Respect Shared in Rivalry Renewal
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DES MOINES, Iowa – Ah, it’s rivalry week in March. In a tournament where the stakes are at their highest, there’s nothing quite like a rivalry game to get the blood pressure raised a little higher.
|Kentucky vs. Indiana|
|Sat., March 19 - 5:15 p.m. ET
Wells Fargo Arena
Des Moines, Iowa
Game Notes: UK | IU
Digital Gameday Program
|UK||2015-16 Team Stats||IU|
Only, when fourth-seeded Kentucky (27-8) and fifth-seeded Indiana (26-7) meet at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday (5:15 p.m. ET, CBS), neither team will have a single player who has played a game in this historic series, and the R-word that seemed more appropriate Friday was “respect” rather than “rivalry.”
“I really don’t know much about the rivalry,” sophomore guard Tyler Ulis said. “To us, it’s another game.”
“I actually forgot it was a rivalry when I was here,” junior guard and Kentucky native Dominique Hawkins said.
Kentucky and Indiana played every year from 1970-2012, but have not faced each other since the Wildcats defeated the Hoosiers 102-90 in an exciting matchup in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta. Earlier in that national championship season, UK had lost to Indiana on a Christian Watford buzzer beater at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind. It was one of just two losses UK had that season.
“I didn't want to play home and home,” UK head coach John Calipari said of the ending of the annual rivalry. “I told them we would play two years in Indianapolis if you want. I didn't want to play home and home. I didn't want to go there, and they didn't want to have to come to us. So that ended the series.”
Whether or not the rivalry returns was a popular topic of conversation Friday. IU head coach Tom Crean said he doesn’t ever consider a door to be closed in the ongoing discussion, but with Kentucky already signed up for the Champions Classic and CBS Sports Classic, as well as an annual game against Louisville and other home-and-home series, it doesn’t appear that it will come back anytime soon.
“I understand they need home games and that's what they want,” Coach Cal said. “There is no issue with me. We've got our schedule. They've got theirs. It hasn't hurt us and it hasn't hurt them.”
Many believe that Saturday’s made-for-TV matchup between two of the best offenses in the country shouldn’t be taking place until at least the Sweet 16 of this year’s tournament, if not later. Alas, the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten regular-season champions are meeting in the NCAA Tournament’s second round.
Indiana bulldozed Chattanooga on Thursday, 99-74, shooting 69.0 percent in the second half, and 64.9 percent in the game. The Hoosiers hit 62.5 percent of their shots from beyond the arc (10 of 16).
After a sluggish start, UK recorded the second-largest margin of victory on the NCAA Tournament’s opening day, winning 85-57. The Wildcats set an NCAA Tournament record on the defensive end with 15 blocked shots, and hit 75.9 percent of their shots in the second half.
“You know, it's kinda unfortunate that this game is being played this early,” Coach Cal said. “This should be another round or two later. But it is what it is, so both of us are going to have to play. Tom knows the respect I have for him as a coach and as a leader and what he does. They're really, really good.”
Despite no longer playing annually, Calipari and Crean remain friends, talking “once every couple of weeks or so,” according to Calipari.
“I think we have a friendship that transcends basketball,” Crean said. “He is a very encouraging person to me, I think I understand him, and I hope I'm encouraging to him. … What he does year after year and how he makes his teams better especially with the guys that he gets that have the accolades and the attention and the rankings and all those things that they have, to get them to play together the way that he does, year after year and this year is no exception, because I mean, obviously they've had some tough games and look they're playing their best basketball right now. How do you not respect that?”
And the respect is mutual, both among the coaches and the players.
The Hoosiers lost three of their first five games, including a 20-point setback at Duke on Dec. 2, but then weathered the storm and won 20 of their last 23 games in the regular season, including 12 straight from Dec. 5 to Jan. 23.
These winning ways also came despite the Hoosiers being without one of their best scorers, sophomore guard James Blackmon, Jr., the son of former UK guard James Blackmon, who suffered a knee injury in practice prior to IU’s Big Ten opener Dec. 30. At the time of his injury, Blackmon Jr. was averaging 15.8 points, hitting 46.3 percent of his 3-point attempts and grabbing 4.2 rebounds per game.
“I said after the game, my opinion, Crean is the National Coach of the Year for what he did,” Calipari said. “It's not that they won the league. It's that he had his best or one of his best – Yogi (Ferrell) is probably his best player, but one of his best players out for the year and they had to adjust to how they play. What he's done with that team in that league is incredible. He's got a terrific passing team, a terrific shooting team, an attacking team.”
Ferrell versus Ulis will be the matchup that draws the most attention. Ferrell, a 6-foot senior out of Indianapolis, and Ulis are two of five finalists for the Bob Cousy Point Guard of the Year Award. Ferrell leads the Hoosiers in scoring at 17.1 points per game is shooting 42.3 percent from distance, and is also dishing out 5.7 assists per game.
“He’s a great player, experienced,” Ulis said of his point-guard counterpart. “I know I have to be prepared to play him. I have to lock in defensively. But it’s not a one-on-one matchup.
“He’s fast, knows how to play the game, crafty, can score the ball. I haven’t seen him much, but I saw him when I was younger – AAU circuit and stuff like that. It’s going to be a great game, a lot of fun. We can’t wait.”
Ulis, of course, is enjoying one of the finest seasons by a point guard in Kentucky’s illustrious history after having set the UK single-season assists record with seven more dimes Thursday against Stony Brook. He’s scoring 17.0 points per game himself, though more have come from inside the arc than Ferrell. Ulis, however, is dishing out 7.1 assists per game.
“He’s been a great point guard all season, leading his team,” Ferrell said of Ulis. “They have athletic bigs, (he) finds his shooters and he’s a great part of that team and he’s a big reason why they’ve been so successful this season.”
At this stage in the season where every game can be your last, Coach Cal contests that every game played is similar to a rivalry game, and every team is going to play with that kind of energy. Ulis, the Wildcats’ coaching extension out on the floor, echoed that sentiment, as the Cats and Hoosiers prepare to renew one of college basketball’s greatest rivalries.
“We’re just going to come out and play like it is (another game),” Ulis said. “We understand it’s win or go home, so we’re going to leave everything on the floor.”
Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament
Kentucky is making its nation-leading 55th all-time appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2016. The Wildcats are 121-48 (.716) all-time in NCAA Tournament games and have advanced to 17 Final Fours.
Kentucky, the No. 4 seed, will take on No. 5 seed Indiana on Saturday. The last time the two teams met in the NCAA Tournament was in 2012, when UK defeated the Hoosiers in the Sweet 16 and went on to win the national championship. The Wildcats are 3-1 vs. Indiana in the NCAA Tournament.
It is the fourth time in program history the Wildcats have been a No. 4 seed, where UK is 7-2 all-time. The Wildcats were last a No. 4 seed during the 2011 run to John Calipari's first Final Four as head coach of the Wildcats.
UK improved to 45-10 in tournament openers with the win over Stony Brook and has won 23 of its last 24 first-round tournament games.
Kentucky is 23-4 (.852) in NCAA Tournament games under the direction of Calipari. Calipari is 48-15 (.762) as a head coach in NCAA Tournament games.
Calipari-coached teams have appeared in four of the last five Final Fours and is the first such school to achieve that feat since Duke went to five straight (1988-92). Calipari joins Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UCLA’s John Wooden to lead teams to four Final Fours in a five-year span.
Kentucky is playing in Des Moines, Iowa for the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
Ulis New Assist King
Kentucky sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis was already widely regarded among the UK fan base as arguably the best distributor of the basketball in the school's long and storied history. The numbers now confirm it.
Ulis broke John Wall's school record for most assists in a season during the NCAA Tournament game vs. Stony Brook. Wall's 2009- 10 record was 241 assists. He did it in 38 games. Ulis currently has 243 dimes through 35 games.
Ulis, the only player with 28 consecutive games with four or more assists since at least 1972-73, is only the third player in school history with 200 or more assists. He's already 10th on the school's career list for assists with 378 dimes.