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There's no denying the hit that Kentucky's interior defense took when Nerlens Noel was lost for the season to a knee injury, but there was an impact on the offensive end, too.

For the season, UK averaged 37 points "in the paint" per game and the Wildcats were 13-0 in games in which they scored at least 40. But over the final five games, UK averaged a little more than 30 points in the paint. And during that same stretch, Kentucky had trouble hitting the perimeter shots, too, making fewer than 25 percent of its 3-point attempts.

Here are some other interesting statistical notes from this past season:

  • The Robert Morris loss marked just the second time in Calipari's four years that Kentucky lost a game in which it hit better than 50 percent of its field-goal attempts;
  • The Cats were just 2-9 in games in which they failed to crack the 70-point barrier;
  • Calipari's teams, historically, have won games in which they didn't shoot well but this year's squad was only 1-6 in games with when its shooting percentage was 40 percent or worse (the victory over Florida was the exception);
  • UK has won 50 of the last 51 games in which it led or was tied at halftime. This year's team was 19-1, with the lone blemish coming at Alabama, when the Cats let a nine-point lead slip away.

Bracket postmortem with Lunardi

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi had a good year, correctly forecasting every at-large team that made the NCAA Tournament field. 

One of the many factors he has to consider in projecting what the selection committee will do involves analyzing a team's RPI. But Lunardi says he'd like to see the committee incorporate more of the metrics measuring things like offensive and defensive efficiency.

"I would include more of them than the RPI. I think they all measure different things and the things measured are things of value, if taken correctly. You have to spot the outliers," Lunardi said on "The Leach Report" radio show. 

If Lunardi had the proverbial magic wand and could change something about the selection process, what would it be?

"I would pass this rule without discussion: To be tournament-eligible, you would have to at least .500 in your league, as a way of making the conference season and the conference tournaments a little more important. If you are 7-9 in your league and you count conference tournament games if you make the conference final and lose so you are 9-9 or 10-10, you are back to being tournament eligible. It would add a tremendous amount to those Thursday and Friday games between the teams that finished down on the standings and I think history shows it would open up one or two spots a year in the at-large pool for the Drexel's who win 29 games and get excluded," Lunardi said, referring to last year's Drexel example. "History shows that time after time, teams that have won a lot from high quality non-BCS leagues almost always perform better in the tournament than what I would call the middling majors from the bigger leagues. Twenty seven or 28 wins in those leagues is pretty good and we forget that winning begets winning."

Recruiting analyst Telep on point guards

With all of the talk about the point-guard position for Kentucky this season, it brought to mind a quote from veteran recruiting analyst Dave Telep of

"When I go and watch a guy and people describe him to me when I watch a guard and they use the word "combo" a red flag goes up," Telep said on "The Leach Report" show. "To me, a point guard has to have complete command of the team and they generally can showcase that ability. It's not quantifiable but you can see it with your eyes and you ask the question, 'Does he have the respect of his teammates, does he have command of his team and is he an orchestrator of the offense?' "

"They not only didn't handle it, they completely botched it. They made it an easy choice for the committee. And it's a shame because the tournament is always better when Kentucky is involved."

That's the assessment of Sporting News college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy of how Kentucky popped its own bubble last Friday night against Vanderbilt. He said it was not asking that much for the Wildcats to handle the Southeastern Conference's 10th-seeded team and if they couldn't do it, they have nothing to complain about (John Calipari said as much himself on Monday).

So what went wrong? DeCourcy says Kentucky came up short of what it needed to get from the point-guard position.

"John thought he could work with him (Ryan Harrow) but I don't think it worked," DeCourcy said on "The Leach Report" radio show Monday. "They didn't get the kind of play out of the point guard position that they needed. And it's not about being Derrick Rose. Sometimes, it's just about being Anthony Epps - being a good, solid leader, defender, don't make mistakes, make sure everybody is in the right place, doing the right things. But you have to somewhere on the positive side of the ledger and I don't think Ryan was on the positive side at the most crucial times. I think that was the biggest problem with this team. Obviously, the (Nerlens) Noel injury was an issue (too)."

DeCourcy said Kentucky needed Marquis Teague to return for a second season.

"Marquis would have fixed almost everything that's wrong with this team. And so would Doron Lamb," he said, noting that agrees with the argument made by CBS analyst Charles Barkley about too many players leaving the college game too soon. "His point is if you're going and you're in the second round, then you blew it. Guys should never leave school to be second-round picks."

Kentucky figures to be a major contender for the title next season, but what about this year's NCAA Tournament? I asked DeCourcy to give his take on this mythical contest: identify the national champion from the fewest number of contenders.

"You could go seven or six (deep). It depends on how much you trust Florida. They have unbelievable metrics. They're only team in the country that's top five in the country in offensive and defensive efficiency. Why that doesn't translate into more tough wins, I don't know but it doesn't," DeCourcy said, adding that his "six" are the top four seeds in the tournament plus Michigan State and Duke.

DeCourcy says there are two key criteria in honing in on the true title contenders.

"Do you have multiple pros, preferably some that would be lottery-level and do you have top-20 (numbers) in offensive and defensive efficiency. No champion over the last 10 years has been outside the top 20 by the end of the tournament," he explained.

As for significant upset prospects in the first round, DeCourcy cited two games that will be played in Rupp Arena: Bucknell against six seed Butler and Davison against three-seed Marquette.

Looking at Robert Morris

To me, a football analogy works best in discussing Kentucky's NIT matchup. 

Think of it as one of the second-tier bowl games where the key is often what the favorite's mindset is. Do they really want to be there or are they ready for the season to end because they didn't achieve their goals?

One thing's for sure: Robert Morris will bring its "A" game.

"I don't think we've ever seen anything on the level of Kentucky (in the Sewall Center)," said RMU's Jim Duzyk, the media relations manager for the Colonials program. "It's going to be standing room-only and it's going to be crazy. It's something our guys are looking forward to and are going to cherish for the rest of their lives. I think they're going to be ready.

"The Northeast Conference is traditionally a guard's league. Our coaches go after guys that can put the ball in the basket. That's something we've hung out hat on for probably the last 10 years. All these guys have the ability to shoot the 3-pointer and that makes us more dangerous. Our guys are very unselfish and we're very balanced offensively."

Robert Morris averages 8.6 made 3s per game.

From the Pressbox: Vandy, SEC Tournament notes

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Believe it or not, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings thinks his team last year matched up better with Kentucky's national champions than this Commodore squad does.

"Maybe not as good as last year," Stallings said of the matchup moments after his team eliminated Arkansas last night. "I thought we matched up a little better last year (because of the size). What matters now is how you play, not so much who you play. If we're going to win, we're going to have to play well."

Stallings said Kentucky presented more problems for Vandy's defense in the second meeting - without Nerlens Noel.

"We had a harder time guarding them the second time. I don't know if it was because of venues but it just felt like to me that they did more to us (with their offense) and we didn't have any answers," he observed. "We guarded them way better in the first game.  We couldn't guard them in the second game."

Coach Cal knows what Mays means

"I don't know where this team would be without him."

That's how Coach Cal sums up Julius Mays' one season at Kentucky.

"He's ended up taking on a leadership role and done a great job with it. When he scores, we're really good," Cal said, "but when he doesn't score, we're still okay because  he'll rebound, he'll assist and he's giving a calming presence. His thing is 'I wish I was coached this way for four years.' "

Goodwin settling in as scorer

Archie Goodwin takes a streak of six consecutive double-figure scoring games into Friday's game against Vandy in the SEC Tourney. It's a streak that started with the Cats' 74-70 win over the 'Dores in Lexington last month.

"He's slowing down a little bit and he's making layups. We had to show him that he's missed 80 layups (going into the Florida game) and there was another 15 when he ran over somebody," Calipari explained. "Now, he's concentrating and he's making layups.  Reality hits you when you have a tape of you (missing) 80 layups."

Recalling Antoine Walker's SEC Tournament emergence

Last year, eventual national player of the year Anthony Davis became the first UK freshman since Sam Bowie in 1980 to record a double-double in an SEC Tournament game.

And he made it three-for-three before he finished his one league tournament run.

But Davis had already emerged as a superstar before he got to the postseason. Perhaps one of this year's rookies will be the next Antoine Walker.

Back in 1995, Walker came into the SEC Tournament without having scored more than 15 points in any single game (and that happened once, in the season opener against UT-Martin in November of '94). And during one four-game stretch in mid-February, Walker had two scoreless outings and four total points.

Well after a nine-point performance against Auburn in his first SEC Tournament game, Walker hung 21 on Florida and then produced 23 versus Arkansas as UK won the title and Walker took home the MVP trophy.

Kentucky's win over Florida on Saturday was impressive for what the Wildcats did not do as much as what they did.

  • UK did not hit 40 percent of its field goal attempts and still won for the first time this season;
  • UK failed to shoot a higher percentage from the field and still won, for the first time in seven such games;
  • UK did not score 70 points, and won for only the second time in nine games when scoring below that mark.

Kentucky's game plan to defend Florida - the team with the Southeastern Conference's most efficient offense and the team averaging almost nine 3s per game - was to force the Gators inside the arc. Once there, the plan said to make them take "tough 2s" and rebound the misses. And that's exactly what the Cats did down the stretch, when the game turned in UK's favor.

The Wildcats and Gators both ranked in the nation's top 10 in 2-point defense before last Saturday, but when blocked shots were taken out of the equation, leaving only the contested ones, Kentucky dropped to 50th. But in those final minutes, with Willie Cauley-Stein in foul trouble, UK could not go for blocks and had to rely on simply contesting the Gators' shots. Florida missed 11 in a row.

If the Kentucky defense that we saw in the last seven-and-a-half minutes of that Florida win keeps showing up, UK won't have to worry itself with "bubble" talk.

Kentucky was switching defenders on Florida's patented pick-and-roll plays and during that stretch run and there was a possession in which Alex Poythress was matched up on a driving Scottie Wilbekin. All season long, that kind of mismatch has resulted in baskets and/or fouls, but Poythress played it perfectly, misdirecting Wilbekin into a missed shot.

That's one example of the kind of defense that happened on possession after possession in those final minutes - 14 consecutive scoreless ones over the final 7:36, to be exact - and it's why Kentucky won a game for the first time all season when it failed to crack 40 percent from the field with its own shots. You have to win those kinds of games in the postseason and if this team can sustain that kind of defensive effort, it has a chance to make a little noise in March.

From the Pressbox: Pre-Florida notes

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Some of you may have written this season off, but Joe B. Hall knows a team can still come to life after most have left it for dead.

In 1985, Kentucky lost three of its last five regular-season games and then lost its first game in the SEC Tournament to put the Wildcats squarely on the bubble, long before that word came to be used.

But the NCAA Selection Committee picked UK for the field and Kentucky proceeded to upset Washington and ninth-ranked UNLV before falling to St. John's in Hall's final game.

John Calipari's message to his team last night was, "Beat Florida and this all goes away" and he's right. Now, the Wildcats just have to do it.

Mathies leading UK Hoops into postseason

After two runs to the Elite Eight, is this the best chance the UK women's basketball team has had to get to a Final Four?

"They have a lot more depth - usable, quality depth, that can play the style that Matthew (Mitchell) wants to play," Jen Smith said on "The Leach Report" radio show.   She covers the team for the Lexington Herald-Leader.  

"And they have a chip on their shoulder about not winning the SEC championship. They have a swagger and a quiet confidence about them, and they really want to win an SEC Tournament championship," she added, "because that's something (the seniors) haven't been able to do."

A'dia Mathies is already one of the best ever in this program's history, but leading UK to its first Final Four would put her on even higher pedestal.

"I've covered her since she was in seventh grade and she still plays the same way, she has the same demeanor. It's been amazing to watch her grow into this star player," Smith observed. "I still feel like I know nothing about (her). She's quick-witted and she's interesting but she's extremely quiet. Her nickname is 'The Silent Assassin,'  and that's what she is."

Cats need Harrow, Goodwin

When one looks back at the box score from Kentucky's loss at Florida last month, the guard numbers jump out. Ryan Harrow was scoreless in 19 minutes and he and Archie Goodwin combined for eight points and six of UK's 17 turnovers.

In Florida, Kentucky will face arguably the league's best defensive team. When it comes to forcing turnovers, the Gators make the opponent give up the ball on 22.9 percent of its possessions, which is second highest in the SEC. And Florida is a runaway leader in defensive efficiency, allowing only 0.845 points per possession (which also ranks second nationally).

One matchup that the Gators would seem to have difficulty with would be Alex Poythress - provided the freshman plays like he did against Missouri. At Florida, Kentucky tried going to Poythress, but he missed eight of his nine field goal attempts.

In the win over Missouri, Coach Cal credited the crowd with having a big impact on the outcome and Big Blue Nation will need to "bring it" tomorrow, too. Kentucky has lost only three times in its final home game of the season since 1964. One of those losses came at the hands of Florida in 2006.

Lunardi offers tweaks to NCAA selection process

ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi is a numbers guy, constantly analyzing the data this time of year to project what the NCAA Selection Committee will do. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lunardi would like to see the committee take more numbers into consideration, and not put quite as much weight on a team's RPI.

"I would include more of them than the RPI. I think they all measure different things and the things measured are things of value if taken correctly," Lunardi in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show. "There are outliers. Sometimes logic plays into it. It's the same thing for the other side, with the more performance-based metrics (like You have to spot the outliers."

If Lunardi had Coach Cal's proverbial "magic wand" to shape the selection and seeding process any way he wanted, Lunardi would put great emphasis on how a team does in its league.

"I would pass this rule without discussion: You would have to be tournament-eligible by being at least .500 in your league, as a way of making the conference season a little more important," he adding that league tournament performance would also be included.

"If you are 7-9 in your league and you count conference tournament games and you make the conference final and lose and you're 9-9 or 10-10, you are back to being tournament eligible. It would add a tremendous amount to those Thursday and Friday games between the teams that finished down on the standings and I think history shows it would open up one or two spots a year in the at-large pool for the Drexels, who win 29 games and get excluded," Lunardi continued. "History shows that time after time teams that have won a lot from high quality non-BCS leagues almost always perform better in the tournament than what I would call the middling majors from the bigger leagues.  Winning 27 or 28 games in those leagues is pretty good and we forget that winning begets winning."

From the Pressbox: Harrow the key

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If the discussion is on the question of "Who is Kentucky's most VALUABLE player?" there could be more than one candidate to debate. But if the topic is the "most IMPORTANT player" for this team, the answer seems to be clear cut - Ryan Harrow.

When Harrow brings his "A" game, the Wildcats are hard to beat. Add in a strong performance from Archie Goodwin and the numbers are even stronger. When Harrow and Goodwin both score in double figures, UK is 10-3 this season. When they combine for at least 25 points, the record is 8-1 (and the one loss, at Louisville, represented a strong showing in defeat).

CBS' Greg Anthony saw that performance against the Cardinals from a courtside seat as a game analyst and he says it's a good rule of thumb in college basketball that good guards equal good teams.

"When you have that kind of guard play, it makes it tough for teams to disrupt what you want to do and you can control tempo and play your game," he said.

We certainly saw that play out last Saturday at Arkansas. Even though Harrow and Goodwin both scored in double figures (10 and 14 respectively), the Razorbacks' pressure defense kept the Cats from getting into their offense until deep in the shot clock on many possessions. In the three-game winning streak that preceded the loss at Arkansas, Harrow had 14 assists versus only three turnovers and he averaged 16 points per game.

Anthony was the point guard for those great UNLV teams of the early 1990s and he says good guards make big men better.

"Your bigs are only going to be as good as your guards allow them to do and that's just the reality. Your guards allow guys to do what they do best," he explained. "We played Georgetown when they had Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning but they were non-factors because we could take them (the Hoyas) out of everything they wanted to do. They could never get into their offense sets. We could disrupt their timing, their spacing and more importantly, when we had the ball, we could dictate and do what we wanted.

"You don't have to have pros at the guard position but you have to have guys that understand how we're going to win games," Anthony added. "Your guards have got to be an extension of the coach on the floor."

You can bet Georgia will do its best to pressure UK's guards Thursday night, but forcing turnovers has not been a strong suit for this year's UGA team. On the other hand, Saturday's opponent (Florida) is one of the best in the league. Only Alabama and league leader Arkansas force turnovers on a greater percentage of possessions than the Gators. And remember that Harrow was scoreless against Florida in Gainesville last month.

The bottom line is this: If Ryan Harrow has a good week, there's a good chance the "bubble" debate won't include Kentucky any longer.

From the Pressbox: Pre-Arkansas notes

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Here are some interesting statistical notes for tomorrow's matchup at Arkansas...

Kentucky has averaged 13.7 turnovers per game in SEC play and Arkansas is a team that will do its best to exploit the Cats in that department. The Razorbacks lead the SEC in forcing turnovers at almost 18 per game.

Arkansas is second in the league at 70.8 possessions per game according to, so Kentucky should find itself in an up-tempo game on Saturday. UK is 3-0 against the teams in the SEC that rank in top four of most possessions per game (Ole Miss, LSU, Missouri), while three of the Cats' four league losses have come against teams ranked among the bottom four in possessions (Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M). Vanderbilt averages the fewest possessions per game and UK's two wins against the 'Dores came by a total of only six points.

Neither Kentucky nor Arkansas relies too heavily on 3-pointers. The Hogs get 56.8 percent of their points on 2-point shots (second-most in the SEC) and that's just ahead of UK's 56.4 percent.

Cats not out of bubble trouble just yet

Kentucky certainly enhanced its NCAA Tournament resume last Saturday when it beat Missouri, but the Wildcats still have not moved out of the land of bubble talk.

"There's not a lot of margin for error. Beating Florida would mean a lot because that's the one quality win left that you can get in the SEC. The win over Missouri gives you reason for hope but now they've got to take that act on the road. They may need to win both of those road games," said bracket analyst Jerry Palm this week on "The Leach Report" radio show. "It depends on what other teams do. You might think you've done enough but somebody else might do something better."

Palm says UK's worksheet is "clearly" short on quality wins but he says one factor in the Cats' favor is a lack of losses to "bad teams (with triple-digit RPIs).  

"Texas A&M (86th in the RPI) is probably their worst loss. The fact that they haven't lost to the South Carolinas and Auburns is good," Palm noted. "There's at least a level of consistency there."

Palm believes the selection committee will not penalize Kentucky for not having Nerlens Noel when it comes to picking the field for the tournament. However, if UK gets in, he thinks not having Noel could hurt them from a seeding standpoint.  

What's the best-case scenario for UK for seeding?

"I can't see any scenario where Kentucky is wearing a white jersey in its first game, unless they're in the play-in game," Palm said.

On UK's potential breakthrough

John Calipari has been pushing various buttons all season long, trying to find the right ones to motivate this particular team to reach its potential. We saw this play out two years ago, when Kentucky was still struggling to win close games on the road in late February but that group jelled in the final week of the regular season and went all the way to the Final Four.

We'll see how these young Cats fare on the road in the next two games, but from what I saw last week, I think Calipari and his staff may have finally had a breakthrough. Maybe it was the crisis moment of a 30-point loss to Tennessee, maybe it was dodgeball, maybe it was something else or some combination, but the Cats looked more comfortable and focused in their wins over Vandy, Missouri and Mississippi State.

Reading the ups and downs of a group of young men in the glare of a spotlight like UK basketball is no easy thing to do, but Calipari certainly seems to have a knack for it.
I talked with Tony Barnhart about that in a recent appearance on "The Leach Report" radio show.

"The hardest thing for coaches to do, and  a coach told me this a long time ago, is to get 18-year old young men, who are obviously focused on their goals and their dreams, to believe in something bigger than themselves," Barnhart said. "That's hard to do and the great coaches know how to do it."

18-0 never been done in SEC play

No SEC team has ever gone 18-0 in league play and it was on this date that Kentucky's Sam Bowie made sure that stat remained intact.

An LSU team that would eventually reach the Final Four came into Rupp on March 1 with a perfect 17-0 mark but Kentucky pulled off a 73-71 upset.  Bowie preserved the victory with a block of Howard Carter's baseline jumper, in a play similar to one Anthony Davis made last year against North Carolina to protect UK's win that day.

One of my favorite scenes in one of my favorite movies - "The Rookie" - has Dennis Quaid's character preparing to give up on his dream of making it to the major leagues.  Then, he goes and watches a group of Little Leaguers and the next day, he walks into the locker room and tells his best friend, "You know what we get to do today. We get to play baseball."

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," 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."

Which Kentucky player has the longest streak of consecutive double-figure scoring games this season?

Would you believe Ryan Harrow (with eight)?

And after two scoreless games last week in losses at Florida and Tennessee, Harrow says a meeting with head coach John Calipari led to a different mindset going into Wednesday's matchup with Vanderbilt.

"I was just more aggressive. He told me he needed me to take shots because when I'm aggressive, everybody else is aggressive and the flow of the game is better," Harrow told reporters after the Vandy win.

Harrow was replaced in the starting lineup at Tennessee but after urging from his teammates and others to be more assertive, he went to his coach to ask for his starting spot back.

"I called my mom before and told her I was nervous. My hands were sweaty," Harrow said of the anticipation for his one-on-one session with Cal. "He listened to what I had to say and he had the answers for me. I felt like I grew up a little bit."

Harrow says Calipari can be intimidating because "he has the final decision."

Cauley-Stein's shooting improving with confidence

Willie Cauley-Stein has displayed a much-improved free-throw shooting stroke recently and even knocked a jumper from the high post in the Vandy game. Calipari says there's no secret to improving a flawed skill.

"They have to build their own self-esteem and their own confidence. It doesn't matter what I say; it's what they believe in their minds. If a guy is confident, there's nothing anybody can say to take that away," Calipari said on a recent UK radio network pregame show, "because it's been built over time, with hard work. It's hard to have confidence when you haven't put in the time."

Former Cat Bogans a Nets favorite

During a pregame chat with CBS' Ian Eagle last Saturday at Tennessee, I learned that former Wildcat Keith Bogans is a big hit with the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, because of his team-first attitude.

"What really stands out about him is he's a 'glue guy,' " Eagle said on "The Leach Report" radio show Monday. "Teams like having them around. They're good for chemistry. They can relate to the superstars and the young guys. He (Bogans) has been the bridge for this team."

'68 Cats a model for late-season surges

Coach Cal is preaching a message to his team that the Cats can still write their own story on this season - and make it a memorable one with a strong finish.

And the 1968 team would be a good source of inspiration.

In late January, the '68 Cats lost by 20-plus points at Tennessee (UK's worst loss ever to the Volunteers until last weekend). That defeat was the second in a row and third in four games for a Kentucky relying heavily on youth, with three players on their first year with the varsity serving in starting roles (Dan Issel, Mike Pratt, Mike Casey).

All they did was respond to that blowout loss in Knoxville with 12 straight wins, taking them all the way to the Mideast Regional final, where they missed out on a Final Four berth because of a last-second shot by Ohio State.

As ESPN's lead analyst for college football, Kirk Herbstreit knows all about the challenges Kentucky football faces in trying to climb the ladder in the nation's toughest conference. But he also thinks UK hired the right man for the job in Mark Stoops.

"I've known him for the last 12 or 13 years and I've just always appreciated how competitive he is--and I think it's infectious. I think it affects his staff and it affects his players," Herbstreit told "The Leach Report" radio show Monday. "I do think his leadership will affect his team. And I think people that play for him are going to believe he's giving them the best plan (to succeed)."

Herbstreit said he and Stoops talk on a weekly basis and Herbstreit says being in the Southeastern Conference plus having the talent-rich state of Ohio on the northern border of Kentucky means Stoops has the ability to upgrade recruiting. We certainly saw that happen in UK's latest signing class but Herbstreit says the thing that really validate all of this enthusiasm for Kentucky football is to have success on Saturdays this fall.

"I think it can happen within a year," he said. "Number one, you get a great recruiting class. Then, that's got to carry over into spring and summer. And the best way I've seen coaches be able to change the culture is to have success on Saturdays in the fall. It makes it a little easier to say, 'We told you if you do this, you're going to see if pay off for you.' I've seen it happen within a year and I've seen it take two or three years and sometimes they're never able to turn it around.

"It's one thing to hire a coach like Mark Stoops, who gives you that initial wave of interest, but now you gotta win football games--and Mark would be the first one to tell you that," Herbstreit added.

Recruiting is the fuel of any improvement in college football and Herbstreit says landing those players and then being able to successfully coach them requires a coach to undertake a balancing act.

"We are in an era that is unprecedented when it comes to the way high school basketball and football players are pampered and exposed to so much and treated as if they're above the rules. What I've seen from coaches is understanding that those are the rules of engagement. If you're going to be a top-25 program, you've got to be able to go out and recruit these prima donna type of athletes and maintain a culture of not just winning but having a selfless approach to how you do it," Herbstreit explained. "You can around the country, there's not a set of rules for (star players). You have to make sure everybody follows the same rules. You make it tough, you make it demanding, you love on them but you make sure they don't walk around with a sense of entitlement. If they can't deal with that, goodbye.  I think Mark has that (approach). He's been around great programs and he's been around programs that have struggled and he knows what it takes."

He said that balancing act is evident in the success that John Calipari has had with Kentucky basketball.

"That's why they win and that's probably why they come back in the offseason. They're so used to 'yes men' that when they get a guy that actually pushes their buttons and challenges them, they appreciate it," he noted.

Herbstreit says turning a program around starts with the staff the head coach hires.

"Every great head coach that I know has a great staff, that gets his philosophy and goes out and helps that become a reality. And Mark gets that. He knows what it takes," he said.

Herbstreit also likes the fact that Stoops followed the game plan of his brother, Bob, at Oklahoma - a defensive-minded head coach who found a branch of the Hal Mumme/Air Raid offense coaching tree to direct that side of the ball.

"I think it's tough to defend," Herbstreit said of that system. "When you have a quarterback that understands it and can get the ball out of his hands with some accuracy and good reads, you've got a chance to pick apart defenses."

And Herbstreit says the next evolution of that system is seen in what Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel is doing at Texas A&M.

"You've got to have a guy who can throw it and is just as dangerous running it. If you do that, unless you dress 12 or 13 on defense, I don't think you can stop it. I think that's the next wave of that offense and it'll be interesting to see if Kentucky can find a guy like that," he said.

"I think today, it (that offense) gives you a chance. It spreads out the defense and it makes them tip their hand, as far as where the pressure is coming from. (But) without the trigger man there, it's not going to work."

And Herbstreit believes Stoops will be a perfect fit with Big Blue Nation.

"When he took the job, I said 'Have you ever been to Keeneland? With the city of Lexington, you hit the bonus.  Your wife and your family are going to love Lexington,' " he said. "They're going to fit in there just perfectly on a personal level."

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