freshman walked three times against USC Upstate, coming home to score once. Steed played solid defense all weekend, not committing an error even though she played third base, first base and both corner outfield positions.
If this Kentucky basketball team writes a story about bouncing back from adversity and finishing strong, it looks like the defining moment might well turn out to be a decision by John Calipari to help his team remember the fun of playing the game they love and not worrying about the pressure that comes with doing it at the University of Kentucky.
So instead of dodgeball being an "underdog story" like the movie title says, dodgeball might be a comeback story.
"It's a big factor. When you lose that bad (by 30 points at Tennessee), I felt depressed. I didn't want to come out of my room. I was grumpy. Then, they put in dodgeball and you just forgot everything," freshman Willie Cauley-Stein told reporters after the Cats beat Vandy in the first game after the Tennessee debacle.
"You look at Minnesota or Cincinnati and neither team is having any fun playing the game and I think Kentucky was probably in that situation," SportingNews.com college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy told "The Leach Report" show Monday. "I think it was really smart for John to do what he did. Let's get back to having some fun. This is supposed to be fun. Yeah, it's important business but it starts as a game where everybody wants to have fun."
Kentucky looked like a different team in the two games last week: more smiles, more passion for winning 50-50 battles, more shaking off the effects of setbacks.
Take the last play of the first half of the win over Missouri. Phil Pressey nailed a tough 3-point shot to put the Tigers up by six with just seconds to play. But instead of shuffling off to the locker room, the Cats counter-punched. Ryan Harrow raced up court and found Cauley-Stein for a buzzer-beating dunk, giving UK a shot of momentum going into the locker room.
On the first play of the second half, Cauley-Stein outran a Missouri player to save a loose ball from going out of bounds. And the Cats whipped the ball around the perimeter to an open Archie Goodwin for a 3-point shot. The week before, Goodwin probably would have passed up the 3 for a lack of confidence but he confidently drilled it and then followed with a steal and dunk to give UK the lead.
Those plays were signs of a team with a new attitude. Missouri had lost twice in 44 games under Frank Haith when it led at halftime and yet the Cats rallied. And the biggest deficit UK had overcome in an SEC game was four points and yet this team they climbed out of a 13-point first-half hole.
Along with a dodgeball-inspired mindset change, the Wildcats benefitted from some coaching tweaks. Most noteworthy was what Calipari did with the offense in the wake of losing Nerlens Noel. He decided the best approach would be to open up the court and in the Missouri game, we saw Harrow, Goodwin and Alex Poythress attacking the rim with authority. That enabled Kentucky to create some of the same kinds of mismatch issues that opponents were creating for UK's defense without Noel to protect the lane.
"I think the system of the play - spreading the court and running some ball screens - is important, but it still comes down to (Goodwin and Poythress) playing with greater passion and consistency. If Kentucky is going to make the tournament and do any damage there, those two guys have to play with great energy and confidence," DeCourcy observed. "He (Poythress) has to have another great game. He doesn't have to get 22 points every night but he has to be significant in every game he plays. The new style of play didn't get Archie going; Archie got Archie going. He played with great energy in the second half and that changed his game and the entire Wildcats team."